Monday, December 10, 2012

Hating on the Chevy Volt

This story I read today intrigued me. Apparently, there is quite a bit of hatred among drivers for the Chevy Volt due to the decision by the US Government to take a financial interest in the company. This all seems a bit childish to take it out on the buyers of a vehicle that, while it certainly has its faults, is hardly worthy of the kind of vitriol that this article provides several examples of. What do you think about this kind of hate against the drivers of a particular kind of car?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Test Drive: 2007 Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT

The Maserati Quattroporte has always held my interest. I find the design attractive and the Ferrari pedigree would seem to foreshadow a performance potential that should be near the top of the class for 4-door sedans. This version that I found and was considering as a potential addition to the Club's fleet, looked to be a completely cherry example. The exterior was pretty close to flawless except for a few small marks on the edges of the doors and the interior looked clean and despite the 43k+ miles that the car had, still carried a distinctly new car smell.

But as the salesman attempted to open the door, the challenges of owning an Italian car with a supercar pedigree began to rear its ugly head. The battery had gone completely flat. So much so that the remote failed to trigger anything and the car refused to turn over. Okay, not a bit problem, right? The car can always be jumped. However, the salesman began telling me how they had just driven the car on Friday and that the flat battery was a regular occurrence with this vehicle. I am not impressed...

We finally get the car started and I am able to check out the electronics and everything seems to be working except for the HVAC and navigation/radio unit. Additionally, the dash shines like a Christmas tree, warning me that driving the car is not recommended and simultaneously displaying a system error and an airbag system failure. I push and prod the other buttons and everything else appears to be working. I pull on the paddles and confirm that the transmission computer is working. Thinking to myself that it might be okay, I accept the opportunity to test the vehicle.

Firing the car back up, the tail pipes emit a sharp bark and settles into a surprisingly reserved and barely audible idle. I grab first using the right paddle and allow the computer to do the shifting initially. Recalling that that Quattroporte sports an older generation single clutch automated manual transmission, I start off easy and keep the throttle opening small, hoping that the transmission will shift somewhat smoothly after its rather clunky start. Easing down the street, the first shift arrives and JERK, clunk, JERK, the transmission finds second gear. Hmm....I am not impressed...

Getting out beyond the neighborhoods, we arrive at a highway and I switch the car into Sport mode and merge into the traffic flow, the transmission having warmed up a bit, but still acting a little clunky. Shifting over a few lanes I find an opening and switch the transmission to manual mode, pull the left paddle back 3 times to grab third gear, and nail the throttle. The transmission hunts for a moment to find the gear, the clutch re-engages and suddenly, the car surges forward on a wave of thrust, trailing an angry bark as I blast past the speed limit and quickly fill the open space between me and the cars in traffic ahead of me. Now I am beginning to understand the reason for this car. Sliding in and out of spaces in traffic, the car glides along and rides exceptionally well considering the 20-inch wheels and rubber band tires. Steering effort is light though the transmission continues to clunk along with every pull of the right paddle.

Coming up to a good place to flip a u-turn, I shut off the traction control system, pull the left paddle twice to grab a lower gear, crank the wheel and nail the throttle, expecting to be able to kick the rear out a little bit, but the car just grips and goes, blasting forward and quickly reaching extra-legal speeds. Figuring that the car has clearly acquitted itself in the power department, I figure a few curves were needed to see how well it handled.

Turning off onto a side street, I make a series of left and right turns at intersections without stop signs or stop lights, finding a street with some nice sweepers ahead, I amp up the speed a bit and begin wheeling the big sedan down the empty tree lined street. As the wheel turns back and forth, threading through the turns, it became abundantly clear that in spite of all of the shortcomings, when this huge sedan finds a curvy road, it is in its element. The light steering suddenly feels incredibly precise, directing the full-size Quattroporte down the road with surprising aplomb. Throttle motions result in immediate changes to the cars attitude and even the clunky transmission is no longer a problem as the flexibility of the Ferrari-built motor's flexibility makes it possible to shift minimally when tackling the curves.

