Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rental Bliss: 2010 Mitsubishi Galant FE

Unless your daily driver is a new car itself, most new cars will impress with their fit, finish, and comfort. The industry as a whole has done a remarkable job of upping the refinement ante, even in vehicles at the shallow end of the range. Unfortunately, nobody told the Galant.

The exterior styling of the 2010 Mistubishi is conservative, but inoffensive. The compound headlights suggest modern touch and by themselves exceed most expectations one would have of a low-rate rental. The flush mesh grille could even remind you of a Cadillac from the right angles. The rest of the body is pure vanilla, but there are no surprises there. The trunk capably handles two real-world suitcases and is as easy as any to load.

Getting into the Galant, one is instantly transported to the early 2000's. Hard, shiny, textured plastic is almost everywhere, with only massive seams between the molded pieces breaking up the proceedings. Getting comfortable in the car is admittedly easy, and the mirrors ably manage any potential blindspots. This particular example had been generously ArmorAll'd, which made for a steering wheel that was both slippery and sticky at the same time.

The gauges were easy to read, but sported the now-vintage orange backlighting that seemed to be the trademark of midsize Asian sedans of the 90s. The center console is attractive to look at, but rather difficult to actually use by current standards. The console is topped by an old LCD clock which dominates the display, leaving only a small band at the bottom for the sound system display. The buttons are large but feel cheap, and inputs were registered only intermittently. Not even the shift lever was immune to mediocrity, as the screw holding the lever in place came loose twice during the week and would have rendered the car unable to shift from park had a multitool not been nearby.

Driving the Galant smoothly was something of a challenge. Releasing the exceptionally touchy brakes resulted in an authoritative surge forward, and balancing the two required practice and focus. The steering was incredibly light making straight-line highway driving easy, but response to steering inputs was lethargic. The skinny tires gave up their grip without much protest, and the touchy brakes turned spongy without much prompting.

Piloting the car around for a week brought back years-old memories of rental clunkers. It would be impossible to recommend to anyone, and one would be ill-advised to choose it over something else for the same price. This is unfortunately very much a car you get stuck with.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rental Bliss: 2011 Ford Escape Limited

Ford's littlest truck has come a long way since the Bronco II. Driving a black-on-black Limited offered a few pleasant surprises.

The truck looks very sharp, with tasteful chrome highlighting the otherwise all-black exterior. Good looking by itself, it's downright gorgeous compared to older Escapes. The bubble styling and exposed plastics are gone, replaced by straighter lines and painted surfaces. The bumpers themselves are an attractive painted plastic, but are unfortunately extremely soft and easy to scratch. The rear hatch has handles built into the bottom edge, but they're not in an ideal spot to close the hatch from and otherwise there is no good place to put your hand without leaving a print on your chrome or paint. Besides those few quirks, the exterior of the truck is rather well done.

Inside it becomes clear that Ford has taken the truck upscale. The doors close with a solid-sounding thud, and the leather seats with optional heaters are very comfortable and offer good lumbar and lateral support. Piano black surfaces are everywhere, accentuated by the color-selectable accent lighting in the footwells and cup holders. There are a few sharp edges, including one knuckle-skinning mold edge in the center console, but otherwise the various seams and panels fit well together. There are many cup holders and nooks for gadgets, including Ford's trademark burrito tray in the middle of the dash, although most of the nooks are large and shallow making it difficult to keep things in place.

There is ample headroom and getting comfortable is easy, although the lower dash hangs so low as to make reaching the pedals more difficult than it should be. Rear visibility is hampered by the absolutely massive rear seat headrests. Ford has done a good job muffling the road and wind noise and coupled with the light steering, spunky 3.0 liter V6 engine, and great exhaust sound it's easy to get going faster than intended. Slowing the truck down is no problem as the brakes are adequate, and there is surprisingly little body roll.

After spending a week with the truck, it was difficult to give it back. City driving was made pleasant by the punchy engine and comfortable interior, and long trips were effortless. $27,000 is a lot to ask for a small SUV, but Ford seems to have packed theirs full of appeal and it would be hard to come away disappointed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Old Parked Cars

My new favorite automotive blog is Old Parked Cars.

Car museums and shows are fun and all, but it's always a treat to see a rare or notable car out in the wild, doing what it was built for. Case in point: I hardly remember the details of the Lexus LF-A I saw at the LA Auto Show, but the Merkur XR4Ti I saw on the highway, or the De Tomaso Pantera I saw in a grocery store parking lot --- those are burned into memory.

