Monday, March 10, 2008

His Car, My Review

By Bruce McCulloch

Though my father is probably the most passionate automotive enthusiast I’ve ever met, he is also one of the most traditional: not only in the sense that he prefers subtle designs, but traditional in terms of how he values his purchases.

First and foremost, my father has never been one to purchase a car for the benefit of the others; in other words, the Joneses down the street do not in any way influence what he likes, and ultimately, purchases. Nor is he one who cares about the latest in the world of technology and all that subsequently follows. And last, but certainly not least, he’s not one who is hung up in the fizzling power trends. His outlook on the matter is akin to: “so long as the car has enough pull for the road, and fulfills at least 95% of my needs (roll your eyes), I’m all-game.”

What does he demand in a car, you ask? Well, even despite the fact that he’s owned a number of performance vehicles – from Supras to MR2s – his ideal automobile has most always been a comfortable luxury cruiser. Other priorities on his list are not only reliability and quality, but an exterior that is unmistakably classy, yet understated at the same time.

When it comes to his yearning for bodywork perfection, don’t even get me started. Never before have I met someone so fussy as to turn down a vehicle for reasons pertaining to repaint, dents, misaligned window chrome and what-not. Mind you, he’s not alone in this regard, as I too have inherited his anal retentive obsession in search of the perfect vehicle. However, that’s its own long and dreary story.

All of this is without even taking into account his desire for long-term ownership. Rather than seeking a new trade-in every two or three years, my father always aims to keep his purchases for a minimum of five years.

That being said, he also takes a look into the possible annoyances of his purchase, and whether he’d be sick of the vehicle long down the road of ownership. Taking these strict set of conventions into mind, for a car to truly convince him enough to purchase, he must think the world of it.

So, a few weeks ago my father and I were casually cruising around the local Acura dealer here in Vancouver (Burrard Acura) and sitting there – in all its shinning champagne-coloured glory – was a previous generation Acura “RL 3.5”. You know, the one that was often criticized for being as exciting as an unsalted cracker?

Knowing that my father had always been a big fan of the vehicle, I knew we immediately that he would be seriously considering this car. The deal was especially sealed when he learned that it had just 55,000 km on its odometer, despite being delivered to its first owner in January of 1999. And take my word for it - the vehicle’s mileage is certainly representative of its cleanliness. My father has certainly had a vast selection of low mileage, well maintained vehicles before, but by God, this is on a whole another level.

Shortly thereafter, we took it for a quick spin up the freeway ramp – to test the pushing-power of that 3.5 litre V6, naturally – and in an instant, he was, or rather the car, was sold. Mind you, I should mention that he had sampled a nearly identical RL in the past year, and loved every moment of it; this meant that obviously he pretty much knew what to expect.


Evidently, the RL of this particular generation is far from being the most exciting looking vehicle on the planet, but if it’s any consolation, there isn’t much of anything that’s likely to offend even the toughest of design critics. And though I acknowledge that the design itself is rather simplistic in nearly all respects, I also think it happens to have a very classical aura to it; an aura that to my eyes is not only very respectable, but carries a non-flashy vibe. Certainly more of a non-flashy vibe than the equivalent year of the Lexus LS, which managed to come off looking like an over grown piece of Tupperware-designed with Cadillac influences in mind.

Truthfully though, I will admit that the vehicle is starting to show its age. With body mounted mirrors and an old fashioned rectangular styled grill, the RL does indeed look like a vehicle spawned from the previous decade. However, I’m not all that concerned by that and evidently, neither is my father. Indeed, the fact that the car does look as if it is from a forgotten era of automotive design – let’s be frank, people have short memories – makes the vehicle even more appealing for a traditionalist enthusiast such as my father. I fully do believe that this particular generation presents itself as a modern classic.


As with the exterior of the RL, the interior design is starting to show its age too, but only gradually. I suspect that its general design philosophy is of the utmost class, and it does well to represent the vehicle’s various styling themes.

Since this is an Acura product, we had no concerns about quality nor assembly. This vehicle is fantastically finished all around: the leather is of rich texture and toughness; the plastics of the highest quality; the fit and assembly have been controlled to the uppermost of the company’s ability.

The all-around interior ambience is fantastic. The front seats are oh-so glorious, while the rear seat units are among the best I’ve ever sampled in any car. Not only are they very supple, but offer an unbelievable amount of leg room – even with the front seats full retracted backwards, it’s easy for one to stretch one's legs.

The heating system - and all of which subsequently follows - is not only well thought out, but extremely efficient in its operation. Other notable features include the excellent-sounding BOSE stereo system, and the impressive dash and console illumination.

Driving Impression:

Having had much experience with Japanese automobiles, I can personally attest that this particular generation of the Acura RL is one of the finest vehicles to ever come out of the land of the rising sun.

Those who thought the RL was merely a rebadged Honda with a ton of kit could not have been more wrong. Having sampled a large variety of Honda and Acura products – from Accords to TLs – I can firmly tell you that the RL is of a much different world than, let’s say, an Accord.

Sound Insulation:

I was particularly pleased by the sound insulation in this Acura. While it’s not “Lexus quiet” by any means, the insulation does a great job preventing tire chatter and unexpected wind noise from entering the cabin. Despite the rather old fashioned body style – something that you might expect would make the wind-aerodynamics of the car faulty - the car seems to do just fine balancing external air pressure. Engine noise within the cabin seems to be perfectly distributed, allowing a sweet sounding bellow without any harshness.

It’s all quiet, without being too quiet.

Engine & Transmission Power Delivery:

Power delivery from the 3.5 litre V6 is always brisk and when coupled with the excellent four speed automatic transmission, and makes for a rather seamless drive around town. Acura claims the 1999 RL develops 210bhp at 5,200 rpm, and 224lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm. Quite frankly though, I think the company is grossly understating the actual figures of the vehicle – for something that weighs nearly 3900lbs, it’s surprisingly fast and blunt. One is easily able find power any at rev range; whether that be in stop-start traffic or at 60 mph (100 km/h) on highway with help from Honda’s excellent variable valve timing system (VTEC).

The transmission of the vehicle is undeniably from a different world than a usual Honda product. Shifts aren’t quite Lexus seamless, but in the world of the Japanese auto, it’s the second-best transmission I’ve ever had the pleasure of sampling.


As was mentioned earlier, the RL weighs nearly 3900lbs, but you certainly wouldn’t gather that impression on a first drive. For a car that not only weighs as much as freighter, but has the dimensions of one – not to mention that the vehicle is front wheel drive, rather than rear wheel drive – it’s quite a surprise to see how compliant the chassis is around the bends: steering is efficient and quick-handed; the chassis and tire combination allows for a proper variation between supple handling and a smooth ride; high-speed handling induces a touch of understeer, but certainly not as much as I had originally expected. All of this makes the RL not only of the best handling, but most controlled and compliant FWD vehicles I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving.

And when it comes to hammering the brake pedal, you need not worry as the braking system allows for an excellent amount of feedback and the brakes themselves prove more than adequately sized to stop the vehicle.

And then the shortfalls…

But of course, nothing is perfect and this Acura RL is no exception. By and large, there really is very little to annoy one’s self of temperament. While most everything is well though out, the absolute biggest of downfalls is – wait for it, it’s an odd one - is actually interior storage space, or more the lack thereof. For a car that has longitudinal dimension of 195 inches, there could surely be more storage space. The center console's volume borders on pathetic, while the side door compartments are downright laughable, but ultimately, the glove box just barely has enough space for the owners manual. It’s a pitiful shame. And though you wouldn’t think it would to be a too big of an issue, it’s proven to be quite a nuisance.

But other than those issues, I honestly cannot think of anything else that is overly tiresome or particularly annoying about this vehicle. Again, it’s not the perfect, but I can’t think of much about that isn’t exceptionally engineered and well thought out. When this generation of the Acura RL was first released in 1999 it was one of, if not the most, expensive front-wheel-drive car(s) on the market, but rest assured, that was for good reason.

