Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hot takes to ward off the winter chill

Story ideas conceived and to some degree pursued then eventually left apathetically to gather virtual dust over the last few months (or longer) by a writer busy prepping lesson plans when not drowning in ennui, some with more substance than others:

1. Pickup trucks are the new pony cars. (This one actually has a point to it, but it also meandered into some kind of sociological argument about changes in the working class and rock music vs. country and so on without actually getting past superficialities. Great for a serious feature article by a pro journalist who can get out and do interviews and so on, not so great for a geek blogger.)

2. Simple is good! Old BMWs and Hondas are good! Quirks and gimmicks get old. (I think I've done this one before.)

3. Hygge but in car form. Insert many getting-snuggly-and-then-some-in-Volvos quips here.

4. Insanely complex million-dollar-plus hypercars are irrelevant. Mostly. Somehow. But maybe not Lamborghinis, just because. It gets philosophical.

5. Cars have identities. But identity is somewhat plastic and evolutionary. And does it matter that a Fiat is built in Japan or that a Corvette doesn't have round taillights? Does anyone care? (That question has an unfortunate double meaning here.)

6. Variations on tired "favorite car/car you'd buy right now" questions to use when necessary: What car do you daydream about most often? What do you want to drive but not own? What car do you think your significant other most wants? (Besides, does anyone really have an all-time single favorite car?)

7. Small and light and balanced and ~200bhp is better than big and heavy and thundering and 500+bhp and obnoxious. (See #2 above alongside many Mustang crash videos.)

8. Joy of vintage racing, good people, cool cars often with license plates, etc.

Dear Lord I need to get out more.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The comfort of the new

At rest in the suburbs of the Lord (with apologies to Peter Matthiessen).
So I'm now closing in on five months into my three-year term with the Jetta, and I think I owe the collective vehicle manufacturers of the world a bit of an apology: having a new car isn't that bad after all.

Yes, really. It's not a total sacrifice of my ideals and ambitions. It's not penance. I didn't sign the lease agreement with a pricked fingertip. I've just had to realize a few things that were too easily glossed over before.

As one of those irascible reactionaries who venerates some past noble age of directness and mechanical integrity - the Golden Era before stability control and networked vehicle systems management and ventilated massaging seats became mandatory either by regulation or product-planner diktat - and who greets each great leap forward into a passive and cosseted future (autonomy! connectivity! active crash mitigation! gesture control!) with a renewed determination to someday have an Alfa 1750GTV as a daily driver, the idea of a New Car has just seemed off-putting.

And it's not just me; a durable common consensus among Hardcore Gearhead Nation is that there are a bare handful of factory-fresh machines which are even remotely desirable or worth serious consideration, especially compared to any number of wonderful and reasonably attainable vintage cars. (And by no means does that select few automatically include upscale speedsters, given their often-questionable usability and eye-watering continuous costs and "am I wearing enough cologne? let's make sure!" owner image.)

But right now I'm okay with the Jetta. This is working. I'm not exactly flooded with a sense of exhilaration and aesthetic fulfillment every morning pre-commute, but this is a net positive state of affairs in the current world. If 2016 has been a year of ongoing disappointment and gathering melancholy, having this thing is definitely one of its much lesser issues.

Part of this state of general contentment is surely due to that fact that the Jetta is a base-model S and as such is spared much of the gratuitous hedonistic/anesthetic silliness that apparently enhances the popular appeal of more upscale cars. Part of it is that it's a pretty good machine on its own merits. Part of it is me growing up a bit.

A few notes behind this Zen-smiley-faced outlook:

1. Given my usage and local conditions there's a primal sense of security derived from something that hasn't aged excessively. Sure, it would be nice to have an E30 325is or a slightly tuned NA Miata, but on a very day-to-day level it's also nice to not have the accompanying 25ish-year-old suspension bushings and coolant hoses and relays and the like. A new car is a not-worn-out car. And a warranty helps.

2. Good marks for well-rounded usable performance. The turbo motor is a bit tricky (more to follow) but once off idle it scoots. Handling is nice and direct without being edgy, ride is well-controlled without being wallowy or brittle. It lacks some of the tossability and forged-aluminum feel - light, simple, strong - of my old Audi Coupe GT, but within its contemporary mainstream paradigm it's very well-resolved.

