Wednesday, January 26, 2011

History: 40 Years of the Z

In the late sixties, the recipe for a great sports car was pretty simple. Give the car a long front hood to bury a powerful inline-6 engine into and a sloping nose for aerodynamics. Place the passenger compartment back over the rear wheels in a coupe silhouette, and if possible make it a 2+2 for added convenience. Finally, direct the power to the rear wheels, design the car to be sleek and tune the engine and suspension to work a little better than your bread-and-butter cars, and you’ve got yourself a winner. This was the plan when two small Japanese manufacturers joined forces in the mid ‘60s to build an affordable sports car. Nissan and Yamaha partnered the project to improve both companys’ images, however by 1964, Nissan was unhappy with the power that the 2.0L DOHC Yamaha engine was producing and the two parted ways. Yamaha would then take the project to Toyota, and soon the iconic 2000GT was the dream of many a driving enthusiast in Japan and all over the world.

Witnessing the success of the 2000GT, then-President of Nissan USA, Mr. Yetaka Katayama felt that there was a need for an affordable sports GT car in the Nissan line-up. The company already had a very popular roadster, the Fairlady, which was inspired by the standard British roadster of the day, only it was vastly more reliable and much better handling. But the company did not have a GT to take on both the British and Italian sports coupes. So it was back to the drawing board with the lessons learned from the Yamaha venture. In 1966, a prototype was mocked up, designed to be stylish, innovative, fast, and relatively inexpensive through the use of interchangeable parts with other Nissan vehicles. Little did they know the importance of what they had created.

The first Z-car, the 240Z, was released to the world in 1969 with two separate models, one for the Japanese market and one for the American market. The Japanese Fairlady Z featured a SOHC L20A inline-6 producing 129 hp, while the American Datsun 240Z featured a 2.4L L24 inline-6 with twin Hitachi SU-type carburetors that produced 151 hp. A third Z, the 432Z shared a performance version of the DOHC 2.0L S20 engine with the Nissan Skyline.

The car’s supercar styling of the day and affordable price tag made it a hit in North America, where it sold 135,000 units under the Datsun name between 1969 and 1973. Despite the differences between the Asian and North American models, all Zs were built at the Nissan Shatai plant in Hiratsuka. Once the American-bound cars arrived, Katayama (aka “Mr. K”) would ensure all Nissan badging would be replaced by Datsun badging before shipment to dealerships. The “240” in the American naming stood for the engine displacement, which was 2.4L.

In 1974, the 240 would become the 260, as Nissan increased the displacement of the inline-6 to 2.6L. Ironically, with new emissions regulations in the States demanding internal modifications to meet the standards, the bigger engine actually produced less power than the 240. Everywhere else in the world the 260Z was a 153 hp sports car, but stateside, the 2.6L was limited to 139 hp, 12 hp less than the 240Z. The new 260Z also had the option of 2+2 seating.

Mr. K wanted to see the 260Z be a proper performance evolution of the 240 in America. So, in 1975, to combat the regulations at that time, the 280Z was introduced only in North America with an even larger 2.8L engine that now could produce the performance the car required to be a proper sports car, and to help move a car that was becoming increasingly heavy with modern luxuries and safety requirements. The new 2.8L would feature Bosch fuel injection instead of carburetion, that would help emissions and produce 170 hp.

A second generation of the Z-cars would come in 1979 with the introduction of the Nissan 280ZX. This was an impressive complete redesign of the styling to bring the iconic ‘60s sports car into the modern era, and a beautiful car it was. Owners still had the choice of 2 or 2+2 seating, as well as an available T-tops roof. Mechanically speaking, the ZX was exactly the same as the American 280Z with its 2.8L and 5-speed gearbox, but Nissan would jump into the popular turbocharging game a year later, producing the 280ZX Turbo which bumped power up to 180 hp and 203 lb-ft. These improvements only strengthened the brand, as Nissan sold 86,000 units in the first year alone.

However in 1984, engine and turbocharging technologies where changing at an ever increasing rate, and it wasn’t long before the 280ZX was replaced with the third generation 300ZX. The new car featured an all-new engine for the first time, a 3.0L V6 dubbed the VG series. In naturally aspirated form, the engine was good for 160 hp, while a turbocharged equivalent fetched an impressive 200 hp. With yet another all-out styling change, the 300 led the futuristic craze, a technique that worked well as Nissan sold another 70,000 units.

The 300ZX would drive on for another six years, with the Shatai plant pumping out 330,000 examples of the third generation. In 1990, the 300 got another makeover, but this time, the car meant business. The fourth generation 300ZX was a sleek and aerodynamic affair that took performance capabilities well past anything the original designers of the 240Z could have imagined. The displacement of the VG engine remained the same; however, with the aid of variable valve timing, the power of the NA jumped to 222 hp and 198 lb-ft, while a new twin-turbo version was pumping out an outstanding 300 hp and 283 lb-ft. The Z had now developed to the point were it wasn’t just imitating exotics, it was now competing with them directly. The resulting impact of these changes meant that American Z-car sales reached the one million mark, making it the all-time best-selling sports car.

With the success of the 300ZX, inevitably the price had to climb, to the point where turbos were fetching over $50,000 USD. The car may have been setting performance records for the company, but the original concept of an affordable sports car for the average man was coming out of touch. Then in 1996, with Nissan in financial troubles and concentrating on building SUVs, the dream came to an end. The iconic Z car was doomed to the same fate that awaited nearly every Japanese sports car and the program was canceled.

