As I blogged about earlier, a few weeks ago I ended up driving the RAV4 through an unexpected flock of low-flying geese. I ended up taking out two of them, and they ended up taking out the RAV’s grill and the left headlight. The bodyshop guy guessed it would cost at least $1000 to fix.

Well, we just got the RAV back from the body shop, and it turned out to cost a lot more than that. In addition to replacing the headlight and most of the grill, the body shop also straightened and repainted the hood and the right fender, and replaced the radio antenna.

The real damage, however, came because the goose that struck the grill ended up breaking through to strike the air conditioning condenser, bending it in the process. That, in turn, bent the radiator and one of the mounting brackets. As the body shop guy explained to me, even though both of those parts could probably have been fixed, neither he nor the insurance company ever wants to hear about this incident again, so they decided to give me a brand new radiator and condenser.

Total cost of parts and labor for repairing a Toyota RAV4 after driving at 30 mph into a flock of geese: Just over $3000.

Frickin’ geese.

After last week’s goose strike incident, we dropped off the Toyota RAV4 at the body shop and settled in to use our 14-year-old Dodge Neon.

That lasted until Wednesday when, while driving my wife home from work, I noticed a sharp burning smell in the passenger cabin. It wasn’t an odor I recognized. It wasn’t just overheated engine coolant (I’m familiar with that smell) or leaking oil dripping onto the exhaust manifold (I’m familiar with that smell) or a belt burning up from friction (I’m familiar with that smell) or frying electrical insulation (I’m familiar with that smell). This was something new. That’s a problem, because what if the part of my car that’s burning is one of the important bits?

I decided to play it safe and have my mechanic take a look at it. Unfortunately, this now meant that both of our cars were out of commission. Fortunately, because the RAV’s problems were covered by insurance, we had access to a rental car. The insurance company wouldn’t cover very much of the rental cost, so we had to take the cheapest car they had, which turned out to be one of these:

Hello Yaris
Larger ImageHello Yaris

That’s a Toyota Yaris. It’s a really tiny little car, which worried me, since I am not a really tiny little person. Surprisingly, however, I found it very comfortable. As near as I can tell, it’s roomy inside because it’s built like a giant metallic bubble resting on a set of wheels.

Even more surprisingly, the Yaris turned out to be kind of fun to drive. It doesn’t have a lot of power, but it doesn’t have a lot of weight, either, so it feels peppier than I would have expected from a 1.5 liter four-banger that puts out 106 horsepower. A lot of that comes from the sporty suspension: The car really sticks in the corners.

(You might think that a small car would be really lightweight and responsive, but small cars tend not to be as light as you might expect. At 2300 pounds curb weight, the Yaris weighs almost 2/3 as much as my RAV4, with only a little over 1/3 the horsepower. In part this is because small cars don’t have as much room for energy-absorbing crumple zones to protect the passengers, so much of the protection comes from armoring the passenger compartment, which adds a lot of weight. Thus despite the fact that a Smart Car is absurdly small–almost 4 feet shorter than the Yaris–the Smart Car still weighs in at 1800 pounds because parts of it are built like a tank.)

Probably the most awkward thing about the Yaris is its instrument cluster, which is mounted on the centerline instead of in front of the driver.

The Driver's View
Larger ImageThe Driver's View

I lost count of how many times I glanced down while driving only to realize that there was no instrument cluster in front of me. On the other hand, I’m used to having the cup holders in the center console, not to the left of the steering wheel. That’s the sort of thing that really throws me first thing in the morning.

Anyway, the mechanics couldn’t find anything wrong with the Neon. And when I got it back, the smell seemed to be gone. I guess we’ll wait and see if the situation develops.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are now thinking we might pick up a Yaris as our next second car, after the Neon…catches fire or something.

Remember a few days ago when I mentioned that someone broke the driver’s side window on our old Dodge Neon?

Well, the very next day I was driving my wife to work in our Toyota RAV4. We were in Arlington Heights, and as I turned off the main road, we passed a grassy area where some of the local geese were hanging out. The geese are there all the time, and my wife has probably driven past them a thousand times. But this time, they decided to take off, straight in front of us.

I hit the brakes, but not before two of the damned things thumped into the front of the car.

