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Mk VII and Mk VI

Though I grew up on a farm surrounded by (and loving) diesel equipment, owning a diesel-powered automobile somehow never occurred to me. This is especially puzzling given the overwhelmingly positive experience I was privileged to have with one 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen over the past year. It would find me signing up to Facebook groups, using real Fast Boy terms, revisiting long-lost roads of home, and returning to my local community in an extremely intimate ridesharing stint. Throughout it all, the Jetta made me smile much much more than I would’ve thought. I found a real love for this relatively simpleton form of transportation that I should have seen coming, but did not at all. There is something delightfully indulgent about a manual-equipped diesel wagon. Even The New York Times knows this:

Auto writers have long tooted the horn about the benefits of diesel engines, and a bunch of them have also argued that the old-school station wagon is a far more efficient way to haul things around than a bloated high-set S.U.V.

I knew it, too, apparently, long before I actually decided to act on a purchase. On October 24th, 2012, I Tweeted “I sat in a Jetta wagon today. I need one.” I really did intend on becoming The Jetta Man (perhaps without the fashion.) In acquiring it, my plan – and it was a good plan – was to cease an era of general insensibility in my life's decisions by entombing my wayward self within the most sensible expression of modern automotive design I suspected I could live with. The wagon component joined with diesel power and a manual transmission upon casual research. Diesel, manual, wagon – of the people's car, these I sought. Nay, demanded.

An ex-girlfriend of mine drove an utterly decimated Mk. V Jetta Sedan which she’d acquired in some sort of dicey deal. I remember finding it surprisingly robust given its lot, and quite dynamic to drive. We traveled all over the Midwest in it – from central Missouri to Des Moines to Chicago to Kansas City and back again. I mocked, but it was everything one could hope for in cheap transportation and quite a bit more. It turns out, Volkswagen was shooting high. As Tony Quiroga recalls for Car & Driver:

During the press launch of the outgoing Jetta back in 2005, Volkswagen touted that car as a less expensive alternative to an Acura TSX or Volvo S40. Volkswagen pointed to its growth in size, high-quality interior, new rear suspension, and refined demeanor as evidence that the Jetta had moved out of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla class.

In terms of premium compacts, my experience is quite limited, but it’s no wonder the company has struggled to find a place in the market for this product: in German, “Volkswagen Jetta” literally means “people’s car jet stream.” The first component is infamous, of course, because of the Nazis and their horrid Beetle, but the second seems to be almost entirely unknown. In my research, I had to specifically investigate the Jetta’s name before reading anything about it. When an American thinks of “Jetta,” they unconsciously dissociate the word from the “jet” sound and make largely unsophisticated jokes. (It’s also Regular Car Reviewsmost hated car.) Now, the name has become a marque in and of itself: in China, Volkswagen began selling several different models under the JETTA brand last year. This also was news to me, and I try to keep up with the industry.

In 2011, the Mk. VI Jetta was released with an outdated base, 115-hp powertrain and a “hard plastic [interior] that wouldn’t look out of place in a Chrysler Sebring.” (Quiroga insults, to clarify.) Compared to the Mk. V, “Volkswagen made it clear that the targets are once again the strong-selling Civic and Corolla.” Once again, I’m at a loss for experience in the equivalent extra-Volkswagen competition, save for the Chevrolet Cruze and Kia Forte. (Surprisingly, GM actually produced a diesel version of the Cruze and AutoGuide compared it against the Jetta TDI.) It’s been too long since I last drove my ex’s Mk. V to really have much to say, but I do remember a particular solidity about the steering – perhaps because it was still hydraulic. Once again, I’ll rely on Tony:

Less obvious cost cutting includes the loss of adjustability for the center armrest, a lack of lumbar adjustment in most models, no more power-reclining seatbacks, and a simpler stability-control program that can no longer be shut off or even reduced.

When I began searching for my first ever truly modern car in February 2019, I surprisingly only needed to pass up a single option in the Kansas City area before I found The One: a 2014 post-Dieselgate example with ~65,000 miles on its odometer in “Deep Black Pearl” with a “Cornsilk Beige” interior which had been previously owned only by a single Michigan cyclist. I’d been without a car since dailying/living in a 1976 Lincoln Continental the year before, in Portland, and my friend had driven me around everywhere in his Wrangler for a full month (thanks, Jack!) I’d walked around and cold-idled another, high-mileage Sportwagen, but I was committed to getting something with a light-colored interior after the red velvet cake Lincoln and my dank smoking room-dark XJR.

Martin Racing

Three of us walked into a dealership in the middle of a frigid Kansas afternoon – Jack, my girlfriend Sierra, and I. We hovered by a smart, gleaming little Golf GTI whilst my salesman, Charles, retrieved the car I had found online. After he finished copying my driver’s license while the little diesel warmed up, the four of us set off into suburban Lawrence. Back when the Mk. VI Golf was released, I attended a Volkswagen dealership event in which Mk. V and Mk. VI GTIs were driven back-to-back – I’m assuming to reassure buyers that yes, they really had made it better (though I was quite vocal in my disagreement about this, to the dealer’s chagrin.) The car I bought immediately reminded me more of the former – perhaps I just enjoy the increased body roll of a 50,000+ mile suspension – albeit with a much longer wheelbase and significantly more torque. Rowing through the gears, I was immediately impressed and bewildered by the characteristics of the 140-horsepower, 236 lb.-ft.-developing diesel powerplant. The diesel engines I grew up around in tractors, combines, and other heavy machinery were designed to more or less remain at a constant, relatively low RPM for the majority of their use cases. It’s not a screamer, but the idea that a diesel engine can rev at all was something that took a bit to wrap my head around. However, it is almost immediately evident that carrying on to the 6000 RPM (?) redline is a futile and incorrect practice. There is nothing at all to be found up there.

I’ve driven some quick straight-line cars in my time, but none of them have delivered their power anything like the Jetta’s long-distinguished 2.0L inline-four. It’s very odd having comparatively so little actual horsepower, yet so much torque – I’d heard Jeremy Clarkson complain about diesel power coming in “great lumps,” but I’d already started to find them extremely (and positively) amusing in my first few minutes. When asked, the oil burner will produce protracted front tire squeal and torque steer from a stop, which is odd and hilarious coming from such an otherwise docile automobile. Also hilarious: Charles likely noted that Jack, Sierra, and I were (and are) entirely unafraid of facing The End when a very near collision during our test drive did not perturb us in the least, but left him huffing and puffing from adrenaline. He was a star, though, throughout the more than four hours of deliberations required for his institution to reckon with my credit history. Eventually, I ended up spending almost exactly $12,000, which was probably too much, and named my new automobile Martin – “Marty” for short – after Martin Winterkorn, the former CEO of Volkswagen AG who bore more than his share of the blame for Dieselgate, including charges of fraud by the German government. Dirty diesel rolling coal in prison.

Naughty Diesel

By “post-Dieselgate,” I mean that my new car was a part of Volkwagen's $10 billion buyback program, so the Michigander sold it back to the manufacturer for its “fair replacement value” – between $12,500 and $44,000 according to Car & Driver on behalf of FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez. To be technical, the powerplant is a 2.0L EA189/CJAA turbodiesel four-cylinder. “The EA 189 was one of the most important engines in the company, destined not only for millions of Volkswagen-brand cars but also for a wide variety of other brands from the parent Volkswagen Group, like Audi, Skoda and Seat, as well as some light utility vehicles,” said The New York Times regarding the “clean diesel” “scheme.” In original spec, 236 lb.-ft. of it arrived between 1750-2800 RPM, but my (admittedly, unscientific) perception indicates that post-update, the torque was coming a bit later. If I thought you were interested, I would attempt to detail exactly what my car was then subjected to by a dealer, but suffice it to say that it was made less fuel efficient and a bit less powerful, to my displeasure. For a complete and comprehensive video on the scandal, try Regular Car Reviews. I’d also recommend the following reading from Jalopnik, The Verge, The New York Times, and The Independent.

Martin and Locomotive

My own views on Dieselgate are entirely irrelevant, but I will note that buying back a buyback car for such a price felt like a favor to my dealer and that it’s pretty cool to have my own copy of VW’s Extended Emissions Warranty Notice, not to mention the fact that I actually made use of it (which I will discuss later.) From my perspective, the automotive industry is the most heavily-regulated business space in the world and I’d suggest a company like the Volkswagen Group feeling like they should cheat on emissions testing might indicate that the standards of the test could be unreasonable and/or unrealistic.

After returning from almost two hellish, extremely confusing years in Portland taking public transport, Martin became a vehicle for a rediscovery and newfound appreciation for my Missouri home – the great Missouri River, especially. Not since owning my Miata had I driven so much in the country. Sierra and I visited Cooper’s Landing in the wet and ventured down to Springfield, Missouri (very far South,) near which we discovered Hodges Speedway – a then-abandoned dirt oval surrounded by demolition derby casualties and the large trucks used to haul them around.

Martin Hiding

Somewhere North of Kansas City, I opened the taps all the way on a very long straight and reached 125mph, which is either the aerodynamic VMax, an electronically limited limit, or both. Surprisingly, the modern People’s Car feels quite stable at this speed – were it not my own automobile, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just travel this fast everywhere. In the past few years, Interstate 70 – which cuts Missouri just about in half from West-East, connecting St. Louis and Kansas City with my hometown in the center – has become significantly faster-paced than I remembered it before moving to Portland for two years. 80mph used to be the accepted number, 70 (the actual speed limit) was the unenforced minimum. In my old Toyota pickup, I could travel at 65 without attracting too much criticism. Now, however, one must maintain 85 to keep up with traffic, especially when traveling with commuters. 90-95 will no longer garner judgmental looks and 100mph left-laners are given a pass.