Nissan did not take the same direction as the others, however, the company went through some hard times in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, flirting with bankruptcy on a couple of occasions. Then, French carmaker Renault, a company with a history of doing things differently and against the grain, stepped in and bought Nissan in 1999. The charismatic company head, Carlos Ghosn pronounced, “We will build the Z, and we will make it profitable.” And so, the 350Z, then the 370Z with a 3.7L modular V6, was returned to us. It is a car that pays homage not only to the original design of the earlier cars, but also brings back that joy of driving, a characteristic lost in so many of today’s modern cars.

In a time where safety, fuel efficiency, mass appeal and cost of building dominates the makeup of the cars we drive, the modern Z is a joyful release that reminds us what made driving fun in the first place.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Feature: Introduction To Motorsports - Autocross

Every Sunday morning, when we turn on the television to watch Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris enduring the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or Funny Cars streak down the quarter mile, or a rugged Ford, Subaru or Mitsubishi tearing up a rally stage, there is always an urge hidden deep down inside us wanting to be that fearless soul behind the wheel. The problem is, motorsport is a complex and financially exhausting sport. Cars need to be built to exacting standards that are continuously grilled over by suspicious tech inspectors looking for any deviation from the rulebook. A massive bureaucracy of rules, guidelines and safety regulations must be strictly adhered to. If that isn’t enough, the cost of competing for a full year can be as expensive as most people’s yearly income.

However, there is another way. There are several forms of motorsport that are extremely easy to get into, require very little investment and offer not only a great experience, but an excellent stepping stone into more competitive forms of racing. Rallying has TSD events, would-be drag racers have Friday Nighters, and those who love track racing have Autocross.

Now, Autocross is a particularly effective sport to build up the technical skills of racing. An event usually consists of traffic cones laid out in a tight course over an open stretch of tarmac. The tightness of the course and low speeds require the driver to get the most out of the mechanical grip of the car and to drive with an absolutely perfect driving line to eek out the fractions of a second that can determine first from fifth. It is excellent grass roots training to sharpen track-day skills, and as a result, you’ll find everything from bone-stock cars to high-dollar purpose-built open-wheelers taking part in this fun sport.

Just this last August, the Vancouver Chinese Motorsports Club (VCMC) held the largest Autocross event in all of B.C., the Kumho Super Challenge, which attracted competitors from B.C., Alberta, Washington and Oregon. So, to satisfy my urge to drive a car in anger once again, I handed in an entry form for the event.

With just about any car available to me to tackle this event with, as I would be utilizing my access to press vehicles, my choice may have seemed foolish to some. However, to an Autocrosser, it was a wise choice, indeed. In the tight confines of a cone-riddled lot, there is one car that has for nearly twenty years been the staple for Autocrossers – the Mazda MX-5. The MX-5 represents the perfect storm for the needs of such an event. It’s lightweight, and has a good power-to-weight ratio with a spunky 2.0L engine that loves to rev. However, its RWD layout and a short wheelbase are its real attributes, allowing it to change direction lightning-fast, letting drivers thread the needle, so to speak.

With entry fee paid, and home-made magnetic numbers fixed to the doors of my little MX-5, I showed up at Pitt Meadows airport, where racing would be held at the B.C. Driving Centre. Due to the sheer number of competitors, the airport shut down runway 8-Left for use as a paddock.
After a quick inspection to ensure there were no loose items, that my helmet was up to date and that my car truly was stock, competition began. This was not my first Autocross attendance as I have competed in such an event several years ago, but back then, the course was a sea of orange cones forming a complicated course. Getting lost was a very real threat that affected run times, if you managed not to miss a gate. The workers at the Kumho Super Challenge had put together a smooth, fast flowing course that was both fun and allowed me to reach third gear in the MX-5’s close-ratio gearbox.

As I had four runs on the first day, I chose to sacrifice the first to ensure I remembered the morning’s course walk, while coming to grips with the car’s characteristics on the edge of adhesion. That was a good thing as I had forgotten to turn off the traction control. Thinking that running on standard tires, I may need to bump up the air pressures to keep the sidewall of the tires solid, my tactic backfired on the second run. With the red mist blinding me and over-inflated tires only scratching the surface, the MX-5 skated sideways between every gate. It was a miracle that I did not hit a cone (2-second penalty), and my time was six seconds slower than my first run.

With the tires aired down a little and calming myself down for the third run, everything was going well. That was until I got a little sideways out of one gate and had to rotate the car back around the next gate, resulting in the car spinning. Old habits die hard, as I desperately tried to save the run. Once I knew the slide couldn’t be saved, I slapped 1st, popped the clutch and in a glorious mixture of tire smoke and a bouncing rev limiter I was back on track. However, in Autocross, if you spin, your run is a writeoff, thus such acts are not always greeted with the same cheers as rally fans. After a small talking to, I managed to eek out a civilized final run devoid of drifting and tire smoke to pull myself up to 7th in class.

The next day brought a rain-soaked track, with lots of standing water, much more suited to my style of driving. I was looking forward to making up time now that I had my tire pressures sorted out, the only modification you can do in stock class. After missing a gate on my first run, I linked up a beautifully clean second run. By the third, my confidence was flowing and I was ready to make a push for the top spot. However, as I carved through the first corner, a series of hums and vibrations could be heard from the rear as my momentum was taken from me. I had again forgotten to turn off the traction control. In the heat of competition, I could not risk taking my hand off the wheel for the eight seconds needed to turn the system off, and had to endure the handicap throughout my run. My time only slightly bettered my second run, capturing 5th place in my class. Despite the regrets of “what ifs,” the placing was quite good as most of my competition had Ultra High Performance tires to work with.