They scattered right away, and I drove on to my wife’s work just down the block, but I could see that one of the geese was sitting down in the middle of the street, clearly wounded. When we parked, my wife called 911 on her mobile phone and the dispatcher told us they’d send an animal control warden and a cop to take a report.

While she was doing that, I decided to get out and see if there had been any damage to the car. I mean, they’re just birds, but you never know, right?

Sigh. Apparently my car is made of such modern, light-weight, energy-dissipating, pedestrian-friendly materials that a small child could probably tear off half the body parts. Here’s where the first goose hit the grill:

Goose 1 Impact Zone
Larger ImageGoose 1 Impact Zone

And here’s where the second goose hit the headlight.

Goose 2 Impact Zone
Larger ImageGoose 2 Impact Zone

The cop showed up and she told us she’d driven past the geese and one of them looked dead. I was relieved because I don’t like the thought of animals suffering, not even the geese that had damaged my car. The cop told us she didn’t want to actually check on it because the other geese were standing around protecting it, and “they’re real mean.”

I made sure my wife was okay, then I went back home and drove to the body shop to get an idea of the cost of repair. The damage looked minor to me, but I tend to drive my cars into the ground, so I’m a bit insensitive to minor damage. I knew an expert would find more than I was seeing.

Sure enough, it turned out that the goose that hit the headlight had not only broken the headlight bezel, but also crumpled the right fender, crumpled the hood, and knocked the hood out of alignment. The goose that hit the grill had penetrated far enough that the body shop guy thought it might have damaged the air conditioning condenser. And that was just what he could see before he started taking off parts. He said the damage would easily cost more than $1000 to fix.

Those must have been some damned-tough geese.

Update: The butcher’s bill is in.

One of these days I’ll produce a video with some substantive content. But in the meantime, I’m just fooling around with the camera and editing software, trying to learn a thing or two about making videos.

This is me trying to teach myself how to use edited video to tell a story. A pointless story, to be sure, but fortunately also a very short story.

[Update: It occurs to me that journalistic ethics require me to explicitly point out that the front license plate has been photoshopped in.]

My wife and I bought a brand new Toyota RAV4 in February, and we just hit the 5000 mile mark, so I thought I’d post a bit about our experience, in case anyone is thinking of buying one.

The short answer is that the 2008 Toyora RAV4 is pretty amazing. It’s certainly the most fun-to-drive car I’ve ever owned.

The RAV4 what they’re calling a “crossover” vehicle—part SUV, part something else. Toyota likes to say it can’t be categorized, but I’d call it a fast and nimble car-like SUV. It’s like my old Camry, but jacked up off the ground just a bit.

It’s certainly high enough off the ground not to scrape either end when driving across steep curb cuts, which is something my Camry couldn’t do, and the suspension is just a tad stiffer than on the Camry, so I feel the small bumps a bit more, but it will take the larger bumps without reaching the limits of its travel (another problem with the Camry). It just sort of bounces its way over uneven pavement, speed bumps, and other impediments to driving. I like that.

We got the V6 engine, which puts out 269 horsepower, so it’s pretty quick.

(I think it was my mother who asked me if it could really go 140 mph like the speedometer shows. I told her that was just some sort of marketing choice. It turns out I was wrong. Since the speedometer is labeled in increments of 20 mph, a maximum speed of 120 mph would not have been enough: Car & Driver magazine got one up to 129 mph on the test track.)

Now I’d like to talk about a few of the downsides of this otherwise terrific vehicle.

I’m used to smaller cars, so fuel consumption kind of sucks. It’s EPA rated 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, but I’m only getting about 16 mpg. That’s also what Car & Driver got. Their explanation was that they were doing a lot of mountain driving. My explanation is that I’m a leadfoot who’s often stuck in heavy Chicago traffic.

I know I could to better—with a 5-speed transmission, the car can creep up to highway speeds without ever exceeding 2000 rpm—and I really do know how to drive for minimal fuel consumption, but this car is too much fun for that. Why plan ahead and change speed smoothly when you can punch it and feel the kick in the ass?

As I mentioned before, the car is kind of complicated. I have two degrees in computer science and I own a lot of gadgets, but I still found the environmental control console a bit intimidating:

It turns out I mostly just have to press AUTO and adjust the temperature to use it. I eventually figured out what everything else did.

