Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Short Take - 2015 Dodge Dart

Ahh, the Dodge Neon. The automotive equivalent of a caveman, next to the more advanced Japanese set (to say nothing of the equally ancient Chevy Cobalt), it was a decent runabout of a compact car. However, in SRT form, it was the king of the sport compact car segment. What it lacked in the finesse of the Honda Civic Si/VW GTI set, it more than made up for in brute force. Whereas the Si was a high rpm VTEC screamer and the GTI brought a high tech 2.0L turbo, the SRT4 was armed with a large bore, fire spitting 2.4L with a large turbocharger. Like bringing a sledgehammer to a katana blade fight. So American.

But alas, the Neon was too rough-edged a thing to survive for long, popular as it was. Enter the quasi-SUV Dodge Caliber to take up the reins in 2007. But the Caliber came to market at a very weird and hostile time, not to mention it couldn't hold a candle to the quality of its competitors. From 2007 to 2012, the Caliber soldiered on, holding the compact candle for Chrysler while it divorced from Cerberus Capital Management Group (who we're pretty sure abused the company) into the welcoming arms of Fiat. Finally, we thought, here's a chance for Chrysler to finally get the love and tender care it needs to shine. The first product of this marriage would be a compact car based on the excellent platform of the European Alfa-Romeo Guilietta compact, slightly altered for bulky Americans (i.e. wider, longer).

Built on the Compact U.S. Wide (CUSW) platform, the Dart is on the larger side of the compact segment. However, designers did a fine job in differentiating it, not just from the Guilietta, but from pretty much everything else in the segment. If you squint really hard, you can see some elements of the Neon design in the body. From the rising belt line and large windshield in the front 3/4 view to the neat rump and large glass area. Resplendent in black paint and murdered-out black wheels, my tester was, err, murdered out. Tint the windows and you'd have a properly sinister, yet handsome looking compact. The headlights are large, yet (again blacked out) squint into a squashed Dodge cross-hair grille with a gaping maw down below, flanked by brake cooling ducts with integrated fog lights. Around back, the brake lights from Dodge's now signature 'race track' pattern that are unmistakable for anything else but a Dodge. Taken as a whole, the Dart looks purposeful and while not exactly pretty, is a good looking car.

Inside, things get even more interesting. The race track pattern on the tail lights is reflected in a lighted ring around the instrument cluster. The instruments themselves are large and easy read and feature a large LCD between the speedometer and tachometer for trip and vehicle information. The 8.4" UConnect system was large and as user friendly as the automotive press suggests. Bright, clear and with quick response to touch inputs, the system was a joy to use (take note Ford). The seats featured premium black cloth and while the fronts were wide and offered good support, I was a bit surprised at how little space there was in the back. For a compact car than on the larger side of the class, the Dart's backseat was short on legroom, despite having good width for elbows and shoulders. For comparison sake, the Toyota Corolla offers a huge backseat with limo-like legroom. Headroom was on the low side compared to others in the segment, but at least the materials were quality. Everywhere you're likely to place your hand felt decent to the touch, if not plush and luxurious. Occupying the driver's seat, all controls fell readily to hand. Interior wise, the Dart is a huge improvement over the Caliber's Rubbermaid-like cabin and felt like a larger car than it was, which some buyers will appreciate.

Under way, the Dart also drives like a larger car. Powering the front wheels is the 'Tigershark' 2.4L inline four cylinder, mustering 184hp and 172lb-ft of torque through a standard six speed manual transmission (a six speed automatic is optional). On an empty stretch of road, I timed a 0-60mph run from a standstill in a tick over 8 seconds, right in the thick of the compact segment. On the outside, revving the engine gave a somewhat pleasant exhaust note but cresting 4500 rpm the note turned thrashy and coarse. Though the 2.4L will rev willingly, it's not an engine that sounds particularly good doing so (see Honda Civic for that).  On some curvy roads and long sweepers, the Dart's Guilietta-based platform shines though. The strut-front and multilink rear suspension take a set and the Dart hunkers down through the corner. This being the SXT model, the suspension is softer but with a hint of Euro firmness that fought body roll at the limit. Understeer ultimately prevails, but the Dart didn't urge me to push it harder. Opt for the GT model and the suspension is even starchier though ride quality may suffer. Grab it by the nape and the car will play along, but it doesn't have the always-willing-to-play character of the Mazda3. While the Corolla will insist that you DESIST from any shenanigans behind the wheel, the Dart will prove entertaining and willing. However, the Dart is in its element loafing along at 70mph, the suspension doing its best Dodge Charger impression, soaking up bumps and giving a big-car ride. The steering is quick but was at times lifeless with little feedback on how far I was pushing the Dart. The six speed manual had long throws and I'd sometimes catch 4th when downshifting to 2nd. 

While the Dart's driving dynamics aren't top of the class, it will satisfy the technogeek with it's veritable list of standard and optional equipment. I can't say enough about the user friendly nature of the UConnect system and the availability of things like heated seats, satellite radio, rearview camera, Bluetooth, navigation and heated steering wheel. My black SXT tester came standard with the 2.4L/six speed manual and from there, was equipped with the Blacktop Package (black 18" wheels, black fog lamp surrounds, black exterior mirrors),8.4-Inch Touch Screen UConnect Group (Illuminated Instrument Panel Surround, iPod® Control, Remote USB Port as well as the aforementioned 8.4 touchscreen) and elements from the Rallye Appearance Group (Active Grille Shutters, black Crosshair grille with black surround, dual rear exhaust with bright tips, fog lamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, touring suspension, rear stabilizer bar, underbody aerodynamic treatment). As tested price is $21,128 (including $995 destination). As value or money, the Dart ix excellent for the price. It's a decent drive and includes a plethora of technology that nowadays is essential for any modern car buyer. If you're looking for a driver's car, you could do worse (ahem, Hyundai Elantra) but as an all around daily driver, the Dodge Dart is a great choice. Mopar fans clamoring for a return of the SRT4 will have to wait till 2017.

