Drive Wire: February 26, 2016

Hey guys it's Christina Thompson and this is Drive Wire for Friday, February 26th.

Brace yourselves, the Acura NSX Configurator, which allows you to customize your future supercar, has gone live. Prepare to waste countless hours building your perfect NSX. Just $157,800 will get you the base supercar, which makes 573 horsepower from its hybrid all-wheel-drive system. But the fun is of course in the details – carbon-ceramic brakes run at a cool $10,000, the carbon fiber roof rings up at $6,000 and the wheels are yours for another $1,500. For the select few that can afford it, place your orders, and for the rest of us... Enjoy that online configurator! Production of the 2017 NSX begins this spring with cars to be delivered soon after.

In Formula One news, the FIA has announced that, in the interest of driver safety, some form of closed cockpit will be in use for its race cars during the 2017 season. Although the exact design of the enclosure is not yet clear, a frontrunner seems to be a halo-style ring around the driver's head, which would limit obstruction of the driver's view while allowing for easy extraction after a crash. We'll miss the open-cockpit cars, but romantic posturing aside, more safety is always a good thing.

GM has launched hybrid models of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, but you'll probably never see them. Only 700 pickups with GM’s "E-Assist" hybrid system will be built – that's 500 Silverados and 200 Sierras -- and they'll only be sold in California, only at top trim levels, and only in 2-wheel-drive models. General Motors is saying that they will monitor the market closely going forward... So, is this a test balloon? Maybe, but we'd love to see a nationwide release of a full-size hybrid pick-up.

Today's gear features the first Spotify player that doesn't need a phone. Mighty, a 1.5 inch streaming audio player, is a square-shaped device that can hold up to 48 hours of music after wirelessly syncing to your account and doesn't have to be tethered to anything but your headphones – and it even has Bluetooth support for that. The 5-button design allows for easy operation, and 45 minutes of charge time will give you 5 hours of playback – all for under $80. For more details, check out Mighty Audio's Kickstarter page.

What are you and your buddies up to this weekend? Whatever it is, we're guessing it's not this. In today's ridiculous video, check out Farm Jam 2016's big-aired, two-wheeled debauchery.... All on a revamped New Zealand farm. It's okay if this puts your weekend plans to shame.

That's it for today's edition of Drive Wire. For more, be sure to come back to thedrive.com, and follow us @thedrive on all your favorite social media platforms.

Behind the Wheel of a Perfect 1978 Mercedes-Benz 300D

Some of the hills surrounding Los Angeles’ Elysian Heights neighborhood have angles of ascent more treacherous than those I recently tackled in the uber-offroad-capable Bentley Bentayga SUV. Cresting these mini-mountains is akin to clicking to the top of an intimidating roller coaster—a sharp climb into the sky unaware of what’s beyond the crest.

You can only find out if you make it to the top, but that’s not a sure proposition in my current means of conquest, a 3500 lb ingot of over-engineered, mid-Seventies German metal equipped with a three-liter diesel motor with a grand total of 77 horsepower. The transmission believes it’s uncivilized to shift into first gear and the whole thing is running 195-section all-season tires with about as much traction as the O’Malley campaign.

And yet the experience is glorious. That’s because the car isn’t some clapped-out survivor from Mercedes’s decade-long, 2.7 million-strong run of W123 sedans, coupes, and wagons. It’s an Astral Silver and M-B Tex™ Blue1978 300D that has been paid obsessive attention by Jimmy George “J.G.” Francis and his corps of artisans at Glendale, California’s Mercedes Motoring.

With just 43,000 miles on the clock from new and having recently undergone a $30,000 overhaul at the behest of its owner, a prominent New York collector and entertainer whose name is rumored to rhyme with Terry Mindmeld, the car is astoundingly perfect. Astounding because at first it seems bananas to lavish this kind of spare-no-expense attention on something so seemingly plebian. Then, of course, you remember that, in 1978, a 300D was a $21,000 car in the United States. Inflation would make that an $80,000 vehicle today.

Those of us who recall these cars in their Seventies showroom prime, as opposed to their indestructible-but-usually-degraded present, remember just how special they really were. Growing up, my struggling middle class suburban family split time between a rattle-trap slack-back Nova and creaky Malibu Classic wagon. Our “Aunt” Edith, a wealthy, WASP-y friend of my mother’s, lived with her children in a stately Neo-Georgian on the East Side and drove about in stolid leisure in her metallic copper 300D. When I first closed the door of her Benz it felt as if I’d sealed myself into a wood, vinyl, and horsehair crypt. And I never wanted to emerge.

