The Truth About Cars » Other The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sat, 26 Jul 2014 01:30:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Other General Motors Recalls 8.4 Million Vehicles Mon, 30 Jun 2014 22:05:04 +0000 GM RenCen Storm Clouds

General Motors has issued a total of six recalls affecting some 8.4 million vehicles in North America, the majority of which have ignition-related issues.

Autoblog reports the following group totals 7,610,862 — 6,805,679 in the United States — and are being recalled for unintended key rotation:

  • 1997-2005 Chevrolet Malibu
  • 1998-2002 Oldsmobile Intrigue
  • 1999-2004 Oldsmobile Alero
  • 1999-2005 Pontiac Grand Am
  • 2000-2005 Chevrolet Impala
  • 2000-2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
  • 2004-2008 Pontiac Grand Prix

The second group totals 616,179 — 554,328 in the U.S. — and are being recalled for unintended key rotation due to bumping of key fob:

  • 2004-2006 Cadillac SRX
  • 2013-2014 Cadillac CTS

The third group totals 20,134 — 2,990 in the U.S. — and are being recalled for potential damage to the engine block heater power cord’s insulation under extreme cold conditions:

  • 2011-2014 Chevrolet Cruze
  • 2012-2014 Chevrolet Sonic
  • 2013-2014 Chevrolet Trax
  • 2013-2014 Buick Encore
  • 2013-2014 Buick Verano

The fourth group totals 117 — 104 in the U.S. — and are being recalled over the Superjoint fastner not being torqued to spec prior to leaving the assembly line:

  • 2014 Chevrolet Camaro
  • 2014 Chevrolet Impala
  • 2014 Buick Regal
  • 2014 Cadillac XTS

The fifth group totals 12,002 — 9,731 in the U.S. — and are being recalled due to the underhood fuseable link potentially melting through electrical overloading, leading to smoke and fire damage to other electric wiring components:

  • 2007-2011 Chevrolet Silverado HD (with auxiliary battery)
  • 2007-2011 GMC Sierra HD (with auxiliary battery)

The sixth and final group totals 188,705 — 181,984 in the U.S. — and are being recalled over the potential for an electrical short to the driver’s door module disabling the power lock and window switches, as well as overheating the module itself:

  • 2005-2007 Buick Rainier
  • 2005-2007 Chevrolet TrailBlazer
  • 2005-2007 GMC Envoy
  • 2005-2007 Isuzu Ascender
  • 2005-2007 Saab 9-7X
  • 2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT
  • 2006 GMC Envoy XL

In the press release issued by the automaker, CEO Mary Barra said her company undertook what she believed “is the most comprehensive safety review in the history of [GM] because nothing is more important than the safety of [GM's] customers.” She added later on that if any other issues come to the automaker’s attention, GM would “act appropriately and without hesitation” to recall and repair those vehicles. The automaker has recalled a total of 28 million vehicles since January of this year.

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Great Wall’s Descent A Sign Local Industry Not Ready For Primetime Tue, 13 May 2014 12:00:10 +0000 Great Wall Haval H8

Once the darling of investors amid ambitions of taking on foreign automakers such as Jeep with its line of SUVs, Great Wall Motors’ recent fall from grace on the back of the upscale Haval H8 may be a sign Chinese automakers are not yet ready to move from production of cheap transportation.

Bloomberg reports production of the 200,000 yuan ($32,100 USD) SUV, aimed at the likes of the Volkswagen Tiguan and Ford Kuga, was suspended indefinitely earlier this month amid quality concerns regarding “knocking noises” from the six-speed automatic transmission at high speeds. The second delay of the H8 — the first occurring earlier this year after local press panned the SUV in test drives — sent Great Wall’s stock price down 17 percent, while seven analysts cut their ratings of the automaker due to perceived weaknesses in the overall local industry from the suspension. Oriental Patron Financial Group analyst Vivien Chen, one of the seven, explains:

We believe the event indicates domestic automakers haven’t met requirements to upgrade to be a high-end vehicle maker. The event definitely hurt customers’ perception of H8, and hurt company image.

The suspension is the latest stumbling block for Great Wall, having faced a recall with Chery of 23,000 units from Australia in 2012 when banned asbestos parts were found in some models. In addition, 2013 exports fell 22 percent to nearly 75,000 units due to currency challenges in Japan and South Korea. Locally, the automaker is faring better, having moved almost 112,000 SUVs over its competitors so far in 2014, though the market overall fell 2.5 percent in April to 37.1 percent for local automakers, the eight consecutive month this has occurred.

Despite the setbacks, Macquarie Group analyst Janet Lewis believes Great Wall and the rest of the Chinese automakers may be able to learn from the experience as they move forward toward selling their wares to developed markets such as the United States, though they all still have a long road ahead of them, as Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Max Warburton points out with Great Wall:

The company faces monumental challenges in trying to move up a league in the automotive world, and the problems faced by the H8 confirm Great Wall is struggling with technology. Serious questions will now be asked about Great Wall’s growth potential.

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Ich bin ein Hotrodder: A Story of My Opel Diplomat Sun, 20 Apr 2014 13:00:23 +0000  tumblr_m5sxgur4Ci1qzut9po1_1280-394x350

While JFK was busy capturing the hearts of the German people with his Ich bin ein Berliner speech, the GM engineers at Rüsselsheim were busy at work finishing their next big project – the series of full-size (on European scale) luxury models, called Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat. Introduced in February of 1964, the new models were meant to take on Mercedes-Benz, though they shared something in common with contemporary America cars, in that they were really just one car, offered in different equipment levels, and with different engine options. Kapitän was the cheapest, with an inline six under the hood, standard manual transmission and relatively sparse equipment. Its size, equipment and power put it somewhere between American compacts and midsize cars of the time, like a smaller 1964 Chevelle, with a dash of Buick styling.

The other two models were more interesting. The Admiral added some equipment, and available V8 engine – the venerable Chevy Small Block, in 283 cubic inch guise. The top of the line Diplomat, which came with even more luxury, shunned the six cylinder altogether. It was produced with a choice of the 283ci V8, and the famous 327, both teamed with a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The Diplomat even spawned a sexy, Riviera-like V8 coupe model, with only 347 examples and now exceedingly rare – and terribly expensive.

In the next four years, nearly 90,000 KAD Opels were built. Most lived their lives on Germany’s roads and Autobahns, but some went to other countries. A few even got to the other side of the Berlin Wall. And at least two or three (although probably more) made their way to Hungary.

Around the time of the KAD’s final production run, a white Galaxie 500 coupe, with a 390 big block engine, rolled off the Ford assembly line on the other side of the world.


For the next half a century, those were totally unrelated events. While the Galaxie 500 puttered around Southern California, preserved by the desert climate, the Admirals and Diplomats in Hungary led eventful, hard lives, which lead them in the state of wrecks.

But their stories were meant to come together. Early in the new century, a Hungarian guy called István bought up three KAD Opels, and started putting them together to build one good car. And some time after that, the old guy owning the Galaxie decided to put it on eBay, where a young guy from Czech Republic saw it, and decided to buy it. That guy was me, and the goal was to import the car, have some fun with it and then flip it for a profit. It didn’t work, because I chose the wrong car. Instead of buying a nicely preserved, but uninteresting four-door, with shiny paint and gleaming chrome, which would sell easily in Europe, I decided to buy a car muscle car enthusiast would like – two-door with a big block engine, discs in front… but also with faded paint and lots of dings and scrapes. Which meant the car didn’t sell, and as my attempt on US classic car importing business fell apart in the global financial crisis, I was stuck with a car I had no means to restore.

07 (1)

At the same time, István fixed up his Opel. He put the best parts of the two or three cars together, fixing up the best body, rebuilding the 283 engine, fitting the modern 200R4 transmission with a bunch of hot-rodder upgrades, and painted the whole thing flat black, to achieve the cool hot-rod look. To spice things up, he added red wheels, and dual exhausts with glasspack mufflers. But before he got around to restoring the interior or finishing details, he got fed up with the thing. He needed change, and he wanted to go American.

I guess you can see where this is going. Two guys with cars that are hard to sell, both in Central Europe, both lusting for what the other one has.

I don’t even recall for sure who did the first contact. I think it was me. We exchanged e-mails for some time, sending photos of our cars, details about their condition, lists of what was done (on his) and what needed to be done (on mine). And eventually, we came to agreement that we really like each other’s car, and that we’ll go through with the trade. It was decided that it would be me who will do the trip, trailering my Galaxie to István’s place in Budapest. I called a friend of mine with a Seat Alhambra and a car trailer (yes, my American friends – while you think that your ¾ ton truck may not be enough to trailer a car, we do it with minivans), we agreed on a date, and off we went.


The trip itself would be quite uneventful, with the exception of my idiot friend conveniently “forgetting” he was meant to do it for free (to repay some money he owed me), and needing me (totally broke at the time – partly because of said idiot’s actions, like blowing up transmission and differential in my Chevy Caprice) to pony up the fuel money. The exchange went well, I got a tour of the speed shop where István worked, full of cool muscle cars, hot rods and motorcycles. I did a test drive, and fell in love with the car. We shook hands, loaded the car, and off we went.

My slight annoyment about having to pay for the fuel grew into full-blown rage when I found out that we’re nearly out of fuel, have no Hungarian money and may not make it to the first gas station in Slovakia. I firmly decided to unload the Opel and proceed home, leaving my idiot friend stranded in Hungary – with no money, and no ability to understand their language. Fortunately, the venerable 1.9 TDI turbo-diesel marvel once again shown its unbelievable efficiency and took us to Slovakia, and then home.


So, I was now in possession of a huge (for Europe, it was about the size of the S-class) beast with a slight identity crisis. The car wasn’t sure whether it’s Admiral or Diplomat (although the paperwork said Diplomat), and most of all, it was a cross between an old German luxury sedan and typical American muscle car. With some hot rod influences here and there, starting with the red wheels and Mooneye decals, and ending with the monstrous roar from the exhaust.

Simply put, it was a perfect car for my daily driver, and that was exactly what I wanted to do with it. At the time, I basically had no other fully street legal and functional vehicle, except for the steady stream of press cars. And I had this idea that unlike the 1967 Dodge Coronet, which I also owned at the time and which could only be registered as “antique”, slightly restricting the daily-driver duties, the Diplomat was the perfect solution for times when I had no press car.


Of course, using the nearly half a century old hot rod for daily driver duties has its problems. If we dismiss the obvious stuff, like fuel consumption(circa 10 to 16mpg) and its enormous size, there was still the other white elephant – it’s a hot rod.

Those of you who live in good old US of A are probably familiar with what a Chevy Small Block with glasspacks sounds like. For the rest of you, it is best likened to four Harley-Davidson motorcycles with loud pipes, running in unison. Slight problem, if you want to go somewhere, or come from somewhere, during the night, and don’t want neighbors to key your car or throw stuff at you. But this could be avoided by leaving and approaching your home while idling – at least that didn’t set off car alarms.

But being a hot rod, meant for nice, sunny days, the Opel had no choke. And starting a carbureted vehicle with no choke, especially in colder weather, means revving the engine for at least a minute, before you set off. Or it would stall. Which gives your neighbours about a minute to come out of their houses and murder you.

Also, the car lacked some other unnecessary stuff, like a heater. And the lowered front end was pretty cool to look at, but the wheel lock was a bit reduced by the tires rubbing against wheel arches. Which sucks for maneuvering in parking lots.


But non of it mattered, because, oh, boy, it was fun to drive. Of all the cars I owned, this got closest to my ideal of a big, evil, noisy hot-rod/muscle car thing. Not that it drove any good of course. Those big Opels were basically midsize American cars, modified just very slightly for European use. And even pure European cars of that time weren’t significantly better driving or handling than American ones – this came much, much later.

I don’t remember the handling of that thing very much, mostly because it didn’t have any. By turning that monstrous steering wheel in front of you, you were able to somehow tell the car where it should go, and it somehow obeyed. With disc brakes, it was somehow able to stop. But driving fast into corners wasn’t something that would ever cross your mind.

And the funny part was that it wasn’t even fast. It sure sounded fast, and with an open diff and 185-section tires, it was able to lay rubber, peg-legged, for maybe 60 feet. But the 283 was totally stock, with a 2-barrel cabrburettor, and it had 190 horsepower originally – which I suspect were SAE gross horsepower, leaving the “real” number somewhere around 160hp. I can imagine how slow the thing had to be with original Powerglide two-speed, but thankfully, the 200R4 made things a bit more sprightly. And extremely firm shifts of the hot-rodded tranny helped the “feeling of speed”.

The car roared off the line, with heavy jolts on each shift, squealing rubber… and then got beat by just about anything at least remotely quick, including some faster diesels. In a way, it was a really safe way of having fun, because you were going slow all the time, anyway.


I had big plans for the car. Buying some nicer and bigger wheels, fixing up the annoying problems like too loud glasspacks or missing heater. Or at least registering it in my name, instead of running on the expired Hungarian temporary tags all the time. I even thought about adding some more horsepower, either by massaging the 283, or selling it to someone who wanted a stock engine, and building a Chevy 302. Actually, I think that was one of my best project car ideas of all time – German sedan with 8000rpm-revving Chevy engine.

But then life got in the way. A failing business meant debts to pay – and a lot of them. That’s why I still drive a borrowed Town Car, and why I had to sell the Opel some three years ago. I don’t think I drove it for more than maybe a thousand miles, but even in that short time, I’ve made tons of memories with it.

When I offered it for sale, no one in Czech Republic wanted it – even when I lowered the price way under its worth. I nearly sold it for peanuts, when I realized I didn’t try Germany. And of course, because Germans love old German cars, it sold – in about three days, for basically what I wanted in the ad (and I regretted not wanting more afterwards).

Last I heard from the new owner, he sent me some pictures of the car with new Cragar mags, straightened bodywork and a new paint (again flat black), and scoop sticking out of the hood. I guess the Opel is still alive and well, terrorizing the Germany’s streets.