So is the Quattroporte a worthy used car purchase? Well, it ultimately depends on what you intend to use the car for. As a GT, there are better options with more power lower in the rev range, better fuel economy, and a better ride. As a daily driver, there are cars that are easier to live with and less prone to problems. But if you have local mountain or coastal roads full of challenging curves with a variety of driving conditions, there are few cars that will give you the ability to take a few of your best friends along for the ride like the Quattroporte, so long as you also have a battery tender where you park it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Test Riding the MV Augusta F4 and Ducati Streetfighter

A special thanks to <a href="" target="_new">Duc Pond Motorsports</a> of Winchester, VA for setting up the awesome demo day. It is rare to get a factory demo ride and even rarer for an event to be run this well. Although our time was short, I was able to sneak in test rides of two really different, but amazing bikes. The demo route was about 20 miles long, but a good mix of back country roads and high speed bursts on highways giving a good impression of the capabilities and comfort of the bikes.

My impressions will be split over two posts. With the Ducati below, and the MV Augusta impressions arriving later in the week.

<b><i>Ducati Streetfighter First Impressions</i></b>

<table align="center" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" class="tr-caption-container" style="float: right; margin-left: 1em; text-align: right;"><tbody>
<tr><td style="text-align: center;"><a href=""><img border="0" height="125" src="" width="200" /></a></td></tr>
<tr><td class="tr-caption" style="text-align: center;"><a href="">Photo Courtesy of Ducati Blog</a></td></tr>
First up, the Ducati Streetfighter, which I actually rode second that day. The riding position is upright enough to be comfortable for a long ride, and the power, from the 1099cc Ducati L-twin motor, was excellent, with impressive torque in the low rpm range below 5000 rpm and strong pull to the power peak at 9500 rpm. Swaddled in Ducati's traditional red, the bike is stunning to look at in all of its mechanical glory.

But besides the bad-ass transformer look, the greatest thing about this bike was the sound. The desmosedici valve-train rattling away, punctuating the deep, guttural note generated by the factory option Termignoni dual exhaust, creates just the right balance of tones and truly backs up the bike's menacing appearance with a sound to match. Rev up the motor and the exhaust bellows a note that stirs even the most downtrodden of souls. As the RPMs rise, so does the pitch of the exhaust, terminating in a wail that stabs at the air as though screaming at it to make way. Few bikes sound this good straight from the factory.

Seat height is surprisingly manageable, even given my 31-inseam. With my boots on, I could comfortably flat foot the bike and the pegs were closer to a standard position under the rider as opposed to set back as on the Ducati sport bikes. Bars were high enough to make the reach easy with only a some lean, although the rake of the front fork coupled with the position of the bar gave the odd sensation of feeling like you were riding out in front of the bike, but with no fairing to provide wind protection. It was one of the weirdest sensations I had felt before and took a little getting used to, but once the sensation passed, the bike was fun and comfortable.

As I mentioned before, power is good and tractable, even without all of the fancy electronics. Handling is light and tossable, in part due to the fully wet weight of just over 400 lbs with a half tank of fuel. Mix that 155 bhp and 85 lb-ft of torque with the light weight, tossable chassis, and you have a truly fun bike to ride on the back roads but still have super power for running all day on the freeways. However, I could not really see anyone using this bike for extremely long rides given the lack of wind protection.

Overall, I enjoyed this bike a great deal, but I this is not a bike that I would opt to purchase for my own riding, which is made up of mostly longer touring rides and this bike lacks the wind protection for that sort of riding. But if you are looking for a powerful, capable, and nimble street bike for backroads strafing and can afford the cost, this is a fantastic bike. As a second bike, I would love to own one.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Test Drive: 2011 Ford Mustang V6

Two words: major disappointment.

Yes, it has more than 300 bhp.
Yes, it returns phenomenal gas mileage.
Yes, it looks great inside and out.
Yes, it costs less than $25k to start.

BUT (and this is a big but), if you are a real driver, then you, like me, will be disappointed. Why you ask? There are so many things that this car gets right and the reviews that have come back make this car seem like the best thing since sliced bread.

Now do not get me wrong, for most people, this car will work out just fine. They will enjoy the power, gas mileage, interior, and affordable cost. The motor is great - adequately torquey and strong with a smooth build-up of power. It returns an amazing 31 mpg if you get the automatic and a still surprisingly good 29mpg if you opt to shift it yourself. And this is where the first gap in this car's armor appears.

