Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Touring through the family tree

If for some unspeakable reason Porsche decided to ditch the whole carmaking thing and go into the foodstuffs business, they could probably do fantastically well producing upscale ice cream. Not only do the potential senses of gratification and indulgence delivered by a Badener riff on Ben & Jerry's or, maybe more accurately, New York's cherished Il Labratorio del Gelato align nicely with their current attitude, but they have become the absolute masters at spinning off a seemingly endless variety of pleasantly differentiated product from the same basis.

The newest flavor is of course the 911T, announced Sunday night amid a fair bit of historically-tinged hype. Having taken the lesson of the 911R's triumphant popular reception to heart, the theme is "driver engagement": start with the standard base-model 911, add PASM and drop the suspension 20mm; gearing is shorter and there's a traditional mechanical limited-slip differential; the sport exhaust system is standard; the rear glass and soundproofing are lighter, and the Sport Chrono system is available (it's not on the standard Carrera) in "weight-optimized" form. Interior trim is revised; the pretentious but cute fabric door-release pulls are back. The rear seat has been left out, as has the PCM infotainment system; they can both be replaced at no cost.

All this nets a weight loss of a whole whopping 20 kilograms - 44 pounds - over a comparably equipped standard base 911 Carrera and a MSRP of $102,100 plus delivery, a full $11,000 up from that base Carrera and closing in quickly on the Carrera S.

And this is where I start to get a little confused about what Porsche is trying to say here. The intention to sell this as a stripped-down, more elemental car isn't exactly matched by what has been presented.

As always with 911s, we have history upon which to reflect (with Porsche's active encouragement, in this case). The first 911T - Porsche says that T is for Touring, more about enjoyable driving than racing - was introduced in 1968 as the revised and somewhat decontented Euro-market base model. They came over here in that same market position in 1969, and they were universally loved for their good manners and all-around drivability, especially compared to the more temperamental MFI-fueled 911E and 911S.

And yes, you could tune them a bit if you wanted. Still can.
And doing this makes sense, because - as noted in that video - the 911T wasn't just the lightest but also the simplest of its contemporary 911 variants. Standard gearbox was a four-speed through 1971, standard wheels were rather narrow chromed steelies. The 911T that was produced in 1973 was the first Porsche with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection - again, not for maximum power but for improved everyday drivability. They were the truest thematic continuation of the 356.

So step forward almost sixty years and consider what Porsche has wrought with this iteration of the name.
The corporate tagline is, somewhat predictably, "less is more." Problem is, there's not a whole lot less here. Yes, the lighter glass (which frankly never sounds like a good idea on a street car) and the trimmed soundproofing (which frankly is rarely a bad idea anywhere lately, although turbo cars by nature don't make the most of it) add a bit of brochure attitude, as does the deletion of the rear seats and sound system - the latter of which will likely be spec'd in a huge majority of produced Ts. But then the sport exhaust system and the revised PASM are installed, and Sport Chrono and the GT3's rear-axle steering rack shows up as options. And unlike similar previous exercises (the Boxster Spyder comes to mind) the active aero remains. This is not really a minimalist machine.

But leave that aside, string it all together without the marketing spin, and it starts to make some sense: this is supposed to be the all-chassis version of the 911, more a backroad runner or trackday special capable enough to render the S's 50 additional horses superfluous.

Interesting, but that's not less - and it doesn't make it a T. If anything, it sounds a lot like a base-powerplant version of the Korb-of-goodies approach that is the GTS.

Really, the base 911 Carrera could be called the T going forward and it would make perfect sense, fitting the letter back into its traditional position at the base of the line with the sense of conceptual continuity - a wonderfully enjoyable all-around touring car without too many Le Mans pretensions - fully intact. Maybe it would even grant that model a bit more dignity and identity than it currently possesses as the mere entry-level 911 Carrera (which is not a bad thing, of course, but still).

So granted the presented version of the 911T isn't really a 911T. What is it?

Dispense with the "less is more" sales line. Yes, weight is down (marginally) and the reduced-content interior has a certain vibe, but this is not another 356 Speedster. And then there's the inclusion of all the suspension goodies and the airport gearing and the sport exhaust. No extra power, but plenty of implied handling and responsiveness.

By my understanding Porsche picked the wrong historical reference. This isn't a 911T; it's a 911 Club Sport.
One of Porsche's earlier efforts at pushing back against a growing rep for making plush luxury cars, the late-1980s Club Sport was a 911 Carrera with a batch of weight-saving measures (no radio, no A/C, no passenger sun visor), a bit of engine fiddling, and the upgraded sport suspension, although in that case they kept the MSRP even with the standard Carrera. (The model was an absolute disaster saleswise and consequently is now a prized collectible exemplifying all that is true about Porsche and tradition and etc. Kinda like an E30 M3 except more so.)

And that's what we have here: the standard car optimized for canyon blasts and track days for those who don't want to go full GT3. In that it completely makes sense, and it should have been presented as such.

I'm not even sure how much a truly much-less-is-supposedly-more hyperminimalist 911 would work anyway. Porsche is not Lotus. Porsche has always been at their best when their cars hit a distinct blend of well-managed raciness and everyday usability and high design, like an Eames Aluminum Group executive chair with a tendency towards oversteer. And in an era with heavy regulations and even heavier consumer demands, the idea of recreating something as elemental as a 1973 Carrera RS resolves to daydreaming. I suppose a properly motivated someone could buy a new 911 and strip it out and tune it to the edge of street-registration permissiveness, but that's more art project than manufactured product, and the GT3 covers that territory anyway.

