The car that makes driving fun again is the anti-SUV

Mini Cooper S isn’t without its faults, but its lithe handling is a welcome change from the sea of big rigs on the road

Originally published June 12, 2017

I’m tired of SUVs and CUVs, and it took a 2017 Mini Cooper S Seven to remind me of that.

I know I’m the only one fatigued by various utility haulers; sales prove it. The segments are exploding so fast, I swear if I leave two SUVs in a dark garage overnight, in the morning there will be five of them. Our fuel prices remain incredibly affordable on the world scale, meaning everybody can drive big, bigger, biggest and nobody has to go electric. Yet.

My personal car is a little hatchback Elantra GT with a manual transmission. It was bought with my son in mind, knowing he’d end up with it. It’s easy on fuel, a fun ride and really versatile. Great bang for the buck.

I’ve driven a lot of Minis over the years, and loved doing so. My problem? Stubborn transmission problems are no industry secret, yet buyers, especially those purchasing older models, end up contacting me freaking out at the expense they find themselves facing when they’ve done too little research. That’s some upper class German engineering under that hood, with the repair bills to go along with it. My Mini love maxed out at that point.

I’ve also watched Minis grow, to the point that I’m seeing a vaguely Mini shaped car that was somehow just too big for my deeply entrenched Mini aesthetics. Like many of their brethren, Mini was searching for ways to capitalize all the way to the edges of their segments. Somewhere along the way, they lost the plot with some of the models sacrificing charm for, well, utility. Minis aren’t noted for their back seat legroom or road domination. Everything those CUVs and SUVs use as selling points, and everything I don’t want a Mini to be. I know, selfish of me, but it’s the truth. If you have to noodle something to be everything to everyone, it’ll usually end up being not enough for anyone.

It’s been a few years since I’d planted myself behind the wheel of a Mini. I’d driven the Countrymans (Countrymen?) when they first came out and, while they were fine, they didn’t have the Mini feel that I wanted; that I demanded. Some formulas shouldn’t be mucked with, much like family recipes. With keys in hand to the newest Cooper S five door, I wondered if my love could be rekindled.

I don’t say it often, and rarely in these pages, but I want this car.

We’ve been reaching for bigger and bigger vehicles and surrendering fun. When we’ve chased after reasonably priced compacts, we’ve thrown superior handling back to the sports cars – though you will only pry any vintage Miata from its owner’s cold, dead hands. The turbocharged four cylinder engine in this Mini is exhilarating; it handles with such infinitesimal input from the driver, it’s like it can read minds. The stock 17” wheels make it look cool, but also corner like a dream. I can already imagine having mine kitted out with winters and running all four seasons.

The Seven edition is a nod to the Austin Seven, one of the original Minis. Most of the options are about colour ways and painted stripes; the interior is full of the retro Mini touches and dials that you either love or hate, with lots of extra flourishes and zip-a-dee-doo-dah lights that you also love or hate. I love them. Pricing starts just under $28,000, and while the model I drove was topped up to $38,440, I’d probably add less than $2,000 to mine from the shopping list, and I’d win some back opting for a manual transmission.

We talk often – too often, in fact – about autonomous cars and all the coming changes. We talk about all the safety features that remove decision making from the driving process, and how this will all make driving so much better.

I was reminded this week that I call nonsense on that, and I doubt I’m alone. I love driving. I don’t want to imagine the week or two a year I might have to haul cats somewhere, or help a kid move. I want to smile every time I get in my car and hold a great steering wheel in my hands before the car tells me I don’t have to.

I love a vehicle that’s engineered for the driver, and while I respect that if you’re contemplating how to get a child seat into a car or pull lumber, this one isn’t for you. I also know that many of us aren’t doing that. I still go to the grocery store and the garden centre and the cottage; a super subcompact isn’t for me.

But this Mini is.

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Would you buy a new car completely online?

Montreal dealership first to offer complete service, but it’s not like you’re buying a book from Amazon

Originally published June 5, 2017

The first time I bought a computer I roamed around a store bewildered by dozens of different machines set up and running, each perhaps better than the last but all of them different. I finally pointed to the one I could afford that promised to do the things I needed and left the store, boxes of confusion stuffed in my trunk.

Today, I order everything online and a nice man in brown shorts delivers it all the next day. It’s easier, cheaper and I definitely get a better product. After all, I sat on my previous computer and sourced it all out, my brain uncluttered by store noise. What could be better?

How about buying a car this way?

Chambly Honda in Montreal has partnered with 360 Solutions & Consultations, a Montreal agency that specializes in e-commerce strategy; their philosophy is to find a simple solution to your complex problem. Is purchasing a car a complex problem? Is buying one entirely online the simple solution consumers will flock to? 360 started developing its online car buying platform three and a half years ago; Chambly is the first of 30 dealers across Canada to launch it.

Chambly dealer principal Louis-Martin Racicot sees it as a natural progression as more consumers, especially millennials, find it totally normal to do everything online. He notes that car buyers now do far more research online, and land in showrooms armed with more independently sourced information than ever before.

