May 27, 2012

Cars for People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity - and Everybody Else.

You don't have to be chemically sensitive to want to find out about problematic chemical compounds. If you are pregnant, if you are a parent of young children, if you are in a hormonal transition like adolescence or menopause, and indeed if you are not into having your finely balanced endocrine system messed up, you may be interested in learning about the chemicals that have been shown to be endocrine disruptors. This is a term that encompasses problems in such areas as hormonal regulation, fertility, and growth - including cancer. These chemicals are also implicated in a range of other modern health problems.

They are everywhere: in the stuffing and upholstery of our comfy couch, in the paint of our walls, in synthetic fertilisers and weedkillers, in the synthetic carpeting common in our office workplaces - and in our cars: all the places where we spend a lot of time, even if we don't work in hazardous sectors like the petrochemical industry or in conventional agriculture.

Lots of families are already aware of toxic chemicals in the home, and are working to eliminate or at least reduce them. I think we should start including our cars, which we tend to treat as extensions of our living rooms: we spend increasing amounts of time in them.

Many new parents rightly worry about the chemical safety of car seats for young children: But sometimes I get the feeling that these same parents who are so conscientiously looking out for the well-being of their children have overlooked the more general hazard of their car interiors. Worse, very often the arrival of a baby is the direct cause of a family's purchase of a new car.

Most new cars have "new car smell", a characteristic so desirable that many new car owners want to hold on to that smell for as long as possible. In fact, dealers spray on a perfume carrying that smell as the cars arrive on their lot.

The "new car smell" is actually a warning sign.

It's a sign that the synthetic materials of which the car interior is built is releasing gases, many of which are toxic. Immediate responses include headaches, nausea and blurry vision. Long-term effects are more insidious and more worrisome, and include endocrine disruption and cancer.

An acquaintance recently countered that these gases are "alleged" to be toxic. But I think we're now past allegation: the research into the toxicology of these compounds has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, some quite prestigious. To a scientist like me, the list of toxic compounds compiled by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) is very convincing, as it is supported by a list of publications; you can go to the source if you are so inclined.

Those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) don't need scientific studies to tell them that organic solvents, flame retardants and plastic softeners are not meant for human consumption. These compounds make them terribly, terribly sick, and even a small exposure can have debilitating effects.

For MCS sufferers, transportation can be a baffling conundrum because so many of our cars are laden with toxins, and public transportation has its own unpredictable hazards. They have no choice but to go through a lengthy procedure to make sure their cars are chemically clean. One person living with MCS said in a comment on this blog that they end up having to buy a new car two years before they actually plan to use it, to give it time to outgas the toxins; for various reasons, used cars didn't work out well for this person.

I can only hope that not all MCS sufferers bear that heavy a burden. For the rest of us, we may not have an immediate reaction to automotive toxins, but it does affect our human physiology, even if we don't see the effects until much later.

The trouble is, it turns out to be very, very difficult to find a "clean" car, since using synthetic materials (i.e. plastics) is the cheapest route to finishing a car interior.

On his blog, Thriving with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Zen Master Sam offers excellent pointers on how to find a car that works for you. It sounds like a long-drawn out process full of potential pitfalls, from identifying a car that might be a match to your particular sensitivity, to convincing the dealer to keep the detailing they do as part of the "dealer prep" as clean of toxins as possible.

To get a sense of the process (or should I say, ordeal) I went on a foray to the Toyota dealer, since Toyota offers a large range of vehicles. I had carefully chosen a warm and sunny day, which encourages the outgassing. The salesman I talked to was very nice about it, and showed me a Prius straight off the boat, before they had even sprayed it with extra new car smell.

It smelled strongly of new car. I closed the door without getting in.

Then we went to sit in a Tacoma: I did much better in that, partly because the dealer had chosen to show me one that was sparsely furnished. Finally we tried an FJ Cruiser that was also baking in the sun: of the three, it had the lowest level of outgassing as detected by my unscientific nose.

