Blog

Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

2018 Audi A3 impressions

Recently my brother traded in his Volkswagen GTI for a 2018 Audi A3, and I got have a brief go in the new-to-him car. Here are some quick thoughts on the entry-level Audi machine, though I’ll caveat my opinions with the fact that my views are incredibly colored by the fact I drive a 911 GT3, the preeminent sports car, so the potential to misjudge a compact luxury sedan with some sporting intentions is quite high. Anyways, here goes.

The first immediate complaint is that the seating position is far too high. My brother’s A3 has the optional sports seat for the driver, and while its comfortable and supportive, it doesn’t go down nearly far enough - the stock seats of the front passenger can go lower, which is just baffling. I’m only 5’10” on a good day, and with the seating position adjusted properly, my hair is brushing the ceiling. I had more headroom in my old Mazda ND MX-5!

The A3’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, ubiquitous within the entire VW group portfolio, offers decent punch and adequate passing power; it makes the car a solid urban runabout with the occasional fun sprinkled in. I was able to zip in and out of traffic with ease. The motor obviously doesn’t make the most entertaining noise, emitting the same dull growl that all other turbo four-poppers make. Coming from the mighty atmospheric GT3, it’s indeed a bit of a let down, and so is the meager redline of barely 7,000 RPM. Gunning through the gears in the A3 for the first time, I almost didn’t upshift in time because I’m so used to having an engine that revs to 9K.

Main reason my brother switched from the GTI to the A3 is for the transmission: at a ripe old age of 21 years, he’s already tired of the manual transmission (someone take his car enthusiast card away, honestly) and wanted out into an automatic. The DSG dual-clutch unit in the A3 proves to be as advertised: the shifts are rapid, and its slow manners are super smooth (it even imitates the off-brake creep forward of a traditional automatic gearbox). It’s definitely engineered towards an economy bent, however: at anything less than full spirit throttle, the DSG will acquiesce to minimizing emissions such as letting the engine rev-hang before snicking over to the next gear, and upshifting to the highest gear as quickly as possible.

Armed with an all-wheel drive system, the A3 never lacks for grip, though the reactive Haldex differential is not an ideal situation. Again, it’s a luxury sedan with some sporting intentions, rather than a pure sports sedan, so the all-wheel drive system is designed towards efficiency, rather than maximizing lap times. Under normal situations ,the A3 feels like a front-wheel drive car because indeed only the front-axle is getting power. It’s not until under certain conditions does the computer activates the Haldex differential and sends power to the rear. I could feel this happening, too: punching the A3 off the line there’s a definite pause because the rear-axle hooks up.

None of this is to say the A3 is a bad car; I can even live with the slightly high seating position. One aspect I cannot excuse, however, is the utter lack of steering feel, a sort of achilles heel of Audi products, even on models as focused as the R8 supercar. The A3’s rack is responsive and direct enough as most modern electric assisted units are, but there’s really no feel at all. I have zero idea what the front tires are doing, and road imperfections gets utterly filtered out. I intentionally ran the car over some cat’s eyes and I couldn’t feel a thing in my hands.

Even though they are built on the same MQB chassis and shares the same engine, I reckon I’d take the GTI over the A3.

Not sponsored by Chanel.

Not sponsored by Chanel.

Save the combustion

It’s the week of Frankfurt Motor Show, and just like the Geneva Motor Show earlier this spring, the buzzword is electrification. European automakers are scrambling to meet looming fleet emissions standards, and the most expedient way to offset the pollution from petrol and diesel engines is to produce many emissions-free electric cars. Major players like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz are investing billions, and it seems much of the industry is hell-bent on making this electric revolution happen, consumer demand be damned.

From a utility perspective, I have nothing against electric cars; I’d love to own one as a daily runabout. However, the electric car infrastructure remains highly inadequate, especially for apartment dwellers like me who lack the ability and space to charge a car “at home.” EV charging stations are nowhere near as ubiquitous as the age old gas equivalent, and the few charging spaces at work gets taken up by the super early birds.

As it stands, an electric vehicle is unfeasible for me, and I assume, a significant many other as well. What I’m seeing at auto show like Frankfurt and Geneva is heavy action on the supply side from manufacturers, but no movement on incentivizing the demand side of the equation. Tax rebates aren’t going to do anything for me with regards to the lack of charging ability.

