Texas®

I never thought it would happen to me.

You see, I’ve had a lot of companions lately. Strong, athletic Germans have raced through my life. Elegant Brits have danced with my affections. Fiery Italian exotics come for a short passionate visit, only to be replaced by Nordic beauties. Strong, Midwestern wholesome wonders have stayed for a while and dozens of pretty little things from Asia have stopped by.

Sometimes I grow fond of them – rarely they disappoint – but each leaves me with an impression and when they are gone I long to see the next one. Sometimes I miss the really exceptional ones, remembering them fondly long after they are gone. Honestly some never leave much of an impression at all and I have to struggle to think of anything unique. I see so many, sometimes I don’t really get to know them as well as I should.

I am a little jaded, a little spoiled and generally it takes a lot to impress or get under my skin.

That is why I was surprised when this little one snuck up and stole a little bit of my heart.

Everyone has their own triggers. The things that make them go “Oooh!” For me, I have developed a desire for lack of drama; a low-maintenance, easygoing companion who accepts the burdens of my profession. I often have to carry lots of studio and camera gear with me. I love just happening on a country road in the middle of nowhere and turning in regardless of the road’s condition to see where it goes.

On my personal list of things I absolutely require in a partner is acceptance of my four legged friends. I have two large Labrador Retrievers who love to come with me on these trips. They shed, drool and get remarkably dirty when they try, so you really have to be able to handle them too. In my darkest times they are there for me and I would rather spend my limited free time with them than with most people I deal with. So not being able to accommodate them is really a deal breaker.

When Toyota dropped off the 2011 FJ Cruiser I didn’t expect it to hit me so quickly. It looks like a little Tonka Truck and the version left here really looked like someone at Hasbro should get behind it with a GI Joe package.

When they first introduced the FJ my first impression was mixed, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t bigger. Now that I have been living with it for a week I realize I was wrong. Its size is just right for me.

Those who require more of a functional back seat may find the mini-UTE just a little too compact for them, but for me it’s ideal. The size reminds me a lot of the old Ford Bronco II, before it started getting bigger and bigger under the Explorer name. In some ways it is very much like the original couple of generations of Toyota’s 4Runner, equipped with rubberized floor mats and vinyl weave seats. This is about as low maintenance an interior you can find in the market and cleans up with a wet rag. This is definitely a dog approved truck.

The exterior of the FJ is rather unique as well. The wheels are pushed to the far corners leaving next to no overhangs which makes running up and over objects a breeze. It has a high step in for such a little truck but that also means the undercarriage has no dangling bits to obstruct, snag or drag.

One thing you realize when you are driving the FJ is you become aware how many other FJ’s there are out there. Some are totally stock. But I kept running across customized, dedicated off road FJ’s with beefed up suspensions, winches, off-road light packages and stout roof rack configurations. I gotta tell ya’: I like that a lot. It shows acceptance in a very critical market by those who take their off road abilities seriously.

This is a serious little off-road truck capable of grinding down soggy trails or climbing up rocky wash outs. This is something that is very important to me and being a true truck has its compromises, on road it is a little choppy but you can go places you would have to walk to if you were driving a Rav4.

On the highway, the rounded off cube is a little susceptible to gusty wind, you can feel it pushing the truck around and isn’t exactly a speed demon but I love the total functionality packaging, low maintenance interior and legitimate off road abilities.

It is not a huge truck and that is ok with me. In my world, the back seats would be superfluous anyhow, pretty much always folded flat for cargo and dogs. All of the interior surfaces have an industrial grade feel and look which work well with the overall package.

The FJ is one of those vehicles inspired by something from the past. There was a time that Toyota made these Land Cruisers that were blunt tools rather than the leather wrapped tall station wagons parked in the pick up lane at the Montessori school. It was intended just to be a show car or styling display for the auto show circuit as a “Modern” turn on the 1960’s FJ40. The old truck is still on the road all over the developing world renown for its easy maintenance and rugged reliability.

When the public saw the FJ Toyota suddenly realized they had better figure out how to build it

The demand was there from a public looking for a real S and a capital U in an SUV, rather than a mincing pretender crossover. My preference would be to hit the standard 4.0l V6 and manual transmission. I might even gussy it up a touch with an enhanced wheel package, but more likely I would go with the roof rack.