“We will be looking at three types of situations,” he says. “One hundred per cent online transactions, and [two] hybrid versions: those that start out in the showroom and are finalized online, and those that begin online and are finished in the showroom.” Racicot began seriously looking at the complete online sales platform about 18 months ago, and admits the launch this week has brought a lot of curiosity – not just from reporters, but from his colleagues in the industry. “Some are happy, some are less so,” he laughs. “The first to try something new takes the biggest risks.” Having said that, while it’s tough to anticipate what portion of his sales will be increased by the undertaking, he feels confident buyers will respond.

Louis-Yves Cloutier of 360 makes the case that an increasingly self-serve market will embrace a purchasing cycle that they can control. “Dealers can open a quote and start building a transaction, but buyers will control more of the process.” Showroom pressure has made the Internet a car buyer’s refuge; is this type of platform the natural conclusion of the process? How far will buyers actually go to stay out of the dreaded finance and insurance room?

I asked Racicot how he planned to handle the inevitable: buyer’s remorse. One of the most popular parts of ordering things online is knowing you can return it, usually at the seller’s expense. We may be used to the concept of buying, but we also take for granted the un-buying.

“If you do a transaction 100 per cent online, we want a customer to be happy. It will be case-by-case basis, but there will be a five-day, 500-kilometre buffer zone if someone genuinely needs to make a change. That might be a different vehicle, or a full refund.” He’s cautious about broad money-back guarantees; a vehicle is not a pair of jeans, and consumers entertaining purchasing this way should examine every part of a contract before they sign, just as they would in a showroom. The law doesn’t have a cooling-off period for car purchases, so get any stipulations surrounding an online contract in writing as well.

Not everyone thinks this will even be an issue, however. J.P. Ostiguy is the e-commerce manager for Alta Group, and he disagrees with statistics indicating that the number of people wishing to conclude an entire car purchase online is climbing. “Industry stats showed us there was actually a drop of about 10 per cent between 2015 and 2016,” he says. “We sell thousands of cars, and while the use of the Internet for research increases year after year, people still want that in-person experience when it comes to the final decision.” He even singles out the younger buyers as being more involved in the tactile experience, despite an assumption that generations raised with touchscreens will eschew more traditional methods on something as expensive as a vehicle.

And if buying a car online is the way we’re headed, why – besides outliers like Tesla – aren’t we seeing more of it? Why isn’t a giant like Amazon at the front of the line?

Racicot says it’s not a true comparison. “You need specialists,” he says. “We deal with financing matters – buying, leasing – and issues of warranty and things like that. It’s not like shopping from a catalogue.” The “things like that” no doubt include the hammer part of a traditional sale – the clearcoat and the rustproofing and the nitrogen in the tires. Just as I’m ready to brush off the online sales idea as too gimmicky, too simplified, I admit that this is the one portion of the sales game where the consumer might actually come out ahead. That pressure game is the number one turn off, judging by commentary from my viewers and readers. Out of the crucible of that business office, which feels more like detention than a shopping experience, might we actually feel better about our purchase?

I asked Cloutier whether the numbers show people shunning the add-ons without the intimidation that many experience. While it’s still early going, some early adopters of the platform in the used car market are actually showing significant numbers of buyers taking the extras; he attributes it to consumers moving through the process at their own pace, and making decisions based on sourced information rather than a need to finish the deal.

While online shopping for most things is totally normal, are we going to see cars head the same way? I’m actually torn about the idea that millennials will embrace this. I know far more boomers who walk into a showroom and say, “Give me another one of what I’m already driving,” when a lease is up than I do millennials who would do the same. I’ve done it myself. I’d say that is who would be more willing to take a risk with a dealer they know on a product they’re familiar with.

Cloutier believes no seller should try to target who might or might not embrace this type of technology, to simply offer it up.

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These five driving tips could save a road worker’s life

With our frustrations rising during construction season, don’t forget the people behind the orange cones

Originally published May 31, 2017

A few years back, I spent months trying to get authorization to do a stint working as a flag person on a road crew on a local street. The construction was forecast for most of the year, and I offered to report back a piece regardless of weather. I thought it would be insightful. I thought it would be tiring. I thought it wouldn’t be that hard to set up.

I was wrong.

I’d convinced a friend who worked for the region to help me find my way to a reflective vest and that all-empowering stop/slow sign. I wanted a column; he wanted people to find out indignant drivers endanger workers’ lives every day.

It never came to pass as we ran afoul of rules and regulations over and over, but when I get jammed up in construction – ’tis the season – I hear my friend’s words in my ear anew: “You wouldn’t believe how close drivers come to hitting us every single day.”

And sometimes it’s more than close. The most recent numbers available for Ontario from the Ministry of Transportation reveal that, in 2013, there were 1,694 collisions in construction zones. Seven of those resulted in eight fatalities, and 341 resulted in injuries. While the data doesn’t specify whether the fatalities and injuries were to workers or those in the cars, you can conclude who is the most vulnerable: those inside the car or those standing next to a live lane of traffic.

