Monthly Archives: August 2015

Heat score

2006 Infiniti G35: a canvas waiting for cheese. (IFCAR/Wikimedia)

2006 Infiniti G35: a canvas waiting for cheese. (IFCAR/Wikimedia)

You know the car.

“Flashy, making a scene, flaunting conventions.” (To quote Mr. Bookman, the hard-boiled library detective from Seinfeld)

Yup, we’re talking about the guy who wants everyone on the block to take notice of his ride.

Aftermarket parts, a burpy exhaust, decals, tinting – the kind of car no father wants to see his daughter get into.

A total heat score.

15 years ago the ride du jour for such characters was a Civic or Accord (Honda remains popular for this, but not nearly as much). Good handling and a peppy engine formed the backbone, while coffee can mufflers, ill-fitting rims, painted mirrors and purple, bubbled tinting made up the rest of the beast.

A close runner-up, usually less obvious and tricked-out than its Honda brethren, was the early 90s Nissan Maxima.

A circa-2006 Infiniti G35 coupe. You'll hear it before you see it. (IFCAR/Wikimedia)

A circa-2006 Infiniti G35 coupe. You’ll hear it before you see it. (IFCAR/Wikimedia)

Since then, the scene has changed a bit and a new heat score has risen to the top (according to this writer’s completely non-scientific observations).

The Infiniti G35/G37, especially those made circa 2002-2010.

Once a fairly conservative intermediate luxury sedan/coupe, this V6-powered, rear-drive import is often seen with massive rims, a matte paint job, and an aftermarket exhaust that screams “Don’t pry in my business or we’ll both get in trouble.”

There’s nothing wrong with lavishing attention on used rear-drive imports with brawny engines – hell, who wouldn’t? – but the act of driving a car that gets you noticed while doing things you don’t want to be noticed doing… well, that seems counter-intuitive.

A former neighbour with a subtly done up early-2000s Accord taught me this lesson. If your otherwise plain ride is seen all over town making brief visits, but you’re not carrying a pizza box into the building, you’re more visible than you think.

Fellas: you can keep the G35 with the slammed suspension and 20-inch rims for social work, but for ‘business’ (whatever that might be, not trying to pry), maybe it would be a good idea to keep a 2008 Impala in reserve.

Quick look: BMW i3

Wait - this isn't a normal BMW....

Wait – this isn’t a normal BMW….

Light, peppy extended-range EV has innovation in spades

Despite plenty of hype to the contrary, the automotive world is a lot more ‘evolution’ than ‘revolution’, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The jump from Model T to Tesla Model S wasn’t achieved in a single bound.

In the electric vehicle world, the latest step forward is the quirky BMW i3 – a space efficient hatch that offers drivers an all-EV lifestyle or a range-extended experience. It began trickling into North American driveways as a pure EV last summer, with the more versatile range-extended model introduced this year.

Like screens? The futuristic BMW i3 has screens aplenty.

Like screens? The futuristic BMW i3 has screens aplenty.

The i3 isn’t going to be mistaken for anything else on the road. Short and tall, the four-seat EV features clamshell doors (with a dropped-down rear window), a glazed rear fascia, a spartan-but-high-tech interior, and extensive use of carbon fiber.

The dash, positioned low for visibility with two display screens rising from it, is topped with untreated eucalyptus wood and ringed (in this model) with dark brown leather – mixing classic luxury cues with the ultramodern.

While most EVs keep their interiors pretty conventional, BMW ventured way outside the box with the interior of this box.

Powering the i3 is an electric motor making 170 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque, drawing from a battery with an EPA-certified range of 130 km. The manufacturer gives a range of 130-160 km, depending on driving style and terrain.

Mirror, mirror... The BMW i3 won't be mistaken for anything ordinary.

Mirror, mirror… The BMW i3 won’t be mistaken for anything ordinary.

A range-extended option exists for the i3, which, for a few thousand dollars more, adds a 647cc two-cylinder generator and tiny 7.2-litre gas tank, pushing the vehicle’s range to approximately 240 km.

The first thing a driver notices upon entering the cabin is a lack of full (to the firewall) console, as well as the lack of obvious shifter.

A small, between-the-seats console exists to accommodate the infotainment dial, armrest and electric parking brake, but a driver and passenger could play footsies with all that open floor space.

Protruding from the right of the steering column is a small, fob-like shifter actuated via a toggle on the end. In what first seems like an awkward placing, the pushbutton ignition and ‘park’ button is also located on this abbreviated stalk.

Shifty: a steering column-mounted gearshift uses a button to actuate 'Park'.

Shifty: a steering column-mounted gearshift uses a button to actuate ‘Park’.

In the back, rear seat passengers will be faced with a slightly upright seatback but ample leg and headroom.

