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Taking a Look at
the Production Porsche 918 Spyder

September 25, 2014 by Matt

Porsche 918 Spyder

I take it back. I take it all back.

I lambasted the prototype 918’s goofy stickers and stripes and its seeming lack of fit and finish for an $800K+ car, but had I known Porsche would rectify all those faults (and how!) I would’ve muted my critique.

Porsche 918 Spyder

No, the production car is a drop-dead stunner, more beautiful than even the italianite Carrera GT and more resolved than the 918 RSR Concept I praised in my previous post. The RSR now looks stumpy and compact where the production 918 is consummately low, long and wide. The 918’s looks are now perfectly calibrated for a show-stopping arrival at, say, the famous Casino in Monte Carlo—a prime criterion for a proper supercar.

From a design perspective, the two focal points of the 918 are the side air intakes and the way the body of the car is pushed down, Le Mans racer-style, enlarging the wheel arches. The intakes, beginning at the bottom of the side cavities, resolve themselves perfectly into the roof line, pulling the flanks of the car inwards for a leaner, more lithe look that reflects the 918’s actual agility in spite of its considerable 3,750-lb weight. As for the wheel arches, their size gives the car a very aggressive, sled-like stance, while the overall proportions are a nice hat-tip to Porsche’s endurance racing heritage while serving an actual, center of gravity-lowering function.

Porsche 918 Spyder Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Even the interior is beautifully resolved, with neither the clutter of the Ferrari LaFerrari (I still cringe every time I type that name) nor the kit car feel of the McLaren P1. The 918’s cockpit conveys a Teutonic sense of businesslike restraint in the midst of its high-tech trappings. To reuse a couple of words long since rendered cliche by automotive journalists, it’s purposeful and elegant. There’s just no other way to describe its functional yet “concept car” feel.

Yes, compared to its direct competitions in this generation of hypercars, the Porsche 918 is unquestionably the looker of the group.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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The Best Snake:
2nd-Gen Dodge Viper GTS

September 18, 2014 by Matt

Dodge Viper GTS Gray Grey

I’m not a Dodge Viper fan per se, but I have to concede that this is one of the most impressive American cars ever made.

Credit the automaker for not saying “Well, that was fun while it lasted” and closing up the Viper shop after the initial 1992-1995 run of crude 1st-generation cars. The automotive world is replete with flawed attempts by new players to mix it up with established heavy-hitters like the Porsche 911 and Corvette. In most cases, those efforts flicker out within a few years—but not the Viper. Dodge realized the formula had merit and there was room in the marketplace for more than one “authentic” American sports car, and injected development capital into the program, resulting in a 2nd generation car that was just as brash as the original, but less intimidating to drive, and much more progressive and capable.

Dodge Viper GTS Gray Grey

The characteristic 8-liter pushrod V10’s output was bumped up from 415 to 450 hp while the car’s weight actually fell by 60 lbs compared to the 1st gen Viper. Thanks in part to the addition of the roof, the car’s rigidity increased significantly, which allowed the thoroughly reworked suspension to interface with the road with far more fidelity than that of the ’92-’95 car. So while the 2nd gen Viper was still rough around the edges, rewards existed for those willing to contend with its challenges. In a track setting, a contemporary Car and Driver comparison test extolled the GTS as an “an easy and forgiving partner” and for its “benign behavior at the limit,” things that would never have been said of its predecessor.

Dodge Viper GTS Gray Grey

Still, it’s cartoonish to look at. Exaggerated, dramatic, visually aggressive—and yet somehow, it all holds together perfectly. I could even call it pretty, if I were into that sort of thing. I much prefer the later, solid-color 2nd-gen cars; the racing stripes are iconic but load the already-busy lines with even more clutter. Less turns out to be just right in this case. An indication of just how enduring the GTS’s look turned out to be is the design of the latest, 5th-generation car, which copies the 1996-2002 car almost line-for-line, except for a little ill-advised softening (read: melting) around the edges. With the original GTS, I really think Dodge got it right the first time.

Image credits: carpictures.com,

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I Hate In-Dash Navigation Screens

September 11, 2014 by Matt

Infiniti M45 2006 Interior Inside Console Cockpit

It’s a question of focus.

Since the dawn of the automobile in the late 1800s, the focus of every car’s cockpit area has been the steering wheel, and by extension, the activity that should occupy the majority of the driver’s attention while behind said wheel; namely, actually driving the car.

