Monday, June 6, 2016


As a senior graduating high school, a lot of "exciting" and "emotional" things are going on. You begin to say good bye to your old classmates, college decisions are finalized, and all sorts of fun senior class activities are planned. Among all the craziness I was asked to instruct at a Washington DC Region SCCA Solo school the same weekend as my senior prom, which to a normal student might create quite a conflict. Even though I had already made my decision, a friend of mine decided to sign up for the school with his brand new 2016 Mercedes-Benz AMG GTS, to get a feel for it's potential. So when it came down to either going to my senior prom, or getting the chance to get behind the wheel of Mercedes' latest sports car, the choice was clear.

The Mercedes-Benz AMG GTS is successor to the gullwing-ed SLS AMG, built lighter and nimbler to take on Porsche and the mighty 911. Currently in its second model year, the car has received quite a bit of notoriety, receiving the award of Motor Trend's 2015 "Best Driver's Car". Given how giddy the car made Randy Pobst, I knew I would be in for a treat.

Here's the low-down on the 2016 Mercedes-Benz AMG GTS:

MSRP: $129,900*
Passenger capacity: 2
Trunk capacity: 12.3 cu ft
Transmission type: 7-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT® DCT
Engine: 4.0L AMG biturbo V-8
Power: 503 hp @ 6,250 rpm
David enjoys his AMG GTS crossing the country participating
in road rallies, and has already put 6500 miles on the car.
Acceleration, 0-60 mph: 3.7 sec
City fuel economy: 16 mpg
Highway fuel economy: 22 mpg

Overall height: 50.7 in
Overall length: 179.0 in
Overall width: 76.3 in
Wheelbase: 103.5 in
Coefficient of drag: 0.36
Curb weight: 3,688lbs (48/52)

Engine: 4.0L AMG biturbo V8
Net power: 503 hp @ 6,250 rpm
Net torque: 479 lb-ft @ 1,750-4,750 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Construction: Diecast alloy block and heads
Fuel requirement: Premium unleaded gasoline
Fuel capacity: 19.8 gal

Automatic transmission: 7-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT® DCT dual-clutch rear-mounted transaxle
Drive configuration: Rear-wheel drive
Final-drive ratio: 3.67:1

Acceleration, 0-60 mph: 3.7 sec

AMG Adaptive Suspension: 4-wheel independent double wishbone with forged aluminum arms and hub carriers. Electronically controlled shock absorbers with two driver-selectable modes (Sport and Sport+).
Steering type: Variable-ratio rack-and-pinion with speed-sensing power assist.
Turning circle: 37.7 ft, curb-to-curb

Electronic Stability Program (ESP): This safety breakthrough first introduced by Mercedes-Benz continually monitors your driving inputs and the vehicle's motion to help keep it going in your intended direction, especially in corners and during evasive maneuvers. If it detects wheelspin, severe understeer (plowing), or oversteer (fishtailing), ESP® can brake individual wheels and reduce engine power to help bring the vehicle under control.[*4]

Braking system: Perforated, slotted and ventilated 15.4-inch front discs with compound rotors and 6-piston calipers. Perforated and ventilated 14.2-inch rear discs with 4-piston fixed-type calipers.[*5]
Antilock Braking System (ABS): ABS senses impending wheel lockup under heavy braking and pumps the front brakes individually or the rear brakes together. This intelligent system can pump the brakes as needed up to 30 times per second, to prevent lockup and preserve the driver's steering ability.[*5]
Brake Assist (BAS®): Brake Assist senses emergency braking via the speed at which the driver presses the brake pedal and immediately applies maximum available power boost. Brake Assist can potentially reduce the overall stopping distance by eliminating the delay caused by a common human tendency not to brake hard enough, soon enough. Letting up on the brake pedal releases Brake Assist.[*5]

Wheels: 9.0x19-inch front/11.0x20-inch rear AMG® twin 5-spoke
Tires: 265/35R19 front and 295/30R20 rear, high-peformance

David's GTS also included the AMG Carbon-Ceramic Braking system as a $8,950 option, and the Exclusive Interior Package.

With rain approaching quickly, we jumped in the AMG for a few Autocross runs to further test how agile the 3700lb beast really is. Ride along in the right seat to hear my first impressions:

You can tell by the number of times "super" and "phenomenal" were said in the video that the AMG GTS truly is a super car.

Earlier in the day we tested the car's transitioning ability in a slalom drill, including two 7 or 8-cone slaloms with a turnaround in between. The AMG was very stable, and responsive to lift-throttle oversteer when tossing the car back and forth, but settled the rear quickly with gradual input of the gas pedal. The best time of 20.4 seconds was very comparable to cars much smaller and lighter than the Mercedes, including a 2007 Lotus Elise with which I completed the course in 20.1 seconds.

On the full course I struggled to use all of the power the AMG had to offer, but the surface is extremely low-grip compared to most race tracks, and even other Autocrossing sites. There was absolutely no lag from the 4.0l Biturbo engine, and with 479 lb-ft of torque being sent to the rear tires at only 1,750 rpm, there was no waiting around when exiting the tighter corners. Although some slip angle was almost a constant, the Mercedes not once felt as if it was going to snap around, even with all of the traction and stability aids disabled.

Bringing all of that power to a halt was no problem for the AMG GTS either, as the carbon-ceramic brakes grabbed instantly to reign the car in magnificently. The brakes are almost a little too touchy for daily use if you aren't used to them, I apologize to David for the unsuspected whiplash when inching the car to the stage line.

The 2016 Mercedes-Benz AMG GTS utilizes all of the great aspects of modern technology and performance in automobiles, without sacrificing a raw and natural feel for the driver.  It will definitely go down on the list of one of the best cars I have ever driven, and makes for the perfect prom date.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Long-Term 2015 Subaru WRX STi Limited

The unveiling of the 2015 redesign of the Subaru WRX STi sent a flurry of disappointment across the internet, as the aesthetics of the newest generation car were said to appear as the frumpy step-sister to a rather stout WRX concept displayed way back at the 2013 New York Auto show. I didn't really understand the immediate criticism, especially before anyone even saw the car in person. While it may have picked up a couple weird features, the 2015 STi is anything but bland, and is perhaps the best STi we have seen yet.

