I decided to dig up some of my old car reviews and post them here. I have also reviewed suspension changes and different tires on my car.

Aug. '07: BMW Ultimate Drive: 335i Convertible and X5 3.0si

Dec. '05: 2005 Toyota Celica GT

Dec. '05: 2006 Chevrolet HHR

Oct. '05: 2005 Lotus Elise

Sep. '05: BMW Ultimate Drive: X3 3.0i/2.5i, 325i, 530i, 750i, 645Ci

Aug. '05: 2005 Hyundai Sonata, 2004 and 2005 Ford Focus (and other rental cars)

Apr. '05: 200x Ford GT (track)

Apr. '05: 200x Ford Falcon Fairmont Ghia

Apr. '05: 2006 BMW 3 Series

Apr. '05: 2005 Chevrolet Corvette Z51

Feb. '05: 2005 Ford Mustang GT vs. 2004 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra

Dec. '04: 2005 Ford GT

Nov. '04: 2005 Mercedes-Benz ML350

Oct. '04: 2004 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra

Oct. '04: 2001 BMW M5

Oct. '04: 2005 Chevrolet Corvette

Aug. '04: 2004 VW Golf R32

Jun. '04: 2004 BMW 325Ci Convertible

Jun. '04: 2004 BMW Z4 3.0i

Jun. '04: 2004 BMW X3 3.0i

Jun. '04: 2001 BMW 330Ci

May '04: 2004 Subaru WRX STi

May '04: 2002 BMW M3 SMG

Mar. '04: 2004 Mazda 6i

Mar. '04: Update of the DSC-X traction/stability control on the 2003 BMW 325xi Touring Wagon

Nov. '03: 2003 BMW 325xi Touring Wagon

Jul. '03: 2000 BMW 328Ci Coupe

Mar. '03: 2003 Mazda 6, Miata and Protégé5

Jan. '03: 2003 Audi A4 1.8T Quattro

Jan. '03: 2003 Jeep Liberty

Oct. '02: 2003 Mercedes-Benz E320 and Mercedes-Benz E500

Jan. '02: 1998 Toyota RAV4 Mini-SUV

Feb. '00: 2000 Chrysler 300M

Sep. '98: 1999 BMW 328i Sedan, 1999 BMW 323i Cabriolet, 1999 BMW 540i Sedan

BMW Ultimate Drive: 335i Convertible and X5 3.0si

335i Convertible

Driving this new convertible was a little different experience from what I expected -- a tire screeching, rough riding event. Pulling out of the parking lot into the street, the first mental notes included heavy steering and a slightly shaky structure. And then, of course, accelerating into the traffic (yes, it was around rush hour), the twin-turbo engine came alive, even though I repeatedly found the exhaust note to be too muted and almost simulated, as if someone was in a sound studio playing with an equalization scheme to subdue very specific frequency bands. In other words, it sounds pretty good, but somewhat unnatural and not like anything I've heard before. But that's a minor point. This car takes off and accelerates so linearly that you don't notice the effort or the speed. The engine never screams or explodes; it just pulls. As a result it lacks the visceral experience of any M engine but is hard to fault otherwise. Forcing the automatic transmission in top gear reminds you that this is not the torquey muscle car, but it really doesn't matter since the other gears are so accessible. This new automatic transmission from ZF is probably the most responsive one I've been in. I still miss the abrupt, lift throttle engine braking of a true manual transmission, but the upshifts and downshifts are almost as smooth as VW and Audi's DSG dual clutch boxes. Comparing again to another M feature, the loved-and-hated SMG gearbox, this automatic is not as sharp or fast, but neither does it make you think you are about to tear your drivetrain apart the way the SMG would under load. One thing I did not quite understand was when hitting the paddle shifters would keep you in manual mode and when it'd default back to automatic mode after a few seconds. Sometimes I was caught off guard that I was still in manual mode, while at other times, I was surprised by a shift when I thought it was already in manual mode.

Perhaps the most amazing quality is the ride, considering this was a sport package car riding on run flat 18" tires. Despite the somewhat shaky structure (compared to a sedan or coupe), both the primary (low frequency) ride and secondary harshness were very minimal. Even over scalloped pavement, it was more confortable, less abrupt and less head toss than a non-sport version of the previous E46 generation, which means it's miles ahead of my car's ride. Because the route was through mostly straight city streets with low speed limits and even slower zones, I did not get to push the cornering or braking envelopes at all. But what it feels like is that it still has decent roll stiffness, although the steering and yaw responses feel a bit slow at city speeds. Perhaps Active Steering would liven things up. If anything, I think this car could use an even stiffer suspension setup so that the hard acceleration doesn't make it squat as much as it does.

Interestingly, there was more than enough grip from the tires which are another variant of the Bridgestone RE050A's that I'm running on my own car. Even brake torquing from a stop with traction control disabled, wheelspin was minimal. Out of corners, the brakes manage the slight wheelspin, and then the car takes off. I figure much higher cornering forces are required before the inside wheelspin that's often seen on the promotional videos, become an issue. So this car is definitely very tractable in fair weather.

The interior was very utilitarian, so much so that I didn't play with it much at all. Besides, I could not see the radio's display through my polarized sunglasses unless I tilted my head 45 degrees to the side. The HVAC's unit, which is mounted lower, shows up fine though. Most of my time was spent exploring the various ranges of this new engine, but never once did I find a hint of turbo lag or roughness. Its smoothness, the transmission's seamlessness and the amazing ride quality makes this car, well, too smooth. I think it just needs a little more edginess to be really fun. It is also a bit too fast to safely use the power regularly. I actually think driving might be more rewarding with the 328i....

X5 3.0si

I thought I'd try something very different for the next car. I don't even remember if I've driven the first generation X5, so I didn't really have any particular expectations. This particular sample was an iDrive car but without the extra chassis controls. The electronic shifter works fine and is easy to get used to. Going down 40 hp and up 1000 pounds from the 335i, this vehicle felt quite slow. But what surprised me was how much more poorly it rode on the same bumpy sections that the convertible had no problems with. Plus, tire noise was an issue. Maybe the open air of the convertible just covered all that up, but this X5 is otherwise a quiet car. Once again I couldn't push this car much but could tell in a couple of instances that even these all season tires had ample grip, much more so than I had expected from an SUV of this size. The steering felt a little slow once again though.

The drive in the X5 is pretty uneventful, so I spent a lot of time trying to crack the iDrive functions. It's actually not too bad, and I think I went through most of the screens and options. Seeing all the customizable features (even without the navigation DVD or Bluetooth enabled) makes me realize it's really a computer on wheels. Two of my HVAC wants for years came true. You can customize how much air is distributed where, and in auto mode, you have three flow speed choices (soft, medium and intensive) which is helpful when you want everything still automated but prefer higher airflow (like I do) or lower airflow (like my dad does). What I don't think is necessary, and this is perhaps the core of iDrive, is the haptic force feedback of the dial. The N/S/E/W directions, the pushbutton and the extra menu button are definitely welcome, but the display itself is clear enough when you've reached the scroll limits; increasing the dial's force feedback just makes it feel tacky. One thing I discovered through the iDrive menu was that the units were set to British gallons. No wonder the fuel economy displays looked much better than I had expected.

Another interesting touch is the extra ring around the speedometer which I thought was just for depth and artistry. It turns out that there's another dial that comes into view when you turn on cruise control, and it points to your set speed. This is entirely superfluous especially since the digital display already tells you exactly what speed you're set at, but the dial coming in and out of view is kind of neat. The cruise control, when you go in the decel direction, actually applies the brakes, which I'm not quite used to. But it's something that I could probably come to appreciate.

Even though this car didn't have the active anti-roll bars, the technical innovations show. The parking brake is not only electronic, but I believe it actually activates the booster and then holds the pressure electro-hydraulically. You can have it apply by pulling up on the lever and holding it while you're rolling or even on the accelerator, and it'll try to slow you down, sometimes too much. While it's doing so, the brake pedal becomes stiff (isolated from the wheels). Let go, and the parking brake will release entirely, unless you're stopped, in which case it'll hold, presumably with all four wheels until you push down to release (with foot brake applied). I guess this all makes sense to eliminate the extra parking brake handle and cables. I wonder what happens if you really need it as an emergency brake when the hydraulics or power systems fail though.... Also, quite a few of the buttons and controls had a split second delay before anything happened though (which got me confused as to whether I had requested the command or not), almost as if the CAN bus was being overloaded.

The seats seemed comfortable with too many adjustments, including headrest extensions that you can fold toward your head to give side support, like on some airplanes to hold your head up when you fall asleep. There's also the seat motion/massager which, to me, moves around too much. Perhaps that's a custom setting in the iDrive that I didn't find. It also looks like it's possible to turn on both the seat heater and the seat cooling fan, but I didn't leave it long enough in that setting to figure out what it was really doing in that mode.

Even though it's a better driving vehicle than most SUV's, in the end, nothing really stood out in this X5 to me except the interior.

2005 Toyota Celica GT

My rental car for the last two weeks in Phoenix was a 2005 Toyota Celica GT. I had not paid much attention to this vehicle before and wasn't particularly excited about getting it after I had asked for a Mazda3, but I thought I'd give it a try. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised. I expected the car to be mostly show, but once I sat in it, something felt comfortable. Within a few seconds, while pulling out of the parking lot, I knew it was going to be some fun. It's hard to describe, but it's a connected car. The last Toyotas I've driven--Scion xB, Celica, Camry--had made me lose faith in Toyota, but this Celica is different.

The steering is most memorable for its quick ratio and a very small torque deadband. And the vehicle gains lateral acceleration before much steering torque and with minimal initial roll, meaning that it wants to carve like a go kart, relative to most other vehicles I've been driving anyway. Overall effort is among the highest of any modern car I've driven, which is totally opposite from the other Toyotas. And torque steer, about which I'm very critical, is truly minimal. The suspension is quite firm and well damped. It might still be a bit too much over the broken Michigan pavement...I have doubts about its pitch control, but it certainly works in Phoenix roads. The rear is definitely stiffer and harsher than the front, but somehow the vehicle can fly over speedbumps without much complaint. Except if turning into a ramped entrance under light braking, at which point the ABS buzzes strangely. Which brings me to the brakes, another pleasant surprise. Very little dead travel and just the right amount of grabbiness....

I didn't get to go on enough curvy roads to give a comprehensive impression of the handling, but it certainly feels like it wants to carve corners. I did get a chance to do some gravel driving at our proving ground's parking lot though. I have to say I've never had this much fun in a front wheel drive car. Turn in, pause a second for the front tires to grab, and then the rear will step out...much more than expected. Pull the parking brake (which is very effective since the rears are drums), and the tail will really step out. Strangely, step on the brake during this as well, and, again, the ABS goes crazy, and the car goes round almost too quickly to catch...and this is starting from only 25 mph!

The engine and transmission are not as entertaining. The bottom end is pretty dead, the midrange is acceptable, and the top end is very buzzy. This engine needs a 5th gear. The transmission is fine when driven mildly, but when driven consistently with the rest of the car's character, it can be very abrupt. A 2-1 downshift is just brutal, especially in a corner...the only time when you feel the torque steer, and no manual downshift or upshift is smooth. Around town, I found myself liking to lock the car into 2nd and cruise around in the 3-5k RPM range. Fortunately the engine and transmission can be "fixed" by choosing the GT-S and a manual transmission :)

The half worn Bridgestone RE-92s generate a ton of noise on coarse pavement, no help from the hatchback design. But then, they are utterly quiet on smooth asphalt!

The instrument cluster, with its digital and analog mix is very legible and effective, although the yellow lighting at night is too pale and needs a little more red to it. The front left headlight on this car was way out of whack. I found the bulb not to be installed properly and reseated it, but it wasn't that much better. It took about 10 minutes for me to get the bulb out, with the instruction manual! I remember my dad's old RAV4 having lighting problems too where the socket for the bulb kind of broke so the bulb hung down. Is this a Toyota problem?

The radio is OK, the A/C works (even though the vents are way in front and impossible to reach without bending forward) and, well, there's not that much more to this car, which is just the way I like it. Just enough things to make it livable :) Unfortunately the rear visibility, with the thick B and C pillars, integrated headrests, the near horizontal rear window and a rear wing makes it hard to see out the rear; I think shorter people would really have trouble. It's also impossible to see the leading edge of the vehicle, which can be annoying since it has a large front overhang and low front fascia. However, I noticed that this car does turn heads, even though mine is clothed in innocent white.

Overall, the Celica was a more pleasant experience than I had expected. It's hard to believe that this is from the same manufacturer as some of the other Toyotas which are, in comparison, soul-less.

2006 Chevrolet HHR

We have this vehicle as a near competitor of the mini-SUV vehicle I am working on. Whereas I happily zip around our prototype--in a way it's one of the most fun Fords I think--going around the cul-de-sac type turnaround that we have on our grounds is no fun in this Chevy, even at low speeds. It just does not feel natural. Its electric power steering is so strangely tuned that its efforts change inexplicably and lacks feel at any speed. To its credit, the transmission shifts smoothly though, and because the 2.2L Ecotec engine is so smooth and makes no noise, it will run to redline all day long, and you won't know it (because it feels like it's hardly moving). But at part throttle, the exhaust is very droning and annoying. The brakes have too much initial travel and don't grab. And although the car is smooth riding, there's a persistent vibration even on the smoothest of roads. But mind you, this car is otherwise quiet. As such, it certainly feels like it's more expensive than a $15k car, especially with the satellite radio, chrome bezels, etc. And interior room, given its shape, is great. I think this is a car that I'd recommend to my grandparents or another old relative. It's slow and smooth and, well, an utter bore to drive.

2005 Lotus Elise

I finally had a chance to test drive one of my dream cars, the Lotus Elise. I attended the Elise Experience at the Autobahn Country Club in Illinois, which was a track and skills day organized by Fox Valley Motorcars and with former Lotus test drivers/engineers as instructors. The Market Manager for the US was also present. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had not suffered from a recent back injury, but thank God that I was barely well enough to participate nevertheless (hopping into and out of the Elise and the high G loads didn't help recovery). The events of the day included a no-ABS threshold braking / brake & turn exercise, an unevenly spaced "slalom," an understeer/oversteer skidpad (where I won an award!) and track time at the site's North Circuit.

The Impressions Aside from Driving: I now see the Elise as sort of like a dream/ideal woman. She seems to have all the right qualities, and after getting to know her, you still admire her but you start to think she may just be a bit too much for you and makes you wonder whether what you really want and what you need align or not.... But I can't pinpoint exactly what was wrong. The interior did bother me more than I had expected though, which was surprising since I normally don't pay too much attention to it. The instrument cluster, particularly the telltales and secondary information seemed a bit difficult to read. It's also the first time I've seen a non-linear tachometer (with basically no resolution under 3000 RPM). Ingress/egress was certainly interesting.

The Technical Aside: The Market Manager, when asked about the new available Torsen differential, was of the view that it was offered because of the US market pressure. He mentioned that it was suitable for very specific types of driving, like autocross, but that the vehicle lost much of its fluidity in other driving. I asked if felt the difference only in hard driving or in milder scenarios such as understeer turn-in, and he said that he noticed it most under lift throttle conditions, even in a straight line, the mechanics behind which I do not fully understand. He says the traction control is offered mainly because of the special dynamics associated with the new differential.