In the past few years, though, with the emergence of large in-dash navigation screens on even basic commuter cars like the Ford Focus and VW Golf, the steering wheel’s visual preeminence in the average car’s interior has been steadily watered down. Whenever I consider a photograph of a new car’s inside, my eyes are pulled in two different directions, alternately drawn by the steering wheel and then by the massive screen squatting in the center console. As an enthusiast, it creates a kind of uncomfortable tension in my brain where I’m subconsciously unsure of the car’s emphasis simply by glancing at the interior. There’s a visual competition going on in the cockpit, a conflict where before there was certainty, simplicity.

Mercedes Benz CLA Interior Inside Console Cockpit

So is this design shift just a personal preference, a nit-pick without larger implications? No—I don’t think it overstates the case to say that the uneasy power-sharing arrangement going on in the modern car’s interior is a bellwether of a changing societal relationship with the automobile.

Since their inception, cars have been made steadily easier to drive. Engineering ingenuity has progressively done away with the need to manage things like spark advance, choke setting or even gear changes. The tedious chore of driving now approaches the convenience of taking a stroll down the street or cooking a meal in a microwave oven. Start the car, alternately press the “go” and “stop” pedals, occasionally turn the large circular thing positioned in front of you while enduring a period of isolation in your transportation appliance, and arrive at your destination. Why not give the car’s occupants a little television to play with during the trip? It’s not like anything else of note is making a demand on their time.

I’ll admit I’m being a bit obtuse; I know full well that not everyone is a driving enthusiast, and nowhere is it written that every car owner shall read the entire owner’s manual from cover to cover and make every effort to bond with their automobile. And yes, I multitask while driving; I fiddle with the stereo and talk on my cell phone, among other things. The tipping point for me hinges on the design statement, the visual prominence given to the in-dash screen and the emphasis it usurps from the steering wheel. Aesthetically, the stereo is just one of many secondary controls, and I can put my cell phone away, but a built-in touchscreen is always there, always demanding my attention. And even if I choose to ignore it, the design decision to place it on equal footing with the steering wheel comes from someplace; it wouldn’t have been made if there wasn’t a demand for it. As drivers, we have a finite amount of attention to devote to the range of tasks available behind the wheel. I’m just saddened to witness a symbol of the shrinking slice of our “attention pie” devoted to the act of driving.

Image credits: jbcarpages.com, acarisnotarefrigerator.com

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Finally: 2016 Mazda Miata Revealed

September 4, 2014 by Matt

2016 Mazda Miata ND Red

Yesterday evening, in a live-streamed event featuring an appearance by ’80s New Wave group Duran Duran, Mazda finally pulled the wraps off its long-awaited 4th-generation (ND) MX-5 Miata.

Other than a claim that Mazda managed to trim the evergreen roadster’s curb weight by an eye-opening 220 lbs, as of this writing, hard numbers like horsepower, torque or even engine displacement haven’t yet been disclosed, so all we have to really discuss at the moment is the way it looks and speculate based on what we can make out in the photos provided.

Chris Paukert has a nice writeup over at Autoblog, and the successful concealment of the ND’s appearance up until its premiere last night—in itself an amazing feat in our digitally-interconnected age—means that discussion of the car has glutted the automotive interwebz over the past day, so I’ll just volunteer a few observations:

2016 Mazda Miata ND Red

  • My initial thought when I first saw the new Miata’s face was, “Oh no; they’ve regressed to the smiley faces of Mazda’s previous design language.” But when I consider the car’s stylistic lineage, it’s easier to appreciate its front end design: All generations of Miatas have had a friendly, somewhat anthropomorphic fascia. And as much as I pine for the 1st generation’s pop-up headlights to remove some of the “grin,” I need to resign myself to the fact that they’re never coming back, and shelve my opinions about cars with faces.
  • The biggest change to the car’s styling compared to the third generation’s is obvious in profile: No longer a symmetrical front-to-back “bar of soap” shape, the Miata now has proper hips and much more cab-rearward proportions, even if the actual placement of various components hasn’t moved much. Other than giving the car a healthy dose of visual aggressiveness—but still playful, mind you—the more pronounced rear fenders give me renewed hope that a coupe version of the car could really be in the works this time around. A fastback design would be much easier to reconcile if the car’s hips “met it halfway,” so to speak, rather than requiring it to plunge all the way to a nearly flat decklid like the third generation’s.