With the weekend wound up, I couldn’t help but admit that the bang-for-buck enjoyment of Autocrossing is second to none. Nowhere else can you challenge both you and your car’s performance driving abilities for such a small investment. The valuable skills you develop along with the perma-smile that will never leave your face makes Autocross a must for any driving enthusiast.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Factory Tour: Koenigsegg

Remember the days when the mere sight of a Lamborghini Diablo, or Ferrari 308 was a memorable experience. Yes, the prestige of a Lamborghini, Ferrari or Porsche seems to dull when you begin to see each multiple times on a daily basis’ being driven by people who don’t seem competent enough to tie their own shoelaces. However there is a new breed of supercar working their way to the top. Italian builder Pagani, the rejuvenated mark of Bugatti and the unsuspecting Swedish builder Koenigsegg; represent today what Porsche, Lamborghini and Ferrari where in the 60’s. They are true low production hand built supercars that exude soul, character, cutting edge style and most importantly, unfathomable performance.

So what makes these marks so prestigious? I went to Sweden to look in and get a behind the scenes look at how Koenigsegg takes passion, ambition and acute attention to detail to build one of the worlds truly great supercars.

After a fire in 2003 burnt the companies small factory to the ground with all tools, molds and spares inventory, company founder Christian von Koenigsegg decided that the show must go on. He set up shop in a Swedish Air Force hangar at the airport just north of the small town of Angelholm. Ironically enough, the hangers prior residents was the Swedish Air Forces 1st Flight Squadron, whose soul purpose was to test highly secretive experimental fighters. Now instead of building some of the most deadly aircraft in the world, the building produces the once fastest production car ever made. Fastest, before the Gumpert Apollo took the title a few years ago. As a tribute to the hangars heritage, each Koenigsegg has the 1st Flight Squadrons insignia; that of a ghost, emblazed into the rear window of every vehicle.

Building one of the worlds most expensive, and most manic cars to be street legal bears little resemblance to the robotic production lines of Volvo’s Torslanda factory a couple hundred kilometers north, just outside of Goteborg. Torslanda pumps out 1000 vehicles per day and employ’s over 5000 people, while Koenigsegg employs 54 people and handcraft 20 cars per year. While I was there they had 3 cars in production and one chassis hot from the kiln. These cars are not a mass of stamped sheet metal welded together. Von Koenigsegg wanted to build a truly special car, a car that would be lighter, more powerful and faster than anything else on the road. For this you need a factory that resembles a Formula One Constructors shop more than car factory, and for this, a Koenigsegg has more in common with F1 than your basic commuter.

The building process starts with skilled hands cutting and laying out sheets of Carbon over a honeycomb aluminum core. These soon-to-be body parts are vacuum-sealed and cooked in a kiln. Then these newly formed pieces t get sent to the finishing department where they are either painted in the customers preferred colour, or for those getting the Limited Edition, all the carbon is sprayed with a clear coat then meticulously polished to a mirror finish. 

While skilled hands are creating these bodies, and readying them for finishing, a machine shop goes to work creating the magnificent V8 engine that pushes the CCXR to 254 mph. Casting their own blocks in house, the engine has two uses. Power delivery and being the rear structural member; much like an F1 car. Coupled with twin superchargers, the engines are capable of 870 hp, and 1018 hp when tuned to run on biofuel. Mated to the engine is a 6-speed Richardo gearbox, which we saw in a ready state in the engine shop with rear suspension and massive composite brakes.

With the engine and gearbox section ready, the cars begin assembly on the production line as all the glorious bits get pieced together. At the first station the car is just pieces, but further down the line at the final stop, the alignment is measured and the car is ready for test drive on the companies private track on a nearby runway. When the car is mechanically sorted, it is sent out to have the interior installed, then is readied for shipping to its lucky and wealthy owner.

To visit the factory is an amazing experience and the skill and passion that all the staff put into each and every little task in a cars production is inspirational.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Great Drives: Possum's Last Run

About The Route
Best time to Go: Weekdays from February to December
Places To Stop: Great scenic viewpoints found at 2.8 km, 9.3 km, and 10.9 km. At 10.9 km is the passes peak with a plaque documenting the history of the road and area, followed by the village of Cardrona at 25.1 km as well as the Possum Bourne Memorial located 7.5 km from Crown Range road.
Total Distance:  39 km  
Altitude: 1121 m
Route: Starting point is the village of Arrow Junction, 44°58'55 S - 168°51'17 E, where highway 6 junctions with Crown Range Rd. Crown Range Rd. winds drivers north-east, over lush green mountain tundra, finishing at the ski resort of Snow Park, 44°52'45 S - 169° 4'9 E.
Road Type: Rough tarmac road
Warnings: Highway will get snowfall in New Zealand’s winter months of July and August Watch for suicidal Possums, biting birds and epic rainfall.

To say that New Zealand has a car culture would easily be an understatement. Along with the Ford and Holden faithful who proudly adorn team jackets every time they take to the road in their Falcons and Monaro’s, one can predictable catch sight of highly modified Mitsubishi’s and Subaru’s at just about every traffic signal. The land of the Kiwi bird is also home to such racing legends as F1 Champion, Bruce McLaren, motorcycle land-speed record holder, Burt Munro, and WRC driver Possum Bourne.

Now you may be thinking, who would name their kid Possum? Well Mr. and Mrs. Bourne had no hand in the name their son would become well known for throughout the world. Like most teenage boys in New Zealand, young Bourne dreamt of becoming a racing driver. At the age of fourteen, he stole his mom’s car late one night, and went out street racing with friends. Streaking along one of New Zealand gloriously twisty roads, a possum had waddled out into his racing line. Now in New Zealand, running over possums is a national past time, a sport if you will, however the young Mr. Bourne swerved last minute to miss the doomed rodent, careening off the road and promptly turning mommies car into a ball. Ever since, New Zealand’s most famous rally driver has gone by one name – Possum.