Once you see it in person, it's clear that the speculated "bland and boring" generation is much more than such. The slightly awkward proportions of the front fascia in combination with the aggressive chin spoiler, and large LED-infused headlamps, give the car a brute appearance. The long snout traditional of the STi remains, but with sharper lines running down the hood on either side of the integrated signature hood scoop. Due to the separation between the Impreza and WRX at the turn of the 2015 model year, the STi looks very synergistic, in contrast to the earliest years of the model which look like the Impreza with afterthought bolt-on modifications.

Moving down the side of the car, it is hard to miss the 2015 model's gigantic mirrors. Every generation prior sprouts side view mirrors off the car's A-pillar, whereas the 2015 STi's mirrors are perched upon stalks risen from lower on the door. While they look like two enormous fairway woods protruding from the sides of the car, from the inside it allows for better driver visibility around the windshield pillar.

Rounding the back of the car, the STi's signature rear wing that frames the driver's rearward view is ever-so-slightly altered from its predecessor. The 2015 WRX and STi carry design cues from the previous generation hatchback, with a black plastic rear valance surrounding its quad-exhaust pipes. This one sports a baby rear diffuser, likely not contributing to the balance of the car but adds to the bold appearance.

It's not until you see the 2015 STi beside its brethren that you realize how plain the previous years looked. The new STi is that funny looking kid you saw at the playground when you were younger, that you knew you did not want to mess with.

Subaru and the STi have thrived on the same winning formula for over a decade, making it the "go-to" if you're looking for power, four doors, all-wheel drive, and a manual transmission. Running it's archrival, the Mitsubishi Evo, out of town for good, the STi now faces new challengers a la Volkswagen and Ford. Is Subaru frightened? I don't think so.

While competitors are continuing to cram the turbo-fours with power until they nearly burst, Subaru keeps it cool with a very familiar 305hp and 290 lb-ft of torque under the hood of the latest generation. In this era of 270hp Camrys, you'd think Subaru would up the ante as time goes by, especially with it's original homoligation rules for the World Rally Championship going by the wayside. Subaru has developed it's brand through it's impeccable Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive (SAWD) for nearly 20 years on their entire production lineup, and therefore relies on the refinement of their product and a very tight-knit fanbase to keep the company booming. I doubt you'll see Ford Focus RS owners waving to each other with the same passion.

Despite the foundation remaining essentially unchanged, the 2015 Subaru WRX STi drives like a whole different beast. Just as you would expect a homologated rally car to feel, previous generations of the STi are a little uncomfortable on the road. The 2015 STi has managed to improve overall ride quality, but at the same time stays closely linked to it's motorsports heritage.

Instantly I noticed a much heavier feel from the hydraulic power steering system, which happened to be one of my biggest gripes of the previous generation. It provides much more confident feedback in both quick transitions and long, sweeping corners, but still has a mildly intrusive "kick" mid-turn from the steering rack adjusting it's response. Packing the traditional Brembo brakes on all four corners continues to make braking a little too sensitive in a street setting, but wastes no time bringing the 3400lb monster to a halt. However, upgraded pads will surely be needed in a competition environment, as the factory brake pads were begging for mercy after just two consecutive Autocross runs. The 2015 STi feels significantly stiffer than the previous generation, despite only minor changes. The STi's track-tuned suspension including larger anti-roll bars front and rear make it the first STi that actually turns... and boy does it turn well. Previous generation STi owners work tirelessly, modifying their cars to get it pointed in the right direction, and I was amazed how effortless it is to get the unaltered 2015 model to attack corners instantly upon command.

I also immediately detected a far more intense engine note when wringing the car out, including a hiss from the blow-off valve upon letting up. At first it seemed pretty cool, but my content faded into disappointment when I realized where the sound might be coming from... While I am not completely sure, it sounds as if that engine noise is being artificially pumped through the speakers of the latest STi, which is not uncommon to several of the new sports cars on the market. I tend to be a purist when it comes to electronics in cars, but after spending extended periods of time in the car, the lovely sound of the turbo boxer engine makes it hard to dislike it.

The 2015 STi feels more spacious than it's predecessor, and the numbers support it as well. Slightly at least. Slightly more leg room in the back, slightly more cargo space, slightly higher overall interior volume. All the while the exterior dimensions remain unchanged, aside from a slightly longer wheelbase. Taking a week-long, 150 mile trip in the new STi was a great way to learn it's capacities, and I can report it comfortably traveled three people and their luggage, including the token set of golf clubs.

The 2015 STi is EPA rated for 17mpg in the city, 23mpg on the highway, no different than the previous generation. Despite great suffering of everyone involved, I coasted and grannied my way to 25mpg returning home from our inaugural trip. Like years prior, Subaru's "SI-Drive" includes three modes via a knob that governs power based on your objective. The 2015's fuel saving "Intelligent Mode", which was used for the long highway stint, feels more responsive and aggressive than the previous gen while still achieving similar fuel economy. Then there is the right-twist of the knob that gets your heart pounding, "Sport Sharp" mode. The throttle response is as eager as a hamster on adderall, and is the only mode the STi should be allowed to leave a traffic light in. I still don't get the middle-grade "Sport" mode, as that must be for people that like to get neither optimal fuel mileage, or performance.

Sounds great, so what is the extra $4k getting you in the Limited?

