Friday, September 21, 2012

MOVED!

Thanks for visiting.  The site has moved to theflatsix.com.  Head there for all the latest!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 6: GM & Chrysler

The star of the show in the minds of the American automotive press, based on magazine coverage, seems to have been the Cadillac ATS.  The ATS will compete directly with the BMW 3-series--not try to one-up it by offering more size for the same price, as the CTS did.


The styling is true to Cadillac's successful art-and-science theme, but without being too stiffly starched anywhere.  It looks conservative, competent, and effective--as it has to.  It will need to attract a large audience.

The ATS is small and rear-drive standard (unheard of in cars this size of American manufacture for quite a long time).  It is light for its class and time--just 3,400 pounds.  It has near 50-50 front-rear weight distribution. It offers three different engines: a naturally aspirated four, a turbo four, and a naturally aspirated six.  A six-speed manual gearbox is offered.  Are we salivating yet?

Back to the engines for a moment.  The most interesting of those has to be the 2.0L turbo four-cylinder, which cranks out 270 horses and 260 lb-ft.  Consider my eyebrows raised.  

Audi A4 2.0T:    211hp, 258lb-ft
BMW 328i:        240hp, 260lb-ft
Caddy ATS:       270hp, 260lb-ft

All of these are 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinders.  The Audi is the most dated entry here--the 2013 A4 shows off a minor facelift but is powertrain-unchanged since 2009.  BMW's four-cylinder, however, is almost as new as GM's.  Clearly, the Detroit guys know that to beat the Germans, they should start by going to the old American standby--more power.  Done (or is it?).  Best of luck to Team USA in the comparison tests.

The GM display was home to several other interesting attractions.


This is the Cadillac XTS, a full-size flagship sedan destined to compete with the likes of the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Merc S-Class, Jag XJ, etc., etc.  I was not too taken with the design.  However, the gentleman I attended the show with is a member of the demographic for whom the XTS is designed, and he liked it quite a bit.  So what do I know?  I'll say this: the throwdown between the XTS and that Lincoln MKZ concept covered in Part 1 will be epic if everyone does their jobs well.

Over at Chevrolet, things got a little unusual at first.


The Miray is apparently a gas/electric hybrid, with an electric motor for each front wheel and a 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder just behind the seats.  Scissor doors, carbon fiber everywhere, no roof, no door handles, and you'd need to wear goggles with a windshield cut that low.  Pure concept at this point.  I like the idea of a modestly-powered mid-engined roadster, but the weight and bulk of a hybrid powertrain would most likely make a car like this utterly impractical and thus beyond the reach of the average consumer.


The Code 130R concept looks like a hybrid of a different sort--a Camaro/BMW 1-series hybrid.  GM says this car could go into production quickly, using platforms and powertrains already in existence (ATS!).  I say, if you can build a winning small sporty four-door, you can build a winning small sporty two-door.  Be careful, though--it will have to be better than the FR-S/BRZ to win its customers from the import crowd--fans of domestics will just buy a base Camaro for $23k, which will have to be the price ceiling for the 130R.


This is the Tru 140S, a four-seat Cruze-based (read: front-engine, front-drive) coupe concept.  That's fine, but in order to succeed it will need to be better than an '05-'06 Acura RSX Type S.  It will need smaller, lighter wheels than this concept, more glass to improve visibility, a great manual gearbox, and at least 250hp without unmanageable torque steer.  Do all that, keep it around $25k and this is a great car.  


I have never wanted a Camaro before, but the 2013 ZL1 convertible changes all that.  580 horses from a 6.2L V8.  A clutch pedal.  Magnetorheological shocks from the Corvette ZR1.  Goodyear Eagle Supercar F1 rubber.  Dual-mass flywheel, twin-disc clutch.  A fully-functional "Mohawk" (yes, that is the official name) carbon-fiber hood scoop.  And of course, a cloth top, saving the driver from the dark, cave-like experience that is the inside of the Camaro coupe.  All this for under $60k.  What.  A.  Car.

Over at Chrysler, who recently wrapped up its first full year of positive earnings since 2005 and contrary to popular belief is actually propping Fiat up financially, the display was even more impressive.  The headliner is, of course, the 300 SRT8.


Spec your 300 SRT8 with these aptly-named "black chrome" 20s.  Pictures do not
do them justice...they're simply breathtaking in person.
The key number to remember with the Chrysler 300 is 47.  As in, 470 hp, 470 lb-ft, and just over $47k.  It's a screaming deal.  If you want to pay a little less, you can get the Dodge Charger SRT8, which packs the same 6.4L Hemi and five-speed auto, but looks less subtle and has a harder suspension.  Either way, you get all that power, intimidating presence, and an absolutely beautiful V8 noise.  This is an attainable halo car that makes the whole brand look better to the buying public.  Honda, take note.