Every province is currently undertaking its own version of summer hell as it repairs roads. That 150th birthday the country is celebrating? Some of our infrastructure is almost that old. Politicians may be torn between bare maintenance and making jobs depending on the election cycle, but the fact is, sewers must be replaced, bridges must be restored and you can only knit together so many pothole plugs before you finally have to resurface.

If your commute or quest takes a ridiculously long time, take it out on anyone but those tasked to do the job. Remember these five tips to make your journey through construction hell safer for everyone.

Use your tech

You can check at home before you leave, you can have updates every few minutes from most radio stations and you can use apps on your phone like Waze and Google maps to plot your course. Most construction is announced long in advance, and any and all of these things will alert you to the current conditions. Believe them; find a way around, or at the very least, add time to your plan.

Be the worker

Just for a moment, consider those conditions and standing on concrete or hot pavement all day. The person who flips the sign around right as you get there is working in tandem with someone else. They’re not making the call, so cool your jets and consider how much abuse they take for doing their job. Site supervisors have to take into account traffic flow, worker safety around massive equipment and, oh yeah, getting the job done.

Obey the cones

They’re no protection, simply orange suggestions that can mean life or death for vulnerable workers. If you’re worried you can’t navigate them, lift your eyes up and look towards the end of the augmented lane. Your brain will signal to your hands the necessary positioning for your car. If you stare at the cones, you’ll hit them. If you drive outside the cones, be prepared to pay the cost. In downtown Toronto last week, I watched a low-slung car decide it couldn’t wait any longer. The driver pulled out of line to take an apparently empty centre lane workers had sectioned off. Maybe it was the road angle, but the five-inch drop where the pavement had been cut came as a rude surprise. Your appointment, your schedule, your kids and your bathroom break are just as important – and disrupted – as those of everyone else.

Watch the officer

If a cop is on point duty, that takes precedence over the lights. Pay attention. That advanced turn signal is not for you unless the officer points at you. They make eye contact for a reason. Workers and police know to never turn their backs to a live lane of traffic, but that’s a difficult thing to do in the three-ring circus of a four-way intersection.

Slow down – slow down – slow down

This is the answer to virtually every collision, every weather related traffic mess, and the needless injuries and deaths that occur involving workers on roadway construction sites. I’ve written about zipper merging in the past, and the most effective way to do it. I continue to get feedback saying it’s wrong, though science has proven it is correct; science apparently has a very distant relationship with human behaviour. Don’t take out your rage at being held up on other drivers, and please don’t take it out on the people you believe are wrecking your day.

They’re doing their job, and a neon vest and a hard hat is no protection against a speeding, angry or oblivious driver. They deserve to go home to their families in one piece.

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Cleaning the garage of junk, trying not to touch the memories

There’s much to deal with after a lifetime of tools, oil changes and car parts

Originally published May 25, 2017

At one time it held a car.

It seems impossible now, even though the cars I own are smaller than the ones my father bought; it’s like the cinderblock walls contracted, the years of dust and grime reducing their measure along with any desire to have anything actually touch them. He threw out nothing, and two decades after his death it now falls to me to decide what can be rescued from 50 years of accumulation.

He saved everything.

I’ve had a go at it over the years, the appearance of a dumpster in my driveway still striking more joy in my heart than any diamond, any bouquet of flowers. I’ve done some renovations and chucked and recycled and reduced. I’m much like my father in every way save that one: I see a chance to purge as a lightening, a rebirth. He saw a dumpster as a shopping excursion.

I was born in this house, and now I am leaving. Unlike my parents who were able to hand the place, near-fully loaded, to an unprodigal daughter, I must deliver a home to market that looks like it was never a home at all. For the interior rooms my father cared little about, this has been a challenge on my back and my wallet, but not my heart. No, it is here in this garage that stories are being whispered in my ear and dust motes are forcing me to see ghosts.

garage

I know the proper way to clean a garage. Remove everything and strew it all across the driveway while the neighbours wonder how such a small space birthed so much detritus. Sweep and hose, and put back everything that must be kept and dispose of anything leftover. Wheat from chaff, mutton from lamb, trash from treasure.

Except my heart falls down that old rabbit hole, the one dug by my father and nursed all those years. What if? What if I need this? What if someone else needs this? You never know, you just can’t tell, it might be useful, it might fit someone, it’s still got some life, we don’t know where it came from so how can we know where it goes?

I long ago got rid of things that actually were useful, were still good. New quarts of Quaker State from when he bought his oil a case at a time. Fram filters in their original cartons, off to a good home, if not a better one. Dad was stocking enough things to do oil changes when he was already hooked up to an oxygen tank, pushing a coupon in one of my hands as he thrust a flyer in the other. I guess he figured he’d be using his quintupled points wherever he was going; I’m sure he arrived at the Pearly Gates with a fistful of Canadian Tire money.

He was a fan of hanging things up, and pounded giant nails into the mortar of the walls. I ditched his mangled metal snow shovels – five of them – but simply hung up plastic ones instead. I’ve left his row of saws as he left them decades ago, now beyond use but still the artwork of a man who would have barked at you in disbelief if you told him he had an artistic soul.

