By on July 26, 2016

 

turbocharger. shutterstock user guitar studio

Matt writes:

Hi Sajeev,

I’m anticipating that my 1997 Subaru Legacy wagon, with 210,000 miles on the clock, will need replacing soon. I’m lucky in that my wagon is a five-speed manual with the 2.2 EJ motor, so it has been fairly bullet proof. I’ve been looking around at affordable commuter five-door hatchbacks (Mazda3, Impreza, Focus, etc) to replace the Legacy as the replacement needs to be able to fit multiple kids and sports gear, as well as be my daily driver (~45 miles roundtrip work commute).

Here is my question: I would like something a little sporty as more than half of my commute is on fun, twisty, back roads.

The half of my commute in bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go makes me want to ditch the manual, and the curvy roads have me debating the merits of a turbo. But my wallet and the fact that I’ve always driven my cars for 180,000+ miles makes me think NA and manual will be more reliable and cheaper in the long run.

I feel like my Subaru has skewed my perception. It’s led me to believe that the naturally aspirated engine and manual transmission combination is a much more sturdy, robust and reliable setup that’s less prone to breaking and needing repairs than a turbo and/or automatic.

Am I wrong? Is this true for late-model cars?

Sajeev answers:

The uncomplicated yet thoroughly acceptable performance of fully electric vehicles (be it a Leaf or anything Tesla) prove the old adage “less is more” still holds water. It’s the best way to show extraneous engineering is just that, so let’s apply it to piston engines and those much-needed pistonhead thrills.

Considering the extra fail points and internal stresses generated by turbocharged cars, and their extra labor charges at the bottom of the depreciation curve, they are never the best car to cheaply put 180,000 on the odometer. One can (rightly) argue that today’s turbos are far more reliable than their 1980s predecessors, but naturally aspirated cars with manual transmissions are so damn popular in Europe for good reason.

Now consider that automakers manufacture cars from interchangeable parts, therefore you can make anything faster, more fun and even more efficient than factory spec. So why deal with extra plumbing, heat, stress, intercooler, etc. when you don’t need it? To wit, my $18,000 (drive out) Duratec Ranger and my sporty, hot-roddy plan:

  • SCT 87-octane computer tune: way more low-end torque for $250
  • Bilstein HD shocks: mind-blowing ride/handling improvement at $350
  • FX4 Ranger shifter: relaxed, faster shifting from the armrest for $200
  • Reproduction Fox Mustang leather shift knob: ergonomic grip, matches the leather wheel for $25
  • FX4 Level II forged aluminum Alcoa wheels: shaved 40-ish lbs of unsprung weight, improving turn-in and overall steering response, $500 shipped from Edmonton
  • Removing airbox snorkel and modifying factory “cold air” ducting: added an exciting-ish growl at 5,000+ rpm for free
  • Bassani (2.5 inch, like the rest of the system) cat-back exhaust with Mustang GT muffler, $175 installed for smoother revving and a pleasant, Miata-like tone
  • 10mm wider (General Altimax) tires of a far superior rubber compound than the OEM shoes, $370-ish
  • Dead pedal from a Fox Mustang: $4.99 at the junkyard

For sure, I still have no chance against a Civic Si/Speed3, or even a regular 3/Civic with a competent wheelman or wheelwoman at the helm, but they can’t do what I want to do: carry 3 toilets from Home Depot or move 450 pounds of junked halogen shop fixtures to the recycler, all wrapped in this rig’s legendary ruggedness … so I double win, Son!

My point: Go drive something mediocre, but make sure there’s a halo model to grab factory parts (for cheap on the forums) and a strong aftermarket footprint. The Civic LX and Focus SE come to mind, so do some research and plan your post-purchase modifications. I promise your next 180,000 miles will be absolutely thrilling and personally fulfilling.

[Image: Shutterstock user Guitar Studio]

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry … but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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59 Comments on “Piston Slap: Extraneous Engineering Fallacy, Factory Performance Models...”


  • avatar
    olddavid

    You point is valid. However, that lifted front tire has me wondering about your sanity. With all the metal you and brother have laying around, you take the Ranger to autocross? Is vacation time soon?

    • 0 avatar
      notapreppie

      Autocrossing pickup trucks are (hilariously) awesome to watch and I’ve been told they’re fun to drive and ride in.

      That said, I will admit that the funniest thing I’ve ever seen at an autocross was a somebody taking a Buick Roadmaster with a rumble seat on a fun run. With every seat belt filled. I think the owner was lucky that they didn’t set a record for the sheer volume of sick liberated in under 60 seconds.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      Why do you question his sanity? A 911 will go up on the tripod just as easily. According to Bark , a FiST will go on the bipod.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        Wasn’t the FiST banned for that reason? Or was it the regular Fiesta?

