Bavarian Bounce-Back

With the arrival of the turbocharged 991.2 Carrera (which is apparently brilliant), the classic rear-engined Porsche now starts at prices north of ninety grand.  That’s all fine and dandy if you’ve got that sort of dough, but your humble author does not, and therefore his eyes will sometimes find themselves wandering from their favored marque to gaze at more attainable brands.

One such brand is BMW.  While the Bavarians placed themselves in a rough spot in the not-too-distant past, aiming for compliance and mass appeal over visceral driver enjoyment (cough cough numb F30 3-series steering, cough cough fake engine noise through the speakers in the turbo M5), they seem to have somewhat regained their poise of late.

Full disclosure: what got me in the door to the just-renovated showroom at my local dealer was the redesign of the X1.  What was formerly a small rear-drive wagon is now, horribly, a not-a-real-BMW super-trendy small luxury crossover with a Mini Cooper S engine and a front-wheel-drive platform.  Fellow blogosphere resident thetruthaboutcars.com says the X1 “for purists…is an abomination; an affront to everything E46 M3 owners hold sacred.”

Fine.  But it’s also a nicely proportioned, efficient runabout with some incredible packaging work done.  Many of these small crossovers are just TOO small, even if they offer decent driving dynamics (looking at you, Mazda CX-3).  With the X1, I could actually pick up my 6’1” father from the airport and not feel bad about putting him in the rear seat, even with the panoramic roof option installed.  His luggage would fit easily into the cargo area, and we could still get home quickly, since the direct-injected 2.0L TwinPower Turbo 4-cylinder makes 258 pound-feet of twist all the way from 1250 to 4500 RPM.  A zero-to-sixty time of 6.3 seconds is nothing to sneeze at (0.2 faster than a ’65 Shelby GT350, among the manliest of manly-man cars), and meantime we would still manage better than 30 MPG highway.

Beyond the X1, though, there’s a raft of other fine vehicles churning out of the Werks in Munich.  The M235i has already scored a place on Car & Driver’s 10Best.  The just-released M2 is garnering plenty of praise.  Jeremy Clarkson chose the i8 over the new M3, but then moments later reverted to form and backed the M3, effectively showering praise on both cars.  The M4 bested a base 991.1 Carrera in a C&D comparison back in summer of 2014 (perhaps urging forward Porsche’s turbocharging-the-base-models program).  The price-leader 320i offers four doors, rear-wheel drive, three pedals, and a shift lever for a very reasonable sum.

It continues as you climb on up the money ladder, too.  For right about the same-sized briefcase-full o’ cash as you’d need for a stripped down 991.2 Carrera 3.0, one could have the very same cylinder count and displacement in a new 740i with a fair number of pretty incredible toys (I think the “Panoramic Sky Lounge LED Roof” is my favorite, or maybe it’s just those beautiful leather seats).  The new 7-series is about as far removed from the bloated last-generation one as it is possible to be—it redefines the concept of long, low, and sleek.  Thanks to a ton of carbon fiber (lessons from the i3 and i8 apply here) in the construction, it trims 285 pounds from its bulbous ancestor.  Unsprung weight drops fifteen percent.  Someone should tell Q Branch that the 7-series is once again ready for double-oh duty.

7-series rear seats

One more Top Gear note—in the final series, the chaps took some fast GT cars to the Australian Outback.  Clarkson himself helmed a BMW M6 Gran Coupe, and had the following to say about it:

“In the early days, BMW’s M cars sounded like 500 yards of ripping calico and they had telepathic steering and they were magnificent. In recent years, though, some of the magic has sort of gone. With this one, though, it is back. It is properly back. God, this is just electrifyingly good.”

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So while Porsche becomes an SUV brand (see above) that also makes a few expensive sports cars on the side, it must remember that its competitors have been making reasonably attainable, reasonably high performance vehicles for a long time.  One day when a child sees a 911 and, surprised, asks, “Porsche makes little cars too?”…well…that will be a sad, sad day.

Complexity or Electricity

A few auto-journalist personalities recently published some material that dovetailed rather thought-provokingly.  First was Aaron Robinson of Car & Driver, who penned an article titled “Have We Reached Peak Engine?”  Next was Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez of Jalopnik.com, who wrote a somewhat less-cleverly-titled piece called “BMW Engines Are Gigantic Pieces of Sh*t.”  Tavarish’s rant sent Road & Track Editor-at-Large Sam Smith into a Twitter flurry that really got me thinking.

The overall thrust of those bits is as follows: internal combustion engines are so boxed-in by a combination of market vector and government regulation that they are becoming too complex and too prone to expensive failure to remain viable in the long term.  This is tragic because very few modern cars, brilliant as they may be in the showroom and on the test drive, will survive long into the future because their very hearts are terribly over-stressed from the moment they begin beating.

In 1997, the newly redesigned Corvette made 345 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque from a 5.7-liter naturally-aspirated V8.  For 2017, Porsche’s 911 Carrera S houses a 3.0-liter horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine that makes 420 horsepower and 368 pound-feet.  That’s 75 more horses and eighteen more torques from an engine barely over half the size of the Corvette’s LS1.