2016 Mazda Miata ND Red

  • Also bolstering my hope for a coupe is the fact that Mazda has been mum on the subject of whether the NC’s folding hardtop will return. It’s difficult to imagine the automaker touting the ND’s 200+ lb weight reduction and then adding it all back with a heavy, complicated origami roof mechanism. The hardtop version of the NC was, for all intents and purposes, the “coupe” version of that car, and if Mazda doesn’t retain the concept for the 4th gen, it’s natural to imagine something has to fill that niche in the car’s list of options. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
  • I agree completely with Paukert’s statement: “Largely free of adornments, I think this is a shape that will age well.” I love Mazda’s styling restraint with the new Miata, and the fact that they refrained from chintzing it up, instead letting the proportions do the visual work. The car will be instantly recognizable on the road—and that in a good way.
  • I wonder if the added bite of the ND’s looks will allow the Miata to once-and-for-all shed its popular image as a “hairdresser’s car?” As mentioned above, the styling expertly communicates a kind of lighthearted aggression, if you will, a rogue-ishness that may, with any luck, turn off the kind of folks who might buy a Miata for the same reasons one might acquire a toy chihuahua: For the image alone. With the departure—or at least attrition—of that group, maybe the 4th gen’s styling will allow the car to be seen more exclusively as a proper driver’s car by the general public? Hope springs eternal.
  • Image credits: netcarshow.com

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A Commentary on Formula 1’s
Regulatory Philosophy

August 27, 2014 by Matt

Ferrari F14T

So just because I haven't done my Formula 1 race reports since, oh, 2012 doesn't mean I haven't been following the sport.

Granted, it did get a bit boring last year when every team except Red Bull essentially gave up halfway through and allowed Sebastian Vettel and his RB9 to collect a stunning 9 consecutive wins through the final race of the season on his way to the championship. Still, so far, from a racing excitement standpoint, 2014 has been a banner year, with many riveting on-track battles and driver-vs-driver intrigue.

That said, despite the fact that the racing action has been very entertaining, for those of us who like to probe deeper and savor the more technical angle of the sport, the 2014 rules are more restrictive than ever, with some unintended results like the hideousness of the 2014 F1 cars shown in this post (from top: Ferrari F14T, Caterham CT05 and Lotus E22), the lower noses and higher bodywork around the front suspension area dictated by new impact protection regulations. And, true to form, the FIA's (F1's governing body) favorite way of solving a problem caused by over-regulation is to impose yet more rules: If you can believe it, there's been talk of mandating a specific taper to the nose cross-sections in order to improve the cars’ appearance. Who specified a required taper for F1 cars’ bodywork in, say, the mid-’80s? It’s yet another sign that the rules have gotten out of control.

Caterham CT05

I would be (mostly) fine with the regulatory oppressiveness if it only impacted external elements of the car like bodywork and aerodynamics. But the real tragedy is that mindset is crushing technical innovation under the cars’ skin. Once the pinnacle of automotive technology, the average hybrid family sedan is more sophisticated than an F1 car, what with variable valve timing, ABS, dual-clutch transmissions, traction control and other features banned from F1. This isn’t to take anything away from the execution of what’s allowed in the rulebook—what’s done is done to a staggering degree of perfection—but the tech behind it all peaked in the early ’90s. Sure, the FIA has introduced a hybrid 1.6l V6 turbocharged specification this year, but read the fine print and you’ll discover just how restrictive the rules are concerning everything from fuel flow and turbocharger orientation to cylinder bank angle and even the number of gearbox ratios. Formula 1 is for all intents and purposes a spec series, with a dozen or so manufacturers making what amount to nearly identical cars almost totally devoid of the kind of engineering creativity that we saw in past decades of F1. There’s a reason the period extending 20 years forward from the mid-’70s has been called F1’s golden age. The drivers were great and tamed their monstrously turbocharged mounts, but the variety of engine configurations on the grid on any given Sunday, the electronic sophistication that increased at a blistering rate—it was enough to satisfy those of us interested in more than just the mere “spectacle” of drivers going wheel-to-wheel around a circuit. The technical creativity on display fascinated us, made us dream. With fewer rules, F1 felt more…complete, fulfilling. Now? There’s precious little to get excited about under the cars’ bodywork.

