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S:S:L Salutes David E. Davis, Jr.

When the initial rumors of David E. Davis, Jr.'s passing crept up Sunday, I remarked to some colleagues that the inevitable onslaught of Car and Driver nostalgia commentary wouldn't be far behind. But instead of a long-winded, reflective piece detailing DEDJr.'s career, we're simply going to take the next few days to revisit some stories that we think Mr. Davis would have appreciated. Godspeed, David. Wherever you are, I'm sure there are no boring cars. Previous days' "best of" pieces: Monday: Over the river and through the cones: The 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour Tuesday, part one: Supercar Saturday Part One: Running the R8 and Viper against the clock at MSR Houston Tuesday, part two: Part Two: Supercar Saturday Part Two: Taking it to, um, the streets. Wednesday: Imaginary Internet Millionaire Track Test: Ferrari F430 v Lotus Elise v Dodge Caliber SRT-4 v Ford Mustang GT500  

Korean to go, Part II: The Kia Optima, the Hyundai Sonata, and old-fashioned Americana

When I concluded part I of this feature last week, I said that this piece would be about the Sonata and Optima. It will. But for those of you who came looking for a more traditional road test, I must apologize. You won't find that here. Feel free to ask specific questions about the cars, but for this piece, we're going down a slightly different path. If you ask somebody on the street to identify the most "American" car they can think of, you'll probably get a predictably narrow subset of answers. SUVs and pick-up trucks will probably top the list, with the occasional Corvette or Mustang thrown in for flavor. Some may even identify entire brands--Jeep or Cadillac, for instance. Others may reflect on our heritage of being one of the largest sources of mass-produced goods in the world, and then prattle on endlessly about the Model T. But they're all wrong. You see, the above cars may be icons of the American auto industry, but they simply represent what we're good at. Those are cars of and by Americans, but not for. Anybody can appreciate a well-built truck or a go-anywhere SUV, but for our purposes we must look elsewhere. Indeed, to find a reflection of American culture, you need to look a a segment which, ironically enough, American manufacturers seemed to have virtually abandoned until very recently--a segment so seemingly devoid of character that it has been dominated for nigh on twenty years by the Toyota Camry. Yes, dear reader, the quintessential American car is the mid-sized sedan. That's right. The four-door. The grocery getter. The family car. And what is more American than family? You can put the Bill of Rights, George Washington, Martin Luther King, a truck full of apple pies and every member of the Boston Red Sox on one side of the Americana scale and they wouldn't stand a chance against John and Susie Suburbanite and their 2.3 children on the other. So while trucks may be the most individually successful models sold in the United States, they simply stand in the shadow of the mid-sizer when it comes to brand identity. Toyota owes its reputation in the United States to the Camry, and Honda to the Accord. Just ask Volkswagen why its Chattanooga plant and the B7 Passat are receiving so much attention. Do you remember what VW brought over in this segment in the 1970s and early 1980s? Don't be ashamed. Outside of dedicated enthusiasts and the VW faithful, most don't. Without question, if you, as product planner for an overseas auto manufacturer, seek to launch a full-blown assault on the U.S. car market, you had better start with the best 180", 5-seat, four-door, trunk-adorned family hauler your engineers can produce. And you had better be prepared to see it thoroughly eviscerated by everybody from journalists to politicians to members of the buying public. And if it's praised? Well, it had better be perfect in every way, or you'll get a year out of it, tops (the car advertised above is a testament to that). But it really doesn't matter how good it is. Ask brand strategists from any mainstream foreign auto maker who targeted the U.S. market; you're simply not