Great Driving Roads

Recently I’ve found some absolutely wonderful driving roads here in NJ – in Morris and Union Counties, actually.

The first is a series of roads that winds their way through (and around) the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately they are often clogged by cyclists, and of course there’s probably a lot of animals around (turtles, deer, that sort of thing). And the speed limit is rather low, but even still, they are very nice twisty roads – and they just re-paved them the other day, so they are quite smooth & well graded. A really nice drive, whether you go fast or slow.

The second is the roads through and around Watchung Reservation – again, some very fun and curvy roads that are just a blast to… well, blast through. Again, of course, watch out for cyclists, animals, and of course the speed limits. But most fun roads have that speed limit problem… just use your own best judgment when traversing these roads.

That’s all I have for now, but rest assured I will let you know if I find any other great driving roads (and I am always looking). If you know of any great driving roads around here, or around where you are, or even just wherever, feel free to post them in the comments.

Have fun driving!

On the Road: New York

New York drivers are much like their New Jersey neighbors, except without the strange phobia of left turns.

Actually that’s not entirely fair – as you get further away from New Jersey, New York drivers take on a style all their own.

And it’s a fast style.

Although they retain the irritating habit of slowing down for no reason, by and large you are more likely to find New York drivers doing 120% of the posted speed limit on the Interstate – if not more. They do also tend to fall into “lemming” mode and do whatever the person in front of them / around them is doing, regardless of why (which irritates me to no end), but all in all they aren’t bad drivers at all. Though I’ve never driven in New York City… but that’s really a whole different world and doesn’t count.

New York drivers are also less likely to cut you off than a driver from New Jersey, they are more likely to tailgate very, very close to you if you don’t get out of their way.

Still, as I said, not bad drivers at all (all things considered).

Next time: Connecticut!

Behind the Wheel: 2007 Suzuki Forenza

Before I even begin, let me just say I’m not really a car person anymore. I mean, they’re fine and all, but they’re just not what I would choose.

So with that out of the way, let me tell you about my recent experiences with a Suzuki Forenza. I had to rent this car to drive to Laconia, New Hampshire from New Jersey – a drive of about 6 hours (each way). So I had plenty of time to get to know the car.

First, some pros: the car’s ride is very comfortable – both the suspension and the seats themselves. I’d even say that the seats are more comfortable than in my own car, and the suspension is definitely better at soaking up bumps. At least – as long as there’s not 4 people in the car.

This leads directly into the cons: When it was just me riding, the car was nimble, maneuverable, and the suspension saved me from having a sore rear end on the highways and side-roads I traveled (this last winter in New England has not been kind to the Interstate highway system, nor to the roads in general in New Hampshire). The car turns quite nicely (as you would expect) and all in all it was a pretty quiet ride (although there was a bit of wind noise at highway speed).

BUT… when there were 4 people in the car, the suspension was seriously taxed. Bumps that I had driven over by myself and hardly noticed now thrashed the car so roughly that I was worried my passengers would hit their heads on the roof!

Of course, this is what happens when you design a suspension like that – it really can’t be helped that much, but it’s something to be aware of.

Another downside of this car is that the engine is very, very weak. Seriously. I would go to merge onto highway traffic, put the gas right down to the floor (literally) and the car would putter along at its own pace until it was happy. It wouldn’t down-shift like I expected when I stomped on the gas – and even when it did (or when I did, by manually moving the automatic shift lever), it didn’t make much difference. The car was trying very hard to stay in its “power band,” but quite honestly it just didn’t have one. Given that the engine is rated at 127 HP, I found it surprisingly sluggish for what must’ve been a very light car. I suspect that the engine and transmission were engineered more for fuel efficiency instead of power.

Speaking of which, the car did quite well on the fuel consumption scale – averaging about 33 miles per gallon at highway speeds. I was able to make the entire 350 mile trip on just under a tank of gas (about 12 gallons). So no complaints there.

