Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Deutschland, Part 11

After the Frankfurt auto show, I was eager to hop town, since the next day I'd be heading to the world-famous Nürburgring, the race track on which pretty much all modern performance cars are tuned, if only for the "cred". The most well-known portion of the track, the Nordschleife (Northern Loop), is also the part that's open to the public on most days.

The legend of the Ring has taken on a life of its own, and most enthusiasts know not only how challenging it is, but also how deadly it can be. Countless lives have been lost by incautious drivers who paid the track less than its fair share of respect.

There are plenty of websites dedicated to teaching you how to run the Ring (I used this excellent Nürburgring for Dummies page), and they'll all tell you how dangerous it can be, especially for the cocky and unprepared. They'll even advise you to try to learn the track ahead of time by both watching recorded laps on YouTube and, get this, by playing the video game Gran Turismo. Lance, who I'd met in Stuttgart, was an accomplished gamer, and he said it helped his experience there greatly.

I'd tried to take this advice, by printing out maps of the track and following a video turn by turn, but by the end of the 14-mile Nordschleife, it's very easy to lose track of what corner you're on. After an hour or so of attempting this on the press computers at the Frankfurt show, I realized it was futile to try to learn the track in one day.

I decided to hit the road, and I grabbed a rental car. I'm sure the rental agency would not have been happy about my intended destination, but what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them. I approached the rental place, and sitting right in front of the door was the car I wanted to take to the Ring: the four-door R32 with a true manual transmission. Although I'd asked for a BMW 3-Series (or something similar) my heart started to pound at the thought that this car might be available.

Instead, they dropped a Mercedes C-Class wagon with a little 1.8L low-pressure turbo on me. Needless to say, I was not happy. The fact is, though, it turned out to be a great car for the situation. Too much power would have the potential to get me in a lot of trouble, and with its manual gearbox, I found the car to be fairly peppy and easy to keep on the boil. Nevermind the fact that the car had 14 miles on it when I picked it up. I'm sure running the Ring is a great break-in for any car.

Armed with a sat-nav and the latest Automobile Magazine, which happened to point out a great route through the mountains (don't ask me what road at this point), I high-tailed it out of Dodge with just enough time to get to the Ring as the open track time would be starting, 5:45 pm. It was scheduled to last until 7:30 that night, so I'd have just under two hours to do the four laps I'd planned to buy for €75.

The ride there was fairly uneventful, though the unlimited speed sections I'd been so eager for seemed few and far between. I didn't really have much chance to see what the Benz could do, but that would come later.

I got to the Ring just in time, though it was a little tough for me to find the entrance. Once there, I bought my Ring Card with four laps, and watched some cars take off just to settle myself into the reality of where I was. Eventually I summoned the courage to swipe my Ring Card and take a lap.

As I hit the North Loop, I settled in behind a brand new, bright blue Scirocco who I thought might have a good idea of the appropriate cornering lines. I'm not sure if he was annoyed at me following him for the whole lap, but I wasn't about to pass someone on my very first lap of the Ring. But I began to realize that if I was going to have a good time, I couldn't let those website warnings scare me into driving like a granny in a Lincoln.

On my second lap I confirmed what I had suspected. If you drive the Ring like it's a challenging road that you've never encountered before, you can have lots of fun while still being safe. Sure, it'd definitely be a blast at 90 mph, but you can still have a great Ring experience at 60. On this lap I managed to pass a few people, and was passed a few times by more serious drivers. But for the most part, I had the track to myself. One of the most important things to remember on the Ring is to always be checking your mirrors for faster traffic approaching. If you remember this, and also to not be an idiot, you should be pretty much okay.

Those websites will also tell you not to time yourself, and this is excellent advice. Most drivers who wind up as paint spatters on a Ring guardrail are found to have running timers inside their cars. It'll turn you into a moron. But I couldn't resist at least getting a ballpark number, knowing that I wouldn't be pushing myself much. And the proof is in the pudding. I reset the trip timer in the car just before the lap, and I came off with roughly a 13-minute run. At 14.173 miles, I was averaging around 65 mph. Which was really plenty.

I exited the second lap with a huge grin and a pounding heart. I pulled off to let the car cool down and to rest up for my next attempt. I struck up a conversation with some Britons, driving a Seat and an Audi S3, to compare notes. Finally I felt it was time to get back out there. I pulled up to the gate, only to be told that the track was closed for the night. The inevitable had happened: someone had crashed.

While deeply disappointed, I viewed this as a mixed blessing. I'd had a fairly quick lap (for my comfort level), and who knows, the next go round it could've been me who closed the track for the night. At the Ring, if you crash things can get very expensive, assuming you walk away from it.