“I’ll bet that’s great on the highway” is probably the most regular comment received from passersby and riders right after “is this a diesel!?” (Really, the fact of my Jetta’s existence as a manual-equipped diesel wagon seemed to utterly astound a great many people.) There is truth in this general supposition: the ability of the diesel powerplant to deliver hill-climbing torque at low RPM is simply unmatched by gasoline powerplants of the same displacement, which means that “highway” driving entails virtually zero downshifting – arrive in sixth gear, set the cruise control, take a nap. Everything else is taken care of. There is a definite luxury in the knowledge that one is no longer needed in the process at speed – luxury that is NOT present in a gasoline-to-manual Jetta drivetrain. From Hackaday:

[Diesel] has a higher volumetric energy density than gasoline, and thanks to low volatility, diesel engines can run at significantly higher compression ratios without risking detonation. These benefits allow diesel engines to produce significantly more torque than similarly sized gasoline engines.

Fat Martin

“Diesel engines are typically poor when it comes to power to weight ratio, as their high compression ratio and torque output demands heavier materials in their construction,” notes Lewin Day, meaning steel engine block. Here we arrive on my singular dissatisfaction with the Jetta: its weight. While traveling from Kansas City back home in the East one day, I decided to satisfy a longtime bucketlist item and stop by a weigh station. As I drove up to the scale, the police-uniformed attendant looked up at me from his glass box and gave the standard white guy smile frown. It took a moment for the scale to register Martin, but it eventually displayed a whole 3440 lbs. My little “compact” wagon… weighed significantly more than one and three-quarter tons – just 528 lbs. less than the full-sized, supercharged V8-powered Jaguar saloon car I call the automotive love of my life, and almost a full 200 lbs. more than its GLI sedan sibling. There was one single advantage to this weight: we were able to use Martin as a ballast to help re-spool the winch cable on Jack’s Wrangler.

After discovering this figure, I did what I could to diminish the weight easily without tearing into the seats or removing some of the car’s fourteen airbags. Upon lifting up the base of the “car-go” area in the rear, I found a full steel spare wheel – some 30 lbs of it at least – which I immediately removed, along with some sort of flapping cargo restraint that I can only suspect was designed to keep objects (like dogs, perhaps) in the cargo area from sailing into the passenger compartment during an accident (it’s called the “luggage compartment cover” in the owner’s manual.) Ideally, I intended to one day strip out all of the interior except for the driver’s side chair, but it ‘twas not intended to be.

After driving the Jetta for about a week, I was on the short commute back home from the office when I noticed that the cooling fans were running at what sounded like maximum capacity. Then, at a red light, I felt some rough dips in the engine’s idle. When I reached home minutes later, I turned off the ignition and removed the key only to find the fans still spooling. I was convinced I had already broken the car somehow in rough driving, but in reality, Marty was in the process of Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) Regeneration – a procedure designed to clean the little shitpot under the hood by heating it up some thousands of degrees to burn off built up diesel exhaust soot. At least, this is the way I understand it.

Otherwise, I disagree with most reviews about the “diesel rumble” being bothersome. Perhaps it’s because this is by far the most modern car I’ve ever spent this much time with – the only car I’ve ever spent so much consecutive time with, in fact – or because I did, indeed, grow up sitting (and standing) right next to 8-liter turbodiesels at full chat for hours on end. Compared to my mother’s 1.4L gasoline-powered Mk. VII sedan at idle in her garage, there is a more pronounced clacking, but it’s nothing you’d have any trouble sleeping through. I would know! Whilst driving for Uber and Lyft through one of the warmest summers on record, I idled away many hours parked on the street with the (averagely effective) air-conditioning on. I idled when I wasn’t online, too – I would even go as far as to say that I made idling one of the trendiest activities of Summer 2019.

What’re you up to man? Nothin’ much yo. Just over here idling.

Ridesharing

For more than six months, my primary income was from Uber and Lyft driving around Columbia, MO – a distinctly academically-dominated demographic. Frankly, I can’t think of any vehicle more suited to what ridesharing actually entails than a diesel Jetta wagon. It’s a relatively spacious and comfortable place to be for four adults – certainly when no trip lasts longer than thirty minutes – with a ridiculously stout cargo capacity. I was able to fit 9 freshman fraternity guys in for a short trip once. Their faces were all genuinely somber as one expressed “it’s really hard having 8 friends when we try to go out.” (No, you’re not supposed to accept those rides.) It was a challenge carrying some 1500 lbs. of Sad Boys, mostly for the brakes. Once, a group of young men and women began to make fun after noticing the DIESELGEEK decal I’d stuck on my side’s rear quarter window (which I’d acquired with a new shifter bushing kit.) “So are you a diesel geek?” they asked, jeering to themselves, to which I responded: “you know, it’s so weird you mention that because I know this place that sells these stickers…” They no longer seemed amused.

All of the cars I’ve owned have been attention-grabbing in their own way – my old Toyota pickup was adored by the locals; my Miata was adored by other Miata owners. My XJR was gorgeous and my Swamp Continental seemed to be passionately coveted by absolutely everyone over 40. With the Jetta, though, I did not expect any unusual attention whatsoever, yet I must confess that more conversations were started about it than of all of the others, combined. Ridesharing will do that, yes, but it is ridiculous how many people of all races, classes, and ages were enamored by – or overly curious about – Martin.

What is this a Jetta, dude? Is this a Jetta? Whoa! Dude, is this a stickshift!? Dude I think this is a stickshift. BRO. I can’t believe you’re driving a stick right now. He’s driving a stickshift car! Wow I think this is a manual car! Oh shit this is a diesel!? It’s a diesel too?! No way! I can’t believe you’re out here driving a diesel Jetta wagon bro. Is this a stickshift? You can drive stick!?

No.

Early one morning, a ride was requested from the local news station just out of town – a fascinating place. News vans parked in a converted horse stable. They farm televisions out there. A few minutes into the ride, after picking up the young woman, I noticed in the rearview mirror out of my eye’s corner that she had put down her phone to watch my right hand with total bewilderment. Eventually, she asked “what are you doing to the car?” She’d never heard of a manual transmission before. I did my best to explain, but when she asked “but why wouldn’t you just buy a regular car?” I did not have a sufficient answer. Unlike many automotive enthusiasts, I think it’s totally okay that people are allowed to exist independent of this knowledge. There are many, many other things in life to worry about. 80% of cars sold in the United States are shipped with automatics and expecting every young person who lives in an urban environment to think about automobiles as anything beyond simple transportation is asking a lot.

While we’re on the topic of manual transmissions, it’s relevant to mention how excellent the Jetta TDI is as a vehicle to teach first timers how to operate one. With the clutch in, the engine will not rev beyond 3500 RPM thanks to an electronic limiter, which dramatically reduces the number of obligatory stalls when learning clutch control. The learner can simply hold the accelerator to the floor as they get the hang of declutching instead of having to receive shouts of “more gas!” repeatedly. Of course, being a diesel further eases those stresses with much more readily available torque. Sierra was able to grasp the basics this way in a single night, which is unprecedented in my experience. She found particular comfort in the suggested gear indicator on the instrument panel’s main information display, which is very conservative, naturally, but also apparently relief from some great anxiety regarding the question which gear should I be in right now?

Community

I have derided Facebook for my entire adult life for its shitty design, inaspirational effect on its users, and its massive intellectual power, but strangely, through Jetta ownership, I was able to find a community on the service that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Groups like TDI Scumbags, VW TDI Owners, VW TDI support group, and VW TDI Owners Performance and Tech Talk are full of absolutely hilarious and insightful content that I’m genuinely glad I didn’t miss.

On Instagram, I found @jp_eurogarage’s Mk. IV diesel sportwagen, which I adore. I especially love its idle. @projectownersclub posted a video in December, 2018 of a very rusty diesel Mk. III with a straight vertical stack spewing smoke all over its owner’s yard. A video was shared on one of my Facebook groups captioned “when you only drive manual” in which a very generic-looking white man with moustache finds himself gagging in a car with a traditional automatic transmission. The wholesomeness of these posts is often adorable, and not only on Facebook. VW Vortex is an active and helpful forum/blog for TDI owners that I found to be invaluable when researching modifications.

Performance

For the first time in my personal automotive history, I felt the desire to modify one of my own cars. Perhaps the most famous appearance of the Jetta Sportwagen in The Web Era was driving instructor Austin Cabot’s 2014 Sportwagen in one of Matt Farah’s infamous One-Takes. You can find the full list of modifications on the car’s WheelWell page. I intended to emulate Austin with a few modifications including Dieselgeek’s Sigma 6 shortshift kit and “high performance” shifter bushing kit (which I did get around to buying, but never installed.) For those interested in engine/ECU tuning, Malone Tuning has a beautiful tool to help you customize your order.

Malone Tuning Stage 2

Instead of installing the shortshift kit right away, I decided to splurge on a bespoke Raceseng Ashiko weighted shift knob, which made throws immediately better. The issue these products are combatting is the particularly disconnected gearshift which Volkswagen has been notorious for the past few decades. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like you’re just operating a lever instead of shifting a transmission, if that makes sense.

The knob itself is beautifully machined and extremely satisfying to hold. I also “deleted” (removed, in other words) the (likely) faux-leather shift boot after realizing that I’ve always hated the sound and sensation of them, but hadn’t been willing to modify my previous cars in any way. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite personally noteworthy that I was able to traverse the unseen boundary into mod culture. The result was a slightly more mechanical-feeling shift that would’ve certainly been vastly improved by installation of Dieselgeek’s kit.

Another aspirational goal of mine for Martin: H&R’s Sport Springs Set paired with a set of Firestone Firehawk Indy 500s. The goal was to sure up some of that body roll and torque-induced wheelspin. I suspect the result would’ve been a very, very sticky Martin. Unfortunately, I would not get the chance before I killed him in an accident on December 22nd of last year.