Braking Exercise (non-sport Elise): This would be my very first time in an Elise, and I had to learn the braking limits right away. I checked out the static pedal feel, and it felt soft in that the pedal didn't get appreciably harder with travel. I thought I would have difficulty modulating (since I'm used to force feedback), but it was nevertheless relatively easy. One end of the exercise was to stop as quickly as possible with minimal wheel lockup. The other end, if done correctly, involved bringing the car to a near stop, at which point you'd have to swerve to avoid a set of cones, causing inside front wheel lockup, releasing enough pressure to negotiate the turn, and then coming to a full stop. It took a couple times to figure out the start of the braking zone, but after that, it was relatively easy. On my last try, I was surprised with not front wheel lockup but rear wheel lockup. The instructor said that, in this exercise with the repeated stops, the rear brake temps get higher than the fronts, causing this phenomenon occasionally. Because we had to do some 3 point turns to restage for this exercise, I noticed how the non-power assisted steering could get annoying...particularly because I was struggling with my bad back. Slalom Exercise (sport Elise with Stage 2 exhaust): This was different from a standard slalom in that we didn't snake around a central line of cones. Instead, there were pairs of cones marking "gates" to go through. A very helpful instructor's tip was to look at the outside cone; I would have naturally looked at the inside cone, causing me to drive a tighter line than necessary. The Elise was fun here because the course was set up with varying inter-gate distances, allowing us to feather the throttle on and off and making use of steering with the throttle (to which the Elise is very sensitive). But the grip level was high...I never really felt the Elise get eerily loose, but I was focusing on smoothness and technique as opposed to driving at the limit.

Skipdad Exercise (non-sport Elise): I thought this would be difficult with the car's natural tendency to rotate. The circle was on a slight incline, with the uphill side wet. The rear tires were replaced with the skinny fronts to give the car more oversteer. Surprisingly, the car behaved beautifully to me; I found it to be the one of the easiest car to handle lift throttle oversteer with. As you increased speeds, you could feel the front start to lighten and wash out, and then right upon lift throttle, the rear would slide around smoothly, and unwinding the steering wheel corrected this tendency immediately, effectively and almost naturally. I just could not lose it entirely on the skidpad. I asked the instructor how to get more drama, and he told me to keep delaying my corrective steering so that I could attain a larger "drift," in hopes of a spin out, but I never really had to use opposite lock. I guess as a result, I was given the skidpad award for my sensitive to vehicle steering and natural knack for oversteer correction....

Track Exercise (sport Elise with Stage 2 exhaust): We were given a couple of sessions with the instructor by our side. Some random notes: There isn't enough torque, even in the tightest 2nd gear corner to powerslide the car, which was a bit surprising but comforting and allowed me to feel the full output of the engine throughout the rev range. The engine loves to rev, and the variable valve timing was largely unintrusive. I missed the 3-2 shift a couple of times (went to 4th). Rev matching and clutch modulation are surprisingly easy. By far the biggest difference with a "regular" car is in the steering. Efforts build very significantly under lateral loading, and you feel so much information transmitted through. I never felt I truly reached the limit where the front would wash out though. I had reached what I felt comfortable (with my skills and with the loads on my back), but there was lots more grip left. The car never really felt loose, even under trail braking. Even when the instructor did the hot laps (smooth but fast), I could see he was fighting with some understeer, which was surprising to me.

Summary: I wish I had been able to drive this car on normal, bumpy roads. The chassis did not seem unusually stiff, firm or harsh, but it's really hard to tell what it would be like on bad roads when coupled with the short wheelbase. But other than the 3-2 shift that required more effort than I had expected and a brake pedal that was lighter statically than anticipated, I loved the dynamics, as expected. I would have liked to put more sharp inputs to evaluate the transient (albeit partly irrelevant) response. If there's any "complaint," it's the heavier and telepathic steering, but that's more me than the car. What I mean is, the steering overwhelmed me a bit, making it the only thing that would make this car not viable as my almost-daily driver.

BMW Ultimate Drive: X3 3.0i/2.5i, 325i, 530i, 750i, 645Ci

It's my 3rd time participating in the BMW/Susan G. Komen Ultimate Drive for breast cancer research. I was able to make reservations for two X3's, but I scouted the other cars out for the one for a manual transmission. Unfortunately, there were none...looks like BMW learned not to provide any manual or M cars :( Most of these cars have around 25000 miles on them, and the route was a "square" adding up to a 10 mile road. Very few curves or high speed stretches, but lots of good road input (as in bad road surfaces).

X3 3.0i Sport
The interior quality seems to have improved slightly from last year, but there are still annoying rattles. The ride quality, just as the magazines say, was really terrible, both over the concrete slabs and the scalloped roads: overly controlled by damping even though there seems to be sufficient travel. I'm surprised BMW is not fixing this despite the complaints. On my first hard braking application, I felt what was like a pedal creak, a slight noise and vibration that was much faster and softer than ABS. I thought wow, ABS modulation has become so subtle and near-unnoticeable...until I really got into it another time. I think the slight creak/vibration is probably the EBD doing minor adjustments then? I got the DSC stability control light flashing on the course's only set of curves even though I could feel no intervention. Road noise was hideous on all surfaces and particularly when braking. The grip of AWD BMW's have always amazed me. Mash the throttle (or even brake torque it) from any right hander from a stop, and it'll just haul ahead with no hint of wheelspin, torque steer or significant sideslip. This X3 3.0i was no exception.

325i Sport
Next up came the 325i with sport package. What a sweet motor. It just zings and sings! (The tone isn't that exciting, but this engine loves to rev even though it's a bit dead down low.) I wish the 330i were on this drive.... BMW powertrain soul is finally back after it went down the flexible, broad-torque route since the mid-1990's. Other than the pushbutton starter which was different, the other thing I noticed was when I quickly hit the steering rack stop while backing out. "Oh, this must have the active steering," I told myself. Yes, it is extremely quick at low speeds, but if you're just cranking the wheel at low speeds, there's a bunch of funny noises, some of which you feel as quivers through the steering wheel. It makes it a lower quality feel, but it seems to work for the most part on the road, except for what feels like delayed force feedback. The electronically timed turn-signals also take a bit of getting used to. There were also other whistles and noises at standstill that I don't think would have made it through even for the Explorer that I am working on. Again, road noise was more than expected. Although the spirit of the 3 series lives on in this car, its character has changed somewhat. The steering is quicker and tighter overall and, somewhat disappointingly, it seems to have lost some of its isolation in terms of hard inputs, almost as if the tires themselves are underdamped or the structure is less damped. This just feels different from the outgoing 3 series, Z3 and X3. I guess that's understandable given that it has a new front and rear suspension. The suspension tuning is also a bit different with less rebound damping and making better use of available travel than what my memory tells me.

X3 2.5i
This car was available next. It felt rather rather anemic, but hey, the ride quality is probably where it should be. If I got an X3, I would not get the sport suspension/tire setup.... The brakes on this car were particularly touchy; very low effort for initial decel. Everything else is, well, as expected. One thing is certain. This car makes you forget you're in an SUV (except for the greater visibility).

530i Sport
Yes! Somehow this car and I connected, although I can't explain it. It still has a little quirky active steering, but maybe I'm getting used to it. Force buildup seems a bit delayed. I wonder if it's because I'm giving it very rapid inputs that you typically won't do in normal driving. The trans calibration seems to work well. The whole car not quite as eager or lively as the new 3 series, but it seems a little more obedient and with much better NVH control. Yet, there is still an after-ring on the rippled roads that did not seem to be around in older BMW's. Does the high aluminum content in the unsprung parts have something to do with it? Nevertheless, I love the turn-in on this car. The sideslip phasing is just nice, with a bit of a give from the rear tires (barely noticeable) to make the car rotate, but no wallowy, squirmy feel. Unless you're really paying attention to the nuances, the car just feels like it will slice zig-zags along the road. The sliding armrest is a little annoying because pulling back the parkbrake pushes the armrest out of the way.... This car, along with the new 6, have a very pretty melody to let you know your keys are still in the ignition if you open the door. Pulling it back into the parking spot surprised me because the brakes felt like they suddenly grabbed and the steering suddenly quickened up.

750i Sport
The classical music that the previous driver put on put me in a totally different mood. I spent most of the first few minutes playing with the controls (including iDrive) as opposed to driving it. Finally, road noise from the cheaper 3 and 5 series is gone, although wind noise is very evident if you don't close the moonroof's sunshade. The steering seems sooo slow, especially on turn-in. It's good that the car does not feel big, but it's almost as if it doesn't really want to turn-in. However, this is the first car of the day where power oversteer out of a corner is easily attained even though I had to go through the iDrive to turn off the DSC and DTC. The annoying thing is that even with the transmission in manual mode, once you start lighting up the rears in a corner, it'll shift into 2nd, which does a good job of substituting for the traction control which I wanted off! :( Surprisingly, the throttle and transmission calibration, when driven hard is very weird. In a forced low gear at high RPM's, the throttle is way too touchy, especially when combined with a delayed rubber-band effect in the driveline. Shifting through the gears at a stoplight also puts thunks through the body. But this car is ultrasmooth when driven mildly. It's almost as if the development guys thought it was unnecessary to tune out the bugs for spirited driving, since most people would not be pushing this car as hard anyway....

645Ci Convertible Sport
The last car of the day for me was the 645Ci Convertible. This car finally had enough power to make it fun, but, yawn...it's a cruiser, unfortunately, not a sports car. It's not exciting in ways other than straightline acceleration. The suspension is way softer than the other cars (other than the 750i) so the hard impacts are less noticeable, but the body quivers instead. Everytime I drive a convertible, I am surprised at how much difference there is. Maybe I'd like the coupe, but if I wanted a fun convertible, I'd use the money and take two Z4's anyday. Conveniently, a Z4 3.0i was following me, and it appeared to be able to keep up easily, right off the line at least. And why did the engine bounce off the rev limiter and then shift after a split second?!

Overall, I think BMW is growing up and offering more stuff for more people, whereas I am not growing up, at least not with cars. I'm looking for a car that listens and plays with you. I'd rather have one that complains occasionally and messes up sometimes when you're not quite careful but brings a smile to your face at other times, not one that is Miss submissive and do-it-all :) Next weekend is Grattan track school for me...I have a feeling my car in its current state is going to be a bit of a handful (loose) on the higher speed corners...

2005 Hyundai Sonata, 2004 and 2005 Ford Focus, and other rental cars

I had written most of this a long time ago but never sent it out... Most of my work rental cars were the Mercury Sable, Mazda 6i and the Hyundai Sonata V6. The Sable was not memorable other than what feels like a lot of lateral compliance from the tires or rear suspension (similar to when I had coilovers with Yokohama ES100 tires); the Mazda 6 has steering that's way too light in my opinion but could still be driven spiritedly with fun, and the turn-in and yaw gain was much better on this 4 cylinder with 16" steel wheels than my friend's sport hatchback which felt out of phase and a front that would want to tuck under.

Hyundai Sonata V6 (2005):

I spent the most time with the Sonata and actually found it to be quite memorable. The engine is dead down low but comes to live in the midrange and up which means I always have to reduce throttle significantly as the speed picks up to maintain a constant rate of acceleration. The manumatic works pretty well...it will actually let you start in 2nd gear unlike some others, and it won't downshift with a kickdown, which is my preferred mode of operation. The brakes need work. It is extremely light in the beginning and then starts to bite without a change in feedback force. As a result, it took me quite a while to "memorize" how much pedal travel I would need as I could not rely on the force feedback. But then once it grabs, you need quite a bit more effort to get a hard stop. I was trying it out on a high mu surface and was amazed how much effort I needed to apply to get the wheels to lock up. And when I finally did, it was the rears that locked first?! I do not know of any other car that does that.

The handling is a mixed bag. I like it but only because it's a good "training car." Even in mild cornering (0.2 G or so), you can feel the car change line as you get on and off the throttle (such as an on ramp). And although it's still steady state understeer, the rear would actually swing out significantly if you lift. Even more amazingly, once you touch the brakes, the rear would come around even more. Typically I like some oversteer on lift throttle but expect the compliances and brake distribution to cause understeer on brake apply for safety reasons. So this is not the car I would want for my grandparents, for example, even though it's fun and predictable. The ride feels just about right to me, but in the slaloms, this car could use a lot more damping as it feels like it wants to get tail happy on each turn. Coupled with the lift throttle and brake response, this is not a car that I would want to do an emergency manueuver in! Torque steer is well managed (except when you get single wheel hop in corners!) although the feel is too simulated for me, coming more from the geometry than from the road input.

The HVAC is fully automatic, which is a bit of a pleasant surprise, and it works quite well, clearly indicating what distribution, circulation and A/C mode it's in. The stereo actually uses a power antenna which kind of delays reception until the antenna is at least slightly up. Ergonomically, all I can say is that it's weird. I find that I sit too high (and the two height adjustments pivot around strange axes), my knees are close to the steering column, and yet I still can't get the steering wheel close enough.

Ford Focus (2004 and 2005):

I got tired of getting the same mid-sized cars and so decided to do a compact instead (even though it's only about $2 less). I don't actually have that much to say about this car because I like it as a whole. The powertrain NVH is a bit rough, and I wish it had more top end, but the ride and handling are really pretty good. The tires lack ultimate grip, but the handling balance, precision and predictability make it much more fun to drive than any of my other rental cars. Sensitivity to throttle, braking and steering inputs is just about right. The steering is a bit heavy for me, especially on center, but that's better than being too light. Brake feel is grabby enough yet easily modulated and firm too. My friend at work did the tuning for the 2005, and, yes, it is noticeably better :)

200x Ford GT (track)

This is the 550 hp mid-engined supercar formerly known as the GT40 (http://www.fordvehicles.com/fordgt) . I got a chance to drive this as they needed drivers to drive the car relatively briskly/hard on an autocross like course to prove out some new parts. It turns out that I'm certified for this type of driving, and the track happens to be the same one that I did the same my certification on, except that was in the wet and with cars with much less power. No street time in this car although I wish I had since I find I learn a lot about the car on the streets, but of course I'm ecstatic about being able to drive this car on a "track!" First, it's kind of cool that, as long as the door is open, you can put on your helmet after you've sat down.... This is probably the only ergonomically nice thing about part of the roof being part of the door :) However, after the drive, the top of my red helmet was all scuffed up due to the lack of headroom in this car (can't imagine what the 6' + people experience) and also because this car had no headliner. So I had to sit a bit more reclined than I would like to maximize the headroom. Fortunately the steering wheel tilts and telescopes. And even though my head is as high as it can be, visibility is still not that great, which makes it a little more challenging navigating around short cones. And rear visibility is pretty much limited to a nice view of the supercharger pulley :) The pedals are a bit too far to the right for my taste, but you soon forget about that so that means it can't be that far off.

The course was done all in 2nd gear (as instructed) although I think I would have liked 1st in some of the corners. Yes, that means I found it a bit slow! I can't believe this...I must be spoiled now. Well, the motor is very linear, but the course, being designed for use in the wet, was a bit too tight for a car of this size, and 1st would have been fun to rotate the rear, but it probably would have been difficult to drive too. As others commented, this particular old, beat up prototype with tires that were nearly gone by the time I drove, understeered. In fact, in the tight corners, it understeers even more than my car, which was a bit of a disappointment. On the slightly faster corners, it wasn't as bad, partly because there was enough torque to loosen up the rear. Where I really found this car to be a blast was in the transitions and slalom section (which we were told to skip, but I just had too much fun in it). The car really rotates and responds faster than I have ever experienced. A few times I thought I was way too late to turn in, but the car still co-operated. I guess that comes partly from the mid-engined nature of the car. What I found also was that the car's balance was extremely sensitive to throttle position. Whereas most cars would understeer pretty heavily if you went into a slalom slightly on the gas, I felt that this car needed some throttle just to plant the rear...unless I was late in which case closed throttle would quicken up the reaction even more, but then I'd need to get back on the gas slightly afterwards to prevent the car from overrotating. Overall, it was a blast, even though I think I would still prefer a smaller, lighter car. Power oversteer was amazingly easy to catch (and also maintain), which is a nice surprise from some of the cars I've driven recently :)

The brakes are really very strong, and because the car is so tied down, it feels particularly confident under braking, even though I personally would like an even harder pedal. The brakes slow the car down so quickly that I often feel I have slowed a bit too much for the turn whereas I'd rather have carried some brake into the turn to help the front end stick (since this car was understeering in steady state). I triggered the ABS numerous times, but I never quite figured out whether that slight uneasiness in the front was the ABS or something else. It almost felt like the front suspension was binding a bit or too hard to absorb the minor disturbances under hard braking. Not sure....

