Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sportscar nirvana: The Porsche Cayman S

I hear it whenever I close my eyes. The shriek of a boxer 6 racing toward redline followed by a bass pum-pum-pum sound has invaded my thoughts. At least five car club members said that I had to try the Porsche Cayman.  I'd always dismissed it as "not a 911", or a "Boxster with a roof". Both of those statements are true, but in the best possible sense.

Cayman at Sunset

An unusually warm President's day provided the perfect opportunity to try out the little croc without burning too many points. The white 2007 Cayman S was nestled between a GT-R and the F430 when I arrived to pick it up. Yet it stood out with the white paint helping accent the curves and the low stance poured over 19" nice looking wheels. As I watched, the club attendant fired up the engine and backed the car out of its spot. It must have a Porsche sport or aftermarket exhaust because the sound was loud and exotic. Does a stock Cayman S really sound this good?

Love those center exhaust pipes

Getting into the car was a bit disappointing. The handle felt flimsier than the various 911s I've sat in and the door didn't close with the usual Germanic thunk. The seats were not very adjustable and some of the plastics would have looked cheap on a Kia. And while the clutch was easy to modulate, sliding the 6 speed into first felt mushy and vague. The only notable feature was the sport-chrono lap timer on the dash. I know that some of these issues were addressed in later years or with more money thrown at the extensive Porsche option list.  Yes, it's a sports car not a luxury car but people ding the basic 25k Mustang interior for more minor lapses.

Plain interior

Despite only have limited driving time in Porsches prior to this, I felt immediately comfortable and confident behind the wheel. The visibility is surprisingly good, the engine is very responsive and you'd have to drive a go-kart to find better steering feel. Merging onto the West Side Highway and dicing with cabs was easy in this car. More so than any other car in the club I've driven, I felt one with the car and knew exactly what it was doing at any moment. But despite its buttoned down suspension, the Cayman dances over potholes and road imperfections that upset bigger, more "luxurious" cars.

And did I mention the sound? With the engine right behind your head, and the enclosed cabin you hear all sorts of things you don't normally hear with a front-engined car. I think you'd have to step up to a  mid-engined Ferrari to get better engine music. And that's a problem because just when you think you're driving a sport bike or a Ferrari,  the rev limiter aggressively shuts down the fun. Apparently, that hard cut-off is part of the "sport chrono package" that also includes the aforementioned lap timer. It helps to extract every ounce of power vs the usual soft cut-offs found in most cars. Unfortunately, to get true high-rpm fun in the Porsche line-up you have to step up to the 180k+ GT3 with its 8400 RPM. 

At a light near 42nd street,  a clean-cut guy in a new BMW M3  (and Harvard sticker on the rear window) clearly wanted to drag race. That would be kind of like watching two gymnasts play football; possible but not pretty.  Anyway, the excitement of a stop-light race quickly faded as I hit the usual traffic accompanying the exit for the George Washington bridge.

The somewhat dreary interior makes sitting in traffic a chore. I amused myself at first by using the lap-timer to time each stop. While it looks cool, I can't see paying $1600 or so for the package that includes the timer.  After that got old,  I engaged my inner knuckle-dragger and repeatedly revved the engine. Overall  I did my part to help reinforce Jeremy Clarkson's "Coxster" nickname for this model.

The Coxster theme would continue throughout the day as I found it very hard to drive normally in the Cayman. Every merge called for red-line shifts. And every exit ramp became a cornering test. Cruising peacefully at 60 was almost impossible. A track membership should be a prerequisite to owning one.

Wanting to share the joy, I picked up my wife (who typically declines such offers). And while she usually acts as a human speed warning, she remained surprisingly quiet during our drive.  "I love the sound" was all she said. But having grown up around air-cooled beetles and 911s, she thought it was "pretty quiet for a Porsche".

Nice hips

After snapping some waterfront pictures it was time to fill up and head back to the city. Despite a combined EPA estimate of 21 mpg, I saw closer to 15 mpg during my few hours of driving. It's  still nice to know that if you can restrain yourself, highway mileages in the upper 20s are possible. But if it were mine, I doubt I'd ever break 15.

