Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Notes from comparing the 2008 Mitsubishi EVO, Subaru STI, VW Golf R32, and BMW 135i

On a recent comparison article for Sports Car International Magazine written by Alex Palevsky, I was tapped to drive the cars and offer my input. Here are my thoughts:

As a “driver’s car” the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X MR delivers the most positive feedback of the bunch, and despite the efforts to add a little refinement, the soul of the EVO is left intact. The razor sharp steering, the overall grip, the chassis’ willingness to change direction puts the EVO squarely on top. That said, it lacks a little of the EVO IX’s explosive feel – a tradeoff clearly made for everyday drivability. The styling is controversial – it seems more cluttered than the concept, and the front end suggests a fish with an overbite when viewed from the side. At the limit the chassis balance tips from neutral to rearward, making it easy to place, slide, and gather up. The sport-auto mode on the transmission is very intuitive, and does a good job of keeping the revs right where you want them when attacking a curving road – when operated in paddle mode (Ferrari-style with fixed paddle locations that don’t get lost with a turn of the wheel) the shifts are quick and positive. The car feels far more nimble than a trip to the scales would suggest.

Subaru WRX STI
The flares and optional wheels turn the otherwise bland WRX into a smoothly aggressive package – worthy of its WRC heritage. I desperately want to like the car – the power is definitely spot-on, and like the EVO, the ride has been refined to deal with everyone’s inevitable interaction with freeways. The problem here is that softening the suspension has amplified an issue I’ve always had with the STI (on the road) with the front differential. On and off throttle produce different turning arcs – step on the throttle and it wants to straighten out, lift off and it tightens up. This STI’s steering feels more numb than previous versions, and with a softer platform underneath it, it amplifies the effect to the point it impedes my ability to place the car accurately on the road. From previous experience, had off-road ability been on the menu for our test, the new STI will cover ground like no other car, and the front diff issue doesn’t rear its head off the tarmac. When pushed, the default is understeer – surprisingly the best way to combat it is to allow the DCCD computer to make it’s own decisions about where to distribute power in the AUTO- setting.

VW R32 Golf
For me the competence of the Golf was a huge surprise. This was by far the easiest car to bring to the limit, which was unexpectedly high. When cornering hard, the chassis is totally consistent no matter what the surface, or road camber. Drive it like a front driver with a heavy right foot – if you overcook it, a slight lift of the throttle will tighten the line and noticeably pitch the rear end a few degrees. Unlike the EVO, you can feel the car’s weight working the shoulders of the front tires hard when really hoofing it, and it was clearly the least powerful of the foursome. The DSG transmission is the smoothest of the paddle-auto shifters here, but I tend to get lost on the wheel-mounted paddles. The Golf also had the stiffest freeway ride of the bunch. The exhaust note is the least refined of the bunch.

BMW 135i
The motor is the class of the field – I was blown away by the powerplant and its lack of turbo lag when I last drove the 335i in Austria, and it’s just as smooth and silky in the 1 Series. It howls like a straight six, and has a little less weight to pull around than in the 3, making it even better. Driving to our showdown from Northern California, we thought this might be the ringer – it feels so right on the open road and around town – tight, crisp, and balanced but not harsh. With rear wheel drive and near 50-50 weight distribution, editor Eric Gustafson thought it might be like bringing a gun to a knife fight, but it turns out there are a few compromises that make it more tricky to drive near the limit. The suspension tuning that makes it so good on the open road and around town can seem unsettled long before you reach the adhesion limit of the tires. In long corners, especially when on even throttle with the weight of the car evenly balanced, it seems like the shock valving creates a slightly unstable feeling front-to-rear oscillation, and if you proceed further it funnels into understeer. In playing with it, the chassis (with this shock valving) wants the weight to be transferred to the rear on the throttle, or to the front under braking. So the closer you get to driving really hard with no compromises – you’re either accelerating or hauling it down – continually pushes that instability further into the background. When you lose grip, it will be at the front, and the BMW is slower to respond to throttle changes to pitch the rear and tighten the line than the other three. While I found it tricky at first, it was also rewarding to figure it out and make it work. I like the looks, and the size – it feels like the E36 BMW, and it has a simple, straightforward interior that you can reach across and almost touch the passenger’s door panel (like the original 1600/ 2002). There’s room for improvement in the suspension tuning.

Ranking –
1 Mitsubishi EVO MR
It does it all, it’s still razor sharp, with a little comfort. The motor sounds a little like a miniature UPS truck – but who cares? Fast, and fun.
2 BMW 135i – Love the motor, and silky daily driving experience. Despite the handling nuances, I enjoyed figuring them out and always wanted back into the BMW…
3 Golf R32 –Totally consistent chassis with high approachable limits – surprisingly fun to drive, and how often will you be drag racing these other three anyway?
4 Subaru WRX STI – wanted to love it, it’s got the power and the looks, but the steering made it feel like I was sailing instead of driving.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lakes Speedster - Datsun motor looks like offy 6

This sweet salt-flats style speedster rod just popped up on Jalopnik, and what looks like at first glance to be a period Miller/Offy straight six is actually a Datsun 260z lump! Jim Pendleton of Texas is responsible for the build, and did a spectacular job. Read more /see more photos on Jalopnik.

