Monday, December 18, 2006

Just one year?

Wow, I can't believe I've been dancing on a consistent basis for about a year now. Well, maybe lets not count my first 3-4 months of classes. Even though I greatly appreciate the fun and encouragement of my instructors during those times of classes, I kinda feel bad knowing I was being sheltered and held back.

If you read my post about Dancing with the Stars from last season, you'll know that I thought the show was great. I still do, but strangely, I no longer think too much of the professionals. Sure, they're great dancers and the put on a good show but I've realized I'm not much for performance. Though I do seem to agree a lot with Louis and his philosophy on dancing. It becomes a part of your life and translates back and forth between real life and dancing.

Even though I'm definitely at the level where I can be in showcase and performance specific classes, I really don't enjoy that. I'm not the type to show off or put myself on display purposely for the "benefit" of others. I really have continued to dance because of the music and freedom of the interaction when you dance. I want to be able to achieve a level of spontaneous creativity and self-expression unhindered by the shackles of a "routine." Besides, I think dancing should be social and I've gotten to know lots of great people thanks to this little "hobby" and continue to do so.

Currently, I've become a mostly a salsa/mambo dancer. I have the ability to lead merengue, bachata, and a little bit of cha-cha, but I'm not quite confident in my cha-cha lead. I honestly don't know too much bachata and finagling with it tends to end with disaster at best. One of my teachers once said... don't be a pioneer, because they tend to end up dead with arrows in their butts.

I've also started taking classes with Frankie Martinez at the advice of the "wiser" (yeah that's you Heidi) to dance New York style salsa (On2) in addition to taking classes in the more "traditional" salsa style of On1 in Jersey with Juan Calderone and the wonderful instructors and students of CX (Cultural Explosion). They've both opened my eyes when I attended various socials and the New York Salsa Congress. There's a big salsa community out there and there's some pretty incredible talent out there, not mention plenty of great instructors (Yeah, that includes you Lucy!) I recently asked one of my first salsa instructors what she thought of my departure from her studio for classes, she replied that she's happy that I'm happy. I guess that's truly the bottom line for all of this.

And yeah, that's Lucy leading Heidi.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

R you ready for Something new?

Well, I did indeed get a chance to drive the upcoming R56 Cooper S hardtop (TURBO!!) a little bit during my lunch break last Friday (thanks for the offer, DR).

It was a preproduction R56 Cooper S in British Racing Green with a wood and panther black interior. One of my coworkers said it was a step up in appearance and another said they didn't really like the wood. I think I'm on the fence with this one. I'm holding the opinion that the Cooper was a bit "hot rod"-ish with the painted interior surfaces but I generally like swathing the interior with wood and leather though I like the look of metal as trim more.

More on the the interior... it is SOO much better than the first gen interior just from a tactile and aesthetic point. It also feels less cramped and higher quality. They really ran with the design cues, and while the center stack speedo is really odd, it looks pretty decent. Satnav will move the speedo to a more traditional place with the rev counter on the steering.

All the controls and toggles were pretty similar to the old MINI so nothing really to report there. My car had the optional "keyless" access and start so you don't have to take the keys out of your pocket unlock or start the car. It's a pretty pricey option so I don't think most people will take it unless they're just going whole hog on options regardless of cost.

The car I drove had a "dual" sunroof with the front sunroof being tilt and sliding, rear was tilt only. Strange thing is that there is no full headliner on the sunshades for the roof, just a mesh to block to sunlight.

Anyways, onto the driver's portion of my "review." Lets start with the gearbox and gearing. Again, the tranny is nice and slick. Gearbox was butter smooth just like the previous 6 speed. The MAJOR difference between the new S and the outgoing is that the new trans is definitely geared to take advantage of the new turbo motor. The gearing is MUCH MUCH taller and you can definitely put down power with less fuss. I found that unlike the old S, you don't need to shift near as much and the ratios are spaced quite a bit further apart from a feel standpoint. I think 3-5 should be a tad closer together with 6th being a bit taller for higher speed highway cruise.