        • 0 avatar
          bumpy ii

          The ST was the only Fiesta *not* banned by SCCA. Somebody there has a bug up their butt about tall hatches not being sports cars or some guff, and conjured up an imaginary rollover threat.

          • 0 avatar
            psychoboy

            Here’s an ST up on two at an autocross….

            I’m not sure that threat is all that imaginary.

            http://oppositelock.kinja.com/ford-fiesta-non-st-banned-from-scca-autocross-1678736991

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            You can deuce a Mini Cooper without a huge amount of effort. Nobody is banning those anytime soon.

  • avatar
    Quentin

    Or just get a Civic Si instead of hacking together some Frankenstein’s monster machine. 6MT, N/A high performance engine, LSD. Fin.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      It’s not necessarily so cut and dry. I had the choice between an EX and Si for the same price and mileage, and I went with the EX, for a couple of reasons.

      – 1, I, like some, ENJOY cobbling together a “Frankenstein” of parts. Granted right now all I have are KW coilovers and an intake, but there’s more to come.
      – Si runs on premium vs regular for the others.
      – Si’s engine note is much boomier than the others. Even my car with an intake is not as droney and boomy as a stock Si.
      – Si’s “slingshot” power delivery is a little annoying to me.

      Keep in mind I’m talking about the 8th gens. I will probably replace my car with a 9th gen Si, though again I will have to make some changes- most importantly either a longer 6th gear or a longer final drive. But yea if OEMs got it perfect there would be no aftermarket.

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        The seats alone would be enough for me to go with the Si over the EX. I purchased a new MKV GTI over a Rabbit based on the plaid seats fitting so much better. I also find the power delivery of the Si to be glorious. Different strokes… anyway, if he wanted a fun N/A car (that will honestly feel like a rocket compared to his Legacy), the Si is hard to beat. My re-read shows he wants a hatchback, so that rules out the Civic.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          I believe there’s supposed to be a Civic hatch in the near future, built in Swindon (UK), just like the previous Civic Si hatch.

          However, it will likely feature some kind of turbocharged engine.

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          It took me a long time to come to grips with my dislike of the DOHC VTEC powerband. You gain speed but you don’t feel it and you have to keep things on the boil to make haste. I’m a big fan of midrange oomph. Seriously considering either turbocharging my car or swapping in and building up the 2.0 from the ILX. I’m a shameless contrarian. I do understand the Si’s appeal though.

          • 0 avatar
            Kyree S. Williams

            Yeah, I don’t care for it either.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I like low end power, where I rarely have to exceed 3000rpm in any normal situation.

            Nobody makes a car for me!

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            The tachometer in my ’97 Ram redlines at 3000.

          • 0 avatar
            Quentin

            Sounds like you aren’t the contrarian, sporty, based on the echo from Kyree and Corey.

            I love the way Hondas (and less so but similar, my FR-S) deliver power at the top end. I love the workout that the car gives you to keep things on boil. The biggest thing I HATE about my wife’s new Clubman S or my MKV GTI is how strong the power is through 4500RPM and then it severely tapers off. It is like having birthday cake every day of the year except your actual birthday. Everyone gets acclimated to birthday cake and no one reacts/cares when it actually is your birthday.

          • 0 avatar
            sportyaccordy

            It really comes down to choice for me. For some reason, with DOHC VTEC engines I feel compelled to rev it out to make haste. They almost all feel like dogs on the low cam. “Normal” engines I’ve had all have enough going on at redline to make winding it out worth it, but not absolutely necessary to get decent response or make enough power to keep up with traffic. Be it my current Civic, the 350Z I had before it, or my motorcycle.

            I agree though that this new era of turbocharged cars with their toddler’s fist size turbos do leave something to be desired as far as powerbands and response goes. It would be nice if there was more aftermarket support in the realm of camshafts as that would help change the powerband, but it seems like nobody is bothering to crack that shell for the likes of BMW/VWAG/HK etc.

  • avatar
    EAF

    Matt,

    Test drive the 2016 Accord with CVT. I’ve always been a manual driver myself, however, the shift logic for this unit is amazing and leaves me wanting to ditch the 5 speed altogether! TBH, after driving it extensively I wouldn’t consider a traditional automatic ever again. As far as reliability is concerned, I believe it uses a belt and I guess a chain would be more durable? “They” say early drain & fills will extend the CVT’s life exponentially. I have not heard if any widespread Honda CVT issues, unlike Nissan.

