Thursday, December 31, 2015

ROADS WELL TRAVELLED

I get a lot of emails asking about the test routes I use here in South-East Queensland.


View from the Scenic Rim to Byron Bay, most easterly point of Australia
We are fortunate to live in one of the most interesting volcanic areas from Australia’s ancient history.
Volcanic plug in the Numinbah Valley
The result is a wide range of topographical conditions formed when the Tweed Volcano, a shield volcano, erupted around 23 million years ago in the Miocene period, after Australia broke away from the supercontinent of Gondwana.


Valley of the Tweed Volcano caldera

This makes for great test roads up and over the Barrier Ranges, created after the series of eruptions which then formed the rim of a vast caldera. Now called the ‘Scenic Rim’, it is populated mostly by small towns and villages, and both large and small farms.



Mazda 2 in the Numinbah Valley

Twisting between the landmarks over the valley floor of the caldera, are a range of beautiful, challenging roads, which provide a wide variety of driving conditions.

My crude map shows the remaining higher elevations with the red line, and the major towns are circled in green. My favourite test routes are marked in blue and black, but there are many more which criss-cross the area.
Mount Warning, originally named by Captain James Cook in 1770

Most visible remaining volcanic plug, which has resisted erosion, is Mount Warning (1156 metres/3793 ft). The elements of the base of the old volcano which remain and form ‘The Scenic Rim’ and are made up mostly of basalt.


Rainforest on O'Reilly's plateau
The basaltic soil in the caldera is excellent for agriculture, and supports a range of micro climates, and at the mid altitudes there are a number of rainforest areas, boasting many very important botanical species.
The original volcano was more than 100 km in diameter, and nearly twice the height of Mount Warning today. The resulting erosion caldera is listed as the largest in the southern hemisphere.


Western rim of the caldera

Interestingly, the western side of the scenic rim protects large areas of the plains inside caldera from the violent rain and thunderstorms which often sweep into south east Queensland from the south west. It is not unusual to witness major storms hitting the western side of the rim, and moving north, then north-east to strike the city of Brisbane, leaving the cities and towns of the Gold Coast untouched.

The area west of the Gold Coast to the Scenic Rim is known as the Hinterland and adds huge variety in both topography and attractions to complement the beachside community, which stretches 35km south from Southport to the state border of Queensland/New South Wales at Coolangatta.
The beach at Burleigh Heads, the eastern extremity of the Tweed volcano caldera

Monday, December 28, 2015

'M' MEANS 'MORE'

‘M’ also stands for MUNICH; ‘M’ stands for MOTORSPORT; ‘M’ stands for MASTERS. And BMW’s engineers are surely masters of ‘M’.



I’m in the BMW 330i Series Touring, and less than sixty seconds after moving off, I say: “I LIKE this.”

This car is uncannilly smooth from the get-go. The combination of well-sorted variable valve timing, turbocharger design and camshaft profiles  makes this easily the smoothest performer in its class. I'll write more about this in an upcoming post.



Sadly, the last BMW I officially tested was back in 2007, when I was invited to drive an M3 convertible.

We drove from Port Macquarie to Walcha, for lunch, and then back down the switchback mountain roads to our starting point – a round trip of 366km driving the Oxley Highway, up and down the Great Dividing Range.

It was a spectacular drive, over some of the most challenging roads in Australia, dodging timber jinkers and tourists. However, on the out leg, after climbing the range, the long, flat run into Walcha was a blast. I liked the M3 a lot.


This 330i Series Touring wagon carries an ‘M’ badge, but it’s just for show. This is not a full-blown M3 spec, just a touring wagon with a few ‘M’ accoutrements – like SatNav, leather seats and various bits of bling to jazz up what starts out as a pretty impressive package.



There’s another aspect to ‘M’ means More. The AUD$73,300 pricetag carries an additional AUD$3,564 for the bling and the ‘M’ badge, but in this funny old world of estimating ‘value’, I think it’s worth it. I LIKE this car.

There's a good reason why you pay a premium price for a premium car. The reason is the thousands of engineering man-hours to sort and refine the product. BMW's engineers are masters of the art of refinement.

I’m not sure I would want a faster, more expensive package. This one’ll do nicely thanks. On the road it’s smooth, handles precisely and the small, twin-scroll turbo pushes out 185 useful kilowatts. I wasn’t carrying a stopwatch, but when you floor the throttle the 330i Series Touring lifts its skirts and skedaddles, pronto! A GREAT exhaust note too!

