Sunday, June 26, 2016

Miscellany: 2013 BMW 328i review - Drei-er Lint

The sixth generation BMW 3-series has met with mixed reviews. It's still the "default" entry-level compact luxury sedan, but the current F30 chassis just isn't as sharp as previous models, and the competition is better than ever. Has the mighty 3-series fallen to second-best? Here are my impressions after 3,000 miles:


Engine - Ironically, the big change that people were worried about back in 2011 - moving from a naturally-aspirated six-cylinder to a turbo four - turned out to be one of the car's biggest strengths. The N20 is an excellent engine, making (at least) 240 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque, but returning an honest 27ish miles per gallon in mixed city/highway driving. On long road trips, I got 30+ mpg, while still having enough pull at 80 mph to pass anything on the highway.

Transmission - This 328i has an eight-speed automatic (the 6-speed manual is a no-cost option, I think). Shifts are quick and smooth, and you can adjust the shift points by putting the car in one of three modes - "Comfort," "Sport," or "EcoPro." The modes make a big difference in the driving experience: EcoPro yields a dull throttleless journey, while Sport mode lets you sacrifice plenty of premium gas in the name of higher revs.

Interior - Though not as plush as say, a C300, the cabin is still pretty comfy. The materials are partly determined by your trim level, but even without any added options, there are soft-touch plastics and leather worked in throughout. And while the latest generation is almost as big as a 5-series from yesteryear, that also means there's room for four American-size adults (five if people are willing to skoosh each other).


Steering - BMW went to electric steering in the F30, and the reception has been almost universally negative. The steering is precise, sure, but it's also strangely light and dead-feeling. It works fine for the daily commute, but people who took the old 3-series on backroads to play will be disappointed.

Suspension - The default suspension is soft - more like an Acura or a Lexus than a traditional BMW. Again, great for riding over bumps on the highway (my rear passengers had no trouble sleeping on a 2-hour trip to the Everglades), but bad for performance.

Value - For a car that probably cost 35 grand to the original owner, it's missing a lot of basic stuff people take for granted, like a backup camera and a spare tire.


Your opinion of the current 3-series probably depends on how you are using it. If you want something that will handle 50-odd miles of commuting every day, hauling kids and groceries, and still being nice enough to take a client around in, this is a fine, fast car. But clearly something has been lost in the handling department that'll take another round of Bavarian engineering to fix.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Guns: Scaremongering

Really, Brownells? I understand trying to move rifle mags, but this seems a little on the nose. I like Natchez's response a lot better:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Books: Chains of Command

I've been following Marko Kloos's "Frontlines" series since its inception, and it's really turning into an excellent military sci-fi saga. In the latest installment, "Chains of Command," the reader finds that protagonist Andrew Grayson has become one of the most experienced combat troopers around, mainly because of an alien invasion of Mars that shattered Earth's military. As such, he's being recruited for a seemingly impossible mission, but one that could swing the balance in the coming war with the aliens.

The first half of "Chains of Command" is a bit slow, a purposeful deep breath after the carnage at the end of the last book, "Angles of Attack." And the series is definitely starting to suffer from the core problem endemic to a long-running first-person military fiction series - namely, that the narrator never gets killed, no matter how dangerous the situations he finds himself in. Still, if you're in this deep, you know you're going to read this, and Kloos does not disappoint.

Miscellany: Big Tree Park

Big Tree Park is an interesting little spot in Seminole County, Florida. It was once the home of "The Senator," a 3,500 year old bald cypress tree that had been a landmark and tourist attraction since the 1800s.

I say "once was" and "had been" because The Senator was destroyed by arson in 2012 (giant historic trees are, weirdly enough, common targets for crime). The remains of the great tree are encircled by a black fence, a mute reminder of man's capacity for senseless destruction.

Not all was lost, though. A smaller and younger companion tree, "Lady Liberty," still stands in the park. If you catch it just right in the fading light, you really do get a sense that the tree is timeless, and that there are some living things that are (thankfully) beyond our ken.