    The K24w engine is NA and delivers something like 180hp. Comparatively speaking, your 130hp EJ22 is weak sauce. My only gripe with the engine is the direct injection, the tech is becoming impossible to avoid.

    JUST TEST DRIVE IT!!!

  • avatar

    I’ve screamed loud and hard about Subie 2.5 NA head gaskets (one of multiple reasons why I lost interest in the brand).

    But yours is a 2.2 from an era in which a well-maintained example can go 300,000 or even 400,000 miles. A couple people in our broader circle of friends/acquaintances have had outstanding service from early-mid 90’s Subarus.

    Which leads me to ask if the car is rusting, or if some new powertrain noises have crept up, or if you’re just skittish ‘cuz 210,000 miles.

  • avatar
    notapreppie

    I love seeing pickups at autocross events. So hilariously outgunned in most cases and yet always highly entertaining for drivers, passengers and spectators.

    But to Matt’s issue:

    If your left leg still works and you can handle the stop’n’go, then a manual is definitely the right choice. That said, there’s no reason for automatics to be ruled out completely. A DCT/DSG would seem to fit the bill for the duelling fun/stop’n’go requirements but there’s not a whole lot of data on getting them up to 180k miles. I suppose you could budget in a transmission replacement at 90k but who wants to pay an extra $5k+?

    Do you need a back seat or will simply having an easy-access hatch suffice? If you don’t need a back seat, why not a Toyobaru twin? A few guys in my local autocross club have them and agree that they make good commuters and the automagic transmixer is pretty good. You may even get a loyalty bonus for already having a Subaru.

  • avatar
    mcs

    You might be able to find some good deals on some of the remaining Scion iAs, especially if it’s a 6-speed manual. It’s around 2,400 lbs and a Mazda, so it’s great on back roads. It uses the European/Japanese Miata motor, so you might be able to find performance upgrades. My son is getting 40+ mpg with the manual on a combination of back roads and freeway. It’s not a hatch, but the trunk is huge and you could always get a roof rack. Not a lot of horsepower, but it’s still fun to drive and really cheap.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Sajeev, Was the OP’s letter edited or did I miss something? Where did he say that he was into driveway wrenching, customizing or even had someone cheap and reliable to bolt together ‘go fast’ equipment for him?

    It would probably be much cheaper and easier to purchase something made and spec’ed by the manufacturer. And nothing that might void any warranty. There is absolutely no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Particularly in this era of automotive plenty. Murilee’s posting yesterday of the CRX with less than 80hp reminds me of just how fortunate automotive consumers are at the moment.

    Doesn’t a Mazda 3 hatch with a manual transmission tick all of his boxes?

    Are Civic hatches returning to the USA? If so, then what might suffice. Or even a VW Golf?

    • 0 avatar
      Fordson

      You’re right – his reply was totally unresponsive to the OP’s questions.

      And yeah – why risk the pitfalls of a modern, manufacturer-engineered turbo engine when you can shade-tree engineer the entire induction, engine-control calibration and exhaust system of an older, not-outstanding-when-it-was-new underperformer like the Duratec? You know – to ADD durability – ?

    • 0 avatar
      cgjeep

      Golf Wagon would be perfect but 180k miles out of it, good luck. I hope that it possible as my wife just bought one but I doubt it. I have never bought an extended warranty with a car but I did with this one (8 years 100k). The regular Golf’s trunk is too small for a family of 4.

      OP didn’t state if he would get a used car, but a used TSX wagon would fit the bill if he can tolerate a automatic transmission. I got impression that he wanted a manual for long term reliability and the TSX auto should be reliable.

    • 0 avatar

      What wasn’t mentioned here is that Bark already covered the spec’d by the manufacturer route, as the OP emailed both of us.

  • avatar
    jmo

    “Considering the extra fail points and internal stresses generated by turbocharged cars,”

    Wouldn’t this also hold true for V-6 and V-8 engines vs. a 4cyl?

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      The jump from NA to turbocharging adds a significant amount of complexity and extra parts compared to the jump from 4 to 6 to 8 cylinders.

      Stresses are higher because you are squeezing more power from the same number of cylinders.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        “The jump from NA to turbocharging adds a significant amount of complexity and extra parts compared to the jump from 4 to 6 to 8 cylinders.”

        No, it doesn’t. The points count of a modern V-6 or V-8 is going to be higher.

        • 0 avatar
          LS1Fan

          Except adding cylinders doesn’t automatically mean adding oil and coolant plumbing , each point of which is an area of potential failure.

          So long as the block and head are built well and assembled properly (I’m looking at you Northstar) an NA motor will last quite a long time.