Less awesome but even more attainable is the high-end 200 Super S, which is simply a 200 S with a few tacked-on look-fast bits (grille, lip, skirts, rear diffuser) and a few tacked-on go-fast bits (coilovers, intake, exhaust).  The bits will be available from the Mopar catalog later in 2012, so you can drop $25k on a 200 S now and just wait for the parts to appear.  The 200 is a car that's grown on me over time.  It's still a front-engine front-drive midsize commuter car no matter what you do to it, but its looks and awesome Super Bowl commercial give it an appeal that its competitors are lacking, in my opinion.

Moving the badge down so it 'floats' in the grille is an excellent touch for the 200.
I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes the standard for future versions of this model.

The 3.6L Pentastar V6 that you'll want in your 200 makes 283hp/260 lb-ft and gets a decent 19/29 EPA miles per gallon.  Chrysler is using slightly tweaked versions of this engine with varying power levels across its brands--you'll find it in the 200 and base 300, the Jeep Cherokee and Wrangler, and the Dodge Durango, Challenger, and Charger.  At 12.63 lbs/hp, though, the 200 is probably among the quickest of its same-engine stablemates.  

While Chrysler may be propping up Fiat financially, Fiat was propping the entire show up with their Abarth girls.  I don't know if anyone heard a word they said--all the collective brainpower was likely focused on the visual sector of the cerebral cortex.

Where do you get these leather catsuits?  I'm trying to order one for the wife.
As far as the cars themselves, however, the Fiat 500 Abarth seems less than attractive.  The 1.4L MultiAir engine gets a Garrett turbo to bring output to 160hp/170lb-ft.  That's dandy, but as small as it is, the car still weighs 2564 pounds!  At over 16 pounds per horse, there are a lot of cars at the same price point--around $23k--that will absolutely dust it in a straight line.  Additionally, the February 2012 issue of Motor Trend points out that while the standard 500 exhibits almost-neutral behavior in the corners, the Abarth is prone to understeer.  A "performance" model that's slow in a straight line and understeers in corners?  No thanks.  If you want a quirky hot hatch, the correct answer is still the Mini Cooper S.

That completes the coverage of NAIAS 2012 from here.  Next, The Flat Six takes on Wired magazine.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 4: Nippon

One of the Toyota PR guys appeared as we strolled up to the NS4 concept, and asked the crowd--what's the number-one-selling car in America for the last gazillion years in a row?


"The Camry," I replied, a whole slew of emotions spewing forth in those three small syllables.  Chief among them: resignation that millions of Camry owners would continue to live out their bland lives driving bland cars that all of their bland friends drive too.  "Correct!" was the PR man's gleeful cry, and he handed me a goofy, woolly knit Toyota cap with a baseball-type bill, and then proceeded to launch into the rest of his spiel. 

Uh, thanks 'yota, but you'll have to do better than that to win me over.  

For a start, they could make this NS4 thing a reality.  It certainly looks very nice.  As with all concept cars, however, technical details are few.  My gut reaction to this car was, "Ha!  They've realized the Prius is dog-ugly, and that they'll need to make prettier hybrids in the future in order to perpetuate the perception that in a world of dirty, money-grubbing, steel-smelting automakers, they are the shining, eco-friendly city upon a hill."

Over at Toyota's premium brand Lexus, there sat two super-coupes, the LF-A and the new LF-LC.



The LF-A has been around for a bit.  It's an impressive bit of work, and Toyota certainly did not spare any expense in creating it.  For the money (starting at $375k!), however, there are many more exotic and/or better-performing vehicles available.  

The LF-LC looks very similar from a proportional/dimensional standpoint.  The February 2012 Road & Track says that it "represents the start of a Lexus design revolution," but looking at the above two photos, it must be pretty bloodless as revolutions go.  Take an LF-A, delete that silly scoop above and aft of the doors, make the headlights and front intakes flow together a bit more smoothly, pinch the grille so it looks like the new GS-series sedan, and slap a "hybrid" badge on it in place of the "lightning-fast-revving, fuel-guzzling V10" badge.  Voila!  Now we can say all of our future cars will look much less egg-shaped and boring!

I didn't always speak so flippantly of Toyota.  My dad owned an '87 Tercel five-speed that must've been the cheapest thing on the lot when he bought it.  It never, ever put a foot wrong.  He replaced it with a '93 Corolla CE, also five-speed manual, when my sister and I got too big for the back of the Tercel.  The '93 was the car I drove when I got my license, so I crashed it in fairly short order (always be careful turning left across traffic, kids), and it was replaced with a '98 Corolla CE five-speed.  I banged that one up on more than one occasion (always, always go slow in the snow, kids), but it was still worth a decent amount by the time Dad turned the title over to me so I could sell it and use the proceeds toward my college-grad purchase (thanks!).

