Friday, September 30, 2011

The Mercedes I've always loved

Every one that reads this blog knows just how much I hate Mercedes. But there is a catch to that statement. In truth I hate 99% of Mercedes.
But I also absolutely love 1 couple of Mercedes. They're just too brilliant and so good that today's Mercedes don't even stand a chance in comparison.

Is one of the car's that I absolutely adore. And it's a Mercedes. It is, however a Mercedes built like no other Mercedes. Following a line of thought long gone in the company and (to everyone's surprise), it all began with the brilliant idea of an american car salesman. That's right! The best Mercedes ever to hit a selling stand, did so because of an american.

The Begining
As most brilliant car's, it all begun in the race track, with a race oriented design.

A Tubular Space-Frame chassis. Light enough to be lifted by a single man and stiff to endure competition, it was also extremely difficult to repair...but then again, in competition you usually replace instead of repairing.
Front independent Suspension with double wishbones

Rear independent Suspension with sway axle

The Engine is another point that goes straight to my heart. An inline 6, 3 liter almost full cubed, naturally aspirated gasoline engine.In order to fit the car, it hat to be mounted in a 45degree angle.
It produced 215bhp with carburettors from 1954 to 1957, and then 225bhp in it's mechanically fuel injected version from 1957 to 1963.
If you are not impressed yet, grab your calculator! That means 75bhp/liter in 1957... today's 300SLS does a very modest 91bhp/liter (a 1999 honda S2000 pumps out 120bhp/liter in it's most modest version).
NOW THAT WAS an engine.

The Body came in several options. Either partially aluminium or full aluminium. It was designed with aero-dynamics in mind and it was just beautiful. The "gullwing" doors that made it's name were actually a clever engineering solution to go around the chassis pedigree. You see, the chassis had several structural integrity beams passing thought the car's sides all the way to the back. That made conventional doors impossible to place without compromising the structural integrity. So engineers came up with the brilliant gullwing door design.
And that's another thing to love about the car. Not the wing design, but rather the so much more important way-of-thought behind it: The non-compromise design of the car. If it's a sports car than everything that is not essentially sports oriented, is second. Today, they build the CLK cabrio that lacks stiffness in order to maintain "design".

The transmission was a 4 speed manual and could be brought with 5 final gear ratios. That would make the car's top speed range from 235km/h (1:3.64) to 260km/h (1:3.25)...again, in the 50's.

The interior was simple and spartan. Today's Mercedes lack the first.

Production was German and that's all there is to say about it. If today's cars are well built all around the world, back then you could only have this level of quality in either Germany or Japan.

Repairing this car today requires very skilled craftsman and is very expensive.

From the track to the road
New York Mercedes distributor Max Hoffman, Daimler-Benz's official importer in the USA, suggested to DBAG management in Stuttgart that a street version of the 300SL would be a commercial success, especially in America. He then manage to place 1000 orders and pulled the project all the way to production.
This is pure american entrepreneurship and vision...and bless him for that.

So now you know why I love this car so much... why most cars I love have a competition background...and why I hate most cars today...being the majority of them Mercedes. Just like Honda apparently lost their edge, and Toyota too... Mercedes also lost theirs long long ago. Let's hope the new A-class open a breach into their stiff german minds and let some sense through.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Test Drive - The Megane Mk2 1.5Dci Break

I've been testing all sorts of vehicles lately, during this phase (My beloved s2000 is stopped in the garage waiting for a wheel bearing replacement), I've had the chance to fully test some cars that, by personal option, would never ever have otherwise.
One of these was a Renault Megane II Brake.
The Megane has always been a difficult car for me.It has a very good chassis and for the first time in Renault's history is established the safety euroNCap benchmark for the segment. But that design is just sooo bad that I would never consider to buy one.
There is something else about Renaults and me: The smell. The smell from the new car's is just enough to make me vomit and even though this was an old one, it had leader interior and it still smelled the way I hate.
Ignoring this fact, I was very surprised to feel that the 1.5Dci 105Ps engine with almost 200.000km on the clock was more than capable of pulling that big ass and still feel like a car. And I already had tested 100.000km exemplars like this that stood for the good built quality announced since the Mk1 megane, but 200.000 is pushing it. And still no noises or rattles, plenty of torque and power, and if you like the smell, it still lived on :S