Possum would go on to win several Kiwi, Aussie and Asia-Pacific Rally championships, driving along side greats like the late Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Kenneth Ericsson on Subaru’s World Rally Team. While competing at the “Race to the Sky” hillclimb in 2003, Possums life was snatched away when driving a recce run of the course. Another competitor was coming down and the two collided on a blind corner.

While touring in New Zealand last year, I had decided to make a pilgrimage to the memorial of the Possum, situated on the corner where he died. While just about every road in New Zealand is worthy of a Great Road write-up, the road leading from Queenstown to the memorial was particularly special, combining New Zealand’s highest mountain pass with majestic scenery and a glorious charge up the hill climb that was used for the historic race.

Now usually for these great drives I have the privilege of driving something sporty and exotic such as a Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, or Mitsubishi Evo. However, on this instance I would be driving something a little different. The best way to tour through New Zealand is at the wheel of a campervan. However, I didn’t want some traffic slowing mobile hotel room on wheels. Instead after much research I went with the BaseJumper 2 from Wilderness Motorhomes. Not only did the BaseJumper 2 provide us with a queen size bed, full kitchen and bathroom, it did it all in a compact Fiat Ducato van with a very competent 3.0L diesel engine. The BaseJumper proved the best of both worlds offering luxurious accommodations and performance capabilities that held up no car.

From Queenstown, we head east on highway 6 towards the village of Arrow Junction where our journey begins. Just a kilometer out of Arrow Junction is the turnoff to Crown Range road, and it did not take long to find the good stuff as a magnificent hairpin complex challenges drivers right off the bat. These were not tight and narrow Alp type hairpins, but an open series of bends and hairpins that can be tackled in without downshifting to first. Once on top of the initial ridge, the road begins to traverse up the mountainside towards an early summit, providing a wonderfully winding road through challenging corners with an excellent view a deep vineyard covered valley that is the heart of the Central Otago wine region.

Up the lush grass covered mountain tundra we pulled off at the peak, for a look around, admiring the incredible views of the valley below and rocky peaks above as well as a quick read of a plaque, describing the history of the regions agricultural past and transportation challenges due to the mountainous terrain. Today however the main industry is tourism, as our next destination, the village of Cardrona is home to one of New Zealand’s most popular alpine resorts.

Off the peak, we plummeted down into a deep chasm that widened out into the Cardrona Valley, an impressive sight with high mountain ranges seem to lean overtop of a lush green valley without a tree to be seen. As we came through during the off-season, the small village of Cardrona was all but a ghost town, with only a small café open to offer a quick Flat White coffee to refresh the mind before challenging the race to the clouds.

However, there are two ski resorts in area, both with roads that exit Crown Range road just after Cardrona, one going up the east range, the other up the west. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure which mountain was home to the memorial, as there is little in the way of signage. So, on a hunch, I went left up the west range, and charged up what was a truly magnificent gravel road. The road was so great, with challenging corners and massive drop offs, there was not doubt this was the right way. Sliding my way higher and higher, up past the cloud level and into the ski resort itself, there was still not sight of the memorial when I was set straight by a resort employee telling me, “Nah mate, Possum’s ova on the otha side of the valley.”

All the better, another run down would be just as fun, and from the excellent view across the valley, the proper road up the east range looked just as salivating. The trip down opened my eyes to the steepness of the road. The distinct smell of burning brakes filled the air as I lean the big camper van into hairpins of doom, brake drifting to stay on the road. Across the highway we diverted, heading up towards Snow Park Ski resort, the new gravel road while looking similar from afar, was actually a much higher speed road, making the onslaught of high-speed corners all the more challenging. At least I had my brakes back though.

Another charge up the mountain, I could feel the racer in me urge to get out, as I began to left foot brake the van into hard banked corners, there was most certainly a sense of motorsports and speed in the air on the stretch of rally heaven. While popping my eye’s up off the road at select points to search for the memorial, my attention was snatched away on a very fast double apex open hairpin, the eye’s of Possum looking down on me as the sound of dishes and cutlery clattered behind me as I wheeled the BaseJumper 2 around the tragic corner. Perched high on a rock cropping, a statue looked over the valley, with a kind grin on his face. There is no pullout until the road cuts back, where visitors can hike down to the memorial. The Bourne family found the perfect place for the statue, as Possums figure has almost perfect vision of the entire course with the beauty of the valley filling in the entire background. Here’s to you Possum.

History: Jet Powered Cars

Last years Paris Motorshow saw the introduction of several high profile, ultra cool concept cars. However, among all the glitz and glamour there was one car that stood alone as the coolest car of the show, that of the Jaguar C-X75. This low-slung supercar from the British luxury brand was not only a design and engineering showcase of Jaguars future, but it is a car built to celebrate the companies 75th year of existence.

However, the C-X75 is more than just another pretty face. Like many new concepts this supercar is a range extending hybrid making use of four 145kW (195bhp) electric motors mounted at each corner. Nothing really special there, except when you realize what is providing the battery power generation. That would be two gas micro-turbines rated at 188 bhp total, mounted just behind the seats. Many had said that micro-turbines would never work, but despite the negative comments, Jaguar along with Baldon Jets, who designed the micro-turbines, are amidst a game changing revolution in the way cars are powered. However, turbine powered cars is nothing new, so with the re-evolution of the jet powered car, lets pay homage to the jet cars of past.

Rover JET1
The car that sparked the whole turbine-powered fad was British carmaker Rover. During World War II, Rover were heavily involved in the development of gas turbine engines, as the Allies raced to have the first jet powered fighters in the sky to take on the Luftwaffe. It was however, the Germans who won the race, fielding the Messerschmitt ME 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow"), the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. The ME 262 would come too late for the Germans, however, the superiority of the aircraft was pronounce.

