Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gates of Eden

Photo: Calvin Kim
According to a rather detailed posting by the UK's esteemed Autocar magazine, the upcoming Lamborghini Gallardo replacement will feature a traditional manual gearbox. What would have been a perfectly unremarkable statement not too long ago instead is now cause for some significant consideration at a time when sports car makers are very rapidly gravitating towards the perceived advantages and market acceptance of automated/semiautomatic/flappy-paddle/robot-clutch/you get the idea transmissions.

There are, personally, two major conclusions to be drawn from this tidbit of information - one about Lamborghini and one about performance transmissions more broadly.

I've never been a huge Lamborghini fan. Yes, I do think the Miura is amazing. Yes, I had a Countach on my childhood bedroom wall, although in my case it was joined by a 959 and a GTO in that well-known "Decisions, decisions, decisions" poster. I don't think it's necessarily that I hold a grudge against them because I am physically unable to drive a Countach and by extension probably a few other models due to my largish size and gigantic-ish feet. It's more about intention and image and association.
Photo: underwhelmer
One naturally compares Lamborghini with Ferrari, and a stated preference is something of a personality test. Ferrari is serious and sublime, decades of successful race history and legendary drivers and il Commendatore behind sunglasses and the grandest of postwar Grand Tourers and endless drama and dark glory. Lamborghini is all nouveau riche playboy flash and noise and a certain trashy glam vibe, the plaything of petroprinces and drug dealers back in the Seventies and Eighties and the Affliction t-shirt set today. I am hopelessly self-serious and classicist and as such have no problem conceptually siding with Maranello.

Which leaves me with a quandary, because I am flat thrilled that Lamborghini has kept the faith and stayed with a proper manual gearbox option for the new car in the face if its abandonment by so many others, especially you-know-who, and in doing so has made a mess of my traditional favorites structure. (Caveat: So far as we know, at least; magazine predictions are rarely guaranteed, although the stack of weights and measurements that Autocar used gives their reporting at least a deeper sense of credibility.)

Ferrari has led the way towards the flappy-paddle future - they were the first to use it in their F1 cars back in 1989, although various other autoclutch experiments were around at the time - and they've developed the idea to the point where you can no longer buy a new Ferrari with three pedals. I'm sure they have a significant amount of owner (oops, client) feedback that justifies this strategy, especially since it maintains a certain connection with the racing cars, and so on. The decisions made by McLaren and, increasingly, Porsche and Audi and others to follow suit only seem to back up the push to be as modern-racer-like as possible.
Photo: kenjonbro
And then here's Lamborghini, which even under Audi ownership seems most content to do its own thing and not take itself so damned seriously. Maybe it's that strain in the company's identity that says that Lamborghinis were never really race cars and don't have to be so attached to that ideal; maybe it's some deep sensibility that says, hey, we build these things so that some guy can go out and have fun and manuals are fun so we'll keep that in the mix. In being less than serious they can focus on offering the pure joy of driving a fast, loud, edgy, flashy car in an often dreadfully sober world, and so we get the Veneno and the Egoista and a manual in the new car. It's wonderful, kind of like the Miata or FT86 mentality with three times the power and fitted in an Italian couture supercar shell. Affliction t-shirt brigade or not, this thing already sounds like a gift.

But all of this further opens up a really strange debate that takes a lot of the traditional received knowledge about auto enthusiasm and threatens to create something of a schism. Sports cars have forever been positioned to be the middle ground between normal passenger autos and full racing machines, bringing the directness and responsiveness of the latter into the everyday world of the former. What does it mean when the desirability of a sports car is increased because its makers intentionally chose for it to not be like a racing car?

This goes beyond the usual concerns about how certain race-car components and arrangements (Rose-joint suspensions, radical cam timing, thong-grade windscreens) are not suitable or desirable for street use. This is about how a major component development with significant objective advantages may not be preferable to an older, now less racer-like approach.
The paradigm. Photo: prorallypix
Once upon a time, it was simpler: A car that was more like a race car was more fun. A good race car set an ideal to be pursued by enthusiasts. A car that was like a race car was lighter, simpler, more direct, faster, handled better, braked better, and by rational extension was a whole lot more engaging and exhilarating. This was what generations of drivers were taught to believe was desirable in a driving machine.

