Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hero Car

The BRZ turns out to be a great way to make friends. 

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of performing the break-in on a Nissan GT-R we were planning to work on at my shop.  The owner had it delivered to us directly from the dealership.  He didn't want us to run the car hard on the dyno with zero miles, so for a few weeks I drove the car back and forth to work, dropped the kid off at school, and ran errands in it, all the while varying my RPM as instructed in the owner's manual.

The most interesting thing about driving the GT-R during that time was the response from my fellow drivers.  People would pull along-side, wave, give "thumbs up" gestures.  Sometimes I would see people repeatedly looking in their rear-view mirrors.  One guy almost ran a stop sign while craning his neck to look at the car.  A mom at the grade-school morning kid drop-off said, "Is that the new Nissan GT-R?  I used to drive that car in Forza!"

Driving the BRZ around is like that experience all over again.  Every day I get stopped by people wanting to talk about the car.  There is a LOT of awareness of this car.  Driving out to Summit Point for HyperFest a couple of weeks ago, a couple in a Golf GTI (or Golf R, maybe?) both flashed the thumbs-up on their way past.  The other night I was taking some photos of the car and a jogger turned around and stopped to talk to me about it, still dripping sweat.  Today no fewer than three different people approached me, including one guy who pulled over in traffic to the side of the road to look at the parked BRZ.

Almost everyone who comes to ask about the car knows the basics -- that it's got a boxer engine, that's it's a joint venture with Toyota, that it's rear-wheel-drive.  They often ask if it's turbocharged, if there's going to be a higher-performance version, and if there is, if they should wait for that one.  (There probably will be a higher-performance version, but I suggest they not wait.) Sometimes they are surprised there are actually back seats, and then they laugh when they see how the front seats slide back to touch the rears.  They always comment on how good the car looks, and often they bring up the BRZ's spiritual ancestors, the Honda S2000 and the Mazda Miata.  One gentleman I spoke to today is in the process of selling his Miata, and is looking to buy a BRZ or FR-S.

I've learned that there are real car enthusiasts everywhere you go.  Sometimes it just takes a little something special to bring them out of the woodwork.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Navi Love/Hate

No, I'm not talking about James Cameron's Avatar movie.  I'm talking about the OEM navigation/audio system in the BRZ.  There's a lot I like about it, and a lot I hate about it.  I like the looks, the sound, and all the things it can do.  I hate the ergonomics and user interface.

Let's get down to the specifics.  I do like the way the head unit looks.  It's a handsome head unit that is simple and uncluttered, and integrates nicely with the interior.  The screen is pretty bright, and has a non-glare coating.

For an factory sound system, the sound is pretty good.  Thanks in part to a small outboard amplifier that lives back by the spare tire, there's decent bass despite the lack of a subwoofer (Subaru will be offering a hatch-mounted Kicker sub in the future, but it's not available yet).  The highs sound fine to my ear, and there's good separation in the stereo channels.

The head unit does have a lot of features.  It can play just about any music source under the sun, including CD, MP3 on disc, USB memory stick, iPod, SD card, Bluetooth audio from your phone, satellite radio, and HD radio.  This is the first head unit I've had that can receive FM radio in HD, and it does sound very nice.  The head unit has a big DIVX logo, so it should also play ripped DVD video files, if a person knew how to do that.  It doesn't play DVDs, but I never really thought a car was a good place in which to watch movies anyway.

If you eject the SD card that carries the navigation maps, you can poke in a card with image files, and you can see the images on the head unit.  You can also select one to be your splash screen on startup.  I confess that seeing the Mach V logo every time I start the car gives me a little happy feeling.

Okay, so now let me grouse about what I DON'T like.  First, although there is voice control, it's awful.  I've had a couple different kind of systems like this, and I usually get along with them fine.  This system never seems to clearly understand my voice, and I keep having to yell "Cancel!  CANCEL!" before it dials random people in my phone book.  So, I've given up on that feature.

I do like having the physical volume knob, but otherwise almost every function on the head unit requires the touch screen, and usually it's a little teeny rectangular sector of the screen.  This makes me crazy.  Say there's an incoming phone call.  There's a little teeny green answer button on the screen, maybe the size of a dime.  You're supposed to hit that with your finger, while driving the car and looking at the road.  Same if you want to hang up.  Heaven forbid you want to change radio stations.  I know it doesn't have to be this way -- I've seen other touch-screen systems that were pretty easy to live with.  This isn't one.

Descriptions of functions within the device are cryptic and confusing.  SVC?  What is that?  (Open manual, find "Source Volume Control."  Oh...I still don't really know what that means.)  There's a setting for selecting who is sitting where in the car -- Ha!  Like people would ever really sit in the back, and if they did, listening to music would be the last thing on their minds...

I had a hard time with the navigation function, too.  I ended up pressing the screen the wrong way, and it got into some mode that stuck it in place, and I didn't know how to get it back to center on where I was.  Actually, in that sense it strikes me as no better or worse than most other factory-issue car nav systems, but in this day and age, I expect something a lot easier to use.   Like, say, the Google Maps app on my smart phone.

I know, I'm probably not using it right.  I confess I did not read through the (huge) manual for this thing in its entirety.  (If I had, I would have read the "NEVER eject the nav data SD card without touching Eject Card button first!" warning...before I ejected the card without doing that.  Ooops!  It still works.  Whew.)  It just doesn't seem like this device should be so complicated and hard to use.