200x Ford Falcon Fairmont Ghia

This is an Australian (right hand drive) large family sedan, except that this one is fitted with a 5.4L modular 3 valve/cylinder V8. I got to drive this car over the weekend because this is a poolcar for my housemate's department...he works for Ford Powertrain. So I'll start with the engine...which is very smooth in power delivery and NVH...soooo quiet. The idle right after start and on revving just over idle in neutral is a little unstable though. In neutral, the highest that one can rev is 3000 rpm. In hard acceleration, the manumatic fuelcut is around 5500 rpm, and once you execute the upshift, the throttle opens up again and you get this surge as you get a bunch more torque...interesting feeling. There's enough torque and a high enough stall speed for the rear tires to chirp for a second or two when launching.

Ride wise, this car is quite good for bounce/pitch and also secondary impacts. Everything feels nicely rounded. Some aftershake shows that the structure is still not quite there, but Michigan roads really point out this type of weak spot. The Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires give a nice ride, but transmit a lot of audio feedback of the expansion strips that you don't even feel...you just hear it, especially from the rear, probably a result of the solid mounted subframe? By the way, this car uses the trailing blade suspension that was supposed to be common with the new Mustang until the latter switched to solid axle :( Overall, the car feels very undersprung and slightly underdamped. In other words, even though it's fast in a straight line, it's not very confidence inspiring in the corners; the outside front just feels like it's tucking under. I started getting used to it, but still don't like it. I think it's part geometry, part the low rates and part the tires. And because there's a lot of body motion, you really feel the car change direction under throttle on and off, not just from the tire slip angles but from the roll steer geometry. Didn't get to push this car hard in steady state corners, but this car can really get tail happy, not really under power, but under closed throttle snappy transitions! This car is also difficult to accelerate smoothly if you want to do it briskly because the transmission gets a bit confused on slight changes in throttle, and the soft springing makes the car pitch :( One nice feature of the transmission is that once you put it into manual/sport mode, it downshifts one gear if you are already in 4th, so it's easy to do a slight engine braking.

A thoughtful touch that most people probably won't even care about is the parking brake...how it beeps if you apply it while driving (as most modern cars do), but if you do it a second time, it doesn't beep anymore...which suggests to me that the programmers expect you to do some parking brake turns :) Speaking of brakes, I think the feel is quite good, except that I really couldn't evaluate it because this car has one or more awfully warped rotors noticeable when braking at any speed and downright scary when above 40 mph, and you're trying to do anything more than regular light braking!

Misc stuff: For some reason, this car not only lets you go into reverse without the brake on, but you don't even need to press the release lever on the gearshift! So you can knock the lever from park all the way to drive at any time?! If you hold the driver's side window button down for a while, the power doesn't cut; The relay just keeps clicking. The HVAC and audio system share the same color LCD display, except that it goes blank within about 2 seconds of idle, so I can never check the status of the HVAC or CD track without doing something else to wake it up. Maybe there is a special config feature. The headrests' highest position is about one inch off the top of the seat?!

Some quirks with driving a right hand drive car (especially on streets designed for left hand drive):
You can't get the ticket out of parking ticket dispenser, and you can't pay the cashier...
But you can throw a cup of ice-cream into a curbside garbage can!
Parallel parking is easy because you can see the curb and car in front of you :)
Left turns are the most awkward because you're at the outside edge of your car, trying to do a large radius turn. Overall, the roll feel is just awkward and would take getting used to.
The driver in the lane to the right of you is right next to you...which is convenient when you want to speak to the mechanic driving the Ford GT next to you, but annoying when kids roll down their windows and stare at the car wondering what the heck it is, especially since this car was bright yellow with a touch of green similar to the M3's color.
You accidentally move the wipers when you want to turn on a turn indicator, and when they turn on, they sweep in a different direction :)
The angled/dipped lowbeams point the wrong way...shines into oncoming traffic and leaves a darkspot along the edge of the road.
To enter manual mode, you push the shifter to the left, which makes it way too far to do manual shifting ergonomically.
The Valentine One radar detector's display is hard to see because it faces the left side seat.

2006 BMW 3 Series (E90)

The www.3acrossamerica.com event hit Detroit today. They had, on display, a 2002tii, E21 320i, E30 325is, E36 M3 Lightweight and an E46 325i. And of course, a new E90 325i and 330i. It was amazing to me how I could sit in even the late-70's, early 80's E21 320i and still felt right at home. The switchgear like the turn indicator stalks, gearshift, even the controls for the HVAC felt familiar! The 2002tii was quite a bit different though, and I think I'd need time to acclimate. The E36 M3 Lightweight unfortunately had the wrong wheels on...the polished ones that really were the E36 M3 convertible wheels in Europe (instead of the painted ones with the BMW Motorsport text).

Because we weren't given a chance to drive the new 3er, there's not much for me to add beyond what has already been published. The 325i is really a 3L engine with a less sophisticated intake system, and both cars post a 21/30 city/highway MPG fuel consumption. Both cars had the sport package and I think the premium too. Interestingly, the 325i sport package now has V rated tires (instead of W), even though both the 325i and the 330i use near identical runflat Bridgestone Potenza RE050A's. Well, the 325i one is the RE050A II, while the 330i is just the RE050A. The unexpected interior touch is that the rear passengers not only have their HVAC vent from the center, but they also get to adjust the temperature slightly with a dial marked with red and blue :)

The person who gave the intro to the cars was the M Brand Manager. When asked about safety, he noted that the front side airbags have now moved into the door, and the rear ones have been eliminated because there was no need. I asked later about the new 5 link rear suspension to see what his feel for its improvements were. I had tried to crawl under the car, but because the car was so low, I could only find 4 out of the 5 links...a trailing/diagonal link, an upper link and two lateral links. Interestingly, the two lateral links have joints basically one on top of the other. The response from the M Brand Manager wasn't very exciting. I was hinting that I wanted to know how the kinematics of compliance characteristics improved, but he basically told me that the old 3 link setup was good but couldn't handle the stresses of larger wheels and tires, and so they added the links to make it stiffer and prevent compliance induced toe change.

2005 Chevrolet Corvette (C6) Z51

Today was my last day at SVT. On my way out, the chief engineer said to me today that I left my mark behind because I can just look at the rear tires of the car when it comes out and can say that I made those tires work. In fact, the latest Motor Trend eluded to the work I was leading: "A clay model we inspected sat on 255/45ZR18 tires, but rolling-stock choices are still being finalized."

I also managed to get hold of our 2005 (C6) Corvette Z51 today and took it around town. And, fittingly for my last day, I was asked if I could drive the Ford GT this weekend on the track because they need certified "limit handling" drivers to do a 12 hour durability on it. So I'm looking forward to that unless the car breaks before I get to go in it :) Anyway, impressions on the C6 Z51 from a brief drive:

Very linear motor. Doesn't feel that strong at the low speeds but keeps building forever! I'm not fond of the sound though. The intake/exhaust seems too muted, so the primary noise is a cacophony of mechanical noise like valves, injectors, etc. The clutch grabs pretty quickly, so it takes some delicacy. And there's a lot of high frequency buzz coming through that can get annoying. Same with the shifter, which is even worse. It feels directly connected to the transaxle or something. The 1->4 force shift can be overcome with force, but overall the shifter doesn't feel snickety or buttery smooth.

Unfortunately, being on city roads, I didn't get a chance to really push the car handling wise. But it's one of those cars that seem to like it the harder you push it, so it should be very tossable on the track. This car is very easy to launch of the line. Little wheel spin or lots, you choose, as long as the traction control is off :) One thing I found quite unacceptable is that you can feel the toe change (crabbing) in the rear axle as you got onto the throttle hard (and then would change back as you lifted to shift). It feels like the subframe is shifting or one of the toe control bushings was out. But this car has been beat on very hard. The stability/yaw control does work! I gave it a lot of gas coming out of a bumpy corner, the car rotated until it tightened up the line and stapped rotating, with little reduction of exit speed unlike some systems that totally shut you down for a couple of seconds after pushing it too hard. I was in "competitive driving mode" though. Then I took it to our parking lot try to do a donut. Got started, but it shut me down. So I turned it off and had fun :) Brakes are just right in terms of feel and grabbiness for me. Didn't do any hard stops though, but those who have taken it to the track said they really held up well. Steering is precise and responsive but the feel is rubbery and slightly artificial. Now I know what my coworkers meant when they drove it before and said, "typical GM." Mustang is much better...even if it may be a bit too quick to yaw. The ride was certainly acceptable, and rolling plushness (smoothness feel of the tire as it rolls) was quite amazing given the road conditions and run flat tires. The rear impact harshness is definitely worse than the front, and the hatch could boom over certain surfaces to annoy me in Michigan.

The interior plastics do seem cheap and not up to par with the mechanical excellence. The heads up display works, but only if I slouch more than I normally would...or else I'd miss the display. Sorry this is short, but I only had a short drive! This car is not as refined as I thought it would be, but I hear that it comes alive on the track, so...that's where I'd need to take it before I can decide if I'd want it.

2005 Ford Mustang GT vs. 2004 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra

Over the past few weeks, I've spent some time with these cars both the new Mustang and the old Cobra on the track doing limit handling and as daily drivers, so thought I'd share some of my thoughts. In ways, these are very different cars. It's like comparing a 1980's E30 M3 with a 1990's E36 325is. Dimensionally much larger and heavier, the '05 Mustang GT (hereafter referred to as the "S197") is the next generation of the mainstream muscle car, while the '04 SVT Mustang Cobra (referred to as the "SN95") is a high performance, trackworthy version of the outgoing muscle car. And since the S197 is now out for public sale, and the SN95 is now out of production, I can talk about both :) I am currently working on the new Cobra slated for 2007, and although I can't talk about that, it won't be a surprise that it'll have the DNA of both these cars.

The new S197 is the much better daily driver. With more interior room and precisely tuned suspension and steering, this car is able to handle. It still feels large and slightly heavy, and visibility and ergonomics are not the greatest, but I could ride and drive it around everywhere, with the only complaint being some driveline noise (rear axle courtesy of Visteon and gearbox courtesy of Tremec). The powertrain note is relatively pleasant but is never quiet either. The aggressive electronic throttle mapping means that you can get it to roar at almost any engine speed and even get a bit of that close throttle popping from the exhaust manifolds. The clutch action is light, the shifter snickety and the steering, although precise, a little bit light for my personal taste. Controls are close by although some, such as the stalks that extend from the steering column, are a bit flimsy feeling. The steering column gets a little close to my knee. And why does the headlight dial force you to push forward to turn off the foglights before turning off all the lights? Almost every other car will shut off the fogs for you. The Shaker stereo system whose subwoofer takes up about a fifth of the trunk space has so much bass that most people would want to turn down the parametric bass setting well below nominal...the problem is that the control affects mid-bass as opposed to what the subwoofer is putting out. Disconnect the subwoofer and the boom goes away, but it still lacks the mid-bass that gives the warmth. The rear seats give sufficient legroom but not headroom due to the rear window, but I find the fact that the seatback does not remember its recline position quite unacceptable. Maybe most Mustang drivers don't use the rear seats, but when we're testing with equipment and riding 4-pass, we certainly do! The ride is composed, and the handling well balanced, although in the wet this car can get entertaining (though not unsafe) with the traction control off. The front suspension is a la BMW 3 series with an "L" lower arm and a McPherson Strut onto which the anti-roll bar attaches. The rear is the infamous solid axle which doesn't really make itself known other than the occasional mid-corner bump that affect ride and handling more than expected. Gone is the taxi cab feeling where it feels like the rear axle is so compliant laterally that you think it's dancing underneath your seat. The engine is interesting, rated at 300 hp @ 5750 RPM and 320 lb-ft @ 4500 RPM. I would have expected a traditional low end stormer, but it's not. Peak torque fairly high up so it does rev quite willingly even though it loses some steam right before the 6000 rpm redline. It has a nice hump of torque in the mid-range making it quite a fun car to drive. First gear is low enough for an effortless launch, but 5th is just super tall for anything below 100 mph.

In comparison, the old SN95 is an interesting beast. I wouldn't say it's loud, but it's certainly noisy. Windnoise, supercharger noise, gearbox noise (courtesy of Tremec again), tire noise, you name it. It's just a cacophonous machine! Steering is a little sloppy, and the clutch pedal is the heaviest of any production car I've been in since it's a cable operated single disc unit clamping down 390 hp and 390 lb-ft. The brake pedal is also the stiffest and highest of any car in my memory, which is great for feel, although it's impossible to heel-and-toe in regular driving. Fortunately you don't have to downshift much. This monster has so much torque that you can get going in 6th gear without touching the accelerator pedal. And at 40 mph, you can choose any of the 6 forward gears...what's your favorite number? :) In 6th gear at 70 mph, it has passing power well above my car in 4th gear (I can't go into 3rd because I will be at fuel cutoff hehe). The traction control is lame. In the dry it works OK for the most part because it allows enough wheelspin and lets you go sideways even, but once it decides it needs to protect you, the cut in torque is so shocking that it's like slamming on the brakes. In this car I'm more afraid of the traction control kicking in than the impending powerslide. In the wet, you can get severe wheelhop before it comes into play. Surprisingly, the stereo system in this car is much better to me...the warmth is there without being overwhelming.

On the track, these cars are even more different. The new S197 is quite responsive to steering inputs with progressive mild understeer, but it allows you to play with the throttle. It doesn't quite have the torque to blast out of the corners, but as long as you're smooth with it, it rewards and communicates. The track that we have has huge elevation changes over a short span, including ones that make you catch air, land and hop sideways, but the one that I'm least comfortable with is a large sweeper with a crest in mid-corner and then goes off camber after the crest. Here, the rear end of the car is never quite secure, and because the road drops away from you not only downward but also sloped outward, if you don't get the car turned in before you hit the crest, off the track you go after the crest! None of us really lost the car here but it's not the corner that you'd want to play with. The shifter, brakes. pedal placement and throttle calibration allowed for easy, thoughtless heel-and-toe shifting.

The old SN95 is at home on the track, but in a very different way. Its cramped cabin makes you feel more in touch with the car. And you can actually heel-and-toe (sort of) because you're much harder on the brakes. It has enough torque to blast out of the corners and puts a grin on your face doing it because where as the S197 is a little nervous sliding sideways and going forward at the same time, the SN95 allows you to put large sideslip angles and lets you feel the bushings working without being nervous. This means you can slowly rotate the car with power, and even when you're going quite sideways, it's comfortable doing it. And that mid-corner, off-camber crest? Almost a non-event with this car. Credit the independent rear suspension for this (double A-arms + toe link on an isolated steel subframe) and also the 275/40ZR17 (which tramline like crazy by the way) vs. the 235/55R17's of the S197. The front end of the SN95 is, well, not very responsive. In mid-corners, your steering inputs are replied by a rubbery feel, and quick transients just make the front end wash out without much feedback. The modified McPherson Struts where the springs are mounted inboard of the struts as opposed to being coilover are an interesting design. Overall, I know was much faster and much more comfortable with the old SN95 on this track, so this venerable beast would be my choice here, although I wish I could get my feedback and response from the steering.

