Category: Product Reviews

By on October 9, 2012

With fall foliage peaking, it’s time for my third annual Appalachian Road Trip. Last year my friend and his father couldn’t make it, so it was just the old man and me. With fewer time constraints, I planned a route from West Virginia to “The Dragon” and back. Lessons were learned, among them the insanity of planning 360 miles of back roads driving in a day that also includes a few hours of hiking (my new max: 250) and, the subject of this piece, the inability of navigation systems to replace good old paper maps.

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By on November 29, 2011

Somewhere around Season Five of The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano asks his psychiatrist, “Whatever happened to the strong, silent type?” Here’s one answer to that question: Ryan Gosling’s performance in Drive. Awkwardly taciturn in many scenes and utterly wordless in others, Gosling’s nameless Driver has a ruthless economy of both word and action. As an action movie, Drive is patiently paced; as a love story and character study, it is almost too sparse to parse. Since this is TTAC, however, we’ll mostly talk about the cars and the driving…

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By on February 5, 2008

mats.JPGGiven half a chance, most car guys would spend big bucks pimping their wheels. Needless to say, their better half ain’t buying it. So neither are they. While aerodynamic addenda and wikkid wheels are [ultimately] a less costly ego enhancement than regular spa treatments, all car mods tend to appear fairly low on the list of financial priorities known as the family budget. But guys, it’s time to go to the mat. Literally.

Floor mats. Yes, I said floor mats. But not just ANY floor mats. I’m talking high quality rubber, deep-grooved floor mats specifically designed to keep the water and mud off the carpet of your mint 92’ Pontiac Sunfire. I know, I know; contain yourself. The best is yet to come!

If you’re looking for the sine qua non of rubber floor mats, it’s WeatherTech®. Their all-weather mats withstand sub-zero weather without curling, cracking or hardening, for at least ten years! That’s one decade, or seventy dog years (which is just as well if you let Fido in your car). Guaranteed.

Navigate to www.weathertech.com, input your car make and model, and voila! A set of black, tan or gray mats custom-contoured to your car’s curves for about $55, AND you can add matching rear mats for an additional $45 (must be trimmed). 

Problem: WeatherTech® mats look a lot like the cheap rubber mats you get at the local auto parts store for ten bucks. Sure they work better. But we’re looking for maximum pimpification. Stand back folks; I’m going OEM!

Audi sells custom-fit floor mats for various models for about $100 to $130. They come in any color you like as long as it’s black, with a contrasting car name logo in white. Yes, that’s twice the freight of a WeatherTech® set, but you gain the fancy logo. So if you forget what car you’re driving, you can simply look down for a reminder (closed course, professional driver). My mats proudly and accurately proclaim allroad. 

The mats include mounting holes that affix the rubber widgets into place on the carpeted floor. The design features WeatherTech®-tonic deep-ribbed channels PLUS a high surrounding lip designed to keep liquids from spilling onto the carpet. I tested this premise by removing the driver’s mat from the car and slowly pouring water into the mat until the liquid spilled out of the mat.

As I poured the water ever-so-slowly into the mat, I pondered the usefulness of this experiment. Liquids get to the car’s floor either from the outside via rain, car wash, garden hose, water balloons, etc., and from the inside from drinks, leaking ac, involuntary urination, exploding bottles, etc. Any liquid intrusion (save slow leaks from your shoes) would likely go all over the place– not just on the mat (regardless of the mat’s fluid holding capacity).

I was able to pour seven fluid ounces into the Audi mat before the liquid spilled over the mat’s edge. This is one-sixth the amount of soda in a McDonalds super-sized drink or if you prefer (God knows I do) a twelve-ounce Bud Light.  With this low capture level, I concluded that drink spills of any real quantity are going to end-up on the carpet. Therefore, in truth, the mats can only really handle very small spills and minor drips from wet shoes.

Of course, that still leaves another claimed benefit for floor mats: mud and snow protection. However, all floor mats provide a similar service. At least with rubber mats you can easily remove the mud which would have otherwise clung to– and stained– a carpeted floor mat.

The rubber solution also offers psychological benefits. Even if you never go anywhere near mud, having Audi floor mats tells passengers you’re a hardy, adventurous spirit, unafraid to venture off the beaten path to someplace… muddy. Or snowy. Or both.

Well if floor protection is not a major benefit, how about durability?

I used a similar set of Audi mats in an Audi A4 for a period of eighteen months and 15k miles. No snow, mud or spills of any sort occurred on my watch (nor involuntary urination). After that time, the driver’s side mat was worn down where my feet rest. The mat had split along one of the deep ribbed channels, making those dreaded leaks a potentially ruinous problem. This quick wear was really no better than a quality carpeted mat that costs less than half the price.

Overall if you’re into rubber, like to express your ruggedness in your floorware and share my customization compulsion, you will want a set of stylish Original Equipment Manufacturer mats in your car. Yes, they’re basically useless. But your wife won’t mind if you do. Take your victories where you can find ‘em lads.

WeatherTech®, Audi OEM Floor Mats Review Product Review Rating

By on January 31, 2008

img_20051105t220931214.jpgIf you’re a pistonhead, you have people. You know, Nick the mechanic or Joe the dyno. I got a tire guy: Ernie Bello. Bello tires is a performance car hangout, with all the right equipment for mondo mods and a lounge, decorated with a map of the Nürburgring, stocked with car mags, ice cream and kick-ass Cuban coffee. When my sports car needed new tires I clicked on Tire Rack for price and advice. I then went to Ernie. Hey Ernie! Whaddayathinkin here?

For a long time, Ernie was a Toyo guy. Ernie’s now nuts on Nittos. Trusting Ernie’s advice, I went with the Nitto Invo. I’ve now driven over five thousand spirited miles on the shoes, including a 1500 mile trek to the BMW factory in Spartanburg, SC.

Like many high performance cars, my BMW boasts staggered wheel sizes: 225/45 17” wheels in the front, and 245/40 17” wheels in the back (on the stock rims).  This setup improves handling, but eliminates front-to-back tire rotation. That means shorter tire life; the rears suffer from my aggressive driving style, while the fronts stay ahead of the game.

Bottom line: I got great G’s on the track, and then spent them down at Ernie’s replacing the rears on a regular basis. Readers of my reviews will not be surprised to learn that I wanted a tire that wasn’t overly expensive, offering reasonable wear life, without sacrificing performance. I was pleased to learn that the Invos are non-directional; I can rotate the rubber side-to-side to balance wear. Somewhat.

The Invos are classified by Nitto as ultra-performance street tires. Translation: they’re designed for both wet and dry traction– without sacrificing ride comfort and noise suppression. Competitors include the Michelin Pilot Exaltos, the General Exclaims (previously reviewed), Firestone Firehawks and Bridgestone Potenzas.