Efficiency

Average: 29.84 mpg Total Gallons Pumped: 644 Total Spent: $1726.94 Total Miles Driven: 19506

According to my fuel logs, (they are public, yes, though not necessarily 100% complete,) I averaged close to 30 mpg over 78 fillups and just over 19500 miles. Considering that I was ridesharing most of that time and driving quite obnoxiously for all of it, you should be very impressed. “Diesels tend to get about 30-percent better fuel economy than their conventional counterparts,” says Consumer Reports in a comparison between diesels and hybrids dating back to 2013. From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Much of the reason for diesel vehicle’s high fuel economy has to do with the diesel combustion process; however, some of the increase in fuel economy is due to the simple fact that a gallon of diesel fuel contains more energy than a gallon of gasoline.

The joy my Sportwagen brought me was not expected. My plan to make myself a more reasonable person (and driver) by buying a “boring” car was obviously foiled by the diesel’s torque, the community’s dynamism, and my own communion with mod culture. I spent more consecutive time driving the Jetta than I have in any other automobile and was able to truly enjoy it. After my experience owning a diesel-powered Volkswagen, I would very much like to try driving/owning the Golf GDI – a performance-oriented diesel version of their excellent hatch. Truthfully – given the way I killed Martin – I did not deserve his kinship, but I’m certainly grateful I had the experience.

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This is the most ridiculous press release I've ever seen.

VW Media Goggles

Since signing up for Volkswagen U.S.' “Media Site” a few days ago for the sake of my VW Atlas Review, I've been treated to a few exquisite emails including this press release at 8AM today, which details how to make “virtual reality” googles using:

  1. VR headset cardboard template
  2. Shoe box or pizza box
  3. Printer
  4. Scissors
  5. Syringe or plastic straw
  6. Plastic water bottle
  7. Xacto knife
  8. Glue gun or epoxy
  9. Rubber band
  10. Smartphone

The template is actually by way of Google Cardboard, which tech media declared “officially over” in the Fall of last year. “Watch the VW ID.3 get built right in front of your eyes!” the release declares. If anyone on Earth actually plans on doing this, please contact me.

#auto #churnalism

VW's Jumbo new offering is titanic to live with and genuinely amusing to drive, but is it a condescending German prank on America?

[2019 Volkwagen Atlas SEL w/4MOTION]

Upon meeting an elderly recently immigrated German friend of my mother's for the first time yesterday, she exclaimed He looks German!... and so tall! Both of these compliments were relatively true, but certainly not extremely. I am more German-looking than not, perhaps. Supposedly, I am half a product of a very large family whose elders are only one and two generations from German royalty – my legal last name is on a state sign in front of a small black castle somewhere in Der Vaterland. I slacked through two years of high school German language classes – Frau Rosa once took me aside to ask you’re not going to shoot up the school or anything, right? (Sorry Frau & peers.) Though my much-older half siblings grew up mostly in the town of Schweinfurt, I have never actually set foot in Germany, yet I’ve come to identify with and admire its culture enough to (perhaps unjustly or inappropriately) feel comfortable joking about Deutsche peculiarities as vain self-mockery.

Despite all of this (carefully nationalism-free) affection, the real truth of myself is an American one. I have long since broached the point of no return: no matter how hard I might try, I would never be able to mold the Me another perceives in such a way that I’d become observably German-native. I’m just a midwestern boy with a Germanic name on his paperwork, and therefore have more in common with Volkswagen’s newish entry into the dramatically different full-size Sport Utility Vehicle segment. The Atlas bears a remarkably good name (annoyingly, literally everyone's reviews seem to begin with a comment on how decipherable the new name is for Americans) – especially among new automotive products introduced to market in recent memory. Honda’s Clarity should be clever alongside the definitively 21st-century Insight marque, but violates an unfortunately universal law in the industry: never name a car for a state of being (Introducing the New 2020 Honda Ambiguity [Insolence, Fugue, Debacle, Setback]) ~especially~ one so obtusely irrelevant to the product itself. Insight comes from a chat with a colleague over coffee, but Clarity is a metaphysical, zealous plane that sounds our ever-inadequate platitude alarms in a very unsettling manner. Um... Is Honda doing okay? It not only ends up irritating and off-putting: after Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette, it’s just dumb, lazy, and foul.

After decades of trying to force Yankees into models that many found too small, VW has figured it out: Big-ass SUVs are what Americans want, and the Atlas is designed around the biggest asses you can imagine.

In contrast, the fucking Nissan Kicks ages so swiftly and uncomfortably that it’s pitifully tacky before it even hits the lot, which is particularly disappointing considering the most cleverly bestowed Juke name was. One marvels at the situation Nissan has found itself in: young American black men love our brand, but they also love shoes! Atlas, though, is on par with Honda’s Odyssey inspirationally, though a smidge more grounded through the distinctly Earthen science of topography, just as it should be. Originally billed as a replacement for VW’s Routan minivan, the three-row Atlas is Volkswagen’s newest bid for the Panic Room-loving American parent demographic. Therefore, it’s crucial for us to examine it thoroughly for any signs of condescension from the Germans and their brand “whose business in the US is built on providing small, fun-to-drive cars like the Golf, the Beetle, the Jetta, and the Passat.”

From our perspective, what we have here is a German take on the American family SUV. A Ford Explorer by way of Wolfsburg, if you will. Well, sort of. The Atlas is actually built in Chattanooga, Tennessee alongside the Passat sedan.

Unavoidably, the most notable, remarkable, and extraordinary item to note about the Atlas is simply that it is fucking fat. Just about any review you watch or read will mention this. Even CNET calls theirs “a very broad boy.” After I first read the number – 5997 lbs. – I was never able to escape it throughout the entirety of my time with it. Three tons is unbelievably, inexcusably, violently, hopelessly heavy. Hopelessly not because it stands out in its segment, but that it does not. Obesity is still a problem in America, but it's our automobiles now. While we continue to worship safety and fuel economy together, we skew the triangle (the other side is performance) further and further, and yes – a good portion of the blame can be placed on our obsession with SUVs. I spent 2018 driving a 1976 Lincoln Continental Mk. IV around – the second-longest two-door car ever sold at 228.1 inches from its pointed nose to its massive ass. Despite being a full thirty inches longer than the 2019 Atlas, my 460-powered mammoth yacht weighed some 700 pounds less, and it was filled with real wood. I'm no expert in physics by any means, but I can tell you that every pound has expounding effects on the energy required to move, turn, and stop a vehicle, which just about sums up the ultimate formula to pulverize efficiency. When our friends at the IIHS say that “fuel economy can be improved without sacrificing safety,” they are just... fundamentally wrong, (though technically correct.)

I'm not entirely sure why the Atlas weighs so much, but its mass is inevitably a major variable in just about every facet of its experience as a product. The best potential hoot to be had from it as a driving device should be sought by ordering it to shuffle briskly on curving country blacktops in Sport Mode with all the assists (save for lane-keeping) on. Not to be too crude, but it's fun to make the fat fucker run. Through your ass, you can feel the suspension squirm and struggle to redirect all 266 lb.-ft. of VR6 oomf between 4 wheels beneath an entirely separate war against the physics of such top-heavy body roll.

Scrambling is definitely the correct verb. Pleasantly light steering in Comfort Mode (where I'd advise you leave it in virtually any situation) combined with a supple-ish ride from multilink suspension provide a trace of a past luxury sentiment not unlike the energy exhibited by my old Connie through and through. It's all about the sensation of power. Not in the horse sense, but in the satisfaction achieved from the manipulation of maximum mass with minimum effort. Comparatively, the level of actual ego-stroking is of course quite miniscule, and unfortunately, it is the numbness that is most noticeably left over with very little gain.

Also unfortunate: I did not end up making the opportunity to truly test whatever offroad capabilities the Atlas may posses in any sort of formalized test. My example came with Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, and I was able to find a small hill just steep enough to trigger the former. I cannot say I'd put my money on the Atlas winning the Dakar as it is, but we now know it can handle wet grass on a mild incline. What about county road gravel? Realistically, these are the two extremes 99% of Atlas' will ever face in their usable service lives. I found an entirely quiet section of back rock road and walked through the steps to disable all of the traction and stability control assists before stomping on the throttle, but was unable to provoke any significant wheelspin. In an episode of Autoline After Hours, Michael Loveti (Vice President, Product Line Mid/Full-Size, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.) confirms the drivetrain really is all-time all-wheel-drive, (though the dual exhaust ports in the rear are unfortunately fake,) and that the Atlas is actually based on the MQB platform, which is astonishing. Prospective buyers should definitely have a listen.

This theme of “thoroughly German, yet somehow distinctly Americanized” occurs over and over and over and over again in the Atlas' story. Its horizontal lines match both the Jetta and Ford's Explorer. In that way, surely it is a success. I cannot imagine a better execution of its marque's directives as stated by Mr. Loveti than what I drove.

Cover the Volkswagen logo and you might think the Atlas was made by someone else. The hard lines and boxy shape are a sharp departure from the rest of the VW lineup. But look at its competitors here in the states, especially the Ford Explorer. It’s almost like Volkswagen tried to build its own Ford with the Atlas.

Even though it has been on the market for only a year, the Atlas had become VW's second-most-popular car in the German automaker's lineup in March 2018, showing that the American car-buying public's thirst for crossovers and SUVs remains unslaked.

Place in The Segment

The only other modern SUVs I've spent significant time with was the Range Rover Evoque I crashed and the VW Tiguan I reluctantly borrowed (and had absolutely nothing to say about,) so my authority in comparing the Atlas with its competitors is severely lacking. However, I can at least send you the way of Regular Car Reviews' Roman reviewing his mother's Ford Explorer, Business Insider's direct comparison between their long termer Atlas and the Explorer, or Cars.com's vs. the new Subaru Ascent. Car & Driver also compared the Atlas to the intriguing Kia Telluride.

