Monday, August 13, 2012

Bad Personal Experiences with Turbos

One of my very bad turbo experiences

I have officially owned three turbocharged vehicles up to this point in life. In reality I have some complex emotions about turbochargers, which are mostly negative in nature. Allow me to explain.

The first real experience I had with a turbocharged vehicle was when my oldest brother bought a 1997 Eagle Talon TSi. It came with all-wheel-drive and a large hump in the hood that supposedly was put there to make room for the turbocharger. Through the Talon's force-fed setup, it was able to produce 210 horsepower, making it a pretty fun and sporty car to drive. About a year later I was riding with my brother one hot summer night in Tempe, Arizona when steam started pouring out from under the Talon's hood. He pulled over to a gas station and popped the hood, allowing even more of the evaporated coolant to escape.

"Need some help?" two guys in a Civic quipped. I don't remember the exact response my brother shot at them, but it was pointed to say the least.

Fast forward several years, and I have owned two problematic turbocharged vehicles. Both of them were Volvos, which after finally consulting with a mechanic worth his salt about the second one, I have decided were both really bad ideas. Supposedly the first turbo Volvo was a lemon, as I had mechanics and Volvo aficionados swear to me that turbo Swede bricks often went to 300,000 miles or more without major mechanical problems.

The first turbo Volvo was horrible. The car drove fine at first, but eventually it started to spew out steam from evaporated coolant. I added coolant to the car constantly, but it regularly would threaten to overheat. I had a mechanic try to track down coolant leaks on multiple occasions, but it was to no avail. And then I started to notice the car's exhaust was white all the time--the surefire sign of a blown cylinder head. I didn't have the cash for a new head gasket, and then the car started to overheat all the time. It started running sluggishly. Rather than shoulder the huge repair bill it was sure to need, I dumped the car as quickly as possible.

The second turbo Volvo kindly waited until we were in the stretch of desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles to manifest its forced induction problems. More specifically, smoke plumed out from the undercarriage, the result of an oil leak that traveled along the underside of the car until it reached the catalytic converter. As if that weren't enough, oil also spewed in tiny droplets out of the tailpipe, spraying all over the back window. The back window's wiper couldn't clear the sticky mess away, leaving the driver to look through a distorted and sickly yellow film to view traffic from behind. After many repair bills trying to track down the oil leaks, which seemed to crop up in new places after the old ones were fixed, I finally escorted the car to automotive heaven.
If it had been up to just these experiences, I wouldn't be conflicted at all about turbos. I would swear off ever, ever owning another forced induction vehicle. The fact of the matter was these two turbocharged Volvos happened to be a lot of fun to drive, when they were running at least reasonably well. Even though neither one had a large engine, they both accelerated strongly and provided a large power band. I live around large mountains with steep canyon roads, and both vehicles pulled strong up the steep inclines. The fact they had turbos also meant I didn't have to shell out a bunch of money for gas.

What made me feel even more conflicted about turbochargers was owning my Saab. Not too long after having purchased my Saab I realized its turbocharger system was much more advanced than the ones included in either of my Volvos. The turbo response was much faster, and the turbo pulled the car harder. Even better, I didn't have to deal with oil or coolant leaks, overheating or any of the other problems my turbo Volvos had almost from the get-go. The Saab was also a lot more fun to drive.

My turbo Saab

As I watch with great interest a sudden surge in turbocharger use by manufacturers such as Ford and BMW part of me gets excited while another part of me shrinks back in terror. Are these turbochargers like the one I had in my Saab (which was the newest of the three vehicles) or are they like the horrible ones in my Volvos? I know with any turbocharged vehicle you have to watch the coolant and oil levels like a hawk, but I also know from experience that being faithful about watching the car's fluids doesn't mean the turbocharger won't give you major headaches.

Let's just put it this way: I have declared to my wife that if I do buy another turbocharged car it won't be a Volvo and it will be a hobby car.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Does Gen Y Really Want Ugly Cars?

2011 Nissan Juke

Automotive manufacturers seem to be desperate to capture business from the seemingly elusive Generation Y. They are employing all kinds of tricks and gimmicks, even trying out things they would never dream using on Gen X or the Boomers, all with little to no success. GM and other automakers have even tried ads that use "cool" language popular with the generation. Perhaps the most jarring and interesting marketing technique is the manufacturing of ugly automobiles as a way to lure Generation Y to buy.

The list of ugly cars seems to be growing all the time. First there was the Honda Element, which isn't completely hideous. Most of the people I see driving them are older than I am. Other cars like the Nissan Cube or Scion IQ took the ugly factor further. Perhaps the ugliest car on the road today is the Nissan Juke.

I have to admit that ugly cars are nothing new. The Gremlin looked like it had been hit by the ugly stick a few thousand times. Some people may hate me for it, but I find the Fox platform Mustangs (from the 80s to early 90s) to be quite hideous. Then there was the horrible last generation of the Toyota Celica, which seriously looked like an angry rabbit. Of course there is always that ultimate in automotive ugliness: the Pontiac Aztec. When I think of all the ugly cars from the past I begin to think the ugly trend is one of the constants in the automotive industry. 

Toyota Celica

I'm really at the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you draw the cutoff. Because of my unique position, perhaps I have a perspective not shared by many automotive executives. I don't think Gen Y is looking for ugly cars any more than any other generation has had an affinity for them. There will always be those tasteless people in every generation who wear white socks with dark pants and shoes, but they're always a minority. Instead, I think the real issue is affordability.

Gen Y has the unique pleasure of being the generation who gets to graduate into adulthood in a world that is in the throes of economic turmoil. Most people from the generation have also seen the horribly negative consequences of their parents' spend thrift mentality (a stereotypical trait of the Boomers) that is fueled by image consciousness. The result is many members of Gen Y cannot or do not want to afford an expensive vehicle. Because they are thinking about more than image, younger car buyers also want a vehicle that works in a day-to-day practical way. This means the car cannot be constantly needing maintenance, has enough cargo room, gets good gas mileage, etc.

While everyone is focusing on the ugly cars populating the roads (it's kind of hard to not gawk at them in horrid disbelief) many are missing some of the beauties that are favored by Gen Y. Sure, the Subaru Impreza WRX and STI that are so beloved by younger kids started out ugly, but they have transformed from ugly ducklings into curvy hatchbacks and sedans. The new Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ is another example of an attractive car that appeals to Gen Y. These are cars that provide a certain automotive experience or utility for significantly less money.

2012 Subaru BRZ

Perhaps the biggest factor fueling the ugly car movement is that kids just plain don't want to drive a car like mom's or dad's. There are a few exceptions to this, but most kids feel the intense desire to form their own identities. There's no denying that cars have been and for the foreseeable future will continue to be deeply tied to our personal identities. This is why so many of my generation are squeezing their kids into the cramped third rows of new crossovers rather than drive the more practical minivan that looks too much like what mom drove back in the day.

So automotive industry executives, listen up: Gen Y will buy attractive cars if they are affordable and don't look too much like the cars of the last thirty years.