So what is in a name, anyway? And does it mean something when such an identity-sensitive company  starts to blur an identity? Taken on its own terms, the 911T looks to be a welcome (if smallish) shift away from a pure-numbers game and back towards sharper street drivability. But summoning history as a tool means accepting everything that goes with references and associations, and the car deserves to be called what it is. Odds on that in this market the Club Sport name would have worked much better this time, too.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rapid Rental Review: Peugeot 108

Bon jour. Photos by the author.
The vehicle: Automobiles Peugeot's smallest offering; platform and major components shared with the Citroën C1 and Toyota Aygo, all built on the same assembly line in the Czech Republic. 1.0-liter inline-3, 5-speed manual transmission. Rented from Avis at the Aix-en-Provence train station. (Renting a car in Provence was expensive compared to Paris, at least on Bastille Day weekend.) Unsure about trim level but included such hedonistic excesses as power steering, remote locks, air conditioning, and apparently some form of Bluetooth phone mating.

The setting: One day buzzing around a tinder-dry Provence from Aix to the monastery at Saint-Remy where Vincent van Gogh spent his most insanely productive period to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for God's own Provencal lunch to the cloister and lavender fields outside Gordes, which was not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of this ridiculously lovely and charming corner of the world.

Driving: Start with one absolutely crucial measurement: Curb weight for a 108 is around 1850 pounds. That sub-Lotus Elise mass defines the dynamics of the car.

The foreign press, more attuned to this kind of machine, considers the 108 to be a bit soft and reserved in keeping with its semi-upscale nameplate. For an American driver willing to take the right approach, though, the 108 is a riot. You drive it like a rally car, foot often clamped to the floor out of necessity, reveling in the responsiveness that comes with not having to manage another couple thousand pounds of body weight. Driving it is like using a really good medium-sized kitchen knife: balanced and precise and direct without feeling excessively edgy. Typical front-drive understeer only becomes somewhat apparent when diving for a late waitgoHERE 90-degree turn to some side road. You can place it far over on the lane-and-a-half-wide roads with casual confidence when making room for oncoming traffic, and the tight dimensions are a godsend in tourist-crammed parking lots and undersized street parking spaces.

All this and the suspension tuning maintains the civilized French-car tradition of not beating you up or being irritatingly jouncy.
The one-liter three-cylinder was an unruly little thing. The triple's vibes led me to think it was a diesel at first until I paid attention to the "95 Sans Plomb" sticker by the gas door; it'll rev, making an endearing growl in the process, but you have to stay on it; the torque curve felt anything but linear, with an occasional and strange on/off-throttle minisurge. Refinement issues aside, one is faced with the (inevitable, severe) limitations that derive from the Toyota-designed motor displacing all of 998 cc and producing 68 bhp, even in a featherweight like this. Batting around Provence's austerely picturesque hills required constant and attentive shifting, often into third and occasionally second on some not-that-terribly-steep climbs.

Such histrionics were thankfully aided by a five-speed gearbox that was a joy to use, with a lightswitch shift action through a slightly-too-narrow gate and a clutch light enough for your cat to work the pedal.

Wonderful One uneasily noted that the 108 didn't feel as stable and secure as the 500x on the autoroute, which makes sense given their size and weight disparities, but even in the midst of a midsummer mistral it tracked reasonably well. What was similar to the 500x was a realistic top cruising speed that matched the posted 130km/h, although (again) the two couldn't feel more different in the process - whereas the 500x had decent torque at lower speeds and just seemed to run out of drive at 130, the 108 would eventually work its way up through increasing difficulty pushing the air aside to a point of perceivable strain and a sense that that suspension tuning was approaching its effective limits.
That lightweight vibe was apparent in more than just nimble handling. Close a door with any force and you get a hollow metallic pung in response; the all-glass hatch dropped down with a simple smack against its rubber seal. I will admit that being inside something this light and small brought up a shadowy sense of vulnerability, but Euro-NCAP crash test scores are actually fairly decent.

Sitting: The silly-small external dimensions (137 inches overall, a full foot less than a Mitsubishi Mirage) belie a comfortable and accommodating pair of front seats and a rear seat that is actually usable if a front-seat occupant is of slightly less than average height.
For a definitively cheap set of wheels (as of this writing base price for a 5-door 108 Active in France equates to something well under $14,000) the 108 looks and feels like a quality piece of work. Switchgear is well-crafted and works smoothly. Seats are pleasantly unremarkable. There is no effort to hide the fact that the plastics are plastic, but they also look substantial and well-fitted. The air conditioner isn't overpowering, but on a harsh July day it kept up with the sun and heat.

Peugeot markets the 108 as a city car with the attendant understanding that someone using a city car usually doesn't require much cargo space. There's enough room for two weekend bags or a medium-sized stop at a farmer's market, but this is not a heavy hauler.

Other gripes? Few and minor. None of the cupholders could securely manage our one-and-a-half-liter bottles of Volvic, which seems like a frustrating oversight in a French car. A tachometer would have been nice given the necessity of abusing the gearbox to get the most out of the motor. Was there a trip computer? It would've been nice to fiddle with a trip computer to get an accurate fuel economy reading and so on. (Yes, I'm stretching here.)

Concluding: There was a certain point about halfway through our day - aiming down another narrow road between walls of trees, lining up another blind bend - where I realized I was making a wish list for the car, a short set of if-onlys: If only it had another cylinder, if only it was just slightly better balanced, if only it had a tachometer....