The windshield wiper control arm, on the other hand,is complicated because it controls front wiper speed, intermittent timing, and the windshield washer spray as well as the rear wiper and its separate windshield spray:

The pictograms are easy enough to figure out, but at night, trying to make sense of it in the dark, by feel, while driving through the rain…that’s still a trick or two.

Another annoyance is the passenger seatbelt warning system, i.e. the mechanism that flashes a light and sounds an alarm when the front-seat passenger doesn’t have a seatbelt fastened.

The problem is that the sensors that detect a passenger are too sensitive. If I put my camera bag on the passenger seat or rest my arm on the passenger seat back, the alarm sounds and the light comes on:

The real achilles heel of this car, however, is the front cupholders. They both have removable rubber liners to grip the cups. However, the rubber is so soft and grippy that the liner often stays attached to the cup and pulls out of the holder:

My wife and I have each thrown one away by accident and had to go back for it. We should probably just order the replacements now and keep them in the back.

Earlier this evening I realized I didn’t know why my RAV4 has a tachometer to show engine RPM. My Camry had one too. I don’t think I ever look at it except to tell if the engine is already running. What is that doing for me, really?

With a manual transmission, the tachometer could prevent over-revving the engine and help me judge shift points, but the automatic transmission takes care of all that for me normally. And even if I downshifted—or used a manual transmission—couldn’t a simple limiter keep it from redlining?

I suppose I could use it as a proxy for fuel consumption, allowing me to improve the fuel economy of my driving habits. (Kind of like a vacuum gauge.) But if that’s the point, why not just drive a fuel consumption meter right off the engine management computer?

I think I’d rather have something more useful, like oil and charging system gauges.

We’ve had the new Toyota RAV4 for about 10 days, and I have a few observations:

  • There’s a little digital display in the middle of the dashboard with some numbers on it, but when I first saw it I couldn’t figure out where the odometer was. After a moment, I realized that the odometer must be that little “4” all by itself on one row. I guess I’m not used to seeing less than six digits…
  • The RAV4 is a complicated piece of machinery. It’s got a 5-speed automatic transmission with a switch to lock the differential. There’s anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control. It’s got daytime running lights, parking lights, regular headlights, high beams, and fog lights. It’s got front and rear window wipers, both with intermittent mode. The heating and air conditioning system has about 15 buttons. (I haven’t bought a new car in 10 years, so I don’t know how much of this stuff is standard on cars these days, how much is because it’s an SUV, and how much is because of the trim line we chose.)
  • jbl_logo.gifTo me, the JBL logo on all the sound system components looks more like UBL, and UBL means Usama bin Laden—the old official spelling of Osama bin Laden. It strikes an odd note every time I see it: I’ll probably always think of it as the Usama bin Laden audio system.
  • I wasn’t interested in getting heated seats, because I never really had a problem with my butt feeling cold while the rest of the car was warm. However, they came with the trimline we chose so we have them anyway, and I’ve learned something important: When I start the car cold, the heated seats will be the first thing to get warm.
  • The RAV4 is very easy to drive. From the first test drive at the dealer, it felt just like my Camry, but with a jacked-up suspension. Even that feeling has gone away by now. It has very quickly become just our car.
  • At night it’s easy to forget to turn on the headlights because the running lights come on as soon as I start the car and look just like the headlights. It’s only when I get to a dark area that I notice how much dimmer they are.
  • The tail lights are all LEDs, which should last forever. I don’t know if all cars have this option these days, but they should.
  • The rear window and the side windows behind the first row of seats are all tinted dark enough to keep people from looking in. I didn’t even notice that until the second or third day we had the car.

In roughly 10 days, we’ve put 804 miles on the car. 

After my trusty old Camry gave up the ghost, my wife and I decided to buy an SUV. It was a big deal for me, so I’m going to be blogging about it a bit, in case anyone is interested.

Buying an SUV is insanely complicated because the category covers a lot of vehicles designed for a lot of different purposes, and we had to make some choices. We settled on a few basic criteria.

