Saturday, August 25, 2012

Honda CR-Z: A Different Kind of Hybrid

You might be interested in this article if...
-         You’re a sports enthusiast that needs a cheap, reliable sports car that won’t destroy the o-zone every time you drive spiritedly
-         You’re looking for a unique car that offers a blend of econ, eco, and sport that is 100% new to the market
-         You own an original CRX or first gen. Insight and want a fresh from the factory model that shares their traits

While Honda has always been one of the more “grown-up” automakers, many of us are wondering when their line up will see anything wild or daring again. The S2000, Prelude, Acura Integra, NSX and RSX have all bitten the dust leaving only the Civic Si and Honda’s line of motorcycles to defend its sporty heritage.

Plenty of us remember staring out the window of our family sedans at the Hondas that graced the roads in the 90s. The radical designs, new technology, engineering and performance that Honda had pushing into their vehicles made them shine above other makes. They were Hondas, and one day we were all going to own one just as awesome, radical, and fast as those that passed us by on the highway every day.

And that’s true to some degree; most of us – especially in Canada – drive Hondas. Yet it isn’t for the same reasons we wanted to as children. It’s actually because their responsible, affordable, practical, and reliable. We bought them because as we matured so did Honda, and our priorities both changed. But despite having few bad things to say about such a value for money brand that satisfies nearly everyone, Honda does leave a few of us wanting some of the old flare and passion back. We know it’s still there under the suit and tie; the cool Honda never actually left us. It still wears the same old sunglasses while cruising the strip after a hard day’s work.

The CR-Z is Honda’s all new sporty car, and although it may not be the S2000 we’ve been hoping for, it certainly is a fantastic start. With the design being inspired by both past and present legends like the CRX, first generation Insight, Lotus Elise, and Mini Cooper, the CR-Z is very ambitious. The two door hatchback FF was created with some of Honda’s common goals in mind: maintaining sporty performance while also being efficient and inexpensive. But unlike other sporty Hondas of the 90s this one comes with a twist; it’s a hybrid.

Honda's CR-Z Development Video

We know what you’re thinking, “A sporty hybrid? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” The answer is something you’d expect from Honda’s modern innovation: Not anymore. Since its debut at the Tokyo motor show in ’07 as a concept the CR-Z has made as many promises to the public as a campaigning politician. Besides already promising to be sporty, efficient and inexpensive, the CR-Z had also promised to be a low emissions vehicle, and project leader Norio Tomobe believes that the CR-Z will truly be a guilt free sports car for the environmentally conscious. This is a lot to live up to, but the little hatchback actually delivered!

The CR-Z is currently the only manual transmission hybrid on the market in North America thanks to Honda’s IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) hybrid technology, which unlike Toyota’s Synergy Drive can mate to any type of transmission. With an impressive 6 speed manual transmission, Honda demonstrates it isn’t joking about the CR-Z’s sporty intent, and the unique blend of sport, eco, and econ have made the coupe rightfully attractive to buyers. Indeed, in the first month of production the Japanese Domestic Market placed over 10,000 orders for the CR-Z – that’s three times what Honda had expected. This instant success of the CR-Z within the JDM is reminiscent of the NSX.

Under the hood sits a 1.5L i-VTEC SOHC I4 gas engine dubbed LEA by the engineering team. Although the displacement is smaller than most engines, Honda rips 111hp and 106lb ft out of it alone and when coupled with its electric motor produces 122hp and 128lb ft. Because the motor allows for maximum torque from as little as 1000-1500rpm the CR-Z is quick off the line and tops out its hp at 6000rpm which creates a fairly wide power band. Although Honda only claims a modest 10.5 second 0-100km/h time, Inside line and Motor Trend beg to differ with 8.8s and 8.3s respectively, and the CR-Z continues to a top speed of  200km/h (125m/h).

Unlike other hybrids that claim they drive like a normal car, the CR-Z’s 6 speed overdrive manual transmission and satisfying exhaust note really pull it off. The tachometer even comes with a sporty indicator light that tells you when to change gears. The illusion is quite complete until you stop for a red and your engine turns off. Still, despite the Nickel Hydride battery powered motor assisting the efficient 1.5L engine, and ample torque for driving in higher gears for better mileage (the engine doesn’t even struggle in 6th gear at 50km/h), the CR-Z only pulls off an unimpressive 31/37 city/hwy. Granted this mileage is shamed by the CR-X HF’s 41/50 city/hwy, the CR-Z has lower emissions than any CR-X could ever dream of. CARB (California Air Resource Board) has actually created the AT-PZEV (Alternative Technology – Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) category for its impressive, yet not quite zero, emissions. The original Insight boasted a slightly dirtier Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle classification.