Hat tip to Doug for helping to make this review possible!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Short Take - 2015 BMW i3

If you've noticed BMW's products getting a tad soft and pudgy, you're not alone. I recently had the chance to drive a 428i Gran Coupe (yes, that's a thing now) and, comparing it and it's turbocharged 2.0L four cylinder engine to an E90 328i sedan drive some years ago, the difference was stark. The silky, snarling naturally aspirated inline six of that old 328i and the nimbleness of the chassis coupled with the telegraphic steering wheel were all now masked by a noticeable layer of fat. Sure the 428i was still nimble and sporty enough, but you had to work more to extract that signature BMW driving magic as opposed to having it right at the surface with the old 328i. And while the turbo four was plenty powerful and much more fuel efficient, it's character was one of indifference.The driving press was left scratching their collective heads. Has BMW lost it way? Now with the launch of its new i brand, the signs were even more ominous.

How was BMW going to explain this seemingly blasphemous course shift?

What started with BMW dipping its toes into the hybrid market has now turned into a headfirst dive into the electrified driving future. Purists will cry foul and point to this car as clear evidence BMW has lost its "Ultimate Driving Machine" wits, but the manufacturer isn't budging. Rather than think of the i3 as blasphemy (hard as that was for me not to do), I decided to be open-minded as I was handed the keys at a recent driving event.

Approaching the i3, I couldn't help but notice how futuristic it looks. Imagine a utopian future where mobile pods are the primary means of transport, now place this car in that thought and it's not completely out of sorts. Even if the roundel wasn't pasted on the hood, the kidney grill (which isn't really a grill) and the shaped headlight stack as well as subtle design cues still point to this curiosity being a product of Munich. Tall 19" wheels are promising until you notice the ultra skinny 150/90R19s wrapped around them, all the better for the least rolling resistance possible. The i3's upright stance and design are as unconventional as they are intriguing. The door entry has no B pillar and the rear door is side hinged, suicide style The rear hatch area is one piece glass with the tail lights sitting underneath. The belt line is similarly funky with an, 'up, down, up, then down again' style that's bizarre yet eye catching. This isn't a beautiful car, but then again neither was the 2nd generation Toyota Prius and we're pretty much used to that car's styling.

Where the i3's looks are, well, unique, it's structure and chassis are remarkable for sheer engineering prowess. Utilizing what BMW calls its "LifeDrive" (yes, really) construction process, the manufacturer was able to bring a concept called the "skateboard platform" to production. Here, the chassis is one unit while the passenger cell is another. Simply put, it's the next generation of body-on-frame construction involving aluminum and carbon fiber reinforced plastics. The skateboard, or Drive Module, houses the 450lb 22kWh lithium ion battery pack while the electric motor is housed as the rear and supplies 170hp and 184lb-ft of torque at zero rpm.  The entire Drive Module is made of lightweight aluminum with only steel components being some suspension bits and pieces. The passenger cell, called the Life Module, is fashioned from carbon fiber with the side panels made from composites. The entire car weights just over 2600lbs (without an optional range extending gas engine) and, with other BMW models, the weight is split 50/50 front to rear.

The i3 is marketed as a city and as such, my drive was done around the streets of central Hialeah. In this setting, the i3 is in its element. Torque from the electric motor is right-now there and give the car a peppy feel. See that hole in traffic? Prod the gas, er, throttle and the i3 will make it The ride was pretty compliant and visibility was excellent. Too excellent on some occasions. Driving the i3 through the city is almost like driving a Lamborghini Aventador in terms of the looks and stares you'll receive. On one occasion, I was stopped at a traffic light and one of the street vendors who was walking between the cars, selling bottled water stopped directly in front of the i3 and looked it up and down. After about four minutes of intense scrutiny, he gave me a nod and continued on his way. This happened about three more times during my drive and while a bit unnerving, is something an owner should get used to.

The tinny feeling I was half expecting while sauntering through town never materialized. The structure is vault-rigid and doesn't feel or drive like a science experiment. The steering, while electric, is quick and precise, imparting good response without feeling darty and while the skinny tires make no pretense to be sporty, they otherwise were grippy where it counted. Turn hard enough and the rears will skip through corners (not enough contact patch) but non-defeatable stability control will kick in to right the car. At normal speeds, even though there's a brake pedal next to the throttle, it is quite easy to drive the i3 using the throttle alone as long as you can anticipate stops. Lift off the throttle and the electric motor's regenerative braking will kick in to slow the car to a stop, during which energy is recaptured and routed back to the battery. The torquey nature of the electric makes stoplight drag racing addictive, but you'll only end up depleting the battery more rapidly.

Unlike other BMWs, there's no Sport or Sport+ mode to select as, this being an electric city car, only EcoPro and Comfort modes are available with an EcoPro+ mode new. In other words, if you want get hooliganish, Comfort mode is your best bet as the car provides full power. EcoPro trims off throttle response, increases regen braking and EcoPro+ shuts of the air conditioning and uses a display on the dash to remind you that the i3 isn't an M3 so quit the tomfoolery. Another quirk about the i3 is that, unlike conventional cars, there's no creep if you ease off the brake. If your feet are completely off both pedals, the car won't move unless you tease the throttle.

Inside, the i3 is a tad less polarizing than the exterior, but still a bit aloof. The column mounted shifter requires a learning curve, in that it doesn't move up and down. Rather, the capped end of the stalk rotates: forward for drive, back for reverse. A button on top of the rotating end engages park while another on the fixed portion turns the car on or off. Having driven other BMWs that day that have their own fiddly shifters, this was almost infuriating. I had to concentrate on the display to make sure I was in the correct drive mode before moving the car. The rest of the interior is quite airy and spacious, almost like a living room. This being a zero emissions vehicle, most of the interior materials are fashioned from recyclables. There were some surfaces that I thought looked a bit cheap but the strip of wood that lines the dashboard looked pretty good and, running under the infotainment screen and driver's info screen give the car a techy, yet classic feel. This might be a city car, but it's a quality interior and is almost concept car-cool.