  • 18" BBS Alloy Wheels (A heck of a lot easier to clean than the standard ones. That right there is worth four grand.)
  • Leather-trimmed Upholstery (Lots more red stitching. The leather seats don't try and burn you like a McDonalds coffee, despite baking in the sun for hours.)
  • Power-tilt/sliding-glass moonroof (Additional weight above your head.)
  • 8-way power adjustable driver's seat (Or else you will need to crank the manual adjuster ten billion times from person to person.)
  • 9-speaker HD Radio audio system (It bumps. Can't speak for the 2015 base stereo, but the previous generation's was less than stellar.)
While some can surely live without the options that the Limited provides, it still leaves some scratching on whether the STi is worth the leap over the great value that is the WRX. Starting at only $26,595, the 2016 Subaru WRX will keep up with the STi to 60mph (due to gearing) and still provides you with 268hp from its 2.0l turbocharged H-4. What the WRX lacks is front and rear differentials making wheelspin extremely difficult to overcome, whereas the STi includes a Driver Controlled Center Differential in addition to front and rear differentials, making applying power in turns effortless. The WRX certainly will do the trick as a daily driver and can save you some serious dough, but the STi's tuned suspension and slick differential setup make it a far superior performer in the corners.

Subaru has definitely left me impressed, and I will never turn down the opportunity to play around in the latest STi. If you aren't sold on the 2015 Subaru WRX STi just yet, look for the annual update to check in on how our STi is doing.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Are Camry Drivers Backed Into a Corner?

In literature, archetypes are used to categorize the kinds of typical characters all good stories need to carry out an interesting plot. The hero, the mother figure, the sage, the scapegoat, the villain. These ideas have been around for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Just as there are certain archetypes in stories, I am a strong believer that archetypes can be directly applied to a person and the car they drive. I like to call it, automotive archetypes.

We all know the 80 year old Buick drivers, the asshat BMW owners, the hippies living out of VW Microbuses, and the Corvette buyers suffering from a midlife crisis. Some may think of this as stereotyping, but maybe everyone is destined to drive a certain type of car from the day they entered this world. And there isn't one I am more fond of than the Toyota Camry; What kind of person drives a Toyota Camry? Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Cleverly coined, the phrase "Camry Corners" can be described as an indentation on either corner of the rear bumper of a Toyota Camry. This originated from the Camry Corners Facebook Page founded in June of 2012, which receives daily submissions of Camry drivers doing Camry driver things. Submissions include pictures of anything that may fit into the Camry lifestyle, from the classic corners to extremely poor parking jobs. Other pages you can follow on Facebook includes Camrys with dented bumpers, Camrys Without Hubcaps, and It's Always a Fu#%ing Camry. If you haven't noticed them yet, brace yourself. They are everywhere. A Camry Corner is easy to overlook, because lots of people have Camrys, and lots of people run into stuff. But why is it most often a Camry sporting a dimple on it's rather large rump? It's just the Camry drivers playing their part in the storybook.

The Toyota Camry has existed as Toyota's midsize sedan since the early 1990s in the United States, and has locked out the title of best-selling passenger car of the 21st century almost entirely. Why? It's reasonably priced, gets decent fuel mileage, has plenty of space for the family, and provides great reliability. Clyde Caplan, one of the administrators of the Camry Corners Facebook page believes he knows why these drivers are attracted to the Camry:

"I think it's a combination of the sheer volume of Camrys on the road and the drivers they attract. The Camry is sold as an appliance and is designed to be as bland as possible. Driving isn't important to Camry Drivers, things related to driving aren't important to them. So they don't pay a lot of attention, back into things and even if they notice, they don't care."

It doesn't necessarily stop at Camrys either. Other members of the Toyota family often show similar symptoms of Camry drivers. After all, the spouse of any Camry driver has to drive something too. Camry Corners  has taken the liberty to name all of these variations:

-The Baby Camry

-The Camry SUV

-The Fancy Camry

-The Camry Minivan

With the only cool sports car the Japanese brand has to offer being the GT86, which hides itself under the Scion badge in America as the FR-S, Toyota has branded itself as the vanilla of all auto manufacturers. And please do not be that guy that says in the comments, "I actually like vanilla".

However, maybe avid corner catchers should be concerned, as the Camry Corner generation could be on its way out. As Toyota, and the rest of the world are attempting to make their economy cars cooler with sharp, contemporary edges, the bulbous Camry bumpers are no more. It is the 1991-2011 Camrys that have proven to be most prone to catching corners thus far, years after have been less common. Toyota is already trying to fight the stigma with their current slogan, "Demands respect at every corner", and only time will tell if it proves effective.

The question still remains, is one born a Camry driver, or is it a chain of events that morph you into a Camry driver over time? I turned to Mike Kline, who is perhaps one of the most successful corner catchers in the DC-Metropolitan area. Mike submits staggering amounts of Camry corners to the Facebook page, and is projected to have captured over 60 corners on various Toyota models by the end of the year.

"Sadly, I believe people are born with the Camry gene. It takes a certain desire to actually want to drive a Camry, and I don't think it's something that you develop over time."

With the quintessence of the Camry driver typically consisting of qualities such as lack of spacial awareness, poor parking skills, driving slowly in the left lane, and using their hazards in a moderate rain storm, I decided to go to my local body shops to see if they have noticed the trend. Most of them thought I was nuts for wasting my time on dented Camrys, but I was thankful that Greg from Twin Ridge Collision Center took interest in my search and provided me with valuable information. While he himself was unfamiliar with Camry corners, he did say that he gets more Lexus (Lexuses, Lexi?) than any other manufacturers rolling through the body shop. And then it hit me. Lexus, underneath the Toyota umbrella as its luxury division, sells cars to Camry drivers that can actually afford to fix them! Body shops don't see Camry Corners because they all stay out on the road for our enjoyment.

Camry drivers act as the antagonist to most other drivers, trying as hard as they can to make your driving experience as frustrating as theirs is. But what good is a story without obstacles (literally) that the protagonist must face in his journey? Camry Corners has given the world a reason to get excited when we come across a Toyota Camry, and I believe we would be at a loss without them.

