Friday, June 17, 2011

2001 Monte Carlo SS

The turn of the millennium was a time that involved a lot of change. Major terrorist events took headlines but the significantly less interesting back story was the slow fall of the American auto makers. The big three (GM, Chrysler, Ford) have been losing market share consistently for a long time. Each auto maker would begin implementing long over-due plans to rehabilitate there company over the coming decade. In 2011 we can see Ford's solution was most successful as both General Motors and Chrysler entered a form of bankruptcy requiring government aid to stay alive. 

The 2001 Monte Carlo SS was produced from a struggling General Motors. The peculiar thing is that its build quality isn't where I encountered any issues. I found the cars short comings to be evident in its design. I remember when the car was brand new it was a desirable, sexy car and even a status symbol. Perhaps my perception of the car suffered along with GM's public reputation. The design is the polar opposite of timeless as it quickly became dated in looks and feel. It was no longer cool to drive a big comfy low slung car(Ford Thunderbird revival failed to further that point) when SUV's were made in so many variations. The Monte might have fared better if it had a sporting nature to suit its coupe styling but it didn't. It really was a car aimed at pleasing people partial to big late 70's-early 80's coupe's. It's a very comfortable car and could corner adequately but the under-steer at the limit and the flat un-supportive "luxurious" leather seats don't work well in sports driving situations. The power was decent at 200hp and 225ft.lbs fed from a 3.8 OHV V6 to the ground through a 4 speed automatic transmission. The transmission is another source of agony for anyone looking for a hint of performance from their "SS" model. It is slow and squishy(like the suspension) almost certainly aimed at pleasing the now elderly spines reminiscing about the SS models of the 60's. The car surprisingly returns great gas mileage. I was consistently finding myself getting 20mpg in primarily city driving and along a long road trip when the car was 10 years old & had 130,000kms I still received an honest 30mpg. Incredible numbers considering the car's size. Credit goes to the 3.8 Series II V6 engine which is arguable the most reliable engine GM produced to that date. The real cause of the great highway mileage must have something to do with NASCAR inspired aerodynamics. The one real issue with this car resides in how it is not as advertised. Along with a lot of SS models of this generation(Cobalt, FWD Impalas) the SS badge is used to sell a few performance improvements. In previous generations the SS badge represented something that was a world away from the standard car. The extra 20hp you get in the 01' SS monte only manages to compensate for the extra weight added over the base LT model with leather, Bose stereo, and a sunroof. The Monte Carlo SS isn't by any means a performance variant but merely the top "luxury" model. To the cars credit, so long as it is considered in a different light it is a successful bargain luxury coupe.

The upside to owning the confused Chevy is that it is a reliable efficient land yacht. It really should read "SS Monte Carlo" on the Bow and not the other way around! I point out the cars size because as a coupe it is massive. It shares platforms with the full size Impala and as a 2-door has the wingspan of a mastodon! Be careful in parking lots. The trunk space is great, and you and your date could potentially fall witness to morning sickness after exploring the back seat head room together. It is also a comfy car almost designed specifically for long road trips. The only inconveniences you might find in owning the car day to day is as follows; rear seat entry(exit's worse), huge doors for tight parking spots, low ground clearance, approach angle and it is relatively boring to drive. The luxury features are all present if a bit second rate. The plastic dash and door panels steal from the feel of the interior but you do get all the bells and whistles possible for a $30,000 car in 2001. The list includes, stability control(futuristic at the time), automatic headlights, cruise control, Bose Hi-Def stereo, leather, heated seats, available OnStar, fog lights and power seats/mirrors/windows/sunroof.

Surprisingly from a then failing GM the Monte Carlo was a great car, suffering only from mistaken identity and a quickly dated design. I would recommend this car to a friend under the right circumstances. The car would have to be well taken car of and have low mileage given that it would be 10 years old at this time. I give the car a 7.5/10.

