Thursday, January 18, 2018

Tech in the Spec: 2018 Acura TLX A-Spec review

In the “Near Premium” market segment, the players are all the names we’ve heard of, see every day, and are essentially the well-equipped yet entry level models of the luxury brands. Acura’s TLX offers a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder, but this A-Spec example is a 3.5 liter naturally aspirated V-6 producing 290hp and this very well equipped Tech Package examples has an MSRP of $45,750.  The A-Spec trim level brings some exterior styling cues such as the distinctive grill, 19” wheels and suggestive 4” exhaust tips. Inside, the A-Spec-only red light accent stripes are a very neat detail that adds to the ambiance, especially at night. 

Producing an extremely smooth 290 horsepower, downshifting several gears below 9th produced no discernible increase in vibration despite a big leap in engine rpm. What it lacks in sheer grunt it makes up for with an always welcome yet refined V-8 sound track despite lacking two cylinders. The throttle dependent rumble can help sell this car to the driver, yet isn’t an attention getting (or craving) head turner. A long travel pedal is needed to illicit downshifts, it makes for a great daily driver before even activating the numerous technology features. 

While on the subject of the powertrain, one aspect must be brought up. The Super Handling All Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) absolutely spoils the driver in the rain, at green lights and even when turning. On wet roads the launch from a stop enabled by the SH-AWD will widen your eyes. Ever try flooring a car while turning and not crashing or spinning out? This thing lets you do it, one handed, easily. Thanks to the torque vectoring rear differential, overdriven by 2.7%, it absolutely spoils the driver with its capabilities and easily builds confidence. It’s quite a gem.   

Four driving modes, Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus control the engine and transmission, throttle input, and more. The ride is definitely on the side of luxury, more so than expected even in the A-Spec suspension trim.  Handling is extremely predictable and the tires will squeal at a limit high enough to get in trouble and gap 99% of people behind you on the on-ramp. 

Even though it is a sluggish downshift response to the right foot, the 9 speed automatic is responsive with the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. With the all-wheel drive, Acura could take advantage of the many ratios and give it much more aggressive gearing for quicker acceleration so it’s more evenly matched with some of its 6 cylinder, turbocharged competitors. But on the upper end, an 85mph cruise speed only turns a spectacularly low 1850rpm. In perspective, a diesel BMW 335d would turn 2200rpm. Great for highway fuel economy, rated at 29mpg but acceleration is non-existent if you are in the manual gear selection mode. Otherwise it simply downshifts. Could you imagine manually shifting 9 speeds in a commuter? You’d be skipping gears constantly, not reaching peak efficiency and acceleration not at the vehicle’s potential.
Multiple technical features can help a driver become either better, safer, lazier, or depending upon the mood, alternate at will. The suite of driver aids and warning systems is called AcuraWatch. Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) will activate the brakes in case of an imminent collision and the Forward Collision Warning (FCW) flashes “BRAKE” in orange letters between the gauges when the approach distance and speed exceeds the programmed threshold. 

 The Low Speed Follow (LSF), with Active Cruise Control (ACC) is a nice convenience can be quite useful in bumper to bumper traffic. The only issue is despite setting the closest distance, it leaves a large enough gap for another driver to easily move in.  It doesn’t let up on the throttle due to brake lights, but rather distance and the brake application is sudden, so you start to wonder if you’re irritating the driver behind you or if the driver in front is smooth on the throttle.  

Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS) reads the road surface and makes subtle adjustments in the steering wheel to keep the vehicle centered, a driving aid that reacts before the driver at times. Letting go of the wheel in a curve is not a good idea. And while activated, if it senses hands off the wheel for too long, it will flash a warning. What was liked the most is the Lane Departure Warning (LDW) which will flash when a car is too close for a lane change. Very helpful at highway speeds in the dark when moving around slower traffic.

The climate control system also links the seat ventilation and heating which is a great touch and the functions can be adjusted on the display screen. The seats are so comfortable, and so easy to get in and out, the Alcantara objection of being too grippy is totally dismissed in this case. The wife loved the spaciousness and how quiet it was. 

There are a few quirks like the tall, wide sill, especially with the sportier lower body cladding. The rear view camera has a very wide angle but is a bit granular in image quality, especially when it rains. Speaking of rain, careful opening he trunk so you don’t spill water on the contents. 

The TLX A-Spec is a solid luxury and technology contender in the market segment, an excellent daily driver, multi-state tourer, has enough grunt to get past slower traffic and makes pleasing sounds while doing it with refinement and tasteful, sporty styling touches. Add another fifty to one hundred horsepower and this would be a standout. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Kia Forte5 SX review

What if I told you a very European looking 5 door hatchback with sporty styling, dual exhaust outlets, a rear diffuser, manual transmission and lots of features didn’t come from a U.S. or Germany based manufacturer?  Would your next guess be a 2017 Kia Forte5 SX that is a very well equipped hatch with an MSRP of $27,000.

First impression is it looked very much like many of the refined hatchbacks seen in Italy in September during a two week vacation. The rich gray color compliments the black grill treatment and wheels and. A thin red horizontal line across the front clip makes a sporty yet soft statement and ties in the red stitching in the interior. The sloped rear window which is a staple with hatchbacks and keeps the station wagon look from creeping into your head.

