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Forever Car: 2002 BMW 330i 5-Speed

January 16, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

This might be it.

I’d been wanting something interesting for a while, and I bided my time over the holidays, scanning Craigslist and Autotrader. I was looking for something German (BMW or Audi), made from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, with a manual transmission. Most of the cars in decent condition that fit that set of criteria were a couple of hours away, and I even roadtripped with my son to go see a B6 Audi A4. It was nice, but had a number of cosmetic defects that would have been expensive to fix, and the seller (a dealer) wanted too much for it already.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

Then, last Saturday, the car featured in this post popped up not 15 miles down the road. A 2002 BMW 330i, 5-speed, Orient Blue over gray interior, with only 135K on the odometer. I jumped on it. The seller was a local auto mechanic specializing in BMWs and other German cars. He’d just bought it off a trade-in at another dealership and hadn’t even had a chance to drive it yet before he put it up on Craigslist. It drove very well, had good power and was in great shape cosmetically outside a baseball-sized dent in the lower passenger side of the urethane bumper. The windshield was cracked all the way across, and there was a clunk coming from the right front wheel area at low speed. The car pulled slightly under braking and the shifter bushings were completely shot. Furthermore, the interior had that faint whiff of having been a smoker car. Still—none of the issues were terminal, the car’s mileage was low and the price was right. I bought it.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Gray Grey Interior Inside Console Cockpit

A week later, I’m still in love. The car has been debadged (removed the “330i” emblem), the windshield has been replaced and the front control arm bushings are new. The car is tight as a drum and—with the exception of the shifter bushings—drives perfectly. It’s a hair faster than my old 540i 6-speed and feels much more compact and nimble. I installed Koni yellow dampers in the 540i, and while they certainly benefited the larger car’s agility, the ride they provided could only be described as harsh. In contrast, the 330i, on its OEM sport suspension, strikes the perfect note, with a supple ride over the choppy stuff and a good set in the turns. Oddly, it doesn’t feel quite as balanced as my old 525i, but much more controlled and maneuverable. I’m starting to think the 525i’s handling feel was more a case of a big car with a smaller engine up front, with all the weight distribution advantages that offered, but that’s a post for another time.

BMW Engine Motor M54 M54B30 E46 330 330i

The E46 (1999-2005) 3-series was, at the time, BMW’s most popular model ever, and was offered in myriad different flavors, from convertibles to wagons to sedans to coupes, with a plethora of option packages and a number of styling variations and refreshes. I told my wife that if I could have ordered any non-M BMW new in 2002 and optioned it exactly the way I wanted it, it would have been this car. The air dam and rear apron: Perfect. The Style 68 wheels: Right on. The color combination: Love it. Even details like the sunroof delete (extremely rare for a US-bound E46), the heated seats and the premium Harman/Kardon stereo are precisely what I would have chosen. The original owner, who clearly special-ordered the car, had exquisite taste. I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be able to own it, drive it and work on it. I’m notoriously fickle when it comes to my affection for various cars, but if any car was a keeper, this is it. There’s not a thing I would change.

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Mazda’s New Ad Campaign Shines

September 15, 2015 by Matt

Mazda MX-5 Miata Ad Advert Advertisement Desert Track 2016 ND

Via Autoblog, I have next to no hope that this will gain them any traction with the buying public (of whom a vast majority are simply interested in basic transportation appliances instead of a vehicle they would actually enjoy to drive), but Mazda’s new marketing campaign resonates with enthusiasts. Supplementing their long-running “Zoom-Zoom” tagline, the automaker recently rolled out a new slogan: “Driving Matters.” Greeted by a collective “YES!” from car buffs everywhere, the new campaign explicitly reminds us how closely Mazda’s car-building philosophy aligns with our priorities in choosing and enjoying our vehicles.

And yet, as much as I want to preach Mazda’s slogan from the rooftops and shout it to the unenlightened masses, I realize that it takes more than just a fun-to-drive car to derive pleasure from the act of driving. The right road is an equally essential ingredient, and therein might lie another obstacle in the Japanese automaker’s attempts to convert their enthusiast-first philosophy into sales success. Put another way, it would do me no good to insist that a friend is selling himself short from a driving perspective by buying a boring car when his daily commute consists solely of 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. He may heed my advice and buy something dynamically enjoyable, but have nowhere to use it aside from forays onto winding back roads. And those excursions take a level of intentionality even harder to expect from someone whom I’ve already had to convince to buy something he wouldn’t have normally chosen.