allowed to get it right the first time. In fact, being the fledgling U.S. arm of a foreign automaker places you squarely at the bottom of the totem pole. Perhaps you're pushing value proposition to draw initial customer interest? To those with stake (be it emotional, financial, or simply the product of overzealous fanboyism) in established brands, this means your cars are cheaply engineered/assembled. Offering aggressive financing deals or significant discounts from MSRP? Your cars are for poor people. Have you built something for John Q. Public to drive daily? You're catering to the sheeple. Is your car more enthusiast-oriented, with performance features not found on most other mainstream sedans? Hah. Clearly you don't understand the U.S. market. For enthusiasts, the above may not make sense. Indeed, niche manufacturers have it pretty easy in this regard, assuming of course that they're content to remain such. A Lotus Elise doesn't rely on other volume offerings the way a Mazda Miata or Volkswagen GTI does. It simply sells on its own merits, isolated by its premium price tag and mission-specific packaging. But in order for Mazda to sell you the aforementioned MX-5, they have to move a good number of rather mundane commuter cars with some degree of regularity. If their volume family sedan doesn't move, there's cause for concern. Enter the Koreans. Hyundai has been in the U.S. Market for more than 25 years, but never really moved in noteworthy volume until the last decade or so. They sold enough to continue the experiment, from the Mitsubishi collaboration in the early 1990s to the eventual purchase of interest in Kia in 1998. It wasn't long after that the first models with said branding on the boot made their way to our shores. As the years went on, volume increased while reliability improved by leaps and bounds, but even as recently as the early-mid 2000s, both brands were still squarely in the "poor zone." Around the middle of that decade, however, Hyundai finally started to take hold with more affluent buyers. The current and previous generations of Hyundai's Santa Fe, Tucson and Sonata have established themselves squarely in Toyota territory, edging out just about everybody in initial quality and long-term service. Volumes are way up. Incentives are way down. Critical reviews are almost unanimously positive. And thanks to Hyundai's bootstraps, Kia is playing a monumental game of catch-up, coming almost as far as its parent has (in 25 years) in just two and a half generations. But to many auto aficionados and even a handful of casual observers, they're both only one step removed from penalty boxes. A strange hierarchy evolved in the world of automobile brand perception here in the U.S. Some variant of this probably exists in every market, but the gist of it is this: At first, there were the domestics. They were the best, because they were it. You bought a Ford or a Chevrolet because that's all there was. And then the premium brands appeared--the Cadillacs and the Lincolns, etc. So now there was something for the luxury buyer to look down upon. This left the Ford and Chevrolet drivers feeling quite left out, so they spent a few years taking their frustrations out on each other, building a fierce rivalry that exists to this day. Then, as if by divine intervention, the imports arrived--small, fragile, European things with two seats and undersized radiators. Suddenly, the mainstream domestic buyer had somebody to pick on. But the imports had something that the Fords and Chevrolets lacked--exclusivity. And so the Jaguars and the Alfa Romeos and the Ferraris took their place above the mainstream domestics, putting them in an odd parallel position in the pecking order with the American premium cars. Their owners looked down on each other, but they also collectively looked down on the lower-tier manufacturers. In this fashion, each successive new entry into the U.S. market becomes the sh*tbox brand du jour, and fans and owners of "established" brands then feel obligated look down upon the rookie with exaggerated scorn, thinking themselves now equal to those who previously ridiculed them, whether or not that is indeed the case. Think of it as "separate-but-conditionally-equal." For evidence of this pecking order, just look at the way fanboys of every stripe take pot-shots at Honda. A Chevy guy calling a Civic Si gutless doesn't think himself equal to the kid who just bought his first 1.8L GTI. Then again, the VW virgin probably thinks he just bought himself a ticket to the BMW and Benz club, but that's a whole different discussion. And what does this all have to do with the Optima and the Sonata? Well, just about everything, as it turns out. See, we journalists love us some good, old-fashioned sensationalism, and a couple of came-out-of-nowhere, class-leading sedans from an underdog manufacturer with a spotty U.S. sales history will make for incredibly sexy copy. Both of these cars stand out, both in appearance and in value for money. Allow me to be boring for a moment: Neither the Sonata nor the Optima is a game-changer. They're class-competitive, yes, and they're easy to recommend against just about anything in the segment without dissonance. They handle and ride well enough, with a nod to the Optima for slightly better chassis dynamics, but another to the Sonata for being quieter and more plush. Both have very good interiors. Both have lots of desirable features. Both are excellent value for money. In the Sonata and Optima, Hyundai/Kia have developed two good cars. Cars which, were they in any other segment, might be largely inconsequential to overall brand image. Instead, being what they are, they're the face of their respective marques and the standard bearers for their reputations. For the reasons we discussed above, these cars are now deliciously controversial. And best of all, they're both legitimately competitive. Throw in a few brand loyalists and a handful of entirely forgivable flaws with the vehicles themselves, and you have a recipe that will magically turn otherwise reasonable people, even individuals who claim to be car enthusiasts, into frothing idiots. But why? After all, they're just family sedans, right? Bottom line, there are many who will dismiss these cars as garbage without a second thought. Those people feel threatened, period, over and done. There's no telling why exactly. Maybe they're true xenophobes who think all Koreans reside north of the 38th parallel and do nothing but tinker with homebrew nuclear ICBMs. Maybe they had friends who bought an '87 Excel and saw it crumple to the ground within a year. Maybe they have a genuine stake in the success of another brand and they're steering you away for financial reasons. Perhaps they simply like the Passat and think anybody who would consider a "lesser" product should be shat upon. Or, quite simply, they hate the idea that their world views are being challenged. Oh, they'll have great cover stories. They were probably mechanics at indy shops for ten years and saw nothing but rusted-out Hyundais with blown engines that would catch fire if touched by children. "Just you wait," they'll probably say. Sure. I'll do that. There are also those who will take only the positives from each available review, spin them into a web of fantastical infallibility, and present it all as fact. And then they'll vanish the instant you demonstrate any discrepancies in their assertions. These people are fools, and they'll be on to the next upstart underdog before you can concoct an intelligent rebuttal. Don't waste your time. But what gets both sides riled up has nothing to do with the quality of the product or its potential for success. No, what matters is that something sacred to the American auto market is being challenged by something that hasn't yet earned the right to sit at the proverbial table. The reality is this: both are good cars, and neither is great, but I'm not taking that word lightly. In my eyes, the great cars are those for which I would put my own money on the table. Most mainstream sedans would be out of consideration immediately, but that wouldn't keep me from recommending them to somebody else. And that's kind of what I do here. So, should you buy a Sonata or an Optima? Go ahead and ask me. I'd be happy to tell you. Photos courtesy of Hyundai and Kia U.S. media offices and various corners of the Interwebs.

