Saturday, 15 September 2012

Ten Hours in an Avensis

I have posted my thoughts on certain cars here before, so regular readers will know I am somewhat critical of things automotive. Recently, I had the pleasure of a meeting in Dumbarton, Scotland. This meant getting there and back in a day, a journey that would take 10 hours driving. Not including stops. On top of the two-hour meeting. Needless to say I was hoping for a decent car. [spoiler alert] My hopes were dashed. 

I had thought about this drive when out strolling, and came up with a few things that would make the trip manageable, without expecting miracles:

  • A diesel engine. On a motorway in-gear grunt is king. Not needing fuel every 300 miles is also plus.
  • Supportive seats. I'd rather not add a visit to an Osteopath to my expenses.
  • Decent connectivity with the stereo. Auxiliary input in particular; listening to podcasts makes the motorway less brain-numbing
  • Steering wheel controls. It's 2012, not asking too much. Plus, outstretching arms is an inconvenience for the lazy
  • Reasonable isolation from road/tire noise. Something that often goes unnoticed by people who drive the same car all the time.
  • Air conditioning. An added bonus; but it was summer, albeit in the temperate climate of the UK.

To my dismay, the car turned out to be a 2011 Toyata Avensis. With a petrol engine.

I shall not rant, but try my best to present my opinions objectively. It is worth noting that the car was well-specced; all conceivable extras seem to have been chose (reversing camera, satellite navigation, 6 CD changer, air conditioning) with the exception of leather upholstery. 

I'll get straight to the bad points seeing as these frustrated me the most. But, being ever the geek, I will group them.

Driving experience. The obvious one was the serious lack in power. At motorway speeds the accelerator pedal did little more than cause more noise, although, slowly, the vehicles velocity did change. For any spirited lane changes, one needed to increase the engines leverage on the wheels. By two gears. The gearchange was a big let-down as well, giving the driver little real feedback, instead a feeling of "afterthought engineering" resistance, but in the wrong places.

Infotainment. Having seen the high spec of this particular car, I was pleasantly surprised, imagining a blissful trip. That pleasantness soon began a transition to its antonym. The infotainment system was unfathomable, with a display that looked like something from a Japanese luxobarge from the mid 90's. I couldn't figure out how to turn off the navigation without ejecting the SD card containing the mapping (that's coming from a self-confessed tech geek). On a smaller, slightly more confusing note, there was no AM tuner on the radio - a pretty small thing to omit, preventing the occupants from BBC Radio 5 Live.

Interior ergonomics. For something with inherently few options for their placement, the steering wheel controls managed to seem very awkward to reach. Not so much that a hand had to be removed from the wheel to use it, but sufficiently awkward that hands had to be strained to use them. The plastics and switchgear gave an feeling of cheapness, but while trying to give the impression of high quality to compete with the top German makers (BMW, Opel, VW). I can't help but be saddened somewhat by this pretence - the car is no longer an honest machine. 

Engine power aside, the Avensis performed well on the motorway, offering good isolation from road noise and cruising comfort. Interestingly, given the modest and often frustrating power deficit, its natural gait hovered around the 85 mph mark. The door "thunk" was also satisfying, strange, given that the interior was so low rent. Another pleasant surprise came in the form of the seats. On initial seating, they seemed to lack the physical and visual features one would normally associate with supportive seats, but after a 16 hour day - including 10 hours behind the wheel - I was rather fresh.

My impression of the Avensis changed quite a bit between collecting it and returning it. On seeing it I was impressed - still thinking it had a diesel engine. That went down steeply when I got inside, and plummeted further in the first 5 minutes driving it. It began redeeming itself the following day, and continued to do so during the trip. However, it's journey to redemption didn't claw back enough to make up for the dismal impression it made in my first half hour with it.

Conclusion? I couldn't recommend one to anyone of my friends or family. For the cost, a much better car (of the same age and type) could be had. But it wasn't all bad, it did have good qualities, just not good enough. These were also countered by a lot of bad features, as well as a pretty dismal first impression. 

P.S. I can be positive about hire cars. I had 2012 Vauxhaul Astra diesel two weeks ago: fantastic car. Well specced, borderline unbelievable power and refinement. I also had a 2011 Nissan Micra a few months back: until the Astra, this was head and shoulders above any other hire car I had. Simple, buts honestly simple, no pretence.

