Avid listeners already know that in addition to being car-crazy, I’m also really into motorcycles. I’ve ridden them for nearly twenty years, and my brand of choice since the beginning has been BMW. I’ve ridden them for somewhere around a hundred thousand miles, everywhere from Cape Canaveral to Big Bend to Devil’s Tower to southern Ontario, and I’ve served in various volunteer roles with the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America, including a term on the Board of Directors. You could say that I’m into BMW motorcycles. So when I received a copy of The Complete Book Of BMW Motorcycles, I dug into it with true gusto.

Author Ian Falloon is a well-known authority on many marques of motorcycle including BMW and has written many books on the subject, so this book comes with a great deal of confidence in its content. The book is less a narrative history -although there is some of that- than it is an encyclpaedic guide to almost every motorcycle ever produced by BMW. The C-series scooters have been omitted, but this will hardly be noticed by most BMW enthusiasts and only a die-hard C-fan will truly object. The rest of BMW’s two-wheeled products are detailed, from the R32 of 1923 through the many models of 2020.

The introduction tells the story of the origins of BMW as a producer of aircraft engines and how the young company transitioned to manufacturing motorcycles. Subsequent chapters generally follow the different design-generations in chronological order. Each chapter contains a few paragraphs about what new models or changes happened in each generation, followed by simple technical data for each model. If that sounds like a description of a fairly dull reference-work, it would be if not for how much more this book contains then mere technical details. This would be a much smaller book if it merely contained descriptions and data. What makes it shine far beyond that is how richly illustrated it is with a great multitude of excellent photographs, many previously unpublished, and a small number of technical drawings including some cutaways- I wish there were more of the drawings to illustrate how BMW’s many innovations worked, but that’s my own technical bent and not all readers may desire this. Also included are several sidebar articles about BMW’s many forays into racing- from the early regional events of Germany all the way through World Superbike, and of course the Paris-Dakar Rally, which BMW dominated several times, doing so at just the right time to bring attention to the then-fairly new line of G/S models which were the beginning of a line that would go on to become BMW’s best-selling bikes of all time.

If this book has any weaknesses, there are a small few factual gaffes but they are very minor things that only the most knowledgeable enthusiasts will notice. The fact that only three pages are devoted to the wartime-production of the R75 of 1941-44 appears at first to be another weakness, but those three pages contain a wealth of information about this dark period of BMW’s history, even if it comes across as a bit ‘sanitised.’

If you’re interested in BMW motorcycles, this book is an excellent resource and should be included in your library. Its 312 pages are full of useful and interesting information that any BMW-enthusiast will appreciate. It is also a large and handsome volume, stylishly designed and easy to read. You can order your copy from quartoknows.com, and you’ll be glad that you did.

It was another one of those hectic travel days. As I lay there trying to fall back asleep, my wife Jennifer nudged me and asked me what time I was supposed to get up. Then she told me that it was almost 45 minutes past that time. Panic, expletives, the most impressively-efficient shower I’ve ever taken, dress, grab my bag, hit the road for the train station. Made my usual train instead of an earlier one I’d intended. The reason for all this is that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I knew that the airport would be busier than usual. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to avoid having to fly that day to see a customer in northern New Jersey, via Philadelphia’s airport because flight choices at Newark weren’t very good. On top of that, bad winter weather was in the forecast for the northeast. I managed to get to the gate on time since the crowds were not as bad as I expected, and in a bit of luck, there was a short flight delay so I even got a bite of breakfast. The snow-dump that Philadelphia was expecting didn’t show up, so it all went smoothly. And as I stepped off the rental car shuttle, I wondered as usual if there was anything interesting available.

I did briefly spot this one car that I had written most of a review for and was waiting to rent one again so I could complete that review, but quickly forgot about it when I saw a shiny little black Mercedes-Benz crossover. Could a Mercedes really be available in the non-upgrade section? Yes, and I focused on it so quickly that I didn’t see the bigger black Mercedes SUV a few spaces down, which, as I was exiting later, pulled out in front of me suddenly-enough to find out that the brakes in the car I got were A-OK. That bigger model looked nice, but what I got was a GLA 250 4Matic, which was just fine for me and my gear. Small and nimble is usually better in my book. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. Once I decided to go for the cute little GLA, I noticed that whoever backed it into the parking space had backed it within inches of the guard-rail which meant that I would have to move it forward to load my gear.