Photo credits:
Opel, myself, Radek Beneš, István Zitas (pictures in gallery below)

Fotografie0309-1024x768 ulice IMG_0058 P1080758 P1080759 P1080760 P1080761 P1080772 P1080773 P1080774 P1080776 P1080780 P1080784 P1000107 P1000108 P1000110 P1080757 05 06 07 08 31 (1) 218 219 11 IMG_1285 IMG_1284 ]]> 39
Datsun To Enter Russian Market April 4 Fri, 14 Mar 2014 10:07:19 +0000 Datsun_1519061g

Following its global grand opening in India, Nissan’s low-cost Datsun brand will open its doors to the Russian market April 4 in Moscow.

Just Auto reports the launch marks the official introduction of the brand to the Russian market for the first time in its history, and, according to Nissan in a statement, “is particularly significant for the global expansion of the brand as it is a key market that offers Datsun great potential for growth.”

Consumers will be able to sign up for updates on Datsun’s Russian website, as well as view a live stream introduction of the brand on April 4, featuring a sedan made specifically for the market that still follows Datsun’s philosophy of bringing accessibility to consumers in emerging markets.

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Datsun to Unveil Concept at 2014 Delhi Auto Expo Thu, 23 Jan 2014 16:32:14 +0000 Datsun Concept India

Should you happen to be in India two weeks from now, Datsun will unveil the above concept at the 2014 Delhi Auto Expo during a conference held by the offshoot automaker.

The concept heralds a possible expansion of Datsun’s current lineup, aimed at the young customers in South Africa, Russia, India and other high-growth markets. The concept appears to be a three-door hatch slotted just below the Go five-door supermini, with the Go+ MPV completing the future trio.

As far as production is concerned, the hatch will be underpinned by Renault-Nissan’s Compact Module Family platform. The flexible platform is expected to support up to 14 vehicles within the Franco-Japanese alliance’s complete range.

The concept will debut at Datsun’s press conference February 5.

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BYD Coming to America in 2015 Tue, 07 Jan 2014 05:41:47 +0000 BYD Qin

Backed by Warren Buffet and his investment company Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.,Automotive News is reporting that Chinese automaker BYD plans to deliver four models to the United States in late 2015.

This move comes after BYD founder and chair Wang Chauanfu spent the past three years reorganizing his company, cutting the number of dealerships under the automaker’s banner while narrowing losses with their solar business with help from state incentives.

In turn, investors rewarded the changes with a 63 percent surge in the share price — currently holding around $5 USD — though nowhere near the peak of $11 BYD saw in October 2008; Berkshire Hathaway paid around $1 per share for 9.9 percent ownership of the company back in that year.

Though BYD has yet to bring over any of their cars to the U.S., they will begin manufacturing of their K9 electric bus in March at its factory in Lancaster, Calif.; a plan to sell the e6 electric hatchback by the end of 2010 was postponed.

Leading the charge will be the Qin (pronounced Chin) plug-in hybrid, which already arrived in local market showrooms last month. The $31,400 (before state subsidies) sedan books it from nil to 60 in under 6 seconds, and possesses a 43-mile range in electric-only travel.

That said, the Qin, along with its electric brethren, may be a better sell in Los Angeles than in Beijing, as high prices, safety concerns, and a lack of supporting infrastructure have held back China’s goal of 5 million alternative-energy vehicles by 2020.

However, the state government unveiled a new program last September which is supposed to alleviate the issue through heavy promotion of new-energy vehicles in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou using subsidies through 2015, which should help BYD in local adoption of their plug-in and EV offerings.

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Hyundai Battles Skoda For Czech Republic Thu, 02 Jan 2014 12:00:37 +0000 Hyundai i30 3D

While Skoda has long been the Cinderella story of the Czech Republic, Skoda could soon find itself deposed as sovereign of their domestic auto market.

In an effort to boost their market share in the Czech Republic to 15 percent by the end of the decade, Hyundai has pursued a “going-native” strategy. The strategy ranges from sponsoring the national soccer team and promoting its factory (where 72 percent of Hyundai’s models sold in the country are assembled, employing 3,500 to build 300,000 units annually), to dealers displaying Skoda’s new Octavia in their showrooms alongside Hyundai’s i30 and i40 models so consumers can comparison-shop right then and there.

The result? Hyundai holds 9.6 percent of the Czech market, up from 3.6 percent ten years prior. Skoda, on the other hand, fell from 48 percent to 30 percent in the same period. However, the original home team has pushed back hard with their own war plan, sponsoring the national hockey team, launching eight new models for the 2014 model year, and relying upon tradition to keep one-third of their homeland’s market.

Like Hyundai, Skoda has a goal of increasing their European sales to 5 percent of the market by the end of the decade; Hyundai currently has 3.5 percent, Skoda holds 4.1 percent.

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McLaren Faces Hurdle From China’s Lavish Spending Crackdown Mon, 25 Nov 2013 14:56:44 +0000 McLaren-P1-production-model-side. Photo courtesy

McLaren, like many makers of luxury goods, is having a difficult time moving their fine wares in China as of late, all thanks to a crackdown against lavish spending begun last year by the country’s Communist government.

While the elite of China presumably have no difficulty hiding expensive watches or fine liquor in their homes, driving around in a P1, a Mulsanne or an Aventador practically screams the word ‘corruption’ to government officials. That said, McLaren still plans to expand in the coming year from three to 12 dealerships throughout China, based on visibility of their Formula One program and the citizen’s love for new brands.

Speaking of visibility, McLaren joined Bentley at the 2013 China International Automobile Exhibition in Guangzhou this weekend to show off their latest and greatest to help drive sales in the emerging market. The British automaker expects to sell 1,400 vehicles throughout the world in 2014.

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Fisker Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Mon, 25 Nov 2013 05:51:47 +0000 Fisker Karma Courtesy

What do Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Al Gore all have in common? They may soon — baring a miracle — become the proud owners of the first orphan cars made in the 21st century for well-moneyed consumers by an automaker born in the 21st century, as Fisker Automotive has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Unlike Chapter 7, where everything is liquidated and everyone is laid off forever (an experience this writer has gone through herself with her last full-time employer), Chapter 11 will allow Fisker to attempt to get it together through reorganization with Richard Li of Hybrid Tech Holdings, LLC at the helm. Li purchased Fisker in a United States government auction last month for $25 million.

As for who this bankruptcy filing affects, look no further than your wallet: Fisker Automotive was one of a few automakers who took out a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program. The total note was $529 million, though Fisker only took $192 million from the government while also taking $525 million from private investors. While the DOE recouped $28 million from the automaker’s first missed payment, the government (and thus, the taxpayer) lost $139 million on the investment.

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More Than 550 Classic Cars For Sale In One Ebay Auction Wed, 01 May 2013 13:20:35 +0000

If you have a half million dollars in your pocket, you can be the opening bidder on a lot of 550 classic cars located at a family owned towing and storage lot in Apache Junction, AZ and listed for sale on Ebay right now. According to the ad, the business has been in operation since the 1960s and the lot is filled with cars from the 1940s through the 1980s, approximately 97% of which are complete with motors, transmissions and body parts. You can even negotiate to leave the cars where they are – that way your wife will never know…

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Review: Morgan 3 Wheeler Mon, 01 Apr 2013 13:00:51 +0000

“YOUR CAR!!!! I LOVE YOUR CAR!!!!” She was a Slavic-faced woman in her mid-twenties, not bad for New York and positively model-grade by Midwestern standards, and she was literally hopping up and down on the streetcorner.

“It’s not a car,” I said, wedged into the Morgan’s extremely tight drivers’ compartment, feeling self-conscious in a half-face helmet that I wasn’t strictly sure was necessary or even required by law. “It’s a trike.”

“I WANT A RIDE!” she yelled. A crowd was starting to gather. The stoplight seemed to be taking an unusually long time to change.

“There isn’t room.” Wedged next to me, the Morgan’s owner, professional bon vivant and recreational speeder Alex Roy, was making a “no room” motion with his hands in her direction as he explained the situation.

“Oh,” I smirked, “I think there’s room.” But then the green light flashed and with an incongruous but very forceful Harley-blat we departed the intersection, leaving Miss Hopping Estonia 2007 in our blue-smoking wake.

Most modern gearheads know who Alex Roy is; he’s even managed to get on the Letterman show in order to brag about making it across the country in thirty-one hours and change in one of his “POLIZEI” BMW M5s. Like fellow journalist and daredevil Matt Farah, Mr. Roy is notorious for all sorts of high-dollar hijinks in various Bullruns, Gumballs, and other velvet-rope driving events. Also like Matt Farah, the real-life Alex Roy is a thoughtful intellectual with a genuine, childlike passion for cars. It’s hard not to like them both once you have any in-person exposure to them.

A few years ago, I had a couple of caustic words for the bald-by-choice Roy. In response, he sent me a copy of his book and invited me to stop by his place in New York to discuss it. I arrived ready for a good solid scrap but ended up laughing all evening at Alex’s ability to turn a phrase in the service of a story. At the heart of it, he’s one of “us”. He’s a car guy through and through. Whatever my opinion of the Gumball Rally might be, (hint: it rhymes with chucks rocks) my opinion of Alex Roy is high.

When he offered me an opportunity to spin his Morgan Trike around Lower Manhattan in the dead of night, therefore, I accepted before he could finish the sentence. I arrived at his Greenwich Village loft last Tuesday evening and found Alex screening films with his cross-country co-driver, the impeccably handsome David Maher. With Mr. Maher’s departure to do whatever millionaire playboys do in New York, Alex and I headed to the parking garage beneath his building. The trike was parked on a very steep blind exit, so my first task was to fire it up and drive away without rolling backwards and hitting my own rental car.

I hadn’t been exactly sure what to expect when I squeezed myself into the leather-lined open cockpit, but the reality of operating the 3 Wheeler is very pleasant. Three pedals, no hand clutch or anything deliberately odd like that. It starts up like a car, although there’s a master switch to flip on before hitting the starter button. My size 10.5D New Balance 993s fit the pedalbox with no difficulty, although there’s no dead pedal to speak of. This would not be a great vehicle in which to cross the country, even if one suspected it could be done in thirty-one hours. Which it could not, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. Although final drive is by means of an unconventional and fairly delicate toothed belt, I had no trouble balancing it on the clutch and then rolling it up and out of the garage.

The last trike I drove was the the rather imperfect CanAm Spyder, which was basically a snowmobile with wheels. This, on the other hand, feels like a somewhat attenuated version of a Caterham Seven. Control efforts are very low, from the wrist-action shifter to the quick-to-engage brakes. I found it easy to place my left palm flat on the ground without altering my seating position. I don’t recommend doing this on the move, even for a moment, even just to see if you can do it. The Morgan offers a doorhandle’s-eye view of New York City traffic.

The power from the S&S-built Harley twin is more than adequate, even short-shifting to save the already-battered drive belt. It’s possible to dive for gaps between taxis, but this is no Crown Victoria and it has to be understood that in any metal-mashing encounter with anything more substantial than a Vespa the Morgan will likely come off the loser. Best to use the power to get out of trouble, rather than into it.

With 1,996 miles of hard downtown use showing on the odometer at the start of our journey, Mr. Roy’s trike has already suffered a variety of mechanical issues including the departure of both exhaust hangers, a failure of the accelerator pedal bushing, and a gradual collapse of the headlight brackets. After a few minutes in Chelsea it’s easy to see why. You, the urban Morgan driver, must continually steer between manhole covers and potholes. Striking any of them will result in a crash and rattle from the front kingpins violent enough to reposition one’s spectacles. Thankfully, the front end steers with perfect clarity and precision. It’s the back wheel that causes a spot of difficulty, really. At fifty miles per hour, any sudden manhole-cover-avoidance maneuver results in a rather startling oscillation from the rear wheel as it meanders up and down the road crown looking for a place to settle. I can easily imagine it breaking free entirely under less than considerable provocation. The way it interacts with the various steel plates and whatnot making up a large part of city streets has to be experienced to be understood but if you’ve driven an old motorcycle in New York and you’ve felt a narrow bike tire scoot on steel sideways you’ll have an idea.

The Morgan is far from autobahn-ready, and Roy describes the few racetrack laps he’s taken in it as “slower than the safety car,” but in this downtown environment it’s absolutely perfect. Not because it’s safe, spacious, easy to see, or terribly competent to drive, but because it pulls female attention like Mark Purefoy’s bathing scene in the second season of HBO’s Rome. At every one of Manhattan’s crowded crosswalks, the trike creates an absolutely hilarious phenomenon that goes something like this: children stare open-mouthed, men pretend to ignore it, and women of all types start twitching from the knees up. I experienced this phenomenon when I used to drive a Seven clone around central Ohio, but let’s face it: Columbus is a hick town and every time somebody in the city buys a Mustang GT the local paper runs a front page story entitled NEW SPORTING VELOCIPEDE PURCHASED FROM LOCAL PURVEYOR OF NON-TRACTOR MOTORIZED VEHICLES.

New York, on the other hand, is the capital of the world and the women here have seen it all. I’ve personally observed an F430 snarl its way down 7th Avenue without anybody looking in its direction whatsoever. And when the ladies of the city do deign to notice your Reventon or what have you, it’s usually with some comment regarding lack of endowment. The common-and-garden-variety 911 Turbo S is more of a hindrance to getting your groove on the Village than a BUSH/CHENEY FARM AND RANCH TEAM T-shirt would be.

Not so the Morgan. After a solid twenty minutes of seeing beautiful women run into the street for a mere chance to more closely examine the vehicle and its pilots, I asked Alex if this was par for the course. “Oh, yes,” he laughed, “I can get in trouble with this thing if I drive it around. Better to stay at home.” At perhaps sixty grand all in — the price of a Boxster 2.7 PDK with vinyl seatbacks, 13″ steel wheels, and a molded-plastic blank plate labeled “POVERTY” where the radio’s supposed to be — the Trike is an absurd value, assuming you have no concerns about the future of your marriage or the present state of your prostate gland.

