Archive for May, 2011

2000 Toyota Celica GT-S

Posted: May 27, 2011 in My Cars
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For starters, I wish I had a picture of this car.  It was gorgeous.  Unfortunately, I used to store them on that wonderful lump of the web known as Geocities and, well, we all know what happened to that site.  So, here’s a stock photo from the internet.

Nonetheless, when I got this car in 2003, it was a gift from my parents for completion of college with a fantastic GPA.  I truly did bust my ass in college, ignored cars completely and did nothing but work, philander,  and drink to the brink of excess without going over the edge (too many times).

I remember my search for this car at the time.  It involved many many hours of research, reading articles, and comparing statistic on a spreadsheet.  Articles like this one were instrumental in my decision making.  I wanted the most bang for my buck, but I also wanted a car focused on performance and not just comfort or other silly things like that.

On paper, the Celica appeared to be the champ in my price range.  I had ruled out the expensive German stuff since I was heading into law school and wouldn’t have much money for maintenance.  This was a Toyota, obviously it was bulletproof.  This car was low, light, and wide – it would clearly handle well (and it did!).  Finally, it had a whopping 180 hp out of a little 1.8L engine, which meant lots of power and great fuel economy.

Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I didn’t know that there was far more to a car’s straight line performance than just horsepower.  I wasn’t up to date on things like torque, or gearing.  I was merely intoxicated with the rush of power when the variable valve timing and variable valve lift switched cam profiles at 6000 rpm and surged to the redline of 8400 rpm with a VVTL-i kick in the pants.

You see, the Celica did appear great on paper, but the reality was that it was a torqueless wonder.  It had a completely wimpy engine that was totally useless below 6000 rpm, and forget anything approximating performance with even one additional passenger (light weight works against you when adding more in).  Finally, the gearing of the car was absolutely stupid – the shift from first to second would drop the car below 6000 rpm, meaning that it fell out of its optimal powerband – my solution was to keep the gas planted and shift as quickly as possible, and I could occasionally keep the car where it needed to be.

To further compound the problem, this was the first car that I ever modified.  And I did not modify it with a coherent goal or plan – in fact, while botching the car up I learned many things.  Lets go through the list.

-AEM Cold Air Intake: this taught me that if you get the engine cold air, it will make some power up top, but by increasing the length of the intake tubing you’re also going to create some bogging at low RPM which makes the car less than pleasant to drive around town, especially considering it already has limited torque at low RPM.
-TRD Cat-Back Exhaust: actually I have nothing bad to say about this, it was wonderful, sounded great, didn’t drown, and was lightweight.  Well, I can say that since it was TRD all that means is that it was a rebadged Magnaflow unit that I could probably have gotten for half price.-17″x7.5″ Kosei K1 Racing Wheels (17 lbs): lightweight and wide wheels are a wonderful addition to a car – except the car looks stupid with aftermarket wheels if you don’t lower it first.  Lower your cars!

-215/40/ZR17 Falken FK451 Tires: lightweight and wide wheels are a wonderful addition to a car, assuming you equip it with good tires.  These were not good tires.  All-season rating means it sucks in the snow AND in the dry.  Get two sets of wheels and tires and use the right equipment for the weather conditions.
-Custom 5 Piece Ground Wires: a fool and his money are easily parted.
-Custom Stiffer Engine Mount: there’s a reason the stock mounts are softer – hard mounts transmit every vibration from the engine directly into the cabin.  Its like non-stop epilepsy.
-TWM Short Shifter: there’s a reason the stock shifter has a longer length – its easier to move a lever that way.  Shortening the shifter might have decreased the distance the shifter had to be moved, but any time saved due to that is lost due to the dramatically increased effort required to shift the newer little nubbing.
-C-One Raised Hood Scoop: ok, this was fucking awesome.
-Quaife Limited Slip Differential: LSDs are a great addition to any car for additional traction, but they also transmit a lot more punishment through the transmission, and a helical, while great for turning, isn’t optimal for accelerating in a straight line without causing massive vibration as it locks up.
-ACT XT Clutch: sometimes a totally butch clutch isn’t a great idea for a street driven commuter car.  Great leg workout though.
-Fidanza Lightweight Flywheel (7.5 lbs): a lightweight flywheel is great for decreasing rotating momentum and spinning the engine up, but the engine spins DOWN just as fast – coupled with a clutch that is essentially an on/off switch with no slipping, this makes driving the car incredibly difficult, especially stop and go traffic which was common in DC.
As if that weren’t enough, I had pieced together an entire turbo kit for the car because I was a dumbass and hadn’t learned my lesson (this would be taught later down the road) that turbocharging a car that didn’t come from the factory that way is difficult, expensive, and probably not wise.
Fortunately for me and the car, I totalled it before I could molest it any more.  GEICO gave me $1,500 more than I paid for it and off I went.
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1994 Volkswagen Passat VR6

Posted: May 19, 2011 in My Cars
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Rockin the Suburbs

Ahh – your first car.  What can be said about it?  The newfound freedom that comes with this mobility.  Everyone remembers the feeling of their first drive, alone, without parental oversight.  This was my first car.

Originally purchased by my father in 1994, new, the Volkswagen Passat was a cutting edge vehicle for its time.  In fact, my father traded in his BMW 5-series to get into one of these – and all he had to say about it was “it handles better, its faster, its more economical and more comfortable”.  Admittedly, the 5er was a 1984 car, so there’s a lot that can be done in 10 years with regards to comfort and performance.