In the splitting of already fine hairs, it's the new Telluride that makes a stronger case over the Atlas, thanks to its price advantage, its plush and thoughtful appointments, and its slightly more comfortable third-row.

The Passive Safety Fairytale

Define: Active safety

Freedom through security. In truth, neurotypical people are naturally driven to minimize risk, yet also to romanticize the sick, inhibitionless madmen – to envy them both internally and externally (in a most restrained way.) Collectively, our authority in (or mastery of) risktaking remains pathetically irrational. If we were to itemize our ability to asses risk into a sixth physical sense, it would rank just as poorly against the rest of the world's creatures (or perhaps neck-and-neck with those of the squirrel or the deer.)

So many struggles of the too-often-cited “Human Condition” are grounded in the incompetence of this sense. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that risktakers in general are a very special topic amid The Middle Class – those who occasionally find themselves atop just enough excess to call it “capital.” This equates in day-to-day life as only the most potent – yet almost entirely inert next to the cushion of multi-millionaires – subject, catalyst, and indicator of dire fret. By far the most widespread affectation of this petty affliction spreads like divine wrath over the upper forty percent of this Middle Class. Thus, we must ask ourselves how safe doth the Atlas make me feel?

Volkswagen Atlas Digital Dash

Inside

My Atlas’ interior was finished in Titan Black Leatherette, which sounds both grandiose and a bit like a kink. “Volkswagen is known for good build quality and tight-feeling interiors,” writes Danny Geraghty for Auto123, “but I found I was encountering just a bit too much hard plastic, making for a somewhat dated feel.” Perhaps my loaner was less worn in because neither I nor my girlfriend found anything wrong with the Atlas’ interior quality – even after bombing gravel roads to the point of sustaining a left-rear puncture, we did not encounter any annoying squeaks or rattles. She spent an entire afternoon sleeping in the passenger’s seat reclined and described it as “comfy.” For The Car Connection, Senior Editor Andrew Ganz writes:

It’s not much to behold, with a chunky shape as conservative as they come that is not offset by a distinct lack of flair inside. Instead, the Atlas is quietly competent and exceptionally good at carrying seven humans—even seven adults.

Standard with the SEL trim is Volkswagen’s “Digital Cockpit” instrument panel, which I like much more than I expected to, though its color options are already dated and unfortunately unchangeable. Ageability is an inevitable issue with these sorts of bespoke graphic design decisions automakers are making now, but at least you’ll be able to tell your friends that your Volkswagen has a digital dashboard “just like the Rolls-Royce Phantom,” which is, of course, the ultimate Queen of timelessness in the industry. Perhaps it’s telling that the only layout I found acceptable for the digital dash was the one with simulated analog needles for the tach and speedo, and how often do you really use a compass in day-to-day driving? For that matter, how useful could a digital compass in the speedometer’s center hub really be in an “offroad” situation? It’s a bit petty, but I also really despise the typeface shared across the instruments and infotainment system. It’s just… bad.

2019 Volkwagen Atlas SEL w/4MOTION

Outside

In Platinum Gray Metallic, the Atlas looks authoritative enough in a very ordinary way. Unless you’re on the lookout for one, you’d hardly notice it, and you certainly wouldn’t expect what you see to cost as much as it does. That is why I’d prefer any one of the other exterior finishes, especially (in order): Pure White, Tourmaline Blue Metallic, Pacific Blue Metallic, and Fortana Red. The real wonder is how VW managed to execute a seven-seat SUV with its existing design language. Though the Atlas is by far Volkswagen’s largest vehicle, it fits neatly within their lineup.

Road Rage

My only authentic Road Rage experience in some 5000 miles of rideshare driving occurred on All Hallow's Eve when I stopped – no more illegally than usual – on the opposite corner from a popular downtown Mexican restaurant called The Nap with hazards and all courtesy interior lights shining. The car immediately behind me hesitated no more than necessary, but the Biggest Big Infiniti behind them (a QX80 – the Atlas' competitor) just... stopped. There was honking and frenzied, hoarse screaming of what the fuck are you doing? and such.

I responded with pleasantly amused but relatively-encouraging glances at the impersonal black mass of the Infiniti's windshield through my mirrors. I rolled down the Atlas' driver's side window and politely gestured that they go around me, but failed to coax any movement whatsoever from the ugly behemoth through at least two full cycles of the nearby traffic light. There must be some aquatic authority in the bulbous black ass of the QX80, for no one behind it seemed willing to pass either. The driver waited significantly longer than you'd imagine before emerging, huffy. She was wearing a classic poofy black North Face vest some sort of slate gray turtleneck. Nothing below these were stimulating enough to retain any memory of. Uggs?

How positive are you that the truth has absolutely zero consequence: contrasted silver-beige eyeliner and little eye contact, dirty-ish straight blonde hair over a spray-tanned face, exhibiting zero anxious tics or hesitation. She was obviously the New Matriarch, and she was obviously much more of an authority on traffic law than I. As she approached, she scanned the street as one naturally does when they enter a busy one... except it was completely empty, thanks to her blockade. She first informed me that I was “not supposed” to be stopped there. I tried to listen and respond with as much sincerity as possible as I realized all at once that my behavior had genuinely perturbed this woman – that her choice to leave the huge hideous warmth of the guppy wagon to speak as humans to one another required great courage.

2019 Volkwagen Atlas SEL w/4MOTION and Prius-C

I inserted the next logical question which I'd been screaming telepathically: can you not get around me? I began to pity her when I then saw in her face the distinct possibility that going around as a concept had not occurred to her whatsoever. She stuttered a wee bit in retorting “I could go around, but I don't want to get a ticket.” Here, one of the most fascinating avenues of suburban psychology is explored: Guppy Mom is not being ingenuine with this expression, nor has she had an untoward experience with law enforcement, ever. Guppy Mom did know her excuse was bullshit – nobody has ever been written a traffic citation for carefully circumventing an obstacle in the road. Given the opportunity to interrogate this kernel of entirely uncompromising obedience to utterly delusional traffic law superstitions, I think we'd simply discover a life of unnaturally positive interactions with LEOs. We must conclude, then, that the source of her fear was either myself or the Atlas.

Granted, to her I am still a Young Man, and am therefore instinctively programmed to believe myself more informed than literally everyone – even the very foundational architects of modern civilization. Her Stucco Highness may have felt a representative of these builders (edgy take: she is in fact their servant.) Her own folks surely complain regularly about their distaste for disrespect, and my gig-economy, Austin Powers-looking ass was somehow disrespecting the order laid down by her would be (entirely fantastical) forefathers. Though her expression of her quaint fear of such “ugliness” (if you will) is hard-headed, an ugliest decision of hers (or her kin) idled behind me, its giant seafood-looking mouth gaping, unhinged. It'd almost be more redeemable if it was a hardcore, chronic mouthbreather. (The QX80 is actually powered by a comparatively oldschool V8.)

Freedom from fear is the sum desire of all the most primitive compulsions we share. Ultimately, the only efficient and reasonable response to Mrs. Guppy's kind in such a situation is to very kindly oblige, which I did, of course, with great respect and great pity. In the months since this encounter, I'd been wondering what was missing from the outline of this Atlas review. I recently realized that it is this analysis of fear as a factor for the American carbuyer.

Though it has been disproven over and over again for decades, consumers often cite safety as their primary motivation for buying full-sized SUVs. Mrs. Guppy's Great Guffaw led me to realize why this particularly disconnected supposition/folktale continues to thrive so uninhibited by the truth: the brand image, physical presence, and actual driving sensation must communicate and “feel” safe – these are far more integral to buyers' perception of a product than the testable reality. Even the people of the world's most Christian nation do not have faith – they trust not unless they see with their own eyes; feel with their own asses. They entrust their souls to the Word of the Lord, but not their lives to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (I recently gave both of mine to NHTSA for All Eternity.)

2019 Volkwagen Atlas SEL w/4MOTION

The Collegiate Take

The two or three nights I spent Uber/Lyft driving around my college town shuttling Halloween party traffic in the Atlas were expectedly uneventful. I had to create a preset text message to send immediately upon connection with a rider to communicate as succinctly as possible that I was not going to be arriving in the Jetta Sportwagen on my profile but instead in the Atlas, and to transparently try to make sure that was okay. (No, drivers are not supposed to do this and you should reserve the right to bail on a ride should you find yourself opposite my own position in this situation because nobody refused me.)

Hello! Just a heads up: My Jetta is in the shop so I'm driving a gray 2019 Volkswagen Atlas

(It's VW's largest SUV and has 7 seats.)

License: FATLAS

If this is inconvenient or uncomfortable for you, please let me know.

Thank you!

I made a point to try and ask most of the riders if they had any thoughts on the Atlas without sounding like I was just desperately fishing for compliments on my own car, but I don't remember any significant thoughts being imparted whatsoever – certainly nothing negative. Folks here are just too polite – they won't speak up no matter how many times you insist that you do not own the car. We experienced this phenomena years ago when we tried to interview people on the street regarding the horrid Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. Regardless, there's no reason to expect young people to have anything to say about the Atlas – it is neither extraordinary nor cheap.

If you are an American carbuyer, you might give a shit about the sort of awards manufacturers love to quote in their television commercials like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's “TOP SAFETY PICK,” which the Atlas won for 2017. For 2019, it won MotorWeek's Best Large Utility Driver's Choice award. How about Cars.com's 2020 Family Car of The Year? How quickly can this story turn into churnalized commercial copy? From Scott Keogh, Volkswagen Group America CEO:

[Atlas] was designed and built specifically for American families, and buyers and critics alike are letting us know that we’re hitting the mark with this seven-seater SUV.

It's immediately evident from the outside that the Atlas is the most Americanized product in Volkswagen's lineup – indeed, in its entire history. For Car Magazine's review, Ben Barry notes “the square-jawed front, Jeep-like wheel arches, and the suggestive utilitarianism of the stampings in the bonnet and roof” before remarking on just how much more you can spend on the Porsche Cayenne's cousin, the beloved Touareg.

