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Monday, July 30, 2007

Fantasy Worlds

I'm 35 and I love video games. I can't help it. Can you blame me though. My generation grew up with them. I've had them all - Atari, Intellivision, Vectrex (look it up), Nintendo, Sega, PS1, PS2, XBOX, and XBOX360. I think modern games are great. Many are better than a lot of hollywood movies and much more involving since you have control of the action. Lots of people though don't get it and think they are just for kids. I mostly play 3 types of games - shooters, sports games and car games.

The car games are probably my favorite though. Lately, I've been addicted to Forza Motorsport 2 for the XBOX360. I spent about 10 hours playing just this weekend. It's a standard racing game but the amount of detail and customization in the game is great. Realistic damage and physics add to the realism of the game. Hundreds of cars are available and customizable with everything from paint, decals, rims, tires, body add-ons and various speed equipment. It's really amazing. There is racing against game generated opponents and there is also on-line play. There is also an on-line auction area where you can buy and sell your cars.

Another great driving game that I love on the XBOX360 is Test Drive Unlimited. This game isn't just racing, its a whole alternate reality. The game takes place on the island of Hawaii. The creators of the game have mapped all of the roadways on the island and you can "free roam" anywhere you want. The game starts with you arriving at the airport with some money for a house and a car. You grab a rental and head out to make your purchases. As you progress through the game you come across races and challenges that help you earn money to buy more houses, cars, motorcycles and clothes. The best part is the on-line aspect where players from all over the world are all just cruising around on the roads at the same time going about their business. You can challenge each other to races, formal or just a spontaneous drag race or game of highway tag, you can just sit and chat or form a car club. It's great fun and really a complete fantasy world. Right now in the game I've got about 20 houses, hundreds of cars and over $1million in the bank. If it were only real!

I just like the escapism that these games provide. I love playing after a day at work. It helps me relax and forget about whatever has been bugging me for a few hours a day. My wife doesn't get it but it's something I just really love. Plus it helps me bond with my son and that's the best part.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Chrysler Changes To Lifetime Powertrain Warranty

Autoweek is reporting (link to article) that the Chrysler group, on the verge of becoming an independent company again, is changing their powertrain warranty coverage to extend the lifetime of the vehicle for all 2006, 2007 and 2008 vehicles. Unfortunately diesels and SRT vehicles will be excluded. The article does not mention this but I have read elsewhere that this will only apply to the original owner and will not be transferable. The rest of the vehicle will still be under the 3-year/36,000 mile warranty. This is apparently a response to GM's 5-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty.

If any manufacturer needs something like this, it's Chrysler. Real or imagined, I think most people seem to see them as the least reliable of the American manufacturers. I know I do. This is partly because at one time they pretty much were. Though the mid 70s through the 80s were a low point for all American auto manufacturers, which they are all still trying to live down, Chrysler in particular was stand out bad. I remember my father buying the only new Chrysler product he would ever purchase in his life, a 1980 Reliant K. Yes the K car which was supposed to resurrect Chrysler and did for the most part because it was cheap. And cheap it was. It was the only new car I have ever seen that would run poorly when it rained out. The sunroof leaked, the doors at times would not latch closed, it was brand new and it was a mess. The worst car decision my father has ever made. Interestingly enough, someone was stupid enough to steal it.

Luckily for them though, Chrysler does seem to have some of the best designers in the business. Cars like the Viper, Magnum, 300C and upcoming Challenger are fantastic designs and sell in spite of these perceived quality issues. This change in warranty coverage can only help sales.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I Hate NASCAR

Yes I said it. I know some people may accuse me of being un-American after such a statement but, am I the only one who thinks that NASCAR is now the Professional Wrestling of motorsports? I used to be a fan, but I haven't watched a full race since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died. Even back then, I had already lost most of my interest in NASCAR.

