Behind the Wheel: My Mid-80’s K-Cars

My first 3 cars were all mid-80’s K-Cars, and since they were all so similar I figured I’d just lump them into a single review rather than try and do them individually.

1985 plymouth reliant1985 Plymouth Reliant

This was my very first car, and though I only had it about 2 weeks, I remember it well. It was a maroon color, with the automatic shifter on the floor of the center console (unusual for this age of car – most automatic transmissions had the shift lever on the steering column).

Although this was an old car when I bought it in 1996, it still ran just fine – and after all, it was my very first car! This was also (obviously) the first car to carry the name “Keithmobile” (I’m not very good at coming up with clever names for things).

Sadly, I only had this car for about 2 weeks before it was totaled in an accident – I was hit side-on by a white late 80’s Ford F-250 quad-cab that ran a red light.

1984 Plymouth Caravelle

My second car (the “Keithmobile-A”), purchased in haste after my first car was totaled in an accident – I had just gotten my first job (to pay for the car) and needed to drive to be able to get to work. Unfortunately, because I had to replace my previous car so quickly, I didn’t have time to look around for a good car and had to settle for what was available… Suffice it to say, the Caravelle was not a car I would’ve chosen if I’d had more time to look around.

Although the Caravelle sounded good (on paper), it was in fact a piece of junk. The engine supposedly had a turbo, but it never worked, and the engine itself was barely functional. The suspension was worn out and the brakes were terrible.

One memorable instance with this car was during a major blizzard when school was let out early – I could not get the car to start, and spent quite a while in the parking lot trying to get it going while the snow continued to fall. Once I did get it going (with just 1 headlight working, brakes that were in poor shape and tires that were nearly bald), I had a very, shall we say “exciting” drive home.

I did not end up keeping this car very long, as eventually the repairs required exceeded the value of the car itself.

keith's 3rd car (Keithmobile-B)1986 Chrysler LeBaron

My third car (the “Keithmobile-B”), and the last K-Car I owned. This was a 4-door sedan instead of the more usual 2-door coupe, purchased from a former Chrysler mechanic – which thankfully meant the car was in fairly good shape (for its age).

This was the car that took me to my first year of college (or university as some countries would call it). It was also the K-car I had for the longest period of time – just under 2 years.

One memorable experience with this car was getting stuck in the parking lot at college in winter – there had been some snow, which melted & then re-froze as ice, causing my wheels to be frozen in place. I had to chip away at the ice using a shovel (which I kept in my trunk – always be prepared; especially when you drive unreliable cars!) for what seemed like an eternity before I was finally able to rock myself free. But even then I had trouble getting moving, as the whole parking lot was covered in ice! (These winter experiences are one of the reasons I drive an AWD car nowadays.)

Like all the K-cars I owned, this had a 2.2L inline-4 cylinder engine, and like all the other cars the ride and handling was absolutely pathetic – especially by modern-day standards.

As was common at the time, all these cars were very similar – the Chrysler K platform of the time was used for an astounding number of different cars across all the brands – Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge – all of which were virtually identical mechanically speaking; differing mainly in trim & options.

Each one of these cars was over 10 years old by the time I bought it – the newest one being the 1986 LeBaron that I bought in early 1997. All of them had problems to greater or lesser extents – even the most reliable one (the LeBaron) had its share of mechanical issues. But then again, these were also very cheap cars – the cheapest was just $800; the most expensive was only $1,200. So, you get what you pay for, I suppose.

It’s interesting to compare these cars against my current car – especially since my Outlander is (as of this writing) older than any of these cars were when I owned them, yet it is in much, much better shape – both mechanically and appearance-wise.

Still, these were my first cars, and I’ll always remember them.

Behind the Wheel: 1996 Chevrolet S-10

The Keithmobile-C in 2003Continuing the series of Behind the Wheel reviews of cars I’ve owned, we now move on to the predecessor of my current car… which was actually a truck. Specifically, a 1996 Chevrolet S-10 LS Extended Cab 2-wheel drive pickup truck.

This truck was a lot of “firsts” for me:

  • My first non-throw-away car (all my previous cars had been mid-80s K-cars that cost around $1,000)
  • My first car where I had to take out a real car loan
  • My first manual transmission
  • My first new(-ish) car (bought it in 1998)
  • And, of course, my first truck!

I was in college/university (living on-campus in the dorms) when I bought this truck, and having a pickup truck is great when you’re a college student and need to move in & out of the dorms each year. Although it also means that other people might come to you asking to help them move as well!

Still, this was a very good truck for me – very practical, reliable, and with a manual transmission and a small 4 cylinder engine it was also very fuel efficient (good when you’re a poor college student with little gas money!). It also helped that at the time gasoline prices were ridiculously low (remember when gas was $0.89/gallon?).