Ultimately, the Atlas is far from a dynamic, agile machine, but it feels comfortable and unintimidating to drive, and perfectly at home on US city streets and the slower-paced driving of California highways.

2019 VW Atlas V6 28 mpg

2019 VW Atlas V6 28 mpg

Efficiency, the Other Fixation

Surprisingly, the Atlas carries a rare and precious jewel of automotive history under its broad, satisfying hood. The VR6 “zig zag” arrangement is actually one of Volkswagen legend – defining icons like the Corrado. As Dan Prosser explains for Evo magazine:

‘VR’ stands for V-Reihenmotor, which translates to V-Inline, describing both vee and inline cylinder layouts. That is, of course, contradictory. The unit is actually a very narrow-angle V6, displacing 2861cc, with two offset banks of cylinders at 15 degrees to one another. Unlike a conventional V6, but exactly like an inline six, there’s just one cylinder head. The result is a six-cylinder engine that’s both much narrower than a typical V6 and shorter than a straight six. In fact, it’s more comparable in size to a four-cylinder than a six, which meant it could slot easily into a Golf floorpan. A creative and borderline ingenious engineering solution.

The Atlas' 3.6L VR6 makes 276 hp and 266 lb-ft. of torque. Though other reviews cited highway mileage figures of 23-25 mpg, I was able to coax a whole twenty-eight miles-per-gallon on a live Periscope stream without air conditioning or cruise control through a two-way simulated 20 minute commute, through which I suffered for the hard data. My average before resetting the odometer for that feat, though, was 14.7mpg. “Good range and miles between trips to the gas station are criteria I look for in a good car, and the fuel-gulping Atlas rates low in this department” may be the blandest statement of all time, but MotorTrend does have a point – with the same 18.6 gallon fuel tank shared between the four and six cylinder models, the latter realistically has 250 miles of range between fillups, which is pitiful for a modern vehicle in just about any segment. Crossing one State is not enough.

2019 Volkwagen Atlas SEL w/4MOTION

An Attempted Conclusion

So, is the Atlas indeed just a lucrative German prank on Americans? If it is, the subtleties are beyond even me. In the time since I drove the Atlas last year, Volkswagen has unleashed the Atlas Cross Sport on American roads. Apparently, it is the ideal SUV for “dual incomes, no kids,” or “DINKS” (surprisingly, not a homophobic slur.) MotorTrend, on the other hand, argues the ideal buyer has “teenagers who are growing faster than dandelions.”

It's a straightforward conversion from Atlas to Atlas Cross Sport. In the name of perceived sportiness, out goes that most minivan of things: the third row of seats.

Normally, I'd be disgusted with such a thing, but from where I'm sitting, the Cross Sport appears to be what the Atlas should've been all along. The third row seats in my example wasn't any more comfortable than that of a 10-year-old minivan, so removing them for the sake of the second makes perfect sense. According to Car & Driver, the 2021 Atlas will “adopt” the Cross Sport's styling, though there are some technologies – like road sign recognition- which are exclusive to the Cross Sport.

Instead of getting 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row in the Atlas, you get 40.3 behind the second row. Fold that down and it becomes 77.8 cubic feet to work with. And that’s from an SUV with the same wheelbase as the upcoming 2021 Atlas at 117.3 inches, yet it is 5.2 inches shorter and 2.2 inches lower to the ground.

There was even a one-off concept Atlas pickup called the Tanorak, and no one seems to yet know whether or not it (or something similar) will be put into production. As far as longevity and extended livability is concerned, enough time has passed since the Atlas' release for long-termer conclusion posts to be published from the likes of Car & Driver, Cars.com, and MotorTrend. The last of these reported an odd turning radius issue which was eventually fixed by Volkswagen.

Once we got the steering fixed, my opinion of the Atlas did grow sunnier, though it's still not perfect. Maybe it's not fair to compare the driving experience to my previous long-term vehicle, the slightly smaller Mazda CX-9, but in my opinion the Mazda still sets the ride and handling bar for the competitive set. Setting the Mazda aside, if you hop behind the wheel of one of the newer competitors like the Kia Telluride, there's a noticeable disparity in the refinement in ride quality and body control in the Atlas... Volkswagen should have made the GTI of three-row SUVs, not just another minivan alternative.

This pullquote from Andrew Ganz’s The Car Connection review is as good a summary as I could ever come up with:

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas does little wrong, but it's light on personality and a little low-rent inside—and it guzzles fuel. It's worth a look, but mostly rivals do more for less.

Volkswagen’s first substantial entry into the SUV market is well-named, relatively well-endowed, fairly bland for its price tag, and very, very heavy. Also, Start/Stop is still unbearable – thanks Obama – but the Atlas is not a scam.

🗎 Print/PDF

2019 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL 4Motion Options as Tested

Further Reading

Volkswagen traditionally tuned its suspensions closer to the European ideal, firm but well-damped, which incidentally made even non-enthusiast Volkswagens more pleasant than average to drive (with a few recent exceptions). But Volkswagen made a conscious decision to soften up the Jetta for American tastes, beyond what softening Volkswagen traditionally applied, and it seems like this philosophy scaled up to the much larger Atlas. Maybe the soft ride impresses on test drives, but a firmer setup would likely make life nicer for occupants over the long haul.

#auto

Martin vs.

Hodges Speedway

It has continued to astound and comfort me tremendously throughout my life that the same redneck-ass institutions of my rural youth – tractor/truck pulls, dirt track racing, demolition derbies, etc. – continue in places such as these, virtually exempt from the tumult of global change. The last time I was in the bleachers, “premium handsets” meant flip phones and many of the junker entries would be considered viable restoration projects, today.

Personally, there is nothing more existentially easing than stumbling upon this bit of car culture now and then, though it always brings up a nagging question: what the hell am I doing in this office? Thank you, Missouri. I’m sorry I talked all that shit in high school. It’s good to be home.

#auto #photography

CR-V Sunset

I would argue that this is the best Honda’s CR-V has ever or will ever look, no thanks to my photographic decisions.

After 9 or so years and over 100,000 miles, I have totaled my mother’s 2010 Honda CR-V – the car I drove cross-country for the first time at significant distance (St. Louis to Washington, D.C. in essentially one sitting,) and once complimented for being the best possible aesthetic compromise of its near-universally and aggravatingly-compromised breed. It was my her first 1st owner experience, which is frankly a bit of a shame. If I’m completely honest, my late stepfather’s decision to outfit this utterly utilitarian vehicle with enough kit to break the $30,000 within a segment that has always clung to the 20s as one of its truly communicable advantages feels less-than-ideal in retrospect, but what can I say, really? It was not exactly a proud thing, but it did transport a lot of young families and shelter us as we’ve navigated more blizzard-like conditions than should be the norm for what is, essentially, an expensive, extended Civic.

As per some particulars of my upbringing, I tend to get almost alarmingly attached to vehicles, but it’s hard to say I’m sad to see the CR-V go from all but the most sentimental senses. Objectively, it’s simply not as high-value or as competent a vehicle as it and its contemporaries are still made out to be by automotive media, pop culture, or the presumptions in the average consumer’s discourse. Though it was never intended to be luxurious, the resulting automobile ended up costing real luxury money.

The Event

It’s odd to have been driving so long without incident (pretty soon I’m gonna be able to say “I’ve been driving for twenty years, bitch!) and then suddenly find oneself at fault for the accident which claimed the life of the single most sublime, defining object in his existence. This incident, though, was entirely the fault of the other driver. My best friend and I were Northbound, crossing the intersection of Stadium Boulevard and Rock Quarry Road at precisely the point where it becomes College Avenue, where we were t-boned directly on the CR-V’s driver’s side rear wheel by a mid-2000s Mazda 6 that decided to run the red light. It’s hard to guess the speed of impact, but the driver’s side side airbags deployed (as you’ll see from the attached photograph,) and the CR-V was spun nearly 270 degrees around the axis of the front wheels. Neither of us nor the 6’s driver was injured, but both of our vehicles are surely totaled.

CR-V Fucked

Third-Generation CR-V Ownership in Retrospect

Two or three years ago, I recorded some (not particularly conclusive or informative) thoughts with my iPhone as I drove the old engorged Civic to the grocery store, when ends abruptly after I said “I think one time I did try to go fast.” Like most surviving crossover nameplates, though, the narrative began with a genuinely good idea: Hondarize and modernize the Suzuki Sidekick template on top of the Civic's platform and charge just a bit more for it – and like the rest, too, the concept has soured tremendously as both crossovers and the compact sedans upon which they're based have grown and fattened under their ever-increasing burden of safety and convenience features. (I say “burden” and not “expectation,” specifically because I know a grand total of zero informed people who are at all thrilled about increasing gross weights across every industry segment.)

This CR-V was my mother’s first and only crossover following a three-car line of one or two-owner-used, well-equipped V6 Accords in her garage – the later two from the era when Honda’s mid-sized sedan became a surprisingly dynamic driving machine as advances in drivetrain performance intercepted a point in the developmental timeline just before gross weights spiked up toward their current safety and electronic equipment-bloated figures. (In other words: in the sweet spot when engines were growing more powerful but just before the Accord and its peers got fucking fat.) In 2010, the CR-V was almost attractive looking as specced by my stepfather: the combination of the roof rack, bonnet bra, and EX-trim 5-spoke alloys managed to resolve most of the discrepancies in the shapes I've seen from other examples, but it also drove its price above the $30,000 mark. To be fair to Honda, this decision could almost be considered a sortof breach of function considering the CR-V's original ultra-mass-produced, utilitarian purpose.