If you’re a fan of Japanese vehicles, I definitely recommend checking one out.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Perfect Design

By Bruce McCulloch

The ever-daunting question on the mind of any enthusiast: is there such thing as the perfect design? That special design that you consider just perfect, that design that you honestly think could not have been better?

Evidently, opinions on this matter are to greatly differ. Some enthusiasts think that there is no such thing as the “perfect” design; always implying that something can be “near perfect”, but not “perfect” per se. And on the same note, there are just as many enthusiasts who do indeed feel that there is such as the perfect design.

Now, obviously, us car-nuts are not going to find just one design that we’re all going to agree is perfect. That being said, finding the “perfect” one is of course all down to personal opinion and taste.

I found myself pondering over this question in my kitchen this morning, while eating my delicious left-over cold Hawaiian pizza (what else?). I thought to myself, “surely there must be at least one design that I consider “perfect”, and indeed there is. However, before I came to that solid conclusion, I did a little bit of a look-see into what some of my favourite automobiles were.

And with that on my mind, I was able to come up with a small list of my favourite cars that boast designs that I just happen to love for one reason or another. The first of many which came to mind was that of the Pagani Zonda. If you read my articles on a regular basis, you’ll by now know that I’m highly fond of the Pagani Zonda’s extroverted insaneness when it comes to its exterior. But then I thought, “No” - as much as I like the Zonda, I cannot say that it is the perfect design in my eyes.

But surely, there must be some other considerations from the great (and stylistic) country that Italy is. Well, to be honest, I’ve never been all that fond of the designs that come out the wine-grove. Of course, to say there are no designs from Italy that I appreciate would be trite. I mean, who could ignore such stylistic greats such as the Ferrari 257 GTB/4, Maserati Bora (a personal favourite of mine) and the Lamborghini Miura? But even though I have great deal of appreciation for those designs, I’m going to have to pass on the prospect of referring to any of them boasting a “perfect design”.

Shortly thereafter, I gave thought as to some of my favourite German metal and their many fantastic designs. The BMW Z8 immediately came to mind, as did Porsche’s 993 Turbo and their exclusive flagship, the Carrera GT. Though the three are of an entirely different design language, it must be noted that they’re all so equally fantastic. I had thought that the 993 Turbo with its quirky design and solid-brick metal made finding that perfect design all that bit easier, but then I thought that about the Carrera GT too...

And one cannot forgot such greats from Mercedes-Benz as the good ‘ol 560 SEC and in modern times, the 2008 CL-Coupe. Though, as great as they are, I don’t feel as if I have that whole “spiritual-connection” thing with either of two.

So then, over to the great isle of the United Kingdom and see what they’ve to offer. Well, there are the obvious candidates such as Jaguar and Aston Martin. These two manufacturers have been offering some of the most jaw-slackening metal over the last, oh, some 70+ years. With Jaguar on the map, there’s certainly no shortage of eye-candy; examples such as the XK120 SS, the E-Type and even the XJ220 are proof of this. Naturally, Aston Martin certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard either. With early-day giants such as the DB4 and the DB5, you might wonder why one (particularly myself) should be looking elsewhere for that perfect design. And then advancing into a more modern era, you’ve got such vehicles as the V8 Virage, the Vantage 600, the DB7 GT and even modern greats such as the DB9 and the V8 Vantage. I must admit, the latter two in this long line of amazing cars, were of great consideration for my pick of the perfect design. These two luxurious GT’s are so perfectly designed from an exterior point of view that it’s hard to find any real faults.

I mean, quite honestly, can you think of anything on the design of either modern-era Aston that’s likely to offend?

Or, if crazy fits your tee, there are always specialist manufacturers such as TVR, Noble and the recently-closed Marcos. All three offer a look into a very different world of design philosophy, and they’re undoubtedly interesting, but are any of them perfect per se? No, I don’t believe so. The vast of them are just too fussy and convoluted to be considered a perfect design in my eyes.

That being said, I suppose it’s only fair for me to explain how I’m judging my criteria for such an honourable award. For me, the perfect design must be, well, perfect. Perfect in the sense that when I see one in the street, I get that good old car-nostalgia; you know; that feeling that you had when you found your first “car love”? A feeling that makes you say think to yourself: “it’s perfect”; “it’s timeless”; “its classic”; “they couldn’t have done it any better”.

And being naturally biased towards Japanese automobiles, I thought I’d take a look over into the country of the Rising Sun and see what lies-in-wait. Toyota being my natural preference when it comes to Japanese autos, I assumed that would be the place to find that perfect design I ever-so seek.

Naturally, the first of many impressive designs that came to mind was that of the Toyota 2000GT. I love this car with a great passion and quite frankly, think it looks just as, if not better than many Italian supercars. With its small proportions and sleek body, Its design is nothing short of lustful. In other words, a worthy contender, you might say.

Meanwhile, more recent designs such as the Celica of 1985 and the Lexus SC400 of 1991, are also very influential and do well to get my motor-inspired heart running at high speeds. But still, I feel there’s something missing; that degree of allure I’m looking for seems to be non-existent in either of those designs.

Nissan has offered a-many interesting designs since it’s founding, but nothing that I deeply desire to be honest.

So, that can only leave one car company left – Honda and affiliated. I must admit – that by and large - to regarding Toyota higher than Honda, but when it comes to designs, I find myself less annoyed with Honda’s themes. Thus my point being, I not only find Honda designs to be a tad more interesting, but also less fussy and ultimately, better looking than Toyota’s.

The NSX is one of those cars, which in my eyes, is just simply amazing. It’s one of those cars that I never tire of – seeing one on the road always induces the same jaw-slackening response from my face. And as much love as I have for the NSX, I’m going to have to pass on the prospect of naming it the perfect design.

But then one particular car came to mind… It’s a car that I must admit to being highly biased towards because my father owned one a couple of years back. And I’m not going to lie, it’s a choice which will surely shock enthusiasts world wide.

Hints: It’s from Honda; it’s small; it’s RWD; it has a four-cylinder engine and it’s a roadster. If you’re familiar with Honda’s history, you know that these characteristics reduce the overall tally to just a few choices: the S500, the S600, the S800 and the S2000.

And the winner is?

Honda S2000:
First generation (Year: 2000-01)

Now, I haven’t any doubt that enthusiasts reading this are going to be wondering what drugs I’m on and how I could possibly place this understated roadster from Honda (of all companies) as my perfect design; even after I’ve ignored such vehicles from Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari.

Though, I can’t say I’d blame anyone for wanting a bit of explanation as to my rather surprisingly (and oddball) choice. I specifically remember the day when my father went to dealer to test drive his then later S2000, and as the car had just two seats – I had to be left behind while my father and the dealer took it out for a spin. Disappointing? Surely, but as the car pulled away from the dealer, I had some sort of an automotive epiphany which made me see the S2000 in a different light.

Oddly enough, I had this same epiphany a few months later: as the sun began to set on a warm and vibrant day, the glow of the halogen bulbs and the Silverstone Metallic paint gave off a strange aura. An aura I can only describe as seeing the vehicle as some sort of design perfection. I looked at it and not only thought, “my dear, could they have done that thing any better?”, but I also remember thinking, “I can’t believe that thing isn’t worth twice what its MSRP is”. Dramatic you say? Well, surely it is, but hey – it works for me. It’s still something that I happen to believe to this day. Whereas others might see the S2000 as some low-grade roadster with an understated (perhaps even boring) design, the vehicle in my mind looks to be quite high-class. It’s not a forceful design by any means, but it’s very well conceived; its proportions are all very well thought out with nothing looking too “out there”. As a result, I also happen to feel to the S2000 is quite timeless. Despite the fact that it’s been on the market for nearly eight years now, I don’t think it has managed to date even the least bit; it still looks every bit as fresh today as it did when it was first released.

And as I mentioned above, its proportions are just sublime. Take a look at the front fender, for instance – it’s hard edged, thus keeping the design blocky and compact at the front, whilst managing to give the car a style-theme that gives the nose the classic appearance expected from any front-engine sports car. The under-grill arrangement, albeit simple, looks to be simply awesome. All of which makes for a very clean component of the design, which naturally matches perfectly in-line with the vehicle’s headlamps.

