Best Summer Rides

Summer means fun, right? Sure, spring has its moments, and fall can be lovely too. Driving in the winter is often full of challenges, but it does have its satisfactions as well. But when it comes right down to choosing the best season of the year for driving, it just has to be summer. The roads are clear, the weather is warm and the sun feels good on your shoulders. You can’t help but want to drop the top, hit the accelerator and go. Here are our picks for the best summer rides of 2011 that’ll have you savoring the heat in style.

No. 5: Ford Mustang GT Convertible
If you’d like to leave the city and your cares behind, the Mustang GT convertible is your ticket to ride. First, you will find yourself ensconced in the classic pony car shape. The better news: That shape encloses a drivetrain and suspension that offer significant doses of pure handling and exhilarating acceleration. The 5.0-liter V-8 delivers 412 horsepower, and the six-speed manual transmission keeps you engaged in the game.

No. 4: Fiat 500 Convertible
OK, we admit its 101 horsepower pales in comparison with that of the other vehicles on this list. But a driver does not live by horsepower alone. The all-new Fiat 500 convertible is an engaging vehicle from any angle. It puts a new spin on the classic Fiat 500 styling, features an inventive interior and top arrangement, and is guaranteed to win you some attention, whether you’re speeding around or standing still.

No. 3: Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible
If you were going to design a car strictly to drive on summer nights in any American suburb or small town, it would be just like the Chevy Camaro SS. The car looks great, drives great and even sounds great. It offers 426 horsepower (yes, 426!), and that power is accompanied by the most sophisticated suspension ever seen in a pony car.

No. 2: BMW 335i Convertible
A convertible with a hard top: That is one of the 335i’s calling cards, but it is perhaps the least important aspect of the car. What’s more important is the fact that the 335i convertible is a true BMW 3 Series, which means it is one of the best-balanced, most rewarding cars on the planet. It not only offers 300 horsepower, but also features a torque curve as flat as the Kansas plains, which means it is easy to drive fast. Add Euro sophistication, and you have a ride that’s truly worthy of you.

No. 1: Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible
Just you, your chosen companion and 430 horsepower -- what’s not to like? Though the Corvette’s shape is familiar, it still commands attention, and there is something deliciously selfish about keeping all that power just for the two of you. The Corvette isn’t merely for profiling, though. As a performance car, the Grand Sport has the goods to out-accelerate and out-handle all but a tiny handful of vehicles, none of which can be purchased for anywhere near its $60,000 sticker price.

Photo: © GM Corp.

The SUV Evolves in Illogical Direction

The sport-utility vehicle -- the vilified, popular, demonized, versatile SUV -- was the hottest vehicle of an entire generation. Taking outdoorsy imagery and mixing it with warm-as-apple-pie family situations made the SUV the family vehicle of choice in the ’90s. The family station wagon and boring minivan were replaced by a big, truck-like vehicle that spoke of off-road adventure in exotic latitudes. So what if the majority of them were used -- and still are used -- to shuttle kids to school and to drive to family-vacation destinations that are no more exotic than Disneyland?

Instead of going the way of the brontosaurus, as some had predicted, the SUV adapted and evolved. This decade has changed everything we know about the SUV and its close cousin, the crossover. While in their heyday, SUVs were all about outdoor adventure. But the newest, hottest SUVs largely eschew any hint of outdoor exploration and instead adopt a high-performance, high-luxury philosophy. The leader of this vanguard is the just-introduced Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. If you want to know what the coolest soccer moms on the planet will be driving next spring, just take a look at this baby. To the new-generation M-Class line that Mercedes-Benz launched earlier this year comes the addition of a hyper-powerful twin-turbo V-8 engine and the all-wheel-drive traction of the renowned 4MATIC system. This is no rock-crawler; it’s a pavement-burner.

For the sake of painting the picture, let’s say your daughter is late for the playoff game, and you’re a little tardy leaving the driveway because you were gathering some sushi, designer water and a Tommy Bahama folding chair. There’s no better way to make up that time than by jamming the accelerator of the 518 horsepower bi-turbo V-8. You will undoubtedly take your place in the upper reaches of the soccer field car park. In fact, there’s only one way you’ll be one-upped, and that’s if someone else arrives in an ML63 AMG equipped with the optional-at-serious-extra-cost AMG Performance Package, which offers an additional 32 horsepower and a 174-miles-per-hour top speed capability.

You’ll also appreciate the designo leather interior, the black headliner and the four-spoke AMG Performance steering wheel with perforated leather grips, aluminum shift paddles and a flat bottom. The dashboard, armrests and door trim are also finished in designo leather with double topstitching.