Interior

Neither the leather nor the nav/infotainment system has aged very well, but it should be said that the latter is still 100% functional in 2018: it interfaces well with my iPhone 8 Plus with only the occasional “this device is not supported” hiccup (easily resolvable by simply re-booting the connection, in my experience.) I'm not sure how astonished I should be by the fact that the GPS still offers reliable routes 99% of the time, albeit through a user interface design that seems to grow more and more dated by the passing few seconds one may have to wait for it to calculate. Accommodation remains about as uncomfortable as it was on day 1: thanks to its hard leather and the super-upright seating position common to crossovers, I must continue to insist that operating this car is a wholly unnatural experience, but its interior surfaces shall always place well in a contest of robustness and longevity, as they certainly should.

Drivetrain

Perhaps the greatest letdown of this model year (2010) is its legacy four-speed automatic transmission, and I assume the next year's inclusion of a brand-new five-speed unit drastically improved its driving experience. The specific regret one feels when such a development arrives a year after buying any new car is one my stepfather still didn't deserve, yet he was not spared. However, if you, the reader, cannot be dissuaded from buying a CR-V of this generation for whatever goddamned reason, know that you must choose an example from 2011-onward if you want to retain your sanity. No, ye olde four-speed wasn't quite as bad as the transmission that virtually ruined Dodge's new Dart singlehandedly, but it certainly shows its age even for the most inattentive or merciless driver. Without it, I would vouch for the 2.4L four-cylinder's performance as adequate, but its contribution was and forever shall be let down by the aging transmission's developing Alzheimer's. Simply put: they are an unacceptably mismatched team.

Though I shall forever argue that part-time all-wheel-drive is almost never actually justified in normal use – and yet inadequate for any “extreme” use, for that matter – Honda’s hydraulic “Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive” did indeed aid our CR-V’s way in a handful of circumstances throughout my mother’s ownership, though neither of our memories of these are robust enough to cite specifics. The single no-bullshit blizzard we experienced was the same type I managed to navigate years later in a sub-compact Chevrolet to reach MagFest 2016, if perhaps less intense. I would speculate that the system increases mechanical drag – and therefore fuel consumption – to a degree that couldn’t possibly justify what little aid it has offered in our use, at least.

#auto

Just Really Lame

The recently-discontinued Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet darkly mirrors sentiments first begun with the Pontiac Aztek, narrating Generation X’s decline.

My Nissan wheeltime for Honk has grown a massive respect for the brand’s audacity within me. My interest in the profession has spanned years of maturity — from asking can’t you just…? to active affection for those who dare reliably retort with a confident no.

Can’t you just retire your body-on-frame SUV entries already like everybody else did ten years ago?

The noble, rugged Xterra, which we shall sincerely miss.

Can’t you just follow the Golf’s unquestionably low-risk lead into the tumultuous youth market?

The Juke NISMO, which we regard as the industry’s singular steady grasp on what youth actually means.

Can’t you just take some cues from Honda and Toyota, and make your sedans easy on the eye?

The Altima and the Maxima, which constitute the last truly evil marque available.

Can’t you just step a little lighter on the Versa’s margins? You’d be insane to build a car designed by MSRP alone!

The Versa is — for better or worse — the absolute essence of automobiles’ transportive function, and no more.

And there’s the GT-R, of course, which continues to make fools of an entire culture of self-titled “gearheads” who claim speed as their one true dowry.

CrossCabriolet Blur

Throughout the years, Nissan has over and over again made me look like an absolutely absurd idiot for your display — and I cannot think of a better gift. Of all the brands to misunderstand, it is the ultimate muse.

So, in the present, I am grandiosely assuming you’ve been attentive enough to deliberate the possible outcomes of our time with the Murano CrossCabriolet.

It was quickly apparent that the experience was not going to resemble our Night of the Juke in the slightest. It could be attributed to my pre-game mentality. For the first time, I came to this monstrosity thinking I’d finally learned my lesson,desperately hoping to be whipped again — real bad — but walk away with more closure than with which I arrived. Like a good diplomat, I made myself approach without want for anything but understanding.

On first take, the Xterra was proud, and the Juke was clever.

The CrossCabriolet is a corny joke.

Take a look at an occupied, top-down example from afar. I cannot think of a more ridiculous picture.

CrossCabriolet Driver

Just since its assembly in 2011, our example’s trim has endured enough to begin disintegrating in a few bizarre locales. Not to over-iterate, but it’s needing strong mention: I had never sat in a roofless crossover before. I’m assuming you haven’t, either. It is unnatural. It is harrowing.

From the organization I have summed so many times over the years as “acutely ingenious” came this… unsettling suburban bathtub.

It’s a shame — I repeatedly remark on the extrapolated potential I can see in a roofed Murano. Everything else in sight is worth my time. If only it had been better-protected.

The sensation is simply ridiculous in what’d be a tasteful sense were this a one-off project of some hearty garage tinkerer or tuning shop, but… my God; Nissan delivered it this way, and had the gall to ask $10,000 more for their molestation.

Still, its webpage (in past tense, thank God,) proclaims “the Murano CrossCabriolet was the world’s first and only All-Wheel Drive convertible crossover” in the same language I’d tout the Xterra (may it rest in peace and eternally-inadequate glory) as the last available SUV, in the traditional use of the segment, or the Juke NISMO as the first competently-composed automotive product for millennial youth. Or the GT-R as by far the most effective, high-value instrument for the pursuit of maximum velocity across the ground. And so on.

Pontiac Aztek Concept

The language so assured, the parallels must inevitably be drawn to that cheap joke of the century’s turn… the Pontiac Aztek.

The details of its life story are reliably amusing, should you find yourself mid-research. From the journos’ gasps at its corporately-edgy concept’s unveiling to the weary original steed of Breaking Bad‘s Meth Man, there is a similar lifestyle vehicle thread between the products that weaves an obscure narrative.

My own contribution: after a missed exit outside Galveston just as Azteks first became rentable, my stepfather (the most earnestly late-history Pontiac man who ever lived) took an entirely-unexpected and uncharacteristic 70 mile-an-hour plunge into the choppy grass median after shouting “this is an off-road vehicle!”

As I’m sure you can imagine, it was the single most traumatic event I have ever experienced as the passenger of a motor vehicle, but the damned thing was unscathed, despite having repeatedly chucked us all (fully-belted) into its beige ceiling.

Gary believed in Pontiac.

Though he was keen enough to smell death, he chose to believe in the Aztek.

And you know what? His faith, too, has made me look like an idiot.

That’s what separates the Aztek from ye late CrossCabriolet: it really was a genuinely-bold innovation. Survive the laymen’s idle party chat and crude design critiques, and you’ll find an impressive clarity in its purpose, especially given the context of its conception. In the used market especially, it still represents a characterful, practical, and high-value consideration. And yet — at the expense of themselves — American buyers did not clamor for it like the informed of the populace did. Perhaps it was because the informed — like then-BusinessWeek‘s David Welch — were echoing hopes of a “design renaissance” for General Motors. The renaissance that would not come until the Flush of the Boomer Higher-Ups some eight years later.

Both tales, I think, represent a profound neglect of consumer journalism.

At the turn of the century, though, it was not unusual to go a day without accessing the internet. Today, people are still buying the few flops the industry has left to offer — making what is most likely the second-largest purchase of their life’s current epoch without consulting the volumes of diverse, intelligent, and articulate opining now accessible instantly free of charge via the subsidized slates that lightly jostle in their jean pockets as they wiggle their signatures on dealer paperwork.

Don't Let Go

ALERT: Inbound tennis enthusiasts!

Funny, isn’t it?

An American hit when the Japanese were unquestionably winning, and — just over a decade later — a Japanese miss as their winning had just begun to be questioned. Make no mistake; I am not being patriotic. For me, sovereignty does not extend beyond design houses, R&D facilities, and test centers.And it’s somewhere within Nissan’s where pillars were severed and delusions nurtured; all astoundingly with executives’ blessing. I am terribly and shockingly ashamed to report that my countrymen actually bought them.

As many as 3300 units in the last year of the Mayan calendar. The worst bit, though, is that they all made their way to my particular part of the planet.

I swear to the Sun; I am surrounded.

If you’re familiar with Columbia, Missouri, it does not take more than a moderate imagination to comprehend the sense, as grueling as it is. I see them regularly; once a month, at least. In a town where one can expect to spot a Gallardo in front of Buffalo Wild Wings marred by horrid plastic athletic miniflags wedged in its five-figure doors, they are everpresent reminders that the New Money Effect continues to flourish, unbridled in the Midwestern U.S.

The soft top is always retracted, of course, and the exposed driver is always a sweating middle-aged white woman wearing a light-colored tennis visor. She… they… are always on their way to a match. Doomed to roast forever, I suppose, as there is only one nearby court, as far as I know.

It is disheartening to realize that, now, I see many more of them than Azteks around. Though neither were designed for any tangible “lifestyle,” per se, I am saddened by the shift this minuscule tell indicates in my hometown’s morale. From an (albeit equally-vague) yearning for new adventure in an intriguing new century to an emotionally-destitute jaunt to the court, I have witnessed all of Generation X’s vigor erode procedurally away before my eyes.

CrossCabriolet Rear

Y2K, Great Depression II, an ancient apocalyptic prophecy from one of the wisest civilizations in recorded history… Surely, one of these foretold disasters will finally End it All!

Perhaps Nissan knew that even the well-read of the North American market were, by and large, simply looking for ways to pass the time before the death which they felt so assuredly approached. The number of unanimously-unbuyable prospects available has shrunken to virtually none, and the CrossCabriolet was not much of an investment; not all that highly-engineered, really. Perhaps they felt obligated to entertain us in our delusional way out. Perhaps it was all just an awfully-German prank.

And, if the End of the World is imminent, what’s to stop one, really, from leasing the world’s first and only convertible crossover?

What’s to stop one from playing tennis?