P.P.S I wrote this in WriteMonkey a distraction-free text editor. Check out their awesomely bloat-free application here. Hence the break in tradition; I wasn't listening to music while writing this, forgive me.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What a Difference a Table Makes

If you asked me two years ago about the significance of a kitchen table I would have been intrigued by such a strange question, but only after staring blankly in confusion for a few seconds.

Recently, I found myself in a position to answer that very question. Having spent the first 5 months in the castle without a kitchen table, we eventually put aside enough of Queen Elizabeths finest tender to purchase one. Nothing special, just an Argos plain-and-simple table with four chairs. The surprise in all of this was the degree of difference it made to the apartment relative to the financial outlay. One cannot quantify such things, but you can take my (subjective) word on it that the former far out-weighed the latter. Shock, horror! But is it a shock?

Yes, the obvious benefits are that we no longer eat our meals from our lap on the couch, and I can use the computer on it too. But, there are a lot of symbolic reasons in the mix as well. I think these are the ones that caught me by surprise - even if I didn't know it at the time. 

Having thought about my table with pride, I subconsciously teased out some of these reasons. Firstly - and most obvious - is that it represents the pride the working man feels when something of relatively significant financial outlay is saved up for and eventually purchased. More subtly, it's a symbol of growing up. Before I moved to Sheffield, the majority of those in my friendly circles lived with their parents: they never owned a table. Being able to say I own a table is a big deal for me then, a sign of growing up, making my own way. I like that. To point out the already inferred, it's a first for me, possessing a table. It's something I never needed to do before because there was always one at home, a possession that was almost exclusive to adults. I have been legally an adult for some time now, but owning a table of my own makes me feel more than that: now I feel like a real one.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Wallpaper Fetish

Every now and then I feel like a change of wallpaper on my computer. Mostly the new desktop livery comes from a rather vast collection I already have. More about that later.
My taste in wallpaper manages to be both specific and unspecific simultaneously. It must be minimalistic: as simple as possible, yet incorporate some form of humour or quip. Here are some or my favourites.

When he hunger strikes, it's usually more akin to a desire for a biscuit. It quickly turns to a ravishing hunger, however. It may start with a thought chain that results in a desire to have a wallpaper containing/referencing the result of said chain. More often than not, however, the search comes from no more than a desire to have a new wallpaper, one which cannot be satisfied from the existing collection. Once the seed of thought has been sown, it cannot be suppressed. Add theatrical "dun, dun, dun" at your own discretion.

In the former case it inevitably begins with Google, and the wallpaper-hunter must go with the proverbial in search of satisfaction. In the latter case, my first port of call is the wallpaper subreddit (or r/wallpapers). Here the wonderfully tasteful folk of the internet post their creations and discoveries, often even their collections. 

This is the point - the search - at which the strangeness begins. I am unsure what happens, maybe it's a sort or modern take on primeval instincts taking over. I don't know. All I do know is that it happens to me. Much time can pass, many links are opened in new tabs for further inspection, a considerable portion of those are closed without their content being downloaded. The criteria that must be met is very specific and covers many subtle bases, yet the mental computation to their suitability takes about the same amount of time as it takes for my fingers to stroke Ctrl + W for those deemed unfit. 

It is a sort of trance, I think, and like most trances coming out of it is not straightforward. It is arguably strange in both scenarios: the case when the trance simply comes to a blurry end, and the human-provoked version. In the former case, the preceding time spent acquiring new desktop adornments is unclear, the main evidence of the events within that period is the new directory stocked with 16:9 goodness, and a sort of sleepiness - very bizarre. The latter is pretty much the same, with the exception of it beginning with a severe shock, and this is orders of magnitude worse when the provocation is a question. Most - if not all - of the question is delivered while the questionee is under, making the process of answering all the more difficult while still trying to figure out what way is up, and disguise the fact that you were in wallpaper auto-pilot for a considerable period of time.

