Monday, November 24, 2008

My cars: Mazda Eunos Roadster RS-LTD

I started off this blog looking at some of my previous cars, now we pick up the story at number five - no hairdresser jokes please.

Do you have a defining mental image of any car? I do, at least in the case of the Mazda Eunos Roadster, and it’s the one you see above. It was taken one Sunday evening as I was driving back to Chelmsford from London. I’d already decided to take the fun route across country, but rapidly forgot about my destination altogether and just began driving around the rural north of Essex. It was around 9pm by the time that photo was taken; the countryside was bathed in the last of the warm summer sunshine and I’d been driving for around two hours, completely lost in the experience. Somehow I’d only seen a handful of cars and a few enthusiastically ridden bikes in that time and I’d had a real chance to enjoy the Eunos Roadster.

And it wasn’t any old Eunos either. The car in question was one of just 500 hardcore ‘RS-Limited’ special editions – the most focused factory iteration of the Mk1 Eunos (or indeed MX5 or Miata depending on the market). It came with a raft of genuinely useful performance modifications including extra chassis bracing, a lowered final drive ratio, a lightened flywheel, a Torsen limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers and carbon fibre Recaro seats.

More fundamentally, the Eunos was Japanese giant Mazda’s attempt to recapture the fun factor of a classic British roadster. Legend has it that the design team were given a fleet of MG Midgets, Triumph Spitfires and TRs to drive, inspect and analyse. They are said to have spent hours just listening to recordings of the MG’s characteristic exhaust note in an attempt to recreate it on the new roadster. And, on the whole, you’d have to say they did a pretty good job. The rasp it emitted sounded perfect when bouncing off a passing wall, even if it arguably lacked that final degree of attitude. The engine, meanwhile, felt eager and snappy with a very linear torque curve and excellent responses. What’s more it was mated to one of the nicest mass produced gearboxes around complete with a very positive short-throw action and beautifully stacked ratios.

In the cold and frequently damp climes of the UK, the original Japanese-market tyres on my imported Eunos tended to dominate the handling somewhat. In the dry it frankly felt a little over-tyred on occasions, when the modest 140hp struggled to alter the balance of its impressive grip reserves. However, at the slightest hint of moisture, it became a very different story. The Teflon-smooth Bridgestones would conspire with the car’s trick differential to produce hilarious levels of oversteer at minimal speeds and throttle openings. This leads to my second defining memory of the Eunos – applying opposite lock with one hand, half asleep, coming out of the T-junction near my house on wet mornings.

While it was great fun and eminently controllable, the Mazda’s wayward manner could also be a pain in day-to-day driving. The wet-weather grip reserves were so low that you had very little safety margin at normal traffic speeds. Much of this would probably have been remedied by some more suitable tyres, but I was never entirely convinced that there weren’t a few more fundamental problems – at least with this particular example. In addition to the grip levels, and very much contrary to their reputation, the steering was curiously lacking in feedback, there was noticeable scuttle shake and the brakes offered little in the way of feel or stopping power.

Yet, given the right setup modifications, the Eunos would doubtlessly have proved an ideal every day sports car. To bolster its case it came with bulletproof reliability, a surprisingly ample boot and one of the few genuinely watertight convertible hoods I’ve ever come across. And recently I’ve found myself contemplating getting a decent example for daily transport (and possibly a supercharger to go with it).

Back then, however, there was always a nagging thought in my mind. Mazda truly had created a modern Japanese take on the 1960s British sports car and, in most quantifiable respects, they’d improved on it. But had they gone a step too far? The plastic-laden dashboard sometimes felt a little soulless; and the (admittedly competent) engine a tiny bit clinical. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the character of those cars which inspired it had gone at the same time as their oil leaks, their cold start problems and their dubious hoods. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the car I eventually replaced it with was an old school kit car powered by a 1960s Fiat powerplant… Needless to say, I rapidly came to appreciate the value of Japanese efficiency.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Motoring's axis of evil (sort of)

Forgive me for sounding like an old git, but the one thing that I feel is missing from driving these days is manners. In the old days I dare say the good chaps in their ‘blower’ Bentleys and Aston Martin Internationals would pause to let people out of junctions when on their way to lap Brooklands or do battle with the hun. And you know what? I reckon they’d have acknowledged anyone who did the same for them.

However, these days – at least if you live near London - it seems the only people you’re on your way to battle are various idiots clogging up the roads. Despite this, I do try to be nice. If there’s no obvious end to the traffic behind me and I’m feeling so inclined I’ll stop to let people in. It’s a small gesture admittedly, but all it requires by way of thanks is the merest lift of a finger or flash of the headlights – it’s not difficult. And yet it winds me up no end when people can’t be bothered to do so. It is, without doubt, my greatest motoring pet-hate.

