Monday, 24 March 2014

SUGARHOUND CLASSIC (AND CONCISE) USED CAR REVIEW: The 2003 Mercedes C180 Kompressor Classic.

I have had the chance to utilise a very nice old car for the past few days, and thought it may be opportune to do a review of it. After all, it was this very model that re-piqued my interest in the marque when a family member bought a C180 Kompressor, new, in 2005. I had a 2004 Subaru Outback 3.0R at the time and when I drove the Merc, I knew I would have to have a new one at some stage, thankfully realising that goal last year. 

First, "the look and the feel". When the Mercedes-Benz designs changed in the early 2000's, they were so different, a world apart from the previous squared-off C-class models. The new design wasn't conservative any more. The reliability was heavily scrutinised as well. Apparently, in a moment of ecological madness, Mercedes utilised wiring looms in some models in the 1990s, including the C-class, that were bio-degradable. 10 years later, the wiring looms would invariably deteriorate, rendering the cars virtually useless, at a cost of a couple of thousand dollars to replace and repair. This wasn't a good look for the best car maker on earth.

Now; back to the car above. When I got into the car, the first two words that sprang to mind were "heavy" and "quality". The doors are heavy and shut with a reassuringly Teutonic "thunk". Normal Mercedes oddities apply; the emergency brake is a footbrake that is depressed to activate and released via a handle adjacent to the steering wheel. 

The cabin is remarkably well soundproofed and the 1.8 litre supercharged 4 can hardly be heard. The engine launches such a heavy car off the mark with ease, and propels the rear wheels of  the car to highway speeds effortlessly.

Road noise is virtually non-existent thanks to the 195/65/15 tyres. My biggest bugbear with modern cars is that the public want something that looks cool, usually with low profile tyres, which makes it handle well, but the road noise factor rises sharply. The tyres on this example were Pirelli P6's, and if it were mine, I would soon replace them with even quieter Yokohama, Goodyear Eagle, or Michelin tyres.

The seats in this car are remarkable. 11 years of use, and the MB-tex is still pristine. No cracks or tears, and they have maintained their shape. The front pair are electrically controlled for recline and height. Fore and aft movement is via a chunky lever. The steering wheel is solid and feels extraordinarily nice in my small hands.Legroom front and rear would serve most people well. 

The steering wheel-controlled radio and single CD player, once a revered piece of technology in this car when new, is now simply ho-hum. If I had this car, I would replace it, but I would put something in that was sympathetic to the marque.

The instrument panel is simple. Almost too simple. 

Check out this wired -in Nokia phone. The late 1990's just called. They want their phone back.


Here are my only two complaints about the car. The plastics on the door handles and surrounds is atrocious (see below). It has aged poorly and has perished.Looks terrible, eh?

Second, I take great notice of something I call "cruising RPM". The worst case I have seen is a Holden (Isuzu) Rodeo ute I had that would cruise at 110km/hr, revving its head off at 3200 RPM.

On the other end of the spectrum, the best I have seen is my Saab 9-3 Turbodiesel that does the same speed, but at a more sedate 1450 RPM.

The C180K is a different beast. At 110km/h, it actually feels comfortable, but is whirring along at almost 2400 RPM, almost 500 RPM higher than a modern counterpart. It's just enough to have the potential to annoy on a long trip. It wouldn't be breaking any fuel efficiency records at that rate, either.


I love this car. Possibly enough to buy one for my daughter to learn to drive in, and keep. It's new enough to be relevant and old enough to be affordable; about $7,000-11,000 in Australia dependant on age and condition. 

4.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, 14 March 2014

If I ever buy another old house, slap me. A tale of downs, ups, and sticking it to The Man.

"If I ever buy another old house, slap me". These are the words I uttered in 2009 when we moved into our 18 month old rented ultra-modern home on Ballarat Golf Course (see below). I had seen the other side, and at the time, I thought it was pretty good. 

We had lived in older homes most of our married life and to move to a modern mansion like this was a great feeling. It had been an incredible week; we had driven down from our previous home in Sydney for yet another chapter in our life. 