I am keen to hear of any other folks who suffer from this, or those who are similarly evolved. I am also keen to simply hear from folk who feel that having a simple, classy, and subtly humorous wallpaper makes the time spent at the computer seem a whole lot easier and more pleasant. I genuinely feel a little sad for the folks who have default wallpapers, so little desire for individuality; do they care!? Replies welcomed, regardless which team in the desktop garnish-league you may play for.

For those interested, searches of this severity have happened 6 times to date; recorded by the number of separate directories of wallpapers, each from a different event. I may even post my collection if enough interest is generated.

(Written while listening to a combination of Kerbdog - On The Turn; P.O.D - Greatest Hits, The Atlantic Years; Pearl Jam - Rearview Mirror (Disc 2)) 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Popolo: a haven for gastronomists

I am a gastronome. Not the posh kind, I just love good food. On Saturday night I was treated to dinner by my lovely girlfriend, she chose Popolo restaurant, Sheffield. By happy coincidence, it was an Italian (my favourite).

I feel compelled to share my experience so that others can enjoy Popolos food, environment, and staff. I love places that make good food for the "normal" food-lovers, not food for snobs; Popolo is like that. My order exemplifies that: mozzarella and Parma ham Bruschetta to start, and a pasta/pizza combo (for indecisive folk). The combo main course is exactly what I love about this type of place, you get the best of both worlds (pasta and pizza). It's not just humdrum of each though, you get a half pizza (12") and a half-size portion of a pasta dish on the menu. To adopt a wise saying by a great man: it's food for the eater, not food for the chef.

The staff were excellent also, managing to balance on that fine line between harassment and obliviousness. The cherry on top was that downstairs in the same establishment was a cocktail bar, so no beverage was too much hassle (a great selection of Italian and German beers were also available).

(Written while listening to no music, but the fridge was humming its usual tune in the background)

P.S. I went for Helvetica instead of my usual Verdana today, I am interested to hear your comments. An post in typography may follow...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Toyota Prius

As part of the New Job, I do quite a lot of travelling. The majority of which is abroad, but some is domestic. The nature of the job requires a car, so we hire them. It's great as I get to sample a nice range of cars (as a passenger or a driver), but these are rather far removed from anything that could be branded as exotic - in fact, they are mostly in the cheapest/smallest group.

Last Wednesday, I was booked into a training course in Newcastle (St. James' Park, got a tour too - it was great!). The hire car? A gen 3 Toyota Prius. At 4:30 am before a three-hour drive it was not what I wanted to be greeted with.

As an avid reader/watcher of automotive media, I had my preconceptions of what it was going to be like (read "I already disliked it"). Was I surprised? Yes. In a good way? Nope.

I accepted that it was awful compared to what a car should be, but I never thought it could be as bad as the hacks made it out to be. I was wrong. So very wrong.

Let's leave the hybrid aspect aside for now and concentrate solely on the experience for the occupant. Every single tactile surface felt like it was made of material that was on it's third life via the wonders of recycling. The dashboard surface was particularly appalling, it's nastiness will not be forgotten for some time.

PST. Power Sharing Transmission. It's effectively a Continually Variable Transmission (CVT), but with two inputs (in this case an electric motor and IC engine). I won't get into the details (for more see here), but suffice to say that it eerie. To cut a long story short, it allows a continuous range of gear ratios (unlike traditional ones which offer discrete rations: 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc). This is of interest to the boys and girls who developed the Prius because it allows the engine to operate at a RPM which is of optimal fuel efficiency, or where peak power is produced. This means that when you go to overtake on the motorway, you mash the accelerator pedal into the footwell carpet and the engine zips to it's peak power zone straight away (which is alarmingly high, and doesn't sound pleasant at all).... and stays their for the duration of the accelerator pedals stay in the carpet. All the while the car is speeding up!

A few other things that are worth a mention:

  1. Steering. It's like those old steering wheels for Playstations from 7 or 8 years ago: total feeling of disconnection; in terms of steering feel, and that it simply feels like there is no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels you are supposed to be controlling. Deeply unnerving.
  2. Cabin noise. It's loud, even by my standards (I own a 20-year-old Golf GTI, and have owned a straight-piped Corolla). For a new car (with such a hefty price tag) it's just not good enough
  3. Ride comfort. There is no need for it to be that harsh. The excuse of the extra battery weight is invalid, F10 BMW 5-series is minimum 1700kg and rides much better (price differential doesn't excuse the Prius either, it has a mass of just over 1300 kg)
  4. Drive train couldn't make up it's mind. It was constantly switching between combinations of electric and petrol power: surely that's inefficient (not to mention jerky and irritating)

On a good note, it masked the sensation of speed remarkably well: a motorway cruise, although noisy, didn't seem to stress it out overly. Also, the dashboard, nasty as it may be, was a great companion for KFC-feasting.

