Behind the Wheel: 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited

2015 Subaru OutbackRecently, the repair costs on my faithful old 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander started to exceed the value of the car – so it was time to start looking for a replacement.

One of the cars I looked at rather extensively was a 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited. I wanted something similar to my old car – at least in the same general size & style; not too big or tall – but maybe also a bit nicer. Since Mitsubishi doesn’t make anything like that anymore, Subaru’s offering seemed like the natural choice.

The Subaru Outback has a lot going for it – right off the bat I can say this is a very nice car. It looks quite nice from the outside – not too garish, as many cars are these days – and the inside is equally nice. Subaru has really improved their interior design, even compared to just a year or two ago.

The Outback has plenty of power for a car of its size: 175 HP and 174 lb-ft of torque from it’s 2.5 liter 4-cylinder (horizontally opposed of course – that famous Subaru “boxer” configuration). It’s no race car or anything, but it gets up and moving more than quickly enough.

The Outback also has incredible visibility – especially compared to many SUVs – even the side mirrors were moved down onto the door so you could have just that last little bit under the A-pillar for better forward/side visibility. Rear visibility is fantastic too – no massive blind spots on this thing.

There’s also a fantastic amount of room, both front and back – rear leg room is almost as good as the front – and there’s also a generous cargo area behind the rear seats which gets even bigger once the seats are folded down. As a bonus, the rear seats can be folded down from within the rear hatch area – without having to open the side doors. (Why don’t more SUVs have this? It’s a great idea!)

The Outback is a big car on the inside, but it doesn’t look big on the outside – it’s like the TARDIS of cars.

It’s a surprisingly nimble for a car its size, with a very tight turning radius making it very good as a city car. It’s also very planted on the road (thanks to its low center of gravity), handling tight corners with ease.

The roof rails also have the cross beams built into them (they fold away when not in use) which is a very clever feature – most other vehicles of this type just have the rails and the cross beams are an extra cost.

All that said, there are some downsides to the Outback.

It’s got lots of room, because it’s a LONG car – a full 11 inches longer than my old car – which wasn’t exactly short, either. I had to actually measure my garage to see if this would fit in it – and it turns out it would, but only just, with no room to walk in front of or behind. You also feel that size when you’re driving – especially when changing lanes.

The Outback also comes with paddle shifters, which I just find very… strange. This car only comes with a CVT, and having paddle shifters on a CVT just seems… wrong. They create fake shift points where none exist… why? (I know it’s because people expect that “shifting” feeling, but c’mon…)

Overall, the Subaru Outback is a very nice car, especially for the price. In my mind it competes with much more upscale luxury SUVs in terms of interior. But, the size is a problem – if you’re looking for something “compact” then this is not it. But if the size doesn’t bother you, then the you could do much worse than the latest Subaru Outback.

Behind the Wheel: 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD

Behind the Wheel of Toyota’s latest RAV4 – the most “meh” of SUVs I’ve ever driven.
2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWDRecently I found myself with the chance to drive the latest Toyota RAV4 for an extended period of time (it was a loaner while my car was in the shop) – and I have to say, I kind of regret it.

The RAV4 I was driving was the very latest 2016 model, but even with all the nice options on this particular car, it just rubs me the wrong way – in all the wrong ways, in fact.

First and foremost, the seating position in the RAV4 is just awful. Maybe it’s meant for shorter people than me, but I’m not particularly tall, so I don’t know. The seat is quite high up, but the roof is (relatively) low, which means getting into the car requires me to duck my head even to get in & out of the seat.

Then, once I’m in the seat, the steering wheel doesn’t come out far enough, and so I have to sit with my legs kind of scrunched up in order to hit the pedals properly, which is not at all comfortable. Then, once I’ve found my seating position, it turns out the steering wheel doesn’t come up high enough – it blocks the top of the gauges.

On top of all that, the roof is very low and my head brushes against it while I’m driving.

As for the engine, the 176 HP 2.5L inline-4 (the only available engine) is plenty powerful enough to get this (relatively) lightweight SUV moving, but the transmission doesn’t seem to want you to get anywhere near that power. As soon as you get moving, it surges up through all 6 of the gears and then stays there – you have to drag it kicking and screaming to get it to go down into 5th or 4th.