This is not a complaint. At all. When I drove the 500x, I didn't want to fix anything; I just wanted a different car. The 108 was so essentially good - and so much fun in its manic-but-mannered way - from the beginning that you just wanted to make it a little bit better. It's so close to some kind of esoteric ideal, especially an ideal created by someone who has seen too many photos of gaudily-painted hatchback Peugeots blasting through forests and up mountains over the past thirty-something years.

Taken on its own terms the 108 is a joy, proof that light and direct is all kinds of multifaceted gratification. No, it wouldn't work very well on the American market; the whimsy of constant foot-to-the-floor driving with the tiny motor would probably wear thin in a hurry, and I'll admit that it actually is too small if the intention is to regularly carry more than two people at a time. Eventually those personal-preference if-onlys add up to something like the 208, which lines up nicely against the likes of the Fit or the Fiesta - all of which are still just extensions of this idea instead of its antagonists.

Not that this will work in the first place in a market where Ford is apparently dropping said model due to a heartbreaking lack of sales, but that's a shopworn rant by now. Again, take it on its own terms: the 108 makes for some very enjoyable lessons about priorities in driving and life.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Rapid Rental Review: Fiat 500x MultiJet

All photos by the author.
The vehicle: Fiat's cuddly-looking small crossover, built in Italy on the same line with the equally cartoonish Jeep Renegade. 1.6 (I think) MultiJet diesel powerplant, six-speed manual transmission. Rented from Europcar in Gare du Nord train station, Paris. (Note: If you're renting from someone other than Sixt there, ask me for directions. Rental desks are impossible to find for the uninitiated. Also, this is what I got when I reserved a "Fiat 500 or similar"; I expected "similar" to mean size, not model name.)

The setting: Road trip from Paris to Tours, with a side excursion to a conveniently-positioned Le Mans, to check out châteaus and get our fill of debatably functional pre-Enlightenment furniture.

Driving: I strongly encourage everyone who mindlessly repeats the rote dogma about how everyone would/should buy a car (preferably a wagon) with a diesel motor and manual transmission to give this thing a try. The torque curve is more farm implement than road car: a decent slug of thrust right off idle which quickly goes flat as revs climb to even moderate numbers. There's not much sense in running it above 2500 rpm (redline is 4500), and that ironically narrow power band gets frustrating in city traffic where the driver needs to shift almost as often as James Garner at Monaco in Grand Prix. After a while one tends to hold it a gear higher than usual, try to lean on the torque, and hope for the best around the epidemic spread of roundabouts that dot most two-lanes and small town streets.

Very happy otherwise rolling along on b-roads with 70 or 90 kilometer-per-hour speed limits, decent on autoroutes limited to 130 (observation: French drivers are quite respectful of speed limits), strained trying for literally anything over that number. The stop-start system did what it was supposed to do without drawing attention to itself short of the noisy crank to start the diesel; the defeat button is prominently placed but there was no reason not to leave it on.

The shifter is basically easy but has no feel or finesse - you glonk it from gate to gate. Glonking it into sixth requires a bit of annoying extra effort to keep it from slipping back into fourth, kind of like a reverse CAGS. Six gears is about two too many here; the motor happily tolerates skips, shifting 1-2-4-6 or 1-3-5-6 or whatever, with the intermediate gears mostly in play to run the motor in the narrow range that keeps the fussy upshift/downshift light content at moderate speeds. The clutch in this one wasn't as smooth as I would have liked.

Handling is typical crossover blah, slightly top-heavy and deliberate and numb if not outright awkward. Didn't try anything ambitious due to traffic/road conditions and the presence of an ambitious-driving-disliking passenger, but have zero reason to expect anything stimulating as speeds increase. (We did run the length of the Mulsanne Straight, but Joest is perhaps understandably still not returning my emails.) Brakes are surprisingly good: plenty of stopping power, nice modulation.

Switching between Eco and Sport on the drive mode selector between the front seats produced trivial results; didn't see the point in messing with the off-road setting in our travels when the furthest we went off-road was a curbhopping U-turn when we missed the turn to the Mulsanne and the occasional dirt parking lot. Fuel economy seemed at first to be alarmingly bad for a small diesel motor, but the ticking of the fuel gauge was more an indicator of the 500x's small tank than its large thirst. I didn't keep accurate track of mileage, but over the course of about 360 miles/600 kilometers we went through slightly more than one 48-liter/12-and-change-gallon tankful.

Sitting: Driver's seat was a tad narrow for your somewhat ursine author; Wonderful One claimed to be quite comfortable. Okay visibility for everything except backing up where the reverse sensors proved invaluable (and even then having a spotter helped). Seating position is typical crossover, slightly high but not Kenworthish, with a mild step up.

The steering wheel was covered in a downright odd grade of very soft, almost glovelike leather unrepeated in the interior. Flip side is that the stalk controls felt cheap and ill-fitted.

I'd like to have a long conversation with the staff that designed the instrument panel, who apparently prioritized anything other than what one usually looks for in an instrument panel:

That circular center display can be configured through a bizarre variety of settings using the switches on the left steering wheel spoke - longitudinal and lateral g-meters? - but sidelines the speedo and tach to undeserved margin positions. A speedo repeat with huge numbers can be displayed among what feels like several dozen options, but something more like Audi's virtual dash display or even the arrangement in the Camaro would be welcome.

The air conditioner was simply great, with output that approached classic GM pre-R134 levels of frost and controls that weren't too terribly fiddly (although aiming for the right button could require a few seconds of eyes-off-the-road hunting).

