The Truth About Cars » Do-It-Yourself http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 21 May 2015 20:00:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 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 editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars » Do-It-Yourself http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Saturn on the Down Low, a Progress Report http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/saturn-low-progress-report/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/saturn-low-progress-report/#comments Sun, 21 Dec 2014 15:26:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=963042 It’s taken a while to get started on the project to make my daily driver Saturn SL1 into a better handling car. I had the parts but it took a few weeks to be able to get the work scheduled at a shop that was willing to install my own components. Now that the work […]

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20141218_142829It’s taken a while to get started on the project to make my daily driver Saturn SL1 into a better handling car. I had the parts but it took a few weeks to be able to get the work scheduled at a shop that was willing to install my own components. Now that the work has been done and I’ve been able to drive the car in varying conditions, it’s time for a progress report. The short version is that I’m pleased with the results. For the long version, continue reading after the break.

With 100,000 miles on the odometer, it turned out that there was more work needed than I thought, though I wasn’t surprised. In addition to the struts, shocks and CV joint that needed replacement, and a perforated flexpipe in the exhaust system, I asked them to check on a noise that I thought was a groaning power steering pump but turned out to be a worn left front wheel bearing, which makes a lot more sense than a pump that made noise only when turning left. The work was done well, as far as I can tell, but my opinion of the shop went down after I took the car to an alignment specialist.

In addition to replacing the worn components, I also had H&R “sport” springs installed on the car. The fronts are about 50% stiffer than the stock springs, while the backs are about twice as stiff as the OEM ones. The are lower, too, but it’s a modest drop of 1.3″ in the back and 1.4″ in the front. Because of the lowered suspension, care has to be taken to keep the wheels aligned. The KYB GR2/Excell G struts are designed with an oval mounting hole that allows the suspension to be adjusted to within factory camber settings, but when I got the car back it obviously needed aligning. The steering wheel was about 15 degrees from center when traveling in a straight line.

Fortunately, there’s an alignment specialist shop, Wetmore’s, just a few minutes from my house. I’ve written about Wetmore’s before, or more properly, about their building, which was originally a Packard dealership and features a car sticking out from a second story balcony. There are repairs and modifications that I’d do myself, and stuff that I can do but is too much of a PITA, like brakes and exhaust work, so I go to a general mechanic for that work,  but I’ve always left alignment to the experts (electrical work, too).

Wetmore’s reported that not only was the front end off kilter, the car also needed a full four-wheel alignment because apparently lowering the car messed up the rear geometry. That didn’t bother me, since I figured the car would need to be aligned after the initial work, but when they went to align the front end, there was a worn left lower ball joint (possibly related to the worn bearing or vice versa). That was disappointing. Not just because this project is about a better handling car, but mostly because I had specifically asked the first shop to check for any and all worn suspension parts. They found the bad wheel bearing but didn’t notice a ball joint that Wetmore’s said you could feel just by grabbing the tire. Oh well, my work is rarely perfect either (and I apologize for any superfluous apostrophes in some of the the “it’s” in this post – I know the rules about apostrophes but homonyms are stored in adjacent locations on my bio hard drive).

I’ve been picking the brains of my colleagues and when I asked Jack Baruth about alternate suspension settings for quicker steering response, he cautioned against it, citing the dangers of a darting car on icy Michigan roads. It turned out that they gave the car two or three degrees more negative camber than is the exact factory setting, but it was “still in the green”, i.e. within acceptable tolerances, on their equipment.

Speaking of my colleagues, Sajeev Mehta didn’t think the lowered and stiffened suspension was a great idea. Michigan roads aren’t just icy in winter, they’re in terrible shape year round. The state legislature just passed a measure to put a sales tax increase on the ballot to fund over a billion dollars in highway reconstruction in the state. Sajeev thought that the stiffer suspension would be punishing. My conclusion after a couple of weeks of driving on a variety of surfaces, including some of the worst roads that I drive on, is that ride quality is a wash or maybe even improved a little.

While the ride is unquestionably firmer, with the old shocks being worn, the springs weren’t being dampened and the car bounced a lot. I’ll trade an occasional jarring hit from a pothole in exchange for getting rid of the pogo effect. If you asked me to provide some kind of benchmark, without driving them back to back it’s not conclusive but my subjective impression based on memory is that the Dodge Dart GT that I reviewed earlier this year had a stiffer ride overall than how the lowered Saturn is. Overall, the suspension feels more controlled. On the freeway it smooths out nicely.

This wasn’t about ride quality, though. It’s about handling and the difference is significant, though I have to say that there have been a lot of variables changed, including swapping out the all-season Cooper tires for some Bridgestone Blizzaks. Blizzaks are pretty high performance for winter tires, though, so my guess is that if anything, they handle better even in dry conditions than the Coopers. When spring comes, I’ll have a followup report on when the Dunlop Direzzas mounted on 15″ wheels (the stock rims are 14s) go on the car.