Before climbing in, I did notice that the interiour looked very comfy and inviting and tastefully appointed. One visual thing that made an impression was that the floor mats were edged in the same colour as the seats. It’s a little thing for sure, but it screams NICE. The seats looked really comfy too, but I have yet to get into a rental car that didn’t need its seats adjusted to fit my tall frame, so I took note of the adjustment multi-button on the side of the seat and gave it good long pushes in both back and down. Then I sat down and found my head touching the ceiling! This didn’t seem right. Push the button in the downward direction again, and hold it for a good few seconds. Nothing. Hmmmmmmmm. I wondered if there was some seat-memory issue that was keeping me from adjusting the position, so I looked over to the door where most manufacturers put the memory buttons…and right there next to the memory buttons, was a set of buttons shaped like a side-view of a car seat. It makes sense on one level, but not on the obvious level since most manufacturers put those buttons on the side of the seat. I adjusted the seat for comfort and noted that it could go back REALLY far, much farther than even I need. Remember the 1970s TV-ad in which Wilt Chamberlain drove a Volkswagen Rabbit? He would have done even better in this car. What, then, did the button on the side of the seat do? Turns out that it controls the lumbar-support, which has no fewer than THREE different adjustable segments. If you’re a control-freak with a sensitive back, YOU NEED THIS CAR.

Notice seat adjustment buttons on door. Why???

Not to be out-done by the seat, the transmission then gave me its own challenge. No shift lever in the center console, no knob to select a gear, nothing obvious. Another Hmmmmmmmmm, then after a moment I spotted it. The stalk on the right side of the column, not very big or obtrusive, had some letters and arrows on it that suggested that it might be what I needed. Sure enough, move it up or down to get into reverse or drive respectively, and a little button on the end puts it in park. Finally, I was able to pull the car forward to load my gear. Remember the gear? With that and everything else done that needs doing when I get into a rental car, I was under way, but noticed before leaving the lot that I wasn’t done with confusing controls. The headlight switch isn’t visible from where my eyes are in this car, obscured by the steering wheel. It’s in the position on the left end of the dashboard that is familiar to other cars, but I still had to look around the wheel to see what the positions of the switch were. And as I got into the line for the check-out, it hit me that I didn’t see cruise control-controls anywhere. Really? I know that this isn’t an inexpensive car. How on earth can you sell a luxury car without cruise control? I did remember that a BMW X3 I’d had on a trip a while back was surprisingly spartan in its features, so maybe this was more of the same. But just by chance when I turned the steering wheel at one point, I saw a second stalk on the left side of the column, smaller than the one for the turn signals, and farther down…right where the wheel completely obscures it most of the time! And to add to the frustration, you have to give the wheel a good turn to see the markings that indicate which way to move the stalk to make the cruise control do which function. If I owned this car and drove it on the highway a lot, I’m sure that I would eventually remember which direction to push the stalk to do what, but during my time with it I did require some trial-and-error to get it right.

Where is the cruise control?

Hidden behind the steering wheel!

So, finally out on the road, my first impression was that this car felt like pretty much every car these days. Yes, we have reached the point where, the carmakers scared by the economies of scale in today’s gigantic market that give so little room for error, every car drives about the same. With more time behind the wheel, I formed the impression that the steering was light but precise. This combination can be good if you’re paying attention or bad if you’re not. Power from the turbocharged 2-litre 4-cyliner engine is okay but not spectacular, at a claimed 208 hp moving a 3340-lb curb weight via a 7-speed Dual-clutch automatic transmission and an automatic all-wheel-drive system. It’ll move when it needs to, but won’t leave you breathless. But This is a luxury car, not a sports car. The GLA 250 handled well on the wet pavement, and after about 45 minutes it began to snow- but at no point did the car show any sign that I should lose confidence, at least until once near my destination, I pulled into a parking lot and gave it a sharp turn to see how it did in the fluffier fresh snow…and it did very poorly, taking the steering input as a mere suggestion. I daresay that my six-year-old FWD Mazda 3 would have handled that moment better.