Starting at $42400 sans destination ($46250 with range extender), the i3 isn't cheap by any measure although federal and tax incentives can sweeten the deal. As long as you're prepared for an alternate lifestyle, the i3 could very well be the easiest EV to live with on a daily basis. The charge time is a reasonable three hours plugged into a 220 volt circuit (in your garage), or 30 minutes from a fast DC charging 440 volt circuit and yields a range between 80 and 100 miles. And even if you're of the range-anxious sort, the iDrive navigation system can learn your driving style and predict whether or not your destination is feasible given the amount of charge the battery has. As always, your mileage will vary based on your driving style and while the i3 has a 93 mph top speed, highways aren't the its ideal environment. While the i3 may sit at the polar opposite of BMW's other models, it is no less a BMW as all of manufacturer's core values such as lightness, solidity, driving dynamics and quality are present and accounted for, except that they're encapsulated in a completely different concept. No, the i3 isn't the Ultimate Driving Machine in the sense of canyon carving, tire smoking dynamics. Yet, on my short drive, I couldn't help but find the concepts that make those same canyon carving, tire smoking dynamics possible. Look at is this way: while the M5 is perfectly capable of driving in the city, it will always keep you aware of the nuclear bomb under the hood and will you to take it to the track where all 560hp can be unleashed in full. The i3 on the other hand, will handle a track (if you ask nicely) but would rather you keep it within city limits where its quick responses, demure size and efficiency are able to shine.

The i3 is indeed an impressive piece of engineering from BMW and as their first ground-up EV offering, hints at what the German outfit has in store for the market. Now if only I could get the keys for the i8....

Many thanks to Rich Beam, Byron, Julien, Clippy and the entire staff for putting on an impressive day. Special shout out to Byron for his exceptional coaching and knowledge!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Return of V - 2016 Cadillac ATS-V

2016 Cadillac ATS-V Coupe

In a previous post, you were introduced to Cadillac's new assault on the compact luxury sedan market, the ATS. Since its introduction, the well designed and engineered sedan I drove has spawned a coupe version that, while lacking the visual prowess of the outgoing CTS Coupe, still packed the performance and luxury that sees Cadillac meeting the German competition head-on.

And they're not done yet.

Feast your eyes on the 2016 ATS-V, the instrument with which Cadillac aims to give the BMW M3/M4 and Mercedes C63 AMG a bloody nose. While the standard ATS sedan and coupe are excellent purveyors of the refined 'Art & Science' design theme, the V treatment has given the cars an aggressive streak without being garish. Sure they're designed to be stealthy but next to their tamer kin, the V variants won't go unnoticed. Elements like a deep front splitter, heat-extracting hood vent, larger cooling brake ducts, quad tailpipes and a duck-tail spoiler along with larger 18" wheels (more on this) aim to up the ATS-V's visuals and work particularly well on the coupe (long lambasted for being too tame next to the outgoing CTS coupe's dynamic persona).

Of course, the ATS-V isn't all show and no go. Every opening and orifice on the front end is functional with tasks of either aiding downforce or cooling the uprated and tuned version of the 3.6L LF4 twin-turbo V6. Producing an estimated 450hp and 455lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels, this motor features such exotic elements like titanium connecting rods, new titanium turbos, higher flow fuel injectors and wet sump oil system that has been tested at withstanding up to 2 gs of lateral acceleration. A high flow, quad exhaust system announces the motor's presence (annoyingly with prerecorded sounds played back the sound system). The driver will have a choice of either a traditional six speed manual (hooray!) or GM's new eight speed automatic (same as in the new Corvette) to shuttle power to the rear end, which itself comes with an electronic limited slip differential to help put down the blown six's massive power.. The automatic boasts settings that vary response and shift times, which GM says were benchmarked against Porsche's PDK dual clutch transmission. Interestingly, shift times are boasted at being quicker than the Porsche unit while being able to slur through gears like, well, a proper Cadillac. The six speed manual will feature GM's 'no-lift shift' algorithm and automatic rev-matching for those of us that talk the talk (for the rest of us, the feature can be switched off).

The ATS' Alpha chassis has been thoroughly altered for V duty, boasting additional rigidity through a stiffened front structure (a hollow aluminum plate that stiffens the engine cradle while also serving as an aerodynamic underbelly tray). A 50 percent stiffer suspension setup at all four corners enhances roll stiffness while third-generation Magnetic Ride Control dampers feature faster reaction times (now altering damping every inch of road travel versus three inches before) while being 40 percent stiffer than before. Of course, road damping can be dialed back for a cushier experience but even at its softest setting, the ride will still be "performance oriented". On both the ATS-V coupe and sedan, the front tracks are slightly wider than their tamer brethren while the rears are slightly narrower, enhancing turn in and rotation through corners. Wider 18" Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires sized 255/35R18 front and 275/35R18 rear are mounted on lightweight forged wheels to decrease unsprung weight at all four corners. Expecting bigger 19" or 20" wheel options? Don't as Cadillac felt altering the suspension balance for heavier wheels would compromise the platform's excellent dynamics. 

