Friday, December 10, 2010

Lexus Bodyshop Work [Update]

NK93FRYEAMKJ More pics of the Lexus repair work arrived in my inbox.  

Supposedly the car will even be ready for pickup today.   Fingers crossed...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lexus Bodywork Pics [Fix It!]

Time for an update on the work being performed to repair our Lexus LS430.  The shop promises the car will be available for pick-up early next week.  

The bodyshop:  Stuttgart Automotive in Englewood, CO

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lexus Repair Photos [Smashed]

Update:   As expected, Liberty Mutual ignored my protests and insisted that the car be repaired, despite over $9,000 in confirmed damage.

Earlier this week, the body shop finally got around to emailing me photos of the LS430 being repaired.

Here's what it looks like:

Obviously, these photos are severely lacking in detail.  Most are out of focus.   I might have to make a trip down there to check it out firsthand.   Stay tuned...

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Audi Without Quattro? Say It Isn't So. [Road Tests]

2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI S-Line
It's unclear why the Audi gnomes in Ingolstadt decided to ship the A3 to the United States.   Luxury hatchbacks might be all the rage in Europe, but stateside they're about as common as a chips and curry.

The good news is that there aren't many competitors for the Audi A3 on this side of the pond.  At least, not yet.

The bright red 2007 A3 featured in this story belongs to a Gear Thought's friend and neighbor;  Allan P.    His bone-stock, fire engine red, A3 features a 2.0 liter, turbo charged engine (2.0 FSI)  producing 197 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.

Audi has a long love affair with turbos.  Back in the 1980's, the factory coupled turbo charged engines with a revolutionary all wheel drive system; a combination which dominated rally racing.   Not without significance, Audi has a history of breaking conventions, including putting a woman behind the wheel of its race cars.   Yes, turbos are good and quattro is good.   Breaking free of the orthodoxy is also good.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, see the video below.

The 2007 A3 2.0 FSI tested by Gear Thoughts had 50% of Audi's magic formula.   Yes, it was indeed a turbo charged Audi.  Yet unlike every other Audi I've cared enough to drive over the last twenty years, this car was NOT a Quattro.   The power produced by that fiesty turbo would be going to the front wheels only.


And it got even worse.   This particular Audi was equipped with an automatic transmission.   Yet, the owner assured me this wasn't like any other automatic I'd driven.   This Audi had a dual clutch transmission, also known as a direct shift gearbox (DSG).   In theory, it would deliver more power and offer better control than a traditional automatic, while shifting faster than possible with a traditional manual transmission.

So would the DSG 6 speed automatic transmission make up for the lack of Quattro?   The owner was foolish enough to let me take it for a test ride.

Road Test
2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI
We started with a spin on some twisty roads around Boulder.    I swear, we were only rolling a few minutes before the owner started urging me to try the DSG's paddle shifters.

"Try it, Try it... " he pleaded.

I rolled my eyes.  He was obviously feeling guilty for having purchased an automatic, I thought.   But after a few minutes of taunting, I caved.

First a little background info.  Tiptronic was developed by Porsche to let those who can't operate a clutch feel sporty.  It's now the normal "automatic" transmission for Audis, Volkswagens, and Porsches.    The vast majority of Audis and VW's sold in the United States come with a tiptronic tranny between the front seats.

But not all of them have the paddle shifters and DSG.   Would this change the experience? 

Switching over to using the paddles beneath the steering wheel was intuitive, and yes, it was very simple to select the right gear as I swung the car through the turns.    Yet, despite squinting my eyes and repeatedly telling myself that F1 drivers use paddle shifters, the feeling was all wrong.  It felt like playing a video game instead of doing it for real.
A manual transmission compared to Tiptronic? That's like masturbation compared to sex with a partner.  There's just no comparison.   
I admit, I hoped the paddle shifters would magically improve the Tiptronic experience.  Sadly,  I discovered that despite two decades of development, Tiptronic still sucks and paddle shifters don't make it much better. 

A well balanced, manual gearbox creates a direct link between driver and machine. It's a connection that fly by wire simply can't replicate.   If I want to drive, I still prefer to do it the old fashioned way.  The proper way.  With a honest to god manual transmission and a clutch pedal, the way God intended. 