Floor space is limited in a small garage that usually stores four sets of winter tires in the off season. I made the kids clear them out, though I know he’d be proud they all take car maintenance seriously. We don’t crawl beneath the metal beasts to bleed out the old Quaker State and replace it with new, but we make sure someone else does because only an idiot would skimp on oil changes, says the voice in my head.

I found the jacks he’d used beneath whatever station wagon he was working on, and remembered peering beneath, all hunched over little girl full of whatcha doing and can I help. I never cared how dirty I got, and spent much time sitting on the kitchen counter as my mother tried to pry the oil from under my nails while giving my father that face. They’d patch our street with tar and when it bubbled up in the summer heat, my sisters and I would pop the black blueberries with our fingers and toes, then come home to be put back on the counter, again. Kids are supposed to get mucky; my father taught me that.

The garage still has a lot of wheels in it, even absent a car and extra tires. I’ve stored my sons’ longboards for reasons I’m not sure of, though my old roller skates, left behind when I moved out, are still strung up by their grubby pink laces where my father hung them. I’d convinced myself I was so different, but I’m doing what he did. This keeper philosophy is obviously bred in the bone.

Tomorrow, I tell myself. Tomorrow I’ll clear all of this out.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

High-tech cars making the pool of mechanics smaller

The challenge isn’t finding jobs; it’s finding candidates with the required skillset who can adapt to an industry that’s evolving at warp speed

Originally published May 15, 2017

We spend a lot of time questioning where technology is headed in the automotive industry as it concerns those who make and buy the vehicles, but what about the impact it has on those who maintain them?

With the emphasis shifting more and more to computerized vehicles and diagnostics, how is this affecting students who were traditionally, perhaps, less academically inclined? We always heard the “head to the trades” line for the kids who were flunking traditional core education, but those skills are now vital in this industry. For both dealerships and independent garages, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find qualified technicians, as senior mechanics head into retirement at the same time the automotive industry creates a need not just for bodies to work the tools, but also for minds capable of handling the tech. How do we bridge this rapidly expanding chasm? Where will shops find skilled technicians?

Alan McClelland is the dean of the School of Transportation at Centennial College in Ontario. He started out on the tools himself, and there is perhaps nobody who better understands both sides of the equation as it moves forward at increasing speeds.

“We’ve seen a huge shift over the past 10 to 15 years,” he says. “Once, a shop had a lot of routine work that could be performed by rout, leaving the specialty work, the tougher diagnostics, to those with more advanced abilities. That routine work is shrinking, and fewer technicians are going to be able to remain productive without advanced training.”

That training encompasses an ever-growing field of study, some of it largely unheard of, or at least uncontemplated, even a generation ago. Things once considered soft skills – communication, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, and adaptability – have surged to the fore.

Centennial College works closely with the automotive industry, offering programs staked by most of the major manufacturers. To stay cutting-edge, they have Sector Advisory Boards involving all aspects of transportation. Graduating students who are job-ready is essential to the college’s success, and this time of year is crucial to coordinating the efforts of what is being taught and how it will be applied. At a recent meeting, a government relations representative from General Motors admitted to McClelland the challenges of figuring out what the industry needs to have taught when it’s changing so rapidly.

“We realize the act of learning is as important as the learning,” McClelland. “To be job-ready, they need an increasing suite of skills.”

Mechanic and Centennial professor Chris Muir agrees. He still straddles both worlds, and has been immersed in what he calls the turbulent time starting in 1995 as the industry moved away from carburetors to fuel injected systems. “On-board diagnostics changed everything. We need technicians who are computer savvy but are also great on the tools. You have to love it, you do. The challenges and stresses are increasing, but if you want it, it’s a fascinating time to be coming into this.” Like most apprentice programs, the early years are for weeding out the weak. You will be tested.

Is it possible, or even suitable, to train a kid who has pure tool savvy to “get” the computer diagnostic part of the industry? Or to teach a kid who is a computer genius how to work the tools? McClelland notes an increase in university graduates who are entering Centennial programs with a great academic background in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), another reason to support your children in staying with these areas in the younger grades. Much of our future skilled work will need these programs, including many of the vocational ones that were once considered a safe haven for students looking for ways to get these core subjects.

Centennial features programs in all areas of transportation, including aviation, heavy-duty equipment, motorcycle, and truck and coach. The challenge isn’t in finding jobs for graduates; it’s finding candidate students with the required skillset who can adapt to an industry that is evolving at warp speed.

Every technician working in all of those programs must be academically robust as well as mechanically capable. Those programs Centennial offers that are partnered with industry heavyweights create an atmosphere that is mutually beneficial to both: Centennial structures learning on current requirements, and the industry can specify and tweak those requirements. On both sides of the equation, the word “adaptability” comes up with increasing frequency.

McClelland is blunt about ideal students. Those who possess better academic readiness rise faster and have more flexibility in the work world. “There is a dire shortage,” he states. His message is echoed in my discussions with several independent shops and two dealerships. Finding a well-qualified technician is indeed getting very difficult. On the flip side, being that well-qualified technician means having many, many options.