Before I knew it, we’d arrived at Roy’s chosen restaurant, where we just parked the thing out front as if it were legal or advisable to do so. While I dined on some top-notch roasted chicken and chucked back the Ketel One, he laughingly observed women climbing into the Morgan for photographs again and again. “I don’t mind,” he allowed, “as long as they aren’t hurting anything.” When we walked out, a young couple was attempting to photograph themselves in front of the Morgan.

“I’m the owner,” I announced, and simply put my arm around the lady’s waist, dragging her away. “Take a picture,” I commanded, which the boyfriend dutifully did. Then, amazingly enough, he turned to Alex to ask him about the car. “Perhaps you’d like to take a spin with me,” I whispered in my impromptu companion’s ear. She nodded eagerly; it didn’t appear that she spoke English. I caught Roy’s eye; he was clearly prepared to wingman for me. This was a man who had bluffed his way out of a hundred dicey situations. It occurred to me that the key to his rather impressive loft was probably also on the trike’s keychain. I could absolutely rely on Roy to keep this fellow occupied for hours while I alternately serenaded and violated his significant other. How could I not do it? In a moment, I attained what the Buddhists call satori. I understood why Fate had decreed that I would never be handsome, successful, or lucky: I’m simply not prepared to handle any of those things with grace. I released the lady’s waist with a final and thoroughly inappropriate caress and slumped back into the Morgan, helmet askew, prepared for the next destination.

Perhaps thirty people crowded around us as Alex hopped in and I selected first gear. I’ve seen other trikes decorated with the Flying Tigers gaping-maw graphic; I’d be tempted to select that for mine. It makes sense. In the city, the Morgan makes fighter pilots out of ordinary men and adventure out of a trip to dinner. It’s best left to people whose sense of self is just as larger than life. It was a relief to exchange it for my Caravan and once again become an observer of, rather than a participant in, the city’s nightlife. Still, I can’t say that I haven’t looked at the Morgan website since then. Celebrity’s a hell of a drug, isn’t it?

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Review: Piaggio Ape 50 Europe Wed, 17 Oct 2012 14:30:23 +0000 Last weekend, I rode a boxcar to Joliet, Illinois, with the rest of the 24 Hours of LeMons hobos and helped put on the third annual American Irony race. Traditionally, the justices of the LeMons Supreme Court travel around race-track grounds in some sort of Judgemobile appropriate to our exalted station, and this time we had the use of what turned out to be one of the greatest motor vehicles in the entire world: a 2008 Piaggio Ape (pronounced “ah-peh”) 50 Europe with just 21 miles on the clock.
I also had the use of this much less interesting (though still fun) machine for the weekend, but it remained parked off to the side of the paddock while the Ape flew the flag of the LeMons Supreme Court. Yes, a review of the Mitsubishi is coming soon (spoiler: the Big Nose HVAC Guy hasn’t made a comeback for the 2013 model year).
When you’re putting on a race with more than 100 teams competing, the pit scene sprawls like no-zoning-laws Houston suburbs. I’m wearing two hats when I’m there— race official and journalist covering the event— and that means I need to be able to zip around the facility in (or on) a vehicle that can squeeze between broken-down race cars, broken-down trailers, broken-down tow vehicles, and broken-down racers.
For pure function, the best pit transportation I’d used at a LeMons race had been the Honda Metropolitan scooter. The Metropolitan always starts, it’s quiet enough to sneak up on unsafe race-car fuelers and bust them, and its 30 MPH top speed is nice when you need to drive several miles around a vast compound such as Road America or New Jersey Motorsports Park. Given my respect for the Honda Super Cub, I’d take one over the Metropolitan any day… but so far no team has loaned us a Passport C70.
Style is very important to a LeMons judge, however, and that’s when such fine machines as the Volkswagen Shorty Transporter— which wanted to kill its occupants as well as any luckless pedestrians within its reach— really come into their own as Judgemobiles.
The Ape manages to combine function superior to the Metropolitan’s with style at least as dignified as the Shorty Transporter. Of course, the ideal Judgemobile combination would be the Ape and this bagged Cadillac limousine.
While the Ape is nearly as maneuverable as a scooter, its cargo bed means you can load it up with timing-and-scoring gear, boxes of Penalty Box equipment, or bribe-beer-sodden coworkers.
The rear wheels get some serious negative positive camber when the cargo bed is empty, but the unladen handling still feels much less scary than that of, say, a Reliant Robin. The reason I can make that comparison is that the same Volkswagen Squareback-racing team that loaned us the Ape has also let us use a Robin and an even sketchier Invacar three-wheeler.
The driver sits in the middle of a little seat and operates scooter-influenced hand controls and a foot brake. Allegedly, you can squeeze a second person in the cab— there’s room, if you really like your companion— but controlling the thing might get dicey.
On the left of the handlebars, there’s a normal motorcycle-style clutch lever, and there’s a traditional twist throttle on the right.
To shift, you twist the entire left grip (clutch and all) and look for your gear in this little pinball-machine-style mechanical display. First gear is best suited for climbing steep grades; starting out in second works fine on flat ground.
So driving the Ape is sort of like riding a scooter, only you’ve got a roof over your head and a windshield in front of you. It rained most of the weekend, and the Ape didn’t care about rain or mud. It even has an excellent windshield wiper/washer.
The instrument cluster tells you everything you need to know. The 40 MPH top speed on the speedo is pretty optimistic; I never got the Ape above 20 MPH and never got into fourth, but it felt obvious that the 50cc engine wasn’t made for sustained high speeds.
Because it’s Italian, there’s a lighter and an ashtray.
The window-latch mechanism was about as simple and failure-proof as it’s possible to be. If you need to reach out of the window, you just unlatch the hook and push the plastic all the way out.
The door latch/lock mechanisms are also very simple and elegant. The entire door assembly might weigh as much as five pounds.
It keeps you dry in the rain, you can drive it through spaces meant for pedestrians, and it can haul a respectable cargo load. The only real drawback of the Ape, for an American, is that it’s not street-legal anywhere in the country (unless some states have a loophole you can drive an Italian three-wheeler through).

Here’s some in-Ape video of an inspection tour of the Autobahn Country Club pits.
The Ape 50 is about the simplest motor vehicle possible, yet it does most of what a much larger urban-delivery truck needs to do. I think the 24 Hours of LeMons needs to buy its own Ape for California races!

23 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 01 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 14 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 15 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 16 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 17 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 18 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 19 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 20 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 21 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 22 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 24 - 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin Honda Metropolitan Scooters - Picture courtesy of Nick Pon LGFB10-CanonFri-161 25 - 2008 Piaggo Ape 50 Europe - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 24
Review: 2012 Fisker Karma EcoChic Mon, 21 May 2012 13:00:55 +0000

Henry Ford was no gifted artist, yet he made a car worthy of the common man.  William Durant didn’t especially like cars, but created a marketing and distribution empire that inspired us all.  And while Henrik Fisker’s car-centric life isn’t fully wikipedia’d, the first creation of the company that bears his name is an object of wonder and inspiration.  The Fisker Karma, like every concept from any auto show, is a dream car: flaws and compromises intact.


While I spilled the beans on the Karma’s Vellum, I never discussed the interior.  So let’s fix that.  The Karma’s guts are another exercise in concept car Shock and Awe.  While autojournos occasionally sit in million dollar concept cars, most folks do not.  Safe to say that if you, mere mortal, sit behind the tiller of a Fisker Karma, you’ve experienced the Concept Car in all its glory. Especially in the avant-garde EcoChic trim level, which is a good and bad thing.



Instead of mass-produced, the Karma goes cottage industry, Aston Martin Lagonda style. Plastic door panels at your knees?  Maybe, but they’re swathed in sheets of “EcoSuede”. Most touchpoints are wrapped in padded fabric reminiscent of Ricardo Tubbs’ designer threads.  And while there’s a touch of wood trim (eco-farmed from the bottom of a lake, no less), the obvious places for timber have iPhone worthy glass.  And brushed aluminum, including the electric door releases.  Aside from the EcoChic’s cornball leaf-etching in the glass, this tri-tone environment is an interior designer’s wet dream.

And the ICE in the center stack looks unfinished/overtly minimal like a proper concept car, but is intuitive and beautiful…once it finishes booting up. Even worse, the large Karma is shockingly small inside.  But since it isn’t thin and harsh like a (similarly exotic) Aston Martin Rapide, it’s more like the first time you sat in a bean bag chair. If you’re significantly wider than Justin Bieber, you might disagree. But less is still more.

Except when you get the Karma moving. That’s when 5300lbs of sedan feels just about right.  Aside from the frequent thuds and bumps from the 22” wheels, this is a proper luxury car with a ride that puts everyone else to shame using the Laws of Physics. You can’t hustle the Karma like a normal car, because this is a (compromised?) hybrid concept car come to life.

But the steering is remarkably lively, hybrid or otherwise. Handling is flat if you keep those steering inputs slow and stately.  Combined with the obligatory torque of an electric motor and the interior ambiance of a C4 Corvette (complete with ample view of that stunning hood), you’re piloting a proper space ship.

The driving experience of a monstrous hybrid sedan with a disturbingly low center of gravity is just as unique as the concept car styling. Touchy-feely thoughts aside, the performance numbers won’t impress: a garden variety 7-series will run circles around this monster. At least the GM Ecotec power generator is quiet and “sport” mode is entertaining…if not especially exciting.  I’d like to think the fuel economy is better than most luxury sedans, but that’s not the point.

The Karma is an experience. It’s immensely rewarding in every way. 

And Two and A Half Men product placement aside, this won’t be someone’s only vehicle.  At $116,000 for the top line EcoChic trim, it doesn’t take a White Whine fan to realize you’ll get more car for less money elsewhere. But can you put a price on owning a concept car? And drive it to work, enjoying every moment?

Bragging rights intact, every jerk off in a Benz, Panamera, Bentley, Phantom, etc. are cast off as “untouchable” when this bit of Hindu mysticism is in the joint. Inappropriate Caste System references FTW, son!

And while the current reality of the H-Town McMansion burning Karma adds irony to said Hindu concept, I did fall in love with this dream machine. And now I wonder if my tester was the responsible party…wait, could my personal/spiritual karma be responsible for the Karma’s McMansion maiming?

No matter: if the Pinto survived the explody-problem and thrived in a (somewhat) competitive market for years, why not cut Fisker a break?  Unless it burned down your crib, too. So let’s go back to the money, honey. Everyone’s all about Fisker’s long-term financial prospects: tragic, but a fair point.

My point? Screw it: the intended buyer has tons of disposable income and the Karma is a stunning piece of machinery. It, like true love, is filled with beauty, bliss and effortless good times. Also like true love, there’s sadness, tragedy, and nothing more than unfounded hope for a better future with the one you adore.  This is the passion of owning a sedan that will be the last vehicle mistaken for an appliance. A sedan amongst the most exotic vehicles, no less!

And with that, thank goodness for concept cars becoming a reality. Enjoy it while you can.






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Review: London Taxi TX4, Test-Driven In India Wed, 04 Apr 2012 17:39:34 +0000

Rarely does it happen that I get so excited to get up on a Monday morning, especially after a late night on a Sunday. But it was different this Monday, I was driving all the way from Mumbai to Pune early morning to drive a taxi. Yes a taxi, but this is no normal taxi, you see. It’s the iconic cab, made by the London Taxi Company. Popularly called the black cab or the hackney carriage, the London Taxi is a rare sight in India, because there are just six of these in India. I drove a red one.

These London Taxis belong to the Panchshil Realty group, which runs a large number of premium hotels in Pune. Panchshil is one of the premier real estate developers in Pune. The company has developed some premium properties in Pune, including the Marriot, and a few office buildings for companies such as NVIDIA, Suzlon and Siemens. With such high-rolling clientele, it was imperative to have a vehicle which would be unlike any other on Pune roads. With Rollers and Bentleys in short supply, a fleet of London Taxis landed in Pune.

 A Brief History – The London Taxi is made especially for well, London. The vehicle has specifications and features which make it the best taxi for the streets of London, helping drivers maneuver with ease and ferry their passengers in utmost comfort. A taxi needs to be low on maintenance and easy to service, and that is where the London Taxi excels. The vehicle is built extremely well and requires very little maintenance.

In the 1950s, the Austin FX4 came with significant improvements over its predecessor, the, you guessed it, FX3. In 1984, London Taxi International was formed, it changed its name to the London Taxi Company in 2010. The FX4 was in service for 39 years, before it was pulled off the market in 1997 as it had aged. It was replaced by the TX1, a modern taxi, but it maintained the spirit of the London Taxi. It was in use for 5 years and was succeeded by the TXII in 2002. The major difference between the TX1 and TXII was the change of engine from Nissan to Ford.

In 2006, the TXII retired, an was replaced by the TX4. The TX4 is the latest model in the London Taxi line-up. The company has a joint venture with Geely (of Volvo fame) in China to manufacture the TX4, which started in 2008. This led to the London Taxi being manufactured entirely in China and being imported to the UK via SKD units. A passenger version of the TX4 is in the cards as well, it will be called the TXN.

I drove the latest true TX4  taxi model. The design is very retro and attracts enormous attention. The front headlights are rounded, giving the impression of old Bentleys. The side profile is quite bulbous. The rear is typical old British design. The vehicle runs on 175 width, 16-inch tyres and the alloys have 6-bolts on them, to prevent robbery I presume. The antenna is placed at the rear. The rear doors have a provision below them to house a wheel chair tray.