It has been widely commentated in the media that the Prius has become a fashion statement. I disagree whole-heartily: it has become a lifestyle statement, and said lifestyle has become fashionable. I fear that the shortcomings that upset me will be glossed over as quirks that arise from its goodness to the environment, but they are not. The Prius (now in it's third generation, remember) has put "greenness" above fundamental vehicle development. For example, earlier today I had another hire car, a 2012 Nissan Micra 1.2. That was a surprisingly pleasant place to be and an involving drive. But best of all, it's three-pot power-plant sounded genuinely terrific! 

My point is that the majority of buyers purchase a Prius as a lifestyle vehicle, to be trendy and keep with the times. That is OK, but I fear they are being ripped of; it has so many flaws for what it's supposed to be that it is just a bad car, not a car that is not-as-bad for the environment as others. It's a shame, because I really want to see a good alternative fuel car. The best so far is the Honda FCX Clarity, that's the way forward (imho).

(Written while listening to Damnation by Opeth)

Monday, 30 April 2012

Golden Age

This is just a quick one to share my happiness at the current crop of automotive super- and hyper-cars. 

Pagani are on the cusp of unleashing their Huayra, but some are unwilling to forget the Zonda. The 760 RS is the very latest in an even more limited series of run-out Zondas. This one came from a series of requests from Zonda R owners who wanted one for the road. 

Pagani cannot seem to put the Zonda to rest, with demand for more and more limited-run specials - it's not so bad seeing at the cars are delicious! 

Here is a video by my favourite road-tester-for-things-I-cannot-afford, EVO's Harry Metcalfe - a road test for real enthusiasts.

(Written while listening to Mainstream Media podcast by DJ Brian Greene)

The significance of J

Amazing. Astonishing. Epic. Gob-smacking. Magnificent. Shocking. Stunning. Wonderful. These are some of the words used by motoring journalists to describe the one-of-a-kind Lamborghini Aventador J. None such words were uttered in my head. When presented with something so pure and special, something that is the epitome of "hypercar", my mind whispered "wow" accompanied by a longing to see it in the carbon fibre. The only thing which eclipsed this was my desire to drive it, heightened by the imaginary journey conjured up in my head.I had seen rumours online, but didn't dare hope that something so wild would be actually built! But, if anyone would do such a thing, the boys and girls in Sant'Agata would.

So, what is the significance of the letter J? That single-letter appendage means rather a lot. From every angle the J oozes an aggression that is orders of magnitude above any other car. This is the new top dog in hypercar royalty.

The "normal" Aventador is not a subtle car, but alongside the J it looks positively Amish. Anyone would recognise they are related, but every aspect of the J is more aggressive, more intimidating, more beautiful. I love it!

Based on the Aventador chassis, it has the same mechanical bits, which means the J is the perfect compliment to the Lamborghinis wild new V12. No roof, no windscreen, lots of noise.

The letter J (or "Jota" when pronounced in Spanish) is a appendage borne by only a single other Lamborghini in history, the Miura P400 Jota - a reference to Appendix J of the FIA handbook with which it aimed to comply.

The J is like an object created purely to thrill and turn-on. From the rear-view mirror that rakishly rises from where the windscreen would start, to the divided cockpit (the aero reference more at home here than anywhere else I think) split by a continuity from front-to-rear, forged composite details (seats, and show number plate for the eagle-eyed among you), to the exposed carbon fibre lattice over the engine.

I could rattle on for some time, but to fully feel the longing I harbour, you need to indulge in the pictures. I am an avid fan of EVO magazine, so here is their picture gallery. I strongly urge that you make a tea/coffee, have a beer/glass of wine and soak in the details.

(Written while listening to Mainstream Media podcast by DJ Brian Greene)