Take one value-packed and desirable compact car, add three mollycoddled writers from CarBuyer Singapore, and hope they discover some dignity while retaining their sanity
SINGAPORE — Motoring journos lead pretty sheltered lives — between the roof of a car and the roof of our office, we very rarely step out of our comfort zones. But like any other person, we all have fears buried deep inside, some sensible, some silly – but often unspoken and unconquered.
The folks at Kia Singapore though, must have noticed how feeble the staffers of CarBuyer appear, so they threw us the keys to their comapct crossover, the Kia Stonic, but with a twist: We had to choose a phobia, then drive the Stonic to face it.
Why the Kia Stonic?
Perhaps it’s because its fuel-sipping drivetrain makes it perfect for traversing the island, or perhaps it’s because its extensive loadout of standard features was able to distract us from the heebie-jeebies.
Or perhaps it was hoped that its larger-than-life personality and bold, fearless #JudgeMe attitude would rub off on us. Whatever the reason, the Stonic was a comforting companion for the CarBuyer team as we each faced the monsters under our beds.
Heightened awareness — Veteran man-child Leow Ju-Len tackles his acute acrophobia
Like any sensible man I’ve harboured a few sensible fears, like a terror of flying cockroaches, or that flinch of anxiety I feel whenever my wife calls me over while her arms are folded and one foot is tapping the floor.
But fear is good for self-preservation, so I’ve never been shy about my crippling fear of heights. You don’t make it to the age of 43 if you don’t avoid falling off tall buildings.
Mind you, acrophobia has nothing to do with my disdain for SUVs. I’m not that afraid of heights, it’s because they’re needlessly bulky and sometimes too lofty to handle decently.
The Kia Stonic is different, however, and hits something of a sweet-spot in terms of ride height: it’s elevated enough for a good view of traffic and easy cabin ingress, but not so jacked up as to become roly-poly.
With the Kia Stonic unable to help with my actual terror of towers, however, I decided to ring up The Rock School instead. It has beautiful facilities for the nutters who think that clinging to the side of high walls is a good way to spend an afternoon, and if facing your fears is a good way to get over the, what better place to do it?
In the Kia Stonic, the rock climbing outfit’s location at Our Tampines Hub is only a smooth jaunt on the TPE away from CarBuyer HQ. As compact cars go, it’s decently quiet and composed on the highway, which only gives my nerves more opportunity to unravel as we make our way to The Rock School.
There I meet Brena Cheong, a climbing instructor who, quite frankly, looks as if she would struggle to scale a brick, given that she only comes up to my shoulders and I’m not exactly NBA material myself. Mind you, shaking her hand reveals a grip that could shatter walnuts, and it’s clear that she’s built up a fearsome amount of strength after four years of climbing. Apparently she can do a scary number of pull-ups.
Like the Stonic’s three-cylinder turbo, Brena is something of a petite powerhouse – although she freely admits that she would be useless in a zombie apocalypse, apart from an ability to scale trees rapidly.
If flesh-eating hordes of the undead did take over the planet I would just jump into the Stonic and make a break for it. The 120 horsepower engine and 7-speed dual-clutch automatic give it zippy performance (0 to 100km/h takes 10.6 seconds) but more to the point, the Kia Stonic averages just 5.4L/100km for fuel consumption.
That means you can keep going during the apocalypse, or now that things are still peaceful, the low consumption means low fuel expenditure, which in turn means more money for activities like rock climbing.
Brena introduces me to basic climbing gear like tight, grippy-soled shoes and the all-important harness — it will catch me when I fall (not “if”, note), she tells me, which I consider a plus since I rather enjoy having an unbroken neck. On the downside, it makes my butt look big.
At Tampines, The Rock School has a 4.5m bouldering wall along with an 8m, 10m and a terrifying 13m tower of handholds that would probably freak out an eagle.
I start with the low walls and, after getting over my mistrust of the harness system and Brena’s ability to lower me safely to Earth, I pause to steel myself for the high monster wall.
Having stalled for time by interviewing Brena, I run out of questions and have to man up. 13m now separates me from conquering my fear of heights. I place my hands on the holds, and begin to crawl my way up, taking it a step at a time, and with plenty of guidance from Brena and a nifty laser pointer, find my way at the top.
Not only that, I manage to hold back enough anxiety to keep my churning gut in check — a fear-induced diarrhoea waterfall would have been the stuff of proper nightmares for everyone, including me.