Monday, February 7, 2011

2004 Mazda RX-8 - Long Term Test

Mazda discontinued their very popular and refined RX7 because of the difficulty they had meeting ever tightening emissions standards with the very peculiar "Rotary" engine the car was famous for. The RX7 was priced to compete with Corvettes, Porsche 911s  and Honda NSXs. The market was shrinking and the high development costs it would take to refresh the RX7 to remain competitive led to its demise in 2002. Mazda did not want to lose their "Zoom Zoom" sporty persona and had another car in development scheduled for release in 2003 in Japan. The car in question, the new RX8, could be considered an improved RX7 on some fronts, but enthusiast have always considered it to be a watered down version. A mixed drink in comparison to a shot of Jack Daniels if you would? The new car (scheduled for release in 2004 outside Japan) would be a true sports car without any of the usual drawbacks offering compromises for day to day use.

The true genius of the car that made it to production was the rear half doors that allowed easy access to decent sized rear seats. This level of practicality has never been available in a sports car before. Where the RX7 had a twin turbo 2 rotor "Wankel" rotary engine producing 276hp, the new RX8 came equipped with a naturally aspirated 1300cc 2 rotor version. This new engine produced 197hp(4spd. auto)-238hp(6spd. manual) in North America. Named "Renesis" (Rotary-Genesis) due to how Mazda engineers went back to basics and re-thought every aspect of how a traditional rotary worked. The break-through that occurred was the relocation of the ports inside the engine. By placing them on the side of the rotors and not around the circumference, efficiency was improved and emissions drastically reduced. Rotary engines are known for being able to rev tremendously high and with buttery smoothness. This was not lost in development and the "Renesis" engine has a rev limiter set at an astronomical 10,000rpm. The engines ability to rev allows the final drive ratio for the car to be 4.444 to 1. This roughly translates to a 238hp car being able to keep up with a 300hp car at virtually every speed in the upper limits of each cars respective rpm range. At the time of the RX8's development the CEO of Mazda was a former race car driver and he would not settle for a car that handled well. It had to handle great. The first step to achieving this is reducing weight. The RX8 was able to keep chassis rigidity high and keep weight around the 3000lb mark. That is very low for a modern four passenger car. The placement of weight was carefully managed as well. Perfect handling is most easily achieved in cars with even weight distribution. The compact rotary power plant was packed deep under the hood well behind the front wheels, giving the car a perfect 50/50 Front/Rear weight distribution. With some fine tuning of the suspension geometry the car was ready to hit the track and the sales floor.

        After spending six months with the RX8 the cars character remains a pleasant surprise on even the most mundane errands. The first thing you notice about the car is the chaotic lines and angles the body panels create. There are curves where there are usually sharp edges and vice-versa. The front fenders seem almost reminiscent of the C3 Corvette. The looks of the car are not anything to write home about but after some time around the car they really do begin to infect your judgment. The only line that still perplexes me is the profile of the rear windshield. Its angle doesn't seem to fit with rest of the car. Perhaps a hatch-back rear windshield carried over from the RX7 would have worked.

It is the details in the design that Mazda can be proud of. The complexity of the tail/head lamps is definitely something that takes time to appreciate. This car has aged well and will be a classic even if it's not to the extent of the RX7.

        Stepping into the RX8 is something that points out how much Mazda wanted to impress. The design is welcoming and comfortable, yet isn't soft or boring. It feels like sitting in a brand new Rawlings baseball glove. The center console is a piano black glossy finish that leaves something to be desired with its shape. The big circular radio seems out of place even in a "rotary" powered car. The rotary influences that are well integrated are found in the "rotor" shape of the shift knob and of the hole in the headrests. Turning the key awakens the mysterious and magical engine which quickly settles to a futuristic "Wurring" idle under the hood. The gauges light up and present their simple layout. A big tachometer stands front and center with a digital speedometer in the un-used corner, perfect for quick glance readings. Analog fuel level, oil pressure and water temperature gauges grace the adjoining readouts. The location of the racing inspired billet pedals is ideal, especially for those that are familiar with heel-toe downshifting. The touch points are all made of high quality leather and billet which never fails to make the car feel more expensive. Some of the interior panels come up a bit short on reliability as the hard plastics on the transmission tunnel and glove box door seem to scratch easily. The 7 year old interior has stood the test of time well as everything works as it did new. The 9 speaker BOSE stereo still pounds out the tunes from an in-dash 6 CD changer and all the climate controls work great. None of the button/control markings show any signs of wear either. The higher transmission console gets in the way with larger objects some times and the opening in the rear seats to trunk is barely able to swallow a set of skis. Sorry to disappoint those of you that were considering the car for use as a cargo carrier but the trunk is below average as well. The seats are nicely adjustable and allow for anyone under 6'2 to fit comfortably. The rear seats are very accessible in comparison to other sports cars and they are quite roomy for the most part. Adults in the rear may have to sever their feet to fit in if a corresponding front passenger happens to be tall. The interior is where the owner spends the majority of there time with their car and the Mazda RX8 is a winner in that department on showmanship points alone.

