Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bought another Jeep - God help me, it's a crossover

After two previous Jeep Grand Cherokees (plus a rental), you could probably call my wife and I "Jeep people". I'm still old-school when it comes to SUV's - when I was a kid, I did go off-roading with friends, and to me the term "SUV" still means "pickup truck with a roof". A "crossover" is just a big hatchback - very few real SUV's even still exist.

You wouldn't think any of that'd matter in the suburbs of New York City, and crossovers sure are popular these days for urban/suburban folk like us. But this area often has 2 to 3 feet of snow on the ground in winter, and the poor roads have a way of shredding both tires and suspensions in a way that even a decent dirt road wouldn't. When half of a paved road is missing due to potholes, it's worse than not having any asphalt at all. Our PT Cruiser went through three full sets of control arms (the third time, out of warranty, cost us $1,000), our Mini has already popped one tire in the first few months of ownership, and even our current Grand Cherokee has needed some minor suspension repairs.

That Grand Cherokee is now 10 years old. It's served us well, but it's time for it to go. I knew replacing it wouldn't be easy. We wanted something tough but the few pickup-based SUV's left are usually cruise ships and very expensive, so we did look at some crossovers too. Our bank balance only has so many zeroes, our driveway only so much square footage.

We narrowed things down to a few compact SUV's and crossovers based on a combination of price, capability and looks, and we resolved to drive them all. These are the very disparate options we looked at, and the reasons why we considered and ultimately rejected them:

1. Nissan Xterra. This is one of the last "real" compact SUV's and we almost bought one. It's the right size, it's truck-based, has good power, excellent ground clearance and is the only vehicle we looked at with tires we wouldn't need to immediately replace. The problem is that it's just old (last redesigned in 2004), and it gets terrible mileage. We were buying rather than leasing and looking at resale value 6+ years down the line, the Xterra's probably not going to have any. But we liked it, and if we were leasing we might have made a different choice.

2. Mercedes GLK and GLA. My wife's wanted a Mercedes since she was little and we thought we could maybe stretch and afford a pre-owned one, or even a new GLA. I thought I could live with one if she really wanted it. They are nice looking inside and out. But the GLA's just too small and my wife didn't feel any connection to the GLK. And both would have required too many sacrifices from us to afford, especially if we weren't gaga over either one.

3. Nissan Rogue. The newly-redesigned Rogue isn't really that ugly up close, although I still think it's basically a minivan. But it has monstrous cargo space - my jaw actually dropped when the sales guy opened the hatch. Looking back to front is like looking from the back of a 777 cabin up to the cockpit. It's the only vehicle we looked at that matched our Grand Cherokee in stuff-carrying. It drove ok but it is very car-like (a negative for me) and the CVT transmission was pretty annoying. I also didn't have confidence it'd hold up to this area's roads and weather.

4. Mazda CX-5. Everything I read told me this was the crossover to beat - the unsung hero, the sleeper hit you've never heard of because poor Mazda just doesn't have the marketing budget of the big boys. It was supposed to be fun to drive, but on the test drive it felt like pretty much every other underpowered crossover. I drove the 2.5 (the 2.0 is no longer even offered) but still it felt slow. In corners it felt like a big PT Cruiser. It did have good cargo space, but the interior was really chintzy, and even our brand new tester rattled. Its AWD system is also fully automatic and allows no driver input. I do like the exterior, though.

5. A CPO Jeep Grand Cherokee. New Grand Cherokees are out of our price range but pre-owned we could probably swing. Still, even after looking at a 2012 with only 16,000 miles that I thought was a pretty sweet deal, my wife wasn't sold on buying something caked with somebody else's dirt and grime.

We ended up going with something we initially didn't even talk about: a new Jeep Cherokee Latitude. Go on, get it out of your system - you get used to the styling. I already think it just looks normal. It's like the first-gen Ford Taurus - eventually every car's going to look even weirder.

Why the Cherokee won:

It's still a Jeep and it's built for stuff like this. Which means it's going to eat New York roads and snow for breakfast.

