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/