Monday, September 29, 2008

He said it again!

After being on the road for a while, I'm finally getting a chance to catch up on some of Joe White's Eyes on the Road columns in the WSJ. I especially like this recent article, in which he closes with some sage words:

"Achieving freedom from foreign oil and keeping consumer gasoline prices low are conflicting goals. America's energy policy for the past three decades has tilted toward cheap gas to fuel our cars. Washington's energy debate is really about whether that should continue. The rest is mostly diversion."

Rock on, Joe. Rock on.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Car's Saga

Now that I'm in possession of the MGB, I though I'd relate a little bit about the process of getting it to me. It was chock full of omens. In fact, as soon as I committed to buy the car, putting the money in escrow, the first omen came. I left my house, and around two blocks away there was a nice black MGB roadster sitting in the middle of the road...with a flat tire. Not a good sign.

Well, my beautiful green example needed a few repairs before it was shipped from Iowa, and as soon as those were complete I arranged for its transport. The car was picked up this past Friday and was scheduled for delivery bright and early Saturday morning. It didn't quite make it. There were no flat tires involved, but the brand new, '08 Ford Super Duty PowerStroke that bore it apparently had some diesel fuel that didn't agree with it, and it just decided to quit right on the highway. I doubt a child waking up on Christmas morning to find out that Santa isn't real would be more disappointed than I was.

So what did I see just as I left the house Saturday morning? A shiny red MGB roadster cruising around, apparently just to rub salt in my wound.

Long story short, due to the lofty customer service of a Ford dealer in Illinois, who jerked the truckers around for a few days until they were convinced to take the needed part from a truck on the lot, I had to wait until Tuesday night to meet my new love. Incidentally, on Sunday I took a trip down to Columbus, Ohio, returning Monday night. Since it was quite a schlep, I took an audiobook, From Russia with Love (I've been listening to all the James Bond novels in order). And as a final jab from fate, this book introduced a new Russian intelligence agency to the mix. Was it the KGB? Of course not. It was the MGB!!! So I had to listen to the reader pronounce this acronym over and over during the course of my ride back, each time wincing a bit with longing.

Quite honestly, I don't put much stock in supernatural forces controlling the universe, and I chalk all these instances up to coincidence. But come on, WTF!!!

It was so worth the wait, though.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

So Happy Together

I've just reached automotive nirvana. I now own two of the coolest cars on the road. After an excruciatingly long wait (including a broken-down transport truck), my 1966 MGB Roadster arrived last night. This car is fun!!! And it looks great, too. So without further ado, I present my two dream machines together: the Blue Devil, and introducing the Green Monster! (Fred Savage would like's a little monster.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's a gas gas gas!

Well, I finally hit the big time. I've gotten some recognition for my blog in the form of Chevron's PR agency. They invited me to a special blogger tour of Chevron's tech facility in Richmond, CA, outside Oakland. I'm guessing their PR staff had seen my extremely well-balanced and superbly written post regarding the backlash against the oil companies. What Chevron wanted to get the word out about, though, was Techron, its relatively well-known fuel additive which purports to keep your engine spic and span. In particular, they spent most of their time talking about Techron Concentrate Plus, which can be added to a tank of cheaper stuff every oil change to clean things up if your engine's feeling dirty, but I was more interested in Techron's application to their gasoline.

You may have noticed recently that Shell has been running a campaign designed to raise awareness of the detergent power of its fuel, as well. In fact, I've been buying mostly Shell gasoline for my cars for the past few years. For my readers I suppose this begs the question, how much can the quality of gasoline differ? After all, most people treat gasoline as a commodity, with station location as the primary factor in where they fill up. Well, the answer is both simple and complicated. Read on...