Onto the driver controls. The clutch... BETTER... PERIOD. The height is reduced and the dead pedal is comfortable and finally usable! Engagement still isn't quite as positive as I'd like but I do like a heavier pedal that others with weaker calves might not appreciate.

The steering wheel... My colleague mentioned that the steering wheel placement feels a tad off center from the seat... IT WAS!! That kind of annoyed me that the wheel wasn't directly dead center in front of my seat. Maybe because I didn't have the sport seats in the car but it was just ever so slightly off and it didn't quite feel right as I tried to push the car. But the drive by wire system seemed a tad odd with the weight of the wheel being about right. The lack of connection to the linkage was fairly evident though.

DSC and Sport mode did make a difference in the car. Unlike with the old Cooper S, the DSC isn't crappily intrusive. With Sport mode engaged, the turbo was allowed to spike a bit and give that nice shot of torque and DSC tended to manage it without killing too much fun. I turned it off though since I was well capable of push the car much faster with it off. I didn't really get a chance to test to see if the car had an LSD, but it felt open. Wheel hop was still present though not too severe and torque steer was extremely minimal. The throttle though... OMG, I STILL HATE ELECTRONIC THROTTLE!! The throttle program is pretty much the typical with low rpm lag and an abrupt throttle closing at redline. Throttle lag under heel-toe braking makes for uncrisp and jerky downshifts. I think it may be that it doesn't like blips with the clutch in and brake on. I did recall hearing that some manufacturers limit the max throttle opening when braking. Hopefully that will be addressed with production or with the Cooper Works / open source flash since left-foot braking is a great tool when driving a turbocharged car at the limit.

Well, we move on to the WHOA! pedal. And it definitely is a WHOA pedal now instead of a MUSH pedal. The brakes feel much improved in terms of communication, firmness, bite. No more need to stomp the living daylights out of the pedal to stop the car quickly. My Scoobie should have at least this level of braking feel, secure and confident stopping power properly engineered for the weight and power of the vehicle.

Handling? Thumbs up on both. Handling is terribly and wondrously improved. Suspension stroke to take on bumps! Even more chassis stiffness and a more planted compliant ride without sacrificing that MINI feel. And the car's tires are so much better suited to the task. You can now put power down and have some tractability through sweepers. The powerband is much wider now thanks to the turbocharged engine and it definitely outmatches the old S with better low range torque and high RPM power.

With all the improvements on the inside and a few nice touches to the instantly classic exterior thrown in a vastly improved driving experience without boats of stressful noise like the R53 Cooper S convertible I drove previous. If you want this kind of small car, don't hesitate to strongly consider it. Heck, it even gets good mileage when you're whomping on it.

Somehow I don't think the aftermarket and user community will be able to resist very long before they take advantage of the fact that this car is turbocharged. Boost controllers, downpipes, and bigger turbines oh my! I wonder if the OpenECU community can crack a BMW engine computer and reprogram that crap throttle.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Scoobie DOO!!

Yup... I STILL haven't bothered to take pictures of my 2006 WRX even after owning it for 5k miles a few months.

So, now that I've been driving it for a while and it's fairly broken in (finally on full synth motor oil), what do I think? Yeah, it was a good buy since I'm definitely using what its got. I'm using all 5 seats from time to time despite the smallish area in the back. And the gearbox is finally quite a bit smoother with much less of the initial crunchiness that most car journalists complained about. The 1-2 shift is still fairly crunchy though, not nearly as smooth as my Eagle Talon. I get no complaints about noise in the car... the engine is nice and quiet, ride is smooth and comfy without being too floaty or too harsh over bumps.

I've learned a lot about customization possibilities for the 06 WRX. It is a platform ripe with options and community support, not to mention cost is relatively low.

First installed item was a set of fender braces from Offensive Power. They're pretty much chassis reinforcement in the form of thick rolled steel bars replaced factory stamped steel wafers that are thin enough for me to bend without much effort.

