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February 13, 2009

Passat in Review

Now that I've had my new VW Passat for a few months I've noticed a few things in direct comparison with my old Accord, especially since I was driving them interchangeably for more than a month. In general, it seems like the VW has more options and configurability than the Honda, to the point that it becomes more difficult to do things. Sometimes having these options is beneficial and useful, other times you'd rather just have them pick one and set it permanently like the Honda did. I've found I've had to look things up in the VW manual quite frequently. The manual is actually very difficult to read and doesn't provide a lot of information. It seems to be written to be used on any version of the car worldwide and thus it can be quite difficult to figure out what features your car might or might not have and how it is supposed to operate. On the other hand, the handling of the VW is a welcome improvement over the Accord and I was just shocked at how much better the tires on the VW performed compared to the old worn ones on the Accord in the snow and ice. Even when new the tires on the Accord weren't as good.

I'm rather annoyed by the windshield wipers hiding under hood, you need to "park" them on the windshield in order to flip them up. It's also much more difficult to clean snow and ice out of the little recessed area under the hood. The side view mirrors on the VW are quite tiny and recessed just enough into the mirror body that they collect snows and ice much more readily and are more difficult to clean. The mirrors on the Accord rarely ever collected snow. One of my common complaints was that airflow often collected any snow left on the vehicle on the rear window, the Passat doesn't suffer from this, it does however collect everything on the back of the trunk and bumper.

The central locking of the Passat is quite transparent, locking and unlocking automatically without any need for attention. The indicators however only indicate the locked position and I'm quite annoyed that I cannot lock the car manually from the driver's door, only the key fob can really be used for this.

One of the minor things I dislike, exhaust outputs on the left and gas filler on the right. I prefer the opposites, for exhaust fog and filling convenience reasons, probably a remnant of being designed as a right hand drive vehicle.

The radio in the VW doesn't quite sound as good, I often feel the need to tweak the sound, I don't seem to like the sound systems with separate tweeters. On the plus side, the radio is stocked with a factory CD changer which is MP3 capable and Sirius radio is installed. I'm still debating activating that. The radio/antenna combination is just a little bit weaker than the Accord, so one more remote station I liked to listen too is just too weak now. The radio features and nature of the car's CAN bus system allows for more variety and robustness in the aftermarket accessories. I've since added an iPod adapter which is fully controlled and monitored via the in cluster display system and I've also tied in a hands free Bluetooth system which the car is preconfigured for.

I've already encountered two faults with the car. Some kind of malfunctioning valve in the overall air system of the car caused an intermittent idle issue, covered by warranty, which I hope is fixed now. Also, one of the rear windows broke its power actuator when I accidentally hit the button with my gloves in the cold. Will be fixed on warranty when they get the parts.

I'm still getting used to some of the advanced features. The combination of the headlights that turn into corners in conjunction with the stability control can really play tricks on the mind as you turn around corners at night. The HID lights provide a very well defined illumination pattern, the edge is very obvious, which can be good and bad. The color illumination of the HIDs can play tricks on what you see. Driving along the highway, it's not always clear if you are seeing dead grass or snow in the ditch for example. The built in multi-function display in the gauge cluster of the VW provides tons of information. There are 3 trip odometers, all of which can range up to 9999km, the Accord had two which were limited to 999km. On the VW one of those trip odometers resets every time the car is parked for more than 2 hours. Along with the odometer the logging function tracks travel time, average fuel economy, average speed, etc. The 2nd trip odometer tracks the same features and is manually reset. The 3rd one is just an odometer. There is quite a bit of more information you can get out of the display. One of the oddities is the single function speedometer which only reads km/h (or mp/h for US cars). You can flip the measurement system for everything else but that using the displays' configuration. There is a secondary digital speed display that you can make appear in another format if necessary.

I've really been missing the large storage bin the Accord had. The VW has many more storage locations, but they are mostly small. I find many of the compartments just won't fit anything I'd like to put in them so I have ended up with a large collection of stuff in the center armest bin.