Most drivers think of gas on three levels: regular, mid-grade and premium. This simply refers to the fuel's octane, which is essentially its resistance to detonation. Why would anyone want a fuel that's tougher to ignite? Well, on higher performance engines, the compression ratios tend to go up, meaning fuel is more likely to ignite before it's supposed to, and to not burn evenly. This can create problems in both performance and emissions. Especially because of the potential for emissions issues, all modern engines are able to sense these issues (knock or ping) and adjust their operation accordingly. But this robs a high-performance engine of its full capability, so it's still recommended you pop for the highest octane specified for your car. 

One big question that people wonder about: Can high octane gas help a car spec'd to run on regular? Answer: not really, don't waste your money. Unless...

Here's where things get a bit more complicated, and where I actually did learn some things from the Chevron event. Techron has been around for around 35 years, and many dyed-in-the-wool car guys swear by it. They gave us a whole presentation about their continuing advancements, waxing euphoric about PEAs (as opposed to those lame PBAs, which are so yesterday), and other technical stuff that my readers would neither understand nor care about. The crux of it all is that Techron prevents gunk from building up on your valves, injectors and combustion chamber, which can keep your engine from performing at its peak. Think of it as Lipitor for your car. 

Okay, so is Chevron gas really the best around? Well, they certainly think so, but from a more neutral perspective, there is something to be said in Chevron's favor. For a little background, I'll explain why I always fill up with Shell. A few years ago I read about a standard for gasoline called Top Tier. Before this, I'd thought it laughable that gas companies wasted money on advertising, since all gas was pretty much the same. But I found out that there's actually a pretty wide range of detergency among fuels, and the brands that conform to Top Tier standards actually follow a much stricter set of guidelines. 

A few years ago, a coalition of automakers (including VW) decided that the EPA standards for gasoline detergency were not high enough, causing emissions and reliability issues. They banded together and worked with a few oil companies (including Chevron) to establish a stricter standard. 

When I heard about this, I decided that I'd only fill my tank with the good stuff. Scanning the list of brands that met the standard, though, there were few companies on it that offered easy access in my area. Interestingly enough, the biggest companies out there, ExxonMobil and BP Amoco, are missing from this list. The one that was most promising was Shell. Rather than memorize the list, I just figured if I could find a Shell station, I'd be alright. After doing this for a while, I figured I might as well get a Shell card and get 5% back every time I fill up. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how brand loyalty is built. 

Fast forward to Chevron event, and I clearly went into it with a skeptic's eye. Aren't all the Top Tier gasolines good stuff? And what about Shell's V-Power brand. When Shell talks about its gas which can clean up your engine, they're talking about V-Power. And when I asked the guys at Chevron how much better than Shell their stuff is, they didn't really have a satisfactory answer for me. They'd really been comparing their fuels with others meeting the minimum EPA standards and other Top Tier fuels. But in reality Shell V-Power is on a third level with Chevron fuel--the real "top tier". In the public's eye, at least, they said that Amoco Ultimate is up there as well. 

But here's the real advantage in Chevron fuel. Every one of their fuels is up to the same lofty standards. With Shell and Amoco, it's only their high octane stuff that's branded with the V-Power and Ultimate names. So back to the original question: Can high octane gas help a car spec'd to run on regular? As I said, the answer is usually no. But if you're buying Shell or Amoco (or BP of course), your engine can get a nice Spring cleaning if you pop for premium. 

I always buy premium, because I'm a car nut and I baby my baby. And Chevron didn't really have me convinced that Techron would deliver that much benefit to me (at least not enough to search all over town for a damn Chevron station). But they did make a pretty convincing case that most people could stand to benefit from regular use of Chevron. That, and the fact that they bribed me with a free trip to the San Francisco Bay Area and some free Techron Concentrate Plus, in the spirit of full disclosure. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rowing through the gears...with a paddle

The past several new cars that I've driven recently have had shiftable automatic transmissions. I'm quite used to this of course, since I almost always drive in manual mode in my R32. But the three recent cars I've driven have all had interesting variations on the theme that help to differentiate the driving experience between brands. I'd like to take a moment to weigh the pros and cons of each approach, so maybe you can benefit from my experience if this is something you really care about.

