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Posts filed under ‘Miscellaneous’

A Gallery of Tailpipe Placement

March 27, 2013 by Matt

Rear Mercedes Benz W210 E55 AMG Silver

Left-mounted. A common arrangement, the only practical disadvantage has to do with the fact that the fuel filler door is almost always located on the opposite side of the car from the tailpipe. The configuration makes pulling up to a gas pump a bit trickier for those of us in LHD countries. Many Toyotas, Nissans, BMWs and Mercedes locate their cars’ tailpipes on the left side.

Rear Mazda RX-7 FD White

Right-mounted. My favorite arrangement, for the simple reason that when observing a LHD car from the rear, looking through the rear window, the silhouette of the driver’s head is located on the left side of the car. This visual asymmetry is neatly balanced by locating the tailpipe on the right side, under the rear bumper. Mazda particularly seems to favor this setup.

Rear Honda Accord Gray

Dual. Once confined to exotics and high-end sports cars, the dual tailpipe arrangement has trickled down into every car category, from luxury SUVs to hot hatches. Its ubiquity has diluted much of its visual impact, and now dual tailpipes seem rather cliche and unoriginal, especially when added to cars with transverse or inline engines, where there isn’t a direct correspondence between a longitudinal, V- or flat-engine’s cylinder bank and one tailpipe side.

Rear Porsche Boxster Yellow

Center-low-mounted. The Porsche Boxster (shown above) and Cayman, along with Mini’s performance line, among others, feature the center-low-mounted tailpipe setup. Advantages include perfect visual symmetry (so long as the driver isn’t in the car); a downside is the tendency for the arrangment to make the rear of the car look taller and narrower than it is—and most performance cars would prefer to project a lower, wider image.

Rear McLaren MP4-12C Orange Red

Center-high-mounted. So far, this layout has only appeared on high-end exotics like the McLaren MP4-12C (above) and Pagani Zonda. A full-width, perfectly-optimized rear diffuser can be developed for these cars without having to work around tailpipes. The weight of the muffler(s) and tailpipes does have to be mounted higher in the chassis, though, raising the CG somewhat, and any risks to passers-by from a thigh- vs ankle-level exhaust outlet have yet to be assessed.

Rear BMW M635CSi Gray Grey

Whatever. Vintage BMWs (among others) make me smile. Featured most prominently on cars such as the classic 2002 and E24 6-series, in that golden era BMW obviously had higher priorities than tucking their cars’ tailpipes neatly into one particular corner of the bumper. The slightly off-center layout says “I don’t really care where the exhaust comes out; I’ve got bigger fish to fry development-wise, like perfecting the suspension design and harmonizing all the controls.” I love it.

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Thoughts on Driving in Europe

January 30, 2013 by Matt

German Autobahn Ausfahrt Road Sign

Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote during my trip to Europe with a couple of buddies back in June of 2004:

Quick note on driving: They know how to here! It’s so wonderful. Highways are either two or three lanes; trucks stay mostly in the right lane, only venturing into the middle lane to pass, and cars occupy the left two. People pass only on the left, use their signals and get out of your way quickly if you’re coming up behind them. And on average, drive around 90-110 mph. Drivers stick to the speed limit when there actually is one (around construction and in hilly country) and aren’t boneheaded like most American drivers. I love it—except, of course, for the fact that our little rental Opel is hardly Autobahn-worthy (at least in my mind). Ah well. When I have my [BMW] 850CSi I’ll come back and have some fun.

Every time I’m caught in a back-up caused by an American driver’s failure to merge properly, or stuck behind some secretary trundling along obliviously in the left lane, I feel a pang of longing for my glimpse of that remarkably disciplined driving environment.

Of course, such a system comes at a price. Driver education is far more involving, strenuous and expensive in Europe than it is here, and more rigorous annual inspections mean the cars must be maintained to a higher standard in order to pass muster (and endure the stress of more demanding driving). Furthermore, the experience of being behind the wheel requires more focus than it does on this side of the pond; I remember asking my dad whether he enjoyed driving in France, and he replied that he didn’t. He later clarified that it was stressful for him in the sense that it required all of his attention; he didn’t feel free to just relax and make conversation with his passengers the way he did in the US. That said, I can attest personally that for fully-engaged drivers, the European system works, and can actually be less stressful and more satisfying in the sense that if you understand and obey the rules along with everyone else, traffic moves quite swiftly and smoothly.