The Datsun motor posing as an Offy really sets it off - nice detail work Jim... This represents the next frontier - making modern motors look vintage in period style builds. Along those same lines is this Model A Ford powered by a twincam Cosworth four that looks the part.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Z side by size

I have to say the new NISMO Z takes the 350z up a notch, and makes it feel more tuned and more special than the regular car. The drooped nose and giant front splitter gives the Z a more aggressive stance, while the back aero package takes a little more getting used to. However, when compared to the original, it’s apparent how much safety equipment and modern crash standards influence the sheer size of modern automobiles. The new Z feels fairly compact inside, in some ways even more so than the original – but on the outside it’s apparent there’s a lot of stuff packed underneath the skin. Roughly 3320 lbs of stuff versus 2300 lbs on the original.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Toyota and Isuzu Sportwagons Rocked the 1971 Tokyo Show

In 1971 Toyota hit the Tokyo Show with the RV1, “Recreational vehicle 1” was Toyota’s first attempt at a sportwagon.

The concept featured a small trailer filled with an inflatable camp-hut that would expand to 13 feet in diameter and 6.5 feet high to sleep 4-5 people, and 500-watt portable generator to run an electric air pump for inflating the hut. The lid of the trailer also turned into a small boat, complete with small outboard motor.

The Celica based chassis made do with a 105hp inline-4 from the Corolla. The design featured a narrow tailgate (between the elaborate taillamp assemblies with 30 lights in total, and unique gullwing opening rear hatches. Nissan must have studied this showcar in detail for their Pulsar NX “Sportback” option. Needless to say, the RV1 never saw production, but the idea of the sportwagon was never forgotten in a host of liftbacks and hatchback designs.

Also at the ’71 Tokyo Motor Show was a sportwagon from Isuzu based on the Bellett. At the time it was called clean and European – and looks like a cross between a Lotus Eclat and a Gremlin. Based on the Bellett GT chassis, and fitted with a 1.8 liter dual carb’d twincam, the Isuzu was more sporty than the Toyota RV1 across the show on Toyota’s stand. At the time it was compared to the Volvo ES – a 2+2 with some luggage space. Like the RV1, the Bellett sportwagon never made it to the production line.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Datsun's Rotary

Back in the early seventies, Datsun (along with a host of other car makers) was serious about developing a Wankel engine on the heels of NSU and Mazda. Toyota was also rumored to be working on one, but Datsun built them and ran test prototypes in Datsun1200 sedans. The Datsun 1200 Forum has a cool 1973 article on the state of development (at that time) of the Datsun Wankel.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Clean Room - Nissan GTR engine building facility

Yokohama Japan: Building the twin turbo VR38 GTR engine.

It’s a totally different world in the air-pressure regulated GTR clean room engine assembly area when compared to the rest of Nissan’s motor assembly facilities.

The workers in this clean room are called Takumi, or skilled craftsman and each motor is assembled entirely by one technician. This Takumi is building a fuel injection rail. The engines move from station to station, around the room as pieces and specific tools are added and needed. The process takes about 200 minutes and involves some 370 steps.

If there are any irregularities detected during assembly, the engine is set aside for analysis. Nissan even designed special electric tools for the clean room instead of the normal air-operated setup in order to keep dust and particles to a minimum. After assembly, each engine is tested with a no-load firing run, followed by a full load power test. For the startup of production Nissan has 13 Takumi’s building about 27 motors per day in a single shift, but can add another seven builders and go to a double shift as production ramps up.

Hammering away on the Nissan GTR Assembly Line

62 miles north of Tokyo, at Nissan’s Tochigi plant, the GTR takes shape. The facility was established in 1968 and has produced cars since 1971. It’s ringed by a high-speed four mile banked oval with the Nissan logo spelled out in shrubbery that you pass under while entering. The GTR is assembled along the same line as the Skyline coupe and sedan. I wasn’t allowed into the stamping shop or the area where some of the die-cast pieces are fitted into the body, but did get to wander through the actual assembly line inside a giant tin clad building.

On the assembly line itself, GTR’s are interspersed randomly among Skyline coupes, sedans, and US bound G35’s and G37’s with about six meters of space between them. Robots do most of the heavy lifting, as the line is 83% automated.

There are fewer of the musical robotic delivery carts than in the regular engine assembly areas (in Yokohama, GTR engines are built in a clean room, separated from the giant automated 4-cylinder MR assembly line full of robot delivery carts rolling along the aisles) but they’re present and belting out high-pitched happy songs (like Mary Had A Little Lamb and It’s a Small World in pitches that could double as mobile phone ring tones) as the cars snake along and workers at different stations install their guts.

After the components are installed along the 900-meter long line, the cars are driven to a four-wheel dyno station that automatically shortens or lengthens itself for the next car. At the front of the dyno station, several monitors display camera images of the front and rear of the car so the operator can test headlight and taillight functions, and a central screen depicts the rolling road speed on the dyno for checking speedometer calibration.

Assuming there are no problems on the dyno, the cars were driven forward to a final quality inspection lineup under a sea of intense flourescent lights. Workers crawl around the car and checking panel fit and finish of the interiors. It's amazingly bright!