Pulling into the club, Jeanette came out to greet me. As the person in charge of bookings, she has had the opportunity to drive nearly every car in the club's stable. We talked for a little about the car and she clearly loves it. Apparently, it's a permanent fixture on her ever-changing top 3 list. Looking around at all the dream cars there, that says a lot.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

BMW diesel M Performance line

I happened to come across a video on Youtube promoting BMW's new performance line. The rumors that had been floating around about a tri-turbo 6 powered m3 and an M5 with x-drive all make sense now.  But instead of powering an M car in the classic sense, BMW has launched a new "performance line" that combines a high torque diesel engine with an all-wheel drive X5 SUV or 5 series chassis.

Regardless of where you stand on turbodiesel engines, 546 ft-lbs of torque with EU combined mileage rating of 44.8 mpg sounds pretty amazing.  A Cadillac CTS-V has a similar amount of torque, but gets only 19 mpg from its supercharged V8 powerplant. So as a technical feat, it's impressive. But power alone doesn't always equal fun especially with the current 5's weight and somewhat lifeless electric steering (though according to some sources these models get a proper hydraulic rack!).

So as a business strategy, it certainly makes sense to offer high performance vehicles that are more usable in street driving than traditional M cars. And hopefully it will clear the way for BMW to get back to eventually offering high-revving naturally aspirated "purist" M3s and M5s.

But it's all academic now anyway since BMW has no  plans to bring this engine to the US.  Looks like I'll have to book a flight to Germany soon!

Monday, January 30, 2012

BMW Z4M Coupe: Serendipity

With so many choices, sometimes it's fun to just leave it to chance. A sunny winter's day in New York City found me at the car club on Sunday with no particular goal in mind. Most of the cars were out, but right next to the garage door was a lonely blue BMW Z4M coupe.  I hadn't really paid attention to it before, but it was looking very nice and conveniently positioned.

When it was introduced in 2006, I'll admit that I wasn't the biggest fan. The unusual  slashes and cutlines (aka "Flame surfacing")  on the sides looked odd to me.  My idea of a perfect BMW at that point was the  70s 3.0csi or maybe an early 90s M5.

One of BMW's best designs?

But 6 years later, I'm reconsidering my biases. It's rare to see a z4 coupe of any type, much less the high-strung M version. A quick search confirms that only around 1800 examples were sold in the US from 2006-2008. And without the awkward hump-trunk of its roadster sibling, the coupe is actually quite good looking.

Hump-trunked roadster version

And another search reminded me that the technical specs on this Z4M's engine are enough to make car geeks salivate, bike guys notice and normal people leave the room:
  • An 8k redline with one of the highest piston speeds of any production car 
  • Individual throttle bodies for each cylinder to heighten throttle response (not even Ferrari does this)
  • Around 105 hp per liter without the use of turbo or supercharging
  • An inline 6 configuration that makes it smoother than anything short of a V12
  • Ok, I'll stop now

A little dusty, but still beautiful

Samantha confirmed that it was available and asked if I needed an orientation. With a straight-forward layout similar to a 3 series, I told her I'd be fine. The cabin seems quite tight at first, and the all black color scheme is a bit stark. But the seats are comfortable and supportive, even beating the ones in the Z8.   Starting the engine brings on a subdued hum and smooth idle. This is not a car that brags about its achievements. But the variable redline lights on the tachometer and prominent oil temperature gauge reminds the driver that the engine is the star of the show.  Meanwhile, the thick steering rim and long clutch travel remind you that are in a BMW. Fortunately, this one doesn't play "where's waldo" with the engagement point like some of its brethren, having been spared the dreaded "clutch delay valve". 

