Archive for the 'technical' Category

Histories of the Unexplained: The next C63S throws us a curve ball.

Friday, September 23rd, 2022

When we are young we learn that some animals are expected to sink or swim immediately after birth.

Others, like humans, are given more time to be set up for success and survival.

Cars tend to be more like the former.

I’ve been observing the industry for near 40 years and working in it for about 30.

And seemingly not a week goes by that a car isn’t released into the world without the proper support it needs from those who have one job: to bring it to market and market it.

In this series we will discuss cars that aren’t quite given what they need by their makers to succeed, and so are immediately lambasted by the public and the press.

Unexplained and therefore unappreciated.

Here we will attempt to right history.

The most recent example is the Mercedes Benz C63S revealed to the world yesterday, after months to years of forewarning that it would be powered by half the cylinders and would likely be some form of Hybrid (to achieve even higher outputs.)

The internet did not take well to the news, even if the news wasn’t exactly new.

Now don’t get me wrong; I was a huge fan of the huge V8 they shoehorned in the W204 C63. And I too did not take well to the news a generation ago that that V8 had been replaced by a one with a third of the capacity lopped off and two turbochargers plopped on.

But in usual fashion, Mercedes did the hard work, engineering the system well enough that the response and even the sound did a good impression of the former motor and made a good impression overall. Once I drove the W205 I was pleasantly surprised at how it felt consistent. And I think they’ll aim to achieve that best they can where they can, and aim for something compelling in exchange if they’re making a gamble such as this.

I’m no fan of the inline 4, but I think it helps to remember that the performance Benz didn’t start with the AMG Hammer, but rather the 190E 2.3 -16. This performance C class precursor was powered by an I4 not a I6 or V8. A high winding one. While that shifted to I6 and V8 as the cars got larger the precedent is there.

When it comes down to it, yes the next C63 will sound disappointing to those outside. But that may be a welcome relief, given how obnoxiously loud the last ones could get. In fact Mercedes was quick to point out the car can be started silently and move on EV alone if you’re leaving the house early. So while the car in the videos was meek, European models tend to have different exhaust components and tuning and noise pollution standards are a consideration. And we have yet to experience what the car will sound like to the driver and occupants, even if they sound ends up having to be enhanced artificially and again, electrically.

This is a hybrid. Which could be one to stick around for quite some time. If so, it could be a pattern for what the car is to become. And even if it doesn’t, that just means it could be one of the most singular cars ever done, whether you like how it goes about its business or not.

But it’s not a hybrid in the perjorative sense. This is how Corvette is going to do it. How Porsche is going to do it. How F1 has been doing it for years. That’s right; while they’re not using the KERS, that’s what this is looking more like, because kinetic energy recovery is a decidedly hybrid thing.

It’s also important to look not at just the weight but where the weight is carried. And not just the outputs but where they are deployed.

The trade off for not being able to hear the V8 is not having the mass of a V8 under the hood. As heavy as the next car is, it looks set to be better balanced, and have that mass shifted from where you don’t want it to where you do. On the rear wheels rather than the fronts. The current 5 series is an interesting steer in hybrid form for this reason. Perhaps more so even than the vaunted I6 cars. Because it has a slightly rear bias to its distribution of 51:49. (Update: the distribution on the C63S is an even more promising 48:52.)

Combine that with the immediacy of electric drive at the rear and an electric turbocharger feeding the 4 pot and things are looking good that it won’t exactly have slow reflexes or responses.

And then there’s the addition of the rear wheel steering. You can see how the car bends around corners already. And I’m sure the system will shrink the sense of size and mass.

In the end I think the car will be vindicated by those who take the time to drive it , even if it’s not likely to be validated by those who don’t.

It’s an entirely different approach than the one they’ve taken, and while it’s not on paper my cup of tea I applaud the bravery of throwing away the successful recipe and starting nearly from scratch. We doubted they could do an AMG worthy 4 cylinder and they did. Then we doubted they could do an AMG worthy A class and they did.

What’s more troubling to me than the C63S is that just as the W204 acknowledged a trend to the V8 up front, others may follow suit as tends to happen. Another thing that tends to happen: not all engineers approach the problem with the same attitude or budget.

Remember too that the C63 comes at a time when AMG has been engineering the One, a hybridized F1 motored hypercar. What they’ve been struggling with there and learning from their struggles has to have affected where they netted out here.

Let’s just hope that the final result is more compelling than the One and more compelling than the C43, which also has a 4 pot, 4 wheel steering, and 4 wheels driven. The C63 needs to punch hard with that rear motor to differentiate itself from the C43. It needs to show why AMG built it, and didn’t just apply the C63 label to a C43 with the power and magic applied more emphatically.

To wear the AMG badge, it needs to. And to be let out as an AMG after their recent string of hits I think there’s a good chance it will.