They immediately stiffened the front end of the car and made it ride significantly better over rough pavement and feel more secure and predictable in the front. My brother said it got rid of "background noise" in the steering and handling. Well, it pretty much did that... with that "noise" being the sensation of chassis flex and warp coming back through the steering which is pretty communicative.

Power-wise, I'm looking forward to the near future. Hopefully, I'll be slapping a K&N filter with some tuning on a open source engine computer flash/logging utility ( and a nice downpipe with a QTP electric exhaust cutout. Currently, the car has plenty of power for passing though low-end throttle lag from the throttle-by-wire system does suck. A flash of the ECU should take care of that though. My brother still has not adapted to the lag of the throttle and still burns the clutch from time to time.

Handling is pretty well suited to what I want. The ability to fly through Manhattan streets with rally-bred precision and poise. The stock suspension seems to soak up the bumps pretty darn well. The response of the engine with the AWD drivetrain is pretty addictive. Mash and go... mash and go. No worrying about massive wheelspin, you know the car will grip and go.

I think with some more chassis bracing, sway bars, and the downpipe and maybe an Ebay top-mount intercooler, I think I'll be able to achieve near STi levels of power without any of the harshness of a real STi. I may even bite the bullet later and slap a fuel pump with a nice Mitsubishi turbocharger and equal length header to increase power and response well beyond factory STi levels.

And unlike the MINI, the interior feels solid and well-made with nice accents. Unlike the 7, the controls are ALL intuitive. And it doesn't need DSC. I'm definitely looking forward to comparing it to a 3 series.

Hangin with Mr. CooperS

And on this freakishly warm yet rainy December day, I took a red 2006 Cooper S convertible with a 6 speed manual for a spin. Yup, that's right... a convertible in the rain in December. Go figure.

Lets start with my first impressions after getting into the car. I immediately thought... hmm, pretty funky looking interior, it looks alright...

MAN! this seat is HIGH! Whoever was driving the knowledge car last must either be really short or like feeling disconnected from the road. So as a proceeded to adjust the seats, I obviously had to pull on various handles and turn a few knobs. Hmm, these handles don't feel that sturdy... they're "toyish"-ly cheap feeling. The seat itself as a standard Cooper S leather seat with heating which was pretty darn comfy for a BMW seat while still being relatively supportive.

Second thing I noticed other than the cheap feel of the interior controls, the noise! Maybe it was because I only drove relatively quiet cars like my Scoobie, the 7, a Jetta, a Camry... but the engine tone was pretty loud in comparison. It sounded decent, but the car seemed very much like all sound and fury signifying nothing. 7 seconds is not exactly head-snapping acceleration when even a land yacht (750Li) is out-accelerating you.

After I dropped the seat down and dropped the ebrake, I went to the gearshift and the clutch pedal. Oh the WONDERFULLY placed clutch pedal with ZERO space between the dead pedal and the VERY high clutch pedal. Pedal effort was pretty much par for the course, but the height... HIGH. I know I like sitting close to the steering wheel, but it just felt flat uncomfortable trying to squeeze my size 10 feet around high pedal onto the tiny dead pedal to rest. The clutch engaged fairly high but I'm not sure if that was typical or from abuse by folks that don't drive stick properly.

The gearbox was pretty friggin smooth. Quick and responsive upshifts and downshifts with heel-toe done really easily. I noticed a bit of crunch between the 1-2 which backed up my theory about people not driving it right. The gear ratio on the car was very tight for gears 1-5 so it was pretty easy to keep the car in the powerband. Also the gearing seemed VERY short probably to maximize the 3-5k RPM range where the engine seemed to have the best response.

The big problem was with keeping a front wheel drive with short gearing, a supercharger, overly skinny tires, and a rainy surface, planted to the ground so it can put power down. Umm... it couldn't and the DCS CONSTANTLY kicked in and pulled back throttle and slammed on brakes pretty severely. I turned the DSC off and the car was actually driveable in my hands with some judicious throttle control. Wheel hop and torque steer were constantly there but manageable since I have driven much more powerful FWD cars before.