#auto

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A broken Mazda RX-7, that lived in a shed on the family farm, was David Blue's first real experience with a car. Years later he got to try out a living, working example of the same car – and, unlike Max Prince previously found, loved it.Speedmonkey Matt


My bond with one particular example of Mazda's best-selling Wankel-powered sports car began on the Midwestern farm where I grew up. A 1980 model LS-trimmed example, originally painted in “Solar Gold” (one of only 500 made, it turns out). It had been sitting in a small shed, condemned to rest there only a few years after my birth from issues with the fuel delivery system. The search for a mechanic capable of working on the rotary engine without destroying it was eventually given up.

My father told me stories of his flings with the car. He used to say the police would pull him over simply because it “looked fast.” Naturally, as a small boy, the stories took a hold of my imagination. The RX-7 held a very special sort of allure. It eventually became my ideal image of “racecar”. Its environment added to the intoxication. The lack of electric power to the car, its immobility, and the stories I was told combined to create the aura of a fading, forgotten superhero. Tired, abandoned, and only necessitating the help of a friend in order to bring it back to glory.

It wasn't very long after toddlerhood that I took to spending a large portion of my free time sitting in the RX-7, practicing rowing through the gears and making engine noises with my mouth. I still remember vividly how delightful the experience of simply sitting in that car was. The dash layout, the feel of the steering wheel in my hands, and the smell of the interior are all deeply etched into memory. It was almost as if I had a deeper perception into its soul, a capability that I feel has been lost.

Much before I had expected, I had the opportunity to meet this hero, so to speak. I encountered a partially-restored 1983 Series 2 example, slightly different than my RX-7. Different enough to subdue my worries of adultery to the car I grew up with, but similar enough to be an important discovery.

I was treated to the complete RX-7 ownership experience, including a dead battery and a difficult, choked cold start. Perry, my host, was kind enough to pay for the fuel for the drive with money out of his own pocket. After ensuring that we would not be walking back, I pointed that very long, very 80s nose toward some local back highways.

I had never driven anything powered by a Wankel, and the contrast of the RX-7 compared to everything with wheels I had experienced was stark, and noticeable immediately. The feedback normally received from a piston engine is not felt, due to the fact that there is no more conversion from vertical to rotational motion, a rotary engine (as implied by the name) involves no vertical momentum. It's not that the engine refuses to communicate with you, it's just speaking an entirely different language. The whiny exhaust note has an odd property to it that can be heard from no other source. It conjures up images of the mysterious, angry pair of triangles whirling about in their cage. Purely imaginary, of course.

Because the Wankel is so smooth, I found myself wondering why I should shift up. A piston engine makes you anxious when you push it close to the redline. Most send the driver a variety of auditory and tactile messages indicating that they must either shift up, or face a molten tie rod to the head. The RX-7, however, gives no such indication. When close to the redline, one hears only an excited whir. The result (forgive the upcoming Disney analogy) is an almost magic carpet-like experience. It's as though the power simply materializes before you with no apparent source or sacrifice.

Rx-7 Badge

For me, the tranquility of the engine eliminated the reservations I had for speed. It's an incentive, in fact, to keep the needle in the upper portion of the tachometer as much as possible. The car had only 100 hp and 105 lb-ft. of torque in 1983, and has no doubt lost a few along its journey. Frankly, I'm thankful it's not more powerful. Otherwise, there wouldn't be room to fully enjoy revving it to its limit.

Though I have decided that a transmission with multiple ratios is unnecessary when coupled to a Wankel, the 5-speed manual in the RX-7 was quite a treat. It's very notchy, with a mid-length throw. The well-spaced ratios paired with a very light, but engaging clutch made rev matching pleasant and natural.

Unfortunately, the steering in the car I drove was quite loose, likely from wear. It is unassisted, though, and was at one time very engaging, I suspect. Given that it is a sports car from the 1980s, driver communication is a result of the engineering, not vice versa.

1983 Mazda Rx-7 Series 2

The driving position is actually more relaxed than it looks, and the interior is a thoroughly enjoyable place to be in. This particular car had a factory-installed manually-adjustable equalizer mounted beneath the stock head unit. A useless, though interesting, novelty that quickly rids the occupants of any doubt as to when the car was built.

The RX-7 is too often overlooked for what it is; a very special piece of automotive history. It's an experience completely unlike any piston-powered alternative. And for me, it's much more than that. My RX-7 represents an entire childhood's worth of dreams and a sort of companionship, even. My experiences with it were a very large influence on my drive to pursue a career in automotive writing. Driving one did change my perspective, but not at all for the worse.

I met my hero, and it didn't let me down.

#auto

Accord Front

South Korea is poised to take Japan's place in the American market.

The 1990s. Not the greatest time for the United States auto industry. In those days, with a few exceptions, American cars were all overpriced, devoid of quality and generally unreliable. The big three (along with many other non-automotive related corporations in the U.S.) had an aging generation of management. This group decided that the ideal way to run their business involved expending the least amount of effort into their products as possible, without reducing the price paid by customers. Essentially, they hoped to gain more profit from less product. I don't have to tell you that this thinking just...doesn't work. I would theorize that this mentality came from overconfidence and a lack of joy in production. GM, Ford, and Dodge had been the top sellers of the automobile in the United States since its invention. They originally symbolized the best in quality, luxury and performance. Consumer and producer shared the same values, resulting in a flourishing market. It was a joyous time. And then, somewhere around the 1973 oil crisis, the joy began seeping out of our star shooters. Maybe it was emissions regulations, a loss of those ideal values, or some other factor. Regardless of the source, our homegrown auto industry lost its passion. It reflected in the cars that were built. Designs were reused, progression was halted, the irreverence of quality workmanship lost. “American dependability” became an ironic statement.

And then came along a company that had been building little, noisy two-stroke engines to fit to bicycles only four decades earlier, proudly displaying a banner the changing public couldn't refuse. They offered a product that was simple, honest, reliable, durable and reasonably priced. A concoction that smelled an awful lot like high value. An odor that no doubt brought back old memories. The Accord, suburban America's new family pet. And the Civic, conveniently debuted in 1972. The college student's greatest companion. Both were conservatively styled and equipped, and thus quite easily ignored, which was exactly what the country wanted. After all those years stranded on the shoulders of our aging interstate system in lumbering, underpowered beasts, the indestructible and dependable qualities of the Hondas came as a breath of fresh air. So. What made the newcomers so different? What was the driving force behind the value of the products? It was something not unknown to the Americans, and its presence had been sorely missed. Picture an ancient sage by the name of Soichiro Honda saying something to the order of “Lets build the best automobile we can and sell it for as little as possible.” Though the man is more a symbol than an actual influence on the four-wheeled endeavors of the institution bearing his name, he represents what led to the same group's success. Honda was untainted by an unrealistic attitude, and unaided by a century of heritage and good reputation. They succeeded only because they built good cars.

Accord Mark One

By 2008, Honda had more than made a name for itself. Over the past decade, though, the prices had been steadily increasing, along with the level of luxury and complexity available in their cars. Both the Accord and Civic were bestsellers in their respective classes, and had held their titles for a relatively long time. It was then that I personally theorized they might take the same path American carmakers had taken only a short while before. I don't want to brag, but this was long before Ron Kiino's bold title “Is Hyundai the new Honda?” graced the pages of MotorTrend's October 2011 issue. And it was really a far-fetched notion at the time. Simply a suspicion. Confidently and stubbornly, the Accord held its grip on mid-size sedan sales in the United States, complimented by the Toyota Camry, a similar-looking but even more ignorable competitor. The former still held appeal for someone with the capacity to enjoy themselves. The latter, however, has always been the most desirable choice of individuals that absolutely despise driving. They both held their slightly different niches, with no real fear of losing their place. Then, Honda started skimping a bit on quality. Motoring journalists noticed a lack of improving fuel economy, aging transmissions, and a general loss in competitive edge in the 2011 Accord. Not the best time to start slacking on Honda's part.

Sonata Front

This was the year that Hyundai unveiled the brilliantly-updated 6th generation Sonata. I consider this to be the most significant car to come in the mid-sized segment since the birth of the Accord/Camry duo. In previous generations, it had always been competitively priced. The quality, though, had been lacking. The Koreans were not afraid to design a car that was much less conservative than the two Japanese giants. However, the designs were never really all that great looking. Interesting and different? Yes. Attractive?....No. So these attributes kept Honda and Toyota secure under their cozy comforter of sales, not intimidated by Hyundai's offering. And that's quite understandable. The Sonata never really seemed a direct competitor to the giants. The new one, however, completely changed the game. For one thing, it's gorgeous. Not conservatively pretty, but ridiculous, in the best sort of way. Poised and angular, the exterior looks as if it should cost exponentially more than it does. They managed to carry on the Sonata's tradition of unique styling by rejecting the old car completely and replacing it with a stunner. The interior reflects a similar attitude. It's not only good looking, but significantly more fuel efficient than any other mid-sized car on the market. The drivetrain options are excellent. The best part, though, is the price. At a starting MSRP of 19,195 USD (£11,944), it is several thousand less than any competitor.

Sonata Interior

All of this really just makes the Accord and Camry look silly. It's interesting that Hyundai should take up Honda's original niche, given how different their backgrounds are. Our original hero of practicality was created by a man tinkering with small motorcycles. The former, however, was founded as a massive construction firm, only later trying its hand in the realm of automobiles. Cars seemed an alternative for Hyundai, but certainly not an afterthought. Regardless of where they came from, these two companies have had very similar philosophies, if only separated by time. Also, both have had to rely on sheer ingenuity for profit, without the foothold of heritage in the American market. It could be said, though, that Hyundai is doing a bit better. High value cars that are practical and interesting as an experience. Honda could never get that last bit quite right. Or perhaps it's just a sign of the times. Maybe Americans have overcome the compulsion to ignore our cars. My question is this; Has this flip-flop in production attitude become a cycle? And if so, who will be in the hot spot next? My bet is on the big three, believe it or not. A new generation of management has brought about a huge improvement in our products. It could even be one of the rising Chinese companies in the future. Who knows? I can tell you that right now, though, Hyundai has got the goods.