That said, it does have one of those “Sport” buttons (with a corresponding “Eco” button, in case you forget that the two are mutually exclusive). However, I wouldn’t ever touch that button because it turns this car from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde – it’s absolutely insane. The throttle instantly becomes very touchy, the transmission suddenly realizes that 3rd and 4th are gears that exist, and the steering gets very tight. It sounds like it might be a fun mode to be in, but trust me – it’s not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s borderline undriveable in this mode.

On top of that, this car has Toyota’s variable valve timing (VVT-i) which kicks in around 5000RPM and it is INSANE when it does – the whole car just SURGES forward; it is more than a little scary.

And as if that wasn’t enough, even when in “Eco” mode this car gets really lousy gas mileage. I swear, when driving you can actually see the gas gauge moving.

As for the rest of the car, everything else is just… OK. The radio is… OK. The media system touchscreen is… OK. If this car was an ice cream flavor, it’d be plain vanilla.

There are lots of plastic-y bits, though some weirdly placed softer materials on the dash which strike me as rather incongruous, but I suppose it helps make things feel a bit softer and adds padding (both physical and for sound-deadening purposes).

There is a lot of thoughtful storage (typical Toyota style). In fact there’s so much that it almost make this feel vaguely minivan-ish.

Handling is decent – body roll is very controlled – and it feels planted, and of course it turns very well.

The looks are just boring – there’s no two ways about it. It looks like any other compact SUV on the market, with really nothing to distinguish it.

All in all the RAV4 is an unassuming, docile, practical people mover (if you’re not too tall) that doesn’t do much wrong but also doesn’t really do anything right, either. In a sense it is an SUV for people who want an SUV but don’t really care about SUVs.

Windows 10: FINALLY

Finally!
Finally!

I’d been playing around with the Windows 10 Preview on my virtual machine and I liked what I was seeing, so as soon as the “reserve your copy of Windows 10” thing popped up on my computer I filled in my name so I would be able to upgrade when it was ready. Despite this fact, it’s been over a month now and my main computer still hasn’t been notified that the upgrade is ready (even though everything is downloaded and seems ready to go).

My laptop was in the same position, but I got tired of waiting – so I tweaked a single registry setting to force my laptop to upgrade immediately. The upgrade started without a hitch and about a half-hour later, it was done. Other than re-arranging some icons on the Start menu and doing some slight preference tweaking, it was ready to use as soon as it was done and there have been no problems with it so far – everything that worked before still works just the same after.

So, now that I’ve finally got Windows 10 running on real hardware, what do I think of it?

Honestly, I think it’s pretty good, though there’s nothing to get particularly excited about. There are no earth-shattering changes or improvements to performance, just lots of small improvements and little tweaks all around. Essentially it’s just “Windows 8, but a little bit different.”

That said, there are a fair number of small things that have been improved and when you add them all up, it does come out to a pretty nice version of Windows – and definitely one I’d recommend over Windows 8 or 8.1. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the most noticeable changes and improvements!

(Oh, and a quick disclaimer: this is all from the perspective of a desktop user; if you’re running Windows on a tablet then I can’t really say how the tablet-specific stuff will have changed for you. Sorry!)

Start Menu is OK

Yeah, yeah, it’s nice to have the Start menu back, but honestly did we really need it back? I’m not so sure.

The Start menu is back... but will anyone really care?
The Start menu is back… but will anyone really care?

I know I’m going to get reamed for saying this, but I thought the Windows 8.1 Start screen was just fine. Yeah, it took up the whole screen but it was simple and elegant – all your icons in a nice, even grid. Power and logout options at the top and all your other apps easily searchable or you can click the little arrow at the bottom. You could give the Start screen a separate background, or let it be transparent to your desktop (which is what I always preferred).

Windows 10 sort-of brings back the old Start menu… kind of. It still has icons as tiles (and for some reason all tiles now all have the same background color, instead of being based on the icon color as they were in 8.1), but there’s sort of a side-section that kinda/sorta functions like the old classic Start menu. But I don’t really see the point – the icons here are smaller, making them harder to click with the mouse, and most people only use a few programs regularly so why have the full list taking up space when you don’t need it?

Still, I don’t hate the “what’s old is new again” start menu, and it does have some nice touches. I like being able to customize what folder shortcuts are on it, and it’s nice to be able to arrange the tiles for program icons.