The Invo has a unique design. The tire incorporates standard tread design with a three channel-deep wide-rib, located on one side. Nitto claims that combining an inner rib with two circumferential grooves improves wet weather performance. The rest of the tire consists of a Silica-reinforced tread compound, variable pitched grooves and large inner and outer contact patches (for improved dry handling).

The Invos come in sizes ranging from 225/45 17” to bling-sized 275/25 24” monsters. The tires are “Z” rated; good for speeds over 149 mph. But they’re also limited by a “W” rating, which pegs the maximum safe speed at 154 mph. The 17” tires I purchased have a 91 rating for load, which means a maximum load per tire of 1356 pounds in the front. The larger rear Invos support over 2000 pounds per tire, for a 5000 pound total.

Nitto warrants Invo tires for uniformity problems for sixty months after purchase– subject to rotation every 3500 miles.  As expected with performance tires, no mileage warranty is offered.

Without sophisticated equipment, testing tire on a scientific basis is impossible. As to mileage tests, one requires either many years of patience or a machine to artificially add mileage. Having neither, I can only provide my subjective analysis of the tires based on years of experience.

The other issue with tires is the trade-off between comfort/noise/longevity versus performance and traction.  Tires that lean toward performance usually have comfort and noise issues. Softer, more compliant tires aid comfort but lose performance capabilities.

I tested the Invos for four characteristics: noise, comfort, dry traction and wet traction. The easiest to measure was the Invo’s noise level. I found the tires extremely quiet, with little noise intrusion with the vehicle’s top down, and none with the top up.

Comfort was harder to measure; the BMW M Roadster is already a somewhat harsh vehicle to start. Compared to the stock Michelin Pilots, I found no change in the comfort level with the Invos installed. I lean to a harsher ride on a sports car and the Invos did not make the ride any worse.

The fun part of testing is pushing tires to the limit on the street in simulated track tests in open lots. All tests were performed with the traction control turned off.

I tested dry handling by completing high speed turns and simulated slaloms. I found traction to be substantial, with the car failing to break away. This made reasonable drifting impossible. I also tried several panic stops, inducing ABS vibration. Again the Invos functioned very well.

Wet traction was only slightly worse with slower slalom speeds and longer braking. I never felt a loss of control. I’d trust these tires (though my M never sees rain, the spoiled bitch that she is).

With the install, I paid $600 for all four shoes at Bello Tires. Not the cheapest option, but well worth the price and competitive with the other tires mentioned above.  Now if I can only get 20k miles on them!

NITTO Invo Ultra-High Performance Tire Review Product Review Rating

By on January 29, 2008

0601_hppp_24z2003_pontiac_grand_prixredline_water_wetter.jpgInexpensive products that promise significant improvements to your car’s performance are almost always fool’s gold. This is especially true for engine additives (*cough* STP *cough*). However, there’s one company with a sterling reputation for delivering on its promises: Redline Synthetic. Since 1979, the Benicia, California company has been selling coolants, fuel additives and lubricants to the automotive, motorcycle, marine and industrial markets. As part of their range, Redline offer a product called WaterWetter®. They claim their potion can reduce car coolant temperatures by as much as 30ºF. That’s hot! I mean, not. 

I reckoned it’d be a doddle to test the bottle. I’d simply run my car sans Redline’s additive and check the coolant temperature. Then, following the instructions on the bottle with my usual precision, I’d give my mount the magic potion, drive the same test loop and measure the temp again.

For the mechanically challenged, installation of WaterWetter® could not be easier. Assuming you can open your hood, open your hood (when it is cold, otherwise prepare for a scalding). Locate the radiator fluid intake point (RTFM if necessary). If you have too much fluid in the overflow tank (above the line labeled max), simply siphon off 12 ounces before installing, as overfilling is a really bad idea. Open the radiator cap (or on most modern cars, the overflow tank) and pour in the full bottle of WaterWetter®, funnel optional.

Before I reveal the results of my test, let’s look at Redline's claims for WaterWetter®'s effects on your cooling system:

• Doubles the wetting ability of water
• Improves heat transfer
• Reduces cylinder head temperatures
• May allow more spark advance for increased torque
• Reduces rust, corrosion and electrolysis of all metals
• Provides long term corrosion protection
• Cleans and lubricates water pump seals
• Prevents foaming
• Reduces cavitation corrosion
• Complexes with hard water to reduce scale

According to Redline, WaterWetter®’s greatest benefits accrue to those cars running straight water in their cooling system– which doesn't include anyone living in snow country. Translation: WaterWetter® offers all the normal protection benefits of regular coolant to people who don't use regular coolant. Oh, at a lower temperature. Well, theoretically… 

Strangely, Redline’s own test results don’t square with their ad copy. Their technical literature only shows an eight degree Fahrenheit drop in a car with a 50/50 mix of water and coolant, and an eighteen degree Fahrenheit drop for a car running 100 percent water. 

I used a VagCom system (reads sensor data directly from the ECU) for my tests. The pre-WaterWetter® installation delivered temperatures between 96 and 98 degrees centigrade (or 205 to 208 degrees Fahrenheit for the Americans). The post-installation temperature stayed steady at 96 degrees centigrade. Clearly, not the results advertised.

Other websites have tested WaterWetter® and also concluded that the overall decrease in coolant temperature is marginal. So WaterWetter®’s benefits either lie elsewhere (or nowhere). That assessment requires a certain level of trust with Redline products. In my experience, based on their oil products, they deserve this trust.

In reviewing the technical literature on Redline’s website, WaterWetter® claims to reduce hot spots in a car’s cylinder head. In theory at least, this reduces the possibility of localized overheating, improving engine longevity. Supposedly, WaterWetter® also protects aluminum products in the cooling system from excessive heat and cavitation caused by vapor bubbles forming inside the cylinder head and water pump.

In addition, for cars running straight water, WaterWetter® provides some additional protection. This includes traditional coolant roles of reducing corrosion and lubrication of water pump seals. For cars caned on the track or driven in the summer only, a water-only engine and cooling system solution will lead to problems. However, for cars with a tradition 50/50 mix of water and trad coolant, these benefits are already present without WaterWetter®.

WaterWetter® is available at auto parts stores and online for less than $10 a bottle. One bottle is good for an entire cooling system, and lasts as long as you properly keep fluid in your system (assuming you follow the recommended practice of flushing your cooling system every two years or 30,000 miles).

Since WaterWetter® has no readily measurable benefit, should you consider putting this in your car? That depends on your personality and your relationship with your car. 

If you’re like me, you like buying stuff for your car in the HOPES of improving power, performance, mileage or longevity (I put Chevron Techron in my tank every 1000 miles). It’s true: I’m a sucker for products that have the POTENTIAL to improve the car, even without any possibility of measuring the results. This is doubly true if the cost isn’t prohibitive and there isn’t any risk of a downside.

