Bringing the Fun Back

07/10/2015

Why lesser cars can be a better choice

              As a driving enthusiast, it is easy to get caught up in obsessing over the latest and greatest performance offerings from Italy, Germany, or even the good old USA. New super cars and high-performance sedans boast ridiculous horsepower, mind-boggling acceleration, ludicrous lateral G's, and over-the-top styling. We see 911 Turbos, M3's, C7 corvettes, Lambos and more; whatever we’re driving seems to pale in comparison to such perfection. Many car enthusiast are programed to believe that super cars are best to drive, most exiting, and will even get you to the next base with the ladies.  Remember those awkward, preteen years when you first caught a glimpse of automotive nirvana? That poster of a Lamborghini Diablo or Countach found its way to your bedroom wall, and all of a sudden you had goals in life.  Owning a super car yields the ultimate satisfaction, right? They are the ultimate machines for the ultimate driving experience. Right?  The thing is, for most of us, they might not be.

It all depends, in the end, on your definition of the “ultimate driving experience”. Do you want to look like you’re loaded as you cruise along at 45mph through the mountains? A Lamborghini Aventador might just be the car for you. Do you want to be universally admired at car shows?  A Porsche GT3 would be the way to go. Do you want the most luxuriously comfortable of interiors and the smoothest of rides? Try a Bentley.  But if you want to have fun on the autocross course, improve you’re driving skills, and push your car on canyon roads, then you might be better off with something…lesser. 

 

A long-time friend of mine became successful and bought a string of progressively more exciting cars. As he went from brand new M3, to X5M, to Nissan GTR and Audi R8, I kept buying inexpensive, go-fast parts for my 2004 Mk IV GTI.  I upgraded the tuning, brakes, tires, and suspension with the goal of making my car better to drive. One day, he threw me a bone: the keys to his latest acquisition, an Audi R8 V10 Spyder with a Heffner twin turbo kit. The car had ten cylinders, twin turbos, AWD, and 850 hp, and I was going to take it for a drive! Awed by its reputation and price tag, I drove it gingerly at first.  That didn’t last long, though; I ended with a full-throttle run to 140 mph with the top down.  After handing the keys back and thanking my friend repeatedly, I got back in my humble, mildly tuned 1.8T GTI for the drive home.  I expected to feel let down and more dissatisfied with my car than ever. But I didn't.

              The problem with super cars is that the threshold is so high for everything, and the engineering so good, that you have to be going triple digit speeds to be excited or challenged. The Audi had vague steering and a not-so-great paddle shift gearbox. It just wasn't very engaging to drive until the turbos spooled and you were doubling the speed limit. Also, cars like the GTR are designed to be relatively safe for even imprudent or unskilled drivers. The car has its own opinion about what you should or shouldn’t be doing with it—high levels of computer intervention conspire with the AWD to coddle you, and you end up feeling less connected with the driving experience. 

               

              My humble GTI has a real manual gearbox, better steering feel, and (thanks to worse engineering) feels like you are testing the limits in corners at a fraction of the speed. It is engaging, communicative, and exciting to drive at much slower speeds. And best of all, my GTI has one simple button to switch off all traction and stability control.  If I owned the Audi, I wouldn't last a week before being arrested for reckless endangerment, or being frustrated by my inability to use the car the way it is meant to be used.

Cheaper performance cars might not look as good or be as plush, but they can deliver huge thrills. Not only can you test their limits at much lower (safer) speeds, but they can also be driven harder and longer for less money. Have you ever tried replacing tires on a 458 Italia, or the clutch on a Zonda F roadster? I’ve been driving my GTI like I stole it for over five years; it continues to be reliable and takes whatever I dish out. Its components are over-engineered, and it simply doesn't make enough power to break anything major. I drive so hard in the mountains, I can go through a set of tires in 6 months, but I can get a decent set of tires for $400 or less. Best of all, I can drive my GTI at its limits every week and still manage to average at least 27mpg! If a cheap car has the right elements—good steering feedback, decent suspension, relative low weight and enough power to be fun—it can be a blast to drive every day.  It will be cheaper to buy, insure, and maintain. Many affordable performance cars also enjoy a vast and relatively inexpensive aftermarket support.