From a thrill of driving perspective, I have everything against electric cars. The low decibel whirl of electric motors cannot compete with the melodic crescendo of my GT3’s naturally-aspirated flat-six that revs to 9,000 RPM. I fell in love with cars for their mechanicalness and the sweet noises those oily bits make, and electric vehicles represents the absolute antithesis. For sure, the accelerative forces of a Tesla Model S is something to behold, but car enthusiasm is far above and beyond simply pure straight-line speed.

In the past decade, there’s been a movement amongst car geeks to save the manuals, to preserve the manual gearbox option in interesting cars; maybe it’s time to start another movement: save the combustion.

Who needs a proper garage anyways. This owner of a Honda Beat in Japan doesn’t think so.

Thoughts on the Porsche Taycan

Photo credit: Porsche

There was a bit of a stir in the automotive world yesterday. Car twitter was rightly abuzz regarding the world premier of the Porsche Taycan, the German manufacturer’s first ever purely electric car. The final synthesis of the Mission E concept from 2015, the unveiled Taycan looks appropriately futuristic, but immediately Porsche. In abstract it looks like a more taught, sleeker Panamera, which is no bad thing at all. Though I am still not a fan of the rear “light-bar” design language that have permeated the entire Porsche range, principally because I don’t think it belongs on the 992 911. Here on the Taycan, the rear-end styling is quite alright.

The buzz on twitter was largely of salivation at the impending head-to-head battle between the Taycan and the Tesla Model S. Finally, they’re saying, there’s a worthy competitor to Tesla’s electric vehicle (EV) dominance. Tesla has done well to cultivate an Apple-like frenzy and devotion to its products, but Porsche is coming in with 70 years of history and legend. Arguably the most recognizable and storied sports car brand on the planet, Porsche is leveraging its tradition and pristine reputation to entice EV buyers.

Even without poaching potential Tesla customers, I bet there’s a sizable legion of ‘Porschephiles’ ready to pluck down the admittedly considerable cash for a Taycan (~$150,900 base price for the Taycan Turbo.)

Electric vehicles are still, relatively speaking, a rich person’s game, especially in the class of six-figure cars like the Model S and this Taycan. Therefore, purchasing decisions are highly emotional, rather than logical; I think the people online comparing mechanical specs and numbers between the Porsche and the Tesla are completely missing the point. Both the Model S and the Taycan is or will be faster than 99.9% of cars on the road; and buyers aren’t going to care about dimensional short-comings of the interior, if any. What do the brand and car symbolize, and how it makes the driver feel, will be the differentiating factor.

Porsche’s got both in spades. The Taycan won’t be the hyperbolic “Tesla-killer”, but it’s definitely going to steal some sales away from the EV manufacturer in Fremont.

What I’m more pondering about, seeing as electric vehicles is the new beginning and future of Porsche vehicles, is will Andreas Preuninger and the boys and girls at Flacht get a crack at the Taycan? A track-focused electric sports car in the ethos of a 911 GT3: surely that particular Taycan will be rear-wheel drive, and with as much light-weighting technology as possible (the Taycan comes in at a hefty 5,100 pounds.) So instead of heavy batteries, perhaps a switch to super capacitors? Maybe Williams’ flywheel technology?

And what exactly would you call the ‘GT3’ version of the Taycan? Taycan GTE?

I’d really like to know the answers.

Audi RS6 Avant is coming to America

Photo credit: Audi

Fast wagons are awesome. They retain the handling sensibilities of a sports sedan, but offers up the cargo capabilities of a sports utility vehicle. They are the prototypical ‘one car to do everything’; provided you don’t go off-road.

But there’s a problem: fast wagons don’t sell well in America. In fact, wagons of any speed sell horribly here in the States, especially if it isn’t a Subaru Outback. The Cadillac CTS-V Wagon was a sales failure, and the Jaguar XF Sportbrake S can currently be found on a dealer lot for many tens of thousands off sticker. Car enthusiast professes undying love for the long-roof, but we tend to buy them used. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle where we clamor for wagons, automakers make them available, but then we wait to buy them used, which does the manufacturers no good, so they stop selling.

Which explains why samples of a fast wagon like the CTS-V can fetch decent sums in the used market: there simply weren’t that many of them made.