No, we didn't buy a top-end off-road Trailhawk with "optional Mopar wheels", but:

  • A transmission upgrade to Active Drive II gives you real 4WD (with a "low" mode).
  • The same upgrade also gives you heavy duty off-road suspension and 1" more ground clearance. 
  • You can get it with a V6, and so equipped, it totally smokes its nearest competition. (Not the Xterra, though, which moves pretty good.) This is the real "sporty" crossover, not the CX-5.
  • The interior's almost as nice as the Mercedes' we looked at, minus the wood.
Long story short, while most crossovers we looked at were way more "car" than "SUV", the Cherokee's more of an SUV that just happens to be built on a shared car platform. At least if you get it how we ordered it.

Weird thing was the dealer had no idea Active Drive II even existed - they learned about it from us. It took us two visits and several hours total to figure out that neither they nor any other dealer around had one on the lot with that option, then probably another hour for them to figure out how to build one to order. (It's quick order package "27J" if you have the same problem with your dealer.)

A marathon of haggling followed that only seemed a fitting end to our 2 month-long search. We squeezed every dollar we could out of our dealer, trying to get them to match a TrueCar price (which I know only applies to in-stock vehicles) and to give us a reasonable trade-in on our current Grand Cherokee. They finally did in the end, but we were at that dealer from 3:30 to 9PM. We are a car dealer's worst nightmare. But we really wanted to make the deal, and we did.

Now we just have to wait for the custom build.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

When taking batting practice, always remember your leather jacket

Just going through my photos from Japan looking for stuff to write about. My wife and I always do a bunch of random stuff that never makes it to the blog. This is me, at the batting center on top of the Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara. Don't ask me why an electronics store has batting cages. Don't ask me why I was batting in the rain in this getup either. That's just what I do.

Nagoya - Japan 10/2014

At this rate, I might finish this trip report before my next one...

I've sort of been to Nagoya before, but never really in the city proper. My wife and I had a day to kill before a concert happening nearby, so we decided to finally explore the city. Obviously, this meant a shinkansen ride - always a high point of any Japan trip!

No green car this time - we weren't using a rail pass and this little day trip was already costing us far too much. I mean we almost didn't even go - I wanted to see Scandal again, but I really did not realize it was going to cost $400 to get there and back until we actually went to buy the train tickets. My wife had to convince me that I'd regret it if we didn't go through with it at that point. We already had third row tickets to the show.

Ordinary cars are still pretty comfortable on the shinkansen. Just a tiny bit less so than the green cars, and you'd better grab the food cart lady when she passes you the first time because chances are she ain't comin' back.

Obligatory Mt. Fuji shot from the train. It is surprisingly difficult to get a good shot of Mt. Fuji while traveling at 160mph. Every single shot I took except this one has a pole right in the middle.

It's the 50th anniversary of the shinkansen and Japan is celebrating all over the place. Signs are everywhere and even the post office is selling commemorative stamp booklets.

Nagoya station.

This is supposedly a very famous udon noodle shop that's in an underground mall near Nagoya station - my wife really wanted to eat here and her brother wanted her to buy some noodles to bring back home. I don't remember the name of this place, but I'll update if I find it again. By the time we left, the line was like 100 people long. (We got there at about 11AM and there was no line to speak of).

My udon. To be honest... I couldn't eat it. It's not my style. The broth tasted... brown. Very brown. Kinda burnt, somehow. The noodles are extremely thick and slightly undercooked, which is intentional - they're supposed to be whatever the Japanese equivalent of "al dente" is. That's what this place is famous for. I just found it kind of unappetizing. I went to McDonald's afterwards.

We didn't have anything really planned in the city but as we left the station and started walking around, we happened upon a ska festival.

It turned out this kind of thing was going on all over the city. I don't know if it was just the one weekend we were there, but there seemed to be free concerts and other outdoor events happening pretty much everywhere we turned. The city seems like a pretty happening town. You don't see this kind of thing much at all in Tokyo, but you could almost turn your head in any direction and see some other outdoor event going on somewhere.

Nagoya TV Tower. I have a kind of obsession with Japan's towers. Every city has at least one, and I always visit them in any new city I go to.

Partial view from the tower. This is Nagoya!