This makes sense: of the three cars, the Prius had the plushest upholstery, carpeting on the floors and sidewalls, etc. On the FJ Cruiser, there was a lot of metal visible on the interior, and the floor had rubber mats.

The less upholstery the better.
My take on this experiment is that the more utilitarian the vehicle, the fewer toxins you will encounter inside. Our cars are generally comfortable dens, bubble-wrap lined boxes on wheels (and that's before the air bags are even deployed). All that coddling is achieved by installing plastic components such are carpeting and plush upholstery. But try a more Spartan vehicle, one that is meant to get used for all sorts of jobs, including the ones for which you want to hose down the inside of the vehicle afterward: in such a vehicle you will encounter very little carpeting and plush stuff, because hard surfaces are easier to clean.

But why take the word of one person's un-scientific nose?

A much more scientific "nose" is a portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. The one used by the Ecology Center can detect elements to parts per million; in February 2012, they published a toxin study of new cars. You can find the summary and the full report at Healthy Stuff. XRF spectrometry was used to detect levels of chlorine (indicative of the presense of PVC), bromine (indicating brominated flame retardants), lead, and a number of other elements.

This study is very thorough, covering hundreds of cars, and taking its samples from many places inside each car. They assign weights to each contaminant to arrive at one number that rates how clean (or not) a vehicle is, ranging - for the most recent models - from the cleanest (0.46 in a 2012 Honda Civic) to the highest level of toxins (3.17 for a 2011 Chrysler 200 SC and a 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander)

According to the Ecology Center study, the Toyota cars in which I did the sniffing scored as follows:
     0.55     2011 Prius
     2.55     2009 Tacoma
     0.90     2008 Tacoma
     2.84     2009 FJ Cruiser

These results are the opposite from what I expected from my morning at the Toyota dealer. My un-scientific nose would have assigned the lowest car-smell score to the FJ Cruiser, and the highest to the Prius.

Maybe my nose was just wrong. CelloDad has a much better nose for these things, but I was unable to beg or bribe him into lending me his nose for this project, because he intensely detests new car smell.

However, the discrepancy also may have to do with the nature of X-ray Fluorescence spectroscopy: in XRF, you excite the material by shining high-energy X-rays on it. Each element in the material responds by emitting (fluorescing) lower-energy X-rays with a spectrum which is characteristic of that element. The total spectrum detected looks like a terrible mess, but you then feed it into software that teases out the spectral fingerprints of the various elements; if done properly you can figure out how much of each element is in the material you're looking at. But even though it is a beautiful technique, XRF does have its limits.

Two caveats should be attached to the results published on the Healthy Stuff site: Firstly, the Ecology Center study was done on brand-new cars that they presumably returned, in sellable condition, to the dealer after they were done with the study. For this reason, the study was non-destructive: they held the detector to various surfaces in the car and measure what X-rays come out in response to the excitation. But XRF spectrometry is mostly a surface measurement. Under the right circumstances, you can "see" a few millimeters into your material, but for many elements you can detect their presence only in the first few micrometers (for reference, a human hair is about 50 micrometers in diameter). To do XRF in a lab, you need to grind your sample into a fine powder. You can't very well do that to a new car that a dealer needs to sell. You can't even cut open the seats to take an assay of the innards. But gases emanating from the foam inside the seats, and the glue in the cardboard behind the side surfaces, do make their way out by diffusion, and a nose (even my relatively insensitive nose) is very good at detecting even small amounts of those gases.

The second issue with XRF is that it is more sensitive to heavy elements than to light ones. It has no problem with lead or cobalt, and can detect the bromine in PBDE flame retardants and even the chlorine in PVC. However, phthalates, which are used to soften plastics and are commonly found in carpeting, are made up of strings and rings of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, all of which are too light show up in XRF. Perhaps it is these very additives that I smelled so overwhelmingly in the Prius, which had carpeting on the floors and sidewalls, whereas the FJ Cruiser had rubber matting on the floor and much more Spartan sidewalls.