This particular S-10 was an extended cab, with a small 3rd door behind the driver’s door, and a little fold-out jump seat behind the passenger seat. This extra space was very handy for when you didn’t want to put stuff in the bed of the truck (e.g., in the rain or snow), though it was of little use for actually carrying a 3rd passenger – that little fold-out seat was not at all comfortable unless you were a little kid.

The engine in this S-10 (a Vortec 2200 LN2) was also really great – although not particularly powerful (just 118 hp). Still, when coupled with the relatively light truck body and manual transmission it had no problem moving this truck around. In fact, this truck was surprisingly nimble, all things considered.

The S-10 was also a very fun truck to drive – there wasn’t much horsepower, but it did have plenty of torque (140 lb-ft, specifically) which made it easy to… have fun in ways that my 20-something self found quite satisfying. I did always wish I had gotten 4-wheel drive, though – especially in winter. But the upside was that I learned a lot about how to drive carefully in the snow – despite the 2-wheel drive and no weight over the drive wheels, I never got stuck.

The steering was quite good, especially for a pickup truck – it wasn’t going to win any awards, but it was precise and had a good feel.

The interior of this S-10 was rather spartan by today’s standards, but for the time it was actually quite nice. The S-10 used Chevy’s then-standard instrument cluster and controls, but they were all well-laid out and easily reachable and useable without taking your eyes off the road.

truck's instrument cluster

This particular S-10 didn’t have much in the way of options – no air conditioning, manual wind-up windows, and cloth seats – but again, at the time this was fairly standard for pickup trucks. (It did have a combo radio + tape player, though!)

All in all, this was a tough little truck – hardworking, reliable, and economical – that served me well through all the years I had it. I realize I am looking at this truck squarely through the lenses of the nostalgia goggles, but I really did like this truck quite a lot – I took care of it, and it took care of me.

Behind the Wheel: 2011 Kia Soul

amanda's new kia soul 3Long-time readers will remember that I’ve reviewed the Kia Soul before – but that was the 2010 model. About a year after I wrote that review, my wife bought the 2011 model, and Kia had made enough changes to it to warrant reviewing it again. Plus, I’ve had much more time to get to know the Soul, so I can give a bit more of an informed view on its strengths… and weaknesses.

First and foremost, my biggest complaint with the 2010 Soul was the shine-shatteringly stiff ride – mercifully, this has been improved in the 2011 Soul. It is still a fairly stiff ride, but it’s no longer likely to shake the fillings out of your teeth.

The 2011 Soul retains the fuel-sipping 2.0L engine and easily manages 28-30MPG with both city and highway driving. It’s also incredibly nimble – this is a great city car that’s easy to maneuver in tight quarters and parks or makes sharp turns with ease. The engine is small and quite buzzy at times, but it suffices to get the car moving quickly – though it often needs to downshift to make that happen (the transmission itself likes to stay in higher gears; presumably for fuel efficiency). And once you’re going, the 4-wheel disk brakes do a great job of stopping you in a hurry – indeed, I almost think the brakes on this car are overkill for such a lightweight vehicle.

All models of the Soul are front-wheel drive only, which further cements them as “tall wagons” and not “crossover SUVs.” The Soul does have a traction control system though, which is actually quite useful since it is very easy to get the narrow front wheels to slip when accelerating if the roads are even just a little bit slick.

Forward visibility in the Soul is great – you sit up high enough to see right down the front hood and can easily tell where your front bumper is – but rear visibility suffers terribly due to the very thick rear pillars (and relatively small rear hatch window).

Interior room in the Soul is good (considering its size), but nothing to write home about.

All that said though, I honestly can’t say I like the Kia Soul. The steering wheel is just a little bit too small for my taste, and the steering can be a bit twitchy on the highway. The steering wheel itself has the awkward large spokes so common to cars that have radio & cruise controls on the steering wheel itself. At low RPMs there’s hardly any power in the engine, and though the transmission will downshift to get you into the power band, it doesn’t sound like it likes being there. Although a very nimble car (especially at lower speeds in the city), it just isn’t that much fun to drive most of the time.

All in all, the Kia Soul is a very good commuter car that’s versatile enough to carry people and stuff around without costing an arm and a leg in gas money. A practical car that does what you need, but isn’t that exciting to drive.

Windows 10 Technical Preview – Thoughts So Far

windows 10 - login I decided to finally take a look at the technical preview for Windows 10 and give my thoughts on it so far. First off, it was surprisingly easy to get a hold of – unlike past Windows versions, you didn’t need to sign up for any special developer program or anything.

The initial installation experience continues to improve – it was smooth and painless, much like how it was for Windows 8 and 8.1. There was even an option right on the download page to upgrade my current computer – which is pretty neat, though I opted instead to get the ISO file and install it in a virtual machine.