As a daily driver, however, the improved NVH and refinement of the new S197 gets my pick. The only problem is that this car gets so many stares, thumbs up, street racing threats and comments by import drivers and Mustang fans alike that remind me that I can't go blasting around without being seen...

2005 Ford GT

It's my last day at work for the year, and what a better way to finish it off than driving a $140k Ferrari class Ford GT(40)! I see these all the time in our garage, but the majority of my coworkers haven't even driven it. Somehow it got around to me today!

Unfortunately it was raining, so it was hard to make use of the 550 hp, and there was no way to get the 3.x second 0-60 MPH time on wet ground :) But I did discover that you only need 1st gear to get to 60! I've driven this engine, slightly detuned, in other cars and found a lack of low end torque, but here it isn't even noticeable except below 1000 RPM if you just slip out the clutch and pull right from idle.


Anyway, I only had about 15 minutes with the car, so no complete review here.... But became immediately obvious what that the car was so liveable, even as a daily driver. You feel everything, but just slightly. The abruptness and choppiness were better than many "regular" cars out there in my opinion. Impact harshness was quite audible (especially at the front), but not very disturbing at all in terms of feel. Obviously I didn't push this car hard in the corners like I normally would, but I got just enough speed to get a feel of the mid-corner throttle change effects. And I did an ABS stop at low speeds just to give it a shot. Just rolling moderartely into the throttle in first gear will spin the rear wheels. And before you know it, you've hit 80 MPH. And it feels like half that.

The worst part is probably the ergonomics and vision. Much of the roof opens up with the door, so you think you're going to chop your head off when you close it! The exterior rearview mirrors are tiny, and the interior mirror just gives a good view of the engine behind you. Even though the supercharger pulley is right behind my right shoulder, it really wasn't that audible. The sound (which is awesome by the way, especially at high revs) just surrounds you instead of seemingly from right behind you. The steering wheel is tiny, but there's nothing wrong with that, other than it blocks the top of the tachometer for me. Some complained of high friction, but I actually like that feel as it allows you to keep a slightly off-center angle without much effort. It doesn't feel extremely quick (it's about 3 turns lock to lock), but the feel is there obviously. It just turns right away, without lag and without being overly quick (which I've found to be the case in some Fords once you get past the initial delay.) The gas and brake pedals are close enough to do heel and toe, but the brake pedal is a bit high relatively; it'd probably be perfect on the track. The clutch is light and progressive (but too far to the right for me), and the gas pedal is slightly on the heavy side for me, which is probably a good thing to keep all the horses in check. The shifter on this 38000 mile car felt sticky left to right. This car had a pretty looking McIntosh head unit instead of the terrible Rockford Fosgate one (I only know it's terrible because I have a similar one in my car!)

Interestingly, the wiper and turn signal stalks are out of the Focus, and even the click-clack sound is the same :) Door latches are fully electronic, so when you lock and unlock the door, instead of hearing the mechanicals, you get a beep (or two) instead :)

That's about it for now. Rather short for my standards, but I'd need to spend more time with the car to say more!

2005 Mercedes-Benz ML350

I got a chance to spend about 300 km in an ML350 on Vancouver city roads. Some disclaimers first. The cars I've driven recently are almost all performance sports car, other than the SVT Lightning, so my baseline and expectations for a luxury SUV may be way off :) Also, this car only had about 250 km on the odometer when I tried it, so I didn't push it as hard (especially the engine) as I normally would.

Overall, I was very unimpressed :( Funny that the version I drove was the Special Edition, since there really was nothing special about this vehicle. I was expecting equipment level similar to that of the E Class, but it wasn't even close. No headlight washers (and this is an SUV in Canada!), no seat memory which means no curb setting for the right side rearview mirror, no steering wheel buttons/controls, no telescoping steering wheel (although it does have a telltale for when the tilt wheel is unlocked), not even a locking glove box. And the homelink garage opening buttons are mounted on a flimsy piece of plastic that leaks light from the dome light. The trip computer is on the overhead console, and supplies minimal information. It's clearly an afterthought and attempt to keep up with the competition because it's hard to use and hard to see. And why does the interior have redundant map lights, both in the overhead console and under the rearview mirror? Perhaps the mirror is carryover equipment from another vehicle and just happens to have a map lights. The xenon low beams don't seem that great at all, and neither the high beams nor fogs do much to help. Well, at least the Special Edition has the Dunlop SP5000 255/55VR17 tires from the ML500.

This is a 4800 lb truck! And although overall grip was quite impressive (in both the dry and the rain...these tires aren't bad), it does not like to play. It is understeer all the way, in seemingly every condition. It doesn't even feel like it wants to rotate or yaw. Mind you, I was limiting myself in how much I could upset the car since I didn't want to overstress the new engine. The overall steering ratio is the slowest I've ever experienced I think (meaning that you need to turn the wheel very far), and there's pump catch (where the steering loses power assist when you steer quickly at a low speed so it becomes really hard to turn the wheel anymore). I think I must tend to give really quick steering inputs since the Mercedes E Class was a huge problem for me (that one has electric power steering), and it took several reviews before a journalist pointed it out. The Mazda 3 also exhibited this when I was driving it through an emergency lane change setup. The steering efforts overall were fine, but the self-centering at center +/- 90 was the most mimimal of any vehicle I've been in. I do like having to recenter the wheel myself the last 15 degrees or so, but not the last 90! This happened several times going up/down parking lot ramps: I accelerate out and find that I have to yank the wheel back to center, and because there is pump catch, I can't get the wheel back to center :( In case you're wondering why I talk so much about steering now, I'm the engineer for part of the steering system on the Mustang Cobra :) Oh yeah, although the optional tires may be grippy, this truck has an unacceptable tendency to wander across ruts/grooves and does not track straight when the road is anything but perfectly horizontal. My car is pretty bad for this in comparison to the majority of cars on the road, and so is the old Mustang Cobra, but at least these cars give good road feel through the steering.

OK, so the engine is interesting. I only went up to about 5000 rpm since it's still a newbie, and I discovered that it really comes alive over 3000 rpm. I looked up the torque spec, and it's no surprise that its torque peak is a plateau from 3000-4500 rpm. So this car can gain some speed quickly, but the torque hump is almost too abrupt and, depending on what the unexplored top end is like, seems more suited for a manual transmission. Fortunately the first 2 gears are very low, so it still feels OK off the line. The transmission shift logic is really pretty good. It finds the right gear most of the time and clearly looks at how quickly you change throttle position and not just the position itself. It is prompt to do 4-to-3 downshifts, but very reluctant in doing 3-to-2, probably because 2nd gear is soooo low. This is the first time I've been in a vehicle with the manual override on the left/right of D as opposed to being in a different fore/aft. And it works, ergonomically because whenever you want to go back to regular D, you just hold the shifter to the right for a second, and you're there. There's no need to switch to a different gate. And although it will downshift when you pull left and upshift when you push right, it actually doesn't hold that gear forever. In the end, an indication of "3" means that it will use the first 3 gears, like a regular automatic. So this is a weird system. It's not the true manual override but looks like one. It works for the most part. I did try the low range for a little bit. Lots of gear whine, but I guess it's acceptable since it is for off-road use. It will not shift out of low range even in neutral at speed. I need to be near stopped, which meant that I was driving on this small highway for a while stuck in low range. The manual also mentions that the electronics are calibrated differently in low range so that's good :)

OK, here's the worst part of the car. The primary ride (that is, over low frequency waves and inputs) is fine; there is no pitching or weird stuff. But the secondary ride (response to sharper, smaller impacts) is unacceptable. First you realize that this must be a body on frame car because there is so little structural damping. Various parts of the car quiver and wiggle after the bump, very atypical of Mercedes. It's on the borderline where I'd say that the springs, tires and shocks are too stiff for the body to handle properly. And despite being stiff, there is still a lot of vertical body motion (both float and abruptness coming through from the bumps). I guess it's a good thing that Mercedes advertises that it has 200 mm of total suspension travel because it seems to need it! By the way, even the Mustang can come pretty close to that number! The terrible overall ride really reveals the age of this design. And there seems to be quite a bit of lateral and vertical coupling of the motions in the rear. Feels like a high roll center or some funny compliance/bump steer there.

The foot controls....The accelerator pedal is sticky, which is hard to believe considering I'm just stepping on a lever actuating a potentiometer. The cruise control stalk feels like it's going to fall off since it's teeny and has a whole bunch of bends. And the brake pedal...yikes...worst initial brake feel. Not only is there a lot of travel before anything happens, the effort initially is a little high, and I feel like I'm stepping on a spring pendulum. It's an all artificial feel. I did not attempt to invoke the ABS on these fresh pads, rotors and tires. Fortunately the anti-dive/lift is sufficient. In this area it's a lot better than the E Class which dives a whole bunch and feels like it either has super soft front springs or pro-dive for improving impact harshness!

Now the minor things. The ventilation system can be run in fully automatic mode and works quite well (the rear has its override controls), but in the chilly fall weather, I found that, although the temperature was about right, there was too little flow so parts of my body wasn't warm enough. Anyway, that's a small gripe compared to some of the others I've already mentioned. The door closing sound is not typical Mercedes. It's not entirely cheap sounding, but it just sounds weird :) However, the rear seat fold/tumble system is nice and solid. And the fact that you could add two more seats is pretty cool. I didn't check on the spare tire/wheel, but it looks like it's not going to be a lot of fun based on the instructions from the owner's manual :(

2004 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra

I had this car over the weekend and for a few laps on the track at Gingerman Raceway. I also drove the BMW M5 on the track (see below) and a prototype of the '07 Cobra (but I'm not going to write about that because I don't think I should)!

The '04 Cobra though is more fun than I had expected. The torque and power are incredible. 3rd gear is like my 1st, 6th is like my 3rd.... And even though people say the suspension is hard and not a daily driver, I don't mind it at all. In fact, it has significantly less rebound damping than my current setup, and there is much less roll. Sure, the driveline clunks and the clutch pedal is heavier than any street car I've been in, and there seems to be a lot of axle/driveshaft noise, but it's still a blast. There is less pitching and vertical movement than in my car, and even though the soft platform is made known over some of the bigger bumps, overall it's not a huge problem. This is still miles ahead of the base convertible that I rented before. I never thought I'd like torque this much. The brake pedal is very firm and grab quickly, even though they are known to be a weak point in terms of durability. My supervisor came to the end of the 2nd long straight with sparks flying from the brakes, but to me it looked more like fire. We all waved to tell him to take it easy :) Once the ABS comes in, it seems to cut back a bit too much pressure though.

The stereo takes a while to power up, and the display doesn't takes the same length of time to change, so several times I kept pressing the power button thinking that I didn't press it hard enough. And when the soudn comes on, the tweeter comes on first, which sounds really bad. Squeaks and rattles were few, although there was a clear noise leak from the right frameless window. You have to press and release the rear defogger button before the indicator lamp comes on. But for the traction control button, the indicator changes once you depress. Speaking of traction control, it allows a pleasant amount of wheelspin, enough that you could leave it on and still kick the rear out a bit. But once it comes in, it's quite abrupt, and it upsets the whole car. The system is necessary because it's possible to spin the wheels in 3rd gear at high speed in the wet. Thus I was able to practice donuts and burnouts...briefly in the wet...because the car was to be used as the baseline car on the track.

I enjoyed the balance of this car. It's more neutral than almost any other car I've driven. And unless you go into a corner way hot, you always have enough reserve to rotate the car with the throttle. It's sure a funny feeling to get on the gas moderately on an on ramp and get the line to *tighten* instead of widen with more throttle. The wide front tires (275/40ZR17) don't do that well in the wet though. And the steering, although not terrible in transmitting disturbances, really gets affected by road crown. On the track, it feels too light and doesn't give you the feedback of cornering load by increasing centering torque. But without the extra load, it's easy to flick around with not too much effort. The car seems to respond nicely to lift throttle and light braking...not totally unresponsive and not scarily quick to rotate either.

The suede seats are awesome. You can adjust the width of the lateral bolsters (both the leg ones and the torson ones), but the controls are in a funny location (at the front edge). And to move the seat fore/aft, you move the lever left/right. I can't believe there is no way to select a bi-level air distribution either :(

2001 BMW M5

This was the first car I took onto Gingerman Raceway. Having driven an '04 SVT Cobra the whole weekend, this car felt really awkward. The clutch pedal seemed so light in comparsion, and the brake pedal had so much travel that I thought I was pressing on air! And in comparison, this car has no torque, even though I'm running right around redline. And it has a ton of understeer. The other guys said they could only get it to oversteer if they gunned it in a low gear in a tight corner. For me, it was in a S-section of the track, mixed with lifting the throttle. The shifter feels a bit light and sloppy in the fore/aft plane, but the steering builds force nicely. In fact, it gets a bit too heavy at maximum lateral G's. The feedback is good, but I think it'd get tiring after a while. This is not my idea of a track car, but considering that it seats 5 relatively comfortably and can run all day with the sports cars and come within a couple percent in terms of lap times, that's not bad! Here's a photo of me driving it.

2005 Chevrolet Corvette

I didn't get a chance to drive this car :( But I rode in it at least, and that was a blast in itself. It allows you to leave the active handling (stability control) on but turn off the traction control, which is pretty cool because that means you can get the rear tires spinning a bit and the car going sideways, and as long as you do it smoothly, it'll be happy. But once you start gaining a lot of yaw, then the binders come in and restore you to the proper angle as dictated by your steering wheel position.

According to the drivers, the steering wheel was unfortunately numb. The rear end is also quite jarring on the streets (especially in comparison to the fronts). But take it on the track, and the car comes alive. Being in the low 3000 lb range compared to the heavier M5 and Cobra, this car was a lot more nimble. Even sitting in the car I could tell that the front end gripped much better, and it was a blast to feel a few degrees of sideslip (going sideways) predictably. The normally aspirated and not so peaky engine was fun in its own way. The brakes are glass smooth, whereas the other cars you could feel, even as a passenger, some of the grittiness coming through. And very effective, time after time. This car is about fun! The heads-up display was supposedly quite cool, but I couldn't see it from the passenger's seat :)

2004 VW Golf R32

SVT got a surprise R32 this week with the DSG dual clutch sequential manual :) This is the $29k Golf with the 18" performance tires, Haldex AWD, 240 hp VR6, fully independent rear suspension...

Some brief comments...too lazy to write in paragraphs now...

-Stiff ride (choppy in rear where I sat through one drive as expected) but not harsh at all. Reminds me of my car when I had coilovers, with better harshness control. But when I started driving, I felt that the structure was less stiff than I had expected compared to just riding in it. Some disconnect between steering wheel and body. I think it needs stiffer bushings at the rear of the front control arm, or the brace that you have, Andrew. A very mild version of the out-of-phase shake that disturbs me a lot on convertibles...and the Windstar...Some unnecessary secondary ride high frequency input that is evident again, only from the driver's seat. Feels like shocks could use less high speed damping. Overall ride is close to my car with the coilovers on, but not quite as stiff over the big bumps.

