All posts by Justin Hughes

I drive stuff, ride stuff, and write stuff.

Massachusetts Activates National Guard to Combat School Bus Driver Shortage

I’ll bet these fine soldiers never thought they were signing up to drive school buses when they enlisted. But Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has activated 90 Guardsmen to serve in the areas of Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn, with another 160 available for additional communities should the need arise. The Drive and Jalopnik have the details.

Basically, there just aren’t enough drivers to do the job. Many are on the older side of the spectrum, and more vulnerable to COVID-19. Since schools are excellent incubators of illness, quite a few of these drivers have opted to stay home and stay safe.

This wasn’t an issue last year because just about everyone went remote. But this year many school administrations have decided that the pandemic is over, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and resumed normal in-school operations. Many of these schools have since returned to partial or fully remote learning upon the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff, which no one could possibly have seen coming except for doctors and scientists, and who listens to them anymore?

Yamaha, Honda, KTM, and Piaggio Commit To Standard Swappable Batteries

The biggest issue with electric vehicles is the recharge time. Society is accustomed to stopping at a gas station, filling the tank in a few minutes, and driving another few hundred miles. Electric doesn’t work that way — yet. One way to bypass this issue is rather than wait for your batteries to recharge, simply drop your depleted battery into charger, install a freshly charged battery, and zoom off into the sunset. It’s all the speed and convenience of a gas station fill-up in an electric world.

Of course, one of the main issues with this is every manufacturer has a different battery design and standard — until now. Motorcyclist reports that Yamaha, Honda, KTM, and Piaggio have signed an agreement to form the Swappable Batteries Motorcycle Consortium, which will help and promote the establishment of common standards for vehicle batteries across corporate boundaries.

This is absolutely crucial if swappable batteries are to succeed. There are many different standards out there right now, both for charging as well as the batteries themselves. Seeing a few big companies jump on board with this idea is encouraging. Standardization to allow swappable batteries makes it easier for manufacturers to sell us on electric vehicles, because they become much easier and more practical to use. No more range anxiety. Just pull into a battery swap shop just like you use a gas station now, swap batteries, and keep going. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the batteries take a few hours to charge. They’ll just sit there, charge, and go right back into someone else’s vehicle afterward. It’ll work great, as long as the electrical infrastructure can handle it. (Are you listening, Texas?)

Zero Motorcycles Already Sold Out For 2021, Updating For 2022

If you wanted to buy a 2021 motorcycle from Zero, you’re too late. They’re all sold out, according to Jalopnik. Zero is already hard at work on updating the electronics to make most 2022 models even better.

After I got to ride a Zero SR/F at IMS Outdoors, I understand the popularity. If you can get over the almost complete lack of sound from these bikes, they’re legitimately fun to ride, and FAST. Did I mention fast? On our demo ride our leader got us all onto a nice quiet straightaway real slow, then mashed the throttle and took off like a light cycle from Tron. Naturally, the rest of us did the same. There’s nothing like the instant power and torque from an electric motor.

I could definitely see myself owning an electric bike as a commuter or city bike. They’re perfect for squirting in and out of traffic, and use virtually no power at a stop. My thing, though, is getting out of the city, out into the middle of nowhere, for hours at a time. That’s where electric bikes in general, not specifically Zero, fall short. It comes down the same old problems: charging time, and places to charge them. I’m sure that situation will continue to improve as more and more electric vehicles hit the road.

New WRX, Same as the Old WRX

Without warning, Subaru suddenly dropped the covers off the 2022 WRX this past Friday. (I was at IMS Outdoors so I’m only getting to this now.) The result is… underwhelming.

Appearance wise, it’s very similar to the current car. I had a 2015 WRX, so I’m quite familiar with it. The main difference is the addition of a lot of ugly unpainted plastic. It’s as though Subaru is trying to turn the WRX into a Crosstrek sedan. Unpainted plastic is supposed to look tough. I think it looks cheap instead. Immediately the internet began comparing pictures of this orange WRX to an orange Pontiac Aztek. The resemblance isn’t perfect, but there is some. Considering that the Aztek is often called the ugliest car ever made, that is not a compliment.