The antidote to all this, of course, is to build compromise-free cars; in other words, cars that function equally well whether being used as commuting appliances or back-road burners. And as Mazda’s recent string of comparison-test wins indicates, they’re the current undisputed masters of that formula (6 straight outright victories in Car and Driver alone). Here’s hoping their new ad push can bring more buyers around to that fact.

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Too Much Is Not Enough:
A Car Interior Fantasy

May 11, 2015 by Matt

Millennium Falcon Bridge Cockpit

I alluded to this in my “3 Interior Likes” post, but I think it bears fleshing out. The above picture, a shot of the Millennium Falcon‘s bridge from the film The Empire Strikes Back, represents my holy grail when it comes to car cockpit layouts. In a nutshell: The more instrumentation, gauges, readouts, lights and switches, the better. And it should have a certain ad hoc quality, cobbled together in such a way that only the owner can understand its intricacies.

The desire for such a look and feel is rooted in a few factors:

  • The need to personalize. Other car buffs express themselves through gaudy body kits and coffee-can mufflers; I’d rather my car distinguish itself (and its owner!) via a kind of über-tech interior layout—but one tied, naturally, to a high level of customization under the skin. If I had to give it a label, maybe it’s an expression of the nerd chic aesthetic philosophy.
  • It’s also related to the broader appeal of sleepers, Q-ships, cars that look humdrum but have “got it where it counts,” to borrow Han Solo’s phrase. There’s an appealing drama to a vehicle that has all the outward markings of a loser but sucks its rivals’ doors off when the light turns green. Call it the Susan Boyle effect; it speaks to the underdog in all of us.
  • I might be unique in this, but I derive a degree of comfort from being surrounded by lights, readouts and switches. Maybe they provide a feeling of control? Or perhaps I’m reassured by the fact that they’re passively providing me all the information I need to make a positive decision behind the wheel? On a quasi-primal level, I almost feel like the lights are “watching over me,” that they’re illuminated and vigilant even when my attention lapses, and that thought gives me a sense of security—warranted or no.

Boeing 747 Cockpit Bridge Controls

It’s understood that when they leave the factory, car dashboards don’t resemble the Boeing 747-400 cockpit shown above. The ideal path to achieving the goal, then would be to at least start with a car blessed with ample instrumentation out of the box and add from there. When I look through the steering wheel, I like to see at least 3 secondary gauges (fuel, coolant temp, oil pressure, etc) in addition to the requisite speedometer and tach. I’ve been fortunate to have owned several cars with a total of 6 gauges staring back at me—a great starting point.

The closest I’ve come so far to my ideal layout occurred when I owned my 1988 Supra Turbo. Toyota gifted the car with 6 factory gauges, and to start with I added an air/fuel ratio and boost gauge on the A-pillar:

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 Maroon Brown 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Interior Inside Cockpit Cluster Dash Dashboard Momo Wheel Steering

In addition on that fairly standard instrumentation, I decided to go a step further and install some overhead switches and lights. As with many ’80s Japanese performance cars, the Supra was fitted with dampers (shock absorbers) with 3 settings—soft, medium and firm—controlled by servos placed atop the shock towers. The driver was able to toggle between soft and medium using buttons on the center console, but the car itself would automatically set the dampers to firm when a sensor detected sufficient acceleration in any direction. I wanted to be able to activate the firm setting manually, so I wired a pair of Radio Shack rocker switches and LEDs lights inline with a couple of override pins on the diagnostic connector under the hood, and placed them up in the plastic trim panel between the sun visors. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was satisfying to be able to reach up, flick an overhead switch, see a green LED illuminate and hear all 4 servos click in unison as the dampers firmed themselves up. Further instrumentation would have probably required at least the installation of a piggyback fuel computer, and a complete standalone system at the most, which is a tuning goal I’ve pursued for a long time. Who knows; one day I may be able to geek out in my very own Millennium Falcon cockpit.

Image credit: telegraph.co.uk, berghem.tweakdsl.nl

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Obscure ’80s Wedge: The Bitter SC

May 4, 2015 by Matt

Bitter SC

I hadn’t heard of the Bitter SC until recently, and as I checked out the car’s attributes, I wondered why I hadn’t sooner.

After all, it seems tailor-made for me:

  • European? Check.
  • Incrediblly rare and obscure? Check.
  • Wedgy, boxy ’80s styling? Check.
  • Straight-6 power? Check.
  • GT body style and ethos? Check.

It even has an Opel tie-in: Its construction uses the contemporary Opel Senator’s floorpan as a starting point. I’m in love.