Dean McClelland is succinct in his faith in the future of the transportation industry. “You can’t offshore this work. These vehicles have to be serviced right here in our communities; all this equipment does. There’s never been more opportunity for students who want to join this industry.”

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Governments, drivers wade into murky waters with vanity plates

Even if you don’t mean to be offensive with a personalized plate, what’s good today may not be tomorrow

Originally published May 12, 2017

Is it time to just ditch personalized licence plates?

Licence plates are a tricky business.

In 2013, New Brunswick screwed up in their regular issue plates (the only type that province allows), allowing 1,000 of them with a letter combination containing the offensive “JAP” to carry on through. They were pulled back after complaints of racism, and I’m hard pressed to believe how they ever got through in the first place. I’ve never seen a car sporting “ZIT” or “BUGR” on provincially issued plates. They know when to skip a combination.

Quebec only last year began issuing personalized licence plates, finally updating computer equipment. Thus far, they ask that people refrain from ordering anything that is “morally objectionable.” Oh, Quebec; you are at the start of a long and winding road.

Part of the problem is that licensing bodies need crystal balls to go along with the brass ones of some of their applicants. Human nature is to try to challenge the system, to get something past the teacher. The list of rejected plates all over the world is long and humorous, and often flat-out creepy. I prefer the inspired ones that take the entire plate into play, including the provincial or state wordings. Years ago, Virginia had “kids first” as its state slogan; someone got EATTHE stamped into their metal plate. It took years for the state to realize the implication and yank them back.

That’s something to keep in mind. You pay a premium for personalized plates in the provinces and territories where they’re available, but they remain the property of the issuing body. Recent headlines found a man in Nova Scotia prepared to battle in court to keep a plate sporting his family name from being confiscated. He’s had it since 1991. The problem? His last name is Grabher, and while I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows in previous years, the current president of the U.S. has hauled that particular phrase down into the mud and rolled around with it on a global stage. Sorry, Lorne Grabher.

I got my sister vanity plates for Christmas the year they were issued here in Ontario. The excitement as she opened the box was palpable for both of us, a 23-year-old getting such a cool present. My father was less cool when she held them up. ROZ, they declared. And underneath? Yours to discover. He didn’t have the same recall power as the province, and the plates stayed.

Governing bodies put committees in place to review applications, and most regions report reject rates at around three per cent: most plates are fine. But the Internet has produced an explosively fertile ground for the growth of slang. What was okay a few years ago, or even months, can turn on a dime. How do you keep up with it? It’s one thing to say basically no to anything with sexual connotations/slang/advertising, drug/alcohol connotations, criminal connotations, general or derogatory slang, racial/ethnic slang or political connotations, but how hard is it to police it?

Committees have to do Google searches and hit translator sites, much as car manufacturers do when naming a car. If the request means something rude in Ukrainian, it’ll be stubbed out. Increasingly, however, it’s sites like Urban Dictionary that are needed to stay current. The online reference site moves as fast as our changing culture, often setting it. If Urban Dictionary says it’s rude, your chances just tumbled. Of course, what might be okay today could very possibly enter the alter-vernacular in a year or two as not, and your once innocent plate could still be retrieved.

For all the binary nerds who tried to get 1000101, they’ve caught on. In fact, California has expressively stated it will not issue any plates with “69” in them unless that is the year of the car, but thanks for trying.

A Star Trek fan in Manitoba had a plate yanked that said “ASIMIL8.” He’d had it two years, also sporting a plate cover with Star Trek slogans. Fans would get the reference, but the province finally deemed it was insensitive and offensive to indigenous people where that word is loaded with a back history that shouldn’t be forgotten, and certainly not tossed around.

Most of our jurisdictions run applications through a gamut of meanings tests, and also consider the combination being read upside down or in a mirror. In most cases they stay ahead, but the Manitoba plate triggered cries about free speech.

I called Saskatchewan to see how it handled plate issuances. The rules line up with most other regions, though I especially like the second line:

“All slogans are checked in Urban Dictionary, Google search, Wikipedia and translation sites. If a slogan is found to be from a language the issuer is not familiar with, we may approach an elder or a contact from that community,” said Tyler McMurchy of Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). Nine members of that group – all multicultural with multiple levels of education and job positions – make up the province’s Personalized Licence Plate committee.

“If the slogan request is offensive, suggestive, not in good taste, or does not comply with our rules, the issuer will deny the application,” he continues. “The requester may appeal the decision and at that time we will send the request to the Personalized Licence Plate (PLP) committee for a vote. Alternatively, if the slogan is questionable, the request is sent to the PLP committee for a vote.”

Are we overly sensitive? Or is this just why we can’t have nice things?

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Fixed VW diesels back on Canadian lots – but sell out quickly

Sitting since 2015, cars receive software fix and sold with high incentives, mostly to people already with deposits

Originally published April 27, 2017

Wanna buy a new 2015 Volkswagen diesel?