So...I've ordered up a Pioneer head unit that I'm going to try swapping in.  This thing will have all the audio features of the OEM head unit, but the nav is going to be left to the smart phone.  I'll check back in a few weeks, and we'll see if I am happier, or if it all will just be a waste of time and money.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mach V Awesome Wheels

One of the first modifications we made to the car was the change out the factory wheels and tires.  The stock wheel is a 17x7 cast aluminum design, with a 215/45R17 tire.  We swapped on our own Mach V Awesome wheel, which is a 17x9, and fitted up a 255/40R17.  With the car at full height, it doesn't seem to rub the tires, but it looks like it would come close.  Once we lower it, we will add some camber (especially in the front), which will probably get us enough clearance to avoid rubbing.  A 245/40R17 should fit without rubbing in any case.

I worried that the MUCH wider wheels and tires would detract from the overall "frisky" feel of the car, but after mounting everything up and driving the car, I really didn't notice any difference.  That probably has something to do with weight.  The stock wheel and tire weighed 41.4 pounds.  The Mach V Awesome with a Pirelli 255/40R17 weighed in at only 37.3 pounds!

Grip seems significantly higher with the wider rubber, but it's not like you can't break the thing loose.  And it looks pretty tough, too, although it's even more obvious how tall the stock ride height is.

We'll report back on whether we can keep this much tire on the car without rubbing on the bodywork, once we get it lowered down a little bit.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thoughtful Design on the BRZ

This little car abounds with clever touches that I like.  Here are some that come to mind:
  • The rear seats fold to make a completely flat load floor.
  • There's a little rubber-lined cubby in the dash that's perfect for an iPod or cell phone.  The cubby is conveniently located next to the USB/Aux input for the stereo.
  • The battery is snugged all the way back next to the firewall, for best weight distribution.
  • There's a 12-volt power outlet in the center console.

I wish I could say the same about the standard-issue navigation/audio system.  It's better than many OEM systems I've seen, but it's still difficult to use, and you can't do ANYTHING except change the volume without using the touch screen.  Want to answer the phone?  Want to change radio stations?  That means taking your eyes off the road.  I think that head unit is going to have to go.  (I hate saying that, because I already paid for it...)  Maybe I can find a wireless remote I can stick to the back of the steering wheel...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Future Classic

The BRZ (and its twin sister, the Scion FR-S) fits in a price/power/handling slot that few other cars occupy -- at least cars that are sold today.  The MINI Cooper S specs out similarly, but is taller and more luxury-oriented.  The Mazda Miata is closer in spirit, but is a roadster only.  The BRZ harkens back to a time when small and light sports coupes were popular -- think 240SX, Honda Prelude, Toyota Celica, and early Mazda RX-7.  But the BRZ would drive circles around most of those.  This car is destined to be a classic.

"Give...me...the keys!"
We picked up our Mach V BRZ from Dulles Motorcars in Leesburg, Virginia.  The buying experience was pleasant -- thanks, Gary! -- and we didn't feel beat up on the price.  (We hear some dealerships are charging a "market adjustment" because of the high demand for this car.)  We wanted a Limited model, which comes with leather/alcantara seating and a rear wing, and we wanted a white car.  We like white cars because they are easy to keep clean, they photograph well, and the color goes nicely with any wheels, decals, or other cosmetic mods we want to do.  By now it's become a tradition at Mach V -- nearly all our shop cars have been white.

We were expecting to wait several months for our car, but we got a call a couple of weeks ago that a customer had backed out on a pre-order car, and it matched our specs.  It was getting several port-installed options that we didn't really want -- we sell wheel locks here at the shop, so it doesn't make sense for us to buy them with our new car -- but we could have the car much sooner, so we took it.

Over the next few days I drove the car a couple hundred miles, including freeway driving, stop-and-go commuting, and a pleasant country drive out to Summit Point Raceway.  It was enough time to fall in love.  This is a GREAT car.  The handling is like nothing I've driven recently.  I'm taken back to the first time I drove a Miata.  I also think of the second-generation Honda CRX.  Those cars were just so perfect as a package -- light, nimble, confidence-inspiring.  This car has that quality.  You feel like you could place it perfectly at any apex.  The willingness to change direction is a breath of fresh air.  It's really hard to overstate how good it feels.  I've driven lots of modern sporty cars, and most all of them feel dull and numb compared to this.  After finishing one section of twisty road, I wanted to go back and drive it again.

A lot of our customers have expressed dismay about how little power the car has.  It's true, 200 hp (and even more so, 150 lb-ft of torque) is pretty low these days.  This car is no stoplight warrior.  But it feels like plenty of motivation when the roads get twisty, and the back end WILL step out, especially in low-speed corners.

We were a little surprised to see the OEM tire choice was a Michelin Primacy HP.  Haven't we seen that tire somewhere before?  Oh yes, it was on our friend's Toyota Prius.  So, yeah, not the grippiest tire in the world.  That's okay, though.  We took them off the car with less than 30 miles on them.  More on the wheel/tire swap in our next blog post.

There's a saying on some of the car forums, that "Miata" is the answer to any question relating to "What car should I get?" With the debut of the BRZ, I think that is going to change.  This car is absolutely made for road race and autocross use.  (Heck, you can fit a full set of race tires in the back, as some of the press guys have pointed out.)  And after a few years go by and the cars get cheap, I will guarantee they will be a preferred platform for drifters.

Some day in the future, I'll be telling my grandkids about the time I got to own and drive the legendary BRZ -- a classic for all time.