Tasked with halting all that power are giant steel 14.6", six piston front brakes augmented by 13.3", four piston rear units. Will fancy, shmancy carbon ceramic brakes be optional? According to Cadillac chief engineer Dave Leone, the standard brake setup works so well, that carbon ceramics were deemed as an unnecessary expense. That said, customers shouldn't expect a dedicated track package as Leone says, the ATS-V is THE track package. To further back up this claim, the exterior visuals have been beefed up in a functional, non-garish way. To cool the blown motor, the grille area has increased by 50 percent with extractors and gills allowing hot air to escape the engine bay. A convincing hood bulge with heat extractor helps to give the LF4 clearance while a deep front splitter, brake cooing ducts, side sill extensions and rear diffuser give the ATS-V presence. An optional Track Pack will be available that adds additional downforce via a deeper front splitter and larger rear spoiler, along with extensions forward of the front wheel wells and deeper side rocker panels.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V Sedan

Inside, Recaro sport front seats will be standard as well as real carbon fiber and suede trim. The Corvette's Performance Data Recorder will also be available so you can record your Lewis Hamilton-antics. It works by using a small, forward mounted camera and records video and in-car audio to glovebox-mounted SD card. It also records parameters like throttle and steering inputs as well as braking points and lateral acceleration. Unfortunately, Cadillac'c CUE user interface system will also be standard. If you read my earlier ATS entry, you'll understand that the less said about that infuriating system, the better. 

Pricing hasn't been set as of this writing, but expect the ATS-V to go on sale in late spring of 2015 with a price that competes with the German establishment. With the ATS serving as an excellent base and competing well with the regular  BMW 3/4 Series, the V variant looks set to be the perfect M3/M4 killer. All hail the Star Spangled Banner!

Images courtesy of Cadillac.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tales of the STEED - Spark Plugs 'n Coils

Spark plugs, ignition coils and intake port gaskets ready to go!

My back still hurts.


What was supposed to have been a 3 hour repair job, turned into 8 hours of wrenching. All to save a few hundred dollars in repair costs. See, some 10,000-20,000 miles ago, my Mazda 6 started experiencing *ahem* cough symptoms. No not literally coughing, more like stuttering. I noticed that whenever I tried to go full throttle at low rpm (usually below 2000), the car would start hesitating, as if trying to clear its throat while slowly pulling away. For example, the car is loafing along at a steady 65 mph with the cruise control engaged. If I decide to add 5 mph to that cruise setting without downshifting (and by pressing the ACCEL button on the cruise control area) the car would commence subtly bucking, stuttering and wheezing all the way to 70 mph before settling down again. It's a totally unnerving to experience. Every. Time.

After browsing numerous forums, YouTube channels and talking with mechanics, three diagnoses were possible: 1) fouled spark plugs/ignition coils 2) vacuum leak 3) clogged fuel injectors. I ruled out the fuel injectors pretty early, deeming that a serious case since the car has downed its fair share of fuel injector cleaners since being bought (FYI: the fuel you purchase already has additives to keep fuel injectors clean). Next item was to check for a vacuum leak. Feeling around the different hoses, listening for the distinctive hiss of escaping air turned up nothing. So considering the car's age and that the spark plugs/coils had never been replaced I zeroed in on that being the cause. Some forums mentioned a possible oil leak that might enter the spark plug chambers, thereby inhibiting the ability of a spark to be created and causing a cylinder to misfire. With that, my project was set. Here's how it went down.

Engine Cover, gotta remove this first.

Opening up the engine bay, I'm faced with an engine cover. Take that off (held down by three nuts) and the engine block itself becomes visible. The front three spark plugs are right there (in your face) and after loosening up some electrical connectors are quite easy to replace. But wait you ask, where are the other three? Well, they're buried under the plenum/throttle body assembly towards the rear of the engine bay against the firewall. To get to those three involves first removing the battery and airbox. Why? So the multiple hoses and electrical connectors can be removed BEFORE you can even think about removing the plenum and its eight bolts. This, my friends, is where the fun begins.

With the cover off, the forward bank of spark plugs/ignition coils are exposed at the bottom of the picture, just right of the oil dip stick.
Airbox and battery removed, the throttle body is visible (cloth underneath throttle body is catch any coolant from disconnecting the hoses.

A total of 6 hoses (2 coolant and 4 vacuum I believe) are attached to the plastic plenum. Most were a breeze but two of the hoses were located underneath the plenum in an awkward area that was difficult to reach. To make matters worse, while I was able to remove the metal clamp that holds the hose on the fitting, the hose itself remained fused to the fitting. It took me over an hour, using a flathead screwdriver, to reach under the plenum and slowly pry the stuck hose loose before finally pulling it off. My brother, bless his heart, took care of the other hose (by this time my arms were like wet noodles). With the final hoses off and the eight bolts fastening the plenum to the block loosened, we were able to slowly and carefully remove the plenum, taking care not to bend or hit the EGR valve that inserts itself just behind the throttle body. This reveals the six intake ports along the middle of the block where "vee" in V6 comes in. Immediately, the ports were stuffed with paper towels to prevent any debris falling down them. The three rear plugs were finally visible and were replaced, one after the other, and were fitted with new ignition coils.

A better view of the ignition coils. (Instead of having a distributor and ignition wires, each spark plug has its own dedicated plug-on ignition coil)

Two of the hoses that had to be disconnected from the plenum (they put up a fight)... did this coolant hose. Notice the metal clip is off but the hose itself looks fused to the fitting. Prying with a flathead screwdriver eventually fixed this.

Let's back up a bit. Remember that shuddering, stuttering noise the engine made when accelerating below 2000 rpm? While inspecting the front bank of spark plugs, I found the culprit: oil. As you can see in the image, oil not only coated the entire lower half of the middle spark plug, but got past the seal and made its way up the ignition coil itself. This, I reckon, caused the cylinder to misfire, temporarily confusing the engine's ECM and causing the engine itself to hesitate. Where did the oil leak originate? My best educated (read: layman) guess is that the valve cover gasket (the rubber seal that keeps the engine's oil within the block, around each piston and prevents it from leaking into the spark plug chambers) was bad. Which means if I was going to permanently fix this, I was going to have to further disassemble the engine, something I had neither the parts, time (or strength) for. Not only was oil found in the middle spark plug hole, but to a lesser extent on the forward right plug as well. The best course of action at this point was just to take an old (CLEAN and LINT FREE) cloth, wrap it around the extension of my socket wrench and stick it down each hole, trying to mop up as much oil as I could. Having satisfied myself that the holes were mostly clean, only then did I install the new plugs and coils. Luckily, the rear bank of plugs showed no signs of the oil leak (whew).