Guns: 300 yards

I rarely get the chance to shoot at any distance longer than 100 yards, so for me, the 300-yard day at the PBSO rifle range is a special treat. The targets are tiny at the firing line, though:

Along for the ride was Son of Frankencarbine! and my Ruger Gunsite Scout. The AR was wearing a Trijicon AccuPoint TR24R 1-4x in a LaRue QD LT 104-30 mount, while the Scout had Leupold's fixed-power intermediate eye relief scope, the FX-II.

Of course, these are not the ideal scopes for shooting tiny groups prone, but I am not a good enough shooter to suss out the difference. And anyway, I was having too much fun tossing out a full magazine's worth of PMC Bronze .223 and X-TAC 5.56 from the BCM:

The Gunsite Scout was a bit tougher to handle. At the FX-II's 2.5x magnification level, I really hand to concentrate on the reticle to make sure it was centered over the tiny blue dot in the scope:

Eventually, I started dropping rounds into the black, with the help of a Galco Safari Ching Sling (a must-have accessory for a scout rifle) and 168 grain Federal Gold Medal Match. I had to hold over about 12 inches using this combo, though.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Food: A day of dining in Austin

A couple of my cousins attend UT's McCombs School of Business, so we've made a few trips to Austin over the years. Of course, the city is widely known for being one of the food capitals of Texas, but the sheer number of choices for eating out can be overwhelming. If you're interested, here's a recap of some of the places we've been...

Breakfast - Blue Dahlia Bistro (2/4 stars)

Austin can be fairly sleepy in the morning, and we found that the shady back patio of the Blue Dahlia Bistro was a relaxing place to pass the time:

The Blue Dahlia is a European-style cafe that serves breakfast all day, including pretty good crêpes and blintzes:

I had the meat board, which was loaded up with meats, cheeses, nuts, and cornichons. It was good, but pricey.

Lunch - Hopdoddy Burger Bar (3/4 stars)

One of our favorite places in Austin was Hopdoddy, a small chain of burger joints that has a perennially crowded location on South Congress. It's sort of like Five Guys on steroids - Hopdoddy offers a full selection of craft beers, custom milkshakes, and some of the best burgers I've ever had in a restaurant.

The experience is casual and loud, though, with counter service only and people milling everywhere. This is not the place to take someone on a first date.

Dinner - Iron Works Barbecue (2/4 stars)

Austin is renowned for its barbecue, but most of the boutique places (Franklin Barbecue, etc.) sell out of their stock early. If you're craving some 'cue for dinner, what's left are chains like Rudy's and big establishments like the Iron Works Barbecue, near the heart of the city:

The beef brisket and ribs are the highlights here, and they seemed tasty, if a bit dry (it's probably the North Florida boy in me, but I feel like good old pork ribs are the best for barbecue). Still, the portions are mammoth, and how bad can a place be if Keanu Reeves endorsed it? Party on dudes...

Dessert and Coffee

Mozart's Coffee Roasters (2/4 stars) - A large coffeehouse located on the shore of Lake Austin, with lots of indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the lake. You'll see plenty of college kids studying here on weeknights thanks to the bottomless coffee cups.  In truth, the coffee and cheesecakes here are just okay; the place gets by on its (admittedly excellent) location.

Lick Honest Ice Creams (3/4 stars) - I am a sucker for independent ice cream shops, and this local chain is about as fancy as you can get - the ingredients are invariably locally sourced, sustainably raised, GMO-free, organic, etc., etc. That would all be for naught if the ice cream wasn't good, but Lick does things right. My "Too Hot Chocolate" was served in a homemade waffle cone, and it was about as good a Mayan-style chocolate ice cream as I've ever had.

Two Hands Coffee (2/4 stars) - Parts of Austin are polished to a yuppie sheen, like "The Domain" - essentially a big outdoor mall that's Austin's version of CityPlace. Two Hands is a cafe inside this mall, and it's actually pretty good - the various lattes and cappuccinos we ordered all came out fine. It turns out you don't need indie cred to make a great cup of coffee.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

It's not about fireworks, barbecue, or car sales...

