I Do Not Consent To Monitoring

 

I have written before about needless complexity, but I read an article this week about a tangential subject that got me all fired up again.  The article in question appears in the June 2018 Consumer Reports and it makes reference to the Tesla Model 3.  No, it wasn’t the infamous “Model 3 Road Test Review,” which was published around the same time and became an internet lightning rod as it documented the Model 3’s failure to earn a CR “Recommended” rating.  Instead, it was an entirely different article titled “Who Owns the Data Your Car Collects?”

In this article, one finds the following three paragraphs:

***

Just above eye level is one of the Model 3’s accommodations to old-fashioned safety technology, the rear-view mirror. And just above that mirror is something relatively new in the automotive world—a tiny camera aimed at the car’s occupants.

The Model 3 owner’s manual says that the camera is not currently operational but that it “might be used in potential future features which could be added to Model 3 with software releases.”

When asked by Consumer Reports about the camera, Tesla declined to detail its future plans but said owners would be notified before the camera is turned on. In the meantime, the manual directs owners to keep the camera’s lens “clean and free of obstructions.”

***

I understand that it is 2018 now and we exist in a futuristic technological wonderland.  However, I’m going to be very clear about how I feel about this—you gotta be kidding me. Get that nonsense out of my face.

My perspective is somewhat different, perhaps, than that of the average American consumer.  I work for the government in an information-gathering capacity. I read every day about how our information is shared and compromised and bought and sold for profit or advantage.  For these and a thousand other good reasons, there is no Amazon Alexa, or Google Home, or Microsoft Kinect, or Wi-Fi-connected fridge or toaster or hair dryer in my house. I’m certainly not about to put any of those things in my car.

To be fair, Tesla is not the only manufacturer that is monitoring driver behavior.  The 2018 Cadillac CT6 with “Super Cruise” has a driver-facing camera, and Subaru plans to offer a similar system in the 2019 Forester.  Mercedes-Benz has been “observing driver behavior” in their E- and S-class models since model year 2009, ostensibly to pre-emptively warn drivers about their state of attentiveness, which the car constantly evaluates based on steering inputs.  Vehicles with OnStar or other such telematic systems are constantly beaming information about the car’s activity to a third party.  And famously, Wired magazine published an article in 2015 about two hackers who had found a vulnerability in Chrysler’s UConnect system (which is constantly cellularly connected to a central UConnect hub) that allowed them to remotely locate and reprogram some of the vehicle’s software, permitting remote control of many vehicle systems, including the brakes and transmission.

My car is a refuge.  The only people that get in my car are my family and friends.  I’m not about to invite some mega-corporation into my passenger seat so it can watch and listen to me sing along with the radio.  Progressive Insurance’s “Snapshot” OBD-2 plug-in can go straight into the trash, preferably after I run over it.  There’s only one gesture I’ll give BMW’s “Gesture Control” system.  Porsche has a similar system touted for the Mission E, which additionally tracks where my eyeballs are looking, saving me from the proletarian tyranny of having to reach for switches or buttons with my hands – sorry, not interested.

My 1992 Porsche 968 recently came home from a long-overdue service.  She got new tires, new front and rear shocks, new front control arms and bushings, a new coolant reservoir, a new battery, and new hardware to keep all those things in place.  This car was built over two and a half decades ago, but she’s fuel-injected with variable valve timing and has no trouble carving up contemporary traffic.  What she DOESN’T DO, however, is bug me about anything.  Anything! Not about how fast I’m going, not about how far I am from that curb or bollard or bumper, not if my seatbelt’s fastened, not if my phone’s ringing, not if I’ve left her lights on, none of it.  It’s such a welcome relief from the usual present-day deluge of incessant beeps and boops that I might drive nothing but Nineties cars from now on.  Cars with all of the go, but none of the “monitoring.”  It has been forecast that the “automotive data industry” will be worth $450-750 billion by 2030, but here I’ll quote Nineties legend Dr. Dre—you won’t get a crumb from me.

Five Tons of Comparison Testing – X5 xDrive35i vs Cayenne Diesel

A Premium-spec example of the second-generation BMW X5 has just recently joined the fleet. The boys have finally (after nine and seven and a half years, respectively) gotten too big to comfortably commute in the rear seats of the sports cars, and besides, the 996 C4S deserves some respite after nearly 120,000 miles of daily-driver duty.

Between the Cayenne Diesel already in the garage and this new-to-us X5, we have two competitors that have always existed in close proximity to one another on the full-size luxury SUV plane.  These particular two examples are fairly close in mileage as well, the BMW at around 73,000, the Porsche at 65,000.  So, after a couple weeks of getting to know the BMW, I thought it only right to let the two rivals duke it out in this column for driveway supremacy.

X5:

The newcomer first.  “Why this? What do you like about it?” asked the wife at first glance.  “The engine,” was my immediate reply.  BMW is known for its long history of commendable straight sixes, and the so-called N55 under the hood of the X5 is one of the all-stars on that list.  An evolution of the preceding twin-turbo N54, the single-turbo N55 makes the same 300 horses and 300 pound-feet as its predecessor, but with greater efficiency and fewer emissions.[i]  It also brings the natural balance and glorious noise of the straight-six configuration; under hard throttle, the X5 gives a gnarly growl of purpose and quickly fires the big SUV up the acceleration curve into the zone of extra-legality.  The numbers provide the bite to back up the bark: the X5 does 0-60 in 6 seconds flat and cracks the standing quarter mile in 14.7 at 92 mph.[ii]  This dusts the compression-ignition Cayenne, which manages 6.8 and 15.4/88.[iii]

The Bavarian’s steering demands some heft, most noticeably at lower speeds. Once the driver’s brain is calibrated, however, the weighty helm seems appropriate for the near-five-thousand-pound metal beast that envelops the seats.  Yet somehow, astoundingly, feedback from the tires still manages to sneak through all that mass to reach the fingertips in a timely and informative manner.  The X5 does a convincing 5-series sedan impression around corners and through bends.  It does not shy from changes of direction.