Step inside and you will notice the driver centric dashboard. The center console is positioned towards the driver and there are a ton of buttons on it. The buttons between the AC vents and the audio system are for the interior lights, headlights, hazard lights, fog lights and beam adjustment. Below the audio system are the AC controls and the intercom controls. The left side of the dashboard has the fuse box. The 3-spoke steering wheel houses the LTI name (London Taxi International), the instrument cluster is quite retro and features the tachometer, speedometer, fuel gauge, temperature meter, odometer and trip meter. The driver side door has controls for the door locking and unlocking and front door windows. There is a partition between the driver and the passenger compartment. There is no co-driver seat in the front, the space is meant to keep luggage, because the London Taxi has no usable boot, as they call the trunk where that taxi is in daily use. The left door has a rope, so that the driver can close the door without having to run around the vehicle. The boot stores the spare tire and the wheel chair tray.

I was surprised by the level of comfort and luxury in the rear. There is just one bench, which can accommodate two people in extreme comfort. The seats are placed on the last row and with no middle row, the leg room is extremely good and once can stretch their legs without thinking twice. The rear passengers have their own music system, AC vents, refrigerator, television, etc. There is ample space to keep stuff with lots of places to keep magazines, papers and the like. The Alpine speakers sound extremely good and most of the features here are options (such as the leather seats and the DVD system), which Panchshil opted for. The rear passengers also have their own set of controls for the power windows, door lock/unlock, lights and air-conditioner. There is an intercom connection too, so that the passengers and driver can talk to each other.

Switch on the London Taxi, and its 2.5-litre diesel engine comes to life without any noise whatsoever. The engine is developed by VM Motori and is a 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC unit with a turbocharger, producing 100 BHP of peak power at 4000 RPM and 240 Nm of peak torque at 1800 RPM. The engine is mated to a 5-speed automatic gearbox and is Euro 5 compliant. The gearshift is smooth, but toggling the gear knob from Drive to Park or Reverse does require some effort. A petrol engine is also available with a manual gearbox, but that is only for outside the UK, mainly for China.

The engine has decent performance and never feels sluggish. Being a taxi, seldom does high end performance matter and if need be, the London Taxi has the goods to get you to the airport on time. The fuel efficiency is 12 km/l, which is quite good. An electric version is in the cards as well. The brakes are servo assisted with a split hydraulic system. There is electronically controlled ABS as well. Pedal feel is a little disappointing with very little play. One has to stand on the brakes with all force to stop quickly. The reason for the brakes performing so poorly can be attributed to the near two ton weight of the vehicle. The London Taxi uses double wishbone coil-springs with anti-roll bar suspension at the front and solid axle coil springs in the rear. Ride quality is good, but some bumps do filter into the cabin.

The best feature of the London Taxi is its 3.8-meter turning radius. One can simply take a U-turn on a two lane road, without having to reverse.

While driving the London Taxi, I was so amused by the turn radius, that I started to take so many U-turns that our support car was lagging far behind, reversing a couple of times to catch up with me.

This turn radius comes to you courtesy of the Savoy Hotel in London. The Savoy has a famously small roundabout at its entrance. This resulted in all London Taxis legally requiring a tiny little turn radius.

The TX4 is put together very well and requires very little maintenance. The panels are bolt-on making replacement extremely cheap. The body is made of hydroformed ladder frame with a separate body. There is a service center in Pune, which does service the TX4, so Panchshil does not have any problems with the upkeep of their London Taxi fleet.

The vehicle looks unique, retro and easily stands to grab attention like no other vehicle on the road. The rare sightings of this vehicle only means that on-goers gawk at you like you are in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Hotels get around the sky-high Indian import duty through a special rule that gives preferred treatment to automobiles used in the tourist trade. The law says those low duty tourist cars must be white. Sure they do.

Whats Cool

  • Street Presence
  • Turning Radius
  • Passenger Comfort
  • Reliability

Whats UnCool

  • Brakes

Faisal Ali Khan is the owner/operator of, a website covering the auto industry of India.

TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4-2 - Copy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy TX4 turn. Picture courtesy TX4 turn. Picture courtesy TX4 turn. Picture courtesy TX4. Picture courtesy Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 31
Vellum Venom: 2012 McLaren MP4-12C Mon, 12 Mar 2012 11:55:30 +0000


The MP4-12C has a wonderful backstory for those who love and admire the McLaren brand.  The McLaren F1’s instant Zeus-like status is a large part of the mystique, but not necessarily all of it.  That said, for everyone outside of this world (and price point) you are forgiven if you wouldn’t even consider this over the similarly priced Ferrari 458 Italia….as I probably fit into that category.


A large portion of what makes a super car (in the purest, Lamborghini Miura type of way) so amazing is the character in its sheet metal (or carbon fiber), and the imagery in those creases.  Symbolism is also important: Prancing Horses, Horny Bulls and even the stuff inside the Corvette’s crossed flags give someone a concept to latch on to, a reason to be proud of the huge capital expenditure they are about to swallow.  Too bad McLaren’s red wave emblem looks like something any junior graphic design student can make while picking his nose. But I digress…

I do quite like the lower valence: charcoal grilles that float in nothingness is a unique take on the supercar schnoz.  And while I think it’s a bit busy compared to the purposeful design of the original McLaren F1, at least it stands out in a crowd.



This is a good time to note how a proper Super Car has a nice amount of overhang.  I will take the leap of faith and assume the MP4-12C is designed to meet Europe’s pedestrian safety standards, and make a blanket statement: we need sleeker, more aerodynamic noses for everyone’s benefit.



The doors also do something pretty cool.  I wonder if their design is too complicated and fussy compared to the rest of the package. But if the F1 had it, the MP4-12C needs them.  Side note: the Gallardo needs a proper set of Lambo doors, too!



From the front three-quarters view, you can see how the bumper/grille design emulates the wispy side coves for engine cooling.  It’s pretty trick, even if I think black wheels detract from the package.  Considering the whole vehicle looks like it could be made by one of the many super car makers in this cottage industry, a set of wheels with the authority of the Lamborghini Countach’s “revolver chamber” design are needed.



Do you feel this car hails from the automaker that gave us the F1?  I’m not feelin’ it, son…especially since that greenhouse doesn’t hold three people with the driver in the center.  Tragic.



The integrated vents (that probably do something epic) most certainly look awesome.  I love seeing subtle, well-crafted details like this.



Speaking of details, thank goodness for Super Car hips and tumblehome!  Granted, we can never have this in an affordable vehicle, but work of the late Bill Mitchell was close enough.  Oh, to feel that good about Detroit Iron again!



While the speed bullets are a little fussy to me, these side view mirrors are quite appealing.  But considering the MP4-12C’s extensive use of Carbon Fiber in the McLaren tradition, maybe they are just fine, going with the carbon fiber mirror housing themselves.  I’d probably spend the extra coin to get McLaren’s matching carbon fiber arms…which I believe do exist, but cannot verify due to McLaren’s unbelievably slow and obtuse website.  Web 2.0 junkies do not approve.



The rear three-quarters perspective shows off the necessary “speed holes” you always see on Super Cars to make them fast and sexy. (Hat Tip to Homer Simpson for that wonderful phrase.) My problem here?  The speed holes aren’t as integrated (or painted body color) like many a Super Car before this one. From the materials, the shape of each hole, the cross section of each hole and the patches of flat black trim, this is a busy design. It’s begging for the integration seen on the quarter windows in the photo above.



Problem solved. The rear end is simply awesome from a dog’s eye view.  Which is what most people will see as this monster disappears into the sunset.  And while I could go on about the sleek integration of this design, I will say one thing instead: the high mount exhaust tips are very trick. They no longer exist by themselves, like a perfect couple that’s perfectly in love, the rear of the MP4-12C is a single entity.

Wait…one more thing: the integrated, smoked taillights in the rear louvers are so awesome that it needs to be a retrofit for Ferrari Testarossas around the world. It feels so good to see new lighting technology implemented without drawing attention to itself, until actually necessary. Death to Altezzas?



Yes, no doubt.  This car proves why oversized lighting pods are officially out of style. Death to Altezzas!



Even the rear marker/reflector lights mimic a character line in the MP4’s rump.  Somewhere, Mr. Walter Gropius is smiling from a sky high vantage point.



Oh yeah, the engine is quite pretty too, but that’s not really the point behind the Vellum Venom series.  Kids don’t normally sketch dashboards and engine covers in the margins of their school notebooks, they stick to the body.  And can you believe a phone took a picture this nice?







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Review: 2010 Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Wed, 03 Aug 2011 17:17:28 +0000


I didn’t drive the Bugatti Veyron, but here you are reading my review. So how exactly did an automotive journalist with zero manufacturer connections, and no income (at the time) aside from menial paychecks as a drum instructor get the nerve to write a Veyron review?

“SOLD…to the gentleman by the staircase!” bellowed the auctioneer, before everyone applauded the winner of the night’s ultimate charity prize: a trip to Bugatti central for a factory tour and a full day of seat time in the Veyron.  As I stood next my brother, who was still in shock from being that high bidder, I knew he’d once again give TTAC a taste of the high performance combined with the brilliantly decadent.  But, over a year later, the good Dr. Mehta is still busy beating cancer into remission.  And we’re running out of time before the Veyron slips into the history books.

Luckily, he was kind enough to being me along.


We embarked on the same Bugatti Experience as a potential customer: meals, drinks, snacks and facility tour complete with a PowerPoint presentation. The overview discussed the original Veyron design mule, pre-VW intervention.  Imagine the current Veyron except with flatter curves, a look more in tune with Bugattis of the past and less like a VW New Beetle on steroids.  Not that the Veyron is plump and derivative. But like a Rubenesque C5 Corvette, there are too many round elements fighting for your attention.


Whatever.  The interior doesn’t disappoint: suitably luxurious carpets, leather soft/aromatic enough for its price point and sheets of Alcantara giving the impression of sitting inside in a gigantic piece of tiramisu. The dashboard is a slice of heaven, framed by metal trim that doesn’t attract attention to itself, letting the center stack’s engine turned aluminum receive the praise it deserves. The air registers feel precise enough to come from a defense contractor’s machine shop.  The Burmester Audio system possesses the sound clarity, imaging quality and simplistic ergonomics of exquisite audio engineering: Herr Burmester even claims he was involved in the monocoque’s design from the early stages.


The Veyron’s other electronic distractions impress, mostly because of their limited real estate and flat learning curve. If a Rothko takes several minutes to make an indelible impression, the every interior subsystem in the Bugatti is crafted with the same thought.  But thoughts get rather simplistic when three large needles on the Veyron’s gauge cluster violently–yet effortlessly–swing to the right.  And this is where the good Dr. Mehta takes us home.

Sanjay writes:

The first time I buried the throttle after clipping the apex of a tight right hander leading to the back straight, as the quad snailed W16 howled and tried its best to fling me off into the horizon, reality started to sink in….life is pretty damn good.


After my tour of the Bugatti grounds, I met my French date: a solid black Veyron with a delicious caramel leather interior, showing 33,000 km on the clock. The staff informed me that this car had been driven, and driven hard.  But aside from a few rock chips and worn leather on the keyfob (that looked suspiciously like my last VW rental), this Veyron was virtually new.

Settling into the comfy, manually adjustable bucket, (custom sizes available, ‘natch) top-tier craftsmanship was evident everywhere. Retired F1 driver Pierre Henri Raphanel drove me off the Bugatti grounds to a twisty country road, while casually discussing the cars attributes. To illustrate, he came to a complete stop on a two-lane road with a gentle S bend about a hundred yards ahead. While continuing his speech, Pierre floored the throttle. The car lunged forward with the slightest wisp of wheelspin (times 4), hit second gear and negotiated the bend ahead with two fingers casually on the wheel at approximately 80 mph. The entire ordeal took less time and effort than it did for you to read this sentence.

My turn: with a fair bit of time in high powered machinery myself, the Veyron is most notable for its civility and near total lack of traction related issues. I tooled around small villages in the Alsace region, where people peered out of local wineries to get a glimpse of the black Bug at every turn. In this environment, the car felt much like any other stiffly sprung, ground clearance challenged exotic. Despite the 2+ tons of weight, the big Bug is more Lamborghini and less CL65 over city streets. Which is to say, it’s civilized enough, but the ride quality was no better than a magnetic ride equipped 3200 lb Vette.

Aiming at the autoroute, the car settles into a 200 km/h groove in 7th gear like a good German ‘bahn burner, with minimal wind noise or tramlining; however the presence of those huge wheels and Michelin PAX runflats, stiff bushings, and tight Eibachs prevents any AMG-ish pretense of true relaxed cruising. When holes opened up (or even when they didn’t), small throttle openings quickly lead to BIG speed even at low revs, thanks to 4 little lag-free turbos pushing 488 cubic inches. A 997 Turbo in high gear doesn’t stand a chance, but a stock (TVS blown) C6 ZR1 at 2000 rpm would probably have no trouble staying in the rearview mirror. Until the Veyron driver discovers sport mode, that is.


In sport mode, the tach (and adjacent Power Meter) stay resolutely towards the right, keeping the W16QT on full boil until you manually upshift. I easily saw 250+ km/h in between clumps of traffic with the same ease achieved in either my twin-turbo Ford GT or Gallardo…

…but this thing is bone stock. On pump gas. With a warranty to boot.

Oh, and it has another 150 km/h in reserve, you know, to dispatch said tuner cars if need be, though I didn’t have the heart to tell Pierre that the turbo Lambo (on race gas @25 psi of boost) would eat this thing alive in midrange acceleration. Not that it mattered anyway: piloting the Veyron is an experience.


We arrive at the track L’Anneau Du Rhin about 45 min after leaving the Molsheim factory. Pierre remains in the passenger seat, instructing me on a wet/dry slalom aimed at demonstrating the AWD and stability control systems. After a few laps, including standing starts and lane changes on wet pavement (with the stability turned off), it’s abundantly clear that the microprocessors can in fact keep all but the most hamfisted clods from getting into trouble.