The cabin's general comfort and room belies the luggage situation:
All clumsy amateurish color manipulation by the author as well, but at least you get more detail this way.
That's two overhead-bin-sized suitcases and one knockoff Israeli paratrooper briefcase/man purse, and that's it - the baggage compartment is essentially full. You can carry a couple pizzas on top, but anything more cubic is in a bad situation. No idea what you're supposed to do if you have one normal suitcase per passenger who may be sitting in the other available seats; turn our two suitcases sideways and move the man bag to the cabin and you might get a third in there, but Fiat's fondness for stylish curves over sensible packaging means it'll be uneasily close - and forget getting four to fit.

Shutting that rear hatch betrayed a slightly shoddy feel, as if the fasteners there weren't totally holding together. Our 500x turned over 30,000 km while we had it and the finish seemed to be mostly good otherwise, but that weird not-so-little sense of flimsiness makes me wonder about the long-term durability situation.

Concluding: I'm pressed to think of anything exciting or alluring about those two days with the 500x. It did what we needed it to do without meaningful complaint, but without really adding anything distinctly positive - or even distinct - to the experience.

After a certain point I admitted to myself that I would have been happier driving the Jetta. It would have worked at least as well as, and in many cases better than, the Fiat. And this comparison would doubtless hold for any other good small sedan: a Mazda3, a Focus, a Civic, an Impreza. In everything from dynamics to accommodations to build quality, the 500x struggled to make a case for itself.

At a risk of overgeneralization, let's extend this out: if this is at all representative, why do people buy small crossovers? Aside from possible all-weather considerations (which, in my experience seeing numerous ditched CR-Vs around Ithaca, reflect expectations which reality does not match) they're supposed to be capable medium-sized vehicles with plenty of space and comfort. Are they really? Marketing hype and fashion aside, I wonder if a literally measured appreciation would show some pretty harsh truths to the mindset powering the crossover crush.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Editorial: Keep the Dodge Viper on our roads

(Item: Automotive News, Keep the Dodge Demon off our roads)

The 645-hp Dodge Viper Coupe from Fiat Chrysler is so inherently fulfilling to the common desires of enthusiasts that 
its production as a road-worthy automobile should be extended indefinitely.

We don't reach this conclusion lightly. There are more powerful, and even faster, vehicles available from other automakers that have rightly ended production.

But just as Nissan is (still) wrong to not build the IDx in favor of a seemingly endless series of CVT-equipped crossovers, Dodge is wrong to no longer offer a purpose-built road racer as a street-legal automobile.

From its barely legal slick tires to its monstrous acceleration, the Viper introduced in Detroit in 1989 is the result of a sequence of inspired corporate choices that places visceral driving thrills ahead of dreary focus group preferences.

Lamentably, the entire industry has made great strides toward reduced vehicle enjoyment in recent years, even as it dials up infotainment complexity. But with the Viper, Dodge spat on that goal and gleefully moves in the opposite direction, knowingly placing drivers in danger of euphoric emotional overload in the process.

Oddly enough, for a vehicle designed to set lap records and provide massive thrills, the Viper has already been certified for highway use by the appropriate regulatory bodies, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation, allegedly for being "compliant."

The Viper may not comply sufficiently with the tendencies of Fiat Chrysler's management to pursue off-putting and senseless product decisions, but in its current form it certainly does fulfill the spirit of more enlightened strategies. So get a clue.

To borrow a phrase from Sean Carter, you crazy for this one, Serge.

Friday, April 21, 2017


So I ordered one of those learn-to-code packages a few days ago, the kind that offers a few hundred hours of lessons in Java and Python and so on in one set of downloads. Figured it never hurts to have another marketable skill to put on a resume, especially given my debatable future in the increasingly Byzantine world of higher education; if I can pick up a few quick projects that might mitigate some of my perennial whining about money, so much the better; and (coincidentally) the price for the whole show was in enchilada-plate-and-two-draft-beers territory. Good stuff all around.

Also, it's probably going to be a slow summer and I'll need something interesting to do alongside the further care and nurturing of a nascent freelance-writing sideline (magazine/website friends: expect weird questions and awkward pitches) and attention directed to a few other deferred things, as I think to myself every time I walk past my neglected acoustic guitar or look at my half-shelf of books written in German.

(I was seriously considering a Honda XL250 project that I found on Craigslist, but it turned out to be a pretty worrisome pile. I know that taking a pile and offering it a second life is the point of a project but my bank account likely would not possess that same degree of altruism for the requisite length of time. I also had no reasonable way to get it home other than renting something which would have added an effective 40% to the purchase price, and Wonderful One informs me that having a half-stripped frame propped up on the side of the basement garage violates the terms of our lease.)

And just in general it'll be interesting to learn something new and slightly arcane, to have some greater sense of insight into these ubiquitous-but-slightly-forbidding devices that are so much part of the everyday but whose actual internal operations are dangerously close to an illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's third law. There's a kind of enlightened gratification - a satisfaction, a comfort - that comes with learning that magic, with being able to fluently manage something so cryptic and having a greater understanding of its innate reality - especially something that works in a very logical and (mostly) predictable manner.

In this, being able to code is nothing more than a contemporary and slightly ephemeral variation on mechanical skill, on being able to thoughtfully and effectively wield a tool, on being able to understand a system and the limits of that system and the possibilities inherent in knowing how that system relates to its plane of reality.