I also have to give my respects to the unsung heroes: the meticulously maintained powder blue Plymouth Reliant K parked at the train station every morning, and the packed first-generation Lexus LS that still commands an air of dignity despite a broken tail light and keyed paint. Attitudes toward these cars range from indifference to contempt among the automotive press and internet peanut gallery. But the cars are still there, logging miles, taking care of business, earning their keep.

Here's to old parked cars.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ferrari's Cat Skinner

Ferrari FF

There are, idiomatically, many ways to skin a cat. There are also many ways to route power to all four wheels of a car. Many do it with a transfer case bolted to the transmission, some do it with electric motors, then there's Ferrari.

Ferrari does it with two transmissions.

Ferrari's new FF is remarkable for a number of reasons, but certainly one is the system they have dubbed "4RM" (for 4 ruote motrici - 4 wheel drive in Italian). Rather than worry about routing driveshafts all over the car and mucking up the underfloor, Ferrari mounted a second transmission directly to the front of the engine. It's a two-speed unit driven directly from the crank, and the FF relies on a pair of clutches to reconcile the drive ratio difference between the two-speed front and seven-speed rear transmissions. The twin clutches also allow the computer controlling the system to route different amounts of power to each of the front wheels to maximize performance in any given situation.

An animation of the system in action can be found here:

Winning all those F1 races certainly must be good for something, and Ferrari is no doubt quite good at making things like clutches, but designing a system that depends on two constantly-slipping clutches dealing with the 100 pound-feet of torque that can be sent up front will certainly put their engineering skills on display.

More photos, videos, and any other information you might be looking for about the Ferrari FF can be found at their site: http://www.ferrarifour.com/

Friday, September 17, 2010

F1 Mid-2010-Season Primer

Formula 1
For someone in the unlikely situation of being new to watching motorsports but having access to the Speed Channel, Formula 1 is an appealing starting point. The cars are fast and exotic, the competition is close, the tracks are in interesting places all over the world, and the coverage is extensive, informative, and entertaining. Regardless, it may still be difficult to have an immediate grasp on everything that is going on, particularly mid-season. The Formula 1 website is a fantastic source for detailed information (particularly about the rules and various technical aspects of the sport). There are a few unique, and important, characteristics of Formula 1 that will come up during a regular broadcast, such as:

Team structure - This season there are 12 teams (or "constructors"), and each team is comprised of two drivers. The teams are called constructors because they do in fact design and build their own cars (but not the engines). There are no "customer cars" allowed this season, so one team cannot buy cars or parts (with the exception of the engine) from other teams. The engines are tightly regulated this season, and only a handful of engine manufacturers are available for use by the constructors: Cosworth, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Renault. Both the constructor's and engine manufacturer's names are usually used to identify the teams, such as "Red Bull Renault" or "McLaren Mercedes."

The two championships in contention -  Each driver is racing against all of the other drivers in an effort to finish in the best position possible. For each race, the winning driver gets 25 points, 2nd place gets 18 points, etc. down to 10th place which gets 1 point. Cars finishing behind 10th get no points (complete details here). Additionally, each team is awarded the sum of the points scored by their two drivers. At the end of the 19-race season, the driver with the most points is crowed Drivers' World Champion, and the team with the most points is crowned Constructors' World Champion. Both championships are thought to hold equal weight and importance.

Qualifying format - The starting order for each race is determined by a three-stage qualifying system. All 24 cars have 20 minutes to set the fastest lap possible. The cars may qualify at any point during the 20 minutes, and the cars do not necessarily get the track to themselves. Following the first session (called "Q1"), the six slowest cars are set at the six worst starting positions. After a short break, the remaining 18 cars then have 15 minutes to again set the fastest lap possible. The times from Q1 are disregarded and these 18 cars must re-qualify. Following the second session ("Q2"), the eight slowest cars are set at the next-eight-worst starting positions. After a short break, the remaining 10 cars then have a final 10 minute session ("Q3") to again re-set their fastest lap to determine the top 10 starting positions.