And finally to the item that supposedly sets the Cooper apart from other cars. Handling. No real complaints here. Because of the arrangement of the wheels at each corner of the car, it did seem to feel toss-able and the softtop didn't take too much away from that. I noticed the lack of suspension travel and crap tires pretty quick. Also because of the height of the seats, it never quite felt that fast. But the stiffness of the chassis was totally present. Steering was clear and precise... but it did have a tendency for understeer like most FWD cars. Trailbraking helped a ton, but I could feel the crappiness of the stock tire setup holding the car's potential back by a LARGE amount. Brakes had good feel as well, though the pedal was a tad soft.

So, verdict? Umm, yet another NO. It's a MINI Cooper... and the R53 convertible feels too cheap for what you're paying (~$28k). Compared to the Miata with folding hardtop and other alternative small convertibles, there's just not even a question. Get something else for the NY metro area whether it's for top-down summer fun or year-round daily driver with a folding top. BMW makes a nicer convertible for just a bit more money and other companies make more focused cars that are cheaper, including MINI itself. I guess if you're a sucker for the styling...

My colleague offered me a go at the new 2007 Cooper S hardtop with the new turbo motor. I'm definitely going to hit him up and show him what it can do if I get the chance. I think his dog's not doing so well, so I might not see him for a bit... stay tuned.

Year end blitz... 7 end.

Well, I haven't really kept up with posting lately. Figure it's nearing the end of the year and I might as well post what's been happening with me.

I've had the chance to drive a few BMWs lately and I still haven't said much about the purchase of my 2006 Subaru WRX. I'll start with just a post about the 7. Then a post for the 2006 Cooper S convertible. Last, a post for a car I'm growing to love, my 2006 Scoobie Rex.

My drive of the 2006 BMW 750Li... The car that I drove had a nice set of the standard amenities but it wasn't totally packed to the gills. It had satnav, comfort seats, Steptronic, Comfort Access, and a few other niceties. I do have to say, for a big yacht of a car, it certainly would be a good choice for "sporty" luxobarge. Not that "barge" and "sport" should ever be considered together in a sentence.

SO first to the amenities... well, lets say IDrive (BMW's single dial computer navigation system) sucks. I know, it's supposed to make things simpler for the driver and I think configuring it takes a load of time. I can see it getting much easier if I was actually living with it, but when the learning curve on most other cars for the same function is light-years less and achieves the same results. Well, I don't think that's excusable. A simple button would have been GREAT to disable or enable DSC (Stability and traction control).

Enough about IDrive sucking, the sat nav worked... umm, yeah. Comfort access allows you not to have to take your key out of your pocket. Nice feature but not sure if it's worth the $$. Also, getting the car out of park and into drive wasn't intuitive like in the Mercedes S Class or even a Maybach. I actually had to crack the manual... and ALL my coworkers had no clue either. They either spend about 20 minutes figuring it out or cracked the manual like I did. Whiskey tango foxtrot?!

Onto my driving experience with the car. As before, I think the car handled exceptionally well for such a large and heavy car. It handled better than so-called sports sedans like the Maxima/Altima but you can definitely feel that weight. Also, the Steptronic (automanual) transmission did work quickly though it does feel quite disconnected at times. Steering and handling was fairly neutral with a definitely numbness to the feel. But I figure a tad bit of disconnectedness is expected from luxo-barge clientele. Otherwise, I think you'd be buying an M5 or a Maserati Quattroporte.

Acceleration in the car was brisk but not gut-wrenching. It has a decent chunk of power and the numbers say it is fairly quick with a nice warm fuzzy euro V8 pull. Nothing really to write home about, but it's definitely ample for passing and shooting quickly out of a corner.

Overall, I have to say... I'd never want to live with one. Sadly, I don't even think I would want to have one as an executive limo. It tries to be a electronic wonder with sport character and luxurious underpinnings. That's three things it's quite decent at, but it excels at none.