Photo Credit: The Camry Corner Community

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Road Racing vs Autocrossing

PC: Perry Bennett
The debate of whether Autocrossing or Road Racing reigns supreme in the world of amateur motor sports has been ongoing for decades, and if you have participated in either at some point you have likely engaged in some form of dispute among fellow competitors. After coming across the article "Just Accept It: Autocross isn't Racing" that The Truth About Cars published late last year, it made me once again reflect on my own opinions. Of course you can see that the author clearly has a strong opinion solely from reading the title, but it wasn't the premise of the article itself that I had a problem with.

PC: Michael Wheeler
I believe you could have a valid argument to challenge whether or not Autocrossing should be considered racing, but that would all come down to what your definition of racing is. If competing for time is racing or not, that is up to your discretion. That wasn't the only point the author was trying to make, however, because he goes further by criticizing Autocrossing as a whole and the people that partake in it. It wasn't until I got to:
"Frankly, I was never all that great at Autocross--"

where every word that followed was irrelevant to the matter at hand. His lack of experience in the sport is a clear indication that he is an unreliable source to form an opinion from. Having been rather successful in both departments thus far, I would like to provide a more balanced review contrasting the two forms of racing.


Aside from perhaps NASCAR in the United States, Road Racing is what most often will come to mind when discussing car racing to the general population. I personally competed in "wheel-to-wheel" Road Racing for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, acquiring both NASA and SCCA competition licenses. While picking up several wins in Showroom Spec Miata, a large regional class, I also competed in the annual 13-hour endurance race held at VIR.

PC: Chris Schutze

Road Racing is a high-speed, intense battle among competitors where consistency, keeping a cool head, thinking ahead, and a fair amount of chutzpah are required to run at the top of the pack. There is a significant amount of risk when out on the track, where minuscule mistakes cost you a few positions if you're lucky, and far worse if you're not.

Road Racing allows you to reach speeds that can't (shouldn't) be seen anywhere else in a car. With no speed limits, and a mile of open pavement before the first corner, some cars can reach speeds of 150mph before jumping on the brakes for turn one. It's at this point you can only hope that you put your brakes back together properly a few days prior, and you complete that turn yet another lap.

Over the course of a typical racing weekend, you receive hours of time on track, broken down into several fifteen, twenty, thirty minute sessions. Autocrossing on the contrary, proceeds sixty seconds at a time so it can be assumed that more physical and mental endurance is required in Road Racing. Endurance Road Racing includes sessions that may last up to two or three hours, and extreme focus is demanded throughout the entire stint.

There is also a discipline factor that is required in road racing that is not in Autocrossing. Planning and executing the perfect pass takes a lot of patience, and a serious adrenaline rush comes with it. There is no other feeling like two people attempting to occupy the same apex in the quickly approaching corner, and you won't find it driving around cones on a parking lot.

PC: Sput Dodge

There is a reason I no longer participate in road racing; it's just too expensive. A prepared track car isn't necessarily more expensive than a prepared Autocross car, but the overall expenses are much higher. To conservatively campaign a competitive car in a regional road racing series, it'll set you back roughly a grand a weekend, which is a lot of lettuce over the course of the season. This is assuming you make it through unscathed, without any blown motors or car-meets-wall experiences. And while no one wants to make any costly errors on track, it does happen and you foot the bill for your own car, regardless of who is to blame.

With as serious as Road Racing can get, even at the amateur level, misinterpretations of the rules do occur. Since power is essential to keeping up with the competition down the long straightaways, most people are trying to get every bit of it from their cars, making the way rules are written very critical. Vague regulations tend to cause uproar, especially on a national level.

So if people are going through all this trouble, there must be a huge payout, right? Not exactly. While you may be able to win your entry fee back in contingencies at larger-scale events, your reward is usually a small trophy and your head swelling about 1/4" in diameter. Amateur Road Racing is a gentlemen's hobby, and it's not necessarily any different to the "professional" series you see on TV.


Autocrossing, or referred to in the SCCA as "Solo" is a time-based event where competitors drive their vehicles through a course defined by cones as hastily as possible. Their times are compared to other drivers in alike cars built to the same degree of the rules. These events are most often held on large, wide open parking lots found at sports stadiums or airports.

Having been involved in Autocrossing for over two thirds of my lifetime, I have become very connected to the sport including serving on my local region's staff. I have picked up my share of wins and championships on the national level, and work as an Autocrossing instructor regularly.

PC: Alejandro Aviles

Autocrossing puts a driver's ultimate car control to the test, where precision, looking ahead and quick adaptation is key to success. With a very limited number of chances to master the course, the way the driver can handle pressure is important to their overall performance. Autocrossing can provide you with one of the most extreme 60-second periods you will ever experience. 

A typical Autocross consists of 3 or 4 attempts at a course that no one has ever seen before, and no one will ever see again. If you were to add up the total amount of time you spent Autocrossing on a given Sunday, you might realize that you spent twice the amount of time sitting on the toilet that day. This is the most common discouragement that pushes people towards road racing, and with good reasoning. Autocrossing has to be appreciated for what it is, part of the sport is only getting so much time on a course, or certain skills become irrelevant.

A major advantage to Autocrossing is that it can be done at a fraction of the cost of Road Racing. Lower entry fees, lower maintenance costs, and a significantly lower chance for damage repairs. Contingencies pay roughly the same as road racing, but there have been people known make more money than they spend in a successful season. The huge difference is that your Autocross car cannot be lost in the blink of an eye. 

Autocrossing is truly the only place where you can push your car to the absolute 100% edge of grip, without any consequence. With the worst thing you can hit being cones, it allows you to safely find the maximum capabilities of your car. While it teaches excellent car-control skills, it sometimes can create a reckless habit when an Autocrosser transitions onto the road course.

PC: Perry Bennett

The author who wrote the referenced article above makes the claim,

"Wheel-to-wheel racing requires every skill autocross does, and sometimes exponentially so."

If this was the case, any road racer would be able to instantly jump into the seat of an Autocross car and match the times of any top-national Autocrosser, which is never the case. The fact of the matter is, Autocrossing provides you with swift reaction time and precise car-control skills that most road racers do not obtain from just road racing. Fast Autocrossers often make for great road racers, Randy Pobst and Bryan Heitkotter come to mind, but fast road racers usually have some work to do if they step over to Solo.