  • Car-like. SUVs come in two basic types: truck-like and car-like. Truck-like SUVs are strong and heavy and tough, and they’re suitable for some fairly serious off-roading. Car-like SUV’s are basically cars with beefed-up suspensions and drivetrains. This will be our first SUV, so we don’t want anything too radical, and since we’re not planning on any serious off-roading, and we’d appreciate a smooth ride, we decided on a car-like SUV.
  • Small. There are only two of us, and we don’t have hobbies that require a lot of hauling, so we don’t need a huge vehicle.
  • 4-wheel drive. We want a car that will get us through the snow. Besides, if it doesn’t have 4-wheel drive, is it really an SUV?
  • 6-cylinder engine. I just don’t feel comfortable with a 4-banger in a heavy vehicle, and even the smallest SUV is pretty heavy. On the other hand, we’re not planning to do any towing, so an 8-cylinder engine seems like gas-guzzling overkill. A supercharged 4-cylinder engine would also have been okay.
  • Dad-compliant. My 88-year-old arthritic father has to be able to get in and out of the passenger seat, so it can’t be the kind of SUV you have to climb into.

That narrowed it down a lot. After a whole bunch of research and a couple of trips to nearby dealers, we decided to get a Toyota RAV4.

To be honest, we’d been leaning toward the RAV4 even before we did the research. It fit our criteria, and it was a Toyota. Our Camry had impressed the heck out of us for eleven years, and we felt comfortable with the strength of Toyota engineering.

Then it was time to choose the options we wanted:

  • V6 engine and 4WD. This is going to be our workhorse car for quite a while.
  • Moonroof.
  • Towing package. Not the towing gear, just the upgraded radiator and alternator to make it a more rugged vehicle.
  • Leather seats. We got them on the Camry as a luxury, but they proved to be far more durable than cloth seats.
  • JBL 6-CD Premium Audio. We didn’t really want it, but we let the salesman talk us into it. I’m sure we’ll feel real bad about that as we bomb down the road blasting our tunes.
  • Heated seats. Never had them, wanted to try them.

There were also a few things we didn’t want:

  • No third row of seating. We rarely even need the back seat, and the RAV4’s third row is only suitable for children or dwarves.
  • No satellite radio. We’ve had it, and we didn’t think it was worth it.
  • No navigation. We’ve got a portable GPS system.
  • No remote start, no upgraded alarm, no first-aid kit, no cargo tray, no hood protector, no headphones. All are available aftermarket.
  • No white paint. Too much like a rental car. Any other color would be okay.

The dealer didn’t have one like that in stock, so for the first time ever, we ordered a car.

We picked it up on Saturday. I’ll probably be RAV4-blogging for a while.

Ever since we bought our last car in 1998, my wife and I have been thinking that our next car should be an SUV of some kind.

Our 1997 Camry feels roomy inside, but that’s because of good ergonomics. If you try to fit in something not shaped like a human, like a bunch of Banker’s Boxes or a set of shelves from the Container Store, you quickly realize that the back seat has an awkward shape. The trunk isn’t much better. It’s got room for a lot of small things, like grocery bags, but when you try to put in anything big, you realize that there are a lot of protrusions into the trunk space.

The Camry also has some problems in the snow. It’s got traction-controlled front-wheel drive, so it’s not a pig like the Thunderbird, but it’s slung so low that it gets stuck on unplowed streets and parking lots because snow gets packed up underneath it, which takes weight off the wheels, killing the traction.

On the other hand, the Camry had been refusing to wear out. There had been some problems with the water pump and the timing chain around 120,000 miles, and it was burning oil for a while too, but my mechanic fixed that, and the car seemed fine, even after almost 11 years and 190,000 miles.

In fact, it was running so well that right before Christmas I decided to invest a little money to fix it up. I decided to spring for a new wiper motor because intermittant mode had gone away a few years ago and I wanted it back. I also bought four new tires and a new battery. The car had been so reliable that I was hoping to try for a cool quarter-million miles.

A week later, I was driving it one night when the oil light came on and stayed on. I had it towed back to my mechanic, and he called me the next day with the bad news: It had a spun bearing, which is a fatal engine problem. He said he could install a rebuilt engine for a few thousand dollars, but given that every other critical system was just as old, he thought it would be a bad idea.

We hadn’t been planning to buy a new car, so our first thought was to just buy another Toyota Camry. But after thinking about it, we decided it was time to get that SUV we’d been wanting.

I’ve got work to do and this is long enough, so I’ll write more about it later.