Initial Impressions

At first Windows 10 really doesn’t seem very different from Windows 8.1 – though there is a new search box down beside the Start menu which I’m none too fond of. (Though I understand this is trying to highlight the new “Cortana” search assistant thing.)

windows 10 - desktop

Much of the UI and icons are even more stark & flat than before, but then again this is just a preview – it’s expected to be rough around the edges and have placeholder graphics.

windows 10 - frequent foldersThe Start Menu

Ah yes, the elephant in the room: the Start menu. Yes, it’s back to being a menu (sort of). It has a list of programs (as small icons) along the left, and the larger tile icons over to the right – a configuration which somehow reminds me of/seems similar to the application menu in some Linux distributions.

windows 10 - start menu (default size)

There’s a clear link for “All Apps” (not unlike the “All Programs” button in previous Windows versions) which – finally, thankfully – shows and retains folder order of items on your start menu. Though this won’t be a big deal for most people, for me it’s a big improvement. For most people there’s enough space on the Start menu for their frequently used programs – so they’ll hardly ever have to go into “All Apps.” But for people like me, it’s very nice to be able to scroll through applications alphabetically and that have the ability for some sort of folder/hierarchy to find that one app that you need (but don’t use frequently enough to have it on the main part of the Start menu). This is MUCH better than the “All Apps” screen in Windows 8.1 which was just a massive grid of icons that was very difficult to scan through visually.

The annoying "All Apps" screen in Windows 8.1.

The annoying “All Apps” screen in Windows 8.1.

The "All Apps" menu in Windows 10 is SO much better!

The “All Apps” menu in Windows 10 is SO much better!

The Start menu can also be expanded to fill the entire screen, like it did in Windows 8 and 8.1 – this gives more room for the larger tile icons, as well as for the “most used” icons on the left. Handy for people who use a lot of different programs and apps, it’s nice to have the option to choose how big you want your Start menu (or Start screen) to be. Honestly, this is how it should have been from the beginning.

windows 10 - start menu (expanded)

The Start menu is also partially transparent, like the Windows 8.1 Start menu is, which again helps make it feel a bit more cohesive with the rest of the UI.

Other Thoughts

It’s nice to see that the previously separated “PC Settings,” “Settings,” and “Control Panel” have been combined into a single screen, accessible from the Start menu, called just “Settings.” The icons for it currently are a bit stark (but again, this is just a preview release) but it’s nice to see that everything is in one place. The way “PC Settings” and the Control Panel were separate in Windows 8 and 8.1 was just weird – very akward, and it felt like there were 2 different OSes that had been jammed together. Now in Windows 10 it feels more like a single OS with a consistent user interface.

windows 10 - settings

Almost all of the control panel applets have been re-done to fit in with the new flat “formerly known as metro” style, which means they’ll look different to long-time Windows users, but I think a little change is worth it to bring about a consistent interface. (The old-style screens are still there though, if you know where to look – but it remains to be seen whether they’ll stay in the final release.)

The new notifications system is a welcome change – it’s nice to see Windows finally catch up with virtually every other operating system. But until more programs support it, I can’t say much about it.

windows 10 - notifications

Cortana is, of course, kind of neat – though I couldn’t get sound working in the virtual machine I used to try out Windows 10, so I couldn’t give it a full test. But really, with Siri having been out for as long as it has, do we really need to compare? It will work more or less just like that.

It’s also nice to see that the “charms bar” has finally gone away – I still don’t know how anyone thought that was a good user interface idea.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Windows 10 is a welcome improvement on Windows 8.1 with mainly incremental changes, and a few bigger features (mainly for laptop/tablet users). Like Windows 8.1 before it, it isn’t terribly exciting, but it is demonstrably better. Even as an unfinished technical preview Windows 10 runs slightly faster and smoother in my virtual machine environment than Windows 8.1 does.

Of course, Microsoft is deliberately trying to push out new Windows releases more frequently, which means each release by itself will be less exciting than Windows releases in the past used to be – simply because there’s less time to make lots of significant changes.

Still, Windows 10 looks to be a promising OS and a welcome improvement. It looks to be even more polished for desktops, and it should be even more useful for laptops and tablets. Once it is officially released, I’d say it’ll definitely be worth upgrading for any Windows user.

Behind the Wheel: 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander

the amazing keithmobile-DTo keep this “Behind the Wheel” series going I thought I’d mix things up a bit and give some thoughts on cars I’ve actually owned, as opposed to ones I’ve just driven for short periods of time.

We’ll begin this little mini-series with my current car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS AWD (which I affectionately call “The Keithmobile-D”).