Besides making a four door hatchback as sharply styled as possible and still have mass appeal, the interior has very well designed seats with red trim tying in the front styling cue. Surprisingly the seats are both ventilated and heated and were perfect during a roughly 300 mile round trip one day. In addition, dual zone climate control, navigation, satellite radio, moonroof, power entry and exit seat, and the Kia UVO infotainment and telematics service which also includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. 

The center dash display shows the tach and speedometer along with a multi-window display of the trip odometer, navigation, entertainment, and settings. Counting four cupholders, plus forward console storage is quite good but then it was pointed out the center armrest compartment will hold more water bottles because it’s so deep. Not bad! Granted the interior can always be spruced up with materials and styling elements but from a refinement, layout and functionality standpoint it is excellent. 

Peeking around, the pedals and foot rest are all metal with rubber pads and look serious and full of intent. The hatch space offers 60/40 split fold down rear seats, the “60” properly on the passenger side and they lay flat, cargo tie-down loops, a board that hides the child seat anchors, flaps on either side for flat storage and two layers of segmented storage underneath. 

The 201 horsepower engines provided plenty of power around town and on the highway. Not even realizing it’s turbocharged due to virtually no lag, once rolling in first gear, going wide open throttle will squeal the tires. It does have the common 4 cylinder audible hum, but a slightly tuned exhaust note would be welcome.

The EPA highway rating is a disappointing 29mpg, and judging how early upshifts are suggested on the driver’s display along with “taching out” at 3600 rpm while cruising at 85mph, maybe taller 5th and 6th gears could be utilized for better highway mileage. Hopefully Kia can address this and get the EPA rating into the 30s unless I’m missing something from the equation. 

Everyday driving is enjoyable, the ride is comfortable but the steering provides no feedback. Perhaps most would consider this luxurious refinement, but the enthusiast wants to know what’s going on with the front tires. Shifter throws are short and so is the clutch travel with light effort. This car contributes to the “save the manuals” mantra, its that easy. The flat bottom steering wheel, called, “Very Formula One-ish” in one of our “FactsandFigure” videos, is actually pretty nice because it acts like a lever when turned and lets you know it’s position by feel. Never had that kind of time with one before to appreciate it. 

Pushing the limits on an onramp reveal the very toss able feel of a lighter car and the scrubbing sound of the tires approaching their limits at a cornering speed higher than anyone witnesses in traffic, and the 225 width tires on 18” wheels do a good job of holding the road. I’d be curious to see instrumented test numbers. 

For only $27,000 MSRP, one starts making comparisons. A top-of-the-line Infiniti Q50 that is double the price doesn’t offer power folding mirrors or cooled seats. Kia does pack a lot of value into the car. From the road trip, hauling charity drop-offs and overall utility, this is a great car. Perfect for a comfortable commute, a first time buyer, a practical family car and more. 

Check out the all the pictures on the San Jose Cars Examiner Facebook page. Special thanks to The Drive Shop for providing the vehicle.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Porsche Macan GTS review

He’s been in and out of sports cars for nearly a half century. Now the car trips are usually shorter duration, invariably hauling something, the vehicle sitting in parking public parking lots for minutes or hours. A nice sport car gets attention, sometimes too much, having being keyed by some entitled tool full of wealth bias. And it scrapes the front on so many driveways. This 2017 Porsche Macan GTS is easy to get in and out of, it blends in, kind of, in the current landscape of utility vehicles. It hauls loads and butt. It offers easy cargo access and for those hauling infants and toddlers, easy access to car seats. Yet it’s also the old man’s sports car. Big 21” wheels and tires with Porsche tuned suspension and handling will embarrass or hang with numerous performance cars existing today in any handling or braking metric. Could this be the best all-around vehicle on the road? The crossover, essentially a raised station wagon, is a do-it-all vehicle.

The Macan GTS is powered by a twin turbo V-6 that produces 360 horsepower and 369 lbs feet of torque channeled through the Porsche dual clutch transmission (PDK).  Coupled with torque vectoring all-wheel drive, Car and Driver tested it to a 13.0 second quarter mile at 105mph. Despite the 4492lb weight, it posted a spectacular breaking distance of 157 feet from 70mph. Granted the weight has an effect on the mileage rating of 17mpg city and 23mpg highway. The packaging is impressive, allowing for a 19.8 gallon fuel tank for less fill-ups, very convenient. 

The acceleration has a nice mechanical, kind of a spinning sound, very refined with snappy upshifts. Typical of Porsche, the handling is confidence inspiring and feels like a taller sports car but without the expected slop of a high ground clearance SUV/CUV.  The ride is very comfortable with the air suspension dampers and not hampered by the 21” wheels with 265/45 tires in the front and 295/35 tires in the rear along with Porsche Active Suspension Management which lowers the ride height 10mm versus the standard Macan.

There are nice touches typical of Porsche, even with a lot of buttons surrounding the shifter. This example has the sport chrono package, heated front and rear seats, panoramic sunroof and keyless entry and drive. Having had a series of Porsches, the most recent a 2015 Cayman GTS previously reviewed, one of the surprises is the perfect Bluetooth acoustics and voice command system. Equating it to an acoustic enclosure, the noise cancellation and transmission is said to be spectacular.
The navigation screen also has a cool touch to zoom in or out feature but it does leave fingerprints. And navigation summary provided on the 3rd gauge directly in front of the driver is very convenient. Also the home screen in the main display is configurable with the desired information, such as music, time/date, recent calls, navigation, etc. There is a rear parking camera and forward proximity sensors to aid in parking. The infotainment system is very well thought out but including  Apple Car Play would be the next step feature wise. 