The “more is more” theme is all over the ML63’s exterior. The special AMG bodywork includes deeper under-bumper aprons at the front and rear, heavily sculpted rocker panels under the doors and quad exhaust pipes. The standard engine is a direct-injection, bi-turbo V-8 that produces not only 518 horsepower, but also 516 pound-feet of torque. The AMG Performance Package ups the ante to 550 horsepower and adds the niceties of a carbon-fiber engine cover and red brake calipers. For those who like to keep their vehicles on the pavement, the ML63 AMG has both the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system and the newly developed Active Curve System, which supplies electronically enhanced roll stabilization.

The price for ML63 AMG has not yet been announced, but you can bet it will follow the trend in the ultra-luxury crossover class and be stratospheric. The model will be available at a Mercedes-Benz showroom near you in the first quarter of next year.

The Dangers of Running on Empty

Since, these days, gasoline costs as much as fine wine, many drivers are trying to stretch each tankful to the limit. But this tactic can have very negative consequences that extend beyond being stranded by the side of the road, which is negative enough. AAA, which rescues more out-of-gas motorists than anyone, cautions that allowing your car to run out of fuel could not only put you in a potentially dangerous situation, but also result in costly repair bills.

“We realize some motorists are trying to be resourceful and delay fuel expenditures by driving their car until the gas tank is nearly empty, but this can sometimes do more harm than good,” says John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair, buying services and consumer information.

A key problem of getting extremely low on fuel is the gunk at the very bottom of your fuel tank. The sediment in the nether regions of the tank can clog the fuel-pump pickup, the fuel filter or the fuel injectors. You might even hit the trifecta and foul all three. In addition, as strange as it may sound, gasoline is sometimes used as a coolant for the electric fuel pump, so when a minimum level of fuel is not maintained, it could cause the pump inside the tank to overheat. The cost to replace that one component alone can cost $500 or more in parts and labor.

Then there’s the value of your personal safety, which many gauge as being priceless. Running out of gas can put you and your passengers in a precarious position if your car or truck suddenly becomes immobilized on the roadway. Power steering and power brakes cease to function in their normal manner when the engine dies, so maneuvering an out-of-gas vehicle is cumbersome at best, dangerous at worst. You can end up stranded in the middle of a busy highway -- without the ability to move your vehicle -- and find yourself at the mercy of oncoming traffic. Fortunately, out-of-gas situations are completely avoidable just by keeping an eye on the fuel gauge, says Nielsen. When you’re running low, pull into a gas station, mobilize your charge card and put some gasoline into that tank. AAA recommends that drivers always maintain at least a quarter tank of fuel.

Rather than stretching your fuel supply beyond the prudent limit, you might want to make a few simple changes in your driving habits that can greatly improve fuel economy. For instance, instead of making quick starts and sudden stops, go easy on the gas and brake pedals. Smooth driving is more fuel-efficient, and it is more pleasant for your passengers. If there is a red light ahead, ease off the gas and coast up to it rather than waiting until the last second to brake. Once the light turns green, accelerate gently rather than making a drag-strip-style start. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that aggressive driving can reduce a car’s fuel economy up to 33 percent, so you have to wonder how important it is to beat that other car across the intersection.

When you’re underway, speed is also a key factor in fuel use. The fuel efficiency of most vehicles decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Every additional 5-mile-per-hour increment above 60 mph is like paying an additional 24 cents per gallon for gas, says Nielsen. So even in this era of through-the-roof gasoline prices, you can keep some gas in your tank, and that will continue to pay dividends.

WhatÂ’s the Most Dependable Vehicle Brand?

There is a new top dog in vehicle dependability, according to the just-released 2011 J.D. Power and Associates 2011 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS.) For the first time since the study began, Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln led all the nameplates in dependability. Lexus finished second, followed by (in order) Jaguar, Porsche and Toyota. The bottom five nameplates were (in ascending order from last) MINI, Jeep, Land Rover, Dodge and Chrysler.

So how does the market research giant define the term “dependability”? The dependability study measured problems experienced during the past 12 months by original owners of three-year-old (or, in this case, 2008 model-year) vehicles. If the vehicle had a problem prior to the last 12 months, it was not measured. Vehicle-owner participants were asked to consider 202 different problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. Relative overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles (PP100) versus other vehicles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality.