               While we’re at it, what’s better than buying a “lesser car” new? Buying one used. Many relatively inexpensive second hand cars can be as much fun to drive as more exotic ones. There are plenty of used GTI's, Mazda Speed 3's, S2000's, Z cars and the like which can render big smiles 7 days a week. I don't have to worry about my old GTI; I can drive in rain, snow, and even on dirt roads to go hiking! I do autocross, road trips, track days, and sometimes persuade my wife to improve her stick shift skills. I can experiment with relatively inexpensive modifications that improve the car’s performance. It may not be the most glamorous transportation ever, but I have more fun by sheer volume than many people with Ferrari’s in their garages.

               So, is a Fiesta ST as much fun to drive as a Zonda F roadster? Nope. If you have a lot of disposable income, should you abstain from buying a fantastic car? Definitely not.  However, driving a fun car seven days a week, through good conditions and bad, is a blast.  It’s the best bang for your buck and the best training for your inner Stig, and you really can have fun every day.  Spend less money on a more affordable, fun car that you can enjoy often. If the car is too expensive to drive regularly, it is too expensive for you to own. Rather, spend the saved money doing tasteful modifications to your car that make it better to drive. Not stancing…sorry, guys. Spend your money on track days, autocross, and driver instruction courses, and who knows? You might even school some much fancier cars with your new-found skills. And as for getting to the “next base” with your lady friend:  if she’s going out with you because of your car, you may be fishing for trout in the shallow end of the pond.

 

 Keep driving skillfully, my friends.

Aaron L. 

The Case for Analog

02/26/2015

Author Steve B.

 

A few weeks ago, I discussed how the auto industry (and BMW specifically) seems to be making its performance cars more subdued than in the past and why that’s a good thing.  Today, I’m going to explain why it’s not.

I ride a motorcycle.  The first time I rode one was in a parking lot and I immediately called my girlfriend (She’d later become my wife) to tell her it was the most amazing thing I’d ever done.  There’s something that makes you feel alive when you have no safety net, no margin for error.  Sports cars should give you a similar feeling.  Sports cars should make your heart race, your palms sweat, and your adrenaline pump.  Ask any Italian, driving a great car should feel like sex.

Automatic transmissions theoretically allow you to pay more attention to the road.  We all know people rely on autos so they can do other things, like text and eat breakfast.  All wheel drive theoretically gives you more traction in bad weather.  Stability and traction control keep you from crashing.  Electronic power steering makes turning easier.  Radar cruise control, parking assist, accident avoidance systems; these are all great because they make our lives easier on a daily basis.  But, they take away from the thrill of driving.

For decades the M3 has been the epitome of the perfect sports sedan, everything you want, nothing you don’t.  The 2002tii gave us a pure driving experience, the E30 and E36 M3s made it even better.  In the early 2000s, we got the E46 M3.  It came in two distinct flavors, the manual and the SMG automatic.  Nearly 15 years later, the manual is still considered the benchmark for all sports sedans.  The SMG car is universally panned.  All you really need to do is look at Schnelllist for that generation to see that manuals go for several thousand dollars more than the automatics.  The reason is the manual version gives people that emotional feeling, the SMG gives you hemorrhoids.

The current F80 M3 is roughly the same size as an America’s Cup J Boat, uses electric power steering, a turbocharger, and when equipped with a dual clutch automatic; gives you the same amount of joy as an ASPCA commercial.  Now, I’m not saying it isn’t a great car, but now you need to go through menus and change suspension settings and steering sensitivity just to make the car feel like it has a soul.  And something about that is inherently artificial.