-Front suspension is basically the same design as the other Golfs. Blue springs say VW racing or something like that on them. Rear suspension is unique trailing link with two lateral links. Spring sits on the trailing arm. Very similar to the Mini Cooper and Ford Escape / Mazda Tribute, all of which are similar to the BMW 3 series design. Rear bar and shock shares a single fastening point on the trailing arm end. Shocks are inclined to the rear about 30+ degrees from vertical, probably to allow the rear halfshafts to pass through?!

-Tires (Pilot Sports) like to make noise, even in the sublimit linear range, it starts to make light noise to give feedback of cornering force.

-Brakes a bit soft/long travel initially, given class of car. Huge front brakes though.

-Not enough power to get the car into trouble in the dry. Almost no torque steer (a big plus). Probably best steering of a non-RWD car I've driven, except for some of the AWD BMWs (but they don't have enough torque to make much disturbance anyway).

-Rear end can be adjusted under lift throttle once front end nears saturation...nice. Didn't try to get it to rotate in brake and turn.

-Downshifts are amazingly fast and smooth. I guess that's the benefit of the dual clutch. Upshifts are comparatively slow, surprisingly, but very smooth. Feels smoother than an automatic on an upshift, unlike BMW's SMG where it feels like a hard manual shift. Shifts are so smooth that I would probably just shift for the fun of it. Torque to the wheels remain exactly the same as long as you hold the throttle the same. So shifting gears is basically like changing musical notes. Upshifts especially slow if you rev a bit too high on the 1-2. The gentle rev limiter comes in, and it won't upshift for you until the RPM drops enough (slowly). Very annoying.

-Will downshift upon WOT even in full manual mode. Will not allow starts in anything other than 1st gear from what we could tell.

-Regular automatic mode will go into 6th ASAP. Sport automatic mode likes to hold the lowest possible gear, even when it's totally unnecessary. In either auto mode, a flick of the lever will put it into manual mode and remain that way.

-Engine note is droning at low RPMs (up to 2500) with moderate throttle openings. I would avoid that range in my driving, which means you can't leave it in auto mode either.

-Power delivery is very linear. Would like more top end though.

-Seats are nice. Side bolsters are very large. So large that my elbow interferes with it when using a lot of steering lock. The folding forward folds on 2 (or was it 3) dimensions. If you push it back wrong, the integrated headrest would get stuck on the visor. The recline and lumbar knobs are on the door side. I'd rather have it on the inboard side because there's not enough room between the door knobs to turn them properly.

2004 BMW 325Ci Convertible

[Part of BMW Ultimate Driving Experience.]

I had a bit of time before the event, and this car was available for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Drive for the Cure, so I took it out. A 10 mile route is described on a piece of paper in the car. I wasn't particularly excited about this car, but I thought it'd be a good comparison as I've driven my mom's 325xiT (the all wheel drive wagon version which just has way too much grip to be exciting). So I thought that this car, being traditional RWD should serve as a good comparison. I walk up to it, but I notice it has the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires. Why does this car have racing/competition tires?! First impressions. Heavier steering, much better than the 2001 330Ci I drove a couple of weekends ago. And a firm, quick biting brake pedal. I come to the first corner (left hander at a traffic light), and I floor it in 1st gear. Get a hint of understeer, expect the rear to come around slightly as it goes over the same bump, but it doesn't, and the line tightens. Oops. Forgot to turn off stability control. At least there was no squealing...these tires are nice for grip. Turned it off entirely (including the traction control) and continued with the drive. Looked for the paper with directions...it had fallen off the seat from the cornering. This car has too much cowl shake. Nothing like the coupe. After about 8 miles and going through some bumpy roads in the area, I've had enough. The open air experience isn't enough for me to forgive the lack of rigidity. Miles ahead of the Mustang convertible that I rented at Disneyland, but this still isn't a performance car. And the grippy tires make the car very darty. I'm constantly correcting the steering. Feels like too much toe-out. On the final turn back, a right hander, I floor it to try to get the rear to come out. Stability control didn't kick in (it was off), but just where I thought it was about the slide, the transmission shifts to 2nd. Oops. I had depressed the gas too much (activated the kickdown which took gave automatic control). It was a hard shift, harder than I've ever felt in an automatic. I don't think it was good. A fun ride but not the driver's car I remember BMWs to be.

2004 BMW X3 3.0i

[Part of BMW Ultimate Driving Experience.]

The intro session/chalk talk was quite well done. Apparently someone had stolen one of the cars after a drive in LA and went all the way to Florida. But instead of jail, he was given the choice to give a donation to Susan G. Komen instead :) The worst part about this car is its interior. Not only does it look inferior to other BMWs, it squeaks and rattles all over, particularly in the door panel and window area, constantly! But, it drives nicely. This is the hardest I've ever pushed any car with the stability control on. And it can be fun with it on. The corners were faster than most autocrosses I've been on. The Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s squeal a ton, but the car responds nicely. The instructor said I was very smooth and asked if I did ski racing (or was it race skiing), but I felt it difficult to be smooth on the throttle. We were running the Steptronic in 2nd gear, but most of the time I was in the 5000 rpm range, and the throttle is still more sensitive than my car with its nice torque. The xDrive is seemless. No hint of torque steer or much understeer under power when driven smoothly. I'm actually surprised at how easily the rear end will sidestep slightly under lift throttle, just like my car does. But the stability control comes in gently. As the instructor said, we'll leave the 4 Germans under the car to do their work :) There is quite a bit of roll, but this car is definitely well balanced. I can't seem to throw the rear around under power, but it's smooth and quick.

2004 BMW Z4 3.0i

[Part of BMW Ultimate Driving Experience.]

I was waiting for the 2.5 with SMG (sequential manual gearbox) or the 545i manual, but both were "booked." In any case, two guys took the 2.5 SMG out for over an hour, so it became MIA. This 3.0 would be my second convertible of the day, and I didn't want to be disappointed again. I move the steering wheel and it's very light. Uh oh. I blip the throttle. It has a nice burble when the throttle is closed. Once I start moving, I realize this was going to be much more fun than the 325Ci convertible. Best automatic I've been in. Very fast, very smooth. I think if I wanted someone/thing to shift for me, I'd take this over the SMG. I do that first left hander again, and it's uneventful, but significant tire squeal. Despite the steering being light at a standstill, it firms up with speed. I think its weighting and precision is better than any car I've driven lately. The ratio is quick too, as I flicked it on a straight and got the Michelin Pilots to squeal. I tried it again. These tires squeal a lot for the max performance category! But at least the they don't make the front end dart around. Lots of bounce, especially from thee rear axle. This is much more of a performance car. It makes me want to drive it hard. The structure is pretty good. Not great but not annoying like the 3 series convertible. I turn on sport mode. The throttle response is much better, but it doesn't make the car suddenly lurch ahead like it does in the M3. I don't think it's really a necessary feature though. At a faster right hander, I get on the gas early hoping that the power would send the rear out slightly. But again, the front tires squeal. I think BMW built too much understeer in to deal with the power. Oh well. I do that last right hander as I did in the 325Ci, but again, I pressed the pedal down too far to activate the kickdown/automatic mode (these cars have less pedal travel than my car). Again, it upshifted just as I was expecting the rear to come around slightly. But at least the shift was smooth.

Overall, I would get the Z4 3.0, but in manual of course. The X3 3.0 is a fun car if I only could have one car and it had to be practical. The 325Ci convertible I would not get. I go back to my 318is. Wow, the structure is a lot better than these convertibles. And, despite having much less torque, I can actually snap the rear end around if I set it up properly. Looking forward to the 1 series...

2001 BMW 330Ci

Drove a manual 330Ci coupe (sport pack) briefly yesterday, and here are some unorganized thoughts.

Low end of the engine feels a little soft. Didn't spend enough time to figure out if it was the throttle response or the engine. Mid and high end are nice. More fun than a 328Ci automatic and much more fun than a 325xiA automatic which doesn't have enough torque to the rear wheels to make the car come alive under throttle. Much nicer exhaust note than either car, probably helped by the K&N cone filter.

Switched off the DSC stability control and the ADB differential braking (traction control) as well. Kicked the tail out in 1st gear at a Michigan left (U-turn). Still don't think I could like FWD because RWD is just too much fun :) I don't think I need this much power for daily driving, but I like the ability to be able to throw the rear out without planning for it with a trail brake entry or waiting for foul weather.

Found that I had to lift off the throttle completely between shifts to get the revs to match, whereas in my car I actually need to hold the throttle open slightly or else the revs would drop too quickly. Noticeably less total travel than the E36.

Shifter is a little long and light but fairly typical BMW.

Steering is definitely light. I think this is one of the first 2001s with the lightened steering that people didn't like. I don't think feel is diminished that much, and the lightness is acceptable, just not preferred for me.

Secondary ride from harsh inputs feels too filtered for me, coming from my car. I don't think I'm feeling the road texture as well as I'd like. It's not the tires because the car was shod with the "hard" S-03s. I'm sure it works well on the roads here, but I'd like more input and feedback. Abuptness from heavy damping was also absent.

Brake pedal initial travel was about the same as mine...meaning it's more so than other E46s I've driven.

I know what people mean by the clutch hydraulic delay valve now. I didn't do any hard starts, so it didn't bother me there. But in my faster shifts...well it wasn't very fast. And I couldn't get it to jerk like in an M5 or M3 SMG. Seems like the clutch was grabbing slightly more gradually than my foot was dictating.

Overall a fun car that's filtered nicely for daily fast driving (goes fast without really knowing it), but lacks the directness and liveliness of the E36 platform or the urgency (that makes you want to push it to redline everytime) and directness of the E46 M3.

2004 Subaru WRX STi

[Short review from brief drive at Tail of the Dragon]
Got a brief drive in this car, not in the twistiest section and not pushing it that hard, but this is one beast! When the turbo comes on, it's a serious "concave up" type of feel. Wish it had more anti-lift/squat though. I'm not used to the behavior at all. In tight corners, the torque steer pulls the car hard into the corner, requiring me to center the wheel manually. Self-centering torque builds up really quickly off center. Brake feel is awesome: firm and no deadband. A variety of strange driveline and road noises permeate the cabin. Incredible mid-range pull. This is not an easy car to drive fast until you learn all its chassis and powertrain traits.

2002 BMW M3 SMG

[Short review from brief drive at Tail of the Dragon]
Despite being similarly powered as the STi, this car feels like it can be driven fast quite nicely. Superb top end pull. SMG is super fast when pushed, accompanied by a hard thunk through the driveline that just can't be good. Some light shifts feel kind of slow though, especially the downshifts where it takes its time to match the revs instead of a quick blip. It's a totally different experience. I think some of the shifts are not actually slow but feel a bit slow because I'm expecting the near-seamless torque delivery of an automatic based shift. Instead, I pull the paddle, and there's some time (when I'd be doing my shifting on a normal transmission) before the power comes back on. I guess we need to ask the passenger for a fairer comparison. On the large throttle shifts, however, these are just amazingly fast. I'm happy that BMW kept the rapid throttle response on lift throttle to actually get true lift throttle oversteer instead of a damped closing like on the non-M cars.

2004 Mazda 6i

I got a chance to rent a 2004 Mazda 6i (inline 4, auto) in San Francisco. I didn't drive it as hard as I normally would, but I did get to take it on a few twisty roads. Again, this is a brief review only. I think the car needs more rebound damping. It's better than the other cars in the class, and the overall feel is good; in fact, it is quite confidence inspiring in the corners, but it's over highway undulations that the car tends to float a bit, and the steering is light enough that my vertical motion causes me to input some steering. But fortunately the steering is not too sensitive on center, so the car doesn't actually wander as a result. If the steering were very quick, then this could be a problem. Understeer dominates of course, but wheelspin coming out of tight corners is actually quite mild, and torque steer is not much of an issue. It was definitely more annoying in the 6s (V6) version that I had driven before. The semi-automatic transmission works quite well. It can be a bit jerky at times, but it shifts quickly. I wish it displayed the selected gear even in automatic mode, but it doesn't. Strangely, it does in the Mazda 3. Perhaps the best thing is that the transmission does not upshift. Instead, you bounce off the rev limiter. It's not a soft cut either. It just bounces at the limiter. That's great, but it can also catch you by surprise of course. Turn-in is OK. There's a little bit too much initial roll I feel, but I'm not sure if that's actual springs and sidewalls deflecting, or if it's just from the high caster and diagonal weight transfer. Basically, the steering has quite a strong on centerness to it that anytime you go off center, you also feel the car rolling with it. I like the brake feel on this car. It grabs early and firmly. However, there's no ABS as I tested on purpose coming down on a steep San Francisco hill :)

DSC-X traction/stability control update (2003 BMW 325xi Touring Wagon)

I had already written a review of this car but I found out a lot more about it when I drove it over Christmas break and when there was lots of snow. In general, this stability control system with AWD is quite awesome. Actually, what's more amazing is how little the car needs to invoke it. Like I wrote before, in the dry and wet, you could floor it around the tightest corners, and the car would just pull itself through without any fuss. In the snow you finally get into the system, but it manages the tires' traction well. Initially, under hard throttle, whether in a corner or not, you sense the rear sidestep a little bit (probably from the initial torque bias), but then the electronics take over and it pulls itself straight (not that it really went sideways initially, but it's just a slight twitch that gets corrected). And it's a system that allows for some slight drifting in the snow, but if you open the throttle too much, and the system senses that it needs to reign you in, it will cut the throttle so much that you end up just slowing down a lot. So the trick is to stay on the verge to have the system help you but not let it take full control. It's been a while since I drove this car, so I've forgotten a lot already. But I do remember too problems with the system. One is if you're entering a 90 degree snowy corner a bit too fast, and you start to get understeer. Enough understeer to make you realize you're understeering, but the corner is so tight and relatively slow anyway, the sensors don't seem to pick up the seriousness of the understeer. I think it's probably relying on integrating the error in this case, and since the yaw rate is relatively low anyway, it doesn't do much. So it's still possible to enter a slow corner a bit too fast, and if you're hoping that the system will pick up the understeer, it doesn't always. Perhaps the trick is to add a lot of steering lock once you feel the understeer in order to get the control system to kick in abruptly. The other problem, which may actually be a loophole for fun in the system is if you start a tight turn from a stop and increase speed slowly. At some point you can add more throttle. As long as you don't add it too abruptly, you can have tons of fun. Somehow the system will get confused and allow for serious drifting basically pivoting on its front tires. I'm not sure why, but I was able to repeat it as long as I started off slowly and didn't hit any understeer. If I hit understeer first, then the throttle will get cut. The system also allows for a different winter driving technique. Basically you can turn in a bit earlier and a bit extra, punch the throttle to kick the rear out. And it will seem to allow the rear to kick out enough to straighten the car, and it will apply the outside front brake and cut ignition timing briefly to stop the rear end from rotating further, and the car will blast out straight. I guess it's sort of the electronic version of the viscous center diffs. Basically the system is great fun as long as you don't get it too paranoid by going all out crazy initially.

2003 BMW 325xi Touring Wagon

I recently drove on a weekend at home my mom's new 2003 325xi automatic touring wagon. The last E46 I drove was the 2000 328CiA coupe that I wrote about in July. This won't be as complete or as coherent a review as normal as I don't really feel up to it.

I love the rain sensor! It's not perfect, but it does make things a lot easier in the rain. Only when I returned to my non-rain sensor car did I realize how annoying it was to adjust wiper speed. Rear wiper intermittent timing is programmable. But because the rate at which the rear window fills up changes so much depending on speed, there's not much point in programming it. If anything, a rear rain sensor would be most beneficial.