Protesting is a rare occasion in the Autocrossing community. This isn't to say that no one is actually bending the rules, but the little things that may matter in Road Racing, make no difference on the Autocross course. Autocrossing consists of constant turning at relatively low speeds, so an additional one horsepower is quickly lost in all the mistakes that are made in an Autocross run. On top of that, Autocrossing rules are very particular to allow people to enhance the performance of the cars they drive on a daily basis, but keep comfort and convenience items to prevent from tearing apart the car. With little concern of people straying from the tightly-knit guidelines, Autocrossers are able to argue about more useless issues on the internet such as car floor mats and the numbers stamped on tires.

PC: Alejandro Aviles

Learning from experience, Autocrossing just doesn't seem cool to the general public. To an outsider, you are spending the entire day on a parking lot so you can drive around cones for 5 minutes, and reach higher speeds on the highway on your way home. If I'm trying to impress a high school classmate when approached upon the subject, I'm going to tell them about road racing, 120 mph inches from other cars' door handles. Not driving around cones on a parking lot.


To argue one trumps another is foolish. Autocrossing and Road Racing are amateur motor sports, they both require different skills and both supply a different thrill. At the end of the day, we're all people that spend way too much money on cars.

You can no longer consider yourself a sane human being once you have participated in any form of motor sports. Often compared to crack cocaine, racing as a whole is very expensive, and requires you to keep dumping money into the sport on a regular basis... and none of us stop.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The 2015 Washington Auto Show: What You Missed

Living roughly an hour away from the nation's capital, it is surprising that I hadn't ever made a trip to the Washington Auto Show held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. A friend of mine had stumbled upon some extra tickets and asked if I was interested, so I took it as the perfect opportunity to make my inaugural visit.

Of course following the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, I was very curious to see which new cars would be making appearances. Knowing that this is not an international auto show I had rather low expectations, but I almost decided to cancel after checking the show's website. With most cars in the roster being rather disappointing, I found that the C7 Z06, new Camaro Z28, Jaguar F-Type, and the Mustang GT350 would be there, and the new GT350 itself was enough to get me out of the house for the afternoon. Little did I know how much more would actually be there.

*Please note that if you go to the website now, there are additional vehicles that I don't remember being on there previously, including a whole sub-section, "Exotic Cars". My parents are likely shaking their heads as they always say I can never find anything.*

My eyes lit up with excitement as I handed over my ticket in exchange for a stamp on my hand, immediately picking out the bright orange Lexus RCF and shiny silver Audi R8 V10 on the showroom floor below. Both cars had not been listed on their website to my knowledge, which became the trend throughout the night. I veered left to find the 2015 Mercedes AMG GT sporting a vivid yellow, which had only made it's world premiere just in the Fall of 2014. I still can't find that one of the website.

Pictures don't do the AMG GT the justice it deserves, the car is absolutely gorgeous. It goes on sale in April of 2015 with a starting price of $129,900, in hopes to steal some potential buyers from the new Porsche 911 GT3 that starts at $130,400. Powered by a twin turbo 4.0L V8, the AMG GT will make 456hp and 443lb/ft of torque. Numbers are comparable to the GT3, which makes 475hp, but only makes 325lb/ft of torque from its 3.8L Flat-6. Both come with 7-speed dual clutch transmissions, so no manuals for the purists. Porsche did not make an appearance at the show unfortunately, but it will be interesting to see whether Mercedes can put up a fight to the mighty 911.

Roaming through Mercedes I came across the Mercedes GLA45 AMG which I found rather aggressive and cool compared to its ugly and disproportionate base model. Moving over to Lexus and the RCF, there was a lovely lady going over the design cues on the spinning platform, but unfortunately it seemed as if my cat may have been able to describe the car with the same terminology. I stuck to the tablet displays for all the specs that I was looking for.

BMW showcased the M235i and M4 Convertible, as well what I consider the ugliest cars in their current lineup, the X6M and the 3 series/5 series "GT". A pair of i8s made it to DC, despite it not being there on the website (as well). 

The i8 is the polar opposite of the AMG GT, with its futuristic sharp edges and lines that make for a far less conservative super car. Revolutionary for BMW as a brand, the i8 runs under hybrid power. Its turbocharged 1.5L Inline-3 is paired with an electric motor to make a total output of 357hp and 420lb/ft of torque. With a sticker price of $136,625, the i8 is another competitor for the 911. Despite being less powerful than the AMG, With a 0-60 time of 3.8 seconds, the i8 just edges out the Mercedes (3.9 seconds) but couldn't catch the Porsche (3.2 seconds).

Other exotics were brought out including the Ferrari FF and California T, Lamboghini Huracan and Aventador, Mclaren 650S, and Aston Martin DB9 and Vantage, but those all sat behind the red velvet rope. All of these super cars left the doors locked, unfortunately.

While we all like to fantasize a little, there was a decent showing of reasonably priced cars including the newest MINI Cooper S JCW. I am still trying to warm up to the latest exterior design changes, however I did appreciate that the interior has kept the same circular, quirky style for yet another generation. The new JCW sees a significant bump in performance, with an additional 20hp and 44 lb/ft of torque added to the already peppy hatch. But with a starting price of just over $30k come Spring of 2015, it may have some trouble selling, especially with the cheaper 2015 Subaru WRX sitting next door. 