Extend that directly into the act of working on the mechanical parts of a vehicle, and associate that with the act of driving - or riding, or sailing, or piloting. All of this is tool usage to an unusually high evolutionary degree. All of these various exercises in motion require some sensing of active forces and the ability to exercise control over and within them - and requiring ever more of that ability as those forces start to face, and face off against, limits imposed by nature and reality. And it circles back to an understanding of the tools themselves, the machines, the motors and suspensions and linkages and how they all interact with each other and the world.

It's one thing to say that this sensing and ability and understanding Means Something. It does, of course; that's one of the lovely and vital elements of human nature. But I'm starting to believe that for a good few of us, this need to deeply know and exercise enlightened control just might see its roots in some dark places.

For most modern people, sure, driving and car ownership is about the same as using an app in its exercise of pure function and very immediate capability. (For some people, their existence with cars has been subsumed into an app.) The app publishes a statement or a picture or whatever, the car carries people and stuff from place to place, and the mechanisms either requires to be able to do so are all but irrelevant. Use doesn't require deep understanding, and people behind the scenes are constantly working to make this ever more the case. They're aiming for that great ideal of seamlessness, where things just work without thought or effort. (The fact that a restaurant-delivery service whose ads disparage the idea of cooking at home is named Seamless is one of the great societal jokes of the age.)

This in't that, of course.

This is about cases where someone has a primal and innate need to be able to drive fast and well, to repair something correctly, to understand someone's engineering or business or competition decision and have some insight as to where it leads and what consequences it might bring - a need to be engaged with something that somehow makes sense, that is a manifestation of rationality and connectedness brought into this reality.

This is about trying to find something that works with whatever consciousness and identity we each have when so many important and meaningful elements of this existence cannot do so, when life rudely defies our efforts to achieve or affiliate on some level or apathetically leaves us in some chaotic space without orientation.

This is about a need to be fulfilled.

Read enough articles and flip through enough social media posts and you start to get the sense that a lot of us who are intellectually and emotionally invested in cars and bikes and whatever are, to be quite blunt about it, walking psychological calamities.

I'm not going to be so impolite as to name names or cite specific examples, and that's unnecessary anyway. Everyone in this ill-defined but understood sect of gearheads eventually reads the same stuff or gets clued in on various declarations and conversations or can read understandings into certain situations, and we've all seen plenty of dark matter on display lately. I will immodestly include myself within this situation, both because of an unavoidable sense of affinity and because incidences of "yeah, me too" in various forms of expression happen way the hell too often, both as reflections of someone else's reality seen in my own head and a variety of affirming responses received to expressions of mine.

There's a pervasive, common sense of storm cloud out there for a lot of us, and I get the very real sense that it relates - leads - directly to a love of wheels and movement, and the order and control that goes with them.

Take any number of roots: childhood traumas, strained or complicated family relationships, chronic depression, a lack of purpose or direction in life from the very beginning. From that ground then grows the frustrations of everyday life, especially the disempowering or irrational: job situations, romantic entanglements, a jumble of often-awkward interpersonal relationships or a sense of emptiness where there aren't enough of them. (My details are irrelevant; suffice to say there's enough of them, both concrete and suspected, to fill a very dreary supplementary essay.)

Enter the Car, which even in the abstract is a set of lovely and sincere promises: rational systems, aesthetic allure, cultural significance, the eternal human dream of simple mobility. Then you drive, and with motion is engagement and empowerment and a truly extraordinary set of sensations that occur as a direct result of a constant set of agreements between a driver's will and a machine's design and universal law.

Like I said, this means something. It fills part of a massive essential craving for meaning and order - a sense of satisfaction, a degree of comfort - in a world that too often actively tries to negate both of those. And in that it becomes something of a need.

Is this everyone who cares about cars? No. Of course not. (Thank God.) There are certainly well-adjusted, well-balanced people who just find cars or or motorcycles or bicycles or boats or airplanes to be an interesting and rewarding avocation. Good on them, nothing wrong with that at all.

But for a lot of us, this has become something vital. It provides a sense of stability, of sanity. Even beyond the ability of personal interests to help cope with the absurdity and evil of modern life, this devoted study of motion provides a center, a sanctuary of rationality and knowability.

I think this sense of meaning that comes with understanding how to time a camshaft or feeling the forces acting on a car and its controls through a fast corner has always existed, although it has evolved - especially lately and especially with the further insidious spread of what Marxists would call alienation, that distance between work and product.

Used to be that mechanical know-how was more common, either by necessity or association, and the satisfaction of understanding and skillfully using these mechanical systems was part of everyday life. Now it's not as everyday - as the folks with their apps ironically understand - and in that shift the meaning of the association has changed. In its emotional charge it has acquired a sectarian attitude. Being a mechanically-inclined person sets you apart now - maybe in certain ways that have historical roots, but with a new intensity borne of a changed definition of need.

And there are plenty of historical roots, fault lines that act as a map or cryptographic code for some of us. Who has long stood as popular representatives of vehicle culture? Loners. Outsiders. Vaguely mystical eccentrics. The curmudgeonly sage in the grimy garage, the insular band of societal rejects. James Dean blasting toward the abyss in his Porsche 550, Brando rebelling against whatever ya got. Kerouac and his windblown world. Captain America and Billy on their Harleys. Kowalski. Dom Toretto and his family. As mechanical aptitude fades from popular understanding, these stand ever more in relief.

Those of us who struggle to exist in this world can see that and find examples. And from there we can find truths, impossibly valuable axioms that provide a handhold. Yeah, it puts us at odds with the popular front in certain ways, but that was understood in the first place.