The cargo capacity is good with the rear seats up, but not great. Two people headed to the golf course means taking a larger SUV or folding down the three-sectional rear seats. However looking underneath the cover reveals a temporary spare. However the orange colored wheel is probably to entice you to get it replaced or fixed immediately.

The exterior is well styled, the red calipers a nice touch behind the turbo-style wheels. A close look at the front grill reveals the louvered opening that open and closes for the cooling efficiency of the radiator. Further inspection along the nicely aggressive front clip shows other cooling radiators. Porsche had headlight styling down to a science and interestingly the hood is somewhat of a clamshell with openings for the headlights and integrated vents that direct intake are to the air boxes, creating a seal with the hood. Very clever and the entire set-up actual makes it one of the few SUV/CUVs that show well. Yes, I mean at a car show. 

It’s not perfect, but it’s close for overall utility, sport and practicality. The fuel efficiency isn’t great, the rating is 17 mpg city and 23 highway and the effortless acceleration will trend that downard.  Doing build on the Porsche configurator, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel didn’t seem to be available, but the owner has no issues with it, not needing to use it for ingress and egress.

If your use cycle is frequent loading and unloading or even children in car seats, but want something compact versus overly large for around-town use and frequent parking lot visits, a crossover utility vehicle is a great choice. But when the cargo is unloaded, or dropped off at daycare, what’s wrong with having a decent handling driver with 13 or even 12 second quarter mile capability? It’s about having the best of both worlds. Add the capability, engineering and performance of a Porsche, it’s tough to beat a Macan GTS, although there are a couple of higher horsepower models of 400hp and 440hp each...

38 photos here:

Friday, September 29, 2017

Adventurous driving on the roads of Italy

When you think of driving in Italy, what comes to mind? Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s in the left lane, scooters and Ducatis in the right lane and little hatchbacks in the middle lanes? The reality is a bunch of hatchbacks zipping around and scooters zig zagging around the cars. Nevermind the bullet trains which are a superb method of covering multi-hundred mile distances at 185mph.
Recently I had the great fortune of taking a two week vacation in Italy with my wife, also known as Pretty Navigator, aka "Figure" of "Facts and Figure". I was able to observe and participate in a style rarely seen in the states among the general driving public and even considered controversial or road rage worthy. I guess some of us simply are European or Italian style drivers.
A smaller rental car is recommended simply due to the very tight streets and parking in the cities. All the cars are left hand drive and small diesel hatchbacks are numerous with models from Fiat, Peugeot, Skoda, Smart, Citroen, Alfa Romeo and more familiar brands like Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen. There are hardly any pickup trucks but you do see small and midsize SUVs and small vans. Because of the recommended smaller vehicle size, I recommend medium sized and smaller luggage so that it can all be concealed in the back hatch when the car is parked and hidden away from prying eyes.
Opt for the full insurance coverage. After five years of vehicle ownership with either backup sensors or cameras, not having them in an unfamiliar vehicle, in a foreign land with very confined spaces can be nerve-wracking at best and expensive at worst. The way oncoming traffic is so close in the narrow streets, one wonders why more mirrors aren't missing and body panels aren't scraped up. Also get GPS unless you’re going to use your cell phone. More on that later. 
Our vehicle was a Fiat 500L diesel, 5 speed manual which was adequate for around town and not so much on the Autostrada. However power isn't exactly common among compact diesel hatchbacks. For instance, second gear was too tall to climb the steep hills at low speed with any kind of load in the vehicle. Even after downshifting, you sit and patiently wait for speed to increase. The contrast to driving a large, powerful car in our open spaces is very stark. Such as when merging, it’s a series of full throttle applications in first through third gears.
The cities have a very large population of scooters zipping around, cutting lanes, passing over the double lines and on the right side even on two lanes road. They ride with the abandon of a motorcycle club pack run but without the common destination and not quite as loud, and no music. No one gets mad, and I exclaimed, "Whoa!" frequently as passes, cutting lanes and squeezing in was witnessed regularly, including around city busses.
Watch for scooters everywhere, you’ll get passed on the left at any time. You don’t hear loud music, or revving motors, but horns is another matter. Renting a Vespa scooter in Sorrento was a blast. Funny story; even after years of owning an 800lb Harley, I had to learn the technique of the center stand, making sure I was pressing down on the stand so I didn’t keep trying to muscle up the scooter just pulling on the handlebars. It was YouTube worthy, I’m sure.
The Autostrada is where it really gets interesting. Bring Euros in $2 and less denominations the tollbooths unless you get the Telepass device. If you don’t have the pass, you collect a paper ticket at the automated dispenser and when exiting the Autostrada, a manned booth or automated payment collector will accept your money. Credit cards don't appear to be an option but it does have a coin counter. And the automated systems even say, “Arrivederci!” We don't get jack in the US. The highest speed limit observed was 110kph, or roughly 68mph. Despite signs of electronic speed monitoring and spotting camera boxes, many travel much faster than indicated. Here's where it gets fun and proper though: Slower traffic, move your ass over, period. There were countless examples of much faster traffic tailgating a slower vehicle in the left lane only to see the road boulder immediately move over. And the same courtesy is extended to you. The big rigs all keep right, have three rear axles and seem shorter and lower than their US counterparts with bodywork closing the gap around the wheels.
There is a significant disparity in speeds among various vehicles. A flashing signal along the onramp for merging vehicles is a welcome reminder. Driving through smaller towns and transition roads means lots of roundabouts. There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to the layout, but GPS is key. With GPS, if you don't opt for the rental company unit, be sure to pay for the data package of your cell phone service provider. Bring a USB cable (or cigarette charger) to keep the phone charged due to the constant GPS data flow. When navigating make sure you're signed into your chosen navigation tool account so your search history and parked car locators are both active. Handy when figuring out which train station you're parked at or wandering the city. Finally, tunnels can cause signal delays so make sure you always know the next turn. Missing one can mean some convoluted redirection and multiple roundabouts.
Diesel near the airport was roughly $6.75 gallon but it's advertised in liters. Also there are two grades of diesel, the base is sufficient for rentals. The Autostrada is clean, well maintained and clearly marked with directions. There are numerous SOS emergency call centers and marked places to pull over. The countryside is particularly scenic, reminiscent of Highways 17, 280 going up the peninsula and the Napa/Sonoma area especially. Interestingly in some stretches there are tall Plexiglas fences to help block wind gusts while still preserving the scenic views. The lanes seem a little narrower and staying between the dotted lines seems to be optional sometimes.
Tunnels are numerous and extremely well maintained and lit. The longer ones have exhaust fans as well. Car spotting isn't remarkable, being spoiled in San Jose. A Ferrari F430 was seen in Rome, a Ferrari California in Sorrento, and right-hand drive 488 GTB Spider and 458 Spider also but those two were in the country from the UK for the Ferrari 70th anniversary celebration. Porsches are a bit more numerous. Hardly anyone plays their music too loud and thankfully bumper stickers haven't taken off in popularity.