Driving it is another new experience to me. The car feels solid but not as solid as the 116d bmw. It's a lot more comfortable and you can feel just how long it is by the stability of ahead movement and it's delay on biting the bends. However, passing the initial stubbornness, it turns and is sharp. Not brilliant but very acceptable. Driving position is excellent and I felt that the seats could offer more lateral support, making clear that the car turns far better that the seats are expecting to have to hold.
It takes time to get used to the key-less thing, but it's not as bad as I expected.
The stereo unit has a 6cd changer plus a full independent cd unit with mp3 capability. The sound is not even close to the standard bmw unit but it's decent.
The hand brake seems like a very good solution to allow arm-travel and still have a solid arm-rest.

The boot is just huge. I once was able to load a FULL bedroom and living-room furniture inside a megane (Ikea furniture) + 2 adults.

It's a very good car and price-quality just blows competitors away. If only it looked better and smell better...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Test Drive - The BMW 116d Review

The 1 series is no news for me, I've tested it almost immediately after release and I've tested only diesel's to date (the problem of being Portuguese).
Now all the test's I've done so far indicated the there was something excellent and something odd to the 1series (ok, besides the horrible looks). However, most tests conducted were just too quick to actually figure everything out. The 116D and 118D always seemed strange somehow.
The chassis was evidently easy to figure out, and it's very good. But there was something else I didn't quite like and I've always classified it to have a bad driving position.

This time I've been testing a 116D with 81000km on the clock. And with this mileage, first impressions were very good. The car feels tight and firmly put together, but then again, it's a beemer...I wasn't expecting anything less. It's however an entry level beemer and the decorative plastics imitating aluminium feel cheap. They feel however as cheap now as they did back when the car was built...and that's good.
The engine feels torky enough to move without falling asleep, but clearly lacks punch, and although it does get to 220km/h, it takes forever to get there after the 180km/h mark. Still, what makes me hate the engine the most is the chassis brilliance.
You see, this little beemer is very agile and the chassis is very well balanced. It is incisive and light in moving the nose into the bends, requires very little lift-off to point the car into apex (even on the tightest bends), and though the engine has little grunt, it does allow enough torque to let of the rear in a poised and plenty feedback manner.... it's soooo easy to grab the sweet-spot and just stay there for the day while you cook tires and laugh your pants out. To do this, of course, you need to turn off the EXCESSIVELY intrusive and annoying Stability Control. I would just say that the stability control system should be directly connected to the wind-shield wipers sensor, and ONLY turn on under rainy weather. Honest! At least with these michelin "wannabe tires" rubber, it's clearly not a chassis to drive fast on bad weather without stability control.
This chassis is so dynamic, that you clearly understand why an M version. You can literally steer the car with slide and acceleration and minimal counter-steer. To do this however, you not only need to kill the stability control system, you also need an engine. And I'm not talking diesel, or petrol with turbo... I mean a real engine with instant a 4 ou 6 cylinder in-line atmospheric engine with independent throttle bodies and more bore than stroke design. It's such a petty to feel that you go around the bends and you step and let-off the gas so fast as the chassis is asking for, but the lazy diesel unit doesn't even notice it. This car just made me hate diesels even more than I already had!
In a word, that chassis is brilliant, fun and very composed. Selling this car with diesel engines is criminal.