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Miscellany: Airplane EDC

A lot of people are travelling this Memorial Day weekend, so I thought I'd share what I usually carry when I need to get past TSA probulation. From left to right:

Flashlight: SureFire EB1 Backup. The Backup is nice, smooth, and innocuous-looking, especially compared to SureFire's other offerings in this segment. Overall, I prefer my E1D, but it's not something you want to lose to an overzealous security guard.

Pen: CRKT Williams Pen. As I said in my review, this is one "tactical" pen that doesn't look like it belongs at a sci-fi convention dealer's table.

Phone: LG B470. This simple flip phone is the exact opposite of the giant smartphones and phablets you see on airplanes - it makes calls, and that's pretty much it. Small and disposable, though.

Watch: CASIO G-Shock GA-1000-8A (part of the G-Aviation series). This watch is enormous, and way out of proportion to my wrist. On the other hand, it's sporty-looking, tough as nails, and has a handy compass.

Wallet: Big Skinny multi-pocket bifold. I'm thinking of getting one of those passport cards for travel in the Americas.

Guns: OK Corral Gun Club review

Okeechobee County has become a shooting sports oasis tucked in the middle of Florida, with first class facilities like Okeechobee Shooting Sports and the subject of today's feature, OK Corral Gun Club. It's more than enough to justify an hour-long drive from Palm Beach County through sleepy rural roads.

OK Corral Gun Club is open seven days a week from 8am to 5pm. No membership is required; you can walk right in, plunk your money down, and start shooting within the hour. The range hosts sporting clays, wobble trap/five stand, rifle and pistol ranges, and a building for special events like weddings and family reunions (there's an on site kitchen that serves food).

There are two sporting clays courses, sportsman and champion. This is one of the swankiest courses I've visited in Florida - the stations all have nice covered stands, and they're accessible by golf carts that you can rent. The sportsman course was easy enough for me to use my 18" barreled FN SLP.

Of course, the "OK Corral" name implies Old West flavor, and the range does not disappoint. There's a large cowboy action range featuring faux Western storefronts and steel targets, and several groups shoot SASS matches there every month. One caveat - you can only use lead bullets; no jacketed ammo is allowed.

Overall, I had a blast at OK Corral Gun Club, and would recommend it to anyone looking for good sporting clays or cowboy action in the middle of Florida.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Miscellany: 2004 Toyota Tacoma review - A Priceless Pickup

You often hear people say "they don't make them like they used to," but in the case of my old Tacoma, it's true: Toyota simply does not make a compact, single-bench pickup truck like this one anymore, much less one designed by an American (!) and made in America (!!). My 2004 model is a strange relic of a bygone era, when people used pickups to pick up stuff, rather than as glorified SUVs.

At gas stations and banks, random people often stop to ask whether the truck is for sale, a mark of how valuable the Tacoma is in its own way. This is, after all, a working man's truck that has been unfailingly reliable, despite daily commutes, long road trips, and 12 years spent mostly exposed to the elements. The patina of rust on the bumpers just adds character (as well as subtle theft deterrence) to the vehicle.

The truck's interior is spartan. Audio is provided by late '80s technology: an AM/FM radio, a cassette player (yes, a cassette player), and poorly-insulated road noise. The hand-crank windows and manual door locks may not be luxurious, but they eliminate potential points of failure.

The Tacoma has subtle virtues that you only notice after a decade of ownership. The truck is tremendously hard to break into - I once locked my keys inside and watched an experienced smith take a solid 20 minutes to jimmy the lock loose. The single cab design makes it as maneuverable as a compact car, but with a full-size truckbed large enough to haul a lot of junk around. Driver visibility is excellent, thanks to the compressed cabin.

The truck has faults, some major. The wimpy 2.4L V4 engine makes highway merges an adventure, and requires literal pedal to the metal in order to climb a busy on-ramp. The middle seat is uncomfortable for anyone larger than Peter Dinklage. There is almost zero interior storage space - you are not going anywhere overnight with anyone else.

Still, when my folks reclaimed the Tacoma to use as their daily driver, I felt a pang of sadness. Then again, with only 137,000 miles on it, the truck is still a baby - I'll probably see it again...

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