I’ve picked on BMW a lot here, but ALL car manufacturers are guilty of this.  Volkswagen hasn’t let you turn off stability control in their GTI for two generations now.  When the GTI first emerged, people loved it because it was fun, it was simple, and it had a soul.  Now the GTI is still a hot hatch, but it’s complicated…  It has a turbo, a dual clutch transmission (if you ask for it), permanent stability control, and weighs nearly double the original.  It’s composed and nice, but when you put it in sport mode, it fakes engine noises and brakes the inside wheels automatically to keep you from having too much fun.  As much as I love the GTI, the father of the hot hatch has also become artificial.

370Z’s have automatic rev matching to downshift; the new Mustang has a linelock so you can do a burnout like Jimmy Johnson after he wins at Darlington; Porsche has a launch control that allows you to do hundreds of mind numbing, physics defying, launches without frying your clutch;  Yawn…

The more automation that goes into cars, the harder it is to get that visceral feeling.  Electric steering feels numb.  Automatic transmissions are boring, even when using paddles to shift manually.  Stability control and traction control keep you safe, but the lack of safety is what makes driving quickly thrilling.  Even launch control is a drag, anyone can hit a few buttons and stab the throttle; it takes skill to finesse the clutch, get on the power at the right moment, and perfectly time shifts.  Electronics ruin that.

Modern cars are technological marvels.  They do things that our fathers could never dream of.  But they do it without the flair, the emotion, the sex!  There’s a reason why analog super cars are climbing in value.  Porsche 959s, Ferrari 288 GTOs and F40s are selling for astronomical amounts; the Ford GT never depreciated like most cars do.  Old E30 and E36 M3s are climbing in value, and I won’t even mention air-cooled Porsches again...  Why?  Because they make you work for it and when you get it right, they make you feel alive.

So you can have your dual clutch transmission, your electric power steering, your fake engine noise, your launch control, and stability control.  I’ll take a 2002tii, a mkI GTI, an air-cooled Porsche any day over something new and digital.  You may run circles around me at a track day and blow past me in the canyons, but my smile will be far bigger.

 

Photo Credit:

Shaun Porcar

Bimmer Today 

From VW to Formula 1

01/21/2015

Author: Steve Benso

I don’t remember a time that I didn’t love cars.  Most boys are into cars as kids, maybe they make a few models, buy some Hot Wheels, then move on to dinosaurs, or pirates.  But me?  I stuck with cars.  Every couple weeks I’ll be writing columns regarding what catches my eye in the auto industry, be it motorsports, be it custom built cars, anything.  But today, I’m going to share with you my background, my childhood.

To truly understand the depths of my fixation of the automobile, you have to know what I was like as a little boy.  I had these flash cards.  On one side, there would be a picture of a car (say… a Lancia Stratos), on the other side would be all this technical information about the car and a blurb about the history of the car (The Stratos was produced from 1972-1974 and had 190hp).  I memorized these.  Probably 100 of them.  I had my favorite though, the Rosso Corsa Ferrari F40.  3 liter twin turbo 90 degree V-8 making over 470hp.  0-60 time under 4 seconds and a top speed over 200mph.  That car was my dream.  I didn’t care for Lamborghinis, I didn’t care for Porsches, all I cared about was that Ferrari.

 

When I was 5, my dad bought a new car.  A 1990 VW Jetta GLI.  It had BBS RA wheels, a 16 valve 4 cylinder engine, sporty seats, a spoiler on the trunk and it could fly!  I remember sitting in the passenger seat (kids could sit in front those days), and when my dad nailed the throttle, I couldn’t move my head from the G forces.  Did I mention that the car was red?  Bright red.  Like my F40, Red.  I would go into the garage and sit in front of it and just look at that red Jetta, and dream about how it was a Ferrari.  It wasn’t, it was just a sporty VW, but to me, it was the closest thing to a Ferrari.  Unfortunately the car was totaled in a hail storm only a couple months after my dad bought it, it broke his heart and mine.  But all car guys have had their hearts broken by a car at some point or another, I think.