        Releasing the emergency brake and engaging first is when the true nature of the RX8 zoom zooms to life. The shifter of this 7 year old car has a feel that is better than 99% of cars available today. It has positive engagement, great location, short throw and smooth operation. The emergency brake could just as easily be referred to as a "Drift engagement lever" due to its great "rally car-esk" positioning. Every trip in the car, no matter how old and fragile the passengers, always led me to a quick apex clipping corner and a stab of the throttle before shifting late. The RX8 is set up so superbly and has such an engaging drive that it never fails to bring a smile to the drivers face. The low gearing  and the willing revs of the engine are great for disguising the car briefly as a race car. Below 6,000rpm the car still pulls hard despite its low torque figures (169ft.lbs), which is nice for daily driving. The car sounds and feels nearly as racey below that 6,000rpm without destroying speed limits. It is definitively capable of breaking all speed limits known in North America when its in 8,000-10,000rpm sweet zone. The motor is so smooth Mazda has integrated a beep that sounds through the stereo at 9000rpm so the driver realizes shifting should soon follow. As for 0-60 times: after being driven for 7 years the numbers are oddly better than new. This RX8 remains stock but rotaries are rumored to improve power output slightly with age and proper maintenance. I measured a 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds and new the RX8 was listed around 6.5 seconds. Confused as to whether this was true or not I dug up this long term test from car and driver and they experienced the exact same phenomena: . The cornering of the car is great and precise even after the amount of time the chassis and suspension have been fighting with pot holes. Power slides are effortless and are as controllable as ever. It conjures up the teenager within when the rain/snow starts to fall.
November 26th the car saw its first snowfall. By February, 112cm had fallen.
       Owners will quickly halt all immature driving when they make their first trip to the tire shop. After 45,000kms the car needed a new set of shoes and the OEM Bridgestones cost roughly $2000 CAD to replace. The typical service at Mazda done every 3months costs $49 and includes a top up of all the fluids under the hood and an oil change. Many rotary owners report flooding their cars after shutting down the motor before it has a chance to warm up and lean out the fuel mixture. The situation requires a tow to Mazda in some cases and is a major inconvenience regardless. With the knowledge of this possibility I have avoided the issue by not shutting down the car when cold. Another interesting thing about rotary engines is how they have no internals that aren't part of the combustion chamber and therefore need oil carefully injected in to cool and protect moving components. Mazda techs recommend a top of with "conventional only" oil every second tank of gas. I found that the car uses roughly 1/3 of a quart between services at Mazda but it does vary based on the driving conditions. The fuel consumption is best described as dismal. The 1,300cc motor got me around in the 3029lb RX8 with an SUV-like average of 14.1L/100km (16.7MPG US). Mazda also recommends premium grade fuel for the RX8. Mazda issued a warranty extension on the internal components of the engine for all RX8s. Now warranty coverage is to 8 years 160,000kms meaning that virtually all RX8's will be covered until September of this year. Reliability overall has been nearly flawless. In 7 years and 56,000kms the only issue that has presented itself is the bottom two lines of the rear defroster have stopped melting ice. Seeing as the rear spoiler blocks that portion of view anyways, so it is of no concern. I do feel guilty putting such a well sorted sports car through a rough Atlantic Canada winter but it has taken it in stride. With a good set of Dunlop Graspic winter tires and steelies($1300CAN) the car has only gotten stuck as a result of the lump of meat in the driver seat getting over confident negotiating a snow plows mess.