There are parallels in other parts of life. You can see the same attitudes in play in the arts - the skill and devotion required to master a musical instrument, the focus and sense of intuitive technical understanding necessary in writing - although, let's face it, the track record for mental health among creative types alludes to many of the same bleak concerns.

Expand past that. I'd like to think that finding some stability in this center allows us to make better sense of everyday life, but I lack evidence towards that conclusion. Maybe it helps us cope. Maybe that contrast between the systematic and the chaotic has its own lessons that help us develop into more complete and balanced human beings.

Maybe not. Maybe we just get stuck in - or hide in - this understanding sometime and let antisocial tendencies take over. There's a certain truth to the scene in "Grand Prix" where Brian Bedford's Scott Stoddard snaps at his wife about how it is so much easier to deal with a car than a person, so much better to be able to take something apart and find out what's wrong and fix it and put it back together. Same goes with red-mist charges on back roads or argumentative parsing of FCA's latest hot take.

Regardless, it's still there and it still means something intensely important. And in that it is simply something that is very, very good for a lot of us. We need to be able to make sense of something in this world and be able to have some sense of control.

The idea of control is interesting. It's not so much some kind of totalitarian authority - my otherwise inadequate self will assert ABSOLUTE DOMINANCE over this electrical problem/qualifying lap/bench-racing argument! - as it is a sense of operating within a comprehensible system, of being a fair part of something. We act within certain limits; we occasionally work to find the very extent of those limits, or seek the means to change them, but we know they are there and they demand respect because they make sense in knowable ways. Again, there's a sense of security and even dignity in that.

And, ultimately, that's a lot of what bothers me about autonomous shared mobility and so on. The chimera of the self-driving car, that generations-spanning dream of effortless motion monitored and managed by the panopticon - and now freed from burdens of ownership and responsibility - is the ultimate in seamlessness, in alienation: get me to this place and the means exist solely (and preferably invisibly) to enable the end. God knows we can be assholes enough about manual transmissions because of what they legitimately mean to us; what happens when the whole car is an app, and far too many people think this is a good thing? How do we connect with something that by its nature eliminates involvement?

I see kids in my classes who are utterly adrift in anxiety and ennui, who haven't found that handhold in systems that make sense. I fear for them.

And, increasingly, I fear for us as the world turns ever further against us.

Coding isn't the same.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Square space

I am currently working on about three different essays here. They are taking time.

While I am doing this (or trying to do this, or getting to the point where I am doing this) go read Blake Rong's masterful piece about Volvo wagons in Town & Country, of all places.

Now. Seriously.

Friday, January 6, 2017


Photo: Thomas Mielke
One of the great things about Twitter is its ability to act as the proverbial office water cooler for a lot of us who no longer have steady access to an office water cooler; it's a mix of weird gossip, pompous pronouncements, hissing provocations, and all the other good stuff that comes with being around people, with the added bonus of being able to select just who you're likely to bump into at any one time (depending on retweets which originate from various uninvited and unsavory third parties, sincere intention to spark discussion notwithstanding).

And like any proverbial water cooler, in that mix of gossip and pomposity and so on occasionally something genuinely interesting pops up.

So a bit more than a week ago we got this:
Yeah, it sounds like the kind of question that would come up amongst a bunch of gearheads passing a bong and listening to Ummagumma-era Floyd in some off-campus basement. (Maybe that's actually what Twitter is?) But it's also a really good question.

In fact this is a great question, a gloriously iconoclastic inquiry in a world currently obsessed with Can-Am-grade outputs. Forget about the flood of recent mills that have made cars with 0-to-60 times in the four-second bracket seem lackluster. Set aside the Hellcats and the Lamborghini SVs and the ludicrous-mode Teslas and the rest. What's the least motor you need to get by in the world?

Of course the answer is the same as the answer to the perennial question about what the Greatest Car In The World is: it depends*. Or, as quickly came up in the conversation:
Right. Of course this kind of rulemaking has a habit of getting into a deep ontological discussion about what a car actually is and how ridiculously tiny and flimsy a structure one can propose and still take seriously, never mind the inevitable mind-expanding dive into the possibilities of gear reduction enabling a Cox .049 motor to 'technically' motivate a GMC 3500HD or whatever. But those both get to the absurdum part of a reductio ad absurdum way too quickly to be useful and eventually you're better off just admitting that the ultimate solution is to lose the motor completely and ride a bicycle, which is not a bad thing at all but also not the answer.

If we're going to take this seriously - and this is a question well worth taking very seriously - let's consider those parameters that Wojdyla brings up and fill in some sensible judgement calls:
  • First, let's make this a real car and not a Peel P50 or go-kart or powered barstool or something like that. Yes, we'll obviously have to skew small here, but we also want this to be recognizable as a car and (mostly) work in the real world. So small two-seater or very small four-seater, which matters more as weight (and to a lesser extent air drag) than sheer size.
  • Second, let's make this at least passably functional in the real world, which means that our hypothetical States of Motion MicroMotor Special will need to be able to achieve, oh, an arbitrary but not irrational 20 meters per second (that's 72 kph/~44.74 mph), which at least is good enough for suburban streets and country lanes if not Interstates.
Yes, we're going to mostly be using metric through this; it's much easier to perform calculations. I'll throw in a few converted figures when necessary. And there will be a bit of discreet rounding here and there, but it should all work out in the end.
  • Third, to simplify the whole process a bit we will disregard concerns about packaging and displacement and instead arrive at a solution based solely on output, which tends to generally dictate the rest of that anyway.
  • Fourth, nothing else that we normally consider when thinking about a car - handling, design, safety, comfort, cruising range, long-term reliability, appeal to potential copulative partners - matters in the least here. We are strictly concerned with motivating a box capable of carrying a few nearly-normal-sized humans from one place to another.
So let's think about what it actually means to power a vehicle based on some elementary physics.