The 6’4″ writer of this post could pass his hand between his scalp and the headliner while sitting on the flat but comfortable leather-bound bench seat.

Occupants of the i3 will quickly notice the surfaces not covered by leather or wood.

Looking like plain fiberglass, the interior boats widespread use of light and strong carbon fiber-reinforced plastic.

Not only does it contribute to the car’s stiff bodyshell, it allows the i3 to shed the weight that other EVs seem to pile on.

Starting at a curb weight of 2,635 pounds (barely more than the company’s Z4 roadster), the i3 weighs hundreds of pounds less than most modern compact cars, not to mention their heavier EV and hybrid brethren.

Interior room, comfort and visibility is the by-product of the i3's boxy shape.

Interior room, comfort and visibility is the by-product of the i3’s boxy shape.

Driving impressions

That light weight and stiff structure lends to impressive acceleration and cornering.

BMW states the i3 will go 0-to-60 mph (0 – 96 km/h) in 7.2 seconds, which is quite quick. Electric motors carry with them two distinct benefits: instant torque and seamless acceleration from a typical one-speed automatic transmission.

Lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced body panels are found throughout the interior.

Lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced body panels are found throughout the interior.

The i3 leaps ahead when the stiff accelerator pedal is pushed, and decelerates rapidly when released, thanks to heavy regenerative braking.

In fact, so heavy is the engine braking effect that the brake pedal gets little use when the car isn’t at rest.

The i3 rides atop distinctive 155/70 R19 tires. They’re tall, but they’re also skinny.

The duration of this test was disappointingly brief, so highway handling characteristics and range details couldn’t be fleshed out.

Would the BMW wander or feel skittish on the highway? What about high-speed wind and road noise? Buffeting? These useful observations will have to wait until a longer road test.

Present meets future: carbon fiber mingles with wood and leather in the i3's dash.

Present meets future: carbon fiber mingles with wood and leather in the i3’s dash.

Starting at $44,950 (before applicable government incentives) for the base EV model, the i3 with range extender will likely be the most popular model going forward.

After all, the ability to gas up in certain situations turns what would be a pleasant commuter vehicle into something capable of longer, out-of-town weekend jaunts.

It’s hard to beat the piece of mind that comes with knowing that once one fuel runs out, another will take over to help get you home.

Vehicles like the BMW i3 are still niche products, but improvements are occurring all the time in this field.

While pricier than plug-ins and EVs from Ford, GM, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Smart, the i3 takes the less-travelled middle road – slotting itself between the Tesla Model S at the top of the range, and those battling for the bottom.

Remember, this is still a BMW.

Rear clamshell doors greatly aid access to the rear seat, which surprises with its relative roominess.

Rear clamshell doors greatly aid access to the rear seat, which surprises with its relative roominess.

Handyman’s special

Behold, 6.75-litres of pure British luxury.

Behold, 6.75-litres of pure British luxury.

Submitted for your enjoyment, an under-the-hood look at the 1975 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.

There’s plenty of space under there for a hand holding a wrench, isn’t there?

This hefty 6.75-litre V8, which powered the Silver Shadow from 1970 until the model’s demise in 1980, only cranked out 189 horsepower (it was the 70s…). However, piles of torque were on tap to get this British beast moving briskly, smoothly applied through a GM-sourced Turbo-Hydramatic 400 transmission.

That’s the same transmission that can be found in a Trans-Am, but we won’t talk about that unrefined plebe-mobile.

British luxury vehicles of the 70s and 80s had a reputation for frying wires and hoses, and given the amount of piping hot hardware under this bonnet, I’m wondering if a Silver Shadow owner needs priority parking at his local tweed-clad mechanic.


Battle for the bottom

Nissan Micra, kingmaker? (Image: Nissan Motor Co.)

Nissan Micra, kingmaker? (Image: Nissan Motor Co.)

Who’s winning in the bargain-basement price field?


For well over a year now, lucky Canadians have basked in the joy that comes from knowing they’re able to purchase the two cheapest cars offered in North America.

Both the Nissan Micra and Mitsubishi Mirage come with window stickers reading ‘$9,998’, making the diminutive imports the cheapest way (by far) to get into a new car.

Canada gets an added bonus with the Micra, which isn’t yet available in the United States. We’re special!!

The Micra, which landed in dealerships in the spring of 2014, trades as much on its quirky, fun-to-drive rep as it does its low starting price. The Mirage, which appeared on these shores in late 2013, offers better fuel economy (and a lot less power from its standard 3-cylinder) but less distinctive styling.

In a two-way race, there can only be one winner, so which subcompact hatch are Canadians lusting after the most?

"Hey, is that the 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage ES??" (Image; Mitsubishi Motors)

“Hey, is that the 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage ES??” (Image; Mitsubishi Motors)

Numbers don’t lie, and the Micra is the clear winner (though a corner of west Quebec this writer lives near seems to have an affinity for the Mirage, especially those in gross, retina-burning colours).