The side profile is really no less impressive with its interesting mix of classic sports car cues, which yet at the same time, manage to be undeniably Japanese. The front end is just right, the windscreen height it set perfectly in cue with the bonnet and the rear is classically short, without being too short. Even the mirrors fixed on the body rather than connected to the windscreen A-pillar, do well to illustrate that the S2000 is indeed a sports car.

And speaking of the rear-end, I cannot for the life of me think of anything that I do not like about it. The exhausts, the diffuser, the light-bar and the tail-lamps are all so perfectly laid out; the latter of which especially with it’s multi-coloured arrangement of lighting. Even the way in which the white coloured lamps divide between the reverse lamp and the signal lamp (orange signal on top, white reverse on the bottom) of the circle is too –oh, how should we say it? – awesome (again). The roll-bars are also well thought out as they are not only functional (as they bloody well should be), but happen to look just right; not only are they not tacky, but they’re – unlike the vast of roadsters - not too big either.

When Honda gave the S2000 a relatively small facelift in 2004, I must admit that I had felt perfection had been needlessly toyed with. Certainly, I understand the need to boost the sales of the already exclusive vehicle, but I couldn’t help but feel that what was added was just knick-knack. Don’t get me wrong, the facelift produces what is still a great looking car, but the original seemed so much more authentic.

When Van Gogh painted his all-famous “The Sunflowers”, did he know what he was onto? After all, he painted so many iterations of this fantastic painting, one has to wonder. His first - painted in 1888 – with its vibrant 12 flowers is undoubtedly his finest, but in the following years Van Gogh completed six more versions. But none of them had the impact of the original. And the same can be said for the Honda S2000. I believe Honda struck perfection when they designed the first generation S2000, and I believe they’ll never top it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Sporty Toyota

By Bruce McCulloch

Suffice to say, it’s an interesting moment in time for the Japanese motor company that is Toyota. Never in their some-60 year history has the company ever had such recognition. As most enthusiasts are already aware, Toyota is now the world’s biggest automotive manufacturer, and much of this can attributed to Toyota’s great value as automobiles, consistency of goods, but ultimately, their quality and reliability.

But of course, not all things can last and with Toyota’s stratospheric growth over the last decade or so, the company now has to contend with a series of appalling growing pains. Through the 90’s for instance, Toyota was a company with more or less of a spic-and-span clean reliability sheet. And not just overall reliability, but everything from quality to recalls. I’m not implying they were perfect by any means, but in contrast with today’s Toyota, they seemed to be miles ahead.

Obvious fault aside, not all is bad for enthusiasts of the brand. Oh no, in fact Toyota has been feeding us Toyota-nutters a decent dose of car-candy over the last couple years, and by that I’m referring to Toyota’s new aim/direction on sportiness. And as is well-known, sportiness –or the lack thereof – has always been a great criticism of company. Not anymore though, especially as it’s clear that Toyota of the future is aiming to capture the hearts and minds of more enthusiasts than they ever have before.

Now, of course, that’s not to say that Toyota’s history is completely oblivious of sporty cars. I need not remind anyone of such greats as the 2000 GT, nor the Celica, the Supra or the MR2. They’re cars which not only changed the general perception of Toyota as an automobile company, but contributed a great deal towards promoting the Japanese sports car.

Truth be told though, Toyota has most always stayed in the conservative arena in regards to developing sporty vehicles. Especially in comparison with not only rivals from around the world, but even fellow country manufacturers such as Nissan and Honda. And as we entered the ‘90’s, it was clear that Toyota had little, if any, intention of promoting the brand as anything to do with sport. As Lexus had just been introduced as the alternative to German luxury with the added kick of stronger reliability, Toyota its self concentrated on promotion of its bread and butter vehicles – the Camry and the Corolla to be specific.

In those years, focus and promotion of “sport” models slowly headed towards the bright light of death. The MR2, for instance, which had been known as a blistering go-kart with a seat-of-the-pants ride, turned into something much mushier with the release of the early 90’s generation. Whereas the late 80’s model had considerable focus on small dimensions and it possessed true sports-car genes, the MR2 Turbo was much more indolent in comparison. And it was the same story for the 90’s generation of the Supra. The MK2 of 1985, was tight, well-heeled and offered a great deal of road connection, whereas subsequent generations seemed to be ever-so dampened in regards to sport. Don’t get me wrong, both the MK3 of the late 80’s and MK4 of the early 90’s were indeed great cars, but it seemed as if the Supra was not only getting more powerful and bigger, but ultimately, becoming a grand touring vehicle. There’s little doubt that Toyota was purposely treating the 4th generation Supra as a higher force amongst the automotive world, when in my home country (nowhere other than the “Great White North”), the mid 90’s GT was a full $20,000 more expensive than the preceding model.

And yet, oddly enough, one of the Toyota’s most impressive “sport-oriented” vehicles was the one that looked to be the exact opposite – the “Cressida” (particularly the last generation -1988-1992). And the irony of that remains that the Cressida was always one of the brand’s most criticized vehicles; a vehicle often described as being both “tedious” and “nondescript”. In all fairness though, the Cressida’s exterior did very little to give anyone a clue as to what the car was really like. Though you need not take my word for it, just ask its owners who often referred to the car as “a 4 door Supra”. Although, in my honest opinion, the Cressida was actually the better of the two vehicles when it came to offering thrills. Not only because it was amazingly well balanced, but boasted a great deal of connection to the road; all in all, a Japanese BMW if you will.

And as the century came to a close, Toyota’s sporty line-up of vehicles became pretty much non-existent. Not only had the Supra since long been put out of production, but the MR2 had further turned into a hairdresser's fashion accessory with the sex appeal of a toad.

Additionally, Toyota had always been a company who had been quite conservative on power figures in the past. Whereas the Americans and the German’s had been a tandem of power wars, the Japanese auto firm always managed to stay in the background with very few of their vehicles breaching the 300bhp mark. Evidently, Toyota wanted nothing do with creating powerful and sporty cars, but that all was eventually to come to an end.

Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, and you’ll notice Toyota is attempting to not so much as change its old ways, but create a new division of status to attract a new demographic of young and hip enthusiasts who are interested in sporty body kits and flashy bits of kit. Vehicles such as the Matrix, the Yaris and the FJ Cruiser are all evidence of this particular swing towards the direction of sport. Even the all new 2009 Corolla – arguably the most boring of all Toyotas – looks decisively more sporty now, much more than it ever has before.

And need I even remind anyone of Toyota’s lastest and hippest brand aimed purely at the youth of America, Scion? With Scion, Toyota has been able to create a car just for those crazy modification junkies who like to race, or, simply be seen as cutting-edge in the downtowns of our cities.


As has been evident by the lineup, Lexus has never been about being even the least bit sporty. In fact, Lexus has always been just the opposite – the brand for those who don’t care for sport and flash, but rather understated designs, seamless luxury and comfort. And why would anyone expect anything else when the company has built a very solid reputation on just that?

For the longest of time we had seen Lexus’ great reluctance to give their cars the proper power boosts they deserved. That all seemed to change however, with the release of the 2nd generation IS compact-saloon in early 2005. Whereas the 1st generation IS was a decent attempt at dethroning the BMW 3-Series, the subsequent generation has been a much stronger effort. It’s an effort which not only proved that Lexus could develop a vehicle that little bit closer to the 3-Series, but also one capable of out-gunning it; do take note that the 2005 IS350 was the first of the compact-saloons to possess over 300bhp.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the 4th generation LS flagship saloon has revealed that the company has now decided to bring their personal power game to a whole new level by allowing it not only breach the 300bhp mark (380bhp to be exact), but even the 400bhp mark with the LS600h (430bhp to be exact).

The Beginning of the sporty Lexus - The IS-F:

Thanks to Toyota’s hushed nature in regards to building sporty cars, there were a lot of folks who had (understandably) dismissed the idea of a true thoroughbred sports-saloon from Lexus. With the release of the 2008 IS-F however, Toyota’s engineers and determination cannot be faulted in any way.