With that elephant off my chest, I admit that the A3 handled damn well.  Sure, it's easy for all that torque to spin the front wheels, tires chirping in quatrro-less frustration but this hot hatch will put a smile on your face.  It's tossable, tight, and perky.     It almost feels like...  well, a sports car.  And yet... there's all that room behind the front seats.

Which brings us to our next phase of testing...

The Beer Run
The Beer Test
Every road test should include a usability study.  The ski pass-through on the winter package equipped A3 confirmed its ability to cope with long objects.   There won't be a problem stuffing a few sets of boards back there.

But this is Boulder, a college town where alcohol remains the primary fuel to social events.  We care about the after party.   So, how about a good old fashion case of beer case test?  Off to Liquor Mart, Boulder's famous wal-mart of alcohol.

Sadly,  we failed to convince the manager to loan us a few cases.   Initially, he seemed to like the idea but then grew suspicious when we told him we didn't want Coors.   No, we needed good beer.  Lots of good beer, in fact.

Failing to obtain the cases as a gesture of goodwill, I handed over my credit card and bought a dozen cases of Boulder Beer's Hazed and Infused.    We're professionals, trust us.  It's good beer.     Maybe not New Belgian good, but still damn good.

The Key Question:  Can you stack 144 bottles of beer in the boot?   The answer is yes, but only if you stack the cases sideways.

Beer WIN. 

Nice Legs - The Legroom Test
How many 6'2 people will fit? 
Maybe this isn't such a big factor for you stubby types.  But as far as I'm concerned, if a car has  four seats, you better know whether you can pack 'em in.  

The short answer is no.   With the driver's seat fully back, an adult male cannot fit behind the driver's seat.   The leg room in the back seat is only suitable to dogs, children, and short people.

The good news is that you won't be taking your in-laws on a road trip with the A3.   And unless you're an Umpa Lumpa, forget about those back doors. There just isn't much room back there.

Umpa Lumpas WIN.   Adult Leg Room FAIL

What Else Could You Buy
Allan's purchased his A3 after a nationwide search.   The fact is, there aren't many automatic Audi A3 Sportline models out there.    With it's super flash red on all business black interior, this puppy is a rarity.

If you were looking to buy a similar car today, here's what thinks it might cost you:

As you can see from the diagram, you might expect to pay between $17,325 and $21,775 for an excellent condition vehicle.

The question: What else could you buy in that price range?     A brief review of eBay offers more than a few ideas:
  • Subaru WRX
  • Mini Cooper S or Clubman
  • BMW X3
  • Mazda Speed3
  • Volkswagen R32

OR, if you were willing to deal with higher repair and maintenance costs - and cut your purchase price in half - you could look for an Audi that remedies all the faults of the A3.   You could find a low mileage, well loved 2001 Audi S4 Avant.    In bone-stock condition, it produces 250hp and is only available with Quattro.

To wrap up this review, Gear Thoughts will rate the 2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI on six criteria.  

Performance:   The lady is fast and frisky.  She looks sexy too and despite two gargantuan club feet, she can move fairly well.   Oh...  if she only had a traditional manual transmission and Quattro.  SCORE:  6.0  (note:  Gear Thoughts would be pushed to rate any automatic equipped vehicle above a 5.  This is a good score, for an automatic). 

Fuel Economy:  The EPA says 22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, with a combined score of 25 mpg.   That's not particularly good, especially when the lady's thirst requires premium fuel.   Then again, with nearly 200 ponies chirping the tires, you're getting decent acceleration.    SCORE:  7.0

Style: This little Audi is very nicely put together car and it literally turns heads.  Inside and outside, you're looking at efficient, purpose driven design.  It's a thing of beauty.   SCORE:  9.0
Versatility:   The hatchbox design is the true Swiss Army Knife of the automotive kingdom.   The A3 can easily carry odd shaped items, a huge volume of luggage, or even - as we proved - a dozen cases of beer.  And that's WITHOUT putting the seats down.   SCORE:  9.0

Execution:   As every designer knows, each design has an intended purpose.  This car was designed to offer sophisticated, versatile transportation for a driver of discerning taste; someone who likes to play hard and dress fashionably.   It's a design largely uncorrupted by deviating ideas. SCORE: 8.5

Bang for the Buck:   Shop around, and you can put this 2007 A3 in your garage for under $20K.   That's remarkable given the engineering, design, and execution of this vehicle.   Of course, it's also darn similar to a well equipped Volkswagen GTI.  According to KBB, for that same $20K, you could buy a 2009 GTI.    SCORE: 7.0  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Car Crashes and Liberty Mutual Insurance

A few weeks ago, my wife was rear-ended while driving our 2001 Lexus LS430. This post initiates a series on the topic.