The other disappointment is a horsepower increase from 268 to 271. That’s basically nothing. We expected at least something over 300, particularly since the displacement has increased from 2.0 to 2.4 liters. What gives, Subaru?

The news isn’t all bad, however. The interior gets an update, though there’s a still a lot of “plastic fantastic” motif going on. Most striking is the 11.6-inch Starlink touchscreen in the center of the dashboard. It looks like this controls almost everything, with a very tablet-like display visible in the pictures, yet it’s good to see just a couple of knobs off to either side as well. Sometimes you just need to quickly turn the volume down, and a knob works much better than hunting through menus for it.

Another addition is the GT model, which will presumably be the new mid-grade of the range between the base WRX and the top-of-the-line STI. It has SI-Drive features, which sounds similar to the STI. The GT also gets electronically adjustable shocks, similar to the Volkswagen GTI, as well as standard “Subaru Performance Transmission,” which is automatic. GT is traditionally an acronym for “Grand Touring,” so an automatic is not out of place with that purpose. The old Legacy GT used this designation as well, and was itself quite good.

Subaru makes all kinds of claims like a track-tuned suspension and improved NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) EyeSight is standard on all automatic models. That qualification is necessary because yes, the WRX is still available with a manual transmission, thank goodness. For all of its shortcomings, at least it has that.

To say the WRX enthusiast community is underwhelmed would be an understatement. Subaru’s had seven years to come up with a better WRX. Instead we get this. I’ll have to withhold judgement until I see one in person and can actually drive it, but first impressions count, and they’re not great. Still, it’s one of the few remaining true sport sedans out there, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Though honestly, I’d certainly consider a Crosstrek given the WRX treatment.

Quick Spin: 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

The Sportster, as we know it, is dead. Long live the Sportster. (And it will live on in the form of the Iron 883, Iron 1200, Forty-Eight…) There’s a new Sportster in town: the Sportster S.

To say this bike is controversial would be like saying the ocean is a little damp. Some Harley owners already don’t consider the Sportster to be a “real” Harley, even though the model goes all the way back to 1957. Now, there are many who say the all-new Sportster S isn’t a real Sportster, let alone a real Harley.

Honestly, there’s some truth to that. It’s nothing like the outgoing Sportster except for its small size. Its Revolution Max 1250T engine is the same one in the much larger Pan America (more on that in our upcoming dual-sport roundup), and is by far the most modern engine to ever appear in a Sportster. “Modern” is the name of the Sportster S game, from its rectangular LED headlight to the oversized high-mount exhaust, which evokes the Indian FTR 1200 in my mind. The engine is closer to the one from the V-Rod than the Iron 1200. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, or Sportster, for that matter.

Moving Forward

“Real” or not, the important question is what is it like to ride? At IMS Outdoors, I got to find out. My pure chance riding partner, Paul, and I rode the same two bikes. One had the standard forward foot controls. The other had the optional center controls. Because I have longer legs than Paul, I started on the forward control bike.

I’ve ridden a few Sportster variant motorcycles in the past. The Sportster S is absolutely nothing like them. Forget the name, and don’t even think about trying to compare them. The Sportster S is more similar to the Kawasaki Vulcan S than any previous Sportster. The Vulcan S is a modern-looking cruiser wrapped around a sportbike engine, Kawi’s parallel-twin 650 from a whole bunch of their bikes. Similarly, Harley built the diminutive Sportster S around its new Revolution Max engine. It’s a big engine in a small frame, the classic muscle car formula.

And it goes. The Pan America is plenty quick in its own right, especially when you switch from street to sport mode. The controls on the Sportster S are identical, and the effect is even more pronounced. The standard forward control bike is a mini muscle cruiser. It has gobs of power and torque that propel the bike down the road even quicker than the Pan America, which itself is far from slow.

