Have you ever wandered around a car show, looking at all the cool cars, wishing that you could be one of the judges? That you could help determine who gets to take home those shiny trophies? I recently had that honour, and I’m here to tell you- it’s not as easy as it looks.

Recently, The Thing About Cars was contacted by the organisers of the Mountain City Mayhem Festival, who invited us to provide a judge for the festival’s car show. After some discussion among the TTAC team, it became apparent that I was the only one who was available that day. So I volunteered, eager to add show-judging to my growing list of automotive experiences. Look at a bunch of cars and evaluate them in a competition? This should be fun!

The day finally arrived. I had recently done a bunch of electrical work to my trusty BMW mo’orsickle and was eager to road-test that stuff, so I threw a leg over the saddle and told the GPS to take me to the small-town airport where the show was to be. I mention this because I arrived at a car show, noted that some cool cars were present, and found a text message from fellow TTACer Mickey, who said he was by the stage. What stage? There was an EZ-up with a band set-up under it, but Mickey wasn’t near it. After some asking, I learned that I was at the wrong show! A kind person informed me that the show I wanted was on the other side of the airport. Back into my gear, back on the bike, and around the airport. Too bad all those cars weren’t at the same show! Finding the Mountain City Mayhem Festival on the other side of the airport was no problem, although everybody there was so nice that I’m left wondering where the mayhem was. Maybe I should come back after midnight to see it? That will remain a mystery for now.

I found the guy in charge, got the basic rundown, and we had to find the other two judges. Once everybody was there, we got the judging forms and clipboards and were turned loose. There were thirty-five cars to judge, and each needed a form filled out. The form had basic information at the top: the car number, which was found on a slip on the dashboard (or tucked under the seat of the two motorcycles in the show), and fields for make/model and class. The classes were things like Domestic, Import, Truck, Classic, Motorcycle. Then we had to give 1-10 points on body, paint, interiour, engine compartment, and tires/wheels, and then there was one more field for extra points for dual class (e.g. Classic and Domestic) or whatever bonus-points we wanted to assign. I had some fun with that last field.

The first thing I did was to walk up and down the line and just give everything an initial glance so I’d have an idea of the overall field of entries. They ran the gamut from a first-generation Mazda 3 with tired paint and no discernible custom-touches beyond a sticker, to a fully show-worthy 1963 Impala with tons of chrome under the bonnet and custom leather inside. There was an early ’50s GMC truck that was immaculately restored without being over-restored, four or five old Toyota pickups converted into lowriders in desperate need of paint, a Suzuki GSXR 600 that bore some battle-scrapes, an old Dodge truck with faded, patina-ridden paint carefully protected under matte clearcoat, an immaculate ’57 Chevy, and so on- you get the idea.

After my once-over, it was time to get down to business and start filling out 35 forms. Time to start giving one to ten points in six categories, thirty-five times. Anywhere from 210 to 2100 possible points to allocate. How do I do it? The first one seemed easy, then it felt trickier, then as I became aware that I needed to finish them in time for the tallying, it felt like pressure. On top of that, it’s really subjective. REALLY. Subjective enough that I started to envy the concours judges at the prestigious events, because they have solid criteria for originality and authenticity to guide them. On top of that, I needed to try to make it somewhat objective too, so that I could judge fairly. A certain car might not be my personal taste, but it deserved a fair shake. Regardless of style, the owners put a lot of effort into their vehicles. Then there’s the fact that I’ve been a car-nut all my life, which means a certain amount of my own jadedness that I had to be careful with. And how do you fairly judge both a dead-stock car and one that has been highly modified, in the same contest? How do you give everybody a fair chance, especially when some show up with working-class daily drivers and some show up with cars worth more than the guys with the daily drivers make in three or four years? And on top of that, I’m inherently enough of a nice guy that I want to be generous with the points for every car. I know what you’re saying, it’s just a small-town car show that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Why get so deep into it? Why? Because I’m a car-nut, and I want to make my fellow car-people happy. In the aforementioned grand scheme of things, this is a hobby for most of the people involved. Hobbies are supposed to be fun. I want everybody to have fun. Therefore, I wish I could make everybody a winner. But it’s a judged show, and I was there to judge. There weren’t enough trophies for everyone. So I had to make choices. It was difficult, but I managed. And on top of that, it was HOT out there, and I had to juggle my clipboard and pen and a big cup of lemonade. The ice melted quickly.

But I got through it, and I’m glad to say that I only overheard one person trying to make me overhear them about bribes. They mentioned dropping some twenties on the ground around their car. I pretended not to hear them and went about my business. There were a few buckets of candy by some of the cars, but I’m trying to watch my sugar-intake so it was lost on me. Nice try, although I wonder if it got more votes from the kids for the Kids Choice Trophy. The few owners with whom I came into contact were very nice, and that’s one of the things I love about being into cars: the people. I can say the same thing about the motorcycling world, but we’re talking about cars here. I’ve had great conversations with people of all socio-economic levels who just plain love their cars. From the guy with whom I worked years ago who felt a close kinship and devotion to his somewhat beat Geo Prizm that had seen him through thick in thin to the guy who brought a truly gorgeous 1963 Ferrari to a recent show, they’re all great people who love to commune with other car-lovers. But back to business.

The people in charge were already tallying when I turned in my forms, and I made a lot more work for them. As it turns out, the other two judges skipped a bunch of cars. I don’t know how, but they did. So I guess that means that my judging was even more influential on who got the trophies. If I had a bigger ego, I’d be proud of that. The tallying got done and the winners were announced. Several people won two trophies, and I’m happy to say that two trophies were decided by children. One was the Kids Choice Award, and the other was the Queen’s Choice Award, given by the Marble Queen and Princess, a high school kid and elementary school kid, respectively. I assume the marble in question was the rock rather than the game, since the local business association had something to do with the festival. The winners were happy with their trophies, everybody had a good time, and the lemonade sure was good. Not a bad day.

So the next time you find yourself at a judged car show, have some sympathy for the judges. It’s hard work.

Decisions, decisions.

In another one of those cases in which, due to scheduling, I had to make a last-minute change to my reservation and pick up a car at my local airport instead of a small suburban location, I was presented with a difficult choice: Chrysler 300, Chevy Impala, or Nissan Maxima. Three of my favourite rental cars for eating up miles of the stupid-slab, which I would be doing this week with a trip to central North Carolina, back to Atlanta, then over to near Tupelo and back to Atlanta, which would add up to somewhere north of twenty hours in the car before I turned it in. All three of these cars have earned my respect and admiration for not only being pleasurable to drive, but also for being really comfortable and ergonomically compatible with my obnoxiously big-and-tall physique. I was really in a dither about it and almost went with the 300, knowing that its days in production were numbered, but the little voice in my head said get the Maxima. Maybe that voice knew that I’ve been meaning to write one of these reviews on it, or maybe it knew that the current generation of Maxima is surprisingly quick and fun for what externally appears to be an average Asian sedan. In any case, I knew that I’d enjoy the ride.

The Maxima has a long history of being a satisfying car, often with a sporty edge. It traces its lineage all the way back to the Nissan Bluebird, known on US shores as the Datsun 510, which closely copied a lot of the chassis and powertrain details of the BMW 1600/2000 models. The 510 earned a reputation for excellent handling and better overall performance than would be expected from a low-priced Japanese sedan. I can personally attest to this as I had a 510 when I was in the 12th grade and it was fun enough that I still miss it. In the ’70s the focus got diluted with the successor 710, but then the 810 upped the game with a 6-cylinder engine, was renamed Maxima a year later, and has moved in more of a performance direction ever since. This latest Maxima is no exception, and it continues in the sport-sedan tradition established by Maximae of the past. It offers enjoyable road-handling and plenty of power in a refined package. The one in which I spent the week was the SV trim level, with a starting MSRP of $35,960.

I’m always struck in the Maxima at how the driver seat area feels long, narrow, and low, and I don’t mean any of that in a bad way. The seat can be adjusted farther back than I need, low enough for me to wear a hat, and the center console is rather high and close, although for me it was a bit too close- but more regular-sized people won’t have an issue with it, although those who do may find the console in the 2018 model a bit less intrusive. It’s a good fit, and I rarely need to shift my position in the seat to stay comfortable for the long haul. I can stretch out my legs past the pedals and there’s plenty of room before my left foots hits the wheel well. The seat itself is supportive, bolstered just right for my build, and has all-electric adjustments for fore/aft, seatback angle, and lumbar support. The seats are heated too, controlled by chunky rocker-switches in the center console. There are only two settings, and I found that the heat left a little to be desired. Even in the high setting, the heat was not as quick or as thorough as what I’ve come to expect from the seat heat in my five-year-old Mazda 3, and it seemed to be stronger in the backrest than in the bottom cushion.

The steering wheel is adjustable in tilt and telescope, and is quite comfortable to my hands. I’m not generally a fan of flat-bottomed steering wheels, as I think that they are one of the ultimate elements of boy-racer poseurism in road cars, and the one in the Maxima doesn’t remove much clearance from the bottom of the wheel to make legroom- and it doesn’t need to. But what it does do is make gripping the lower quadrants comfy, as it makes a little more room for your hands.

The rear seat is tight for a large person such as myself, and just plain lacks the headroom for the unusually tall. As in many cars, if the driver seat is far enough back to accommodate someone my size, legroom behind it isn’t great. The cargo space is roomy and the opening is large enough to allow bulky items in and out with ease, and there is a cargo-net that can be secured across the lower part of the opening.

The engine is a 3.5-litre, 24-valve V6 with continuously variable valve timing, and Nissan claim 300 horsepower and 261 lb-ft of torque. It’s a peppy engine, lots of fun, and the continuously variable transmission does a good job of delivering power when you want it. Punch it and it goes- highway passes are easy and quick, although if you punch it hard enough you will get some initial torque-steer that will need minding, though not as bad as what you get with the Chevy Impala. Let me be clear here, this car is fun to put your right foot into and it goes with enough enthusiasm to make you want to put your foot into it. Be careful with it if you want to keep points off your license. The acoustic engineers did a good job too, giving the engine a nice growl under high power but quiet the rest of the time. Combine the eagerness of the acceleration with that growl, and you’ll enjoy every torque-steering moment of zipping down those on-ramps.

The transmission is a continuously-variable type that is a definite step forward over CVTs of the past. No high-rpm buzziness, and most of the time it acts like a conventional automatic, with discernible shift-points that are especially apparent during hard acceleration, and the aforementioned toque-steer can appear during the first two or three shifts during a good highway pass. There is also a sport-mode, selectable by a button in the center console. As with the sport-modes found in many other cars, this one raises the RPM points at which the transmissions shifts ratios, which makes acceleration more exciting. The downside of all the fun from the engine and transmission is low MPG. Nissan claims 20 city/30 highway, and of course it will be less if you enjoy the power too much. Another downside of this transmission is that in reverse the throttle becomes much less sensitive, which sounds like a good thing in theory but in practise it isn’t. Tickle the pedal a little to make a nice smooth backing maneuver and the car hesitates enough to make you wonder if it’s asking you, “you’re not serious about that, are you?” And backing uphill requires a large amount of right foot and enough revs to make you reconsider about backing uphill, despite how little work actually gets done.

The brakes are excellent- vented discs all around with electronic brakeforce distribution, and they do a great and unobtrusive job of eliminating speed. The 245/45-18 Continental tires are good and grippy, up to the task of keeping the Maxima’s 3565-lb curb weight planted. The car doesn’t feel that heavy in the twisties and is delightfully easy to put through the handing test.

The controls give you some options. As in pretty much every car these days, there is a touchscreen that controls audio, climate, vehicle settings and other things, and there is also a knob in the center console that can be used to control many of these functions as well. There is also the usual assortment of buttons on the steering wheel, controlling everything from radio volume to cruise control, and buttons for scrolling through the various screens that can be displayed between the speedometer and tachometer. This too seems to have become a standard arrangement for cars of our present era. The screen also of course displays what the rearview camera sees when the transmission is in reverse, but the camera lens is not well shielded from rain and the rearview image can be almost useless on rainy nights.

The cruise control is what Nissan calls Intelligent Cruise Control, which is of the type that adjusts for following distances. There are three levels of sensitivity, however the system defaults to the most sensitive level -which results in the greatest following distance- every time the car is switched on. If you prefer a different level, you must select this every time you get behind the wheel, and there is a button on the steering wheel just for this function. The cruise control also must be turned on for each drive in which you wish to use it, but that’s typical for most cars today. By comparison, the Chevy Impala’s cruise control remembers if you left it on- really convenient if you’re not fond of button-pushing. So how well does it work? Like all distance-sensing cruise controls I’ve used, it does the job of maintaining the distance quite well, but it lacks smoothness when the set distance is reached. The engine’s RPM can drop away rather suddenly, and if need be, the brakes engage to keep the following distance from going below the set amount. This can make for some abrupt surprise-decelerations, and the system is capable of bringing the car to a complete stop if the car in front of you stops, as I nervously learned while covering the pedal but resisting the urge to step on it. Please note, this automatic braking does NOT work when the cruise control is not engaged. Also, the cruise control will not engage if the radar antenna that senses following distance is obscured, the warning light and message for which came up several times while driving the Interstate in heavy rain. It will also dis-engage if the drive wheels lose traction, also learned in the deluge I experienced crossing Alabama.

So how did my Maxima do during the week’s travels? It did an impressive job of getting my butt down the road. Due to a mix-up with one customer’s information, I wound up making the trip to Mississippi unnecessarily, then going back to North Carolina the following day- so I ended up putting almost 2000 miles on the car in four days. The Maxima kept on trucking, eating up the miles and keeping me comfortable. The heavy rain mentioned above was rarely ever a problem and the car remained as well-mannered in the wet as in the dry. With excellent ergonomics, I did not find long hours behind the wheel to be noticeably fatiguing. The climate control kept me as comfortable as the seat did, and the performance-flavour of the car didn’t become obnoxious during long highway hours. The Maxima is easy to drive, easy to park, swallows a lot of luggage, and provides lots of grins in the curves as well as the straights, and it’ll keep you in comfort while it does. If you think the Maxima sounds like your kind of fun, go ahead and give it a look.