The Mirage posted 4,048 sales in 2014 and 2,137 so far this year (ending in July). Its best sales month ever was April of last year, which happened to be when gas prices were nearing their highest spike.

Lately, it seems like sales could be tapering off, though it’s hard to say if that’s a sustained trend.

The mighty Micra, on the other hand, posted 7,815 purchases in its abbreviated 2014 sales year, with year-to-date sales running at a healthy (in contrast) 7,151 units.

If it was ever really a consideration, the recent dip in gas prices would be more incentive to go with the cheap car that has the most horsepower – Micra’s gain.

In Quebec, which seemingly values cheap imports more than other provinces, the Micra has the added boost of starring in its own racing circuit, the Nissan Micra Cup.

Now, who can resist that allure?





2015 Ford Focus Electric: no gas, no problem?

Yes, the Ford Focus Electric literally turned heads when out on the town.

Yes, the Ford Focus Electric literally turned heads when out on the town.

Range anxiety is real, but so are an EV’s advantages

If you’re a good and honourable person, you’ve already read the review of the 2015 Ford Focus Titanium in these pages.

Imagine now, for a second, that the engine from that competent tester was stripped out and replaced by a 107 kWh electric motor, and the trunk partially filled with a 23 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Add in the Focus’ 5-door hatch body style, and that’s what you have here.

A 107 kWh electric motor generates 143 horsepower and gobs of torque.

A 107 kWh electric motor generates 143 horsepower and gobs of torque.

The Ford Focus Electric has been on the market since 2012, and represents one of the few all-electric models available today – certainly, a rarity in the North American scene.

This model does away with the range-extending on-board generators seen in more popular plug-ins, including those made by Ford (C-Max Energi, Fusion Energi), appealing instead to urban car buyers seeking a zero emission runabout.

A long weekend in the city seemed as good an opportunity as any to put the Focus Electric through its paces while keeping a few gallons of oil in the ground.

With an EPA-certified factory range of 76 miles (122 km), there was no doubt that range anxiety was going to join sunshine on the weekend’s forecast. More on that later.

Inside the cabin, the gasless Focus doesn't give away its special secret.

Inside the cabin, the gasless Focus doesn’t give away its special secret.

The test of the gas-powered Focus showed the compact to be a comfortable and put-together little vehicle with pleasant road manners.

Those qualities don’t disappear just because a battery has replaced the fuel tank – the Focus Electric, with its mid-level trim and gadgetry, performed (and coddled) just fine.

A rear-mounted battery adds about 300 kilograms to the vehicle’s curb weight, while the lack of internal combustion engine up front alters the weight distribution, moving it rearward.

You’d likely only feel the difference if you took the car on the track – the taught steering and compliant suspension does a good job at covering up any differences between the two.

The Focus Electric boasts 143 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque from its powerplant, seamlessly applied through a 1-speed automatic transmission.

Patiently waiting its turn at the public hydro spigot.

Patiently waiting its turn at the public hydro spigot.

All that torque is available from a standstill – one of the great benefits of an electric motor – making the vehicle feel powerful and buttery smooth.

Electron-based power really shines when pulling a passing manoeuvre or merging, as the Focus Electric rockets to its desired speed with enough authority to push you back in your seat.

It’s tempting to drive the car in a manner that would wring the most fun out of this torquey motor, but hard acceleration comes at a price.

In this case, it gobbles up precious range from a limited supply.


White knuckles: living with a battery life indicator

Though the EPA says 122 km marks the end of the road, the Focus Electric showed a 148 and 155 km range, respectively, following two recharging breaks. That’s a little better, but nothing near the nearly 500 km range offered by more expensive EVs like the Tesla Model S.

That said, the price of a Focus Electric ($32,505 Canadian, before applicable rebates) undercuts a base Model S by more than half.

Everything you need to become a better EV driver is on display.

Everything you need to become a better EV driver is on display.

To make the most of the vehicle’s range, Ford employs an on-board ‘energy coach’ that monitors the braking, acceleration and cruising habits of the driver and rates them via an electronic display to the left of the speedometer.

The amount of power recaptured through coasting and regenerative braking is also displayed next to a thermometer-style battery life indicator.

While gas-powered vehicles shine on the highway when it comes to mileage, the manners of an EV are the complete opposite – highway trips sap range, while stoplight-to-stoplight motoring in the city sees plenty of juice returned to the battery.

It’s a shift in popular wisdom, but keeping to the busier streets helps the Focus Electric go the distance. With the battery indicator always counting down like sand through an hourglass, and with public charging stations still scarce, you’ll want to score high marks with the energy coach on an ongoing basis.