Getting out the ugly truth about Plug Ins

Monday, February 14th, 2022

My girlfriend, loyal soul that she is, attaches to people and things like I do.

That is to say, we both hold on to people and things that have been good to us, and try to be good to them in return.

In my case, it’s my bicycle. The same one I arrived at college with in 1993. Something it amuses my friend Sam to observe. He likes to point out that when we ran into each other 15 years after college, I was on that very bike, owned the very same car, and even had very same home audio setup, CD player and all.

In my girlfriend’s case, her friends are longstanding, and she’s been loyal to her first apartment, her first car. And her second iPod.

While I admire this trait in us both, and in others, and was reminding my friend Peter just today that he’s a rock because he too is loyal to people and his things, I think it’s a dangerous tendency to hold on to ‘this tendency to hold on’ in other areas of life.

To gasoline, for example.

Just as my girlfriend doesn’t use her phone to store her music, or even stream it, but carries around her trusty iPod to bring music into her life, when I suggest to people that they are the ideal candidates for an EV, they clutch and cling onto what they’ve known like they can’t imagine living in any other way.

A childhood friend, one of my oldest, is currently looking at cars. And seems quite intent on the notion of a plug in hybrid. “Hybrid” to the average consumer means “good for the environment.” And Plug In Hybrid can be driven more often on battery alone, making the action of plugging it in, and driving for the first 10, 20, even 30 miles on electricity alone feel like you’re a brave pioneer, venturing into the unknown, like those who have already been using an EV for two decades.

But here’s the ugly truth about the Plug In Hybrid. You’re not twice as friendly as your gas counterparts. And in fact in some ways, you’re only risking twice the harm to others.

You see, the hybrid is a curious mix of a gasoline vehicle and a battery pack. A plug in hybrid adds the plug, and perhaps a larger battery, so you can charge that battery not just as you slow down, but also with a wall outlet or charger where you park. The fundamental problem with this approach is you’re now cramming two different types of motor and fuel storage into one car. You’re consuming twice, under the same, familiar sheetmetal. And that makes them heavier, which makes them more cumbersome when it comes time to turn or to stop. Wears through tires and roads faster too.

It also means there’s less room for things like passengers and cargo, especially when compared to EVs, that can have much smaller motors and transmissions, and store their energy in their floors, not between their rear wheels as is almost always the case with a fossil fuel engined vehicle.
An EV can be incredibly space efficient in ways a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle never could. A plug in hybrid is no better than its gas counterpart in this regard. And is sometimes worse.

Wheras many feel a EV drives ‘better’, sometimes the hybrid or plug in hybrid drives worse. Particularly in something high riding, which is increasingly popular these days. (People think they’re safer up high, even though they aren’t.)

If you plan to sit up high, better reason to have the heaviest parts of the car stay down low as much as possible. So EVs make a whole lot of sense if you’re thinking “I’d like an SUV.” of any sort. (Two possible exceptions: BMWs and Subarus, that drop their engines’ centers of gravity lower than others.)

When your plug in hybrid runs out of juice those 10, 20, or even 30 miles from home, they’ll drive just as poorly if not worse than a hybrid. And while you wont hear a gasoline engine at work when the battery can move you, the car will still feel the effects of that extra weight bounding and swaying, which can feel both cumbersome and tiresome.

Hybrids and plug in Hybrids make more sense in cars. You know, sedans, or hatchbacks, or wagons. Especially small engined, front drive ones, where the extra weight balances the car out better than conventional versions, making them feel more like their superior, and dearer, rear drive cousins.
But if you’re going higher, remember to keep your weight lower.
Your complexity too.

Oh that’s right. I didn’t mention: because there’s no free lunch in physics and engineering, that added complexity leads to more to wear or break, more complexity to diagnose. So if you believe in Keep It Simple, Stupid, again EVs come in ahead of “Internal Combustion Engine” ‘d vehicles, or ICE cars as some call them. And once again, coming in third, is the (Plug In) Hybrid.

“But, wait!” you’re probably saying. “I want to save gas!”

And pulling up to the pump less often can feel good.

But the truth remains that hybrids, because they’re more complex and more marketable, sell for more money, so it takes a number of years for what you save in gas to cancel out how much extra you’ve paid for the vehicle in the first place. (And plug ins, while they get even better overall MPG on average, are more expensive still. So you have to do the math and see if it really adds up in your favor, or you’re just being sold to.)

So to review:
Less expensive to fuel.

More Expensive to buy.
More likely to break.
More expensive to fix.
More clumsy to maneuver.

Do these sound like things we should be holding onto?

Or do they sound like ugly things we should leave behind, in the past, where they belong?