I'll start, of course, with Volkswagen's DSG. The transmission comes with an automatic shift gate with the manual mode selected by pushing the shifter to the right. This, I believe, is the most common execution for a shiftable manual, and it's shared with VW's regular 6-speed slushbox. One difference is the shape of the shifter. Most of VW's automatics come with a T-shaped shifter that is fairly common, and easy to use for the common task of shifting back and forth between park, drive and reverse (much of which requires holding down the release button).

Where this shape is not so satisfying is during manual shifting, where those of us accustomed to manual transmissions like to use a similar grip on a manumatic stalk. For this reason, VW provides a ball-shaped shifter on its sportier DSG applications, including the GTI and R32. I'm a fan.

Next we come to the paddles. I'm quite fond of how VW executes its shift paddles. They're fixed to the back of the steering wheel, with an exposed bit that's labeled + or -. This label even lights up at night. Very classy. This execution has also proven very useful during track work, as the paddles will always be at the tips of your fingers during corners, assuming your hands are still at the 9 and 3 positions. For most turns in which you'd need to shift, your hands should still be there, because they'd be fast sweepers. For tighter turns, if you find yourself needing to shift in the middle, it's probably because you missed a downshift as you were braking before the turn started. In that case, you can always fall back on the shift lever, but it may even make you a better driver to learn this lesson.

This execution is in stark contrast to that of another twin clutch gearbox on the market, Mitsubishi's SST. Mitsubishi has made absolutely certain that everyone knows that their shift paddles are made from magnesium (BMW on the other hand uses magnesium for an actual benefit, that of reduced engine weight). But it is the mounting of these paddles that makes Mitsu's execution really unique. They're affixed to the steering column, meaning they don't move with the wheel. Some people prefer this, but in some spirited driving I did in a Lancer Ralliart yesterday, I firmly established my preference for wheel mounted paddles.

The one area where I do prefer Mitsubishi's layout is the shift lever. It actually looks and feels like a true stickshift lever, and its shift layout is opposite to that of the VW. To engage manual mode, you pull it to the left, so it's closer at hand, and you pull it back to upshift and push forward to downshift. To some this is counterintuitive, but to a true stickshift driver, this is exactly how it should be, mimicking the way a direct throw backward in a manual is always a higher gear.

BMW also agrees in this regard, as they've been laying out their manumatics this way for years. Where BMW falls flat is in their steering wheel paddles. The Bavarians believe that you should be able to upshift or downshift with either hand, and it's a solid idea, until you come upon their solution for this. Each paddle in a Bimmer can be pulled with the fingers (for an upshift) or pushed with the thumb (for a downshift). While this does feel inherently intuitive, especially as it matches up with the shift lever, its downfall is in the thumb activation. When your hands are in a natural driving position, a yank on a paddle is natural and easily executed. But as I found in the X6 I drove yesterday, the downshift was another story, especially during spirited driving. The thumb extension felt strained and awkward, twisting my wrists into unnatural positions. You may think this is nitpicky and stupid, and I'll admit that I'm the prince of piddling pet peeves, but it did make me feel less in control and legitimately reduced my enjoyment of the drive.

I also got to drive the new Cadillac CTS-V. Fantastic car, but its shift setup was not ideal. Not only was the shifter laid out with forward upshifts, but the paddles were not visible behind the wheel. They were basically just buttons on the backs of the wheel spokes, and if you weren't feeling around for them, you wouldn't know they're there. They also offer less surface area than other paddles, making them less accessible.

I think the variety of executions throughout the industry makes for interesting reinforcement of brand character. Mitsubishi's setup reflects the raw nature of its performance cars, whereas VW executes the system in a highly refined way. But some systems just work better than others, and clearly my ideal setup for a shiftable automatic would be the VW paddles with the Mitsubishi lever. Manufacturers take note!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My New Cd

After almost a year of waiting, the new front bumper/grille came in for my R32. All the initial allocation of Michigan models were shipped erroneously with plate brackets on the front bumper, meaning the front end didn't have the clean look that I'd been all excited about. Well, I just got the car back from the dealer, and it now has a completely clutter-free front end, which I'm assuming brings the drag coefficient (Cd) down precipitously. I'd imagine that I can now hit around 140 on the front straight at Grattan, instead of 110. 