Lord Byron — VWVortex.com “Gay-Bashing” incident: How a two-time M.A. failed Web 101

What you see above is a craigslist.org ad for a 1997 Jetta VR6, meticulously restored (well, mostly). As the ad states, it'll do 0-60 in under seven seconds, it's fully loaded, and it's a Florida car. And it could be yours for P-Diddy's pocket lint--just $30,000.00 U.S.

That's not a typo. It's no great revelation that the World Wide Web is an indispensable resource for car shoppers, but sometimes you come across an example of somebody who has failed in every possible way to properly utilize it. When that individual also happens to be the founder, editor and publisher of a multi-platform activist newsletter who holds multiple graduate degrees (including a M.A. in Journalism), well, you have a spectacle in the making. What follows is a step-by-step breakdown of how Stephanie Donald of LGBT-Today went about thoroughly embarrassing herself. Lesson I: Research, Research, Research. Student Grade: 0%. Mrs. Donald failed to complete this particular assignment. If she had, she would have discovered rather quickly that the $22,000 quote for her Jetta's "restoration" will probably go down as one of the greatest automotive rip-offs in history. Indeed, she would have found that figure suspicious if perhaps she had first bothered to research the initial valuation supposedly given by a professional appraiser in Florida. Extra credit was available for this assignment for students who utilized multiple resources and demonstrated an ability to avoid falling victim to confirmation bias--a phenomenon that an individual with a Master's Degree in Psychology should be very familiar with, in which the researcher disregards all information contrary to his or her existing beliefs. Extra credit awarded: 0. Lesson II: The Ad. Student Grade: 60% The student demonstrated adequate classified advertising techniques. The ad was short, descriptive and informative. However, there was no documentation of the supposed $22,000 in recent work performed outside of a reference to the engine being rebuilt "from one end to the other." No link included to externally-hosted pictures or mention of maintenance records. Lesson III: Responding to Low-ballers. Student Grade: 20% Mrs. Donald's initial responses were acceptable, but as time progressed and potential buyers began to realize that she was actually serious about her asking price, she started losing her cool as it became clear that the increasingly outrageous "bids" were nothing but jokes from members of the largest English-language Volkswagen community on the Web--VWVortex.com. In a matter of hours, vortex members concocted wild background stories for their progressively larger offers. The student failed to understand the intent of their correspondence until it was pointed out to her by a third party. This assignment was a prerequisite for Lesson IV. Lesson IV: Have Thick Skin. Student Grade: 0% The student failed to complete this assignment. Participating in anonymous conversation in most online communities requires suppressing any natural reactionary attitude. As incredulity at Mrs. Donald's asking price grew and her responses became more combative, speculation about her motives and sincerity grew. This speculation brought on some crude comments from vortex members, comments that Mrs. Donald later found when the third party discussed above sent her a link to the VWVortex.com discussion thread, now in its third or fourth iteration (the previous versions having been moved to the community "Black Hole" forum for various violations of the community terms of use (mostly surrounding the posting of personal information). Rather than simply writing off the community's attitude as simple juvenile banter, Mrs. Donald elected instead to take it seriously. Very seriously. Lesson V (Final Project): The Internet Is Serious Business. Student Grade: 0% Mrs. Donald completed this assignment, however at no point did she demonstrated any understanding of the lesson or its purpose. The most basic submission should have acknowledged the joking nature of the community's response and, worst case, included registering for the VWVortex.com community, capped off with posting a small rant about proper etiquette. Instead, the student decided to threaten everybody with an FBI investigation and hate crime charges. The student's final submission is here: http://www.lgbt-today.com/news-a-articles/featured-articles/129-gay-bashing-is-alive-and-well-and-living-on-craigs-list-and-vwvortexcom Overall Grade: 16% (EDIT: The original article has been removed. You can see a copy of it here for the time being: http://forums.vwvortex.com/showthread.php?5170704-Related-to-the-30k-F-amp-F-Jetta-Lady...) Kidding aside, what we've witnessed here over the past two days is not member of a protected class being discriminated against. This is a person who is deeply embarrassed over a humiliating set of circumstances that befell her of her own volition. Lashing out in this situation is normal, if unprofessional and unbecoming. Mrs. Donald, you've been fooled twice--once by your mechanic and once by members of the Volkswagen community. Yes, members of the community may act juvenile. They may even be hurtful, but nobody said or did anything publicly that constituted a hate crime. Still others have tried to be helpful, and as you refuse to acknowledge the reality of your situation, it's hard to feel any sympathy. It's not our fault you made the decisions that led you here, and while it's natural for you to desire to lash out, is that really the mature response? As tired as the cliché may be, you've been fooled twice, Mrs. Donald. Shame on you.