Hello, BMW’s Carbon Future

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Zintro called upon its network of experts to discussed SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers and BMW Group’s plan to invest $200 million to triple the carbon fiber (CF) capacity at their Washington state plant to handle high demand from the automotive sector. This was my response as selected and featured in their newsletter May 22nd, 2014:

This announcement should come at no surprise, and yet it is a delightful harbinger for both the future of BMW models and that of lightweight materials in vehicle construction. ‘No surprise’ because the M3 CRT portended this shift in early 2011, and now in addition to the i3, BMW is now ramping up production of three other vehicles that rely on CFRP to varying degrees: i8, M3, and M4, and given the response to the ‘joy’ reduced weight is bringing back to BMWs lineup, we will surely see its use proliferate beyond the i and M brands to the regular models, just as thermoplastics, aluminum and magnesium have historically played the same role to varying degrees. Don’t be surprised to see increased carbon levels in all BMW vehicles a generation or two from now. This comes at an opportune time for BMW: they’ve lost technological and dynamic footing to competitors like Audi and Cadillac who have used (and marketed) aluminum and lighter metals to bring their weight down just as BMWs was swelling. Carbon based components will help restore BMW’s driving machine ethos and give BMW a marketing edge and halo technology they need to stand out once again, especially given the high performance and racing associations some consumers have with the Carbon Fiber. Those less interested in performance or racing will also see gains given regulatory and market pressures for more fuel efficient vehicles despite increased safety, feature content, and size.

my how you’ve grown

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Nearly two decades ago the Honda/Acura NSX shook up the performance car scene.

This year, the Nissan GT-R is said to be doing the same.

But could the two cars be any more different?

Looking at this picture I stumbled across on the web – is the NSX is too much like a Formula 1 car or is the GT-R is too much like an SUV?

why MINI’s puffed up new Cooper leaves me deflated

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

The old Cooper struck a shockingly artful balance between the rawness of the original and the refinement of a BMW - even the supercharger’s whine mimicked the gear whine of the original.

In remaking the new Cooper, MINI had to do something and the new car will no doubt be an advance in many areas (particularly in having a lighter, aluminum blocked engine). But from a design and intent standpoint, certain things make it more pre to trend than its rather timeless predecessor. They are: Read the rest of this entry »

Acura’s A-Spec package for the TL - don’t drive home without it

Tuesday, January 24th, 2006
The A-SPEC’s performance enhancers involve more aggressive suspension tuning, as designed by Makoto Tamamura, the famed chassis engineer behind Acura’s NSX sports car…. the stock TL torque-steers upon corner exit and understeers severely when pushed hard into a corner. In A-SPEC form, both torque steer and understeer are dramatically reduced—we even experienced an occasional hint of oversteer on aggressive corner turn-in. Braking performance from the factory-installed Brembo four-piston disc brakes improves, too, thanks to reduced nosedive during hard stops and the stickier rubber. source: Motor Trend

(The package improves slalom times by nearly 4 miles per hour and increases lateral grip by .06g. We continue to suggest those in the market for a TL or TSX insist the A-spec suspension be installed before delivery).

a crucial TSX option unknown to salespeople

Thursday, December 29th, 2005

Contrary to what others might tell you the TSX’s suspension and tires are its Achilles heel, but you don’t have to resort to the Radio Flyer ride of an aftermarket kit or cough up $4330 for the A-spec package to get rid of some of the body roll and torque steer.

The best way to improve the TSX is to install the A-spec suspension, which – conrary to what your salesperson might believe – is sold separately (part number 08W60-SEC-200B). If the folks at your local dealership are anything like those at ours, you may need to show them this. Don’t be intimidated by the retail price; you’ll find it for around $600 if you’re willing to mail order…

But the noisy, slippery, twitchy Original Equipment tires should be first to go; I suggest the Michelin Pilot Exalto A/S, $146 plus shipping and installation through this vendor.

driven: MINI Cooper S JCW

Friday, September 16th, 2005

Our first drive of the Mini Cooper S the day it hit dealer stock left us cold. The exhaust was boomy, the gearing too long, the powerband asthmatic and the suspension overdamped and skittish on 16s, underdamped and bouncy on 17s. The car would snap from power-on understeer to trailing-throttle oversteer in a heartbeat. Since then, we’ve actually preferred the normally aspirated Cooper’s low speed response, rising rate powerband, and more BMW-like suspension (it better evinces two adages that MINIs should embody: “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow” and “speak softly and carry a big stick”)

Revision to the ‘05 MCS solved all but the motor’s feeling a bit winded before reaching 6,000 rpm and the exhaust boom – if anything the note has grown more prominient with time; changes were instututed for more pops and burbles on the overrun. Revised gearbox ratios and shock damping make for a car that claws its way forward and keys to the surface like the ‘04 and earlier Cooper never did. (The recently added limited slip differential should only improve matters).