This is the middle, forward spark plug. Notice the amount of oil and it's up to the socket fitting.

This is the middle spark plug hole. This was the worst of the six.

The three old plugs. The middle by far was the worst.

With the plenum off, the intake ports are visible (stuffed with paper towels to prevent anything falling in them)

The rear bank of spark plugs/ignition coils are now visible.

The lower three spark plugs came from the rear bank, they're in far better condition but I changed them anyway.

While the engine was partially disassembled, I took the opportunity to do an old-fashioned tuneup. This involved cleaning the throttle body, cleaning the MAF sensor, changing the intake port gaskets, cleaning the EGR valve and basically topping off all the fluids.

Cleaned the crud off the EGR valve

Replaced the intake port gaskets (old ones are green)...

...and cleaned the throttle body.

Then came the process of putting everything back together, which you could imagine, was a lot easier. The trick is, just as in the beginning, taking things slowly. I sorta didn't and in my haste, I managed to misplace a small vacuum hose. Thinking it was unnecessary, I fired up the engine which in turn, voiced its disapproval of the unfinished repair by surging to 1500 rpm for a few seconds before allowing the revs to fall below 600 rpm (just above stall). It would repeat this action until I shut it off and spent the next few minutes trying to locate the errant hose. My brother's fresher arms eventually located  and placed it back on it's fitting before I tried again. Everything seemed fine until we noticed a small coolant leak underneath the engine. A quick check of all the hoses we had taken off turned up nothing leaking there, so we assumed a bit of coolant had leaked out of the hoses while they were off (possibly while topping off the reservoir). We performed a bench and then a road test and checked again afterwards and the leak seemed to have stopped. See the video below for the results.

All in all it was a good day. People look at me a bit crazy when I tell them I work on my own car. For myself, it's more gratifying to know you've accomplished something that the majority of the population would rather pay someone else to do. But it's also a win if you save on the labor costs involved. Had I just given the STEED to mechanic, the labor cost would've far exceeded the cost in parts. Unless I'm diving deeper into the engine (eg. changing a timing belt or porting cylinders), I'd rather read forums (Google is your best friend here), look up how-to videos and read manuals on how its done. In many cases, your car's owners manual (that thick book taking up space in your glove compartment) has a wealth of information on your specific car's operation. It not only helps when you want to do stuff yourself, but it also informs on what your car needs so you don't get swindled by the a predatory mechanic. Believe me, it pays dividends to have even a basic knowledge of your car's inner workings. If your car happens to run on just four cylinders, your job will be that much simpler.

A few dozen Tylenol pills later and my back and knees feel better. As of this writing, the STEED still feels fantastic. Will I be doing again? Not before I've had a chance to tackle the valve cover gasket. That, for now, is another Saturday in the making.

My eternal thanks to my bro Roger who stepped in when my back and arms cried uncle. 

FOOTNOTE: MY (Model Year) 2003-2007 V6 equipped Mazda 6 cars are a pain to work on. The majority of markets where the car was sold offered powertrains no bigger than the 2.3L 4 cylinder. As a result, North America's version offered a Ford Duratec 3.0L V6 that barely fit in the engine bay. This, my friends, led to a host of ungodly body contortions in order to reach, pull and disconnect the various hoses, bolts and nuts that held everything in place. If you're mechanically inclined, working on any engine is a relative breeze. However, if you're a layman like myself with more enthusiasm than skill, give yourself time and patience. A second pair of eyes and hands always helps. Always check with a certified mechanic before doing any job on your vehicle, and remember, the Internet has a wealth of information.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

First Impressions - 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

There's just something about the classic British roadster that warms our hearts here at Test Drive. Long hood, short rear deck, compact size and the ability to put the roof down are attributes we almost fall down over ourselves to worship as the hallmark of how proper motoring should be. Forget thoughts of practicality, luggage space and the like. When we want to go out for a Sunday drive to tackle some twisty roads, we almost inevitably reach for a set of keys that start up a roadster of some kind.

Since 1989, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been the go-to car for drivers who want simplicity, tautness, nimbleness and open skies. The last time the Miata was redesigned in 2006 (eons in car years), Mazda has steadily upgraded the car, but not to the extent that its soul was diluted. Sure, you could argue that compared to newer cars, the current NC (chassis code name) Miata is sorely lacking in amenities. Navigation? Nerp. Satellite radio? Nope. Bluetooth? Only for calling. Hell, the cabin barely has space for cup holders, let alone to store your smartphone. Younger drivers might balk at such inconsistencies, but long-time Miata lovers praise this almost extinct level of simplicity that doesn't detract from the reason you're sitting in the driver's seat in the first place. That said, compared to Mazda's recently revamped lineup, the Miata is the sole vehicle (other than the dead-car-driving Mazda5) that looks sorta out of place, still sporting the Joker-like grin of Mazda's previous design language. Fresh off the success of the new Kodo design style and Skyactiv technology, Mazda has now brought the full weight of these attributes to bear on the Miata.

At first glance, the 2016 Miata doesn't appear to share much with the rest of the lineup. You could say we were expecting some version of the 2015 Mazda3's face to be grafted on the front end with the rest of the body following suit. A more detailed look at the images reveal Mazda's styling intent for the Miata: lower, wider, aggressive/assertive. Where the NC Miata is a tidy package in its own right, the new ND is more visually interesting to look at. The front end is almost impossibly low, barely passing front end crash regulations, the headlights follow suit, being placed lower in the front fascia and flanked by aggressive side air inlets for the front brakes. Mazda engineers placed the engine as low and as far back as possible, allowing designers to style the front end for that signature, shark-like look. The fenders, previously afterthoughts on the old Miata, are now prominently styled and flow from their peaks at the top of the front wheels back through doors and towards the rear end where they curve dramatically around the car's rump. The more we stared at the rump, the more "Jaguar F-Type" kept staring back. Just like that British sports car, the Miata's rear end features wide and defined rear fenders and slim tail lights that would make Ian Callum, Jaguar's head honcho of design, blush.