In idealized steady-state driving, such as cruising along a flat and level highway, the vehicle only needs enough power to overcome various forms of drag, mostly air resistance and the deformation and stickiness of tires on the road surface, and some subsequent driveline friction. Find a way to reduce or eliminate that air resistance and tire drag - think magnetically-levitating hovercraft moving in a vacuum - and our vehicle acts as a pure inertia device which requires zero energy to keep moving. This doesn't work in the real world**, of course, but we can design this thing to be pretty slippery - and at 72 kph it's not going to be facing that much of a wall of air anyway - and we can also go ahead and specify ultra-low-rolling-resistance tires, maybe stolen from a first-gen Honda Insight or something. So barring a shipping container being dragged behind the car, cruising is not a major issue.

I'll even say that acceleration isn't a huge issue here either. Yes, we need this thing to convert a certain amount of potential energy of some form into kinetic energy as it gathers up its skirts and eventually works its way up to our 72 kph, but we won't have a mandatory minimum acceleration parameter. Any continuing application of force sufficient to overcome drag will result in acceleration (basically force = mass times acceleration - or, as we'll use later, acceleration = force/mass - with some minor parasitic factors) and we'll have an adequate amount of that given how this is something which will get resolved in the course of dealing with our biggest concern.

That biggest concern is what happens when that road isn't flat and level. We do not live on a giant ball bearing, and hills are a fact of life***. The SoM MicroMotor Special - oh, what the hell, let's call it the Mouse - will have to pull itself up an incline to be considered a functioning automobile, and this is where the fun starts.
Photo: Andreas Praefcke
Let's add another bullet point to our list of Wojdyla parameters:
  • The vehicle must be able to climb an arbitrary 7% grade of indefinite length while maintaining a speed of 16 m/sec (57.6 kph/~35.8 mph).
And for this to occur the motor must do honest-to-Archimedes work and deliver it at a set rate, which means we need to have a certain definite minimum power figure, which can be calculated.

Notebooks out.

So some terms need to be clarified: First, we're concerned with weight instead of mass. Mass is a measure of how much matter something contains; weight is that matter under the influence of gravity. A kilogram really doesn't weigh one kilogram, but rather 9.8 newtons***.

Work is the act of moving an object by applying force. More commonly, and more relevant to our concerns, it's the act of lifting a certain weight a certain distance or rotating an arm (or a wheel, which is just kind of a continuous arm if you think about it...hey, anything left in the bong?) around an axis, which we all know as that glorious thing that is torque.

Power is the act of performing that work in a certain time.

Let's get our parameters set up in real units:

A 7% grade is almost exactly 4 degrees from horizontal. That doesn't sound like much until you have to climb it; a 7% grade is the maximum permitted on Interstate highways and even then only for short distances in mountainous terrain (a 6% maximum is more generally enforced). For visualization purposes, 7%/4° converts to a rise of 1 meter for every 14.3 meters in straightline distance.

We next need to consider the weight of the vehicle. Naturally the Mouse will be as light as is practical, but again we're aiming for at least some sort of real-world relevance so yes, a real structure, and no, not a carbon-fiber skeleton wearing a Reynolds Wrap skin. Quick research shows that most tiny people movers with (ostensibly) four seats - the Tata Nano, the original Issigonis Mini - scale in at about 600kg. Weave in some Japanese engineering genius and a small parallel-twin motorcycle engine and you have the Honda N360, which weighs about 500kg and which we'll accept as a reasonable minimum for something that won't fold in on itself*****.

Photo: 天然ガス
That's just for the vehicle; at the very least we also have to include a driver. Yes, we could hire some winsome and fawnlike ultralight Eastern European fashion model to be our test driver, but let's again aim for a certain real-world element. Propriety says that to cover various arrangements of passengers and luggage and drinks in cupholders and whatever we should skew the driver's mass slightly large, towards the Matt Farah/Jack Baruth/yr hmbl svt end of the body mass index, and so we'll add 100kg****** as our operator/payload mass.

That gets us up to 600kg that has to be hauled up this 7%/4° grade at the mandated 16m/sec by something more than good intentions.

The equation to find the required power turns out to be very straightforward, especially when using those metric units:

Weight (in newtons) times rate (in meters per second) times distance (vertical component only since that's what the work here is doing so sine of 4°) equals power in watts.

(Yeah, I also thought it was too simple at first as well, except that a watt is defined as (kg × m²)/sec³ so that cleans it up in a hurry.)

Plug in our Wojdyla parameters of 600kg vehicle mass and 16m/sec speed up the incline, and using the accepted 9.8m/sec² constant for gravity and rounding sin(4°) from 0.069756474... to a more palatable .07:

600 × 9.8 × 16 × .07 = 6585.6 watts

Or 6.6 kilowatts, or 8.85 horsepower. Add 10% or so for mechanical losses and various invocations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and we can say that the Mouse really needs no more than 7.5 kilowatts, or 10 horsepower.

That's not much as far as motors go, even in the pre-Hellcat era.

Just for the sake of it let's figure out the resultant torque and acceleration.

Two things: First, given a constant power output the motor can either spin faster with less torque or spin slower with more torque. A motor producing x torque and turning at n rpm will make the same power as one producing 2x torque and turning at n/2 rpm. This conversion will happen repeatedly below.