Shortly after that snowy skid I parked the car for the night, and the next morning it was covered with a 4-inch layer of snow with an icy base. I was pleased with how quickly the front and rear defrosters did their job, but this does bring me to the temperature controls. Thankfully they’re not as difficult to initially figure-out as the systems mentioned above, although I did notice one odd quirk. With many cars, instead of having a button for every possible way to aim the air, there is one or two buttons that allow you to toggle through the possibilities. In the case of my Mazda, it’s a button with a left and right arrow that you press either end of to scroll through the choices. This Merc has a pair of MODE buttons, one above the display and bearing an up-arrow, and one below the display and bearing a down-arrow. Not having the buttons immediately adjacent to each other is a little awkward, and that awkwardness is driven home by the fact that unlike cars such as my Mazda, you cannot use one button to scroll through a loop of the choices- press one MODE button enough times and you’ll reach the end, and must use the other button to go back through the choices.

The location of the climate controls down low near the console made them seem a bit far away, especially since the dashboard as a whole feels very tall and wall-like. Even as tall as I am, I did feel much of the time like I was down in a hole whenever I looked at the dashboard. The tallish band of textured silver plastic (poplar-wood can be had for $325, which I’d gladly pay to save me from staring at that too-coldly teutonic silver plastic all the time) that contains nothing except the upper vents only encourages this effect, as does the ledge of black that slightly protrudes above it, as does putting the audio and climate controls fairly low, and as does putting the tablet-like display screen way up high. And if that wasn’t enough, the lower edge of the windscreen is higher still. Forward visibility still isn’t bad though, but it does seem to clash with all that verticality inside the car.

The screen, like so many these days, seems more like a tablet stuck on the dashboard than like an integral part of the car.

Over the next few days I did note that once you get used to everything enough to relax, the GLA is very comfortable. The seats have plenty of support and adjustability, including the length of the thigh-support. The steering wheel feels good in hand, the climate control kept me cozy. The driving itself pleasant, the ride being smooth without feeling disconnected, and it was easy to put the car where I wanted to put it without thinking about it too much. I did find a twisty two-lane through the forest nearby, and gave the GLA a good thrashing there. I was impressed by the car’s abilities in that regard, especially since because the road was unfamiliar to me, I changed speeds a lot. The handling somewhat reminded me of a VW Mk IV GTI I once had, with its combination of sure grip, rubbery smoothness, and just enough sensory feedback. Ergonomics were good for my tallness, and I had no problems with ingress or egress. Cargo space is quite decent too, and will certainly meet the needs of anybody buying a compact SUV.

The GLA 250 4Matic has a starting MSRP of $36,250, which is $2000 more than the FWD version, and whether that difference is worth it to you is quite subjective- some people think that AWD is a MUST in a family-car these days, and I think that that is by far more true in marketing than it is in the real world. Mercedes-Benz’s website didn’t make it clear whether some features were package-only or could be had as standalone options, but I was really surprised that keyless entry is not a standard feature. There are plenty of features though, too many to go into much detail about, and there are several connected technology features that are free to use at first, for example one called ‘Mercedes me connect’ for which three years of use are included at no charge. There are of course many option-packages for everything from maintenance-plans to AMG exteriours. Smartphone integration requires a package rather than being a standard feature, but at least you get the option of the $350 Smartphone Integration Package (Android Auto, Apple Car Play) rather than being forced to swallow the $2300 Multimedia Package, which includes the same integrations plus several other features. If you check all the most expensive boxes in the options and packages on the website, you’ll arrive at a maximum price of $56,745. I seriously doubt that very many GLA 250s get sold at that level, and when I ran the version that I would prefer -moderate equipment, tasteful aesthetics, not fully tech-loaded and no AMG- it came to a much more sensible $41,600, not a bad stretch from the base MSRP when you consider how extremely you can raise the price of cars in the luxury market-segment by adding options. If I run my version again in the FWD version, I can get it under $40,000.