We recently had the opportunity to put an ‘05 Cooper S with the JCW engine kit and 18” wheels through its paces, and it wasn’t at all what we expected.

Walking up to the car you eye the exhaust and the 18’s and think “this is going to hurt.” But once underway you find that the exhaust is less prominent and boomy at small throttle openings yet more melliflous at high revs. Even more of a shock, the combination of lightweight wheels and 18” Dunlops are less leaden than the stock 17s. You’d expect the 18s to throw impact absorbtion out the window, but they unsettle the car less than than the 17” wheels and Pireli eufori@ run-flats or Dunlop 9000 DSSTs. Only the sharpest square edged ridges elicit a metallic whack from the suspension. As an added bonus steering gain is less abrubt than with the eufori@s and more linear than with the 9000s. Back to back drives with the 115hp Cooper on sport (rather than sport plus) suspension showed the ostensibly smoother car to be the rougher riding of the two. In the MCS on 18s it feels as though the kid in the seat behind you is misbehaving, in the Cooper it feels as though the tires are are as round as medicine balls. Go figure.

There’s no question the engine kit does what’s claimed. The car now pulls strongly right into the rev limiter, something that’s more easily enjoyed with the ‘05 and later car’s revised ratios. The flexibility is such that you can pull cleanly in the upper ratios with less than 2,000 rpm on the tach (the standard car deosn’t wake up til nearly 3,000). In the standard model 6th is for cruising only – in the JCW it can be used for passing as well. The added urge gives the S motor what it should have had all along – zeal. As evo pointed out in Dec. of 2004, “immediately the throttle response is cleaner and more decisive, while the supercharger’s whine has less drone and more zing.”

If we have one criticism of the 2006 model, it’s that the engine kit is bundled with a limited slip differential and the JCW brake kit. While this saves you money should you want all the ‘upgrades’, we preferred the flexibility of ordering a la carte.

The LSD and suspension kit we’ll take, but those bigger front brakes add unsprung weight and rotational inertia while requiring 17s which add more of the same. The unsprung weight forces you to slow down over lumy pavement while the rotational inertia menas the car is steered less with the palms than the forearms – you have to wrestle the car into the turn that much more. The inertia also dulls some of the JCW engine kit’s extra shove – you notice the reshaped power curve more than you feel your neck snap back as you crack the throttle. Plus the 18s miss the point of the MINI somewhat; the car trades some of its stealth quotient, its indifference to surface conditions, and its playful eagerness to wag its tail for a fair amount of texture dependent tire rumble, which quashes more of that BMW level refinement. For the track-day junkie the brakes will be a Godsend but for a (U.S.) street-driven Cooper they opening something of a Pandora’s Box.

Many armchair reviewers say you can get more bang for the buck via aftermarket modifications, but before you talk yourself out of the added cost of the JCW equipment, find a way to try a JCW equipped Cooper S for yourself. It’s an experience you simply can’t put a price on or express in numbers. The effect of the upgrades is greater than the sum of its parts and would make the late John Cooper beam with pride.

UPDATE: We recently sampled an 03 MCS with the JCW engine kit. Like the all of the pre-05 MCSs, the gearing is just too damn long (to reduce wheelspin in tighter corners?) but the JCW kit does make the engine pull more cleanly – esp. from a stop – and ensure that you don’t get blown off by the bog standard Cooper sitting next to you at a light. (Well not unless he’s on smaller, lighter wheels…)

The moral: if you don’t think you can afford an ‘05 or later S, save more pennies. (If the JCW engine kit can’t overcome the gearing and make the car feel as alert as something bearing the Cooper name should be, nothing will…)

UPDATE 2: Today we had the opportunity to compare a Cooper S (on 17” S-lites and Goodyear RS-As) to an ‘06 JCW kit equipped car (on 17” Web Spokes and Dunlop 9000s).

Once again the JCW exhaust proved less tiring and more mellifluous, speaking up only under larger throttle openings and singing with a less raspy voice. The increased in gear flexibility and broader powerband improve drivability and give the engine the same big motor feel at freeway speeds that 3 series car with 3.0L sixes enjoy.

The 17” web spokes and Dunlop 9000s had a similarly large effect, the reduced unsprung mass leading to a less disjointed feel over bumps while the 9000’s softer steering response caused the car to bend into corners rather than dart into them – the tradeoff being less zig-zag motion when trying to go straight. Compared to the 18” wheels we had sampled previously this combo wasn’t as sharp in the steering but the tire noise was significantly lower. The flinty metallic report you get from the 18s over larger bumps wasn’t apparent either.

Finally the limited slip device works exactly as advertised: feed in more throttle in a corner and the car first feints that it’s going to run wide – ignore this and squeeze further and you’ll feel the nose sniff towards the inside shoulder. Coopers have always been at their best near the apex – LSD only improves matters.