The Dream Trip

Thinking about my dream trip – a road trip across the USA

Recently my wife and I have started thinking about a trip to Yosemite Park in California for later in the year (along with a few other stops – assuming that Covid will be more under control by then). But with caution still needed, we’re not flying – that’s still completely out of the question – so we’re thinking of driving. And to keep our interactions with people to a minimum, we’re thinking of renting a camper trailer and staying at campgrounds along the way.

Doing a cross-country road trip in my own car has been a dream of mine since pretty much ever since I learned to drive.

But the realities of the trip are, as usual, not as simple as I would like.

Problem 1: Planning a route

First is the simple planning of the trip itself – some 2,700 miles one way. We have to decide where we’ll stop, how long we’ll have to drive each day, and so forth.

In better times we probably would’ve flown out west and rented a car, or failing that, we would’ve stayed in hotels each night as we went along. But in the current environment, that’s not exactly feasible (or wise). So we’ll be staying more or less to ourselves in our camper… which brings us to the next difficulty.

Problem 2: Finding the Right Camper

When it comes to picking a camper trailer, there are a number of constraints on us:

  1. Weight – although the Keithmobile is a diesel with plenty of pulling power, it is still a small-ish SUV with only a Class II hitch (max trailer weight 3,500 pounds) and a maximum tongue weight of 280 pounds.
  2. Amenities – given that we’re trying to limit our interactions with other people, we need to be fairly self-contained… which means we need a camper with a bathroom & shower.
  3. Availability – the type of trailer that meets these constraints isn’t very common around here (ironically, they are much more common out west where we’re headed).

These limitations unfortunately rule out a lot of rather nice trailers. For example, we had started to look at a nice Airstream Basecamp 16′ trailer – very stylish, with everything you’d need for just 2 people and nothing you don’t. However, the tongue weight for this trailer was some 410 pounds (as it turns out, many camper trailers are very forward-heavy and have high tongue weights relative to their overall weight).

However, in the end we did manage to find a nice little “teardrop” style camper trailer that has a combination bathroom/shower. It’s on the bigger end of teardrop style campers, but it’s light enough that my car can pull it without too much trouble (it is well within both the weight limit and the tongue weight limit) while still being comfortable for us both and more than just “a bed on wheels” (as many of the littlest camper trailers are).

So with all that, it looks like we may be heading out for a big road trip in the early fall (again, assuming the Covid situation doesn’t get worse). The Keithmobile will face its biggest challenge – doing something like 6,000 miles of driving in 2 1/2 weeks, all while pulling a trailer. (It’ll be interesting to see what kind of mileage I end up getting!)

Assuming we can go, it should be a very exciting trip!

One Year With the Keithmobile-E

After a year of driving it, does the Mercedes-Benz GLK 250 still hold up as the right choice for the Keithmobile-E?

So it’s been just over a year now since this particular Mercedes-Benz GLK 250 joined my fleet as the Keithmobile-E.

In that time, I’ve:

  • Had a tow hitch installed
  • Towed trailers full of dirt, gravel, other construction materials, and a small (but heavy) excavator
  • Carried numerous long bits of lumber, piping, and boxes on the roof rack
  • Hauled hundreds of pounds of (bagged) dirt and mulch in the back
  • Driven on dirt roads in the pine barrens of NJ
  • Cruised around downtown Manhattan
  • Carried 4 adults around during the 3 months my parents-in-law were visiting from Australia
  • Made several long road trips:
    • From NJ to Chicago, IL
    • Back and forth from NJ to MA several times
  • Achieved a maximum of 35.5 MPG (with an average of 32.4 over 12,365 miles)

As you can see, I’ve used the GLK 250 in all of its roles: as a passenger vehicle, as an off-road vehicle, and as a utility vehicle. The diesel engine has also come through for me and delivered that excellent fuel economy that I expected (slightly better than the EPA ratings, actually).

Overall, it’s clear that choosing a GLK 250 as the next Keithmobile was absolutely the right choice – it has never let me down and it has shown itself to be extraordinarily capable in all the roles I expected it to fill and with all the duties I wanted it to perform.

Long Distance Cruising

Keithmobile-E front lightsThis is where the GLK 250 really shines – at highway speeds the 7-speed transmission is sitting in its highest gear while the engine is turning a leisurely (and fuel-sipping) 2,000 RPM. However, even at that low RPM the diesel engine has oodles of torque available – the first (smaller) turbo kicks in at just 1,800 RPM. So if you need to accelerate, there’s no need to downshift – all that power is just there, ready to push you up to whatever passing speed you need without any fuss or bother.