As an enthusiast of the brand, I knew things were a little different this time around; in other words, none of that false “slap on a body kit and install a big engine thus eventually leading to slapdash, uninhibited handling”. It was clear that with addition of 14.2-inch Brembo brake callipers at the front end, 255mm Michelin tyres at the rear, BBS alloys and a suspension a full inch lower than the standard item that this IS was a serious effort. But of course, the question remained: would the IS-F be a true sports saloon, or just another hash attempt?

Initial doubts aside, the IS-F has done well to prove disbelievers wrong. Magazines from the colonies such as “Road & Track” and “Motor Trend” have had much praise to give this new super Lexus. Implying that it’s everything that one did not expect from a Lexus – it’s harsh, rough and angry while adding a degree of sporty finesse. One magazine described the car as being even too “hardcore” for the road – and remember, this is a Lexus we’re talking about here, not a Lotus. Yet other magazines have described the car as being truly hardcore, whilst still retaining a great deal of the brand’s usual road characteristics.

Meanwhile, even scores of European journalists –arguably the harshest of critics when it comes to Lexus vehicles – have given the IS-F a very fair amount of positive press.

The performance figures you ask? Since when was a Lexus capable of hitting naught-to-sixty in just 4.2 seconds (* Road & Track)? Never before is the answer, and that’s exactly what takes the company to a whole new level.

And that is all without even mentioning the interior, or the exterior design of the vehicle. Its little secret that Lexus’ are often criticized for their rather safe and understated designs, but the same cannot be said for the IS-F which manages to be aggressive throughout the entirety of its design detailing. Some even feel that the new super IS a bit too flashy for even a Lexus.

And what about the LF-A supercar expected to arrive some time in 2009? Watch out folks, watch out.

The obvious verdict being that things at Toyota are indeed changing, and in a manner which is very positive for enthusiasts. I’m not implying that Toyota will change its ways overnight, but its clear there’s a new direction for Toyota and affiliated on the horizon. As one of Toyota’s very biggest fans, I’m happy to see it and I am really very much looking forward to next few years of Toyota and Lexus products.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Ascari Clan

By Bruce McCulloch

The British sports car? Err, yeah, what about it?

Well, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the world of the classic English sports car is in absolute shambles. And truthfully, it’s been on the descent for the last some three decades now. Putting aside the great impact of the Jaguars, Triumphs, the MGs and the Healeys through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, it would appear that overall, the specialty-manufacture British sports car has never managed to get any lasting footing in the market. And in the last couple of years, small manufacturers such as TVR and Marcos have had to close their shops due to insufficient funding and high production costs.

And though this situation isn’t exclusive to English sports car manufacturers, it must be noted that it happens an awful lot in Britain. In most cases it would appear that by the time the car is actually put into production, the typical company itself has little to fall back on in the way of resources and therefore is not able to withstand even the smallest of financial storms.

Additionally, the fact that most English sports manufacturers have the reputation of producing cars that are notoriously unreliable certainly doesn’t help to paint a proper (and healthy) image.

But what if you wanted to have something both built and designed in Britannia, but without the common downfalls of shambling quality, infrequent reliability and terrible engineering? Well, in that case, there are a few exceptions. The first being a fantastic vehicle called the Invicta S1 As I happily noted in the article, this is one of the very few English sports cars which manages to “do it all” correctly and beautifully.

Though, as good as the Invicta may be, it’s most definitely not the absolute best of Britannia. Oh no, that prestigious award rightly belongs to a company established in Dorset, England in 1995. The company is called “Ascari”, and their vehicles are not only amongst the best supercars from the United Kingdom, but in the world.

And like many great marques before it, the company has a substantial amount of history behind its nameplate. Had you not already guessed, the name was in fact named in tribute after one of the greatest racing car drivers in the world, the great Spaniard, Alberto Ascari.

Prior to the company actual selling its first production vehicle on the market, Ascari had released a concept car called the “FGT” sometime in 1995. Powered by a Chevrolet Corvette 6.0 litre V8 and styled by Lee Noble (who is now both owner and sole designer of the “Noble” Automotive) it was clear that the company meant serious business.

And shortly thereafter, Norwegian entrepreneur Klaas Zwart – now the sole owner of the company - took great notice of the vehicle and realized its possible potential in the racing scene. And as a result, he took the leap to help fund the company and not only ensure it’s entry into the “FGT” racing class, but ultimately, entrance into the British GT Championships. And it all paid off extremely well, when Zwart – behind the wheel of the FGT, now powered with a Ford V8 – managed to win an event at the Silverstone circuit in the vehicle’s debut season. Following that, the car continued to telegraph it’s greatness when in the British GT Championships of 1997, the vehicle finished a respectable fourth place at Donington Park.

Ascari Ecosse

So then it should be no surprise that after a couple of years of racing success, the company then decided it would look at producing the FGT racing car as a full fledged, road-legal sports car. This eventually lead to Ascari renaming the “FGT” the “Ecosse” and replacing the Chevrolet and Ford V8 engines for a series of BMW V8 power plants with tuning development from Hartge. Earlier Ecosse models had a 4.4 litre 8-cylinder with around 300bhp, while later models benefited from a slightly larger 4.7 lire V8 with around 400bhp; the latter of the two was running naught-to-sixty in 4.1 seconds and boasting a top speed somewhere in the region of “200” mph.

And if technology is what you were looking for, then the fact that the Ecosse production vehicle boasted an aluminium space frame chassis under its all fibre glass body should have made most any sports car techies very happy.

Yet despite all of this promise, only seventeen examples were known to exist; eight of the original seventeen are now said to have been destroyed through racing or as a result of crashes by their private owners.

This transitional period was the time frame in which the Norwegian-born Klaas Zwart decided the he'd take up the Herculean task of actually purchasing the company. He did this, although not without some difficulty, and from thereon, Mr. Zwart's mission was clear: build something not only completely new to the company's image, but ultimately, something truly great. And after some testing with a concept called the "KZ1" in early 2003, the company released its first production supercar some time in 2005.

The first and most notable aspect of the KZ1 is unquestionably the way it looks. While some feel it's too introverted and even lacking in character, I couldn't disagree more. The really interesting thing about the KZ1's design is how cleanly executed it is, in fact. From it's swooping headlamps (which are in fact borrowed from that of a garden-variety Peugeot) to it's compact rear-end with it's quad circular tail lamps and low-set spoiler, it looks more at home in the Porsche factory than at the Ferrari factory; definitely more Carrera GT than Enzo if you catch my drift. I think it's just wondrous - not only compact and clean, but beautiful in all aspects of its design elements.

And there's little doubt that its interior follows the same overall design theme as it's exterior. Rather than being all flashy and flamboyant, the interior of the KZ1 is all about keeping things luxurious and simple, while undoubtedly showing a high degree of sporting intent. And unlike the vast amount of specialty sports car manufacturers - from Britain and elsewhere - the KZ1's interior is not an awful parts bin with shabby quality and an ugly-duckling design. It's clear that once into the interior, engineers and designers aimed at keeping it high-class in nearly all respects, while retaining a special degree of bespoke individuality. Sure, there are few notable and noticeable borrowed parts - such as the Audi TT air vents, the Vauxhall VX220 starter button and the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG tacho/speedo - but thankfully, it all looks integrated, and just as thankfully, none of which look cheap. Suffice to say, achieving such a high-quality interior with multiple bespoke parts is not an easy target. It certainly doesn't help to keep the production costs down either, but for Mr. Zwaart, such expense was not an issue. He knew from the start that should he take this company under his belt, there would be no cutting corners.

And in that aspect alone, the Ascari is not your typical supercar. It's not about being brash and over the top, it's about traveling in a style which is understated but still radiates style.