Weight is the enemy of performance and to that end, Mazda went gung-ho on bringing the Miata back to its roots. While the current NC Miata is no tub-o-lard at around 2500 lbs, the new ND car chops a pretty significant 200 lbs from that weight, literally inching it closer to the original Miata. Increased use of ultra high-strength steel and a sprinkling of aluminum pieces has endowed the Miata with a stiffer, lightweight and compact chassis. The wheels are also not oversized and, we suspect, will be no larger than 17 inchers, even as options. These cars were never about high-horsepower engines (even the last Mazdaspeed Miata barely broke 180 hp from its turbocharged 1.8L engine) so we have no reason to expect the new Miata to be any different. We do expect Mazda to power the ND Miata with a SkyActiv engine, the 2.0L 155hp four cylinder currently doing duty in the CX-5 and Mazda3 being the likely candidate (though we expect a bit more power to be extracted for its new duty). The upcoming Mazda2's 1.5L four banger is another motor, perhaps forming the base engine with the 2.0L being the uplevel option. With the Miata's lightness enhanced, the driving experience should be even more driver-focused and slot car-like than the current model.

Interiorwise, the new MX-5 will be light years ahead of the current model in terms of infotainment and connectivity. Expect features like navigation, Bluetooth music streaming and calling, and satellite radio to show up (as well as Mazda's rotary controller on the center console). We wouldn't hold our breath on others like lane departure warning, radar cruise control and City Stop to be anywhere on the options list (remember this is supposed to be a lightweight car). Storage space, another Miata-negative, may improve slightly though from the interior shots we were able to look at, it seems there's no glovebox and perhaps no cupholders. We think Mazda will at least, in a nod to the smartphone world we live in, provide space to store your device as well as USB slots to power the things. 

Like the engines, pricing has yet to be announced. We don't even know if the Miata will be offered as a hard top or a PRHT (power retractable hard top) model like the current car, though with a take rate of 52% versus the soft top model, we're pretty sure Mazda will offer the option if not sooner then later. While it may not have the giant resources of its competitors like Honda and Toyota, Mazda's newly independent status and its small stature allow it to focus its resources on what matters: the driving experience in all its products. With the new MX-5 Miata, Zoom Zoom truly lives on.

Images courtesy of Car and Driver and Mazda.

Friday, August 29, 2014

First Impressions - 2015 Dodge Challenger

If the 2015 Dodge Challenger is a bullet shot across the respective hoods of the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang, then the new SRT Hellcat is a Tomahawk missile grazing the bonnets of the Camaro ZL1 and the Mustang Shelby GT.

In other words, this Challenger does indeed have a Hemi. And oh, what a nuke of a Hemi it is.

Seven hundred and seven.


Let those numbers sink in. The most powerful V8 Chrysler has ever created, produces 707 stomping, rampaging horses and 650 lb-ft of torque. That, my friends, bests the paltry 580hp of the Camaro ZL1 and trounces the 662hp from Ford's Mustang Shelby GT. Viper fans should look away right now, not even the 640 hp/600 lb-ft 8.0L V10 in SRT's crown jewel can stand up to the supercharged fury of Chrysler's 6.2L Hellcat V8. Shoehorned under the hood of what, to my eyes anyway, is the most direct reinterpretation of the classic muscle car from its heyday, the 2015 Dodge Challenger has officially taken the crown.

You can almost hear the collective jaws of Ford and Chevy engineers hitting the ground in Detroit.

Before we get too far ahead, let's examine the rest of the refreshed Challenger lineup. Six years on the market have done nothing but cement the Challenger as one of the most faithful muscle car reproductions on the road today. Sure, the S95 Mustang had its day in the sun, now being replaced by a futuristic 2015 redesign and the Camaro is certainly aggressive but nothing has the absolute presence and charisma as a Challenger pulling in to the parking lot. As a result, marching orders for Dodge designers were simple: take nothing away from the car's looks.

On the exterior, it seems they did indeed leave well enough alone, until you look at the finer details. The tail light is now split into two distinct elements with LED lighting instead of the original full width unit.  Wheelbase remains the same and up front, LED halo rings now surround the quad headlamps. The grille is a tad thinner and now split in two, mimicking the rear tail light, the hood sports a distinct power bulge while moving the functional hood vents forward a tad (a Shaker hood is optional on V8 models). A deeper air dam and an optional splitter on performance models rounds off the exterior changes. A variety of new heritage colors like Sublime, B5 Blue and Tor Red are also available to give your Challenger a more classic look.

Under the new body, Chrysler has reworked the greasy bits by using an aluminum differential and ditching the old car's hydraulic steering for a new electric unit. Also gone (thankfully) is the dimwitted 5 speed automatic, replaced by the excellent TorqeFlite 8 speed automatic with paddles on all Challengers, giving the ability to rev-match on downshifts when in manual mode. The 6 speed manual returns on R/T and SRT models. Engine choices are largely carry over with the base powerplant remaining the stellar 3.6L Pentastar V6 with 305hp while R/T models carry the standard 5.7L Hemi V8 with 375hp and 410lb-ft of torque. SRT models however see the greatest changes as Chrysler has now split that model in two. Standard SRT 392 Challengers retain the 6.4L Hemi V8 now subtly upgraded to 485hp and 475lb-ft of torque while the suitably named SRT Challenger Hellcat gets the supercharged Hemi.

