Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mustang (stickers) headed to NASCAR

The "sport" of stock car racing lost its luster for true car enthusiasts years ago. NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow put the final nail in the coffin of legitimacy, taking all variables out of the race except for the pit crew and driver. Fans of Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota can root on their favorite make, but in reality their just cheering for a particular set of decals.

It was with this lament in mind that many had been hoping for a rebirth in the sport, with manufacturers taking advantage of the recent resurgence of the pony car wars to bring some real competition to the track, in the form of actual Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers going head-to-head, perhaps in the minor-league Nationwide Series.

Well, based on the picture below, that might be kind of happening, but not really. Ford wants to campaign the "Mustang" in Nationwide, but of course they can't stray from the formula of standard template bodies on special tube frames, covered in stickers that minimally resemble what they hock on the showroom floor.

I found the following quote from the press release amusing: "Ford Racing has gone through the official NASCAR submission and approval process for the new car, and, once templates are finalized, production of Mustang parts will start so teams can build the first cars for testing later this fall." Testing what? Do different stickers (i.e. "parts") actually have divergent wind tunnel properties?

C'mon NASCAR, let's get back to roots and give fans something to actually cheer for.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I drive another whale

In a trip to CA earlier this year, I got to drive my "white whale", a water-cooled 911. Well, a year or so ago I got an excited text message from a coworker telling me about the Audi R8 we'd just gotten at the office. How long would we have it, I asked. Turns out, only a week, and I was stuck in Detroit. Crushed.

Well, the car clearly became "the one that got away". My new white whale is actually an Aston Martin DB9, but the R8 was definitely a large, sea-borne mammal. Until now. Last week, my friend Chris got an R8 to review for Left Lane News. He let me jump behind the wheel for a brief stint, and we took it to the area around GM's Milford Proving Grounds, which has some great roads. I've decided I'm okay with being forever in Chris' debt. I got to drive an R8.

The first impression was great, as rather than offer a horn blare to signal his arrival, Chris greeted me with a lovely chorus of revs. The second impression was just as good, with the car's looks doing a lot of talking. The third impression was a bit of a letdown, however, with the car's R tronic gearbox marring the initial interface with the car.

You may have read about this transmission. It's been getting a lot of negative feedback from reviewers, and I've gotta say, it almost ruins the car. R tronic is very similar to Lamborghini's e-gear sequential manual, and some say it's the same gearbox. I'd love to drive it in the Lambo, though, and see if it's just as jerky as it is in the Audi. As John McElroy says in his Autoline video, "every time this thing shifts, it feels like somebody's pressing on the brake." It actually feels pretty similar to the smart fortwo's jerky trans, and in both cars the only way to drive it smoothly is to trail off the gas just before a shift--but not too much. I guess maybe I'll have to leave the R8 on my whale list until I get to drive the supposedly phenomenal 6-speed manual.

The good news is VW has developed a new 7-speed DSG for Audi that will bear the brand's S tronic name, but will now be able to handle up to 406 lb-ft of torque, rather than the 6-speed's 258-lb-ft limit. No word yet on it's installation in the R8, but it seems like a perfect application, so I can't imagine it'll be too long.

Transmission issues aside, the R8 is a joy. The engine note is addictive, and cornering is a study in drama-free mastery of physics. I didn't get too far above the rule of law on the speedo, and I of course didn't get to work it out at the track, but Chris did get to do that, so I'll keep you updated on his post(s). He's in the planning stages now.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bob Lutz here to stay?

The Wall Street Journal seems to have buried a lead in its article about GM exiting bankruptcy. According to a paragraph towards the end, "GM Vice Chairman and former product chief Bob Lutz will stay with GM indefinitely, according to people familiar with the matter." It gets a little muddy after that, with Fritz apparently declining to confirm the change, but this could be big for GM. Lutz helped to turn the General's product line around, and had pledged to retire by the end of the year. While it seems that Tom Stephens will still take over as product czar, having Lutz' influence around will be a boon to the "new GM".

I actually have an email in to John Stoll to clarify the issue, and I'll keep y'all update.