This is where the 2016 MX-5 is should have been sitting

I was disappointed to see Mazda did not bring one of the redesigned, 2016 MX-5s to the show, instead the still handsome 2015 MX-5 Club sat in it's place. *sigh*

The domestics had their own floor (with the exception of Toyota for some reason), which featured some of the best America has to offer. Stopping at Chevrolet first, the new Chevrolet SS sport sedan caught my eye first in it's ugly pea-green metallic color. After seeing it featured in Jalopnik's recent "The 10 Best Cars No One is Buying", I wanted to see it in person since on paper it sounds fantastic. On top of the unflattering color, the SS has a rather unappealing interior, not uncommon with most GM models. The bottom line is, it accelerates just as quickly as the 2015 Subaru WRX STi, lacks in interior design, and the buy-in is $10,000 higher to start. The advantages are the SS is extremely spacious, runs on brawny V8 American muscle for those not accepting of the "boost buggies", and definitely has a classier look to it. And as of 2015 they say a 6-speed manual is offered, so maybe that'll turn sales around a little.

The Camaro Z28 and C7 Z06 Convertible contained most of the crowds over at Chevrolet, but of course you're unable to sit in either of them and you don't need me telling you how fast they are.

Dodge brought one of their Charger Hellcats to DC, and while I am in love with high powered sedans and the aggressive look of the Hellcat, I can't help but grumble at the fact that they are not offered with a manual like it's Challenger sibling. I have learned it is due to the fitment of the transmission paired with the Hellcat drivetrain in the Charger, and the fabrication needed for it to fit would make it uneconomical. There is no mention of the Hellcat on the show's website.

The real crowds formed in the back corner by the blue oval, where Ford showcased the stunning 2016 Shelby GT350 prototype that was unveiled at the LA Auto show in November. I would've loved to hear the hum of the flat-crank 5.2L V8 stuffed under the hood, but something about starting cars in crowded buildings, I don't know. 

Ford also showed the world's cheesiest talking Fiesta ST named "Boost", which would definitely be first in line to star in a new "Knight Rider" series if it was ever recreated by the Disney Channel.

The new aluminum Ford F-150s were plentiful, yet slightly less appealing after learning that Edmunds ran up a $4,000 tab with the dealer after taking two good smacks to the aluminum bed with a sledgehammer. You can see that story HERE.

The coolest thing that I got to sit in was the Spongebob Squarepants Toyota Sienna of course, and it only felt proper to look like a tool while sitting in it. Toyota is sponsoring the premiere of the next Spongebob movie in the making, and their vibrant wrap did bring an otherwise so-so minivan a lot of attention. This particular Sienna, failed to be mentioned on the website.

I was very impressed with the overall size and quality of the show, if you missed it be sure to make time to see it in 2016! If time allows, I will be reporting from the New York International Auto Show in the Spring.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

E36 BMWs: Why They Are the Best Things Your Lack Of Money Can Buy

I have been the proud owner of this 1996 BMW 328i since May of 2013 (although I had not daily driven it until I got my license a month ago), and I am convinced that it may be the best "bang for the buck" in the used car market, yes even including the Mazda Miata. 

Most of you are probably thinking, "Well Julian, don't you think you'll be a little bias considering it's your first car and you're happy to even have any car to drive?"

Yes, yes I do. If you would like to put a stop to this madness, please shoot me an email at and I'd be very excited to review anything you may have parked in your garage. 

The E36 BMW set the bar extremely high when they were first brought to the U.S in 1992, and while there were many imitators soon after, nothing really captured the overall driving dynamics and comfort like the BMW's 3rd generation 3 series. And due to such high production numbers throughout the 90's, 20 years later they are a steal.

We picked up this example with 127k miles for a meager $5,000, and that would be considered pretty pricey for what you can truly find these cars for now. By paying a little more than what the average E36 may cost, the interior is great, and everything works exactly as it should with the exception of the right-rear door lock (I have to manually unlock and lock it). 

All of that being said, the car didn't make it home without breaking down. My father and grandfather ended up stranded in Deleware somewhere with a failed water pump, and luckily pulled it to the shoulder without further complications. The cooling systems in the E36 are infamous for being entirely made of plastic, and should be the first thing replaced if it has not been yet. But one aluminum replacement water pump later, and they are great cars in every aspect.

My car currently has Koni single-adjustable shocks and aftermarket springs, Ground Control camber plates and rear ride height adjusters, Sparco Sprint V front seats, upgraded air intake, a custom tune from Epic Motorsports, and a Bimmerworld 3" race exhaust that is guaranteed to make you giggle each and every time you start the car. Oh, and no more 15"x 5.5" Bottle Cap wheels, 17"x 9" TR Motorsport Enkeis complete the look quite nicely if I may say so myself. 

To top all of that off, despite being rated at 18mpg city/24mpg hwy from BMW, its tall gearing aids in it getting rather good fuel mileage. Including city and highway driving, 400 miles on a 16 gallon tank (25mpg) is easily achievable, and I have seen near 35mpg on multiple highway stints. The only trouble is resisting the temptation to hear the engine scream through the Bimmerworld exhaust at 7,000 RPM.

The car has a very nice profile, redefining the 3 Series into the "wedge shape" from the rather boxy predecessors, the E21s and E30s. The sedan provides plenty of room to easily seat 3 in the back row, and there is a surprising amount of trunk space considering it's relatively small size.

Wait, a BMW sedan, small? The overall dimensions of cars have greatly inflated over the years, and it shocked me too when my E36 is dwarfed by the newer Hyundai Sonata or Toyota Camry parked next to me. The E36s are also known for being exceptionally narrow, only one inch wider than the 1st generation Mazda Miata. 
My 328 hides behind a wild Camry at the grocery store
With a narrow overall width, a long wheelbase with minimal overhang, and a 50/50 weight distribution straight from the factory, these BMWs weren't designed with only comfort in mind. They have a very unadulterated feel while driving. Its drive-by-cable throttle response is far better than the electronic deliveries on the E46s and beyond, and the steering isn't unnaturally light or quick from any computerized aids. Any aftermarket suspension, while it may make the commuting a little more jarring, will give you a car that'll out-handle the vast majority of cars on the road today. Pairing all of this with a 5-speed manual transmission and the incredible sound of a free-spirited inline six, creates the purest driving experience you can have. 

Driving shouldn't be something you have to do; it should be something you look forward to doing. Somehow, that BMW manages to get me even the slightest bit excited to get up and drive to school every morning, quite the feat for a teenager who believes there is no such thing as too much sleep.

