Sunday, March 31, 2013


Photos: Nissan Motors Corporation, USA
Four committed car guys standing around at a party at a the Classic Car Club in downtown Manhattan, relaxed, pleased to be among their own kind, idly chatting. Off to one side sits a gunmetal-gray-metallic Nissan GT-R.

Unbidden, one of the quartet says, "Y'know, I've just never warmed up to the GT-R."

Three heads nod knowingly. This is not a controversial opinion. It is common, understood, innately correct.

It is also slightly frustrating and difficult to justify. Somehow you'd think that car deserves better, but it doesn't really make the right connections.

No one can dispute the fact that the GT-R is disturbingly fast and capable. This isn't even something to be qualified by its relatively low price tag; it's an absolute. This thing accelerates hard enough to perform noninvasive surgery on your internal organs and the driveline manipulates torque outputs with a delicacy and accuracy to invoke a snit fit in a prima ballerina. In many many ways it's a magnificent machine.

And it never seems to deliver the goods in a way that allows it to sit in the pantheon of greats where the numbers would say it belongs.

What's wrong here? If I could draft a letter to GT-R project manager Kazutoshi Mizuno, how would I explain why I respect this creation but have no real desire to own one? And how should these concerns be heard by the greater automotive design and manufacturing community?

I'm admittedly living on the described impressions of others here - I've never driven a GT-R. I would love to try one for a few days (word to Nissan press relations: let's talk, seriously), but for now I have to accept the word of many respected and trusted authorities, who have been consistently unanimous in both their praise and criticisms.

So what should I theoretically say to Mizuno-san?

Well, first and simplest, it's far from the most exciting shape on the road. It's not unappealing - it's no Juke - but it really doesn't provoke a major emotional response. It's a solid, somewhat bulky, pretty generic modern GT car. The Infiniti G37 coupe has far more art to its lines. Even given the platform's significant size, there's no reason why the body can't be much more appealing. (Nissan's styling in general is kind of uninspired right now, but there's no excuse to not make an extra effort for the flagship.)

The interior is nothing to make anyone fall in love, either. It's well-equipped, rational, and utterly inelegant in its presentation and ambiance. If you love buttons you're at home here, but otherwise it lacks - and in a different and less likable way than the old traditional German no-nonsense approach. Maybe it's those buttons.

Once you get into the specs, a few things stand out: Aside from the family-sedan dimensions, this is one heavy machine. Manufacturer's stated curb weight is 3829 pounds. Yes, it manages that weight extremely well, and pure mass is not a reason to dislike a car, but a well-balanced heavy sword is still a heavy sword - lots of impact but not the easiest to wield, especially in certain situations, and subjectively at a disadvantage to something more innately manageable.

Why the weight? Probably the massive complexity of every mechanical system in the car. If you love sports and racing cars, you usually have a healthy respect for tech in many applications - but you also prize simplicity and directness. The GT-R features neither of those traits.
Instead, you get the most complex driveline this side of a Bugatti Veyron, and even then it's close. (Six driveshafts?) The purist concerns about the paddle-shifter transmission are rapidly fading, but the rest - all those computer-monitored clutches, all those torque measurements, all that manipulation and assistance and interference - stands in contrast to accepted enthusiast canon through the ages, where it's been all about the ability of someone's right foot to fully command the situation without excessive second-guessing.

And that is only one system. Add in the DampTronic suspension (awful name, by the way) and yet another loathsome three-way "mode" selector and VDC and the rest and it approaches voice-recognition-system levels of disconnection and alienation.

It's like driving via Turing test. In getting to its fantastic numbers the GT-R replaces so much of the pure involvement and enjoyment of good fast driving with processing and interpretation and management to the point where a lot of us are just turned off by the whole thing.

This isn't about some stereotypical take on Japanese products being soulless, which is as outdated and inaccurate a prejudice as exists in the automotive world - and which happily seems to be fading into oblivion as we fully accept CRXs and Miatas and NSXs and Z32 300ZXs and first-generation RX-7s and S30 240Zs, among others, as indisputable classics.

I want the GT-R to be more like an NSX - simpler, lighter, more direct, less couched in binary processing and willful complexity. More elegant in its violence. Forcefully fast, yes, of course, but with a bit of an edginess and clarity that the current one lacks. Give it some style, drop some (well, lots of) weight, find a way to live with half of the buttons. Think 560-horsepower AWD FR-S and you're most of the way there.

Maybe the GT-R as it is needs to be reconsidered and repackaged. Maybe instead of a raw performance car all those systems should be used to create some sort of indomitable Grand Touring machine, with impeccable furnishings and exquisite lines and four comfortable seats. That would be close to the ultimate cross-country runner, something to make the Germans truly feel inadequate.

Instead, right now, it's a 911 Turbo competitor without any spirit or charm, which is a lot of what makes the 911 so lovable. The heads respect the GT-R, but most don't want it. And that's a shame - but it computes.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Urban discipline

Photo: Sergey Shpakovsky
This is the last time I will apologize for the irregular nature of my posts, or more specifically the large gaps that sometimes occur and will likely occur again. Hopefully things will be better integrated towards productive ends here in the future, but reality has some pretty harsh dictates regarding time and priorities for me right now. Such is life and the decisions we make, as if I need another reminder. Please bear with me; hopefully the collective you will continue to find these writings to be of some value or interest when they appear, and I do very much appreciate your reading. (Just to make sure: Comments are welcome, by the way.)