In other words, fool’s gold is as good as gold to a fool.     

Redline WaterWetter® Review Product Review Rating

By on January 22, 2008

chain-tracks-in-snow.JPGI learned to drive in Philly in the winter. Although we were always warned to watch out for the dreaded black ice, the roads where I lived were plowed, salted and gently hilled. So there was little winter drama. The only slip sliding away in my ‘hood: Paul Simon’s doleful tune and the snow-covered mall parking lot where we went for late-night donuts. Flash forward to the winter of ‘07: a family vacation to the mountains of North Carolina in our rear drive Cadillac SRX. Before embarking, I glimpsed a warning on our cabin rental website: “four wheel-drive is a must.” Ch-ch-chains. Chains for fools. Or not.

Reviewing the Caddy's manual on the subject of winter traction devices advised me these automotive accoutrements had to come in the form of “s” class chains. The stricture is down to the SRX' passenger car roots; most “normal” cars can only accommodate s-chains in the [relatively] small spacing between the wheel and the body. So I started researching the “other” s-class. 

I learned there are three sub-categories of s-class chains. For under $125, you get your basic metal chain with complicated installation and manual tightening. In the $125 to $250 bracket, your money buys you more sophisticated chains with mounting tools and semi-automatic self tightening links. Finally, as befits an SRX, one can buy the Cadillac of chains: the $450 Spike-Spiders.

As an incorrigible Scrooge, I never would have paid this much money for chains, even if they were fashioned from gold. But my wife, who found these arachnid glorifying chains online, insisted. A week before the trip, we purchased them from the U.S. distributor at www.spikes-spider.com. The large box that arrived soon thereafter contained the "chains," the mounting plate and an enormous collection of nuts, bolts, spacers and clips.

mounting-plate.JPGThe instructions were a bit confusing and over-complicated. Yes sir, I’m here to tell you that there were not one but TWO– count ‘em TWO– separate methods for mounting the plate. 

At first, the instrux seemed to imply that all of the car’s lug nuts would have to be removed. After a bit of re-caffeination, I divined it was only three. I proceeded to mount the plate to each rear wheel. Deploying the handy dandy measuring tool included with my purchase, it appeared that my SRX’s didn’t need no stinkin’ spacers. So I boxed up the extras, put the chains in the carry bag (included) and slapped on the decorative cover.

We arrived in a snow-free North Caroline on the last Sunday of 2007. Our driveway was so steep it could have served as a V2 launch pad. I knew if it snowed we were in big trouble. Or, as I preferred to think of it, I’d have the perfect opportunity to justify my wife’s heinous expenditure.

Lo and behold, three days later, two plus inches of the white stuff fell upon the hills. I was ready to test the Spike-Spiders.

wheel-cover.JPGDespite following the instructions for measuring the spacers, I was 1.5” short. I called the company on the cell, hot breath steaming in the cold mountain air. Spike-Spider immediately blamed me for not testing the mounting before the trip. Only after I gave the company my FedEx number– MY FedEx number– did they agree to send me extra spacers. 

Stuck in the cabin, I watched my neighbors struggle with cheap chains. First, they tried the rear wheels and promptly wrapped them around the axle. I advised them that their car was propelled by the front wheels. An hour or so later they were off, dashing through the snow.

The new spacers arrived late Thursday– on a chainless FedEx truck. After remounting the plate, I installed the Spike-Spiders. I laid them over the wheel, twisted on the mounting bracket and voila! They automatically locked on as I drove. 

Once down the mountain and onto the main paved road, I stopped, took off the mounting bracket, pulled off the Spiders, drove three feet and put them back in the bag.  I could easily mount or dismount them in the time it takes to drum your fingers during a long red light.

chains-mounted.JPGOf course, the real test is how they performed as snow chains. The Spike-Spiders were extremely effective. The Swiss-made contraptions bit well on the snow and ice. In fact, in test panic stops, the SRX came to a halt nearly as well as it does on dry pavement. We climbed steep hills without slipping, with better control than the four wheel-drive vehicle we followed up one particularly steep snowy road.

When properly installed, the Spike-Spiders are a well-designed product that provide an effective solution for tough winter driving. The only negatives are the price, the lame-ass instructions, and the major geek factor the mounting plates project. Otherwise, you're good to snow.

[German language Spike-Spider video here .] 

Spike-Spider Winter Traction Package Review Product Review Rating

By on January 11, 2008

0071412993911_500×5002222.jpgLooking at last year’s Black Friday ads made it clear that a portable GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) satellite navigation device was the season’s most popular loss leader. Even department stores like Macys were offering a GPS device on the cheap. This strategy continues; last week our local Walgreen’s had a Nextar GPS device at the front counter for under $200, right there next to mints and quit smoking gum. I wanted to see if a cheap GPS unit could compete with the big boys. So I contacted Nextar, and they provided us with a Snap3. 

On paper, the Snap3 sat nav looks like a winner. It comes complete with a 3.5” touch screen, Navteq on Board® maps, super-slim design, mp3 player, photo viewer and mini-SD memory slot. In person, the packaging is very professional, especially for a GPS product sitting on the lowest wrung of the consumer ladder. Included in the deal: the unit, a USB/DC charger, car mount, detailed manuals and a carry bag. The Snap3 is very small, measuring three by four and less than an inch thick. The front is all screen all the time, with all the necessary buttons positioned on the sides and bottom.

I always measure a gizmo’s user friendliness with a simple test: try and use without reading the manual. (Let’s face it, the vast majority of consumers at the bottom end of the market won’t read any user’s manual, ever, and the rest probably can’t.) The Snap3 flunked. The unit has to be booted before the main power switch can be used. Granted this requires about ten seconds; less time than it takes to call India– I mean, customer service. But who knew?

Once booted, you’re looking a main screen with choices of navigation, photo, mp3, Bluetooth, calculator and settings.

Selecting navigation takes you to the main map screen. Accessing the Navteq supplied software and maps is no different than most other GPS devices. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with this mapping software. The Snap3 offered more of the same– at least initially. And right from the git-go, at the main screen, you have to sit and wait while the Snap3 tries to acquire a signal. The search took all of 45 seconds, which indicates an older GPS chipset. 

On the road, the Snap3 failed to update our ETA (estimate time of arrival) as we drove. It clung to original estimate like grim death, despite the fact that we eventually arrived an hour earlier than the machine’s ETA. On the positive side, our car’s onboard sat nav system frequently lost the satellite signal in the mountains, while the Snap3 maintained a lock at all times– after the painfully slow signal acquisition.

We also took the unit hiking in the Carolina Mountains (better than going with some guides I know). In this application, the Snap3’s size is a definite plus, easily fitting in a pocket.