A first Generation Honda Insight was both an extremely fuel efficient two-seater as well as a super ultra low emission vehicle

Although, the 6MT is best for most, if you’ve never learned how to drive stick and don’t plan to, or if you feel like defeating the purpose of the sporty hybrid altogether you can opt for the $800 CVT with paddle shifters which brings the mileage up to 35/39. And if you think you’d like to try paddle shifters because they sound super-sport-tastic, well consider that CVTs don’t actually have gears but only seven programmable ratios for their single gear. Stick with the 6MT though, and you’ll have no problem getting the most out of your hp.  

Some similar vehicles, like the Honda Insight, have both a normal and econ mode for more efficient driving. Other sports models offer a normal and sport mode to maximize the driving experience. The CR-Z, however, uses all three. This gives the CR-Z versatile engine settings that allow the car to reflect the driver’s style. If cars like the Civic, Corolla, 3, and other versatile models included options like these that allowed drivers to easily change the settings of their cars to achieve either higher efficiency or performance they would appeal to an even larger demographic. Drivers that become interested in sports racing would be able to taste it with their current model, and drivers that become environmentally conscious can start doing their part from their current model.

Whereas some dragsters will rely heavily on hp to create an exciting ride, the CR-Z is much more like a Miata in that superior handling keeps it fun to drive even with lower hp. Still, with the CR-Z sporting a slightly tuned suspension setup sourced from the base – yet still tossable – Honda Fit, numb steering feel from the EPS (Electronic Power assisted Steering), and with a less than perfect weight distribution, it certainly is a shock to hear it was inspired by the Lotus Elise. On a brighter note, the ventilated front, and solid rear disc brakes stop the car with authority with help from standard ABS, EBD, and Brake Assist. Coupled this with VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist) and Traction Control and the CR-Z actually has some pretty decent active safety features.

The CR-Z is more fun than it looks with an appealing exhaust note

Speaking of safety features, the CR-Z is actually very protective for a sporty car – but what else would you expect from grown-up Honda? In addition to the usual safety features like the standard three point pre tensioned seat belts, active head restraints, and the usual six airbags (Front, side, and curtain), Honda has built a revolutionary feature into the body structure. As with all Hondas being sold on the market now, the CR-Z comes standard with an ACE (Advanced Compatible Engineering) body design. What this means that even though the CR-Z is smaller and lighter than an SUV, if one of the brutes collides with it the front frame design will still protect occupants effectively despite the difference in height and weight by making the two vehicles more “compatible”. This great design allows more people to consider buying smaller cars despite the illusion that SUVs are safer just because they are bigger.

CR-Z stands for “Compact Renaissance Zero” which reflects the designer’s goals to rework the exterior from the ground up focusing more on fundamentals. Although a futuristic appearance was the idea, the overall shape reflects the CR-Z’s predecessor the CR-X. From the outside it’s easy to spot the resemblance between the two. Both are two-seaters, hatchbacks, and both share the same vertical rear deck windows to create more rear visibility. At the same time, if the two were side by side, one can see their styling is remarkably different. Where the CR-Z has flowing lines that create the illusion of motion, the CR-X is boxy yet admirably pragmatic and stoic in its design. One of my favourite touches on the exterior is the standard heated folding power mirrors with integrated turn signals. That’s literally everything you can put into an exterior mirror save an espresso machine!

The CR-Z's mirrors have everything you could ask for

After you use the keyless entry to hop inside, the CR-Z continues to impress with its style. The interior honestly looks futuristic, from the multi layered and almost 3D driver’s display to the contrasting white and piano black materials trimmed in chrome, Honda successfully achieves a future chic motif. Honda has always had a good reputation for quality interiors and the CR-Z is one of their best. The cabin is extremely spacious and offers ample room for two, and there is a whopping 711L of cargo space in the back and a space saving spare under the hatch’s floor. Some of this cargo space comes from the removal of unusable rear seats on NA models. At first glance it still seems to have really uncomfortable rear seats sans any cushioning, but those are actually small storage compartments that allow personal objects to be concealed from prying eyes.

These are unusable seats in the UK and Japan

The interior is configured around the driver. Honda made an effort to put everything within natural reach from the driver’s seat. The whole dash and all the controls are tilted slightly towards the driver - which is exactly how it should be - and audio/cruise controls are fitted into the steering wheel. Furthermore, finding a good driving position is easy with the height adjustable driver’s seat and tilt/telescopic steering wheel. In order to help keep the driver’s attention on the road Honda includes automatic climate control and SVC (Speed sensitive Volume Control) standard. The one element that doesn’t impress is the poor rear visibility thanks to huge c-pillars and a crossbeam that sits on top of the rear vertical deck.