So while the Ecology Center study is a great place to start, let us keep in mind that the XRF method it used does not detect all the toxins swirling inside a car. I hope that they will eventually do an analysis that goes deeper than the surfaces of the car interiors, and that they will supplement the XRF results with data from a method that can detect the phthalates and other light-element compounds.

Meanwhile, we can supplement their very large dataset with the detector we always have on board: our noses.


May 24, 2012

First Impressions of the Cello

My first impressions? They are visible right on the tips of my left-hand fingers: every time I practice there are grooves where I've been pushing down the strings. This is week four. My left thumb has stopped hurting, probably - hopefully - a sign that I'm developing muscles in my left hand to finger the strings.

Now that I'm allowed to use the bow it's my right thumb that's giving me trouble. I'm still learning to hold the bow properly, and if you don't press down on it as it goes across the strings, you end up squeaking. It's not the high-pitch squeak you get out of a violin, but it's still not very pleasant.

About that bow: you have to hold it just so. You have to move it perpendicularly to the strings, and steer it so that it stays on the "sweet" spot, between the fingerboard and the bridge. You have to press it down hard enough, but not too hard, which has its own unpleasant side effects. And by the way, you have to avoid bowing two strings at once.

Oh, and while you're worrying about all that, you also have to finger the fretless fingerboard to produce notes that actually fall on the scale. The cello has thin pieces of tape on the neck, put there by my teacher for CelloPlayer, as guides for where to put the fingers - thank goodness CelloPlayer has yet to advance beyond those - but they're only a guide, you still basically get to listen to what you're doing. And of course, if you don't press down hard enough, it's still no good, even if you do hit the perfect spot.

In short, for multi-tasking, this is the hardest thing I've done since learning to drive a car with a shift stick, back when I was a teenager.

But I love it. And on those occasions that I manage to do everything right at once, the cello rings with a full, clear sound, filling the room, reverberating against my body, and making me immensely happy.

May 22, 2012

Review: Toyota Tacoma / Town Ace Truck

Let it not be said that CelloMom leaves out data that doesn't fit in with her point of view.

While most of my reviews persistently show that carmakers sell only their largest (or largest-engined) vehicles in the US, some car manufacturers do offer the same models all over the planet.

One example is Lexus, Toyota's luxury car division, which offers the same models in Japan and in the United States, with the same engines. It is in Europe where the choices are restricted, mostly to Lexus' hybrid models, which of course have significantly higher fuel economy than the conventional gasoline ones.

Toyota itself tends to follow the same general direction, except that in Japan their car lineup is vastly larger than in the US, and includes the much smaller cars in the "keio" and the "2-Box" categories.

In the United States, the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck is very popular with homeowners. It was a compact pickup truck at its introduction in 1995, but has since swelled into the midsize pickup class. It's still smaller than the giant Tundra. Neither of these trucks are in Toyota's Japanese lineup.

In Japan, pickup trucks can be found only in the "Business" category. Apparently Japanese homeowners don't feel the need to own a truck the way their American counterparts do. Besides, where in a Japanese neighbourhood would one park it?

Toyota's trucks for the domestic Japanese market are much more bare-bones, really meant to haul goods, not so much optimised for the "comfort" of the driver: certainly, it is not a toy. Choices are between the larger Dyna or Toyo Ace, and the more compact Town Ace Truck.

The Town Ace Truck is nearly two feet shorter than the Tacoma, and six inches less wide. But its cab does reach 8 inches taller, so its aspect is slim and tall. Nevertheless, its bed has an area that is 43% larger than that of the Tacoma, and the payload is up to 800kg, or 31% larger than for the Tacoma.

Apparenty, the beer crate is the real unit of payload capacity, judging from the way Japanese web pages on pickup trucks conscientiously report the number of beer crates you can transport: for the Town Ace Truck the number is 60. Go ahead, check it out: there is, helpfully, a picture of a beer crate with the number 60 - no knowledge of Japanese required.

The Town Ace Truck's tail gate and side walls are less tall than on the Tacoma, but this is actually a sign of versatility: all three sides can be folded completely out of the way so that you can use it to transport oversized loads, for those places in Japan where the roads allow it. (On the other hand, its very small turning radius is helpful for negotiating the narrow streets characteristic of many residential neighbourhoods in Japan).

What's not to love?
Well, the Town Ace Truck comes with a 1.5L, 96HP engine. Now, as you know I'm generally a fan of small engines. However, this one delivers just two-thirds the power and torque of that of the 2.7L Tacoma engine, at pretty much the same fuel efficiency, an estimated 24-26 mpg (the JC08 schedule overstates the actual fuel economy). This is just underwhelming all around.

Sounds like a candidate for revision: imagine the Town Ace Truck outfitted with a diesel engine like that in my VW Golf: 2.0L, 140HP, 236 lbs-ft torque. Enough to easily haul 60 crates of beer up the side of Mount Fuji. And it's hard to argue with the 38mpg average fuel economy of the diesel.

Better yet: since Toyota is a leader in hybrid technology, perhaps its line of trucks is ready for the upgrade. Electric engines deliver whopping torque, and the fuel economy will get a huge boost. My guess is that, after the closing of the last nuclear reactor, energy will be at a premium in Japan, and Japanese car makers will be under pressure to deliver vehicles with significantly better fuel efficiency.


Toyota Tacoma / Toyota TownAce Truck

Toyota Tacoma TownAce Truck
Type Regular Cab  
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating  
MSRP $ 17,125 ¥ 1,358,000
($ 17,100)
CelloMom Rating    
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 21 / 25 mpg  
Avg. quoted   12.8 km/L
(30mpg) JC08
Avg. actual 24 mpg est. 24-26 mpg est.


Power & torque 159HP @ 5200rpm
180 lbs-ft @ 3800rpm
96HP @ 6000rpm
134Nm @ 4400rpm
(97 lbs-ft)
Gears 5-spd man RWD 5-spd man 2WD
Fuel Regular unleaded  
Length, mm(in) 190.4 in (4837mm) 4275mm (168 in)
Width, mm(in) 72.2 in (1833mm) 1675mm (66 in)
Height, mm(in) 65.8 in (1671mm) 1890mm (74 in)
Kerb weight, kg(lbs) 3250 lbs (1475 kg) 1130 kg (2491 lbs)
Payload, kg(lbs) 1350 lbs (612 kg) 800 kg (1764 lbs)
Bed length 73.5 in (1867mm) 2430mm (96 in)
Bed width 56.7 in (1440mm) 1585mm (62 in)
Bed height 18.0 in (457mm) 360mm (14 in)
Turning dia c-c, m(ft) 36.7 (11.2m) 9.4m (30.8)
Top speed, kph(mph)    

May 18, 2012

View from Abroad

There are plenty of American comedians and media pundits using laughter to comment on our love of big cars with big engines - here is one view from abroad: British comedian Sean Lock on how "Americans drive ... bungalows with wind screens".


And a fake ad from Australia: "With almost 100,000 homeless Australians facing another freezing winter, it's comforting to know: every kilometer you drive helps raise the temperature."


Culled from the "Ten funniest climate change videos ever" collected by the Brisbane Times

May 14, 2012

Of Convertibles and Fuel Efficiency

Let's talk about convertibles and fuel efficiency. Not so much about the kind of car that you can convert from a bath tub, let-the-sun-shine-on-me mode to a closed roof, keep-me-dry mode. I'm thinking of a shape-shifter car for the 21st century.

You see, the car shape that is optimal for high fuel efficiency on the highway is vastly different to that for negotiating city streets. Just think of trying to find a parking spot along the canals in downtown Amsterdam, or in a parking garage in New Amsterdam, a.k.a. Manhattan.

In Amsterdam, you need to parallel park your car on the left side of the road, and then you sidle out the door, holding on tight. The Dutch don't believe in safety rails, they put their faith in your common sense and good parking skills. If your car is longer than four metres or so, you get to find, and pay for, two adjacent spots (and the parking rates on those canals are usurious).

In contrast, to get savings on the highway, meaning a high fuel economy, you want a car with a nice long tail. Not the kind of thing you want to park canal-side. So if you want to do both city and highway driving in the same car, you need a shape-shifter: that is to say, a convertible.

What good is a long tail on a car?
At high speeds, the fuel efficiency of your car is determined largely by air drag: that "wind" that dogs and children love to sample by hanging out of the window.

The power you need to overcome the air drag depends on the density of the air ρ, the speed of the car v, its frontal area A, and its shape, which is characterised by the drag coefficient Cd.

Pair = ½ Cd A ρ v3

You can't change the air density around where you live (ρ is fixed). You can slow down (reduce v) to get better fuel efficiency: it takes twice as much power to overcome the air drag at 70mph than it does at 55mph. And you can tinker with the shape of the car, to make Cd smaller.

For a box-shaped truck, Cd is about 0.7: that's serious drag. Most mass-production passenger cars have better aerodynamic design, and have drag coefficients varying from 0.45 for the boxy Range Rover, to 0.25 for the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. For Cd smaller than 0.25 you're looking among a list of concept cars, or one of a kind racing cars.

One such car is the Mercedes-Benz Bionic Car, which sports a drag coefficient of just 0.19. But if your children are the broad-shouldered football playing type, this is not the car for you: it has the overall outline of a cut-off tear drop shape, so the back of the car is quite a bit narrower than the front.

That is even more true for the Aptera 2e, now out of production, that doesn't even pretend to have space for four. But it has to be said its tail is a perfect place for storing a cello. Cd=0.15.

Dave Cloud's rally car pushes the drag coefficient even lower. This car is based on a Geo Metro, with its rear wheels covered by a body that stretches out to a long taper; its electric energy use is around 130Wh/mile (compared to 340Wh/mi quoted for the Nissan Leaf).

It is named the Dolphin. Its shape resembles that of a dolphin, but its drag coefficient is probably a factor of ten larger than that of its aquatic namesake. A dolphin is optimally built for having fun slicing through a dense medium (water) at high speeds and over long distances. The drag coefficient for dolphins is in the range 0.0038-0.0040. So even a fat dolphin has the envy-inducing low drag coefficient of Cd=0.004.

Dave Cloud's Dolphin is one cool-looking car (and its tail is long enough to stow a string bass), but you would have trouble finding parking for it in any city.

Enter the 21st century convertible: I'll call it CelloMom's Salmon, not just for the pleasing near-alliterative half-rhyme, but also for the salmon's habit of swimming upstream, against all odds.

The Salmon, when parked in a driveway, looks like a modest passenger car that can move four or five people, plus a cello in the trunk. It has a snub-nosed rear, if that isn't too much of an oxymoron: from the back it's flat and boxy. It's easy to park, even in the close-walled parking garages of New York City.

Once you're out of the city and on open road, you push a button in the dashboard (marked with the Fish icon), and panels unfold from the back to form an appendage shaped like a fish tail. It could be a telescoping mechanism that pushes out, section by section in decreasing size, both in the lateral and the vertical direction, a set of metal sleeves (or fiberglass, to keep the weight down) ending in a stubby tip bearing the licence plate.

Coming off the highway, you push the Fish button again and the tail telescopes in and stows itself neatly away. At speeds lower than 40mph a warning light on the dashboard comes on to remind you to retract the tail.

There you have it: CelloMom's Salmon Convertible Concept Car. OK, maybe it will be dubbed CelloMom's Armadillo: that wouldn't bother me. Whatever you want to call it, it should save a load of fuel.

As an added bonus, the tail looks dangerous and might deter other road users from tailgating you. Bonus number two: should it come to a collision, the tail, if designed sturdily, might add to the crumple zone at the rear of the car, for added protection of the cello in the trunk - and the occupants of the back seat.

As for the telescoping mechanism: I totally trust that this can be done, and done elegantly. After all, it will be in the hands of mechanical engineers who are no strangers to shape shifting cars. If you can build a mechanism to fold and unfold the roof on a conventional convertible, at the touch of a button and at speeds up to 60mph, designing the same for a fuel saving tail should be a walk in the park.

May 11, 2012

The technicolor world of cars

Look around any parking lot surrounding any American mall, and most of what you see is the patriotic red, white and blue, plus various shades of grey. Even when we drove a distinctively shaped VW Vanagon, CelloDad would have trouble finding it back, especially after a stint inside the mall, which always left him slightly disoriented. CelloDad has stopped going to malls since Amazon came online.

Honda Fits come in a range of lively metallics, including that wonderful copper: at least you have no trouble finding that back.

A true rainbow of colour is available for the VW Golf (see the German configurator page): besides red, white and blue - and seven shades of grey - there are five greens, ranging from the exuberant "Cosmic-Grün Metallic" to the sophisticated "Minzgrün" (mint green). Also a stunning "Ginstergelb", the deep yellow yolk of an egg from a grass-fed hen. And the blues (fifteen of them) go from the ethereal "Blue Spirit Perleffekt" to the in-your-face "Techno-Blau Perleffekt".

"Toto - I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

Now take a peek at the colour page for the Honda Life, an adorable micro-MPV that comes in reds, whites and blues, but perhaps not the exact red and blue hues you would expect.

The right-most column of that page is reproduced here, and after some puzzling, courtesy of ViolaPlayer who has been taking Japanese, it transpires that the first few colours are called, from the top, "Berry Red Metallic", and "Pink Gold Metallic". I know a few teens who could totally see driving in the "Pink Gold Metallic".

The middle option is more staid: "Vanilla Creme". And for the more manly preferences there is "Admiral Grey Metallic", and "Premium Mystic Night Pearl"

Over on the left-hand column on the Honda page, and not reproduced here, is a brown that is labeled "Berbet Maroon Metallic". As far as I can figure, Berbet is a kind of fish. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but it would be so Japanese to name a car colour after a fish.

"Now I know we're not in Kansas!"

May 9, 2012

Post Digital Detox

So, I'm back.

To begin with a confession: I wasn't entirely screen free last week, but used the laptop mostly for reading Email and responding to just the time sensitive ones. We don't have TV in the house, so that part was easy.

I intended to check out Volvo's reputation for having car interiors that are chemically clean - but I couldn't find the local Volvo dealer! I didn't want to google it, being screen-free and all, and it was mysteriously lacking a listing in the yellow pages.

I did a lot of gardening, talking with my friends, hanging out with my children, reading even more books than usual. CelloDad was having one gruelling week at work, but we did manage to go out for lunch finally, on Friday, just the two of us. I went for a talk on middle-eastern art at the museum. I played pool with a friend, practicing for the day that we can graduate to snooker. I even - ack - went to the mall, looking to replace our pasta bowls which are starting to chip.

My ViolaPlayer was screen-free (excepting homework assignments) for the weekdays, and cool new artwork started to emerge from the study - but come the weekend the lure of the internet proved too great.

However, to my intense pride - and utter amazement - CelloDad has declared he would like a screen-free day every weekend from now. Wow. That would be fantastic: I rather enjoyed our family game of badminton doubles, wouldn't mind doing that every weekend. Just for that I would count this screen-free week a success.

But the most exciting thing that happened last week was my first cello lesson.

CelloPlayer (whose cello I am playing for now) is quietly laughing at my ineffectual plucking - if I'm very lucky I get to hold the bow this week - and I've already been admonished to wash my hands before touching the cello. I suppose it's only fair, since it's not really my cello. And I suppose it's good for you to watch your mom struggling with a new thing.

All I can say is, It's Hard. My fingertips hurt. My thumb hurts (either I have to develop the muscles in my left hand, or I'm holding the neck wrong). Playing the electric bass, with its frets, was much easier.

But I'm stoked. I'm already eyeing the back of our VW Golf, to see how one might fit two cellos in that car, plus the viola, and still carry all four of us.

May 7, 2012

Musings: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen

The Volkswagen Group really takes to heart the "Reduce, Re-use, Recycle" slogan. Just look at how, in 2011, Volkswagen Reduced drastically the number of work-related E-mails their employees have to endure outside of regular working hours, in the name of work-life balance.

In 2009, in response to sales that had slowed down considerably in the financial crisis, Volkswagen chose to Reduce work hours for its assembly staff rather than laying them off. Sounds civilised to me.

The group states that eventual Recycling of its vehicles is part of its design process, and claims a 95% material recovery rate for end-of-life vehicles.

But where they really shine is at Re-use. In the last few decade or so, the Volkswagen Group have really perfected the art of developing a vehicle platform that appeals to a broad audience, and then using that same platform for a spate of models across the four brands under their umbrella: Audi, Volkswagen, SEAT, Škoda.

For instance, the A5 platform, also known as PQ35, is the basis for some twenty models in the family. Its range include such familiars as the Audi TT, Audi A3 and the VW Beetle, as well as models that haven't (yet) made it to the US, such as the feisty but frugal Audi Q3, the newly re-introduced VW Scirocco, and the sensible Škoda Octavia, as well as several good-looking models in the SEAT lineup.

One of the models with this platform is the VW Jetta Sportwagen, which itself is a paragon of Re-use: a model that works across the planet. It is variously known as the Golf Variant in continental Europe, the Golf Estate in the UK, the Golf Sportwagen (formerly the Bora Sportwagen) in Mexico, and the Jetta Variant in Brazil and the Vento Variant in Argentina.

"Vento"? -- Well, you see, "vento" is Italian for "wind", which is in line with the Volkswagen custom of naming its cars after prevailing winds. Never mind that they speak Spanish in Argentina.

Maybe they ran out of appropriate winds for naming their vehicles, which has to be done with great care. It won't do to name a car "Zephyr", unless maybe you plan to market it to a super-laid-back audience. And my own guess is that we will not soon see a German car named after the Ghibli, the Saharan wind that brings dry and hot air to Lybia.

[I culled that last name from a fascinating list of named winds at Wikipedia. The Dutch page, that is. Those who originally used windmills to make half their land area habitable would be interested in wind.]

But back to the Jetta Sportwagen: what can I say? It's just like the Golf, only longer in the back by about 14 inches. It comes with the same range of engines. It even has pretty much the same front as the Golf.

I put the cello in the back, and saw that the trunk was cavernous. Could easily hold two cellos; now that I have started taking cello lessons myself, a second cello in the house (and in the car) is a distinct possibility. When you fold down part of the back seat I would guess you could move a string bass in this thing.

But then I closed the hatch. No test drive for me: In the US, if you want the Jetta Sportwagen with the 2.0 TDI diesel engine (rather than the 2.5L gasoline engine), you get to buy it with seats that have something on them called "V-tex leatherette". VW calls it an upgrade from the cloth upholstery. I suppose it looks sort of like leather. I have no idea what it is exactly, but it exuded a "new car smell" that was overwhelming.

Pity: this car would have worked rather gloriously with leather seating (available for the Golf Variant in Europe). It would even have worked with the presumably less expensive cloth upholstery that comes in the regular Golf. But the smelly fake leather? No thanks. Not even a test drive.