Yet, despite its contrarian philosophy amongst the supercar clan, it's engine is exactly what you'd expect from a true thoroughbred. Further improving upon their connection with BMW for their motors, Ascari was afforded the 5.0 litre 8-cylinder engine previously found in the BMW E39 M5 to power their supercar. It's an engine that in even in standard-build features variable valve timing, 400bhp and needless to say, top-notch engineering. The version in the KZ1 isn't completely standard though - this particular version of the engine has been beefed up for an extra 100bhp bringing the total tally to 500bhp, while the redline has increased from a meaty factory-spec 7k rpm to a screaming 8k rpm. All in all, you can be sure it makes for an entertaining drive, and with its snarling metallic howl, one that's guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of most any enthusiast.

And if performance is your breathless desire, then you need not to worry, the some 1400kg (fully loaded) KZ1 can sprint to 60 mph in just 4.1 seconds, clatter 100 in a little over 8.5 seconds and can easily breach the double-ton.

It all sounds marvellous, but of course, the real test of how good a car actually is translates unequivocally to how it drives on the road. Well, you needn't worry there, either, because the overwhelming consensus (our editor in that number) is that it's fantastic. The positive press from magazines never seems to differ. They all say the exact same thing - the car handles with premium precision; zero roll and pitch. The steering is quick, but not intensely so. EVO Magazine was quoted as saying: "there are hints of Esprit Sport 350 in its clean, crisp and tightly controlled roll and pitch, and as Lotus engineers were involved in the car's development this shouldn't come as a surprise". Its AP-sourced brake calipers do their job so well in terms of fending off any wear and tear, and it's suppleness through it's finely tuned chassis makes for an confidence-inspiring drive. In fact, that's where the KZ1's character comes to light. Unlike the vast majority of supercars which have a tendency to bite back, the Ascari manages to always stay controlled and well-planted; rarely does it feel as if it's going to spin out of control. It manages to bring the great goods without the touchy-feely attitude expected of most vehicles in this class. It is the opposite of temperamental, and in fact, is confidence-inspiring. It feels like it’s just not going to put a foot down wrong anywhere.

The overall result gives the car a feeling quite unlike anything else. And with the great confidence the car gives through its ability, it makes the car easier to control at the absolute limit – you don’t feel as if the car is conspiring to catch you out on every hard corner. And the track times it's achieved thus far certainly help to back that point up. When EVO magazine tested the car on the Bedford Autodrome earlier last year, it had little trouble keeping up with the best of them. And when Top Gear got their mitts on the KZ1 last year, it ran a lap time on their circuit just a few tenths behind that of the 600bhp Porsche Carrera GT. Its compact size and power-to-weight tactility truly make it a threatening force on any track.

So then, it would appear that the KZ1 is all marvellous and it's true, there are indeed very few categories where it does not succeed in being brilliant. But of course, no car is perfect and the Ascari's biggest vice happens to be its staggering price tag. In the United Kingdom, the vehicle will set you back - thanks to its various bespoke parts, exclusivity and carbon fibre body - £235,000. Now, at first glance that's not too bad considering a Pagani Zonda costs in excess of £400,000, but then reality sets in: the Pagani Zonda has an additional 100bhp to boot. That being said, the KZ1 is probably best compared against vehicles such as the Ferrari F430, Lamborghini Gallardo and Porsche 911 GT2. And after that, it doesn't take long to see the real issue at hand; those three vehicles offer the same power (if not more) and don't even breach £150K. And if you're willing to pay a tad under £200k, which is still quite a bit less than the KZ1, then you can have Lamborghini's flagship - the Murcielago LP640 - which boasts 640bhp (a full 140 more than the English Ascari). The KZ1 is not the pounds-to-performance value leader, that’s for certain.

Though, if you want extra power, and you have a generous trust fund, you can always go with the KZ1's alter ego, named the "A10".

In all intents and purposes, the A10 is essentially a KZ1 on a steady regimen of steroids. As is rather obvious, the vehicle is clearly based upon the KZ1, though is undoubtedly more shout-out-loud and head-turning in its looks. Whereas the KZ1 is calmly executed in its exterior styling, this super-exclusive version (just 50 are planned, with a price tag of £350,000) of the A10 is clearly aimed at clientele who wish they were really racing car drivers. With a low-set front end spoiler, a rather interesting pair of racing-like stripes, a fixed rear spoiler and an undertray more fitting on a race car than on a road car, it's clear that this is a different type of Ascari.

And the interior certainly re-affirms that. Rather being about bespoke luxury, the interior of the A10 is is no way apologetic for lacking any creature comforts. It's a race car equipped with a digital tachometer, an ugly steel steering wheel and patches of unfinished metals and carbon fibre around the cabin. So, it shouldn't come as any surprise that this particular version is not only lighter than the standard item, but considerably more powerful. With a kerbweight of tad under 1300kg collectively working with 600bhp, Ascari claims the A10 will hit the sixty mph mark in a shade under 3.0 seconds.

Now I must admit, I had a slight bit of reservation about this car when I first heard about it. Naturally, I had assumed that when Ascari made the 10, that they'd lose much of engineering finesse that the KZ1 had showcased, but it turns out that I was quite wrong (and happily so)!

The initial press reactions to the car were that it is indeed more hardcore, brash and loud, but that the vehicle hasn't lost any of its overall abilities. Despite the fact that it weighs as just about as much as a loaf of bread, and has a ride decisively more hardcore than the standard model, it still seems to offer the same driving ease. Suffice to say, it’s amazing that they've been able to do such a great blend of performance and driver-friendliness, and only further proves how much work has been put into their vehicles. Ridiculously expensive or not, they're truly wonderful. And that's all that matters to their lucky owners.

Oh, and did I mention that the A10 absolutely murdered every other car Top Gear has ever tested on their test track? (Koenigsegg’s and Zonda’s included). Just thought it might be important.


Friday, December 14, 2007

GT-R Meets Turbo

Courtesy of Edmunds - Inside Line

Wouldn't think twice about the subject: GT-R please!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Searching For An Alternative

By Bruce McCulloch

The 1960’s and the 1970’s were quite simply a wondrous time for enthusiasts. Especially for those who were looking for a classic British drop-top and in light of such, MG, Austin-Healey, Triumph and others offered vehicles which sated those sports car addictions.

The problem is, very few current British manufacturers have been able to succeed at creating anything with a similar philosophy, or additionally, the impact of those great originals. Let’s be honest, if you’re looking for any sports car that is truly British, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Even the all-encompassing Aston Martin isn’t a real ‘Brit’ anymore, neither is Rolls Royce, nor Bentley and if you’re absolutely determined to find something all-English, you’ll end up with TVR, who happens to make some of the most unreliable vehicles on the earth (and who also happen to be going down the toilet). The Morgan, of course, is an English motoring icon, but many of its components come from somewhere else at this point. The Morgan certainly qualifies as maintaining the intent of the British sportscar, but it was in a sparsely-populated category of just a few cars until recently.

Anyhow, you’re taking on a Herculean task at finding a real British sports-car these days, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find some others, like the Morgan, that at least genuinely invoke the true spirit of the British sports-car.

With that segue, I bring you the brand-new ‘Invicta S1’ - a car which just might fill the appetite of any true British sports car enthusiast. The first question might be, how so? Well, resurrecting an old brand is always a interesting (and sometimes effective) way to bring the customers in and as Canadian-born Tony Stelliga resurrected Marcos; wealthy businessman Malcolm Bristow has invested his own money into ‘Invicta’ hoping to recreate the glory days of a company which went bankrupt in 1933.

The original origins of this company hark back to 1925, when Sir Noel Campbell Macklin (a British racing driving hero among other things) decided he wanted to create a vehicle which would not only encompass the history of the British, but also a vehicle which would match the best of them from America. With that in mind, and with the able assistance of his sister-in-law, Miss Violet Cordery, Sir Macklin was able to push Invicta to many glorious achievements. With Cordery at the helm (who was a talented driver herself) of a 3-litre Invicta racecar, the Invicta was able to break a total of four world records and thirty-three Italian racing records at Monza (for their respective category).