My dad and I used to watch racing every Sunday. Every February we started the racing season watching Davey Allison battle with Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, and Rusty Wallace on the high banks of Daytona.   The good ol’ boys always put on a show; from Dale Jarrett winning the Daytona 500 with his father, Ned Jarrett announcing, or Earnhardt flipping and still trying to finish the race.  Mostly, it was Earnhardt, having won everything else, trying to conquer the 500, then finally doing it in 1998, after 20 attempts.

In May came the Indianapolis 500.  I’d watch every practice, every time trial with great anticipation.  Watching these alien looking machines inches from the wall at speeds nearly 240mph down the straightaways.  Indy had family, with the Unsers and the Andrettis.  Michael Andretti was the man.  I related to him because he was a racecar driver, just like his father Mario; and I wanted to be like mine.  Every year there was the agony of watching Andretti come so close to the win at Indy, just to fall short.

Once the summer came along I turned my attention to Formula One.  I woke up early one Sunday and flipping through the channels on the TV to find cartoons, I found Nigel Mansell, screaming through the trees around Curva Grande at Monza in his Williams at 200mph.  I was hooked.  Formula One cars were the pinnacle, they accelerated faster, turned quicker, braked harder than anything else on the planet.  The screaming V-10s and V-12s were like something I’d never heard before.  Before long, I was waking up early every Sunday morning to watch the races.  I became a fan of Ferrari, with Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, then Michael Schumacher.  Schumacher was a hard driver to like, when he was younger with Benetton.  He had a hard-nosed style that was difficult to appreciate.  His team, Benetton was known for bending the rules, and occasionally breaking them.  Once he moved to Ferrari, I saw his genius, his ability to make the car better and ability to focus and go beyond the limit.

So that’s me in a nutshell, at least my childhood love of cars.  I’m a petrolhead, through and through.  I grew up listening to stories of Ferrari and Ford battling at Le Mans, I rode in VW Beetles and learned how to drive a stick when I was 12 in my mom’s Jetta.  I’m not biased to one brand, although I do love German cars.  And I’ll pick a Ferrari over just about anything, regardless of how likely it is to catch fire. 

Over the next few months I will share more and more insight into the car world.  I’ll be providing some reviews of cars that interest me, I’ll be doing commentary on the upcoming racing season, and I just be telling you whatever related to the auto industry catches my eye.  The Detroit Auto Show is going on right now and although I’m not there, I have some thoughts!  Stay Tuned.

 

 Photo Credit: Alvaro Matas

 Author: Steve Benso

 

 

 

 

Are these the best sedans under $55k?

10/10/2014

Well-endowed in the horsepower department? Check. Ample room for car seats? Check. Room for golf clubs? Absolutely.

B8 Audi S4

              Basically the best platform for a daily driver that occasionally encounters a snow drift! Audi has perfected the Quattro system and now provides the S4 with a V6 and garnished it with a supercharger. With 333hp and 325lb-ft of torque the B8 S4 will take your kids to school while you play hooky from you boring cubicle.

For all intensive purposes you can get a base B8 S4 for under $55k.

 

 

Chevrolet SS

              Probably one of the most understated sedans on the market. A muscle car V8 with 415hp and 415lb-ft of torque this American muscle car can hold its own against the Europeans, wait it really can’t. Sorry to say but when you are spending $45k or more on a car the fine German engineers have again beaten Americans to the punch!

 

 

Subaru WRX STI

              If you have the yellow fever the Subaru STI is perfect for you! It also brings a few goodies to the table too. The STI can hold its own against the S4s and 335s on a track or rally stage but when it comes to the interior think again. But remember the STI is a fraction of the cost of a new Audi S4 or Bmw 335i Xdrive. With a turbocharged flat-4 the STI makes 305hp and 290lb-ft of torque which is definitely enough to carry you over the snowy roads to hug a tree!

 

 

Mercedes CLA45 AMG

              The CLA 45 AMG has a pretty annoying name but you will forget about that because it produces 355hp and 332lb-ft of torque from a twin scroll turbo. Yes this is technically a smaller car than the rest of the sedans but the Mercedes C400 is lip wristed and the C63 AMG has a nuclear bomb for an engine and the same for the price tag. 