Team orders - There are a number of circumstances during which a team would find it advantageous to have their drivers finish in a particular order. By mid-season it can become clear to a team that one of their drivers has a better chance to win the Drivers' World Championship than the other, and the team may want to provide that driver with the best chance for success, for example. The sporting regulations state that teams are not allowed to orchestrate in any way the finishing position of their two drivers relative to each other, but there have been many instances where this has almost certainly been the case. One case was during the Hungarian Grand Prix, Ferrari's Felipe Massa was told over the radio that his fellow Ferrari driver, Fernando Alonso, was "faster," and Felipe was asked "do you understand that message?" Shortly thereafter, Massa's Ferrari slowed significantly coming out of a corner, allowing Alonso to dart by. Massa had no further trouble during the race.

F-Ducts - The McLaren Mercedes team developed a system to direct air from the front of the car through a duct in the dorsal section to the rear wing. When this duct is activated (by the driver's hand or knee), the airflow stalls the rear wing, drastically reducing both its downforce and drag, causing a large increase in top speed down the straights at no downforce penalty in the corners. Other teams are just starting to develop their own versions of this system, but the cars are so aerodynamically sensitive that any change requires extensive research and development to be effective.

Corner names - Most Formula 1 tracks have names for each of their corners. Many corners are named after notable racing drivers, but some are named more arbitrarily. Turns 6 and 7 of Monza, the track used for the Italian Grand Prix, are called the "Lesmos," which can cause some confusion during the broadcast.

There are also a few things to note about the broadcast and coverage itself:

The cameras are not controlled by the commentators - Where the cameras are placed along any given track and on any given car, as well as which camera shot is used at any given point, is controlled by FOM, the singular Formula 1 rights manager. The Speed Channel commentators are therefore forced to call the race as it is presented to them. Normally this is seamless, although on occasion the commentators are interested in a particular pass or battle that is not shown for as long as they would like. Overall the camera work is excellent, and the commentators are able to provide a constant stream of information relating to the standings, the current strategies, the various pieces of technology on the cars, layman's translations of radio broadcasts, etc. One downside to the extent of the coverage and commentary is that missing something said by one of the commentators is undoubtedly missing something important, interesting, and entertaining. Socializing during the broadcast is not watching the race.

The three main commentators are off-site - Bob Varsha, Steve Matchett, and David Hobbs call each race from a studio in North Carolina, in real-time. Will Buxton is on-site at each race, although he gets significantly less air time than the other three. Will Buxton is new to the broadcast team for this season, and he is a replacement for Peter Windsor who had been a close friend of the other commentators. Buxton has useful access to drivers in-person although he frequently injects his opinions into his reports, and those opinions are not always objective or even factually accurate.

The pre-race show and post-race interviews are must-watch events - For 30 minutes before the race, the commentators will discuss in great detail various technologies and strategies employed by the teams, review important storylines, and show relevant highlights from earlier in the weekend (practice and qualifying) or the season. The show is dense with information while being entertaining and exciting. Following the race, there is extensive discussion about the repercussions of the results on the two championships, and the official driver interviews provide fascinating insight into how each of the top three finishers saw the race.

While the above is by no means comprehensive, with any luck a new viewer will have an idea of the volume of entertainment and information they will experience watching a Formula 1 Grand Prix.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Let's Get Physical

I am occasionally scoffed at when I suggest that race drivers need to be in good physical shape. Most people can at least believe that pro drivers are in good condition, but not that it’s explicitly necessary for them to do what they do. I have struggled in the past to convey how, exactly, driving is in fact physical. I’m going to give it another shot here. Part of the difficulty is that race driving (like most sports) is a pretty unique activity; it’s not much like anything you’re likely to have done before, and driving a race car is extremely different from driving a “regular” car.

So, let’s play an imagination game:

For round one of our game, imagine trying to open a combination lock; a round one with a dial like you would find on a gym locker. Let’s even assume you know the combination. Certainly it isn’t physically challenging, although it does take some precision and you need to be able to see what you’re doing. Easy.

For round two, imagine the lock isn’t on a locker, but it’s chained to a 45lb plate like you would use to lift weights at the gym. Let’s make it interesting by saying you have to wear this contraption as a necklace like Flavor Flav turned into a gym rat, and you have to remain standing. Now that you’re trying to support the weight while you’re working the lock, it becomes more physically challenging. Turning the dial just right is harder when you’re also exerting yourself, but as long as you can hold up 45lbs or so for a minute you should be ok, right?