With that being noted, you would expect the newly released ‘S1’ to carry the tradition of the brand’s heritage and I honestly think they’ve done a splendid job at doing so.

Bristow explains he was always a fan of the marque and its stylish S-Type sports racer and in order to recreate the glory days, he wants the ‘new’ Invicta to live up to their original slogan: "The Most Wonderful Performance in the World".

In order to do so, Bristow knew he needed a car which would not only serve it’s purpose as a performance vehicle, but also as a grand tourer – something which would truly live up to the 4.5 litre ‘Tourer’ of 1928. With that, the requirements for a GT (especially an Invicta model) demanded good visibility, good ergonomics; a large trunk, a large fuel tank, as well as ground-breaking technological features which enhance its performance. The Invicta rebirth project officially started in the mid 2000’s, and by the time late 2006 arrived they had completed a vehicle which they believed was worthy of the original name plate.

For starters, the S1’s designer (Leigh Adams) was asked to reach back into Invicta’s heritage and style a car with timeless lines and classic cues, but of course – easier said than done. Without a doubt, the S1’s design provokes mixed reactions. Some love it and some don’t, but for the record - I reckon it looks pretty damn excellent.

I’m not sure what the majority of car enthusiasts will relate it to, but British car magazine EVO was quoted as saying it looked like “a melted Aston Martin”. Without a doubt I can see what they’re talking about. The whole vehicle seems quite reminiscent of the ’99 Aston Martin Vantage 600. From a rear-end point of view, there’s most certainly a degree of current-generation Maserati coupe, and, did you happen to notice that the tail-lamps come directly from the last-generation Volkswagen Passat?

The interior is yet another styling aspect of this car which will invoke different reactions. Evident is the attempt at recreating the ‘classic British GT’, but what is also noticeable is the use of the outsourced Ford air vents which grace the centre console. Nonetheless, it’s got everything you need (and probably want) in a GT car. Items such as a: heated front and rear window screen, electric windows, Recaro seats with electrical operation and heating, SatNav and Radio/CD are all standard on the S1.

One thing that’s guaranteed to deceive automotive enthusiasts who haven’t seen the Invicta in person is the sheer size of this vehicle. In photos it all looks rather normal - rather Porsche 911-sized. However, it isn’t. The side-to-side size of the car is just huge. Just as an example, due to the enormous width of the S1, Invicta can easily modify the rear bulkhead for an extra two seats for customers who wish to travel four-up.

When I say “enormous width”, just how enormous is it, you might ask? For comparison, the Invicta is a few inches shorter than a Porsche 997 Carrera S in terms of length, but at 84.0 inches wide across the back, the Invicta is not only wider than most other cars on the market, but also wider than most cars, period. A 997 Carrera is a mere 71.2 inches wide, a Porsche Carrera GT is 75.6 inches in width and even the Lamborghini Murcielago (which is considered among the widest of roadcars at 80.4 inches) is easily covered by the massive rump of the Invicta. This could be Sir Mix-a-Lot’s favourite ride.

Now, as I mentioned in a previous article, I feel that one of the major reasons for the various bad things that have been happening with TVR is the philosophy of keeping them ‘all-Britannia’ (i.e., no outsourcing). With that criticism in mind, I am glad to see that Bristow has done much outsourcing, but unlike some of the others in this segment, not for the sole reason of saving every penny. The outsourcing contracts which have occurred have all been given to companies which high credibility and well known quality, and have not been awarded on a “low-bid” basis. For instance, the gorgeous 5-spoke alloys have been outsourced by an Italian company by the name of ‘APP’ – this well respected firm also makes the alloys on the Pagani Zonda F (a mid-engine, 600bhp Italian exotic). Meanwhile, the big braking system has been outsourced from well known ‘AP’, who has customers like Aston Martin, etc.

The determination to bring only high quality to Invicta’s customers is further evident to the discerning observer as the entire body of this vehicle is made from carbon fibre and consists of an inner and an outer moulding; meanwhile, the floor pan and under tray combined with the bulkheads have all been built as a single massive component. The carbon fibre itself has been bonded to a steel space frame chassis consisting of 40mm square section steel tubing; including a tubular steel roll cage which allows a complete chassis weight of only 160kg. The entire production process ensures the chassis has super rigidity and light construction. In fact, Invicta boasts (and rightly so) that the British government stated that the S1 has the strongest chassis they've ever tested.

With that being noted, Invicta says the S1 is a super-lightweight GT. Still, at 1,380kg it isn’t exactly all that lightweight. On the positive side, it’s a good 40kg lighter than a Porsche 997 Carrera S, but sadly a massive 140kg heavier than a Wiesmann GT, another specialty sports car manufacturer.

This leads us to the next important aspects of the Invicta, the performance. For starters, there are three different models which one can purchase - the ‘S1-320’, the ‘S1-420’ and the ‘S1-600’. One thing that is guaranteed for all three is that you’ll be getting the same 4.6 litre V8 you find in the Ford Mustang. Such an engine was chosen as it boasts good reliability, excellent parts availability, it is just about burst-proof and you have the possibility of various tuning levels. The base model, (the ‘S1-320’) gets you exactly what the name suggests - 320bhp and backing that up is a hardy 300lb-ft of torque, all available down low if you want it, like most American V8 engines. With such power combined with its low kerbweight, Invicta claims 0-60 in just 5.0 seconds dead and with that, there’s no doubt this car will have no problem fighting off something along the lines of an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. If one feels such power to be insufficient, the doughty ‘S1-420’ and ‘S1-600’ have the added advantage of a supercharger and in turn, turn out 420bhp and 600bhp respectively – with the latter running 60 mph in just 3.8 seconds.

So, yes, this car sounds marvellously engineered; and very fast, but is it like a lot of specialty cars that require the driver to be a contortionist? Well, according to Sports Car International magazine, quite the opposite, except for some small positioning problems. Apparently, ingress to the S1 is just as easy as any other car; although unfortunately they felt the pedals were set up for drivers with extremely small feet (hey, just like the British cars of the Sixties!) and the fact that the super-wide transmission tunnel forces the driver to sit just a bit canted to the side detracts a bit from the driving experience. On another downside they felt the gas and the brake pedal are a little closely coupled together. This is definitely sounding more like a British sports car from the past, eh?

On the road though, they thought the S1 felt solid and extremely strong and even though they thought the width was intimidating, they were quoted as saying the handling was superb; the nose goes were you want and regardless of being power assisted, the steering feel was great and accurately weighted. They also praised the chassis which they thought was quite compliant and didn’t jiggle over bumps. All in all, when you’re driving quickly, it helps to have a car underneath you that was obviously built to be a confidence-inspiring GT car.

Aside from a few ergonomics issues it’s clear that the S1 is an alluring all-purpose coupe in standard fitment, and as stated before, if you want a bespoke 2+2, none of the attraction goes away. My biggest issue with the S1 is the MSRP (tax included) which starts at a whopping £106,000 for the S1-320 and £150,000 for the S1-600. Nonetheless, I think it’s an enticing car worthy of attention, particularly if want stunning performance that is coupled with a unique name and appearance.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Rolls - Why Bother?

By Bruce McCulloch

For those of you who follow the high-end market, you might recall the fact that Rolls Royce released a special edition of their flagship Phantom saloon a couple of weeks ago at the Middle East motor show in Dubai. The new edition– coined the “Phantom Tungsten” - of the already amazing Phantom saloon promises a new level of exclusivity for Rolls Royce customers, and with just 20 planned, it’s hard to argue with the premise of exclusivity.

Aside from the regular goodies of approximately 10,000 paint shades to choose from, a 6.75 litre 12-cylinder with over 400bhp and top-notch craftsmanship, the Tungsten offers a good dose of specialty items which are exclusive to this monster of a car. Aside from it’s paint colour – which as the name suggests, is ‘Xirallic’ Tungsten – the vehicle’s exterior comes equipped with: a brushed aluminum bonnet; seven-spoke 21 inch forged aluminum alloys and a set of chrome-plated, stainless steel exhaust pipes which help to complete the stylistic fashion statement which this car is.