Both vehicles change gear via the ubiquitous (and excellent) ZF 8-speed.  However, the X5’s driver interface is the better one.  The Munich engineers have devised a clever way of keeping on offer the tactile thrill of “shifting gears” while minimizing cockpit space and clutter required for the associated hardware.  The BMW’s automatic transmission lever is easy to learn and puts some fun back into the dull world of kid/dog/grocery hauling.  If you hear an X5 winding its N55 up into the “loud” category between stoplights, blame that newfangled lever and the hooligan it can unlock in any driver.

The X5 is let down, however, by its multimedia interface, which requires more than an optimal number of user inputs to produce the desired result.  It has one or two praiseworthy solutions—making the “radio preset” buttons usable as one-touch commands for just about anything (oft-used phone numbers and navigation destinations are well-served here) was one such trick—but overall the system is cumbersome.

The BMW feels more spacious inside, though, even with the interior swathed in black leather.  The feeling of space is no doubt amplified by the dual-panel panoramic roof that stretches back over the heads of the second-row passengers.  The glass will physically slide open nearly as far back, lending an almost open-top airiness to the cabin.  Lastly, the X5 does not compromise its cargo area by chopping the aft section of roof in order to appear sleeker in profile (as the Cayenne does) and therefore, the BMW will inhale significantly more of one’s possessions—75.2 cubic feet to the Porsche’s 62.9.[iv] [v]

Cayenne:

This Cayenne has performed over forty thousand miles of service to my family.  It’s a suitable replacement for intra-continental air travel, as far as we’re concerned.  Step into the interior and immediately the reasons for the ten or so thousand extra dollars the Cayenne commands on the used market are readily apparent.  The seats and leather are a class above the X5’s, and (in this case) boast heating and cooling versus heating-only.  The multimedia interface is fast and intuitive.  The rear window shades are electrically operated, as opposed to manual.  The steering wheel is more finely finished and impressive-looking.  The Bose sound system in the Porsche is a vast improvement over the stock BMW system.

Insert the key (you needn’t do this in the BMW – the X5 features a very convenient proximity key and start-stop button) and twist it to fire up the engine.  The sound is reassuring but hardly inspiring.  The Audi-built 3.0-liter V6 diesel in the Porsche simply cannot aurally compete with a gasoline-shredding BMW straight-six.

As you helm the Cayenne slowly out of the driveway, though, you do notice that steering it is a delight, instead of an exercise, as in the X5.  The Porsche takes on the character of its steering wheel: easy, precise, and well-finished.  My wife used the adjective “lumbering” to describe the BMW by comparison, but that probably comes from being spoiled by her Cayenne, which seems to magically and gleefully shrink around the driver when pushed.  The X5 is happy to carve a corner or two, but reminds you that “Hey, buddy, I’m a lot of car and a lot of tire and a lot of brake here, and whenever you make me do this, I chew through all those things a little faster.”  The Porsche grips to 0.94 lateral G’s before it loses traction; the BMW is stability-control-limited to 0.87 G’s.[vi] [vii]  In the handling arena, the Porsche emerges a clear winner.

Additionally, while the BMW may be faster than the Porsche from a standstill to sixty miles per hour, it is hard to imagine the same being true from zero to thirty.  Whenever you read about the Cayenne Diesel, the most oft-cited word is “torque,” and that is for good reason.  All four hundred six pound-feet of twist are available from around 2100 RPM, and that’s early enough to give the Porsche a healthier shove right off the line.[viii]  It would be very interesting to drag-race these two SUVs down a runway—I expect the Cayenne would leap to an early lead, and then be shortly later overtaken by the greater horsepower in the X5.  In the low-speed around-town commute, however, the Cayenne blends its agility and torque into a potent combo that the BMW cannot objectively match.

VERDICT:

The BMW is faster, sounds better, and is more spacious inside.  The Porsche is more agile, with better interior execution, and achieves significantly better fuel economy while retaining an edge in low-speed, accessible performance.[ix]

For me, the Porsche is the better of the two, but they are both excellent.  The fact is that a five-year-old X5 xDrive35i can be had for just over twenty thousand dollars, while a similar-condition Cayenne will cost quite a bit more…and that makes the second-gen X5 a very strong value proposition as we wrap up the first quarter of 2018.

 

NOTES:

[i] Jon Yanca, “2011 BMW X6 to Get Single-Turbo N55 Inline-6, 8-Speed Transmission.” Car & Driver, January 2010. https://www.caranddriver.com/news/2011-bmw-x6-to-get-single-turbo-n55-inline-6-8-speed-transmission-car-news

 

[ii] Steve Siler, “Short Take Road Test: 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i.” Car & Driver, September 2010.  https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/bmw-x5-review-2011-bmw-x5-xdrive35i-road-test

 

[iii] Jared Gall, “Instrumented Test: 2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel.” Car & Driver, January 2013. https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/2013-porsche-cayenne-diesel-test-review

 

[iv] US News & World Report, “2013 BMW X5 Interior Review.” https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/bmw/x5/2013/interior

 

[v] US News & World Report, “2013 Porsche Cayenne Interior Review.” https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/porsche/cayenne/2013/interior

 

[vi] Gall, ibid.