Now let’s make it really interesting. The good news is for round three you’re sitting down, the bad news is you’re sitting on a roller coaster; think of the most intense roller coaster you have actually been on, only very slightly modified to allow you to reach the lock-chain-weight combo that’s now in your lap (although still around your neck). Imagine trying to unlock the lock while the roller coaster is going. Now we’re talking about a real challenge: keeping the thing in your lap at all is pretty tough, but trying to spin that little dial to just the right numbers (without smacking yourself in the face with the weight) you can imagine is hard. Your head is being jostled around, the lock itself is all over the place, and that weight gets pretty unwieldy in that corkscrew section. I’m willing to bet, though, that if you could keep the thing in your hands you could unlock the lock once (or a few times) without really getting tired. Tough? Sure. Tiring? Probably not.

Round four. Something has malfunctioned on the roller coaster. This isn’t the usual car-gets-stuck-upside-down malfunction though; this is the ride-doesn’t-stop-at-the-end-and-just-keeps-going malfunction. You’re not in much danger (as long as you don’t hurt yourself with that weight), but you’re not getting off any time soon. Say the thing goes for an hour; some “ride engineers” are there, the Channel 4 helicopter is circling, but you’re stuck on the darn thing. Worry about keeping your lunch down later; how is it coming with that lock? Imagine if you got more points every time you unlocked, then re-locked the lock. How many times could you do it? How long could you hold the thing in your lap while your roller coaster just kept going? A few times, probably, but you can imagine how it gets pretty difficult pretty quickly.

Race drivers don’t need to unlock combination locks chained to weights, and they’re not on roller coasters. They are, however, being thrown around in their seats while trying with their hands and feet to do things that simultaneously require both strength and precision, sometimes for hours at a time. If you have never done it before it’s tough to imagine that turning the wheel and pressing the pedals could be tough; the car you drive to work has power steering and power brakes, and most of the time it doesn’t really matter how much you turn or press them as long as you’re close. Race cars (and fast go-karts) require strength to turn the wheel and press the pedals; hard to believe but it’s actually physically difficult. To go fast, you have to do those things exactly the right amount at exactly the right time. It’s difficult and challenging in the same way that round four of our imaginary game is difficult and challenging.

I highly recommend that anyone who is curious about it to go to a decent go-kart track and give it a shot. Don’t bother with the slow stuff, head to a place that requires helmets and neck braces, like F1 Boston. It’s a ton of fun, and I promise you’ll learn something.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I love what you do for me, Toyota

Details of the firestorm Toyota finds itself in have been screaming in from every angle at a dizzying pace. What began as a floor mat recall has exploded and now encompasses computers that pin the throttle, computers that spin the steering wheel, insufficient brakes, scams by the media, scams by customers, congressional hearings, and Saturday Night Live spoofs. Jalopnik.com has one of the most comprehensive collections of articles on the subject, which is why most of the links (and the image) are theirs.

As a Ford enthusiast, I admit to initially reacting with a smirk. I have been generally aware of my automotive surroundings for 15 or so years, and those 15 years have not been kind to Ford. I'm happy to see this happening to someone (anyone) else, and it brings me even more joy to see it happening to a foreign company.

Unfortunately, I can't gloat at Toyota's misfortune. Not because of any pity I may have for them, but because of the endless stream of misinformation and deception that I think ultimately helps Toyota more than it hurts. I should have seen this coming, of course, as all the same songs were played when Ford (and GM and Chrysler) was in the crosshairs: the overblown reports of the recalls (recalls happen all the time), the congressional hearings (where the cluelessness of our congressmen and women was embarrassingly apparent), the suspicious media replications of problems. The customer scam angle is at least relatively new, but serves the same purpose.

In my opinion, these things don't help. Much of what I think is wrong with cars and the auto industry revolves around the lack of accurate information. Consumers make mis- or un-informed purchasing decisions, then drive their cars without sufficient knowledge of how to do it safely or efficiently. Feeding more mis-information into the fire certainly won't fix the problem. Giving a false reason for a real problem makes it all-too-easy to dismiss both.

If someone passes up a Toyota in favor of a Ford, I would much rather it be because they found that one of Ford's vehicles was better-suited for their purpose than any of Toyota's, or that they preferred not to send thousands of dollars overseas. While I'm happy to hear that membership in the Toyota Is Always Better Club is dwindling, it's unfortunate that the reasons for it are just as hollow as those that The Club was founded on to begin with.