I liked those Corollas a lot, especially the '98.  They were relatively cheap to insure and maintain, got good gas mileage, and were fun to drive because they had clutch pedals.  Wheels, tires, and all other wearable parts were cheap and available everywhere.

I understand the draw of all those advantages, and they seemed great at the time, but here's the thing: once you drive something better, you wonder how you ever thought a Corolla was so great. And that's my problem with these repeat Toyota buyers: they never try anything better.  That's why the families in the Camry commercials have had a half-dozen Camrys in their lives and nothing else.  And therein lies the problem with Toyota--there is no incentive for them to make something better if their customers are not merely content but happy to keep paying them for something that isn't necessarily better, just newer.  Thus, how could any Toyota be as good as something that does not need to please millions of unexciting people?

Off my soapbox.  Here's your reward for reading my rant:


Over at Acura, three new models were in attendance: the next-gen RDX small sport utility, the all-new ILX small sedan, and the company's latest stab at a new NSX halo car.  Pictured above, of course, is the NSX.  I've already shared my thoughts on the demise of the original NSX and what it indicated about the priorities at Honda/Acura, so I will not reiterate them here.  However, the whispers around this NSX concept are juicy ones: all about mid-enginedness (good), V6-ness (same as the original, good), and hybridness (if used to enhance performance and only then with minimal weight gain, good).  On top of all that, it looks very, very good as well.

We moved on to Fuji Heavy Industries, err, I mean, Subaru, the comparatively low-volume maker of delightfully quirky-looking all-wheel-drive cars.  Of course, the not-all-wheel-drive BRZ was getting the most attention there, but let's have a look at something a bit more responsible:


This is the new-look Impreza Sport, displayed with its standard mean-looking wheels and bike rack.  Auto-journo deity Ezra Dyer drove a similar car to this one for Automobile Magazine in October 2011, and said two things worthy of note: "this car absolutely owns the title for 'chassis that could handle significantly more horsepower'" and "this thing is going to make a hell of a WRX."  

Perhaps I wasn't phrasing the question the right way, but when I asked the Subaru folk when the new Impreza would get the WRX treatment, they said it would not.  Instead, the Impreza and the WRX/STI are going to go their separate ways as totally unrelated, independent cars, and their timelines as far as updates and production will be wholly different.  Please, someone, say it isn't so.  All this Impreza needs is to not have leather and a clutch pedal be mutually exclusive, plus some more power and requisite suspension/brake tweaks, and I'm sold!

Mazda had nothing new--the CX-5 was present but still not open for clambering around in.  To fill the void, they just brought a bunch of race cars.  Oh, and a Miata that, as the Miata has always done, was trying its best to emulate a Porsche Boxster--in particular the Boxster Spyder this time.






Next post: we wrap up NAIAS coverage with GM, Chrysler, and a hot Fiat girl (not quite as hot as the one from the Super Bowl commerical, though).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 3: Porsche/Audi/VW

You can never have too much chicken wire.


Nothing grabs your attention quite like a fire-engine-red RS5, with its gaping maw threatening to inhale everything in a fifty-foot arc in front of it.  This was the first time I had seen the RS5 at a show, though it has been available for some time.  It was worth the wait.

Audi also brought out the S6...

"Luscious" is the word you're looking for.

...and for the common folk, the subtly but quite attractively facelifted 2013 A4 rotated quietly on a turntable.  Additionally, the A4's fraternal twin, the 2013 Allroad, made its first auto show appearance.




Enthusiasts love the Allroad and clamored for its return to North America after it retreated to a Continent-only status after model year 2005.  Why?  Because it was a car that really could do just about anything you asked of it.  Cruise long distances in great comfort.  Raise the air suspension up and go off-road.  Tow.  Carry lots of gear and/or a large dog.  Even put on a somewhat respectable show on a racetrack.

However, I'm a little wary of this new Allroad because it's slightly smaller than its predecessor (A4 rather than A6 platform) and is available ONLY with the ubiquitous VW 2.0T--back in the day, you could get a 4.2L V8 in these things.  The smaller size and lesser power rating together mean that this car isn't really as capable as the old one.

Why is this the case?  Well, I'm certain Audi did not want to see a niche-market wagon snaking sales out from under the premium cash-cow Q5s and Q7s.  Remember too that the VW Auto Group now wants to be the #1 automaker in the world, and if that means sacrificing a little of some brands' old legends in the name of higher sales numbers, so be it.  So while I'm happy to see the Allroad return, I'm disappointed that it does so in something of an underwhelming fashion.  Perhaps in the future the legend will truly return in the form of a more powerful engine on the option sheet.

Meanwhile, over at VW...