Now for the bad part. That driving position thing.
Sure the car has a bad driving position. The pedals are not aligned correctly, Looks like the car is built to cruise instead of going fast in a decent country road (making it inconsistent with the chassis). The left foot rest is too deep and make the reaching for the clutch complicated and the foot gets stuck behind the clutch pedal far too many times. The clutch pedal travel should also be cut to half of what it is. The brake pedal is too high and this makes the left-foot braking and heel-toe Oddly complicated. The steel wall on the right side of the gas pedal is just too close to the pedal and this makes the heel-toe really difficult. In conclusion, I HOPE the M is VERY different in than the standard one.
The entire pedal assembly is far into the car, and this would be nice, but the steering wheel and console is relatively close to the wind-shield glass and that forces you into a position where you either have a clear sight on the road ahead but you'd be hitting the roof of the car with your head, or a good foot to pedal position and wouldn't see the front of the car; However you can never have both.
One should say : why never both?! Cause there is another truth about that car that spoils everything else. The horrible looks. You see, that wind-shield glass and it's angle towards the roof and it's cut-in-half way of being, not only looks ugly, it also prevents you to have a racing like erect seat position without slamming your head against the roof. I can't imagine how BMW allowed something like this. It's just too bad. I've seen ugly cars built for function-over-design the fiat multipla. I've seen cars with the design-over-function purpose like... well like almost the rest of italian cars. But this is the first time I've seen a bad design spoil function :S
This continues in the interior with the door handles being too beefy and spoiling access to storage immediately below it.
However, the interior lights are placed inside small tubes that are fit deep into the plastics, allowing for a very relaxing and comfortable lighting of the car's interior with enough power to actually see anything without tearing your eyes like most cars do.

Besides the very good and very bad features, the car feels fine. It's hard and stiff without being unpleasant, it's stereo and dials are well sorted out and with good overall quality.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Test Drive - Citroen C4 Picasso 2.0HDI CMP Exclusive review

I'm living strange days in my life. After my second wheel bearing (rear right one this time) gone out, I just had to drive my S2000 (again) under 40km/h.
If you've never drove a car with a bad bearing, then let me just say that the first km is torture.... after that you tell your secrets to the car and beg him to stop... but he doesn't...a full 5 km's and you start thinking just how beautiful pillars and concrete walls are and just how attractive they seem.
It's bad, in a standard's even worse times1000 in a sports car. First because the car wasn't meant to drive slow and ultimately because it has little or none acoustic shields so you almost feel the steel grinding your bottom.
Anyway, having to endure this torture for around 2 full weeks (yup, that's it... you see Portugal is a country enduring a severe economical crisis, but still every mechanic and lathe crafts-man takes a good vacation :S no wonder we have crisis), it finally started poping and that meant stop or get ready to crash.
So I just HAD to stop. And what just happened to be waiting to be sold in the garage: the Citroen C4 Picasso.
And so the Picasso's test drive of her life happened.

First impression
It's just massive...big....big in the school bus kind of way, massive as in so damn high and soft and heavy that the clumsiness is unavoidable. Evidently, the other half of that coin is excellent comfort and versatility. Now I've tested some big things most call cars, like the but ugly Peugeot 3008, the once stupid looking and now worse Qashqai, and some other new "it has wheels but it's not car" stuff. Out of the bunch, this one eclipses the rest when it comes to comfort. All the rear seats are independent, they slide frontwards or backwards, they adjust their angle so you can either sit straight or lay back, they fold independently and something interesting, with 130.000km these looked like new. In fact the car looked like it has 30.000 and not 130.000km.