About halfway through the ride, though, my back started to ache from leaning so far forward to the handlebars. I try not to let such issues get in the way of evaluating a bike, particularly Harleys, because there’s such a wide variety of customizations you can make to place the handlebars where you want them. Still, though, I felt like my body was almost folded in half to operate the forward controls, and it was uncomfortable. I wanted to like the Sportster S, but I can’t ride it if it’s going to hurt me.

Knowing that there was a mid-control bike right next to me, at the end of our first demo ride I sat on the mid-control version. Immediately I knew this would transform the bike for me. I got back in line to try the mid-control Sportster S. The bike deserved another chance. Paul didn’t like the mid-controls, so he got back in line with me to try the forward control version I rode.

Take Two

Moving the controls back completely transformed the bike for me. I wasn’t bent over or overextended to reach them. In fact, I had much better control over the bike. With the foot pegs under me, I could weight the pegs, lean off the side of the bike, and apply all kinds of riding techniques that I simply couldn’t do with forward controls. My long legs were surprisingly not cramped, despite not being stretched out in front of me. It was actually more comfortable. And because I could really lay into what few corners there were on Harley’s demo route, I felt like this version of the bike literally put the “sport” back into the Sportster. It’s no sport bike, or FTR 1200, to be sure. But it’s a fun small cruiser that isn’t afraid to go around corners. Bring them on.

Paul, on the other hand, enjoyed the forward controls more. He comes from an Electra Glide, which may explain his preference for forward controls. He’s more familiar with them, while I’m more familiar with mid-controls on my KLR and almost every other bike I’ve ever owned. That’s the beauty of a Harley-Davidson. You can customize it to your heart’s content. What works for him doesn’t work for me, and that’s perfectly okay. Harley has the parts to turn mine into the bike I want.

Who’s It For?

I do have to wonder, though, exactly who H-D is making this bike for. It’s absolutely, positively, not a Sportster in the classic sense of the name. It’s much closer to the canceled Bronx, which was going to be a streetfighter type of motorcycle. (At this point I understand why Harley canceled it. It’s too close in style, function, and performance to the Sportster S.) So they’re not going to get buyers who would’ve otherwise bought a Sportster.

With mid-controls, it’s actually a fun sporty bike, but it’s no match for a genuine sportbike. Even the Ninja 650 I rode with almost half the engine displacement would eat the Sportster S for breakfast in the corners, simply because the Sporster S is not a sportbike. If you want a sporty bike, you typically get either a sportbike or a naked sport, not a Vulcan S, and not a Sportster S. So who, exactly, is Harley’s target market here?

Maybe it’s me. As I get older, I find that I appreciate a comfortable cruiser more and more. But I also like to be able to get on it when the mood strikes me. The Sportster S would serve both purposes for me. It’s a cruiser that still lets you be a hooligan when the mood strikes you. Maybe that’s what Harley is going for here, a genuinely H-D take on the idea of a hooligan bike. Now that, I think, would have a target market.

I do hope there are enough people out there interested in a bike like this for it to be a sales success. Harley needs it. From what I saw at IMS Outdoors, the longest demo ride waits at the Harley booth were for the Pan America and the Sportster S, the most non-traditional Harleys there are. If some of those demo rides translate into sales, the Sportster S may become a common sight on the road — perhaps as common as the number of demo bikes I saw cruising up and down the out-and-back demo ride route this weekend.

Quick Spin: 2022 Kawasaki KLR650

After taking a few years off (many great bands do that), the venerable adventure tractor is back. The third generation of the KLR650 has some of its biggest updates yet, including fuel injection and a digital dashboard. Yes, these are features some bikes have had for the past 20 years, but the KLR lags behind a bit. Quite a bit. Its simplicity is a big reason for its popularity. When something breaks in the middle of nowhere, you can use vice grips and a big rock to fix it well enough to get home again.