The interior is actually very quiet and aside from the sporty yet artificial exhaust note on hard acceleration, the NVH (Noise Vibration and Harshness) is very good. The CR-Z’s quiet interior is great for enjoying its standard 360 watt 7 speaker audio system with CD/AM/FM and aux input jack. The standard Bluetooth 2.0 hands free calling feature also benefits from the relatively quiet ride.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pacific, after the production CR-Z debuted at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit and went on sale in August it only saw minor success in North America. Despite honours like, Most efficient two-seater of 2011 from NRC, Green Vehicle of the year from, Japanese 2010-11 car of the year, Green car of the year from Top Gear UK, and Eco Gadget of the year from Stuff Magazine, the CR-Z just didn’t resonate well with the North American people.

Review from Stuff Magazine

Many North American enthusiasts feel that the CR-Z isn’t a proper successor to the CR-X because the CR-Z had to make sacrifices for safety features that compromised its performance and economy making it less fun than the CR-X Si and less efficient that the CR-X HF. Another issue stemmed from the CR-Z’s price. Because the Yen has gotten much stronger in recent years, it is difficult for Japanese manufactures, who are obligated to keep much of their labour inside Japan, to keep prices down. Although Honda does an excellent job at continuing to make great value cars, makers like Hyundai and Kia are muscling into their demographic because their currency is much weaker and their employees aren’t as well cared for. Furthermore, despite being the cheapest hybrid on the market – $19,950 in the US and $23,490 in Canada - many are sincerely pissed that it doesn’t get enough MPG to qualify for a government tax incentive. On the whole many enthusiasts think that Honda has shrunken its demographic by hedging its priorities too far between sport and eco, and by not having focused strongly on either it will fail to catch any attention in NA.

Granted the CR-Z isn’t as efficient as other hybrids, or as sporty as a Miata, the CR-Z has done something that can’t be downplayed; its design has pushed into the future of the sport compact. Although the CR-Z wasn’t intended as a sports car with a hybrid engine as much as it was a hybrid with sporty features, it really is breaking new ground within the industry. In the future all sports cars will be hybrids to meet emissions and efficiency standards before moving away from gasoline altogether, and while other manufacturers are still trying to exploit current trends by engineering sports cars that are more sporty or economic, Honda has shown its adult side again by thinking ahead and looking into the future for opportunity. 

Photos provided by google images,, and photographer Soul Synchro.
Soul Synchro is an auto enthusiast with a photographer's eye. He hosts a myriad of great photo's on his flickr account that are all worth viewing if you're interested in beautiful autos. Check him out

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Drive-in Theatres: The Open Air Cinema Experience

You might be interested in this article if...

-You’re a Movie Buff that enjoys the retro feel of a drive-in
-You saw movies at the drive-in when you were a kid
-You actually want to go see a movie at a drive-in

The drive-in theatre was an icon of the 1960s. Growing in popularity along with the automobile, it combined the excitement of a film with the comfort, convenience, and intimacy of the auto. Drive-ins provided an interesting and dynamic alternative to the cinema – honestly, there are just so many things you can experience at a drive-in that you can’t in a cinema. Furthermore, drive-ins were certainly more social environments for movie watching than cinemas.

Invented by Richard Hollingshead, Jr. to combine his passions for film and autos, the first prototype was set up in Richard’s own driveway and backyard. The idea was to provide an open air theatre that film goers could enjoy from the comfort of their own cars. Although the design was simple – a projector shining on a sheet nailed between two trees and a radio behind the sheet to provide audio – it worked, and provided Richard with the proof of concept that inspired him to bring his idea to life for the rest of the world.  In 1933 Richard opened the world’s first Drive-in Theatre along Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. The Drive-in used inclined aisles that allowed cars to easily see the 60 ft screen over those parked in front of them, and also allowed cars to drive along the aisle without obstructing anyone’s view.

Originally audio was provided by large speakers that held to the sides of the screen. These weren’t ideal and would deafen the front row while the back row would have trouble hearing what the actors said. In response to this RCA would design an in-car speaker that hooked onto the car door that provided a consistent audio experience for the whole audience. Still, this would only allow audio in mono and would damage cars if the driver forgot to remove them before leaving the lot. Modern drive-ins provide audio through short range FM radio to utilize the impressive sound systems of modern vehicles.

An in-car speaker hanging from its post at a vacant drive-in

And like any other kind of theatre, drive-ins netted most of their income from concessions, and although it was easy to sneak in outside food - and who doesn’t? – most drive-ins did see lots of profit from selling quickly prepared, novelty foods. Hotdogs, ice cream, french fries, soft drinks, pizza, popcorn and burgers were all available to enjoy during the movie, but were often bought during the intermission between films. Moreover, ads would often run during intermission that encouraged snacking. Even today, some modern drive-ins continue to run these ads and have retro 50s diner style snack bars to attract lucrative business.