2011 NAIAS — Business up front, party in the back.

by Carl Modesette. NAIAS Photography by Zerin Dube, Mark Fields photo courtesy of Ford From 10,000 ft, the glow of Detroit after sunset could be that of just about any other Midwestern city. Altitude and darkness impose a serenity that belies the nocturnal unrest below. Even the vast expanses of unused industrial property and the inch-thick dusting of snow that come into focus right about the time the landing gear drops are anonymous this time of day. The nighttime approach is a stirring equalizer. With the departure of the sun goes any character, and it's not until you cross over from the too-white lighting of the airport terminal into the dingy glow of sodium-vapor lamps that your senses really have a chance to recalibrate. By the end of your cab ride, reality has set in. The auto industry has recently undergone a similar reboot. Self-imposed isolation from the economic and social realities of the last decade finally broke down, and the house of cards came dangerously close to giving way. Two and a half years later, the repercussions are still visible, and even the boldest of manufacturers were cautious in their delivery. Even Ford, a close second to only the Germans for sheer gusto (Volkswagen took the cake here, hosting a media "reveal" for the new Passat for which they opted not to actually bring a car to reveal), stuffed their rhetoric with confidence and bluster, and then filled Cobo Arena not with the glorious roar of V8s, but with blue paper butterflies. The introduction of a new ROW Ford Ranger was mentioned several times, yet they chose not to dwell at all on their Truck-of-the-Year winning Explorer. Make no mistake though, humility was not the name of their game. Even in the midst of a greenie spiel from Ed Begley, Jr., Ford took undisguised shots at the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. They had attitude to spare. And if we weren't privy to the realities of corporate communications strategies, we'd suspect that Toyota's P.R. staff had simply sat in the back of the Arena, scribbling furious notes throughout Ford's conference in hopes of finding some decent material. From an opening shot at Bob Lutz to scripted-in laughter pauses for poorly-written and dubiously-executed jokes, the Prius family introduction felt like a last-minute book report that was due five years ago. As for the Toyota, Scion and Lexus brands themselves? Well, I think Mr. Toyoda confirmed (if only in passing) that they do indeed exist. The stories were pretty much the same everywhere you went. With a few exceptions, everybody was talking about downsizing. "Electrification" was this year's buzzword. Even the manufacturers who had nothing new to show were quite enthusiastic about their electrification efforts, despite the fact that they were showing more or less the exact same electric cars they've been showing for years. Mini, I'm looking at you. [caption id="attachment_3902" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Hyundai and Porsche provided welcome reprieves from otherwise mundane reveals."][/caption] So if your only exposure to the show was in sound bites and recaps, you'd probably assume that it was a pretty dull affair. For the most part, you'd be right. It wasn't a thrill ride by any means, and hearing line after line about Ford building the new Focus in the same plant where it once built trucks, well, yeah... it got old. But hit the floor, and you got the feeling that the product communications staff were winking at you as they parroted the details of the hybrid this or electric that. It's as if their eyes were darting over to the Boss 302 Mustang or the loaded-up Explorer. Maybe the bright-freakin'-yellow LFA sitting on the Scion side of the Lexus display. A little nod and a twinkle was all it took. Yep, we're still building those. Step out of the bright lights around the podium and into the darker, seedier, yellow-hued side aisles. Stay here long enough and you almost expect to hear the boo-boop of an illicit slot machine or muffled laughter from an invitation-only poker game. Yes, there's still fun to be had here, even if it's out of the public eye. In a way, NAIAS has become the most cynical of all the American auto shows--Motor City, home of the small-block V8 and Woodward Avenue, hosting the least performance-oriented show on the major U.S. circuit. To be fair to the domestic manufacturers in particular though, it's here that they're most under the spotlight. NAIAS draws more international media than any other in the States, and with everybody watching, nobody--especially not GM or Chrysler--wants to be caught with a hand up Mrs. Horsepower's skirt at a hometown show. Ford, though lacking in interesting debuts, did at least put on a good show, and the Vertrek concept (rumored to be the next Ford Escape) was promising, boasting sleek exterior styling and a throaty exhaust note from what was claimed to be a 1.6L EcoBoost engine. Though I suppose with the hood closed they could claim it's powered by a 2-cylinder diesel and we'd be forced to take them at their word. [caption id="attachment_3905" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="1.6L EcoBoost? Sounded more like a 6.1L V8, but we'll take it anyway."][/caption] Chrysler didn't show us anything we hadn't already seen to some degree. The 300 was revealed in pictures ahead of the show, and the several years late refresh delivered as expected. There's really not much left to learn about this car until we have the opportunity to drive one, and we look forward to reporting on that in the coming weeks. And then there was Chevy. Phew. What is there to say? They trotted out a crowd of local, overdone hipsters who played a song "live" using instrument apps on their iThings (As if we're to believe that any network service in Cobo is actually reliable enough that they could pull this off), showed us the new Sonic for all of five minutes, and then tried to convince the gaggle to stick around by offering free booze. Did I mention that they were the last show of a nearly-13-hour schedule of conferences? I'm not sure who they pissed off, but if I had to guess, whoever was in charge of booking for the event must have been a former Buick/Pontiac/GMC/Saturn dealer principal. [caption id="attachment_3903" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="You won't find this in the transcript of a GM press conference."][/caption] So maybe it wasn't the most interesting show in recent memory, but it was far from an outlier. For NAIAS, it was very much business as usual for the 21st century automaker. Up front, anyway.