For right now, the car handles much better. There’s much less body roll, it’s minimal now. The car turns in a little bit faster, but it holds its line much better than before. I’m finding that I have to dial in less steering – previously all of that lean made the car’s understeer worse. There is slightly less self-centering and I want to see if that changes with the Direzzas or if it’s a question of settings. The improvements are noticeable in most driving conditions. Lane changes on the freeway are now fun and now I can even dive bomb that slightly banked corner near my house.

I also like how the car looks. It’s got a little bit more rake and around the tires there’s less of a pants-up-around-your-ankles look, but for the most part it still looks very stock. You have to put it side by side (or back to back as in the photo above) with a stock SL1 to notice that it sits lower (mine is the blue one on the left). From the wheel it’s only slightly noticeable that you’re sitting closer to the ground. If I was six inches taller, I’d be a six-footer so I’m rather used to looking up at things.  I do, however, notice it when getting into the car. We get use to particular perspectives, like the relationship between the floor, the height of the porcelain rim, and the resulting angle, at least for the half of humanity that micturates in an upright position. When about to sit in the car, it does appear to be lower.

What next? Well, there are those aforementioned Dunlop summer tires, and since starting the project I’ve found out that the Saturn S series cars with the twin cam engines were spec’d with a rear sway bar and a front bar that’s thicker than in the SOHC equipped cars. I checked at the nearest pull & pick auto salvage yard and the parts are available there, along with the rear disc brake setup that was available on some models. That will probably have to wait until spring because the idea of pulling parts in sub-freezing weather doesn’t sound very appealing.

I’ll probably start with the rear sway bar. Speaking of which, if you have a Saturn S with a rear bar, check the links. About half of the cars I spotted at the junkyard that had a rear sway bar also had at least one broken link that was supposed to be connecting it to the suspension. If adding a rear sway bar doesn’t make the car too stiff, I’ll swap out the front for the thicker DOHC one. I’m still not convinced that the disc brake swap is worth it, though. It’s a straightforward swap and I don’t have to worry about brake bias since neither the rear drum equipped cars nor the four wheel disc Saturn S cars came with brake proportioning valves. They have the same hydraulics, the only difference are wheel cylinders vs calipers. If I don’t go with the disc brake mod, I’ll look into performance brake pads and shoes (though I’m guessing that nobody makes performance brake shoes today).

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Ford Engineer Uses OpenXC to Build Haptic Shift Indicator http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/ford-engineer-uses-openxc-to-build-haptic-shift-indicator/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/ford-engineer-uses-openxc-to-build-haptic-shift-indicator/#comments Tue, 30 Jul 2013 13:57:08 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=497459 When cars started getting digitized, first with fuel injection, then electronic ignition and ECUs, some enthusiasts thought that would foretell the end of hot rodding. That’s proved to be a false prophecy, what with developments like the Megasquirt engine management system, high performance “chips” and tuning via the OBD port. Last year, Ford Motor Company, […]

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Click here to view the embedded video.

When cars started getting digitized, first with fuel injection, then electronic ignition and ECUs, some enthusiasts thought that would foretell the end of hot rodding. That’s proved to be a false prophecy, what with developments like the Megasquirt engine management system, high performance “chips” and tuning via the OBD port. Last year, Ford Motor Company, which has been at the leading (some say bleeding) edge of in-car electronics and infotainment, announced the release of the OpenXC Platform. OpenXC is an application progrmaming interface, API, that makes information from the car’s various instruments and sensors available to Android applications. The idea was to open up that information to all the possibilities with which open source application developers and hobbyists might come up. The system is read only, to prevent you from damaging your car, or worse, creating an unsafe driving situation, but in terms of using that information, the possibilities are endless. To promote OpenXC, Ford has released a video of a haptic shift indicator, built into the shift knob, invented by one of their junior engineers, Zach Nelson. When you feel it vibrate, it’s time to shift.

Using a haptic feedback motor from an Xbox 360 controller, an Arduino controller, and an Android based tablet with some USB and Bluetooth hardware Nelson created a programmable haptic shift indicator that he then built into a custom shift knob that he had designed in a CAD program and printed out with a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer.

Using engine speed, throtle position, and other engine control data, Nelson programmed different modes that tell the driver when it’s ideal to shift up (or theoretically, down as well, I suppose, if you add in data from the traction control systems). Programmed for performance, the shift knob will vibrate when approaching redline and if economy is what the driver is after, it will buzz at the best shift point for optimum fuel mileage, it can even have a tutorial mode to help drivers learn how to shift a manual transmission. For “fun”, Nelson installed a LED display on the top of his custom shifter that shows the gear position.

As part of the open source ethos, Nelson and Ford have made all of his design files, the firmware, the Android application for programming the device, and the CAD file for the shifter knob, available to the public with links at the OpenXC site. The idea is to let enthusiasts further develop the idea.

OpenXC will be available for a growing number of Ford vehicles. In the video, Nelson says that the latest car he’s tested it on is the Shelby GT500 Mustang. He talks of his sense of accomplishment when his invention worked with the 662 horsepower muscle car. My guess is that in that particular app, he had it programmed to shift at redline.

