Saturday, October 31, 2009

Deutschland, Part 2

I knew that while I was on automotive pilgrimage, I would definitely need to take advantage of being in Germany for a bunch of non-car stuff. I'd heard that the city of Nuremberg was beautiful and interesting, and it has a lot of WWII history, so I continued north from Ingolstadt.

Nuremberg is full of architecture spanning from the middle ages forward. It also has the classic castle-on-a-hill layout, and an old city/new city dividing line. The old castle is actually built into the side of a cliff. In fact, the reason it's called Nürnberg (in real German) rather than Nürnburg, is that berg means mountain or hill (whereas burg means town).

Here are some more pictures of the town and the Kaiserburg Imperial Castle.

Later in the day I went to the Nazi Rally Grounds, which had been an enormous construction project during WWII, but had been only partly finished. They had turned the Congress Hall, the planned HQ of the Nazi party, in a Documentation Center, a giant Holocaust museum. That was fascinating, with a great audio tour.
I also walked to the zeppelin field, where there were giant rally parades, and actually stood in the spot where Hitler watched them. Talk about strange emotions.

Interestingly, these kids are playing roller hockey right where the German soldiers used to march, which kind of drives home the point of how difficult it must be for Germany to reconcile its past and present. Clearly the greatest shame of its history is something that must not be forgotten, but Germans must also make peace with this legacy and continue with their lives.
As a tourist, it at first strikes you as a bit perverse that these people are doing such light-hearted activities in a place that makes your own heart so heavy. But these are people who grew up living among these historical landmarks, and to them it has a different significance, or at the very least, multiple levels of significance.

I'll actually touch on this a bit later when I post about Berlin. I'm hoping to post more tomorrow. That will be when things get really cool: Stuttgart, with both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Video Games vs. Reality

While I was in Germany, I got to drive the world-famous Nürburgring (more on that in a later post). To prepare, I visited a few websites which gave the advice of playing Gran Turismo to learn the track. And then of course I saw this on an episode of Top Gear:

Within less than an hour of watching this episode on my DVR, this commercial played on live TV:

Both at Laguna Seca. What are the odds? I was amused. I hope you were, too.

The Power of Preconceptions

I've been pondering this issue for many years, in the context of my role as an automotive analyst. When you read a review of a car, odds are the writer's opinions will be hard and fast, giving you the impression that the car in question offered a unique driving experience in every way, with some traits good, others bad.

As a semi-experienced road tester with some good track time under my belt and access to some of the best roads in the country when I head out to Santa Barbara where my company is located, I must declare that my experience has been quite different.

For the most part, new cars drive pretty nicely, with much more parity than Car and Driver would have you believe. I know that I'm still working on tuning my own senses to be able to detect the minute differences between machines, but the fact is that most of the characteristics under discussion in car reviews are minimally felt differences that are amplified by the writer for the sake of drama and usefulness.

After all, who's really going to pay attention to a writer who declares that his experiences in the Nissan 370Z and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe were too close to call. Readers demand conclusions, which is why C/D ranks their road test subjects in every face-off--and possibly why Car and Driver is the most popular enthusiast rag.

But aside from the most obvious cues, like exhaust note (in which the Genesis absolutely shone) or parking lot steering effort (the Genesis was a bit too heavy here), the ride and handling can be tough to compare accurately, even when driven back-to-back. And this is where I feel like preconceptions play a big role.

Going into this particular duel, the Nissan would naturally have a big advantage, purely because of its badge. The driver believes that the Nissan is a better-handling car, and it may well be, but the only way he or she will give the Hyundai the advantage is if the Nissan has noticeable deficiencies, which it really doesn't.

Which brings me to what set off this rant in the first place. I'm catching up on the Autoblog podcasts, which by the way, are fantastic. If you want to learn about cars, and how auto journalists think, these hour-and-change rant sessions are a gold mine, and a great source for honest opinion. But I was just listening to blogger Dan Roth talk about the Audi Q5 he has in his garage right now, and the first phrase he used to describe it is, "It's a fancy Tiguan." That was quickly pointed out to be untrue, and you could just hear the wheels turning in his head as his conceptions of the vehicle were adjusted.

After learning that the Q5 is actually based on the A4/A5 platform, it felt like his impression of it got more favorable. Not to pick on Dan, though, since I know that I do the same kinds of things. When discussing cars with my colleagues after a test drive, we'll often have wildly different impressions, especially since we're struggling to pick out the traits that stood out in any way, and exaggerating them to show that we really noticed something. When this happens, the viewpoint that is most supported by preconceptions of a brand is the one that always seems to carry the most weight.

Perhaps this is just me wrestling with my frustration at the trouble I have with evaluating cars. But I really feel that, especially in every-day, public-road driving, most people wouldn't even be able to tell the difference between a front-drive and rear-drive car, let alone which car has the best handling balance.