Do you think some form or portion of the European system of traffic laws and driver education could work here in the States? I don’t know anyone who would seriously argue for fewer rules; driver’s ed and traffic laws are pretty lax, relatively speaking, but what about simple measures like forbidding passing on the right above 35 mph? Would drivers take to it? Would it work with the current highway code or would interchanges have to be redesigned? What about on a state-by-state basis? Or does Europe’s tighter geographic integration makes it better suited to more strenuous road rules than America’s more sprawling landscape?

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On The Psychology of Car Desire

December 7, 2012 by Matt

A funny thing happened as I was poring over a glossy brochure of an Audi A5 acquired from a chance visit to the dealership a few weeks ago. I felt something I hadn’t experienced in quite some time: The desire for a completely unattainable car.

That used to be all I felt as I flipped through car magazines and road tests. Being young, without (or with marginal) employment and without a driver’s license meant that every car was out of reach. But as I got older, more cars entered the realm of possible purchases, not simply because my bottom line was a bit healthier, but also because many of the cars I fantasized about in my early years had depreciated to the point where they were in reach financially. Add to that a penchant for older, boxier, non- or less-electronically-infested cars and the used car market had become my oyster, so to speak.

My experience flipping through the A5 brochure brought those two different mindsets into sharper focus. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two, but basically, we can distinguish between:

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FD Silver

  • The idea of a car. This is all I had in the beginning. Leafing through coffee table books on vintage Lamborghinis and pictorials of the Porsche factory museum, and reading road tests in Car and Driver and my grandmother’s issues of Consumer Reports shaped my views on automotive matters—but it remained an abstract subject. In a way, it was like “car astronomy;” the vehicles I formed opinions about were as remote to me as stars or planets. I gathered data about them from a distance, but any chance of experiencing them was absent.

    This doesn’t mean, by any stretch, that I was dissatisfied with my situation, any more than an 8-year-old is unhappy reading about dinosaurs or learning about fighter jets. Cars were confined to the realm of theory, and just the activity of organizing the various brands and their offerings in my mind and stacking them up against each other was deeply satisfying. However, as I grew older, a new form of automotive enjoyment came alongside:

    Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB SA22C Light Sky Blue

  • The idea of owning a car. This is where the rubber met the road. This is where I began visualizing myself behind the wheel of a little sports car I could actually endeavor to purchase if I were disciplined enough to save for a few months. All of a sudden, worthwhile cars were within reach, and the emotional thrust of my car interest morphed from simple fascination with cars from a distance to “How can I acquire the car I want?” So much time and energy was spent marshaling resources here and there, pondering trade scenarios, working out potential monthly payments on personal loans… I was still enthralled by theory—more than ever, in fact, now that I could dive under the hood of my latest project and familiarize myself with its intricacies—but the additional hemming and hawing over whether a purchase or trade would be the right decision came into play. I agonized over these things. There was, and continues to be, a restlessness absent the gentle succession of internal spotlights on the unattainable magazine car du jour.

That kind of anxiety-free excitement over a particular car model came rushing back to me as I perused the A5’s brochure, and the twinge of forgotten familiarity pleased me, like a comforting smell I hadn’t experienced in years. I want more of the perspective from my younger days; I need to endeavor keep the fingers of potential acquisition from reflexively closing around whatever car I may be fascinated with next. It’s just more healthy that way.

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Legends and LeBarons:
The Best and Worst Car Names

December 5, 2012 by Matt

Car Nameplates Emblems Badges

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but I wanted to underscore some of the better and worse car naming efforts over the past 50 years.