        The car is usable as a daily driver and its quirky needs are easily manageable when compared to the rewards. The motor is heavenly smooth and power delivery is uniquely satisfying. (I once drove in 4th gear on the highway at 6500rpm for over 10min before I realized what gear I was in). The driving dynamics that make any great sports car enjoyable are present in this car. For someone to fully understand why it is worth dealing with the horrendous mileage and potential for flooding I can only recommend a test drive. You will understand. It is a great car regardless of its finicky nature and short fuse motor. I love it and recommend driving one.....but I wouldn't recommend one to a friend I care about. I give the car an 8.5/10

Fiero [Part 2] - The Fiero Today

        The Fiero is an intriguing car to own for a certain type of car guy. Every Fiero owner today has their own unique reason for buying one, as the car is somewhat peculiar. My particular reason involves the difficulty i had finding affordable car insurance whilst looking for my first car. When I came across a Fiero ad on the internet I gave my broker a call and asked him to give me a number to compare it to other "cheap to insure" vehicles. To my surprise a 4cyl. Fiero happened to be only $10 more annually than the cheapest vehicles I would ever consider owning. Even though the Fiero may be classified as a sports car by some insurance groups others offer a more forgiving rate since the car putters around with only 90hp. I wasn't completely sold on owning a car with so little to brag about, but even at a young age I new that I loved working on cars. I was aware of its downfalls, but more importantly the vast aftermarket and cult like following they had. I would only allow myself to be seen driving such an under-powered chick car if it was a stick-shift. The search commenced and in a short time I bought a 1986 "2M4" with 94,000kms. The insurance came in about where I expected at $373/month (17 year old male, clean record, cheapest car).

        I wanted to store the car for the first winter to save some dough for some new wheels and tires. With a young driver learning standard at the wheel, I stalled the car on the way to the storage depot. Sounds innocent enough but as I was turning the key to restart the car I was rear-ended by a distracted driver. After exchanging info I came to appreciate the toughness of the car. No doubt the foam in the bumper suffered but there was no visible damage of bumper displacement in what could have been whiplash inducing if I wasn't the manly man I am. I would come to find out that smaller cars are much more likely to be ignored on the road and miss-judged in parking lots.
My first car: a 1986 Pontiac Fiero 2M4
         The ownership process was new to me and a 21 year old Pontiac probably wasn't the smartest choice to ease me into that level of responsibility. I quickly learned how expensive a car like a Fiero can be. I was guilty of making the Fiero more expensive than it had to be. Every time the sun was out so was I, spending every bit of my disposable income on making that little Fiero as good a car as I could. I had a problem and I knew it. I would never stop, because I was never happy and the car could always use something. The big step I wanted most was an engine swap. It was obvious to me that the engine in that little all fiberglass car was it's only real weakness. The car became my "baby" and whatever I did to it had to be done right and a proper motor swap would keep my only car off the road too long. It would also cost more than double the cars value to be done correctly. I may be crazy and willing to spend, but I couldn't spend money I didn't have and wasn't "that crazy".

        Modifications aside, the car was a considerable burden to own daily. Fieros are not reliable by any automotive definition. I attribute most of the cars short-comings to the horribly designed 4cylinder "Iron Puke" as I like to call it. I never felt good pushing the ancient OHV motor, even after a rebuild and proper break in period. It was never running as smooth as I would have liked. There were quite a few problems I encountered with the car over the two years I owned it. The starter mounts cracked causing it to fall off; the engine burnt oil; the driver seat was rusted in place; all the shocks needed to be replaced and the emergency brake seized. I expected issues due solely to the cars age but the reality and the frequency of them were eye opening.