The Snap3 is touted as a multi-function device. However, once in the navigation mode, you can only access the other features by rebooting the device to go back to the main screen. The other functions are crude and basic. The mp3 player was too quiet even with the volume turned all the way up (fixed by going to settings, turning-up the volume and returning to the mp3 player). The photo viewer displayed jpegs but was slow and awkward.

The Bluetooth function never worked; my iPhone could not discover the Snap3. This may have been an iPhone issue, but my test Magellan sat nav device always paired quickly with the iPhone.

By the same token, the Windows CE spinning beach ball of death was a frequent sight. This means that the Snap3 is running some form of the embedded Windows Mobile software. This also means that the device should easily connect to a PC to allow data uploads for new maps and firmware. No such software was included with the Snap3, and nothing in the supplied box shows this capability. When I connected the Snap3 to my PC, the device was never found (even though the Snap3 was powered over a standard USB cable).

The Snap3 has sixty-four megs of internal RAM and one gigabyte flash RAM for map storage. Without the ability to connect to a PC, it can’t be upgraded; it’s only a matter of time before the maps will become “stale.” The inability to update the firmware is more worrying. In the settings menu, I noted that the system software was version 0.97. This indicates that I tested a pre-production version, so this capability could well be on its way.

After several days of use, one lock-up and several reboots, the Snap3’s mapping function eventually died, displaying a “can’t find navigation software” warning. It was a fitting end to an inexpensive device that proves that “value” and “price” are not always synonymous. 

[NEXTAR provided the unit tested.] 

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NEXTAR Snap3 3.5″ Navigation System Review Product Review Rating

By on January 8, 2008

l10464664.jpgI know it's not PC to say so, but I hate a lot of things. For example, I hate people walking around with those stupid cell phone earpieces looking like Lt. Uhura from Star Trek. They wear them like some sort of fashion jewelry, even when they're not asking John to phone Sally to tell Jorge he needs to phone Mary. For my sake, they should put their headsets away when not in use. Meanwhile, to find out what these people see in these devices and whether they have any practical use, I tested the suddenly very cheap Motorola HS820, a small Bluetooth, wireless headset.

The HS820 comes in one of those plastic containers that are NASA sealed for your protection. After repeated attempts to chew the package open, I got the scissors out and proceeded to cut my finger on the razor sharp plastic. Once open, I extricated the headset, charger and folded eight language manual. [NB: Yes, I’ve seen the TV ads for the Pyranna plastic cutter, but that’s not a car-related accessory.]

Stylistically, the HS820 is reasonably attractive, at least compared to some of the larger, uglier headsets adorning large swathes of the mobile generation. Motorola claims the HS820 possesses a “Funky surfboard design.” If true, it may be way too LA for many users. While the HS is smaller than your average ear thingie, and therefore less obtrusive, its small size may also affect battery life (discussed below). 

I plugged the HS820 into my car’s 12-volt socket (a.k.a. cigarette lighter) and waited two hours for a full charge. I then switched my IPhone into Bluetooth discovery mode and hoped for the best. The telephonic apple of Steve Job’s eye quickly discovered the HS820, illuminating its blue bluetooth indicator light. That's a lot more exciting than it sounds; I’ve had Bluetooth recognition issues before. I was relieved to see the two devices make nice so quickly.

I tried to make a call. Nothing. There was no sound in the HS820's earpiece. The IPhone said paired, but I despaired. So I used another phone to call someone to tell them to call me. When the call came through, I pressed the big ‘phone’ button to answer. Still nothing. So I unpaired and paired again (like the shampoo instructions say, lather, wash, rinse and repeat).

Second go. This time, when I went to phone a friend, the IPhone offered me a choice of phone, speakerphone, HS820 or ask the audience. Kidding. When I selected the HS820, I heard a beep in my ear. And then, finally, the earpiece went to work.

Calls were audible enough for rock and roll. All the people I annoyed on your behalf stated that my mellifluous tones were clear on the receiving end, and swore I didn’t sound as if I was calling from an undersea Plexiglas bubble.  No one complained of an echo, which was a real problem with the Bluetooth speaker in the previously tested Magellan 4040. Comfort was not an issue; at just 17 grams (about half an ounce to the metrically challenged), the headset’s weight didn't once threaten to deform my cranium.

The HS820’s range was within the Bluetooth specs of about 30 feet. The sound quality, such as it was, wasn't affected by a ten foot stroll away from the iPhone. Beyond ten feet, the caller’s voice warbled but remained audible, with no complaints about my voice on the receiving end. In-car use uncovered no range issues whatsoever. I suspect most users will stick to the mobile mobile environment– especially with the increasing number of states where operating a cell phone illegal without a hands-free device can land you in the hoosegow.

Motorola claims the HS820’s battery is good for six hours of talk time and 120 hours of waiting for somebody to call time. In the real world, even I can’t talk that long, so I have no idea if the six hours time limit is even remotely realistic. However, I do know that if I didn’t use the HS820 for several days, it was always DOA. So the promised five-day schmooze fest seems a tad optimistic.

When the HS820 first hit the market, it was priced at $99. I’m sure your friendly Verizon store still sells it for that price. You can now find the HS820 for significantly less. Amazon will sell you an HS820 for $31.95, and best-digital's giving them away at $19.99. At that price, it’s a no-brainer.

But if ultimate quality, sound and battery life matter to you, look for a newer Bluetooth 2.0 device. (The HS820 is 1.2 technology.) With fair sound quality, small size, okay battery life and a whole lot of cheapness, the HS820 is a decent choice for a wireless cell phone headset.

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Motorola HS820 Bluetooth Headset Product Review Rating

By on January 3, 2008

02871222000.jpgLike most middle aged men, I had a car crisis. So, after convincing my wife that an Imola Red BMW M Roadster isn’t “chick magnet red,” I bought my dream car. Of course, the dream is never the reality. I rarely drove the M. Summers were too wet and hot (real men don’t drive a convertible with the top up and the a/c on). Fall was too wet. Ah, winter in Florida! It’s the best ‘vert weather but… I just got a new daily driver. So Emily became a garage queen. And died.

Yesterday, I went out to drive her for the first time in two weeks. Unlike The Grand National, she’s never failed to start. But this time, key in, quick turn and nada. The dash lights were on but she didn’t even bother emitting the dreaded click click click sound. A dead battery was the blindingly obvious call. So I rolled her out of the garage, grabbed the jumper cables, opened the trunk, removed the battery cover and– remembered that jump starting a car is generally a bad idea.

Jump starting a modern car is two kinds of dumb. First, we’re talking dumb and dumberer, or, if you prefer, the Darwin factor. That’s when you accidentally reverse the cables and/or cause so much sparking that the battery blows. Second, there’s the small matter of an overly sensitive $1k electronic control unit that can up and die from a spike in the voltage transmitted from the running car to the dead car via Old Sparky– I mean jumper cables.

