On The Road: New York City

New York City (Broadway)Having lived a mere 35 miles from New York City for just over 7 years now, I figure it’s time to finally put down in words what driving in the City that Never Sleeps is like.

When I first moved here, I flat out refused to drive in the city – I took the train instead. However, eventually the transit authority (in its infinite wisdom) raised the prices on commuter rail tickets such that it just was plain cheaper to drive in, even allowing for the fairly hefty tolls at the tunnels and bridges into the city.

At first, New York City driving scared me. I’d lived in Massachusetts previously, and I’d driven as a courier in Boston, so I was no stranger to city driving, but New York City was city driving on a whole other level – a scale of traffic and speed and volume I’d never seen or experienced before.

But there was no avoiding it anymore – I needed to get used to driving in the city, and it wasn’t something I could learn except by doing it.

Thankfully, I’m a pretty fast learner, and I quickly picked up on the style of driving from paying attention to all the other cars on the road.

Basically, the key to driving in New York City can be summed up as: just go.

No, really – aside from stopping at traffic lights, driving in New York City is basically just going along with the flow of traffic, and when you need to turn or change lanes or do anything against that flow, you just need to have confidence in yourself – and in the fact that other people will get out of your way (within reason). Other drivers don’t want to hit you any more than you want to hit them. Once you accept this, everything else just falls into place.

This isn’t to say that driving in the city is easy – far from it. Driving in New York City is demanding; it requires a fair bit of concentration and constant awareness of your surroundings. You can’t be a lazy or inattentive driver in New York City.

This isn’t also to say that you have to be an aggressive driver in the city – but you do have to be an assertive driver. If you need to change lanes or make a turn, no one’s going to slow down & wave you out – you have to make room for yourself (to a certain extent). It’s not unlike getting on a crowded subway train – you just have to kind of push your way through if you want to get on.

The city does have its own unique challenges, of course, such as the frequent lack of lane markers, the masses of pedestrians, and let’s not forget the cab drivers – but  these are relatively minor issues compared to just getting the hang of the pace & feel & flow of driving in the city.

It did take me a little while to get fully comfortable with it, but though I was terrified of New York City driving at first, nowadays I don’t even give it a second thought.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Fiat 500L (Diesel)

Earlier this year while I was in Italy on vacation with some of the Australian side of the family, we rented a car to travel up to Lake Como in northern Italy. Unsurprisingly, the car we ended up with was a Fiat – but in this case, it was the new 4-door version, the 500L.

Fiat 500L

I’d driven a Fiat 500 before, but the 500L was something new. I was actually glad to see it – I knew from experience that fitting 4 adults into the 2-door 500 would not have been a pleasant experience, especially for the long drive we had ahead of us.

italy route map - milan to lake comoThis particular 500L was also a diesel, and a stick shift on top of that – unlike the Audi A4 I’d driven previously in this trip – so driving it out of the city of Milan and up the narrow, twisty, winding roads around Lake Como was… an interesting experience!

But truthfully, the 500L was quite easy to drive – the steering was nimble, the brakes were solid, and the overall handling was very surefooted. The diesel took a bit of getting used to, however. Unlike a small gasoline engine, the diesel in this Fiat didn’t need to be revved up – it had plenty of power down low in the rev range.  In fact, the diesel really didn’t like being at any sort of high RPMs at all – which meant I had to spent a lot of time shifting, especially up the twisty, hilly roads around Lake Como.

The 500L fit all four adults reasonably well, as well as our bags, so it is a quite practical little car. Visibility was good, the steering was nimble, and of course the diesel means it’s quite fuel efficient.

Up around the Lake Como region are some very, VERY twisty roads, which would have been quite fun to tackle – though with 4 people in the car and traffic coming in the opposite direction, I didn’t actually get much opportunity for fun. Still, the 500L was nimble and took the corners well, and at no point was I worried about the car’s capabilities. Although at times I did find myself wishing that it was a little bit smaller – although the 500L is by no means a big car, some of those roads were still a very tight fit.

All in all the Fiat 500L is a small, practical little car, that can be fun, but takes some getting used to if you’re not accustomed to how diesel engines develop their power. For myself, I’d have preferred a gas engine, but when you rent you kind of have to take what you get – and of course in Europe diesel is much more common than here in the US.

So, if you’ve always wanted to have fun in a little Fiat 500, but wanted to be able to carry more than 2 people, the 500L is certainly not a bad choice.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Audi A4 Wagon (Diesel)

Audi A4 WagonEarlier this year I found myself over in Florence, Italy, with family and I needed to rent a car to go for a day trip. Although I normally don’t splurge on rental cars, in this case we decided to go for a “luxury” rental – both as a slight treat to ourselves, and because we didn’t want to be crammed into an itty-bitty little car.

So, what should pull up in front of the rental place but a 2014 Audi A4 wagon… with a diesel engine, no less!

Right off the bat this car surprised me – the diesel was excellent – smooth and quiet, to the point where at first I didn’t realize it was a diesel! Highway driving was easy, but uninspiring. Plenty of power on tap from the diesel engine, but it isn’t overwhelming – or exciting. That said, it’s got more than enough “oomph” for near effortless passing at speed. City driving was also surprisingly nimble, though in Italy – and especially in the narrow streets of Florence – the A4 was almost too big.