Here's a picture of the car the night of the accident:

As I write this, I feel a lot of anger and frustration, only a small portion of which is about the damaged car. My wife was injured in the crash. Cars are disposable. People are not.

The pain that she experienced and continues to experience is the worst part. She's going to several medical appointments each week and treatment is ongoing.

But this post isn't about whip lash or medical treatments. This is GearThoughts. Let's talk about cars, car repair, and the ongoing scam called automobile insurance.

The Lexus itself appears to have done an admirable job of crumpling on impact. The speed limit on that stretch of road is 35 mph. Most people exceed that speed by 5 to 10 mph.

The other driver was at fault and ticketed. At the scene, he told me that his brakes locked up and he couldn't stop. He said his tires were nearly bald which likely contributed.

The other driver may have been negligent driving around on bald tires, or he may have been going too fast, or he may have been distracted. Yet my anger isn't really directed at him either.

Liberty Mutual is the source of my ongoing frustration. They're our automobile insurance company and they've been handling the claim process.

Over the years, we've been pretty good customers. We have multiple vehicles and our house on the policy. I've never paid a premium late and prior to this experience, I've never filed a claim.
Unfortunately, Liberty Mutual hasn't been treating us nearly as well as we've treat them.

After experiencing delays and getting the run-around (details below), and despite complaining to supervisors, Liberty Mutual continues to be horribly unresponsive and uncooperative. Worse, when I asked about previous complaints regarding the same issue, the supervisor told me there was no record of any complaints in my file.

I've discovered that auto-insurance is really only as good as the claims process. Just because you pay for coverage doesn't mean you're going to have a good experience when it comes time to file a claim.

My mom taught me that you always get what you pay for. Except in this case, we've been paying a lot. Why are we receiving so very little? Something doesn't add up.

My experiences thus far dealing with Liberty Mutual:
  • 4 days to get a rental car.

  • 1 full week before Liberty Mutual sent an adjuster to evaluate the damage to my car. The excuse: Everyone was attending a meeting (seriously). Maybe they were counting their yet to vest stock options in the upcoming IPO.

  • Several days, and repeated phone calls and emails to get a tow authorization. The excuse: My claims adjuster went on vacation (but the supervisor confirmed he was in the office for a full day and half after I sent email and left voice messages).

  • Liberty Mutual's initial estimate was about $7,500. The body shop evaluated the car and the estimate is now about $10,000. It's been 4 days since the body shop called Liberty Mutual to have the additional work approved and, as far as I know, they're still waiting for a visit from the claims adjuster. As of the date of this post, Liberty Mutual has not yet visited the body shop to inspect the damage and approve the work.

  • I told Liberty Mutual that I was concerned about the fact that when I sell or trade in the car, the CarFax will show it's been in an accident. My claims adjuster told me I could file a diminished value claim against the other driver's insurance (Geico), but not to be surprised when Geico offers very little. Translation: Too bad about your loss but it's your problem.

  • Despite previous complaints about unresponsiveness, Liberty Mutual continues to perform poorly. As of this writing, they have yet to respond to my last inquiry and it's been +60 hours.

  • The purpose of my last call was to go over the evidence I've gathered showing the vehicle should probably be considered a total loss including estimates of market and salvage value from dealers. I've sent Liberty Mutual email and I've left voice messages. I'm still waiting to hear back.
The saga continues...

Here's the damage to the car in the daylight:

Here's the car being towed away:

On a side note - Liberty Mutual appears to be going public. They've filed a registration for an IPO (S1) which highlights that their net income nearly tripled in 1Q10 to $306MM. Gee, I wonder how they managed to do that?