Rolls Royce Phantom Tungsten

Mind you, the interior additions are no less impressive. Inside, the car is bespoke with supple grey leather which contrasts with navy blue hides and naturally, features straight-grained East Indian rosewood veneer to further appeal to the car’s expected clientele. And if that wasn’t enough, the roof of the vehicle emulates a star-lit sky with a headliner which features some 800 fiber-optic lights.

Suffice to say, it’s all highly impressive. One could even argue that there is in fact no way to travel in better luxury; implying that that this new Phantom Tungsten is at the top of the motoring heap. I don’t think so, though – not even the least bit. Now, don’t get me wrong, I highly respect this vehicle’s prime craftsmanship, unique sense of style and praised motoring heritage, but I happen to think the Phantom is not at the top of the heap. Nor do I think the respective Bentley models – the Arnage and the Flying Spur – or, any of the Maybach range is deserving of such a title.

Quite frankly, I think the times have the changed and many of these highly regarded luxury saloons aren’t quite as superior to other automobiles as they once were. For instance, if you look back into the 1970’s, vehicles such as Rollers and Bentley were pretty much unparalleled. Sure, some of the higher-end luxury Mercedes-Benz models were indeed more technologically advanced, but they still lacked that sense of honour and prestige. If you were to buy a Rolls Royce back in the hey-day, you were undoubtedly getting something that was unmatched; unmatched in terms of history, in terms of craftsmanship and most certainly in terms of customization.

Now-a-days, I’m not sure. I’m not so sure if the modern range of Bentley is all that special, all that sophisticated. And if you look at the situation through the eyes of the consumer, it’s little wonder why. With the high-end market demand literally increasing by the day, what is instantly noticeable is that even lesser manufacturers are having to go all-out to impress customers. Thus meaning, many of these high-end luxury barges are now equipped with most everything any customer could want.

Look at it this way – the Phantom Tungsten’s trades off the casual one-piece rear-seat bench in turn for two fully power-operated and controlled seat units. And naturally, the same can be said for the entire Maybach range. Problem is, those once highly-unique separated seats are no longer, well, unique. Should you demand to travel in such comfort, look no further than the Mercedes-Benz S550 which offers a package for this exact specification at $2,920. And if the Japanese are more your style, don’t fret, because the Lexus offers a package for $3,620 on their flagship LS which not only boasts the power operation, but seats which also offer power headrests, memory, and even side airbags.

Additionally, you might be surprised to find that a Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG offers absolutely no less than a Bentley Flying Spur. For example, a Mercedes-Benz S offers “Keyless Go” as standard, but on the Flying Spur it is merely an option. And the Bentley is not available with “Night View” (a night vision system), distronic cruise control, active ventilated front seats, or ambient interior lighting. Now, I’m not saying that the Bentley is inferior to a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, I am, however, saying that the Bentley is not in any way more sophisticated or special.

And when it comes to toddling around town, a vast array of questions come to the fore. Yes, the Rolls Royce is a comfy car and it’s quiet, but is it really any better than the garden-variety high-end luxury saloon? I think not, and English journalists Quentin Wilson said the exact thing when testing the Phantom some years ago. He said that though the Phantom is quiet, it’s not quieter than a Lexus LS, nor any smoother than a Jaguar XK.

And if quality is a major concern of yours, then I’m sorry, but I cannot completely agree that any of these prestige badges are superior to that of other luxury manufacturers. In my experience with the Bentley range, I have come to the conclusion that a Flying Spur is not in any way better-built than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or a Lexus LS. I feel that the Bentley, while indeed impressively built, still lacks the finely tailored shut lines of a Lexus LS, and the general interior build of a Mercedes-Benz S-class.

Mercedes-Benz S550 AMG package (top); Lexus LS600h (bottom)

And if great power and speed is of high priority to you, then, once again, I’m sorry to say, most of the “regular” luxury vehicles are more or less on par:

Cylinders/HP/lb-ft of torque:

Mainstream Luxury:

Lexus LS600h: 8/438 (total output)/ NA
Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG: 12/604/738
Mercedes-Benz S600: 8/510/612
Audi S8: 10/450/398
BMW 760i: 12/438/44

Exclusive Luxury:

Rolls Royce Phantom: 12/453/531
Maybach 62S: 12/604/738
Bentley Flying Spur: 12/560/479
Bentley Arnage T: 8/450/640

Evidently, the exclusive luxury group has the slight favour in terms of power, but because they weigh as much as iron boats, their performance notably suffers. Mind you, that’s not to say they are slow by any means, but more handicapped as the mainstream luxury is most always lighter. So if performance is a top priority, the mainstream gives nothing to the exclusive posh brands.

And need I say, these things don’t come without a price. Should you want a Flying Spur, be prepared to pay $169,990 (USD), should you want a Phantom you’ll need to dig up $333,350 and should you want a Maybach 52S, you’ll need to cough up $377,000 (422k for the 62S!!)

The others, you ask? Well, you can have an Audi S8 for “just” $93,300, a Lexus LS600h for $104,000 and at the height of the pike, $194,775 for a Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG. True, it’s still eye-wateringly expensive, but undercuts the most expensive car here – the Maybach 62S – by some 230k.

In fairness, I must admit that, by and large, high-end brands such as Rolls Royce and Bentley do have a notable advantage over such brands as Audi and Lexus. That advantage being - as you probably guessed – their exclusivity, heritage and status cue in automotive history. This is indeed where brands such as Roller and Bentley are pretty much unmatched. Thus meaning in the eyes of some, the particular aura of allure that they flaunt is beyond reproach. It must be said, for a wealthy entrepreneur, few things will garnish you as much attention, and you’ll even be able to go to the pub and say: “I’ve got a Roller, how about you?” And in that right alone, brands such as Rolls and Bentley are the clear choice – assuming you can afford the premium – for most.

Me, you ask? Badge-bragging has never been a hobby of mine – so I’ll take one of the “lesser” vehicles and pocket the cash. Don’t get me wrong, I think vehicles such as the Phantom are truly wonderful, but I seriously question the real value of the purchase of one.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Engine Wars

By Bruce McCulloch

I think most agree with me when I say that a great engine is most definitely one of the top priorities in any sports car. Whether it is a Lotus, or a Ferrari, it makes little difference. Obviously, an engine is much of what gives a vehicle’s it character. Drive a BMW M5 for instance and you’ll immediately notice it’s eagerness to rev; drive an AMG Mercedes, however, and you instantly notice it’s character is much more thundering and ultimately, more muscular.

In a supercar, there very few things which are as illustrious and electrifying as the engine. Few things can match the blistering speed, pulsation of the horsepower coupling with the torque and of course, the loud mechanical howl the engine gives off during operation. Needless to say, it’s a sensation which few things can match.

That all being said, let us take the time to examine two extreme supercar engines which quite frankly, share little in common beside the fact that they help to power amazing machines.

Porsche Carrera GT – 5.7 litre, 10-Cylinder

The anecdote behind the Carrera GT’s 10-cylinder engine is a particularly interesting one. Originally developed to be fitted to a future LeMans race car, the project was ended nearly as fast as it was conceived. Thanks to ever-tightening emissions regulations throughout the racing world, Porsche engineers were essentially forced to throw the project away, or until it could serve its purpose elsewhere. And in 1999, the plan to fit the engine into a concept car called the “Carrera GT” – which first debuted at the Paris Motor show in ’00 – came to life.

Originally, the car had been a mere concept, but excited Porsche fans meant that Porsche soon saw the Potential to produce the Carrera GT as a road vehicle. But before they could do so, they realized that the basic engine would just not do; not only was it not passing emissions, but it was after all, a racing engine. Not smooth, or road worthy by any means and thus leading Porsche engineers back to the drawing board to make a number of modifications to make the engine more suitable for the road.

The first of many changes which the 10-cylinder motor endured was an increase in capacity displacement. The original engine had boasted just 5.0 litres, but for the road version of the engine, engineers saw fit to increase the displacement, thus ultimately allowing the engine’s maximum torque load to increase.