          A turbo? Eventually even if the motor itself holds up well, the turbo(s) will need to be replaced .That process on some cars is prohibitively expensive.

          Then there’s the auxiliary parts. Oil line & intercooler plumbing , among other fittings and hoses. On a factory car this makes for lotsa places to leak oil , and given the cramped size of modern engine bays fixing the leaks means you’re probably dropping the engine to get to them.

          None of these issues concern modern manufacturers,all under the gun to deliver cars meeting a certain fuel economy metric. Once the turbos and intercooler and related oil seals and fitting fail after 50,000 miles the first leasee or owner will have long since disposed of it.

          • 0 avatar
            Fordson

            “Once the turbos and intercooler and related oil seals and fitting fail after 50,000 miles…”

            I think we’re going to need a link to anything remotely supporting this claim. This is almost embarrassing. Isn’t there something in the new rules on commenting that would prohibit complete balderdash like this?

          • 0 avatar
            jmo

            ” Once the turbos and intercooler and related oil seals and fitting fail after 50,000 miles the first leasee or owner will have long since disposed of it.”

            When you spout such nonsense it entirely undermines your argument as you’re obviously just making things up.

          • 0 avatar
            jmo

            “Except adding cylinders doesn’t automatically mean adding oil and coolant plumbing”

            A v-6 or v-8 is going to require a more complex oiling and cooling setup than a 4-cyl. Just think of the head of a 4-cyl vs. a v-6 or v-8 it’s much more complex – 4 cams vs. 2 each atop a it’s own bank of cylinders. It’s much more complex with far more failure points.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            “4 cams vs. 2 each atop a it’s own bank of cylinders.”

            My preferred V6 and V8 engines all have only one camshaft anyway.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    re: (turbocharged cars) “are never the best car to cheaply put 180,000 on the odometer”

    I think most Saab owners will call BS on that one. Perhaps you should refine your statement to “American-designed turbocharged cars are not the best.” Or, more simply-er, “never buy a turbo motor from a company that can’t get a non-turbo right.”

  • avatar
    LS1Fan

    My advice;

    Split the “enthusiast ride ” and “reliable ride” into two separate jobs done with two separate vehicles.

    Why? The traits which enhance vehicle performance come at the unavoidable cost of daily livability.
    High performance cars need high performance maintenance regardless of brand; further it’s human nature that you’ll want to Go Faster with whatever car you buy, and a slower family car has a worse dollar-per-MPH investment multiplier then a used sports car .

    $500 worth of mods put into a used LS1 or Terminator Mustang will go further then $500 put into a used TL Type S.Naturally the more you do stuff to the practical car, the less practical and reliable it’s going to be.

    Lastly ; there’s a lot of morons out there. Morons who text and drive on the open interstate. Morons who roll without licenses, insurance , or functional brakes. Better to be rolling in a stockish daily driver Accord if/ when you meet these cretins then a customized practical car you’ve put labor and time into.

    • 0 avatar
      Fordson

      Gee, don’t Terminator Mustangs have the dreaded forced induction, adding the complexity and failure points of a charge compressor, air and fluid lines, an intercooler, added stress that atmospheric engines don’t have to deal with, plus a SC drive belt? And of course Terminator engine bays are not crowded, with those giant heads they had to re-form the strut tower sheet metal to fit around.

      And don’t we all know that forced induction is really somehow cheating, and that the power it generates is not real?

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        The supercharger, drive and heat exchanger system are fairly compact on the Terminator and the supercharger has a self contained oiling system so its pretty tidy.

        While you take a hit on efficiency with a blower I like its simplicity over a turbocharged set-up. Well at least the roots, hybrid and twin screw systems. The centrifugal blowers pretty much emulate a turbocharged setup although it seems they are increasingly using a self containted oiling system for ease of installation but you still have the plumbing to deal with as most of these systems seem to incorporate an air/air heat exchanger

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Normally the B&B come out with some brilliant suggestions or comments, however we seem to be ‘off our game’ here. He mentions his kids and their “sports gear”. This demands hatchback or wagon, particularly if one of the sports is hockey, lacrosse or skiiing.

    And he mentions his price point, yet some are mentioning either cars well beyond that price or even recommending multiple cars.

    Has listening to Trump lowered our collective IQ?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I thought the same thing regarding kids and sports gear, but it was the writer who suggested Mazda 3, Impreza, and Focus.