Xenon headlights still aren't as great as I read about. It is certainly better, but it's nowhere near a night and day difference that people rave about. The auto-levelling is nice, but it gives sort of a disconnectedness. I never realized how much the headlight projection was a feedback in night driving for me as to the pitch of the vehicle. In this car, as I accelerate hard, I see the headlight point up and then adjust back, which throws off my perception of vehicle pitch a bit.

The engine is quite nice. I like it much better than the M52s, even the 328 engine, because it still has something more to offer at the high end. It doesn't scream away at the top end as I would like, but it does still keep pumping instead of giving it all in the midrange.

The car actually feels quite fast off the line. But after a while you realize that a lot of it is because of the electronic throttle. Other than a very small deadband (much less than the 328), it is very sensitive. So you really don't need much more than the first 1/3 of the throttle. The rest of it is good for inducing a downshift. So even though the engine doesn't give you everything it's got at by the mid-range, it seems like the throttle almost does! Whereas the 328 feels sort of sluggish to start and then comes to life when driven hard, this car comes to life right a way. It doesn't die at the top either. It's just so smooth.

I got used to the swapped + (aft) / - (forward) buttons more easily than I thought I would. The sport mode actually works pretty well. It will hold a lower gear and make use of the higher rpms. In general, this transmission will make use of the engine revs a lot more, and they work together well. I still love the way the power is briefly interrupted under large throttle openings. It seems so perfectly timed, so smooth yet so efficient. Downshifts come very easily, unlike the 328 where it took a lot of work.

The exhaust note at startup and low rpms is actually quite noticeable. Maybe too much so for this car.

The biggest disappointment actually is the tranmission of cabin boom and rumble. It is not terrible, but much worse than any other BMW I've been in. I'm sure the open wagon is the source here, but maybe different tires would help. This car has the MXV4 Energy (205/55/16). I'm sure a subwoofer would sound fabulous in this wagon!

I still don't like how there's a slight delay between the cancellation of the turn signal and when it actually does cancel. I still can't get used to the auto dimming rearview mirror. It's always too dim at night.

The steering feels a bit different. Can't say exactly what. Perhaps it's a slight loss of feel for the high frequency bumps. Yet the big bumps still come through. Maybe it's just the lower profile tires. But at near full lock, the steering does lose its ability to self-center, which I don't care for. There is a tiny, tiny bit of torque steer. I wouldn't really even call it torque steer. It's more like just a minor disturbance in the wheel that comes just upon hard throttle tip-in.

I still am amazed at how all E46s I've driven handle single-rear wheel bumps and dips. Considering that it's a very similar setup and geometry as the E36, the E46s just handle them amazingly better than any E36 I've driven.

The most amazing part about the car is its traction under acceleration. Even with DSC off, I can mash the throttle through a tight corner at all semi-sane city speeds in the wet without anything happening. I know that the ABD-X torque distribution is supposedly still active, but I don't feel anything at all. I wonder if it's really doing anything or if the standard torque split is just perfect! This is a car that I wouldn't be scared up going full throttle from a standing start in any corner. If anything, it will understeer a bit, or a lot, and I can just ease off. However, this gives false confidence in the car's overall grip. In jerky slaloms, the rear will start to loosen, and the slip angles are much larger than what I'm used to. Fortunately the yaw rate builds up smoothly...unlike those ES100 tires that I loathe. I am surprised at how much it can loosen before the DSC kicks in. It does have a very high threshold. I find myself correcting way before the DSC even catches it. I guess that means I can drive with the DSC all the time without getting annoyed at it. To induce oversteer, I really have to prevent myself from trying to correct. But when it does correct, it comes in hard as you feel the tug of the correcting moment, not just hear the brakes working. I've not had it correct for understeer yet though, even though I wish it did because with the AWD, I definitely get understeer under power. The problem I find with the DSC is that it gives a feel of understeer. It's not that it's really understeer, but it feels that way. I think this is why: I give a sharp input to get the rear to step out. What happens is that the DSC kicks in, but I correct the wheel too. And the combination of our inputs just makes the car run wider. So the DSC is thinking for me, but I'm also thinking for myself! It's all about trust. To make the best use of the DSC, I really have to resist correcting and trust the DSC.

Anyway, this car seems so forgiving with the throttle without giving you the torque steer and severe understeer that's characterstic of some other AWD/4WD systems that I've driven that it's actually quite amazing. Now it's time for me to try some purely mechanical Torsen setup :) Even without that much power and with an automatic, this car has a passion that I've found lacking in the M52s. Yet it is so well behaved under power that you start to think you won't have that much fun and that it's just too good of a car for you to flog around. You feel bad doing it. But then you give the car sharp inputs and find that, hey, this car does want to have fun. You just need to know how to get it turned on :) It's a trustworthy car that still has a fun side to it. Hey, sounds like the perfect family car to me... 


2000 BMW 328Ci Coupe

I am driving a friend's 2000 328CiA with sport package for a couple of days. So here are some observations...
*Disclaimer: I haven't driven my car for about a week and a half now...so I've been driving our Pathfinder.

Everything feels a bit too isolated for me, particularly the powertrain. The throttle tip-in is soft and the first couple thousand RPMs, there doesn't seem to be much life. But maybe it's the transmission or electronic throttle...hard to tell with an automatic. So in leisurely driving, this car doesn't feel fast at all. Even driving moderately, the car still doesn't feel that spirited because the mid-range RPM torque curve is pretty flat. Only driving hard...as in beyond 2/3 throttle does the car come to life. Even then, it's without any drama. The powertrain is so silent that you don't feel like the car is rushing anywhere, even though it picks up speed. The car at 6000 RPM is quieter than my car at 3000!

The brakes are a little softer than I had expected. I remember some E46s had a very strong initial bite, but this one doesn't. There's also a bit of play laterally in the brake pedal as in the E36, which I don't care for.

The ride is quite nice, with adequate damping and much better suppleness over large bumps than my car with coilovers. But some small bumps do make it through more than expected, just as with my original suspension. The stiff tire sidewalls are nice and lend to quick response unlike my current tires. Road noise is louder though, especially since wind and engine noise is so low in this car. The noise over textured pavement doesn't change much in volume or in pitch as the car picks up speed, which is kind of strange to me.

The handling reminds me of my E36 before the suspension modification. It's still a lot easier to get understeer on throttle; if you do things smoothly, you feel the front end wash a bit before the rear comes out. But, with a lot more torque on hand, the rear can snap away fairly readily in the wet. The Contis squeal slightly at the limit just like my old Contis, but the response is linear and immediate unlike my current Yokos. The stiffer sidewall also gives a more immediate turn-in than the Yokos which allow the car to lean a bit onto the sidewalls. In mild to moderate cornering, the car feels as composed as my car. But as the forces build, particularly in quick transitions, the extra body roll and weight are evident.

As with other BMWs, the transmission programming in Drive is pretty good. The best part of the transmission is how it communicates with the engine during hard driving. You can feel and hear a brief holdback on the power just before the shift. For some reason, this aspect really impresses me. I love the way it shifts under high load, more so than in leisurely driving. Downshifts are sometimes quite easy in regular drive, but sometimes not. In the cases when downshifts are not easily attained, putting it in Sport doesn't seem to help much either. The main thing I notice is that sport denies 5th gear (or maybe it unlocks the torque converter lockup...can't tell), and that it holds the gear for longer on uphills. So the main advantage of sport is that it holds a gear for longer even after a lift/closed throttle. But still, it doesn't seem to hold it as long as it did in a 740i that I drove which I really liked. I still don't like the steptronic. I wish it would respond a bit more quickly still and with more urgency. What I dislike the most is that it waits on downshifts if the RPMs are too high. For example, if I shift from 3 to 2 at too high a speed, it won't shift...which is good. But then a few seconds later, it suddenly shifts. I'd rather it just ignore my commands and let me just try again later. This way, I'd know exactly when the shift would occur so I'd plan not to upset the car's balance too much. I also don't like how it downshifts when the car comes to a stop. It downshifts to 2nd gear which I find a bit silly because I'd still have to downshift myself to 1st gear anyway. I'd rather it not downshift, and if it did, I'd prefer it to go into 1st. On the other hand, I'm starting to appreciate the auto downshift upon kickdown. This is nice so that I don't have to tap the shifter a few times if I sudenly need to accelerate. The only problem with this is that sometimes I'd want to hold it in a gear and then go full throttle to break the rear loose a little; I expect it to hold the gear, but instead it downshifts which throws off the balance and could break the rear way more loose than I would have expected! Another thing I dislike is how I don't know what gear I'm in upon entering the manual mode. For example, sometimes when I tap for a downshift, it goes into 3, sometimes it goes into 4, etc. It'd be great if I could get feedback so that I know exactly what gear I'm in before and after my tap. I also don't really like how the sport mode is in the same position as the manual mode. Because when I finish my manual shifts, I can't get back into sport mode until I shift over to normal drive and then back again to sport. Audi has a separate gate for manual vs. sport.

The fuel consumption MPG scale is pretty useless. The dial is small. At least in the metric L/100 km version, it's a nice linear scale. In MPG, it's got these funny numbers that don't make it easy to read at all. Plus, it only goes to 12 MPG, whereas the E36 one goes to 8 MPG. But I'm getting used to it.

I still can't get used to the auto-dimming rearview mirror. Even though it cuts down on the glare, it makes everything else at night very dark in the mirror, so I can't see the people in the cars, for example.

All the switchgear other than the stalks on the steering column are noticeably further away than in the E36. It gives a more spacious feel though. The folding front seats for rear access are quite "notchy." They take quite a force to get going and when they do, they slam into place with two distinct actions instead of the more fluid but less distinct E36 single action.

2003 Mazda 6, Miata and Protégé5

I attended the Mazda Rev It Up event today http://www.mazdarevitup.com/ which allowed us to autocross and do driver's training on the newish Mazda 6 sedan. Also on display were the other Mazda products, including the RX-8.

After a brief chalktalk, we went to the slalom clinic. It was basically two runs of a right-left-right slalom in a manual MazdaSPEED Protege. Not much to say about this part of the event. Next we went to a brake and turn event where you invoked the ABS in an auto Mazda 6 at about 35-40 mph prior to a turn and then carry on with full ABS into the turn-in. Having done this numerous times before, this was also pretty uneventful, and the guy said that it was the best that he had seen in the day yet (since most people barely invoked the ABS).

Then we went to line up for our first timed run in the auto Mazda 6s running on Eibach springs with Falken Azenis sport tires (and Bosal exhausts). I heard people saying that we should force the automatic in 2nd gear, so that's where I left it after launching in first. I was actually quite impressed. I didn't feel the torque steer that I thought I would and was able to apply throttle on corner exit without significant wheelspin or understeer. That's a surprise to me for a FWD car, but I think it was because the corner exits were slow enough that there wasn't that much torque in first gear :( I ended with a time of 36.999, where the index time set by a pro instructor was 33.5. Most times seemed to be in the high 30s and 40s.

Then we went to try out some other Mazdas on another course. I chose a 6 speed Miata. The grip wasn't great on the stock tires, but car was tossable and quick. I especially liked how I could coax it into oversteer easily either by lifting or going onto the throttle. It's not particularly fast, but it has good power for its chassis. Anymore power, and one would need to be more careful! In fact, I got a brief lecture saying how this wasn't the autocross and that I shouldn't be sliding the car around which I apparently did a lot! I love RWD :)

After that, we went to a racing line clinic which used the same vehicles as the autocross' Mazda 6 on a smaller/shorter autocross type of course that was a bit more technical. I left the car in full auto this time and found that I actually could spin the inside front wheel as well as feel torque steer because some of the course was now done in 1st gear. The second time around, I tried to shift with the lever between 1st and 2nd but messed up the shifting because I have a tendency to push up to upshift, but it's actually down in this car.

Then we went for our 2nd timed autocross. I left it in 2nd again as I knew that I wouldn't be able to shift the auto well. The updated pro index time was 33.77 now. I ended up with a time of 35.16 which I think would have put me in the top 20s of the Pro class (since there was only one other 33 seconder and very few 34 seconders). I got put in the Pro class after answering a questionnaire.... But I apparently clipped a cone with my inside rear tire probably, and that gave me a two second penalty to 37.16. Oh well.

We went back to try the other Mazda cars and I took a Protege 5. Having come off the stiffer sprung 6s with the Falken tires, I was really disappointed with this car. I overcooked the first few corners and decided to back off but continued to push this car too hard. I guess the Dunlop SP5000s just don't compare. The steering feel on the Protege 5 also felt more typical of a FWD car (strong on center pull, torque steer, etc.) compared to the Mazda 6 which has the most fluid steering of a FWD car that I've driven. So I just ended up playing with the autostick most of the way as I gave up on the handling!

2003 Audi A4 1.8T Quattro

I had a very brief drive of an automatic car before, but this vehicle had a manual transmission. I was definitely more pleased with the power delivery of this manual transmission vehicle. Whereas before the torque felt barely adequate, I can now call the manual transmission setup spirited. Not super fast but definitely not slow. In the automatic, I thought I remembered some power delivery lumps, but the manual felt smooth throughout. Given that the torque is supposed to be flat from 1950-5000 rpm, I expected good torque around 1500 rpm too but was wrong about that. I took a look at the output curves at http://www.goapr.com/Audi/products/images/dyno_a4_02_stage1.jpg and verified what I felt that it was missing torque just off idle. It's by no means bad, but I thought there was more at the very low end. The flat torque curve above 1950 rpm is definitely nice although not super inspiring. The car actually has a pretty decent top end as well, so this is definitely a flexible and smooth engine.

Over the undulating roads, especially at higher speeds, I felt some float which I also felt during my brief drive of the automatic before. I think the suspension would benefit from a bit more rebound damping. Ride quality is supple but I guess I expected a little more firmness. I did feel the rear end twitch a little bit over a wet manhole cover. It wasn't as bad as my car but worse than the E46 3 Series, and it was a little more than I had expected for an AWD vehicle with a forward weight bias (this was not under acceleration). The brakes under regular driving are about perfect. Not too grabby, and the balance between travel and force is just right for me. I did not use the brakes hard, so I don't know how they perform then.

I didn't take many turns with the car, but I was a little disappointed by the steering during straight driving. It didn't seem to offer too much feedback of the road texture. Also, it had a bit of a FWD feel to it in that it has a marked center spot which it'd return to, but it had low resistance to the road crown/camber. That is, it would veer down the road crown more than I had expected. This is something that I don't know how to design for. BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes seem not to have a very defined on-center, but they stay straight more easily, almost as if there were some internal friction to prevent the wheels from going off center. I am guessing that it probably has to do with the balance of caster vs. kingpin inclination, but I'm not sure. I didn't feel any torque steer accelerating from a start though, so that's a big plus, undoubtedly aided by the fact that the torque was being distributed among 4 wheels instead of 2. Overall, I think I'd probably like a little bit more feel in the steering and maybe live with a little bit of torque steer. I'd like to try the car in the corners to see how the steering feels when loaded up.

I think the A4 is a very nice car and a balanced performer, but I would just like a little more feel and involvement.