The other side of the coin, however, is that the car is a bit tricky to handle on the Interstate highways. It is a light car, and it gets blown around easily from the turbulence in the wake of a big truck, and going around a bend in the highway at speed, and hitting a joint (such as from a bridge or from road work) can make the car feel like it’s just done a little jump – which is unnerving at 65 MPH!!

So in the end, a nice enough little car, and probably quite suitable if you do a lot of in-city driving, where it’s small size and lack of acceleration wouldn’t be much of a concern. But if you do any serious amount of driving on big highways, or if you need to carry more than 2 people, I’d look elsewhere. Though for such an inexpensive car, you can’t blame it. Still, I wouldn’t drive it and I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone else.

Outlanding in the New Jersey Pine Barrens

I found a new place to go Outlanding! It’s a bit of a drive from where I am (about an hour and 45 minutes), but it’s BIG and has all sorts of trails of all different types and best of all… it’s legal to go there!

Of course, I’m talking about the Pine Barrens here in New Jersey. I went down there to explore it, and found out that the area is literally criss-crossed with dirt roads and assorted trails that can be navigated by various types of off-road and soft-road vehicles. So of course, I dove in and went exploring!

I’ve added a set of photos to my Flickr page with pictures from the trip, but here are a few choice samples.

lonely road

This is the first road I went down. I think it must’ve been a fire road, because along the left there were many ditches dug in the ground – probably to contain a forest fire.

fire scorched pine barrens

As you can see, the ground had been previously scorched by fire. But I’ve read that this is a natural part of the growth of the forest, so I guess it’s not too bad. Still, it was weird to see.

keithmobile in the pine barrens - front

The Keithmobile was really in its element out here. The roads were rough, but not too rough. Perfect for a soft-roader like the Outlander.

At one point, I did come across some rather tricky bits – some sand that had been shaped into very steep hills and bumps and ditches. But the Keithmobile powered through it just fine, although I’m sure I scraped some sand into the front grille. After a while, the trail became too technical for me – which is just another way of saying that it suddenly became very hard! I fully admit and realize that the Keithmobile isn’t built for serious hard-core off-roading, but that’s OK. I just turned around and tried a different trail. I was just glad that the soft sand didn’t bog me down – I was worried for a minute there! Soft sand can be dangerous – it’s easy to get stuck, and I don’t have the right tires for driving in soft sand (big tires with bead-locks so you can let out the air to make them soft so they drive better on soft sand).

orange dirt road

This stretch of road reminded me very strongly of the dirt roads in the Australian Outback. I’d actually driven on such roads on a place called Kangaroo Island years back – although on Kangaroo Island, the road was full of holes! Still, it was fun.

over the tree-tops

The pine barrens are surprisingly… flat. Seriously, go look at a topographical map of the area. It’s very, very flat. So I couldn’t get a good picture of the area – I tried holding the camera up over my head, but all you could see was more pine trees. But I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?

Anyway, those are just some of the better pictures from my collection. I didn’t take that many, because I went alone – next time I’ll have to bring Amanda so she can be my co-pilot.

I should mention, if you don’t have a good head on your shoulders, it’s very easy to get lost out there – there are literally miles and miles of trails, and no signs. And since it’s so flat, you can’t get above the trees to get your bearings. If you have a GPS unit, I recommend bringing it. If you don’t (like me), bring someone who can take notes of the turns you make so you can find your way back. Or, just trust in your own sense of direction (as I did).

Rest assured, I’ll go back there again! It was a blast!!

I Miss my Stick Shift

I miss my stick shift, I really do. I miss being able to row through the gears on a twisty country road. You can approximate a stick shift with a manu-matic (as I have in my Outlander), but it’s not quite the same. In fact, there are some serious shortcomings with automatics of any type, but you can boil it all down to one thing: the ability to select a gear before you need it.

Let me explain. (First, though, a disclaimer – what I’m about to talk about applies largely to small-engine vehicles; i.e. 4-cylinder engines. With bigger engines, the power band is different, so some of the values I’m about to talk about will be different, although much of the same principle applies, it just applies at different speeds and engine RPMs.)