17-inch aluminum wheels lend a sporty look to the Ford Focus Electric.

17-inch aluminum wheels lend a sporty look to the Ford Focus Electric.

Range anxiety – that psychological affliction born of full-electric vehicles – creeps in during moments when the vehicle consumes more power than budgeted for a trip.

For example, on one 26 km trip from downtown to the suburbs by way of uncrowded parkways and open space, the Focus Electric consumed 44 km of range, despite gentle acceleration and a light foot at cruising speed.

A partial trip back of 16 km, through denser parts of the city that required more braking action, saw just 3 km of range bleed off the battery indicator.

A driver who previously though “I’m about to be stranded!” would now think “I can drive all night on this charge.”

The car's charging plug lies behind the battery hump in the rear hatch.

The car’s charging plug lies behind the battery hump in the rear hatch.

Though seemingly fickle, this behaviour is par for the course for an EV – little changes on the road can make big differences in range, so it’s important to plan ahead and anticipate them.

Charging the Focus Electric is a breeze if you have a 240-volt connection at home, as a full charge takes about four hours. Otherwise, you’ll be spending the whole night plugged into a regular 120-volt wall outlet.

This driver took advantage of a couple of 240-volt civic and institutional plug-in sites to keep the Focus on the road, though a few top-ups were accomplished via 120-volt plugs. The plug, which connects to a nifty glowing charging port on the driver’s side front fender, stows away in the hatch area of the car.

The Focus Electric doesn't care about inflated gas prices.

The Focus Electric doesn’t care about inflated gas prices.

Because of the location of the battery behind the rear seats, cargo capacity inside that hatch is severely hampered in this model.

It’s hard to say whether that would be a deal breaker with some buyers, though in its defence, the car’s rear seats do fold down to make a flat cargo surface.

In terms of viability, the Focus Electric exists to fill certain niches. Whether serving as a second car or a primary urban runabout, the vehicle works so long as the buyer is prepared to live within its limitations.

In Canada, where gasoline prices seem perpetually higher than oil prices would dictate, it gives a driver some satisfaction to be able drive past the pumps without a care as to the price on the sign.

If your can live with its range limitations, The Focus Electric will keep you comfortable... and green.

If you can live with its range limitations, the Focus Electric will keep you comfortable… and green.

The diminutive Brit

Itsy-bitsy 1953-1956 Austin A30, spotted in Ottawa, Ontario.

Itsy-bitsy 1953-1956 Austin A30, spotted in Ottawa, Ontario.

During the Second World War, the British fielded the largest non-nuclear bomb of any military power in the conflict – the 22,000 pound ‘Grand Slam’ earthquake bomb.

You wouldn’t guess it by looking at postwar British cars.

While the mighty bombs carried aloft by Lancasters were meant to bring an invading power to its knees, the peacetime reality of a battered and bruised nation still dependent on food rationing called for economical living – especially with cars.

It's not the size on the outside that matters, apparently.

It’s not the size on the outside that matters, apparently.

Small, frugal and low on power, the vehicles produced in postwar Britain were Spartan but innovative.

The Austin A30, built to compete with the popular Morris Minor, adopted monocoque (unibody) architecture to go with its 803 cc engine.

The new manufacturing technique allowed the car to be lighter and sturdier, and able to be powered by a smaller engine.

Produced from 1952 to 1956, life with an A30 would have been quite different from an American car of the same vintage. Instead of the plush interior, powerful engine and modern convenience items that adorned iron rolling out of Detroit, this little Austin listed ‘passenger side sun visor’ and ‘heater’ amongst its optional equipment.

Kids seated in the back would have (not) enjoyed the hard metal shelf topped with PVC plastic that served as a rear bench seat. To indicate a turn, drivers operated a knob that controlled a small indicator arm that popped out of the B-pillar.

The Austin A30 handled this park without even a hint of sidewalk intrusion.

The Austin A30 handled this park without even a hint of sidewalk intrusion.

Fun times.

After a 2-door version and wagon joined the 4-door saloon body style in 1953, the progression of time saw the introduction of the more powerful A35 (34 hp) in 1956, which carried the compact Austin brand through to 1959 (in saloon form) and 1962 (in wagon form).

The author’s mother often spoke of the tiny Austin of her Edmonton childhood, purchased by her father as a first car for the family in the late 1950s.

A nightmare in the frigid Prairie winters (which rendered the turn indicators inoperable), the Austin also accomplished the regular feat of stalling after driving over a puddle. A bottle of carbon tetrachloride had to be carried at all times in order to dry out the points when this occurred.

If anyone’s wondering why any Canadian would have purchased such a car, just remember that British imports came to these shores prices awfully cheap.

Even if it’s cold and stalls a lot, owning an Austin A30 beats waiting for the bus or walking any day.