Overall, I liked the GLA 250 4Matic. It did take a little getting used to, and regular readers may recall that I mentioned quirky controls in a review of a Volvo XC60 too- but the Volvo’s quirky controls were much easier to get the hang of in a short time. But if everything else about the GLA appeals to you, don’t let the quirks hold you back. Compact luxury cars are a good thing, and this one definitely felt good. I can see living easily with this car. The luxury wasn’t so far over the top that it constantly reminded me that I was driving an up-market vehicle, and for that I give it much credit. If a compact luxury SUV sounds like your kind of easy living, check out the GLA 250.

Comfy accommodations up front, although the dashboard does see somewhat wall-like.
Instruments are uncluttered and easy to read.
Rear seats have plenty of headroom but not so much legroom.
High praise to Mercedes-Benz for the design of the button on the hatch that closes it. It is not only brightly coloured, but also illuminated and spells out that the button will also stop the hatch from closing. Contrast this with black, featureless buttons in other cars.
A helpful reminder.

I’ve said it before: sometimes you get lucky.

The company sent me to Colorado for a few days. That was already a nice break from the usual, as Colorado is one of my favourite places to visit. It has great scenery, lots of great twisty roads, and I have dear friends there who I don’t get to see near often enough. Would my rental car be on par with the other things in Colorado to which I was looking forward? Or would the question of the day be, which Dodge Caravan would you like? Don’t laugh, that’s pretty close to the situation the last time I visited Chicago.

There were only three of us on the rental car shuttle. One disappeared to another row, the other zeroed-in quickly on a red Camaro. I was in last place due to the amount of stuff I had to carry, and I strode the row with some trepidation, noting all the chunky SUVs and vans and dull sedans. Then, miracle of miracles, I spotted a Mustang! It was a beautiful dark metallic grey convertible and I knew that it needed me. After loading my gear I started the engine to get the aircon going and tune the radio and adjust everything, and a moment after starting I noticed that something didn’t sound quite right, a bit noisier than it should be. Was the exhaust system broken? I tickled the pedal to check- was that a rumbly burble? Oh my. Look on the side in front of the door, and sure enough, it says 5.0! And a GT badge on the back end! A Five-O Ford right here in the regular section, not over there in the special upgrade section. How could it be? I decided to take my chances and drove away with it. The gate attendant assured me that all was well, that the car was where it was due to some administrata that I won’t bore you with except to say that the upshot was that I got this V-8 Mustang for the price of the turbo-four Mustangs I’ve driven in the past. So there I was, in Colorado with a Mustang GT convertible, and nowhere to be until the next morning. What would you do? Naturally, I took it to Pike’s Peak.

What would you do?

Pike’s Peak is famous for having an annual hill-climb racing event that lasts a week and features every class from Lightweight Motorcycle to Unlimited Car. The road up the mountain is a 28-mile, two-lane ribbon of asphalt that starts out pretty tame but once above a certain altitude it has a lot of steep grades and tight turns, as in chasing-your-own-tail-light-tight hairpins.

Seriously, what would you do?

There are also very few guardrails and only limited shoulders, and many places where going off the pavement will result in a long and steep tumble, which is of course combined with scenery that will make you want to watch anything BUT the road. The summit is at 14115 feet above sea level, one of only three places in the United States where you can drive your car to above 14000 feet. Speed limits are low, and higher up in the thin air neither your engine nor your brakes will be able to cool themselves as effectively as at lower altitude. Add in the usual tourist traffic, and the reality is that most of the time you can’t go very fast- but it doesn’t take much speed to screw up on this kind of mountain road. Unless you go to some really unusual places, this is probably the most dangerous road you’ll ever drive.

Be careful on this road.

The cruise down the interstate to Colorado Springs was effortless. Colorado has some 75 MPH speed limits on I-25 and the Mustang’s cruise control handled them easily. The forecast for the day predicted a high of 100F, so I left the top up and kept the aircon working hard. The vented seat kept cool air at my back, and that’s a very nice thing. Once off the Interstate it’s a few more miles to the Pike’s Peak Highway toll-gate, and the road curves through some canyons and passes interesting places like Garden of the Gods and Manitou Cliff Dwelling. A few miles shy of the toll-gate I pulled over and dropped the top. I figured the adventure ahead was worth some sweat, although it really wasn’t bad since the Mustang’s vents allow the air to be directed almost anywhere you want it, better than in most cars, and keeping the side windows raised helps create a ‘bubble’ of more comfortable air. But it didn’t take long for things to get more comfortable anyway, since the temperature falls as you climb, and I would later observe about 30 degrees difference at the summit.