Inside, the Challenger is also extensively redone. A 7 inch thin-film transistor screen is sits between the tachometer and speedometer in the driver's gauge cluster and is able to display a variety of information including performance pages, navigation prompts and vehicle info. The center stack is also redesigned and includes Chrysler's much heralded UConnect telematics system on either a 5" or 8.4" display. Other modern niceties include a standard rear view camera, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, forward collision alert and adaptive cruise control. The seats themselves are new, sporting either cloth or Nappa leather on upper trim models with the option for heat/cooled surfaces. A performance seat option is available which includes thicker bolstering along the sides and aluminum trim attempts to lighten the interior.

But its the other SRT Challenger, the Hellcat,  that will get Chrysler enthusiasts blood pumping.To make this beast, SRT engineers first threw out all of the standard 6.4L's oily bits, leaving just the bare cast iron block. The engine was then destroked to 6.2L but strengthened cylinders, forged pistons and a massive 2.4L supercharger provided by IHI (the same outfit that provides superchargers to Mercedes) were added. The supercharger, routes incoming air through four heat exchangers (one for every pair of cylinders) before stuffing it into the intake ports. The twin-rotor design gulps air through an Air Catcher inlet, basically a hole punched into the driver's side inboard marker light and spins up to 14,600 rpm.

Everything about the SRT Hellcat is extreme. Chrysler had to develop new dynamometers that were capable of not only testing but handling the Hellcat engine's prodigious torque. Over two million hours were devoted to ensuring the Hellcat's durability in extreme weather and everything a customer could throw at it. Repeated high speed runs were made as well as a stressful 24 hour running period, but the engine never broke a sweat. Hard to believe this is a series production engine.

The Challenger's body was suitably toughened up to handle the engine's power. A three stage adaptive suspension system allows the driver to tailor the drive experience and is accessed through the SRT Performance Pages app on the UConnect infotainment screen. Chrysler's 8HP90 eight speed auto (built under license from ZF) was also upgraded with larger and stronger internals. The six speed manual from the Viper is also available and also upgraded with its own oil cooler to handle the Hellcat's ferocity. Armed with P275/40ZR20 Pirelli P Zero Nero tires, the 20" forged wheels will struggle to put down all 650lb-ft of torque (the rears that is) but their stickiness will work with the firmer suspension to tame the Challenger's still-porky 4400 lbs when the roads get twisty. Inside, the SRT Hellcat benefits from all the interior upgrades apparent in the regular 2015 Challengers. The lucky owner will be presented with two keys. A black key, serving as the valet's key, limits the engine to just (!) 500 hp and 4000 rpm,  locks away SRT Performance Pages while setting the suspension to Street mode and deletes first gear (if your teen wants to drive, THIS is the key to give 'em). The red key on the other hand, opens up all the above.

If 707 hp has you already salivating, the price will have you rushing to your nearest Dodge dealership. The SRT Hellcat with the standard six speed manual will have a base price of $60,990 which includes $995 for destination and a $2100 gas guzzler tax. Opt for the eight speed automatic and the gas guzzler tax drops to $1700 but tacks on $1995 for two pedal set up. Not only is the SRT Hellcat America's most powerful mas produced car, but it's the most affordable car with a horspower rating above 700. The only other cars to..err...challenge the SRT Hellcat's numbers are in the realm of super-hyper exotica. Cars like the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (731 hp) or LaFerrari (950 hp) or McLaren's P1 (903 hp). The Lamborghini Aventador? A paltry 691 hp. Hell, even Chevy's upcoming Corvette ZO6 can only muster a preliminary 650 hp. Let's face it folks, the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is now the defacto bargain of the year as far as dollar-per-horse is concerned. It will be pretty interesting to see how Ford and Chevy will respond to Dodge's latest volley in these muscle car wars.

For now though, make my Hellcat black please.

Edit: We've recently learned that Viper boys need not fear the wrath of the Hellcat as SRT engineers have heard their cries of anguish and will seek to restore the Viper's place atop the SRT hierarchy by possibly supercharging the 8.4L V10. No, the Hellcat Hemi won't fit as the Viper's hood is much too low. Also, those who'd like the practicality of four doors need not worry as the also-updated-for-2015 Charger will also inherit the Hellcat under its hood. Yay!

Images courtesy of SRT.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

First Impressions - 2013 BMW M5

The following article is an earlier post done for another website that is no longer in business. I've moved it here in an effort to consolidate all of my posts. Consider it ride back in to time. Enjoy!

2013 BMW M5

It's been 40 years since BMW's secret skunkworks M Division has been pumping out uber powerful, yet subtly styled cars for the discerning executive driver. The kind of driver that wants super car performance without drawing attention to himself. Since it debuted, the M5 has been the de-facto bogey by which all other pretenders to the crown of super sports sedans are judged. Through each generation, the M5 offered opulent levels of luxury with seating for five, while packing enough horsepower and handling to make even the stalwart Ferrari jock think twice before a challenge.The last generation E60 M5 packed a Formula One inspired, high revving 5.0 liter V10 which powered the rear wheels with 507hp at a screaming 8200 rpm redline. Naturally aspirated, high revving engines have been a BMW M hallmark ever since the outfit's inception. Equipped with a fast shifting 7 speed sequential gearbox, the E60 could sprint from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds while belting out the closest thing to Formula One race car's engine wail. Despite this performance, the E60 was often derided as being too raw (one of my personal favorite qualities), too complicated (3 settings for the engine, 11 settings for the transmission plus countless others for varying systems) and the dimwittedness of the transmission when not going balls out. Basically, the M5 worked extremely well on the track but felt misplaced at saner speeds and calmer settings.