My first instinct was to hit the "sport" button because it's right next to the shifter begging to be pressed. Still no big exhaust sound. And the steering feels about the same. But as I merge into traffic, I can feel the difference. The car bucks back and forth as each tiny movement causes the engine to seemingly gain or lose a thousand RPM. I quickly shut it  off to restore my sanity.  Interestingly, Chevrolet is trying the opposite approach in the new Camaro ZL1.  The sport button in GM's car makes the pedal less sensitive to give the driver more control on a track. Perhaps a Chevy engineer owned a Z4M before coming up with that idea.

The many shades of black

Cruising up the west side highway, the tachometer's yellow warning lights were slowly extinguishing as the engine warmed up. Early examples of this engine were known to self-destruct, and that's something I didn't want on my conscience (or wallet) today. Besides, a long build-up makes the eventual reward even better. Think of it as the automotive equivalent of a strip tease.

The last light went out just after clearing the Henry Hudson toll. In celebration, I floored the accelerator and the engine zinged its way toward the redline as the car launched itself forward.  The sound above 5k rpm was something like 6 sport bikes harmonizing.   I barely managed to shift into third and avoid banging into the rev limiter.  The only disappointment in the aural department is the lack of  crackles or pops when you lift off.

While the engine may be high-strung, the handling seemed typically BMW: controllable and predictable. It's easy to know what the car is doing and to feel its limits.  Yes, the steering is nicely weighted. Yes, you can feel every ripple in the road. But the edgy looks  promised more excitement than this.

To see what else the z4 had to offer, I took a random exit on the Merrit parkway. If I got lost, I figured the nav system would bail me out. And on my first right turn, I found the beast within.

Feeding it more power than necessary, I could feel the tail start to come out. The traction control blinked a few times but didn't completely kill the fun as you might expect. Had I done this in a high-powered supercar like the SLS I'd be sweating. But in this car you just start smiling. And since you're sitting at the bottom of the pendulum, close to the rear axle, the effect is heightened.  I bet this would be a fun car to take to a track and practice drifting in.

Fast and furious stunts aside, this car's small size and well-sorted suspension make it lots of fun on curvy roads. Driving instructors tell you to look where you want to go. With this car, you feel as if you can just think and the car will respond.  The only downside is that the shifter can be a bit balky if you rush it. I actually started wondering what this engine would be like with a paddle-shift style gearbox (must be going soft).

With the sun close to setting, I decided to pull over on a deserted road and take a few pictures for the blog. Whether you like it or not, every angle on this car is visually interesting. And I really began to admire the design. The front-end is still not my favorite, but the way the sun light plays off the various creases and curves on the sides makes the Z4 fun to photograph. After spending some time with it, this might be one of my favorite BMW designs.

At dusk, the instruments cluster lights up in a pleasing soft blue light and 3D effect, with the secondary controls lit in BMW's amber.  The small-aircraft like curve of the windshield adds to the feel that you are in an x-wing fighter for the road.

Weaving amongst the taxis and trucks on the west-side highway was no problem, and the cobblestones of Vestry street did little to upset the car. BMW M's decision to ditch the regular car's run-flat tires probably helps a lot in that regard. Pulling into the car club's garage, amidst all manner of exotica had me feeling less jaded and a little surprised by this unusual sports car. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Who needs Yoga: Driving the BMW Z8

The New York Times recently ran an article on the potential health risks of Yoga. Too much downward dog can ruin your life, apparently.   As an alternative, I suggest driving the BMW Z8.  With the top down, and the 400hp V8 thrumming in the background, you can reach an even greater level of peace and happiness.

We had unusually warm weather in NYC yesterday, so I called the car club on a whim to see if anything was available. A last minute cancellation won me the opportunity to drive this blue Bavarian beauty. But I didn't jump at the chance. While I'd always admired its design, the Z8 struck me more as a cruiser for wealthy retirees. And I've never been a big fan of convertibles for some reason. But the unseasonably warm weather made a roadster seem very appealing.

When I arrived at the car club, most of the toys had already been taken out and there was plenty of room to soak up the Z8's design. Though I'd prefer mine in silver, no color can hide its well executed details. You can tell that little was compromised to bring Henrik Fisker's Z07 concept car to life.