Highlights include:

  • Jaguar E-Type – There’s nothing quite so British sounding as a “-Type” suffix on a car’s name, and the ’60s icon exuded British-ness from every sheetmetal gap. The name also drew a connection to Jaguar’s then-recent endurance racing triumphs with the C- and D-Type.
  • Acura Legend – What better way to spearhead Japan’s first foray into the American luxury market than calling your car, with a touch of hubris, the Legend? (It’s legendary! Already?) In spite of Acura’s slight naming overreach, the car was a success, and it will be said “Acura Legend” rolls off the tongue particularly well. It was a shame when the automaker decided to “de-name” its cars and adopt a alphanumeric-only nomenclature scheme.
  • Audi RS4 – Okay, “RS4” just sounds like a cruise missile designation: “Captain, we’re approaching the fleet of aircraft carriers under their radar cover.” “Roger that; launch the RS4s and let’s head back to base!” Perfect.
  • Plymouth Barracuda – In perhaps the best decade for American car names—the ’60s—when automakers were a bit more brave with their names and didn’t subject a sanitized list to dozens of focus groups, the ‘Cuda stands out, sounding for all the world like the cammy idle coming from the Hemi V8 rumbling under the shaker hood.
  • Ford Mustang – Ford captured the “horse theme” and drew a connection to the P-51 Mustang of WW2 renown, an aircraft then only 20 years old and thus fresh in the memories of many at the time of the car’s release.
  • Toyota Avalon – Succinct, easy to pronounce, and perfectly conveys the car’s key attribute: A heavenly, cloud-like driving atmosphere. Spot-on.
  • Audi Nuvolari quattro – Audi has had a string of beautifully-named (and achingly gorgeous) concept cars, with monikers borrowed from icons of the firm’s pre-war racing history, such as Avus quattro and Rosemeyer.
  • TVR Griffith – Props to TVR to mining the “mythological beast theme” with cars like the Griffith, the Chimaera and the Cerbera. The theme is chock full of fearsome creatures whose character seems to transfer particularly well to the late Blackpool automaker’s fast but flawed supercars.

And there have certainly been names that left much to be desired:

  • Triumph Dolomite – It sounds like a vitamin drink. Or something a geologist would be fascinated by. One saving grace, I suppose, was the fact that the name was able to be easily morphed into a nickname: “Dolly.”
  • Chrysler LeBaron – Afflicted with the curse of the “Le-” prefix, much like the Buick LeSabre. Quite apart from the cars themselves, the prefix reeks of an American car company attempting to tart-up an otherwise unremarkable effort by giving it (what they thought was) a foreign-sounding name. Pathetic.
  • Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – A pirate’s dessert confection. Awkward and contrived. No thanks.
  • Oldsmobile Achieva – The absolute worst offender in the category I’ll call “Taking Normal Words and Adding an “A” to the End of Them.” Other members of this category include the Toyota Supra, Nissan Maxima and Altima, Acura Integra and Hyundai Elantra. You really can’t try a little harder to come up with something original?
  • Volkswagen Touareg – For your car to be a success, it helps for the buying public to be able to pronounce your car’s name without a lesson from the dealer, and without fear of embarrassment (“You got a what?”) on subsequent tries. The Touareg and to a lesser degree its later stablemate the Tiguan fail this test.
  • McLaren MP4-12C – It sounds like they actually never got around to naming the car, but simply went with the internal prototype code. The combination of numbers and letter seems so arbitrary that it actually detracts from the “special-ness” of the car—an important quality in a supercar. Furthermore, a car like the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 was able to get away with it because its nickname, the Daytona, superseded all else. But the MP4-12C has no such nickname. McLaren has recently decided to truncate the name to “12C.” Better, but again, hardly special.

What am I missing? Post a comment with a car name (or two or three) you think is particularly apt or inept.

7 Comments on Legends and LeBarons:
The Best and Worst Car Names

Which Would You Buy?
The Awful-Driving Looker vs.
the Great-Driving Box

November 30, 2012 by Matt

De Tomaso Mangusta Gray Grey Silver Gunmetal

B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R SER Red

Let’s try something a bit more abstract this time.

Our first car—let’s call it “Car 1″—is a stone-cold stunner. The kind of car that stops traffic. Has presence. Dominates conversation at car shows. Gives your neck a perpetual crick from turning around to gaze at it as you walk away.