Part of it had to do with the fact that there is only so much time you can spend watching cars go around in circles. Toward the end, I just watched to see if there were any good wrecks. Once I discovered road racing and rally racing, it was all over. Then there are the cars. I'm pretty sure the word "stock" is still in the NASCAR title somewhere but those cars are anything but. Up until about the mid 90's they were based on production cars. They looked like and basically were modified street cars. I liked that, I related to that. Now they are all purpose built from scratch with some plastic body made to loosely resemble a street car on top. I guess that's why I like other forms of racing now like Touring Car, GT, LeMans, and World Rally. That and the fact that they also turn right. They all feature cars that look just like modified street cars. Cars that I can see everyday. Cars that I can actually buy. You know the phrase "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday". Now, I'm sure it was a combination of reasons that NASCAR changed from "stock" cars to purpose built. I'm sure there were safety concerns, but also the fact that Detroit was transitioning pretty much everything to Front Wheel Drive, made the decision necessary, I guess. Sad because I really dig the old NASCAR cars.

NASCAR today is such a huge business and so popular it's like a three ring circus. It's way over exposed, over hyped, over televised, and over commercialized. Most sports are. More and more, I find myself watching amateur or semi-pro racing when I can find it, between all the NASCAR broadcasts.

Friday, July 20, 2007

DSG Is The Future

The advent of new DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) transmissions like the one available on VW/Audi products has led me to ask a question. Is this the end of the conventional manual transmission? In my opinion, it may be. I'll go even further and say that they will also replace conventional automatic transmissions as well. I'm sure many will disagree with me especially regarding the manual transmission. Yes, they have been predicting the demise of the manual for years and it hasn't happened yet. But I think that was because there were no decent options to replace it. At least not until now.

So far I have not had the opportunity to test drive a car with a DSG type of transmission, but all of the reviews I have read about them seem to suggest that they are the best thing since sliced bread. Now before I go further, lets discuss the operation of the DSG transmission compared to other types of transmissions. It is much more like a manual transmission in that it uses clutches that directly connect the transmission to the engine. A computer and solenoids are used to engage and disengage the clutches and to shift gears. Automatic transmissions use fluid pressure and clutch packs within the transmission to change gears and they have no direct physical connection to the engine. Instead they use a torque converter which has fluid in it and two turbines facing each other.

An example of how the torque converter operates would be to position two fans facing one another and switch one on. The air blowing from one fan will start the other turning even though it is switched off. The on fan represents the engine side and the off fan is the transmission side. The only transmission that really compares to the DSG type is what I'll refer to an SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) type. SMG was actually the name of the BMW version of this gearbox. Other companies have their own names such as Lamborghini's E-Gear and Ferrari's F1 gearbox. The SMG type is basically a conventional manual gearbox that uses a computer and solenoids to shift the gears and operate the clutch. The big difference between the SMG type and the DSG type is that the DSG uses a dual clutch setup instead of a single clutch like a traditional manual or SMG. This allows the DSG to be much smoother and quicker in upshifts because one clutch is for the even gears and one is for the odd ones. Therefore, during acceleration, the DSG has one clutch engaged for the current gear while the second clutch has already engaged the next gear up ready to switch over when told to by the computer. This happens lightning quick and very smoothly. It seems pretty neat. You can read up more on the DSG type of transmission here.

Presently the only DSG type of transmission available on a production car is the VW/Audi version. Just about every manufacturer is working on one of their own though and it's only a matter of time before we see lots more of them. From what I've read Nissan will introduce a version with the upcoming GTR, Honda is developing a DSG type for the Acura NSX replacement, Toyota is developing one for the upcoming Lexus LF-A supercar, BMW has one in development to replace their heavily criticized SMG tranny, Mitsubishi will introduce one in the Lancer Evolution X, and Porsche is also developing one presumably to replace their somewhat outdated Tiptronic automatic. I'm pretty sure most of the American manufacturers are also at work but I have nothing specific on their development so far.

I think it's a matter of time before these transmissions become the only choice in most vehicles. Everything I have read suggests that the DSG tranny is just as good as, if not better, in manual mode than the SMG type. The DSG also appears to completely blow away the SMG type when it comes to automatic mode where most of the SMG types have been criticized for being clunky and very jerky. Now where automatic transmissions are concerned, the DSG seems to be about as good and smooth as an automatic in full auto mode. In manual mode it's no contest as the DSG clearly blows away any automatic tranny in manual mode. I see no reason for the auto and manual trannies to stick around after the DSG takes hold. The only other choice of trans in the future will probably be the CVT (Continually Variable Transmission) for economy and mileage.