Instead, my day ended with a burger at the Devil's Diner. I intended to drive straight from the Ring to Wolfsburg, where VW is located, but underestimated the size of the country. Germany, while only half the size of Texas, is in fact half the size of Texas! It would have been a 4.5 hour drive, and that doesn't even count the great road that I'd read about which I'd wanted to drive. Instead, I was forced to stop over in Cologne for the night, which happened to have one room left in the youth hostel where I wound up. Wolfsburg would have to wait another day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What is a sports car?

On the surface, this seems like a pretty easy question. Most people would just think of it as a high performance car with sleek and aggressive styling and two doors. But in that grand tradition of automotive classifications, which includes terms like "two-door sedan" and "landaulet", sports car really refers to something fairly specific. According to Wikipedia:
The term describes a class of automobile with two seats, two doors, precise handling, brisk acceleration, and sharp braking — trading practical considerations such as passenger space, comfort, and cargo capacity — for driving enjoyment.

This definition recently came up in a conversation I had with my dad about the upcoming Jaguar XE. He read a post on roadandtrack.com that featured renderings of the vehicle, which said the timing of the concept will coincide with the anniversary of the vaunted E-type. He was confused because "The article makes it sound like Jag doesn’t already have the XK."

I too had read blurbs about this upcoming model claiming that it would be the spiritual successor to the E, and thought to myself, wasn't that the whole point of the XK? But herein lies the distinction between a sports car and a grand tourer. Back in the day, the E-type was one of the premier sports cars around, with great handling, decent power, and gorgeous lines. The original coupe was a two-seater, and the roadster was only offered that way.

Not until the stretched 2+2 version of the coupe arrived a few years after the E's debut did the model take on more characteristics of a grand tourer. The XK, on the other hand, was built as a GT from the start. Characterized by a comfortable ride, high speed stability and space for up to four people with luggage, grand tourers, as the name reflects, are meant to allow a long trip in total comfort.

Ferrari offers some great examples of this contrast. Its mid-engined base models, like the F430 and upcoming 458 Italia, are designed to get around a track the fastest way possible. They trade comfort for speed, and the ultimate Ferrari sports cars, like the 430 Scuderia, strip out all comfort items, like radio, A/C and sound deadening.

The 612 Scaglietti, on the other hand, is the Ferrari built for four. You can run it for hours at superlegal speeds and, due to what Ferrari calls its "unprecedented comfort", get out at the other end feeling fresh as a daisy. Ferrari even classifies it as a "berlinetta", which translates to "little saloon", a saloon being the European term for a sedan.

In the context of Jag's lineup, the fact that the XE will be a two-seat sports car means that it will compete more with the Porsche Boxster/Cayman than the Mercedes-Benz SL or BMW 6-Series, as the XK does. Will Jaguar customers go for a true sports car? I think that's a big wild card. But at least we know that, even while the XK remains, the new car has a raison d'être.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Confident or Sporty, Pick One (part 2)

I recently had a teleconference with a client who produces luxury sport sedans, and I brought up the issue of AWD and sport suspensions being mutually exclusive. This manufacturer explained that for AWD cars, the priority is for maximum compliance over rough roads, and that's not achievable with the sport suspension.

I mentioned the increasing trend toward adjustable suspensions, like Audi's Drive Select (pictured), and inquired whether they would consider the combination on a car with this sort of setup. They responded that the next generation of the entry sport sedan would be getting this technology, and that it's possible that it would be an option with AWD.

I suppose this is actually the reason why Audi was the first to introduce this kind of system in the segment occupied by the A4. Without it, perhaps they can't accommodate AWD and sporty handling, and Audi's sportiest offerings all have AWD.

So here's to the future, when I'll be able to fulfill my fantasy of both the perfect track car, and the perfect winter-mobile.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Deutschland, Part 10

The major reason that I'd waited until this year to visit Germany was the Frankfurt Auto Show, which only occurs every other year. While you can read about all the cars that were unveiled there in plenty of places, I figured I'd share my own perspective with you on a few things.

First of all, it was a thrill to see all the cars from brands we don't have here, like the French trio of Renault, Citröen and Peugeot, and Fiat, whose cars we will soon be seeing on our shores. Sometimes you see a car that looks familiar, but with a badge that's not:

This Fiat is called the Sedici, and it's just a rebadged Suzuki SX4, which we do, in fact, have here.

This Seat Exeo is actually a reworked previous generation Audi A4. Seat is VW's Spanish brand, and it's seen by the parent company as a stepping stone to the Audi brand. A Skoda rep explained this to me, adding that his marque is seen as a lead-in to the VW badge. Things can be a bit more complicated on the Continent.

There were also lots of MAVs, or multi-activity vehicles. These cars are a wonder of packaging, and one of my favorites was the Toyota Verso, which essentially takes a Corolla-sized platform and jams seven people in it.