Trailer Towing

Although it’s not the ideal tow vehicle, the GLK 250 is no slouch. With all that torque from the diesel engine, it has no problem at all getting going, even with a fully-loaded trailer.

keithmobile-e rear lightThe main limitations on towing are the brakes and the hitch tongue weight limit. The brakes on the GLK are great, but the GLK is a fairly heavy vehicle on its own, and when you add a heavy trailer it does put a bit of a strain on them (there is no trailer brake module either, though I believe some aftermarket solutions are available). The hitch tongue weight limit is mainly down to the fact that the rear suspension is designed more for comfort – and thus, isn’t well suited for extremely heavy loads.

That said though, the GLK is a very pleasant vehicle to tow with – it controls very well under load, and the good rear visibility makes reversing with a trailer a breeze. Plus, the AWD system means you won’t spin any tires when, say, reversing a trailer across a wet lawn into your back yard.

Hauling Stuff

You wouldn’t think a “luxury” SUV would actually be good at hauling cargo, but the GLK is actually surprisingly capable. I added a cargo area protector to the rear – one originally designed for pets, so it’s waterproof – and with this I’ve had no trouble at all hauling bags of mulch, bales of hay, various sizes of plants, lumber, bags of concrete mix, and so on, all without making a mess of the interior.

Being the Keithmobile-E

The really good thing about the GLK is just that it’s really good at being “the Keithmobile.” It continues to be such a pleasurable place to be and a true joy to drive, whether it’s a short hop up the street or a multi-day road trip. Overall it just “fits” me well, like a glove or a comfortable pear of shoes.

Even when I’d only just recently started driving it, everything about it – the handling, the response, the placement of the various controls – felt intuitive and natural, and that continues even more so to this day.

All in all, the GLK 250 just suits me really well – which is the reason I chose it in the first place, right? But the point is, even after a year I’m still very pleased with it, and I will continue to be very pleased with it for as long as I have it – which I expect will be a long, long time.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLK 250 (Diesel)

The little SUV from Mercedes that won the right to carry on the name “Keithmobile.”

When my venerable old 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander’s repair costs started exceeding the value of the vehicle itself, it meant that it was finally time to start thinking about a replacement – something to take on the designation of “the Keithmobile-E.”

I had an idea of what sort of car I wanted – basically, something similar to my Outlander, but newer (and maybe a bit nicer). This is basically the “compact SUV/crossover” category, and these days that encompasses a LOT of cars.

I looked at countless vehicles across several model years – I didn’t want anything brand-new, but at the same time I didn’t want anything more than a few years old. It was a long list of vehicles, but I eventually narrowed it down to two – one of which I’ve already reviewed.

The other vehicle – and obviously the one that won out in the end – was a 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLK 250.

GLK 250 badgeIt almost goes without saying that the GLK is a very nice car in all respects – the interior is a very comfortable place to be, and everything is just very well put together and nicely arranged. The particular model I ended up with has all the nice little touches that you’d expect, and though many are becoming fairly standard on new cars these days, they all feel very new & exciting to me since my old car had none of them!

Visibility out of the GLK is also very good (especially for this type of SUV) – certainly no worse than in my old car. Although there is a rear camera, it’s entirely possible to reverse this car without it and not have it be a dangerous guessing game of “what might be hiding in my blind spots.”

Size-wise, the GLK is almost identical to my Outlander – which is surprising since it looks bigger. But it’s the same length, almost the same height, and only 1 inch wider – so it fits exactly into the same spot in my garage. Very handy!

As for technology, the GLK has an easy to use media system with nice easy-to-reach buttons for switching modes (a feature I really like and which some cars don’t have). The built-in navigation is perfectly serviceable – though nothing spectacular.

But now let’s get to the real reason I chose this car – the engine. The are two types of GLK class vehicles – the 350 and the 250. The former has a 3.5 liter V6 gasoline engine, while the latter has a diesel. Specifically, a 2.1 liter twin-turbo inline-4, putting out an even 200 HP and an incredible 369 lb-ft of torque.

This is the reason I went with the GLK 250.

I drove both vehicles before settling on the 250, and while the 350’s engine was plenty powerful, I found that power to be a bit difficult to control. The throttle in the 350 was very fiddly – seemingly dead at first, and then it kicked in with a surge of power that was quite difficult to modulate, especially at slower speeds.