...the center of attention (with not only its dais, but attendant DJ both doing some spinning) was this, the E-Bugster, a chopped/raked-windshield, removable hardtop, two-seat-only all-electric version of the 2012 Beetle.  VW was quiet on whether this vehicle would see production.  On one hand, I can see this really appealing to the hipster crowd.  On the other, does any electric-only car limited to a hundred-mile range make sense at all?

The VW that SHOULD have been the center of attention was this:



The six-speed stick-only, 256hp/243lb-ft two-liter direct-injected turbo Golf R.  The Q-est of the Q-ships.  Woe to those who think this is an economy car, easily passable off the line or up the on-ramp.

The best thing about the Golf R, though, is simply that VW builds and sells it.  This is not an inexpensive automobile, and for the kind of money Volkswagen seeks for the right of ownership, most people will be buying some kind of gargantuan milquetoast crossover.  But there is a rabid base of R-series fans, and VW made this car to please them, #1 automaker aspirations notwithstanding.  Faced with the Golf R, I must forgive the Allroad.

Moving on, I was grateful for the chance to investigate the interior of the Motor Trend Car of the Year, the new Passat.  I must say, that while it is a handsome car both inside and out, it is handsome in an entirely inoffensive, uninspiring, passionless way.  I am certain that its commuting capabilities are admirable, but I don't want one.  Or not want one.  Honestly, on a scale of negative one billion to one billion, the Passat scores exactly zero with me. Which probably means they're selling like hotcakes.

Lastly, over at the automaker for which there is no substitute:


...the 991 Cabriolet sat in all its splendor.  Mine would not be red, but still, a beautiful thing to behold.

Sadly, the 981 Boxster was not available for public viewing in Detroit.  And interestingly, the 991 shared square footage with the 997 models that it has not yet replaced (Turbo and GT-series).  For the first time, however, a 991 Carrera S was left with door yawning open, inviting any and all to have a seat behind the wheel.  I was only too happy to oblige.

I have to say that I'm not a fan of the rising center console nor the electronic e-brake.  However, I joyously report that the LATCH system has finally appeared in the back seat of a 911!  Even ignoring that long-overdue change, however, the interior space in its entirety is a quantum step up from the 996 series, and a still-noticeable step up from the 997.

Still, when I think about the 991, I can't help but wonder...if the plain ol' 991 Carrera S makes 400hp, a 55hp or 16% leap over the 997 S...and the old 997 Turbo S makes 530hp/516lb-ft...if you can afford a 991, you gotta wait for the Turbo, right?

UP NEXT...Nippon!

Monday, January 30, 2012

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 2: Ze Germanss - Mercedes

I have never understood Maybach--the cars were ugly to begin with and never got better looking, they fare poorly when compared to other super-high-end luxury vehicles, they are ludicrously (or do I mean Ludacris-ly?) expensive...did I mention they were ugly?  If you want the best luxury car in the world, why not just buy a top-end S-Class?  Actually, most people who could afford it were doing just that, so with apologies to all the rappers who put Maybachs in their videos, Mercedes is killing off the brand in 2013.  Still, a crowd of sheeple stood around snapping cell-phone pictures of the Maybach sitting behind waist-high glass on the outer rim of Mercedes' square footage.  Sigh.

Far more interesting in Mercedes territory were the new SL, the SLS AMG convertible, and the world premiere of the E300 BlueTec Hybrid.






Robert Cumberford, design editor at Automobile Magazine, ripped the new SL's exterior design in a recent review.  He was right to.  At first the car is visually striking as a whole, but as you continue to look at it. all kinds of questions pop up regarding the individual details.  Why all those creases around the nose?  Why the two-way slashes below the doors?  Why does the car seem so much longer than all SLs before it?  Why does it appear as if the rear end is grasping vainly for the ground to avoid floating away?  The SL has always been a good car and indeed a strong Mercedes halo vehicle; surely the designers with the three-pointed stars on their shirts will soon stop deriving the SLS AMG and make the SL itself again.

Speaking of the SLS AMG...I think it's an engineering achievement.  I respect it.  The convertible is even pretty nice-looking, even if you must forego the unique gullwing doors of the coupe to get it.  But I don't want one.  Too much hood, too much noise, not enough grip.  There are a lot of topless touring cars out there that seem like they'd be much more of a pleasure to live with.

Now, a Merc I would want is the E300 BlueTec Hybrid.  First, it's diesel-electric, so it's basically a road-going World War II submarine (the Germans are quite good at those, if you'll recall).  Second, it's got a two-liter four-cylinder diesel and a 20-kilowatt electric motor that when combined produce over 500 lb-ft of torque (the engine does 369 lb-ft by itself!).  Third, once highway speed is reached, the diesel disengages from the driveline and shuts down.  Thusly, you enter "sailing" mode, whispering along on kilowattage only to the tune of 67.2 miles per gallon.