I really hope I'm wrong since I'm an avid manual transmission enthusiast. Or as my wife puts it, I'm a "manual snob". I can't stand automatics and I feel they have no place in any car with even a hint of sporty intentions. Forget about an automatic in a sports car. To me that is a sacrilege and it actually makes me angry when I see one. I look down upon those who can't or won't drive a manual. Unfortunately, here in the U.S., most people would rather sit back and let the car do most of the work. They want to be able to drive with one hand while eating, drinking, making a cell call and texting at the same time. I think driving a manual is quickly becoming a lost art form that a shrinking minority of us actually still enjoy. Even the automated manuals can't deliver the same driving satisfaction and connection to what the car is doing that a true old fashioned stick shift with a clutch pedal can.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Are these the best of times?

You can argue that this is the best time to be alive if you're a car nut. Sure there are those who yearn for the "good old days" when cars were simpler. Old cars are great but we seem to be in an automotive renaissance. Modern cars are safer, faster, more reliable, more comfortable and more efficient than ever.

We are also in the middle of a new "horsepower war" among the manufacturers. Twenty years ago you couldn't find a street car with 500HP. Today that's nothing. There are 4 door sedans with that much power. Exotics are pushing well over 600HP safely, relatively reliably and street legal. It's a great time to be into cars.

The only issue with the current state of automotive design is the complexity of the cars being produced. There is so much technology and safety designed into modern cars that they are becoming more and more expensive and gaining more and more weight. Back in the old days sports cars weighed around 2000lbs and today a 3000lb car is considered light. I guess that's why we need so much horsepower.

A lot of this extra stuff is convenience related. Things like air conditioning, power windows, power seats, 20 speaker stereos, and power locks weren't standard or even necessities in cars years ago. Then there is all the extra safety systems built into modern cars.

Now, I'm all for safer cars but the amount of stuff being packed into cars is getting ridiculous. Multiple airbags, ABS, traction control, stability control, tire pressure monitoring, active safety, passive safety, radar cruise control.......you get the idea. All of this is making cars bigger and heavier and, in my opinion, less fun to drive. But then again, I don't think there are that many people left in this country who care about the fun or the experience of driving. For most people, driving a car is like using an appliance. It's just a tool to get them where they are going. I could go on with that subject for a while, but I'll save it for another day. In the meantime I have an idea. Instead of the making all these safety features standard or mandatory, how about we train the drivers a little better in this country. Then everyone will be better, safer drivers and those who want a rolling cocoon of safety can buy one and I can have my simple but modern, lightweight, fun to drive car.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Coulda, woulda, shoulda!

Man, when I think about how much I love cars and all the information I've absorbed about them, it really bums me out that I kind of missed my calling. I work with computers and It's OK but I don't have the passion for it that I have for cars. I wish I would have realized this many years ago.

I could have made a career in the automotive industry. Maybe automotive design, that would be cool. Or how about an automotive journalist. That would be even better. Those guys have the greatest jobs working for car magazines. They get all kinds of cars literally thrown at them to drive and give their opinions on. I did look into that and I thought that it would probably require a journalism degree or something like that but I found that a lot of the mags now seem to only hire automotive engineers to write for them. I don't see how that makes their opinion on how good a car is or isn't any better than mine or someone else.

Either way I think you have to take what they say in a lot of the magazines with a grain of salt anyway. Lots of people are convinced that many of the bigger mags are biased since they take advertising money from the very companies whose cars they are evaluating. How can you be objective and fair in evaluating products from sponsors paying thousands or millions of dollars to your magazine? You don 't want to be the guy who wrote the article that led to the mag loosing a major sponsor!

Hell, I've even considered becoming a car salesman. Though I don't know if I could live with the reputation of being sleazy and dishonest, even if I was.

Maybe that's why I'm starting this blog. I can say that I work in the automotive field. Kinda. That's it. I'm now an automotive journalist.

Welcome

Today is the first day of the rest of my blog. I'll be spewing forth about all things automotive. I have been obsessed with all kinds of cars since I was a little kid. I blame my father since he was the source of my illness. He loves cars too, but I've taken it to a new level altogether.

The purpose of this blog will be to hopefully inform, entertain and connect with others like myself with a passion for everything automotive.

Stay tuned!