You’re better off if you know how to drive a manual since they are very common there. Regarding the GPS, either it’s my inability to comprehend Italian, but the streets have long Italian names and the verbal GPS announcements are quite length and for me, never seem to match the name of the street and yet took us where we needed to be. But the street signs will have multiple destinations stacked in a column, which is more confusing. And one last thing, make sure you have the proper address and region in case the city or town has a similar name. How Americans got around Italy when driving before GPS must have made for some interesting “discussions”, frequently wrinkled maps and many repeat trips around the roundabouts. Arrivederci! 

Some random car pics from various places in Italy:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Quail A Motorsports Gathering 2017

The 15th annual The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering was held on Friday, August 18th this year, of course held at The Quail Lodge and Golf Club in Carmel, California. Always spectacular, there were some exceptional displays that contributed to another memorable experience for the limit of 5,000 attendees.

First, the Best of the Best Award for 2016 was earned by a stunning 1954 Maserati A6GCS/53 Berlinetta by Pinin Farinia.  It won Best in Show at last year’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este and beat seven other contestants after being selected from a panel of twenty-four notable members of the automotive world including leaders of automotive companies, design, collections, famous race car drivers, etc.

The displays were wonderful, Koenigsegg had an unprecedented ten vehicles on display which made for some fantastic photo opportunities and a chance to finally compare the different models side by side. Floyd Mayweather’s was one of them. AMG had an actual engine builder assembling their twin turbo V-8 for all to watch. On the other side of the wall was the powertrain and suspension of the AMG Project One.

Pagani again had their impressive display and this time the Huayra BC, Huayra Roadster and the Pagani Zonda HP Barchetta. Pulling myself away from the Italian craftsmen to the Porsche display where the new 700 horsepower 911 GT2 RS was featured. Of course the 911 GT3 and 911 Turbo S Exclusive Series. Conspicuously absent was the Bugatti Chiron and the Ferrari 812 Superfast although both can be expected next year. And yes, there were Veyrons and F12tdfs and a Porsche 959. The infamous Rimac was also there, and speaking to the first owner in the US was an interesting conversation about Electric Vehicles.

There were so many notable displays such as Singer, BMW, Bentley, Acura and their introduction of the Acura ARX-05 DPi race car, Lamborghinis with a Huracan Performante, Rolls Royce and more. I really enjoyed studying the McLaren 720S up close. The cuisine was exquisite as always with menus from Beverly Hills, Carmel Valley, China, Italy and France. Additionally, California Caviar, Louis Roederer Champagne, Hog Island Oysters, Dolce Spazio Gelato are welcome returns. 

It’s important to remember that besides the views, the people watching, the food and drink, the Bonhams auction entry and celebrity/VIP sightings and interviews, the charities supported deserve recognition.  The Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, Naval Postgraduate School Foundation, the California Highway Patrol 11-99 Foundation receive contributions as does the Junior Reserve Training Corps.

The only critique I could make is that too many of the 250 or so cars were parked too close together, making photo opportunities difficult. Traffic is always an issue so the total number of tickets has probably reached the max. Perhaps a bus system should be incorporated like at Pebble Beach.
However I recommend arriving before the 10am start and check out the guest drive cars which this year were the Acura NSX and Lamborghini Huracan. Also check out the Porsche building which has their latest models on display, branded goods for sale, etc. Walking the parking lots, which is a show in itself, is also an option and a judging slip was even offered!

One very clever difference this year was keeping the event open with DJs on either end of the show and the drinks flowing at the bars. Talk about THE place to be before the private parties start! It was announced it was done to alleviate traffic which is very true. It also would keep people from leaving for the “other” show that afternoon and evening in downtown Monterey. I broke the cardinal rule of not to leave one good party to check out another event taking place. It wasn’t comparable, I won’t do that again. So arrive early, have a beverage, walk a lot so you develop an appetite for at least two meals and plan on making a great day out of it. I already can’t wait to go again and see what surprises will be there next year.