Chicago just got pounded with a lot of snow, and driving in it is turning out to be an educational experience. Or maybe I should say a re-educational experience.

After 190,000 miles, my Toyota Camry finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago. I haven’t got a new car yet, but a friend was nice enough to loan me one of her family’s cars in the meantime. It’s a ’97 Thunderbird, and I’m very grateful, but the car is a bit of a handful in the snow.

I guess I’ve become spoiled by anti-lock brakes and traction control, neither of which the T-bird has. I have to be a little more careful than I’m used to. The worst thing about the T-bird, however, is that it has rear-wheel drive, and I haven’t driven a rear-wheel drive car in the snow in 15 years.

For those of you too young to have driven a rear-wheel drive car, or those of you living too far south to have driven a rear-wheel drive car in the snow, let me explain.

If you give a front-wheel drive car too much gas (assuming you have no traction or stability control system) the excess power going to the front wheels tears them loose from the surface of the snow, and they begin to slide. If you’re in a turn at the time, the front of the car will not turn as tightly as you’d like and you’ll go wide around the turn. If you’re going straight, you’ll just not accelerate, and the front end of the car may twitch a little. The rear wheels, however, have no power going to them at all—they’re just there to hold up the back end of the car—so they’ll just keep rolling along like always.

(Heavy braking—without an anti-lock system—can unstick the rear wheels by locking them up, but they’re not going to slide otherwise unless you severely mishandle the car.)

Recovering from a front-wheel drive slide is easy: Just take your foot off the gas and straighten out the steering wheel. As soon as the tires are pointed roughly in the direction you’re going, you’ll have traction again. Even if you don’t straighten the wheels, the tires will probably pick up traction again as soon as you slow down. With a slight jerk, you’re back in control.

On a rear-wheel drive car like the T-bird, the power is all going to the rear wheels, so stepping on the gas too much will make them tear loose.  If you’re going perfectly straight on a level surface, that’s not a big deal: Your car just stops accelerating, and you recover by taking your foot off the gas.

But if there’s any sideways forces acting on the car, such as in a turn, the rear end of the car is going to swing sideways, toward the outside of the turn, and it’s going to swing hard. Even when you’re driving straight, the tilt of a crowned road or even poor wheel alignment can be enough to pull the rear wheels towards the gutters—or towards parked cars.

In the worst case, you can be driving along a normal straight road when suddenly you hit a patch of ice and the rear wheels just take off sideways to the right, twisting the car around to point towards the oncoming traffic lanes.

This is what the T-bird has been doing.

Recovery from this kind of skid takes a little bit of skill. You have to take your foot off the gas, but that’s not enough because your car is still twisted sideways from its direction of travel, and of course there’s no way to turn the rear wheels to recover your traction.

The trick is to turn the front wheels into the skid and keep your foot off the brake so they’ll keep rolling. Pretty quickly, they’ll pull the rear wheels back into line, and they’ll recover their rolling traction. If it happens a little too violently, the rear end may swing past the centerline and fishtail out in the opposite direction, in which case you have to repeat the recovery in the opposite direction.

If you’re not used to a skid like that, it’s pretty scary, and I’ve seen people panic and not take their foot off the gas. The rear end can come completely around, maybe even around-and-around.

(If you do this on purpose, it’s called “doing doughnuts” and you and your friends can take turns seeing who can go around the most times before running out of room.)

Keeping your foot on the gas is less of a problem in front wheel drive car because (a) many of them have traction control, which essentially takes your foot off the gas for you, (b) the spinning wheels can sometimes claw at the snow hard enough to get some traction, and (c) the rear wheels aren’t sliding.

(That’s why you can’t do doughnuts in a modern front-wheel drive car unless you turn off the traction control…and drive backwards…so I’m told.)

When I was growing up in Chicago, I only had rear-wheel drive cars, so learning how to recover from a skid was just part of learning to drive. After some experimentation and a few years of experience, it just becomes second nature. Veteran snow drivers will feel the skid starting and perform the recovery move dozens of times an hour as a normal part of driving, without even thinking about it.

That used to be me, but as I said, it’s been a while. I still know what to do, but it doesn’t come as naturally as it once did. My reactions are blunted by 15 years of front-wheel drive, 10 of them with traction control. I haven’t hit anything, but driving in the snow takes a lot more care now.