I'm not sure exactly what this is but it looked interesting. There was an event going on here too.

Another view of the tower, and some of the remnants of the various events that were already winding down at that point.

After this we did a little shopping and then hopped back onto public transportation to take us way out to Fujia University for our Scandal concert - you can read about that here if you want.

More soon!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

"7-11 exclusive" beer - Grand Kirin - Japan 10/2014

I feel like I didn't actually do that much new and interesting on this trip to Japan, but I did take a bunch of photos of random weird stuff. One of those is Grand Kirin, a high-end beer that you can only get at Japanese 7-11's:

I'm not sure what "dip hop & aroma brewing" means. It comes in a funky bottle with a funky cap that's halfway between a regular beer bottle cap and a 1980's-vintage pull tab:

It tasted pretty good, although basically like a double strong version of Kirin. It was very malty. That's one thing I've noticed about the Japanese and beer - they love the flavor of malt. Every beer that tries to be premium advertises how malty it is. It's what they think good beer is supposed to be. And this one really is.

I will say that there's something about Japan that always temporarily turns me into a heavy beer drinker. Generally, their beers are just a lot more drinkable than ours - including our alleged imports from Japan! They're very clean and fresh tasting but they still have a lot more flavor (of malt, mostly) than our beers. And people drink them at all hours, everywhere - it's not necessarily weird to get on the train at 9AM and crack open a beer. (Though it does somewhat depend on the kind of train.)

Anyway, more random stuff soon!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Kimura Kaela's KAELAND "Poppin' Park" - Yokohama Arena - Japan 10/2014

This is probably going to be kind of a rambling show report since it's been more than a month since I got home, but I'll try to share my experiences as best as I can.

My wife and I have been Kaela fans since close to the beginning - I've written about her here before. She was huge for a while in Japan - basically as big as any of the big Japanese pop stars that for some reason are more famous than Kaela in the States. Not many people even in Japan can go just by one name - say "Kaela" there and everyone knows who you're talking about. Ayumi Hamasaki had nothing on Kimura Kaela back in 2006 or 2007. But Kaela was as much rock as pop (and she started in an awesome garage band, which Sony would prefer you didn't know about), so she's got a lot more street cred than most of the country's pop divas.

It seemed like she sort of fell off the face of the Earth for a while - Wikipedia seems to show that she's been releasing stuff pretty regularly but it also shows that not many people have been buying her recent albums. (The last one I bought was "+1".) I think she basically stopped doing any PR or much touring - she was in full-on mom mode for a while after getting married and having a kid or two (I honestly don't know how many, haven't been following her lately).

She announced two back-to-back shows at the quite-large Yokohama Arena that happened to coincide with us being there this year, and people went nuts. Both shows sold out really fast. This was billed as a 10th anniversary "greatest hits" kind of show, and I also got the feeling it was almost like a soft comeback. Like she was announcing to Japan that she was ready to be a full-on star again, with all that that entails.

We managed to get seats to the second show when they opened up the last level of tickets, and they were pretty crap seats:

We knew that going in though. We were actually in the second row of the top level, but there's a big wall between levels so we felt kind of like we were watching the show from outside. The show was really happening below and in front of us. Everybody in our section was totally lame; the entire first level and floor were fist-pumping, jumping maniacs, but the whole row in front of us just sat motionless through the show and most of the rest of our section did too.

That photo should also give you an idea of both the size of the arena (it holds 30,000 people - though probably less for this configuration - and it was eventually full) and the size of her stage setup. It was easily the biggest indoor stage I've ever seen in person. It was almost absurd, and out of scale with reality. She was so high up that I actually felt bad for people in the front, because there's no way they could see anything except a black wall. Just look at how much higher the edge of the stage is than the crowds' heads. Kaela did use that full width, though, and the stuff on the sides lit up during the show - it was pretty impressive.

That photo is the only one I got inside because it is of course completely prohibited to take photos at Japanese concert venues and many announcements were made to that effect, worded so sternly that they made my wife laugh. (Something like "your camera will be confiscated and your memory card destroyed".) I really wish Japan would catch up to the US in this area - it's free marketing, guys!