That’s a trick question. Even though the vehicles, those at the centre of one of the automotive industry’s largest controversies in its history, were released for sale on April 12th, they’re already long gone. The 2.0-litre TDI-equipped vehicles had been quarantined in the wake of Dieselgate, the world-wide emissions cheating scandal that brought the German automotive giant to its knees.

Since the discovery that VW had been intentionally, deviously, futzing with the pollution control software on many of its diesel cars since 2009, North American owners spent more than a year in limbo, awaiting settlement options for their tainted vehicles. When they were finally announced, those settlements were generous; depending on the age and condition of their vehicle, owners could see compensation that amounted to either a fix plus a payment of between $5,100 to $8,000, or a buyback based on the value of the car pre-scandal, plus that payment.

In the meantime, inventory already on dealer lots was frozen. With the announcement of an approved fix by the EPA in the U.S. (and accepted in Canada), those impounded cars were cleared for sale. It’s a move a lot of people were betting on, and a local dealer told me the 43 cars he had in stock were gone in a couple of days.

“Most of those cars had deposits on them all this time,” explained Sean McLaughlin, business manager at Roseland Motors Ltd. in Burlington, Ontario. “Some may have been speculators, but most are loyal VW customers.” The released cars came with a good wallop of incentives for buyers willing to head back into the diesel waters. Take the 2015 Passat TDI, for example. Dealers were authorized to give buyers 0 per cent financing for 60 months plus $7,500 finance cash, or up to $9,500 cash. If you bought one, I hope you worked the deal, hard.

What if you had an affected car and have already taken the VW money and ran? Are you allowed to double dip? Indeed. They’re two separate transactions, according to Thomas Tetzlaff, manager of public relations for Volkswagen Canada. McLaughlin agrees, again pointing out that most of those scarce-on-the-ground 2015s went to long-time customers.

The newly released cars already will have had the first of the two-phase fix done to them, a software reflashing that Volkswagen Canada says goes most of the way to correcting the emissions problem.

“The follow-up fix, that we anticipate being ready in about a year, will be a hardware one, installing things like a particulate filter with greater longevity,” explained Tetzlaff.

Should you have been rushing to purchase one of these cars? Or be disappointed that you missed the lottery? That depends.

The Automobile Protection Association (APA) reminds you to keep in mind these vehicles are two years old, and in some cases more. They’ve been stored in anticipation of the court rulings and, while they may look like new cars with zero kilometres on them, consumers should be aware there could be latent problems in the event they were not cared for properly. Tires can develop flat spots – those tires have also had their lifespan used up, even sitting – brake lines could become corroded, and they’ve been subject to the outdoor elements.

“The APA’s position is that the settlement offer is a good one, and consumers are well served by taking advantage of it and moving into a new car of their choosing, or another VW gasoline engine,” says John Raymond of the APA. Those consumers are falling into three categories: those who ditch their diesels for the cash, those who accept the “sorry” cash and get their cars fixed but keep them, and a few diehards who will not surrender their beloved TDIs at all.

There’s a reason for that. With the amendments, the performance of these cars will be affected in two ways. First is how they drive, and second is their fuel economy. Those cheats enabled VW to deliver that famous diesel torque and 1,000-kilometre range to a tank of fuel. The fixes will impact both of those things. The APA maintains, however, that if VW found a way to cheat, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to find a way to fix it. Just be prepared to compromise.

I asked Tetzlaff what steps dealers have been taking to offset these concerns, and how much help the parent company has given them.

“First, remember that this was September of 2015 when sales were halted, so we were getting to the last of the inventory. Dealers have been storing them, but many cars, not just these ones, are stored for periods of time by dealers. We had them on a 30-day basis, which means dealers were compensated for monthly upkeep on all of those cars, doing battery checks and keeping them ready for sale.”

The APA warns significant time has passed, but Tetzlaff says VW has created a pre-delivery inspection that will alleviate any concerns.

“The PDI checklist is exhaustive,” he explains. “Fluids, tires, rotors and extensive warranty. These cars are as good as anything you can buy that was made yesterday.” He also notes there is a high degree of certainty that we have seen the last of diesel passenger vehicles from VW in this country.

It may be the end of an era, but it’s one that Volkswagen will forever be tied to.

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Yes, Ontario insurance is a wreck, so you need to shop around

Recent report damning province’s system means it’s even more important for drivers to find the best deal

Originally published April 24, 2017

Last week, the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) told us what we already know: Auto insurance rates in Ontario are the highest in the land. In fact, they’re higher by an average of 55 per cent.

The Liberal government promised cuts of 15 per cent back in 2013; that measure was supposed to be in place by mid-2015, a goal we all watched go streaming by with nary a nudge. They’ve since declared it was always a “stretch” goal, whatever that is. Kind of like an alternative fact, perhaps.

Auto insurance has always been a hot election issue, and the timing of the current whipping is expected. One thing to keep in mind? Every party has screwed the pooch when it comes to this topic, with the NDP handing a fumbled ball to two successive Conservative governments who bobbled it to the incoming Liberals. They’re all as bad as each other at promising to do something, then opening the box the day after the election and grimacing.

It’s a mess.

Our current system is a dog’s breakfast of road-blocked players each pointing fingers. The system is rife with often-fraudulent in-betweeners gorging on those sky-high rates like a mosquito landing on a corpulent, passed out drunk. Too many minor claims end up in drawn-out court disputes, with money that should be going to client care instead going to experts and consultants, who often only consult on ways to expertly bleed the system to their own advantage. It’s not that Ontarians are getting extraordinary medical attention and rehab compared to some of their other provincial counterparts; it’s that the money from those bloated rates is not making it to the consumer. For what we’re paying, we should be lying around eating peeled grapes.

Nobody really likes anyone else. Consumers scream at insurance companies, who actually have to have government approval for any rate hikes or changes to wordings or coverages. Provinces that have public insurance programs, like B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and, partially, Quebec are held up as the answer to Ontario’s woes. But Ontarians actually have better coverage – when it makes it to the consumer – from that private system, as it produces more competitive products. Public coverage is okay as long as you never get hurt, or at least not too badly. We simply need the private system to have the fraud reined in so that consumers can actually benefit from those products, instead of for-profit healthcare enterprises and lawyers who take a 40 per cent whack off of victim settlements.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) puts the latest available fraud estimate, from 2010, between $768 million and $1.56 billion. You pay; I pay; we all pay.

We too often look at the annual cost of insurance – roughly 1,500 bucks on average in Ontario – and compare it to tales of someone in Saskatchewan who pays $500. They are getting different coverage. This was actually highlighted, in a less than positive way, last summer when one of the cost-saving measures introduced in Ontario was to reduce your standard coverage in order to reduce rates. It’s like when they reduce the size of a package of pasta but charge you the same; they think you’ll be too dumb to notice.

Don’t be too dumb. Read your fine print and contact your provider, or better yet, a broker. Brokers are good. They have access to many different insurance companies and can answer all your questions and place you with the right provider for your needs.

So, if the government(s) do squat to help you, how can you help yourself? According to Anne Marie Thomas at InsuranceHotline.com, you have to be proactive.

“Read your renewal; too many people, over half, just let it ride even though they may not be getting competitive rates. A little homework can save you a lot of money,” she explains. Don’t wait for a promised-but-probably-not-coming reduction from a government. Shop your policy and find the savings yourself.

Maybe you’re a little nervous to call up a new place to ask about quotes. Maybe you have a ticket that you are fairly certain will evade a licence check with your current company but will see sunlight with a new one. Thomas says to do your own legwork. Their site – along with others you can find online – lets you input your information and pop up an estimate. It might be in the ballpark of what you’re paying now, but it might also save you a lot of money. You don’t offer up any contact info unless you wish to pursue the offer.

We need to keep pressure on governments to fix a broken system, but we also need to stop being complacent on a major expense in our own budgets. Pay attention to changes in standard coverages and shop your renewal to protect yourself, and your money.

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In the eyes of the law, where’s the breathalyzer for drugs?

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

Originally published April 18, 2017

Canada loves being way up there, even number one, in those surveys about the best places to visit or live. Not so cool? We’re number one in alcohol-related vehicle deaths among wealthy countries, according to a study by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reporting on 2015.

If we can’t get our game together on alcohol, what’s going to happen when we add legalized marijuana to the mix?

I pity the cops tasked with judging a cornucopia of drug-addled drivers, dabbling from both the illegal and legal sides of the aisle. Statistics are magic things; traffic fatalities are indeed down 43 per cent since 2000, but “proportion of deaths linked to alcohol impairment was 34 per cent, higher than any of the other countries in the survey.” Car manufacturers are saving us from ourselves with truly innovative safety features, but we merrily go on testing them with a hardcore of drunks who refuse to give up the wheel.

Police, politicians and advocacy groups have long been dealing with tackling booze, which continues to make up the vast majority of impaired charges. For instance, in Toronto last year, there were 1,376 total impaired arrests with 86 impaired by drugs. In 2015, there were only 24 “impaired by drug” arrests. The more accessible a substance is, the more likely police will see an increase in the number of drug-impaired arrests. But with the looming legalization of marijuana, it’s hard not to anticipate a corresponding spike in not just its usage, but acceptance. Washington state reports since legalization of cannabis five years ago, a full one-third of the impairment charges issued to drivers is for the drug.

I don’t care if you smoke dope; I do care if you get behind the wheel after you’ve done so. Pot can sabotage your reaction time and your focus; if legality entices a new group of smokers (and drivers) who haven’t previously experienced the effects of the drug, a whole new landscapes of impairment will be on our roads.

Police agencies in all jurisdictions of Canada have been working for years to train specialty officers to detect impairment in drivers, due to those substances not readily scientifically measured roadside: the cocaine, the meth, the opiates, the depressants and the hallucinogens. Roadside sobriety tests have long included more than a blow test, and recent pilot programs are introducing saliva tests.

