Sunday, March 29, 2015

QUICK TRIPS - FRANCE

CLAUDE MONET'S HOUSE AT GIVERNY

A visit to Monet’s beautiful house and gardens seems to be on the Bucket List of most Francophiles visiting Paris.

And why not?


The journey on the Autoroute A14 (with tolls) is just 55 minutes; and on the more suburban A15, it’s just ten minutes longer.


Actually, Giverny is a tiny village near the Seine surrounding Monet’s Estate, so on the maps you are looking to head for the nearby town of Vernon.

Leaving the A14 at Exit 16 onto the D181, head North towards Vernon, and cross the River Seine, joining Rue Claude Monet, and a few minutes later you’re parking the car.


Born in 1840 Monet may just be the most famous of France’s impressionist painters, certainly he was one of the most commercially-successful.

He was a wily bird and obviously made enough from his paintings to establish a very grand estate, building his large house and extensive gardens.

One of the best studies of his life and work are by the author and garden historian Caroline Holmes, but even though you may be attracted to Monet’s style, the Estate is another thing altogether.

The gardens are famous for the lily ponds and the Japanese arched bridge, but wandering among the sections you find just as many apparently wild and untrained areas, as formal beds.



It may look wild, but Monet was a canny gardener as well as a skilled painter. It was all carefully planned by the Master.

Mind you, he was wealthy enough to afford assistants to plant and prune, and the result is one of the most beautiful gardens you will visit.

French schoolchildren’s excursions happen every day during the opening period from April to October, and it was fun seeing the kindergarten class on our visit wander through the flowers.

There’s a very well laid-out flower shop, and a restaurant adjacent to the Estate, and my omelette avec jambon, and glass of Sancerre I had for lunch was just the thing after a fascinating and relaxing 90 minute tour.






If you enjoy fine art and fine gardening, this visit is a must if you’re visiting Paris.

Monday, March 23, 2015

TESLA'S REVENUE REVELATIONS!


Tesla Motors has found a neat way to augment any profits it makes from selling cars.

So neat, that in the last two quarters of 2014 it made an additional USD$66 million! Which is almost 40% of total revenue.

Bloomberg News’ Cory Johnson has revealed that Tesla gets a tax credit in 12 States for every Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) it makes, which it can then sell to any carmaker who is making polluting vehicles.


The States are; Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont.

In fact of the total revenue Tesla makes per car, almost USD$6,000 comes from selling tax credits.

This week, in a bid to calm and reassure owners and would-be buyers of the Tesla Model S about ‘range anxiety’, Elon Musk announced a slew of software changes which can be implemented OTA (Over The Air) to improve battery life and extend the vehicle’s driving range. No details on how many extra miles you can travel, but presently, the most expensive Model S can travel 265 miles on a single charge.




The eight aforementioned States are also moving quickly to build charging stations, which will recharge ALL battery-powered vehicles. However Tesla is also building its own Supercharger stations, which can fully charge a Model S in around 2-3 hours.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

QUICK TRIPS - ITALY

Following the 'Palladian Trail'

Andrea Palladio - Architetto

























Just west of Venezia you'll find one of the most fascinating of driving tours in northern Italy. Many local companies offer tours which follow a trail of fabulous villas designed and built by the famous architect Andrea Palladio.


If you base yourself in either Padova or Vicenza, you will be right in the heart of the area, which extends as far to the west as Valpolicella.


We have stayed in Vicenza at the excellent Hotel Campo Marzio.


Palladio was a very smart marketer as well as an architect with a grand vision.

He undertook the construction of a 'facade' for the town hall in Vicenza, which was so successful his career took off.
Town Hall, Vicenza
He received many commissions for villas large and small. Not all of the villas I'm including here are 'on the tour', but they do represent a good sampling of his work.

The Villa del Doge near Treviso is one of my favourites.


As is the famous Villa Rotonda, close to Vicenza.

Then there's the smaller La Serenella near Valpolicella.

Andrea's name is associated today with 'Palladian Windows' which are famous for their curved top, but his work from the 16th century is magnificent, and if you're in the Veneto region, not to be missed.

*QUICK TRIPS suggestions presume you have access to your own personal transport, but in this instance their are tours which use coaches to follow the trail.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

S2000 - HONDA'S F1-BRED SPORTS CAR

During Press Day at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show I stopped by the Honda stand to marvel at a bare, aluminium chassis of the just-announced NSX sports car.
Honda NSX

After a few moments contemplating the beautifully welded joints and impeccable finish of the structure, I was joined by a slight, studious Japanese gentleman, to whom I remarked on the outstanding quality of the design and finish.

He introduced himself as Shigeru Uehara, the chief engineer of the NSX project, and he was truly delighted to hear my observations, and very eager to discuss the project.
We talked for almost 30 minutes about the NSX and his other obsession, Formula One, and of his close friendship with Ayrton Senna.
Ayrton Senna 1992

The next mention of Uehara-san was 1995, when Honda showed a sports car concept called the SSM at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Honda Sports Study Model (SSM)



In 1999 the concept became the production S2000.