The real genius of the Drive-in was in its privacy. By watching the movie from one’s own car, one effectively had a private booth. This meant that viewers didn’t need to consider theatre etiquette while watching the movie. For instance, smokers wouldn’t need to worry about bothering others while they enjoyed their fags with the movie, talking wouldn’t bother anyone outside your car, and you could sneak anything into the movie from a friend in your trunk, to a mini fridge full of outside food in the back of your van. The privacy was especially valuable to young teens that would use it to drink, smoke, and make out without their parents being the wiser. Indeed, the media would label drive-ins as “passion pits” and placed them second only to “make out point” - where the car provided yet another comforting shield of privacy – as a place for teenaged sexual activity. But at the end of the day, it was just another rite of passage for teens about to experience independence and freedom for the first time, thanks to the automobile.  

But just because people could stay cooped up in their car didn’t mean they always did. As a matter of fact The Mustang Drive-in offers a play ground for kids to play on before the movie starts, and many parents and children socialize prior to the movie. Teenagers also often manage to pull themselves away from booze, pot, and sex long enough to pull out some lawn chairs and enjoy the movie with their closest friends. Truly, drive-ins were more social events than the quiet and rigid affairs at any Multiplex, and it’s easy to see how despite controversies they can promote a stronger community and provide patrons with timeless memories.

Drive-in theatres, and other drive-in facilities like banks and diners, would see a peak in popularity from 1950-1960 and in 1958 there were over 4000 drive-in theatres operating in the US. Everybody loved them, and their popularity would be echoed on through time in both literature and film as an ideal atmosphere for characters living in the 50s-60s.

                     The famous drive-in scene from the movie Grease

Despite being so well loved, the drive-in would only remain in novelty and nostalgia. Drive-ins would become obsolete as media evolved and technology brought consumers cable TV and VCRs to enjoy movies from home with. Exacerbating the problems were, failures to get new releases to screen on time, rising property tax, and retiring owners. Some drive-ins attempted to attract more business with exploit movies and in some cases even by showing adult content at less family friendly hours. Still it was hard to beat home entertainment systems and as a result, drive-in theatres are rare today.

According to a 2006 survey there are only 651 screens and 398 theatres left in business in the US.  Many will be closing down in the future, and few will be opening to take their place. Hull’s Drive-in of Lexington Virginia has gone non-profit in order to stay in business, and is supported by a group called Hull’s Angels. Still, many others close down and turned into cheap business venues like flea market grounds, storage depots, or even parking lots and scrap yard in worst cases. As an illustration, the Fort Lauderdale SwapShop is the world’s largest drive-in and also doubles as the world’s largest flea market.

Filling the void left by the absence of drive-ins by using the same personal entertainment technology that killed them, guerrilladrive-ins are hosted by groups of film buffs that crave the retro experience the drive-in offered. These drive-ins are more like get-togethers with friends or clubs that care about movies, and only require a multimedia projector, FM transmitter, DVD player, and a large flat surface like a warehouse, barn or simply a large wall to watch the film on. Although not as charming as an authentic drive-in, there is much to be said about the great memories guerrilla drive-ins create as well as the extremely flexible movie selection which often features independent, foreign, or niche movies.

Guerilla Drive-in at a Warehouse

Still, drive-ins are finding ways to survive. In London, Pseudo-drive-ins like Volvo’s Urban Starlite Drive-in don’t even require a car as new Volvos are already parked in the lot for guests to enjoy the movie in. At intermission orders are taken from roller skating waitresses and brought to your car from a retro styled diner. On the more conservative side, locations like those owned by Premier Operating in Ontario Canada are actually still going strong. With locations in Oakville (The 5 Drive-in), Hamilton (The Starlite), and Smiths Falls (Smiths Falls Drive-in) all being popularly received by consumers in their areas, it’s likely that these drive-ins will continue to attract nostalgic customers.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mini Cooper: Jack of All Trades, Master of Fun

You might be interested in this article if...
-         You’re a sports car enthusiast that isn’t allowed a sports car because it isn’t practical
-         You have had one of the original Austin Mini’s in your driveway
-         You want to buy something unique that will get you a lot of attention

There aren’t many sports cars on the market that a man with a family can justify buying. Unless you’ve got the cash for a second car, most are out of luck and can only dream of a thrilling or flashy ride while driving a utilitarian minivan. However, there are a few exceptions, the MINI Cooper is one of them.

Initially created under the Austin MINI nameplate in anticipation of an oil shortage resulting from the Suez Crisis in 1956, the MINI was the efficient and practical alternative to a BMW Isetta. BMC would enlist the skill of the pragmatic Alec Issigonis to make the idea a reality. Issigonis was experienced with small car design and would actually be one of the last to design an entire car himself. The engine was mounted sideways (Transversely) and drove the front wheels, which left 80% of the car’s interior open for passengers and cargo. This design would influence auto manufacturing for decades and the MINI takes its place as the 20th century’s second most influential car – second only to the model T. The small A-series engine had a mere 848cc displacement with a top speed just over 115km/h was the fuel sipper Britain needed, and the car flourished as a cheap family runabout.