      For carrying this payload, I wouldn’t touch any of those cars. The kids won’t be getting any smaller. I’d at least go mid-size.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I hauled my kids around in a BMW E-36 M3 coupe and a MINI before they could drive. Despite the spacious Expedition and Minivan in the fleet, they opted for the cool cars over leg room. Even as teenagers. For sports equipment, I’ve hauled that around in small cars too. Yes, the kids played hockey and we skied. The roof rack is fine. The coupes had fold-down seats and the hockey equipment fit just fine.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @mcs: I like the idea of the ski pass through available in some German cars but a coupe for kids playing hockey?

        There is a legal size required before a child can sit in the front seat. And with one part of the rear seat folded down for hockey sticks (as they do not fit in the trunk), then you can only carry one child in the vehicle.

        Since ride sharing and car pooling are synonymous with ‘travel’ hockey and tournaments, then at the very least a hatch is required.

        I would never contemplate driving around with carbon fibre hockey sticks costing $250+ apiece, lashed on to a roof rack.

        And unless you have ‘x-drive’ there is perhaps nothing less suitable for driving to hockey tournaments and ski hills than a rear wheeled drive vehicle. Been there and done that in the 70’s and 80’s and even the switch to front wheel drive was a revelation.

        At travel tournaments we could guess the nationality of the teams in the tournament by the vehicles in the lot. Canadians arrived in mini-vans and pick-ups. Americans in large SUV’s such as Suburbans, Navigators, etc and the occasional full-sized conversion van.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      “Has listening to Trump lowered our collective IQ?”

      In the good ol’ days of TTAC that would be easy to answer without triggering censorship.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    Accord Sport would fit the bill for me. Great 2.4/6MT and dual exhaust, big wheels and tires, room for gear. To Sajeev’s point, an LSD should be available from Honda parts bin.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    I vote for getting the car you want form the folks who make them, w kids involved not sure how much time he has to wrench or the desire to, a GTI would do the job very well for both parts of his commute but so would a Mazda 3 so unless I miss a budget number, test drive a bunch of cars. The DSG in VW’s is a very good auto tranny.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      I second the GTI suggestion, although a Jetta Sportwagon would also be way sportier than his old Legacy.

      If his budget goes a little further, the V60 Polestar is a beast. A regular V60 will also be quite a bit sportier than his legacy Legacy.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Somebody who is looking for a “drive-and-forget-it” experience for 200k miles should stay far away from the VW and Volvo dealers.

      • 0 avatar
        heavy handle

        That’s the common narrative around these parts, but experience tells me otherwise. High mileage VWs and Volvos are common, I’ve seen tons of 200K-to-500K examples.

        I know that many will object to the fact that you have to maintain them to get that far, and that Pep Boys doesn’t carry most of the parts you’ll need (other than maybe oil filters). I personally am not against spending a few bucks to keep a car in prime shape.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Other than certain dual-clutch transmissions and anything made by VW, Volvo, or BMW, I wouldn’t be that afraid of the long-term reliability of current turbos or automatics.

    An electrics/infotainment/HVAC failure will likely screw you before the mechanicals do anyway.

    That said, I have doubts you’ll be able to get a new manual transmission & naturally-aspirated car 11 years from now, so if you want one go get one.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Yeah, it’s 2016, and Subaru is … “special”, as far as I know.

      “One can (rightly) argue that today’s turbos are far more reliable than their 1980s predecessors, but naturally aspirated cars with manual transmissions are so damn popular in Europe for good reason.”

      That reason is “they’re CHEAP”, not “they’re incredibly durable”.

      For that matter, isn’t Europe obsessed with tiny turbodiesels, not NA gas cars? (Over 50% of sales are diesels, per a quick web search, and naturally every single one has a turbo.)

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    You forgot to mention what engine in that Duratec Ranger. As for cold air injection, I’d like to see how to get more of that. In this summer heat with the AC running, it seems everything I’ve ever owned in NA has wimped out. Let it cool down into the 70s and they wake up again.

  • avatar
    nels0300

    I think just like this guy. Last time I was in the market for a family car, I wanted:

    Manual transmission

    Port fuel injection

    Naturally aspirated

    As I found out, at least in terms of midsize sedans, you can pick TWO.

    The Accord Sport almost checks all of the boxes, but has direct injection.

    I ended up with a Camry V6, which of course has an automatic, but I keep telling myself it will be fine because it’s a Toyota, and the 2GR-FE V6 / 6 speed auto combo is ancient.

    Still second guessing if I should have bought the Accord and might still check out a 6 speed manual Accord if I see they’re cancelling the manual transmission for the next generation.

    Anyway, why not check out a Forester with a manual transmission?

    Port fuel injection, manual transmission, naturally aspirated, and REAL full time AWD? I’ll bet it handles the twisty mountain roads better than an old Legacy too.

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