Some jumper cables now include a special resistor to reduce voltage spike. Some manufacturers also include a jumping block off the battery, which should help prevent battery explosions. But, as you’ve read here, no one reads the owner’s manual anymore. And I’m a lawyer; I don’t trust anyone, with anything, ever.

As an alternative, Sears sells several battery chargers. I reckon they’re a must for any vehicle driven less than once a week. So I tested the Sears DieHard 10/2/50 amp Automatic Battery Charger. The unit MSRPs at $64.99, but way-hey! As of December 23, 2007, it was on sale for a bargain price of only $39.99.

The Diehard charger is your basic, garden variety metal box with one analog battery charging gauge, two leads (for power on and full charge) and a three-way switch. It has two plugs, a 110 amp wall plug (not grounded) and two small jumper cable style wires with a red and black clamp. The Diehard does so with a vengeance; the heavy and sturdy block weighs in at eleven pounds.

So, connect the Diehard to your Diehard battery (or similar), red to red, black to black (or brown, as apparently some car companies didn’t get that memo regarding the international colors for positive and negative). Select the style of charge, plug in the device and wait. The Diehard offers spark proof protection in automatic mode, and even includes a Darwin feature for fashion victims who insist on hooking up red to black and black to red because it’s more aesthetically pleasing.

The Diehard Charger offers three settings depending on your needs. The 50 amp setting is similar to a jump from another car and should allow most cars to start up right away (though I would still give it a minute or two, and keep in mind the warning above, though the voltage from the Diehard is delivered spike free according to Sears).

If you’re not planning on driving the vehicle straight away, set the Diehard in the ten amp mode and wait about two hours. A blinking light will advise you when the battery is fully charged. WARNING: the Diehard doesn’t have an automatic shutoff; leaving the charger in ten amp mode for extended periods can damage your car’s battery. How lame is that?

I used ten amp mode for my M. A couple of hours later the car started like a dream, and ran the rest of the day without battery troubles.

There’s also a two amp trickle charger mode. This is the mode I SHOULD have been using for my M before I let her die. A trickle charge feeds just enough juice to keep the battery charged and the electrical system refreshed without overcharging the battery. Since most cars continue to draw power when off, a trickle charger also prevents damage to electrical components that seem to freak at low voltage.

I recently sampled a rarely driven loaner 2006 M5. When I picked her up after a short lay-up, the dash was lit up like a Christmas tree with dreaded engine damage warnings. A flat bed to the dealer later, I learned that the low voltage had falsely triggered the warnings. If only I’d learned to live free and Diehard.

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Sears DieHard 10/2/50 amp Automatic Battery Charger Review Product Review Rating

By on December 27, 2007

sprayrinse.jpgVisit any parts store and you’ll see rows of products that claim to clean wheels. Just spray and rinse! After buying, spraying and rinsing, you end up with half clean wheels that beg you to take out the scrub brush and clean them the old fashioned way. And here’s the really horrible bit: OCD pistonheads keep after the “cleanliness is next to godliness” spray-’n-wash wheel-cleaning Holy Grail until their garages are littered—OK, carefully arranged—with half empty bottles of wheel cleaner. So, is there a genuine no-brush wheel cleaning solution?

No, and for good reason. Any liquid powerful enough to remove all the grease and grime from your wheels without a brush would eat through the wheel’s clear coating or painted surface and leave you with a cancerous catastrophe. However, after years of searching, I’ve found a product that works better than most at cleaning wheels with minimal post-application intervention.

I’m talking about Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner. As you can see, the company takes its brand seriously. The formula is sold in a simple spray bottle with a cheap, glued-on paper label featuring Poorboy’s riff on Monopoly’s Mr. Moneybags. The 24-ounce bottle runs $9.95 at your local auto parts store. You can also purchase a quart bottle online for $15.95, or a gallon jug for $39.95. Since the wheel cleaner requires almost as much spraying as the side of a good-sized house, I recommend you go for the gallon.

Simply spray Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner the on cold wheels. And then spray some more. And a bit more. And then, more. Keep spraying until your wheels are better coated than a Shake ’n Bake chicken breast. Wait a few minutes for the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome to subside and then rinse the wheels with a hose. A jet sprayer is ideal, as the pressure will thoroughly wash off the cleaner and the dirt.

before.JPGThen . . . more spraying! I recommend wiping the wheels with a stiff brush, and then using a needle shaped brush, cleaning the area between the wheels and the lug nuts.  One more spray and rinse and voilà! Your wheels are clean. But remember: don’t let the spray sit on wheels for more than a few minutes. This is some serious shit.

Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Cleaner Wheel Cleaner is an acid-based product. So some basic, common sense precautions are required. Always spray downwind and use protective eyewear. I know it looks dorky, but if a sudden gust catches the product as you spritz, you may be temped to re-enact the final act of Oedipus Rex. (Been there, done that.) The good news: the human eye is the fastest healing part of the human body.

Another warning: the product should not be used on uncoated wheels. In undiluted form, the cleaner is plenty strong enough to damage an unpainted finish. Poorboy’s recommends diluting Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner by 50 percent and spot-testing to see if the solution works like alien goo on your cherished rims. Diluting the cleaner is also recommended if you’re a frequent (not to say obsessive) cleaner, both to protect the wheels and save cold, hard cash.

When I use Poorboy’s wheel cleaner, I also spray the liquid liberally on the inside of the wheel and onto the brake calipers. This helps keep the inside [somewhat] clean, and keeps the calipers looking presentable. However, if you’ve painted your own calipers, just say no. By the same token, the Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner may eventually eat through your car’s paint. So I’d definitely avoid over-spraying onto ANY painted surface, especially small areas of the body where the clear coat has chipped away, leaving thin painted or even bare metal surfaces.

after.JPGI also recommend a thorough wash with water on the inside of the wheel, so that none of the cleaner sits on the brake pads or other brake parts. Overspray onto tires seems to have no affect, but Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner is not and should not be used as a tire cleaner.

Since brushing is necessary (despite the company’s claim), I recommend a good quality short hair synthetic brush. Some detailers swear by boar’s hair wheel brushes, which are considered safer on wheels than the synthetic equivalent. However, they cost five times the price, and, in my experience, they don’t make much of a difference. Just avoid aggressive rubbing and have a little patience and you’ll avoid scratching your wheels.

Overall, Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner is an excellent product that comes as close as you can get to a true spray and rinse product. Once your wheels are cleaned, a simple regimen of weekly sprays will keep them looking good, avoiding the dirt, grease and grime build-up that’s harder to remove over time.

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Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner Review Product Review Rating

By on December 20, 2007

dyno2.jpgSay the name Hartge or Alpina to a BMW fan and you’ll get instant nods of understanding and respect. While Dinan doesn’t get the pistonhead props afforded these German uber-tuners, they’re rightfully considered America’s foremost BMW tuner. Steve Dinan’s mob has been modifying BMW cars since 1979. His Morgan Hill California-based company offers upgrades for Bimmer engines, suspensions, brakes and wheels. Like the Germans, Dinan also sells “Signature Vehicles” and creates special Factory Works programs. We concern ourselves here with an ECU upgrade and a cold air intake. 