And when it comes down to it, having fun in a car is usually more a function of the road than the actual car. Even with wildly different abilities, I had about as much fun in a Nissan Altima as I did in a 1-series BMW, simply because the road was a blast.

No doubt any auto journalist who reads this will take complete umbrage with it. But part of the point is that cars have just gotten so good that it's tough to find a sub-par driving experience anymore. Sure, few machines can approach the experience of a Lotus Elise on a twisty mountain road. But daily drivers are all tuned within such a narrow spectrum that a lot of the time, they all seem to blend together.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Deutschland, Part 1

I recently returned from a grand automotive trip to the Fatherland. My plan involved a whirlwind tour of Germany, hitting all of the major car-related sights, like car factories and the spectacular museums that each of the brands has attached to their headquarters.

I flew into and out of Munich, home of Bayerische Motoren Werke. My first full day was spent touring the city, since throughout Germany many of the museums and tourist attractions are closed on Mondays. But I got to do a great bike tour with Mike's Bike Tours, meeting a lot of great people and seeing some very cool stuff. Here's some of the highlights:

These are some good examples of the architecture that covered most of the cities of Germany. As anyone who's been to Europe knows, there are many more centuries of architectural history to be discovered there than anywhere in North America.

That night some of the crew from the tour went to the Hofbräuhaus to, what else, drink some beer. There was a group of 5 from Philly, plus me and Allison, a fellow Jew from Chi-town. We'd actually discovered our shared tribe when, at a certain point in the trip there was a memorial to a WWII resistance movement with stones set on top from people who'd visited, a very Jewish custom, usually used to pay respects at Jewish cemeteries. We were the only two to place stones atop it.

We hadn't talked all that much during the tour, but afterwards, sitting in the Hofbräuhaus, and especially when the Philly contingent had left, we seemed to really hit it off, getting into some fascinating conversations, including about our common anxiety about traveling alone. Planning and doing this trip had been fraught with anxiety for me, and it was great to meet someone who shared some of those feelings, and not feel lame about it. It really seemed to lift some of the weight for me. Thanks, Allison.

But it leads to another interesting part of the trip. I'd used the Rosetta Stone program to learn some German before the trip, but until this point, I hadn't used it at all, since I knew the front desk people at my Munich hostel spoke flawless English, and quite honestly, I chickened out. But I knew I'd be late to my hostel in Ingolstadt, since I didn't want to leave my wonderful conversation with Allison. My trip was the budget kind, so I stayed mostly in hostels, usually in big, cheap dorm rooms. I called the hostel, and to my surprise no one in the "Jugendherberge", the youth hostel, in Ingolstadt, spoke English. When you think about it, why would they? Any foreigners traveling to Ingolstadt would generally be picking up their new car at the Audi Forum...not exactly the kind of person looking to save money with a youth hostel.

So I had to struggle through my first real conversation in German, and by golly I got through it. It actually gave me the first hint of confidence I needed, if not to engage random strangers in banter, to at least try to use Germany when I needed to interact with locals.

That night, I took a train to Ingolstadt, Audi central.
The old town of Ingolstadt, situated on the Danube River, is a beautiful slice of well-preserved germania. It was a pleasant surprise, since all I was expecting out of this town, about halfway between Munich and Nuremberg, was a city built around a car factory. Its charm was undeniable, though, perhaps best represented by the main gate of the city, seen here.

Since I'd already toured the Audi museum on a business trip in November, I only did the factory tour. Unfortunately none of the manufacturers allow cameras into their factories, for obvious reasons, but I can give you a few juicy tidbits from each.

In Ingolstadt Audi manufactures their lower level products, like the A3, A4 and A5, as well as all their engines. We got a tour of the body stamping area and the main assembly line. It was here that I was introduced to the Audi concept of assembly line work groups. It’s a group of around 5 or 6 people with one quality specialist and one “group speaker”, who gets to boss people around. They stay at one area of the line, but they get to rotate between jobs, so it breaks up the monotony. Apparently each worker is in charge of learning additional jobs at their own pace to be able to take advantage of this. This group set-up seemed to inject a more social atmosphere than at the American plants I’ve seen, but my experience there is definitely limited.

I was also fortunate enough to be treated to lunch by a friend from Audi at the restaurant at the Audi Forum. The Forum is where Audi customers from around the world come to pick up their Audi and be treated to a world-class experience. All the manufacturers in Germany have a program like this, though Volkswagen doesn't extend this privilege to Americans. Here's a customer picking up their new Q5.

After Ingolstadt, I was off to Nuremburg for some good ol' fashioned non-auto-related tourism. But I'm a bit tired of writing now, so I'll save that for part 2.