That 6-speed manual transmission is garbage. Utter and complete garbage. The shift throws are notchy, imprecise, and short all at the same time. Every effort to shift quickly resulted in the sensation of rowing a stick through a container of rusty bolts, binding with nearly every tiny bit of movement. Any attempt to shift quickly and the stick fought back every step of the way. Like I said, utter garbage. Combine that with a clutch that had no real feel and you get one of the worse transmissions I have ever experienced. Pretty sure that I have only ever driven one that was worse and that company nearly went under in the last few years.

But if you skip the manual transmission, you should be okay, right?

Well, sure, if you only drive in straight lines. But go to take a turn, and you discover that the optional Performance Package with the heavier GT's springs, have ruined the steering feel of this car. Rip a couple of turns and you will curse yourself (or Ford's suspension engineers) for even bothering with this car as there is absolutely no steering feel. It is as numb as a meth-addict after their latest hit. What should have been a great platform is completely ruined by a poor suspension choice.

So as long as you get the automatic and skip the V6 Performance Package, you should fine, right? Well sure, but then there are a number of other equally good options that you should consider, many without the retro infused interior and exterior design. There are cars that are more performance oriented and some that are more comfort oriented, but at the end of the day, there are just flat out better cars out there.

2012 $30k Mid-size entry luxury sedan comparo

As my daily driver, I own a 2012 Acura TSX Special Edition. Often regarded as a 2nd-tier entry against some of the more established (read “European”) competitors, the TSX often gets overlooked by buyers who believe that the competition offers something that the TSX does not. This past week, I had the occasion to spend a fairly extended amount of time with two of the competitors in the same class as the TSX and decide whether or not I made the right choice.

To be fair, the comparison will not be exactly 1-to-1 as my TSX is fitted with Acura’s fantastic 6-speed manual transmission instead of an automatic like the two test cars. This obviously colors the driving involvement, but given that both the Volvo S60 and Mercedes Benz C250 are fitted with advanced automatics with at least as many gears, there is not too much of an advantage offered to the TSX.

Acura TSX Special Edition

2012 Acura TSX Special Edition
I have now owned the TSX for approximately 6 months. It is mine and my wife’s only car and we got it brand new from a dealer in the DC area. The car was not available with any options so we have to do without a built-in navigation system or any kind of color display for managing the features in the car. That said, the car does come very well equipped right off the bat: leather and suede seating surfaces with memory for the driver’s seat, power passenger seat adjustment, HID headlights, Bluetooth hands-free and streaming audio, USB and aux inputs, dual zone climate control, 60/40 split fold rear seat, and much more. At an as tested price of $32,405, it is by far the least expensive car of the bunch, but still feels like it fits well within the group.

Volvo S60 T5

2012 Volvo S60 T5 FWD
The next car in our test is a 2012 Volvo S60 T5 that I had for a full week and just over 200 miles behind the wheel. This car, fitted with the Premier package includes the power moon roof, leather seating surfaces, and the keyless drive system (which incidentally was not functioning correctly) carries an as-tested price of $34,845. However, the car is clearly ahead of the TSX when it comes to the cars infotainment setup as the S60 has Volvo’s very large and well sorted SENSUS system with its large color screen, though the instrument cluster sports the same type of lower resolution single color screen as the TSX. Bluetooth hands-free and streaming audio are standard along with a USB port under the center console armrest. The car is fitted with Volvo’s torquey turbo-charged 2.5L inline 5-cylinder motor and 6-speed automatic transmission.

Mercedes Benz C250 Luxury

2013 Mercedes Benz C250 Luxury
The third car in our test is a 2013 Mercedes Benz C250 Luxury fitted with MB’s all new 1.8L turbo-charged inline 4-cylinder and 7-speed automatic transmission. This car was about as base as one can get for this vehicle and yet, still has an as-tested price tag of $38,945. The only options on this particular test vehicle were the heated seats and the Becker Auto Pilot navigation system. This was the only car in the test to not have real leather, though one would barely notice it as the interior felt sufficiently premium. The car came with the standard 5.8-inch infotainment screen with the same controller used with the COMAND system.

User interfaces

Slightly button happy center console of the TSX
The three cars take very different approaches to user their driver and passenger interfaces. The TSX is the most focused on driving, with a small radius steering wheel and controls that can easily be used without taking your eyes off the road. The only screens are small and relatively low resolution with minimal information outside of immediately useful info. Everything falls comfortably to hand exactly where you expect it, but it does take a fair amount use to get fully comfortable with the location of the rather plentiful array of buttons.