Every curve is perfect, and the proportions and stance are spot-on. Even the front-end that some complain about strikes the right balance between menace and beauty.  It is no surprise that Fisker went on to design the beautiful Aston Martin DB9. I think it even surpasses its inspiration, the cold-war era BMW 507.

So as a sculpture, I'd be happy to have one in my living room. But with 98k miles showing on the odometer, I was skeptical as to how well it would drive. Derek started out by explaining some of this particular car's quirks. The electrical  system was not quite up to snuff and been left on a trickle charger overnight. And the once fully automatic top needed a gentle assist to fully open or retract.  But the controls were very straight-forward because there aren't many. Just the basics. No screens, or adjustable suspensions here. A sport button that controls the throttle opening is the extent of the electronic customization available. The seats don't even have the adjustable bolsters or lumbar support you'd find in a 7 series of similar vintage.

After listening to  the orientation, I was able to get behind the wheel. At first, the centrally mounted gauges and body colored interior trim reminded me of a Mini. I wonder if the two design teams swapped notes in Munich. But even after 10 years, the controls themselves work with a solid, precise feel unmatched by a new Mini or even BMW. And like the best BMWs, the driving position and pedal placement is perfect.  After turning the key and holding down the leather-covered start button, I knew I was going to really like this car.

Though there were some scuffs and scratches on the interior, the car's drivetrain had clearly been well maintained. The clutch and shifter felt better to me than other manual BMWs I have driven. The engagement point was easy to find, and the shifter slid easily into each gear. I'd take this setup over Ferrari's or Mercedes' automated manuals any day.

Heading out onto Hudson street, I started thinking that this car might be perfect for Manahttan driving. With 360 degree visibility, lots of power and a surprisingly supple suspension, driving amidst homicidal taxis proved surprisingly easy.  Even New York's  19th century roads barely upset the ride despite its run-flat, low-profile tires. BMW should hire these engineers back to fix their current suspensions.

Even the many red lights lights on the West Side highway weren't so bad. I revved the throttle like a Camaro or Mustang owner just to hear the low pitched, satisfying burble. At one light, a guy in a newer Dodge Charger rolled down his window and told me that he loved my car. I blipped the gas, and he started laughing and took off.  A guy in a blue m5 chased me down and gave me the thumbs up.  Though most people don't give it a second look, it attracts a lot of attention from car guys.

I stopped by the upper west side to show the car to a friend and his wife. His first reaction was a bland "nice car".  But after taking a closer look and getting a spin around the block, he was much more excited.  This car does not scream at you like other exotics.  It's more like a well done "resto-mod", where a classic car is updated with a modern engine, suspension and brakes.

Heading out of the city onto the Saw Mill Parkway gave me the chance to experience the car at highway speeds. Even with the windows down, there was little buffeting, and the car felt incredibly solid. The car's 7 series derived suspension becomes apparent. But unlike other V8 powered BMWs of its era, the z8 has a proper rack and pinion steering system. Despite the traditional on-center vagueness, it has enough feel and weight to make the driver feel confident in knowing exactly what the car is doing.

With Manhattan behind me, the smells of a warm winter day and the clouds reflecting off the blue interior panels put me into a very relaxed mood. Cruising along at 65 was perfectly enjoyable. And the wind noise from going any faster drowned out the V8 burble. If I owned this car, I'd look into putting a tasteful exhaust system on it to turn up the volume a few notches.

While driving at autobahn speeds is unnecessary to fully enjoy car, exploring the upper limits of the tachometer is a must.  Above 4k RPM you can feel the engine throughout your whole body almost like a distance earthquake. The 7k redline comes quckly and unexpectedly as the car seems to be making more and more power as the revs climb.