SSL Road Test: The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

by Byron Hurd. Photographs courtesy of Volkswagen. *This article has been corrected. See note above feature list.*

A few months ago, while reading one of my favorite Web comics, I came across a bit of a gem. While commenting on the endless debate between competing game console services Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, Penny Arcade's Jerry "Tycho" Holkins wrote something that every auto journalist knows, whether they've consciously considered it or not. "In order to appear reasonable it is sometimes necessary to say things which are untrue." Such profundity and brevity rarely coexist. Normally, when I know I'll be reviewing a car, I do my damnedest to avoid any other commentary on it until I have a chance to drive it. Futile though it may be these days, it's one of my few nods to objectivity. With the Jetta, short of isolating myself completely from the Web, this was essentially impossible. And so I learned too much. With my impressions already colored before I even set foot in the car, it took a concerted effort to reboot my expectations, especially as a former VW owner. It was a 1995 Passat VR6—my first car. It had roughly 60k miles on it at purchase (I say roughly because the original cluster had been replaced already) and hadn't crested 75k when I sold it two years later. In the space of time I owned the car, I replaced the master and slave cylinders, the AC compressor, the PCV valve, one wheel bearing, one CV joint, one set of (run-flat) tires and one center console lid (I say "one" because it broke again weeks later). Some other parts broke or failed as well: the stick-on shift pattern on top of the shifter popped off and vanished into the back seat about a month after I bought it; the battery cables refused to remain torqued down at the posts; and part of the intake ducting disappeared sometime during the first six weeks of ownership. The cruise control worked when the mood struck (which wasn't often) and, to top it all off, the passenger side front fender suffered a small stone chip that resulted in the clearcoat retreating in all directions, leaving a bubbled, chalky mess that was beyond my meager Blockbuster Video-supported means to repair properly. My first car, yes, and my last Volkswagen. But when I think back to my B4 VR, that's not how I remember it. I remember a comfortable, agile, well-appointed car that left me wanting for nothing save for the sundry automotive technologies that had become commonplace in the seven years since it was assembled—like the CD player, for instance—that required only a trip to Best Buy (Blockbuster wages, if you remember) to rectify. It was decently quick as a family car for the time (even for 2002, when VQ35-equipped Altimas were only just trickling down) and it made beautiful noises. I never modified a thing on it—for lack of funds as much as anything else—but I didn't think I really needed to. Maybe it wasn't a reliable car, but it was a good car. Since then, I have driven just about everything Volkswagen has seen fit to sell us. Phaetons, Touaregs, Jettas, Golfs, Rabbits, GTIs, TDIs, TSIs, FSIs, VR6s, G60s, you name it. Short of the Eos, there's no current offering that I haven't sampled. Some are good (GTI); some are great (Golf TDI); some are adequate (Passat); some are puzzling (CC). Ultimately, all of them are decent A-to-B transportation at the very least. But this is the first VW I've driven in an editorial capacity, and as such, I'm experiencing a bit the same dissonance expressed above by Tycho.  We'll come back to that. Our SEL tester came equipped with VW's 2.5L inline-five engine, producing 170hp at 5,700 rpm and 177lb-ft of torque at 4,250rpm, paired to their 6-Speed, torque converter automatic. No DSG here. Despite the high grunt-to-gallop ratio, the Jetta is actually quite sluggish off the line, and enthusiastic starts are bogged down by aggressive traction control that gets progressively worse with additional steering input.