The 250’s diesel on the other hand delivers its power smoothly and without any fuss or bother. Additionally, most of that power is available at lower RPMs – as is typical of diesel engines – and which is similar to where the power in my old Outlander was available.

All that low-end power from the diesel also helps with towing, and the GLK is no slouch there either with a maximum trailer weight of 3,500 lbs – quite a bit more than my Outlander could tow!

Even with the relatively low horsepower for a vehicle of this weight (some 4,246 lbs), the GLK 250 gets up and going like nobody’s business – there is a slight delay right off the line, but the smaller of the two turbos spools up very quickly and power delivery after that is very even. It’s not the quickest thing in the world – in many ways it feels faster than it is – but it’s no slouch, either. Acceleration is steady – one might even say relentless.

Even at highway speeds the power is always there should you need it – just put your foot down and you just ADVANCE and suddenly you’ll find yourself going a lot faster than you meant to be.

All that power gets to the ground via a 7-speed auto which I would describe as “buttery smooth” – in normal driving I can hardly even tell when it’s making the shifts. It also helps that it makes those shifts very quickly, and unlike a lot of cars these days it doesn’t mind moving up & down through those gears at your command. (As a nifty trick, it will even downshift to help control your speed while going downhill – something I’ve never seen any other automatic gearbox do.)

Of course, it also has AWD – Mercedes’ 4MATIC system – so even when conditions get slippery there’s no problem getting all that power to work.

The engine does have variable valve control but there’s no sudden “surge” of power at any point – it is always very smooth and controlled, and (once the turbo has spooled up) very linear.

Even with a heavy AWD system and a rather chunky aerodynamic profile, the GLK 250 still manages to get a very decent 24 city/33 highway MPG – and in practice it does even better. Combine this with a 17.4 gallon fuel tank and the GLK 250 has an incredible cruising range.

On top of this, the GLK is a tremendously comfortable place to be for long periods of time, making it the perfect choice for long-distance road trips. The suspension just soaks up the bumps, but without feeling floaty or disconnected as can happen with too-soft suspension systems. It’s soft enough to make rough roads comfortable, but tight enough to let you attack corners in this heavy SUV with confidence.

As for that diesel engine – I’ve driven several diesel vehicles now (an Audi A4 wagon, a Fiat 500L, and now this GLK 250) and I have to say, they do take some getting used to. With diesels, all the power is generally down low in the rev range – no high revving needed – and the addition of turbos makes things even stranger if you’re only used to naturally aspirated engines. But of course the upside is torque, torque, torque! None of these cars is particularly fast per se, but they are definitely quick!

When used in an SUV application though, I think a diesel is a perfect fit – power to get a bulkier SUV moving, but small enough to be fuel efficient. It’s a shame they aren’t more common (at least here in the US).

The GLK does have a few downsides, though – none serious enough to turn me off, obviously, but your opinion might differ.

Foremost is that rear seat legroom is… not that great. As I said, this GLK is the same length as my Outlander – but the GLK has a bigger engine compartment, so that extra space has to some from somewhere. In this case, that space came from the rear seats (the front seats and cargo area are virtually identical to my old Outlander). It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not great – especially if you put the front seats all the way back. Now, I rarely have passengers (and I don’t put my seat that far back) so this wasn’t a big deal for me – but this might be a major drawback for people who regularly carry more than 2 people.

In addition to the slightly restrictive rear legroom, the rear wheel arches intrude into the rear door openings a bit more than I’d like, which makes getting in & out of those back seats a little tricky at times. It’s not terribly difficult by any means, but it is noticeable. If you have passengers with any sort of mobility restrictions, they won’t be happy in the back of a GLK.

Another minor downside with the GLK is that later model years moved the transmission lever to the steering wheel column. It’s not like the old steering wheel systems of yesteryear by any means, but it does take some getting used to. More than once I found myself reaching down to change gears before remembering it’s now just a tiny little stalk on the steering column.

All-in-all though I think the GLK 250 is a fantastic SUV – the diesel makes it a blast to drive, and although very comfortable it’s still got plenty of “utility” going for it as well. If you’re after a small-ish SUV with some style and comfort, you might want to give a GLK a look!

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

"Plymouth Caravelle, 83-85" by 55allegro - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Plymouth Caravelle, 83-85” by 55allegro. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.