With the war over and Rover putting the final touches on their own turbine technology, the British had lost the race for jet powered flight, however they could use the same technology to take a similar revolutionary jump in the automotive industry. In 1950, they did just that, shoehorning a jet turbine into a concept roadster behind the passenger seats. Instead of providing acceleration through thrust like the aircraft of the time, the turbines rotation was directed to the wheels much like a standard internal combustion car.
During tests, the car reached top speeds of 140 kmh, at a turbine speed of 50,000 rpm. Unfortunately, the size of the engine and the fuel efficiency meant the project was scrapped soon after the concepts unveiling.

GM Firebird
Next to bat was the General, who started their turbine-powered dreams two years later with the Firebird I concept car. By this time the whole “Jet Age” mentality of futuristic thinking was taking America by storm. The air force was in a highly popular race to break the sound barrier with experimental aircraft, meanwhile the common citizen wanted in on the act yearned for nuclear powered toasters and cars that looked and were powered by jets. GM answered everyone’s dreams with the first iteration of the Firebird. Half fighter plane and half car, the Firebird took the JET 1’s ideals and added them to a sci-fi body.

Designed by famed penman, Harley Earl, the series of three turbine-powered cars had a very obvious aircraft inspiration. GM would use a Whirlfire Turbo Power gas turbine engine that produced 370 hp (280 kW), with a two-speed gearbox. They then fitted the mechanicals into Earl’s body that comprised of a fiberglass fuselage, open wheels, and single seat cockpit with bubble canopy and winglets at the rear with actual flaps used as airbrakes. A feature now found on some of the world’s most expensive cars such as the McLaren SLR and Bugatti Veron.

The car was a hit at the 1953 Motorama Autoshow, and as such, an evolution to the car was put into motion. The Firebird II, was a more practical car, even if it didn’t look it, as it was designed as a four-seat family car. The car utilized a 200 hp (150 kW) engine and used an air fed regenerative system to solve the exhaust heat problem, allowing the entire engine to operate nearly 538 °C cooler, and also powered the accessories. A larger bubble canopy returned, however, the fiberglass used to build the body was binned for much more expensive titanium. Now how cool is that – in 1956!

Again, the Firebird was the darling of that years Motorama show, ushering yet another evolution, the Firebird III in 1959. This full on Jetson mobile kept with the uber expensive titanium body and extravagant tail fins, now numbering seven. The two-seat, double bubble cockpit coupe now boasted a 225 hp (168 kW) Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine, and a two cylinder, 10 hp (7.5 kW) gasoline engine to run accessories. Unfortunately, despite all the crazy designs and massive technological advancements, the Firebirds would never see production, likely due to the sheer cost that the cars would undoubtedly carry.

Chrysler Turboflite and Turbine
While everyone else were playing around with concept cars in the 50’s, Chrysler took the idea of turbine powered production vehicles much more seriously. Since 1954, Chrysler had been experimenting with in-house built turbine engines in their production vehicles, and was even building rockets for the air force. In 1956, they drove an experimental gas turbine powered Plymouth from New York City to Los Angeles. They would continue to test further evolutions of their turbines placed into production cars such as Dodge Darts, Plymouth Fury’s, Belvedere’s, Coronets and Miranda’s all the way into the 1980’s until financial difficulties canceled the turbine development program for good. However, during this time, Chrysler dumped the fourth generation of their turbine, the CR2A that produced 140 hp (104 kW) into the Turboflite concept car. This car mated the realistic visions of the JET 1 with the outrageous stylings of the Firebird. It was a 4-passenger vehicle that featured a glass canopy that rose automatically when either door was opened and also a large rear spoiler that was later incorporated in the muscle cars of the sixties.

Then in 1963, Chrysler began the Turbine Car project building 50 production vehicles between October 1963 and October 1964, plus five prototypes. The bodies and interiors were crafted by Ghia in Italy, and then were shipped to Michigan to have the engines installed. The fourth-generation Chrysler turbine engine ran at up to 44,500 revolutions per minute and could use diesel fuel, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, JP-4 jet fuel, and even vegetable oil. The engine would run on virtually anything and the President of Mexico tested this theory by running one of the first cars successfully on tequila. Once the public trials were finished, Chrysler canceled the program, destroying all but a few cars. However, this did not stop Chrysler’s turbine production as several cars were offered with turbine power up until 1980 when financial woes forced the company to sease all turbine production.

Toyota Sport 800 Turbine Hybrid
The yanks weren’t the only one playing with turbines, as Toyota built a one-off turbine version of their popular micro sports car, the 800 in 1979. However, Toyota changed the dynamics of the system, ushering in the technology that would lead to the Jaguar C-X75. A much simpler version, the Toyota used a 30 bhp (22 kW) gas turbine engine, connected to a generator, which fed an electric motor that in turn provided power to a 2-speed gearbox. The efficiency of turbine power had now finally been realized, even though Toyota never continued to expand the project.

Jay Leno’s EcoJet
The last turbine-powered car built was the EcoJet by Jay Leno and GM. Built on the aluminum frame of a Corvette Z-06; the EcoJet sports a Cadillac themed body and is powered by a 650 horsepower mid-mounted Honeywell LT-101 turbine powered by bio-diesel.

Review: 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder

The Porsche Boxster is easily one of the best sports cars on the market today, and by all means I love the car. The coming together of a mid-engine sports car with excellent fuel efficiency and impressive cargo capacity for this segment is truly impressive. However, it still feels a little watered down for a Porsche. Brought in as an entry level Porsche, the car just feels like it’s lacking the zest for life compared to other Porches. The Boxster S, gave the model a performance shot in the arm, waking it up a little. However, while as good as the S is, there still seems to be something missing.

Problem is, with the increasing availability and ease of use of Porsche vehicles today, the high performance brand is now being bought by not just performance enthusiasts, but by those eager to display their wealth. This means Porsche need to design the Boxster to be attractive to everyone, and not just immature boy racers like me.

However, there is now a third version of the Boxster, and I’m happy to say, it’s an angry one. Yes, the engineers back in Zuffenhausen where let out of their cages, told to go take in a couple track days, have a couple pints afterwards and come up with a Boxster that’s full of energy and life. The result is this, the Boxster Spyder.
First thing first, the whole point of this car is to be a lighter more nimble version of the Boxster S designed to give the driver a more exciting driving experience, and let me tell you, they have most certainly succeeded. Short of building a GT3 version of a Boxster, the Spyder ticks off just about every box of modifications that I would do to the car. Make the car 80 kg lighter - check. Give the engine a slight boost in power - check with 10 extra horses. Make it look meaner, with a speedster double hump on the rear deck – check. Give me carbon fibre seats that hold you like full competition seats but are still comfortable enough to go on a 500 km road trip – most definitely check!

So on paper it’s meaner, it looks meaner, but how is it to drive. Well, let me tell you, the Spyder is a breath of fresh air to anyone that is getting tired of today’s cars being packed full of luxury and safety conveniences, spoiling the cars fun-to-drive drive nature. The Spyder is a Boxster on speed, shivering and shacking, wanting to go faster and faster. It is as close as you can get to a Lotus Elise, in terms of driver communication with the car, without all the storage and seating issues that hamper anyone over the age of 16. The steering is surgical, the chassis is near telepathic in its predictability, and the driver can feel a surge of life exude from sitting in the drivers seat. This truly is a driver’s car.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t any complaints about the Spyder. Lets start with the top. The butt of the majority of the complaints about this car comes from its unique top. One of the largest weight savings areas was the top, so this lighter and much more complicated version was created to keep the weight down first, and the weather out second. Jeremy Clarkson even went so far as to call it nothing more than an umbrella. While the operations do take a while to get used to, and in Vancouver it’s not exactly water tight, I actually think its pretty cool, and the immature boy racer in me would much rather have this than the regular Boxster top.

The fabric loops that act like door handles are case in point number two. Most people will not take kindly to these and many of my own passengers were dumbfounded as to how to open the door, but again, the immature boy racer in me loved them. They’re different, basic, like a racecar. Mind you, if I were paying $70,500 for a sports car, I’d rather not have Porsche put a big ugly screw right in the middle of it, at least try to hide it. Along with the minimalist interior you don’t get a radio, or A/C, so posers, turn around and go back to your Escalades and Hummers.

Now many journalists are complaining that with the Spyder, Porsche are tying to sell you Boxster that is missing a whole whack of parts and are charging a premium for the pleasure of being bent over. However, I like to look at it another way. Just look at it. This Boxster is what a regular Boxster is not, exciting, over the top and a true drivers car. Lets not beat around the bush, a regular Boxster is mostly purchased by wealthy parents to give to their daughters for their sweet sixteen, or maybe the wife keeps it for herself for getting to and from Pilates, the spa and a bit of shopping. A true Porschephile would never really want one because it just doesn’t quite offer the excitement and character of a 911. Lets not forget that all those lightweight and unique bits of bodywork, seats and engine modifications come at only a $3,100 premium over the Boxster S. I challenge anyone to buy a Boxster S and equal the Spyder’s power, weight and aesthetic advantages with the aftermarket for such a price. So really, the Spyder driver is getting a great deal. However, start to tick off the options boxes when you make your purchase; well that’s another story, as this test car came in at a whopping $90,425.

So am I angry with Porsche for bringing a car to market with fewer parts, a feeble leaky roof and a higher price tag. No, I applaud Porsche for building a Boxster that stirs the inner driver in us all, a car that is more about the joy of driving than about the badge one wears on the hood. If you are one that wants a Porsche for the badge, go ahead and buy a Boxster and option it out with all the goodies. I you are a driver, and want a car that becomes an extension of your limbs and will always keep a smile on your face, even with no access to satellite comedy, the Spyder truly is the driving mans Boxster.

Base Price (MSRP): $70,500
Price as Tested: $90,425
Type: 2-passenger Sports Car
Layout: Mid-Engine Rear Wheel Drive
Engine: 3.4L Horizontally opposed 6-cylinder
Horsepower: 320 combined
Torque: 273 combined
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual – Optional PDK
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Fuel Economy (L/100km): 14.2L city, 7.1L highway

Review: 2011 Chysler 200

Lets begin with the Chrysler Sebring, as this is what makes this story so impressive. I was not too impressed with the Sebring, and to be totally honest, it was one of the worst new cars I’d driven. It’s design had improved from the last generation, however the build quality suffered and the driving feel of the car was numb and unconnected to say the least. However, with Chrysler’s bankruptcy, Chrysler had no choice but to start improving the products they built in order to lure back customers, wary of buying from a failed manufacturer. Good news is, Chryslers already been making huge steps forward with several models under the Dodge, Ram, and Jeep logos. Well now its Chryslers time to reap the benefits of the hard work being done back in Detroit, and the first to get the treatment is the Sebring, now dubbed the 200.

Though my time was short in the 200, a quick rip up the Lucas valley in California, past Skywalker ranch and on to the pacific coast was enough time for me to be shocked by the massive improvements Chrysler has made.

Like so many of Chrysler’s brands, the massive step up in interior quality and design is one of the largest determining factors to the quality of these new products. The sea of grey hard plastic in the Sebring has been replaced with warm, soft touch materials that compliment a much more conservative and modern interior design. While the Sebring’s interior was something one had to endure, the 200’s rivals that of higher-end import brands such as VW, even knocking on the door of luxury brands. Interaction with instruments and controls is also enhanced as Chrysler really has sweated the little details. Buttons and dials have a good solid feel and the whole environment is much more pleasant.

Next is the powertrain. The darling of Chryslers new powerplants is the new Pentastar 3.6L V-6, which, thanks to its increase in power and fuel efficiency, is being shoved into just about everything built under the Chrysler name. Here in the 200, the Pentastar is rated at 283 hp and 260 lb-ft, making it the most powerful mid-sized sedan on the market. The base 200 will receives the standard 2.4L inline four cylinder that comes equipped with 173 hp and 166 lb-ft. While I did not get the chance to drive the four-cylinder, which I expect to be a little weak given the size and weight of the car, the Pentastar has no such problems plodding over the coastal range with little effort, while getting good fuel mileage, as the V-6 needed little urging.

So, how does the new car drive? This was another weak point as the Sebring lacked grip and any real handling performance. Well Chrysler’s got all their bases covered, and even though the 200 development was hasty to say the least, it is a well-connected vehicle. While the mid-size sedan market is not known for high performance handling, the 200’s upgrading suspension mated with a lower ride height does go a long way in giving the driver confidence and good communication with the car.

With my shortage of time in the car, the most obvious advances garnered the majority of my attention, so my only real quibble with the car is its “big car” feel and steering response that could be a little more direct. Other than that, the 200 has marked the coming of age for Chrysler, impressing me with just about every feature including a segment leading starting price of $19.995. With so many segment leading features and a lower price tag, the 200, and I suspect the soon to be released 300 should be game changing vehicles, ushering in the new era of post bankruptcy Chrysler.

Base Price (MSRP): $19,995
Price as Tested: $27,995
Type: 5-passenger Mid-size Sedan
Layout: Front-Engine Front Wheel Drive
Engine: 2.4L I-4 and 3.6L V-6
Horsepower: I-4 173, V-6 283
Torque: I-4 166, V-6 260
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Fuel Economy (L/100km): I-4 L - 9.9L city, 6.7L highway
V-6 – 11.0L city, 6.8L highway

History: Military Ruggedness for the Average Man

Last year, when Dodge invited me to Moab, Utah, for the Jeep Safari, they also let have a go in the current iteration of the Power Wagon. The Ram based 2500 was a particularly stout off-roader despite it’s size, featuring solid lockable axles at both ends, disconnecting sway-bars, full underbody protection and a winch as standard. The good folks at Dodge took us on a run up into the mountains surrounding Moab, on washed out old mining roads that were most likely built, maintained and used by Power Wagons back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s when Moab was a uranium boom town.

Many a Power Wagon there were up in those mountains, when the apatite for weapons grade uranium was at its peak. In fact, the two began life around the same time. Around the time the American’s were testing their newfound mass-destructive powers, Dodge were working on the latest version of their quarter, half and three quarter ton military 4x4. Dodge had been building 4x4’s for the military since 1934, so they had a pretty good sense of what worked and what didn’t. In 1945, initial photo’s of a prototype vehicle based on the extremely effective military platform with a civilian cab were first released. Initially called the Battle Wagon, the Power Wagon’s basic goal was to fulfill the military needs for a small, fast, powerful, and rugged vehicle, capable of traveling well on road, and equally as well off road, and supply a vehicle of equal quality to the civilian population.

Like the venerable Jeep, veterans who were now returning home to their farms, or construction and mining jobs began to swamp Dodge with requests for the extremely capable machinery they were privy too while in the service. With the market crying out, Dodge would have been foolish not to make use of designs, tooling and a massive collection of spares, and build a civilian version of their military vehicles. Especially when the government financed all those resources.

In 1946, Dodge introduced the Power Wagon to showrooms for the first time, giving the public access to rugged wartime machinery. Based on the 126-inch wheelbase, three-quarter ton military chassis, the civilian Power Wagon featured a purpose built 8-foot all-steel welded box with high 20-inch tall sides for maximum cargo carrying ability. It featured a 230 cubic-inch flat head six cylinder engine rated at a massive 78 hp, however, for those who owned them, the flathead was tough, cheap to fix and lasted forever. Mated to the 230 was a 4-speed gearbox and 2-speed transfer case with an interior shift lever. The military driveline was carried over to the Power Wagon, using the transfer case from the WC 63 6x6, however the low range gearing was changed from 1.5 to 1.96. Like many military based vehicles, the Power Wagon had a Power Take Off (PTO) feature that directed engine power to the front and rear bumpers, capable of powering auxiliary equipment. A big plus with farmers, miners and forestry men. The one-ton rated Power Wagon's maximum GVW rating was 8,700 pounds. Its maximum payload was 3,000-pounds, but more important to owners was its 2,000-pound limit for off-road conditions. The truck also featured military non-directional tires, as there were no other high traction tires available at that time.

The fenders were flat one-piece military style fenders, instead of the usual teardrop styled fenders used on most trucks of that time. The teardrops would get clogged up with mud in the field, so most military trucks used flat fenders that would not catch mud as easily. As Dodge new the majority of Power Wagon owners would be buying the vehicle for its off-road prowess, they kept the military style fenders.