Despite its bleak purpose, it didn’t take long for enthusiasts to discover that the MINI’s design provided ideal handling and an exciting ride. Soon the cars were being driven spiritedly on the roads and raced in rallies across Britain. Catering to these trends BMC would release a sport model co-designed by John Cooper after whom later models were named MINI Cooper. These MINIs made rallying no contest for their drivers, and officials soon disqualified MINIs from most normal rallies for taking all three podium places regularly. Since these early days, the MINI has become one of Britain’s most iconic autos and is likely the one North Americans most often associate with England (The Union Jack patterns on their roves encourage this further).

The Austin MINI would stay relatively unchanged in production until 2000 when BMW bought the company and the MINI disappeared from the market. BMW was looking for a small entry level car to add to its luxurious line up and the MINI was their solution. After over a year of R&D, and media hype in North America the 2002 model year would introduce us to the new and improved MINI Cooper, and a subsequent redesigned second generation in 2007.

The Cooper didn’t look radically different from the MINI and even the second generation Cooper maintained a striking resemblance to the MINI despite every panel being completely new for 2007. The idea behind this was “evolution, not revolution”, and BMW embraced all of the Cooper’s unchanged strengths while addressing the MINI’s old weaknesses. The new Cooper was more comfortable, refined, stylish, safe, and sporty. However, it was also – and we know it’s an oxymoron – bigger. The Cooper stretches 3626mm (over 500mm longer), is 1688mm wide (288mm wider), 1416mm tall (50mm taller), and weighs 1145kg (459kg more), but until very recently was still the smallest car on the market. Many still find the Cooper’s versatile size incredibly easy to park. Unfortunately, the price tag is also larger, and started at around $25k in the 2002 model year (though there was a cheap MINI Cooper One model in Britain) being reduced to a base price of $21,950 presently in North America. On the bright side the Cooper boasts the highest resale value in its class.

Still, the Cooper is in a class of its own as a “premium” compact, and is full of standard features and comforts that fit nicely into the Cooper’s petit, boxy dimensions. AC, external temperature display, tire pressure monitor, a six speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, leatherette seats with drivers height adjustment and lumbar support, power windows, power heated mirrors, Leather wrapped steering wheel, leather and chrome trimmed shift knob, and headlight washers all come standard on the first generation. The second generation adds automatic climate control, front and rear fog lights, a trip computer, push button start, and a tilt and telescopic steering wheel. All this makes the Cooper much more comfortable to drive over the original MINI.

Still, none these fluffy luxuries take anything away from the Cooper’s performance. The current Cooper boasts an impressive Peugeot/Citroen designed 1.6L DOHC in line 4 with BMW’s Valvetronic technology that pumps out 121hp and 118lb ft, which gets the Cooper to 100km/h in 9 seconds and revs freely right up to the 6500rpm redline. An optional sports package adds a sport button that increases throttle response and tightens steering.

The Cooper S is better yet. While the first generation’s 163hp supercharged engine was better sounding and wild, the new Turbo charged 1.6 is more powerful and offers a lower and longer torque plateau from 1600-5500rpm. It also pushes out 175hp and 177-192lb ft overboost which gets the S to 100km/h in just 7.1 seconds. With performance gains like that the extra 7k up from the Cooper Classic’s price isn’t too bad, but many feel it is overpriced.

For those that really enjoy what the Cooper S has to offer, a John Cooper Work upgrade became available in 2005 and provides a substantial boost in power. The kit pushes hp to 200 and torque to 177lb ft with a first generation supercharger. When equipped on a second generation turbo engine an even greater 208hp and 192-207 overboost lb-ft of torque are found, and the JCW gets to 100km/h in just 6.5 s, moving on to a top speed of 236km/h. The only huge drawback is the price, a JCW will set the driver back $36,900.

But speed isn’t everything, especially when it comes to a Cooper. Equally important are the suspension and steering systems. The first generation of Cooper had fully independent suspension with Macpherson struts in the front and a multi link z-axel in the rear. A speed sensitive variable electronic/hydraulic assist steering system made the Cooper about as twitchy as a caffeinated squirrel on the highway where a sneeze could put you in the next lane. In contrast, at speeds below 30km/h the steering is heavy, but still pulls a 10.7m turning circle. Next, the “wheel at each corner” layout eliminates any excess overhangs, and remedies the Cooper of any pitch or dive under hard acceleration or braking. The only changes in the second generation are a new multi link rear suspension that adds 10L of cargo space, and better steering at lower speeds. Overall, the Cooper has retained and improved the original MINI’s handling and agility. In fact, there may not be another car in the Cooper’s price range that handles the twisties better!