The calibration of the ZF 8-speed auto is pure engineering magic. Every ratio, every shift is just RIGHT!



The latest trend for turbocharging four cylinder engines is also pumping out very impressive torque figures. In this case you get 350Nm across a very wide band. This Bee Emm is an easy car to like, power and torque when you need it and plenty of creature comforts.


The front seats hold you firmly, and the steering wheel is one of the best I’ve sampled lately.

The techy bits like iDrive, phone pairing and music streaming all work intuitively - which is more than I can say for BMW's pacesetting first attempts with iDrive. What a mess that was!



The rear seat legroom is impressive, given the 2.8m wheelbase. It’s not fine for ‘Lurch’ to stretch out, but adequate for us mere mortals.


The wagon’s flexibility with its multiple combination of folding rear seatbacks is very impressive, and load space is 1500 litres with the seats dropped.


I have to pay a compliment to the electro-mechanical steering. It's very precise, and gives terrific feedback.


All up, I am amazed that BMW can continue to refine its basic concepts so successfully, year after year. I loved the 2007 M3, but this 330i is yet another dimension in refinement and driving pleasure.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

SEASON'S GREETINGS, FROM DOWN UNDER

Here it is, Christmas again. And here we are celebrating in either snow or sun. 

It’s time like this I think back to Christmas in North America, and heading home to an estate covered in snow. 

But, also a snug house and the warmth of the open fire. 

This could well be the road home of any of the Christmases we celebrated in New Jersey and Michigan, when it usually began snowing around Thanksgiving in late November.


My Passat company car, with all-wheel-drive, was a blessing in these conditions. 

Mind you, the snow plough was never far away.


However, here I am retired and living in Australia, and my thoughts turn to having Christmas on the beach at Surfers Paradise.
Sharing waves with all the other keen surfers.
Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year from
Driving & Life.

Monday, December 21, 2015

CAPTURING ELEGANCE - CARS IN CARMEL


Every year in the middle of August automotive aficionados gather on California’s Monterey Peninsula for the annual festival of car lust.
The Late, Great, Phil Hill in a Ferrari Dino at Laguna Seca
There’s classic auto races at Laguna Seca; Gordon McCall’s Motorworks at the executive jet airport; an Italian car bordello at Blackhawk Golf Club; The Quail - A Motorsport Gathering at Quail Lodge; the various car auctions; and of course the crown jewel: the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on Sunday.
The Lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance

Big Sur, on the Pacific Coast Highway
If you drive north up from Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, via Big Sur, it could take you about 7 hours. From San Francisco, south, it’s just over two hours.




Entry fees for attending all of these events these days will pretty much empty your bank balance, but the regulars know this and arrive with packed wallets, plus loads of enthusiasm to dampen the inevitable loss of money.


Mind you, events like The Quail sell out in five hours or less, and the numbers there are limited to 3,000 only. So, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, if it’s sold out, you ain’t going!


However, if you happen to be in the area, and unwilling to shell out hundreds of dollars to attend the main events, there are a couple of great opportunities to hang around the edges and soak up some great automotive gems.


The streets of Monterey are loaded with exotic cars from Wednesday onwards, and most of the auctions are free to attend – where you will see some of the most spectacular cars in the world offered for sale.


However, the one event I think is worth watching out for is the Friday gathering in the beautiful Carmel-By-Sea, just 15 minutes down the PCH, south from Monterey.

The Tour d’Elegance is essentially a parade of all the cars you will see ‘on the lawn’ at the Pebble Beach Golf Course on the Sunday.

All the cars to be exhibited at Pebble Beach must be driveable (no trailer queens here), so they all gather to take a run around the 17 Mile Drive, ending in the streets of Carmel-By-Sea about lunchtime Friday.
A windswept Monterey Pine on the 17 Mile Drive


Here you can rock up for free and amble among the cars, meet the owners, chat with enthusiasts and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a great gathering in a great place.


I first went to Carmel in 1990 and have never missed a year (up until I retired in 2006). It’s a very casual and laid back affair, just wandering the closed-off streets catching the car bug, and hanging out with the locals, who don’t seem to mind that one day a year they can’t drive through town.



Of course you can also check out the galleries, and the restaurants (which are all great). My favourite is 'The Grill' (below)






You can also just wander along the pretty streets with dog walkers and car nuts.