Pricing runs in starting at 25,900.00 and tops out at pretty reasonable mid-thirties. I was kind of chuckling when I realized the low-end of the price point was available in a two-wheel drive variation. I don’t really see buying this one in 2wd. Simply put: It’s just not appropriate.

I’ve been a fan of the 4Runner for a long, long time, but a couple of years ago the footprint of their go-anywhere-truck started to expand. In order to appeal more to those soccer mom’s and pretend SUV purchasers the 4runner gained weight, size and most notably price. The FJ has filled a down market slot that has captured a pretty sizable chunk of customers who might be shopping it and Jeep’s iconic Wrangler.

The Wrangler is a fantastic vehicle, but decades of build issues have tainted it a bit. But this FJ has, for me, a siren song that draws me to it.

I am smitten. If the guys from Toyota are looking for me on Monday to get their truck back, well, um… I will be back, sometime. I just didn’t want to give it up just yet.

A number of years ago my friend, comedian Henry Cho, pointed out there is a tradition in the South, and especially in Texas, if you don’t have something nice to say about someone you just say: “Bless your heart.” It’s a classic, polite-but-biting, passive-aggressive put down.

Your neighbor chops his toe off with his lawnmower: “Bless his heart.” You’ve seen a baby that looks like it may have escaped from either the zoo or a Ringling Brothers Circus, “Bless his heart.” The woman at the office who can’t figure out how to open a link in an email, “Bless her heart.” Dodge rolls out the so-called “new” Avenger? Bless their hearts.

Dodge is in transition. Again. The current Avenger is a mid-life update of the mid-sized four-door sedan that Dodge sells tons of. Unfortunately, such sales figures are thanks mostly to budget-minded rental car companies and not real-life consumers. It was introduced in 2008 as the replacement of the Cloud cars (Stratus and Sebring), just as Dodge was beginning to descend down a very dark road into bankruptcy.

Honestly, Dodge does do a number of things right. They make fantastic full-sized trucks, great full-sized cars, such as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. They also make some fun muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger and, well, let’s face it, they own the minivan.

What Chrysler has never done well is build a good small car. It’s the weak hand in a stacked deck. Look back in the same market space and you’ll see a tremendous trend of sad, tepid little cars like the Plymouth Breeze, or the Dodge Reliant K Car. Even before those, however, the Dart and Plymouth Volaré we’re taking up space in lots. Not even Ricardo Montalban could charm his way out of that dud.

Even their smaller cars have a history of being problematic. The first car that I bought myself, with my own money was a Plymouth Horizon, so I have a great deal of hands-on experience dealing with this story. The current smallest Dodge is the Caliber, which replaced the Neon. I’ve referred to this car as one of the worst cars in the market today, as it’s awkward, underpowered and just plain ugly.

I was driving the Avenger around when I had to do a little soul searching on this. I had to wonder if the issue with the car was me, actually. I’ve spent 25+ years reviewing cars and honestly, most of what I end up reviewing are sports, luxury and some pretty high-end rolling stock. So, there I was, sitting in the driver’s seat of the Avenger thinking: “I have more comfortable lawn furniture!” when I then wondered to myself, “Am I a car snob?”

Is the fact that the car is cheap casting such a bad taste in my mouth? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve driven a lot of other “cheap” cars that are thrifty in a way that seems to have a far more cohesive package.

I also have a fundamental belief that your standard-of-care on an economy model must be higher because the money being invested into the purchase is considerably more of the consumers total worth. If you are buying a $19,000 car, you’re doing so because you really need it. Odds are, you’re buying a car to transport a young family and possibly to get to multiple jobs to keep a roof over your head. Your monthly car note will be the second biggest expense behind your home and every penny has to count.

Further up the food chain of options, where people go out and buy Jaguars, or Land Rovers, the percentage of income-to-vehicle is not nearly as dire. That end of the market has its value, but odds are the customer has never had to take a jar into the “CoinMaster” to make the car payment.

So it’s not really a snobbery thing, after all, I too understand the reality of creating a meal out of offerings from the “Dollar Store,” and pinching a penny ’til Lincoln yells “uncle!” I realized the other day that my wardrobe has come almost exclusively out of Marshall’s and Ross, and the reason I learned auto-mechanics was because of that Plymouth Horizon. For me, it was either: Learn how to fix it myself or start earning more money to pay someone else to do it.