Note: Porsche already did "sailing" mode with the Panamera Hybrid, which is cooler because it came first.  It is also not as cool because it is gas- and not diesel-powered, and its looks are, uh, somewhat polarizing.

Speaking of cool, the E300 is too cool for the States.  We must make do with the E400, which has a 306-hp gas-powered V6 and the same 20-kilowatt electric motor.  It gets 27 mpg.  Excuse me while I repeatedly slam my head into my desk.

Tomorrow - Porsche/Audi/Volkswagen.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 1: Ford

It's been far too long a layoff from writing here.  A big move from fantastic Las Vegas, NV to a slightly less fantastic spot in New Mexico is to blame.  Still, the automotive world never stopped turning during our relocation, and I've done my absolute best to keep up with it even though I haven't had time to put fingers to keyboard.

The North American International Auto Show went public in Detroit from January 13-22.  I noticed our move would take place right about that same time, so I was only too happy to ship the kids off to their grandparents' in Michigan during actual packing and shipping so that, oh darn, we'd have to go pick them up while the show was live.  It would be my first trip-ever to Detroit and the NAIAS.

This is a video I shot of myself arriving.


Okay, that isn't true.  But Chrysler is very cool, and I did grab this picture on the way in:

Obligatory.
We'll come back to Chrysler in a bit.

The entirety of the show fit into one gigantic hall, which was somewhat strange to me.  I had grown accustomed to shows like Philly and LA, where the show is split into four or five different halls.  The Cobo Center in Detroit brought every exhibitor together in one room, and I think the benefits were tangibly obvious--it seemed like a lot of industry people were wandering from their own displays and interacting with their peers and competitors.  The level of expertise I overheard in passerby conversation seemed noticeably higher than I had noted at any other auto show.

We strolled in through the first door we spotted and found Ford on our right, Honda on our left.  Honda's hottest draw was the new CR-V.  Yawn.  We went right.  The blue-bathed Ford display was festooned right up front with at least four examples of the 2013 Fusion.  Autoweek had already named it "Best In Show."  I'm not sure why.  The "Superman" grille treatment and derivative Mondeo side creases do not endear it to me--as far as I'm concerned, the midcycle refresh (years 2010-2012) of the original Fusion made for a much better/Ford-looking car than this new one.

One design change that Ford did well on, though, was the refresh of the Flex.  Taking the best of the original Titanium package's exterior treatments (F L E X across the hood lip), adding a few new flourishes here and there, and bringing the MyFord Touch from the new Explorer into the Flex's instrument panel were all excellent moves.  The Flex remains a fantastic, underappreciated, all-weather, high-speed, high-comfort people-mover for those who know that a conventional SUV is unnecessary about 99% of the time.

The awesome Flex doesn't sell many copies, but gets rave reviews in the automotive press.
The new Explorer gets terrible reviews and sells like crazy.  Sigh.
In case you hadn't heard, Ford has nixed the Mercury brand and is spending money hand over fist to revitalize Lincoln, following in the footsteps of many other automakers (Nissan/Infiniti, Toyota/Lexus) who produce two brands: one for the masses, and one for the elitists that will pay more for essentially the same thing.

Now, at present, Lincoln is fairly awful.  The cars are clearly rebadged Ford models, and what little unique styling they have is in general not very good.



This MKZ concept, however, was gorgeous.  It struck me as visually akin to a Jaguar XJ, which is similarly gorgeous.  If Ford can get this on the road for around the mid-$60k range (undercutting the European luxury makers) without straying too far from the concept's styling, watch out.

The SVT Raptor that lifts up off of its frame was in attendance (you've seen it on this blog before), drawing a crowd as it always does.

America.  Eff yeah.
We moved on from Ford not too long thereafter.  Next time, on The Flat Six: ze Germanss!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Collision Avoidance Systems and Other Driving Nannies

Today I was awaiting a green light in traffic when my Valentine One started bleeping crazily, in the way it does when it detects a police laser.  Obviously I wasn't moving, so I wasn't concerned about incurring any laser-based citations, but I began looking around the intersection for a Metro cruiser.

None of the city's finest were visible.  But the V1 kept insisting there was a laser on us.  Odd, I thought--but I have 100% faith in that little black box, so my mind kept churning, wondering what it could be.  As the spotlight went green and I started underway toward my destination again, the warning stopped, and the proverbial light bulb appeared above my head.  A new Volvo S60 had been behind me at the light, and was now passing me on my left.  The Volvo's infrared collision-avoidance system was what had antagonized my little electronic friend.

