Tag Archives: features

Headlights

Headlights are better on new cars.

Headlights are better on new cars.

It’s amazing how headlight technology has improved over the last 20 years. The biggest improvement seems to be with the lenses themselves. Sure HID and LED headlights are super cool these days, but they are still pricey to replace and aren’t quite in every car yet. Both cars in the image above use regular old halogen bulbs. The car on the left has factory bulbs, which are supposed to be long-life (ie- cheap, low output bulbs). The car on the right has aftermarket Sylvania Xtravisions, which are 25% brighter than the standard bottom-barrel bulbs. The difference is the car on the left uses reflector optics (clear lens with disco ball reflectors) and the car on the right uses lens optics (prismatic lens with curved reflector).

What does the techno-mumbo-jumbo mean? It means the car on the left has better light output with cheaper bulbs because of the clear lenses and mini-mirror reflectors bouncing light exactly where it needs to go. The light diffuses better to show a brighter pool of light. The prismatic lenses on the car on the right will concentrate the light into a straighter beam and also block some of the light since it has to pass through a lens of varying thickness. The more premium light bulbs can only do so much with light output. It still better than the cheap bulbs that were in there before being swapped out.

Halogen bulbs are cheap safety upgrades. Buy a nice set of premium bulbs, aim them correctly, and your night drives will be fun without blinding anyone.


Baby, it’s cold outside

Thank you, car, for telling me it's cold outside.

Thank you, car, for telling me it’s cold outside.

Ever since it’s gotten cold outside my car likes to tell me it’s cold outside every time I start the engine by flashing the temperature, a little snowflake icon, and dinging for a few seconds. It’s as if I couldn’t tell that it’s cold outside during my walk from my front door or from work to the car. It appears this feature is common on a lot of newer cars. I’m thinking, why? I already know it’s cold outside. I suppose new cars are so well insulated and contain many safety features to prevent sliding that people will get the illusion that nothing is wrong outside? That is a dumb reason, but I guess that’s why they call it an “idiot light”. I don’t mind having the temperature display on, but it really doesn’t need to ding and flash and be obnoxious every time it falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.


Rear-wheel-drive and rain

Slippery when wet

Slippery when wet

It rained the other night as I left work. I wasn’t expecting it to rain, but I figured it would be fun to play with the Volvo. I didn’t think the tires were that bad, but it seemed like it would break loose every time I got on the gas. It’s amazing how that little 4-cylinder can overpower the traction so easily. I did a few benign fishtailing around some corners as I went home, but nothing too crazy until I got onto the MoPac frontage road.

It’s very oddly designed intersection as it’s a T-intersection that goes under MoPac, but as it approaches the southbound frontage road, it curves slightly to the right so making that left turn is roughly a 100 degree change in direction. I usually just cut the corner to keep the racing line so I don’t lose too much speed. Yeah, too much Forza Motorsports or Gran Turismo does that to the brain. Unfortunately, unlike a video game, driving your car recklessly has much higher consequences.

As I approach the turn like I’ve done a hundred times before, I start drifting as I hit the apex of the turn. I think I might have lifted my foot off the throttle and it induced lift-off oversteer causing the rear end to come loose. In a video game, I’d let go of the gas and drift around. This is no video game. Having only owned front-wheel-drive cars since I got my license I’ve learned that punching the gas usually straightens out the car if the rear end comes loose. Bad mistake!

I instinctively punch the gas pedal and boy did that make things worse! As soon as I touched the pedal, the whole car just spun like a top! I only remember a blur of the car spinning 360 degrees around like it was on a turntable and coming to a stop facing the wrong way of the one-way frontage road. I was now staring at the grille of the Escalade that was previously behind me. Suffice to say I think everyone in this situation felt a bit awkward.

It took me a couple seconds (which felt more like minutes) to realize WTF just happened because it happened so damn fast and unexpectedly. I was also partially in awe that the little Volvo managed to do a stunt like that. I’m surprised that traffic in the other left-turn lane just kept going after seeing a car spin 540 degrees in two lanes of traffic! I’m probably sure that the person driving the Escalade was glad they didn’t get wiped out by a beater Volvo that looks like the many uninsured beaters roaming the city (don’t worry, I’m insured). I definitely drove a little more carefully the rest of the way home!

It’s amazing the technological advances in safety that have made cars safer because my other car has traction control and electronic stability control which prevents the car from spinning (it’s also front-wheel-drive so it’s less likely to spin out like this in a turn). On the other hand, because the newer technology shields the driver from danger, he won’t know what the true dangers are out there. I immediately knew the roads were slick when driving the Volvo because it spun the tires fairly easily so I knew I could get into trouble. With my other car I would drive the wet roads as aggressively as I normally do on dry roads because of the safety features. It’s funny how technology makes us safer, but act more foolish because of the hidden dangers.


Why the Prius is so slow

Excessive acceleration detected!

Excessive acceleration detected!

