Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
Updated: November 24, 2020

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Toyota Venza

Toyota Venza: a tall wagon evolves into a taller and higher-tech SUV

By Jim Bray
November 24, 2020

Out goes the "car", in comes the "SUV" – and that's the tale of the Toyota Venza. Well, part of it.

Time was when the Venza occupied a kind of unique niche in the car marketplace, at least in North America: a tall station wagon. Station wagons are rare here, unfortunately, though other parts of Parent Earth still do brisk business with them. Here, we get a few wagons, mostly German (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but even sedans and coupes are threatening to become an endangered species in these parts in favour of SUV's.

So, Toyota has now brought back the Venza, "rebirthing" it as a, well, a big RAV4 – though it isn't even really much bigger than the RAV in size. Toyota is slotting the new, two row Venza SUV between the RAV and the larger, three row Highlander, filling a whole in their product line that I didn't think existed. Seems silly to me, but the carmakers never ask my opinions (It may be a defence mechanism on their parts…). Besides, fortunately, the new Venza is a really nice vehicle that will probably sell by the truckload.

If only they hadn't saddled it with a typically noisy and annoying continuously variable transmission.

Available only as a hybrid (which undoubtedly helps explain the CVT), the 2021 Venza is a handsome vehicle – much more agreeable to my eyes than the recently uglified RAV4 and, though it's not the same type of vehicle, the well-creased Camry. The front end has a big grille, but it's not overly in your face, and the clean sides lead to a rear end that seems reminiscent of the Jaguar F-Pace (a very handsome vehicle, indeed).

It also offers a couple of really cool features I'm dying to tell you about. more...

Jim BrayNational Teen Driver Safety Week focused on at least one wrong issue

It appears that, these days, there's a week, or a month, or a day, for just about any cause one can imagine. And last week, October 18 to 24 was apparently named National Teen Driver Safety Week, at least judging by the press releases I've received on the topic.

These releases offer a variety of tips for teenagers as they get behind the wheel of their vehicle, things such as remembering to mute your phone (in fact, in one release I got they say you should put it into Airplane Mode!), planning your route in advance, keeping both hands on the steering wheel, etc.

One organization, in their press release, even called upon the young drivers' passengers to rat 'em out: "Speak Up: As a passenger, help by speaking up if your driver decides to interact with a mobile device. Feel confident to ask them to stop immediately, and demand that they pull over and then use their phone safely."

Advocating back seat drivers? Really? Where do these people get off? I tell you, if it were me driving and my passenger pulled that, I'd pull something, too: I'd indeed pull my vehicle right over to the shoulder (when it's safe to do so, of course) and then that prattler in the passenger position would be on foot.  Don't like my driving? Find someone else to chauffeur you around!

Of course, it's been a loooong time since I was a teenager and I display my well-earned curmudgeonly tendencies proudly.  

To be fair, some of the advice given above is reasonable enough but, as usual, the powers that are pushing this agenda appear to be aiming a good portion of their fire at the usual canard: speeders.

It's always about speeding, isn't it? Funny, you'd think the authorities would love speeding, because they can be found just about any day sitting on the side of the road with their zap guns and the money collected goes right to the government. It's like smokers. I don't know how much cigarettes sell for today, but a huge proportion, if not most, of cancer sticks' cost has traditionally been taxes.

Isn't it more than a tad hypocritical? I mean, how much extra money do smokers put into governments' pockets, which could go directly to our socialist health care system if they weren't busy peeing it away to buy votes in Quebec. Yet smokers are pilloried and shunned and lectured to – almost in an Orwellian "two minutes of hate" way.  

Imagine, though, how much more the rest of us would have to pay in taxes if it weren't for smokers? And boozers. And speeders (and don't get me started on the photo radar cash grab!).

But I digress. My issue is that speed isn't necessarily the problem. Stupidity is. Or a lack of driving skills, or a lack of care and attention. more...

Harrison Bergeron

Welcome to Bergeron!