How Cheap Can You Be? [Repairs]

Kawasaki KLR owners are famous for out-cheaping each other, but there's a limit to how cheap you can be.

Today, I reached my limit.

The switch above is pretty simple. Unfortunately it cost me several hours of chasing phantom electrical glitches.

I wired it in-line with my bike's aftermarket Oxford heated grips. The grips themselves work great, but after installation I noticed the battery completely drains if left unattended for a few weeks. Rather than unplug the grips manually, the easy fix was to wire in a toggle switch.

The switch was purchased at Wal-mart for some ridiculously low price. Unfortunately, in cutting the price that low they also decided to cut quality control too. Although it's a basic, very simple design - the switch is intermittent with the vibration of the KLR's single cylinder.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Side Of The Road [Spotted]

Love the old BMW's. I spotted this one on 55th street in Boulder.

Ran out of gas.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Midlife NSX [Plates]

Time for a new feature. Clever vanity plates.

Here's an NSX for the WIN .

Monday, May 17, 2010

KLR Heat Shield

I recently added a Happy Trail SU Rack and Pelican Cases to my KLR 650. After the installation, I realized that the cases might melt from being so close to the muffler, so I started looking for solutions.

I found a couple of different pre-made products available, but then realized I could easily make my own. This being a KLR, bonus points are awarded for the lowest cost solution.

I started by buying a used, stainless steel coffee pot from the local thrift store. I bought the biggest one they had, drew a shape on it, and cut it out with my dremel. I put the newly cut shield up to the muffler and... oops, it was too small. Down $5.

Measure twice, cut once? Right. Next time.

Next, I looked around online and saw instructions for rolling your own. This British gearhead used Beware of Dog signs and some insulation to make a very functional shield.

I scanned the garage for material.... ah ha! On the wall were a set of old license plates. One of my neighbors also happened to have bag of fiberglass insulation which he happily donated to the project. Following the instructions (linked above), I cut the fiberglass, cut the plates, and sandwiched it up.

Two screw holes later and a bit of bending... voila. A very functional, high quality heat shield. I also like the recycled, license plate look.


What do you think?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lexus Brake Parts - Price Comparo

With the arrival of a red flashing exclamation point on the dashboard about a month ago, my 2001 LS430 began telling me it wanted new brake pads. Fine, time to order parts.

Oh, but if you're a gear head, you know it's not so easy. It's NEVER that easy.

I started with a little research on the brake system. Here's what I learned:


The Lexus calipers are supposedly super easy to slap new brake pad and the rotors are so thick, they almost never need replacement.


The brake pad sensors are consumable items on the LS430. Once the pad wears down low enough, the sensor is activated and it's toast. Order a new sensor. Unlike the sensors on my old Mercedes, which were so cheap, brake pad manufacturers included them in the box for FREE, the Lexus sensors are expensive.

And now we get to the fun bit - time to shop online. I needed a set of front brake pads and a brake pad sensor (at least one. No, they're not sold in pairs). Since my cabin air filter needed replacement, I'll order one of those too.

Brake pads are fairly generic products and apparently nobody offers performance reviews on the after market. At least I couldn't find reviews online. So, I opted for Bendix pads.

First, a phone call to my local Lexus Dealer, Stevinson Lexus in Frederick, CO. They wanted almost $250, including tax. That didn't include the hour or so of schlepping out from Boulder to Frederick. The parts might come in a Lexus box, but you know they are made by an OEM supplier (like Bendix). $250 is a lot of clams.

Next, I went back to the forums for supplier recommendations. I found two different websites recommended: Iron Toad and My Lex Parts. When I check them out, both look like crappy dealer sites. My Lex Parts is part of another site called Lexus Parts World, whose offerings include sunglasses. Classy.

These guys both have the parts for just under $150, including shipping. Not bad, and hey... that's $100 saved.

One more stop, and then I'm done. I went to The Benz Bin a site which routinely had the best prices for Mercedes parts. As I had recently learned, they also seemed to have the best priced parts for my Toyotas too. They wanted 124.28, including shipping. Not bad. Another $25 saved.