The transmission is also fairly well put together in the Cooper. Each gear is fully utilized by the close ratio set up and shifting up to speed is really exhilarating because of how happy the engine is all the way up to the redline. The shifts are short satisfying throws that fall into their gates with ease. Still, the Cooper is stronger in acceleration at a rolling start than standing. If one wants to jack rabbit away from a stop light they will need to rev the engine to over 2000rpm to get any decent torque off the line, but this problem is non-existent with the new turbo charged S model’s low end torque. On a sombre note, Coopers before 2005 used a Midlands 5SMT that destroyed itself often. It’s best to buy the post 2004 models with the Getrag 5SMT instead, or the S models that had always used a 6SMT from Getrag, or better yet an ’07 or later Cooper model with a standard 6SMT.

Another remarkable quality of the Cooper is braking power which just adds more to its agile nature. There are discs all around and ABS along with EBD, and Cornering Brake Control, all add to the experience while also providing excellent active safety features. And ’07 or later models have Brake assist to further increase braking power in emergencies.

Similar to BMC’s original MINI, the Cooper is still quite fuel efficient burning only 8.1L/6.4L city/highway with BMW’s valvetronic technology, and is second only to fuel sippers or hybrids like the Hyundai Veloster and Honda CR-Z. However, it does run on premium unleaded in both its new generations and the cost for gas will be slightly heavier as a result. A CVT transmission was available on the first generation Cooper but was replaced by a paddle shifting conventional 6SAT on the new second generation because it slowed the Cooper’s 0-100 time to 10.4 seconds and wasn’t actually more efficient than the manual.

The Cooper gets a lot of attention from its handling, but more public attention from its quirky looks; if a Cooper’s out an about it will always have an audience. Appearing in such films as: The Italian Job, Austin Powers, and Goodbye Pork Pie, the Cooper’s looks have a sort of presence, and charisma that draws an intent audience. From the outside the Cooper is noticeably more charming than the MINI. The features have been rounded, and smoothed into a sort of harmony that was missing on the original. Still many of the original’s styling cue remain such as the rounded headlights which now incorporate turn signals on the Cooper, contrasting racing stripes, mirrors and roof, and the frowning front grill which has now been split between the bumper and decked out in chrome. In fact the Cooper incorporates chrome into much of the exterior and interior styling. But one thing you will notice different on the Cooper is that unlike the original’s twist turn door handles the Cooper’s new handles are released by pressing down a trigger on the inside on the handle and effectively need to be squeezed open. Tugging on the handle gets you nowhere. This is actually a safety feature that allows the doors to be pulled off easily by emergency crews.

The Cooper’s cute looks continue into the interior and you’ll instantly notice how often circles (the cutest shape of them all) are used in the design. From the half moon door latches and circular air vents, to the dinner plate sized speedometer in the center dash, chrome trimmed circles are everywhere. There are also retro toggle switches that control accessories like power windows and fog lights located on the lower center stack. The Cooper’s style can either be described as chic and trendy, or fisher-price gone terribly wrong. 

Another thing you’ll notice right away – or at least when parking – is that visibility is excellent. With all the windows being aligned nearly vertical and at the ends of the Cooper’s boxy layout you can see exactly where all the Cooper's corners are. And because the rear window is flat with the hatch, backing into a space is super easy. The only thing wrong with the visibility is that one needs to duck forwards under the roof to see traffic lights when stopped at the front of your lane.

When it comes to customizability the Cooper is really a pack leader. From a plethora of exterior colors and contrasting accents, to a myriad of interior colours materials and options, the Cooper is one of the most, if not, the most customizable car in the world. MINI takes great pride in offering a car that can be tailored precisely to its driver and even has a smart phone app that interfaces with the Cooper’s sound system to play music according to your driving style. The purchase of a MINI Cooper is as much of a lifestyle car choice as it gets, and MINI also offers extensive paraphernalia to encourage a "MINI culture".

Despite the Cooper’s more harmonized and richer looking interior in the 2007 model from the 2002 model, a few problems remain. Although the Cooper seats four, the rear seats don’t offer enough leg room for regular use and are uncomfortable if the front seats aren’t moved forward. The NHTSA couldn’t even fit a crash dummy in the back seats, which also doesn’t reflect well on crash protection. There is also only a limited 160L cargo area in the back, and in order to transport anything substantial you’ll need to fold the seats to stretch that space to 670L. Possibly even worse is the fact that there is no spare tire hiding on the car, if you don’t have optional run-flats you’ll need a can of sealer. Further, the tachometer is obscured by the steering wheel and the centrally aligned speedometer isn’t ergonomic. Some option packages can move the speedometer next to the tachometer but this just compounds the problem. And despite the high class feel of the shifter, it can turn into a cattle brand in summer and a snow cone in the winter. Finally, if you happen to buy a convertible version of the Cooper beware that the rear field of view is blocked by the folded top and even with the top up the massive c-pillars are hard to see around.

The Cooper’s ride is relatively bearable but still quite stiff and bumpy on bad roads. This improves with the ’07 model year and opting for smaller Standard 15” rims also take some of the bounce out of the ride. Interior noise is minimal and the engine turns at a quiet 2500rpm in sixth gear on the highway. Most of the noise comes from wind passing over the windscreen because it’s more vertically set than most others.

