Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ownership Bliss: 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium
(Month 1)

One month into ownership of the 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium, life is still as good as it was after the first week. The sheer joy of intentional oversteer shows no sign of wearing off and the car continues to impress by providing an enormous amount of entertainment on a regular basis.

Road trips are a pleasure as the seats are comfortable even for hours-long stints, the trunk fits several large suitcases and bags, and this BRZ has averaged 30+ mpg on the highway. Spirited back-road driving is visceral and engaging thanks to exceptionally communicative steering, crisp handling, and a shifter that is an absolute blast to row through the gates. Keeping the two liter boxer screaming near the 7400 rpm redline certainly produces the best results although the rev limiter is rather aggressive, cutting power abruptly.

The shift light and accompanying beep can fortunately be set by the driver to any RPM, one of a few clever features that may not be apparent during a short test but certainly increase the quality of life for the owner; the seatbelt warning light comes on if an occupied seat’s belt isn’t buckled of course, but the audible chime only starts if the car is in motion, which is a nice touch. The spare tire, jack, and associated hardware are stored under the trunk’s lifting floor panel, tightly-molded in Styrofoam which does a great job of keeping everything accessible and organized.

The driver’s seat unfortunately does not remember its previous position when it is pushed forward to allow a back-seat passenger in or out, but the Subaru makes it very easy to quickly relocate an excellent driving position. Those comfortable, deep front buckets combine with the high door sills to make it challenging for passengers to exit the BRZ without knocking heels on the rocker panel, though it shows no signs of any resulting wear. Another more pressing annoyance is an entertainment system that relies on an SD card that is specific to the particular car. Should it go missing the only recourse is to order one through a Subaru dealer, something that will run $500 if the car is out of warranty.

A cold Massachusetts winter has revealed a few interesting traits beginning with a rougher, burbly idle from the boxer engine on startup, followed by a clutch that doesn't seem to disengage completely leading to a balky shifter, and a trunk that has to be shut rather firmly to stay latched. All of these issues go away once the car warms up. A visit to a Subaru dealer for the 15,000 mile service confirmed everything was functioning normally and these are all known traits of the car. The cold weather also brought snow and the stock Michelins are ill-suited to the task. Getting stuck in the snow, in a Subaru no less, is something to be avoided, so General Altimax Arctics were recently installed and have an encouragingly-aggressive tread. The steering feels a bit less direct and communicative on the winter rubber but overall grip on cold pavement is up and the ride over frost heaves and broken pavement is softer.

On several occasions all four seats have been occupied by full-size adults; while ingress and egress is something of a challenge, once everyone is seated there is enough room to be comfortable. The deep buckets of the back seats leave everyone with plenty of headroom, and legroom is adequate if feet get tucked under the front seats. One such trip included a pregnant passenger and while the BRZ shouldn’t be called “roomy,” none of the five occupants had any complaints.

This 2013 Subaru BRZ continues to impress by remaining a capable every-day car while regularly delivering a massive amount of entertainment. The winter climate limits recreational driving somewhat, but the BRZ needs no preparation or planning to be incredibly fun. Every stint in the car, from quick trips to the store, through weekend drives through the countryside, to long freeway road trips are sweetened by the car’s excellent ergonomics and responsive handling, and liberal dollops of tasty oversteer are the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ownership Bliss: 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium
(Week 1)

The Subaru BRZ and its sister the Scion FR-S are a joint effort by Toyota and Subaru to establish themselves in the "Driver's Car" segment. They are 2700 lb 2+2 coupes with a boxer four up front, putting 197 hp and 151 lb-ft through a six-speed manual transmission and Torsen limited-slip differential to the rear wheels. This example is a 2013 BRZ Premium and had about 15,000 miles on it when it was picked up.

By all accounts, the collaboration is a successful one and the cars are extremely entertaining to drive. One week and almost 1,000 miles later, the initial impression is that this car is every bit as fun as it is purported to be. The seating position, the controls, the handling, and the balance of the car all seem purpose-built for entertainment, and it never does anything scary or unexpected.

Some common complaints in other reviews are that the BRZ is slow and lacks power. Compared to the decade-old Mustang this one replaced, the car feels like a cruise missile. It pulls much harder and sounds much better than expected, with the ultra-low seating position and tight chassis magnifying the sensation of speed during six-and-a-half-second 0 - 60 runs. The high-pressure fuel pump for the direct-injection motor does sound like a group of Spring Peeper frogs (and is sometimes referred to as the BRZ Crickets), but that same motor has contributed to a first-week average of 25.3 mpg. The small, tilting and telescoping steering wheel makes finding a perfect driving position easy and the deep, comfortable bucket seats keep the driver firmly planted. The shifter can be balky when the car is cold, but once everything is warmed up it smooths out, and the shift lever almost seems to get pulled into the gates as if by a magnet.

The sporty suspension gives the BRZ a jostly ride around the city but commuting is by no means unpleasant and the car can very definitely be used as a daily driver. The engine pulls usefully from as low as about 2,000 RPM, so slow-moving traffic isn't the shift-frenzy that might be expected with such a small motor. The only real difficulty in day-to-day driving is the limited rear visibility. The view straight-back is usable, but objects off the rear quarters are particularly difficult to see, and if the side-view mirrors are fogged things get quite difficult indeed.

The headlights are very good, and can be adjusted vertically via a thumb dial on the dashboard. Ostensibly to deal with suspension squat from a full load of passengers or cargo, this is a bit of a quirky feature that seems ripe for modification. The wipers are also quite effective, although the windshield seems to catch a huge amount of spray. The only other trouble is that the entertainment system relies on an encrypted SD card that must be periodically inserted for the unit to function at all, and the SD card went missing out of this one sometime before it was resold. The dealer is in the midst of resolving the issue, so until then the soundtrack is exclusively the boxer four up front and the howling tires out back.

The first week with the BRZ has been a reminder of what driving for recreation is supposed to feel like. The car is comfortable while cruising around town, but every sharp corner can be spiced up with a dollop of oversteer. The hard, skinny Michelin Primacy tires give plenty of warning while breaking loose, and do so very progressively, but provide loads of grip when the BRZ is driven smoothly. The engine sounds great when revved up to the 7400 RPM redline and the short shifter feels great to row through the gates.

It has only been a week, but so far this is the most fun I've ever had in a car.

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.