That said, the ability to let thoughts mull and recombine for a while is an often-underappreciated privilege in the Web age and one for which I remain thankful, but which is valuable only up to a point. It's wonderful to be able to mull over a consideration for an extended period of time, but thinking about something for too long can be counterproductive - which is why I just binned a massive two-part magnum-opus-in-progress about what we saw back at Geneva, as my concerns about how everything introduced there relates to technology and driving and humanity was rapidly facing a complete logical unraveling. Plus, have to clear the boards before the local show later this week. Wish I could have scored a press pass, but wasn't even sure I'd be here for it until about this past Thursday.

Anyway, in place of those two encyclicals, quick notes on what was important a month ago: 
  • The McLaren P1 is technically intriguing, although it somehow seems overdone and strangely irrelevant and to me is less desirable than the MP4/12C. Could partially be my personal issues with the hybrid thing.
  • The LaFerrari is much the same except with a greater historical burden and a far worse name. 
  • I wish the Rolls-Royce Wraith had lived up to the teaser images. The world needs a great grand motorcar; it also needs said motorcar to be styled alluringly.
  • The Lamborghini Veneno is nothing but a pure and complete Lamborghini - it could be nothing but a Lamborghini - and thank almighty God for that, even if they're only building three of the damned things.
  • I'm actually okay with the 991 911 GT3 being PDK-only. The loss in connectedness is marginal, it's in step with a broad movement, and once you get to seven gears I think I prefer a less fussy way of shifting anyway. Bigger worry: A 911 with messed-up steering feel is just classically wrong. Still want one, though.
  • I am not surprised that the one car that won unanimous praise from the scribblers was the Golf GTD. Not that writers have all that much real influence - as indicated by the multitude of diesel AWD wagons with manual transmissions on the American road - but it really does seem like the Complete Solution.
So we get to the edge of the New York show, my hometown gig, and I go from the lofty heights of contemplating the LaFerrari's place in the metaphysical order to the very abrasive concrete of my own neighborhood.
Photo: Luca5
I gave up my car, a rapidly decaying '87 Prelude Si, when I moved to Brooklyn back in 2002. Literally. I could not sell a car that dangerous and decrepit to another human being in good conscience, so I donated it to some Chemung County charity with the hopes that they'd part the whole thing out (rusty gas tank and all). Since then I've been an active observer of the peculiar breeds of car culture that exist here in lieu of, I guess, actually being part of one. I occasionally feel like a part of me is missing.

First thing to know: New Yorkers don't hate cars. There is no end of personal transportation present in the everyday, and in many cases cars and SUVs and the like get used just like they get used in every burg and suburb in the rest of the country. This is especially the case in Queens and the Bronx.

Even so, cars in NYC suffer an accelerated entropy hard to duplicate elsewhere. The vehicular environment - the parking situation, the road conditions, the nature of traffic - is just harsh. Cars don't last much longer than ten years here. Theft isn't the massive issue that it was years ago, but my friend who used to own a Fox Mustang will attest to the fact that it's still a reality. The costs and risks of parking alone are enough to dissuade many from ownership; for the rest of us, the near-necessity of real bumpers means that some hardcore favorites (Alfa 105 GTV, Lotus Elise) are much less appealing than they would be elsewhere.

Past that, the mix on the road is a bit different; we don't have many pickup trucks, for example. We do have plenty of SUVs. There are preferences - when I worked for two (miserable) months at a local dealership back in 2009, the two most common requests from people entering the used car lot were for a Charger or an Altima.

You would think that Subarus would do well here: tough, capable of handling our increasingly ridiculous weather, relatively affordable, profoundly reliable (WRX/STi head gasket issues slipped under the rug for the moment). They don't exist in numbers. You will see two dozen Camrys before you see two Subarus.

The lot experience and the Subaru shortage point up some huge truths about cars here: the great majority of buyers tend to be very trendy and selfconscious, they go for the most predictable options, they don't stray too far from self-reinforcing socially acceptable choices.

The tendency for those of means to buy mostly to impress others and fit within accepted codes is reflected in the hegemony of the three big German sedan and CUV makers and the paucity of anything classic or sporty or remotely eccentric. Yes, one can see the occasional Italian exotic, but given the amount of money that floats around the dull predictability of high-end traffic in its logo-obsessed insecurity is a bit depressing. People buy to be seen, seeking a sort of bland "I have money and acceptable tastes" approval. Or else they just completely lack individuality and character. Maybe it's the same thing.
About what you can expect here. Photo: Raging Wire
Same trend idea with street kids - Nissans are accepted (Maximas have a lot of cred) and thus consistently do well, and Infinitis are a common aspirational item. There's some natural overlap on the upscale SUV and German-machine front. Sports cars? Huh? Maybe an M3, but I'll venture that it's more the badge and the positioning in the line than anything about skidpad numbers. Back the street culture off to the great masses, and you see the definition of normalcy: four-door sedans and crossovers, lots of Toyotas and Hondas and Fords.

The sad mutation process that took the city's art and bohemian culture scenes and converted them into hipster fashion-show zones showed a lot of the once-significant weird-car love there to be a recessive trait. Occasionally you'll see something interesting in Williamsburg or south of 14th Street, but I suspect that unless it's something really impressive that it just might be another case of ironic-pose-centric accessorization, too.

So, again, it's not that people here hate cars. It's that they mean something different, something far removed from classical ideas of backroad driving or cross-country running. A car or CUV or whatever is, too often, another boutique shopping bag, a clothing logo, a lifestyle statement - and that's about it. It's a bit depressing, but we live with it.

Maybe it's just that those of us here who understand just aren't in a place to fight back against the trendiness and dreariness often enough. But the belief does exist; resistance to that status quo gets lots of love. Dear God, you should see people react to Raphael's Baja Bug like it's the highlight of their day.

Maybe it's not an attitude that one sees day-to-day, but people here do understand.
Photo: CarSpotter