3. Highway fuel economy has been startlingly high. I have to be driving like one of several varieties of idiot to average less than 40 mpg on the short hop between Norwalk and Bridgeport. An extended run in clean conditions will see the trip average edge up towards 50 mpg indicated. Fuel stops are once every three or so weeks, and I can (and did) make a round trip to Mom, 280 miles away, and back on a single tank. Nothing that I was directly considering would have come close to this. Serious fuel mileage is an underappreciated innate Good too often dismissed by people who see an indulgent permissiveness in low oil prices.

Purely on the side, time spent so far has softened my deep loathing of steering-wheel controls. Yes, I still find the redundant sound-system rockers to be less than unnecessary, but having the trip-computer controls on the right spoke and the cruise-control buttons on the left works really well. (No, I haven't even used the cruise control yet, but it's still good placement.) And Bluetooth isn't the worst thing in the world either.

My one demand going into this car-acquiring situation was that I needed three pedals; turns out that many of the Jetta's quirks revolve around the transmission and its interplay with the motor. Most immediately, gearing is astronomically high - 1st overall is 12.6 to 1, which puts it at about 1 1/2th in most gearboxes, and 5th overall is a Mulsanne Straght-grade 2.11 to 1 -  which helps explain both the excellent fuel economy and my occasional tendency to stall during the first few weeks around town. Well-judged clutch slip is a constant part of life.

That, um, relaxed gearing also means that getting into the power at highway speeds often requires an assertive downshift to 3rd - and trying to rev-match across a big gap with nonlinear pedal response (ECU tuning? random effect of boost factored in?) makes a smooth shift almost impossible. I've taken to a very deliberate and slowish 5th-to-4th-to-3rd approach in appropriate cases, even if it means sometimes forgoing a potential opening in the midst of oblivious and uncooperative Connecticut drivers.

It's interesting: When I was growing up in the '80s turbos were all heady top-end rush with a gutless low end as the accepted tradeoff; think 930s or F1 cars. This one, and by received description apparently many more using this kind of trendy boosted-low-displacement approach, instead is punchy and torquey from something like 1200-1500 up to maybe 5000 where it runs out of breath. I can get a nice assertive jump away from a stoplight with a bit of clutch/throttle shuffling, but short-shifting is required to keep things at max pull.

That's about it as far as unintuitive behavior goes here, which also kind of parallels my one standing disappointment with the car: it doesn't have much character. It's very rational and well-considered, sure, but it doesn't do much for the soul. It is businesslike in the straightest sense of the term. It has no interest in pursuing even a taste of the Bohemian sensibility of its air-cooled and A1-chassis ancestors and very clearly wants to grow up to be an Audi A6 instead.

­čÄ╝Don't be afraid of the dark....
That's part of what goes with buying new, though. Charm is something that tends to get picked up along the way with mileage and the influence of an owner's personality. Cool old cars often - usually? -  start out as shiny, emotionally inert new cars and only earn their panache over time.

I've been trying to work with my end of this bargain, jazz it up a bit with a few well-considered stickers, trying to think of what else could be reasonably done to shift it leftward out of its spreadsheet mentality, but at the same time am mostly resigned to it being what it is for now.

And, again, it's good. It works. It isn't a betrayal of the central idea of a driving machine, even if it is mainstream and slightly tech-ish and has mandatory stability control and fat A-pillars and (some of) the rest that generally comes with being a new car in 2016.

Of course, part of being good is again also because it's new, and in so being it's not a continuously suspect pile of aging electronics and decaying rubber pieces and incidents that the previous owner decided were best left unspoken during the sales process. And on the flip it's also the beneficiary of plenty of genuine progress in safety and useful tech and engineering - and their subsequent trickle-down availability - in recent years. Hey, a streetable turbo 4-valve motor putting out over 100hp/liter bolted into a solid chassis with multilink suspension and discs at each corner? This didn't really exist at anything less than Serious Money all that long ago.

Even the curmudgeons have a bit more reason to be comfortable with the status quo. Peak New Cars Suck was probably about five years ago, to be honest. Since then the market has seen more than a few good choices show up, especially at the lower end. We now have the hugely desirable Ford STs and the return to form of the new Civic (Si and R-Type still inbound but happily anticipated) and the vintage-Alfa-reincarnate brilliance of the Mazda3 and the flawed but still wonderful Toyobaru 86 and the ever-developing goodness of the Miata and the VW GTI and GLI. Maybe even include the Chevy Cruze and Kia Soul if we just want something really good to recommend to the neighbor who can't tell a braking point from a shift point. All of which are perfectly desirable and satisfying from a purist perspective.