JG’s 300D was better than that—better than new, even. In part, that’s because it was like a new car that had somehow lived a life but remained perfectly fresh. The knobs on the Becker AM/FM stereo were worn but the power antenna mounted to the trunk extended and receded perfectly. The transmission clunked into gear on acceleration just like Aunt Edith’s did when she first bought it, a mechanical acknowledgement of forward progress.

And, oh, the ride—that magical Mercedes ride controlled by a steering wheel about the size of the London Eye ferris wheel. It’s somehow firmly planted but gently compliant, like a tank riding on Tempurpedic mattresses. Did it creak? It creaked. Did it bounce? It did not bounce.

But the engine is where you see most clearly that this 300D had been loved into transcendence. There are few cars I can recognize from their running note alone: an IROC Camaro, a Volkswagen Beetle, and a Seventies or Eighties Mercedes-Benz diesel. It sounds (and smells) like a coal-fired 19th century factory producing iron maracas (or this place in an earthquake). The motor was in such a state of tune that I could idle in front of a local outdoor vegan café without stroller-wielding, vaping, dirt-loving hippie moms pulling the organic cotton blankets over their infants’ heads.

I drove to the home of a fellow automotive journalist and fellow Eighties survivor to pick him up for lunch. I plowed up his hill expecting to see him waiting on his doorstep, summoned by that unmistakable note like a sailor Sirened to a stony shore. But I had to ring the doorbell.

“Did you drive the Benz?” he asked. “I heard something go by, but it was so quiet I thought it might be a UPS truck.”

Like I said: glorious.

Breaking Down on the Loneliest Road in America

Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.

The sun shone on the cold desert, the sky drowning blue and cirrus fractured, clouds floating 18,000 feet over the calamity unfolding beneath my boots. The windshield was full of the painted desert, white with snow from a week-gone winter storm. The voltmeter on the Dodge’s dash floated at an uncomfortable 12.5 volts, two below normal. The alternator wasn’t charging. Ninety miles outside Delta, Utah, I sat inside the truck, shouldered on the side of Highway 50. The two-lane vanished to perfect pinpoints on the frozen basin, east ahead and west, behind. I took a breath. Ran my hands over my face. I hadn’t yet had the camper for two full days.

Back in December, I’d made up my mind to drive right up to the camper factory in Woodland, California, and pick ours up. It is, as the Prophet Cash foretold, cheaper that way. Any dollars I didn’t spend having the thing shipped to the East Coast were ones I could use outfitting our box for life on the road for a year. I needed the hours in the truck, anyhow. It’d take a little over 5,000 miles round trip, and each one would be a test. A dare. Fail now or forever stay in one piece.

I left Knoxville on a cold Sunday morning, one woodpecker the only sound in the valley. His marbled warning echoed from the crooked fencerow in the back yard. Tennessee went easy, then Arkansas. I watched the sun sink, splashing the bare oaks of the Ozarks red in their lonesome fields. Felt that old pull. The desperate chase of the light.

The drive was brutal. An honest slog in an unladen three-quarter-ton truck. Twelve hours the first day, fourteen the next. Across Texas and New Mexico. Up to Flagstaff with a herd of Elk on the shoulder, their eyes bright and wild in my headlights. I wish I could convey how massive this country is. How rare that we can point ourselves inevitably West and go, go, go. Run out the highway and the hills. Slide our fingertips over the creases and the valleys of the impossibility that is America. You can’t grasp its vastness from a plane. It’s diversity from a map. You have to put your feet on the ground. Your hands in the dirt.

It’s a long time to be left alone in your own head. To think about all the variables that’d come together to make the truck work with the camper. To wonder on all the choices we’ve made to get to this station. A point of light opened in my thoughts somewhere in the Arizona desert. The quiet and true realization that none of it mattered. The decisions were made. We’d jumped. All that was left was how we hit the ground.

Most of those worries abated the moment I saw the camper for the first time. Stepped inside and put eyes on our home for the next year. It’s small, sure. Compact, but not unlivable. Reminded me more than a little of a small sailboat. We’re going to be fine.

Installation took a few hours. Getting acquainted with the camper’s various systems took a few more. It was nearly rush hour by the time I lumbered out of Woodland and into Sacramento’s rush-hour traffic. All told, the camper weighs in at a whisper under 1,700 pounds. Nearly a ton, or right on the border of what’s acceptable to stack on top of an ancient Dodge with nearly 300,000 miles on the odometer.

Pushing the bounds of what was safe for this machine, I resolved to prepare the truck as best as I knew how before leaving. That meant a rear sway bar. It meant airbags to help with the load. Hellwig’s been building sway control bits for 65 years, and sent over a complete kit for evaluation. The pieces went on over the course of a couple evenings, and I couldn’t tell much difference in handling without some weight on the bed.