 

 

Volvo S60 Polestar

              I can’t believe a Volvo made the list. Volvo is synonymous for safe, basically it’s a great car to carry your airbags in. But Polestar, not to be confused with the B squad stripper that left spray tan on your jeans last night, got ahold of the S60 and actually made a man out of it! Volvo didn’t build the S60 Polestar for Touring Car fan boys. They wanted a Volvo that would appeal to mature drivers of a serious bent, the sort who might otherwise shop German brands. But the Polestar does make 345hp and 369lb-ft of torque from turbocharged inline 6.

 

 

Bmw 335i Xdrive

              Finally we get to the crem de la crem! The 335i has been the choice car for socialites and yuppies for years now but it continues to be the yard stick. Make sure to get the M Performance package because it actually ups the hp to 320 and torque to 332 from the standard 300hp and 300lb-ft of torque.

 

 

Chrysler 300 SRT8

 

              It seems as if the Americans are producing a few more luxury performance sedans then before to keep up with Europe. Has it worked? In a word…maybe. The new 300 SRT8’s looks have definitely improved and the imported from Detroit thing is kind of working especially when it comes equipped with a 6.4L V8 producing 470hp and 470lb-ft of torque. But it would have to produce those numbers just to move its fat butt from 0-60 in under 5 seconds. Where the 300 SRT8 lacks is the interior which has been and will continue to be where the Germans outperform them. A few more years and just maybe the 300 SRT8 will be able to compete on all levels! 

Photo Credit: Motor Trend & VMR Wheels 

Motivation Mondays!

09/22/2014

Mo·ti·va·tion

mōtəˈvāSHən

noun

The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.

Synonyms:         motive, motivating force, incentive, stimulus, stimulation, inspiration, inducement, incitement, spur

Sentence: "his motivation was financial"

The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Synonyms:         enthusiasm, drive, ambition, initiative, determination, enterprise, get-up-and-go

 

I believe motivation to be the general desire or willingness of someone to achieve something “GREAT”. That could be financially, spiritually, physically or any number of ways, but deep down you need to stay motivated. It’s the difference between waking up before dawn to get that morning run in or slumming it around the house. It’s the difference between staying at the office till dark to finish that project or cutting out early. I was always told that great things come to those who work hard. Remember motivation is the ultimate key but never forget the journey, because that is what life it about. So figure out what you want, power through the pain period, and start being who you want to be.

 

                                                                     What is your motivation?

 

 

 

The Price of not Buying

06/04/2014

Classic cars have always been held in high esteem, but lately their values have skyrocketed with no limit in sight. Forget stocks, derivatives and hedge funds, those are for the weak and feeble, if you really want to test your skill, try picking the next classic car and buying in at the right time, now that’s a real challenge.

In the last 12 months prices of classic Ferraris have increased by 55%, take that Carl Icahn and Steve Cohen! This crazy increase from Ferrari left others in its wake, classic Mercedes increased by a meager 24% and classic Porsches brought up the rear by increasing only 13%. This drastic increase in classic cars cannot be contributed to one factor but many. Rarity, exclusivity, engineering, style, racing pedigree are just a few of the factors that have bolstered the values of classic cars, especially Ferrari.

Last year a unique Ferrari sold breaking all barriers and recording the highest price for not only a Ferrari but for any car. A 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO was sold for $53 million dollars to an unidentified buyer in a private transaction. This is a 49 percent increase on record for any classic car sold before. The Ferrari GTO has become the Holy Grail for car enthusiasts and some might say it’s the perfect place to invest your money.

Now I pose the question to you and every car enthusiast out there, the car that will draw millions of dollars, the car that will become an icon for automotive enthusiasts everywhere, what is the next collector car?

…If you get it right please let us know, because we will buy one!