If anything, the 2.5 is surprisingly rev-hungry. Power comes on convincingly after 3,000 rpm and sticks around all the way to redline, but before that, there's just nothing. Switching to "S" mode on the gear selector yielded no improvement off the line, but did push up-shifts further up the tach even while cruising. Fortunately, once at cruise, the 2.5L provides plenty of constant-speed power at fairly low RPM in both drive modes, and will happily chug along at 35mph in 5th or even 6th gear. You won't have any passing power there, but you won't be fighting to keep pace with traffic, either. Dynamically, the Jetta is competent if unremarkable. Steering effort at low speeds is unusually high and doesn't quite match up with the ratio, requiring what feels like a lot more work than one would expect in executing quick parking lot maneuvers. An autocross car, this is not. Over 25mph or so, it's more properly balanced. Cabin isolation is decent, with usable, but not fantastic front-end feedback. While some of the Jetta's platform mates feature fancy electromechanical steering rather than the traditional, pump-driven variety, it was cut here for cost savings. Wind and road noise are low, if not exceedingly so, and high-speed stability is good. The torsion bar rear axle only makes itself known over bad pavement, and the comfort-tuned suspension (there is an optional sport package available, but our tester was not so equipped) does a good job of mitigating axle wiggle, but between the unenthusiastic powertrain and the heavy, slow steering, you won't feel compelled to push the SEL to the point where you'd really test the limits of the chassis. Not that the tires would allow it, anyway. Overall, the car just feels heavy, and not in a substantial way, but a lethargic, mom-I-don't-want-to-go-to-school-today way. Much has been made of the interior cost-cutting on this car, and here's what it boils down to: There are only three soft-touch contact areas in the front of the cabin – the armrest on each door and the center console lid (which doubles as the center armrest). That's it. All other surfaces are hard, black plastic or hard, grey or silver plastic. To VW's credit, the black far exceeds the gray. And as for VW's famed "real metal" accents? Only the steering wheel accent, door handles and gear selector trim are shaped from the real deal. The alumi-like inserts in the doors and dash are painted plastic. The flair ends there.

VW's insistence on using a stalk rather than wheel-mounted buttons for the cruise control persists, and the result is a wheel that is cluttered on one side and bare on the other. Further control of the audio system requires an awkward combination of tuning knobs and touchscreen controls to navigate. The result may look uncluttered, but operation is not. Simplicity like this works well for an iPod or a smart phone—something you can concentrate on during use. It's not ideal for in-car entertainment. Same story with the hands-free phone interface. The seats are well-sculpted and look aggressively-bolstered, but aren't actually very snug (again, no sport package). Leatherette is the top seat trim choice, and it's pretty much what you'd expect. Our interior was black/black, but a beige/black two-tone is available if that's a bit too dreary for you. Moving outside, well, with apologies to Mr. Williams, it do look like an Audi… until an Audi pull up. You're on your own from there. But despite the size, power and equipment similarities, the 2011 Jetta does nothing to remind me of my Passat. On paper, it seems to have the competitive formula right. It's priced for the segment and offers a good bit of equipment for the price, even if a lot of the "little things" that we notice in comparisons have gone away. What Volkswagen has here is something that looks to be quite profitable for the company and reliable for its owners. But is it good? Well, in the interest of appearing reasonable, I suppose I can only say yes. Volkswagen provided the Jetta for the purpose of this review. Correction: It was pointed out to us that the Jetta no longer features electromechanical steering as found in other MkV/MkVI chassis vehicles. The above text has been corrected to reflect this information. Thanks, Jamie. Model: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL with Sunroof (MSRP incl. destination: $24,165) Major options: Power tilting/sliding sunroof, 6-speed automatic transmission, Titan Black leatherette interior. navigation, premium audio and Bluetooth included with SEL trim. Approx. miles driven: 300 Time in Fleet: 12/14/2010-12/21/2010