By Eric Peters
An important special commentary, reproduced with permission

America is becoming Bergeron – a new country based on the principles laid out in Kurt Vonnegut's depressingly prescient short story, Harrison Bergeron.

It is a country in which – as in the book – you may not act if anyone of lesser strength or ability or drive cannot act at the same level. You must accommodate yourself to their level.

Everything is leveled – ever downward.

Until all are depressingly . . . equal.

In misery. In poverty. In thrall to suffocating edicts limiting what they are permitted to do – and told they must not do – on the basis of what others can't do. Or resent you for being able to do, which they can't.

One of the most obvious expressions of this principle is on the road, where the law punishes competence as a kind of affront to the incompetent. If some people can't handle making a right turn on red without creeping out in front of right-of-way traffic and causing a wreck thereby, no one else is allowed to make a right-on-red. If someone ignores the law forbidding it and makes a right-on-red safely and competently, by judging the flow of traffic and applying the necessary degree of acceleration to merge with it smoothly, he is punished for being competent.

For having ability – and daring to use it.

Some will say that, no, the offender ignored the law. True – but only superficially.

Consider that the competent execution of the action isn't a mitigating factor. Just as health is no excuse for not Diapering.. more...

Audi A4 Sport Wagon

New behind the wheel? Here's some advice for new and inexperienced drivers

Back to School season may be the "most wonderful time of the year" if you're a parent whose kids have been driving you up the wall for the past several months, but it's also a time when many people are heading back to classes – or work, or whatever, as well.

This means, as I'm sure you'll have noticed, that our highways and byways are filling up again – not, perhaps, as much as they were back before our forcible, free trial of tyranny began, but more than were on the roads during the early heights of the health hype. This prompted the folks at OK Tire to offer some tips they think can help the more inexperienced drivers among us to have safer and/or more pleasant driving experiences than they might otherwise.

I'm not sure how many of today's young snowflakes will take heed – since OK's advice involves such things as paying attention to things other than themselves – but I present them here for your information, along with some comments of my own gleaned from a half century of driving vehicles of nearly every size on every type of road from dirt to race track.

OK Tire's list is all common-sense stuff, and it applies to drivers of all experience levels, not just the so-called newbies:

"Know your vehicle – Familiarising yourself with all of the buttons, including your AC, heating and wipers means you will know where they are when you need them quickly and will prevent you from taking your eyes off the road. Learning the basics of how your vehicle works inside and out will help to avoid panic if something goes wrong."

This makes perfect sense, of course, and all it really requires is for you to poke around your vehicle before you head out. Learn the touch screen and its various features (you may not have a touch screen but the advice is sound for any type of screen no matter how it's controlled) so you can spend the least amount of time looking for stuff when you should be looking down the road. more...

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday hits Blu-ray – but not in 4K

A classic William Wyler film has just escaped onto home video wearing a brand-new set of clothes, but it isn't the set of clothes I really wanted to see it in.

It's Roman Holiday, Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and a young up and comer named Audrey Hepburn, in a performance that ended up winning her an Oscar, one of three the classic "fish out of water" tale took home.

William Wyler created his share of masterpieces over his long Hollywood career, from Wuthering Heights to The Best Years of Our Lives to the 1959 Ben-Hur and, despite its slow start, Roman Holiday is another.

Hepburn plays Ann, a European princess from an always-unnamed country. She's on an official tour of Europe and, once in Rome, the frustrations of the young girl – who really only wants to be an ordinary person – get the best of her and she sneaks away from her cocoon of handlers and protectors. She doesn't mean to stay away long, we think, but she falls asleep on a bench (thanks to a dose of sleepy drugs she was given before she sneaked out) and is rescued by reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who happens upon her sleeping beauty and, unable to wake her up properly, ends up taking her back to his home rather than leave her at the mercy of an outside world she has never really experienced and is undoubtedly unable to cope with.