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Zach Bowman/TheDrive.com

Let me be clear: There’s no way I’d feel confident wrangling this thing without help from the airbags and sway bar. Keep in mind, I went with one of the lightest truck bed campers in existence. I have no idea how guys do it with the big 3,000-pound slide out jobs.

The truck felt the weight, but took to it like any good mule. Like it was bred for it. I had the airbags set at 20 psi when they dropped the camper on the bed, and though it looked level enough, the nose was clearly in the air as I pulled out into traffic. Throwing another 20 psi at it solved the issue, and had the thing feeling flat and stable. I-80 out of Sacramento climbs from sea level to over 7,200 feet at Donner Pass in under 90 miles. It’s a scramble of switchback interstate, and I did it at rush hour. If I wanted a trial by fire, I got it.

It was dark as I rolled over the Sierra Nevadas towards Reno, jousting with traffic and trying to grow comfortable with just two mirrors. That’s when the throttle died.

See, these trucks have this thing where the throttle position sensor gets tired. And when it takes a nap, you’ve got no damn throttle at all. Embarrassing in the middle of a Target parking lot; awful close to deadly when you’re trying to pass a school bus on a dark and crooked stretch of icy four-lane in the California mountains. The check engine light illuminated. I downshifted and gave the pedal a good kick in the ass. The engine woke up again, the tach doing an accurate interpretation of my heart rate. Put that on the list, I guess.

I rolled past the electric glow of Reno, the casinos flashing their lights at no one and everyone. I dropped off the interstate at Fernley. Fueled the truck and tried to catch my breath. It was getting late, and smart money was on finding a place to park the truck for the night. There were options. Truck stop casino, Wal-Mart parking lot. But I wasn’t spending my first night on tarmac.

So I left the streetlights behind. Ran off down Highway 50, a stretch Nevada proudly advertises as the “Loneliest Road in America.” Why wouldn’t I head off into the nothing? Point a truck that’d recently lost all power down an empty and freezing swath of desert? I drove for another two hours. Drove a road so straight the headlights on the other end looked like the dim flicker of windows on the horizon. Learned how impossible it is to gauge distance in the dark. Couldn’t tell sand from snow on the shoulder. Watched jackrabbits dart and jump through the scrub brush at the thin edges of my high beams.

After two hours, I turned to a dirt road buried under four inches of snow and ice and crawled the next five miles. Opened the driver’s door to a spectacular emptiness, a sky so crowded with stars that it staggered me. I’ve spent a lifetime in wild and forgotten places, but I have never seen a show like that. Never been so smalled by our crowded universe. I stood in the freezing night air and tried to breathe.

I bunked down to the sound of coyotes and burros chatting in the darkness, throwing barbs back and forth across the snow. Fell asleep wondering how long those two have been at each other. Farmers back home always keep one donkey with a herd of cattle, one stubborn beast who’ll go at a pack of coyotes like it’s nothing, biting and kicking and breaking necks until the dogs leave everybody the hell alone. The world’s perfect like that, sometimes.

The next morning was a gift. I was up with the sun, eager enough to get on with getting back to Knoxville. But when I pulled back the shades, I wasn’t met with a vast and empty plain. The jagged teeth of a snow-covered range framed the basin I’d slept on, dipped orange and gold by the rising sun. The camper’s heater had kept me warm all night, happily insulated from the 21-degree desert. I was as alone as I’ve ever been standing on the snow and sand.

I filled my lungs. Hiked a ways from the truck and drank in the stillness, the complete silence. There was nothing in my ears but the sound of my blood pushing through my veins. It was the first time in six months that I knew—knew—that my wife and I had made the right decision. That this was what our life held for the next year.

In another four hours I’d be on the side of Highway 50, the truck’s brand-new alternator smoking from under the hood. The charge wire burnt in half. I’d stand there and weigh my options. Finally wager I could drive to the closest NAPA on nothing but the grace of two Odyssey AGM batteries and a little back feed from the camper’s solar system. Cover the longest 90 miles of my life, eyes twitching between voltmeter and odometer, willing the tenths out of the way.

I’d make it. Laugh like a drunken jackal at the odds and stroll into the only parts store for 200 miles or better.

There are plenty of reasons not to take a truck like that on a saga like this. Parts availability is not one of them. There, in a Utah town with a population of less than 3,500, sat an alternator for a 5.9-liter Cummins. All hail the farm truck. I had the roached piece out and the replacement installed in little over an hour.

That was it. I rolled into Knoxville a couple of days later, weary, but whole. That bastard alternator and the throttle position sensor the only failures over seven days and more than 80 hours of driving. Covered 5,100 miles, the tarmac equivalent of London to Islamabad, all within the borders of one magnificent and baffling country.