I do want to forewarn potential buyers to make sure you select a good example if you plan to use for daily use, there are many cosmetic complaints about E36s as they age, try and seek out cars with good histories of being garage-kept, and take good care of it once it's in your hands. If you currently are not sure how to open the hood of your car, then you're looking for something by the name of "Honda". The E36s aren't mechanically bedeviled, but they do need to be checked on and tended to from time to time as they approach high mileage. 

To sum things up, you can get yourself a comfortable, spacious, quick and sporty car that the whole family can fit in, that's pretty reliable, capable of getting 30mpg, and will turn heads with its glorious sound, for well under $10k. And for my grammar Nazis out there, the greatness of this car prevents that last sentence from being labeled as a sloppy run-on. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The 5 Best Ways To Get Into Autocrossing

Autocrossing is a great way for enthusiasts around the nation to play with their toys at the absolute limit of grip, without having to think of the consequences of burying their car in the tire wall or getting in trouble with the law.

The best way to start is with what you already have, to see if you like it. From Miatas, to Mustangs, to Porsches, to your grandma's Buick, cars of all kinds can be seen on the grid of any typical Autocrossing event. If you're the one tearing it up in the Buick, it's only a matter of time before you begin asking others, "What do I have to do to be competitive?". I'm going to try and save everyone some trouble and pick out the best ways to start Autocrossing under SCCA Solo competitively without breaking the bank.

5. Toyota Celica GT/GTS

Debuting in 1999, the seventh generation Toyota Celica was Toyota's most recent sporty 2-door up until the long-awaited release in 2013 of the Toyota 86GT, or as we know them, the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S.

The car currently fits quite nicely into the G Street Category. Keeping modifications and cost to a minimum, an upgraded exhaust from the catalytic converter back, your choice of shocks (but not springs mind you), an upgraded sway bar on one end of the car, a 1" tolerance in either direction in wheel diameter, without altering the wheel width, and 200TW (or higher) tires permitted. That's the gist at least, you can read the fine print on your own time. 

Nowadays you can find used Celicas in the range of $3k for your higher mileage, not as "picture perfect" examples, to your $8k or $9k optioned-out garage queens. All said and done, the Celica pictured above is a $3700 Celica GTS with less than $3500 worth of goodies, and his nationals-winning Celica GT was done for less. And the less options the better, if you can find a GTS without a sunroof you'd have quite the unicorn, shaving some pounds (over your head) off the already quite nimble 2400lb curb weight.

Just beware, this sweet deal may not last forever, as class rulings have to favor cars that can still be bought off the showroom floor. The Ford Focus ST (which almost made the cut for this list) is a fierce competitor against the Celica that could possibly eventually force the Celicas out of Street competition.

4. Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ

Likely a shoe-in for the list, the Scion FRS and Subaru BRZ have made a big impact in the sports car industry in the short amount of time they have been around. How you ask? It's the Miata coupe that everyone had been longing for.

The Toyobaru has already taken storm in SCCA Solo, 61 of 1,161 drivers who attended the 2014 SCCA Solo Nationals were sporting BRZs or FRSs. So if you're looking to be the outcast, it definitely would not be the car for you. The "twins" have proven themselves in their street and street touring categories to be a contender for the championship, falling in "C Street" and "Street Touring Xtreme". 

You can get yourself a brand new 2015 Subaru BRZ or Scion FRS for around $25k, and while we're still sorta waiting to see where they settle in on the used market, it looks like most are around $17,000 or $18,000 for a first-year model. While it may not be the cheapest route, by getting a brand new car as your weekend warrior, it can dual purpose as a cool daily driver that you know the history of without the worries of reliability issues of a 10-15 year old car. You'll just have to get over seeing little cone scuffs on your brand new toy.

As for the build, getting your BRZ/FRS ready to take on the RX-8s, Solstices, and MX-5s of C Street could cost around $2500 after shocks, exhaust, sway bar, crash bolts, and other minor expenses. 200TW street tires typically run around $650 a set. Street Touring Xtreme gets a little more costly, allowing things such as ECU tuning, full exhaust including headers, and full suspension modification. This could range anywhere from $4-5k if done on the cheap end, to over $10k sparing no expense.

3. Honda CRX

The Honda CRX became a popular choice in both in SCCA Solo and Club Racing because it makes a very affordable, reliable fun sporty hatchback, which is exactly what the SCCA was founded upon.

The CRX has multiple places to play in the solo crowd, being competitive in Street Touring Sport, F Street Prepared (the 1st gen), Street Modified FWD, and E Prepared. Street Touring Sport is the cheapest way for the CRX to be competitive, pitted against the other Japanese icon of the era, the 1st generation Mazda Miata. The class, despite both cars not necessarily "packing a punch" under the hood, probably bring the highest level of awe between the capabilities of the CRX and Miata when put out on the Autocross course. 

Used Honda CRXs may cost you anywhere from $1500 to $4000 in good running condition, but the bigger issue is finding one that doesn't look like it has either been a home for a family of raccoon, or an extra on the "Fast and Furious" movie set. You want either the '88 or '89 CRX Si if you choose to take on the class, the '88 being lighter, but a slightly different suspension is on the '89 that some seem to prefer. 

The example in the picture is a $4000 1989 Honda CRX Si, and after installing all the goodies allowed in STS, including shocks that can cost as much as the car itself, another $10k can be invested before you're heading off to the Solo Nationals. Investment security is not an issue with the CRX though, as if major changes are made to the class it currently runs it, there are multiple other classes for you to be competitive in.

2. Honda CR125 Shifter Kart

Shifter karts are so fast, I finished the run with high-waters

Have you ever wondered what it's like to do 0-60 in under 4 seconds with your butt 1/2" off the ground? Maybe it's about time you considered purchasing a shifter kart.