At work the next day, while Ann still sleeps in his little apartment, Joe discovers who she really is and cooks up a scheme by which he can use his newfound influence as her saviour to get an exclusive story that'll make him a bundle of much-needed cash. To help, he enlists his photographer friend Irving Radovich (played, very well as usual, by Eddie Albert) and together they convince Ann (who, thinking her identity is still a secret, has called herself Anya) to spend a day sightseeing the Eternal City while Irving surreptitiously snaps shots of her "secret" Roman Holiday.

Not surprisingly for a romantic comedy, while Joe's exploiting Ann he manages to fall in love with her, and this changes everything. No longer does he want to plaster her face all over the pages, under his byline, for a quick infusion of cash and credibility. Nope, he now realizes that it wouldn't be fair to the girl because, despite being a public figure, she's also a real person and a darn likeable one, a fact he hadn't expected. more...

Datacolor SpyderX

WALTR2 lets iOS users bypass annoying iTunes app

iPhone users and those with other iOS devices who want to get their media files onto their gadgets without getting frustrated enough to throw them against the wall have a way to avoid that darn iTunes program all together. And, at least to me, that's a really good thing.

There is a number of ways you can do this,getting files onto the device directly, and I found a good one that's easy to use and, mostly, works very well.

It's called WALTR2 which, perhaps not too surprisingly, is the sequel to WALTR, which I've never tried. And I used it to get nearly 128 gig of my music onto my iPhone! And more.

I came across WALTR2, which is from Softorino, doing a web search for just such a product. It was made necessary by my dear wife buying me a refurbished unlocked iPhone 7 for my birthday, after she watched me spend the last year cussing at the cheap unlocked Android phone I'd bought because it was cheap and unlocked and because, with Android, you can add memory instead of (as with Apple) having to buy the capacity you want up front.

I've always hated that about Apple, though I like iPhones and iPads better than any Android I've tried, and for years stuck with Google's Android system because I didn't want to knuckle under to Apple's proprietary BS.

Well, because of that and iTunes, which has to have one of the most annoying interfaces for a smart device I've ever seen. I use iTunes with my iPad to get videos onto it for when I travel, but other than that I avoid it like the plague.

Alas, with that Android phone I bought last year (after my previous iPhone decided to commit suicide by flying out of my hand and landing face down on some rocks – hmm, maybe it didn't want to deal with iTunes any more, either!), Ben Franklin's adage of "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten" reared its ugly head. The phone was slow and its performance and connectivity was spotty.

Then my wife found the refurbished, 128 gig iPhone 7 on sale for a reasonable price and took pity on me.

Except that it once again saddled me with using iTunes, and I HATE iTUNES! more...

Datacolor SpyderX

Datacolor's SpyderX lets you tweak your monitor at home

Want to make sure your video monitor is displaying as it should?  If so, you might be interested in Datacolor's SpyderX, a nifty tool by which you can optimize your display easily and quickly.

And it seems to work, though I'm no expert on such topics. But after having tried the Spyder X on my computer and even one of my flat panel 4K TV's, I'm confident to say the product does work well.

Why would you care?

Well, there's the pursuit of excellence, of getting the most out of the after-tax disposable income you've spent on your technology. And there's also accuracy, if you're a professional designer who uses colour in your work – if you specify a particular colour (Pantone colour standards etc., notwithstanding), you should do everything you can to ensure that what you see on your screen is exactly what you intended. Remember WYSIWGY?

It reminds me of the old (well, there are still vestiges) THX certification system for movie and, later, home theatres. THX was originally more for the audio side of things, and it seems to have done a lot to help improve your experience at home or in the theatre (well, the ones that paid the fee, anyway…).

Which brings us back to Datacolor and its SpyderX which, according to an email I received from their PR guy, "is the easiest, most accurate, and fastest calibration tool Datacolor has ever released. This new tool takes just 2-3 minutes to calibrate, in comparison to its predecessor, the Spyder 5 which averaged around 8-10 minutes." more...

2020 Toyota Highlander

Toyota's Camry offers multiple compelling versions of the family sedan

Toyota's mid-sized mainstream sedan has always been a good car, but it hasn't always been a really compelling car to drive. Those days appear to be over, at least partly.