Second, one important note about calculating this and what it means to the vehicle itself: In order to know how much force is being applied to the pavement, we naturally need to know how much force the motor is generating at any one instant. This is not an easy thing to do with internal-combustion motors; because of cam timing and ignition curves and a bunch of other factors they do not produce consistent torque throgh the rev range, which anyone who has ever looked at a dyno chart knows. If we fitted the Mouse with a CVT we could theoretically have it run at a consistent ideal speed, but it's better to go ahead and use a power source which produces wonderfully steady (if subjectively boring) torque, run through a constant ratio.

Yes, it's an electric Mouse.

Okay, so those wheels and tires we stole off of someone's 2000 Insight are sized 165/65R14, so they have a circumference of just about 179cm. In order to make the Mouse move at that mandated flat-surface speed of 20m/sec they have to rotate 11.17 times per second, or 670.39 times per minute.

10 horsepower being delivered at 671 rpm [HOLD ON IMPORTANT UPDATE HERE: We're NOT spinning the wheels at 671 rpm to get 10hp; that power calculation was done at 16m/sec so we actually have to figure this at 537 rpm - corrected numbers follow] translates to a decent 78.3 agreeable 97.8 foot-pounds of torque, or 132.6 joules, delivered consistently at the contact patch. (The motor will spin a bit faster; redlines on  commonly available 10hp electric motors tend to be around 1700-1800 rpm. If we run it through effective 2.6:1 reduction gearing, that means the motor is making about 37.6 foot-pounds, or 51 joules. Seems about right.)

And by the way, this 25% correction means that the Mouse's motor now should make about 12bhp at max revs, given how torque tends to fall off a bit at top with electrics.

The radius of the wheel-tire combo is 28.45cm (1/3.515 of a meter) and 132.6 joules is 132.6 newton-meters, so the drive wheels are pushing the Mouse forward with a more or less constant force of 132.6 × 3.515 = 466.1 newtons.

Acceleration is force divided by mass, so 466.1n/600kg for the win.

The Mouse will accelerate at a generally consistent rate of 0.78 meters per second, per second. It will take a little something over 26 seconds to hit our mandatory top speed of 20m/sec - but it will eventually get there.

Yeah. Um...that's slow*******. (Not as slow as with the miscalculation based on 671 rpm, but still.) Admittedly if we used a multiple-ratio gearbox we could use that magical reduction gearing from very early on to get more force to the ground and clip a substantial amount of time off of this figure. Something to maybe work on later.


Having gotten through all this, let's look at some parallel real-world/historical examples of barely-adequately-powered vehicles, even if none of them are electrics:

Photo: Daimler-Benz
We might as well start at the beginning. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen produced a whole roaring 2/3 of a horsepower (500 watts) from its near-liter of displacement but did so at all of 250 rpm, which means that torque at that engine speed was a slightly more palatable 14 lb/ft or 19 joules. (And it probably needed every bit of it to rotate those big carriage wheels from a start.) Even so, it was enough to get Berta Benz and her two teenage boys through a near-200km round trip to see her mama at about 15kph, which was audaciously fast in 1886.

The N360 from earlier was overpowered for our purposes; its 354cc parallel-twin spun out 23kW, or about 31bhp, and top speed was an excessive 105kph/~65mph.

Photo: Thomas Forsman
The closest equivalent to the Mouse in real life is probably the Citroën 2CV, which weighs about 600 kg and in its early 375cc form cranked out 9 hp/6.7kW - although as with the Benz that would likely translate into a somewhat less existentially troubling torque figure. Unfortunately, its top speed of 65 kph was apparently adequate when meandering from charming Gallic village to charming Gallic village in the 1950s but doesn't measure up to our modern requirement. (Later ones were faster, although the idea of "fast" when talking about 2CVs is always a bit relative.)  The electric motor might provide a bit more oomph, though, and its super-short 1st gear apparently gave it some impressive grade/stair-climbing potential.

So that's what you need. Would anyone actually want a Mouse, though? No, not really. The inability to operate at Interstate speeds is a massive handicap, general around-town effectiveness would be marginal at best, and again we haven't thought about anything else that goes into making this thing the slightest bit likeable.

Absolute minimum real-world power is probably along the lines of a 36hp Volkswagen Beetle, which again does better if you measure torque; in more realistic terms the 68hp of a three-cylinder Mitsubishi Mirage is about as low as anyone is willing to go to propel a modern car. Even the very Mouse-like Mitsu i-MiEV makes 63hp from its electric motor, and no one thinks of that as a rational all-around vehicle.

But I do sometimes think it would be cool to own a 2CV, though.


*: Of course this answer is a total evasion. Everyone really knows that the Greatest Car In The World is an Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ2, unless you unfortunately have to carry more than one other person with you and in that case it's a Mercedes W123 wagon. But no one wants to say this all the time because most normal people tend to get that kind of furrowed-brow thing going on when you say this, so it's better to punt.

**: Although I'm certain someone in Silicon Valley thinks otherwise and will be hitting up venture capital shops to fund this particular exercise in disrupting an anachronistic status quo as soon as they figure out how to put it in an app.

***: No, not that kind.

****: Residents of Kansas may beg to differ.

*****: Seriously. Even early Lotus Sevens weighed around 500kg (and those occasionally folded in on themselves).

******: By happy coincidence also the normal weight of an average adult male Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or giant panda.

*******: Maybe we should find one of those Eastern European models.