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.

The Game of “Getting Lost”

The game of “taking the road less traveled,” and getting lost – on purpose!

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.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Kia Soul

Keith spends a day behind the wheel of the all-new 2010 Kia Soul.

Ahhh, the 2010 Kia Soul… yeah, that car, the one with the funny commercial featuring rapping hamsters (or are they gerbils?)

I got a chance to drive this odd-looking little car recently, and much to my surprise, I actually liked it – a lot!

I was a bit worried when I first saw the Kia Soul, because I had conflicted feelings about these little cube-cars that have started to become popular lately. I worried that it would be woefully underpowered, have lousy gas mileage, and be top-heavy and completely uninteresting to drive.

Fortunately for me, the Soul turned out to have none of these problems.

The Soul has a fuel-sipping little 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, which pushes out a surprising 142 HP. (For comparison, my own car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander, has a larger 2.4L 4-cylinder engine which puts out… 140 HP.) Because of this, the Soul is zippy enough to be enjoyable to drive – which I think is important, especially in small cars.

Surprisingly, although the Soul looks like it would be kind of top-heavy, it actually holds quite well through the curves. The steering on the Soul is very crisp and responsive, and you don’t feel nervous hitting a curve at some speed (although obviously not too much speed!).

On the inside, the Soul continued to impress me. The Soul has the kind of driving position I just love – elevated a bit, with good forward visibility and a comfy chair that you sit straight up in (no “leaning all the way back while driving” positions here!). The seats are at hip-level, so you just slide right in – you don’t have to fall down into the seats (like you do in some cars), and you don’t have to climb up into the seats (as you do in some big SUVs).

There is also a lot of neat techno-stuff on the inside of the Soul – the radio is cleverly laid out, and very nice – it has both a regular auxiliary input for any MP3 player, plus you can plug in your iPod and control it using the radio’s own controls (although you do need a special cable for that). You can even control your iPod using the controls on the steering wheel – which is really nice (and a safety bonus – you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to skip songs!).

The steering wheel controls, by the way, were some of the best I’ve seen yet. Unlike a lot of other cars, the controls are easy to operate just by feel alone – the buttons and switches all have unique shapes, so you can tell what button you are pressing just by feeling it. Too few car manufacturers take this aspect of steering wheel mounted controls into consideration, and you end up with controls you have to look at first before you use them – and if you have to look down from the road to see what you’re going to push, then what’s the point of having them on the steering wheel in the first place?

It almost seems like the Kia Soul is the “Goldilocks” of cars – not to big, not too small, not too sluggish but not over powered, clever but not overdone – in other words, “just right.”

However, there is one rather… jarring downside to this car, if you’ll excuse the pun – the suspension. The suspension on this car is very, very stiff. Going over bumps and such was almost painful. We’re talking “almost jolt you out of your seat” bad. Now, I know the suspension is probably stiff to help give the Soul good handling in the corners and prevent it from feeling top-heavy, but honestly I would almost prefer a little bit of top-heaving feelings just so I don’t shatter my spine every time I hit a pothole.

With that one black mark against it, the Kia Soul is otherwise a very nice car which I greatly enjoyed driving. I think it’s a very practical and economical car, without being boring, which is a rare thing these days. If the suspension wasn’t so tooth-rattling, I’d almost give it perfect marks. But even so, I still think it is a really good car. If you don’t mind a rough ride, and are in the market for something small, fun, practical and economical, I’d highly recommend the new Kia Soul.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Dodge Charger

Keith finally gets his wish and spends some time behind the wheel of a 2010 Dodge Charger!

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days behind the wheel of a car I really wanted to drive – a 2010 Dodge Charger. Yes, that’s right – I wanted to drive what is essentially a muscle car.

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time (just 3 days) with this car, so I didn’t get a chance to really put it through its paces. However, I did get to drive it along a lot of various roads, ranging from straight & boring (but high-speed – 70 MPH speed limit, yippie!) interstate highways to twisty (and properly banked!) secondary state highways that followed the Mississippi river.

The Dodge Charger is a surprisingly big car – as soon as you get behind the wheel you really feel how big the car is, and you sense its muscle car heritage. However, even though it feels big, the Charger isn’t terribly large on the outside, and in fact it is quite easy to handle, both at high speed and low speed (e.g., parking).

The interior of the Charger was actually very comfortable – it was easy for me to find a comfortable driving position, which is often a challenge for me in cars, since I’m so used to the higher-up seating position in SUV’s and trucks. I had 3 other people with me as well when I was driving the Charger, and the back seats had plenty of room for 2 full-sized adults.

Unfortunately I forgot to check which engine our rented Charger had – it would have been either the 2.7L 178 HP V6, or the bigger 3.5L 250 HP V6. Given that it was a rental, I’m going to guess we had the smaller engine, but don’t let those numbers fool you – the Charger isn’t a terribly heavy car, so it gets up and goes quite well. And it’s rear-wheel drive as well (yay!) so you can have some good-old fashioned tail-spinning fun.

All-in-all the Charger was a pleasure to drive, with plenty of power and smooth steering. The automatic transmission, while simple, was fine – I never felt like it was “hunting” for the right gear, nor were the gear shifts really noticeable. I’m sure this car would be quite a ball with a manual transmission, but (sadly) of course you’d never find a manual transmission on a rental car.

The Charger did have a couple of things that bugged me, however. As is apparently typical of all American cars these days, the Charger comes with automatic headlights (I guess because we’re too stupid to remember to turn them on when it gets dark?) and doors that lock automatically once you get moving – and can’t be unlocked (at least from the rear seats) unless you shift into Park. This last one in particular is really annoying – if you’re dropping anyone off, and they are sitting in the back seat, you MUST shift into Park before they can get out of the car!

Also, watch out if you go into the trunk on the Charger – I hit my head more than once on the very low latch on the trunk. And I can attest – it HURTS.

Other than those few problems, the Charger was a fine car and I quite enjoyed driving it. If I ever felt the desire to own a muscle car, I would definitely consider the Dodge Charger as an option. Hey, if it’s good enough for the police, why not for me?