Camrys have also been known as excellent, well-built and engineered cars, something you can buy and drive comfortably and affordably over the long haul. But if I were looking for a Japanese car in this market segment, one that's also interesting to those who enjoy extending their right feet a little, I'd have sent you scrambling for the Mazda6, though you can no longer get it with a V6 engine. Still, "Zoom-Zoom" and all that.

With this current generation of Camry, however, Toyota is clearly intent on adding some sweet flavour to the vanilla puddling. This extends not only to its driving dynamics, but to its styling as well which, like many other Japanese cars these days, means adding a bunch of creases and other busy-looking things that may be more interesting than before but which – in my never humble opinion – makes it less attractive than the smooth-sided version it replaced.

The beauty of a vehicle, of course, is in the eye of the keyholder. But while I really like how these current Camrys drive, I find their looks a tad off-putting, from a hood whose creases remind me of a Klingon's forehead (not the original Klingons, but the ones from later series and movies) and a puckered grille that looks like a face that smelled something foul that someone else might have left behind.

It's also a tad artsy fartsy inside, thanks to a centre stack that's sculpted like Renaissance statuary, but at least the interior is clean and modern and, well, darn fine overall. more...


New Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a very nice place to spend some time

It may not be the most compelling vehicle to drive, but Toyota's Highlander is a wonderful place in which to go from point A to point B, and its hybrid version may even save you some gas money.

But, oh, does it wallow! And that CVT!

Still, that could just be me. I don't like driving a vehicle that handles curves like a hovercraft, but I can see why people would love this vehicle. It's modern, it's powerful enough, it's equipped very nicely, and it has an interior that's nothing short of exquisite. And it's apparently all-new for 2020.

Toyota, not surprisingly, calls it the "Best Highlander ever" and says it's been redesigned from the ground up. The base 2020 Highlander lists from a pretty reasonable $39,990, but you can go up – a lot up – from there. And unlike years past where there was a hefty enough premium for going hybrid that you'd have to drive to the moon and back to cover the extra cost, Toyota says this new hybrid version will only set you back an extra two grand over the "equivalent gas" version.

Toyota also touts its newly available "Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel Drive with Driveline Disconnect and Multi Terrain Select," which in theory should enhance handling and performance on and off the road, and the company also says that all 2020 Highlander models come with Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 suite of nannies and aids and stuff, and connected services including stuff like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which in my experience can be really handy at times – especially if you don't want to pay for a navigation system in the vehicle itself.

I spent a week in the Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD, recently and I liked it a lot. A lot. Mostly because of that terrific interior, which is comfortable and classy and works very well. more...


Best Picture Oscar-winners get a new lease on life with terrific 4k disc packages

One of the big hits of 2000, and one of the year's most honoured films, has now premiered on 4K disc in a 20th anniversary collectible that's a joy for the eyes and ears. And it's accompanied onto the video store shelves by an even better movie, the best film of 1995, and if you have the hardware in your home theatre, you really should check them out.

Dreamworks' Gladiator, now in a nice steelbook presentation from Paramount Pictures (there's also a conventional plastic-cased edition), is an epic tale of honour, loyalty, bravery, lust, and treachery during the Roman Empire. It's kind of like Spartacus meets Ben-Hur in a way, as our hero – played in an Oscar-winning performance by Russell Crowe – is betrayed and left for dead (well, they thought he was dead…) but then, after a circuitous route that sees him go from slave to hero, he gets his revenge on his tormentor, who also just happens to be Caesar.

Ridley Scott, as usual, has made a visually beautiful film and it works well on many levels. Scott has built his cinematic career on his ability to create believable movie worlds (Blade Runner, Alien, Black Rain, The Martian, etc.), and so his 2000 Best Picture Oscar-winner looks fantastic to begin with.

And that's why I wanted to see the 4K version, and the UHD HDR treatment really elevates Gladiator to the next level of video quality. It's quite exquisite.

Now, take all of that and make it even better and you get Mel Gibson's Braveheart, the other Oscar-winner now out on 4K disc in a conventional or steelbook incarnation. Braveheart was only Gibson's second directorial outing, but he managed to create an epic even grander and more compelling than Gladiator – and many, many other so-called epics. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons it won Best Picture for 1995. more...