The final design of the production car was massaged by Ken Okuyama, who designed the  original NSX.

Later that year, whilst visiting my friend and former neighbor Larry in New Jersey, he proudly told me that he had bought one of the first cars to arrive at his local Honda dealer.




Shigeru Uehara
We went for a spin, and I immediately fell in love with Uehara’s ‘baby’!

The 2.0L engine delivered 247hp at 8300 rpm, and as you raced up through the six-speed transmission at maximum revs the sheer exhilaration was overwhelming. What a fantastic driving experience!

Shigeru Uehara took all he learned from the big-budget NSX project, and crafted a beautiful, handsome, dream machine that sounded like an F1 car as you blasted through the gears along Interstate 95.

Fast forward to March 2015, and on a visit to Fort Myers, Florida to catch up with Larry, he revealed he still owned the S2000, and also that he never intended to sell it.

Larry's Honda S2000 on the beach at Fort Myers, Florida
So, what do you do when faced with such news? Simple, you pull back the covers, wheel it out of the garage and blast off for a wonderful reminiscence of my first drive in the car.


Florida, being the most boring state in all of the USA to drive through, meant there would be precious little blasting through the gears, and letting the tail slide out with some adventurous driving.

I satisfied myself with a few squirts up to 8000 rpm, and we tooled around with the top down discussing Uehara’s grand design, and just plain having fun!

The interesting thing is that the S2000 is a very practical car, because I have it on good authority that the trunk can fit two full-size golf bags!


Yes, this little gem has only 41,000 miles on the clock!

Production of the S2000 ended in 2009, which means it’s now a classic! Total sales were 110, 673.




Thanks Larry. Don’t forget our discussion about you leaving me the S2000 in your final will and testament!


Monday, March 16, 2015

A STRONG AMERICAN - KIA FORTE

The English translation of ‘FORTE’ is accepted as: ‘Strong, Sturdy, Robust’.

In the case of Kia’s Corolla-sized sedan, that’s an apt description in most senses.

Forte in the Florida orange groves

However, in Australia, the car is known as the Cerato S Premium (priced at $24,990) and comes with a 1.8L four cylinder pushing out 110kW.

In short, it is robust in its feel and manufacturing quality, but the 1.8L engine gets a bit breathless in freeway cruising, especially speeding up for lane-changing, or just keeping up with the traffic.



This past week I rented a Kia Forte LX 1.8L sedan in Florida and came away from the experience very impressed with everything about the car, except its cruising performance. 

The gross weight of the car, at 1770kg, is really the main cause of the lack of go! It's just too heavy. for a 1.8. In the USA the car is offered with an optional 2.0L engine, and with an extra 21kW, that would make all the difference.

Having said that, the rental car returned an impressive 6.7 litres per 100km in a mix of freeway and suburban driving, with the aircon on and lots of cog-swapping with the 6-speed auto transmission.



In fact, driving the Forte LX manually was pure delight. The transmission is responsive, shifts smoothly, and makes a real difference pulling away from traffic lights. That driving style also really helps to improve the fuel economy, rather than leaving it in Drive and flooring it.

In rental car spec, the American Forte misses out on some equipment found in the Australian model. There’s no GPS, no rear parking sensors and no touch-screen display.

However, there’s easy to set up Bluetooth, USB/iPod connectivity and cruise control, plus very impressive audio quality from the six-speaker sound system.


There’s also a huge trunk (boot), and loads of interior leg room, especially in the rear, even with the front seats adjusted for long-legged front seat occupants.

I’ve talked before about the success of the Peter Shreyer-led design revolution at Kia, but I think in terms of proportions and scale, the Forte sedan scores well.


It’s a smart-looking, contemporary design, with low wind noise and with just rudimentary soundproofing it’s quiet on the road. Even so, the first thing I would do if I owned one is to ditch the hard, noisy, Korean-made Nexen tyres. They are truly horrible, handle badly and howl at high speeds.


Mind you, you would never consider this a sporting car, so posing it outside Sebring Raceway is a bit cheeky. However, provided you drive it as a manual, using the excellent six-speed auto, the Forte goes well. Unfortunately the electric steering is a bit 'sticky' and lacks feel and sensitivity.

However, in its class Forte is highly competitive against Japanese and Korean rivals, and certainly shows a lot of attention to detail in areas like exterior design, interior fit and finish, and small margins in the gaps between panels.


I think the Forte is more strong evidence of Kia’s push to be perceived as a high quality manufacturer, and also that the appeal of the whole range of Kia models runs more than skin deep.

I think buying a Kia Forte (Cerato S Premium) is a pretty smart financial decision. It’s Strong, Sturdy and Robust, just like the Italian moniker suggests; it’s also good value for money and you’ll drive it confidently for years thanks to the outstanding warranty.

What more would you want?