2005-2010 E60 M5

Enter the new F10 model, which BMW probably wouldn't admit as much, but addresses most of the E60's minor (okay, major) shortcomings. Gone is the high revving-but-quite-thirsty V10 and herky-jerky SMG single clutch transmission, replaced by a new "M TwinPower Turbo" twin turbocharged, directed-injected, 4.4 liter V8 engine and an equally new seven speed dual clutch transmission to dole out the twin-turbocharged engine's impressive 560hp and 500 lb-ft of torque (more on this impressive yet major departure of an engine later). The basic 5 Series chassis has been substantially revised with an aluminum-intensive suspension (the rear components mounted in a rigid cradle to alleviate the flex of rubber bushings), an electronic version of the M differential which can split torque between the rear wheels for maximum grip, a tuned hydraulic steering rack (because the standard electronic unit lacked feel) and six piston brake calipers per wheel.

2013 BMW M5

One of the more peculiar traits of the new F10 M5 is the engine's lack of aural character, at least compared with its raucous predecessor. The E60's V10 had such character that it made the hair on your skin stand up every time the driver touched the gas pedal. The new forced induction V8 on the other has hand is almost too refined. M engineers allegedly tried everything to alleviate this muffling effect of turbocharging (and the isolating effect of the 5's platform) by employing a number of options such as routing the intake housings closer to the firewall and cabin, installing microphones next to the intake and piping the sound directly into the cabin, none of which worked to their favor. They finally decided to use recorded sounds of the engine revving through its range and playing the sound back through the sound system in tune with the driver's placement of the throttle. Artificial yes, but it could be worse.

2013 BMW M5 Interior

One thing this new M5 improves on is in the electronics area. The E60 driver was simply overwhelmed with settings for everything controlling the car and no simple way to access or change them. This was the effect of the oft-derided iDrive system. The new F10 seeks to change this with simpler settings and easier access to them with either buttons or a simplified version of iDrive. Where the previous SMG transmission had ELEVEN (how quickly would you like your head snapped off?) settings, the V10 having THREE (how much power do you want?) settings along with a myriad others (some as trivial as allowing timer settings for the interior/exterior lights...really?), the F10 pares all of this customization down to the driving details in four simple modes: Economy, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. In Economy and Comfort mode, the transmission and suspension are tuned to make the M5 as docile as a regular 528i, the transmission slurring between gears (shooting for the highest in Economy) and the suspension absorbing bumps and giving a very compliant ride. Switch to Sport and the engine note becomes noticeably angrier, the transmission swaps gears more aggressively, steering gains more load and the suspension firms up. Sport+ stiffens up the springs even more, adds even more heft to the steering and turns the M5 into an apex eating, turn gobbling, straights chomping monster. These settings are programmable through two M buttons on the steering wheel, allowing the driver to customize and store preferences (easier done here than in the E60). North America can take comfort in the fact that unlike the previous M5 which offered a manual transmission late in its life cycle, one will be offered in the new F10 from the start (without the penalty of not being able to switch off traction and stability control completely...and the heavens rejoiced!)

2013 BMW M5

Now, about that engine. Why turbos? Why forced induction? Why abandon a central theme important to M heritage by throwing away natural aspiration in favor of turbocharging? If you're an M enthusiast you can recall some time in BMW's history when uttering the term "forced induction" in a BMW building was akin to showing the Nazi sign. At Buckingham Palace. While dining with the Queen. It was unthinkable. Well, you'll have to get over it and cut BMW some slack. We now live in an era where fuel isn't as cheap as it once was and the reduction of vehicle emissions is now a central part of every automaker's R&D. The Germans are not immune to this and in order to comply with ever tightening emissions regulations, BMW has had to forego this central tradition (if you need any more proof, the next M3 will also use some form of turbocharging while downsizing from its current V8 back to a six cylinder). However, it's not all gloom and doom. With the new turbo V8 comes a new emphasis on economy. The S63B44Tu is an evolution of the S63 engine (itself a M-ified version of the regular N63 4.4 liter in 550i/750i sedans) used in the X5 M/X6 M high performance SUVs. As such, it boasts 30% better fuel economy ratings than the old 5.0 liter V10 of the E60. Sure the engine redlines at a tamer 7200 rpm, but for that you get 53 more horse over the old V10. Much more impressive is the jump in torque from 383lb-ft to an even 500lb-ft at a more accessible 1500rpm and the torque curve is as flat as the Great Plains. Drivers of the old M5 take notice: revving is not required but if you do, hang on.

Despite the F10 M5's gain in weight (thanks to the 5 Series architecture being based on the larger 7 Series) BMW has worked hard to minimize this penalty by using as much lightweight materials as possible throughout the car. Aluminum comprises the hood, fenders and doors as well as ultra high-strength steel through much of the chassis. Still the M5 comes it at a porky 4250lbs, some 200lbs heavier than the outgoing E60. Continuing the M tradition for Q ship styling, the M5 sports subtle exterior tweaks over the regular 5 Series that only the M faithful will identify at a distance. Larger air intakes at the front, larger fender flares framing 19 (or optional 20) inch wheels, a lowered suspension, the signature quad pipe exhaust and a subtle trunklid spoiler along with a sprinkling of M badges are among the calling cards for this cruise missile on wheels. Compared to the Bangle-esque styling of the E60 with its dramatic, flame surfaced exterior, the F10 model is quietly exotic. In many ways, it recalls the executive yet wolf-in-sheep's-clothes styling of the cult-status E39 model.

The 2013 BMW M5 should be on sale as of this writing at an MSRP of $90,795 (including $895 destination/handling). Go crazy with options like the Driver's Assistance package which includes systems such as blind spot warning, lane departure warning, side and top view cameras; the Executive package which further enhances luxury with heated rear seats and steering wheels, power trunklid, soft close doors plus a DVD entertainment system with screens in the front headrests (in case the kids get bored with your track driving)  and you're looking at a price tag of well over $110,000. Eye watering for sure but look on the bright side, that Porsche driver in the next lane will never know what hit him.

Images courtesy of BMW