2014 Lotus E22 F1 Formula 1 One

The solution? Fewer rules. Give the teams some basics and then let them go at it. Let them innovate from within; don’t impose “progress” from the outside. What about development costs? Wouldn’t they skyrocket? Not necessarily—give the teams a budget cap and apply the same diligence used in enforcing the current rulebook toward a strict interpretation of what’s allowed to be billed in the teams’ budgets. I think it can be done—but it won’t. F1 is a business, and there are far more paying fans that don’t give two licks about what makes the cars go, but just want to see an exciting race, than there are those of us who geek out on the technical side of the sport, and the at-times thrilling wheel-to-wheel action on the track this year will be taken as a vindication of the current regulatory path. Sadly, I think the kind of outside-the-box technical thinking of years past has been banished from F1 forever, and the sport is the poorer for it.

Image credits: f1technical.net, rssportscars.com, formula1.com

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Datsun 240Z Restoration:
…And the Engine Comes Out

August 20, 2014 by Matt

Datsun 240Z restoration engine motor l24 engine removal

Figured I would give you all an update, even though there are fairly significant changes to the project coming down the pike. But more on that in a future post.

After towing the Z over the Appalachians on a car carrier behind my new truck, I ensconced it in our new garage here in Tennessee. And eager to make a little progress on the project, a few months ago I removed all the peripheral bits, fired up the engine hoist and pulled the engine and transmission.

It was a very straightforward job. Nothing jumps out in my memory as a particularly difficult task. Even the exhaust manifold-to-downpipe bolts, encrusted with 40+ years of rust, once soaked overnight with a generous dose of PB Blaster, loosened easily after getting a good set with a 6-point socket.

Datsun 240Z restoration engine motor l24 engine removal

One challenge was finding a couple of locations to actually hoist the engine from. The engine was rebuilt sometime in the mid-’90s, and apparently, at some point, the engine hoist brackets were removed from their usual locations, so I had to improvise with a pair of long bolts threaded into suitable locations on the cylinder head. But it all went smoothly; the engine and transmission came apart just fine, but I did have to remove the flywheel in order to be able to mount the engine on a stand, where it sits now in our garage.

I’ve been referencing Wick Humble’s classic How to Restore Your Datsun Z-Car as a sort of loose guide for the project, and removing the engine was the first step in the disassembly process. The next series of steps involve removing more mechanical organs before unbolting fenders and other body panels, but it’s an open question at this point as to whether I’ll be doing that. More to come.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 21 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

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A Styling Comparison:
New BMW 2-Series Vs. Old 1-Series

August 12, 2014 by Matt

BMW 2-Series Red

BMW 1-Series 135i Orange Maroon Bronze E82 Coupe

Call it the anti-Peter Pan treatment.

With the replacement of the outgoing BMW 1-Series by the new, more upscale 2-Series, the Bavarian automaker “grows up” the styling, with less-than-successful results.

The differences between the generations are somewhat subtle, but impossible to dismiss once discovered. The most obvious 2-Series upgrade comes at the front end, where the headlights squint amid more surface detailing. At the rear, the 1-Series’ C-pillar makes a more pronounced break with the trunklid in comparison to that of the 2-Series, which flows and tapers together. And proportionally, the new car sits lower and looks larger, having lost the older BMW’s somewhat controversial “dipped” rocker panel.

The effect of the aesthetic changes reinforces a styling and character similarity between the 2-Series and its big brother, the 4-Series. And while that may be desirable from a marketing standpoint, where a salesman can more easily sell a 2-Series to a customer aspiring to “upgrade” to a 4 at some point, the changes have robbed the baby BMW of much of what made the 1 so distinctive.

BMW 2-Series White

BMW 1-Series 135i E82 White Coupe Rear

Sure, the older car may look a bit more awkward on first glance, but at least it’s confident in its awkwardness; it’s not striving to be something it’s not. The 2-Series seems like it’s trying too hard to emulate the larger 4-Series, while the 1 is simply happy to be a small car. Furthermore, the superficial ungainliness of the older car recalls the great upright BMWs of the ’70s and ’80s like the 2002, E21 and E30. Those cars look aggressive and distinctive precisely because their lack of aerodynamic, flowing lines. They look agile, eager and above all, confident—appealing qualities projected by the 1-Series and lost, or at least muted, in its successor.

I suppose, in the end, it all boils down to a matter of taste: How would you like your small BMW served? Mature and swoopy or playful and pugnacious?

Full disclosure: The 1-Series is one of my all-time favorite BMWs, and one of the few post-E46 BMWs I would consider. A 6-speed manual, Blue Water Metallic 128i with the Sport package is very high on my bucket list of cars to own.

Image credits: motortrend.com, bmwheaven.com, netcarshow.com

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