It seems the very day we move somewhere, something big happens in the world. 

In 2003, the space shuttle exploded. 
In 2009, Michael Jackson died. 
In 2010, we got a new Prime Minister under some weird and dramatic circumstances.

Why was moving to Ballarat, of all places, such a 'great feeling'?

I love to hear stories of the little guy sticking it to "The Man". Overcoming the odds, and not laying down and giving up, and all that jazz.

Here is mine. 

You see, there was a time in the mid-late 1990s (a very short period of time, mind you) when I was close to losing hope. I had thrown in a respectable job and spent all of my days walking with my young son, Liam, who, much to our horror, was diagnosed with autism. None of this "mild autism" stuff, mind you.......we won the "profound intellectual disability" jackpot. He would never have a normal life like his sister. The only way to get rid of this toddler's energy at the time was to get him out of the house......... and walk. 

We would walk for hours on end. Well, I couldn't do this forever, and when it came time to look for work, and there was nothing. We lived in country Queensland, in the middle of a significant drought. As we walked, I gritted my teeth and said to myself "I will survive". Over and over again.

We always wanted to live in Ballarat. Victoria, and I spent almost the last of our meagre savings at the time on a 20 hour bus trip to Ballarat for a job interview that I was eminently qualified to do. I didn't get the job. They actually said "we cant believe you don't have a job. There must be something you aren't telling us". 

What the Hell?

Anyway, I went to a large Ballarat Employment Agency to register with them. They wouldn't even take my details. They were only interested in providing LOCAL people with employment. To say I was disheartened was an understatement. I left by bus the following day, and the 20 hours on the bus was some sort of "resolve strengthener". 

I resolved to someday drive back into Ballarat in a nice car, to a nice house with good possibilities for my growing family.

I resolved to never have to feel that bad again.

I resolved that I would have an old antique wardrobe at my home (a home we had purchased a year before)with a large shelf filled with boxes that would be bristling with cash.

They all came true. (Legally, too!)

Fast forward a dozen years or so, and I drove my new black Honda up the driveway of this place, with a good job, a family that had doubled in size, and lots of money in the bank.

However, it still wasn't "ours". The new house seemed unusually large to us, and just not what we were used to. Our family is used to living in each other's pockets, and this was so different. It was about 60 steps from our room to Liam's! We are a family that prefers to buy, not rent. So the search began for a house that we would be proud to call our own without suffering that overused word "mortgage stress", which is probably what would have happened if we bought the house on the golf course, a game that I don't actually like. Time to get real and find something authentic.

Narrowing it down

We started looking at historic homes closer to Ballarat Central, and to our dismay, they were starting to increase in price by thousands of dollars every week over the year. The nicer ones were similar in price to those we left in Sydney.

We narrowed some areas down by doing what we do best; walking the streets with our family at certain times of the day and seeing what it felt like. There seemed to be a certain excitement about Soldiers Hill, but it was very pricey and seemed a bit overrated. Lake Wendouree? Great, if we had spare couple of million dollars! "Eureka" precinct is a sleeper area that is slowly being "gentrified" with more historic houses being renovated and less being rented out. So we decided that "this is the place".

We first inspected our home to be in Feb 2010 and it was being rented. The home was a brick on bluestone semi detached terrace house, built in the 1850s and had a fortune spent on it on the inside. 

Also, it had 4 bedrooms and its own driveway; a rarity in central, historic Ballarat. Somehow, from our very first inspection, we just knew it was going to be ours. My mentor in Real Estate, June, told me that "nice people buy nice houses", and this just seemed to scream out to us to make this grand old dame shine again. Sure, it was small but the overall package is livable and suits our needs, and will be renovated and extended soon.

Serious point: Write lists. Do stuff. 

I am a great believer in writing lists to help with achieving things, and we had a half a dozen things we needed to complete (and sell) before we could comfortably proceed. The list was devoured in 4 weeks. After a bit of negotiating, the house was ours!