Volvo's now standard waterfall center consolde
Volvo, on the other hand, has taken their traditional waterfall center console that has become a staple of their interiors and added the SENSUS system to it, providing a vivid high-resolution screen on all S60s, including those that do not have navigation. The center stack is simple to use, but some of the small buttons do not fall to hand easily due to their small size, especially the number pad that is used for virtually all of the radio functions. The instrument cluster has two small low resolution dot matrix screens, similar to the one on the TSX.

The slightly busy but premium looking MB
The MB definitely shows where the extra money they are asking gets spent. The screen in the center stack is high resolution and the one large screen built into the speedometer is impressively colorful and provides a useful variety of information, though not all at the same time, annoyingly enough. The COMAND interface’s knob is easily within reach, but the entire system is hard to use without taking your eyes off the road and not particularly intuitive. Additionally, the audio system is probably the worst to use from an interface perspective. It was the only vehicle that I could not figure out how to access Bluetooth audio without reaching for the manual.

Driving Impressions

Each car carries its own unique driving characteristic that is reflective of the reputation of its maker. They each have areas where they exhibit the greatest strength and areas where they feel the weakest, but, surprisingly, there is little overlap in these areas.

Lack of polished exhaust tips cheapens the look of the Volvo
For sheer thrust, Volvo’s turbo-charged 5-cylinder in combination with the 6-speed transmission is king of this hill. Drop the hammer and grab the wheel with a death grip because the torque steer when the turbo boost arrives is downright shocking. Once the front wheels are pointing straight again, stay on the throttle and the car just lunges forward, the turbo’s slightly shrill chirp punctuating the deep intake roar that fills the cabin. This is a fun car to drive on straight flat roads, but introduce some corners and the composure begins to slip away quickly.

While the steering feel is good and seems relatively precise, the limits of grip get reached very soon and the car begins to slide around mid-corner before the stability control kicks in and reins everything in before things start to get even a little exciting. Volvo’s reputation for safety still reigns supreme as any effort to have fun in this car is sternly put down by the computer, its virtual finger wagging at you as if to reprimand you for doing anything even slightly foolish.

The MB is a bit plain but with good road presence
The Mercedes, on the other hand, disappoints greatly with the newly introduced turbo-charged 1.8L inline-4. The specs, on paper, for this motor should make for a lot of fun and coupled with the 7-speed automatic, should return fantastic gas mileage. Sadly, the case as the motor felt flat the whole way through the rev range and returned fuel economy that was sadly the worst of this bunch. Where the Mercedes shines is the complete smoothness with which it goes about its job. Absolutely nothing could upset the motor and transmission and it shifted smooth as butter at all speeds and all throttle openings. However, the downside to this is that the throttle lag saps any directness out of throttle inputs and frustrates all attempts at precision, making fun driving an exercise in futility.

This is disappointing because the body structure of the MB feels like it is hewn from a solid block of granite. Add in the fact that it is the only RWD car in this comparison, this chassis has the potential to be the stand-out driver’s car. The grip is easily the highest of the group and the steering feel is good, but where this car really disappoints is the ride. For a car that is starting to get up there in price and does every other aspect of isolation so well, it is sad that where it falls flat is the inability to provide a smooth ride, especially over low speed bumps. Several potholes encountered and speed bumps sent such jarring reverberations through the cabin that I had to recheck the badge to make sure I had not mistakenly taken some dressed up Geo Metro by accident. I even checked the tire pressures just to make sure that was not the problem and the tire pressures were correctly set to factory spec. This is extremely unfortunate because this car could have been great fun.
Slab-sided and chiseled, this is one of the better angles of the TSX

By far the most balanced of the group is the TSX. Despite sporting on paper what should be the weakest motor, the sensation from behind the wheel is that the 4-cylinder is surprisingly spry with impressively linear power delivery and is accompanied by a throaty intake roar. Fitted with the rifle-bolt precise shifter of the 6-speed manual, the TSX is an absolute joy to drive and feels the most like a true extension of the driver’s senses. Even the electronic power steering that I had previously hated on in the earlier years of the 2nd generation cars feels great in comparison to the Volvo or the MB. Sure it is still not quite as good as the direct feel in the 1st generation cars, but it is a significant improvement from when the car was introduced for the 2009 model year.