I decided to exit the parkway near Mount Kisco to find some curvier roads. After getting stuck behind some slow SUVs, I was happy to see a purple Porsche 993 in the distance. Sure enough, the road cleared up and I got to experience some nice sweeping tarmac near the Croton reservoir.  While the handling was predictably well-balanced, I enjoyed the opportunity to do some rev-matched downshifts even more. The blat from the exhaust and the precise feel of the gear lever snicking into place are addictive.

Unlike some other cars I've driven recently, my bladder could not outlast the fuel tank. While it was drinking some of Sunoco's finest, I checked out some more details on the car. The engine bay is nicely presented, but a bit boring. Given how special the rest of the car is, I was surprised that BMW didn't add any flourishes here. There are no crackle coated intake runners  or intricate exhaust headers to see.

It was hard to resist walking around and admiring the car. And with such a fetching subject, I had visions of becoming the next Tim Wallace.  But without a good location in mind and just an iphone in my pocket, my attempts to capture the z8 in all its glory were foiled.  I ended up taking about 50 pictures but wasn't happy with the results. I'll stick with  the excuse that Chris Bangle once gave for why his "flame surfacing" was disliked by so many people: it is hard to capture all of the nuances of a 3D sculpture in 2D.  I have an even greater appreciation for the work of professional automotive photographers now.

Heading back into the city at dusk watching the sunset over the Hudson was a perfect way to end the day. The traffic was light and I managed to get back to the car club just under the gun. After stepping out, I felt completely serene.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My new love: a Mercedes SLS AMG

Who loves you baby?  Just like Telly Savalas, you'll feel like a card-carrying member of the player's club when you're driving the Mercedes SLS. Or maybe a wealthy French playboy on his way from Nice to Monaco to place million dollar bets at the craps table. And regardless of how fast it may be, you can't escape the paparazzi when driving this car. Everywhere I went, people were whipping out their phones to snap a picture of this beauty.

But despite how nice it may look on the outside, driving it is an even better experience. With the 6.3 liter V8 burbling and popping away, and the long bow rising as you accelerate, you feel like you're at the helm of a cigarette boat for the road. And the choppy west side highway added to the illusion by making it feel as if I were motor-boating on a rough lake.

Yes, I really lucked out when I stopped by the Classic Car Club this morning and noticed that the Gullwing was still there. Being one of the newer and more popular cars, it's hard to get your hands on this one. The woman who handles the reservations confirmed that no one had booked it, and asked if I'd like for it to be washed. After having a brief out-of-body experience and pinching myself to see if I was dreaming, I think I just said "It doesn't matter".   She took that as a yes, and 20 minutes later, the silver bullet was washed and ready to go.

I  took my usual route up the Merritt Autobahn to the back roads of Greenwich, Connecticut and had plenty of opportunities to get a feel for the car's handling.  Just as Rolls Royce used to say, "it's adequate". There's nothing you can throw at this Mercedes that it can't handle including  the many bumps, potholes and road imperfections you'll find in the Northeast. 

And of course, the power is incredible. I don't think I even managed to completely floor the throttle because the acceleration is so ferocious. In an era when Mercedes is strapping turbos or superchargers to nearly all of their engines, it's a nice surprise to find that this engine is naturally aspirated. There is ample torque everywhere, and though the redline is at a relatively tame 7200, you rarely get a chance to go that far on public roads.  Disabling the traction control will get the tail stepping out pretty quickly and it's clear that this car is capable of extreme hooning. But being the refined and relaxed gentleman that I was today, I did not indulge (too much).

I typically put more value on performance, clutch pedals and high revving engines, but this car had me re-thinking my priorities. Whereas the Ferrari I took out on Tuesday had me laughing maniacally and constantly revving it to redline, today I was perfectly happy to just cruise at 60 mph with a contented smirk. In the real world of potholes and traffic jams, this is a super car you can enjoy every day.  And while I'm sure it would be perfectly at ease power sliding around a track, you don't necessarily feel the need to engage in any tomfoolery with this car.  Whereas I felt a bit strung out after my day in the 430, this car had me feeling more like Mitt Romney's hair.