Toyota Tacoma

Toyota's Tacoma TRD an exceptional off-roader

It may be a tad long in the tooth for this generation, but Toyota's Tacoma pickup truck is legendary for its durability on and off the road. And if you want to make it even nicer, one of the TRD packages may be right up your alley.

The Tacoma has a history that stretches back to the famous old Hilux (and maybe even farther!), a compact pickup truck that was so durable the folks at the BBC's Top Gear even had it ride down to earth on an imploding building's roof to try killing it, after having put it through numerous other torture tests that it survived. Indeed, while the truck was a wreck cosmetically, it still started and, were its body and frame not ready for receiving the last rites, it probably would have driven!

That doesn't mean you should deliberately try to off your Tacoma, but it should indicate that your hard-earned after-tax income would be spent well on such a beast, if such a beast is what you're looking for.

Toyota says the Tacoma has been the best-selling mid-size truck for the past 14 years and for 2020 features some freshened styling, more multimedia stuff, and more comfort and convenience features. The truck, besides in this this 4x4 Double Cab TRD configuration, is also available in some 30 other versions, so good luck figuring out all the differences!

There are off road versions, small cab versions, more luxurious versions, and you can even opt for a six-speed manual on one version.

Toyota Canada sent the 2020 Tacoma with the TRD Off Road Premium package, which adds three grand to the sticker price but which also gives you a whole bunch of goodies. more...


Twitter gets some competition that promises to welcome conservative voices

There's a new, well, newer, social media outlet in town and the folks behind it are looking for a scalp named Twitter.

It's Parler, founded in 2018 and which bills itself as "the People-driven social platform," claiming a user base of a million people. That's undoubtedly chicken feed compared to the number of folks being forced currently into Twitter's liberal gulag, but it's also nothing at which to sneeze.

It appears to be a pretty pugnacious platform, too. I'd never heard of Parler before the company sent out a series of press releases last week, one of which condemned Twitter's labelling of a couple of President Donald Trump's tweets as "misleading information." Twitter, you may remember, got all a-twitter over the President pointing out that mail-in voting – a scheme being pushed hard currently by Democrats who'll do anything to get the world back to its headlong rush toward socialism – heightened the risk of election fraud. 

So, to show the unwashed masses just how credible Twitter is, the Twits in charge enlisted fake news Washington Post and CNN as their credible sources. It is to laugh.

Oddly enough (to those incapable of conscious thought), Twitter appears to see no problem with Antifa or other left wing groups and, to the best of my knowledge as of the time of this writing, isn't inserting its own editorial slant and censorship to the folks who appear to ride the same ideological train as the Twits.  

Seems, then, that Twitter isn't any kind of public square, town hall, or place for the open and free exchange of information and ideas. And that's fair enough: Twitter can do what it wants with its platform. I only object to the feigned non-partisanship – the same crap being spewed by most of the mainstream media, with its constant barrage of left-wing indoctrination pushed as actual balanced information. more...

The Invisible Man

Classic horror movie remake's 4K disc features a transparent plot

Universal Studios' latest attempt to bring new life to its catalogue of classic horror movies is an interesting take on an old story and how to make it new again. Oh, it's not nearly as good as some of the movies it remakes, but it's probably worth a look if you're into the genre.

It's the Invisible Man, a title/franchise that can be traced right back to the original golden age of Hollywood horror, an era that brought us Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and, of course the great Claude Rains as the Invisible Man.

There've been invisible man movies since then, of course, including such films as John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man. Neither was as good as the James Whale original, but both were decent trips through the home theatre.

In this Invisible Man, we barely see the scientist (okay, the pun is intended) whose creation proves so problematic – and instead the focus is on our distaff lead, Elisabeth Moss, who isn't invisible but who is stalked by her former main squeeze, who she thinks is invisible. more...

Top Gun

Classic Tom Cruise trio's 4K treatment takes our breath away

Paramount Pictures has just unleashed three new – well, old – Tom Cruise movies on 4K disc and they're all good examples of the species.

Not necessarily the greatest movies, but in my experience a Tom Cruise film is almost always worth watching and these three – well, two of them anyway – are no exceptions to the rule.

The three are Top Gun (the original, just in time to help promote the sequel that's coming out later this year and isn't that an interesting coincidence?), Days of Thunder (aka "Top Gun at NASCAR") and War of the Worlds. Of the three, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is the best (though I didn't like it much the first time I watched it), with Top Gun close behind and Days of Thunder (which doesn't even have an upgraded audio track for those who have Dolby Atmos systems) bringing up the rear.

All are worth watching, and all really benefit from the 4K treatment, so if you haven't bought any of these discs for your library yet, but want to, these are definitely the ones to get. more...

Overdrive City

Overdrive City brings sim gaming to car nuts

Are you a car nut who's tired of being locked down and not able to drive anywhere any more? If so, I have a pastime for you that might make your house arrest a little more palatable.

It's called Overdrive City, a "free" sim-style game for iOS and/or Android operating systems, and according to the press release I received announcing the game, it'll be available on the Microsoft store, too. It is, indeed, a free download but as with so many other free games you'll have to beat off with a stick the many offers that'll pop up as you play, offering you game resources you'll either have to purchase via their offers, or to earn a lot more slowly by playing the game itself over time, rather than opting for the cash outlay.

I don't opt for such cash outlays, which slows down the game's progress substantially, and that tends to make me play rather spottily – I'll go gung-ho until I run out of resources, then slow down dramatically until the resources are available.

According to Gameloft, the company behind the game, Overdrive City provides "a fresh take on city-building while delighting car aficionados with licensed brands and racing gameplay. Car enthusiasts become automotive visionaries and celebrate their passion from the factory floor to the fast lane."

The Montreal-based creator of Overdrive City has indeed unleashed an attractive and fun way to build your "Motor City" (I called my city Animoscity, just because I could), in which you buy and "build" (you place them on the game surface, then they "build" themselves) car parts and other factories and, eventually, factories that build brands of cars – Ford, Mitsubishi, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, etc. You can also perform service on a variety of "other peoples'" cars (if you have the resources), export shipments, and do other stuff such as upgrading your own vehicles (if you have the resources) to make them racier. more...

Mazda CX-30

Mazda joins the mini-ute fray with its CX-30

Take Mazda's award-winning, and terrific, 3 hatchback, raise it a bit and add some plastic cladding and what do you have?

Well, if you've read the title to this piece, you're already a step ahead and know I'm talking about the new for 2020 CX-30, a compact SUV/Crossover that's based on the 3 – and that's a heckuva great place to start!

I love the Mazda 3, though I think this current generation's hatchback model has a rear end only a Kardashian fan could love. But the car is terrific and arguably the nicest and most fun compact coming from Japan these days. Zoom-Zoom, even though I've heard that Mazda is apparently not using it any more, is not just a slogan; it's a fact.

But it appears the marketplace is moving more toward SUV/Crossovers and though Mazda already has a terrific lineup in its CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9, they apparently felt there was a hole in their inventory where such vehicles as Toyota's C-HR, Honda's HR-V, Hyundai's Venue or Kona and Kia's Seltos and Niro live.

Hence the CX-30. And judging from my week with it, just as winter was trying to end and the Coronavirus was trying to begin, it's a fine entry. And as a car guy as opposed to an SUV/Crossover aficionado, I actually think it's nicer looking than the 3 hatchback, from the B pillar (between the front and rear doors) back.

It's probably fair to look upon the CX-30 as a tall 3, kind of like the Audi A4 Allroad is basically an A4 wagon raised a bit from the regular model. So, you get a little taller view of the road, which apparently is one of the selling points for SUV/Crossovers compared to cars, and perhaps better off road performance (especially if you opt for the all wheel drive version). more...

TechnoFile publisher Jim Bray's print columns are available through the
TechnoFile Syndicate.
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