My advice....Set goals. Take risks. I love that old BMW ad that said "to set lowly goals is to cripple oneself from within". 

Most important: Make your goals worthwhile and meaningful to YOU, not what you think others want you to do. After all, they are not paying your mortgage! 

So there you have it. My tale of woe, betrayal, not getting served and then overcoming stuff. "Like a Boss", as they say.

Oh, and you might want to know what happened to that Ballarat employment agency that wouldn't serve me. They went bankrupt and disappeared from the landscape. 

Serves the buggers right. : )

Thursday, 13 March 2014

My favourite little camera just grew up. And became way more expensive.


As often-bullied fat kid Martin Prince from The Simpsons says in his high pitched, enthusiastic voice "Behold!!" 

This is the new Nikon 1 V3. Check this thing out. 18 megapixel sensor. 20 frames per second shooting. Flip out screen. Add-on grip and viewfinder. And a price well north of $USD 1000.

I'm really keen to check these out first hand in a few weeks in Japan. I have the first version of this series, the aptly named V1, and I am amazed by how good it is. I bought mine when they were heavily discounted, because they were around a thousand dollars when they came out. I got mine for around $300 with the kit lens (10-30 mm). It goes everywhere with me, because it fits in the centre console of all of my cars. Its metal body is worn nicely around the edges like a battered old Leica. 

It also has an optional (frightfully expensive) lens adapter that makes it work with my larger lenses; the downside is that it dramatically extends their focal length. However, the shutter speed is blazingly fast on the V1 (equivalent to 60 frames a second, which is actually a 15 frame burst in a quarter of a second. It's amazing).

(Just like the Dewalt cordless drill, that has probably extracted and inserted about 20,000 screws in its lifetime, a camera is a valuable and well-used tool. Make it work for you. I have also been told I have a good face for radio, hence the angle of this shot).

I haven't held the new V3 in real life, but if it is anything like mine, it'll be robust and feel like a quality object as opposed to a toy. However, as good as it may be, for the list price of well over US$1000, expect it to be heavily discounted in the coming months. 

This means that the current V2 model, a fantastic yet odd-looking package that looks like a missing piece of Skylab, should be VERY cheap in the coming weeks.

I am of the opinion that the best camera is the one you have on hand, whether it be a camera phone, a DSLR, or something in between. Have a good look at this under-rated family of small, but serious cameras. I did, and I am glad I bought mine. It's survived hundreds of daytrips around Victoria, South Australia and Queensland and a trip to Japan, and it's about to do it again in a few weeks......

Monday, 10 March 2014

SUGARHOUND ROAD TEST: the Mercedes A- Class.

As I said in a previous post, 2013 was a pretty good year. It wasn't perfect, but we hit a lot of personal goals, had some good things happen and decided that we needed a (new) car for my wife. We wanted to remember 2013 as "the year we bought a new Mercedes and travelled to Japan", among other things, NOT as "the year we aspired to buy a Hyundai i30 and had a trip to the Dubbo caravan park" (sorry, Hyundai and Dubbo, but I have never experienced either, and am not about to).

The new Mercedes A-class came out earlier in the year and we ordered one very quickly, aware that there was a 5 month wait. We chose the A180 as it was to be my wife's very first car, so getting the more powerful version for a P-Plater (Provisional Licence) wouldn't have worked. After the traditional round of spluttering surprise from our respective families (that my wife finally got her licence; first go, I might add, and that she bought a Black AMG-styled Mercedes as her first car), the day finally arrived in the middle of a rainy, miserable Ballarat winter when we actually picked the thing up: 

The first things to go in the car were aftermarket, thick rubber mats. 