And many of which have a bit more character than the Jetta - especially the sneaky superstar of the bunch, the Fiesta ST - and so maybe the undeniable logic of a very agreeable monthly payment means I'm missing out. Tradeoffs.

Simple is good. Simple and cheap is very good. Simple and cheap and hugely fun is very, very good.
But tradeoffs go every way, too. And how much do you trade to have this insulation around anxieties about electrical gremlins and expensive suspension rebuilds?

Depends on the cars, of course. Or what you do to the cars in the process. Think first-gen Miata, with the likely-for-me installation of a Racing Beat suspension kit and the consequent ability to renew much of what has aged. Think E30 and the simple-but-evolved effectiveness of its systems from the two-valve straight-six to the trailing-arm suspension and how those can also be refreshed on fair terms. (Yes, my yuppie-scum E30 grudge has thankfully been defeated.)

Think how often people grab for Shiny New even if the current state is still very usable and enjoyable, and Shiny New isn't that much of an improvement.

And it goes deeper than that.

A lot of us have been trained to venerate the old: we have vintage races, we have concours shows, we have that joy of being slackjawed at Cars & Coffee as we stare down a row of Weber carburetors perched atop hand-machined castings. We have the equivalent of warrior sagas in Fangio chasing fate around the N├╝rburgring and the 300SLR carrying Moss and Jenkins to Valhalla-in-Brescia and #1075 pushed by angels a few hundred feet ahead of that 908 after twenty-four hours and many more.

We like old stuff. It's cool, in that classic echt-hipster definition of cool in how it marks us as somehow enlightened. It's a signifier of intangibles like feel and gratification over chilly rationality. And it's still eminently usable, even if airbags are nice to have.

And they act as a way of showing what has changed, what has been gained and lost.

Even if many of the legends have finally been eclipsed - there are any number of modern sports cars that will run neat well-controlled circles around a 427 Cobra, and old muscle cars are now more cultural signifiers than actual not-like-this-anymore speed machines - there's that understood pure sensibility that goes with the Old that has been processed out from modern machines.

Used to be that Grand Touring machines meant something, were an expert's tool that required skill and sensitivity to use well. Now anyone who holds a license and can cover the bill can get a 650i Xdrive that will swiftly run between Paris and Rome in any conditions without perturbation.

There's not much meaning or satisfaction in that - but is it a fair tradeoff? Do we or should we truly value stability and security over visceral engagement? Turn it around: Would the well-dressed driver of 1966 facing a rainy mountain pass in his Maserati Sebring have had any problems with skipping ahead fifty years to that 650i, with its scarcely credible advances in speed and roadworthiness?

What do we want from the old, anyway? How do we find justification for what often turns out to be troublesome and costly? What's the significance here, other than subjective aesthetic appeal and some tactile gratification and a limiter on a peculiar strain of proto-Marxist technological alienation and the benefits of depreciation?

All of this kind of meshes together as we face up to the idea of autonomous vehicles, which promise to strip away every bit of humanity and art from the act of going from place to place. And that now seems the much more worrisome concern.

I suppose it's human nature to grasp for what has slipped by, to recognize some greatness - or maybe just comfort - in what was normalcy as things churn. A lot of it may be that as a culture we have a nasty habit of backfilling wonderfulness into time gone by, letting slip frustrations about difficulty even getting started on cold mornings and focusing on winding roads and sunsets that may never have existed. And yeah, there are definitely any number and kind of losses along the way.

So still the two paths: find where that past greatness was retained, or work to keep that which came before viable for today. Yes, there is the potential case of simultaneously pursuing both - one daily driver and one vintage toy, and the attendant dual citizenship in each world. Somehow that's an unsatisfactory conclusion. It's not a complete answer.

Maybe there is no complete answer, and maybe we just have to pick our fights and arguments with some discretion and skill. And maybe we have to still stubbornly advocate for what we even still have - those STs and GTIs and 86s and Miatas and even kit cars - and hold the moral ground we even still have, in terms both economic and influential, before it slips further away into a wasteland of autonomous crossovers. You want good simple fun cars? Ask for them. And then buy them. And tell other people to buy them.

And at the same time maybe recognize where there is a shared mentality - like in those base models that do without the excesses. There's plenty to be appreciated about the simple minimal approach, which is much of the point in the first place. Tuning also exists, and it's easier to add a few choice pieces (hmmmm, those Rial wheels aren't too expensive...) to something than strip off what needs to go.

Yes, part of me is already looking forward to what might come after the Jetta. But it won't be that difficult to enjoy driving until then.