Be sure to check out over one hundred photos from the 2017 Quail here:

Sunday, July 30, 2017

McLaren 675 LT Spider review - manic limits

Last year when the Powerball lottery hit one billion dollars, I sat down that night and spec’d out a dream car online. It just happened to be a McLaren 675LT Spider in the same blue color as the one I was able to review. There’s something about a Spider, in this case a hardtop convertible that has a strong appeal even when you have to protect yourself from the sun. This one is truly two cars in one, and as I discovered, more than just because of looks or catching a breeze.

This 675LT Spider is the owner’s fourth McLaren. He had good experiences with the 12C’s he owned and his P1 that I reviewed is somewhat famous, especially among Motor Trend readers. Being a fan of carbon tub (passenger compartment) convertibles, partly because the minor weight penalty for the roof coming off, the 675 LT is still a track oriented machine, said more so than their Ferrari 458 Speciale. Comparing to the 12C, which the 675 LT is an evolution of, the engine, engine tuning, transmission, and braking are all noticeably different and improved.

Also inevitable is a comparison to the wild McLaren P1. Leagues quicker with 903hp with better throttle response due to the hybrid system, the lighter 675 LT has a quicker turn-in and more grip. Of course the question of weight comes up. The owner’s experience is McLaren’s stated weights are spot-on, his P1 weighing 3300lbs, giving him no reason to doubt the 3,016 lbs stated by McLaren for the 675 LT Spider. This is a very light car by modern standards, especially combined with the output of the 3.8 liter twin turbo V-8 of 666hp. To put that into performance numbers, what has been reported in the quarter mile is low-mid 10s in the mid-upper 130mph range. Put it another way, if the NHRA observed it exceeding 135mph, McLaren could request a letter from the NHRA that that the observed vehicle was banned unless a safety cage was installed….

Acceleration is manic with a rush towards redline that makes your stomach go light and nearly instantly exceeds the speed limit with a mechanical roar properly placed behind you. A hard acceleration upshift cracks like a gunshot. The lateral grip available approaches the “No way!” internal meter in incredulity, the fully bolstered seat keeping occupants in place. The hydraulically controlled suspension has hardly any body roll and braking is just ridiculous, requiring checking for traffic behind you before hammering the pedal for a non-nose dive, torso-leaves-the-seat extreme deceleration.

The suspension, in all McLarens, widely considered superbly riding with the hydraulic system replacing the anti-roll bars.  In the 3rd mode, called track, is incredibly stiff. We hit some visible bumps and they were definitely felt, but not heard at all. No crash, creak, thunk, nothing. It was weird and amazing not hearing the vehicle reaction, only feeling it. 

Entering the car, a button under the edge of the door engages the scissor lift opening very smoothly. It’s not a wide opening so enter butt first, then swing in the legs with knees bent.  Pulling down the door requires very even effort from the top to bottom, an obvious attention to detail and superior design. The seat is very snug yet instead of feeling pinched, you settle and seemingly mold to it. It’s another example of one that I never adjusted once sitting in it, whether in height, back angle, bottom angle, etc.

 In one of the videos during the top opening/closing process, the hardtop can observed storing neatly into a carpet lined box behind the passenger compartment in front of the engine bay. Driving with the top down at highway speeds was extremely pleasant, wearing a brimmed hat wasn’t an issue. The rear window also goes down, and the owner says this allows for more engine noise in the cabin when the top is up, which can be a treat.

It’s a different vehicle with the top up. The tire and road noise, thwacks from the pavement and gravel hitting the wheel wells are all heard. With the top down none of that is heard as if it all goes away. The hardtop may be the ultimate track weapon and seeing one with a roof scoop was way cool, but the Spider has got to be so much better off the track and more variety in experience provided.
Front trunk space is quite impressive, more than enough for a weekend. The owner said he likes the sound system and that it’s quite good. Another improvement reported versus past models is the infotainment system works much better than past units. 

Negatives that I observed are few and far between. Getting in and out is rather difficult. And the engine cover/hood isn’t easily removed and doesn’t have an option to simply press or pull a release and lift it open. Those were my observations but the first wouldn’t stop me and the second is just to show it off. Despite all his track time, the lack of a limited slip differential has never been a problem. It’s not driven in inclement weather, uneven surface transitions are taken slowly and with the front axle lift system activated so slippage there isn’t noticed. Maybe exiting turn 11 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca might exploit the open differential but a mid-engine weight distribution and wide, extremely sticky tires also make up for an open differential  When I asked the owner what negatives there were, he had an uncharacteristically long pause, which was the answer right there. This car is spectacular.

McLaren has brought to market a blazingly quick, extremely light super sports machine that is a borderline hypercar yet lighter and more powerful than both the Ford GT and Ferrari 488 GTB. With an MSRP of $372,600, versus the supposedly quicker lapping Ford GT, it is lighter, makes more power, probably was easier to obtain, and is a convertible that isn’t too cramped for two occupants. The styling is stunning with the top down and surprisingly the owner doesn’t have any photos with the top up, nor did I take any.  Yet with the top down, it is a very livable hyper-exotic car with looks and performance to match. Now the even more powerful McLaren 720S has hit the market, presenting still another choice. And I still play the lottery. 