Bitter SC

So what in the world is a Bitter? The brainchild of a German racing driver, Erich Bitter, the automaker released a couple of cars—the SC featured in this post and its predecessor the CD—which were essentially rebodied versions of the largest Opel on the market at the time. Produced in extremely limited numbers (there were only 488 SCs made in total) they were sold in Europe and in Buick dealerships here in the States, much the same way Opels had been back in the early ’70s.

Bitter SC

The SC’s styling hews very closely to that of the Ferrari 400/412, with which it roughly shared a model run from 1979 to 1989. To my eye, the Ferrari is a fantastic car to copy, but the proportions are so similar it could communicate a bit of laziness on the part of the Bitter design crew. I won’t complain, though—there are far uglier cars they could have chosen to emulate.

Bitter SC

Available with either a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission, the SC used a standard 177hp, 3.0l version of Opel’s CIH straight-6 engine, bumped up to 3.9l and 207hp by the end of the car’s model run. Motivating around 3,400 lbs, a 0-60 time in the mid 7s was very respectable by the standards of the day.

Values today are about what you’d expect for such a rare but not particularly exotic piece of the ’80s automotive scene; good examples can be found for around $20K, but be prepared to wait for the right example to pop up. Fortunately, the Bitter Owner’s Club is an understandably fanatical, tight-knit group, clustered as they are around so few examples of their obsession, so insight into the cars’ quirks is easy to come by for those seriously interested.

Bitter SC

The SC doesn’t threaten to displace any residents of my top five automotive objects of lust, but it’s certainly earned itself a spot on my ever-growing wish list.

To read more about the SC, check out excellent articles over at Autoweek and Jalopnik.

Image credits: auta5p.eu, bittercars.de, autobild.de, motortrend.com

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Some Insight Into
Programmable Headlights

May 1, 2015 by Our Sponsors

Headlight LED

Imagine car headlights made up of many small cones of light instead of one broad fixed beam. Now make these cones movable so you can direct them away from oncoming traffic at night or project around angles when your car is turning. But why stop there; let’s make these lights capable of projecting arrows or lane markers onto the road too.

Welcome to the concept of programmable headlights. A team of engineers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has developed a prototype of a programmable headlight that performs these functions. The secret is not new, it is a version of the Digital Mirror Device (DMD) chip that Texas Instruments has been making for video display devices for years. In older rear screen projection televisions, DMD chips are mated with spinning color wheels to make bright video images. In the Carnegie Mellon application, only a DMD-like chip and an light source are needed to light up the road ahead.

As you may imagine, driving the DMD chip in a programmable headlight device requires some sophisticated electronics and sensors. One amazing feature still under development is the ability to make snow “disappear” when you drive. To make snowflakes disappear, the system tracks the falling flakes, predicts where they are going, and then turns off the beams that would otherwise reflect light off the flakes. This occurs so rapidly that to the driver it appears that that the snowflakes aren’t there. The driver effectively sees “between the flakes”.

For more information, Google “programmable headlight” and you will find a sizable number of articles and technical papers.

Thanks to: http://www.arrigopalmbeach.com/programmable-headlights.htm

Image credit: motortrend.com

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Missing the Minivan

April 27, 2015 by Matt

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I miss our little MPV.

After 5 years of ownership, during which time we actually managed to pay it off, last spring we unloaded our ’05 Mazda MPV for an ’06 Volvo XC90, reasoning that our minivan days were over. I still daily-drive my truck, mind you, so the Volvo is my wife’s car, and she enjoys it. The XC90 is smooth and fleet, and with the 2.5-liter turbocharged 5-cylinder engine (not the optional 4.4l V8) and 2WD, fairly frugal, even if it does need to drink premium at the pump. The steering is sharp—well, most anything would feel sharp compared to my truck’s vague sense of straight ahead—and the leather-trimmed interior smells of plane trips and IKEA™. The kids like the DVD screens built into the backs of the headrests, and of course we’ve been freed of the “minivan stigma.”