Before I ordered, I thought I'd check out a few of the suppliers popping up in my Google search. I checked and These sites seem to offer the part for less, but when shipping is added to the total, I get the exact same $124.28. Odd, but the navigation on the sites are identical too. They're the same place with a different url and site wrapper.

Fine, I decide to go ahead with the The Benz Bin. Now here's where it gets weird. Their website won't process my order. I tried it in two different browsers and the site stalls when I submit my credit card information. So I hit the live customer service button.

On comes a representative. He asks me for the part #s and creates a custom order on My hunch was right, these are the same websites. When the chat representative does it, the price drops to about $95, including shipping.

"Woot!" I thought, as I went ahead and ordered.

The chart above shows the radical difference in prices for essentially the same parts. A little shopping around saved nearly 60% from the dealer price, showing that once again, the dealer is usually the worst place to buy parts.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I get absolutely NOTHING from any of the sites mentioned in this web post. No free parts, no discount on shipping, not even a t-shirt. My local dealer will probably even hate me and take it out on my LS430 for publishing their price gouging.

I should also mention that when I ordered through The Benz Bin online representative, he redirected me to Auto Parts Warehouse website to complete the order. Despite the illusion of being different businesses, several of these competitors were the same corporation.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Adventures in India (Part 1)

Gandhi walked a lot. Now, I know why.

In January 2010, my wife and I embarked on a month long adventure traveling around Northern India and Pakistan. Our journey involved nearly every mode of transportation; plane, train, motorcycle, bus, bicycle, rickshaw, and car. We visited Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi, Rishikesh, Amritsar, Lahore, Multan, and Jodhpur.

The following photos highlight a few gearthoughts along the way.
The first thing you'll probably notice about Delhi is the traffic. It's endless and doesn't move very fast. It's also loud because everyone is honking... constantly.

(click for a larger image)

In the late 1950's, Morris Motor Company in England manufactured a car called the Oxford. An Indian variant was produced and production of this car continues today. Behold the Hindustan Ambassador.

(click for a larger image)

There's just no substitute for cubic inches, except common sense of course. When you don't have much money, less is more, and both the Indians and Pakistanis happily make do with very small engines. Here's a Tata Motors Indica proudly displaying a V2 badge. Yeah, it's got a Hemi.

(click for a larger image)

The SUV below is a Mahindra Bolero Camper. It's a basic SUV, built on an ancient platform, with high ground clearance for driving on rural Indian roads. Equipped with 2500 cc diesel engine (72 whopping bhp), it popular in rural areas (when they can afford one). They look pretty bad ass.

(click for a larger image)

The landscape of vehicles produced by the Indian manufacturers was surprisingly diverse. Here's a Tata that's clearly modeled on a Mercedes Benz E class wagon (W124).

(click for a larger image)

Another angle on the Tata E class.
(click for a larger image)

How far have the Indians come? The Tata Sumo Grande below was designed in the UK and looks ready to hit the roads in the U.S.

(click for a larger image)

Mini vans are a popular choice all over India. Most are similar; tiny engines slung low over thirteen inch wheels, very basic suspension, and seating and cargo taking up nearly every bit of interior space.

The vans below were the livery of the Bhutanese Monastery in Bodh Gaya.

(click for a larger image)

Across the border in Pakistan, things are equally interesting. The Suzuki Bolan is a 1300cc micro van. I saw plenty of these putting down the road, sipping a vapor of fuel, stuffed tightly with human cargo. No need for crumple zones or crash testing when you've got people to absorb the impact. Despite their utilitarian function, owners are proud as this badge engineered Type-R attests.
(click for a larger image)

Western money goes far in India. For less than the cost of a budget rental car in the States, you can get one with an English speaking tour guide/driver, plus cover the fuel, tolls, and a generous tip. The trains are great, but having a driver is absolutely luxurious. That's our man Bilu taken in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

(click for a larger image)

You'll find few classic cars on the streets of India or Pakistan. The proud owner of this 80's XJ6 was having a tire replaced, the only Jaguar I spotted during our travels.

(click for a larger image)

Are the Indians a threat to the U.S. Market? Probably not just yet, but their designs and manufacturing quality have evolved so quickly that I think it's only a matter of a few years. One day soon, the Indians will likely be offering the lowest cost vehicles for sale on this side of the pond.