Technology changed this, like it tends to do with everything. Anti-lock brakes and stability control were not considered "racer-like" developments to most people; they definitely were so to folks like the Williams F1 team, however, which successfully used the traction modulators in their dominant FW14B. Said championship winner also featured a semiautomatic gearbox. Racing cars would steadily acquire more electronic aids and assists - up to the point where rules were sometimes required to limit or prohibit them.
Photo: Andrew Basterfield
Back in the production-car world, product planners faced a bit of a decision: Should a "sports car" maintain that classic light/simple/nimble identity, or should it adopt more of the tech that has proven to be so successful in real race cars?

We can see decisions going both ways in place today with, say, the Miata at one pole and the GT-R at the other. One clings religiously to the old-school rules, one relentlessly personifies modern ideals. (The issue has been slightly muddled by cases like mandatory stability control, although whether or not the makers choose to offer an effective system override is telling.)

Which is better? Impossible to say; it's another personality test. What do you want?

Back to transmissions. Racing-derived automanuals have their significant advantages: they shift cleanly, they don't require the lift-clutch-shift-clutch-throttle interruption of power, one can keep both hands on the wheel and focus on steering and braking and such instead of fiddling around with a lever and another pedal. For those of us with less than Sennaesque coordination and speed, the last part is particularly valuable. And, like I mentioned a while back when talking about the new Porsche GT3, some cars now have seven (or more) ratios to select and doing so sequentially is preferable to trying to accurately grab the right slot in an increasingly comb-like shift pattern.

(Parallel thought: Seven speeds just seem excessive. What's the justification? Really, I wonder how often six is really necessary except by marketing-department demands; a good five-speed is often the perfect match to the real world. Of course, so are sixteen-inch rims and 50-series tires, which is almost Corolla territory at this point.)

The GT3 is a very interesting case in this discussion. There has been no end of controversy over it being available only with a PDK gearbox. Again, I think it is a conscious decision on the part of Porsche to make their raciest street car as close to a track car as possible. (The hope that it gives the PDK a bit of street cred and nudges aside the automanuals-are-for-weak-poseurs stereotype may also be in there, but we'll be polite.) It all but goes without saying that a PDK-equipped GT3 would post a better lap time around essentially any race course on Earth than an identical car equipped with a traditional gearbox and clutch.
Photo: Porsche
But is that really what matters in the real world? Is the extra flexibility of a non-sequential gearbox preferable? And is a Porsche customer really going to favor the quicker shifts if it comes at the expense of driver involvement and, by extension, enjoyment? Isn't that why one traditionally buys a Porsche? It's enough to provoke some serious contemplations; it's also maybe enough to make the guys in Zuffenhausen second-guess such an absolutist decision.

Consider the poles again, and their likely adherents. One buys a GT-R because one wants what is pretty close to being, objectively, the fastest car on the market. One buys a Miata because one wants what's likely the most fun car on the market. Ferrari uses automanuals because that's what makes its racing cars competitive and the street cars exist in parallel to that; it's quite likely that Lamborghini wants to use a traditional gearbox because it's more enjoyable.

It may be time for that aforementioned schism to occur. Racing cars are about ultimate lap times and winning, and as such are almost a sort of business weapon. Sports cars as we understand them are about fun and thrills and enjoying life, which is something very different. We seem to be approaching the point where it becomes preferable to turn away from a pure race mentality and begin to actively favor something that's less stopwatch and more human.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Letter from Mexico City

Photos by the author
Travel is the great cure for complacency. It´s also a decent way to shake off the stresses of the end of an academic year (the prior post was assignment-related, hence its likely oddness) and reacquire a taste for reality. How that taste is perceived and processed can be something else entirely, though.

So I´m sitting here in the D.F., sipping a (real) Coke and coming to terms with the last few days in the biggest and possibly most overwhelming city in the Western Hemisphere.

