Spannerhead Dot ComSpannerhead.com

Enjoy Spannerhead? Connect with us on Twitter and Facebook!

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

Comment

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

7 comments

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

2 comments

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:

2 comments

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

4 comments

Station Wagon Perceptions

August 6, 2014 by Matt

Buick Roadmaster Station Wagon

The above represents the mental image my wife conjures whenever I utter the term “station wagon.”

It’s sad, really. I’ve had to accept it as one of those areas where “never the twain shall meet,” since when I think of a station wagon, or more commonly use manufacturer-specific terms like Touring (BMW) or Avant (Audi), I visualize vehicles along the lines of the late, great RS2 Avant.

Ford Taurus Station Wagon Rear

Speak to many folks, and while the more practical ones will concede the advantages of a wagon over, say, a regular sedan, I’m not sure their image of the body style is quite in line with the typical enthusiast perception. As for the rest of the driving population, well… My wife’s attitude toward the station wagon is probably pretty typical. It preceded the minivan, which inherited its soccer mom and neutered male connotations, associations which, in America, rather unfairly, the station wagon has never lived down.

Car buffs, for our part, tend to adopt the European mindset: The station wagon is simply the sign of a practical owner, full stop; there are no negative connotations to overcome. The body style is liberated to accept whatever capability its manufacturer choose to bestow upon it, from cheap and slow to range-topping road-eaters like the Cadillac CTS-V Wagon, Audi RS6 Avant (never sold here, sadly) and to a lesser degree, the Dodge Magnum. Even Subaru got into the act, initially offering their third-generation WRX STI only as a wagon. Enthusiasts see the body style as just another possible shape for a performance car, as valid as any sports sedan or coupe—in a sense, even more so, since the practical nature of the wagon introduces an appealing “sleeper” element to the car’s perception.

All that said, I’ve made my peace with the fact that it’s unlikely my wife’s concept of the station wagon will ever nudge closer to the more open-minded view we enthusiasts take. That’s fine; at least there are performance cars in plenty of other body styles to choose from.

Image credits: thecarconnection.com, sunautoworld.com

5 comments

400 Horses for a 2017 Mazda RX-7?

July 30, 2014 by Matt

Mazda 16X New Rotary Wankel Engine Motor

With a rumor mill almost as productive as the one prophesying the return of the Toyota Supra, the latest scoop from the “new RX-7″ cloud of unsubstantiated gossip foresees 400+ horsepower from a next-generation rotary powerplant.

People tend to forget that car specifications—power, weight, grip and the like—are driven more by what market niche the car is intended to fill rather than what’s technically possible. So let’s assume for a moment, contrary to all actual and official evidence, that Mazda really does plan to unveil a true RX-7 successor in the next few years. A better way to speculate about the new car’s eventual output would be to “think like a marketer” and determine which corner of the sports car spectrum the car would be designed to occupy. I can think of three possible targets for Mazda’s new performance flagship:

  1. Toyota/Subaru GT86/BRZ competitor: Unlikely. The Toyotaru Twins offer slightly better performance than Mazda’s own Miata but adhere to a similar “driver-first” ethos. Making what amounts to a marginally faster hardtop Miata with a rotary engine would be a lot of fun, and would take advantage of the current mini-backlash against the current crop of overpowered, inert speed appliances, but fundamentally, such an approach would still edge too closely to the Miata’s territory.
  2. Pony car / Corvette killer: The article alludes to this possibility when it conjectures that a new RX-7 would “seriously challenge the Porsche 911.” The problem with this theory is that the high-end performance car market segment is currently engaged in a DEFCON 1, no-holds-barred arms race, outputs soaring above 600 hp with roadholding to match. In theory, Mazda could make a strong showing in this category by replicating yet amplifying the third-generation RX-7 formula: A high-strung turbocharged rotary offering competitive power in a lightweight chassis with hair-trigger reflexes. They certainly have the technical chops. But the matter of resources rears its ugly head: The automaker simply doesn’t have the capital to develop and support such a car on a mass-production scale. The fact that residents of this market segment like the Mustang, Corvette, Viper and Camaro are upping the power ante practically ever other week doesn’t help either. Besides, this niche is the obvious choice, and while Mazda’s approach to it would be unique, I’d like to think their target selection would be a little more…nuanced.
  3. Porsche Cayman / Nissan 370Z alternative: This makes more sense. Does it basically take over from where the RX-8 left off? Yes—but with the power and styling the RX-8’s chassis always deserved. If an RX-7 successor can take what actually worked about the ‘8—and given Mazda’s track record, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t—and shore up the areas in which it was deficient, sharpening the car’s focus by axing the back seats and giving us a bonafide sports car, they might have a winner on their hands. Here’s the recipe for success in this niche: A direct-injected, 300+ hp rotary; 2 seats; perfect (and I do mean perfect) looks, transcendent driving dynamics and a curb weight under 3,000 lbs. The time is ripe; the 370Z’s basic platform has been around since 2003 and has always been somewhat awful when pushed to 10/10s. And while the Cayman is as dead-nuts perfect as a sports car can be, it’s been rampaging alone in its market segment for far too long. It’s time, Mazda.

Image credits: hkcarworld.com

10 comments