The real fun began when Pierre coached me through 3 or 4 laps around the short course at progressively higher speeds, realizing I had some seat time on the track before. “Oui, you are good, I cannot earn my paycheck teaching you. Enjoy!” thereby giving me free reign to lap the track, though he reactivated the nannies. Frankly, that’s fine by me: I had no desire to test the limits of my insurance deductible, and the car has remarkably high yaw thresholds before intervening.

Yes, that means I throttle steered a freaking Veyron! It’s able to change direction like a modern era 300 lb NFL lineman, but its forte is still a straight line: even on the short straightaway, 200+ km/h is doable. Over and over, with the W16 sounding remarkably like a big block pushrod V8 from behind me. Unfortunately, a tight 1st gear right hander at the end of the straight eventually gets the best of even these 15.7″ ceramic discs, and the brake/tire over temp light momentarily forces a pit stop. 1001 hp and 4400+ lbs does not a good track car make.

During the pit stop, the low coolant light again rears its head, and our engineer reads the codes, quickly surmising a leak in the intercooler. He has the carbon fiber rear bodywork off in less than 10 minutes, topping off the intercooler tank with–what else–the same Evian we enjoyed in the pits.

Thirty minutes later, I’m back making hot laps. Now able to settle in a bit more, I notice the steering is extremely communicative, with virtually no discernible torque contamination. The dual clutch gearbox blips the bent sixteen seamlessly, though the gears are so closely spaced, the torque bandwidth so massive, that shifting is rarely necessary.


I remember thinking that I’ve been lapping this 7 figure car for an hour as hard as my C6 Z06, and the tire bill alone for this day was probably greater than what it cost me to put a cam, headers, and tune on my Z. One full set of rubber costs as much as the twin-turbo conversion on a Ford GT!


Finally a few laps with the F1 hot shoe behind the wheel on the long course at Du Rhin, and I am presented with a certificate in a matte aluminum frame commemorating this bucket list worthy experience. Did I mention life is good?

I still had another 45 min stint back to the factory, and I could feel the bond with this Veyron test mule beginning to grow. Momentarily stuck behind a French camion going under 120 km/h, I reflected on the morning’s presentation:

Over breakfast in the Bugatti library, the team gave an overview of the unlikely sequence of events leading to the production of the world’s most outrageous super car of the 21st century, it became clear how unlikely it was that the Veyron would truly see the light of day: over budget and not meeting its targeted performance parameters.  But CEO Ferdinand Piech’s baby somehow overcame all economic and engineering obstacles to become the highest performing production vehicle in existence.


His goal was clear: a formal statement of VW’s engineering prowess, able to blast through the atmosphere at 400 km/h and drive to the opera with equal aplomb.

I say Mission Accomplished. And I got to put 220 km on one of them.


But can any car, no matter how good, be worth one million dollars? Well, more like $1.5 million at current exchange rates. If I were a bajillionaire, there would be one of these parked next to “my” McLaren F1. For those of us with slightly shallower pockets, check out the high-end tuner cars with comparable or better power and similar AWD grip. The VAG themselves have a Lamborghini Aventador with 700 hp, pushrod actuated coilovers, and AWD for $400k.

Let’s be real though: in the Veyron’s league, price is irrelevant. There can only be one king, and I for one, bow before him. The Veyron, now officially out of production, cemented its place in history as the most fantastically capable road going conveyance ever built.

(The Mehtas offer their sincere thanks to John Hill of Bugatti North America, Mr. David Duthu and everyone at Houston’s Classy Chassis Concours d’ Elegance for making this happen.)

Not a fan of TTAC on Facebook?  For shame, because here are some answers to the questions YOU asked.

David B: if you park it at a “scratch and dent” store you got bigger problems than the paint job on your Veyron.  Mark Galutera: everyone knows it, so its pretty much like the Elvis or Michael Jackson of any motorway. Brendan M: buy the train to carry your Veyron to keep the miles down. Adam L: the new one for every day outside of Pebble Beach concourse de elegance. Eric R: no diapers needed. John T: Tough call, as Sajeev’s broke Caddy would turn just as many heads in less-privileged parts of Houston.

Keven F: aside from the keys and probably the headlight switch/signal stalk, I don’t remember much VAG family resemblance.  Shifter trim maybe, but much like the Ford GT, the badge engineering is good enough to keep you in rapture.  Craig G: Sorry, there’s no diesel or station wagon option, put away your checkbook.

4 race22 CIMG3692 award 1 f 3 5 race21 evian CIMG3650 CIMG3696 gauges race3 CIMG3689 CIMG3686 evain2 ontrack CIMG3694 race3 CIMG3652 2 ferdinand2 race race2

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Review: The Rolls Royce Phantom Wed, 29 Sep 2010 19:35:07 +0000

While TTAC gets scorn for lofty criticisms of mainstream vehicles, should we demand perfection in a $405,000 (as-tested) vehicle? Because the Phantom is inches away from yesteryear’s glory: the highest regarded, finest engineered luxury vehicle before anyone cared about luxury vehicle upstarts like Mercedes-Benz or Lexus.

That’s not to say the Phantom isn’t drop dead gorgeous. The suicide doors are dumbfoundingly awesome. That Hooper Coachwork inspired design is impossible to miss: clock the long hood and short deck. And an elegant swageline, strong and stoic at the front, gently falling earthward before the taillights. Which are suitably small, drawing your eyes to the beauty of finished metal instead of the overwrought lighting details of lesser vehicles.

And if you don’t roll a MegaCab Ram truck, you’re in a lesser vehicle. The majority of its linebacker-sized frontal area contains that wonderful Roller grille, making the Phantom damn near impossible to fault from the front. But the “headlights that look like foglights” need the boot: a counterintuitive move that–like four spoke wheels–is an Industrial Design deadly sin. When nighttime bystanders look at your ride funny in the valet lot, something needs to be fixed.

Nitpicking no doubt, especially in “light” (sorry) of what’s inside. The dash is old-school charming, vents are made of an actual metal substance and the wood-encased analog clock rotates to show a sat-nav screen in a distinctly James Bond manner. The floor mats are made from absolutely randy-feeling wool, but the carpet could use a dose of Rogaine for a thicker pile. That rug looks fine in the exquisitely finished trunk: kudos to the leather trimmed boots around the dog leg hinges and a pull-down button graphic portraying an actual Rolls-Royce, not a generic silhouette.

While the latest BMW-sourced, leather wrapped, i-Drive wheel hides behind a wood door, it’s black plastic container is worthy of a Dodge Caliber. Dude, didn’t I pay enough for leather, suede, aluminum or plumbing fixture-grade brass at this touch point?

And yes, you’ll use that somewhat-easy i-Drive system far more often than a BMW, because this is such a relaxing vehicle.

Seating for five is comfortable, with excellent visibility up front and bespoke privacy from the massive C-pillar. That’s dandy, just avoid the action-packed, extra-plush rear quarters in a Maybach, LS460L or even the Hyundai Equus: replacing British Charm (terrible food) with a lap dance (and a free buffet) is most appealing at this Caligula-ish price point. No matter, the Lexicon audio is respectable up front, absolutely amazing in the rear. And the rear power suicide doors (with integral umbrellas) are much like the retractable lady statue on the hood: a thing of beauty.

But the seating inferiority complex continues, as air conditioned seats are a welcome addition to every luxury vehicle in the current millennia. Rolls’ engineers made the finest HVAC out there, but do us a solid and introduce cool air via that legendary tuck-and-roll upholstery, please. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be a broke-ass car scribe, getting someone else do my errands. In a different car.

So let’s drive this gorgeous beast. The direct-injected, BMW-sourced V12 is a smashing success: lifting the Phantom’s nose from a standstill, accelerating to 60mph in 5.7 seconds like a crescendo from a philharmonic orchestra. It’s no bi-turbo Benz at speed, punching the air with a coffin nose hood in a distinctly freight train-like manner. Steering feel is acceptable by Toyota Camry standards, delightfully accurate for livery drivers of the Panther persuasion.

Braking is outstanding, though the pitch, roll, massive understeer and tall seating position encourage sane levels of steering transitions. Which explains the reverse tachometer (Power Reserve meter) and bearing-infused Rolls-Royce hubcaps to a tee: show some respect, lest the owner knock you down to a mere hack, hooning a yellow cab.

Ride quality is this Roller’s raison d’etre, and it shant disappoint. Until it does. With hard walled, run-flat tires stretched to a rubber band sidewall on a 21-inch wheel, the Phantom cannot provide the ride expected from its NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) material packed body, near silent powertrain and pin drop quiet highway ride. Cross an enormous bump and the Phantom glides like a cloud, but hit a sharp pavement joint or frost heaves and the Phantom “thuds” more than a gymnasium floor during basketball season. The Phantom is dying for a traditional wheel/tire option, perhaps with thick whitewalls to compensate for the extra sidewall: because Rolls-Royces aren’t purchased for handling prowess and sporty rims.

So the Phantom is a somewhat-flawed vehicle, but is it best in class? Yes. Nobody comes even close to its appeal. Once Rolls-Royce sweats the little stuff present in cheaper, more advanced alternatives and refines every last detail, the Phantom will be God among men.

Readers who follow TTAC on Facebook had the opportunity to ask questions about the Phantom. If you would like to ask questions of reviews in progress, check out our Facebook page. Fans, here are your answers:

Paul S: sounds like Rolls’ styling isn’t for you, but the Phantom is brand management so honest it makes me cry. Rob F: like a fancy restaurant used to impress a first date, like comparing a Panther Chassis’ ride to a Toyota Avalon, the “sheer crapulence of it all” (as you so eloquently put it) is why this car rules. Richard L: Donuts woulda been scary, had I found a parking lot big enough to try. Antoine P: buy a Maybach, RENNTECH it and enjoy the best in turbocharged luxury hoonability. Jonathan H: it’s odd for a man to wear a miniskirt, but the paparazzi won’t see your junk if you soberly exit the Roller.

Ingvar H: the cheapest one on (wholesale) Manheim Auctions is 120 large, I doubt a running Phantom goes for less than six-figures. Jim J: people seeking less conspicuous consumption aren’t in this rarified air. Brian J: Rolls-Royce “Bespoke” program can add that stuff–for a price–except for maybe the air conditioned seats mentioned above. Ronald B: a fellow Roller on the highway waved at me all gentleman-like, but stereotypical Phantom owners exist: someone who was obviously high on something said I should be “blazin’ up in that b****.”

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Review: 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport Wed, 28 Jul 2010 17:51:50 +0000

There’s a great playground in Berkeley, near the Rose Garden, that has a two-story tall twisted and banked concrete slide down the side of a hill, of the sort that cities would never build again in our modern liability-freaked danger-averse era. Blissfully unaware of this, the local kids use torn-up cardboard boxes to reduce their friction and go even faster. While I watched, one kid went sailing off the end, landing flat on his back. He stood up and did a high-five with one of his friends, grinning from ear to ear. “That was hella cool!”

What happens when that kid becomes a 38-year old tenured CS professor? He goes and test drives a Tesla Roadster Sport. We were on a family vacation to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I stopped by the Tesla mothership in Menlo Park, on a whim, to check out their gear in person. On the Friday I arrived, my friendly salesman, Ernie, evinced a pained look when I said that the Roadster wouldn’t really work for me but that I was quite interested in the Model S. Sorry, they didn’t even have the pretty mockup yet, but hopefully they would, some few months to come. I asked if I could test drive a Roadster, regardless. “You know it will handle differently from the Model S, right?” Indeed.

I made an appointment and came back on Sunday afternoon. Ernie photocopied my license and had me sign a one page waiver (notable element: I will not race the car) and then tossed me the keys and said to have it back in 30-45 minutes. No chaperone. (Cue music: Yello’s “Oh Yeah” from Ferris Buhler’s Day Off.)

Okay, what’s a Tesla like in the flesh? The hardest thing about a Tesla is getting in and out. I’m 5’10″, and with the seat all the way back, I only just fit. The seat adjustments and mirrors are all manual, but at least it has power windows. The cockpit is quite cramped, without much spare room for your legs next to the wide shelf of the car frame. I did my drive with the top off (again, a manual process that can only be done standing up). The massive B-pillars probably keep you quite safe in the event of a rollover, but they also create massive blind spots that force you to be extra super careful when you change lanes. Mustn’t hurt the precious.

As other reviewers have pointed out, there’s remarkably little drama in driving a Tesla. When you take your foot off the brake, you get a little bit of forward thrust, not unlike our boring rental Toyota Camry. However, when you’re cruising and you lift all the way off the gas, you get significant back-force from the power regeneration. In practice, in daily driving, you only need the brake for emergency maneuvers, and for holding the car at a red light. Even when driving down a steep hill, you don’t need the brake. I kept expecting it to lug the engine or otherwise misbehave, but there is no engine to lug, so it just slowed down gracefully. Very cool. (The brake lights come on automatically when you fully lift the throttle, as well they should.)

So how does it feel to drive a Tesla? Allow me digress to the first time I drove a Porsche 911 Turbo, the 993-variant, the last of the air-cooled classics without electronic nannies to keep you from killing yourself. I was merging onto a freeway and gave it what seemed like the right amount of gas to get up to speed and pull in. And it was exactly the right amount of gas, until the turbo finished spooling up and sent me blasting forward toward the unforgiving rear end of a semi. Brake!

In the Tesla, there’s zero lag. Not even the smallest bit. In a normal car, the only way you can get close to this experience is to have the engine already howling along high in its RPM power band right before you drop the hammer. With the Tesla, it’s always there, all the time. No drama, no engine growl. You see your opening. Stomp. Sqeeee! Lightspeed. (Yes, the sound is more akin to the capacitors in a big camera strobe charging up than any normal automotive sound. This is no bad thing.) And don’t forget that the Tesla had only one gear and that electric motors have essentially flat torque curves. That means you have the same staggering torque off the line as you have at 80mph. (I initially torque thought I’d write this torque review using the word “torque” about once every five words. Torque. Tesla’s got torque.)