But Car 1 is dog to drive. Flaccid engine, cramped cabin, leaden controls with all the charm and feedback of a farm tractor’s. Terrible visibility and a sadist’s ergonomics.

Car 2 reverses those attributes. Visually, it’s utterly anonymous. Blends in during the morning commute. Embarrasses your teenage daughter to be driven in. Looks as if it had been styled in five minutes using a straightedge and a t-square.

But Car 2 is a wonderful drive. Has an engine that begs for more. An alert, playful chassis. Alive, talkative steering feedback. A shifter descended from Olympus in a shaft of light. A flawless seating position, airy cabin and faultless ergonomics.

Critically, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that other factors like purchase price, running costs, ease of repair and reliability are roughly equivalent between the two cars. Let’s distill this exercise down to the kernel of looks vs. driving pleasure. You may choose only one. Which would you drive?

In the real world, among other considerations, we car enthusiasts select a car based on our assessment, at that time, of which represents the best blend of those two qualities according to our personal tastes. We may prioritize one over the other, or even prefer different positions at different times in our lives. There are very, very few cars that exist completely at one pole of the spectrum; the overwhelming majority strive for a blend of both according to their manufacturer’s ethos and their price point. So it’s rare that our car choices make us really reflect on our own priorities with respect to how we view our automotive interests.

So, let’s have it then: What’s more important to you in a car? The look, or the feel?

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

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The Awful-Driving Looker vs.
the Great-Driving Box

Kevin Thomas and His Homebuilt F1 Car

November 7, 2012 by Matt

Kevin Thomas Homebuilt F1 Formula 1 One Car BAR Lucky Strike Honda 2001

To clarify, that’s homebuilt, not homemade. Kevin Thomas isn’t constructing some kind of replica Formula 1 car from scratch; he’s assembling an actual F1 racer from actual F1 racer parts.

In his backyard.

As with many projects, it all started with an eBay purchase. A longtime F1 fan, Thomas was browsing the popular auction site one day when he stumbled across a listing for a pair of chassis constructed by the now-defunct British American Racing (BAR) team. On a whim, Thomas contacted the seller after the auction had ended and secured the foundation for his project.

Intended for the 2001 F1 season, the BAR chassis Thomas ended up with was relegated to testing duties, but has all the bells and whistles of the cars driven in anger by Jacques Villeneuve and Olivier Panis on circuits across the globe. Thomas has had considerable difficulty sourcing parts specifically for his chassis, so he’s had to cobble together subassemblies from other F1 cars when they come up for sale—a slow, painstaking process that requires more patience than I would have.

It also demands a decent amount of mechanical ability, or at least a willingness to learn. The car’s sidepods, for instance, are from a later Williams F1 car and adapted by Thomas to the BAR tub, and a contemporary Benetton racer lent certain suspension bits. As for the engine, Thomas plans to source a Formula Renault 3.5l V6 engine—much easier to come by than the BAR F1 car’s original 3.0 V10. The Renault engine’s output of “only” around 480 hp is less than two-thirds that of the engine the chassis was designed around, but more than enough to tax the abilities of 98% of amateur racers like Thomas, or you and me, for that matter.

It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and I wish Thomas the best of luck as he tinkers away in his backyard shed on his F1 race car.

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3 Car Interior Likes

October 31, 2012 by Matt

In the vein of my overanalytical dashboard preferences post a while back, here are a few car interior design features that generate immediate appeal for me:

Acura NSX Interior Inside Console Cockpit Dash Dashboard Design Styling

Consoles that flow up and into the dash. Love it when I see this. The design emphasizes the longitudinal axis, and thus forward motion of the car, and in most cases brings down the cowl height, improving sightlines so that the corners of the car can been more readily seen and positioned by the driver. The interior just seems to flow forward with the car. Example cars: Audi 5000, Nissan Maxima, Z32 Nissan 300ZX, Acura NSX (shown above).

