Monday, September 26, 2011

Driving impressions and making it go faster

As I mentioned earlier, I have a new car, only two months now.  It is a Volkswagen GTI, a nice, slick four door hatchback (so technically called a five-door, but they also make a three door version).  Volkswagens are nice, predictable, and well put together German cars.  They don't have the same "ooooh" appeal as a BMW or a Mercedes Benz, neither the sleek look of the Audi, which is also part of the VW family of cars, which includes Bugatti and Bentley.

Original GTI Mark I
Off the dealer lot, the car is quick, handles nicely, and looks, in a sense, timeless.  The basic look of the current model, called the Mark VI, is nicely reminiscent of the original Mark I, introduced, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, in 1974.  The current incarnation is about three years old now, and retains a playfulness and fun-loving attitude that seems to have been lost in most modern vehicles.

The basic statistics are 200 hp from a 2.0 liter turbo injected engine, zero to sixty in about 7 seconds.  Fuel efficiency is 20 mpg on the highway, 30 mpg in the city.  What this boils down to is a lively car,  quick but not race car fast, and that yields decent fuel economy.  However, what the numbers don't reveal is a well put together machine, with a superior interior, nice styling, and typical German handling.  The car has a interior that puts other cars in its class to shame, and offer performance that is almost as good as the Mazda 3speed or the Subaru hatch.

Now, take this nice little piece of German engineering and bring it to a local tuner.  After one hour in the shop, and doing nothing more than tweaking the car's ECU - I guess it stands for Engine Control Unit, the electronic brain of the car, if you will - the car gains an additional fifty (!) horsepower and similar gains in torque.  The car that got there quickly is now even quicker, feels more muscular, and if you keep your foot from pressing down on the gas pedal all the time, yields similar fuel economy.  Of course, doing this will probably void your warranty should you come up with engine trouble, so this is definitely a buyer's beware situation.

Current GTI Mark VI
What the ECU tune does is basically tell the engine and the turbo spooler to generate more power at a given rpm.  Technically speaking, the tune is not doing something that the engine could do in the first place, but obviously, it is imposing greater stress on the engine that typical factory settings would cause.  Why does the car come "under-tuned" from the factory?  Are they trying to "hide power from the driver"?  I don't think so.  In the current hp arms race, every auto manufacturer wants to put out the biggest numbers it can.  But they must also attempt to provide good fuel economy and cars that are dependable and mostly trouble free.  As anything that is mass produced, VW wants to keep tolerances within an acceptable range, specially given the warranty on the car and the expectations of the driver.  So when they make the computer chart for how much power is generated at a given time, they play it more conservatively.  Can the average car be pushed harder?  Absolutely.  Should it?  That is a call only the driver can make, because you can't get something for nothing.

In my own personal opinion, the car is extremely well-behaved from the factory, and with the tune, it just becomes...better.  It pulls better if you want to; it sounds more animated without generating those high noises associated with muscle cars; it also behaves perfectly civilized if you don't want to push it.  My one concern is that the handling of the car, although very good, is not on par with BMW (actually, few cars out there are) or similar sports cars.  Therefore, caution must be used when driving it, and maybe even improving the suspension or other handling components.  Not to say that as is the car is an accident waiting to happen; far from it - it is a pleasure to drive.  It just is not as sure-footed as its German rivals.

And what does all this have to do with the Bar Exam, you ask?  Well, I have to be able to get to the exam site on time, don't I?

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