Back in the Stonic, I have time to reflect on how facing up to my fear of heights enabled me to conquer the highest wall at The Rock School, which looked utterly impossible earlier in the day.
Brena says people take up rock climbing for all sorts of reasons, and while overcoming acrophobia is one of them, having fun and gaining fitness are the more common ones. I can fully grasp that last point, because after only a bit of climbing my fingers and forearms were wrecked. The easy power steering of the Kia Stonic never felt more welcome.
[Special thanks to The Rock School and Brena for giving us a boost]
Froggy weather – Supposed greenie Derryn Wong lives up to his shameful unease of slimy, green things
I’m the office greenie at CarBuyer, since I like eco-cars as well as things that fly, squeak, burp and make generally un-engine-like noises.
It’s a position gained by default since my colleagues’ collective peepers glaze over in torpor when talking about any engine with fewer than eight cylinders – though the Kia Stonic’s has beaten the odds and drawn nothing but praise for its peppy torque and interesting three-cylinder soundtrack.
The ironic thing is, I don’t like frogs. It’s not a crippling fear, I won’t run screaming to the other side of the road if I see one, but the relentless croaking, the beady eyes, the slime, all of that causes me deep unease. The fact that one leapt onto my face while I was asleep at night during an outdoors camp has absolutely nothing to do with the fear, of course.
The friendly folk at Aquarium Iwarna, who specialise in reefkeeping, marine fish, and more, brought me face-to-face with a White’s Tree Frog, one of the few ornamental herptile species that are legal to own in Singapore.
Despite myself, the example that’s being showed to me is quite cute – it looks like a pincushion with legs, and doesn’t have soul/face-eating eyes, but rather small, solid-black ones like a doll’s – if it had a weird Japanese name like ‘Lightning rat’ people would be buying plush dolls of it.
It’s also tiny – this one is just six centimetres long, though grow to a maximum size of only 10-12cm, which is very reassuring.
“White’s Tree Frogs are a very popular pet all over the world. The one you see here is yellow, but they also come in green, blue, brown, and even with patterns like spots,” says Britney Choo, one of Iwarna’s representatives – with what I think is unnatural cheerfulness.
She says this while fearlessly waving the frog around like an amphibian powerpoint clicker, but it remains surprisingly calm, adhered to her hand, and doesn’t indulge in any terrifying, face-jumping behaviour.
Britney explains that while they look like they just climbed out from the forest, it’s best to see White’s Tree Frogs (scientific name litoria caerulea) as a domesticated species. They’ve been captive bred for decades, hence the different colour morphs, and the ones Iwarna sells are from a specialist breeder in Australia. No froggy mills here!
With the shame of being scared of a tiny amphibian while a young lady is cheerfully talking about them like the weather absolutely not in my mind, I eventually muster up the gumption to poke one very gingerly.
It’s a surprise. I find that the frog is actually slightly damp and cool, like a wet wipe, rather than slimy. Even better, the absence of face-jumping continues. Another reason why White’s Tree Frogs are so popular as pets is that they easily grow accustomed to being handled, and in the end, with the important lack of face-jumping continuing, I allow Britney to place it on my arm.
Whereupon it promptly starts climbing up toward my face. Unlike my frog encounter of yore, this time I manage to not let out a blood-curdling scream nor tear it from my body in horror, and ask her to take the amphibian back in a firm, calm tone.
“They don’t need much space, they’re very hardy and our weather is perfect for them, they don’t often croak loudly, they look cute…they’re like the Golden Retrievers of frogs!” enthuses Britney.
The frogs can subsist on a diet of gut-loaded (pre-fed) crickets and mealworms twice a week, and require a small aquarium or terrarium (20-litres for a pair) with some branches for climbing, and a bowl of water. Maintenance is simply daily misting, changing the water, and removing any waste – easy since their poo usually sticks to the glass.
Adorable, multi-coloured, small, hardy, easy to clean up after, and is a prime example of a great member of its species. Sounds familiar? The Kia Stonic is small, easy to live with, sips fuel from its turbo 1.0-litre engine, and has plenty of character as well. I even think the Stonic looks like the cute frog with its wide-spaced headlamps and visual personality.
Like Ju-Len, if it were my money, I don’t think I’d buy an SUV (it’s a car writer thing) but the Kia Stonic bends those barriers by being a compact crossover that’s a solid, and unique alternative to your usual compact hatch or sedan.