I became even more certain that the Volvo was indeed the culprit just a few hours later, when the exact same thing happened--new Volvo (this time an XC60) stops behind me at a light, V1 goes crazy.  Pull away from the light and put some distance between V1 and Volvo, and V1 settles down.

So how about that?  Not only does Volvo's collision-avoidance system not work (see the video below), it also sets off laser warnings in detectors in front of it.

Let me get some more information about that for you...

Admittedly in my case the laser warning was triggered only when the Volvos were very close to my rear bumper, but this wasn't exactly a scientific test.  What if, say, in heavy, fast-moving traffic, a Volvo sets off a V1 in a car in front of it, causing the already task-saturated driver to instinctively brake, and the Volvo's system/driver fails in a manner similar to the way it did in the video above?  Now you have an accident caused by a system that is supposed to prevent one.

In the October 2011 issue of Car and Driver, Editor-at-Large John Phillips and former senior editor Phil Berg attempted to drive three different cars on interstates at interstate speeds while essentially blindfolded with their noble intent being to test the cars' advertised ability to automatically maintain their lane.  You can read the article here, but it boils down to this: while the hardware does exist to make auto-lane-keeping possible, the software is not good enough to make the systems safe/effective.

In my opinion, there are simply too many variables for lane-keeping to be left to a computer--it's just like trying to ask a computer to forecast the weather more than a day or two in advance.  For example, is there snow on the road, or just off of it?  What about gravel or sand or leaves?  Does the road have lines painted on it or not?  How does sudden bright sun glare or sudden deep shade affect the system?  What about rain/spray from vehicles in front?  What if the pavement is cracked or sealed or resurfaced or alternating between asphalt and concrete?  All of these things matter, and it would be next to impossible to engineer software to take every conceivable situation into account.

"The 1%," I think, dream of the day that they can sell autonomous vehicles to the masses.  On that day, we poor hapless souls will suddenly have oodles more free time as we are whisked from place to place to rack up cell phone data overages while surfing Amazon to find more useless widgets to spend money on.  They'll make so much money when this plan finally comes together that you know what, even if they have to settle a few autono-mobile wrongful death cases out of court, it'll still be worth it, WELL worth it, to them.

So my advice to you, dear reader, is this: learn to drive, and learn well.  Do an autocross and/or get some track time so you know your vehicle's limits and how it behaves when it goes beyond them.  Teach those dearest to you all that you possibly can.  Never drive while distracted, talking on a phone, texting, or watching anything other than the road.  And never buy a vehicle (or pay for an option) that tries to do the driving for you, because no one cares more about what's in your car than you do.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Driving Vs Flying, and Magic, Every Day

The wife and I recently completed a three-day trip to New Mexico, where we found and (hopefully) settled on our next house.  It was a 729-mile trip each way, which Google Maps calculates to be 12 hours and 42 minutes.  On the way down, we accomplished it in about twelve hours.  On the way back, we turned it up...to eleven.  Eleven hours. That's an average of 66.27--repeating, of course--miles per hour, including time stopped for gas, restrooms, and food.

Quick stats: the Porsche averaged over 26 miles per gallon on the trip with a highway cruising speed of over 80 mph.  Check out the numbers from the last tank of gas, which took us from Holbrook, NM all the way home to Las Vegas:

The average speed HAD been over 80, but an accident on I-95 in Henderson
crushed our numbers right at the end of the trip.
There was plenty of space for the two of us and our gear (the rear seats in the 911 are often derided or overlooked in the press, but owners will tell you they are incredibly useful), there was always an excess of power available for passing even at elevations as high as 7,797 feet, and as always the ease of outward visibility in the 911 made it easy to maintain awareness of nearby traffic.  Are there better long-distance cruising cars out there?  Certainly, but the Porsche would crush them on a track.  When it is said that the 911 is the world's best, and perhaps only, go-every-day do-everything supercar, it is said with very good reason.

While all this is impressive--or at least I think it is--you might be saying, ugh, that's a lot of driving.  And you'd be right.  But you can't put a price on freedom, flexibility, and memorable experiences, and those are things that cars have always given their owners.

In this case, the plan was to make the trip from December 28 through December 31.  To fly commercial, we'd have had to shoehorn our schedules (and wallets, no doubt) into whatever allowed us to get into and out of El Paso around those dates.  Once in El Paso, we'd have had to rent a (crappy) car and drive two hours to our small-town destination.  As it turned out, we finished house-hunting early and were ready to leave on the 30th.  If we'd been bound by airline tickets, there'd have been no sense paying fees to change everything last-minute.  We'd have lost a whole day that we were instead able to spend at home (on New Year's Eve, no less), plus spent extra money on an extra twenty-four hours of hotel and car rental.  Since we'd driven, it was simple: call the front desk the night before to notify them of our planned early check-out, hop in the car the next morning, and vanish toward the horizon.