One manufacturer seems to buck the trend, despite the negative headwinds against wagons: Mercedes Benz. The German automaker have continued to produce the E63 AMG wagon and made it available here in America. Apparently, sales are relatively solid: my local dealership has rows of them on the lot, and those cars wouldn’t be taking up precious floor-plan if they couldn’t sell quickly. The E63 AMG wagon and the Volvo’s excellent V90 wagon are just about the only two fast wagon options on this side of the pond; the latter of which sells in such small number, that it’s special order only.

Audi, arguably the originator of properly fast wagons (see the Porsche-developed RS2), have notoriously resisted bringing their RS-badged long-roof wonders to America. We never got the RS6 or the RS4 in Avant (Audi-speak for wagon) form, and I honestly don’t blame Audi: there’s no business case for such a superbly low-volume segment.

Until now. It seems Audi wants a piece of the fast wagon pie Mercedes is eating, so the forthcoming 2020 Audi RS6 Avant will (finally) be available for the American market. It is great news indeed, and to all you petrol-heads that claimed you’d buy an RS Avant immediately if Audi brought it here: time to put up your money.

At first glance, the new RS6 Avant looks rightfully angry, with crazy aero bits flanking the lower region on all four sides. There’s the prerequisite bulging box fender flares as well. A Q-ship this is not, though I’d contend fast Audis were never the visually understated weapons that Mercedes AMG cars are. It’s not the extroversion of a Lamborghini, but Audi RS cars definitely make their presence felt. If I were buying this RS6, however, I’d opt for the black-out trim just to tone down the exterior a tad.

What was immediately striking to me about the new RS6 Avant is how enormous the wheels are: 22 inches in diameter on the options (as pictured), and 21 inches as standard. Indeed the set looks spectacular, but I’m skeptical of its function in actual use. Super grippy low-profile tires in that sizing are horrendously expensive, and in America’s pothole-ridden streets, potential owners better opt for the wheel and tire insurance. Wheels on modern fast cars have simply grown too huge: I think the 20 inch set on my GT3 is already overkill. I’d rather have a smaller diameter wheel with a cushier sidewall tire.

It’s a good thing then the new RS6 Avant comes standard with air suspension, because those thin tires certainly won’t help ride comfort at all.

No need to look at the stats: surely the RS6 Avant will be more than adequately fast, nimble, and comfortable akin to its competition the Mercedes-Benz E63 wagon. The single most important question that Audi will need answered, is will this fast wagon sell in an appropriate amount here in America. Don’t let us down, rich people.

July 4th and cars

Happy 4th!

America is indeed the greatest country on the planet, despite its warts - perceived or otherwise. No matter if you agree with the sitting President or not, the United States remains a beacon of freedom and a land of opportunity. It’s the reason my family emigrated here way back in 1996, when I was only eight years old. Growing up in what was a foreign country wasn’t without its challenges, but overall it’s been a huge net positive. It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like now had we stayed in China.

One big thing I wouldn’t have had in China, a thing that America does so well to foster and encourage, is vehicle ownership, and car enthusiasm. In the home of open roads, endless interstates, cheap gasoline, and (relatively) low vehicle cost, I was able to grow into a love of cars, and as an adult, lucky to have the means to fully explore and immerse into the Californian car culture. I dare say no other country offers such easy access to a variety of cars and the immense road networks to enjoy them on.

Contrast that to China, where human density tops the charts, and car ownership is severely limited (and you thought your American city has terrible parking). Speed cameras are absolutely everywhere, so you can’t have any fun, period (authoritarian single-party government, remember). More crucially, the typical wage in relation to how much cars cost in China, made even worse punitive tariffs, means there would be no possible way I’d be able to own a Porsche 911 GT3 as I do here in the States. The only cars I’d be capable to buy (if allowed to, anyways) are the Chinese brands, which I have to say are quite cheap, costing around $6,000 equivalent.

So on this particular July 4th, I’m extremely grateful to live in a country where I can truly cultivate my passion for automobiles. There’s really no better place that this.

Views from the central valley.

Going backwards on technology

It’s interesting how we get used to certain new features in cars, and when that gets taken away, it’s a bit jarring and uncomfortable. Case in point, plenty of new cars have this feature called ‘keyless go’, in which the key remains forever in the driver’s pocket, and utilizing sensors and buttons, doors can be locked and unlocked, and the engine can be turned on with the push of a button. It’s all very clever in allowing freedom from fumbling with keys, and you get super used to simply opening the door and pushing the engine start button.