At this show, Ford unveiled the new Focus C-Max and Grand C-Max, and revealed that the latter would be coming to America. This could be the start of a big trend in the States.

I also really dug the Kia Venga. While only two rows, it's quite spacious, and would give the Honda Fit a run for its money. I also like the adorable styling, and I'm going to try to get Kia to bring it over here. It would help them sustain some of the great momentum their brand has gotten of late.

And how could I forget the VW Scirocco. This thing looks bad-ass, and as I posted earlier, VW had a hot R version on hand at the show. If only they'd bring it here.

BMW also had a beautiful 507 driving around the elevated track they'd built around their stand, so I got to enjoy the lovely sights and sounds of that classic.

Finally, I got to experience the European Ford lineup up close. I was not prepared for what I'd see and feel. Not only were the materials below the quality level I'd been expecting, but the ergonomics of some of the vehicles was deplorable. To lower a window in the Mondeo you have to contort your wrist into a very uncomfortable position, as you can see on the left side of the picture:

In addition, the interior panel gaps were huge. It's a shame, since I'd based my impressions of European Ford products on their stunning design.

With my press pass, I was a pig in shit at the show. They treat the press quite well at auto shows, and you eat like a king if you want. Plus I had plenty of free Internet with which to research the Nürburgring, where I was going the next day, and try to learn its corners. More on that soon...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Now this is what I call talent


This post is not exactly automotive related, but it does involve transportation in general, so I think it gets a pass. I just wanted to take the time to lament the disappearance of Northwest Airlines, which will be fully absorbed into Delta as of February of next year.

Now I'll admit, this lamentation doesn't make a whole lot of objective sense, since, even though I've flown NWA plenty in recent years due to the fact that Detroit is one of their hubs, I didn't regard this carrier as having any better prices, service, or anything really, than the competition. No, my sadness is based wholly on the loss of a logo. And it's not even their current logo.

For many years I've considered the Northwest logo that was used until a few years ago to be one of the great masterpieces of corporate design. Just look at all the elements that come together beautifully. The N is the most obvious, but the artist figured out how to convert into a W with a simple triangle. Not only that, but that triangle is positioned perfectly to be part of a compass, which points to none other than the Northwest.

I'll admit, the logo with which it was replaced a few years ago does look more modern, but it has nowhere near the layered complexity of this marque.
And I've got to believe that had NWA retained its independence, the company would have unveiled "the logo to
end all logos" in another decade or so, which would have returned to this motif, but with a more polished and pleasing finish.

But alas we'll never get to see that. And for that, I'm am deeply sorry.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sin or synergy, that is the question

In a recent article in Automotive News, quote machine David Cole from the Center for Automotive Research explained that the Fiat-Chrysler merger is much more promising than the Daimler-Chrysler link-up was, because there is much more product overlap with the new alliance.

It struck me that this was the exact opposite rationale to the one that was touted about the DaimlerChrysler deal back in the day. From a 2001 article on the company:
At its start, the 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. appeared to unite exceedingly compatible partners. Chrysler would marry into a family of prestige, with Mercedes pledging its engineering and technological prowess. Street-smart Chrysler would show its partner how to fight for mass-market success in North America.

The article goes on to detail how this assumption was mistaken, but it really does beg the question of whether overlap is a good thing in a deal involving two car companies. You can argue it either way. You want to avoid overlap, since it doesn't make sense to put resources into two brands that compete with one another. Or, you want to make sure there's some overlap so that you can maximize the sharing of those resources, such as platforms and engines, between the brands.

Both sound kind of right, and saying either will make you sound smart. But at the end of the day, it's all just bullshit. There are too many other factors, like the economy, company talent both executive and otherwise, competitive forces, and pure luck, that influence the trajectory of a partnership like either of Chrysler's. To isolate a factor like overlap is exceedingly difficult, and probably misleading.

But I guess we industry analysts have to make our money somehow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Start Me Up!

As our first big snowfall of the season accumulates outside, I'm reminded of the joys of my garage. With the Green Monster tucked safely away in storage, the Blue Devil is free to get cozy in its new home just downstairs.

Were it not for this situation, I'd once again be pining for a remote start system. I've always wanted one, and since I bought a car with an automatic transmission, it's more of a reality than ever before. But one major obstacle still remains--aside from cost. That's the car's immobilizer system.

Modern cars (except for some cheap Chrysler products) all have immobilizer chips embedded in the ignition key. If you hotwire the car, it'll start up, but then sense that the chip isn't around, and shut right back down. I can only imagine how car thieves are attempting to get around this.

What it means for aftermarket remote start systems, though, is that in order for them to work, a key needs to be permanently installed in the car so it'll start up even when you're inside the house. Obviously this makes the immobilizer system useless, which in turn increases the likelihood that your car will get jacked.

The answer to this issue is factory-installed remote start systems. GM has been offering these on their cars for years, with nicely integrated buttons right on the key fob.

Well, Ford announced a few days ago that they would finally begin offering the feature for 2011. I really wish more manufacturers would follow suit, but I guess I'll always be waiting for the next big thing to get to my car of choice, like Bluetooth streaming audio and voice recognition. Here's to wishin!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kick ASCII!!!

Today I discovered an ASCII art generator. For those of you not light years ahead of me in computing knowledge, it converts a picture into text. I decided to post an ASCII pic of one my favorite cars, the Aston Martin DBS. If you want to convert something, the site is here. Enjoy in both black and white.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lane Discipline For All!

As you'll know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I deplore drivers who block up the left lane while drivers behind them want to pass. It's dangerous, since it forces faster traffic to pass on the right. It also muddles up traffic flow, creating lots of unnecessary jams.

Well, I finally decided to try to do something about it. I've turned to that model of futility and wishful thinking, the online petition. I'm hoping that I can eventually stoke a groundswell of supporters who feel the same way, and I can present the petition to local and state law enforcement to urge them to enforce the law, which is actually on the books in Michigan, to penalize left lane sloths.

The petition is here, and I implore anyone else who feels the same way to virtually sign it so I can get some momentum behind it. Also, please pass it along to anyone you know who might be willing to lend their name to the cause. If we get enough support, maybe we can turn Michigan into one of the more progressive states for lane discipline. Thanks in advance.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Deutschland, Part 9

I hadn't heard the best things about Frankfurt, which is why I chose to stop in Heidelberg on the way. The truth is, Frankfurt is the business hub of Germany, and not much else. I'm sure I could've found tons of interesting things to do there, but compared with the other major cities of Germany, it's kinda boring.

My first excursion there was the zoo. It's actually a pretty good zoo, and I took videos of some of the interesting stuff I saw there. The first is two turtles making out, with one on the other's back.

The second is some really narrow fish that wave their fins in mesmerizing patterns.

I'll admit, these videos aren't nearly as cool as they'd seemed at the time, but I did enjoy the zoo, and recommend it if you have to spend a day in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, it was raining for much of the time I was there.

There also happened to be just a random peacock just strutting around the place like he owned it. I knew peacocks can be somewhat irritable, so I didn't mess with this guy.

Soon I'll post about the Frankfurt auto show, almost 3 months late.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who'da Thunk It?

I was listening to the Autoblog podcast from a few weeks ago--which, by the way, I highly recommend for anyone seeking unfiltered commentary from straight-up car guys--and the topic of the new Buick Regal came up. The guys mentioned that it's just a rebadged Opel Insignia, and referenced the fact that if the Saturn brand were still around, this car would have been the next Aura.

It made me think about the interesting path that these two brands, Saturn and Buick, have taken over the past few years. Can you imagine any Saturn from the early '90s being mentioned in comparison to its Buick contemporary? Saturn had been created to present a line of small cars ready to take on the imports. The Buick brand, on the other hand, was the polar opposite, representing big, spacious American iron, for the buyer who thought Toyotas were for suckers. Most people didn't even know that the little plastic-bodied Saturn SL hailed from the same company that pumped out hundreds of thousands of behemoth LeSabres.

By the end of its lifetime, the Saturn brand has moved upmarket, while Buick is on a quest to compete with the likes of Lexus and Acura. I was a big fan of the direction in which Saturn was heading, and I was sad to see it go just as it had finally gotten an exciting lineup. Fortunately, Buick has been given a lot of this displaced attention, and with a showroom that will include the Enclave, LaCrosse and Regal, as well as a spiffy version of the new Chevy Cruze, Buick will be chock full of stylish metal.

Now all we have to do is wait for the Buick name to lose its punchline status.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Party Pooper

I'm pretty excited about the impending arrival of the Ford Fiesta. It's going to be the best sub-compact in the US market, with the possible exception of the Honda Fit. Ford continues to get its act further together in the US, bringing over many of the great designs from its European arm.

But Henry's brand tends to lose a little bit in translation. The new Taurus, for example, takes many of the cues that make the Mondeo a great design in Europe, but fails to finish the job, with a slab of a rear end that suffers from too many wayward lines.

There seem to be a few missteps with the Fiesta, too, involving the grille. The European version (above) is a great design. For the US version, the front end has been revised, likely for different crash standards here. The sedan gets a chrome grille that has an inexplicable gap under the third crossbar.

The hatch gets a grille insert that looks like it's there to plug the hole that was left by taking out the sedan's grille.

Ford, you're doing so many things right, why screw it up every chance you get?