Among the memorable experiences on our journey:

1) What looked to be a wolf sprinting across the road about a hundred yards in front of us

2) Our discovering that gasoline is wicked cheap in New Mexico at just $2.95 or so per gallon for regular, or about $3.19/gal for premium

3) Noting that the police in Springville, Arizona drive brand-new Ford Explorers which are no doubt paid for in part by the 10% effective tax rate on soft ice cream

Ridiculous.
4) Finding a surplus military deuce-and-a-half truck with a "For Sale" sign in the front window at that same McDonald's

5) And lastly, our passing by the National Radio Astronomy Laboratory's Very Large Array.

Those dishes may look small from the road, but each one is 82 feet in diameter.
Each one is rendered in 3D on Google Earth at coordinates 34.076266,-107.621469.
You don't get any of that stuff when packed into an aluminum tube with a hundred strangers all gasping on shared recycled air.  Unless it's just entirely too far and entirely unfeasible, I will always take a long drive in my Porsche over a date with TSA.

Oh, and the next day, I hand-washed the Porsche from top to bottom until it gleamed, then had it valet-parked at the MGM Signature for New Year's Eve in downtown Las Vegas.  Engineered for magic every day indeed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Farewell, Saab



Saab filed for bankruptcy this past Monday after nearly a year of desperately trying to keep its head above rising financial waters.  The automobile company Bob Lutz describes in his most recent book Car Guys Versus Bean Counters as a "lonely, undernourished wallflower" made just one real sports car in its lifetime (the 1966-1974 Type 97 Sonett) and was never a financial or performance powerhouse.  Still, it's a terrible thing whenever any car company dies, and I shed especially sad tears for poor underdog Saab.  It was a brand with style and 21st-century potential.

The reason Lutz mentions Saab in his book is of course because the company was owned by GM from 1989 until 2010.  GM wanted a "premium European" brand in the late 80's, and Saab was all that was available/affordable at the time.  Unfortunately, GM as an organization did not understand what attracted Saab loyalists to their cars--the word most commonly used for that attractive quality is "quirkiness"--and was also unable to enforce cost-saving engineering edicts upon the Swedes.  The brand became a self-replenishing red-ink well in GM's accounting books.  Saab's automobiles became little more than re-badged, restyled Chevrolets where the only unique and possibly "quirky" parts were expensive and invisible to the consumer.  Worse, as GM didn't quite know how to make a Saab that appealed to the loyalists, the product portfolio was never refreshed and became stagnant.  The Saab 9-5 that came out and was competitive in 1997 was almost exactly the same when it was finally replaced after the 2009 model year.  Who would buy a "new" car with twelve-year-old engineering?

Finally, however, GM cut Saab loose via a slow separation process which began in late 2008.  The Swedes were so thrilled to be free of the General that they immediately started hinting about the long-overdue new 9-5.  It would share a fair number of components with GM products, but one thing was incredibly new and different: the new car's design was inspired.  Striking.  It was clear that someone wanted Saab to be as good as it ever was.


The new 9-5 was a fine piece of engineering and design work and as a vehicle, certainly a viable alternative to the equivalent Mercedes/BMWs/Audis, especially if the buyer didn't want to see a dozen clones of himself before leaving his subdivision in the morning.

The thing is, if you'd been paying attention, the new 9-5 was the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance.  Despite languishing in many ways under inattentive GM, Saab had quietly placed its badge on a small but significant number of good cars in the mid-2000's.  The 2005-2006 9-2X, while despised by Saab loyalists for not being a "real Saab," was actually a better-looking, better-driving Subaru WRX wagon with the same performance chops and aftermarket tunability.  What's not to love?
Saabaru vs. Subaru

The next Saab home run came in 2008 when the Swedes sent the United States 600 examples of a flawless black-on-black gem: the 9-3 Turbo X.  Pushing 11.6psi of boost through its turbocharger manifold, it made 280 horsepowers, 295 torques, and featured an electronic differential which could throw power to their rear axle, causing Car & Driver to remark that "playful oversteer is easily invoked with simple throttle modulation."  Even better, the Turbo X was available in SportCombi (wagon) form with a six-speed manual.

The 9-3 Turbo X.  How cool are those wheels?!
The problem with all of these cars, especially the 9-5 and the 9-3 Turbo X, was not how they drove or looked, but how high their sticker prices were.  Crippled by high operating/production costs and a need to be equipped with premium-segment gizmos and interior materials, they were priced too high and advertised to little to be visible to the mass market, which was busy lusting after the Merc/BMW/Audi trifecta.  Saab, in truth, just wasn't as good as the Germans, nor did it have the brand cachet, but the cars were priced as if it was and did.  It was a strategy and situation doomed to failure.