The complete picture album is on my San Jose Cars Examiner Facebook page:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Dodge Demon is not banned and other facts

It’s time to straighten out the misconceptions, ignorance and fake news about the Dodge Demon. Dodge conducted an extensive marketing campaign to introduce the Dodge Challenger based Demon. There was much speculation but the bottom line is it is the quickest production car ever made, only potentially beaten by the all-wheel drive Bugatti Chiron. Further furor struck when Dodge announced the NHRA letter this Demon was banned from their tracks because it was too quick and too fast without a roll cage. Notice the letter stated “this vehicle”.  There is no blanket ban on the Dodge Demon at NHRA member tracks.

There are no letters about the Veyron, La Ferrari, Porsche 918 and McLaren P1? That’s because despite their potential to exceed the NHRA 2008 model year production car limit of a 135mph trap speed or 10.0 second ET, those numbers have to be exceeded and witnessed at an NHRA member track first before the singular, observed vehicle is banned. And not a blanket ban. Not every driver of those cars will exceed those limits and who’s to say they can’t back off in order to stay eligible? Happens all the time with other built cars.

Let’s look at the demonic numbers. The pump gas, emissions legal horsepower rating is 808hp and 717 lbs ft torque. With the optional 100 octane race gas tune Engine Control Unit (ECU), those levels go up to 838hp and 770 lbs ft torque. The race gas tune does not void the powertrain warranty of 5 years or 60,000 miles either. This optional ECU equipped Demon ran a 9.65 ET at 140mph quarter mile with a 2.3 second 0-60mph time, all NHRA certified. It also has a production car record wheelie distance of 2.92 feet per Guinness World Records. However Motor Trend reported the new Porsche 911 Turbo S also lifts its front wheels.

The stock tires are Nitto drag radials (DRs), 315/40/18s, front and rear. Of course they are not recommended for temperatures below 15 degrees but that is the case with virtually every summer tire designed for maximum fair weather grip as opposed rain, snow, etc. While many scoff at the choice of DRs, there are plenty of users on the internet that report using them during track days on road circuits with the appropriately raised air pressure. Surprise! Dodge reports a 60-0 braking distance of a world class 97 feet as well.

This is not just a supercharger pulley swapped Hellcat. It has a larger supercharger, upgraded connecting rods, pistons, and valvetrain as part of 25 upgraded engine components. It also has a higher stall torque converter, more aggressive final drive ratio and twin dual-stage fuel pumps. The only transmission, an 8 speed automatic, has been strengthened along with an upgraded drive shaft, rear axle and larger half shafts. There is also equipment specific to drag racing such as a Line Lock which allows the rear tires to spin with the front brakes engaged in order to warm them up for more traction off the line. The Mustang GT was the first production car with this feature.

There are some production car firsts. One is a transbrake that engages first gear and second gear simultaneously to allow the engine to build supercharger boost for more power during the launch. Aftermarket transbrakes engage first and reverse, but in case of a failure of first gear, the Demon won't suddenly go backwards. A clever step in avoiding potential liability. An "After cooler" uses air conditioning coolant in a chiller system to drop the intake air temperature up to 45 degrees to make sure the engine produces optimum power, more consistently, and offset the power robbing effect of hot weather. It also helps cool the engine after a run as well. There is a torque reserve system that builds supercharger boost in preparation for a hard launch with the transbrake.

The front shocks are designed to allow for front end lift under acceleration for better weight transfer to the rear while the rear shocks have firm compression and damping for optimized rear traction. The traction control is also optimized for acceleration and stability control kicks in if the vehicle is no longer traveling straight, further shutting down the jokes about being wrecked immediately leaving Cars and Coffee events.

There are equipment packages available with the Demon which has an MSRP of $84,995 by itself. You can add air conditioning and a radio. Otherwise two speakers are standard, required for seatbelt and key in the ignition chimes. However the two most discussed options cost $1 each. The first one is passenger and rear seats. The second one is a tool crate that includes the aforementioned ECU, skinny front wheels but not the tires, a floor jack and electric impact wrench for removing and installing the wheels. It also includes a tire pressure gauge, fender cover and a tool bag, most of which supplied by Snap-On.

The Challenger platform, while large and heavy, is still relevant today. Can you think of another coupe with room for four that has, say, six hundred horsepower or more than weighs less? What about under $100k? What Dodge has done is for the history books. There has never been a car like the Demon, and in the age of hybrids, environmental concerns, electrification, and more; there will probably never be anything like it again that is street legal. Well done Dodge, you’ve created a modern legend.

For an even more in-depth summary of the equipment levels and features, check out this link:

Photos courtesy of FCA US media:

Monday, July 10, 2017

BMW M760LI xDrive quick review


Originally published on the new performance oriented website,

Seeing a factory matte finish BMW raises the eyebrows. Strolling nonchalantly toward it, spotting the V-12 emblem puts a pause in your pace. Then reading the back emblem and seeing “M760i” denoting BMW’s 601hp technological tour-de-force definitely raises both eyebrows. Who knew a 2017 model year V-12, twin turbo sedan was available anywhere for nearly $172,000.

This is a CEO car. It’s for the business owner who, nicely put, gives zero cares about what anyone thinks about his or her 16mpg highway Q-ship. They worked hard, employ many, and get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Or maybe wants something that is extremely modern, smooth and quiet and not care where the charging station may or may not be.

