Chris Harris continues to bring us coverage of the unbelievably exclusive test drives of cars that you would think manufacturers would never let the media drive. This time around he does a few hot laps in BMW’s factory backed 2013 DTM M3. Though an M3 in name, the car is actually a full on race car with a carbon tub and an advanced aerodynamics package. These are the same regulations that the Japanese Grand Touring Championship (JGTC) will be adopting for 2014 and Grand-Am racing in the US in 2017. The idea is to keep development costs down by getting more people on the same equipment. As Chris points out, the car is extremely technically advanced, maybe even to a fault. The DTM cars are so capable and aerodynamics dependent that there’s a lot less exciting wheel-to-wheel action during the races. It’s not like the Golden Years of DTM when the race cars were still based on the production cars. That being said, it’s still pretty fascinating to watch Harris try to extract the most from the car on the track.
Meet Gretchen, a hot rod with a 1931 Ford body, a 1952 Diamond-Reo tractor engine and a frame made from old light poles. It’s not a combination that many people would think of, but that’s the point. Gretchen represents what hot rodding should be about: reasonable priced cars that are cool because of the ingenuity of their builders. These are the cars that can be enjoyed and shared because their merit doesn’t come from sheer expense and perfection. I especially liked how the owner talks about being able to take the Gretchen to car shows and let kids climb all over it. In our world of the ever-growing skills gap, working with your hands is taboo and more and more chop classes are being cut from school budgets. We need cars like this to to expose the next generation to crazy gasoline engines that make more than 1600 foot-pounds of torque. It’s an uphill battle to inspire the engineers and fabricators of the future.
Mike Musto and Big Muscle are back on the DRIVE YouTube channel for another season. Here they are with an interesting 1965 Chevrolet Crown Corvair built by Chuck Rust in his garage. The Corvair’s original rear mounted inline-6 has been swapped out for a mid-mounted 310 horsepower, 283 cubic inch V8 which now where the rear seats used to be. This isn’t a traditional muscle car in that it doesn’t make huge power for straight line drag racing and that’s not a bad thing. Chuck’s goal was to make a car with balanced handling and a responsive, high revving engine. I think the car is awesome because it challenges the traditional shortcomings of muscle cars and it proves that you can build whatever you can imagine on a reasonable budget. Frustrated that Chevrolet won’t build a mid-engine Corvette outside of a Daytona Prototype? No problem, you can probably build a car like this for cheaper than a new Corvette. A mid-engine architecture creates the best weight distribution for road racing cars, but is a hard sell for mass-produced consumer cars. That’s why you can’t buy a new one that’s not some impractical, high price exotic. Chuck doesn’t care about all that. He knows how a V8 powered mid engine car handles because he drives the crap out of the one he built everyday.
Porsche gave Chris Harris the exclusive opportunity to drive the new 991 based GT3 and it brought up a lot of philosophical discussions about the cultural acceptance of automotive technology. Lets start with the things that were easy to like. Porsche widened the front axle on the 991 to improve turn-in grip and that decision pays dividends with the GT3 as well. Chassis agility is further enhanced with a new rear steering system that works opposite of the front wheels below 50 mph and in parallel above it. The new 3.8 liter engine is lighter and makes more power thanks to a 9,000 rpm redline. More grip, better balance and improved power to weight ratio never makes anybody unhappy.
Controversy with the new car comes from Porsche’s decision to use electric power steering and to only offer the PDK dual-clutch transmission. In an effort to reduce fuel consumption, Porsche has switched to electric power steering in the new Carrera and Boxster. Chris’s opinion of the system in his previous reviews of both of those cars is that it doesn’t have quite the feel of a traditional hydraulic system but it was adequate. He was worried about it letting down the GT3 going into the test but it seems the steering wasn’t a problem. The better chassis balance goes a long way to improve the perception of steering response but Porsche was also able to recalibrate the existing hardware improve its feel. The PDK issue is a little less resolved. Yes, the car is much faster with the dual clutch box operated with a paddle shifter. Yes, more people will buy the car with the PDK. No, the hardcore manual transmission purists do not care about any of those things. It’s all about the perception that manuals give the most in-depth control to the driver because that’s how it was for a very long time before the advent of the dual-clutch transmission.
Ultimately you have to have driven a car with a manual transmission at race speeds to truly appreciate what a dual clutch transmission can do. There will always be a place for stick shifts for driver training and as an inexpensive and less complex alternative to an automatic for a street car. The fact of the matter is that dual clutch transmissions are measurably faster and allow the driver to consistently extract more out of the car. It’s for that very reason that most race cars now don’t have clutch pedals. I think the hesitancy to accept dual clutches boils down to people being afraid of giving up unique skills that they’ve already mastered. Take heel-toe downshifting for example. Among car guys, it’s a pretty well known technique that most of us know how to do correctly. It’s a trained skill for operating three pedals, a shifter and the steering wheel all at the same time to go around corners faster. Non-car people don’t understand the importance and can’t execute it properly without training. However, put them in a dual clutch transmission car and they can intuitively do things correctly and be just as fast as somebody who understands the importance of rev-matching. That means that being able to heel-toe is no longer something special.
I find there’s an interesting parallel between the adoption of dual-clutch transmissions and the acceptance of electric vehicles. Like manual transmissions, combustion engines are something that we’ve been mastering for a very long time. We’re pretty good at building them now so it’s very hard for us to give them up for something completely new and better. Even the best of combustion engines are well under 50% efficient. In what other field would we happily accept anything close to that abysmal? My opinions of engines and oil are posted on the RX-8 EV Conversion Page so I won’t go into them here. I will leave you with a quote to ponder, though: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” -Alvin Toffler
Ford’s 3-cylinder 1.0 liter Ecoboost engine was designed to replace 1.6 liter naturally aspirated engines while providing 20% better fuel economy, 15% less emissions and more performance. It’s effect on the European small car market won the 1.0 Ecoboost the 2012 Engine of the Year award. To celebrate, Ford Europe outfitted a Formula Ford race car with the 1.0 liter Ecoboost engine and the bare minimum safety equipment to make it street legal. The turbo was upgraded to the bigger unit from the 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine which pumped the output up to 200 hp. Race driver Nick Tandy was able to set a 7:22 around the Nurburgring which ties the time of the Dodge Viper ACR and is faster than a Nissan GT-R while delivering 56 mpg.
Ford Europe gave Chris Harris the opportunity to drive the Formula Ford Ecoboost on the streets and then take it for his own lap around the Nurburgring. The part that I found the most interesting is simply watching Harris’s reaction. He has recently had the chance to drive some of the most cutting edge green technology performance cars and has been uneasy with them. In the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive Harris was wowed by the fact that the controls strategy for the four drive motors could completely change how the chassis reacted but wasn’t completely sold on the fact that the car was a pure EV. When Chris drove the Porsche 918 Spyder, he was very impressed with the car’s performance and engineering, but the thought of applying the same lightweighting techniques to a gas powered car would yield better performance ultimately bugged him. Here Chris just enjoys the car and hardly mentions the green aspect of the Ecoboost engine. It seems as though being able to hear the boost of the turbo and having the characteristic of a tuned engine, albeit a small one, doesn’t rob the driver of the performance experience despite getting good gas mileage.