I plotted a route on the freeway then up the 84 to Skyline Blvd. Traffic was generally too thick for me to be too much of a hoon, but there were moments, like when the slow Prius pulled over to let me pass. Stomp. Sqeeeee! Brake. Turn. Sqeeeee! Brake. Traffic. Grrr.

The ride was quiet and tight. The unpowered steering required some effort in the twisties, but was never objectionable. The suspension travel is very short, and small road bumps made the car thud loud enough that I wondered if I broke anything (I didn’t). This car works well on the nice smooth roads in and around my test drive (thank you, California tax payers!), but I imagine it would be far less fun with the potholes and poorly-maintained steets of Houston where I live. One of my coworkers drives an Exige, so at least it’s ostensibly possible. Hmm.

Geek factor: I attended a talk at Stanford in 2007 when the Tesla guys were going on, at length, about issues like environmental impact relative to different charging models (i.e., whether you’ve just gotten yourself a “longer tailpipe” or whether you’ve truly done something worthwhile for the environment). Through all of that, all I could think was “yeah, but what’s it like to drive?” Now I know: it’s hella cool.

The author is, indeed, a tenured faculty member at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Behold the power of academic freedom. Tesla furnished the Roadster Sport for the author’s test driving. The author does not currently own any Tesla stock and does not have any Tesla car on order. Yet.

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Review: 2011 Fiat Bravo 1.4 T-Jet Wed, 03 Feb 2010 13:45:15 +0000

Hop back to the distant (or not so distant) days of high school. Remember the complex universe that is class dynamics? Each class had its typical individuals. There was that all-around kind of guy. Perfect looks, perfect grades, perfect girlfriend. Maybe a little boring, but who cares when you can passionately discuss Fermat’s last theorem at your own leisure?

Then there was the troublemaker: not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but always a lot of fun to hang out with during sleepless nights. Not that your mom would approve.

But tucked away into the darkest, farthermost corner of the classroom was that quiet kid that could stay utterly silent for days, and when he finally had something to say, he murmured it a hushed tone that even the teacher ignored. This, believe it or not, brings us neatly into the subject of the new Fiat Bravo. Euro car buffs probably remember this nameplate from the late 1990s hatchback which replaced the fairly successful Fiat Tipo. The Bravo – and its five door sibling, the Brava – slotted in the family hatchback segment, and were replaced in 2001 by the Fiat Stilo.

The Stilo, to put it mildly, didn’t exactly top the charts back in the Old Continent, and was criticized for its complete dullness. So after 6 years of declining sales, Fiat resurrected a nameplate from the turn of the century and drummed out a replacement: the new Fiat Bravo.

With the (wait for it…) Brave new Bravo, Fiat intends to retake the family hatchback market with a storm – and considerable Italian flair. Fiat would rather you didn’t know it, but the new Bravo isn’t totally new. In many parts it is, but it’s still based on the underpinnings of the unloved Stilo.

Funnily enough, this all-important VW Golf challenging car was developed in only 18 months, and used extensive computer simulation to speed things up. So, how does it all work out?

Well, for starters – no matter where you come from, this is car is a looker. Up front, the Bravo has the familiar Punto grille plastered on it and the back lights are influenced by the original Bravo. The overall shape is sleek and fluent – no design committees here. In a bid to avoid our daily allowance of Italian-car-related-clichés, we’ll let you overview the rest. To our eyes, this is a win for Fiat’s design studio, with clear influences from Fiat group’s other offerings, such as the Alfa Romeo MiTo. However, our metallic-black tester didn’t do the Bravo justice – this car aches for a bright color.

On another note, a closer look at the Bravo’s wheel arches gave us the slight impression that it was a little more high-riding than we’d want. Or maybe it just needs a bigger set of wheels – the ones you see in the photos are a custom job by the dealer.

The interior is a revelation, speaking in Fiat terms. This is undoubtedly one of the best interiors the Italian company has ever produced to date, and we weren’t even bothered by the fake carbon-fiber panels which felt fairly good to the touch. Most controls are logically arranged and there’s orange ambient lighting all around. But wait, there’s more: the door and trunk close with a reassuring thump that’s been long missing from Fiat’s midsize offerings.

Still, there are a few issues. Ask and thou shall find hard plastics where the eye doesn’t see and even where it does – like in the gearlever area. The wiper and turning signal handles belong to the better part of the 1990s and there are not as many soft-touch areas as you’d find in some competitors. We could also see no good coming out of the partially reflective plastic covering the dials either, but the dials themselves – in good Fiat tradition – are visible to the driver only. No more nagging from the wife when you drift to 85.

On the practicality front, the Bravo takes a few hits. The front seats feel a little awkward at first, but prove to be comfortable on long journeys – if a little hard. Rear legroom, however, is limited and you wouldn’t want to place anyone you love in the middle rear seat. It could get nasty. The trunk itself isn’t exceptionally big, but it’s deep enough to comfortably fit an adult (don’t ask).

Things get interesting under the bonnet. The gas engine range consists of 3 different states of tune of the same 1.4 liter, 16 valve unit – a naturally aspirated variant with 90 horsepower and two turbocharged versions, called T-JET, with 120 and 150 horsepower. If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is – this flexible little engine appears everywhere in the concern’s offerings, including the Alfa MiTo and Abarth versions of the Punto and 500.

Unsurprisingly, Fiat’s intention is to compete with Volkswagen on the small turbocharged engine front. Over the last two years, VW has been constantly replacing its lower capacity gas engines with smaller, turbocharged (and in some cases, supercharged as well) units, and Fiat has clearly spotted the advantage of the added torque and power availability.

Our tester was equipped with the mid-range motor, producing 120 horsepower. Consumers in the Holy Land – much like in the States – prefer their cars with two pedals only and without that odd stick to their right, so our tester was mated to a six-speed Dualogic sequential gearbox.

The first part of this combination impresses. 120 horsepower doesn’t sound like much, and a sub-10-second sprint to 60 doesn’t exactly rock the earth, but the flexibility of the turbo engine allows for excellent mid-range power. The spec sheet says that maximum torque is available from as low as 1,750 RPM – and thankfully, there’s no noticeable turbo lag unless you really push it. As an added bonus, this engine has a great throaty sound and turbo hiss that’s only noticeable if you open the window and concentrate. At which point you may put the Bravo’s 5 star EuroNCAP crash test rating to review – be sure to let us know.

The bad news, as you’ve probably expected, come from the gearbox. We’re well acquainted with the said Dualogic gearbox, but with this engine and car it feels even more frustrating. Instead of a traditional automatic setup utilizing a torque converter, this gearbox uses an electronic clutch which shifts gears automatically. The result is, well, bumpy.

The Dualogic is simply not as smooth as a conventional automatic or a dual clutch gearbox like VW’s DSG. And unlike the 500, the Bravo isn’t equipped with any sort of a hill holding system (and there’s no creeping), which means that the second you release the brake, the car will immediately succumb to the laws of physics and roll in the general direction of the gradient, which could coincide with the general direction of the car behind you. Possible solutions: growing a third leg or braking with your left foot, neither of which TTAC recommends.

To make matters worse, this autobox is hesitant and when it does finally decide on the proper gear it lets you know with a friendly kick. In town, it’s a rocky and unpleasant experience. On the highway, it gets better. Here’s the thing: if you drive this car like a regular automatic, you’ll be disappointed. If you keep its manual roots in mind, lift off the throttle during upshifts and use the handy steering wheel mounted shifters, it’s actually not an entirely traumatic experience – it even blips on downshifts. Which begs the question: why not get the manual (and save money) in the first place?

The ride leans to the harsh side. It’s by no means uncomfortable, but slightly restless around town. On better roads it feels fairly composed, but wind noises intrude the cockpit in speeds approaching the legal limits.

When the roads got twisty, we had some expectations from the Bravo, as it comes from the company which has been producing sweet handling cars since the dawn of automotive time – not to mention owning Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Lancia. Coincidentally, this was also one of the most disappointing aspects of the Bravo.

There’s the steering. The thick-rimmed leather wheel – which is pleasant to the touch – quickly proved just how bad an electro-hydraulic setup can get. It’s over-assisted, imprecise and vague, with minimal Playstation-like levels of feedback. The gas pedal has a rubbery feel to it and the brakes – although having good initial response – give up and go on a smoking break way too quickly. Not exactly a recipe for a fun Sunday drive, but in the end of the day, there are worse cars to drive, thanks to a good chassis and controlled body roll thanks to the toughened suspension. It’s a shame you have to dig deeper than most drivers naturally will to discover these positive qualities.

The Fiat Bravo isn’t a bad car. It’s actually one of Fiat’s best efforts to date: it’s an attractive and fairly refined car with a worthy engine that’s let down by disappointing driving dynamics and a poor automatic gearbox – though the latter is about to change with the introduction of Fiat’s first dual clutch transmission (DCT) later this year. But it’s still not as complete as the Volkswagen Golf or even the Ford Focus, and it suffers from Fiat’s poor reputation when it comes to family hatchbacks.

The Bravo then, is that quiet student perched against the class wall. It can’t be that awe-inspiring all-knowing guy – let’s call him Golf – but neither can it be ‘the dude’ because of its mediocre driving dynamics and lack of driver appeal. And as quiet individuals go, it’ll be ignored by most shoppers looking for a family hatchback – and that’s a shame, because it still manages to be a refreshingly original pick in an otherwise boring class (pun unintended), that’s also significantly cheaper than its more accomplished competitors. Bravo (sorry, we had to).

Fiat provided the vehicle for this review, along with insurance and one tank of gas

This review made possible by

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Review: Alfa Romeo MiTo Fri, 29 Jan 2010 15:30:30 +0000

Today’s tester is a Red Alfa Romeo. So I really shouldn’t be telling you how its name is derived from the cities of Milano and Torino. I shouldn’t be revealing that it’s based on the Fiat Punto and I really needn’t elaborate about its underhood gadgetry, because in days of yore, “Red” was all you needed to know about an Alfa Romeo. On the other hand, to paraphrase Dylan, things have changed.

Alfa Romeo exists in that rare pantheon of automotive names that inspire blind devotion from enthusiasts of the world, by virtue of decades building cars that appealed to the soul rather than the mind. But today, everyone wants aircon, power steering and enough safety aids to land on the moon. Everyone cares about the environment, platform sharing, polar bears and electronic driver aids. Perhaps even more importantly, no one wants any of the notorious breakdowns Alfas are renowned for. So we need to talk about the sensible stuff.

Enter the Alfa Romeo MiTo, which along with the Alfa 159 sedan is supposed to give the Germans a good run for their money, and is positioned directly against BMW’s Mini Cooper. Ah, but the Mini already competes with the Fiat 500, you say. But the 500 is a mini-car, significantly undercutting the Cooper in size and price. The MiTo is bigger than the Mini, but it still stickers under the matching Cooper all across Europe. Will it ever land in the US? Time will tell, as Alfa Romeo could return to North America in 2011… provided it survives its “strategic review.”

The MiTo – introduced in late 2008 – is filling a long-gone slot in the Italian company’s offerings: the supermini, also one of the most important car segments in Europe. A spiritual successor to the 70s’ Alfasud? Perhaps, but this Alfa has a lot more to do with Fiat than what you think. Not only does it share its underpinnings with the Punto supermini, but it also shares many of its components – such as engines and transmissions – with other Fiat models. Fortunately, the sporty bits – such as the suspension and brakes – are bespoke.

You certainly can’t call a badge-job judging from the exterior, which is – even by Alfa standards – gorgeous. The front borrows heavily from the Alfa 8C Competitzione – so heavily, in fact, that the result is a nose that’s a little busy for such a small car. Nevertheless, the car in general is simply a treat to the sense of sight with a sexy sloping roof and the world’s first tasteful automotive application of chrome, which surrounds the round LED lights. It really is a car you could park in the driveway and stare at for hours, admiring its sculpted alloys and even the brake calipers, carefully inscribed with ‘Alfa Romeo’ in a beautiful script. A run-of-the-mill Punto? Not so much.

Enter the cabin, and the design festival lingers on. Talk about oxymorons – there’s (optional) dark-red-soft-touch-faux-carbon which looks and feels great. The sculpted dash hides some good looking, orange-glowing dials, and Benzina is surely the sexiest title ever to grace a fuel gauge. Honestly. There’s pleasant attention to details here as well: the air vents are coated with a gentle chrome application, the tachometer displays turbo boost pressure (with no conceivable purpose or measuring units) and the windows are frameless.

On the quality front, not everything is perfect. The faux-aluminum trim on the center console doesn’t look that bad, but that changes once you touch it. Worryingly, when applying slight pressure, it also squeaks. There are some low-rent plastics hiding beneath eyesight, and every left turn something that appeared to be a screw on the run rolled somewhere in the rear of the glove compartment. Small niggles notwithstanding, the MiTo’s cockpit has an air of quality to it, if not as impressive as some of Fiat’s recent products.

In the name of style, of course, the MiTo has only two doors. While it’s roomy up front, the back seats offer little in the way of legroom, and thanks to that great looking roofline, taller individuals may find that their head strikes the ceiling more often than it is socially acceptable. It gets worse in the trunk, which offers a miserly 9-and-a-half cubic feet of displacement. Alfa’s supermini, then, is (thankfully) a win of form over function.

You can have the MiTo with a variety of Fiat Group’s ubiquitous 1.4 gas engines (or MultiJet diesels), starting with a basic 90 bhp unit, but our kitted-out Veloce tester has the top-spec turbocharged version with no less than 155 horses. This isn’t the first time this unit impressed me, and it gets even better in the Alfa, where it has a fantastic, throaty soundtrack that makes it feel considerably larger in displacement than it really is. Even on stops it produces a lofty burble – none of that turbo whistling either.