 

[vii] Siler, ibid.

 

[viii] APR, LLC. “APR 3.0 TDI ECU Upgrade (APR STG I – High Output Model).” http://www.goapr.co.uk/products/ecu_upgrade_30tdi.html

 

[ix] US Department of Energy: fueleconomy.gov. “Compare Side-by-Side.” https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=33124&id=32351

 

 

Something About A Flat Six Revving to 9000 RPM…Just Calms Me Down

Back road. Behind a semi and trailer. Sport button! Mash throttle!

Hiccup. Lurch. Grind. Vibrate-vibrate-vibrate-vibrate-vibrate…warning message.

That was the first time I tried to go fast in a Macan.

Excellence Magazine recently did a Macan GTS review.  It was one of the most damning-with-faint-praise car articles I’ve ever read, replete with gems like “engine output feels acceptable but honestly rather unexciting,” “surprised by the amount of understeer,” “unexpected quirks,” and “feels too heavy and underpowered relative to other contemporary performance machines.”

Amazon’s The Grand Tour released an episode a few weeks back where the boys spend some time in Canada testing and comparing small luxury crossovers.  Hammond gets a bright red Macan Turbo, which, when asked to do some rodeo-style barrel racing in loose dirt, quickly throws an “AWD overload” warning message and goes into a power-limited “limp” mode.

If you hadn’t caught on to my thesis just yet, it’s that all small crossovers—including Porsche’s—are essentially useless.  The Cayenne is one thing; especially in its original form, it was a full-size SUV designed to comfortably seat four adults and transport their luggage while retaining the ability to not only go fast on the road, but also to dependably and capably go off-road, as well as to tow a respectable amount.  The Cayenne does things a car could not do.

The Macan cannot comfortably seat four adults.  It cannot transport their luggage.  It is less capable around corners than a car would be.  It is less fuel-efficient than a car would be.  It cannot tow any significant amount.  The base model’s stock tires are Pirelli Scorpion Verde low rolling resistance fuel-economy-at-all-costs tires that offer minimal lateral grip in dry or wet cornering, even less grip off-road, and still less grip in snow.

You would think a company whose history is recorded in a series of volumes titled Excellence Was Expected would only agree to produce such a subpar vehicle to the absolute minimum extent possible. And yet this very week, Porsche unveiled another of the type, a “concept study of an electrically driven Cross Utility Vehicle (CUV)” at the Geneva Motor Show.  This is the first paragraph of their press release:

“This car has many talents and is aimed at people who like to spend their free time travelling, playing sport and pursuing other outdoor activities. Thanks to all-wheel drive, every ski slope is easy to reach, while the flexible interior creates space for all kinds of sports equipment and modern load-carrying systems facilitate the transport of surfboards or a Porsche e-bike.”

Except for the “Porsche e-bike” statement, that paragraph could be used by just about every other automaker in the world.  I read that disgusting, poorly-written, uninspiring drivel and come away with nothing except “This car is what our accountants say the market demands. We need cash to recover from Dieselgate.”

With all this, I was girding myself to go on a longer tirade about how Porsche has left top-tier LMP1 racing, how the new 911 RSR remains uncompetitive in sports-car racing even after a ground-up redesign, and how the company’s Formula E effort is still a year off.  I was going to point to the sales numbers that indicate without question that the public-road-going soul of the company has a higher center of gravity, larger footprint, and heaver curb weight than ever before.  I was going to say that the soul of the brand was diluted, lost, aimless, and who knew where it would end up next.

Then I remembered that the other car Porsche unveiled at Geneva was the new GT3RS, and I watched the hype video they made for it.  And suddenly, everything was fine, just fine.  Even better than fine.  In fact, things might just be unabashedly brilliant.

 

Sweet Jumps

For me, the most obvious indication of the macro-passage of time is my two boys.  They nonchalantly toss ever-more complex words and sentences at me every day, they type almost as fast as I do, they are suddenly so tall that it’s easier to throw them over my shoulder and carry them like logs than it is to carry them upright, and lastly—excitingly—whereas in the past their toes barely touched the floor when sitting in the rear seats of the 996, now their knees are pushed up past the horizontal plane, even with soles flat.

It must be almost time for a new car, right?  Can’t have the kids be uncomfortable, right?

This is a convenient excuse to drive some of my prospects, among them the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.  I’m not usually a pickup-truck guy, but the ZR2 is remarkably compelling.  In short-box crew-cab form, it seats 5 with just over five feet of cargo bed out back.  It’s offered with a four-cylinder diesel engine making 369 pound-feet of torque at just 2,000 revs, but that engine adds over three thousand extra dollars to the MSRP, and you sacrifice horsepower for all that torque – the Duramax’s 181 horses are realistically not enough to keep all 4,758 pounds of ZR2 at equal pace with highway traffic.  My choice is GM’s ubiquitous but respectable “LFX” aluminum-block gasoline V6, displacing 3.6 liters and producing (in the ZR2’s case) 308 horsepower and 275 torques—while itself weighing 226 pounds less than the iron-block diesel.  The LFX also gets two more gears in its transmission—eight versus the diesel’s six.

The ZR2’s real party trick isn’t its powertrain, though—it’s the Multimatic DSSV (Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve) shocks that come as standard.  Multimatic makes most of their money putting their trick shocks on high-dollar race cars—and when I say high-dollar race cars, I mean cars such as Sebastian Vettel’s ridiculously dominant 2010-2013 Red Bull Formula 1 machine.  However (as good racing technology tends to) Multimatic’s efforts have trickled down to some road cars, for example the 2014-2015 Camaro Z/28.  Multimatic’s factory in Toronto is also, wouldn’t you know it, the primary assembly location for the current Ford GT supercar.

When bolted to the ZR2, the Multimatic DSSVs make the midsize pickup’s ride incredibly compliant.  I happened to test-drive the ZR2 on a lonely stretch of road that periodically was interrupted by sections coned-off for repair, requiring me to drop some wheels off the tarmac to navigate around.  I was reminded of the episode of Top Gear where the trio drive through Albania in top-end luxury sedans—at one point, driving on a rocky dirt road, James remarks from the comfortable driver’s seat of his Rolls-Royce Ghost, “As far as I’m concerned, the road merely changes color occasionally.”  From the helm of a Colorado ZR2, the surface passing beneath you has absolutely no effect on the sensation you experience as you glide effortlessly over it.  It’s uncanny.

The truck is plenty fast enough, capable of 0-60 in 7.1 seconds and a quarter-mile in 15.6.  It sounds…unobtrusively okay…with the stock exhaust, and the available “Performance Exhaust” offered by Chevrolet nudges the acoustics firmly into the “good” category.  The truck doesn’t feel excessively wide or tall or long from behind the steering wheel, either, so it’s easy to fit into normal gaps in traffic, garages, and parking spots.  There are a zillion accessories and ways to customize it, so it can be configured to do just about anything.  The ZR2 tows less than its plain-jane Colorado brethren (5,000 lbs versus 7,000) but that’s still capacity enough for a light trailer and a track car.

It should be an easy transition for my boys.  They’ll simply transition from being admired at school as they go home in the back of a sports car to being admired at school as they go home in the back of the neighborhood Stadium Super Truck.  Oh, did I forget to mention?  It does sweet jumps.

 

Horsepower is Now Completely Meaningless

The 2018 Toyota Camry will boast an (optional) direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 producing 301 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque.

Chew on that for a moment.

The 2018 Camry eats that ’86 930 Turbo that just pulled $120k at auction for breakfast.  The 2018 Camry scares the hell out of your bad-boy ‘05 Mustang GT.  The 2018 Camry is poking you in the eye for paying close to fifteen grand more for a new BMW 530i with an infantile little turbo four from a Mini Cooper under the hood.

When a Toyota Camry has 301 horsepower, it can mean only one thing: horsepower is as free and common as rain on summer afternoons.  Horsepower is no longer special and rare; it’s a thing that handily occurs on frequent occasion.  No car can simply post a horsepower number and convey its uniqueness via that sole metric (ahem, Dodge) – not when the ubiquitous Camry posts 301.

What makes a car special, then, in this breathless age of ever-present power?  The easy thing about the horsepower wars is that they’re a scoreboard.  The biggest number wins, right?  When that scoreboard becomes irrelevant, however, the discussion about specialness becomes more nuanced and complex.  We’re forced to grapple with hard-to-objectify impressions like “steering feel,” “handling,” “seat comfort,” and “throttle response.”  Everyone weighs these subjective things differently, so it’s much more difficult to conclude a clear and straightforward “best” based on categories that aren’t horsepower.

If horsepower is essentially a given, we need to step back and look at the larger picture.  Rather than niggling over the infinitesimal details of a car’s on-road or on-track behavior and handling, we need to simply ask: what can this car do?  Does it carry more than two people?  Can it handle a reasonable amount of luggage?  Is it comfortable for long hauls?  Is it dog-friendly?  What kind of fuel economy does it get?  Is it quicker/faster than most other cars around it on the road?  Does it even NEED a road?

That last question is an important one, because many buyers are swayed by the so-called “capability” of their prospective purchases to go off-road.  I’ve mentioned before that the Jeep brand is one of the hottest in the world right now, and not an ounce of their marketing is directed toward on-road behavior.  What Jeep sells is the ability to escape the mundane.  While everyone else slogs through traffic in a dreary urban wasteland, Jeep buyers crash through crystalline wilderness streams enroute to secluded beaches or mountaintops where all their Jeep-driving friends have started jaunty bonfire parties and eagerly await their arrival.  While much of this is pure fantasy, is it any more fantastic than the notion that every single Porsche sold will spend time on a racetrack?  Of course not.  In fact, for many people, the nearest beach or mountaintop bonfire is much closer and more attainable than time on a racetrack, so there is a sliver of potential reality in Jeep’s marketing.  However, with every Jeep purchase comes the roulette of owning a Fiat-Chrysler product.  Jeep Cherokee Trailhawks that originally sold for upwards of $40k are worth half that just two years later.  Are they all lemons?  Certainly not, but equally certain is that some of them are.

All of this—the ubiquity of horsepower, the related step-back to a bigger-picture outlook, some slogging through traffic, and some wariness regarding Jeep ownership—coalesced for me recently with an invitation I got in the mail from the local Land Rover dealership.  I’d always laughed about Landies, these huge, heavy, inefficient, Old-World slabs of switches and buttons and supposed capability (when they were working correctly).  But recently, the company replaced the old LR4 with a new Discovery, and each review I read attempted at its outset to bemoan the change from ladder-frame to unibody construction.  In every case, the negative narrative collapsed because the new Disco was so astoundingly off-road capable without any of the on-road compromises associated with the old design.