Oh my God you can´t be serious, the sensible folks say. Why would you ever want to go to Mexico City? It´s so dangerous and dirty and you can´t drink the water and it´s dangerous and so on, as if every step made by a tourist here was paced by pickpockets and drunk Emilio Zapata wannabes and toxic air and gastric distress.

Forget it all. The lot of it is nonsense, a bunch of outdated, borderline racist stereotypes. You do realize that you are in a VERY large and often confusing place (especially if you´re not a semi-competent Spanish speaker, which neither German-major I nor Russian-immigrant Wonderful One are), but Mexico City has almost completely outrun its bad reputation. The people here are wonderful, the air isn´t bad (it is thin; we are pretty high up here), I can´t openly endorse every tiny ramshackle taquerita you stroll past but the food situation has been pretty stable so far. Yes, everyone drinks bottled water. They do that in France too, by the way.

But it is insanely crowded and noisy and busy and often chaotic. If you´re not at ease in crowds, this is not your place. If you´ve ever been to Times Square, take that and multiply it by itself and spread it over several dozen square miles. That said, there are times of peace and beauty to be had on a regular basis. The Zocalo alone can be utterly beatific.

Also, if you´re from el Norte and need to find your bearings in the midst of it all, just watching the traffic go by can be very interesting.

The old rep for Mexico being little more than a hive of Beetles is as outdated as the rest of it all. Instead, modern Mexico City traffic is a charming mix of mostly modest wheels from around the globe: hatchbacks and small sedans, Fords and Nissans and Renaults, the occasional SUV or pony car or luxury ride. It´s a very pleasant break from the bigger-is-better/status-symbol subliminal anxiety of motorized American life. I´m sure there´s a flood of serious socioeconomic issues underpinning the prevalence of pretty basic transportation, but regardless it´s nice to be somewhere other than a place where a car must either have a highline German badge or take up more space than my hotel room.

Cars also last a long time here, which makes for an interesting mix. Those basic wheels often require little more than basic maintenance. Rust is nearly nonexistent owing to the desert-dry air. The streets can be rough but speeds are usually modest until you get on the highway, and even then high velocity usually isn´t a high priority. Personal favorite I´ve seen so far was a lovely cherry-red four-door Datsun 510 in impeccable shape with a very happy family out for a Sunday evening drive. I´m still trying to find a good classified listing to check price ranges.

Even if the Beetle hegemony has faded, there is plenty of intriguing stuff here for Wolfsburg partisans. There is still no shortage of Beetles and vans on the street. Past that is the presence of the smaller cars that VW never offered to us decadent oversized Yankees: the Pointer, the Gol, the Lupo. VW´s sexier Spanish sister Seat is also popular.

What is increasingly unpopular is the use of Beetles as taxis. There are still some puttering about, but people in general are encouraged to use the now more common four-door sedans done in traditional gold and red. The majority of those turn out to be Nissan B13 Sentras, here badged as Tsurus.

While we´re on the idea of slightly unexpected vehicle applications, the police car of choice here is the Dodge Avenger.

Go figure.

I´m sure the small-car mentality here is dictated at least in part by the close-quarters knife-fight nature of local driving, although at least the Aztecs had the great logic and foresight to use a grid plan for their cities which puts Mexico City far ahead of many later cities in the ease-of-navigation stakes (looking at you, Boston, although deep downtown NYC is no fun either). The same general size preference goes for motorcycles; there´s the occasional Harley or Open-class sportbike to be seen, but most two-wheelers have 100 to 150cc engines and handling to rival a mountain bike - much to their advantage. Punch the engine out to 250 or so and the Yamaha FZ-S would be a deeply compelling first bike for anyone, especially for its sub-$3000 asking price.

All the same, I´m in no hurry to try my chances in traffic here. The subway system isn´t bad (interesting note: the Bombardier-made subway cars run on tires) and there´s just so unbelievably much to take in that I don´t know if I´d be able to focus on safely navigating traffic. We´ll have four or so full days here and won´t come close to having a clue about what really goes on.

Off to Cancun in two days, back home to the known world after that. It won´t seem the same.