While turbo lag is barely noticeable, this is still an engine that lives in the mid-range. Sure, it revs happily to 6,500 rpm, but it’s much more at home living on main street, where it oozes with torque. Disappointingly for a supermini with such levels of power, the MiTo completes the sprint to 60 in 8 seconds, but makes up for the spec-sheet disappointment with excellent mid-range performance.

Lo and behold, ladies and gentlemen – this Alfa has a third pedal and a genuine stick between the front seats. Not a Selespeed sequential, semi-automatic devil, but a plain and simple 6 speed manual gearbox that really compliments the MiTo. Thanks to the never ending supply of torque, there’s not much rowing to be done. You can put it in third while in town and forget it. The box itself is a pleasure to use, but it could use a slightly shorter throw.

The thick-bellied steering wheel holds a special meaning for drivers. But I was afraid. Recent Fiat group products left driving experience way down on their wish list. Would the MiTo be a commercialized Alfa – one that’s meant to be a cash cow rather than provide true driving excitement?

It was a relief to find out that the Alfa Romeo MiTo is more than capable of holding itself through the bends. Yes, the steering is numb and lacks feedback, but at least it’s precise. Otherwise, it’s plain, good hearted fun – the MiTo resists understeer beautifully and progressively, so you get sufficient warning before getting into tire-squeal territory. That’s thanks, in part, to the Q2 electronic limited slip front differential. It will even throw its tail out should you ask it nicely. Brakes are good, body roll is well controlled and torque-steer is nowhere to be seen.

The MiTo has Fiat’s variable-assistance electro-hydraulic setup, and in town the steering is alarmingly light – you really could make a u-turn by coughing in its immediate surroundings. In higher speeds, the steering stiffens and becomes acceptably weighted, but still errs on the lighter side and isn’t nearly as communicative as you’d expect from an Alfa.

The MiTo also has one more electronic trick up its sleeve – the DNA system, which allows you to choose between three different modes: Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather. It won’t turn the little Alfa into a giant roaring lion within the flick of a button, but it makes all the right changes in the right places. In Dynamic mode, throttle response becomes sharper, the boost pressure climbs and the steering gets some more rubbery resistance (which contributes nothing to its feedback abilities). Traction control and stability systems are set loose – but unfortunately, although granting a fair degree of freedom, cannot be fully disengaged.

On the open road, the MiTo is a mixed bag. On one hand, the suspension manages to flatten smaller imperfections, but bumps and potholes will bring it out of its serenity. While wind noises are kept at bay, there is constant tire roar in the cabin. Fuel consumption was impressive, with the MiTo averaging 20 MPG [Ed: "enthusiast mileage," not indicative of normal-use mileage] on our vigorous test route.

The Alfa Romeo MiTo isn’t a glorified Punto. Far from it – it is a car in its own right, with a different feel, appeal and character. If you look at it as a transportation method, it’s a surprisingly thorough package – even its major flaws aren’t deal breakers, unless you want extraordinary practicality from your supermini. If you look at it as a car, it’s a quick and fun warm hatch with styling panache and plenty of character – though it’s still not a thoroughly serious driver’s car. And if you look at it as an Alfa, well, it’s red. And that’s all you really need to know.

Vehicle, insurance and one tank of fuel provided by Alfa Romeo.

This review made possible by

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Review: 2011 Fiat 500 1.2 (European-Spec) Wed, 27 Jan 2010 15:06:22 +0000

Retro cars sell on looks. Take the Chrysler PT Cruiser as an example – automotive perfection it wasn’t, and yet it sold like iPods on a Black Friday. Others, like the Mini Cooper, proved that retro cars can look like the past and drive like the present. But worth driving or not, almost every retro car introduced over the last few years has been a marketing sensation, bringing easy revenue and much-needed customers into an otherwise dull product line, and reviving deserted showrooms. No surprise, then, that upon reviewing the stellar sales of the Ford Mustang, Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen New Beetle, Fiat’s chiefs in Torino decided that it was time to launch a true Italian vendetta. It didn’t take long to find inspiration: the instant choice was the Fiat 500.

The Fiat 500 is to Italy what the iconic Beetle is to Germany. A small, bread-and-butter car that put a shiny new automobile in every driveway in a country plagued by post-war trauma. Introduced in 1957 and produced through 1975, nearly 3.9 million 500s were made over the years – and some 400,000 of them still travel on the roads of Europe today.

So, Fiat’s designers put their retro hats on, and in 2007, the new Fiat 500 – or cinquecento, as the Italians call it – was born. The new 500 is remarkably similar to its predecessor with a flowing and harmonic design which softly mutters – rather than screams – retro. In flowing Italian.

The end result of Fiat’s effort is a car that people smile at – on the streets, in parking lots and in traffic jams. Not many cars can be called ‘sweet’, but the Fiat 500 can definitely satisfy any automotive sweet tooth.

Unlike BMW with the MINI, Fiat has decided to indulge in some clever platform sharing. Underneath the shiny bodywork of the 500 lies a much less shiny car – the Fiat Panda, also the cheapest car the Italian company currently offers. And they have a very good reason for this, as the 500 significantly undercuts the Cooper in its pricing.

Does it show? In a word, yes. The interior continues the retro trend with shiny plastic that is color-coded with the exterior – it does look like an original effort, but a quick touch reveals the sound of hollow, low-grade plastic that’s not at all satisfying to touch. The interior is, however, well put together and otherwise very pleasant to look at, with nice touches and attention to detail – like the chrome surroundings around the buttons.

There are also some obligatory Italian-engineering quirks included with the 500. Take, for example, the seat reclining lever which is awkwardly hard to reach or the unnecessarily-complex gearlever on our automatic tester.

Space up front is not bad and the funky looking seats are good, but getting comfortable in the rear is a challenging experience. Although, surprisingly, rear legroom and space is ample, our tester’s rear seats were more of a bench, providing an awkward sitting position that inspired backaches after mere minutes of commuting. You do pay – handsomely – for this relative comfort, with the trunk measuring a miserly 185 liters (6.5 cubic feet), so don’t go planning any road trips.

Under the hood of our Euro-spec tester was a 1.2 four-banger unit putting out 70 horsepower. Combined with a curb weight of 1900 pounds, you may have already guessed this 500 won’t win any drag races, completing the sprint to 60 in just under 13 seconds. There is also a more powerful 1.4 unit with 100 horsepower, and of course – the Abarth with its 1.4 TurboJet engine pumping out 133 horeses (and a more impressive 7.9 second sprint to 60).

Our tester was also equipped with an optional Dualogic automatic transmission. This is no regular automatic though – it’s a single-clutched, manual based, computer controlled unit. Although it’s not a bad effort for this kind of a gearbox, after Volkswagen has shown us how to execute the semi-autobox it with its DSG dual clutch gearbox, it’s hard to go back. This transmission offers slightly jerky performance in heavy traffic and doesn’t shift as smoothly as a conventional automatic or VW’s said gearbox. There is a clever Hill Hold feature, which will hold the brake pedal for you for 3 seconds to prevent rolling down hills, but we’d rather pick the stick or a conventional automatic which may or may not be added for the American market.

But perhaps the most disappointing part about the 500 is its ride. In its seemingly natural habitat – urban areas – this Fiat provided a jerky and uncomfortable ride, crashing over bumps and minor road imperfections with what appears to be very short suspension travel. This condition improved when taken to the freeway, but we’d gladly trade some cruising comfort to spare our backs in town, not to mention that the 500 doesn’t feel very much at home cruising on the highway.

The upside to the harsh ride is the handling, which is good. It’s not as composed as say, well, the Mini Cooper, but the 500 is still a fun car in the corners, although we were limited in this judgment by the engine’s lack of grunt. The electrically assisted steering is a little too light and lacks a certain amount of feel, but all-in-all the result is fair enough. For tight parking spots and difficult urban maneuvers, Fiat has provided a magic button which makes the steering even lighter – frighteningly so.

So, what about the United States? Well, there are several question marks left, but the 500 is well on its way stateside as part of Fiat’s attempt to re-enter the American market after leaving with its tail between its legs back in the 80s. It will be produced in one of Chrysler’s North American factories, and the convertible version of the Italian mini car, called 500C, will also make it across the pond. There are also plans for a wagon-esque spinoff (read: Mini Cooper Clubman).

At least for the time being, however, Chrysler-Fiat have no intention of opening a separate Fiat dealer-network, so that the 500 will be sold in Chrysler showrooms, and well, we can see some problems with the idea, separate showroom floor notwithstanding.

But back to the car. The 500 proves that Fiat can do retro too. And although the obvious comparison to the Mini Cooper (fun fact: both cars were designed by the same man), the Fiat 500 is smaller and cheaper – and it doesn’t manage to hide it.

Financially, the 500 makes very little sense. It isn’t very comfortable, quality could use a brush up and it’s not the most rewarding car in the world to drive (the Abarth should fix that impression, though). Yes, it is cheaper than the Mini, but it’s by no means cheap. You could probably buy a modern, well-equipped sub-compact for the 500’s non-retro price, but that would be using common sense, and common sense just doesn’t apply here.

You see, the 500 has this sense of occasion to it. It’s a (relatively) cheap-and-(very) cheerful car, if you like – and it’s been a while since we could genuinely say this about any new car. It functions better as a fashion accessory than a practical solution, and if that’s your cup of tea, you might as well take a long sip. Did we mention that retro cars tend to sell on their looks?

This test drive made possible by

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Review: Tesla Roadster Wed, 07 Oct 2009 14:19:21 +0000 Beam me up! (courtesy: Wikimedia)

I’m anything but a Trekkie, but a recent drive in the Tesla Roadster made me think of the Starship Enterprise. To be more precise, the Enterprise a second after warp speed has been deployed. Imagine for a moment that your brain is Captain Kirk and the “gas” pedal is Scotty. When Scotty receives the warp factor order and flips the fast switch, something very weird and very breathtaking happens. On the Starship, as in the Tesla.

Electric power corrupts... electrically.

Time and time again, when I’d mash the Tesla’s accelerator, I couldn’t help but curse. As in, “holy *&@!, this is incredible”. That is what happens when you have linear, quiet, shiftless acceleration from zero to sixty in yes, three point bloody nine seconds. Quicker than any Porsche, and as quick as anybody who has not driven a formula car recently can imagine. And with far less drama than I’ve ever experienced in a sports car. You want to go faster, and then, suddenly, you’re faster — faster than you probably wanted.

Doesn’t this kind of power corrupt? During a 20-minute drive through and around Frankfurt, it did, inasmuch as I couldn’t help dishing out gobs of pure speed whenever there was an opening in traffic. And watching motorcycles struggle to catch up was only half the fun. It feels almost unspeakably awesome to have almost unlimited acceleration at your disposal, especially when it’s in an unflashy, inconspicuous small car. A car of which a pedestrian at a traffic light once asked “is it just a quiet car, or is it what I think it is?” When you’re in a Tesla, nobody insinuates you’re a toff, or a wanker, or yuppie scum. You’re in a superfast sports car, and everything is just fine. Has there ever been anything like it?

Did I say sports car? Well… let’s discuss that. The layout is sportscarish, what with two tight-but-comfortable seats, Lotus-low entry and egress, and a cabon-fiber cladded trunk that may be large and wide enough for your golf kit but not much else. Continuing the case for the Tesla’s sportscar-dom by virtue of inconvenience is the top of the windshield’s habit of blocking your line of vision if you’re over six feet tall.

Fit and finish is old-school sports car too: the inside is simple and pretty, but by no means is this the interior of a 100k car. You’ll find no jewellish instruments and no foolish luxury condiments such as an air scarf. No toys, in other words, except the car itself.

Golf, anyone? (Wikimedia)A toy, exactly, but, again, is it a sports car? Well, first there’s the steering. What Tesla gives you is a very small, unassisted wheel that doesn’t agree with your arm muscles at low speeds and feels wooden at higher ones. Does Tesla have this feature to discourage hoonage? If so: guys, it works. Then, there is the heavy battery pack which, in contrast to some other EVs, is not flat beneath the floor, but behind you, at around the level of your shoulders. The sum effect is that the Tesla feels solid and substantial but not particularly maneuverable. I didn’t take it to the ‘ring, butI can assume from the way it feels that this Roadster would feel not at all at home there.

On the other hand, ride comfort is suprisingly good. Tramway track crossings are taken in stride and long undulations, of the kind that make many a car feel bouncy on the autobahn, didn’t bother me at all. (Wind noise is present all the time, though).

Does it matter that the Tesla is not as direct, as communicative, as quick handling a car as its Lotus donator is? I’d say, no. Because what you do with this car is point and squirt — albeit with a monster squirt gun.

In other words, you need to employ a totally different driving style than you would in Porsche, for instance. You step on it, reach warp speed, let the regenerative brakes do their thing and get down to a comfortable speed before entering a curve, and then take off again.

Are you catching my, well, drift? This is a modern-day muscle car. It follows a simple formula: put a super-powerful engine in a small package, and watch people pay a hefty premium.

OK — it’s unsophisticated, and if you ask the competitors in the electric vehicle field, the guys who are busy designing some miracle car for 2012, they’ll tell you the Tesla is impossible. Laptop batteries! A Lotus chassis they simply loaded to the brink with Lithium! But really: as much as some people care, plenty of people don’t. And come to think of it, neither do I when the drive is so good. Not the reason to buy this car (TTAC/Martin Schwoerer)

Also, many people probably care about how long the batteries will last; what happens to your faulty batteries if Tesla’s financing dies; whether these newfangled Lithium-Ion batteries are really safe; whether its range of 50-200 miles is acceptable. (I wouldn’t suffer from range anxiety for the simple reason that anybody with the money to buy one would in addition own another car for the occasional long-distance drive). These issues are in flux, and a matter of discussion to take place outside the context of a test drive. Another qualm might be the price, to which I say: it’s an early-adopter’s toy, for crying out loud — these things are always expensive.