Start-up and driving is like any other car in the basic sense. But extra attention is given to the passengers both front and rear. Like it’s a perfect host or hostess for wheeled travel. Maybe that would be a coastess? The rear passengers share a center tablet and there are display screens behind each front seat. Each passenger can set their own seat adjustments in the rear as well.

BMW’s flagship is a first-class experience matching the turbine-like power plant under the hood. Calling it a motor or engine is just too mundane. Acceleration is swift, it leaps when need be and effortlessly closes gaps in traffic with a slight provocation of the foot. Turn-in can be surprisingly quick when manhandling the steering wheel. With the all-wheel drive, traction is never really an issue despite the V-12s best attempt to smoke the tires. Of course it’s heavy, but BMW’s new Carbon Core technology resulted in a massive 285lb weight reduction from the previous 7-series. Granted, adding four cylinders puts some weight right back, but you don't argue with a V-12. Nuff said.

Of course the suspension has adjustments but even in the comfort setting it couldn’t iron out some of the bumps on a backroad, but they were minimized greatly.  Regardless, the sheer insulation and isolation is instantly apparent. As soon as we turned onto the main road my wife immediately looked at me and said, “This is a really nice car!” With particular emphasis on the “really” part. 

It’s the technology that demands time to get familiar with the car, reading the manual, and spending hours learning it but the payoff is priceless. The gesture control seems to work in front of the steering wheel. Perhaps doing so unintuitively, performing gestures in front of the infotainment screen just made me look inept. But in describing this car, inept is not a word that comes to mind, ever.

Be sure to check out the new performance enthusiast website where this article was first published:

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Absurdity of Fastrak and the HOV lanes

The state of California continues with the ridiculous HOV or High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that are intended for Electric Vehicles, hybrids with limited issue permission stickers, motorcycles and multiple occupant vehicles. As you can guess, eventually these lanes won’t move any quicker than other full access lanes. That’s how stupid they are. They are so poorly thought out that there are multiple scenarios that the system can be foiled.

Of course, not everyone can use these lanes which I covered in a previous article here: so they are patently unfair. Now in the infinite wisdom of CalTrans and others, the Fastrak was introduced in order to charge a fee for solo riders who want to use the lanes. This meant adding sensors to detect vehicles but still no cameras for reading license plates. Of course cameras came next along with a revised Fastrak that has a switch to indicate how many passengers are in the vehicle. Now imagine the infrastructure needed to support all this.

The cameras cannot see occupants such as children behind the front seats, especially in vehicles with tinted or covered windows. Lighting and windshield angles with reflections can come into play as well. Will cameras with those abilities come next? How will they be monitored? There’s talk that sensors will be incorporated to somehow detect how many occupants are really in the vehicles. When will this madness ever stop? Until then the poorly conceived notion of the HOV lane, the Fastrak and lanes monitored with license readers can be cheated in multiple scenarios.

Finally, how silly to have to manipulate a essentially a cell phone sized object to adjust for the number of occupants, or keeping it covered in its ESD bag so the sensors can't pick it up. And keeping it glued or velcro'd on our dashboard? That's absurd. Here's another problem about the Fastrak system. A couple lines of code can easily determine the speed traveled between the sensors. And finally, if tolls must be collected, it should be in every lane, the same amount, for everyone and done by a bar code sticker on the windshield or by license plate.

Below are the numerous situation that can be encountered and bluffed. Lie at your own risk.

Solo or Multiple occupants, no vehicle sensor, no license plate reader. Example: San Tomas Expressway:
No Charge

Solo occupant, vehicle sensors but no license plate reader. Example, 680 Southbound, Sunol to San Jose
1. No FasTrak – No Charge
2. FasTrak covered – No Charge
3. FastTrak displayed – disputes charged claiming passenger(s) in vehicle – Account Credited

Solo driver on a license reader equipped road. Example:  580 Eastbound, Pleasanton to Livermore
4. FaskTrak displayed, disputes charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle - Account Credited
5. FasTrak covered, disputes charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle – Account Credited

Solo driver with FasTrak Flex on a license reader equipped road. Example: 580 Eastbound, Pleasanton to Livermore
6. FastTrak Flex set to 2-4 people – No charge
7. FastTrak Flex set to 1 person - disputes charge claiming passengers in vehicle – Account Credited
8. FastTrak Flex covered – charged, dispute charge claiming passengers in vehicle – Account Credited

Multiple Occupants with vehicle sensors, no license reader:
9. No FasTrak – No Charge
10. FasTrak covered – No Charge
11. FasTrak displayed – charge is invalid, disputes charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle - Account Credited

Multiple Occupants with FasTrak and license reader equipped road:
12. No FasTrak – dispute charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle  – No Charge
13. FasTrak covered – dispute charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle - No Charge
14. FasTrak displayed – dispute charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle – No Charge

Multiple Occupants with FasTrak Flex and license reader equipped road:
15. FastTrak Flex set to correct setting – No Charge
16. FasTrak Flex set to incorrect setting – dispute charge claiming 3 passengers in vehicle – No Charge
17. FasTrak covered – dispute charge claiming passenger(s) in vehicle – No Charge

It’s been said, and a Google search indicates that an HOV lane violation is not a moving violation and doesn’t add points on a license in California. They key is to contest the ticket in court, if the officer isn’t there to testify, conventional wisdom says to plead not guilty and no witness present means the ticket will be tossed. If the officer is present, I would ask for forgiveness and a reduced fine. It’s a travesty that a texting ticket is less than a carpool violation ticket. The travesty of the existence HOV lanes and the Fastrak system also needs to be fixed. As in abolished.