Until the introduction of the sublime twin-turbo 335i, BMW prided itself on the fact that it relied on naturally aspirated engines to reach vaunted performance levels. Increasing performance of turbo-charged engines by modifying their Electronic Control Units (ECU) can lead to fairly dramatic performance upgrades on the order of fifty plus horsepower and foot pounds of torque. I tested Dinan’s ECU upgrade on a naturally aspirated inline six to see if similar gains could be found.

As stated in my previous review of the APR ECU upgrade for an Audi A4, ECU tuning is a difficult task. A tuner must examine thousands of lines of code to find areas where changes in parameters can add to performance. They also have to balance potential gains against potential engine damage.

BMW rates the 3.2-liter inline six in my '00 M Roadster at 240 horsepower. In its original state, the engine is relatively detuned; the same engine with variable timing and separate throttle bodies (as sold in Europe) produces over 300hp. This should mean lots of head room for Dinan to wring-out some extra power– without fear of dreaded engine “issues.”

The Dinan software is sold in various stages, partially tied to other Dinan products. I tested the Stage II software with the Dinan Cold Air Intake (CAI). In addition to increasing horsepower and torque, the software has two additional benefits. First, it removes the 155mph speed limiter, which is only in place to honor a German car manufacturers “gentleman’s agreement” between Audi, VW, Mercedes and BMW (originally made to forestall autobahn limits mooted by the Green Party). Second, the rather low redline limiter is lifted from 7000 to 7400 rpm.

Dealer installation is required; the software is transferred via an installer’s computer directly to the Bimmer via the BMW’s data port. (The leading competitor is the Conforti Shark Injector, which is user-installed via the OBD-II port, saving a trip to the dealer.)

The Cold Air Intake system can be fitted by both friends and foe (dealer). The CAI replaces the [allegedly] more restrictive factory air box with a long carbon fiber tube and a large cone-shaped air filter. In theory, moving the air intake away from engine heat improves performance. In practice, cold air simply allows the engine to produce more power. Unfortunately, many systems that advertise gains do so without merit, and car websites are rife with claims that CAI systems actually decrease horsepower. 

Dinan’s website claims that their CAI system adds 12 hp and 11 lb-ft of torque. They also claim a gain of 10 hp and 10 ft.-lbs. of torque for their software. However, they caveat the CAI claims by stating that “a Stage 2 version of Dinan's Engine Software is available for optimum performance from the High Flow Cold Air Intake System as well.”  Take it from a lawyer: it isn’t clear if Dinan’s claiming a combined gain or a cumulative gain for the two systems.

Measuring engine improvements requires both objective dyno-based tests and a subjective seat of the pants test. I went to a local BMW tuner, Road 'n Race. to check my installation's gains on their Mustang dynometer. Dynos measure wheel horsepower, not the crank horsepower manufacturers advertise. Therefore a correction factor must be applied. Also, the two most common dynos produce different results and are not directly comparable. To measure current performance of the M Roadster, I used a 17.5 percent correction factor. 

On my best run, the car produced 208 peak hp, or 244 hp. That's four more than factory. Torque was up five foot-lbs over stock. While a large fan was used to simulate air movement, some power is lost compared to real road driving.

On the open road, the car felt slightly faster than stock, with better pedal feel during acceleration. These improvements were, at best, slight. The redline limiter was definitely raised, but since peak power is produced earlier, the benefit was limited. 

The Dinan CAI sells for $649.00 and the Stage II software is $299.00. Add in a dealer charge for installation and you’re looking at over a grand for a very small gain. Therefore, except for bragging rights the Dinan name entails, I would not recommend this upgrade, though the CAI does look good in the Bimmer’s engine bay.

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Dinan Cold Air Intake and ECU Software Review Product Review Rating

By on December 18, 2007

p1010695.jpgThree pedals for two feet. A wheel and a shift knob for two hands– that are supposed to be on the helm at all times. The manual transmission doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? Never mind. For its increasingly marginalized adherents, the manual transmission makes driving a pleasure. Unfortunately, carmakers are deleting the manual option from many U.S.-spec cars. As you’d expect from “ultimate driving machine” fabricators, BMW offers a manual in all of its vehicles save the 7-Series, including the once SMG-only M5s and M6s. These manual-equipped Bimmers sport ZF-sourced six-speed transmissions crowned by a leather shift knob. 

In my experience, the BMW manual lever provides slightly long throws– which I believe is a conscience engineering decision to slow shifts down slightly to reduce stress on the clutch and the engine.  However, for aggressive and experienced self shifters, the longer throws merely slow down the driving experience. One common solution: replace the factory set-up with a short shift kit. In terms of driver snicking satisfaction, it’s an extremely effective solution. But there ARE drawbacks.

The short shift kit replaces several parts of the shift system, including the shift lever and the selector rod. Installation can be difficult. On some cars, installation comes from under the car, not through the top, requiring a mechanical lift. As stated above, adding a short shifter can also stress a car’s transmission; potential warranty issues may arise. Therefore on a newer car, especially a leased vehicle, a short shift kit is not the best choice.

Another alternative: change the balance of the shift lever by increasing the mass of the shift knob. The BMW factory knob weighs in at six ounces and provides a comfortable, stylish touch. On M models, the shift knob is even illuminated with a weak reddish glow, lighting the shift pattern on the knob’s top surface.

To see if extra mass would improve shifting, I tested the Whalen Shift Machine, produced by a one product company. The Whalen came to my attention thanks to word of “word” in a variety of BMW related web sites, where users raved how great the knob was in actual use.

The Whalen Shift Machine weighs-in at eighteen ounces. For the math challenged, that’s three times the weight of the factory knob. The Whalen Knob also sits approximately one inch lower than the factory-fitted device, which slightly shortens the length of the shift lever.

Installation is a two step process. Step one: remove the old knob. Step two: install new knob. Not so easy, Mr. Bond. Removing the old BMW knob is a little tricky, as it requires substantial torque to pull the factory knob off the shift lever. At the risk of conforming to lawyerly stereotypes, I suggest recruiting that neighbor who lets his dog poop in your yard as a spotter. When the knob comes off, you can “accidentally” pop him in the face. (And then call my office.)

Once you [somehow] manage to remove the old knob, installing the Whalen knob is a breeze. Simply lift the collar under the knob and twist until the center spline of the shift lever lines up with the bar on the inside of the knob. Once lined up, release the collar and the Whalen knob clicks into place.