My coworker received a Toyota Prius for a rental car while his car was in the shop. We both agreed that the Prius is pretty boring, but it was entertaining because we both knew that it was a mind-numbingly boring little car and we decided to see how dismal it was. The gas engine makes 98 horsepower alone and 135 horsepower with the help of the electric motor.

We started out in electric mode and then romped on the gas to see what it would do. Once we hit 30 MPH, the computer displayed the message “EV Mode Deactivated, Excessive Acceleration.” The message means the electric motor is disabled and the gas engine is working full-time. So yeah, it’s a 3000 pound car being accelerated by a 98 HP/105 ft-lb engine. For reference, my worn ’92 Volvo weighs 3200 pounds and has a 4-cylinder engine that makes 114 HP/136 ft-lbs (when new) and the Volvo feels faster. Obviously, the Prius is not a race car, but when the only thing it has going for it is 51 MPG, it’s kind of a sad little car. Yes, comfort, carrying capacity, driving dynamics, and material quality all suck on this little car.

I’m also certain that given the whole unintended acceleration debacle, the demographic who buy the Prius are going to panic when the “Excessive Acceleration” message is displayed causing them to drive slower. The only excitement that it has going for it is the feeling of whether or not you’re going to be pancaked by a semi while merging onto the freeway. It’s a great for the city where you don’t have to go very fast, but otherwise it’s a dreadful little car.


Power Steering Fluid

One of the systems that is most neglected in a car is the power steering system. Almost every car sold today has power steering and was designed to have power steering from the get-go. If the system ever failed, it is extremely difficult to maneuver the vehicle. Now some old-timers might go “we didn’t have power steering back in my day and we made due without it.” Cars from the olden days were designed without power steering so they had different gearing and bigger steering wheels to allow the driver to turn the car with ease. You really don’t want the power steering to fail because you probably won’t be able to turn the wheel without some help from a buddy.

Luckily, it is extremely easy to do a fluid exchange without making a mess. All the cars I’ve performed this task on resulted in a quieter and easier to turn steering wheel (this is more true in Fords since they are notorious for loud and whiny power steering systems). You will need a soap dispenser, an empty bottle to catch old fluid, and new fluid. Some manufacturers require special power steering fluid so check your manual to what type of fluid to use. I always use transmission fluid in my cars (which is usually what the manual specs) because the red color allows me to see if the fluid is clean or dirty real easily.

Soap pump and trans fluid

Soap pump and trans fluid

All you have to do is find the power steering reservoir under the hood. It is either going to be on the engine somewhere or mounted near the fender. Your owner’s manual will usually tell you where it is. Make sure the soap dispenser pump is cleaned out well with water first. You don’t want soap in the system. Then just stick the dispenser tube in the power steering reservoir and pump all the dirty fluid into the empty bottle (Gatorade or water bottles are the best for this because they’re clear).

Pump out that old fluid

Pump out that old fluid

Icky power steering fluid

Icky power steering fluid

Try and get as much old fluid out of the reservoir as possible. The soap dispenser pump may not reach the bottom, but that’s okay. Once you pumped out as much as possible fill the reservoir with new fluid to the MAX line. Drive the car around for a week and make sure at some point you turn the wheel from one extreme to the other extreme to get the new fluid circulated.

Now doing this once only gets half the fluid out of the power steering system. The theory is that you’ll drive around and let the new and old fluids mix. This will gently rinse all the parts. Just repeat the procedure once a week until the fluid stays red (or whatever color new fluid you put in). The second time you pump out the fluid, it will be just as dark as the first time, but it should start being less dirty after the third time. When you’re done doing the entire system, just take the old fluid to any auto parts store or your mechanic to dispose of it properly. The total cost of the new fluid and the soap dispenser is usually $10 to $15 compared to a flush at a shop costing over $60. Go ahead and do it already!


I Got It Up

Window is in a bad state.

Window is in a bad state.

A couple weeks ago I put down my driver’s side window and it never went back up. I was told it would get stuck down occasionally when I bought the car and given its age I should have suspected it was time for the windows to stop working anyways. Doing some research on the internet yielded me some answers. Apparently, the power window switch goes bad in Volvos of this vintage so that’s the first place to look instead of taking the door apart to look at the motor and regulator. Lucky for me, it was just the switch. The switch can be disassembled and cleaned to make it work again! I made a video documenting the task below.


Electronic Throttle

Electronic throttle

Electronic throttle

Electronic throttle has been quietly phased into cars over the last couple decades. In theory, it’s a great idea because there isn’t any binding or hanging and it’s as quick as the speed of electricity. Unfortunately, emissions and safety regulations make electronic throttle something that is dreaded in the car community. In practice, the computer smooths out the input from your foot causing “throttle lag” (where the engine doesn’t respond immediately to you pressing on the accelerator). I think it’s there to frustrate drivers into driving more sane, but it’s for emissions (so the computer doesn’t dump too much fuel into the engine because unburnt fuel leads to too much greenhouse gasses). I’ve noticed there are third-party products to remedy throttle lag, which makes it seem to be a common problem with newer cars.