So how did the Mustang do on Pike’s Peak? It did just fine, and it didn’t miss a beat at all. The miracle of modern electronic engine management kept it accelerating eagerly at every altitude, and I had no issues with brake fade. In fact, there’s a mandatory brake temperature checkpoint on the way down, where a park ranger takes a second to aim an infrared thermometer at your left front brake. “You’re good, you’re doing it right,” the ranger said with a smile as he waved me away. That brings up technique. One thing I did do during both the climb and the descent was use the manual-shift capability of the Mustang’s automatic transmission. I’m not generally a fan of so-called ‘flappy paddle’ shifting, but combine it with the sort of throttle-technique that you’d use shifting a real manual transmission and I was able to get very precise shift-responses in either direction. I mostly used second and third gears on the way up, with first now and then in the tighter turns. The descent was mostly just second and first, since gravity’s pull is strong on the 3825-pound Mustang.

But if you get away from the numbers and the details, how was the experience? The best single-word answer is FUN! I’ve been up Pike’s Peak a couple of times in the past, once on a motorcycle and once in a VW Mk IV GTI 1.8T, and this time was as fun as those. A powerful convertible is a really great way to experience high-mountain driving, probably beating the motorcycle by a narrow margin since I didn’t have to wear a helmet and therefore had the wind in my hair at all times. Whatever conveyance you use on the Peak, horsepower is your friend because in most places you don’t have much distance to change speeds, so whenever you can steal a little speed it’s good to be able to take it. Of course you want great handling too, so if your car is optimized for drag-racing, it’s probably not the ideal choice. But get yourself in that curve-handling state of mind, start twisting the wheel, and you’ll have a great time. It may be a dangerous road, but don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be just fine. I find that there’s a certain rhythm to the hairpins, not in how one comes after another, but in the very similar way that each hairpin is constructed. They have a similar radius and a similar grade, so the right timing of throttle and steering will work over and over again.

Relax at the summit. Find a place to park up there and take the time to walk around, enjoy the views, and by all means, go into the gift-shop and get yourself some liquid refreshment and definitely get some of the donuts they make there. They can’t be replicated at low altitude and they’re delicious, so enjoy this special treat. The calories plus some hydration will recharge you for the drive down, which can be every bit as enjoyable as the drive up. On the way down it can be tempting to put the car or bike into neutral and let it coast, but this is probably not the best idea due to how fast brakes can get hot in the thin air. Use low gears to keep your vehicle from runaway speeds and still allow you to use some throttle on the less-steep parts between turns. At some point you’ll pass the tree-line, and I find that I notice the trees coming back on the way down more than I notice them going away on the way up. Stop where it’s safe and take plenty of pictures- the views are spectacular!

You can see a lot from up here!

Of course I had other fun too with the Mustang while I was in Colorado, like picking up my friend Craig from his office to go have a bite and a beer before returning him to finish the evening part of his shift. We made sure to leave some tire-marks in a distant parking lot before we parted. I was also able to visit my fried Ross and go for a spin in a couple of Lotus Elans he owns, and the contrast between their light, zippy quickness and the Mustang’s heavy powerfulness was really something to behold: great fun at two very different extremes. But eventually all things must come to an end, and so it was with a bit of sadness that I bid the Mustang farewell at the airport. I couldn’t have had a better rental-car for driving a fun, challenging, performance-intensive road. I really, truly enjoyed my high-altitude adventures with this ponycar and if you get the chance, you will too!

You can’t help but to have fun on Pike’s Peak.
With scenery like this, you’ll never want to leave.
Have a donut at the summit- they’re tasty!
Views in every direction make open cars ideal for this environment.
You’ll see lots of breathtaking views!
You might even see Bigfoot!
Hit the road for Pike’s Peak. You’ll be glad you did.