#auto

by David Blue

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Full

As we bid farewell to the Miata’s third-generation, sizing up its top trim summarizes its legacy.

I recently had the chance to drive the facelifted 2013 Mazda MX-5. This is the first time the looks of the perky roadster have changed since the front-mounted smile became an all-out grin of insanity in 2008. They have once again dulled it to what I would call a smirk. The new front end blends with the rest of car more than it has in the past. It seems to have grown a bit more serious. In fact, with black 17-inch alloys on a glossy black (creatively called “Brilliant Black,”) this example is the most aggressive-looking of any Miata I have seen.

That's not to say it's aggressive in the slightest, even in such a scheme. This car is in the “Club” trim replacing the previous “Touring” designation as the top-of-the-line option. This selection adds ridiculous three-leaf clover side badges, red stitching on the seats, red stripes on the dash and sides, along with a price tag very near 30,000 USD.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Badging

So I present you with my first problem with this particular car....it's a contradiction. The MX-5 was never intended to look serious. That grin was there to convey the primary attribute aspired to by its creators; joy. It's designed to be joyful in driving and the exterior of previous generations did a good job of communicating what the car is all about. Unfortunately, it seems they have decided that it's time for the roadster to grow up. Frankly, that's not going to work.

Now, to the drive.

For this year, the car has been lightened, the braking response quickened, as well as the throttle response in manual-equipped cars. Unfortunately, I was only able to drive the 6-speed automatic with optional pattle-shifters. Given that this is my first drive in an NC (third generation) MX-5, I can only compare it to my own NB.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Trunk

Immediately, my passenger and chaperon starts the process of opening the optional retractable hard top. Open air is this car's natural environment, and it appears that somebody got busy making sure its occupants never notice. Wind buffeting has been drastically reduced. We were able to maintain conversation beyond 70mph without necessitating shouting thanks to a much taller wind brake behind our seats. Unfortunately, I couldn't really hear much of anything from the 158-hp 2.0L 4 up front, even with liberal amounts of right foot burying. It would seem the optional dual exhaust outlets are rather pointless then.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Engine

Getting in the car, I had expected the experience to be ruined by the 6-speed auto. Buying a Miata with an automatic is sort of like going on a scenic vacation without a camera. It doesn't necessarily ruin the immediate experience but you'll always have some regret regarding the subject in the future. The pattles add some of the fun back in, but I prefer the Golf GTI's arrangement of right side-shift up, left side-shift down, while the MX-5 has both functions on either side of the wheel.

It took some deliberate self-coaching to get used to, but it won't effect your daily driving experience. Another plus; when in manual shift mode, it is truly manual, meaning the transmission will allow you to exceed the redline. It may sound trivial, but being nannied when you're first told that you're in control can be a major annoyance. (Looking at you, Kia Forte.) It's disappointing that Mazda chose only to up throttle response in manual-equipped cars. This one most certainly needed it.

The original Miata was built on a philosophy of communication between driver and machine, summarized in the Japanese phrase “Jinba Ittai,” meaning “rider and horse are one.” Being an MX-5 owner, this philosophy is very important to me, thus my expectations for the steering were very high. It was very disappointing, then, to discover that it has been very nearly ruined.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel was comfortable, yes, but not very generous in revealing the road. In corners it felt jumpy, imprecise, and unsure of itself. The same lack of self-confidence was noticeable in a straight line as well, along with a nervous fidget. Keep in mind, I am comparing this to roadsters of the past, not to other automobiles currently on the market. It would take a global nuclear war to make the MX-5 less fun to drive than a Toyota Camry.

Though it has lost communication and soul, the Miata has gained a more comfortable suspension and oodles of storage space. The trunk is massive for a roadster of this size, and the example I drove was equipped with an optional storage compartment extending behind the seats, especially handy for CDs, candy, and the like. The center console contains two reasonably-sized cupholders obscured by a sliding door that will inevitably lead to annoyance in single-drink occasions. Mr. Cunningham also pointed out to me that the track on which the door slides appears vulnerable to crumbs. Only time will tell, I suppose.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Center Console

In general, being inside the car is a much more comfortable experience, albeit a boring one. It seems to me that the MX-5 has “grown up,” forgoing fun for comfort and practicality. And is that not exactly the opposite of the direction it should be moving? It was never meant to be an aggressive-looking performance car, and it will never do well as one. It will never be luxurious enough to be a true touring car, either.

Its soul has made it the top-selling roadster of all time, and I'm afraid it's losing it, bit by bit. To be honest, if you're attracted by the values on which the original Miata was built, I would recommend a Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT 86/Scion FR-S. The recommendation does not come lightly or easily.

Until Mazda gets wise about what it's doing to the beloved little car, I'm afraid it's headed down a path that will mean losing a grip on the niche it's held for so long, and that's quite saddening.

#auto

America's favorite drivetrain is not ideal.

Us drivers of cars with manual transmissions tend to look down on those who drive automatics. It’s like an exclusive club. Only the extremely talented, gorgeous-looking, and legendary athletes of yore are allowed in.

Well, that’s bullshit. So those of you that know the “standard” can keep your mouths shut and bask in the quiet satisfaction that you’re saving the planet.

The truth is, for those of you that don’t know, driving “stick” is totally simple. Once you understand the basic concepts of how the transmission and clutch work together, you can figure it out with no real instruction at all. So with that in mind, I’d like to tell you that automatic transmissions just….suck. Really.

Mind you, I’m not talking about Dual-Clutch Transmissions, SMGs (Sequential Manual Gearboxes,) or any of that fancy stuff that has only recently become somewhat popular in the mainstream (affordable) auto market. I’m talking about automatics with a torque converter, that magically inefficient device that has carried America’s laziness in driving for the last 50 years.

Now before I go on, I suppose I owe you a technical explanation. Let’s start with the basics. First off, a transmission is the device that separates the engine from the wheels. With both automatic and manual transmissions, “gears” are used to vary the ratio between the engine’s crankshaft and the drive shaft going to the wheels. It’s essentially a buffer between the engine’s relative consistency and the inconsistent world that you drive in.

Automatic Gearbox Abstract

But that’s not quite all there is.

Traditional transmissions require an interruption in power from the engine to shift these “gears,” and to come to a stop at a traffic light, in your driveway, or on the side of the highway to pick up a hooker. In manuals, this is typically accomplished with a clutch, a device that could most simply be explained as two plates that are pressed together to couple, and brought apart to become independent. A clutch is normally coupled, it’s when the clutch petal is pushed in that the plates separate, and the transmission is isolated from the engine. Automatic transmissions use a type of fluid coupling to accomplish the same task, called a torque converter.

The advantage of the latter is that, when paired with an automatic transmission, the driver only requires one input to get the car moving and vary its velocity, and that is the accelerator pedal. A manual transmission requires three inputs, on the other hand. (Accelerator pedal, clutch, and gearshift.) In my mind, the torque converter has some huge disadvantages in a world where millions are spent to save 20 lbs. on one car design.

Have you ever noticed that cars equipped with manuals are usually noticeably more fuel efficient than their automatic counterparts? Some of that could be attributed to the greater control that comes with manuals, but most of it is from the torque converter’s main design flaw. A clutch can be completely disengaged and completely engaged. So, with a healthy vehicle, there is 0% of the engine’s power moving to the transmission when the clutch pedal is depressed fully. Likewise when the clutch pedal is allowed completely out, the clutch essentially becomes a shaft, and 100% of the engine’s power is being fed to the transmission.

A torque converter couples via fluid, however, meaning there is never a solid mechanical connection between the engine and the transmission. (Unless the transmission is equipped with a lock-up clutch, which is essentially a clutch that locks the torque converter mechanically when it is no longer required to dump the engine’s energy into friction. These are becoming more and more common, but the majority of vehicles on the road are missing them.) This means that a traditional torque converter is never 100% efficient.

Also, a torque converter is never completely disengaged. When sitting at a traffic light, the driver typically lightly applies the brakes to hold the car from moving forward. Have you ever considered what you’re doing? The engine is basically dumping energy into the torque converter in the form of friction. It is literally no different from holding the gas and the brakes at the same time.

What the hell? How is that accepted in a world where Al Gore and Prius’s exist?

Oh wait! As United States citizens, we’re lazy as shit!

84% of cars sold in North America are equipped with an automatic transmission, as opposed to 20% in Europe.

You could make the excuse that we love automatics because of all our stop-and-go traffic, and yet, as a citizen of the Midwestern U.S, I see automatics MUCH more often than I see traffic congestion.

The real answer is that we just don’t want to bother with a clutch pedal and a gearshift when we could be texting or doing makeup.

Luckily, the great minds of our time have come up with solutions that adapt to us so that we don’t have to adapt to them. (As always.) Probably the simplest is the aforementioned “lock-up clutch,” which eliminates the inefficiency of the torque converter by mechanically coupling at high speed. But that doesn’t exactly solve the problem of sitting over a nice gas to friction converter at traffic lights.
Well here’s a tip. When you stop at a traffic light, bump your shift lever one up into neutral. It shouldn’t require that you hold a safety button to go back and forth between Drive and Neutral. This prevents that unnecessary friction. Combine that with a lockup clutch, and you’re basically driving a manual!……Except without the enjoyment.

You could call this a rant on one of the most successful inventions the modern automobile has ever seen….because it is. And I doubt you’ll hear anyone else complain about it. But there really are flaws in the design that I wish consumers would figure out. Before all this hybridism, eco-mindedness, and hippie-crazed green malarkey, maybe we should eliminate the evil energy-wasting beast that is the torque converter.

#auto