But for me, the real significance of the Tesla is this. For the first time in decades, Americans are offering a car that by way of brute force, cheekiness, acute understanding of new technology, and clever access to financing, has turned into something desirable for people everywhere. America is no longer the laughing stock of the automotive world. Folks, you might not like the Tesla, you might think it’s some kind of Silicon Valley scam, but if it was made in my country, I’d be mighty proud.

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Review: 2009 Caterham 7 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 12:21:35 +0000

There's a big difference between myself and Lotus founder Colin Chapman. When I change a flat tire, I find that I have two lug nuts left over. Chapman could create fully functioning sports/racing cars out of the detritus found in the average kitchen junk drawer. One-handed. While sipping tea. The Lotus Seven---later Super 7---is perhaps the best-known and longest-lasting example of his Frankensteinian genius. Debuting in 1957 and running on to 1973 (when Caterham Cars grabbed the baton), the 7 has undergone decades of continuous development. Yet is essentially the same vehicle that Chapman created. And none the worse for it.]]>

There’s a big difference between myself and Lotus founder Colin Chapman. When I change a flat tire, I find that I have two lug nuts left over. Chapman could create fully functioning sports/racing cars out of the detritus found in the average kitchen junk drawer. One-handed. While sipping tea. The Lotus Seven—later Super 7—is perhaps the best-known and longest-lasting example of his Frankensteinian genius. Debuting in 1957 and running on to 1973 (when Caterham Cars grabbed the baton), the 7 has undergone decades of continuous development yet is essentially the same vehicle that Chapman created. And none the worse for it.

The Caterham 7 is no more styled than a shoe tree. The 7′s tubular space frame is barely spacious enough to affix a De Dion rear suspension with Watts linkage, cradle an engine of your choice, and hold a couple of legless stools upon which drivers are expected to sit. It’s wrapped tight with sheet aluminum and adorned with just enough fiberglass to drape the tires and radiator. A child’s first-grade crayon drawing is more likely to wind up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The car’s real beauty: the non-inclusion of anything that could come between the driver and the road.

The modern Caterham 7 Classic possesses a healthy amount of Chapman’s most cherished auto-mechanical quality: less. Which, of course leads to lightness. At 525 kg (1157.42 lb.), the entry-level Caterham 7 Classic could be hung from a branch on a Christmas tree. Powered by a garden-variety 1.4-litre K-Series engine making all of 105 hp @ 6000 rpm, the most basic of 7s works the neck muscles and adrenal glands plenty. In this guise, we’re torquing 95 lb·ft of twist @ 5000 rpm; 200 bhp-per-tonne; and a zero to sixty sprint of 6.5 seconds.

On the subject of powertrains, there has never been a specific, standard engine for the car. The products of Dearborn have often been Caterham factory favorites, providing a nice squint-and-you-can-almost-see-it link back to Jim Clark’s Lotus/Ford Indy 500 winner. The top-of-the-range CSR200 sports a 200 hp 2.3-litre Cosworth Duratec that will propel the Caterham 7 from nought to sixty in 3.7 seconds.

Due to stern international emissions and safety regulations, the Seven retains its origins as a some-assembly-required box of bits. So it’s left up to the individual re-animator to decide how he or she wants to go about the business of providing propulsion. Caterham 7 spotters will tell you (and tell you and tell you) that it’s not uncommon to find Buick V-8s, Mazda rotaries, motorcycle lumps, or ATWF (anything that will fit) when peeking under the slatted engine lid. No doubt someone somewhere has given steam a go.

The 7′s existence proves that someone automotively-aware coined the term bucket list. For one thing, installing a round driver in the peg-shaped car requires maximum commitment; you can sit down any time you like but you can never leave. At least not easily. The process is and best managed without the “doors” and “roof” that the smirking lads at Caterham call weather “protection.” When in motion, the fabric serves about as much of a purpose as foil-wrapped Trojans, only without even the promise of protection.

Remarkably, approached on even terms, the Dartford dart is not entirely uncomfortable. Sticking with the sexual metaphor (so to speak), the cockpit will never inspire thoughts of paradise-by-the-dashboard-light heir creation. At 6′, 200 lb, and a size 10E foot, I fit just fine, chiropractically speaking.

Once on the move, two thoughts immediately occur: 1) in terms of dynamics, every other road car you’ve driven sucks, and 2) sucks is too delicate a word for the discrepancy between the 7 and non-7s. To state the bleeding obvious, the Seven is a track car first, a road car if you dare. Either way, the Caterham’s non-assisted steering and ventilated front discs (with four pot calipers) transmit every step of their mechanical operation, transforming its driver into a 7borg. The gearbox—here a Ford Sierra 5-speed with a lever no longer than your thumb—rewards with a pleasure that would cheer Lewis Black.

Wind turbulence, even at modest speed, brings to mind skydiving sideways. Communication, should a passenger be brave enough to accompany you, is best left for rest stops or emergency miming, even considering a relative physical proximity usually shared only by newlyweds.

Perhaps the great delight of the Seven is that it’s a rolling polygraph machine. It puts the lie to so much of conventional auto wisdom: a righteous ride requires big power, fat tires, and the latest electronic whiz-bangeroo. True, the Caterham offers variants stuffed with an assortment of wallet-lightening upgrades, add-ons, and gotta-haves. Hey, it’s a living. But just because a menu lists fifteen desserts doesn’t mean your meal should include them all.

No, the Caterham Seven, like its Lotus Seven forebear, is the distillation of what is only necessary for a drive. What it means to drive. That it somewhat resembles a coffin such as the one that currently holds the bones of a certain Mr. Chapman is just one of life’s lovely little ironies.

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Capsule Review: 2010 Mindset EV Thu, 25 Jun 2009 01:29:42 +0000

After a few seconds in the Mindset, I was thinking: Whoa, this thing is fast. And Goddamn, it feels good. And then I remembered a movie I hadn't thought of in a decade, and it struck me: this doesn't seem like 2009, this is more like Gattaca. You know: the sci-fi movie starring the Studebaker Avanti, Rover P6 and Citroen DS Décapotable---all running with electric motors. They are breathtakingly, inimitably beautiful cars. In the movie, they only make a whirring noise. It's all very 2030, and somehow, it works. Of course, if you had an electric droptop DS at your disposal, then why would you drive a Swiss-made, electric Mindset? But I'm getting ahead of myself. So, what is this car about? ]]>

After a few seconds in the Mindset, I was thinking: Whoa, this thing is fast. And Goddamn, it feels good. And then I remembered a movie I hadn’t thought of in a decade, and it struck me: this doesn’t seem like 2009, this is more like Gattaca. You know: the sci-fi movie starring the Studebaker Avanti, Rover P6 and Citroën DS Décapotable—all running with electric motors. They are breathtakingly, inimitably beautiful cars. In the movie, they only make a whirring noise. It’s all very 2030, and, somehow, it works. Of course, if you had an electric droptop DS at your disposal, then why would you drive a Swiss-made, electric Mindset? But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, what is this car about?

It’s about Murat Günak, former head designer at Peugeot, Mercedes and VW, the man who styled the 206, the SLK and the Passat CC. It’s about Günak’s ennui with conventional cars and his desire to make something forward-looking. The result is a daringly sensible oddball. Of a oddly daring sensible car. Anyway, I liken it to the Citroën DS when introduced in 1955. Of course, conservative, quick-to-judge carmudgeons may call it ugly. I think it’s fantastic.

First of all, the wheels. Twenty-two inches with rather narrow tires. (They’re as wide as those on the original Golf GTI, but look narrow in proportion to the gigantic wheels). Narrow, says Günak, is neat: less rolling resistance, less wind resistance, less macho affectations, less prone to aquaplaning, lower unsprung weight. When the wheels are big enough, the contact patch is still large enough to ensure good deceleration.

Then, the body. The sheetmetal’s supposed to remind one of a 1930ish commuter boat. More to the point, it looks like a fuselage on wheels, sporting an entirely appropriate low wind resistance (with a drag coefficient under 0.25). Stephan Hartmann, Mindet’s Chief Engineer, told me the Mindset’s looks are also a product of his goal of a relatively high ground clearance, high seating position, yet low center of gravity. They’ve achieved the latter (at a height of around 70 cm) by positioning the car’s Li-Ion batteries centrally, below the cabin.

And now for the driving experience, or rather, the passenger experience. The Mindset’s a prototype; Hartmann drove during a recent demonstration through Zurich. Weighing-in at around 800kg, the aluminum-spaceframed electric car serves-up 220NM (1760 lbs/162 lb·ft) of torque. There’s addictive, neck-pulling, instantaneous and linear acceleration. AutoBild claim (in German natürlich) that the Mindset out-accelerates the 911 Turbo—for a few seconds anyway. The EV mule feels like a sorted, mass-produced car, with none of the creaks and groans you normally get in a prototype hard-cornering over bumpy urban roads.

The Mindset’s interior is roomy, at the same time iPodesque modern and bench-seated old-fashioned. It has a flat floor, great visibility and custom leather upholstery and luggage. Many people dislike it; the Mindset guys know that it (as does the whole car) polarizes. Apart from the glare-prone LCD instrument panel, I’m a fan.

Who would buy such a car? Mindset says they’re looking at the well-to-do person who finds conventional sports cars and luxury cars gauche, slightly embarrassing and old-fashioned; for whom the Tesla is just an expensive Lotus-with-batteries; and who want a more economical, everyday package. This target group sounds like me—and maybe fifty-seven other guys. If this company gets their financing together and proves me wrong, I’ll be glad.

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Review: 2010 Opel Insignia 2.0 Diesel Thu, 11 Jun 2009 21:02:20 +0000

My first car was a 1970s–era Opel Rekord. It was one of the most beautiful cars GM ever made. It was also roomy, reliable, as well as cheap to own and service. Those typical brand values made Opel a star player in Europe, and demoted Ford and many others to the status of also-rans. Later, Opel lost the reliability and beauty part of the plot. Is today's Rekord – the Opel Insignia – good enough to lead an almost-dead company to the future?



My first car was a 1970s–era Opel Rekord. It was one of the most beautiful cars GM ever made. It was also roomy, reliable, as well as cheap to own and service. Those typical brand values made Opel a star player in Europe, and demoted Ford and many others to the status of also-rans. Later, Opel lost the reliability and beauty part of the plot. Is today’s Rekord, the Opel Insignia, good enough to lead an almost-dead company to the future?

The latest effort from GM-Euro sure looks good enough. The Insignia sports a spectacular design that gets almost everything right. From the side, it has that leaping-panther silhouette. From the front, you see a successful implementation of the puppy-resting-on-paws motif, combined with a dash of HR Giger’s evil alien in the grille. So it’s cute but aggressive. It looks like a contemporary version of the Xedos 6, which itself was an excellent interpretation of what a small Jaguar should look like.

The boldness goes on inside, where swoops and swathes and weird angles reign supreme. Some of it works well, such as the blade-like door handles. The interior treatment is certainly distinctive, without being over-the-top like the Euro-Civic’s is. But to my mind, the net effect is overwrought and over-buttoned. I prefer the Renault Laguna’s simple elegance, or the C-Class’s utilitarian look. Also, some of it just doesn’t work so well. From my POV, the thick steering-wheel rim obscured the temp and gas instruments, and the speedometer typography is unnecessarily small.

Which leads to a major point of complaint: the coupe-like Insignia seems designed in general more for looks than for functionality. Visibility is poor, what with small windows and thick beams. Space is at a premium: this is a 4+1 and not a proper five-seater, and it has insufficient headroom and foot room in the back. (The trunk, however, is big.) I understand the positioning logic: family space is what minivans are for, and sedans are nowadays tailored to professionals. But I don’t buy it. Why should I, when buying a new car, accept a downgrade? Do I look like a schmuck? Nobody makes me pay business for economy.

Most journalists have reported Audi-like interior quality, which sure indicates the value of providing prepared press vehicles. I can say that although the interior feels, smells and looks good, it ain’t no Audi: I heard a faint pip-scratch from the center console when driving over expander joints, and the gearshift surround is made of cheap and ugly plastichrome that crackles at a touch.

My tester had a fantastically tractable 160 HP oil burner coupled to a well-tuned 6-speed automatic. This Opel was quiet, fast (0-60 in under 9 sec), torquey (350 Nm (258 lb·ft)) and economical (providing 28 mpg despite often driven in town or around 120 mph). Once again, a good Diesel in combination with a modern auto is a near-dream team. (If it only had a chain cam . . . )

Handling is pretty fine: stable and secure at high speeds, composed and allowing high turning speeds on country roads. I seldom managed to make the ESP intervene, but when it did, it was discreet. The Insignia lacks the Mondeo’s magic however, with less precise steering and not quite as linear reactions near the limit. This is for a reason: the Opel’s development benchmark for handling was to achieve 80% of the Ford’s prowess. Also, in contrast to most other reviewers, I felt that the Insignia’s ride quality was definitely inferior to the Mondeo’s, with an autobahn experience that is closer to that of the bumpy 1-Series.

I could now stress how the Insignia has all kinds of standard gadgets such as an optical sign-recognition system that reminds you of speed limits, or a lane-departure warning. But I come from the school that says gadgets are only important if the basics are great, unless you belong to the Plymouth Horizon fan club.

I also come from the school that says having some strong merits don’t matter when they don’t fit the brand. Nobody needs a fuel-sipping Lamborghini. A successful Opel needs to be beautiful (check), affordable (Insignia prices are well below comparable Passats, so, OK), reliable (given recent Opel history, check), economical to own (maybe not, given the electronic gadgets), and family-friendly (no way!)

Up to a point, sexiness sells, and the Insignia has had a great sales start. But in time, Opel will have to answer the obvious question: why buy an Insignia from a zombie company, when you can get a (better) Mondeo from a viable one? For a GM car, this Opel is great. For a car that’s supposed to save a bankrupt company, it’s just not good enough.

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