This is, of course, only possible with massive added complexity: twin turbochargers, each with its own manifold, wastegate, and diverter valve, direct injection with the fuel atomized into the cylinders at up to 3625 psi, millions of lines of engine management code, a two-stage water pump for cooling, and an automatic engine stop/start system.  Generally, the more components something has, the more likely it is that one of those components will break.  I shudder for the hapless third owner of a 2017 991.2 Targa 4S who gets a “great deal” on his flashy new-to-him ride in year 2025.  Actually, I do more than shudder—I flee to listings of Lexuses with Toyota’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6 in them, because if I’m not already saddled with a car payment I fear I’ll wind up becoming that very same Targa-buying idiot.

But nevermind—the point of all this is that if an automaker wants to build and/or maintain a reputation for long-term reliability, they must consider electric-only cars as central to their future, because electric motor/generators are by their nature just the opposite of the complexity I’ve just described.  They’re very simple things—all you need are some loops of wire, a magnetic field, and some motion.

Porsche does have a reliability reputation worth protecting.  It has shown serious intent to protect that rep by launching itself down the electric path—and investing heavily in its Misson E concept.  Seven hundred million euros have been set aside for Mission E-enabling upgrades to the already-existing factory in Stuttgart.  Workers at that same facility have “agreed to abandon future wage increases along with other concessions totaling several hundred million euros” in order to free up the cash so Porsche can make the Mission E into production reality.  And the car itself, well…just look at it.

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The future is those achingly beautiful lines wrapped around an eight-hundred-volt electrical system that produces over six hundred horsepower.  The future silently carries four passengers three hundred miles at speeds up to 155 mph, then recharges back up to 80% range capacity in 15 minutes.  The future is simpler, it’s better, and it’s coming in 2020.  I need to start saving my pennies…and avoiding anything overly complex in the meantime.

NAIAS 2016 – CAFE Before Beauty

The data is coming in from the Year of our Lord 2015, and it is downright rosy.  In the good ol’ U.S. of A., 17.47 million light-duty vehicles were sold last year, more than any other year, ever.  It’s a proud recovery from the subprime-mortgage/credit-default-swap economic disaster of 2008-2009, when auto sales were a mere 10.4 million…a number so staggeringly low it had not been seen since twenty-seven years prior, in 1982.

These glowing numbers, along with the astonishingly low price of oil, which as of this writing is under $28/barrel (the lowest it has been in about 13 years), have automakers licking their chops for 2016.  Cheap barrels of oil mean cheap gasoline at the pump, and this means car-buying consumers will spring for bigger, thirstier, higher-profit-margin vehicles.

With their bottom lines thusly secured, the factories have time and money to experiment with flashy, low-volume propositions, and that means the stuff on the floor at the North American International Auto Show this January is just breathtaking.  So breathtaking, in fact, that on January 23rd, President Barack Obama became only the third sitting President to visit the NAIAS in Detroit.

“Seven years ago,” he tweeted, alongside some stats about the industry, “I bet on American workers and the American auto industry. I’d make that bet again any day of the week.”  He additionally noted in announcing his visit that he wanted to see the industry’s progress “firsthand.”

When you see pictures of the Buick Avista concept, or perhaps the new Ford GT, you realize why he wanted to do that.

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I wanna go see those too.

One thing that popped into my head, though, as I saw the oil news and the car-sales news running simultaneously, was that government and industry might soon be at loggerheads over the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.  CAFE is fairly complex and touches on a lot of definitions and measurements and credits (if you’re having trouble sleeping, check the relevant US Code here), but it boils down to the government wanting to “reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks.

CAFE estimated fuel saved

The government’s intent is all well and good, but manufacturers generally want to produce a full spectrum, or full line, of vehicles.  Because of the way the CAFE standards are written, larger vehicles don’t have to make the same MPG as small vehicles, but my understanding is that the manufacturer still has to hit a certain average across its entire range.  Therefore, the manufacturer must fairly accurately forecast how many of each vehicle they will sell, and obviously this can be quite difficult to do.  If, for example, the cheap gas means that suddenly Fiat-Chrysler is selling too many fuel-guzzling Ram pickups and not enough fuel-sipping Dodge Darts, for example, that reality will drag down their corporate fleet MPG average and subject them to federal fines.  Unfortunately that very issue is already causing a problem for that very company.

So while as a car enthusiast I eagerly await the design, and powertrain, and technological largesse that always comes along when the industry is doing well, I also equally hope that the automakers can muster the conservatism and foresight enough to weather the next storm, whatever form it might take.  So bring on those svelte coupes and supercars, guys…but build a few holding tanks in a vault somewhere to stash some liquidity in reserve, huh?

Needless Complexity

This is the article where I jump the shark and become a grumpy old man, shouting for the Millennials to get off my lawn.  Steel yourselves accordingly.

Cars have gotten hilariously over-complex.  It used to be that adding electronics to a car made it better, but we’ve gone far overboard.  Now, the miles of circuitry and wiring are actively making cars worse.

My 1992 Porsche 968 has an owner’s manual that consists of 123 pages.  My 2003 Carrera 4S has a manual with 263 pages (Ah! I wish it were 262—I would henceforth call it the “Schwalbe”).  My 2013 Cayenne Diesel?  349 pages.  The correlation between advancing year and advancing page count is not coincidental.  As the years roll by, cars become ever more computerized, for better and worse—but more for worse of late.

When we add capability to a vehicle (usually a good thing), we also add complexity (usually a bad thing).  For example, it used to be that we had one audio-visual option in a vehicle—an AM/FM radio.  Now we have AUX, USB, Bluetooth, vehicle-borne solid-state hard drives, DVD players, and on and on.  These devices certainly add capability, but they’ve also added complexity, forcing manufacturers to design “infotainment” systems for user management of all these media streams.  Unfortunately, said systems have generally frustrated consumers and resulted in a great deal of negative feedback.   The January 2016 Consumer Reports remarks about the Mazda CX-3, “give yourself some time for mastering the CX-3’s controls…even the most basic functions require lots of taps, twists, and icon deciphering.”  And about the gorgeous new (twincharged!) Volvo XC90, CR says “the large touch-screen console…looks dazzling until you have to operate it.  Almost all audio, climate, navigation, phone, and vehicle settings are integrated via swipe-and-tap commands that are frustratingly unintuitive.  If you buy an XC90, insist on a tutorial.”  These CR folks sound like my kind of people!  Seriously, though,  I could present more examples, but enough inkwells have already run dry in the act of denigrating, say, Cadillac’s CUE or Ford’s MyFord Touch.

In a slightly different vein, a coworker of mine recently related a story about his new third-gen Honda Pilot.  The car features an automatic engine stop/start feature.  I generally favor this particular technological advancement—the sight of cars sitting still with engines idling drives me crazy after two-plus years of Volt ownership—but it comes with its own brand of confusing complexity.  See, when he took his stop/start car to a conveyor-style car wash and put it in neutral, its engine shut off.  This was all fine and dandy until he reached the end of the car wash line.  He couldn’t start it back up in Neutral, so to drive off the line, he had to put it in Park, which means the conveyor system in the car wash battled against his transmission lock until he could get the thing fired up and into Drive.

The Honda engineers had foreseen this, of course, and had devised a “car wash mode” for the Pilot.  To engage it, you simply 1) press and hold the brake pedal, 2) press and release the (N) button (the car has push-button transmission mode selection), and then 3) press and hold (N) again for two seconds.  Now the engine will continue to run in Neutral for 15 minutes.  If the 15-minute timer runs out, the car auto-selects “Park” mode and shuts off.

Got all that?

Cars could still be fast, comfortable, and fuel-efficient without all this unnecessary additional complexity.  Hop on YouTube and watch Chris Harris drive a Ferrari F40, then watch him drive the three new hybrid supercars (P1, 918, LaFerrari).  In which video is he having more fun?  Spoiler alert: it’s the F40.  Doesn’t seem like the lack of Bluetooth in that winged red Ferrari bothers him.  I’ve no cup holders, no cruise control, and naught but a radio in the 968, but the day I took ownership, I drove it cross-country and it was fantastic.

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To quote 007: “It’s the newest thing from Q Branch–it’s called a radio!”

It’s been said that the modern automobile is the most complex, highly engineered machine ever handed over to an almost completely untrained operator.  That’s undoubtedly true.  It’s also true that “driver distraction” is a leading cause of vehicle collisions.  Blame the smartphone, but also blame the clunky interface between vehicle and smartphone.  Blame the cup holders.  Blame the massive storage bins.  Blame satellite radio.  All of these are ample wells from whence distraction springs.  Thoreau said “simplify,” and Frank Lloyd Wright deplored excess storage space.  Auto manufacturers should take note.  Our vehicles can be engineered to do incredible and complex things, but none of those incredible and complex things should come between the driver and the act of driving.

My children will drive a manual-transmission 2012-2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design.  Why?  Legendary Swedish construction.  Hatchback practicality.  Three pedals and a lever to keep feet and hands occupied.  And no video screens, forcing eyes to the road.  I’ll just shove gum or something into the AUX and USB ports.

Yeah, STAY off my lawn.

One Hundred Thousand

 

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I remember, and will always remember, exactly how many miles were on the odometer when I first sat down in the driver’s seat as the owner of my 996: 37,858.  This past week, a sixth digit column appeared on the display as she cruised through her hundred-thousandth mile.  That seems occasion enough to warrant a retrospective column about just how good she’s been to me through the 62,142-plus miles we’ve spent together.

It’s been nearly five years since that day; five years filled with plenty of ups and downs.  It has never, however, been less than an adventure. In fact, one could say it started with a day on a racetrack, and that of course never fails to be an adventure. So let us begin there, at Buttonwillow International Raceway in Bakersfield, California, on October 1st, 2010.

I was behind the wheel of my 2003 Audi RS6, the car and I were dialed in.  New tires, new brake pads and fluid, new sway bars, and nothing on track in our group could hold a candle to us. A C6 Corvette coupe, a shiny new S5, and a Hemi Challenger were among our victims that day. They all had V8s, but we had a V8 and two turbos. It was hardly fair. The RS6 ticked all the boxes for me–it was fast, it was rumbly, it had presence, and there were two rear seats for my sons, aged (in months) 22 and 4.

We wrapped up the track day and headed home. The Audi and I were both a bit hot and tired from track and sun. As we could both stand for a relaxing cruise, Anne took the wheel for the trip home, and I navigated from the passenger seat via cell phone.  The details of what happened shortly later are unimportant, but the last mental picture I have of my beautiful Mugello Blue Audi is of the entire passenger side caved in, fluid leaking onto the highway, the first-generation OnStar system loudly repeating the same phrase over and over through the speakers, something about a collision having been detected.

I was going to need a new ride.

Despite my love for the Audi, I hardly even considered finding another one.  It felt like I’d already had that experience, and I had little interest in starting over again.  It had taken two years to bring that Audi to that dialed-in day–two years of Dynamic Ride Control system debates and recalls, two years of mid-teens gas mileage, two years of trips from northwest Las Vegas all the way to Henderson for never-inexpensive service.  The RS6 had been glorious, but I was ready for something different.

The Porsche bug had been in my ear since 1999, when my high school girlfriend bought me a copy of “Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed” for Christmas. To this day, a copy resides in my glovebox. Porsche, take note: videogames sell cars.

By early December I had tracked down exactly what I had for so long desired: a 2003 996 Carrera 4S.  It was offered by a private seller in Van Nuys, California. I visited in person, went for a test drive, and we agreed on price. I journeyed back home, nailed down the financing and insurance, and set a date to close with the seller. Now there was only the matter of getting to Van Nuys again without asking someone to waste a whole day schlepping me there and then driving themselves back to Vegas.

Fortunately I had a coworker friend with alternate means of transportation: a small, tandem two-seat single-engine piston airplane called an RV8. I said, “Hey Malibu, you wanna fly me to that swanky airport in Van Nuys?” He said, “What for?” I replied, “I bought a Porsche there and I need to go pick it up.” He lit up. “That’s the best reason I’ve ever heard!” We wound up not quite making it to Van Nuys due to some weather, but diverted into a small airport called General William J. Fox, out near Palmdale.  General aviation, much like racetrack driving, is always an adventure.

I welcomed the C4S by driving it daily, 80 minutes of commute each workday.  It didn’t pull in a straight line like the Audi, but was in a different league in agility and immediacy.  I was also delighted to get back to having three pedals in my performance car.

The next big adventure in the Porsche was our epic family journey from Las Vegas through Yosemite National Park to Monterey, CA for Rennsport Reunion IV.  I’ve already catalogued the events of that trip, but it still stands out as a high point in my motoring history.  I had never been to a national-level Porsche event before, and wow, did I pick the right one to start with.

New Mexico became our next home.  At first, we didn’t think much of it, but in retrospect, the Land of Enchantment is an especially great state for cars.  Lots of high-speed desert highways, twisty mountain roads, little rain, and lots of sun.  There, our adventures included the Very Large Array and Taos and Santa Fe and White Sands.  We also made it to Austin for Formula 1’s return to the United States.

Then we went cross-country to Ohio for a transitional period.  The 996 got a new clutch, but other than that pressed on with minimal maintenance like the rest of the family.  We fought through the rain one day to make it down to Rallye Porsche Mariemont 2013, but the best part about Ohio was getting the opportunity to settle permanently in Iowa.

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And now here we are.  We’ve all changed a bit—I’ve got less hair, the boys are getting taller, the C4S has WeatherTech floor mats and a Rennline dead pedal and the LN Engineering IMS Solution.  The ownership experience, though, remains just the same.  Even as recently as last night, when after a whirlwind and exhausting two-day work trip, I settled back into the 996.  I drove out of the airport parking garage, dropped the windows, and blasted up an on-ramp, nailing a redline gear-change.  Involuntarily, I gasped, “God, I love this car.”

Yeah.  The experience has definitely not changed.  Always an adventure.

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I Deal in Lead, Friend

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Thanks to the internet and our Google overlords, there exists now the ability to instantly map a drivable route from hither to yon, anywhere in the world.  That is a tantalizing enough time-waster.  What weaponizes this capability, though, is that after the route is drawn, with a mere flick of a wrist and the click of a left index finger, one can adjust that route and make it far more personal and compelling than the usual freeway haul.  I succumbed to my weakness for this particular electronic brand of hooch again today.

As a result, I’m suddenly rereading an old novel that I’ve long adored, and planning a trek through the region where the story took place.  But here’s the best part—I’ll be making the journey in the newest addition to my car family, a 1992 Porsche 968 coupe.

I found the car with the help of autotempest.com a little over a month ago.  It was residing at a small, performance-oriented, premium-makes dealership in Wylie, TX, a Dallas suburb.  Its proprietors call it simply “Dallas Motorsports.”  I called, asked a few questions, got a few answers, and shortly thereafter emailed with an offer.  There didn’t seem to be much interest.  I was disappointed, but moved on.  I’d been eyeballing 968s for a long time, always having loved how rare they were, how contemporary they look even now, and how from the front, they whiff faintly of 959.  But I wasn’t going to overpay on a near-quarter-century-old four-cylinder coupe that most folks don’t even recognize.

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See?

Two weeks later or so, I glanced back at the dealer’s website, just on a lark.  Wouldn’t you know it, the car was still there—but the sale price had changed to exactly what I’d offered.  I called back and closed on the car.  All that remained was the matter of picking it up and getting it home.

For nearly the last two years, I’ve had to travel about a week per month for work.  One of the several places I’ve been going is Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  Nice, right?  Even nicer, getting there from Des Moines via airplane involves connecting in one of two places: Charlotte, or…Dallas.  Can you say “pick up your Porsche on the company dime?”  Yes, please.

Planning time.  Sitting in front of Google Maps, I plug in the dealer address and my home address.  A long drive home, certainly, but nothing I haven’t done before.  Nothing really appealing on the route, though: Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, home.  I personally prefer to avoid Oklahoma—the entire state always looks like it got wiped out by a green-sky thunder-nado yesterday, and no one is bothering to rebuild because they’re expecting another one tomorrow.  No thanks.  Click, flick, drag.

Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Now that’s a decent spot.  I remember flying into the regional airport there back in pilot training.  Real nice FBO–great lobby and delicious pulled pork sandwiches, along with really smooth, clean tarmac.  Always liked that place.  There’s a Holiday Inn Express in town – book it.  I’ve been working nights, so my body clock will be mixed up, and I can’t plan on driving too far on day one.

Look at these roads in northwest Arkansas, though.  Lots of wiggle to them.  There must be mountains.  Mountains, you say?  In Arkansas?  And suddenly my inner monologue rolls into a measured, steely drawl.  It says, “I don’t like you, Payne.  I don’t like a man who carries a sawed-off semi-auto 12-gauge full of double-ought because he doesn’t want to miss.”

My brain is echoing the voice of Bob Lee Swagger, a brilliantly-named character from the mind of author Stephen Hunter, introduced in the novel Point of Impact and contemporized in the based-on-the-book film Shooter.  While Mark Wahlberg did a nice job in the lead role and the movie was certainly entertaining, the Swagger of the novel was as deep, powerful, and haunted as Bruce Wayne, except with a Remington Model 700 and a southern drawl instead of a black suit and cape.  Whereas the climax of the film centers around an anonymous mountain range, the climactic action in the novel takes place in the Ouachita Mountains of central-western Arkansas.

Now looms a chance to see (and carve) those mountains, and I won’t be passing it up.  This feels like some real car-writer stuff—flying off somewhere far from home to pick up a rare, ancient automobile that no one cares about but me.  Planning to drive said automobile hundreds of miles home through the hometown of a favorite fictional character.  I’m channeling Peter Egan and Jamie Kitman this month, but Stephen Hunter is riding shotgun.

And to think, this adventure all sprang to life from some squiggly lines on an internet map.  What a glorious time to be alive.

 

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Porsche Parade 2015

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Porsche Parade 2015 was the first national-level Porsche event I had attended since Rennsport Reunion IV at Leguna Seca in 2011.  It was pretty amazing how much had changed for the brand in that interim.

At Rennsport, the North American Porsche faithful beheld the 991 for the first time.  The most lust-worthy item at dealerships was still a 997—the Speedster.  The newest Cayennes and Caymans were merely midcycle refreshes of the types’ originals, and the Panamera was a toddler, just two years old.  The 918 Spyder was still in its concept phase, with production yet to begin.

Fast forward to Parade, and it is almost as if we are looking at an entirely new manufacturer’s catalog.  991s are everywhere in all forms, including Turbo S and Targa 4S.  The Macan, not even a blip on the radar back in Monterey, is the hottest-selling Porsche in the land.  918 production is complete, and the crown jewels of the contemporary new-Porsche show are, in ascending order, the 981 Boxster and Cayman (especially in GTS form), the new Boxster Spyder, and the glorious new Cayman GT4—the Cayman the enthusiasts have cried out for since day one.

Of course, while it is a wonderful showcase for all things new, Parade is very much a celebration of what has come before.  Right next to the GT4 in the main hospitality room sat a 1973 Carrera RS 2.7, its ducktail agleam in deep, gorgeous, original-spec Viper Green.  Outside on Saturday I snapped a great picture of a 356 Speedster flanked by the stunning West Baden Springs Resort Hotel.  And just before leaving on Sunday, I stumbled upon a unicorn-rare 928 GTS, also saddling up for its trip home.

Reflecting on what’s new and what’s classic served to highlight for me the key difference between Porsche now and Porsche back-when.  I often daydream about a Porsche showroom in 1995, when every car was low and sleek, and the three-pedal configuration was the norm instead of the exception.  The 968 was the ultimate iteration of the front-engine, rear-drive four-cylinder 924/944/968 line, and it still looks new today.  The 928 was singing its glorious V8 swan song in winged 5.4-liter GTS trim.  And the 993 Turbo had just arrived, sporting the first all-wheel-drive system seen on a forced-induction Porsche not called the 959.  Every single car in that showroom was a worthy engineering accomplishment, and all remain sought after to this day.

Now the Porsche showroom is massively different.  You’ll find one Macan there—just one—that the dealership won’t sell because it must be kept on hand in order to momentarily slake consumers’ lust.  Outside are many colors and varieties of formerly-top-selling Cayenne, from the now-base Diesel to the GTS to the Turbo.  Plenty of Panameras in varying trims are scattered about for the four-door-sedan (but-different) crowd.  Of course there remains a sprinkling of 911s, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an enthusiast-targeted single-clutch Carrera coupe or a (PDK-only, argh) GT3RS.  The Boxsters and Caymans sit off to one side, attracting longing stares from passerby but few real buyers.  And there are no Cayman GT4s on the lot—those are limited-production and completely sold out.

I once read in a Porsche publication somewhere that around two-thirds of all Porsches ever built remain on the road today.  As Porsche builds these larger, tech-laden cars, I think that percentage is going to go down, and that’s what’s truly being lost here.

One cannot argue with the numbers—any Cayenne Turbo, even a first-gen one, would beat that RS 2.7 around any track with a straightaway on it, let alone the Nurburgring.  But there’s a reason that Cayennes have and will continue to depreciate to nearly nothing, while an RS 2.7 is worth, well, just look.

No matter how special a Macan is, a 911 will always be more special.  No one will throw a tarp over a Macan and keep it in a garage for decades at a time, intending to someday restore it to like-new condition and relive its glory days.  There will be no historic Macan racing in 2060.  Instead, like any other consumer product, once its lifecycle is complete, it will be destroyed.

This the appeal of a Porsche-crazed enthusiast, not the reasoned logic of a CEO, of course.  Porsche was not a healthy company in 1995—it is thriving today, and that’s a good thing.  But something needs to keep the soul of the brand intact.  It won’t be a Macan drawing the crowd in the hospitality room at Parade 2060—but Porsche must ensure that something does.

My solution?

Build more of those sold-out GT4s.

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2015 Indianapolis 500

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I was raised on the Indianapolis 500.  When I was a wee lad, my family would journey to my great aunt’s summer house in northern PA for every Memorial Day weekend.  Sunday morning, we would wake, have breakfast, seed the vegetable garden, and then gather around an ancient box of glowing cathode ray tubes for the race.  Even as a frenetic child on his summer vacation, I was transfixed.  For those hours, I would just gape at the race in awe.  The cars were so conspicuously fragile, the speeds and danger so obviously great, the crowd and the track so massively huge.  I knew nothing else about the sport save that once a year, they did THIS, and to me, that was enough.

A succession of Mears and Unser victories marked those days for me, with a couple interjections from a man named Fittipaldi.  Years later, I confessed to my wife that the only reason it took me so long to propose to her was that I needed to pay off the new wheels I’d put on my car—17” Fittipaldi Flames—before I could buy her a ring.  (She’s since forgiven me.  Just ask her about it.)

As I grew up and the pace of life increased, I still tried to keep up with the happenings at the 500.  I remember the changing of the guard taking place in the early 2000’s, as the older Indy vets gracefully gave way to a younger generation of stars: the made-for-TV smile of the fence-climbing Helio Castroneves; the entitled, yet fiery and determined Marco Andretti; fan favorite and Vin Diesel lookalike Tony Kanaan; the fast, witty, and wily longhaired Brit Dan Wheldon; and the Italian-name/Italian-face guy that somehow spoke in Scottish brogue: Dario Franchitti.

I was living in Las Vegas in October of 2011, but I wasn’t at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when we lost Wheldon—instead, my wife and boys and I were at Leguna Seca for Rennsport Reunion IV.  Still, I remember the moment atop that glorious hill at that glorious track when a voice came across the PA system and announced the news.  I remember feeling a deathly chill and audibly gasping, “What???”  My next coherent thought was of Dan’s pretty wife and young boys—I remembered seeing them, just a few months before, reacting joyously after Wheldon swept past the still-rolling wreckage of JR Hildebrand’s car to take the lead just before crossing the bricks for the win at the 500.

That crazy finish was made even crazier by the fact that Wheldon didn’t even have a ride for the remainder of the 2011 IndyCar Series season.  Bryan Herta’s racing team didn’t have deep pockets and had thrown together a car and a driver just for the 500.  As a result, Wheldon logged the 500 win, then went right back to doing race commentary on the SPEED channel.  More important was the work he was doing as a driver-consultant for chassis-maker Dallara, who was in the midst of producing an all-new chassis for the IndyCar series, set to debut in the 2012 season.  The chassis was later named “DW12” in Wheldon’s honor, and rightfully so.  With Dan’s help, Dallara had done a spectacular job and ushered in a new and fantastic era in IndyCar.

The new chassis created such an aerodynamic void behind it at high speed that leaders at Indy were now completely unable to hold the lead for long.  Challengers could lurk in the low-drag wake behind the leader, and then ‘slingshot’ past when exiting a turn onto the long straights at Indianapolis.  The 2012 500 saw an all-time record 34 lead changes, and a race that in past days had been at times relatively placid at the front suddenly became a never-look-away, white-knuckle rivet-fest for all 500 miles.  That 2012 race wasn’t decided until Takuma Sato spun out from under Dario Franchitti in turn one of lap 200.  The 2013 race finally placed Tony Kanaan atop the podium.  And the 2014 race gave us an American winner for the first time in 8 years: Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the back of his almost unbelievably ballsy, nearly-into-the-grass, lap-197 pass.

Raised on Indy and now hopelessly addicted to Indy—and finally living within a day’s drive of Indy—I   could not pass up the 99th running of the race.  I bought tickets and convinced friends and family from four different states to come join me.  We drove into town under a very light rain and found a $10 parking spot on a Georgetown Road front lawn.  The rain gave way to sunshine as we walked the remaining distance to the track entrance.  Along with lots of other people.

So…many…other…people.  I’ve been to professional racing events before, but 20,000 or 30,000 people at Mid-Ohio or Leguna Seca is not remotely in the same league as a quarter-million folks at Indy.  Heck, a top-attended pro or college football game doesn’t even merit HALF as many attendees as the 500.  The scale of this event is truly enormous, epic, massive, incredible—something words on a page can’t describe.

We meandered through the IndyCar Fan Village, checked out the 2016 Camaro (and a unicorn 3-pedal SS) that Chevrolet had on display, and eyed the bright-green Honda Civic Type R concept.  For a few moments, I stood close enough to Hunter-Reay’s 2014 winning car to bask in its victorious yellow aura.  Then we strolled back to our seats for the traditional pre-race pageantry, so important at the 500.

My favorite moment of these festivities was during the driver introductions, where the assembled multitudes loudly—and rightfully—booed lead IndyCar Series d-bag Will Power.  I knew right then that I was among good folk!  Speaking of good folk, Jim Nabors has stepped aside as official “Back Home Again In Indiana” singer, and instead Indiana University alums Straight No Chaser did an excellent job in his place.  Jordan Sparks gave a solid national anthem (though either she finished early, or the A-10 flyover came in late—so hard to get that timing just right).  Mari Hulman George, as she has done for as long as I remember, gave the ‘start engines’ command, albeit this time with help from one of her daughters.  And then the Corvette pace car ducked into the pits, the green flag dropped, the engines roared, and…Sato crashed.  A glorious early summer day at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

I won’t bore you with an amateur recounting of all 500 miles, but the best radio line of the day was from Turn 3 man Jake Query, who summarized the Chevrolet-engine dominance with this clever quip: “The Victory Banquet may be the weekend’s formal affair, but a bowtie is required attire for this race!”  For me, the best result of the day was seeing low-key Ganassi man Charlie Kimball put together a brilliant drive, starting 14th on the grid but finishing on the podium in 3rd.  Charlie is now batting a thousand when it comes to achieving a podium finish at IndyCar races that I’ve attended (Mid-Ohio 2013, 1st place).

Next year will, of course, be the 100th running.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be showing off a host of upgrades, Helio will still be looking for his fourth win, Marco will still be trying to break the Andretti Curse, Tony will still be playing up his ‘fan favorite’ status, and Sato will surely crash again.  I’ve already got my tickets, and as sixty-five percent of the US population lives within a day’s drive of Indianapolis—no excuses, I’ll see you there.

Montoya Wins Indy 2015 - Fist Pump

Wish I Could Migrate With the Wildebeests

There’s a problem in the automotive world, and it’s not that automakers are forsaking the enthusiast driver.  In fact, one could argue that now is as good a time as any to be an enthusiast—at least on paper.

The problem is that the enthusiast options exist— but ONLY on paper, and not in tangible, glistening candy apple red reality.  Dealers don’t stock enthusiast-appeal specs and trims, because in order to make money, dealers have to appeal to the mass market and be able to close a needy, yet skittish customer by sending them home in a new car TODAY.  That means filling their lot with boring, interchangeable, beige/white/silver/grey-on-black, automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models with DVD players and oversized twenty-two-inch rims wrapped in compromised all-season tires.

If an enthusiast is interested in something better, something interesting, something like, say—an Ecoboost Mustang coupe with stick, performance pack, and non-black interior.   Or a 6-cylinder front-wheel-drive Chrysler 200 with a non-black interior, or a 1.4T Jeep Renegade with steelies, 4×4, and stick, or an absolute base-model Fiat 500X 1.4T with stick and front-drive…I could go on, but unless they’re lucky, the enthusiast will not be able to test-drive any of these examples (all of which, according to automaker websites, are obtainable).

Who is going to make the $50k leap on buying a stick Chevy SS when they’ve never had a chance to drive one?  What about the $40k leap on a BMW 228i coupe with stick (late edit: most recent R&T says BMW “lost their way” with the 228i—sounds like it’s not even an option worth considering anyway)?  The point is, it’s a tough sell to get a consumer to throw all that cash at something they can’t see or touch before they’re stuck with it.

This creates a cyclical effect, where STEP 1) makers produce a performance trim level/option package, STEP 2) dealers don’t buy it because it doesn’t suit the mainstream, STEP 3) enthusiast customers can’t see it and touch it so they don’t buy it, STEP 4) the maker stops building it, and then STEP 5) enthusiast consumers cry out that the maker doesn’t build any exciting cars.

In my mind, this cycle is what led Toyota to become the world’s top-selling automaker—after making such gems as the 2000GT and the Supra, the brand eventually shed all pretense of building anything interesting or innovative and instead focused on pushing as many keyfobs for staid, beige vehicles across dealer desks as possible.  Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask?

I’ll tell you.  Part of building and selling cars is selling the consumer on a dream about getting something—not just anything, but a great BIG something that is significantly better than what that consumer has now.  Lately, Toyota is participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, collaborating with Subaru on the FRS/BRZ, whispering rumors to the press about a liaison with BMW, and overall trying desperately to inject themselves with an exciting viability.  Why are they doing this?  Because they realized that if they stopped trying to excite, and innovate, and push the envelope, and showcase the dream of better-ness (all things they essentially HAD stopped doing for a while in the mid-to-late 2000’s), eventually their engineering would become dull and passé.  All of those sales numbers they took for granted were suddenly in danger of disappearing because their products were teetering on the precipice between bland and inoffensive to downright non-competitive.  If that happened, they would no longer able to offer something any better than what the consumer already owned, and even their most shameless sycophants would begin to question them.  This very thing happened recently to Honda with the 2012 Civic—a great case in point, and perhaps another indicator that helped spur Toyota to act.

Enthusiast consumers are stuck with this vicious cycle, though, for two reasons.  First is the flawed, mass perception about car-buying—that it must be as fast a process as possible.  This forces a dealer to stock exactly what the lowest common denominator would want to act on and go home with that same day.  This is a doubly destructive practice, as it often saddles that customer with something other than exactly what they want, which leads to regret or anger about the purchase, which leads to a widespread culture of consumer distrust regarding dealers.  The second reason is the politically connected National Auto Dealers Association, which ironically lobbies lawmakers to pass legislation that maintains and reinforces this flawed status quo.  A prime example is NADA’s recent effort to shut down Tesla’s direct-sales model.  I do not mean to suggest that dealers are all evil money-grubbing middlemen, but rather that their incentives are flawed.  The clever manufacturer would provide some additional incentive for dealers to push enthusiast models.  After all, in the long run, the enthusiast models (and their owners) are what burnish the brand image.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.  So, sadly, like Calvin says, “Life is full of precluded possibilities.”  The wildebeests might be out there, but they might as well be in Africa as close as most enthusiasts will get to them.

 

 

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Furious Seven

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I’ve been a fan of the Fast & Furious movie franchise since day one.  I imagine that it’s easy to deride these films if you, uh, hate fun.  Or if you’ve never watched them because you consider yourself above such base entertainment.  Or whatever your problem might be.  But for those of us that love them (and judging by the worldwide gross for the franchise to date—$3.2B—there are a lot of us), we have our reasons.  Perhaps the most commonly stated is that we can identify on a personal level with one of the characters, and in these films, the characters matter.  Yes, there are a lot of action sequences, but in the end it’s the characters’ experiences and relationships that make you care about the films—not the size and number of explosions.

My guy is—well, was—Paul Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner.  Brian was, of course, central to the franchise, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure how the movies will work, or honestly if they will merit my movie-going dollars anymore.  My association with Brian certainly isn’t physical—I don’t pretend I’ve got Paul’s looks—but I feel like my professional career has ebbed and flowed in metaphorical harmony with his.

Brian and I got our starts at right around the same time—he was a brash, young undercover LAPD cop, and I was a brash, young lieutenant in pilot training.  When he had to choose between his job and his personal loyalties, he chose his personal loyalties (to Dom and Mia).  I did too, choosing family over work when presented with similar divergent roads in the wood.

As a result of that decision, both Brian and I had to move around a bit, take some risks, and scrape for a living here and there.  And while we didn’t often doubt ourselves, it only slowly became clear as time went on that we had made the right call.  After a while, it dawned on Brian that he was the good guy he’d set out to be, even if he’d had to make some hard choices.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have been personally and professionally vindicated with regard to my tough calls as well.

By Fast Five, Brian’s no longer the kid shaking with adrenaline after a single straight-line drag race—he’s the stone-cold pro who can handle any action sequence with veteran aplomb.  He’s also grown personally.  He’s in a serious, committed relationship with Mia.  He’s got people (Dom, Roman, Tej, and the rest of the crew) who depend on him and have expectations of him.  Through movies Six and Seven, the demands on Brian continue to increase, but he just keeps on delivering. He’s in the groove.  I’m happy to be able to say that I am too.

Because of these parallel arcs, it somehow hurt in a very personal way when Paul died.  And that obviously was true for far more people than just me.  We would no longer be able to go to the theater and check in on our buddy Brian—to see how he was handling the transition we were all sharing, from young, risk-taking adrenaline junkie to mature, dependable family man.  So sure, we would miss him.

What really drove home the sense of loss, though, was that everything we liked about mythical Brian seemed to be magnified in all the stories that emerged about real-world Paul after his death.  So often, it’s ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ but both Brian AND Paul were cool, good-looking guys that liked cars and did nice things for people.  And if they were like that, and we were like them, then, hey, we must be alright too.  Without them around, we lose that reassurance.  And no matter how far-fetched or small a reassurance it is, it’s gone now, and there’s a void where it used to be.

As silly as Furious Seven can get (and it gets pretty silly at some points), there’s a part at the end when the silliness goes away, and things get very real.  It’s when the cast gives Brian/Paul a sendoff.  It’s set to a beautiful song, with beautiful scenery, and if you don’t tear up a bit watching it, you probably need to get your soul checked.  It ends with two simple words: “For Paul.”

It reminded me of something that happened to me not too long ago, but well before the Furious Seven release.  I was on the way to a Porsche Club meeting in my 996.  The sun was setting, the sky was tinged with gold, and the traffic was light.  As I rolled up to a red light, alone in my lane, I observed in the also otherwise-empty lane to my left a red, late 90’s (2G) Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T coupe.  Except for color, it was the same as the first car Walker’s character piloted in the first movie—in fact, we all first met Brian O’Conner as he was attempting to ascertain his bright green 2G’s top speed in an empty stadium parking lot.

But back here in reality, the license plate of the red Eclipse read “RIP PAUL.”

There were two younger fellows in the car, t-shirts on, windows down.  I commented on the brilliance of their license plate, we exchanged some car-related compliments, and we lamented the loss of our friend.  The light changed, and we went our separate ways, both happier for our chance encounter.

A movie franchise that can give you something like that…well, it deserves your time.

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