My first exposure to the keyless go technology was rather reluctantly. It was a few years back during my search for a Mazda MX-5, and due to less fortunate financial capabilities compared to the present, I was cornered into finding the most striped-out, poverty-spec example possible. The new ND generation of the Miata have only just been released, so not many cars were actually yet on dealership lots. After some searching, I was able locate a base sample that was actually en route to the dealer, but there was a problem: the car had the keyless go option fitted, for the princely price of $150 dollars.

Which is to say it was cheap enough for me to overlook it. I’m sure the likes of Porsche charges many times more for that same feature in their cars. So my Miata ended up with keyless go, and indeed it was pleasant and convenient to not have to ever take out the key to operate the car. The only way it could’ve been better would be if the car also locked itself once it detects I’m a certain distance away from it; seems like a natural extension of that particular feature set.

Anyways, fast-forward to this January when I bought the 911 GT3, a six-figure car of 2015 vintage that doesn’t have keyless go; I’m not sure it was even an option available on the GT3 trim. You can imagine the confusion of my muscle memory the first few times driving it: I’d approach the car with the key still in my pocket, expecting to able to simply press a button on the door handle to open, only to be jolted out of rhythm with the realization that I do in fact need the physical key. It’s like returning to using paper maps after years of benefiting from the convenience of Google Maps.

Complicating things further is the fact other cars in our family all have keyless go, so often times operating the GT3 feels like a throwback to an arcane era. Of course, I’d forget about that as soon as I turn the engine over and that atmospheric flat-six starts making its melodious noise.

Physical key.

I met the first owner of my GT3!

A bit of a surprise treat this past weekend: I met the very first owner of my 911 GT3.  

It was a surprise because the chance meeting was completely unsolicited, and the car meet I attended on Saturday wasn’t even a Porsche-specific event. While cars costing into the six-figures aren’t exactly common, a plain GT3 is not in the realm of limited-edition Ferraris, where a car’s provenance is immensely important and therefore previous owners are well documented. Porsches produces thousands of 911s each year, so I held zero expectations of being able to meet the first owner of my particular GT3.

It’s a small world indeed.

I knew something was strange when I saw a dude taking a keen look at my GT3 when there was more interesting metal parked in the same lot (a GT3 of the RS variety, for instance). After ascertaining that it was me who owns the car, the guy followed up with a few questions pertaining to the GT3’s origins, and it matched up with what he had speculated: this was the very car he used to own. He had bought it from a Colorado dealership back in April of 2015, and after 8,000 or so miles the GT3 was then sold to a local dealership, putting that money towards a McLaren 570S

There’s a second owner of my GT3 sandwiched between me and the guy I met on Saturday, and after this serendipity I have some hopes of meeting that person as well. It turns out the Porsche enthusiast community in Northern California is rather small.

A normal person reading this may think it ridiculous that there’s people like me who gets excited about meeting the previous owners of our cars; I get it, but a 911 GT3 is not an ordinary car. It was quite informative and special to chat with the first owner on why he configured the car as he did: picking Sapphire Blue Metallic to stand out in a sea of white and silver colored 911s, and forgoing the option for lightweight buckets because it would’ve delayed delivery for six months (one sympathizes). Super geeky details made interesting because the ordering process for a GT3 - or any 911 for that matter - is intricate and specialized. As the third owner, I never got to experience that process, so it was fun to hear the original owner tell his story.

I received some constructive information, too: the GT3 upon delivery was flat-bedded to a shop for paint protection film, so the paint underneath ought to be absolutely pristine. After the film application, the entire car – including the wheels – received ceramic coating; great news for me because I can stop waxing the car during my wash routine. Lastly, the first owner confirmed he took the car to the track regularly, which doesn’t bother me at all because first that’s what the GT3 is developed for, and secondly these cars are paradoxically more prone to break when it doesn’t get driven hard.

911 GT3s are driver’s car in the truest sense, and I’m glad my car have received the proper amounts of exercise since it’s left Zuffenhausen. Meeting the original owner and learning about his chapter with car gave me more confidence and admiration for my GT3, and I’m grateful for this happy coincidence.

The green lizard was a popular attraction.