Earlier, when the new Cooper was released it was among the safest compacts on the market. With 6 standard airbags - Front, Side and Curtain- 4 adjustable head restraints, 4 three point pretensioned seat belts, and a very rigid structure with additional support beams in the doors, the Cooper scored near the top of its class in frontal collisions and had acceptable protection in side impacts. Although this only got better as it moved into the second generation, it now lags behind alternative compacts for passive safety equipment. In fact rear and side crash scores look bad by comparison.

Still, the Cooper does posses excellent active safety equipment like its standard ABS, CBC, EBD, Standard Stability Control, Optional Dynamic Stability Control, responsive steering and throttle, large brake callipers, and great visibility. In addition to all this, in the event of a crash the ’07 and later models will cut off fuel from the engine, disconnect the battery, unlock the doors, and turn on interior and four-way lights.

If you’re reading this from Canada, it might surprise you to hear that the Cooper actually makes a great winter car. With standard Traction and stability controls - even with FWD - the Cooper can really cope well with snow and rain. The Cooper also comes standard with heated mirrors, heated windshield and headlight washer jets, and its optional heated front seats feel great on sub zero mornings.

Overall, the Cooper is a fairly practical yet 100% proper sports car. Its high revving engine and precise transmission are complemented by excellent handling, braking, and steering. While at the same time, the Cooper is fuel efficient, can easily transport 2 children in the back seats, and when those seats aren't in use, can fold down to carry a generous amount of cargo. Unlike many other sports cars, drivers don’t hesitate to drive the Cooper all year round. And lastly, the Cooper’s good looks can only help convince the Mrs. that the Cooper is worth it. 

Additional reading:

Safety Information found on:

Enthusiasts’ Forums:

Video links:
*Original BMC Mini Cooper restored*

Official Website:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

FT-86: The Return of a Legend

You might be interested in this article if...
1.  You are a sports car enthusiast without a lot of money
2.    You are a fan of the legendary street racing AE-86
3.   You love the purpose build racing design of the MX-5 Miata, but find coupes more appealing

Ever look back on cars from 20+ years ago and wonder, “why don’t they make something like that now”? Many of the cars from the past had unique appeal that just seemed to slip away into history, never to return to the market. The Honda CR-X Si illustrates this well as it disappeared from Honda’s line up, and has only been replaced in spirit by the CR-X inspired Hyundai Veloster. The British Roadster of the 1960s illustrates this phenomenon as well, disappearing from the market in spite of desperate outcries from enthusiasts. However, unlike the CR-X, the British Roadster would be singlehandedly resurrected by the MX-5 Miata 30 years later, and has taken a place in automobile history since. We are about to witness another second coming. The second coming of a car that is perhaps more legendary and more notorious than either the CR-X or the British Roadster, a car that changed the face of both street and track racing in the 1980s – the 1986 Toyota Corolla, aka the AE-86.

The original street racing machine

Lately Toyota has been dreaming about the good old days before Scion, where sports cars didn’t require impressive specs or a massive MSRPs. When sports cars were simpler and racing was about intuition and the feel of your tires holding tight to the road while you tackled corners at the track or on a mountain pass. But Toyota didn’t have the space or manpower to make this dream possible, and so it formed a promising alliance with Subaru to get the job done. Subaru would handle engineering and manufacture the car out of its plant in Gunma Japan, while Toyota would design the car and fund the operation.

The design was inspired by the AE-86 and retains many of its traits, including rear seating, a hatchback, and an FR drive layout. In addition, Toyota had 3 very specific goals to meet with the design: Firstly, it needed to be light weight and efficient. Second, handling ability needed to be maximized while keeping the car affordable. Lastly, it needed to carry 4 people and at least a set of golf clubs. Toyota would name its new sports coupe the FT-86 (FT after Toyota’s pure sport hybrid FT-HS concept, and 86 after the AE-86).

The FT-HS pure sport hybrid concept

The FT-86 will be the world’s first coupe to carry a boxer engine, and the Subaru sourced 2.0L boxer will make 200hp (That’s 100hp/L!) and 151 lb-ft of torque. The FT-86 will also boast a 0-60 time of just seven seconds. And because the 86 only weighs 2662 lb it has a power ratio of 13.31lb/hp, which is even better than the Miata’s 14.5lb/hp. Furthermore, thanks to Toyota’s dual port direct injection technology the boxer redlines at 7500 rpm and boasts 29.17 MPG on premium unleaded.

Subaru Sourced 2.0L Boxer

All that power is channelled through a close ratio 6 speed manual transmission that shifts with precise feeling short throws. An automatic dual clutch transmission is also available for those that want it. The shift points are well timed, smooth and seamless. For those that want more control there are paddle shifters that allow manual gear shifts. In addition to the auto and manual drive modes, a semi-manual mode allows drivers to downshift for corners before returning to auto mode.

