Project Car SOTU: Stormtrooper 4Runner

We’ve all been there, past the point of frustration and agony and anger and heartbreak and “I fucking hate this giant metal piece of shit,” cresting the point of “why do I even do this?” and stepping well into the territory of, “I’d be better off if I had no involvement in this whatsoever.”

I was there, at that point, with the Stormtrooper 4Runner, wanting to push it off a cliff. And many a days and night as of late, this has been my sentiment towards the truck: aggravated, more so than any “toy” should be causing.

But luckily, it wasn’t all bad. The Stormtrooper 4Runner has been a project vehicle in every regard, but since our last update it’s also provided a few days of important, life-enhancing glory.

What’s been happening in the land of the Stormtrooper 4Runner? Read on to find out.

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Project Car SOTU: MR2 “Someday Race Car”

Huh. Funny, isn’t it, how Project Car SOTU sneaks up on you year after year, and you’re left questioning both how much effort you wish you had already devoted to a project and how quickly time passes without you realizing it.

So here I am, again, a year after an already disappointing not-an-update update, writing about the progress that hasn’t been made on the Someday Race Car.

But…wait…can it be true? Has progress been made? Perhaps something resembling it. Not necessarily on the car, but on some of the logistics needed to line up to make the actualization of our dreams happen. Hit the jump for the “update.”

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Project UTV SOTU: RZR 800 Introduction

Though a small niche of the automotive world, off-roading consumes the majority of my time, attention, and– yes– funds. Going fast on the road might be fun, but going places most wouldn’t think possible…that’s my jam.

One discipline of the off-road hobby is the All-Terrain-Vehicle sector. After ten years with a Kawasaki Brute Force 650 4x4i, the V-twin-powered muscle car of the quad world, and after a spinal surgery forcing that machine to no longer be a reality for enjoyment, I turned my attention to a 2011 Polaris RZR 800 to transport me to the places the ‘ol Brute used to.

For the foreseeable future, this pumpkin-colored Side-by-Side is my off-road exploration device. It’s the successor to the vehicle that made the biggest impression on me of any I have owned, and it’s positioned to take me and a passenger to even more and even greater places.

No, it’s not a car (PSxSSOTU?), but to get the run-down on Project RZR 800, hit the jump.

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ZR2 Bison: A boutique off-roader built on solid bones

Ross Ballot September 7, 2018 All Things Hoon

I’m a big fan of American Expedition Vehicles and their conversions, especially those in the vein of Hemi-powered Wranglers and the ever-awesome Prospector Ram. Their builds tend to be limited-run or in the style of showcasing add-on modifications but today, in somewhat of a surprise, AEV unveiled a new kind of project, one more mainstream and of easier access and broader appeal than many of the company’s other specialty builds.

AEV’s newest project teams the company up with Chevrolet itself in a move that takes the already-amazing Colorado ZR2 and beefs it up for improved off-road capability and much more on-road badassery. Building on the truck’s Multimatic DSSV suspension and already baja-ready looks, AEV worked its magic on the diesel-powered crew-cab configuration and not only allowed the ZR2 to become even more capable, but also managed to not detract from the existing truck in any way.

So, a bunch of coin for skid plates and badges or a much more well-rounded package? Hit the jump to read more about it.

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Review: 2017 VW Alltrack SE 6MT – Dog-hauler deluxe, enthusiast’s fantasy, not so much

When my brother’s Chevy Avalanche looked like it was on its way to the great Car Lot in the Sky, therein lain a decision: what to take its place? His list of wants and needs yielded something seemingly impossible to find. Among those many qualities were: all-wheel-drive, a manual transmission, an interior of good quality, low-to-mid-$20k price point, more speed than the Avalanche didn’t have, and, crucially, space for Macey, the then one-year-old Rottweiler that claims everything located in her peripherals as next in line on the ever-growing list of her friends who will feed her human food when dad isn’t looking. The Avalanche, despite its high entry height and that it was not exactly engaging to drive, proved a solid dog carrier during Macey’s puppyhood. And as the truck exited his life, my brother was desperate for something more entertaining for him but still capable of doing doggy-duty.

As you can imagine, finding a car that would fit his wants/needs list was no easy task. Ultimately it came down to two: the Subaru Crosstrek and the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. And, as is the case when you care about real-life more than on-paper or on-internet marketing tools, the real life test-drive became the deciding factor, and the Crosstrek’s smaller trunk and utter lack of power gave it disadvantages that were easy for the Alltrack to overcome. Done deal, decision made: VeeDub it was. Make it an SE (the only trim available with the manual), and it was his.

An all-wheel-drive, stick-shift, turbocharged, lifted wagon is a bit of an anomaly, an oddity in the world of electric cars, crossovers and full-size pickups that dominate the streets, the advertisements, and the focus of today’s automakers as a whole. But the car’s purpose was executed well enough on a fundamental level: the Alltrack is tough, capable, comfortable, and a traditional VW in every sense of the Audi-like interior. But while it might be the perfect match for my brother and for Macey, what do I, someone hyper-critical of cars, think of the oddball Alltrack? How does it work for somebody more concerned with inputs and feedback and driving sensations? Is it the unicorn every car enthusiast (and car site commenter) dreamed of and begs for? Read on to find out.

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San Francisco, Day Two: Exploring more Bay Area wonders

Ross Ballot June 29, 2018 Featured, Road Trip

No set plans: Two days exploring the San Francisco Bay Area in a rented Mustang GT

Some things are hard to explain. Take, for example, an intangible like the connection between car and driver. But break it down and you can begin to build a picture of what goes into “the feeling”: things like the road being transmitted through the steering wheel to your fingertips, the engine’s willingness and responsiveness to your foot’s commands, the engagement of the clutch and the directness of the shifter, and how the chassis communicates the road to your body. Move to more of a grander scale, and you begin to try to describe a driving experience in a way similar to how you would a car.

Luckily, I had the perfect instance in which to do so: Mustang GT, California roads, stir and serve as desired. It’s not so much the car and the roads as it is the experience: the way in which weather, road, machine, and vibes all come together can bring about something that toes closely to all-consuming zen. It lifts up your soul, restores faith in the ability to enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them, and provokes the enthusiast part of your brain that basks in the glory of adrenaline.

Throw the San Francisco roads, a rented Mustang GT, and two free days into the same pot, and, short of some kind of catastrophic failure, it’s a recipe for certain enjoyment.

The prior day was pure excellence. The burger at Alice’s, the Mustang’s ever-present eight-cylinder symphony, the views afforded by driving in areas that would otherwise go unexplored; it was truly a magnificent thing for my East Coast eyes– yes, and soul– to behold. But it wasn’t over yet: I had another day of adventure ahead of me, and the Mustang was still eager to do its best to convince me of its sports car inclinations and its Grand Tourer backbone. What did Day Two entail, and what were my final impressions of the 2018 Mustang GT Premium after two days of driving it in every manner from standstill traffic to full-fledged canyon carving? Read on to find out.

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San Francisco, Day One: “Slower traffic use turnouts”

Ross Ballot June 28, 2018 Featured, Road Trip

No set plans: Two days exploring the San Francisco Bay Area in a rented Mustang GT

The sign stood there, motionless except for the small movements of the wind’s work, as does any sign. A reflection of the suggested all-important driving etiquette, it stands strong in the name of the enthusiast, always there, always a reminder of the roads’ potential. “Slower traffic use turnouts,” it, and they, read, the signs that indicate the consistent, subtle prodding of local, slower travelers to yield to faster, more determined drivers. Inanimate as it may be, it allows the contrary in its indirect encouragement and support of driving. And not just “driving,” but driving. The act of operating a vehicle not just for practical purposes, but for fuck-it-all fun. The sign, as overlooked as it may be, means everything.

I thought my drive in the hills east of Los Angeles was great. Well, yes; of course it was. But just a short month later I found myself in the fun seat of a V8-powered sports coupe hammering through the San Francisco mountains and, contrary to my expectations, it was better than Los Angeles. Much better. Partially due to the car, partially due to the roads, partially due to…well, everything associated with those two all-important factors. From the canyons to the coast, the roads in the greater SF locale spoke to me, and I connected with them in a way that simply wasn’t so downstate in the LA region.

Two days alone with a rented Mustang GT and an expanse of roadways that I had yet to explore at my disposal. What would you do? Probably exactly that same thing that I did: drive.

The roads, the Mustang, the experience, the SF region, and everything that comes along with it all. Read on for Part One of the story.

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“Coastal Range Rally LiteⓇ”: Impressions of my first hooning in the California hills

A Mazda6, an Abarth 500, and a life-changing experience driving the California canyon roads

High in the hills east of Los Angeles is a near-mecca of hidden driving roads that deserve every bit of attention and even higher amounts of appreciation than they garner. To the locals these may be ordinary, but to me they were anything but. On a particular Sunday in March of this year, one specific road stuck out above all the others: one designed as if the task was done entirely with automotive enthusiasts in mind, the snaking pavement serving as miles of driving enjoyment, an open expanse allowing man and machine to come together in symphony of gas-propelled indulgence. As a New Englander I can only dream about roads like those in the California hills, fantasizing from afar as podcasters and YouTubers alike swoon over the paved creations they so regularly enjoy. Finally, it was my turn to see if the hype was justified.

With some mapping and a primitive planning an adventure was born: a much-anticipated half-day up in the mountains taking full advantage of a Mazda6 press car and the breathtaking geology that the government’s paving machines afford road-car access to. It would be a prove to be a transformative, eye-opening and mind-blowing day in my enthusiast life, and is one that I have to tell the tale of so as to preserve the memory, to hopefully pass on the magnificence of the roads we traveled, and, as I try to do on a semi-regular basis, to urge people to “get out there and drive.”

Hot on the tail of Coastal Range Rally, jealous I hadn’t been able to attend, and with only so much time to work with on my west-coast vacation, Shifts and Grins podcast host Adam and I (with my fiancé riding shotgun) spent a gorgeous morning-into-afternoon hooning our respective cars, gaping over the views, and basking in the glory of all that is the hobby of automotive enthusiasm and specifically that of driving. Jump with me, if you will, to hear the full tale of “Coastal Range Rally Lite” in all its wanna-be, mountain road glory.

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In pictures: A day at the 2018 New York International Auto Show

[We’re a little late on this, but such is life. -KK]

Wednesday March 28th kicked off the 2018 New York International Auto Show (NYIAS), one that would reveal a wide spread of everything from the most mundane people-movers to race-track-ready adrenaline-spikers and a massive variety of everything in-between. We saw debuts the likes of the all-new Toyota Rav4, all-new Subaru Forester, and the all-new Nissan Altima, and our eyes were treated to unveilings like that of the Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak, the Maserati Levante Trofeo, and (who am I that I’m even going to write this…) even the Lincoln Aviator. And I have to mention the Bullitt Mustang which was present, and as you’ll probably gather from what follows after the jump, it was the sole car that had me weak in the knees.

As great as it was to see others like the Porsche GT3RS, Genesis G70 Sport, and JL Wrangler, it wandering aimlessly around the floor of the Javits Center also presented the first chance to plop my ass into the seats of the much-revered Kia Stinger GT and to see, oogle, and crawl all over many other all-new vehicles, like the upcoming Ford Ranger, for the first time.

This was a very good NYIAS in my opinion, if for no reason other than the wide breadth of things to be seen; it felt like the variety was of an even greater range this year than in the past, giving us an eye into how broad and incredible today’s automotive market is. If you notice that much of what follows the jump mimics the photos and words that I blabbered onto our Instagram, that’s because much of it is in fact the same (and if you don’t follow our Instagram, you *definitely* should). Hit the jump to see some of my wonderful iPhone photos and read some of my random musings from a day at the 2018 North American International Auto Show.

Warning: extremely picture-heavy

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California road-trip review: 6 days and 656 miles with a 2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring

From Los Angeles to Angeles National Forest, my fiancé and I learn what Mazda’s midsize sedan is like to live with, road trip, and hoon. 

The weather forecast for New York’s JFK airport was ominous to say the least. Heavy snow, high winds, the usual of what we’d come to expect from a particularly brutal March; the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks was due to hit just as Jet Blue Flight #23 was scheduled to depart. But after a thorough de-icing and some help from the vacation gods the Airbus A321 bounced its way up through the storm-ridden sky, my fiancé and I repeating lines of surprise that we had actually made it out without cancellation. Soon after, nearby LaGuardia would cancel all flights, and thousands of others in the area would be called off just the same. Plane aimed westward, even the unusually cool and rainy California outlook couldn’t put us down as we headed away from Winter Storm Toby.

The trip that had just begun was a long time in the making, and in many ways felt somewhat like a consolation prize. In the winter of 2016-2017 my then-girlfriend and I were planning a getaway to the sunny expanse of California, an adventure sidelined by the ill-timed surgical repairing of my lower spine. A year later we found ourselves desperate to escape the cold, our hearts and souls still set on the SoCal coast. Tickets and hotels booked, ground transportation was the final piece to the puzzle. With another year’s worth of writing under my belt, the extra time afforded me the chance to jump into my first press car. Hoon-In-Chief Jeff Glucker stepped in and bridged the gap between myself and Mazda, lining up a 2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring loaner to serve as the chariot for our much-awaited Californian extravaganza.

After reading nonstop favorable reviews, I held high expectations from the Mazda6 we would have in regards to its ability to dance the line of fun and practical. Not only would living with one for a week allow me to examine the highly-revered car up-close-and-personal, but it would put to the test and allow me the chance to re-examine my own aversion to the front-wheel-drive, automatic-transmission sedan.

Our vacation would see us driving the car hundreds of miles, from ocean to mountains and everywhere in-between, using the Mazda6 as our home base out of which to operate for the duration of our trip. After six days, 656 miles, and innumerable Californian experiences, the verdict was in. How did the Mazda6 fare? Is there an enthusiast’s car hidden beneath the generic drive layout? Did Mazda’s midsizer live up to the hype? You’ll have to read on to find out.

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