Oh, but one thing I do not care for is that the Start menu and start screen now scroll vertically instead of horizontally. With most monitors and screens being wider than they are tall, why would you do this?? The horizontal scrolling of the Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1 was one thing that actually made a lot of sense. Changing it back to vertical scrolling does not make sense, and sadly there is no way to change it back through options. Not the biggest deal in the world, but still, I really wonder why they made this particular change.

Cortana is “Meh”

windows 10 cortana
Still not quite HAL 9000

Windows 10 is meant to be used on tablets and it seems like having a “digital assistant” thingy is a mandatory requirement these days, but on a desktop the new Cortana thing is just… meh.

Maybe if you use the built-in Windows calendar and mail and whatnot it’d be more useful, since it can look up and search your appointments and so forth, but if you don’t use those built-in apps, it’s basically just a glorified Bing search with speech recognition.

Also, I don’t like how much space the Search box takes up on the taskbar – it’s huge! Fortunately you can shrink it to an icon (or remove it entirely).

Multiple Desktops are Neat

It’s been possible to do multiple “virtual” desktops for years – I remember using them back in Windows 2000 – but it’s nice to finally see them available and supported natively in Windows. However, I do really think that most people will never use this feature. Instead, it’ll be used mainly by the more techy types. Still, it’s nice to have and I’m glad they (finally!) added it.

Double the desktop, double the fun!
Double the desktop, double the fun!

Perhaps once I’ve had a chance to use this feature on my main desktop while actually working (rather than just casually on my laptop) I’ll have more to say about it, but for now, it’s just a “nice to have.”

Notifications At Long Last

It is good to see Windows finally get a unified notification system but holy cow has this been a long time coming! Now we just need to wait for more applications to take advantage of it, instead of using pop-up boxes/balloon tips/etc. for their notifications.

If a notification center has no notifications, does it make a sound?

I also like the new “action center” bar, which I tend to think of as an extension of notifications (since that’s where they show up after). It’s a very nice touch and a long-overdue addition to Windows (especially for those using it on mobile devices – tablets, laptops, etc.).

More Consistent Control Panel

The Control Panel was long overdue for an overhaul, being an inconsistent mish-mash of Windows 7-style and Windows 8-style. Fortunately, Windows 10 goes a long way towards dragging it into the future. The main screen of the Control Panel is simple & clean, and most sub-screens are also done up in the same Windows 10 “flat” style, with lots of slider-type switches (instead of checkboxes) for options.

windows 10 control panel

Resizable Windows

Not being able to resize certain Windows 8-style windows used to drive me absolutely bonkers. It was a very jarring break from the standard Windows UI experience, so I’m very glad they fixed this and allowed all windows (including the “it’s-Windows-style-not-Metro-style” ones) to be resized (like they should’ve been from the beginning).

Flat UI is Getting Better

I’m still not a fan of the overall “flat/tile” visual style that started in Windows 8, but at least it is improving. Someone over at Microsoft finally realized that when you make everything flat & monochromatic you need to add other visual cues to help people know what can be clicked on. Too many things in Windows 8 and 8.1 were just completely undiscoverable unless you actually tried clicking on them. In Windows 10 at least things have outlines and hover effects to clue you in to the fact that they can be interacted with.

NO MORE STUPID CHARMS BAR

I’m not going to lie; I hated the charms bar – with a passion. It was perhaps the stupidest idea in all of Windows 8/8.1 and I am glad it is gone. If the charms bar had a grave, I would be dancing on it right now. (And, I would assume it’s buried right next to everyone’s other favorite bad idea, “Clippy” the Office Assistant.)

In Summary

All of these little improvements add up to a very nice experience in Windows 10. Sure, it’s nothing that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s worth upgrading for. Some people have had trouble upgrading, but this can usually be attributed to driver issues and not Windows itself. (As usual, many manufacturers take their time updating drivers and correcting problems – but this is true with almost every new Windows version.) My upgrade on laptop was quick & easy, and eventually I assume it’ll be just as easy on my desktop as well… eventually. (I’m still going to try and hold out until it tells me that the upgrade is ready – I’d like to try it without having to hack the registry to force it to happen!)

Windows 10 - like Windows 8, but more so?
Windows 10 – like Windows 8, but more so?

Overall, Windows 10 is a solid upgrade and if you were holding out because you didn’t like Windows 8 or 8.1, I’d say give it a go. And if you have Windows 8.1, upgrading is a no-brainer – at the worst, you probably won’t even notice much of a change, and at the best you’ll appreciate some of the little changes & improvements that have been made.

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.