The general sensation from behind the wheel of the TSX is that everything feels very balanced. The suspension is tuned to be stiff without being harsh. The car is easily steerable with the throttle though still exhibits understeer at the limits though would benefit greatly with from a limited slip differential. Grip, however, is a bit lacking as the tires fitted from the factory are pretty terrible. With nothing more than a tire swap, this would be an even better car as it would also cure some of the tire noise that penetrates the cabin while under way.

In the end…

As I stated earlier, each car is a reflection of its respective manufacturer’s values. The Volvo feels safe but unfinished, the MB feels solid but staid, and the TSX feels balanced but dated. There is much to like about each car, but at the end of the day, they appeal to different segments of the market. For my money, the balance of the TSX combined with the availability of the manual transmission and a great value trumped all other factors.

The TSX is by no means without fault. It certainly has developed a few odd noises that are intermittent and come and go with the temperature fluctuations. It also is on the loud side, in large part due to the tires fitted to the car from the factory. Also, Acura could stand to fit the car with a better looking and larger diameter set of wheels that better complement the look and handling capabilities of the car. These are ultimately minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, but can easily influence a buyer's decision. And finally, the look of the front end is still an acquired taste, just to be kind.

However, if I were to abandon my addiction to shifting for myself, I believe the choice would have been much more difficult. The Volvo combines a lot of things that I genuinely need with some of the most comfortable seats I have ever experienced in a car. It is likely the car that would give the TSX a run for my money.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Test Riding the MV Augusta F4 and Ducati Streetfighter

A special thanks to Duc Pond Motorsports of Winchester, VA for setting up the awesome demo day. It is rare to get a factory demo ride and even rarer for an event to be run this well. Although our time was short, I was able to sneak in test rides of two really different, but amazing bikes. The demo route was about 20 miles long, but a good mix of back country roads and high speed bursts on highways giving a good impression of the capabilities and comfort of the bikes.

My impressions will be split over two posts. With the Ducati below, and the MV Augusta impressions arriving later in the week.

MV Augusta F4 First Impressions

Let me just start off by saying that even though I do not ride super sport bikes on a regular basis, and despite the contortionist friendly riding position, I loved every minute of my test ride on this bike. Everything about this bike was so well sorted and usable, it is easy to see why people who give the lesser known of the Italian motorcycle makers a chance often become believers for life.

The motor feels immensely capable, with good thrust down low, but really breathes well in the upper RPM ranges and issues a beautiful noise through the organ pipe exhaust system protruding from under the tail. The swell of power is at once usable and tractable and the traction control system is ever present, but not the slightest bit obtrusive, allowing you to get aggressive with the throttle, but keeping you from lifting the nose unnecessarily.

On the road, the bike feels light and handles well, quickly and easily transitioning with every input, feeling almost telepathic in it responsiveness. The wide flat tank allows plenty of space to tuck in out of the wind during the straights and the well positioned clip-ons offer excellent control. At a stop, the bike does feel a bit tall and a little top heavy, but once in motion again, it is well balanced and extremely nimble. Ready to spend the day with you strafing the corners of your favorite canyon road.

This bike is deceptively easy to ride and it is easy for even a relatively novice rider to find themselves suddenly quite comfortable with this 186 bhp superbike and while getting up to speed is fun and impressive, so is engaging the binders and bringing the bike back down to realistic speeds. With a solid feel and easily modulated lever, I was able to quickly and confidently late break down from 70+ mph to exit the freeway.

My only complaint about this bike, as I would complain about virtually any superbike, is the rider positioning, especially in the legs. I am not a particularly tall individual and with a 31 inseam, I am able to get comfortable on most bikes, but it took a while to find a position that did not cause some pain in my knees and hips. However, once situated properly on the bike (and once my joints became accustomed to the riding position), everything began to work well and I was able to ignore the riding position and get back to enjoying the ride.

So if the opportunity ever presents itself for you to ride the MV Augusta F4 (we will be looking to acquire one for the clubs stable in the future), you should absolutely take advantage of it as this bike will make you wonder why these guys are not just as popular as Ducati.