I had need to obtain a scan tool to install the Bluetooth adapter and its interesting all the information you can pull out of the computers on the CAN bus and all the additional configurations and options you can set in the background. It's a much more modern design. One of the other things I've noticed is all the little things they've decontented on the Canadian version of the car. I supposed this is to try to adjust the price downward, but it's sometimes hard to figure how removing a few cents or dollars worth of parts is really worth the potential alienation to customers. Seeing the internals of the computers and some of the foreign options and discussions in online forums, its clear that even the US car is quite decontented from European equivalents.

I'm quite pleased with the car but it's also reinforced how pleased I was with the Accord.

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Buying a New Car

I've detailed my shopping experience for a new car to replace my leased Honda Accord previously. I ended up buying a used 2008 VW Passat 2.0T. From narrowing down what I was looking for, I had been exclusively searching for those vehicles, I perused the online inventory of every VW dealer in Canada, as well as many used vehicle sites. I also asked a salesman at a local dealer to look for specific vehicles for me.

I ended up finding two vehicles. The first was located in Ontario, it was a US imported vehicle that had been modified to Canadian standards. The second was located in BC and was an original Canadian car. The cars were pretty much identical, same color, same model, similar mileage and prices. The option sets were slightly different coming from the US and Canada though. I ended up choosing the Canadian vehicle, I had a slight preference for the option set, there would be no warranty issues and the price was more negotiable. I put down a small deposit.

A few weeks later I flew out to inspect, pay for and take delivery of the vehicle. The dealer was able to provide me the documentation prior to my arrival so I could obtain a temporary registration from MPI. This turned out to be a cheaper option than temporary insurance from BC. The whole pickup procedure at the dealer was pretty quick and straight forward. I was a little disappointed that they hadn't filled the gas tank or done the routine oil change that was outstanding on the vehicle nor buff out the few minor scratches on the car.

While in Vancouver I was able to meet up with a friend for lunch and find my first ever Webcam geocache. My mom reminded me to pick up a snow brush before driving home and I did that as well. Much of my dad's family lives in Vancouver, however they were all vacationing together for Christmas and weren't in town. A friend had traveled with me and we went and visited with some of his family. We ended up attending a fund raising social for their sons dry grad. Seems a bit contradictory, they also didn't call it a social and weren't quite as organized as you would expect when attending a Manitoba social. I think nearly everyone in attendance got at least 2 prizes. Cory Philpot was in attendance and showed us his Grey Cup ring. He's a former Winnipeg Blue Bomber and BC Lion.

We left for Winnipeg early the next day. It was an easy drive in the new car for much of the day. The Coquihalla highway is now toll free. We were thinking about making the return trip in 2 days, hoping we'd make it to Calgary the first day, but that didn't happen. It was about sunset when we arrived in Golden, BC. We thought about stopping for the day, but decided to continue on. Up until this point, it was clear with no snow. It had now turned to fog and as we headed up the mountain, the snow started falling. It was certainly wintery through the mountain pass, with evidence of several feet of previously fallen snow. The plows were out and sanding at the same time. It was a bit slow going and tedious but we made it to Canmore, AB and stopped for the night. It's interesting how familiar some parts of the highway are to drive and how others I don't remember at all.

The next morning we headed in to Calgary for breakfast. The snow brush came in handy to clean off the nights wet snow. Knowing we would be taking 3 days to get back, we left a little later in the morning and that turned out to be a wise choice as the roads had been very icy earlier and there were many cars in the ditch, including a garbage truck perfectly upside down. We hadn't made any stops the first day, trying to get through the mountains as quickly as possible, but after leaving Calgary I started to mix in a few geocaching stops. Sometime near sunset I noticed a stone chip in the windshield :( We ate dinner in Swift Current, SK and stopped for the night at Moose Jaw, SK.

The next morning we headed into town to get the stone chip fixed and continued on our way. We were making good time so I made quite a few more stops for geocaches along the way. I found the POI (Points Of Interest) on my GPS to be quite detailed, we were able to find restaurants and lodging everywhere we went. It might not have had them all, but it will get you to the general locations in town where they are located. We stopped at The Red Barn restaurant in Moosomin, SK, a bit of a different place. You order from a walk up counter, but the rest looks like any sit-down restaurant. It had recently moved in conjunction with the twinning and re-alignment of much of the Transcanda through Saskatchewan. I grabbed a bunch of geocaches on the western edge of Manitoba as I rarely travel there, but know many of the cachers who hid them as well as a pesky cache in Brandon that always seemed to be missing when I was there. We got into Winnipeg that evening.