The whole interior is beautifully crafted and understated despite the red leather seats. There's nothing tacky or cheap feeling here. Even the air vents turn as if they're mounted on ball bearings, so smooth is there operation.  The headliner is made of rich, black suede, and everything else is covered in smooth leather or aluminum all perfectly stitched together.  And I'm happy to say that I have no idea who makes the stereo for this Mercedes. Unlike many high-end cars, the SLS doesn't have Bose, Bang & Olufsen, or Harman Kardon logos scattered all over the place.  Some discrete AMG logos on the seat backs and the Mercedes symbol on the steering wheel are the extent of the branding.

Despite the no-name stereo, the sound out of the speakers was excellent. The ipod hookup in the glovebox worked well,  and I was soon listening to "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers. With the spring-like weather we had in New York today, it actually could have been a perfect day were it not for the traffic.  But with my new-found positive attitude, I used the time to try out the out the car's "infotainment" system. The Mercedes COMMAND system resembles older versions of BMW's iDrive and can be equally annoying to use. There's a small wheel in the center console and 2 buttons: back and clear. No short-cuts to go directly to the radio, navigation or telephone menus.  It took me a while to get the hang of it, and even then, it was never quite intuitive. But despite the clunky nav interface, the radio faceplate has a nice Braun calculator, minimalist look about it.

I ended up using the clunky voice command to enter an address into the navigation system. You have to say the city, state and street separately as opposed to the single sentence that some other systems allow. Siri she's not. The nav lady sounds like she could use some Xanax. She tends to end her phrases with an anxious-sounding upward inflection. And the directions themselves are a bit odd as she'll say things like "Turn right..drum 1/2 a mile".

While the car's  onboard phonebook was filled with useful entries such as "Dd" and "CCc", I could not get it to sync my phone's contacts. But then, if I owned this beast, I'm sure I'd have a live personal assistant to take care of boring details such as programming the nav system or calling friends to tell them how awesome my car is. 

Rounding out the electronic fun is an "AMG" menu buried in the car's computer that contains a lap timer  as well as water, oil and transmission temperatures. There's also a Ferrari-like dial that allows you to easily select various modes for the transmission and throttle response. To be honest, I couldn't really tell the difference. And with so much torque, the 7 available speeds are more a way of deciding how much noise you want to make at any particular moment.  An AMG button lets you save your favorite setting for quick access. On this car it had been programmed to select "Sport plus with traction control on". Probably a smart move.

I headed back into Manhattan quite low on gas. Yes, the SLS drinks faster than a Bavarian at Oktoberfest averaging somewhere around 11 mpg.  But that concern was soon swept away by the constant smiles, thumbs up and waves I got. Everyone loves this car. When I finally pulled into a gas station to fill up, the gas station attendant was beaming and just kept saying "nice car man". And as I swung open the gullwing door, some teens in a Honda Civic drove by screaming and cheering. Even Kim Kardashian would be hard-pressed to get this much attention. You'd expect Manhattanites to be pretty jaded about nice cars, but nearly everyone stopped and did double takes as a I drove by. It's hard not to feel a little like you've just cured cancer.

As I pulled back into the garage, the man who greeted me asked how it was. I  kept smiling and repeating superlatives and he just nodded and said "I know".  Now that I've recovered enough of my faculties to use my words again, I'd say that the SLS combines the performance of a super car,  the feel good factor of a classic muscle car, and the beauty and comfort of a great GT car.  I'm thinking quite seriously about selling my apartment and moving into one soon.

Starting up the SLS Gullwing

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Drove a Ferrari F430 today

I drove a Ferrari F430 today. It was a 2005 model in rosso corsa (red) with over 85,000 miles!  That's pretty rare to find as most Ferraris tend to be garage queens with less than 20,000 miles on them. This one belonged to the Classic Car Club of Manhattan and sees much more use than single owner cars.  And while it's led a long and hard life, today was my first time driving it (or any Ferrari for that matter). Though I wish I had discovered the club a long time ago, they recently introduced a much cheaper membership option that I can actually (barely) afford.