The Whalen knob is a round ball made of stainless steel. It’s available in three styles: brushed, polished or bead blasted. Whalen also offers custom engraving, allowing users to design their own knob top engraving. [Note: M car, skull’s head, no.] Discretion being the better part of street cred, I purchased the standard polished knob. 

Driving with the Whalen knob installed on my M Roadster changed the shift dynamic dramatically. Shifts were much crisper; gear changes felt quicker and more direct. OK, it’s could be mostly psychological, but who cares? The feeling created was close to the feel of an actual short shift kit, with more precise and weightier throws.

After installing the Whalen, I noticed some rattling from the collar. I removed the knob and placed black electric tape on the lever where the collar meets the lever. Sorted.

The Whalen is not without its compromises. I found the knob’s shape, a round ball, less comfortable than the longer factory knob. Although my mitts are average-sized, ham-handed drivers may also find the knob too small.  Finally, and this is no small matter for drivers from Miami or Maine, extreme weather will make the knob extremely cold or hot to the touch. 

None of these drawbacks outweigh the sensual benefits of driving with a Whalen shift knob. At over 130 clams, the Whalen isn’t cheap, but for the BMW (or MINI) driver who understands the visceral appeal of a manual transmission, the Whalen is a terrific, no hassle upgrade.

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Whalen Shift Machine Review Product Review Rating

By on December 5, 2007

zr3pkg.jpgIt’s a never-ending battle between speeders and the police. Since the e-wars began, the police have moved from simple X-Band radar-based speed detectors to sophisticated KA-band radar guns, radar detector detectors (no really) and laser speed detection devices (with charming names like Stalker LZ-1). While the best consumer radar detectors can sniff out X and KA-band signals from a long way off—before the signal can bounce back to Officer Not So Friendly—if your laser beam detector goes off, tag, you’re it. If you’re speeding (which you probably do as you’re reading a laser jammer review), you’ve been nabbed.

FYI, police speed detection lasers or LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) fires light pulses at an object at about 984 million feet per second or roughly 1 foot per nanosecond. The pulses bounce off the (theoretically) offending vehicle and return to the laser device. Its optical sensors receive the returning photons or waves (let’s not get into THAT debate), compares outgoing and returning light (in about a third of a second) and calculates the object’s speed.

“Normal” radar guns send out a relatively wide beam of radio waves and use Christian Doppler’s observed effect to ascertain the fastest vehicle within that beam. Laser guns are far more accurate; at a thousand feet, the laser “cone” is roughly 3 feet in diameter.

Luckily (for you), laser guns have drawbacks. First, they’re a fair weather device; laser beams abhor a rainstorm. Second, unlike KA-Band radar, a laser gun must be stationary and aimed directly at the [theoretical] speeder. This eliminates in-car mobile use. On the positive side (for them), laser is ideal for roadside speed detection. The tickets practically write themselves.

Other than buying a low-slung black car and covering it with high tech non-reflective materials, there’s only way to defeat a laser speed detector: active jamming. We’re talking about a device that reacts to a police laser beam by sending out its own laser beam, shifting the spectrum of the returning light, rendering it unrecognizable to the laser gun’s optical sensors. Yes, it’s a high tech shoot-out at the photon coral.

A quick note about legality . . .

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits civilian use of police frequencies; sending out a signal on these frequencies to mess with a police radar gun is a HUGE no-no. Banning civilians from using a part of God’s own light spectrum is a lot more problematic. That said, the Food and Drug Administration regulates laser devices—from a personal safety rather than a road safety perspective. Nebraska, Minnesota, Utah, California, Oklahoma, Virginia, Colorado, Illinois and Washington DC are the only states/district that bans the use of radar detectors AND laser jammers for “interfering with police business.”

I tested the Escort Laser Shifter ZR3, an active laser jammer that can be used as a standalone solution or in conjunction with Escort’s high end 8500 and 9500 radar/laser detectors. The Laser Shifter ZR3 comes complete with a comprehensive owner’s manual, installation instructions, two front laser transceivers, one rear laser transceiver, in-car display controller, remote mute button, 12-volt interface with modular connections, complete wiring harnesses, mounting hardware and a link cable for connecting to the Passport 8500, 7500S and SR7, and the Solo2.

The kit requires lots of wiring and drilling; professional installation is a must. The test car spent the entire day at a local installer, who hid the front transceivers in the front grill, and the rear transceiver on the top of the license plate frame. The finished job cost $250.

I coupled the Escort ZR3 with an Escort 8500i and ran a few real world tests at known speed traps.

On each pass, the Passport 8500’s laser detector noted the laser presence and instantly activated the jammer. The confused look on the officer’s face as I drove by [probably] confirmed that the laser jammer [probably] prevented his laser gun from registering our speed, which may have been approximately 15mph over the 35mph limit.

The results lend credence to the video hosted on youtube. This test shows the ZR3’s jamming capability against a Prolaser II Police Lidar Gun, from the police perspective trials at radartest.com who found that the Escort ZR3 was nearly perfect—providing a 99% efficiency rating. The ZR3 an excellent investment to reduce exposure from laser based tickets. Coupled with an Escort radar detector, a user will have a one device system covering all potential radar detection systems.

The Escort ZR3 costs $499. Given the cost of speeding tickets, points and insurance increases, anyone with a lead foot whose local police use laser guns will find it a worthwhile investment. That said, the new and [thankfully] rare Laser Atlanta Type S in [thankfully rarely used] Stealth Mode defeats the Escort ZR3. Yes, the battle between poachers and the gamekeeper continues.

[Note: TTAC does not condone dangerous or irresponsible driving.]
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Escort Laser Shifter ZR3 Review Product Review Rating

By on November 29, 2007

ge_exclaim_uhp_ci2_l.jpgSelecting a performance tire is a daunting process. Over ten different tire manufacturers offer over forty different brands in a multitude of configurations for a range of road conditions. Tire prices range from less than a single Ben Franklin to nearly three times that amount. And it’s difficult to isolate objective information about any given tire because of the number of variables and the inability for any one tire to be the best in any one category (e.g. grip, wear, wet weather traction, wheel protection, comfort, etc.) Oy vey.

When it comes to negotiating this round rubber labyrinth, TTAC hearts the Tire Rack. The online retailer consistently displays genuine care and concern for its customers, and exhibits fanatical dedication to discerning and revealing the truth about tires. To this end, the Tire Rack’s website publishes end users’ ratings. The rankings for summer performance tires cover both wet and dry conditions, as well as comfort considerations. 

The Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2 sits at the top of the consumer rankings. Pilots are often used as OEM equipment on high performance cars like the BMW M3. Known for their incredible stickiness, they wear out faster than an OCD’s toothbrush. In our 18” size, Exalto’s run a cool $168 per tire. As this test was on my own nickel, I scanned for a less expensive alternative. 