Other countries have introduced drugalyzers, which test for the top eight prescribed drugs – Clonazepam, Diazepam, Flunitrazepam and Lorazepam, to name a few – and the top eight street drugs, including cocaine, cannabis/cannabol, LSD, ecstacy, etc. The drugalyzer units used in Great Britain cost about $4,000 Canadian and about $10 for a test strip.

Police in parts of Canada are already testing similar units. Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Gatineau, as well as the RCMP in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and Yellowknife, are administering a saliva test to those who volunteer to anonymously provide a sample. The results can’t be used in court, and are being used to establish protocol going forward on how or if the units might be used.

Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services warns that just because a drug is legal, doesn’t mean you will avoid a charge if you are under impairment from it. As of February this year, their Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) are recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada; with no current measurable levels of impairment in place as there are for alcohol – in most parts of Canada, .08 BAC is indictable territory for impaired, but .05 BAC is where suspensions and impoundment set in – testimony from these DREs is accepted in court as expert testimony at trial.

Cannabis presents its own unique hurdles for judging impairment; the drug is estimated to stay in your system for about 30 days, but that number can stumble wildly depending on if you’re a one-time or long-term user. Measuring the buzz, or impairment, can be still harder. Stibbe warns that while a saliva test is a tempting threshold, it is simply another tool for law enforcement to use to augment their powers of detection. With a report released last week concluding for 2017, “the Toronto Police Service has seen an 11 per cent decrease in alcohol-related impaired driving arrests. Drug-impaired driving arrests have increased by approximately 18 per cent year-to-date,” they’re going to need all they can get.

There are a lot of substances, both legal and illegal, that people can ingest before getting behind the wheel. I doubt the legalization of cannabis will ever approach the spectacular carnage we’ve managed to achieve with alcohol, and the prohibition of that product did little to stop it anyway. We will be seeing new and improved ways for people to twist under the law and pay a lot of lawyers to help them.

But keep in mind that at this juncture, with or without a definitive version of a breathalyzer for street drugs, those DREs are considered experts in the eyes of the law.

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Teach teens an escape plan for when a driver is unsafe

We all felt invincible at that age, but every youth needs to know that their safety starts and ends with the driver – period

Originally published April 10, 2017

You’ve no doubt prepped your family for an emergency exit from your home in the event of fire. You’ve taught your kids to run away from strangers trying to give them a ride, you’ve taught your teens to call you if their ride gets impaired and they can’t get home.

I want to you do one more thing: Give them the tools to get out of a car when the one behind the wheel is driving over his or her head.

As the weather warms up, you can feel the freedom in the air. Summer teases in some days, even ahead of spring. Exam schedules loom but so does that intangible sense of possibility, not reserved for the young but surely more embraced by them. The next phase of growing up, that leaving behind of one grade for another or a new start, becomes more fraught when young drivers test their early skills with unknown territory.

There will be a headline in the coming weeks, somewhere in this country, maybe even in your community. There have been too many in the past and each one weighs heavy, stubbornly refusing to fade like so many others. A car full of young people will be out celebrating that end of school, that beginning of so much, embracing the emotion of being young and the freedom of exploring. And somewhere, something will go wrong and in the tangle of metal that is left, there will be tremendous loss. It will be because of speed, it might be because of impairment, but there will always be so many innocents affected it serves nobody to peg the blame, because it could have been any of them.

It could have been any of us.

So what can we do – as parents, as people who love these kids? I shudder when I think of the many times I must have had an angel on my shoulder as we careened around the backroads, seatbelts of dubious vintage as often off as on. Sometimes the lads had travellers, a beer in the cupholder I wouldn’t have sipped from but neither would I have said a word about. These were my friends and I didn’t want to look any younger than I was, didn’t want to be uncool. Yes, I was taught better, and I knew better, but there was that freedom and that bulletproof certainty that as long as I made it home by curfew, my world would be fine.

It’s what every kid thinks. They think we don’t know, because who admits to their children the dumb, dangerous things they used to do? Instead, I think of the friends I lost who were doing the same things I was, except I survived and they did not. And the lesson I passed to my own sons was the nature of dumb luck, instead of the long shadow of blaming someone whose luck ran out.

New cars are marvels of safety and technology, but every nanny system in the world can be overridden by a driver long on confidence and short on experience. Don’t rely on your car to be taking care of your kid, because every car starts and ends with the driver. Period.

We’ve all been in that place. The driver shouldn’t be driving. The driver is taking chances they shouldn’t. As adults, we usually have the experience and foresight to not go along in the first place, or the strength to say something. Many adolescents haven’t developed that yet – that ability to stand up to their peers and be that person who wants to grind the fun to a halt. But I think of those headlines, and I know we haven’t successfully parented until we’ve taught them how to get out of every dangerous situation and do so in a way that preserves their sense of social standing.

They don’t want to look stupid in front of their friends. Neither did I. Neither did you.

Talk to your teen about the skill level of those they drive with. They’re right to not feel safe if the driver is texting or speeding or drinking or high. They’re right to recognize – and feel unsafe – when the driver is driving above their skill set, or when the car is overpowering their experience. And your kid needs to know how to stay safe.

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