As far as options went, we chose the "Becker Maps and Becker 6 CD stacker", of which the sound quality is absolutely brilliant. Second, the AMG styling pack, which included the AMG bodykit, black/silver 18 inch AMG light alloy wheels with Continental repairable run flat tyres, and AMG interior, including a carbon fibre-look dash, AMG seats, leather wrap AMG steering wheel and AMG-embossed mats. We avoided the sunroof because in Ballarat, there ain't much sun for 8 months of the year, and for the remaining 4 months, it's way too hot to have a gaping hole in the roof inviting unwanted UV's in to kill us. As it rains every other day in Ballarat for those 8 months of the year, we thought a sunroof would just be something else that could leak. In short, we are not "sunroof" people, if that makes sense. 

We decided to also forego the Xenon lights. They look cool, but at $450 a pop for the module when they go out, and they aren't under warranty, we gave it a miss. Tinted windows also came as part of the option packages we chose.


Well, we just love the interior of this little car. The retro-styled air vents add a nice touch, as does the carbon-fibre look dash (it's a fabric weave; I would hate to impact with carbon fibre. It'd hurt). The central command jog-dial takes a bit of getting used to, because it pretty much controls everything on the car's audio, media, communication and navigation.

How about the rest of the cabin? Bloomin' marvellous: 

The seats in the front are absolutely magic. I drove from our home in Ballarat to Adelaide, approx 600 km, without the usual accompaniment of a sore bum or back. However, the rear seats are another matter for adults, at least. Legroom is limited, the seats are relatively upright, and it's fairly claustrophobic for back seaters due to the high waistline of the body at the rear. Very nice centre armrest front and rear, though. 

The centre console is  excellent. It holds two drinks and has an additional three cubbyholes that will easily swallow valuables, such as mobile phones or wallets. My small DSLR camera will fit comfortably in the larger storage pocket under the centre armrest. There are also two hard-shell storage compartments at the front of each (front) seat, with ample room for "smalls" like a wallet or mini handbag/purse. Each of the four doors has enough storage for a drink bottle and a folded pullover in a pinch.The glove compartment is tiny, and is encroached by the Becker maps module. The car manual and service book won't fit. The traditional Mercedes storage netting is there at the passenger's feet in the front, also the back of the front seats. I haven't had the need to use them yet. 

The centre console is uncluttered from controls other than the nice jog dial; there is no central handbrake or gear selector in this car. The emergency brake is electronic and is a button on the dash, low and adjacent to the steering wheel. As in most Mercedes vehicles, the gear selector and cruise control binnacles are at the right and left of the steering wheel respectively, like an indicator stalk.

Climate control

The air conditioning in this car is incredible. We have had a few days where the mercury hit 44 degrees C this summer, and I was concerned that a black car with no rear outlets would be the death of us. Not so. The kids were asking me to turn the AC down because they were getting too cold. Heating and demisting work quickly and effectively as it should on a $44,000 car.

Nifty standard fare

The car has a huge Mercedes emblem on the grille that doubles as a radar pod. This tells you in a hurry if you are tailgating a car in front, by means of a bright red triangle (light) that hits you in the face. 

It also has this thing called "Attention Assist" that scans your face and detects if you are nodding off, and reminds you via audible beeps like a smoke alarm.. I'm a pretty attentive driver, used to travelling long distances, so it hasn't smacked me yet.

This car , like many others on the market, is almost impossible to see out of the back. Tiny back window. Huge rear pillar. Solution? A really big screen and rear camera, with sensors all around the fore and aft. "Parktronic" also makes pretty short work of reverse parallel parking. Scares the hell out of you the first few times, but is an absolute Godsend. I love it.

The car also has "start stop" technology called "BlueEFFICIENCY", which can be turned off, but I dislike it. (It means that every time you are stationary, the engine switches off to save fuel. Put your foot back on the accelerator, and it immediately sputters back to life).

But really, how much fuel could you really save in a 1.6 litre, seven speed, turbo car?

The ride quality and driveability

Here's where the trade-off lies. This thing is low. Too low for the concrete buffers at the Bakery Hill Coles carpark. It has stiff AMG suspension. Virtually no body roll. It rides on low profile 18 inch run flat tyres. If the road isn't perfect, you feel every bump. If the tarmac is that rough stuff, the road noise is very noticeable. (Maybe that's why they put in such a great audio system). 