Driving a shifter kart should be something that everyone does at least once in their Autocross "career". Partially because you realize you have to process things faster than you ever have just to stay on course, and partially because it gives the owners of said shifter karts a good laugh when your neck snaps back after shifting into 2nd gear. They have a great following in the SCCA Solo community as well, with over 30 class participants in "Kart Modified" at the Solo Nationals each year.

Once you try one,  and wrap your head around the amazing value that they are, it's hard to not go purchase one yourself. You can get yourself a complete shifter kart capable of winning the Solo Nationals for $3000, used karts are without a doubt the better way to make a purchase. Unlike cars, a 2005 chassis vs. a 2015 will make no difference when you're Autocrossing. On top of that, tires are $200 a set, a major cost savings when it comes to expendables.

So why isn't it #1? Sometimes spending less than everyone else and still running the fastest time of the entire event is just too good to be true. While you can sometimes go seasons with minimal maintenance, most things are bass-ackwards when it comes to knowing how to tune and work on a shifter kart. And if you don't know how to fix your problem, you are likely stripping the chassis of the motor and shipping it halfway across the country to get it looked at. Also, being the only class in Solo required to wear a suit, the 100 degree days can be brutal. But that is the LAST thing you are thinking about when you're flying across a parking lot at 70mph.

1. Mazda Miata MX-5

So yeah, I really wasn't going for shock value with this one. The Mazda Miata has been an automotive icon in all of its 25 years of existence, and here's why it is the best car to start Autocrossing with.

First off, they are one of the best handling cars out there. I know as a driving instructor, that every Miata I get into (LS motor swaps not included) will be a well-balanced, neutral car, that will not try and kill me. It teaches the driver how to carry momentum and therefore approach corners properly, and does not have any form of excessive understeer or oversteer. But, it'll do either of those things in an instant with the right (or wrong) inputs. Also, there are at least 7 different classes that one of Miata's three generations is a major contender; C Street (NC), E Street (NB), B Street Prepared (MSM), C Street Prepared (NA, NB, NC), D Prepared (NA, NB, NC), Street Touring Sport (NA), and Street Touring Roadster (NC).

The cheapest way to get yourself on course ready to go is an E Street NB, or 2nd generation Miata. With so many variations, it's tough to know which Miata is the best Miata for the class. Currently, it is speculated the the '99 Sport Package is the car to have, because it provides you with the best suspension and the least amount of options and/or additional weight. The '03 Club Sport is not permitted in E Street due to low production numbers. 

You can find a NB in decent shape for around $4-5k, and after shocks, sway bar, wheels/tires, and exhaust, you can set yourself up with the best components for $7-8k. It's an unbeatable value, and I wouldn't recommend any other car over the Mazda Miata as the greatest place to start.

Photo Credit: Perry Bennett (#2, #4, #5), Craig Wilcox (#3), AJ Aviles (#1)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fiat Follow-Up: Dealer Leases Abarths Like They're Porsches

For those of you that missed my previous write-up on the Fiat 500 Abarth, I am happy to say that I must've done something right in my automotive journalism career thus far, as I actually persuaded someone's opinion based on my own opinions (cool huh?). Not long ago I received a text message from my uncle, Matt, who is looking for a 2nd (reliable, new) car to add to their lineup. The text message was exactly this;

"What are your thoughts on the Fiat 500L?"

I try to be as honest as I can with everyone, so of course my response was,

"Well, you have seen what it looks like, right?"

Learning that they weren't necessarily looking for another crossover-SUV to coincide with their Honda CRV, I mentioned to them how much I loved the new Abarth, and they should read my latest post all about it. Shortly after, they left their house en route to Heritage Fiat in Owings Mills, to go test drive the 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio. I was really excited, because I realized that I had not only just saved someone from potentially buying what really is Chrysler's rendition of the Pontiac Aztek, but in addition convinced them to go look at one of the coolest hot hatches offered in America today. 

Questions followed such as, 

"Would we look good driving in it?"
"Would you have to hide from your friends if we pulled up in one?"
"Is it a 'mom' car?"
"Would an 'I heart my dog' sticker look good on the back?"

They don't have a dog, and it turns out they don't want one, so they were really getting tricky with the questions. But the Abarth managed to pass the test, the 500L did not.

 Pictures were included in the decision-making

Eszti, my aunt, loved the Abarth, and before going inside to talk numbers, they called me up to check everything out. Just to help them figure out the options they may want, the things they would want to stay away from, etc, etc. 

I didn't really do anything before they were sold on the car. They wanted a lease, so they had the sales representative go back to his manager to get them a monthly payment. Any guesses on the price? I don't think anyone could've predicted this... $0 down, $700/mo FOR A FIAT. No, they weren't looking at Porsche Caymans, this is a $26k Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio. The dealer was willing to sell the car to Matt and Eszti for $26.1k including all of their options. What would you end up paying at the end of a 3-year lease? $25.2k after 36 months. They must expect the Fiats to nearly obliterate themselves into a million, tiny, non-salvageable pieces by the time they receive the car back.
More than likely stealing money from mermaids.

They were completely serious, blaming it on "Fiat having a poor lease program". At this point, the manager came over to likely prove to us he was sober, and offer us some explanation. I pointed out to him that Fiat USA advertises the Fiat Abarth 500 starting at $299/mo for 39 months, with $1,699 down. He pointed out that that wasn't for the Cabrio, and it didn't include all the fees to get you in the car on the road. He was correct. So here are my rough numbers after having some time to think about how that made no sense; 

$357/mo for 36 months
357x36= $12,852
$2,705 down payment
+2,705= $15,557

Well, unless there is $10k in taxes and other elements I'm missing, they are fairly far from reaching the numbers on Fiat's website. The manager's rebuttal landed "in the 5s", so likely $599 a month, not even on the same planet as what they were looking for. Needless to say, Matt and Eszti did not leave that day in a 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio.

So Heritage Fiat of Owings Mills, I would like to congratulate you in driving Matt and Eszti right into the arms of Scion and their fantastic 2014 FR-S. They are very pleased with it so far.