The Toyobaru alliance is really aiming to change the world of sports cars, and has been diligent in producing an affordable, purpose built enthusiast’s car that meets all its initial goals. Indeed, Toyota’s Chief engineer Tetsuya Tada said that the FT-86 was meant to be as affordable as possible so enthusiasts could actually buy the car, and that compromises would be necessary. Nevertheless, Toyobaru has found revolutionary ways to maximize value for money with clever engineering. The 86 was designed with a 53/47 front/rear weight distribution and boasts the lowest center of gravity of any production vehicle. This was achieved by capitalizing on the flat shape of the boxer engine, and by placing the engine very low and closer to the center of the car. The engine actually sits at about knee height from the driver, having its center of gravity only 17.7 inches above the ground puts it 1 inch lower than the Porsche Cayman’s! However, this also means the Subaru model won’t have room for AWD.  Next, the 86 uses light 17 inch alloys wrapped in 215/45R17 rubber which reduces unsprung weight and provides more precise handling compared to other less practical, vanity inspired wheel and corresponding elastic bands. The 86 also comes standard with a Torsen LSD to help it push out of corners even faster. To keep the price down, conventional Macpherson front struts and a double wishbone rear suspension systems were used. All this equipment culminates in exquisite handling that has even been compared to the agility of the Mazda MX-5 by many automotive journalists and magazines like Auto Car.

Spy image of Ft-86 testing at the Nurburgring

The premiss for the FT-86 is actually very similar to the Miata’s; if they had sprung for materials and components that would have really optimised the FT-86’s potential it would have been too heavy and too expensive.  The car is further devoid of most driving aids, excluding Electronic Stability Control, which is required by law. A lot like the Miata, the FT-86 relies less on computers and puts the driver back in control of the action.

While on the track automotive journalists describe the 86’s cornering as firmly planted with slight understeer. Because of the balanced tire size, the 86 oozes from between states of traction at its limit and provides ample notice before control is lost. The coupe is very tame despite its RWD and 200 hp. However, once the car hits straighter roads the driver may find himself wishing for an extra 100 hp.

Although Toyobaru didn’t necessarily need to provide sleek styling in their pragmatic coupe, they certainly did. This car looks so good, it’s boarder line pornographic! Its lines are flowing yet disciplined and focused. The coupe’s stance is aggressive but refined and svelte. Everything from the curves in the b-pillarless doors to the extremely well defined, and handsome LED trimmed head, and tail lights looks like they were planned meticulously. No doubt about it, the FT-86 has defined a style all its own and looks absolutely enchanting in black.

Photo from the Geneva Motor Show

But besides its great looks, the design was deliberate and practical. Visibility out the back window is better than one would expect and the overall Coefficient of Drag is only 0.27! To put that into perspective, the Mazda RX-8 has a Coefficient of 0.3.

RX-8, left, and FT-86, right

The good looks don’t stop there though. Although the interior of the FT-86 is sparse on fluffy features and soft touch surfaces, it is driver oriented. Everything from the position of the gages in the cluster and supportive racing styled seats to the position of the shifter and handbrake make driving the FT-86 feel natural and harmonious. Everything the driver touches, save the alloy pedals and fabric seat, is leather wrapped. The steering wheel is tilt and telescopic, and for the most hardcore racers that don’t have a second to look away from the road, automatic climate control. There is even a shift light on the rev counter!

Scanned page from a Toyota Modellista catalogue

In spite of its good looks and performance, the FT-86 isn’t as impractical as one would think. Despite being only 220mm longer than a Miata, there is seating for 4 if you’re willing to squeeze into the backseats. There is also 10 cubic ft of cargo space under the hatch that can be increased by folding the one piece rear seats. And a space saving spare is tucked under the hatch floor. Finally, the coupe doesn’t skimp on safety equipment either and comes standard with VSC, front driver and passenger airbags, and side and rear curtain airbags.

Concepts have been around motor shows for over 2 years now, but the production version will make its debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in December. The same model will be available in spring of the 2012 model year and have an MSRP of about $25k. Toyobaru’s sport coupe will be sold in the entry level sports category and compete with models like the Civic Si, Scion tC, and VW GTI.

Rumour has it that a turbo model will be available on the model year following the initial release of the FT-86. Moreover, Subaru’s sibling BRZ (Boxer, RWD, Zenith) model has been designed to accept a convertible top, and an extended wheelbase that might allow a 4 door model. And although these options would satisfy many enthusiasts from North America, Toyobaru has confirmed nothing.

You can learn more about the 86 by checking out the links below, or join the hype and be the first to read news about the FT-86 by signing up with its enthusiasts’ site

Links to official/teaser videos :

Additional Reading:
*Specs Leaked from an official toyota training manual!*

Official Forums: