Saturday, 18 February 2012

My Crush On FWD Four-Door Saloons

"So what is this thing with you and front wheel-drive four-door saloons?" asked Tiff Needell almost pinning me against the wall at this party at a Goodwood lounge. I had a waverly look at him as my goatie hairs gently pulsed under his cider-flavoured breath and threw an arm towards Chris Harris to help me out. "Well..." I started with a croaking voice and an uncomfortable look in my eyes, trying to kill time until Chris was willing to come over. "The thing is with these cars is that they are not BMWs... or Astons...or Mercs, *ahem* but something that... you know... you can buy... for real." That didn't seem to convince Tiff and I was ready to threw new arguments into our Pythonesque conversation, but just as I opened my mouth, he indulged himself into a monologue concerning the new BMW M5, rear-wheel drive, chassis setup, and all those sorts of things while spilling cider on his shoes and the floor. Luckily enough, Harris finally came around with a pint of Löwenbrau in his hand, listened to Tiff's tech-talk and just as the grey-haired presenter stopped for a minute, he dropped the final words to end the conversation. "The sandwiches are really good, you should try them." and with that, he passed his beer over to me and made his way over the loo.

Of yourse, you wouldn't read any of this if I didn't try to come up with a point to start this post, attempting to put words into famous road-testers' mouth upon why I love front-wheel drive saloons. Because there is no real argument in this topic, there are no pros or cons, just personal affection, my personal crush on these cars without a single logical piece of objective explanation.

Or is there one? Let's find out.

Personally, I never owned a four-door saloon, but I really feel I should. And to get to the point, four-door saloons are one of the most impractical practical cars as of 2012, yet one of the most sold ones around the world.

With the massive spread of hatchbacks, saloons got stuck as something obsolete between the hatchback and the estate category. Because, first of all, why would you want a saloon?

You would say it's the big boot space, for example. But no, it is not that much bigger as the car itself is compared an ordinary hatchback, but it is the same length as its estate counterpart that has virtually endless amount of boot space. You then could say there's enough room for your family to sit in the car, with comfortable legroom at the back seats, but again, it loses the point contrary to the estate, which has the same amount of legroom, plus the afore-mentioned boot space. Then you could mention the price that is slightly lower than of an estate, but when it comes to fitting the dog or the childrens' small bicycles in the car, your regular interior cleaning bill comes quickly into even terms with the price difference between the two.

So again, why would you buy a saloon?

Well, the simple answer is because they look great. Of course I'm not talking about saloons that were converted from hatchbacks, but proper, ground-up saloons - limousines if you like. They just have this sinister look on the street, especially in dark colours, preferably dark blue, grey or black. With some chrome trimming here and there, they really look like something of class compared to the rest of the usual cars on the roads.

Now the real petrolhead could say "Yes, you got a point there, but why front-wheel drive? It is the worst thing ever happened to the car, closely followed by large cupholders and automatic transmission."

First things first, cupholders are great when you are stuck in a traffic jam, and automatic transmission is just wonderful when... you are stuck in a traffic jam. But they really don't have much to do with actual driving, so let's get back to our original point. Front-wheel drive does have practical advantages over RWD, especially with saloons and estates - meaning of course the prop-shaft and the rear axle occupying valuable room from the backseats and the boot in an FR-layout car - but let's not cite this fact here when I just proved superiority of saloons over everything else by means of single affection, but the other, most important practical argument is FWD's price. Because, as you may noticed, we live in a world where RWD is now the toy of higher-class manufacturers, meaning of course BMW and Mercedes in the first place being the cheapest of these. Looking back, perhaps the Ford Sierra and the Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton were the last affordable FR-layout cars and that piece of the market is simply missing now.

Yes, RWD is more fun, yes, enjoyable to drive, but even when you have the money to buy and maintain a BMW or a Mercedes, you cannot avoid the terms "hoon" and "posh" tagged onto you, respectively.

Also, this doesn't mean FWD four-door saloons should be boring. Let's just take motorsports pedigree. Touring car racing loves FWD saloons. Maybe not as much as hatchbacks, but still, they still can be good use in a contact-motorsport like BTCC. And if you just look at the podium at the end of each WTCC race, you'll notice that it is covered with one factory team with four-door saloons from race to race. Germany of course is the European heaven of RWD, so if you look at DTM, two out of three saloons represented are RWD with Audi still being 4WD or FWD, with the actual, purpose-built racecars all being RWD of course. Or just have a look at NASCAR. The most widely viewed motorsport right after F1. Its top series, the Sprint Cup features four four-door saloons, out of which three are front-wheel drive in real life with the Dodge Charger basically being a plain muscle car with two further doors attached, rather than a high-performance saloon. Of course, none of these make the actual cars more exciting, but their sheer layout and balance make them capable to perform probably the most spectacular motoring guilty pleasure on Earth, the "arab drift".

But this is not the purpose of a FWD four-door saloon. The point of the whole car should be to give you a sort of down-to-earth class - or rather dignity - for good money, without the negative preconceptions attached to the luxurious RWD counterparts. It should tell other people, you are an ordinary person with a sinister life. You have a proper house you worked for, a proper car you earned and you just simply have the right to drive a slightly big car that is not a 100% workhorse as an estate would be.

In other words, a front-wheel drive four-door saloon makes you feel and look like a capital-letter CITIZEN, as all of us want to be. And for a strange reason, that is my crush.

Well, Tiff seems to have fallen asleep, I should give him a ride home in this Peugeot 605.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

N/A N/A - The Death of Non-Turbo Engines

While less than a year ago I was melting in awe of the mightiness of the classic turbocharged engine, opinions took an opposie lock during the time elapsed and bounced off the Wall of Champions. But it's not the turbo's fault. Let me explain.

I'm still in love with the epic turbo-lag caused by a small engine - gigantic turbocharger combination. Only turbo has become too much commonplace in the sense that its original purpose has been confiscated and replaced by a green toe-thumb tag. In fact, I was the first one to jump from the armchair and throw hands in the air when it was announced officially that turbocharged V6 engines would replace the current naturally aspirated V8s in Formula 1 from 2014 while questioning the rationality behind the year - why not 2013?

FIA has tried everything to simplify the super-complicated aerodynamics of recent F1 cars, with a brief initial success only. Ultimately they figured out - shock! - that when a whole field of cars were and have been running with engines developed years ago - forbidding any further improvement on them - while restricting the revs they would operate at, then teams would find every other possible ways to get to the top of the grid, which ultimately resulted e.g. in tricky engine mappings, but most of the time exploiting aerodynamic loopholes with additional, flexible wings slowly reappearing on the cars with mysterious air ducts tunnelling through the body, making a few extra kph advantage on the straights. FIA ultimately threw in the towel and voted for a new engine formula resembling one from the 80s, so everyone would start tinkering with the powerplants, building the aerodynamics from the ground up.

They said it was going with the times. Turbocharging was now not only the means to keep power up but also a way to lower emission rates in F1.

I'm sorry. In F1?

As a matter of fact, since when turbocharging has been considered to be a greener way to move around?

While I do know and accept the math behind it, I still find myself in a bit of controversy, a twisted cognitive dissonance. This was the point where I pulled a hipster act to proclaim the now commonplace turbocharged engine 'uncool'.

The whole issue just hit me when I started thinking about diesel engines and I found myself unable to come up with one single, non-turbocharged engine that still is in production and is put into cars. I managed to get aid from Twitter, creating some minor buzz someone even dedicating the hashtag #lastnonturbodiesel to the matter. The final solution came down to one single model, the VW Caddy - not a frequent sight on the roads, by the way. But when we move the topic to petrol-powered cars, things do not get so much different.

In the past years, attention to environment avareness in the whole motoring industry pulled a high gear and turned everything upside down. MPG became the new MPH and devotion spent on CO2 emission rates in catalogues even surpassed luggage space size info.

As far as turbocharging is considered, it is now the temporary savior of the petrol engine while not yet trespassing the 'hybrid' territory. Ford managed to reinvent hot water naming their latest powerplant family 'EcoBoost', which basically represents engines of various layouts losing two cylinders and an added turbo.

Yes, downsized turbo engines perform better as far as economical and environmental factors concerned. But from a petrolhead's point of view turbo is becoming more and more out of place.

I have to give it to Clarkson this time, who just raised the issue in Top Gear driving the Lamborghini Aventador, showing favouritism to be the naturally aspirated V12 over his co-presenters turbocharged engines. Marginal, but intriguing case: why supercars need turbocharged engines? I mean, does any supercar owner care about economy and MPG figures over overall performance? If someone does, I imagine the person taking the bus or the bicycle to work, or some sort of hybrid car to show off awareness. I cannot imagine a heated argument between owners over CO2 emission rates and frequency of filling up, but rather crispiness of acceleration and reaction times, as Tiff Needell pointed out in Fifth Gear.

Unfortunately the problem does not stop here. Manufacturers of normal, everyday cars are being forced (see what I did there?) to go for turbocharging for economical reason. while it sounds appealing, as a side effect, even the smallest hatchbacks are becoming mechanically over-complicated.

Does one need a car for everyday quick running up and down in the town with something relatively so fragile?

Just a few grams of CO2 per kilometre gained making something reliable... not so reliable, from a tool to an e-device with a booting ceremony.

In my mind it's all wrong from a practical point of view and from a petrolhead's perspective as well. My brother, who happens to own a Lancia Delta HF Turbo, said he had been dreaming of getting a turbocharged car for long years while it was inaccessible in everyday rides. Now he has one, times have moved on in the meantime and became just an old hatchback to some extent, regardless of its mighty pedigree.

As a conclusion we may add that the high-performance naturally aspirated engine is the new cool, the 2010s answer to the 1980s turbo-invasion.

The spirit of Enzo Ferrari once again rules.