To start with, the Mitsubishi Outlander is… a kind of a weird little car/SUV/thing – and I’m not just talking about its odd front nose & hood bulge. The Outlander is a strange mix of stylish “tall station wagon” city SUV and hard-working and reasonably capable “utility vehicle.”

wet mitsubishi logoThen again, I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, since Mitsubishi itself is kind of an oddball car company, with precious few models compared to some of the bigger car companies – especially here in the US, and especially nowadays when they basically only have 3 models – the Lancer, the Outlander, and the Mirage. But Mitsubishi has always had to live under the shadow of the bigger companies – Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and especially Subaru.

But let’s rewind back to 2003: Mitsubishi has always had a kind of competition with Subaru, what with the whole EVO vs. WRX thing. For a while there this almost seemed like it would carry over into other models, too – with the Outlander poised to compete with the Subaru Outback (right down to the similar-sounding name). Though in my opinion, the Outlander seemed more like the Forrester at the time, since it is a bit of a taller wagon/SUV shape than the decidedly station-wagon-shaped Outback.

The Outlander is kind of a weird mashup of parts from Mitsubishi’s stable of previous vehicles – the chassis is derived from that of the Lancer, but the engine is the same as the one from the Eclipse & Galant. Specifically, it chugs along thanks to a 2.4L 4-cylinder  Mitsubishi “Sirius” 4G64 direct-injection engine, which produces a somewhat underwhelming 140 HP (at 5,000 RPM) but a respectable 157 lbs-ft of torque at just 2,500 RPM. That said, the Outlander weighs just a hair under 3,500 lbs, which is a bit hefty for a car of its size, and which means it’s certainly not the fastest thing on the road – but it’s not the slowest thing, either.

It does have 4-wheel independent suspension, and it handles the bumps quite well – much better, in fact, than some more modern cars. Driving on some old cobblestone streets in New York City can be downright painful in modern cars with their stiff suspensions, but the Outlander just soaks up the bumps without much fuss or bother.

rear tail light 2Despite the somewhat soft suspension, it does handle quite well with relatively little body roll (thanks to ample anti-roll and anti-sway bars). Although the steering suffers from the usual horrible Mitsubishi turning radius, it is well balanced with plenty of feedback – there’s no problem at all just diving right into some tight corners. In fact, the Outlander is really quite fun in the corners, despite technically being an SUV. It also helps that it’s not a terribly tall vehicle, either.

Despite only having a 4-speed automatic transmission (manuals were made, but not available in the US until later model years) it does have a semi-manual mode so you can (kind of) row through the gears on your own.

One downside to the Outlander is its brakes – they are rather lame, especially by modern standards. At the time, anti-lock brakes were an option, and the 2003 models were only available with front discs and rear drums – it wasn’t until the slightly revised 2004 model that they got 4-wheel disc brakes.

With 8.3 inches of ground clearance the Outlander does reasonably well off-road (compared to other car-based SUVs), although it really is more of a “soft-roader” than an “off-roader.” Plus, though it has AWD (full-time via a center viscous coupling unit with a 50/50 front/rear split) the front & rear differentials themselves are fully open, so it isn’t meant for true hardcore off-roading.

One thing the Outlander does have going for it is utility – it is a very useful car. Unlike some other small SUVs it seats a full 5 people without any trouble and yet still has plenty of room in the back for stuff. Fold down the seats and the Outlander can carry an impressive amount of stuff. Also unlike a lot of modern small car-based SUVs, the Outlander can still tow – although not very much, thanks to its lackluster brakes.

It also has one of the best instrument clusters I’ve seen in recent years – easy to read in both full sun and at night, regardless of whether you have the headlights (and thus, the backlights for the gauges) turned on or not.

keithmobile instrument cluster at night

All in all the Outlander is a well-designed, well-thought-out little SUV, which I think could have done quite well. Sadly, however, very few people bought the Outlander, and in subsequent years Mitsubishi enlarged it, making it into a bigger, heavier, more expensive people-mover SUV. (The current model Outlanders come with 3 rows of seats, for example, along with  lower ground clearance, and a price nearly twice what they were originally.) Mitsubishi used to have a larger SUV, called the “Endeavor,” which fit in the next segment above the Outlander, but it looks like that’s been removed and the Outlander was pushed up into its spot – leaving no small SUV to take its place.

If Mitsubishi had stuck with the same body size, and added a stick shift & a turbocharged engine as an option (both of which were available in other markets worldwide, just not in the US), I think the Outlander would’ve been a hit. But since they didn’t, we’re left with just a few examples of what could have been.

Still, if you’re in the market for a small, fun, useful SUV and don’t want to pay a lot, a used Outlander from 2003-2006 might be worth looking at. If it’s in good shape and has been taken care of, an Outlander is a great alternative to one of its Subaru contemporaries – and probably at a lower price. I know I’m biased, but I’ve been very happy with my Outlander – I bought mine new in 2003, and as of this writing it just ticked over 190,000 miles with no sign of slowing down.

Here’s to that SUV with the funny looking nose from Mitsubishi!