The tire ranked number two by folks like you and me was a genuine surprise. We’re talking about rubber rated higher than all the biggest playas in the high performance biz: Firestone Firehawk Wide Oval, Bridgestone Potenza, BFGoodrich g-Force T/A and Kumho Ecsta SPT. And the winner is… the Exclaim UHP from General Tire.

General Tire has been around for nearly a century, selling a tire with little or no racing heritage and a reputation for average quality at low prices, best suited to the Sears and K-Mart crowd. Twenty years ago, General Tire’s parent GenCorp. decided to focus on missiles and real estate. They sold their tire business to Continental, Europe’s leading tire manufacture.

Looking to upgrade my Audi’s 16” wheels and all-season tires for around $1500 clams, I had to balance costs with performance. Given the lack of snow in Miami, and desiring the highest possible grip, I opted for an Ultra High Performance Summer Tire. Based on the Tire Rack reviews, I bought four General Exclaim UHPs mounted on eighteen inch offset correct wheels.

Once mounted, an eagled-eyed friend noticed that one of the wheels was mounted backwards. The Tire Rack’s shipping department missed the directional arrow, which should point forward. To their credit, they paid a local tire shop to remount the tire in the correct direction.

Of course, tire testing is a subjective business, and I’m not equipped with equipment to measure maximum g-force and other key metrics. In addition, the test vehicle’s suspension and brake capabilities will affect any and all tire test results. All that said, I plied my new rubber on-street, during (simulated) panic maneuvers and during autocross style slaloms. I also got the Audi’s feet wet. 

All tests were performed with the A4’s stock brakes and an H-sport suspension upgrade. I also turned off traction control via the e-Nanny button. [Note: on most cars, the button only modifies the degree of traction control. On some cars, the Nanny can never be dismissed.]

During panic stop tests, the Exclaims provided good strong bite on a clean asphalt road. In high speed panic turns, the tires were laterally compliant in a predictable manner. While squealing like four stuck pigs, the tires were able to make maximum turns without much resistance. Hustling the Audi around the cones proved the Exclaims’ high level of lateral grip, though the modified suspension aided the tires’ traction by reducing roll.

The Exclaims handled moderately wet weather without any noticeable diminution of safety. Worryingly (if not unpredictably) the ultra grippy shoes hydroplaned in heavy rain when traveling over 70 mph. Below this speed, stopping and turning was not greatly affected by stagnant water.

The Exclaims were quiet over most surfaces, but they increased the Audi’s torque steer– which I blame more on the tire size than the Exclaim’s construction or tire pattern themselves. Tire wear was a little below average for a high performance tire; more than 50 of the tread done gone after just 10k miles. To be fair, I have an extremely heavy foot, and front wheel-drive cars tend to wear out tires a lot faster than rear drivers.

But hey, the General Exclaims cost just $86 per tire. Use, lose, repeat. At half the price of the Pilots, and with better wear life, the General Exclaim may not have the cachet of some– most performance tires. But for drivers who care more about performance (and money) than snobbery, the Generals are a genuine bargain.

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General Tire Exclaim UHP Review Product Review Rating

By on November 27, 2007

cp9135-4.jpgDriving my new 2004 Audi with the family on a vacation to Sanibel Island, the check engine light (CEL) illuminated. We were 125 miles from home. In the past, an engine warning light would trigger panic, confusion and nameless dread. (Owners’ manuals are no help; they simply tell afflicted drivers to take the car to an official dealer.) All I could do was find, phone and visit a local dealer (if they were open) or limp home, knowing that every mile might be making an unknown situation worse. These days, I have an alternative: the OBD-II Actron 9135 scanner.

Modern cars are lousy with sensors. They measure engine function, transmission operation, emissions, fuel consumption, brake operation and more. The sensors report to the ECU (Electronic Control Unit). If the ECU detects a problem with a monitored system, it stores the information until the condition occurs x times over y period of time. At that point, the ECU triggers the appropriate idiot light.

Thanks to the federal legislation, all cars sold since 1996 must include an open access port to the ECU. Anyone– not just franchised dealers– can use this OBD-II port to diagnose vehicle problems.

The OBD-II system is a data collector, not a testing device. A detected fault could be in the idiot light, the ECU, the sensor collecting the data, or the measured device/part/system. Regardless, knowing which part of your vehicle is stricken is extremely helpful. For one thing, many faults can lead to expensive repairs if they’re not addressed in a timely fashion. 

Equally important, an OBD-II scanner provides consumer protection. Even if you don’t have a clue how to fix a reported fault, you can go to your dealer or mechanic safe in the knowledge that they can’t snow you with a bogus diagnosis. In fact, most dealers will charge you more than the cost of the unit ($69.99) just to plug-in their OBD-II scanner.

Like most code readers, the Actron 9135 connects directly to the OBD-II port under the driver’s dash. With the car’s ignition in the “on” position, the battery provides power for the scanner. The scanner takes about a minute to establish communications with the ECU. Once the "ready" signal is displayed on the LCD screen, you can test a variety of systems and functions. 

Pressing the large “Read” button tells the car to return any fault codes stored in the ECU. If you're lucky, you'll see “no faults” on the screen. If not, the screen will report the code and attempt to describe the problem based on the generic OBD-II codes.

The Society of Engineers created these fault codes. While manufacturers license them for diagnostic use, they are not required to restrict themselves to generic codes. That means the Actron (and other readers) may not be able to read some or all of the codes from certain vehicles. Actron offers a free web-based look-up service, as well as a fee-based service to diagnose code symptoms and recommend possible repair solutions.

The Actron 9135 can also test a vehicle’s emissions control systems. With this tool, a car owner can determine if there are any emissions issues prior to undergoing (and possibly failing) a state emissions test. If any of the emission devices are malfunctioning, the scanner will identify the exact problem. If all systems report ready, the vehicle will most likely pass an emissions test.

Now, back to my story…

Since I’d just gassed the Audi, I thought I hadn’t put the gas cap on tightly enough; a loose gas cap will trigger a CEL since the system detects that as fuel vapor leak, and the scanner will return a P0440 code. I re-tightened the cap and hoped for the best, knowing that a loose cap CEL will reset in a few start-stop cycles.

When we arrived at our hotel, I reached for my handy dandy Actron scanner. Anal retentive gadget freak that I am, I’d checked the ECU a few days before the trip. The ECU hadn't been storing any codes (i.e. I was good to go). This time, the Actron immediately displayed a code (P0741) and a short statement indicating that the problem involved a sensor related to the vehicle’s torque converter. Uh-oh.

The Audi is headed for the dealer. No matter how this turns out, I highly recommend the Actron 9135 OBD-II handheld scanner. The oil and grease resistant, field upgradeable unit comes with an eight foot cable and free tech support. It’s a simple tool that offers proof– if proof were needed– that information is power. Oh, and one quick question: why don’t manufacturers build-in this system? Take a wild guess…  

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