You may wonder what sort of person fails to do this – surely it’s arrogant yuppies in BMWs, boy-racers in dubiously modified Vauxhalls or white van drivers? Actually, no, the number one perpetrator seems to be a far more socially acceptable stereotype – the suburban housewife. Should you make the mistake of offering them some small kindness to ease their stress-filled lives, the female parental units of North London will blank you with a form of contempt that’s hard to fathom. They’re far too busy yelling at Tristan and Paris in the back seats to acknowledge the fact you’ve brought half of suburbia to a halt in order to help them. Instead, their X3 or Touareg just wafts past sanctimoniously.

So, I’ve resolved to leave them stuck in the middle of the road screaming at their spoilt offspring in the future, and this got me thinking about other driving stereotypes. Who else should I avoid at this hypothetical T-Junction? Maybe I need a list…

Right behind the yummy mummies on my inventory (and frequently overlapping them) would be suburban soft-roaders. It’s not an environmental concern, I just think they’re a pointless waste of resources. Next comes any one of the current ‘retro’ craze of cars, particularly when driven by an estate agent. And following that comes any modern BMW with less than six cylinders, cosmetically ‘enhanced’ hatchbacks playing house music and anyone with a really egotistical personalised plate (yes, B16 B0Y of Chelmsford, that’s you).

So who does get let in? Well, that would start with anyone who shows a bit of decency on the road (even if they otherwise fall into any of the above). Next comes the original Mini - you see, it’s physically impossible to dislike one of Mr Issigonis’ inventions. It may come bulging with bits of Halfords-sourced body kit or indeed it may cut you up horrendously, but a Mini can never be evil - at worst it’s simply a bit cheeky. Beyond that, the drivers of kit cars, TVRs (well, most sports cars to be honest), classic cars and Alfa Romeos also get automatic entry. Then last - although by no means least – you shouldn’t forget to let in those pleasant gents in their vintage Astons and Bentleys. After all, they would do it for you.

(Image shamelessly pinched from the superb

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cooler cruising in Cologne

I spent last week at the Professional Motorsport World Expo in Cologne. It was a great chance to catch up with various people in the industry as well as to gather information and interviews for the magazine. Alongside the more technical exhibits it was good to have a closer look at the KTM X-Bow, the Corvette Racing C6R and the mighty Caparo T1.

Sadly, on this occasion, the above were all stationary. However, I did manage to blag an exclusive first UK drive (or should that be ride?) of the Cruizin Cooler SL500. Standing at a mighty 18” tall, the Cruizin Cooler is essential a motorised cool box, with space for a crate or two of beer, alongside its 500 watt electric motor. The German importers were all too happy for me to indulge in an impromptu road test around the exhibition centre’s foyer and first impressions are indeed positive.

The controls are very simple with a twist’n’go throttle on the right and a single brake lever on the left. Acceleration is surprisingly brisk and the top speed of 13mph felt more than quick enough when travelling through an enclosed space on a motorised beer cooler. Cornering was another matter, with the unladen SL500 showing a distinct tendency to role over when pushed to the limit in our highly scientific ride and handling evaluation. Fortunately, leaning inwards cured this and, bizarre as it sounds, the Cruizin Cooler proved rather addictive. It does however pose the difficult question of how much beer to leave in as ballast and how much to drink before you can fully appreciate the experience.

An inconvenient truth for Dr Hansen

Cast your mind back a few months before the phenomenon that is the credit crunch and you may recall another major talking point: climate change. Back when the upwardly mobile could still afford a Prius, Al Gore was their main inspiration and his ideas principally came from one Dr James Hansen.

Recently Dr Hansen popped up again with the shocking revelation that last month had been the hottest October on record. Highs of up to 10 degrees more than normal had been recorded in parts of Russia and a new ‘hot spot’ had been discovered in the arctic. This seemed like unprecedented evidence of global warming, until that is, two well known meteorologists - Anthony Watts and Steve McIntyre – discovered a flaw.

Anecdotal evidence appeared to show that last month had, in fact, been unseasonably cold. There had been the first October snowfall in London for 74 years, Tibet had suffered its ‘worst snow storm ever’ (according to the Chinese News Agency) and there had been heavy snowfalls across America. Upon further investigation it transpired that Hansen’s figures for October were, in fact, those for September. The correct set of recordings showed it to have been only the 70th-warmest October in 114 years. Not only that, but satellite imagery showed Arctic sea-ice recovering so fast from its summer melt that it was 30 per cent more extensive than at the same time last year.

All very interesting, but what does this have to do with cars? Well, I like to consider myself a fairly open minded petrolhead when it comes to environmental issues, yet the message given out by champagne-environmentalists is usually far more black and white - superficial concessions to climate change are good; conventional cars (particularly fast ones) are bad.

These groups take the views of people such as Dr Hansen and Al Gore as absolute fact, with no question of error or misinterpretation. However, this latest blunder shows quite clearly that is not the case. Instead it appears that many apparently independent scientists will take their results, manipulate them to fit their own argument and then broadcast it to the world as an absolute truth, without pausing to consider the trivial matter of accuracy. Make no mistake, the study of climate change and any possible man-made influence is important, but the barrage of spin and dodgy statistics on both sides simply detracts from it. We can only be thankful that the Guardian readers out there were too busy worrying about their finances to take notice. That or they were out playing in the snow.