 

 

 

Spirit of Ecstasy 1929 Rolls Royce

10/14/2013

Sweeping white curves, huge wheel arches, towering chrome grill, all leading up to one of the most recognizable hood ornaments, the “Spirit of Ecstasy”. All these graceful features make up one of the most iconic car brands in history, Rolls Royce. From the beginning their mission was to create the best and most refined cars in the world. The distinguished company was created from a simple lunch between Sir Henry Royce and Charles Rolls. Production of the Silver Ghost and the newly created Phantom took off during the roaring 1920s and established a secure foundation for the company to push the boundaries of automobile engineering in the coming decade.

At the end of the 1920’s and the beginning of the Great Depression, Rolls-Royce surged into the spot light breaking records on land, sea and air. This is when they made some of their most refined and elegant cars. Their cream of the crop came in the form of the 1929 Phantom P II. One of these sophisticated machines made its way to America, and after a long and storied history made its debut at the Frick Automobile Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. The museum is housed in original garages of the Frick estate.

I was in attendance to get a first hand account of this particular Rolls’ long and eventful journey. Starting out life as a 1929 Phantom II, the order was placed on May 16, 1929 at Baker Coachbuilders in Mayfair, London. Its beautifully hand crafted dark wood interior and amazing metal work that adorned the lengthy hood was presented in 1930 after it was finished. From there the Phantom traveled through several owners, the first of which was a wealthy woman named Dorothy Paget. She managed some of the most successful race horses in England. The car did not stay long in her possession and was purchased by Captain Arthor Baillie. From there the car had alterations done by Compton coachbuilders. They installed the body of a 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II drophead onto the ash frame of the original car. Making its journey across the pond to America in the mid 1940s the Phantom found its new owner Mr. Pomeroy and was safe from the perils of World War II.

Finally, being traded for a Corvette in America, and ending up in the hands of John M. Roberts IV, the car stayed in its original condition until being renovated in 2005. The fun part began for me after learning of its amazing history. In the museum, the Rolls-Royce was proudly displayed in between two of its siblings, other Rolls-Royces. The company, Vintage Garage, took on the massive project and created a masterpiece that both Sir Henry Royce and Charles Rolls would be proud of. The chassis of the 1929 Phantom and its ash frame had considerable work done and most all of the mechanical components were fixed. Finally the car received its original paint to finish it off. Learning of its time consuming overhaul, the Phantom was in amazing condition. The metal riveting along the hood down to the following foot boards was flawless. The immense grill looked down upon you saying, “Step aside, please,” while the colossal lights only added to the immense presences of the front of the car. Having the opportunity to hear the 7.7liter straight six come to life was music to my ears. Seeing it drive was like watching an elegant ballroom dancer glide smoothly across the floor. In my opinion a Rolls-Royce should not be sporty but should whisk you away and not tear your head from your neck. This particular Rolls-Royce embodied every essence of what the company set out to do and exceeded every expectation I had set.

But it was the little details that highlighted the car and made me pick my jaw up from the ground. Lights molded into the top of the wheel arches accented the headlights and added a touch of flare. The interior was refurbished to mint condition, and the beautiful white bench seat was off-set by the dark wood dash. The gauges and dark wood combined to transport you back to the roaring 1920s. The interesting details and beautiful craftsmanship helped to melt away my overpowering thoughts about Rolls-Royce’s stereo-type. I can dismiss the rock star, who rides around in a Rolls to promote his image, and now know that it is the true car enthusiast, the purist, who appreciates the craftsmanship and elegance of this car. To know this Rolls Royce is to know perfection.

All the elements of this car mixed together perfectly, confirming the one expectation set out by everyone, not just car enthusiasts, that Rolls-Royce is the finest luxury car maker in the world. The opportunity to see and hear a car designed by the original founders of the company was truly an amazing experience. Don’t allow the image of Rock stars and Rappers to skew your opinion of these elegant machines, because the true idea of building the world’s best car shines through the immense grill designed by the founders. The fact still remains that some people who own these cars will never truly appreciate what they have, but once in a while you will find an owner that truly values their car and its history and the reason behind its birth, which is what I found at the Frick Museum.

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