We got there a bit late and of course all the good merchandise was sold out. They had XL size t-shirts! Never have I seen this at a Japanese concert. I would have totally bought and rocked one of those shirts. But I had to settle for a towel, which ended up not even getting used. Kaela apparently doesn't have any "towel songs" like some Japanese bands do, which I didn't realize.

Kaela seemed to arrive a bit late (from the sound of it, by helicopter) and the show started about 20 minutes late as a result. I don't recall any big entrance, I think she just ran out onto the stage in the darkness and then the lights came up. Her outfit was 100% tie-dyed, which was supposed to be "pop" according to her but all I could think of was 1970's Cher.

As for the show itself, here's a set list I found elsewhere (small pic of her in the tie-dye outfit at that link too):

02.リルラ リルハ
03.Ring a Ding Dong
05.Ground Control
07.OLE! OH!
12.A winter fairy is melting a snowman
16.What ever are you looking for?
19.Make my day!
21.Magic Music
En1.Today Is A New Day
En2.sonic manic(新曲)
En3.Super girl

A couple of those songs are new - she announced her upcoming album "MIETA" at the show. One of the new songs was pretty good, but the other really sounded like Katy Perry.

(I don't only mean that in a bad way. Her voice sounded great at this show, with amazing range and perfect pitch. I detected no auto-tune or lip-syncing either.)

But she also played pretty much all my favorite songs except for the Tamio Okuda-penned "Beat" and "1115". She didn't play any guitar at all as she used to do when I followed her more closely, but that's alright. I understand she's a pop star now and this was also the "pop" version of the two Yokohama Arena shows. The previous night was titled "Rockin' Zoo" and who the hell knows what went on there, it could have been a full-on orgy of punk complete with a mosh pit and Kaela smashing guitars and spitting up blood on stage for all I know. (Hey, time was she might have actually done those things, and she does still wear NOFX patches on her hat.)

In fact my favorite song of the whole show was "Jasper", which is weird because it is practically disposable as a studio track. You never know what's going to sound good live. First, it's got a really driving beat that really builds in intensity in person - you can feel it. Second, they really kicked up the light show at this point in the concert - pretty sure this was when they first broke out the lasers. And third, she's just got this really mesmerizing way of moving. I actually kind of forgot how good of a dancer she is in general. She's got a style that's all her own; she dances like she's made of rubber or something, like she's boneless.

She of course did a few long MC's and told a bunch of jokes and made the crowd laugh a lot, because one of the things people like about her is how weird she is. She bantered back and forth directly with audience members a bunch of times, which was unexpected given how much the stage separated her from everyone. I think she even dealt with a heckler at one point! It sure sounded that way anyway, but she dispatched him utterly with a series of smiling one-liners. She never looked phased.

Oh, but she did cry at the end. I feel like it wouldn't be a proper Kaela show if she didn't. On the one live DVD of hers that I own - "Live Scratch" - she bawls uncontrollably for literally about four minutes.

Anyway, there will be a DVD of both of these shows too, no doubt separated somehow to milk the most money out of us customers. It was actually announced at the show, so I'll be watching for it pretty soon.

03/25/2015 UPDATE!

The DVD/Blu-ray is out!

And Victor Entertainment has released this trailer/preview:

They don't show it there, but yes, Kaela did play guitar during the "Rockin' Zoo" day. That first night had so much more energy than the show we went to! I really wish we'd gone on both days. Our "Poppin' Park" show did have more of my favorite songs, but it was super-mellow compared to day one.

Monday, December 01, 2014

My blog is whole again

This is a quick housekeeping note. I posted a while ago about splitting my blog up into several sub-blogs with distinct themes, rather than this random collection of stream-of-consciousness musings about everything and nothing. Well, it ain't happenin' - just caused me too many problems. In fact, most of the posts that I had split off are now back here where they started.

I wrote some new posts in the meantime at those other blogs and while the posts from Tech Purist are now integrated here too (scroll down and/or backwards), I'm not sure what to do about some of the others. They may not all get reposted.

Some things just weren't meant to be, I guess.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP