Tuesday, August 10, 2010


It's quite common for graphic designers to borrow ideas, shapes or lines from nature. It's also common for inventors to do the same thing. It's clear that the shape of the humble wing fitted to every plane ever made, was taken from the wing of every bird ever born. The same goes for the inventor of the articulated or 'bendy' bus. He or she must have seen a snake and, rather than running away in fear, decided to notice that long things that bend in the middle can go round corners a lot more easily than rigid things.

Sadly, time has a habit of ruining trends or fashions. Designers and inventors decided to use science and maths to base their ideas on, rather than nature. But when the designers at BMW decided to revive the 6 series, they looked at nature. Or, to put it more accurately, decided to visit the shark tank at their local aquarium. They saw that the shark had a very hydrodynamic shape, and that this would help their new car go fast. But no matter how shapely or hydrodynamic the car is, it isn't going to go fast without power.

The 630ci and the 645ci, with 3 litre and 4.5 litre engines respectively, are not going to set one's trousers on fire, with extreme speed. It's the M6 that does the trouser burning. The Jaws inspired frontal styling on the less sporty models was toned down for the golf club car park. But the M6 has frontal styling turned up for the racetrack. The huge chin spoiler, the flared wheel arches and the trademark BMW double grilles are all from the meat-eating shark. But no shark has ever come with a 5 litre V10 engine under it's leathery hide. 

Even though the V10 is also used in the M5 sedan, the M6 is faster, simply because there is a lot less weight to pull around. But there are a few areas in which the M6 becomes a land beast, as opposed to a fast, underwater carnivore. The styling at the back is more obese duvet, than sleek sea-creature. There are way too many settings for the interior seats and the iDrive computer. There is an insanely complicated gearbox with 11 settings, and there are three power settings for the engine. Why? Can't it be on permanent 507 maximum horsepower mode? There are also 3 settings for the differential, which will mean many trips to the BMW dealer for costly repairs. But apart from these setbacks, the M6 is a true monster. But only when set up correctly.  

Monday, August 2, 2010

Porsche 959

For some reason, or other, most people in the 1980's were thinking about, for, sometimes against, and even inside the humble square. This kind of thinking showed up in many features of society, such as everyday items, buildings, and even cars. Two of the boxiest cars in the world, the Volvo 760 and the Audi 5000 were both cars of this cubular decade. No one really knows what started this square hell, but there aren't many upsides to the square. It doesn't look nice, isn't interesting, and it certainly has no aerodynamic upsides either.

But there was another 80's car with lovely aerodynamic curves and an equally lovely badge. The Porsche 959 (dubbed as a formula one car for the road) looked as though it was designed during a ruler shortage at the head bodywork design centre at Porsche. All these curves made it fast. The top speed was 317kph, which blew many other supercars into the weeds. And these were supercars with twice as many cylinders, and three times the engine capacity!

The 959 had a tiny 2.8 litre flat-six engine, which produced a whopping 450 bhp. This shows how fine tuning and patience can lead to great things. The Americans of the time must have been absolutely gob-smacked, when they were only making cars with huge 5 litre V8s, that produced less than 100 bhp. And the Americans would have been equally amazed at the cornering. To help the 959 around the tight racetrack bends it would inevitably face, it had four wheel drive, and complicated suspension, to make sure it didn't lean during hard cornering.

This also led the 959 to the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1986, which is strange really, considering Porsche didn't dabble in off road vehicles until the Cayenne of 2003. Getting your hands on a 959 was very difficult indeed. For a kick-off, you had to be an existing Porsche owner, and there were only 200 cars to choose from. And some of these were the sports models, with no back seats, no real interior, and no adjustable suspension (making the ride permanently harsh)

The 959 is one great Porsche. The only super-Porsche to follow it, is the amazing Carrera GT, with an equally curvy body. Which means that at least Porsche were thinking outside the box in the 1980's. I'm glad they did.      

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smart Roadster-Coupe

Remember those little pedal cars that you may or may not have had as a small child? I certainly do, seeing as I spent about 1/3rd of my childhood on one. The pedal car in question wasn't actually mine. It used to belong to my cousin, and it didn't belong at my house either. My Grandmother kept it at her house in Napier, NZ, and whenever we went up there for a family holiday, I would literally spend hours on this little yellow car, screaming around the perimeter of my Nan's house, at what I believed to be huge speeds (but were probably closer to slow walking speeds) The car was very basic: It had a simple yellow steel frame, a pair of square hoops to put your feet into (the pedals), two tiny front wheels and two chunky back wheels (only one of which actually turned when you pedaled) This car was so basic, it actually had two little handles rather than a steering wheel.

Sadly, two things ended my joy of driving this car around the place. Firstly, as time went by, I became too tall to fit in the small seat. Secondly, because I loved to crash into pot-plants, pillars and sometimes my dad's car, the wheels eventually decided to fall off. And no bolts or screws could hold them on this time. The car now sits in my Nan's shed, (full of all the other bikes and scooters I've broken over the years) and one day I'll bring it out again, to remind myself of the fun I had with it.

There is one car, that also reminds me of the fun I had with my pedal car. The Smart Roadster. It may be seven years old now, but it still remains the ultimate car to have fun in. It has a tiny 700cc three cylinder engine, two seats and a great looking plastic body. Because the Smart is so light, 700cc is plenty to power this car along. The roof arrangement was brilliant too. You had a canvas electric roof which folded away in seconds, and two small roof rails which were stowed in the boot.

But this is where the only problem of the Roadster shows up. The boot may be the width and length of the car, but it was only 15cm deep. It could hold...air. But this is where the word 'Coupe' comes to the rescue. The Smart Roadster-Coupe has glass side windows and a sort of hatchback bootlid thing where the boot is, meaning you can carry actual objects. This makes the Roadster very practical. 

I would give anything to be able to shrink down in size, so that I can fit back into my old pedal car. I would also give anything to be able to fix the wheels back on. While I can't shrink or fix the wheels, I can do something very similar. I can buy a Smart Roadster Coupe. Although I will take care not to crash into pot plants or pillars.   

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mercedes E-Class Convertible

Yes, it's July, and Wellington just recorded a temperature of 2 degrees C last night, and even then it only got up to 8 degrees C by lunchtime the same day. This begs the question, what on Earth are we doing discussing cars that are strictly summer-only? Surely I should be reviewing the VW Phaeton, a car with central heating, rather than a car that would turn your face into an ice sculpture if you so much as opened the window fully.

Contrary to what you (Wellingtonians especially) may believe, July and August are the best months to start thinking about buying an open top car. The Winter solstice has packed it's bags and headed north, so the days are getting longer. Spring is on it's way (hopefully) and eventually Summer will be upon us. Convertible buying is like booking a plane ticket. You have to be in early to get the best options, otherwise they'll all be gone by summer. 

Luckily, there are many cars that the manufacturers have decided to take a hacksaw to. There are plenty of great BMWs, Peugeots, Audis and even Bugatti has decided to make a convertible version of their Veyron. But just where the money to purchase the latter is going to come from, is another dilemma entirely. Mercedes has launched an open top version of their very stylish E-class coupe. Almost identical to the hard top car, except without a roof of course.

But I myself would urge caution to those who have seen the photo at the bottom of the page and have already decided to place an order. You see, I went to the Mercedes website a few weeks ago, to check up on their latest offerings, and slap-bang on the first page of the international website, is a picture of an E-class convertible parked outside a nightclub, with the heading "Sex and the City 2" I'm so sorry (especially to fans of the film) but this just turns the E-class cabriolet into a car with such a tiny amount of class, that you would have to be a colossal idiot to buy one.

On the other end of the scale, however, if you enjoy posing in your current convertible, and you need a replacement, then go and buy one tomorrow. And that is another reason why the E-class has no style, elegance or taste. You could say that it's just a disco ball on wheels (especially with the number of chromed surfaces on the bodywork) Interestingly, the old Mercedes C63 AMG suffered from the same discoballitis, but it made up for that, with it's hugely exciting 6.2 litre V8 engine. But here, there's nothing to give the E-class convertible any style, elegance or excitement. It's just a car for posers.

The new BMW 3 series convertible is on it's way soon, but do you really want to look like you're off to the golf course all the time? I recommend the new Audi S5 cabriolet. This has a huge V8 engine, a beautifully crafted canvas roof, and because it's an Audi it has acres of style and elegance. The chances of this car being used to ferry drunks from one nightclub to the next, are nil. 

And that's why I would have the Audi. You can't really pose in this car because it's so quietly styled. People on Oriental Bay in Wellington won't look at you as you drive along with the top down. They won't see the S5 parked up on Lambton Quay and immediately think-'drug dealers car' The Audi is just so composed, and it handles well too, thanks to the Quattro four-wheel-drive system that the Mercedes doesn't have. 
So when you come around to deciding what open top car to buy, think of the classy Four Ringed logo, rather than the posing three-point star.  

  The car for Summer
The car for posers

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ariel Atom

Before we get to the car, let's look at what the car is named after, the atom. An atom is a very, very small thing. So small, that over 20 billion of the little things can fit across the width of a human hair. So the Atom car, is small then. Well, there's another trait to atoms which is the real reason behind the Atom's name. An atom contains electrons (or in the case of a Hydrogen atom, just one electron), which orbit the nucleus (centre) of the atom. The electron has virtually no mass, which makes it fast. So the Ariel Atom is small, like an atom, and contains a very high revving Honda engine, like an electron.

The Atom is practically a road legal go-kart, but with a hell of a lot more power. This go-kart certainly isn't powered by a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine, like the ones I drove at my friend's birthday parties. The Atom has no doors and no roof. The headlights provide less light than an extinguished candle, and a toilet seat would be more kind to someone's backside than the bucket seats in the Atom.

We'll come to why the Atom is so under-furnished in a minute, but for now, let's look at the engine. It certainly isn't big, (it's only 2 litres) but it's also supercharged, to give up to 300 horsepower! So why are there no doors or no roof? The men in Somerset, England who build the Atom seem to be on a diet. This clearly rubs off on their cars. The Atom weighs in at 612 kgs. This gives it a power to weight ratio of 650 horsepower per ton. The Bugatti Veyron (fastest production car in the world, remember) has a power to weight ratio of 446 horsepower per ton.

If the car's engine has less to tug around, then it goes faster. This is why jockeys have to skip Christmas lunch. If they start to pile on the kilos, their horse has to pull more, and this could cost a win at the Grand National. I also forgot to mention that the Atom has no windscreen. So when driven, even at low speed, people will think that you have turned into a prune. So if you own an Ariel Atom, and want to drive fast, then watch out. Unless you want to become a product of 'Sunsweet' drive slow. (or wear goggles)  

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bugatti Veyron

I am on my three week mid year school holidays at the moment and for my birthday, I got a very large kitset model of the BAC Concorde supersonic airliner. So I started it a few days ago, and it is now finished. While building this incredibly beautiful machine, I couldn't help thinking about the huge challenges facing the English and French engineers while they were developing Concorde in the late 1960's. This brings me neatly onto the car I will be reviewing in this post.

You see in 2000, when the Veyron was being developed, German engineers at Volkswagen had similar challenges to the engineers at BAC. They had to create a car that could to 400km/h but could be driven by someone who had just passed their driving test; in the same way that Concorde's engineers had to create a plane that could fly at twice the speed of sound, and could be flown by a pilot who didn't belong to an Air Force.

In a way, the Bugatti Veyron and Concorde are very similar. They both travel faster than any machine of their kind. They both took years to develop, and they are both hugely expensive to run and maintain. They both have mind boggling specifications and facts. Did you know that the Veyron has ten radiators! Did you also know that Concorde was the only commercial airliner to use engines with afterburners? Both have become the yardsticks for speed. And both were designed to show the world how good we humans are at overcoming problems such as 'how to cross the Atlantic in under 3 hours' or 'how do we make a car that goes faster than an F1 car, but looks nothing like one'

Sadly, they both will die due to the same fate. Money and environmental safety. It's quite interesting to note that the Bombardier Q300 has had more landing gear malfunctions than any other plane, and that I'll be flying down from Napier in one during these holidays, whereas it only took one Concorde crash for the whole fleet to be grounded, and eventually retired from service. Concorde died because people were so obsessed with air and noise pollution when one flew past, rather than the spectacle they were being treated to. 

The Bugatti Veyron hasn't died yet, but it probably will within 5 years time. Each Veyron costs Volkswagen at least NZ$15 million to build, but they are only selling them for NZ$2.5million. Money will kill the Veyron, in the same way that environmental safety killed Concorde.
The Bugatti Veyron 
The Concorde

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tatra 603

Marques like Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Lotus, Jaguar, etc. are usually so well known, that they become yardsticks, or adjectives. For example: I was recently at home, sick with the flu, and I turned on the TV. One of those incredibly irritating infomercials was on, (the ones that promise so much for so little, but you can't help thinking that there's something hidden) and the announcer said 'blah, blah, the Rolls Royce of knives'
You also hear people say 'as fast as a Ferrari' But I have never, in my whole life heard anyone use the car marque, Tatra, in a sentence.

This is strange, because Tatra is a very old car marque. It was even around before Enzo Ferrari was even born. And yet Tatra made some of the most groundbreaking cars ever. Take the Tatra 603. It was hugely ahead of its time. While most cars had huge great V8s up front, razor sharp fins at the back, and interiors large enough to host rock concerts, the 603had a rear-mounted 2.7 litre V8. It also had a Porsche 911 style profile, because of that rear mounted engine.

But the main reason behind the 603's wonderment, was the coolness of the car. It's a thing that can only really be applied to French and East-European cars only, and it's the assassin factor. In 1953, the 603 was being used as a way of getting Mafia officials to their secret hide-outs in the woods, or wherever. The Tatra's closely placed together quad headlamps gave it a frontal image like no other.

Rarity also plays a part in the 603's heritage. This car is so rare, that you could even struggle to find one in the very country that built them, let alone in NZ. This is sad really, because the 603 is a car that would only suit a small number of people. It may look like a jellybean on wheels with four yellow spots on the front, but it's one that should definitely be preserved in the fossils of automotive greatness.  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ferrari 365 Berlinetta Boxer

Some cars, are thrown together. Like a pile of dirt or sand is scooped into a pile by a fat bloke in a bulldozer. Some of these thrown together cars include: the Toyota Yaris, the Kia Soul, and the Hyundai i30. They are all rubbish, simply because they have no pedigree, no style, and absolutely no soul (even though Kia tried and failed to give its car some) Then there are half and half cars, that are still thrown together, but do have a small chunk of pedigree and soul. These include, the Ford Mondeo, the Skoda Octavia and the Honda Legend.

After this assortment of cars, there's the top. The cream of the pedigree ladder. The only fully soul and passion cars. Most are from Italy and Britain. Cars like the Lamborghini Countach, the Jaguar XK120, and of course, the Ferrari Boxer. This car was the aristocrat amongst the other 80's Italian supercars. The Countach had crazy styling, fat rear tyres, and massive spoilers and vents adorning its body.

But the Boxer didn't have any of this nonsense. It may have had the Countach's headlight-under-pop-up light configuration (a trend carried on by the Ferrari F40), but that's where the similarities end. The doors, the styling, and even the way the pistons in the engine were arranged, was all different. The Lambo had a V12 engine, but the Ferrari had a much more interesting flat 12 'Boxer' engine. The interior was also unique, and unmistakably Italian. 

When most supercars had fighter cockpits for interiors, the Boxer had a living room. Cream leather and black seats, interesting switches and classically sculpted dials. This is why the Ferrari Boxer is in the soul and passion league. It has the pedigree, the style, and the soundtrack to match.          

Saturday, June 19, 2010

1988 BMW 525i

This is my first semi-classic car review.
Many cars in NZ are modified, so they become 'boy-racer' cars. These automotive atrocities are usually just 17 year old Nissan Skylines and Subarus, with ridiculous body kits, spoilers, 157 decibel stereos, and garish paint jobs. These cars are the primary transport of choice for the party-pill eating, cap-wearing yobs, who communicate in a new language involving words such as 'yo', and 'sup'. So far this review has nothing to with the BMW 525i; but I haven't mentioned the other feature of these boy-racer cars.

Many young drivers (including me, I must confess) want their car to stand out from the crowd. The first thing that many boy-racers do to their cars, is bypass the muffler system in the exhaust. In nearly all of these cars, the muffler is so unused, that colonies of moths and other insects can safely live in it without fear of hot, fast moving exhaust gases charging into their home. 

The reason why the muffler is bypassed, is to make the car loud. Very loud. Many residents living in prime boy-racer territory complain about the terrible noise. And the reason why the noise is so awful, is that the original source of this noise (usually a boring 4 cylinder engine) is unchanged. You can't use a muffler-less exhaust system to improve on a terrible din. 

And this is where the 1988 BMW 525i comes into the picture. In my opinion, all 5-series BMWs from 1988-1994 were the greatest executive sedans of the period. They all had straight 6 engines ranging from 2 to 3.5 litres. And each one had its own, glorious soundtrack. The noise got deeper as the engine size increased, so you could choose what tone of noise you wanted by buying a bigger or smaller engine. You don't need to spend any money changing the exhaust system, because the original one delivers the sound like a world class musician.  

There are thousands of 80's and 90's 5 series BMWs out there, each one available for less than NZ$10,000. I've searched the Internet, and you can pick up a decent 525i (in my opinion, the one with the best sounding engine) for less than 1 grand. And because most boy racers are so obsessed with Japanese cars, you will stand out from the crowd because of the classy styling, as well as the tone-perfect engine note. 

If every boy racer had an 80's 5 series, there would be no noise complaints at all.      
I would think very carefully before doing this to your 525i. (You don't want to stand out this much)

Honda Accord V6

Yes. It's a Honda Accord, and yes, everyone who knows me will be asking the same, three letter question. WHY? Why is a Japanese car on my car blog? To me, Japan has never made a truly good car. Japan's car industry has no racing pedigree, no history to commemorate, and the design teams for most Japanese car firms give birth to cars that are so drearily unstyled, that I often confuse a pile of wet cement with an automotive product from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Suddenly, one day whilst walking to the bus stop, I thought, yes, perhaps Japanese cars are good (i mean, they can't all be bad) They are certainly good value for money. It costs about the same to buy a mid range Ford Mondeo Zetec as it does to buy a top-spec Honda Accord. This particular Accord has a full leather interior, sunroof, smart alloy wheels and a decent array of airbags.

But we are more interested in the Accord V6, which costs around NZ$56,000 You certainly get what you pay for, and most of what you're paying for, is the engine. It's a very clever 3.5 litre V6 but the engine management can turn off cylinders depending on how you are driving at a particular moment in time. It can run on 3 cylinders for city driving; 4 cylinders for low speed cruising, and all 6 for motorways and overtaking.
Sadly, switching between cylinders is not instant.

Lets say you are driving in the city, late for a crucial meeting. You can only keep up with everyone else on the road, who are actually window shopping, so you are using 4 cylinders. You see a gap in the traffic, and an amber light. You stamp on the right pedal, but it might as well be connected to a lawnmower engine. It takes time for the engine to switch to six cylinders. Time that you need for catching amber lights

Apart from that small problem, I am definitively steered towards the new Accord V6. It's bold styling, it's value for money and the excellent engine make it the perfect family saloon for family who chooses their car over price, rather than brand.  

Porsche Cayenne GTS

Well, here it is, my first ever car review.
At last, a Porsche Cayenne that looks good! Most of the range looks pretty awful, and many prospective high powered off roader buyers have been turned away because of the styling. But Porsche must have heard my complaining all the way over in Stuttgart, because they launched the new Cayenne GTS. The "Sports car of four-wheel-drives" has more power, a bigger engine, and similar styling to its sister car, the Cayenne Turbo.

 So what is the point of the GTS? Why do we need a rival model within the same range? The answer to that perplexing question is simple: They aren't rivals at all. In fact, the Turbo and the GTS are very different. The Turbo, is simply a Cayenne with a turbocharger; turbo labels on the dashboard, bootlid and engine cover; and a new radiator grille. It also suffers from turbo-lag.

Turbo lag is caused when the turbine in the turbocharger fails to get up to speed fast enough, to give extra power to the engine. That's why cars like the Mitsubishi Evo9, which have huge turbos and tiny 2 litre engines, can often be outpaced by cats, dogs and other animals in the first 20 metres of a drag race, while the turbo is getting up to speed.

But the GTS solves the problem of turbo lag. Without a turbo, the GTS has no turbo lag. It also has no turbo bages, which probably make an already heavy car, into an earthmover. So what am I trying to say here? By all means, buy the Cayenne Turbo (a friend of mine already has). But for a similar price, you can have a larger engine, and no turbo lag. But if you want to cut your fuel bill, buy the Turbo. It's less costly, but slower. Quite a dilemma. So what would I buy? Well umm....                                10/4/09

Friday, June 18, 2010

Welcome To The ACC

Hello, and welcome to the Automotive Critic Corner, or ACC for short.
I will be writing reviews for assorted cars, past and present, on a regular basis.
Many of the best car reviews come from the professionals. Top Gear, Autocar, the AA.
But a good quality review costs money. Money that can be spent on other things, such as buying the car that I gave a good review.
These reviews then are free, simple, easy to read, humorous and above all, honest. They are a great way to get great car buying advice.
Happy reading and motoring. (Though not at the same time, as this could be dangerous)
Samuel Hales