A great deal has already been written about the new KLR. I’m not going to repeat all that. That’s not what this site is about. I’m just going to give you my impressions from a 20 minute demo ride at IMS Outdoors. This will not be nearly as thorough as spending a week or ten living with a new KLR, and I didn’t get to try it on dirt. That’s why I’m titling this as a “Quick Spin,” not a true review, because I realize it isn’t one. I do, however, have two years and nearly 10,000 miles of experience on my own 2005 KLR650, which may count for something when sizing up the new kid on the block.

It’s Still a KLR

While the new digital display is quite different compared to my 2005 going on 1987 gauges (right down to the special 55 mph mark on the speedometer from back when that mattered), I felt instantly at ease on the new KLR. Though updated, everything was right where I expected it to be, except for the stock shifter since mine came with a longer IMS shifter. Start it up, and it sounds like a tractor, just like mine. The fundamental engine design is basically the same as the old bike. We’re still waiting for reports as to whether Kawasaki has actually updated the “doohickey,” the cam chain tensioner that in previous models liked to spontaneously grenade the engine.

Going down the road, it feels just like my bike would if it was stock. It’s still the same slow but capable motorcycle we’ve grown to know and love. Any KLR purists out there who are concerned about how fuel injection ruins the simplicity of the bike should stop worrying. The only point of validity to this argument is that you don’t need electronics and computers to fix a carburetor out in the field, but pretty much every bike is going this way because laws and emission standards require it. It seems like Kawasaki updated the KLR as little as possible to get it back into production. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

It will be easier to describe what few things are different about the new KLR than to continue describing what’s the same, so let’s do that.

Digital Dashboard

The KLR has finally entered the 21st century with an LCD dashboard. Yes, many bikes have already moved on to brilliant full-color TFT displays, but even though it looks like a relic from a time when people still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea, this is still a major step forward for the KLR. It is clear and easy to read in any lighting conditions, including full sunlight. It even adds a fuel gauge, something no KLR has ever had until now. With a huge gas tank you can still expect to get over 200 miles before needing gas, but it’s great to be able to monitor that.

My one gripe, and my biggest gripe about the entire bike, is the elimination of a tachometer. Why? Why, Kawasaki? The fuel gauge is great, but I’d gladly give that up in place of a tach. As your speed increases, wind noise blocks out the fairly quiet stock exhaust, so you can’t judge your speed or RPMs by the sound of the engine. On my 2005 model I find myself referring to the tach frequently to make sure I’m not revving too high. I try to keep the engine under 4,000 unless I really need the extra power, because above that it tends to drink a lot of oil. I can’t do that on the new KLR, and the engine is similar enough it’s reasonable to believe it will drink oil in a similar way.

Better Brakes

The front brake is a bit bigger than the second generation bike, and the rear a bit thicker. The second generation bike already had slightly bigger brakes than my first generation model, and I can feel the overall difference in braking power. They joke that early KLRs have anti-lock brakes because they’re too weak to lock up. (It isn’t true. Trust me.) I don’t believe the new KLR deserves that criticism. They’re not super powerful, mind you. I had a rude awakening the first time I touched the brakes on the Ninja 650 I rode right afterward. But they’re adequate.

Slightly More Refined

Don’t get me wrong. The KLR650 is NOT a refined motorcycle. We like it like that. That said, despite my bike’s upgrades and modifications, the new model still felt half a notch more refined than my bike. Everything is a bit nicer, and the entire bike felt just a little bit more solid (which is impressive considering how solid the original version is).

If you want refinement, get a BMW. The KLR will never be that. But it is a smidge nicer than the old bike.

Third Verse, Same as the First

To sum up, the 2022 KLR650 is still a KLR in all the ways we like the KLR. Kawasaki tweaked the original formula slightly, and didn’t revolutionize it. To do that would’ve been to put their parallel twin engine into it to fight the Yamaha Tenere 700 (another bike I plan to try). This would not have been a true KLR. What we got is. Kawasaki got it right.

As great as the bike is, I don’t see a compelling reason to buy a brand new KLR when used ones are so affordable and available. You can spend $3,000 and get a really nice first or second generation KLR. A starting price of $6,699 is really good for a brand new bike that will do absolutely anything. I’ve had my own KLR on everything from off-road trails to a race track, and I believe the new KLR is just as capable. But it’s not enough of an improvement for me to think about buying one new.

I want my tachometer back, too.

We’re at IMS Outdoors Pennsylvania

The gates aren’t officially open yet, but with credentials in hand we are onsite at IMS Outdoors, the reimagined International Motorcycle Show that is now an outdoor motorcycle festival rather than a traditional indoor show.

Most of the major manufacturers are here, though some are missing (BMW, for one). Many are offering demo rides, something that was never available to me when I covered New York IMS in the middle of winter. To my delight, a few brand new models are here — the Harley-Davidson Pan America, for example, and the controversial Sportster S.

The one my jaw hit the ground over, because I’m extremely biased, is the new Kawasaki KLR650. I own a first generation model (2005, going on 1987), and I’m most curious to see how the new one compares to the original. I’m hoping to get my hands on all of these bikes, and more, once the show actually opens up.

One change that I quite like is that the J&P Cycles Ultimate Builder Custom Bike Show is all under one tent. At least at New York IMS, these bikes were spread all over the show. They were great decorations, but it made it difficult for attendees to compare and vote on them. Here you can see them all in one place, which makes it much easier to choose your favorites.

Tesla Model S Plaid Beats Hayabusa in Drag Race

As a general rule, pretty much any motorcycle can beat pretty much any car in an acceleration run. That’s part of the fun. But as with many things, Tesla turns that assumption on its head with the Model S Plaid. It beats not just any bike, but a Suzuki Hayabusa, one of the premier drag bikes there is. Edmunds proved it.

OK, we know the Tesla Model S became stupid fast when it’s “gone to plaid,” yet another thinly veiled reference to high-speed travel in Spaceballs. But this beast has 1,020 horsepower in a rather ordinary four-door sedan. That is, to one might say, ludicrous.

Airplane Flies Through Tunnel at 150 MPH

Red Bull is all about the stunts. The crazier, the better. For their next trick, pilot Dario Costa flew his Zivko Edge 540 through not one, but two Turkish tunnels at 150 mph, reports Aero News Network.

I look forward to seeing the full video, but this teaser shows us just how fast and narrow this flight was. This is the sort of insanity I try in Flight Simulator X Steam Edition, not in real life.

Tesla “Full Self-Driving” Software Has Leaked

Elon Musk promised Tesla owners who bought the so-called “full self-driving” package that they would receive it by the end of September. Elektrek reports that hackers have gotten their hands on it early, as in now.

This is alarming on numerous levels. Tesla has been severely limiting even the number of beta testers for this software, which is only intended for use in the US. But a YouTube video shows a hacked car in Ukraine operating in “full self-driving” mode. Ukraine, if you’re not familiar with geography, is not the US.

So far, all that hackers have wanted to do is get their hands on the software and try it for themselves, not alter it for any nefarious ends. But what if someone does? Now that it’s widely known to be out there, hackers with less benevolent intentions can have their way with it. This reminds me of Doctor Who‘s “The Sontaran Stratagem” episode, where the Sontarans hacked cars to gas humanity, as well as eliminate key opponents who learned of the plan before it was fully implemented.

Finally, there’s the fact that we’re simply not ready for “full self-driving” cars yet. Teslas are still randomly crashing into police cars while in the currently available Autopilot mode. That’s a rather fundamental flaw, one that should be addressed before giving the software even more control over the car. How do we know that aliens aren’t waiting for the opportunity to crash Teslas into every police car simultaneously, then take over the world? It could happen, especially if the software is that easy to hack.

And if there are aliens.