Additionally, the original (approximately) 10,000 rpm redline was notably reduced not only because it didn’t pass air-emissions regulations, but also because of its inability to meet noise-level regulations and added unwanted cockpit vibration.

And thanks to a series of brilliantly-engineered emissions control systems and an on-board diagnostics setup that continually monitored the exhaust system, the Carrera GT passed 2004 regulation standards with flying colours. In addition, each of the two cylinder banks has its own exhaust system in which two sets of catalytic converters are operated. From thereon, a cross-flow system helps to cool each cylinder which in turn always keeps the engine at a moderate temperature.

Tidbit: The engines cylinders are coated with a combination of nickel and silicon to reduce wear.

So from a technical standpoint, this engine is most certainly a Porsche product. It’s an engine which showcases some 70 years of motorsport history and advancement. On the other hand, the 10-cylinder also happens to be quite unlike any other Porsche engine we’ve ever seen. Rather than relying on forced induction – like many Porsches before – the Carrera GT’s character is defined through its ability to feed off it’s revs, and like any true race car, it does it damn well. With a maximum redline of 8,400 revolutions per minute and some 600bhp working collectively with 435lb-ft of torque peaking at 5,700 rpm, the Carrera GT’s engine is unique. Sure, there have been numerous (great) attempts from other such manufacturers like Ferrari at creating an engine which will rev to no-end, but this motor is pretty much unparalleled when taken as a whole.

Weighing a slim 205kg (or 452lbs) and boasting a compression ratio of 12.0:1, the engine acts in a way which is very much reminiscent to a racing car. Feeding on the gobs of torque available at high revs, while still retaining a great deal of road-worthy torque, its speed and ability to rev is seemingly endless. English “Top Gear” journalist, “Jeremy Clarkson” probably said it best when he said: “it’s like it’s in vacuum”.

And when it comes to toddling around, what’s immediately notable about the 10-cylinder motor in this car is that it lacks inertia when it’s revved. If you rev it a stop light, for instance, you’ll notice how the engine has no carry over and by that I’m referring to how engine responds when you let your foot off the throttle. The way in which the engine responds to throttle modulation is undoubtedly unique as it has no inertia. It’s hard to explain, but more understandable if you have knowledge of motorsport - think Formula One car.

Frankly, few engines are as interesting or intoxicating as this one. One of the best engines ever made? You bet.


5733cc (5.7 litres) 10 Cylinders, 90 degree
Aspirated: Naturally
Bore & Stroke: 98.0mm x 76.0mm
Compression Ratio: 12.0:1
DOHC, 4VPC (40 total valves), VarioCam
Redline: 8,400 revolutions per minute

612 PS (604bhp) @ 8,000 rpm; 590Nm (435lb-ft) of torque @ 5,750 rpm
105.9 bhp/litre

Bugatti Veyron – 8.0 litre, 16-Cylinder

“A 16-cylinder engine in a road-legal sports car? Don’t be obtuse.”

Quite frankly, that was most people’s reaction to the concept version of the Veyron. Most people thought it was an obvious recipe for disaster, and as the project was continually delayed, most thought their assumptions about such were correct. Mind you, many people hadn’t put any consideration into the fact that the automotive world had in fact seen numerous 16-cylinder engines – albeit less powerful – before. In fact, the origins of the 16-cylinder engine go far back as 1927 with Howard Marmon and “Marmon” motorcars that developed the world’s first 16-cylinder engine. Shortly thereafter, prestigious luxury brands such as “Cadillac” and “Peerless” – with the help of Marmon engineers, naturally - followed.

And in the last two decades, Cizeta Motorcars released the Cizeta-Moroder V16T which featured, as its name suggested, a 16-cylinder. But, unlike previous engines with such cylinder configurations, the Cizeta’s engine was technically not an authentic 16-cylinder. Instead, it was assembled with two Ferrari flat plane V8’s, mounted transversely, with the gearbox mounted between the two providing the vehicle’s longitudinal transmission layout.

And when Cizeta was developing the V16T, they hadn’t to worry about excessive over-heating as: A) it was an Italian company and thus expected, and, B) boasted a “mere” 560bhp.

With the Veyron, the plan had always been to create something with some 1000bhp and as a result, the development of this particular engine took engineers not only years to perfect, but a seemingly endless amount of cash.

It must be said, though, the end result truly is spectacular.

At the starting grid, engineers were faced with one ever-present problem: how to actually assemble such an engine. In the early 1930’s and 1940’s, Bugatti’s assembly of a 16-cylinder had been to essentially put two in-line 8-cylinder engines beside each other, but wanting to keep the engine compact, the current engineers knew this was not the solution.

When assembling the Veyron engine, Bugatti choose to merge two regular Volkswagen-sourced 8-cylinders to make one engine, and then add the daunting task of letting the two engines share the same crankshaft; a risky, but effective, gamble. The end result is not a "V16", but rather a "W16" And like Volkswagen’s W12, it’s amazingly compact. Measuring just 710 mm (27 inches) in length, 889 mm (35 inches) in width and 730 mm (28.7 inches) height, the Veyron’s engine is smaller than most conventional 12-Cylinders.

So, with the initial blueprints in place, it was time for Bugatti to actually look at the numerous ways in which they could achieve their target figure of “1000” horsepower. And actually, achieving such horsepower a figure wasn’t as hard as you might think. Aside from the obvious power boosters – displacement, variable valve timing, etc – Bugatti realized that the addition of forced induction was probably the most efficient way to produce power. So, that’s exactly what they did – they added a few turbochargers, but not jut two, oh no, four to be exact; all of which pound out 18 PSI and collectively work in constant rotation to avoid turbo lag.

Tidbit: the 1993 Bugatti EB110 also featured a total of 4 turbochargers, though connected to a conventional V12 rather than a high-tech 16-Cylinder.

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest issues with the preliminary project was cooling the engine. And as a result, the big Bugatti not only features a dry sump lubrication system based upon those seen in Formula One vehicles, but an elaborate internal oil path to ensure proper lubrication and cooling to all 16 cylinders. Additionally, the Veyron’s engine has 10 (yes, 10) different radiator systems: 3 for the engine cooling system; 1 heat exchanger for the air-to-liquid intercoolers; 2 for the air conditioning; 1 for the transmission oil; 1 for the differential oil; 1 conventional oil radiator and last, but certainly not least, a hydraulic oil radiator for the flashy retractable spoiler at the rear.

And when it’s all combined together, it makes for an engine character quite unlike anything else on four wheels. Its character, you ask? Well, it's reminiscent to a thundering fighter plane; it’s not peaky, nor zippy, it's just an atomic weapon of surging power.

It must be said, if the Starship Enterprise actually existed, this is what would power it.


7993cc (8.0 litres) 16 Cylinders, 90 degree
Aspiration: quad Turbocharged
Bore & Stroke: N/A
Compression Ratio: 9.0:1
DOHC, 4VPC (64 total valves), Variable Valve Timing
Redline: 6,500 revolutions per minute

987bhp (1001PS) @ 6,000 rpm; 922lb-ft (1250nm) of torque @ 2,220
123.7 bhp/litre


As for drawing a direct technological comparison between the two engines, I think I tip my hat to the Veyron's 16-cylinder, as it truly is one of kind. Just for the fact that there has never been an engine like it before, makes it a legend. In a project that started off completely beyond common-sense, Bugatti (or Volkswagen if you wish - ouch!) engineers have perfected something utterly ridiculous, but beautiful. They've created an engine with not just one, but four turbochargers, 16-cylinders and ultimately, something sporting some 1000 horsepower. It's an incredible feat.

Though in all fairness, the Porsche's 10-cylinder isn't - if at all - far behind. Because, sure, the Carrera GT's motor might not have the same amount of colossal power, but taken as a whole, it's most probably the closest thing to a racing engine ever offered in a road car. And that being said, I actually prefer the Porsche engine to the Bugatti's. It may not have 1000 horsepower, but surely 600 ponies are enough and with the addition of its racing character, it makes the Bugatti's engine look a little dull.