                                             T'was the night before Christmas

When I arrived at the club to pick up the car, I spent a good 5 minutes just staring at it. Sure, I've seen them before on the street, but today was different because soon it would be mine!  One of the staff members fired up the engine and my heart really did start pounding. The sound is just so incredible; alive and raw. Put 8 Ducatis in a blender along with some tiger blood and you might come close.  And 6 years and multiple drivers still could not mask the scent of Ferrari leather. I wish my apartment could smell this good.

The door opens with the help of a tiny door handle that yields a solid and satisfying click.  The seats seemed firm but very comfortable. And having briefly sat in its older brother, a Magnum-style 328, the driving position seemed quite good with well placed pedals and space to rest your left foot.   There is almost no visible plastic; nearly every surface is covered in leather, aluminum or carbon fiber. The circular air vents, radio and turn stalks are pretty much the only plastic you see. And nearly everywhere you look reminds you that you! are! in! a! Ferrari!  There's even a little badge that reminds you of Ferrari's F1 championships in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and you guessed it, 2004.

As you'd expect, almost nothing is where you'd expect it to be. The mirror controls? In the center console. Window swtiches? Next to the radio. Door locks? On the door, but where you'd expect the door release to be. Strangely, the lock switch only locked the doors and I never did figure out how to unlock them again without using the button on the key. The "frunk" release is located on a row of identically shaped switches next to the steering wheel. The horn is activated by pressing a button embedded in the wheel's right thumb rest.

The owner of the club had shown me pictures during my orientation of epic crashes (mostly involving Ferrari F355s) some of which had ended with the cars being burnt to a crisp. These images flashed through my head as I inched past some port authority cops and a few occupy wall street type cyclists. At the first stop light the car decided to toy with me and not shift into first. Being an F1 style gearbox (or flappy paddle as the Brits like to say), there wasn't much to do other than try again and hope for the best. The dump truck behind me wasn't amused and leaned on the horn. After what seemed like an eternity, the car finally decided to shift into first.  But despite its high mileage and Italian provenance, nothing else would go wrong with the car that day.

Accelerating onto the West side highway, I became aware of just what a beast I was dealing with. It felt as if the car was urging me to accelerate harder and harder. Up until about 5k, it seemed like a very fast car. After that my neck snapped back and I started laughing maniacally.  Downshifting to 3rd brought on such a satisfying "blat" from the exhaust that I just wanted to do it again and again. It is the first "automatic" I've driven where I didn't miss having a clutch pedal. And the shifts  are fast and smooth. I'd always read such awful things about  sequential manual transmissions that this was a surprise.  If you told me it has a dual clutch style gearbox I'd have believed it. 

The rear visibility was much better than I expected and the view itself is, of course, amazing because you're looking at the top of the engine and its  red intake runners.  You can see it rocking on its mounts when you rev the engine. That activity alone could easily occupy me for a day or so.  And the heat from the engine becomes quite apparent after about 30 minutes of driving. I don't think I'd ever need to  use the heater in this car.

I headed up to the back roads near Greenwich, Connecticut to get off the highway and have some fun. After getting stuck behind various slow moving traffic, I lucked out  with a long,  empty stretch of curvy road on route 22.  Composing my downshift opera while taking corners was fun, but these roads were clearly child's play for this car. And I wasn't about to push my luck on a cold winter day in a feisty exotic.

Being the chronic button pusher that I am, I had to try playing with the various settings on the steering wheel mounted manettino.  In addition to  adjusting the stability control, it also affects the suspension and gearbox. In any model below "sport" the computer will shift for you at redline. In "race" mode it is content to let you bang off the rev limiter. There's also an auto mode that is activated by pushing a button on the center console. It really should be labeled "granny" because it shifts at about 3k and I quickly tired of it. On the lower modes, the suspension can be surprisingly supple. That's all relative though, because even running over a manhole cover feels a bit like hitting a pothole. I ended up keeping it in "sport" mode most of the time which is probably what most owners do.