Let’s say you’re cruising around at about 35 MPH. In most cars, this is a gray area for the transmission – you could be in 3rd or 4th gear, depending on certain factors. If you’re cruising along a flat road, your automatic transmission will probably have you in 4th gear – the top gear in many cars – like mine. But let’s say you need to accelerate quickly, maybe to take a corner or zip past someone.

In an automatic, all you can do it put your foot down on the gas to get going. The car will detect the increased throttle and try to respond. Since you are in 4th gear, and probably running around 2,000 RPMs, this is too low for the gear ratio, so the automatic transmission will have to down shift into 3rd, or maybe even into 2nd, depending on how hard you mash the throttle.

Sounds well and good, but what you have to keep in mind is that you’ve already put your foot down – you need to go now. But your car has to wait a moment while it realizes that it can’t go, and then you’ve got all sorts of hydraulic (or, depending on your car, electronic) systems that need to adjust their settings so that the car can shift gears. This takes time – and that is the problem. There’s always a lag with automatic transmissions from when you mash the gas down, to when the car actually responds by shifting gears. Now you’ve wasted a second (or two, if your transmission is sluggish) just sitting there, hardly accelerating at all. This may be fine for around-town driving, but if you like spirited driving, it is no fun at all.

With a manual transmission, you know that you’re going to want to accelerate in a moment – because you are the one who’s going to do it. So you pop the clutch and shift gears, and then, when you mash on the throttle, the car is already in 3rd, and you zoom away – keeping the car’s engine in the “power band” for your engine, with the RPMs tuned just right. Zoom-zoom, baby!

Now, some of the more astute readers out there might think “but you still have a time delay – you have to shift gears yourself, mash the clutch in, move the gear shift lever, and that takes time too!” And you’d be right. But the important thing to remember is that YOU moved the gears BEFORE you needed them (mechanically speaking). With an automatic, the gear change happens AFTER you need it. That difference is what makes an automatic feel sluggish, while the same car with a manual transmission (and a competent driver, of course) feels “sporty” and responsive.

So what about a manual-automatic hybrid, what some people call a “sport-tronic” or “manu-matic” transmission? Just pop the lever over to “manual” and down-shift, right? Well, not quite.

You see, unlike a manual transmission, an automatic transmission is always “in gear,” so to speak. I’ll spare you the technical details of planetary gear assemblies and so forth, but suffice to say that in automatic transmissions, the engine is always connected to the drive shaft. In a manual transmission, by definition, when you push the clutch in, you are disconnecting the engine from the drive shaft. The engine is spinning freely, with no load on it. Because of this, you can use the accelerator to bring the engine up to the right speed (RPM) before you re-engage the drive shaft. Thus, when you let out the clutch, the engine is already at the speed (RPM) you need for the most power. An automatic has to struggle through a (very brief) period of going either too fast or too slow for the gear you are in, before things get back “in synch,” so to speak. (The more technical readers out there are going to take me to task over this simplification – bear with me here guys, I know the details and I know this isn’t exact, but I’m trying to make a point here.)

So there you have it – even with a “manu-matic” transmission, there will always be a delay in power delivery when shifting gears, while a manual gives you the ability to anticipate power needs and shift gears accordingly. When someone invents an automatic transmission that can read your mind, maybe this won’t be a problem anymore, but until then… a manual will always win.

(p.s. Let’s leave out of this discussion the “flappy-paddle” shifting cars that actually do have a clutch, but the car controls it, rather than the driver controlling it via a pedal. These sorts of systems are popular on high-performance – and expensive – sports cars, and they work surprisingly well, but the computer is still in control – not you – even though you can force gear changes with the paddles and get the same benefits described above to having a clutch. Such systems don’t exist in the “average” car yet, and I don’t know if they ever will, due to their complexity. And even if they do work their way down to everyday cars, as I said, the computer is still controlling the clutch, and it will never be as “smart” as you – the driver – nor will it be able to anticipate your intentions the way you, with full manual control over the gear changes, could do.)