If you want to know more about White’s Tree Frogs or want to keep them yourself (we don’t judge!), hit up Aquarium Iwarna.
Down the slippery slope – Adrenaline junkie Jon Lim finds out that two wheels aren’t necessarily more distressing than four
Picture this – it’s 2008, yours truly is a gangly, socially inept teenager who decides that feeling some speed and the wind rushing past my face would be fun before dinner, so I borrow my neighbour’s bike and go for a ride round the neighbourhood.
Fast forward half an hour and I’m lying on the ground, bleeding from my shoulder, elbows and hands, after taking a Superman-esque flight after an unceremonious high-speed meeting between wheel and kerb, while trying to avoid a little girl and her grandpa. It didn’t quite instill a proper phobia of bikes in me, but all the same I’d never really touched another one since then.
With this quest on our hands though, I figured it’d be as good a time as any to overcome my two-wheeled trepidation. And since the point was to challenge ourselves, taking a leisurely ride around East Coast Park seemed too much like taking the easy way out.
Which is how I find myself heading to Aire MTB, a kiosk that rents out mountain bikes at Chestnut Nature Park, which riders can take into the trails.
Located at the edge of the Central Catchment Area, you’d think it’d be the Kia Stonic’s extra ground clearance and tough-looking plastic cladding that would help it get to the park, but it’s actually the car’s peppy three-cylinder turbo engine, quick-shifting dual clutch gearbox, and compact, chuckable size that allow it to zip its way up the narrow, snaking Chestnut Ave.
Once there, Anthony Foo, the laid-back staff member who runs the shop, eyes me up and shakes his head at my attire, tossing me a jersey and telling me, “If you’re going to do this right, you’ll need to look the part!”
He’s only joking of course, but there’s some truth to his words: with any high-risk activity it’s important to gear up with proper safety equipment, which is why I went and borrowed gloves and pads from a friend to complement the helmet that Aire MTB provides.
With me appropriately dressed, I approach Anthony for pointers, since, unlike driving, I’ve never (intentionally) ridden off-road before.
“Just take a bike, relax, go into the trails, and just roll with it. A bicycle will always want to keep rolling, and the more relaxed you are, the more the bike will just keep bringing you forward. If you’re unsure, just go slowly and you won’t feel like you’re going to crash. It’s like learning to walk, you walk slowly before you can run, right?”
And with that, he sends me off to explore things on my own. Rather than venturing immediately into the trail, I head first to Chestnut Park’s Pump Track, a skills training area with steep undulations where riders can practice “pumping” their body and bike in sync with the terrain.
At first, my wobbles are clear evidence that I’ve a lot of rust to brush off, but it’s not long before muscle memory comes back and I can manage a few laps of the Pump Track at something above crawling speed.
In the trail, the rockier sections and slippery surface (it had rained heavily earlier that afternoon) did cause some knuckle-whitening and buttock-clenching moments, but heeding Anthony’s advice to take things easy meant that there was plenty of sweat, but no blood and tears that day.
On reflection, I realised that mountain biking has some parallels with my favourite hobby, karting. You don’t really need anyone to teach you to start out, you pretty much strap in and figure things out as you go along, and only by pushing your limits and making mistakes do you find out where and how to improve. As Anthony sagely puts it, “if you don’t fall, you’ll never learn.”
My short session around the trails made me wonder why I’d not gotten back on a bike sooner, especially since travelling fast and testing the limits between wheels and the ground are fundamental loves of mine.
In fact, mosquitoes weren’t the only things that bit me that day, as I think I’ve been bitten by the trail-riding bug too – to the point where I briefly considered taking the bike with me for an “extended loan” (it fit perfectly into the back of the surprisingly capacious Stonic).
In fact, for a compact car the Kia Stonic is surprisingly practical. The boot offers 353 litres of space to begin with, but if you need more you can fold the rear seats to take cargo room up to 1,155 litres. There’s a handy 60/40 split, as well. And if it’s passengers and not stuff that you tend to carry around mostly, it’s pleasantly roomy in the back.
All the CarBuyer writers may have faced successfully their fears in this challenge, but a-Stonic-shingly, a new interest has been kindled, too.
[Big thanks to Aire MTB for smoothing out our wobbles and giving us riding pointers]
Learn more, and book a Kia test drive at www.kia.sg/stonic.