Do you really think putting more vehicles in fewer lanes is a good idea? Don't be absurd.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mazda Miata MX-5 Grand Touring review

Introduced in 1989, the Mazda Miata went on to become the bestselling convertible in history. And particularly because of the Miata, the most raced brand in the world. Now recently into the fourth generation, the Mazda MX-5 Miata dropped a couple major things from the previous generation like horsepower and weight.  A surprising 12 horsepower and a shocking 150 pounds trimmed away to a total of 2,324 pounds in an age where weight gain is the norm, including on vehicles much larger and at least one thousand to two thousand pounds heavier.

Truly the modern quintessential “driver’s car”, this 2017 Grand Touring model with the 6 speed manual transmission is extremely light, very nimble, rear drive, quick enough for many. As stated earlier on social media, it’s not about guys, it’s not about girls, it’s about having fun. Because it’s a convertible and quite small, some call it a girl’s car. But seriously, the complete antithesis of this car, something like a Dodge Charger Daytona, is a total dude’s car. Does a gender moniker even matter, especially as the most raced car in the world?

Mazda utilizes several philosophies in their vehicle design and construction. SKYACTIV is the effort to reduce weight while improving safety and efficiency. Their Jinba Ittai process is to elevate the driving experience. This was done by redesigning the cockpit and ergonomics for a more driver centric experience and better fit. KODO theme is the Soul of Motion with a long hood, short overhangs, large wheels pushed to the far corners, and looks good with the top or down. Not many convertibles can make that last claim.

The suspension is tuned spectacularly. Bumps that upset larger cars are easily absorbed with far less drama and rebound. An emergency swerving maneuver from a wayward driver is a simple, routine process without drama. Low speed turns can generate serious lateral g-forces if desired by simply yanking on the wheel. A higher speed sweeper gives superb haptic feedback through the steering wheel without any feel of mechanical assist. The shifter has great movement into every gear, just a bit of engine vibration when in third gear. The upshift indicator gives surprisingly early suggestions which undoubtedly contributes to its 26 city, 33 highway rating.

Very easy to launch from a dig, it has enough power for around town driving. This Grand Touring model equipped with the manual transmission would get rubber going into second gear. At 80mph in 6th gear which is about 3200rpm, it will pull satisfactory to close gaps or get around slower traffic without downshifting.  But it’s a noisy 80mph so this no long distance commuter for the highway. Some refinement in the engine for a more sophisticated feel would be also be welcome. The only performance aspect that is lacking from the car is power. It meets every other criteria of a driver’s car except for traction management, another 50hp would be very welcome. The only other feature that would be welcome is rev-match downshifting just for the convenience and joy of precision and consistency.

The convertible top has one center latch, folds back with one hand and a press downward secures it flat. Absolutely brilliant. It’s a wonderful feeling leaving the gym, putting the top down, and shifting your way home. Putting it back up is equally simple, just make sure the latch is in the proper position to prevent scratching the exterior of the latch housing. There’s no backup camera, you don’t need one with the top down. If the top is up, the backup sensor works great to make up for the rear three-quarter blind spot from the folding roof.

Yes it’s small, interior storage is limited, about the same as the front passenger space storage capacity as the new Camaro reviewed earlier. The center console will hold two iPhone 6 stacked on top of each other. Behind your right elbow is two cup holders, a difficult proposition to use.  You can put two phones in a small cubby in front of the gearshift but hard acceleration will eject at least one of them unless wedged with a wallet. No container in the passenger compartment will hold a curved sunglass case. 

The trunk however is surprisingly roomy and deeper than expected. Plenty of room for groceries or for two people on a weekend getaway. If you’re going to drive that long, the upper part of the door is body colored painted metal, nothing special yet far more comfortable than many luxury cars with padded and much fancier designs. A notch created by the intersection of the transmission tunnel and center dash is a nice fit for the right knee when cruising. The infotainment systems works well, although a bit quirky with button pushing redundancy. Despite that, the lane departure warning, navigation, and other features all worked very well. Bose speakers in the headrests add to the listening experience to offset the high speed wind noise. 

A classic view of the curving front fenders channels sports cars of the past with excellent forward visibility as well as the side. You don’t feel claustrophobic and size really isn’t a concern until another vehicle fades towards your lane, or decides to pull up too close to the back bumper. Oddly there is the sensation of sitting up a bit high but that went away very quickly.  Seats are very comfortable and supportive for performance maneuvering although a bit tight across the upper back if you’re an extra-large.

Stopping at O’Reilly Auto Parts to pick up some light bulbs for the nephew-hauler, the clerk, a fellow enthusiast, asked about the Miata and what year it was. The gentlemen behind me piped in his Club Sport edition was the one to own. Between over one million sold as of last year and an estimated 5,000 raced globally, finding a fellow owner or fan can happen on any given day, anywhere.

Well-equipped at $31,325, what other convertible is as efficient and dedicated to the experience? While on the seventy-five mile round trip commute, and when passing Porsches in traffic, I wondered if they were having as much fun. Every drive is either an adventure or memorable experience. Not many soft top automobiles that can be driven daily can make that claim and none that are as efficient.