Driver and passenger are entitled to full independent sofa-like seats with arm-rest and adjustable heating.
Suspension is one of it's best characteristics. As expected from Citroen, it's comfortable and soft enough to digest road bumps, but still firm enough to allow control of all that body.
Thow it's competent, it's not able to bend the laws of physics; and all that body constructed in hight produces roll, and a sensation of going to tip over in a hard corner, but since this is a minivan, I immediately concluded that this was not meant to drive, but rather carry people.
That immense clumsy handling made-me extra careful. That was, however annoying because I was driving a Citroen, and I'm used to feel a lively and dynamic chassis under everything they build.
There was however another behaviour that made me think twice about the chassis: the way the gearbox is programmed.
The Picasso 2.0 HDI is equipped with the 2.0hdi known from everything from the Peugeot's, Citroen's, Volvo's, Mazda's, Ford's. It's good and flexible, but it's also kinda hungry. This comes fixed to a Robotic Manual 6speed transmission with clutch control. That is one of the downsides of the picasso. The gearbox is the standard 6speed you find in any car coupled with that engine, but the robotization makes the already clumsy driving something completely unacceptable.
Under normal acceleration, the gearbox shift happens slowly and in the cut gas, clutch, shift, clutch, re-gas sequence, this makes the huge moving body roll forward, duck, still, than up again and under power. It's everything but relaxing for both passengers and driver, rendering that full comfort package useless. Under heavy acceleration, the car pushes the engine far beyond it's optimal torque's agonizing to ear a diesel trying to rev like a gas vtec engine that it will never be (it will however die trying if you push-it).
The kick-down is also very odd. The gearbox, basically shifts down once, twice, making it a gas-off,clutch, shift, clutch, power-on and backoff again, clutch, shift, clutch, power.... it's so bad and takes so many ages that you rather just brake and let the others pass.
However it does have a good feature. If you step vigorously on the gas and the step-off, the car doesn't shift-up! It stays exactly here you left-off with the engine screaming like a pig. At first my reaction was "this gearbox option really is the worse thing on earth", but then it happened again on a roundabout...and I liked it. You see under all that "I'm a school bus" thing, there is a pretty good chassis.
The fact that the gearbox doesn't shift up on lift-off makes the huge weight movement very easy and this will unsettle the chassis and let go the rear. Brilliant! I found myself doing bends with a little tail slide on "the school-bus".
The ESP is another good thing. It's very little intrusive and allows tail slides of some degree.
After a full week of C4 picasso, I give-it a good mark. The car is very well built and the interiors are pleasant an comfortable. It's huge but very good to cohabit. The rear suspension with auto-levelling features is very well thought and it's helpful if you need to transport something big and heavy into it's boot.
Pity the excessive weight and that horrible gearbox.
Breaking is good and the engine has enough power to pull it up to 200km/h. It climbs effortlessly to 170km/h and takes forever from that point onward. However, after 150km/h the car is over it's comfortable zone (at least on our Portuguese roads) and the soft suspension and heavy body creates too much "fluctuation" sensation... but then again, you don't want to go faster than that with your kids inside anyway.

Versatility doesn't end here! You get rear window curtains for the 2 rear glasses and the main back glass, full panoramic front wind-shield. The rear door opens and allows you to access a generous boot with a button to level up or down the rear suspension and allow you to load heavy loads with less "back damage", an always charged and ready to pop-out-and-use flash-light and a full trolley with thermal bag and specific clamps to hold your fresh shopping in place.
Talking about fresh, there is a refrigerator in the middle of the console so that box driver and passenger car enjoy their fresh soda.

Conclusions: Definitely not my thing...but thinking of a family "school run" car, the picasso is a very good option. The 180.000km and 130.000km exemplars I've tested revealed excellent built quality and materials. The electronic gizmo's and full extras aid the comfort and, ignoring the shifts bumps till 6th speed, cruising in the picasso is comfortable enough to make the rear seat's a small office (just like an air plane) using the seat's back as a folding table with self lighting and individually controlled air conditioning.
It's clear why that huge and clumsy looking package found so much acceptance as a family car. It does excel in habitability and comfort without compromising passive safety. Besides the lack of active safety most cars have these days (too heavy and high), this does have a chassis behaviour that works towards the driver and that is enough to shame most AUDI products and far better than some competitors such as the Peugeot 3008.
Talking about safety, the structure is very solid and the crash-test you can youtube will show a perfectly controlled impact absorption. Taking all that moving mass into account, it MUST be very stiff and well built to handle it properly.