The interior was a very comfortable place to be – and it carried 4 adults on a long road trip up to the Chianti region with no fuss at all. I can definitely understand why people like this sort of car as a daily driver – it’s comfortable, the in-dash navigation is great, and it has plenty of room inside.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly what you’d call a “driver’s car.” Although there was plenty of power from the diesel, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of it, either. Everything about how it drives was smooth, gentle, and reassuring – not in the least bit exciting.

All in all, not a bad car by any means, and one I’d happily drive again as a rental, but not one I’d want to own.

The Game of “Getting Lost”

Confused Yet?

I had the day off from work today (Columbus Day in the US) and since it’s been unseasonably warm lately, I decided to jump in the car, go for a drive, and “get lost.”

“Getting Lost” is a game I began playing with my friends back when I first got my driver’s license. The rules of the game are very simple:

  • Pick a direction and start driving
  • Whenever you have a choice of which way to go, go the way you have never been before (or the way you don’t know where it goes)
  • No turning around (unless you can’t go any further)
  • No using maps (or, these days, GPS)
  • Always come to a complete stop at all stop signs

OK, so that last rule is a bit of a gag rule from when I was young and still learning to drive properly – but hey, you’re supposed to do that anyway, so it’s a good reminder.

Basically, the idea of the game is to get lost on purpose – to go places you’ve never been before, and (eventually) make it home. The idea is that at the end of the game, you’ll have learned about the ways you’ve driven.

While it helps to have a good sense of direction (as I do), it’s not absolutely necessary. Although if you are the type who gets easily lost, you might want to bring a GPS or something similar. You can’t use one while you’re playing the game, but you can use it once the game is over and you want to go home. (The “Go Home” button on many GPS units is wonderful for this.)

This was a great game for me and my friends to play when we were all learning to drive – after all, it helped us learn our way around in a time when GPS didn’t exist, and all you were likely to have to help you navigate was maybe a street atlas (if you were lucky).

Learning the lay of the land and which roads went where was a handy skill to have back then – and it’s still a handy skill to have today, even with GPS being so common that many cars have it built right into the dashboard, and many phones have some sort of GPS or GPS-like capability built-in as well. (It was also a handy skill to have since the state I lived in at the time – Massachusetts – is not exactly known for having full street name signs on every intersection!)

Of course as time goes by, the longer you live in one place, the harder it is to really “get lost.” But this is part of the fun as well – it becomes more and more of a “challenge” to find someplace you’ve never been before.

Fortunately for me, I now live in New Jersey, and although I’ve been here for a few years now, New Jersey is a bigger state than Massachusetts (EDIT: actually, technically it’s not bigger – it’s smaller – but gosh darn it, it feels bigger), and there’s also nice big states bordering it (New York, Pennsylvania, etc.) which means there’s lots of potential places to “get lost.”

Even though I’m much older now, I still love playing this game. You never know what you might find in some out-of-the-way corner of the world, and honestly sometimes it’s just nice to go for a drive, without necessarily having a particular destination in mind.

If you are ever bored or are feeling the itch to go exploring, and you have access to a car (or motorcycle, if that’s your thing), I highly recommend picking a direction and just start driving, and as that old poem says, “take the road less traveled.”

Photo credit: RobStone, via Flickr.

A New Keithmobile?

Could it be? Is it possible? A new Keithmobile – the first new one in 7 years?

amanda's new kia soul 2

Ha ha, no, actually this is NOT a new Keithmobile – the faithful Keithmobile-D (my Mitsubishi Outlander) is still around, and we can’t have more than one Keithmobile at a time, now can we?

However, this IS a new car – our first “second” car – and since we still have the Outlander, that kind of makes this “Amanda’s car.” And boy, does it suit her!

This is a 2011 Kia Soul – which you might recognize instead by it’s insane TV commercial featuring a bunch of singing (rapping) hamsters. Yeah, that car.

Specifically, this is a Soul+ (because apparently Kia felt that using names or even letters for trim levels was too boring, so instead we get symbols – there’s the “+”, the “!” and… the “Sport.” Real creative there.)

You can look up all the particulars online if you care, but suffice it to say that this is the perfect second car for us. The Soul is a nice cruising car – comfy and quiet on the highway, with good gas mileage and a kick-ass sound system (8 speakers, including a subwoofer) which also has a true iPod connection (that is, not only can you play your iPod, but the info about what song is playing shows up on the radio’s screen, and you can skip songs using the steering wheel mounted controls).

Most amusingly, the upgraded audio package includes what can only be described as “mood lighting.” There are LED lights around the speakers in the doors which can glow in one of 5 different colors (red, blue, yellow, green, purple) – and they can either just cycle through the colors slowly, or they can “pulse” in time to your music!

I drove this car a while back as a rental, and thought that it might work well for us as a second car, and after doing some research, we decided that it would be perfect. It sits 4 people comfortably and has ample space in the back (especially with the seats folded down), plus it has that nice “not too high, not too low” driving/seating position which we like.

Oh – and that spine-shattering stiff ride I talked about in my original review of this car? Well, apparently Kia listens to what people say, because they’ve definitely fixed it in the 2011 model. The ride is firm, but not nearly as bad as it used to be. So kudos to Kia for fixing that one big problem!

The Soul is not all-wheel-drive, however, so it will probably spend some time sitting in the garage come winter, but for most of the year (at least around here) it will do quite nicely. And it’s nice to finally have 2 cars in the family!

Truthfully though, the Kia Soul is a very nice little car – not too big, but not too small, either. If you’re looking for a practical car with a bit of style that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, you can’t go wrong with one of these. Hey, I bought one, after all!