The upside of Saab's bankruptcy is that all of those good, recent cars should suddenly be worth somewhat less on the open market.  There are those who fear being without a warranty and/or don't know that their Saab can easily be serviced at most any GM (or Subaru, if you've got a 9-2X) dealership.  I would be surprised to see a GM shop turn down service on even a new, post-GM 9-5; again, the platform is Epsilon II--same as the Buick Regal/LaCrosse, among others--and many of the parts bolted to it come from the GM bin.  Still, dealers such as True Saab have already re-listed their new inventory for as much as $10k off MSRP.  This means that you can get a rare, modern, attractive car for far less than you'd pay for its equivalent, more ubiquitous competitors.

As for me personally, I know there aren't may wagons out there with clutch pedals, let alone wagons with clutch pedals and all-wheel-drive, wrapped up in a package that burdens its underhood horses with less than fourteen pounds each.  The 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi XWD is on my family-car list.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"SENNA" ON NETFLIX INSTANT!

I don't know how far behind the times I am on this, but the English-language version of "Senna," the documentary film depicting the life and F1 career of Aryton Senna, arguably the greatest racing driver who ever lived, is now available to watch instantly on Netflix.

I just finished with it and it was utterly excellent.  The drama is compelling, the footage is painstakingly pieced together and always relevant, the interviews are poignant and emotional--it's just a fantastic piece of cinematic work from beginning to end, whether cars and F1 racing interest you or not.

My recommendation: see it immediately.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rennsport Reunion IV - Part 5: The Event

Mazda Raceway Leguna Seca is an amazing place.  If there were an Olympus for the car gods, Leguna Seca would be it.  You get there by leaving your hotel in Monterey and climbing near-vertically up an imposing slope, often through the low-hanging marine clouds.  When you emerge into the sunshine, there it is: eleven corners and 2.238 miles of raucous racing bliss.


Now, typically when I see a Porsche on the street, it brightens my day a bit.  It is therefore difficult to express the boundlessness of my joy when I see thirteen hundred Porsches in the parking corrals at Leguna Seca.  That's one thousand, three hundred.  Every color, every level of customization and modification, every year, every type imaginable.  It was fantastic.


Yeah.  That's just one of the corrals.  There were several.

The first thing we stumbled upon when we first arrived on Friday was part of the 911-specific display.  I say "part" because there were 38 cars in the display, so they weren't all in the same place.  These weren't museum Porsches either--these were PCA member cars, driven hard and impeccably maintained by loving owners.


I think this one was my favorite of this particular group.  A 1997 Turbo S Coupe, blue turquoise on black, with yellow calipers and matched yellow seat belts.  You laugh at the seat belt thing for about five seconds, and then you realize a) how awesome it is and b) that you want some caliper-color-matched belts too.  But wait, how could this be my favorite when right next to it is a bright yellow 964 RS America?  And when immediately to the right of this picture is a brand-new GT3RS 4.0?  Impossible to say.  Like Michael says in Office Space, "I guess I kinda like 'em all."


I wasn't going to tease you with "brand-new GT3RS 4.0" and then not deliver a picture.

Limited by the temperament of the children, we were not able to sit and carefully watch any of the weekend's races.  Still, the glorious howl of the engines and the sight of some of the most timeless, most iconic cars in automobile and racing history hurtling purposefully along one of the greatest tracks in the world was a truly epic experience.

Saturday morning was a bit foggy, but that couldn't dampen our spirits--all that did was lend some seasonally appropriate Halloween spookyness to my pictures.






Of course, the highlight of the visit for our boys was meeting Sally Carrera from the Disney/Pixar film "Cars." She was on display in the "Porsche Park in the Paddock," which also included a stage, a full-size movie screen, a fully stocked biergarten, the new 991s, and the 918 RSR.





The last three pictures there aren't actually mine.  I have a very similar one of the 918 RSR with the boys sitting in front of it, but you're here for the cars, not the kids.  I confess to not taking any pictures of the 991s, figuring Porsche would release plenty of higher-quality shots of their own.  They have, but I'm still kicking myself for not having some pictures I can call my own.

Lastly, the racecars.  Of course they were all studies in pure awesomeness, and I'm disappointed in myself for not bringing home more pictures.  Still, I got enough to drool over for awhile.


Gulf-liveried 917s.  If you haven't seen Steve McQueen's "Le Mans," just get on it.
The GT1 during the parade.
The 2011 Flying Lizard Le Mans GT3 RSR.  The pit crew were  showing off demo pit stops on this car, changing all four tires in right around 9 seconds.
RS Spyder, now-retired king of the ALMS LMP2 class.
That about sums up the RR4 coverage.  We'll put this trip to bed with the final installment, Part 6, which will cover the return home back through Yosemite with more time to gape at the surroundings.