Most manufacturers would do a complete redesign once the current model was starting to get old in the tooth. The Power Wagon was so good at what it did, that Dodge engineers merely evolved the vehicle through the application of bigger and more robust parts, raiding the Chrysler parts bin to see what could be made to work better. Changes would be as small as replacing a 4-blade radiator fan with 6-blade unites. However, in ’49, the transmission was changed to a heavy-duty spur gear four speed. Then in ’51, 1,600-pound capacity front springs and 3,000-pound rear springs were available as an option increasing rear axle capacity from 5,500-pounds to 6,500-pounds and the front axle from 3,500 to 3,750. Then in 1961 the 230 was replaced with the 251 cubic-inch flat head six, which was joined with the optional 383 big block V-8 in ’67.

Safety and emissions rules finally killed the Power Wagon in the States in 1968 as it was deemed too expensive to reverse-engineer the Slant 6 into the engine bay. A total of 95,145 WDX-WM300 Power Wagons were sold between 1945-1968. Domestic production would shut down, although exports continued to roll out until 1978. However, that would not be the end of the Power Wagon story. The truck was so popular and such a success that the name would live on in several versions of Dodges 4x4 pickups.

The first of which came in 1957, and really didn’t share much in common with the original military styled vehicle. They were merely 4x4 versions of the W100 and W200 pickups. These trucks featured conventional cabs, front sheet metal and the cargo boxes used on the 2WD models. The next year, a one-ton W300 would also join the lineup. Later in 1966, a W200 Crew Cab was added, followed by the two-ton W500 Power Wagon in ’77. However, these were merely glorified 4WD versions of regular Dodge pickups, and lacked the charisma of the old school, take no prisoners, military based originals.

However, in 1981, the Power Wagon name came to an end all together, when Dodge redesigned the entire pickup fleet. Although, they did use the “Power Ram” name on 4WD models, the name would not resurface until 2005, when a special off-road version of the Ram received the historic designation. Today the Power Wagon lives on in the current generation Ram, which as I described above, is a very resourceful vehicle. However, as good of a truck the modern Power Wagon is, there is no replacing the kick ass cool factor of the original old warhorse.

Review: Dodge Durango

Only one short year ago we thought the Durango had gone the way of the Dodo bird, as Chrysler’s owners struggled to stop the hemorrhaging of finances. However, with Fiat coming to the rescue, the Dodo lives again and this time it’s come back as a Peacock, sporting a fresh new design and performance enhancements.

While the Durango has returned, it bears little in resemblance to the outgoing Durango. Built on a brand new platform that was part of a joint program with Mercedes for the GL, the unibody architecture allows the Durango to have a much lower stance, increasing on-road handling and aerodynamics. As a result, the high riding Durango of old is now replaced with this ground hugging brute. While the design is all-new for the Durango, the bold crosshair grille and Magnumesk rear greenhouse still ushers back traditional Dodge traits.

Inside, the Durango’s story mirrors that of every new Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler we’ve laid eye’s on in the last six months. A massive interior redesign has taken place offering up heaps of high quality soft-touch materials and a heavy dose of a attention to detail. The whole atmosphere inside the Durango is one of comfort and refinment, as Dodge has taken a weakness and turned it into an advantage, knocking on the doorsteps of luxury car makers in refinement.  Although, I still think the steering wheel could use a little work as a full grip at the 3 and 9-oclock positions is interrupted by a thick angled side spoke.

Up in the business end of the vehicle is another large enhancement, the inclusion of Chrysler’s latest darling, the 3.6L Pentastar V-6. Not only does this engine give the Chrysler brands a much needed step up in power for their V-6 option, but also increases both fuel efficiency and emission. When mated to the Durango, the little Pentastar pumps out 290 hp and 260 lb-ft, which like the Grand Cherokee, will need some high revving, as it can struggle to get up steep hills. Of course if you’re one that just wants raw V-8 muscle powering your Dodge, not to worry as the 5.7L HEMI is still an option on the two higher level models, the Crew Plus and Citadel. With the addition of the new unibody platform, Dodge have been able to save a large amount of weight, with the SXT model coming in at a not too shabby 2157 kg. As a result, fuel efficiency is rated at 13.0L/100km in the city, 8.9L.100km highway when equipped with the new Pentastar engine. However, be warned, when adding AWD and opting for the HEMI, the Durango starts to get pretty pudgy and those numbers rise to 16.6L and 10.1L respectably. 

The new body is really doing wonders for the reincarnated Durango. Not only are the looks and efficiency of the vehicle improved drastically, but the driveability and use of space has also made me do a double take. The added space has allowed the Durango to keep its 7-passenger rating with a third row of seats; seats that can comfortable seat an adult and not just be used to punish children. The super stiff body also makes the handling more shocking than the interior improvements.

I’ve experienced this before, when I had the pleasure of testing the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee, which also shares a platform with a Mercedes SUV, and the improvement was profound. Here in the Durango, the handling was equally as shocking as the big truck drove like a large car. The absence of body on frame construction means that Dodge could lower the Durango without disrupting suspension travel. When matched with a tight body and the AWD system that comes standard, the Durango is a well-planted vehicle that is well connected and lets the driver feel the road much more efficiently. Even a soccer mom could have fun driving this one.

All these improvements all add to the competitiveness of the Durango against its competition. With a starting price of $37,995 for the SXT the Durango now comes into line with other similarly equipped large three rowers like the Ford Flex, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, and Mazda CX-9, all of which are V-6 powered with output and fuel-economy figures similar to the Durango V-6.

Base Price (MSRP): $37,995
Price as Tested: $49,995
Type: 7-passenger Full-size Crossover
Layout: Front-Engine All Wheel Drive
Engine: 3.6L V-6 and 5.7L V-8
Horsepower: V-6 290, V-8 360
Torque: V-6 260, V-8 390
Transmission: 5-Speed Automatic
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Fuel Economy (L/100km): V-6 – 13.0L city, 8.9L highway
V-8 – 16.6L city, 10.1L highway