In two weeks, we’ll set off in earnest. Fix and pack and sort and leave. Set off for the Nevada deserts and California forests. The Altantic marshes and Gulf Shore sands. The Colorado mountains and Wyoming plains. We’ll cover as much of it as we can, ravenous for the vastness.

The New Garmin Zumo GPS Avoids Boring Roads

Garmin has got something special for moto riders. The new zümo 395LM and zümo 595LM motorcycle navigators offer automated route planning around boring roads, skipping the straights, and looking specifically for changes of elevation and bent blacktop. No more eyeballing ye olde gazetteer. Just enter a destination, and choose backroad plotting auto-magically (Garmin calls it Adventurous Routing, which isn’t as much fun).

The two weather-proof units differ in scale; the 395 has a 4.3-inch touchscreen, while the 595 has a higher resolution 5-inch display. Both units let riders stream music from a synced smartphone to headsets or Bluetooth helmets, as well as notifications for traffic and weather, animal crossing zones, sharp curve warnings, and red light camera alerts. The 595 ads access to Spotify and Pandora, plus texts and calls ported through to the navi screen. That’s all controlled via Garmin—rather than fishing your phone out from a jacket pocket—using oversized controls that are designed to respond to pressure, not touch, so you can keep your gloves on.

There are also hands-free controls (again, via Bluetooth headset) to make and receive calls, and receive spoken routing directions. Moto-specific functions, such as fuel stops recommended by your tank range, as well as a repair history logging function so you maintain regular service intervals, are also part of the mix. And both zümos sync to Garmin’s Tire Pressure monitors for live readout of this information, too.

The two units go on sale in April. Budget $600 for the 395LM, or $900 for the 595LM.

The 8 Greatest Super Bowl Car Commercials, Ranked*

Much the way the U.S. government has been described as an insurance company with an army, the Super Bowl has basically become an advertising showcase with a football game. Those four quarters could be exciting or humdrum (looking at you, Super Bowl XVLIII), but the ads—commissioned months in advance, with the multi-million dollar budgets you’d expect for something airing in front of more than 100 million people—are as reliably entertaining as a Nirvana reunion concert.

And for us, half the fun of Super Bowl 50 will be watching the car commercials during America’s biggest sports event. It’s tradition. Automakers have been rolling out their best here since at least Super Bowl III, when the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote took a break from their regularly scheduled Sisyphean adventures to canvas the wares of a Plymouth dealership.

In fact, no single regularly-scheduled event in the world—not the Frankfurt Auto Show, not a Formula 1 Grand Prix, not even the Fast & Furious franchise, which is somehow scheduled to continue past at least Super Bowl 55—has managed to consistently pack in as much automotive entertainment-per-second. Sure, there have been some stinkers over the years. But most of the ads have been entertaining. Some have been true works of art.

Also, we left out the adorable Volkswagen “Darth Vader” ad, because it was such a clear favorite, it’d have thrown the curve for the rest of them. It’s like the way people exclude Shane from “Greatest Westerns” retrospectives.

8. Nissan 300ZX, “Dream” (1990)

Ridley Scott may be best known for films like Gladiator and Alien, but he’s also cranked out plenty of incredible commercial work over the years. This Nissan ad, featuring the sleek, minimalist 300ZX, shows him at his best.

7. Chevrolet SSR, “Soap” (2004)

Some of the best ads, like this Chevy commercial, barely feature cars at all.

6. Nissan Maxima, “Pigeons” (1997)

It’s anthropomorphic dive-bomber pigeons in a guano-based Top Gun parody. How could we not love it?

5. Audi R8, “Godfather” (2008)

After years of existing as something of a second-tier German luxury carmaker, Audi finally got really, really serious about fighting BMW and Mercedes-Benz on their terms in the mid-Aughts. Nothing announces you’re playing for keeps like a good old-fashioned Godfather parody.

4. Mercedes-Benz, “Welcome” (2011)

Making a Super Bowl ad that goes smart-ass or crude is easy. Making one that’s heartfelt and yet not corny? That’s tricky.

3. Jeep, “Snow Covered” (1994)

Remember what we wrote earlier about ads that don’t show much of the car? Take that all the way to the logical extreme, and you have this masterpiece.

2. Chrysler 200, “Born of Fire” (2011)

When history classes study Detroit’s renaissance 100 years from now, they’ll watch this ad. (Shame it was for such a crappy car, though.)

1. Ford GT, “The One” (2004)

It’s 60 seconds of the purest car porn: a Ford GT hauling ass around a track. Even 14 years later, we still get goosebumps when we watch it.