My curiousity piqued, I arrived at the Land Rover place at the appointed hour.  Forcibly peeling my eyes off of the V90 Cross Country parked next door at Volvo, I strolled inside.  After some introductions, I got a ride and a drive in a new Discovery HSE Td6 (midlevel trim, diesel engine).  And my goodness, it was staggering.  The finish and materials of the seats and interior were really impressive.  The torque from the diesel was smooth and satisfying.  The off-road capability, showcased on a little rock track tucked behind the lot, was nigh-unbelievable.  Windshield filled with nothing but sky?  No problem.  Nothing but dirt?  No problem.  Tilted at a crazy angle as if about to barrel-roll?  No problem.  Want a gods-eye view of what the car is doing and the obstacles around it, rendering spotters obsolete?  Simply press the Surround-View button.  Want to get back on the road?  Just turn two knobs and press one button, and the Disco hunkers back down to cruising clearance.  Incredible.  The very thought of juxtaposing such a modern, luxurious, technical engineering achievement with an untamed wilderness far from civilization is captivating to me.  So does the ease of doing it – all one needs is to buy one and strike out into the frontier.  To one moment be unprotected and alone with untouched nature, and the next to be enveloped in a mobile jewel of mankind’s progress…it’s nearly a magician’s trick that can be repeated endlessly and not lose its novelty, and the Discovery is the (admittedly pretty expensive) magic wand that makes it possible.

In conclusion, the 301-horsepower 2018 Toyota Camry means you should go buy a Discovery and leave the confined spaces of the road network behind.  Because when everyone is over-300-horsepower special, no one will be.  Except you.

Photo Credit: LandRoverUSA.com

Digital Exclusivity

I’ve just learned that Great Plains Region cancelled their Spring Fling Driver Education event out at Raceway Park of the Midlands this weekend.

(A moment of silence for my loss, please.)

However, this sad occurrence does serve to amplify what I was going to write about this month anyway: the importance and high profile of video gaming when it comes to marketing a car brand.

This story begins back in 2000, when Electronic Arts and Porsche collaborated on “Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed,” the fifth entry in a series of video games that began with the original “The Need for Speed” in 1994. “NFS: Porsche” was released for both PC and Playstation.  A lot of the reviews were mixed, complaining about the handling of the cars and the collision detection, but I remember being just staggered by the “feel” of the cars (I think perhaps the complainers didn’t know how Porsches, especially early ones, really handled). Right from the very beginning, you learned NOT to lift mid-corner in your 356.

Nearly every road-going Porsche from the earliest 356 up to the just-debuted 2000 996 Turbo was modeled, and several of the race cars (550A, 935 Moby Dick, GT1) were as well. A few additional cars (the 928 GTS was one) were released later as free, downloadable extras on the frontiers of the baby internet.

NFS: Porsche in all its glory. I think it still looks great.

I had a burgeoning interest in Porsches at the time, and NFS: Porsche threw high-octane gasoline on that fire.  I’m fairly sure it was the first video game I ever stayed up all night playing.  Through until the dawn, a friend and I took turns, discovering and driving Porsches through the virtual years, from the 356s and early 911s, to the 930, to the 914 (1.7, 1.8, and 2.0, but no 914-6), to the 944, to the Carrera 3.2, to the warp-speed 959, to the 964 Carrera 2, and 4, and Turbo 3.6, to the voluptuous 993 Carrera 4S and glass-roof 993 Targa, to the Boxster, and finally to the 996 Turbo. I came away from NFS: Porsche an educated Porsche customer, knowing the company history, its racing heritage, and which cars were the fastest and not-so-fastest. NFS: Porsche made the notion that I would never own a Porsche completely laughable; after playing that game I was always, inevitably, going to someday have one in my real-world driveway.

Then, however, someone at Porsche (it is not clear exactly who), no doubt basking in the glow of what they and Electronic Arts had wrought, made a critical error: they signed a contract giving Electronic Arts exclusive digital rights to the Porsche brand. With the deal in place, no other software publisher could touch any of Porsche’s intellectual property. At the time, the exclusivity deal itself was somewhat defensible, as the Need for Speed series was among the best-recognized and best-reviewed driving simulations out there. But the term of the contract was SIXTEEN YEARS, an eternity in the consumer electronics and software market. As Ars Technica‘s Automotive Editor, Johnathan Gitlin, put it: “Indeed, in conversations on the topic with Porsche North America over the years, we always got the sense the company knew it was paying a hefty price and couldn’t wait for the deal to run its course.”

During those long years, Electronic Arts lapsed into a mere also-ran among driving simulation publishers, easily outstripped by, at first, the Gran Tourismo games, and then by the Forza series. The band-aid solution used by non-EA publishers was usually to contract for the digital rights to Porsche partner company Ruf, so at least there would be 911 look-alikes in their games. In fact, when I first wrote about the original Forza Horizon on theflatsix.com, I used an in-game picture of a Ruf RGT-8. Rufs are undeniably great, fast, exclusive cars, but everyone knew that they only slipped into the gameworld because there weren’t any “real” Porsches.

At long, long last, though, the exclusivity contract has expired, and grateful gamers everywhere can welcome Porsche’s cars into the best virtual realities that the world has yet seen. There is perhaps no more welcome place for the now-liberated Porsches than in the latest, greatest in the Forza series, Forza Horizon 3—a wide-open fantasy recreation of Australia chock-full of highways, B-roads, dirt roads, fields, streams, forests, beaches, mountains, cliffs, and every other conceivable environment in which you’d love to see or drive a car. Look upon the results, ye mighty, and be joyous:

At long last, we’re back to my original point. Not everyone can get to a track day. Not everyone can go on a long vacation drive to see and experience cars and vistas like these. However, almost everyone DOES have the means to access the digital experience. And in the case of the younger ones among us, a great digital experience will ignite a yearning for an even better real-world experience. Goals will be set and dreams cemented in place. With the exclusivity deal expired, a whole new generation can discover the allure of Porsche—and learn for themselves that there is no substitute.

Chicago Auto Show 2017

Downtown Chicago.  The McCormick Center.  It is, as most big-city convention centers are, a massive facility, and this one is especially well-suited to the rigors of being home to the Chicago Auto Show.  Despite its daunting square footage, it is laid out quite simply.  One can almost glimpse the entirety of the show from a single vantage point, preferably atop a tall ladder, as the curvature of the Earth comes into play.

Thirty-three automakers plied their wares from amongst the 75,000 square feet of space.  Some commanded more acreage than others, some were more varied and complex than others, but no display was more impressive overall than the combined effort put forth by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.  There was a drag strip for Dodge, and by God they smoked tires on it every few minutes, all day.  There was a “work site” for Ram with cranes and cargo.  There was a kids’ play area celebrating the shapely Chrysler Pacifica (Did I just call a minivan “shapely”? Yes, I did).  Amongst all this marketing fantasy, though, one brand stood out: Jeep.

With some enormous steel bridge-arches, at least a ton of synthetic mulch, a pile of boulders, two flights of stairs, and one big breakover-test ramp, Jeep easily grabbed the show trophy for “Most Indefatigable.”  Then they tucked the trophy under one arm, put on a gratuitous spin move that shattered both of Toyota’s ankles, and sprinted out the door toward real adventure.  One of the highlights of Toyota’s square footage was a demo of a Highlander auto-sensing and avoiding an oncoming shopping cart in a parking lot—LAME.  Jeep’s display, by high contrast, featured Cherokees and Grand Cherokees (in Trailhawk spec) alongside some Wrangler Unlimited Rubicons (roof panels removed) clambering up and over all of the above-mentioned obstacles.  For the Wranglers, it was hardly a challenge—their axle articulation is such that the terrain just disappeared beneath the differential hubs and emerged defeated behind the rear bumpers.  For the Cherokees and Grand Cherokees, things were a bit more dramatic: one or another wheel would find itself airborne, but then the AWD system would route torque elsewhere and defeat the obstacle.  Great fun to watch, certainly—but even more fun to ride along and experience, as I did with my son beside me, both of us giggling madly the whole time.

As American automobile brands go, Ford might be the plucky turbocharging favorite that didn’t need a taxpayer bailout to survive in 2008.  Chevrolet might be the full-spectrum heavyweight.  And Dodge might be the crazy yet lovable uncle that always asks, “That thing gotta Hemi?”  But right now, with a great lineup and sales surging, Jeep feels like the Lewis & Clark expedition, an Iowa-class battleship, Mount Rushmore, and, well, a Jeep.  There ain’t much that is more unstoppably American than that.

The List, January 2017

It’s a sickness—I’m always thinking about what car I’d have next.  If the 996 C4S were the last car I ever owned, life would still have been lived quite to the fullest…but there’s always that nagging bit of wonder…

Be wary–this list has no limitations other than the cars mentioned being relatively affordable (on the used market anyway) and having at least four seats.

Mercedes GLA45: The top-spec GLA, ramming over 26 psi of turbo boost into its four cylinders and then disgorging the excess out the exhaust in a manner befitting a .22 long rifle.  PROS: High-end hot hatch exterior looks; hilarious tailpipe acoustics; somewhat rare.  CONS: Cramped interior; tacked-on center infotainment screen; still pretty expensive.

Lincoln MKZ Thoroughbred Drivers’ Package: Lincoln’s Audi fighter with a 3.0L turbo six, AWD, and the rear diff from the Focus RS.  PROS: A somewhat rare car that visually stands apart while remaining easily serviceable; remarkable performance from an unexpected comer. CONS: Lacking rear-seat headroom; aging body style (it’s really just a Fusion with a new grille); appalling depreciation (but hey, I could turn that around, make it work for me).

Mercedes E400 Coupe: Slinky new (model year 2018) 2-door with ample room for four, sporting the turbo six from the C400.  PROS: Gorgeous inside and out—the best or nothing, with that F1-dominating badge. CONS: Some passengers will inevitably have to clamber into the rear seats; expensive—new-for-2017 refresh still a couple years from coming off-lease.

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 3.2 (2015+): FCA’s right-size, right-time crossover with a risky front-end look and some quality issues.  PROS: Easy to get price/availability-wise; lots of utility for the money; those red tow hooks! CONS: Questionable long-term trustworthiness and reliability.

Audi A6 3.0T (2013+): Handsome, conservative sedan. The lowest-priced “real” Audi. PROS: Classic, never-tire-of-it look; lots to choose from; fairly common yet capable VW engine/powertrain combo giving solid performance. CONS: The aspirational car of the upwardly mobile masses—not unusual enough.  Like Nic Cage says, “I saw three of these outside my local Starbucks this morning!”

Ford Fiesta ST: The American hot hatch of the automotive press’ dreams.  PROS: Clever engineering, great gas mileage, cheap to buy and maintain, fun!  CONS: Cramped, cheap interior; exterior a bit dowdy too.

Chevrolet Volt (Gen 2): The nameplate advanced enormously in its second generation. PROS: Brilliant engineering; phenomenal gas mileage; nice to look at both inside and out. CONS: Still not an enthusiast car in the traditional sense—the 60-80 passing maneuver on the highway will remain fraught with peril.

BMW X1 or X3 xDrive35i: The X1 is frugal and spacious, while the X3 (35i spec) is sleeper-quick.  PROS: Modern, capable BMW engines.  CONS: Modern, capable BMW engines, likely to blend themselves on the “frappe” setting the day the warranty expires.

Ford Flex EcoBoost (2013+): The hidden gem of the Ford lineup—a seven-passenger rocket sled that depreciates like crazy because of the polarizing (but secretly awesome) look.  PROS: That engine; that interior space.  CONS: Wacky SYNC infotainment system; ride a bit flinty.

Chevrolet SS: The classic big, (somewhat) cheap, rear-drive V8 American sedan.  PROS: All of the following letters and numbers: 6.2L LS3 V8.  CONS: Interior in any color you want (as long as it’s black); steering wheel from a first-gen Volt (a shameless parts-bin car).

Chrysler 300 SRT8 (2013+): The OTHER classic rear-drive V8 American sedan.  PROS: It’s got a Hemi; makes that Hemi noise; sometimes has those achingly beautiful “black chrome” wheels.  CONS: Having trouble here…fuel economy?  Yeah, we’ll go with that.

Fiat 500e: Over $32k new, now trading in the $10k range, this is the small pure-electric that Sergio Marchionne didn’t want you to buy (FCA lost $14k on every single one sold).  PROS: The best-looking 500, does silent electric FWD burnouts!  CONS: Range anxiety; quite small both inside and out; top speed of 85 mph; all of the used ones are in California.

Jaguar XJ (2013+): Sneakily, the best XJ has long been the shorter-wheelbase, lighter, supercharged V6 model.  PROS: Sumptuous interior; engine worthy of much newer cars (F-Type).  CONS: Reliability.  And my reputation as “trustworthy” would likely take a hit.

Runners-Up: 2014 Cadillac CTS VSport, Audi SQ5, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Mitsubishi Evo MR-Touring, Porsche Panamera (2011+ V6 RWD), 2014 Audi allroad.

Choose wisely.

RallyCross Nationals 2016

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The SCCA is racing for the pure joy of racing. There’s no fanfare, there’s very little coverage or recognition, and a sizeable chunk of it isn’t even wheel-to-wheel.  It’s grass-roots, rain or blazing sun, spend your own money and break your own stuff, follow the voluminous rules, better show up because you need the wheel time or someone else will get better… in fact, it seems a lot like work in some ways.  But as a thickly muscled man once roughly opined, “for those few seconds, I’m free,” and that alone is reason enough for the SCCA to exist and for its membership to endure the hardships, muster up, and get out there to compete.

Central Iowa certainly doesn’t have much in the way of racetracks, but what it does have is a wide selection of fields. Someone up in the SCCA hierarchy must have stumbled upon this fact, because they came to the correct conclusion when trying to decide on the best place to hold Rallycross Nationals around the end of September every year: Indianola, Iowa.

My membership in the SCCA had lapsed, so I paid my back dues and got current again. I took the weekend off from work and made the short drive down to the Balloon Festival fields in Indianola over the first Saturday and Sunday in October to witness the scene.

If you hadn’t heard of Rallycross before, just think of autocross—driving around cones in a parking lot—but replace the parking lot with a grassy field.  Yeah.  Just blew your mind there, huh? The surface changes on every run. There are significant elevation changes in play. There’s morning dew, evening showers, and hot dusty middays in between. Event organizers are constantly tweaking the course layout for both safety and entertainment purposes.  And of course, the venue itself is much tougher on the cars than any mere parking lot would be.

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The first thing I gaze upon as I arrive is a Nissan Skyline R32, just parked on the side of the same dirt road as everyone else, no big deal. Then I noticed the legion of Subarus, from late-90’s Impreza RS 2.5s to the latest WRX STIs and everything in between, including a unicorn in the shape of a three-pedal Forester XT.  Mazda had a strong showing, with the SCCA-standard-bearing Miata a common sight. Are you concerned that Ford might not be selling enough of its brilliant Fiesta ST? Worry not, the SCCA people are buying it in bulk. One driver flew in, rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee at the airport, and entered competition.  And lastly, my quirky favorite was a yappy little Fiat 500 Abarth with a “Ferrari of Indianola” sticker on its rear bumper.

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They ran the Saturday morning session in one field, the Saturday afternoon session in another, and on Sunday linked both courses together for longer laps.  The cars were classed into Stock (no mods, DOT-approved street tires), Prepared (slight mods, non-DOT tires), and Modified (just has to look like the car it used to be), and further divided into front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive groups.  I watched a Scion FR-S light its rears up at launch, spraying gobs of dirt all over the decklid of the poor Miata lined up patiently behind it.   The starter just laughed, waited the prescribed interval, then green-flagged the Miata with the words, “Go get ‘im.”  The Scion won its class for the weekend, so his must be a winning strategy.  Noted.

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I found myself welcomed by a couple of fellow spectators, one of whom was kind enough to share the five-hundred-plus pictures he took over the course of the weekend.  The Rallycross folks were a tight-knit group.  The effort to put on these events is shared by the participants, so everyone is in it together.  This probably contributes to the lack of drama that pervades the vast majority of SCCA events.

Rallycross is intriguing.  Like Autocross, it’s accessible to anyone who can afford a slightly expensive hobby.  Also like Autocross, it has the depth and breadth to consume a participant long past their first time out.  Unlike Autocross, it actually does have a professional analogue in Red Bull Global RallyCross where teams named ‘Andretti’ and ‘Ganassi’ pay drivers to race at venues around the world (well, okay, mostly around the US).  On one hand, the challenge, the relative accessibility, and the pure spectacle of Rallycross are attractive lures (look at these pictures!).  On the other, the certainty of bending metal is a bit of a barrier (eeeesh, look at that picture there).

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The undeniable reality, though, is that this is a no-kidding national-level motorsport competition, held annually, right in our own back yard.  There were already a couple of Porsches in attendance, but I don’t think anyone would mind if suddenly there were a few more.

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Black Label

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You didn’t know Lincoln makes a 400hp, 400lb-ft, AWD Audi-killer?  You are forgiven, because the base-model MKZ is a snooze-fest.  Admittedly it’s a better-looking snooze-fest lately, now that the front fascia has been upgraded from “hideous” to “Continental.”  Still, snooze-fest cars don’t merit column-inches around here.

However, spec the MKZ as Black Label, and click the boxes for 3.0T, AWD, and Driver’s Package, and you’ve got a genuine sports sedan.  Ford Motor Company bores out their 2.7L EcoBoost V6 to three liters just for you, Mr. or Mrs. Lincoln Customer, and links the rear tires to the drivetrain via the twin hydraulically-operated, electronically-controlled 7-pack clutches in the rear differential.  That rear diff is shared with everyone’s new favorite hot hatchback, the Focus RS.  In the RS application, the diff can route 100% of the rearward-fired torque (up to 70% of the engine’s total torque output) to either one of the rear wheels—the same should be expected in the MKZ Driver’s Package.

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The diff.

The combination of the 3.0T and that beautiful differential means that when you’re on your test drive and decide to beat a grungy 350Z with an atrocious body kit around a corner and onto a ramp, you can do so effortlessly.  And your sales guy, who might tragically be somewhat over-accustomed to FWD MKZ 2.0Ts, will be a bit startled and amazed at how easy it all was.  Well, that was my experience, anyway.

“Black Label” is something of a lifestyle choice, or at least that’s how Lincoln pitches it.  The fringe benefits include annual detailing, “reservation assistance” at some high-class restaurants, and a 4-year/50,000 mile maintenance plan that actually DOES cover normal-wear items.  But the real reason you want Black Label is the luscious interior themes, and on the MKZ, there are three: Thoroughbred, Chalet, and Vineyard.

Thoroughbred.
Thoroughbred.

 

Chalet.
Chalet.

 

Vineyard.
Vineyard.

I had the pleasure of driving a Thoroughbred MKZ, and while black interiors are not my favorite (Chalet would be my pick), opening the enormous dual-panel panoramic roof brightened up the experience more than enough to allow me to overcome my personal bias.  The roof doesn’t just let light in—the glass slides almost completely back, so you can enjoy a convertible-like experience.  The Chestnut Leather on the center console and dash is rich and sumptuous, and all Black Label MKZs offer an amazing 20-speaker Revel Ultima Audio setup by HARMAN.  I’d like to dig into the audio system a bit more, but what I briefly toyed with was pretty impressive.

The blessing and curse of this car is that “MKZ Black Label Driver’s Package 3.0T AWD” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and there’s been very little “buzz” surrounding this MKZ since it was announced at the LA Auto Show last November.  This means the cars are—and will likely remain—pretty uncommon, and you’ll probably have to place an order to get what you want (you want all the elements mentioned above, and you want the panoramic roof…you can probably do without all of the semi-autonomous options).  Ordering it means you’re paying market value, which is probably pretty close to MSRP, which is mid-to-high fifties, which is rather a lot for an up-engineered Ford Fusion with a gigantic plastic key fob and not a ton of rear-seat headroom.

On the other hand, instead of being a “snooze-fest,” this spec of MKZ is inarguably the most current dictionary definition of “sleeper.”  It’s the most powerful Lincoln ever.  It is no-joke fast and sounds impressive from behind the wheel.  The 6-speed SelectShift gearbox shifts smoothly, positively, and fairly quickly with a tug on one of the wheel-mounted paddles.  In Sport mode, the transmission holds gears as long as you like, and throttle mapping and suspension settings are adjustable from the in-dash menus.  Every time you open the trunk you’re treated to a reminder that yours is not a snooze-spec MKZ; there’s some extra bracing back there to help that trick rear diff get power to the tarmac.  It works—around uneven corners and over heaves in the pavement, the car remains steady, composed, and unflappable.

The two facts: a) that Lincoln wants mid-fifties for one of their cars and b) that the very proposition is not completely laughable, coalesce to indicate a very good thing.  Ford has been pouring money back into the Lincoln brand for a few years now, and it seems the return on investment has begun to trickle in.  Yes, this is an up-engineered Fusion, but it’s a worthy competitor to an A6 or a CTS Vsport or a 535i.  And because Lincoln has been nigh-invisible for so long, it’s not likely that you’ll be seeing many of these during your commute.  Lincoln is well and truly back, and now you’re among the first to know.  Check it out.

 

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