That said, this car was a wonderful thing to drive.  The steering was communicative and direct, despite the ever present body roll and the threat of understeer should the front tires get cooked.  Paired with a 5-speed manual transmission and those sweet BBS alloy rims rocking some performance rubber I will admit that I readily pushed the limits of this car like any 17 year old boy would.  Accompanying the chirp between gear changes from the front tires came some hefty torque steer – this was before traction control and electronic differentials.

What can I say about that narrow angle VR6 engine in this car?  It was just so smooth – so free to rev and so full of torque from start to finish.  This truly was the heart and soul of the Passat of that day.

The ergonomics of the car were just right for me, helping me perfect shifting a manual transmission to the point where I don’t even think about it anymore.  The clutch was easy to work and the shifter was butter smooth.

Of course, the car itself wasn’t the most reliable.  I remember going through a few water pumps.  A wonderful “bonding experience” with the woman who would become my wife 6 years later involved the damned thing dying on a trip back from the Hamptons, forcing us to pull off the highway in the middle of Harlem.  Luckily, there was actually a guy on the street who was helpful and even knew about these cars.  His quick fixes got her dropped off and allowed me to make the drive 6 hours back to Rochester.

That, combined with its unwillingness to die after killing 2 deer, ripping the oil pan, and surviving a year of my sister driving the car while I was at college earned the car the nickname “The Bismarck”.

Women with Cars

Posted: May 17, 2011 in Rants
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We’ve gotten to the point in automotive design where cars simply can’t get much uglier.  Its true.  I thought that the peak of the ugly car was the Pontiak Aztek (universally known as the Asstek) – but mankind never ceases to amaze me with its ability to build uglier, stupider cars than ever before.

The face only a mother could love.

I like to refer to the phenomenon of stupid, ugly cars as “The Homer”.  Let me elaborate.  In the Simpson’s Episode “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”, Homer’s long lost half brother Herb turns out to be the head of a car company, whose products Homer hates.  Herb wants to create a car that appeals to the “average American” so he hires Homer to develop a car.

The End Result

The final car is a hideous monstrosity of compromises and idiotic features.  Among them include two bubble domes, one to separate the children in the back – with optional restraints and muzzles.  Three horns scattered within arms reach, giant cupholders (see where I’m going with this?), and an engine that sounded like “the world is coming to an end”.

The reality is that today, many cars are formed in the same manner.  Rather than asking one simpleton however, the cars are formed by committee, and the end result is a smattering of unrelated features that focus groups say they want.  Of course, ask any smart auto manufacturer, the consumer doesn’t know what they want.  The consumer buys what you tell them to buy.  “The Homer” symptom is characterized by a car that you can’t classify – it “crosses genres” – but the reality is most consumers do not want this.  They don’t want to use a hammer to put in a screw.

When you build a car based on the lowest common denominator, the end result is almost always a hideous monstrosity.  Each of these cars has been a miserable sales failure by attempting to be too many things, to the point where they wind up being nothing.  Let me take us through the landscape of automotive abominations.

The first one I have already mentioned – the Pontiac Aztek.  In concept, it seemed like a good idea – a highly functional, multi terrain vehicle with such features as a built in tent option, all wheel drive, and a chassis built on a car for “improved” driving dynamics.  The end result was a bunch of features and design cues cobbled together into a complete sales failure.

Next up, I have to take Honda to task for building a pair of absolutely revolting answers to questions nobody asked.  One of the key signs of “The Homer” syndrome is that the car has no clearly identifiable answer to any task – cars that try to be all things to all people wind up being nothing to nobody, like an all-mountain ski or an all-season tire – the end result is crap.

Look at the Crosstour.  Look at the ZDX.  Tell me what they are?  You can’t.  They are nothing.  They are amorphous blobs with 12 cup holders.  They supposedly handle like a car, yet not quite as well.  Yet they have the ability to tackle terrain like an SUV, but not really, since they’re built on cars.  They’re too heavy to be quick, and their engines are too large to provide decent fuel economy.  They truly are the brainchildren of the focus group and demonstrate a complete lack of corporate oversight in the development process.  Nobody said “this is our brand, does this car fit into our brand?”

The BMW X6?  I don’t even know.  I’ve gone off on this vehicle before.  Its not as fast as a lightweight sports car, despite the mammoth engine.  It doesn’t handle like a sports sedan due to the stupidly high center of gravity.  It doesn’t have as much room as a luxury sedan due to the silly sloped rear end.  It doesn’t go off-road like an SUV due to inappropriate wheels and tires.  It doesn’t get the fuel economy of a car due to its weight and engine size as well as AWD drivetrain.  It costs more than it should.  It truly is an enigma and I seriously wonder what kind of depraved troglodyte even purchases one?

And finally, the pièce de résistance – the Nissan Murano (Moron-o) Cross-Cabriolet.  Wait, what?  Its an SUV . . . that doesn’t carry anything due to its silly top.  Its a convertible . . . that rides like a truck and handles like a drunken Russian bear.  What the hell is it?  I seriously don’t know.  Somewhere, someone in some focus group said “You know what, I love having an SUV, but what I’d really like is a convertible.”  The geniuses at Nissan must have taken this to mean that instead of having two vehicles, an SUV and a convertible, for specific tasks, this person wanted them combined – resulting in a completely useless, silly looking and plain insane vehicle.  Did Nissan think people would really purchase this thing?

Well, they’re making the Juke (a performance compact SUV crossover sport activity vehicle) so they’re obviously smoking something.