The little specialty shops will also make a grab for your wallet, but the stuff on sale are more than chotchkies for the mantelpiece.

They seem to stock the most tasteful and unusual mementos, and of course the whole Carmel ambience really has to be experienced, to see why the town attracts visitors from all over the world.


Certified Car Nut - Sir Michael Kadoorie
Millionaire car buff, Sir Michael Kadoorie, whom I’ve been delighted to know for many years is a regular participant in Monterey, and in fact houses some of his priceless car collection nearby in Quail Heights.

He says Monterey in August is his favourite time of year. His delightful PA, Christine, tells me his diary is blocked for August – he wouldn’t miss it for anything.


So, that should be enough encouragement to catch the car lust in Carmel.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

KIA SORENTO SUV - Simply Unsurpassed Value!


It’s big, it’s fast, has great road presence – but it’s no sports car!



However, what it does well is: it drives like a car, not the hulking big SUV it appears to be.

The secret is that it doesn’t start life like your normal SUV. In the joint family of Hyundai-Kia models, you may assume that the Sorento starts life built on the Hyundai Santa Fe SUV platform – but that would make an ass out of you and me.


So, is this a ‘new build’? Well, yes it is, but with a different approach.

Kia boxed clever with the 2016 Sorento, by basing it on the wildly successful Kia Carnival MPV. That’s why this large SUV drives more like a car, and that quite frankly lifts it head and shoulders over its main competitors, like the said Santa Fe; plus the Toyota Kluger, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder and Holden Captiva 7.
Outstanding interior finish and great equipment levels emphasize the Sorento's value-for-money pricing

My own comparison test for how well an SUV drives is the Ford Territory Diesel – which in my opinion is a world class car! The Sorento compares strongly to my own personal champion.

Sorento's 2.2L turbocharged diesel and six-speed auto are wonderfully-matched for cruising. There's even a noise-insulating cover for the timing belt to reduce NVH!

The Sorento’s challengers listed above, are compiled by Kia Motors Australia, all of them in the segment occupied by Sorento – but sincerely, I would rank the Kia alongside the famed Audi Q7.


I’m the first to admit the Kia doesn’t have the cachet of the Audi, but if commonsense counts for anything, you get an outstanding, well-built SUV for around AUD$57,000 up against the German import price-tagged over AUD$100K!

That’s why the roomy, seven-seat Kia Sorento won the Car of The Year prize from Cars Guide here in Australia. It is outstanding value! And, yes, it is THAT good!





I cannot emphasize too strongly the improvement in the quality of the materials, the fit, the finish and the attention to details.

This is a company of people who are learning fast, paying attention to global competitive standards, and delivering!



As a bonus, the Sorento was designed by ex-Audi designer, Peter Schreyer – that’s got to count for something in a comparison with the Q7.



A nice touch - the Schreyer-designed 'Diamond Grille'. Haven't we seen this idea before?
However, moving away from parochial geographical considerations for a moment helps you understand just why this latest SUV from Kia is so good. Yes, it’s got segment competitors in every market it sells in, but the key to its fit, finish and quality are its American competitors.

The feel and finish is great!
The U.S. is a huge market for SUVs and up against the established strong local players from GM, Ford and Chrysler, Kia decided it had to go all out to beat its Yankee competitors.
It's not just great materials, but brand-name equipment like the Infinity audio system!

The fiercely competitive SUV market in the USA is almost 2 million units a year, so even 10% or 5% of that market makes the massive investment Kia has made in tooling; higher quality materials; testing and tuning for the new Sorento, worth it! YTD SUV sales in the USA were up 10.4% to around 1.5 million.

In its segment in the USA, Kia’s Sorento is beaten by strong, well-established Japanese competitors from Honda, Nissan and Toyota, and even its stablemate the Hyundai Santa Fe. So, commercial pressure dictated a bigger spend, a better vehicle and already that’s paying off with US car reviewers ranking the Sorento way out in front on fit, finish, ride comfort and ease of driving.


I think this investment will pay off big time for Kia in Australia too, because the company is steadily driving towards a perception of offering premium vehicles plus value for money – a market spot it has coveted for a long time.


Coming soon on Driving & Life is a review of the Kia Optima GT sedan, which further underscores Kia Motors’ serious attempt to shift buyer perceptions from ’cheap Korean’ to ‘Quality Competitor’