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The Joy of Wrenching http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/the-joy-of-wrenching/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/the-joy-of-wrenching/#comments Thu, 10 May 2012 06:11:14 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=443710 Yesterday was my day off, and by “day off” I of course mean, “day in which I work my ass off sans remuneration”. No doubt this’ll strike a chord with those of you who also have older houses with plenty of, uh, character. It was a day no thumbs would die by accidental hammer-blow: there […]

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Yesterday was my day off, and by “day off” I of course mean, “day in which I work my ass off sans remuneration”. No doubt this’ll strike a chord with those of you who also have older houses with plenty of, uh, character.

It was a day no thumbs would die by accidental hammer-blow: there was work to be done on the car, and they don’t call me “Spanner” McAleer just because I’m a bit of idiot. Actually, maybe they do – well anyway, to arms!

Nothing too complicated, you understand, merely a double down-pipe swap. On an automotive scale, compared to Murilee’s Impala Saga, this is about as difficult as putting on a hat.

BC’s emissions testing requirements – which have been just about to get cancelled for going on over a decade now – are a bit strict about not fiddling with your factory exhaust system. One does not simply drive into Mordor in a 300+ hp Subie and hope to renew one’s insurance. So, back to stock, and then back to not-stock.

To be honest, I’m a bit excited, and also slightly nervous. Perhaps you’ve met my co-worker, Mr. Frank Ulrich Bartholomew Arthur Richard Murphy? Whenever I get my toolbox out, he gets his toolbox out too, and sure enough one of the five 14mm bolts holding the bell-housing onto the turbo turns out to be a cast-iron bitch.

Therein lieth the challenge. Doubly so because this is not some project car that I can leave lying open on the operating table. We’re a single car family – hence the Swiss Army Knife of a WRX wagon – and the patient needs to have its intestines shoved back in, be sewn up and be back ready to ferry my wife to work upon the morrow. The clock is ticking, let’s go.

Like all would-be mechanics, I served an apprenticeship in my youth, starting with holding the trouble-light. Remember that? It was probably the first useful thing you could do for Dad, then followed by passing him wrenches and – in my case – any of a selection of hammers and mallets, the largest of which we referred to as Excalibur. As in, “It’s stuck. Hand me Excalibur.”

We did a lot of work together, Dad and I, and before you get too invested in some bucolic scene of father and son labouring side-by-side in near-telepathic harmony, I should point out that these were British cars. If ever there were experts at creating dissent between two Irishmen, it’d be the Brits.

“Will ye for f—‘s sake hold the God-damned humpy hoor steady, ye spastic God-scoursed eejit!” “I am!” “No you’re God-damned not, ye great clatter of bollocks. Quit flapping yer hole and pay some f—ing attention!”

It was, I imagine, a lot like asking two R-rated Captain Haddocks try to co-operate at neurosurgery. Even today I can cram the equivalent of four Roddy Doyle novels of invective into a single sentence.

Under the Subaru, more cursing.

Why is it that even if you protectively shut your eyes while turning a bolt underneath a car, the small shower of rust only falls when you open them? And why must there always be one fastener that can’t be reached unless you lay your bare forearm directly on some sizzling portion of exhaust header? These are not problems that the average crossword enthusiast or jigsaw-puzzlist has to endure.

And yet, it wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s a whole different world underneath a car once you get the skid-plate off; who among us has not marvelled at the complexity while resting your arms after a half-hour struggle with some stubborn bolt? Particularly true if you’ve ever been underneath an ’80s turbocharged car: vacuum lines designed by M.C. Escher, fashioned by Gordias Knot, assembled by Biff Pinhole.

You don’t see much of this in a more modern car. Pop the hood on a Nissan Maxima, and the swathes of plastic cladding might as well be labelled, “Here be dragons. Hands off!”

There was a time when knowing the basics of mechanical repair was just a matter of course. When you could lift the hood and identify all the major components, diagnose, and repair them in your driveway.

That time is fading, near gone. Once, we all did our own oil-changes. Now, half the cars on the road have improperly inflated tires. As in every facet of our lives, we know less and less about more and more.

The complexity of the machines we rely on for transportation approaches Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That which we do not understand, we cannot appreciate. That which we do not appreciate, we do not love.

And so, in the not-too-distant future, perhaps an end for this irrational fascination with what’s essentially an extremely dangerous appliance. To the fella that thinks a manifold is some kind of origami instruction, how do you explain attributing a soul to a three-thousand-pound amalgam of steel, glass and rubber?

For now though, the Subaru is back together, with a little more of myself invested in her – I’m speaking literally here: skinned most of my knuckles. Changed the oil too, while I was at it, and I’d swear she was running better. Happier even?

We’re lucky, you and I. We were born in the late Cretaceous period, but in a time when it’s still okay to love these wheeled leviathans. Even when the metaphorical asteroid hits, we’ll be able to keep a few pet dinosaurs on the road as projects, or classics, or memorabilia.

I come inside and place my ruined, dirty hands on my wife’s belly, and feel my unborn child kick. What will she – or he – know of cars? Will she share her father’s obsession?

One thing’s for sure: we probably won’t tell her mother about the cursing lessons.

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