Here's a shot of my gloriously clean front end. Enjoy!

Monday, September 1, 2008

My Drive With Ralph

Today I held the fate of Chrysler LLC in my hands, and I chose to allow it to continue its existence. This is actually only partly hyperbole and grandiose delusion. It's also partly true. I drove Grattan Raceway, instructed by none other than Ralph Gilles, on the very day on which he assumed responsibility as head of design at Chrysler. As I rounded corner 4 with him strapped into my passenger seat, the awful thought ran through my head of the ramifications at Detroit's number 3 carmaker if anything were to happen to Mr. Gilles on my account. Yeah, a little pressure. 

Of course, nothing went wrong, and a lot of things went right, and I was the gleeful beneficiary of some great coaching from one hell of a driver. (Special shout out to my buddy Jon for hookin' me up.) The highlight of the day, however, came not in my humble R32, but in Ralph's outrageous Viper ACR (humility need not apply). 

The Viper ACR (American Club Racing, for the uninitiated), is essentially a street-legal race car. I actually had a chance to drive one a few months ago at Chrysler's annual "What's New" event at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, right after a regular Viper, in fact. The "base" Viper is itself quite a track star, with the sort of telepathic handling you hear spoken of in the most connected and pure cars (as I mentioned of the Loti). The ACR version, on the other hand, reminds me more of the idea of "precognition" from Minority Report. In my run through the first set of slalom cones with this car, I hit almost every one, since the car had responded even before I realized I wanted to turn. Suffice to say it's a handful when you're first getting acquainted. 

When I first approached Ralph's ACR, I noticed that it was a lot more handsome than some of the others I've seen, especially the red and black version. As a car designer, I suppose he's allowed to customize his with a nice dose a actual taste, the car being all black, with a single dark gray driver-side stripe. In fact, when I entered the car, a plate in the middle of the dash proclaimed that it had been "Handcrafted for Ralph V. Gilles", a fact which instantly nullified the previous thrill I'd enjoyed when he'd noticed my steering wheel's "1236 / 5000" declaration of my car's limited edition nature. This is also probably the reason why I couldn't find a picture of this particular color combo to include in this post. 

We entered the track on the front straight, and the acceleration practically melted my face off. So this is what unrestrained power feels like, eh? On the autocross course I'd probably hit around 50 mph. On that front straight Ralph danced with 150. (In the same stretch my R32 can reach around 110.) With the end of the front straight looming, Gilles stabbed the brakes and I hit the seatbelt. I'm quite glad it happens to be a high-quality seatbelt, since it was the only thing standing between me and an express flight through the windshield. Literally. 

We happened to be running Grattan backwards today (it's usually run clockwise), so there was a hill after this straight. The ACR made such short work of the slope that my ears actually popped. Every time. The g-forces were so extreme that my stomach felt like it was rattling around freely in my torso...but in a good way. I believe Ralph when he says it took hours to clean to the puke of a previous passenger from inside the car. 

While the car was certainly extreme in its abilities, so was the driver. Having helped to calibrate it, Gilles is clearly familiar with the the ACR's limits, allowing him the confidence to wring the maximum from it. With our 20-minute lapping sessions, the car's slicks were getting slightly greasy towards the end, giving the rear some interesting character. This failed to phase Gilles even the least bit, as he kept his go foot firmly planted long after a driver with less faith would've backed off, easily using steering corrections to get the tail back in line. 

Ralph devoured the track with the ACR, and I had a front-row seat. It was also amusing to watch a Porsche 911 wag its tail all over the track in an effort to get the hell out of his way. I can truly say I bore witness to a master craftsman at work. Thanks, Ralph.