Thing is, part of me misses, if not the stigma, then at least the practical, sensible aspects of minivan ownership. We bought our MPV for a song, in near-perfect condition, when it was only 4 years old. A quick scan of Craigslist confirms that minivan resale prices are ridiculously low compared with SUVs of equivalent size, age and mileage, and the cost of acquisition is even lower if your search terms don’t include the words “Odyssey” or “Sienna.” The MPV could be classified as a “mid-size” minivan, unable to carry a 4ft by 8ft sheet of plywood flat in the cargo area with the rear seats lowered, another fact that contributed to the car’s low profile in the eyes of a typical minivan shopper, interested only in “full size” models such as the aforementioned Japanese wonder twins and Yanks like the Town & Country. So we reaped the financial benefits of the minivan stigma and the Mazda’s lack of name recognition in the marketplace.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Cloth Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Console

Still—it was plenty big enough for us. During our annual beach trip last year, I had to exercise a previously unrequired level of packaging creativity when loading the XC90; with the MPV I simply tossed everything in the back and had no concerns over leaving myself a slit with which to use the rear view mirror while driving. The engine—a 3.0-liter V6 member of Ford’s Duratec family—was easy to work on as well, even if the intake manifold was a bit tucked up under the cowl, and parts were cheap and plentiful. The plumbing associated with the XC90’s engine is more daunting, and parts prices for our European ride are typically half again more expensive than those for the MPV.

I wouldn’t ask my wife to return to a minivan—she’s signed off on that stage of her car life—but I have pondered from time to time the pros and cons of trading the truck for one. The truck’s mileage is high (over 250K) but it’s in great shape, and chances are a straight trade would yield a minivan in good condition. And I can say with a fair amount of confidence that after a year and a half of driving a vehicle I bought with the expressed purpose of owning something I don’t care about, my car ego, at least when it comes to my daily driver, has been tempered to the point where practical considerations are well and truly king of the decision-making process. In other words, I’d be secure in my manhood even behind the wheel of a minivan, knowing that whatever reasons justified its purchase, they were good and rational ones. My sense of internal satisfaction would trump any superficial concerns over my “image” as a man.

2005 Mazda MPV Gray Grey Side View

I haven’t reached a tipping point yet, though. The truck has a ruggedness few minivans can match, parts are ubiquitous (it’s an F150) and the ability to just throw whatever I’m carrying in the bed, without having to consider height or dirtiness, is very appealing. Best of all, the truck is paid off, and at the end of the day, I think that—besides our 5-year family history with it—is what I miss most about the old MPV. Actually having the car’s title in my own filing cabinet (and not at the bank) gave me a transcendent sense of ownership over the vehicle, and felt fantastic from a financial standpoint as well, knowing that if anything went wrong with it, we had that many more options since the Mazda wasn’t tied to the bank. All that said, I’m sticking with the truck for now. It’s been a great vehicle so far; no complaints.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that minivans will experience something of a sales renaissance. Who knows; maybe all the Millennials who grew up in them will spearhead a nostalgia-driven resurgence of the body style sometime in the near future. Stranger things have happened, and goodness knows the unloved, workhorse minivan deserves its due.

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Audi Concepts: The RSQ

December 28, 2014 by Matt

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ

More than any other automaker, Audi’s styling gives us a sense of “you can get there from here.”

What do I mean? Examine the various generations of Audi cars and there’s a clear aesthetic progression from one to the next. There’s no jumping off the deep end design-wise, a la Bangle-helmed BMW in the 2000s; instead, Audi’s corporate styling themes seem to move forward in even, incremental steps. And while this approach sometimes raises the question of whether their aesthetic evolution is too gradual, the easily-traceable progression makes it easier to extrapolate Audi’s future styling direction. In other words, it’s easier to fill in the gaps between Audi’s present lineup and the look of its concept cars, which in turn makes the concepts seem nearer, less fanciful and more real. While that might be a downside for those who enjoy concept cars as pure flights of fancy, aesthetic puff pieces with no connection to an automaker’s current offerings, most car buffs at some point imagine themselves behind the wheel of a car rotating slowly on the dais. Cultivating that connection means that a less extreme suspension of disbelief is needed to fantasize about driving a concept car, and renders it more attainable, so to speak, and thus more desirable.

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Take the car featured in this post, the RSQ. Created in 2004 especially for the Will Smith sci-fi action flick I, Robot (itself nothing to write home about, but that’s another matter), the idea behind the car was to create a realistic vehicle for the year 2035, when the film is set. Naturally, it has futuristic overtones, especially the spherical wheels. But because of Audi’s progressive design philosophy, there’s still a connection with their present-day cars; when you see it there’s a sense that, “Yeah, I could drive that.” That attainable quality stands the RSQ in contrast to other sci-fi movie cars like Lexus’s vehicle in the Tom Cruise flick Minority Report. Compared to Audi’s concept, Lexus’s offering looks downright alien. Now, does that mean I consider the RSQ objectively desirable, in that I would choose it over other, present-day Audis? No, but I still appreciate its visual kinship with those models.

Image credits: netcarshow.com, audiworld.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing Audi’s rich history of noteworthy concept cars. Read the other installments here:

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