Driving a manual is even worse with electronic throttle because of “rev hang”. Rev hang is another emissions feature that holds the engine RPMs for a second or two when the clutch is pressed. It’s supposed to allow the engine to finish burning the fuel before gently lowering the revs to reduce greenhouse gasses. One does get used to it, but the RPMs should just drop immediately when pressing the clutch. It slows down the shift and messes with the timing of the driver. In fact, during the warm-up cycle, the computer doesn’t allow rev hang! Yeah, the warm-up cycle on a EFI engine pretty much lets it run less efficiently so it can warm up faster! While I like the quicker shifts, it’s sad that it is short-lived since it lasts for a few miles before the engine reaches optimal operating temperature.

Isn’t technological advancement supposed to enhance our lives instead of stifle it? Electro-nannies like this really have no place being there. Give me an analog throttle or a pure electronic throttle!


Hack an XBox Controller to Learn to Drive Stick

Source: Jalopnik

I like that there is innovation like this to help new drivers learn to drive stick (even though the problem with driving stick is mastering the balance between the clutch and accelerator rather than shift times). Even better is that it’s a great demonstration as to how Ford is pioneering a way to have an open standard and an API to communicate with the car’s computer. Having the API will allow developers to build custom gauges or monitoring tools that may bridge the gap between old-school and new-school tech and make modern cars a little bit less mysterious to people (and maybe vice versa by making computers less mysterious as well).


2013 VW Jetta

2013 VW Jetta SE

2013 VW Jetta SE

The other day I had to take my car in for repairs and received a brand new 2013 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 SE as a loaner. I was not too impressed with it. I remember test driving a previous generation Rabbit and Jetta a few years ago and those were good cars. The older model felt solidly built with nice materials. The new Jetta just felt hollow and it could be felt in minor parts like the turn signal and shifter, which was surprising.

This Jetta was equipped with a 2.5L inline 5 making 170 hp and 177 ft-lbs of torque. The 2.5L accelerated the car quickly with all the torque. It helped that the car weighed around 3000 pounds. Handling around the corners had minimal float and stuck to its course like it was on rails. It had a nice tight turning radius as well. I couldn’t tell that it had a non-independent rear suspension, but then again I didn’t try and push it very hard either.

My loaner was equipped with the 6-speed automatic transmission, which felt like a nice break from driving a stick. The transmission in this car is probably the best automatic transmission I’ve ever driven. It shifts very smoothly under normal driving. Downshifts are lazy like any other automatic transmission, but it’s not jarring unless the accelerator is floored. The gears are spaced close together so it doesn’t feel like it’s losing a lot of steam during the shift. Sixth gear on the automatic is geared close to fifth gear on the manual so the closer gears are better.

The car has a nice feature where there is a detent on the lower 25% of travel on the accelerator. When the pedal hits the detent, you can push the pedal a little bit harder and the car goes into ludicrous speed! As much as I wished it went plaid, the extra 25% of pedal travel just activates the transmission kick-down (drops it from 6th gear to 3rd gear for extra acceleration).

The shifter has a manual-shift mode which was as lame as all other automatics with manual shift. I suppose it’s useful for hills, but for daily driving in traffic it’s not that fun. I just left it in drive and let the computer shift for me because that’s what automatics are built for: to drive mindlessly through traffic. The shifter also felt too light which made it feel as if I was playing Daytona USA in the arcade.

The interior felt cramped inside since I’m used to driving a bigger car, but the seat was comfortable. The seats were “leatherette”, which is vinyl made to look like leather. In the 100 degree Texas sun, that thing burned as soon as I sat down! That is why I don’t buy cars with leather/vinyl seats. The air conditioner was also one of the weakest A/C units I’ve ever had to deal with. On Max A/C, it was blowing a good amount of air, but it wasn’t very cold. It’s interesting that the larger Passat with the same engine has a much colder A/C system.

The Jetta is good basic transportation. It’s designed for those that don’t need the latest, greatest, flashiest gadgets. It’s a basic car. It looks and operates like a car without much complication. The 2.5L and 6-speed automatic have been around for years and have been proven to be reliable units so it is likely that the car will last a while. The styling, while a little conservative compared to its contemporaries, will probably not be dated in a few years. However, it does not feel too competitive with the current crop of compact cars. It’s not even very competitive with the last iteration of the Jetta. The quality of materials aren’t there, but the fit and finish still is. I considered buying a MK6 (2011-2013) Jetta once, but the lack of some features and the overall cheapness of it compared to the MK5 (2006-2010) Jetta was just too much of a bummer. It is a nice rental car if you can get it.


Engine On!

Engine on!

Engine on!

The picture shows the instrument cluster from a 2013 Ford Fusion. I’m not sure why it shows an information box to indicate that the engine is on. It’s amazing that modern engines can be so quiet at idle, but does it warrant a dialog that tells the driver explicitly that the engine is on? The tach would be my first indicator of a running engine. The dialog just seems like a wasted effort and an annoyance if it pops up every time the engine is started.