Lately I’ve been shifting much of my rental-car use to a different company because they have locations nearer me, which is a lot more convenient for getting myself on and off the road. The variety of cars usually isn’t as nice or as interesting, and they don’t have a full aisle from which to take my pick (three Impalas in a row…wake me up when it’s over!), so this plus being crazy-busy on the job has made for fewer opportunities for Rental Car Reviews. But this week I got a little bit lucky. It’s a short week due to a holiday on Monday, and in the remaining four days I’ve got one of those trips where I fly out and drive back, seeing customers along the way. The far point was Columbus Ohio, an airport where I’m usually disappointed by what they’ll let one-way customers take from them, but this time was an exception- especially nice since my flight had been delayed.

The rental car agent asked me if a Volvo XC60 would be OK, and having almost nothing to inform the choice but knowing it was a rare opportunity, I said yes without hesitation. I knew that the XC designation made it one of the chunkier models, but I couldn’t picture exactly which one. I knew that there were XC models and Cross Country models, but XC seems like an abbreviation for Cross Country so that muddies things a bit. Just to clarify the models up-front, I’ll mention that the next day I checked Volvo’s website and the Cross Country models are wagons and the XC models are SUVs. The XC60 is the middle of three models in the XC range. The XC60 has a starting MSRP of $38900 and can go up above an eye-watering $75000 if you tick enough boxes on the trim levels and packages and options. Staggering on one hand, but on the other, it’s kind of cool to have such huge flexibility in one model. I had the low-end Momentum trim and the T5 Engine, a 250 hp 5-cylinder. That’s right, FIVE. Not completely unheard of, but rare for sure and at least in the US market, only something you see from a few European brands.

The XC60 doesn’t look that distinctive on first impression. Cover the front and rear faces -which are somewhat understated themselves- and at a quick glance you could easily mistake it for a similarly-sized Jeep Cherokee. But the Swedes have always been known for an aesthetic that is simple and clean while still being stylish and even beautiful when they really get it right. In my opinion they did get it right with the XC60. They styling is clean and balanced without being boring, has just enough accents, and looks like it belongs in Volvo’s current lineup.

The XC60 resembles a Cherokee, but it’s Swedish.

Inside, there’s more understated Swedish goodness, with simple styling that’s pleasant to the eye. The downside of this is that so many features and functions -too many in my opinion- are completely dependent on touchscreen control, and some of them aren’t very intuitive, and by the end of the second day I still hadn’t figured out how to manipulate some of them. To Volvo’s credit, if all else fails the owner’s manual is viewable on the touchscreen when the vehicle is not in motion. The Swedes are also known for a little bit of quirkiness, and one quirk became apparent as soon as I tried to start the engine. Like most modern cars, the XC60 uses a proximity-type key, which usually means pressing a button located either on the dashboard and almost always to the right side of the steering column, or in a few cases on the center console near the dashboard. No button in these locations. I soon found an oddly-shaped and interestingly-textured knob that was labeled as START located a bit farther back on the console, reminiscent of where Saab usually located their ignition locks. Instinct made me push down on it, which did nothing. Then I gave it a twist, and the engine started. The knob is spring-loaded and only turns a few degrees. Another quirk of this knob is that you turn it the same direction to shut off the engine.

Quirky controls.

Another quirky control is the drive-mode selector, a cylindrical roller in the center console. It has its own interesting texture and you press down on it to bring up the mode menu, then roll it to scroll through the choices, then press down on it again to select the mode…then wait…an interminably long time…for the screen to revert back to whatever was on it before. The drive-modes are Eco, Comfort, Dynamic (high performance), and Off Road. Comfort is the default mode and sadly, it reverts back to Comfort when the car is shut off. I say sadly because I found that Dynamic mode had two advantages over Comfort: quicker passing on the highway, and much less lateral wiggle when going over less-than-smooth defects in the pavement such as patches and shallow potholes. In fact the amount of lateral wiggle caused by such defects was a bit shocking. Not dangerous, but quite noticeable, much more than should be expected from any modern vehicle. Other than that, the two modes felt the same going down the road. The handling is easy and responsive, and I had no problem carving some tight and twisty roads in the hills of West Virginia, although a more progressive steering rate would have been welcome in some sections.