The gearbox, as previously stated, is a seven speed dual-clutch auto. It is silent and you can't tell when it changes gear. To make things more interesting, the car has a "Manual" mode that is controlled by steering wheel paddles and is fun to use. It also has an automatic "Sport" mode that actually makes the little 1.6 litre engine snarl with a nice exhaust note. Finally, the Economy mode is the default mode and is relatively sedate. Good for "wives dropping off kids to school", mode.

The car takes 95 RON fuel and above, so it's a bit more costly to run. But, seeing the thing costs twice as much as a Hyundai i30, saving a few cents a litre doesn't become much of a consideration. 


This car is very tight. It feels like quality. The interior is faultless. It looks great. It drives well. Would I buy one again given what I know? Yep, absolutely. We drove to Adelaide for a New Year's getaway with three adults and a five year old with all of the usual luggage, and bought up big at Ikea while we were there, and it all fitted in without resorting to the kids sitting on an IVAR shelving system and a BJORN set of collapsible boxes, and half a dozen DWERP curtains all the way back to Ballarat. (I just made those ridiculous names up).

Score: Five out of Five (three-pointed) stars.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

What's new? What's shakin'?

The introvert in me makes it almost impossible for me to participate in small talk with people. I just can't talk about the weather and the state of politics for half an hour. 

So, when I meet someone I haven't seen in a while, I usually say "Hey, what's new? What's happening in your world?

It is because I genuinely want to know, rather than to fulfil the need to make small talk. 

Hence my title to this blogpost. Since I haven't posted in a while, here's what's new; in "things", and "things that are happening", because sometimes the two are related. These are the things I'm currently reading, studying, watching, planning to do, and otherwise enjoying!

So above, from top left to bottom right, here goes....

1. The Dirt 100; the ultimate Mountain Bike products of 2014. Having an acceptable level of physical fitness is really important to me. I have young kids and I want to be around to see 'em grow up. I really got into cycling in 2007 as a way to keep my fitness up. I rode 45 km a day. I really got absorbed in it; the whole shebang, except Mountain bikes. (Sydney was the perfect place to have a road bike because of the fantastic network of new, smooth bike paths near Rouse Hill, where I lived). Now that I live in Ballarat, riding on the road is really dangerous, due to the state of the roads (and poor weather six to eight months of the year). It only takes one inattentive fool to kill you on a road bike. The bike paths here are good, but dirt, and not suited to a nice shiny carbon fibre road bike with tyres that are inflated to 120psi. We also live 600 metres away from an amazing Mountain Bike Park, so I'm looking at a (Canadian) Norco Fluid trail bike or a Giant Glory 2 if I'm going the full downhill insanity.

2. Canon AE-1 Body from about 1978. I love old cameras. I have a bucket list of cameras to buy and keep hold of, which will be the subject of another post. I picked this one up at the Ballarat Swap Meet a couple of weeks ago.

3. Central Tokyo Map. We are going again, in 49 days! We were there for a family trip late last year, and we vowed to go back. This time, my wife and I are going for our 23rd wedding anniversary. I can't wait!! 

4. Japanese Phrasebook. I need all of the help I can get.

5. Citizen Eco-Drive watch in black chrome. I love watches. I have never really had the chance to wear a good one, because, like sunglasses, they always get smashed or lost. When I fitted tyres for a living, many years ago, I had really cheap dull plastic watches from K-mart. In my earlier years in the military, particularly when I was in an Expeditionary Squadron, (i.e. never home and sleeping next to an airstrip, or in a hole in the ground with a sub-machine gun), having a shiny watch just wasn't practical. Or good for your survival. This Citizen is just fantastic. Solar powered quartz movement. Relatively light, but feels like a quality watch. Purchased in Shibuya, Tokyo.

6. Seiko stainless steel watch. As per above, I've always wanted a good watch that I can wear every day, without worrying about it too much. I hate cheesy (gold) watches and wanted a classic, conservative style. Enter the nice, safe Seiko. Purchased in Nagano, Japan. (Winter Olympics city).