So in a way, I kind of owe part of my career to Chrysler for building such a horrific car back in the 1980’s. And if the Avenger was available then, it would have been one of the best cars in the market, where even into the 1990’s, the bar was higher and this would have been considered a run-away success. As the standard has increased along with the level of competition, I can’t help but say if I were looking for something in this price bracket the Avenger simply would not be the one for me.

Kia, Hyundai and even Ford have far better driving cars in this space, which are head and shoulders above the Avenger.

I spent some time with my friend Tony, who recently purchased an Avenger. In discussing why he made this choice, I understood that it was more of an appliance purchase than it was one of a car enthusiast. His principal automotive need is to get to work, and he looked at the Kia and Hyundai, but the Avenger simply had a bigger back seat for his growing, soccer-playing daughters. The Avenger does have a much bigger back seat than the competition, and as he put it, “I got the biggest car I could get at the price.” He loves his Avenger because it does what he bought it for, but also points out that if the family is going on a trip, they’ll be loading into his wife’s Pacifica.

It’s extraordinarily expensive to bring a new car into the market. From concept to curbside, it takes years and untold millions of dollars. The Avenger’s midlife update is a step in the right direction, at least. It’s better than the Avenger it replaces and in reality, it’s the end of the whimpering line of cars from Detroit.

Chrysler has never really figured out how to build a good small car their new owners, Fiat, specializes in. Not only do they have the experience, designers and desire to excel in this market, they also have that indefinable Italian passion that exudes confidence and flair.

I look forward to what comes out of the new Chrysler as they invest in the replacement for this rental-ready Avenger, as well as its sister car, the Chrysler 200. Sorry, Chrysler: Even with Eminem providing the Detroit-centric theme music for the rebirth of the company, I can’t help but think of another Southernism I once heard an old rancher say: “You can’t polish a turd. Bless your heart.”

The arrival of Jaguar’s exquisite XF-R supercharged sports sedan this week started me thinking of another time and another place where Great Britain and the rest of the world was facing down the technological wonders coming from Germany while standing toe to toe with oblivion. That time was the early stages of World War II when German aircraft, lead by Junker’s bombers, Messerschmitt fighters and Stüka dive bombers, traversed the narrow English Channel and began a direct assault on the British homeland.

The Brit’s were facing the most advanced technological bombardment in history and the first direct assault on the homeland since the days William the Conqueror in 1066. One of the only things standing in the way of defeat was the Royal Air Force and a handful of fighter planes like the Hurricane and the Spitfire.

In today’s automotive battlefield, the struggle for market superiority has been lead by an all out assault of technology and speed from the four main German companies: Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi and Porsche. Each has a commanding beachhead in the luxury sport sedan market, the newest entry from Porsche is their first sortie into the sedan class ever.

Across the market the Jaguar competes directly with BMW’s M5, the Benz E 63 AMG, Audi’s S6 and Porsche’s Panameria, all of which represent the highest mark of desirability and near perfection in the market. All are fast, powerful, nimble and beautiful examples of what can be achieved when you have all your mojo tied up in one very great car.

The Jaguar XF-R is the equal of each and, in some ways, superior to them. Given the market, the 538 horse power, supercharged super sedan comes in at a relative “bargain” at $81,000, our test drive price. It is approximately $20K less than its most likely comparable competitors from BMW and M+B.

It really wasn’t that long ago that Jaguar was facing its own oblivion. Its own rich history began in the earliest days of the automotive timeline. Founded in 1922 as the Swallow Side Car Company, what we now know as Jaguar began as a motorcycle side-car manufacturer building light weight, aerodynamic bodies out of aluminum.

In the 1930’s, they expanded into automobiles first as a coach builder taking other peoples chassis and engines and wrapping them in some of the most beautiful and aerodynamic aluminum automotive bodies in history, but those pesky Germans altered the company early on as the Swallow Sport or “SS” name wound up changed to Jaguar, as the “SS” designation became a liability of truly epic proportions.

The specialty of working with aluminum and other then-exotic alloys was exploited in the war effort’s building components for the British Air Force including the Spitfire. Outnumbered by a very aggressive and organized foe, the Spitfire was by many accounts the closest thing to perfection to their pilots. Light and nimble and with massive effort, the limited numbers of Spitfires and pilots stood up against the Germans and have been referred to as “The Few” by Winston Churchill.

I have talked to old Spitfire fighters who say the airplane is one that you put on rather than got in to, with speed and agility they managed to take on superior numbers and defend queen and country.