By this point, I was down to a half tank of gas and decided to stop. I was happy to find a nearly deserted, self-serve station for this task.  No sooner had I congratulated myself for remembering that the gas cap was on the driver's side did I hit my first obstacle. The click I heard after hitting the gas release switch was just a tease. The cover would not budge. After trying various combinations of pushing and pulling on the cover, I got back in the car. It finally dawned on me to turn the key in the ignition and try my luck again. Sure enough, the cover flew open. Same thing goes for the glove compartment in case you're wondering. I guess it's Ferrari's version of a security system. The gas cap itself is a satisfying solid metal piece like something you'd  find on a 60s race car.

So, all of the cliches are present and accounted for: handling on rails, spine tingling exhaust noises, leather smoother than a lamb's foreskin, head-snapping acceleration,  if you have the means i highly recommend one. Other than needing to be in the top .01% to comfortably own and operate on of these things, are there really any downsides?  I understand now why God (or Satan) invented Porsches. A more upright driving position and bit more practicality make them easier to use on a regular basis. While I was comfortable during the 100 miles I had it, I don't think it would be my first choice as a road trip car.   And as beautiful as it is, I have to admit to preferring the sleek, understated simplicity of an Aston Martin. Or the approachable, feel good factor of an American muscle car.  But with access to 40 cars, making  these tough choices is something I'll be able to do over the next year.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Quirky vs Quality?

I filled out the JD Power initial quality survey for my car today. Like most new cars, there's little to nothing to complain about in terms or reliability or build quality. The fact is that even the least reliable, lowest quality new car would put most cars from the 80s to shame. And that's a problem for a company that makes its money off of selling the results of its quality surveys to automakers. If they're basically all the same, where's the drama?

In an effort to cull the herd, JD Power started to ask survey recipients about design and ergonomic issues. If you have trouble figuring out how to use the radio, that's a black mark. And in this age of iPhones and iPads, well designed interfaces are the expectation, not a nice-to-have. But adding these questions to the survey has caused problems for some carmakers, especially the Germans.

German automakers have always had their own way of doing things. And this approach tends to infuriate the casual user. BMW's first generation i-drive interface was the most infamous example in recent history. The press (rightfully) pilloried it as a nightmare. With a single controller that could be twisted and pushed in 8 directions controlling nearly every feature in the car, there were bound to be problems. But from small, unmarked radio  buttons, to multi-step processes to dim the dash lights Germans (and European carmakers in general)  have a long tradition of confusing ergonomics. 

But will these new quality criteria eventually inspire these automakers to be less quirky and "unique"?  Hard to say. One one hand, there's Mini which makes funky cabin design a brand feature (and gets heavily dinged on quality studies for it). Even finding the window switches can be a problem for a first-timer (they're toggle switches mounted in the center console).  On the high end, Mercedes seems to favor lots of identically sized radio and climate control buttons in their interiors. Then there's VW, which has embarked on an effort to  make their cars more mainstream and approachable. The recently unveiled US-made Passat, for example, has large radio buttons and simple rotary climate controls.

I should make a distinction between "quirky" and "needlessly complex".  While you might not  be able to find the ignition slot easily on an old Porsche 911 or Saab 900, once you do, it makes the car feel a bit more special. On the other hand, having to navigate through several submenus of a touch screen interface to change radio stations or even sync up your bluetooth phone is just plain annoying.  While small cars like the Fiat 500, and Mini Cooper are attempting to bring back some of that retro quirkiness, most new cars either attempt to appeal to the 75 year old technophobe or to an imaginary "Gen Y" kid who wants to control the entire car with an iPad. In reality, I think most people (young and old) crave actual knobs and buttons in their cars that work well.

So should design faults be counted against automakers? Yes, but I'd  like to see it summarized in a separate report. As for the design faults, I'd like to see them broken down by whether they were solvable by reading the owners manual, or whether they are issues that will continue to irritate.