While we’re on the driving experience, I’ll say that overall it’s pleasant. The ride is smooth, maneuvering is easy, the controls give acceptable feedback, the turn-radius is good, and the brakes are quite competent. The various safety-systems all do their thing, and one in particular impressed me. There was a moment when everybody in front of me on the highway went into a panic-stop for reasons that were never apparent. As you may know from experience, due to accumulating human reaction times, the farther back you are in the line of vehicles, the more quickly you must react and brake to prevent hitting the car in front of you, sometimes faster that what a two-second-plus following distance will allow (read Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt for some insights into this and other human factors in driving). I was on the brakes, smoothly but very firmly, and the XC60 responded in kind with all the stopping I needed, and no collision occurred- but the front collision warning sensors weren’t happy and I got audible warnings, and the really impressive part was that the seat belt began to tighten and hold me firmly into the seat. This was no mere inertia-reel action; this was a motor retracting the belt gradually as dictated by the increasing forces of deceleration, and then gradually releasing it once I was off the brakes. I like that feature, and I hope to see it in more vehicles.

Another thing that worked really well was the air conditioning. It did a great job of cooling the car quickly on hot days, but I wish the fan was quieter. Being the warm part of the year, I didn’t test the heated seats or steering wheel, but I did note that all four seats have heat, and the rear seat heat is controlled by buttons where the rear passengers can reach them. The front seats are really comfortable, enough to earn a spot on my comfiest car seat list, and are electrically adjustable in multiple directions. In addition to the usual fore-aft and seatback angle, the height and tilt of the base is adjustable, the lumbar is adjustable for both the amount of support and the height of the support, and the thigh-rest at the front edge of the seat is adjustable fore-aft. The lumbar and thigh support adjustments are a bit clever, using a circular button that can be pressed in any of four directions, surrounded by a ring with a tab on it. Push the tab down to select thigh support; pull it up to select lumber support. Luckily the screen goes to a pictorial guide on how to make these adjustments work whenever the tab is moved.

Tabbed ring selects the function of the multi-button in the center. Elegant prevention of button-clutter.

I have to give some credit for the design of the key. Its shape is kind of big and square, but it’s thinner than just about every modern electronic key I’ve seen, which means that it’s not a chunky bulky thing when it’s in your pocket. The buttons are along the edges, and up next to the hole on top where a key-ring can be attached is a small slide-button that allows the release of the plastic cover on the side with the Volvo logo. Once this cover is removed, the physical backup-key is revealed, as are tiny words next to each button that explain what they do when given short or long pushes. Unfortunately, those words are not only tiny but also are merely molded into the plastic with no contrasting colour added, so you’ll need both good eyesight and plenty of light to read them. There is also another slide that is revealed when the cover is removed, and this one releases the cover for the other side, allowing access to the battery, the size of which is indicated on the plastic so you don’t have to look it up in the manual when it comes time to change the battery.

Better key than most: it’s not chunky.

Cargo space is ample in back, and for this trip I had TWO Pelican 1610 cases to carry, plus my tool-backpack and personal bag. I managed to fit everything in back without going vertical into the cargo-cover’s plane of existence. This cover is the retractable type, and a nice touch is the raised position you can click it into for easier access without having to fully retract the cover. The hatch is electrically operated, no surprise in this class of vehicle.

Enough space for lots of your stuff.

Volvo has been owned for the last few years by the Chinese automotive conglomerate Geely, whose holdings include Lotus and… Thankfully, Geely has taken a very hands-off approach with its holdings and allowed them to make cars their own way, building success the way they know how to do so. Like Volvos of the past, this one can be summed up as quirky comfort and after four days in the XC60 I almost didn’t want to give it up. It was comfortable it and did everything well and with mostly minimal fuss. If I had to drive it long-term I would go through the manual and learn more about how to work some of those cryptic controls, so as a rental car that’s a weakness- and possibly as a bought car too, since so much modern tech is so easy to use that some potential owners may find this discouraging. But if those few quirks don’t bother you, give the Volvo a try. I enjoyed it and would not hesitate drive an XC60 again.

A comfortable place to while away the miles.

Even the column-stalks have quirky designs, but they work really well once you figure out how some of the functions work.

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.