In many ways Jaguar is now the “Few” as most of the once famous great manufacturers of Britain have succumbed to shoddy quality, labor unrest and just simply unsustainable business practices. By the 1970’s Jag had placed their survival in non-domestic sales, finding their beautiful but problematic cars well received in the USA and other areas as opulent expressions of wealth. It also found itself as a part of the most dysfunctional businesses in history: British Leyland.

In the early 1980’s Jaguar was liberated from the foundering of Leyland and rode a successful run in the USA with the introduction of the newest XJ series that became one of the icons of success and old school snobbery in the USA. At the same time, Jag dabbled back into the world of international racing where it had earned a reputation in the 1950’s with racing legends like American Phil Hill and Sir Sterling Moss establishing the name Jaguar in the public.

After Ford bought Jaguar in the early 90’s, they discovered a company that was in desperate need of a complete overhaul, and they invested tens of billions doing just that. Just last year Ford finally got out from under selling Jaguar and Land Rover to Indian automotive manufacturer TATA.

Two things of note here: the XF is the result of complete market commitment by Ford to build an “entry” and superior level car that the public would embrace as a True Jaguar. During Fords run at the helm, Jag introduced an exceptional failure of the X type (basically a retagged Volvo S40) and the S type (which shared running gear with Domestic Lincoln LS Series and the European Ford Mondao) to varying levels of success.

While still married to Ford, Jaguar opened new manufacturing facilities completely re-tooled how they built cars and, most importantly, changed electronic suppliers from fellow British basket case company Lucas Electric, to Boshe of Germany. New designs were penned, new supply chains established and imbued the company with a new expectation of excellence. At the same time the inefficient manufacturing systems were eliminated and hourly work force was chopped in half.

Just as the “Auto Bailouts” were hitting for General Motors and Chrysler, Ford managed to avoid having to ask for the governmental hand-out, partially by selling Land Rover and Jaguar to TATA and Aston Martin to the people behind the ProDrive Rally Race Team.

With this cash in hand, Ford let loose its hold on a British icon, and now all reports being very positive, TATA has continued with a commitment to Jaguar announcing just this week the sad little X-type is being replaced with a BMW 3 series competitor.

In this market the XF-R now stands alone as one of the only British nameplates left. Rolls Royce is now a part of BMW, Bentley is part of Volkswagen and MINI is another BMW asset.

The market these cars are in is truly the highbrow sector of the auto business where ‘Need and Want’ quotients are all about the W-A-N-T. Because of how high the bar is placed just to enter this segment, it truly is one of the greatest selections of perfection in automotive design history. All of these cars are excellent, fast, comfortable and beautiful in their own right.

The interior of the XF-R is stunning and wrapped in hand stitched, two toned leather with perforations that provide an air conditioned seating option that is a wonderful way to spoil yourself on a hot Texas day. The rest is carbon fiber and brushed aluminum that exhibits the level of fit and finish which is truly Teutonic rather than the lack luster Anglo expectation. In this car the wood inserts are hand stained and polished ebony, rather than the burled wood you may expect from Jag.

Performance wise the XF we looked at a few months ago was a great car but the “R” brings a supercharger to the equation and ups the horsepower and torque without really diminishing the fuel economy that much.

The overall fit and finish of both the interior and exterior are flawless, which is a word that does not easily come to mind from anyone who has history with Jaguar.

The Second World War and how, during the battle of Brittan, the resolute and besieged island stood alone against the Germans is a pivotal point in history. Sadly, many people today forget the sacrifice so many made over 60 years ago but thankfully there are places like the Cavanaugh Flight Museum where we found the Spitfire in the accompanying pictures to learn about this period.

Talking to Assistant Director and pilot Kevin Raulie can be like taking a page out of a history book and the selection of WW1, WW2, Korea and Vietnam era airplanes is second to none in the area. Inside the hanger with the Spitfire was an example of more than one of her old advisories from Germany when “the Few” stood alone.

The XF-R is the finest example of any point of output from Great Britain in the history of automotive production. It is fast, beautiful and exceptionally well sorted out. After suffering from a much deserved reputation for reliability issues and an equally well deserved reputation for building some of the most beautiful cars in history Jaguar may now stand alone but it is standing strong ready to take on the best the world has to throw its way.

I couldn’t help but make these comparisons after driving the Jag, standing alone against superior numbers of exceptional German vehicles it truly is the British auto industry’s finest hour.