7. The Idiot Factor, by Larry Winget. "The 10 ways we sabotage our life, money, and business". 

This guy is abrasive, offensive to some, but right on the money. My favourite lines: 

"People spend millions of dollars a year on Psychics. Come on people.......psychics!!!!!" 

Here's the clincher: "seven per cent of society believes that Elvis is still alive." Yep, people are indeed idiots". 

Ha! I love this book (And yes, he DOES offer solutions, not just criticise)...

8. Superself; doubling your personal effectiveness, by Charles J. Givens. I've had this book for about 20 years and I re-read it every year. It gives me the perfect "kick along" that I need. It also gives me a lot of helpful habits to live by. If you take heed of this book, you will have the best goal list imaginable. On a practical front, you will never run out of fuel in your car. You will never lose a key, answer a ringing home phone, or be unnecessarily interrupted again. You will also question how you spend money vs time on stuff you hate doing.

9. SEAF Standard Magazine. Japan has incredible magazines. They are incredibly specialised (focused on specific subjects). In Japan, newsagents are packed three people deep around all of the magazine stands. They love their magazines!

Their magazines are extremely detailed and of very high quality. This is no exception. It categorises a man's collection of cool vintage treasures in his shop, near the (albeit fictitious) SEtagaya Air Force (SEAF) base. 

10. Nikon D7100 Digital SLR body. My wife's little Nikon D3100's SD memory card holder gave up the ghost a short time ago, after taking thousands of product shots (resulting in thousands of sales) for her online stores. Time to upgrade. The larger, heavier, high-end enthusiast body has dual SD card ports, 24 megapixel sensor, usable low light capability to  ISO 6400, and full HD video. It's the undisputed best cropped-sensor camera on the market at present.

11. Nikkor 50mm f1.8D lens. Our most used lenses are a 50mm f1.8G and a 35mm f1.8G. The new lens goes nicely on the body listed above. Light, small, inexpensive. Best bang for the buck, so to speak.

12.Nikon FT1 Lens adapter. This little (outrageously expensive, but brilliant) gadget allows me to use my larger DX DSLR lenses on my smaller Nikon 1 body, retaining full autofocus and light readings. I haven't used it to its full capacity yet, as it creates a crop factor of 1.7 (in plain English, it means that a 50mm DSLR lens attached to the little Nikon 1 body becomes a longish- 85 mm lens equivalent (50 times 1.7 = 85). 

13.High Fidelity Blu-Ray starring John Cusack and Jack Black. I simply love this film. The music, the actors, the "top five" lists for everything,  the incredible Saab 900i convertible driven by Cusack's love interest, etc. 

And...... who hasn't dreamed of owning a vintage vinyl record store?

14. Sony 1 TB hard drive. I realised I had 28,000 photos on my laptop, all of which my wife and I took over the past couple of years. They were later safely stored on this lovely hard drive.

15. Car keys. We take our cars pretty seriously. Folks, this blog isn't meant to come across as some bragfest thing, but we had a a pretty special year in 2013, hit a few goals and had some good things happen, and didn't want to remember it as "the year we bought a Hyundai i30 and had a trip to Dubbo". (Sorry, Dubbo!)

Oh, the CAR KEYS. Look out for a full road test for my wife's new Mercedes coming up. This little thing is a pocket rocket when it needs to be.

16. Vintage "Kershaw" leather case for compact camera. I love old bags and satchels, particularly leather ones. I also collect vintage leather jackets, my favourite being a vintage Camel Cigarettes pilot's jacket from the 1960's. 

This case though, fits my small backup camera, a Nikon P7100, really well. The case is made in England and is from about the 1940's. Purchased in Daylesford, Victora on one of our regular scavenging trips.....

So, that's all for now. What's coming up in your life? What are you looking forward to? 

One of my favourite (related) quotes is from the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off": 

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Till next time, happy hunting! Plan (and have) great adventures!