Good comfy cockpit with ergonomics that will accommodate almost anybody.
I’m not crazy about the diamond-patterned silver plastic trim. Almost anything would look better.

Another business trip, another airport, another rental car. Arriving in Cleveland on a sunny but cool day, I did the usual thing of running my eyes up and down the row of available cars, trying to choose one I’ll like. Compact SUVs, minivans, dull sedans…Oh hey, there’s a Camaro! A shiny, white hardtop version sat before me, looking inviting. First question: will my gear fit? A moment later I knew that it would, although the big Pelican case just barely slipped through the opening. The trunk itself is spacious enough, but be warned that large items may not make it inside.

I didn’t have far to go, but it was enough to tell if I would like this car. My customer was about an hour from Cleveland and my hotel was half an hour from my customer, and I had two days with the customer then home the third day. Not enough time for a full review, but I’d definitely have enough time with the Camaro to get an impression of it. So what did I think? Read on, intrepid car-fan!

First impression: It’s a bit claustrophobic inside. Not cramped by any means -unless you try to get in the back seat- but the black interiour surfaces coupled with high, small windows, makes for a feeling of being very contained. Most of the controls are easy. The temperature controls were a bit less intuitive but it didn’t take me long to figure them out, and in fact once I did, I had to admit that they were rather clever in terms of avoiding clutter: the chrome trim-rings around the two central vents double as the knobs to control the temperature and fan-speed. Give them a twist to adjust, and small LED displays next to them will show you the results. The ergonomics are good, even for my big tall physique, but between the small windows and high, dark dashboard, I definitely felt like I was sitting way down low, more so than revealed to be true when getting in and out.

With all the usual adjustments made, I was down the road. I’ll admit that I gave it a throttle-punch before I was actually on the public road, as there’s a long drive around the rental car center to get to the road, and the Camaro gave me a taste of what was to come. Its engine makes a fun growl, not too loud but no doubt groomed through careful application of acoustic engineering and judiciously-placed resonators, enough to be interesting without becoming an onerous drone after too long behind the wheel. The acceleration was good too- clearly not a high-performance variant, since you never get those in rental fleets, but definitely sufficent to give you some grins. Enjoyable handling too- no issues with traction, and the torque was pretty much where I wanted it and being rear wheel drive, did not result in any directional instability.

At freeway speed, the Camaro is easy to drive but does require a little bit of attention as the steering is just a bit quicker than most cars. Braking is quite good too, as I learned when I saw an old car that needed to be photographed after a quick U-turn. Everything works as it should. But there’s no escape from the claustrophobic impression, even in broad daylight, as the windows all seem barely better than gun-slits and the rear quarter windows are so small and the trim around them so deep as to make them completely useless and pointless in every regard except for maintaining a passing resemblance to the first Camaros of the late 1960s. But no worries; the car is still fun enough to take your mind off the poor outward visibility and you do get used to it.

There aren’t a lot of curves in Northern Ohio, and barely anything that registers as a hill- so I couldn’t get too crazy with the Camaro, but it told me enough via the posteriour-trouser interface to make me wish that there had been some more interesting geography around. But in this easy type of surroundings, this is car that you can easily guide over the countryside all day long. It’s easily maneuverable, responds well, and doesn’t ask too much of the driver at a moderate pace, and it’s not difficult to keep on top of when things gets a little more spirited.

Of course the inevitable question comes up: how does it compare to the Mustang? I recently drove a few Mustang convertibles, so it was easy to draw some conclusions. Let’s get that poor visibility out of the way first. Even with the limited windows of the raised convertible top, the Mustang is still easier to see out of. Ergonomics are a draw, at least for me. Cargo space -as if you really cared, in cars like this- is about even. The Camaro definitely sounds better. Another advantage I give the Camaro is that it has a LOT fewer menus and settings to figure out. It has a mere three driving modes (each easy to understand the use of), as opposed to the four or five basic modes in the Mustang, followed by two or three more each for the steering and transmission. The Camaro has livelier acceleration. On paper it seems like the better car, but in real life it’s more subjective. The Mustang still FEELS better overall to me, and if I could have it with the Camaro’s engine, I’d seriously consider never taking it back to the airport.

If you have a chance to try a Camaro, go for it. This is a car that has come a very long way in fifty years, and its hiatus from 2002 to 2010 was worth the wait for what came after. I definitely recommend it.