Among individual models, the Porsche 911 had the fewest problems in the industry, with just 68 PP100. Toyota Motor Corporation, which has been beleaguered by recalls in the past 14 months, continued to perform well in the J.D. Power study of long-term dependability. As a corporation, it collected seven top-in-segment awards, more than any other automaker in 2011. Other segment leaders in dependability included the Lexus RX, Scion xB, Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Prius, Toyota Sienna, Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Tundra. Ford Motor Company received four segment-leader awards for the Ford Fusion, Ford Mustang, Lincoln MKZ and Lincoln Navigator. General Motors (Buick Lucerne, Cadillac DTS, and Chevrolet Tahoe) and Honda Motor Company (Acura RL, Honda CR-V and Honda Fit) each received three segment-leader honors. Other segment leaders in dependability included the BMW X3, Mazda MX-5 Miata and Mercedes-Benz CLK.

An interesting finding was that, while domestic brands have closed the gap with import brands in initial quality (J.D. Power and Associates defines that as owner experiences in the first 90 days of ownership), there is still a considerable difference between domestic-brand vehicles and imports in long-term vehicle dependability. In the 2011 VDS, imported brands outperformed domestic brands by 18 PP100. Interestingly, domestic-brand cars actually have fewer problems (135 PP100, on average) than import-brand cars (147 PP100, on average), but import-brand trucks and crossover vehicles have considerably fewer problems than those of domestic brands. This belies the conventional wisdom that domestic manufacturers build great trucks, while the import manufacturers build great cars.

Vehicle dependability as a whole is getting better and better. In 2011, overall vehicle dependability averaged 151 PP100, which is the lowest problem rate since the inception of the study in 1990. Last year, the overall average was 170 PP100, but the pace of improvement is slowing. Between 2009 and 2011, annual improvement for the industry has averaged 6 percent, while industry improvement has averaged 8 percent each year during the past decade. The market research firm attributed the slowdown in improvement to increased rates of problems with electronic features (e.g., audio, entertainment and navigation systems) and new safety features (e.g., tire-pressure monitoring systems).

“Automakers, as a whole, have made significant improvements in reducing traditional problems -- particularly with vehicle interiors, engines and transmissions, and steering and braking during the past several years,” says David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. “However, as manufacturers add new features and technologies to satisfy customer demand and new legislation, they face the potential for introducing new problems.”

The 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 43,700 original owners of 2008 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. The study was fielded between October and December 2010.

Photo: http://www.lincoln.com/cars/mkz/

Rolls-Royce Seeks New Blood

These days, many of us decry the decline of craftsmanship. Industrial society is very adept at manufacturing thousands of perfectly acceptable items, but it is less proficient at creating individual pieces of uncommon quality. That, however, is just what luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce seeks to do, and in this era of mass production, it is looking to create a new generation of highly skilled craftsmen. The company -- based in Goodwood, England -- will soon begin to recruit its newest class of apprentices to build on its century-old tradition of quality workmanship. The successful applicants who make it through the rigorous winnowing process will join the apprenticeship program at the end of August and work alongside skilled craftspeople in the paint, wood, leather, motor vehicle, engineering and business areas.

Launched in 2006, the company’s apprenticeship program provides young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 the opportunity to train with the best, most talented members of the legendary carmaker’s workforce. And it is far from a quick on-the-job training effort. The apprenticeships can last for up to four years and involve extensive work under the keen supervision of master craftsmen, many with decades of experience. In addition, apprentices study to achieve nationally recognized qualification levels in their individual areas of emphasis. The opportunity to join the company following a successful apprenticeship is a possibility, but Rolls-Royce warns only the best apprentices are selected.

The young workers who will join Rolls-Royce this year will arrive at an exciting time. The ultra-luxury carmaker is enjoying unprecedented success, including record sales results in 2010, despite a global economic malaise. The manufacturer recently joined the move to electric vehicles by unveiling 102EX Phantom Experimental Electric (EE) at the Geneva International Motor Show. So, apprentices who join the company this year will have broader fields to work in than ever before.

“We are delighted to announce the start of recruitment for this year’s apprenticeship program,” says Torsten Muller-Otvos, CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “This clearly demonstrates our ongoing commitment to the development and training of young people in the U.K. manufacturing industry. On completion of the program, our new apprentices will be ideally positioned to take advantage of the unique opportunities available at Rolls-Royce.”

Compared with the entering class at an Ivy League school like Harvard University, the apprentice class each year at Rolls-Royce is tiny. In 2010, only 35 young men and women were employed with the company on industrial placements ranging in duration from six to 12 months. This year, Rolls-Royce expects the class to be larger, but not by much. In addition to the apprenticeships, the company also runs a successful graduate program with new positions made available each year.

Since the launch of the apprenticeship program in 2006, more than 30 Rolls-Royce apprentices have either joined the company or are in the process of joining the company as full employees, following successful completion of the program. Potential candidates for all Rolls-Royce Motor Cars positions should apply online at: Rolls-RoyceMotorcars.com.