2003 Jeep Liberty

I had a very short drive in this vehicle. In general, it drove better than I had expected for a body on frame SUV. Acceleration was brisk enough, and there was healthy torque down low and through the mid-range. I didn't bother going to redline. The transmission throws are long but positive. There is a little bit too much driveline noise, particularly through the gearbox. The ride quality is superior to most SUVs I've ridden in lately, although not along the same calibre as that of the A4, from which I just came out of. The brake pedal was too soft and required too much travel for my tastes. The steering ratio was slow, but the feel was actually not bad.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E320 and E500

I had a chance to drive the 2003 Mercedes E320 and E500 today at the "E-Motion" event (http://www.mbemotion.com/). There were basically two courses, one for the E500 and one for the E320. Both had straights to test acceleration and ABS stops. The E500 course consisted of smoother curves taken at higher speeds, while the E320 had more tight corners. I drove about 10 times, about 5 in each car/circuit.

I'm writing about these cars because I experienced some of the strangest things in them, some good, some bad. My first run was in an E500. I couldn't find the ESP stability control disable button initially (I found out later that they taped all of them up) to prevent people from disabling it.

My first run was quite a disaster. I came back thinking that I've never driven another modern car that was so inobedient! The car seemed to tug and pull and refused to listen to me. ESP was on, so I purposely drove it over the limit in some of the corners. I made it through OK, but I was very rough and confused. I think the ESP was probably confused too, so the next time I turned it off. It was better, but there were serious issues with the steering. The effort was so inconsistent and sometimes would get heavy enough that I couldn't enter the proper input. I found out when the car was stopped that it felt like the steering was running out of boost. At a stop, I could crank the steering wheel hard one way, and after a few degrees of rotation, the wheel would get heavy enough for me not to be able to turn it. At moderate steering frequencies, the response was perfectly fine. Pick up the pace a bit and steer faster, and it would get extremely heavy after a few degrees of rotation. So I learned to slow my steering input, and I gradually learned to drive the car more smoothly. I searched on the web and didn't find any other comments about this, other than Road & Track saying that the steering got too heavy at high lateral accelerations. For me, it wasn't dependent on the lateral acceleration. It just got heavy when I turned the steering wheel too quickly.

A hard part to get smooth initially was the braking. It has a very strong initial bit, so I'd often overbrake and trigger the ABS just before turn in. At the full panic stops too, the ABS seemed very active. If I didn't bury the pedal but braked just hard enough to trigger the ABS barely, the system worked very nicely. Slam on the pedal, and I think it's basically telling me that the brakes are way too strong for the tires on this car (the Continental Touring Contacts)! In traditional Mercedes fashion, the accelerator pedal is slow to respond in the first bit of travel, in stark contrast with the brake pedal.

The overall handling balance was OK once I knew not to crank the wheel too quickly or make the ESP overly excited. There was standard mild oversteer with the ability to adjust the rear with the throttle on the E500. The speeds on the E320's course wasn't high enough to make the tail wiggle unless if I did something drastic, which I didn't. Even when the rear stepped out on the E500 (with the ESP off), it was relatively slow and progressive. Nothing scary here. It seemed like, even with all that torque, I couldn't snap the rear end around.

My last run was done with the ESP reactivated. Now that I knew roughly what the limits were, ESP worked pretty well for me. It allowed the rear to sidestep very slightly, but the part that I enjoyed the most was that it was able to correct for the understeer which helped me to negotiate some of the turns better. So I could just steer harder into the turn, and it'd modulate the brakes to let the car do it, and without slowing the car down noticeably either. That was a pleasant surprise.

I felt the there was quite a bit of variation in the transient handling balance between the vehicles I drove. Only at the end did I realize that some of them had adjustable shocks, so the cars I drove probably had it on different settings. But most of the cars felt pretty well controlled, although a few tended to float more with the result of the rear getting a little unsettled. Certainly the damping was more consistent than the A4s that I've driven which occasionally would make you feel like you lost contact with the car momentarily.

This was the first time that I drove an ESP car hard to and beyond the limit. The previous comparison courses were done without really activating the stability control too much. I wonder if I disabled all aspects of the system though. Even with the system off, the indicator light would flash. I didn't feel any interference, but after some hard driving, I could hear the pumps in the unit buzzing. In fact, when stopped, if I pumped the brake pedal, it would make some strange hum.

Overall I think the ESP works pretty well as long as you don't really overcook things, at which point it just feels like it's slow to respond and tugs the car overly aggressively. The steering still bugs me. It just feels like there's a 3rd party in there limiting your steering input. My friend who went with me also noticed that it was really awkward too.

Sorry, I'm not going to write about the other aspects of the car this time...even though we spent a lot of time playing with the buttons and features :)

1998 Toyota RAV4 Mini-SUV

I mainly drove a 1998 Toyota RAV4 (auto, AWD) this winter break, and here are some of my impressions.

Suspension, Ride, Handling

The car is quite stiff and slightly harsh. That is, it transmits both low and high frequency bumps. The short wheelbase is noticeable when going over bumps, speedbumps and in turning. Body roll is surprisingly well controlled, however. Perhaps it has stiff anti-roll bars or high roll centers. Dive and pitch are less than I expected. It definitely has some anti-squat/lift geometry based on the behavior of the car when the parking brake is pulled.

I didn't drive the car very hard, but it feels easy to drive. However, in windy roads with switchbacks, it's almost impossible to do a smooth left-right-left-right type of turn. It feels like there's a transition point on-center, and the attitude changes a lot going past this point, so it's not confidence inspiring in this respect.

It is almost impossible to adjust the car's attitude with the throttle, a combination of low torque and that torque being delivered to all the wheels. In most cases, I can just punch or lift the throttle.

This is an easy car to drive easily, but not an easy car to drive hard.


Very light with not great feedback, but not entirely numb either. Like some other Toyotas I've driven, it has a very strong on-center feel (high kingpin?) As a result, the steering self-centers very quickly after a turn. I have to hold onto the wheel heavier and longer, or else it'll return too quickly. This appears to be a trait of most FWD cars. Probably the least torque steer of any FWD or AWD car I've driven. The only thing I could feel is a slightly heavier steering (and even stronger on-center feel) on hard acceleration during corner exits. But at least it's predictable. The steering wheel is very small and can be adjusted low, both of which I like.


It makes a lot of noise starting from about 3000 rpm. Doesn't do much after 5000 rpm. Fuel cutoff comes on around 6200 rpm, where the redline is. Torque delivery seems pretty smooth, but it's hard to tell through the transmission. More on that later. The throttle pedal is really light in the first little bit of travel, so I found it very difficult/tiring to hold it open just slightly to cruise around 30-40 mph. I found myself getting into the habit of depressing more and then releasing entirely every few seconds. There's a leaky sounding noise when accelerating through the 1500-2000 rpm range, but when cold only. In the cabin, I constantly here the valvetrain going as if that frequency is unmuted and just passes through. To access the oil dipstick, you have to squeeze your hand through a gap right beside the aluminum cover for the exhaust manifold that has a warning not to touch that part due to heat.


They work pretty well. No particular praises or complaints. ABS doesn't seem that intrusive. The brake and accelerator pedals are close enough to cause accdidental stepping on both pedals fairly easily. The strange thing about the brakes is its noise. Under harder braking at low speeds, a grinding sound shows up sometimes. Under moderate braking, a light high pitched squeal comes from the rear, almost consistently. Maybe it's dirt in the rear drums. When applying brakes the first time when going backwards (or vice-versa), there's a slight clunk from the rear, probably from the rear shoes shifting slightly in their servo action. The parking brake will get the rear end out =)


There is much to write here. It's one of the worst transmission "brains" I've driven. It has a regular and power mode. In regular mode, it is very, very reluctant to downshift. Basically I have to depress the throttle almost all the way. The last inch or so of throttle travel requires a lot of foot force. There's no clear kickdown detent either. The transmission is very keen to upshift. That means if I want a lower gear without moving the selector, I basically have to floor the accelerator. Whereas most transmissions will hold that gear even if you lift slightly, this car won't. So what normally happens is the car downshifts, surges forward (due to poor smoothing) and then drops to the high gear once I ease the throttle, and the car slows down again. Then I press the throttle close to the downshift point, but the car doens't really accelerate because it's in the wrong gear. Power mode is a little better. It downshifts more easily but is just as eager to upshift. I feel like I need to overexaggerate the throttle to command a shift, so there's no way I can modulate the overall balance with the throttle unless I use the selector lever to hold a gear. It doesn't delay/hold shifts in corners either, so sometimes the car gets really unbalanced in a corner, but since the power is transmitted to four wheels, it doesn't really matter. The torque converter lock in OD is also very obvious and somewhat obvious in 3rd. So it's almost like it has 6 gears, but the selected one is usually not the right one anyway. In general, this transmission hates the high engine speeds, which is a shame because the torque curve is relatively good for a small 4 cylinder, although the engine is noisy.


Not much to comment on. The AWD is seamless. You can't really tell where the power is going to, but sometimes I think I feel it shift on slippery ground. Again, there are noises (slight very grinding/growling, more noticeable from the slight vibration in the car), usually starting off in a turn. It lasts for a second or so at about 10-20 mph or so. I don't know what this is.

Interior, Electrical, Etc. 

Lots of rattles from the rear storage compartments. Lots of road noise from the rear trunk and wheel well area especially when wet, enough to make people think a door or window is open. Road noise makes wind noise not that noticeable.

Headlights are so-so. Pattern is OK, brightness is not great. High beam also fills void right in front of the car. Right light is either aimed or designed to be slightly higher than left light.

Floor vents aren't strong enough. For some reason, there's one more detent than there are labels for airflow directions. Turning to defrost airflow turns on A/C automatically and cannot be defeated. This might work well sometimes for defogging, but not on a very cold winter day after a cold start.

Toyota's alarm system does autolocking on ignition on and autounlocking on ignition off. But it won't autolock if any door is open. And if autolock never happened due to the door being open (but I lock it manually afterward), it won't autounlock, which is a little strange. If a door is ajar when I try to arm, it emits a constant high pitch, which can only be cancelled by closing the door.

Seats are pretty comfortable for me. Cruise control stalk directions/operations seem non-intuitive to me.

There is only one jet for the rear window washer. It was pointed too low only shot at a small section of the window, which meant I could only clear about a quarter of the window well. I couldn't find the right tool to adjust the jet, so I gave up.

The fuel filler door release lever is in a position that's often covered up by the floor mat!

2000 Chrysler 300M

I had a chance to drive the Chrysler 300M for a couple of days last week and wanted to share my impressions with you...

Overall, the car is quite good, considering its large size and the fact that it shares the same platform as other Chrysler models such as the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler LHS and Chrysler Concorde. There's enough justification for Car & Driver naming it as one of the 10 best cars, but I don't think I'm convinced that it deserved the Car of the Year award in 1998.

Some brief stats first. The engine is a 3.5L 24-valve SOHC V6 delivering 253 hp at 6400 rpm and 255 lb-ft of torque at 3950 rpm. This is delivered to the front wheels through Chrysler's AutoStick "overridable automatic" transmission. (I don't agree with the "clutchless manual" or "semi-automatic" descriptions that most companies use.) MSRP is $29,690. The car rides on a 113" wheelbase, with an overall length of 197.8". The 300M is Chrysler's performance-oriented sedan, and its primary competitors include the Lincoln LS, Chevrolet Impala, Oldsmobile Aurora, among others.

0-60 mph times are around 8 seconds, but the car feels relatively quick in general because low and mid-range torque is good. Around 5500 rpm, the engine starts to run out of breath. It seems to take an incredibly long time to get from 5500 rpm and 6500 rpm in 2nd gear, for example. This is accompanied by quite a harsh noise. At low engine speeds, the engine purrs and is quiet, but above 4500 rpm, the engine is very pronounced, and it's a blend of all kinds of sounds...except the low frequency exhaust notes associated with many large displacement performance cars. Instead, there's a rich texture of cam, induction and mechanical noises. At times, the engine feels a little unbalanced at around 800 rpm. Blipping the throttle in neutral will cause the car body to rotate along its centerline a bit more, making me realize that this was a longitudinally mounted engine, which is rather unusual for a front wheel drive car. In general, the engine does its job well. I'd like just a bit more work on the engine noise and would trade some of the low end torque for a bit more high rpm power.

I was excited to try the AutoStick because I've never been satisfied with other automatic transmissions that claim that they can be driven like manual tranmissions. Chrysler's AutoStick is no exception. Although I've learned to work with it over the short period of time, there are still some strange inconsistencies that inhibit smooth shifting. In regular drive mode, the transmission works pretty well. I basically have no complaints, but the AutoStick programming could be better. First, shift quality is almost always worse in AutoStick mode. Upshifting under moderate acceleration is usually accompanied with a brief cut in torque and then a strong pull in the higher gear. It's quick enough, but the power delivery could use some smoothness. Downshifting is no better. Blipping the throttle to match rpms help, but it has to be done with just the right timing. Basically, you have to tap the lever to downshift, wait almost a second, and then step on the accelerator, and you'll get it just right...some of the time. If you don't wait for a second, the acceleration is probably quicker, but it's accompanied with a significant jerk.
Surprisingly, you can downshift to first at about 45 mph, which results in a huge deceleration. Like other transmissions of its type, the computer overrides many decisions. The car will always downshift to first gear when road speed drops to a few miles per hour, which means that, if you want to stay in 2nd because of poor road conditions, for example, you'll always have to upshift back to 2nd if your speed drops too low. Also, in 4th gear, a harsh throttle input will cause a downshift to 3rd. Luckily it doesn't go force any lower gears.
To downshift, you tap to the left, and you tap to the right to upshift. I still don't think this is that intuitive. I prefer to tap up for upshift and down for downshift. The left/right travel is also a little bit too large, so once in a while, I hit the lever, and it doesn't go far enough to execute the shift. In AutoStick mode, a square lights up in the cluster to show you what gear you're in. Since the gear numbers are there all the time, I think it'd be nice for it to show what gear it's in even in automatic mode anyway, but perhaps that would be too distracting.
The most annoying part is if the gear is changed at engine idle, either while creeping forward at low speeds, or with the brake applied. The tranmission hiccups significantly, almost as if the car is about to stall. Although this happens most of the time, it's not always. There must be something strange in the programming here.

The steering is relatively quick, but I find it too light. It also has this nonlinearity that seems to be evident on all front wheel drive cars. Center is a little numb, but a few degrees off center, it becomes very responsive and effort increases greatly, and the recentering torque is strong. In slow, tight radius turns, however, the steering becomes light again, and the recentering torque diminishes. I can only guess that this non-linearity is perhaps due to the larger kingpin angle used to achieve negative scrub radius on front wheel drive cars. But the turning radius is quite small, something that can't be said of many other front and all wheel drive cars. Of course, torque steer is there, but it's not nearly as pronouned as, say, the Saab 9-3 Viggen!

Traction Control
The traction control on the 300M is not very effective for normal driving. It may work well on snow and low friction surfaces, but it didn't do a very good job on dry and wet roads. It appears to work by braking a spinning wheel; if it modulates engine torque, I certainly couldn't feel it. Surprisingly, significant wheel spin can still be attained with traction control on. It seems to respond pretty slowly. When it does respond, the brake application is strong, causing a torque in the steering, kind of like torque steer. But if you keep hard on the throttle, the wheelspin won't stop, and the system will continue modulating brake pressure so much so that it's hard to gauge any sense of traction through the steering wheel or throttle. In the wet, this becomes very evident, and I'd rather have the consistency of spinning wheel(s) accompanied by the understeer which is easily correctable by lifting off the accelerator pedal.