FC Mazda RX-7 RX7 Gauges Instrument Cluster Interior Inside Console Cockpit Dash Dashboard Design Styling

As much instrumentation as possible. Within reason, you can never have too much information about your car’s state at your fingertips. For non-modified cars, I’d like the gauges to be incorporated into the dash design—no pods or extraneous bumps, please—but for cars with aftermarket bits, almost anything goes. I think I’m also drawn to the “comfort factor” of having all these little electronic sentinels reporting back to me. And beyond that, I do believe I harbor secret fantasies of flying a Boeing 747 or the Millenium Falcon, and additional instrumentation brings me one step closer to being on the bridge of either. Example cars: Mark 3 Toyota Supra, Porsche 911, FC Mazda RX-7 (shown above).

Audi B5 S4 Steering Wheel Interior Inside Console Cockpit Dash Dashboard Design Styling

A proper 3-spoke steering wheel. Always a good choice. The three spokes converging in the middle remind me of target crosshairs and the vertical bottom spoke combine to create a visual reference as to the position of the wheel, and emphasize the quality and accuracy of the steering. Example cars: BMW E30 325i, Mazda RX-8, Audi B5 S4 (shown above).

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In Defense of Manual Chokes

July 24, 2012 by Matt

Choke Knob

Thought about this whilst mowing my lawn Sunday afternoon. The mower had run out of gas in the middle of the back yard, and after a refill, it took me a good minute and a half of yanking on the cord to restart it. The reason for the difficulty? The automatic choke on the mower’s carburetor had reset itself and was delivering a rich mixture to an already-warm engine. Well, that and the float bowl was drained from having run out of gas… But I digress.

It used to be the case that almost all carbureted cars were fitted with a knob or lever somewhere in the cockpit that gave the driver control over the carb(s)’ choke. What does a choke do? In simple terms, it controls the ratio of air to fuel entering the engine. A cold engine needs a rich mixture, and a warm engine needs a lean mixture. Upon a cold startup, the driver would engage the choke, richening the mixture, and gradually back it off as the engine warmed.

But modern engine management has superseded all that. A fuel injection system’s electronic brain controls the A/F ratio far more precisely than a human ever could, and in response to the direct needs of the engine, not a driver’s vague sensing of those needs. Also, unlike another “holdover” from days when drivers had more control over their vehicles—the manual transmission—with which there are substantial, objective benefits over an automatic, there’s absolutely no downside to computer control over the mixture. From an engineering and practical standpoint, EFI is a lock.

So what’s the point? Well, truth be told, this post really is the equivalent of an audiophile pining for the added character of a vinyl record over the cool sterility of the thoroughly superior compact disc. As with carbs in general, the patina of a manual choke control’s presence engages the driver with the car in an irreplaceable way. Yes, it helps to know a bit more about the inner workings of the engine, and no, I wouldn’t pine for the good old old OLD days when drivers had to manage non-synchromesh gearboxes or control spark advance, but so help me, I do miss that little plunger knob on my old RX-7’s dash that read “CHOKE.” Heck, it even had a vacuum servo to retract it in case I forgot to when the engine warmed up, but just knowing it was there…

With respect to how much we let our cars “do for us,” I’m convinced everyone has their sweet spot. Again, there are certain functions I’m more than happy to let automated systems handle. But for my part—and maybe it’s a comfort/security thing—a few more buttons and controls, such as the aforementioned choke knob, would be welcome.

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Is the Nürburgring Going Bust?

July 21, 2012 by Matt

Nurburgring Ring Corner

Motor Trend relays a distressing report about one of automotive-dom’s most hallowed stomping grounds:

The Mecca for many car enthusiasts, Germany’s Nürburgring, is apparently in dire financial straits. German newspaper Rhein-Zeitung reports the famed motorsports complex is bankrupt, and that the European Union (EU) may deny the track rescue aid.

So, evidently the single-lap price of €26 (along with all the other multi-lap and “season pass” package deals) isn’t enough to keep the circuit afloat… It’s a shame, really, but somewhat understandable in the current European financial climate of “austerity,” even if the ‘Ring is something of a national icon, at least as far as car buffs are concerned. Here’s hoping an enterprising enthusiast (or group thereof) decides to step in and rescue the track from foreclosure.

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