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.

I need a road trip

I just want to drive.

That’s it. I just want to get in the car and drive for an indeterminate amount of time. That’s the feeling I get these days when I take the GT3 out on weekends. Of course, it definitely helps, nay, mandatory, that the car is interesting and thrilling to drive; a Toyota Corolla simply doesn’t carry the same flavor and passion.

It isn’t even about expertly carving up some curvy mountain roads (though that’s fun, too): this past weekend, instead of driving up highway 35 in the mountains, I decided to stay on the freeway and instead did a loop of the South Bay, going from Interstate 280 to 92, down 880 south, switch back westward on State Route 237, then complete the loop on U.S. Route 101. Because some days I prefer to cruise at a steady pace and listen to music for a few hours, with the steady hum of the GT3’s engine at the back of my ears. It’s equally as enjoyable as attacking the bendy stuff, hitting a corner apex and manipulating the chassis.

I think there’s some latent want of hitting the open road, because I’ve yet to take the GT3 on an appropriately long road trip, and I’ve been used to doing at least one of those per year with my personal cars. Indeed, the 911 isn’t the most economical car to take on a trip: it can barely get 20 miles to the gallon, and so far this year there’s been thing after thing that’s occupied my free cashflow. The car’s expensive enough as is to own, and honestly there are scant moments I wished I bought a lesser sports car so I have extra money left over to actually do big events with it.

But every time I take the GT3’s engine up to its glorious 9,000 RPM redline, all is forgotten. This is exactly the car for me, and god willing I plan to keep it until the environmentalists manage to get internal-combustion cars banned forever.

Once I get back to a steady equilibrium and get my money house in order after the expense of traveling to Japan, I shall take the Porsche out on a trip. It’ll likely be a journey down to Porsche Experience Center down on Los Angeles; I’ve been wanting to take a driving course there so I can finally learn the chassis dynamics of a GT3. I’m far too chicken to exploit my own car on public roads - probably better off safety-wise, too.

I’ve only got free Porsche roadside assistance for two more years so I really need to take advantage and drive the GT3 outside of the Bay Area more often.

Blue like the sky.

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.

Why do I bother

My main passion is automobiles, and I’ve been ensconced in the car culture for over two decades now. People around me know this, so I sometimes get asked for my advice on purchasing. The problem is, and this is shared with many people who are into cars, my recommendations often get ignored, and the person asking ends up going with a counter option. Not that I’m so high up into my ego that I get hurt when people don’t listen to what I say, mind you. The bottom line is that car buying is highly emotional, so the logical minds of car enthusiasts like me don’t quite fit that mold.

I still continue to give advice, though, because that’s called being nice.

The latest such episode is when my cousin asked me what car he should buy. His criteria is a sedan that’s reliable, and something he can own for at least the next 10 years reliably. He doesn’t care about driving dynamics; just a decent runabout for city driving.

For me, the solution for such criteria is obvious: buy a sedan from either Honda or Toyota, the two Japanese brands famous for utmost reliability and super low cost of ownership. To drill down further, I recommended to my cousin the latest Toyota Corolla Hybrid, a fabulous compact sedan that gets 50 miles to the gallon, all for the going price of low $20,000s. It’s a lot of car for the money, and on sheer reputation alone, the new Corolla will run easily run trouble free for the next decade. Plus, the first two years’ maintenance is free.

Whenever someone is looking to buy a car to keep for a very long time, my suggestion is always to buy new. Not only do you get to fart in the seats before anyone else, but more importantly, you get the peace of mind from knowing the entire history of the car, something you can’t say for certain when buying used.

So what does my cousin do? Of course he ignored my advice, and instead bought a slightly used Mazda 3 sedan, for a savings of $6,000 compared to buying the Corolla Hybrid new. No arguments from me; he’s free to do what makes him happy.

A beautiful dark green-colored Suzuki Jimny; unobtanium here in the States.

I almost bought a car

Last week, that is.

I already have a car, obviously, but the GT3 is used exclusively for weekend fun only. During the work week I take the bus, which has been and continues to be wonderful because I don’t have to stress over San Francisco’s notorious traffic. That said, the changeover to the month of July and its subsequent developments had me looking at cheap lease deals last week.

For the past year I’ve been paying for my brother’s car insurance, because he was still in his last year of undergrad and therefore his income can’t possibly afford to insure a 2018 Golf GTI for his 20 year-old self. I, a maker of decent money, and a proper Asian big brother, stepped in financially for until he graduates and finds a proper job.

Well, those two events happened within the last two weeks, and I suddenly find myself an extra $200 dollars richer per month from now onwards. Coincidently, my own insurance on the Porsche dropped significantly (some $400 less on the six months renewal), so cumulatively I had enough to cheaply lease a second car that will get me to and from work, and also, to and from the GT3 on the weekends. Not caring one bit in how luxurious a car is or whatever amenities it’s got, I zeroed in on a poverty-spec 2019 Honda Fit, leasing for just over $230, with first month’s payment and government fees as down-payment.

I would essentially be swapping an expense for another expense, with zero increase in monthly spending to accommodate the new lease. I was completely ready to execute the plan on Fourth of July (one of the biggest sales days for dealerships), but I made the mistake (?) of thinking it over more deeply, and ultimately decided against getting a second car for commuting.

As mentioned, I have no qualms with taking the bus, so the Honda Fit would’ve been a luxury item, even though I wouldn’t necessary be spending more money per month. Conversely, by not leasing the Honda, I’m pocketing the $250 in savings, and that will first help replenish my emergency fund (see: GT3), and after that, keeping it for some fun experience later on.

Suffice it to say, the early twenties me would’ve bought the Fit, no hesitation. Older and wiser now, allegedly.

Encountered an old-school American hooptie during Sunday lunch.