Along the way I tried every grade of gasoline. The car is designed for premium but runs fine on everything I tried with no noticeable difference in fuel economy. Average economy for the trip was a little below the ratings which could be due to the winter conditions, mountains and more frequent stops later in the trip.

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Lease Return

I recently went through the process of returning my leased Honda vehicle, here's how it went.

They (Honda Finance) start sending you notices in advance of the return date, but they trickle out the important information, in the end providing only a vague brochure as the bulk of the substance about the process.

Before returning the vehicle you must schedule an inspection, this cannot occur more than 45 days prior to returning the vehicle. Getting the inspection scheduled was a lot of back and forth and legwork on my side as they constantly failed to phone. I later discovered this was because they kept getting my phone number wrong even after several fixes. It was perhaps closer to 35 days when I finally was able to have the inspection done. The good part is that the inspection will happen wherever you are, the bad part is that the inspector uses cable company style scheduling (I'll be there between 10 and 6). The inspection report was due to arrive a few days later, but took more than a week because they screwed up my phone number again, as well as my email address. After finally receiving the inspection report I could then set about repairing the defects on the vehicle that went above normal wear and tear.

I knew there were some outstanding repairs as I left them until I knew exactly what they would be assessed as. I was quite surprised by the report, it omitted things that both I and the brochure I had been provided indicated would need to be repaired. It also included things that the brochure, myself and several other people indicated should be classified as normal wear and tear. So I guess it's a bit of a wash. On the plus side, the report details the charges for the items if you do not repair them and uses quite reasonable labour rates, below MPI rates in fact.

So by this time, it's about 25 days prior to return, getting body work done in the middle of December on short notice is a challenge at the best of times. One of the items I needed to repair was damage caused by a 3rd party for which I had initiated an MPI claim much earlier. This claim was stuck at MPI and took another week or two after the inspection report was received before it was finalized and I could actually schedule an appointment at the body shop. By then it was too late, the body shop was booked beyond the return date. In the end I found another shop that could do the work on short notice and was able to get most of the work done, but didn't have time for all the repair work I would have liked to finish before returning the vehicle.

Returning the vehicle to the dealer was quite easy. Any dealer can handle the return as they just need to receive the vehicle and fill out some paper work. A few weeks after the return, someone called to ask if that was my vehicle and why it was parked at the dealer, never did hear back from them. Honda Finance also called several times after the return to schedule an appointment to re-assess the vehicle after the work I had done. This was contradictory to the brochure which just indicated returning the vehicle with the receipts. Eventually they scheduled the inspection on their own. A copy of the new inspection report was returned with the final invoice for work. Oddly the inspection report missed several items that were on the initial report and added several items which weren't on the original. In the end the value balanced out to the same thing. Their dependence on these quick, one off inspections seems rather odd.

The final invoice did not include any documentation about how to submit payment. I called the number on the invoice several times over a period of weeks and left messages which weren't returned. Eventually someone got a hold of me and I was able to obtain the information necessary to submit final payment. Hopefully, this is the end of the story.

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February 11, 2009

Pattern Matching

One of my University professors described the brains' functioning as pattern matching. Existing neural pathways are going to respond to patterns that have been experienced previously. Using existing pathways is easier than forming new ones. That description seems fitting to me and it often helps to explain how things work. It's why we jump to conclusions or make assumptions so easily. It also explains why some of those mind tricks work so well. It's also important to consider this when you want to convey information clearly. For example, if you are describing a limit, phrasing such as "not greater than X" or "never X or greater" could be used depending on the situation, each describes a different limit. The most natural response is to recognize the statements as limit orientated and assume X to be the limit applied in the most natural way. Normally that means phrasing such as "not greater than X" should be used as we are often talking about maximums.

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