Ride & Handling
For a car of its size, the 300M performs pretty well. Understeer is not that obvious, although it will be difficult to get the rear end out of line because the car doesn't seem to change directions much with throttle inputs, unless you get the front wheels spinning. On quick direction changes, the car does get a bit floaty, and the front tires seem to hold better than the rears for a split second, as if the rears would break loose, but they don't.
Ride is not bad. The car does ride on 17" wheels as standard! Ironically, the performance package gives you a minus one conversion to 16"! The chassis seems relatively solid, but some high frequency inputs still come through. Luckily, the car doens't seem to mind ripples or close bumps. The main complaint in this area is that the car is still floaty. More damper rebound damping would probably help significantly, although I wonder if that would aggravate the impression of the rear tires coming loose on initial turn-in.
Body roll is quite well controlled, but pitch motions are still quite evident under braking and acceleration.

I wasn't very impressed with the brakes. Although the feel was good, it seemed like it required lots of pedal force to decelerate. My roommate felt the same way too. Under moderate braking, when the speed scrubs off to just a few miles per hour, a creak and groaning emanates from the front, like the sound produced when you're stopped but aren't applying enough pressure, so the car is creeping forward. But the sound on the 300M did not happen when the car was stopped. The sound didn't translate to a difference in pedal feel, but something definitely wasn't right. Perhaps it's a strange pad compound.

The daytime dashboard display is black on white using a font that are reminescent of the Roman era. Despite the fancy font, it is still quite legible. At night, the white turns into a hue that's like the Timex Indigo watches. A compass with trip computer and programmable remotes is standard, and the metric/imperial button also changes the display for the ventilation system. The ventilations is very effective. It cools and warms very quickly; I think Chrysler did some advertising about their ventilations systems at some point. The automatic temperature control seems overly sensitive though. Adjusting up or down one degree results in different air distribution, and the air temperature changes drastically. There are bits of chrome in many places. I'm not particularly fond of the low quality chrome on the door handles. The driver's side had a spray crease right on the top of the handle, while this wasn't visible on the passenger side. The analog clock may be a nice touch, but I'd find a digital one more legible. Luckily, the radio has its own digital clock.
The A pillar location drew criticism from my roommate. It seems to block a large portion of the view, but I think this is true of all Chrysler "cab-forward" designs.
The single passenger who sat at the back said it was very comfortable. The rearview mirror is autodimming, although it supposedly has an off switch. But it didn't make a difference to me, in the day or the night. I've never been too fond of autodimming rearview mirrors because I find them too dim in the evenings. I'd rather have a bit more glare but be able to see the outline of the cars behind me better.

The system uses Infinity speakers and has the usual "Japanese" timbre to it--not very warm and lacking some midrange clarity, but bass reproduction is sufficient with genuine low frequencies without the mid-low boom.

1999 BMW 328i Sedan, 1999 BMW 323i Cabriolet, 1999 BMW 540i Sedan

Hi everyone,
As previously "advertised" to some of you, I participated at BMW's The Ultimate Drive today at Grand Blanc, MI. This is the drive that donates $1/mile driven for breast cancer research. <http://www.bmwusa.com/experience/events/ude/ultimatedrive/komen.html>.
So here's my impressions of the E46 (new 3 series) 328i (automatic) and the E36 (current 3 series) 323i convertible manual. I was able to drive both cars; my friend, Luis Garcia, drove the E39 540i automatic.
The drive was a predesigned course of about 20 miles. We knew that it must have been predesigned since we saw several BMWs in a row on our way to the dealership. The course really wasn't the "ultimate" course: almost all straight, suburban, one-lane-each-way roads. There were about 5 mild curves in total, so I tried to utilize the intersections as best as I could :-) There was also a short stretch of freeway driving, although it was congested, and 70-80mph (120 km/h to 130 km/h) was about the flow of traffic, not much faster than the less congested 60 mph (100 km/h) suburban roads.
All the cars were white, with the appropriate identification for the Ultimate Drive and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer foundation, except for the E46 328iA, which was in titanium silver. By the way, I heard the fleet of cars coming from the West might have different colors.
After registering at the registration desk, I was almost ready to go. (By the way, I don't think the dealer really cared about online registrations. I could have chosen a different car if I wanted to, probably because it was off peak at close to 4 P.M., or it was just a slow dealer.) The only snag was that both my friend and I were just shy of 21, so sales reps had to accompany us (which I had expected anyway).
I'll detail the impressions of the 328iA first, and then the 323iC, followed by some miscellaneous things.

E46 328iA:
Finally, after having different angles of this car on as my wallpaper, startup and shutdown screens, I could see the car in person. I think that it is perhaps the one of the most handsome cars on the road, although it did have a bit of that bloated Audi A4 look. The headlights were refreshing and simple; I found the simple design very elegant -- just bulbs and parabolic like reflectors for both beams, enclosed under clear plastic lenses with some horizontal lines. The fog lights are higher up, below the rubbing strip, somewhere around the mid-height of the license plate, which I think would make for a much more usable range on the foglights. The front bumper still has a vent to the brake area. Oops. I forgot to look at the supposedly covered underside. The front grille did call out E39 though. The profile is the best angle, I think, with the, wrapping nice side skirts. The rear was less thrilling. Sorry, I'm not very artistic in my words here.

Definitely roomier than an E36, both in the rear and the front. The less driver-oriented dash opened up well, although I didn't exactly find the current E36 cramped either. Quality is a few steps higher, though still not quite up to E39 standards, which means that this might still be an area of complaint when placed with the competition. The glovebox is miles ahead, and so is the ventilation system (compared to pre-96 models). The car I was in had the black interior with the aluminum decor. Much nicer than wood, in my opinion, but the brushed aluminum seemed to have already developed some dents and irregularities, so I don't think it's of the greatest quality either. I didn't get too much chance to try the radio on-board computer, but I did notice the OBC display in the middle of the instrument cluster.
The instrument cluster did seem a little small for the dash, but still very legible. The steering is both telescoping and tilting, operated by releasing a lever that locked the wheel in both axes. The travel in both directions is quite minimal though. Also, I was not able to adjust things so that I could get my steering wheel at the right height and not block the upper inch or so of the cluster. (I have a tall upper body and comparatively short leg, so I've always had to pull up closer, meaning that my head would be near or touching the headliner, and the steering wheel would block my vision of the top part of the cluster.) By the way, the car had the sport package, so the steering wheel was 3 spoke and housed cruise control and radio buttons, among others which I didn't pay too much attention to. Sports seat were also part of the deal, although I didn't think they were that sporty, i.e., a little wide for me, I think. The passenger seat does not have memory, but the driver's side has 3 memory positions, apparently also triggered by the key used. There is a trunk release button for the interior, but it is a small button that resides just above the hood release (like the E39, not sure about the E38), which isn't exactly the best place (more on that later). The trunk is opened by applying pressure to the bar above the license plate area, and also features an auto-close upon "touchdown" feature. There is a rear seat armrest; a simple design with a velcroed flap for the ski pass-through.
I'll try to run through my impressions as I remember them, so please bear with me if it's a little disjointed. Rear window has a funny shape due to the headliner (3rd brake light off the end of the headliner) and the rear seat headrests. The car definitely revs quite well for an automatic! Low end is not as good as I had expected, although it is by no means insufficient. It doesn't feel that torquey, probably because the engine is free-reving and the car doesn't squat much. Having not driven the M52 engine before (B25 or B28), I have to say that this engine reminds me more of the 4.0L V8 in the earlier 740i and iLs (sorry I don't know the M number), more so than of the M50 or M42. I guess what I'm saying is that the torque curve is really quite flat. I was expecting a sense of urgency at engine speeds greater than 4500 rpm, but there is none :-( It just feels more like a linear motor without the need for high revs. The high revs also build slowly (much more slowly than the shorter geared M42 manual). The auto is willing to downshift though, and it'll allow the engine to sing right through to 6200 rpm or so (in first gear, if I remember correctly.) The steering feels a little quicker near center (not sure at the extremes), and the brakes are super sensitive. However, I would still appreciate a firmer initial feel. I think that the bite it gives should be coupled by more feedback. Still, it's not difficult to get used to it. (Maybe it just felt firm because I've been driving a GMC Jimmy at work lately.)
The ride is nothing like what I would have expected with a running gear consisting of a sports suspension and 225/45R17W Continentals on 17 x 8 wheels!! (By the way, does anyone know the offset range for the E46? I'm asking because I picked up a new wheels catalog, and some wheels are only specified for the E46, suggesting different offsets.) This car rides more smoothly than our 1995 318is with 225/50ZR16s! Truly amazing :-) Still, the car is quick. It doesn't feel any bulkier than an E36. Crisper but super accurate steering (more accurate than I could point, but perhaps a little light; definitely lighter in the parking lot). Minimal body roll and very nice reflexes. There was no way I could trigger the ABS, DSC, ASC+T, CBC (cornering brake control), etc.! I did try, though, to no avail. On an almost wide open throttle right hand turn from a stop, there was no drama. I had to lift the throttle pretty abruptly (for an automatic) AFTER I had already steered straight, but that still got the dealer a little worried. He said that the car needs to be driven by others too. I thought he was telling me not to rev that high (for a car with 2000+ miles on the odometer), but then he told me about the few wrecks that have already happened. He even told me to drive it as if I was driving my own car. I felt like telling him that I drive mine harder than I was driving the 328iA, but I decided it was best to keep quiet. The dealer continued to sing with radio as I was driving!
Tired of the lack of response from the auto transmission, I decided to shift into 4, which would give me the sport mode and seemingly different torque converter lockup decisions. I liked the higher rpms better. There was no sense of harshness, even near the redline, which makes me wonder whether BMW would be able to raise the redline and tune a more highly strung engine from the M52. I guess that's where the Euro M3 fits in. Oh well. So the sport mode is nice, although light taps on the brakes do NOT prompt downshifts for engine braking, and there is no downshifting upon coasting down, unlike the adaptive AGS on the 1995 740i which I drove. This 5 speed auto is definitely better than the 4 speed GM box, but it's still not for me.
I wanted to keep testing the transmission on the freeway, but the sales rep told me to upshift to D. Oh well, I didn't want to argue with him. I know he's had a long day. By the way, none of the dealers seem to want to go out with drivers. I think they just like to stand around and perhaps make some deals. I can't blame them though; that's their way of living.
After a few miles on the highway, it was back to suburban roads, although with a few more curves. But none of them were tight enough to give any kind of drama or to trigger any of the fancy electronic controls. I noticed a weird whir (almost supercharger like) while using more than 3/4 throttle in the 2000-3000 rpm range. I'm guessing that this might be peculiar to this particular vehicle. For reasons I'll mention later, I didn't think the sales rep was particularly informed about the specifics, so I decided not to ask him. I did check later and notice that BMW has dropped the vacuum operated exhaust flap for the E46.

E46 328iA Summary
This car is an evolution. Some article I read mentioned that BMW seems to cycle between the evolution and revolution trend. I think that there is a much greater difference in technology between the E36 and E30 than between the E46 and E36. The E46 is more responsive, possibly a little faster and with much more safety features (both active and passive), like up to 8 airbags. Also more accommodating. But I think the E36 can still hold its own for quite a while to come. Of course, I would still prefer a new E46, but I think the wait for an even more nimble 2 series, a Compact hatchback derivative or a 2002/3 can be justified. On the other hand, if I could take the E46 to a track or test course, I might want an E46 badly. I believe there is a lot of potential that could not be tapped on the routes I drove today. With the aluminized suspension and the electronics, this car could be a real winner on a curvy course. On the other had, the E46 does have gizmos like driver profiles, programmable daytime running lights and rain-sensing wipers that might appeal to some. I was once part of that group, but now I would rather get pay the same price, loose the gadgets and get even higher performance. But since the E46 has to compete in a market that's going upscale, I'll wait for the 2 series or equivalent.

So we're back at the lot (after my friend passed me in the 540iA, prompting my sales rep to say, "Whoever that driver is, he'll kill someone," ) and the same friend tells me that we can take out another car. Apparently, the sales rep with him was much more pleasant. But before we went out again, we looked around (which is how I got some of the interior/exterior comments written above). We hung around another E46 328iA (this one without the sport package but with wood trim), when another sales rep came along. This one was really quite uninformed. He looked for a window sticker giving the details, and my friend ended up telling him that it was in the trunk. He tried to open the trunk but somehow couldn't. I'm sure he wasn't pressing in the right place, but instead of embarrassing him by showing him how it's done, we suggested the interior release. Of course, he couldn't find it, and when I started reaching for the button near the hood release area, he thought I was opening the hood. That's why I think the trunk release button should be better positioned!

E36 323iC:
Both my friend and I wanted to drive a manual transmission car, but only the 323iC and Z3 1.9L was manual, so we didn't have much of a choice. The Z3 was on its way out, so my friend sat with me in the 323iC. The interior and exterior are probably familiar to most of us, so I'll skip that and go right to the driving aspect. The clutch seemed lighter than the 1995 318is, and the contact point higher. I has a little surprised at this and had to adjust my seat (non-electric this time) to accommodate. Although the manual transmission made for much better throttle response, this car felt quite a bit slower under most conditions, no doubt due to the heavier weight of the convertible and the extra few pounds chipped in by the extra passenger. As the numbers show, this engine feels like the M52 B28's younger sibling, with almost identical characteristics but a little less oomph everywhere. The engine revved better with the manual, but still lacked the high end urgency of a DOHC inline 4 :-( 
Anyway, back to the 323iC. Convertible cowl shake? Yes, it definitely exists!!! I know that the E36 convertible is praised by many of the automotive press for its stiffness, but after driving the E46, this car is definitely looser in the windshield and steering wheel area. There were significant vibrations that were quite unwelcome. Also, the top was down all the time, so wind noise was high, especially on the highway. To the 323iC's defense, my friend did say that this was the quietest convertible he has ever ridden in. I guess maybe it isn't that bad for a convertible, and it's probably more appropriate to say that a convertible is just not for me.
Unlike the E46 which could not be upset, the E36 323iC could. Not enough to trigger ASC+T or anything like that, but I did get some inside wheel spin doing a left turn. Now I know what the 318is would feel like without the lovely limited slip differential. Too bad ASC+T has replaced rather than supplemented the LSD on most cars :-( On another on-throttle 2nd gear left hand corner, the rear end did step out, but quite progressively and without requiring significant countersteering. I think there was some sand on the ground, because I would never have expected it at that speed in a 318is. And this 323iC had the 225/50ZR16 Michelin Pilot HXs on them too, not too far off from our 318is' SP2000s. Perhaps the greater weight and higher torque made the difference here.

The sales rep (in the 323iC) mentioned that there were going to be no more inline 4s coming. He said that BMWs are trying to be performance cars, and no one would go for an inline 4. Well, we all (especially those on the 318ti/Compact list) know how untrue that is. In fact, a great disappointment after driving these two cars come from the thought that there will be no more highly strung inline 4s. I find that the torque curve on these cars are just too smooth for the excitement that I enjoy. Oh well.
I asked the sales rep in the 328iA about the M5. He said that the US would get a 450hp version as opposed to the Euro 500hp version. Needless to say, both figures are way too high, so I didn't trust in his other details very much. He also kept saying that the car I was driving was a Euro car and there were therefore differences. This made me understand the Celcius markings, but then why was the speedometer in MPH?
After the drive, we were offered to sign a signature car. It was a 528iT. So if you get to sign a silverish 528iT with wheels of the 540i, my name will be there on the driver's door. I tried the tailgate on this touring wagon, and it was very nicely weighted. I'm sure I've forgotten many things, but feel free to write back if you have any questions/comments. 

P.S. Thanks to those who answered insurance/liability questions. I had no problems :-) And sorry for the awkward formatting. (I'm having problems with formatted styling with Eudora Pro after changing display fonts).