         The aspects of the Fiero that kept me coming back was the feeling it offers behind the wheel. There are few cars on the road that offer the same level of road feel as the Fiero. The light weight, standard transmission and lack of power steering made the car about as exciting and engaging as 90hp on four wheels can be. I drove that little car everywhere and enjoyed every minute in the drivers seat. It was frustratingly underpowered sometimes but I got slick with the stick and managed to have no trouble passing when I wanted. I will admit that I avoided any speed contests out of fear of losing and not from a strong sense to uphold public safety. The lack of anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control were things I liked about the Fiero. I learned how to drive in a car that allows the driver to control everything and I appreciate the experience I now have because of my old Fiero. Even in bad conditions the car encouraged the right foot to do its worst, despite the engine's noisy arguments.

My 1986 Pontiac Fiero 2M4
        The Fiero managed to become an old friend as it never left me stranded. It was difficult at times but kept me coming back because of the connection it manages to form with its driver. There is a reason why the Fiero has a cult following, and a reason why many Fiero owners go on to own more than one. The Fiero is the sort of car that an owner learns to love, but wouldn't recommend to a friend. I give it a 7/10

Sunday, February 6, 2011

1984-1988 Pontiac Fiero [Part 1]

1984 Fiero showroom poster

        In the mid 1980's the North American market was absent of any domestic small sports cars. The Fiat X1/9 had an interesting niche market all to itself as Porsche/VW had stopped production of their somewhat affordable mid engined "914" in 1976. The oil crisis of the late 1970's set the wheels in motion at GM. They wanted a car that could be marketed as an exciting yet economical sports car. This would mark the first mass produced "mid engine" American car. An all fiberglass body was a goal for production. The fiero essentially became the test bed for what would become GM's new division "Saturn" and their full line of fiberglass cars.

  In 1984 The Official Pace Car for the Indy 500 was a 4cyl. Fiero!
[ohioindy from Pennocks Fiero Forum]
       This release of the Pontiac Fiero came to light in September 1983. The "Iron duke" 2.5 4cyl OHV engine chosen to power the Fiero was chosen because of its fuel mileage. Along with great fuel economy servicing the cars was simple and cheap, due to the number of components shared with other common GM vehicles. The rear sub-frame which included the entire drive-train as well as suspension and brakes was a slightly modified version of the front clip from a J-Body GM(Pontiac Sunbird/Chevrolet Cavalier). The three models available in 84' were as follows; the base model "2M4"; the optioned "SE" and a limited production "Indy Pace Car Replica" model. The drive-trains available for all models consisted of the 92hp/ four banger fitted to either a 3speed slush box or a somewhat satisfying Muncie 4 speed manual. Fiero owners were happy with the way the car felt to drive. It wasn't a speed demon, which kept insurance rates down, but it handled great. This handling is attributed to the Fiero's weight of just under 2500lbs. For the time its sub-11 seconds zero to sixty acceleration was decent and with 35mpg available on the highway the Fiero was impressive. Initial acclaim for its nimble composure and handling was a welcome sight. It seemed like the little car was living up to what it had promised. Over 135,000 Fiero's were sold in it's debut year.

84' Fieros all had 92hp 2.5L OHV 4cyl.
New for 85' 140hp 2.8L OHV V6

         The car was receiving some criticism as it was being heralded as a "secretaries car". The fact was the Fiero appealed to women quite well and a considerable chunk of its new owners were women. The idea of a bigger engine was considered to be a remedy and was already in the works. In 1985 Fiero SE models and the all new GT models were available with a 140hp/ 2.8L OHV V6. This added some weight to the rear of the car but answered the call of the people who expected more from a mid engine sports car. Sales dipped lower in 1985 after reports of engine fires surfaced in the media. The cause of the engine fires was due to a mechanical failure when oil levels were low in the 4cyl. The bad media badly hurt the car's reputation and it would never fully recover. The positive news for this model year remained. The introduction of a true performance version in the GT was garnering respect amongst gear heads. The body panels were improved over 2M4 models and likened the car to the "official pace car" models. This would be the last year the GT was available in what would later be referred to as the "notchback" Fieros. The 4cylinder Fieros received a new 5-speed (Isuzu variant) transmission.

1988 "Fastback" Fiero GT
       In 1986 the Fiero was now available in 2 completely different body styles. The GT introduced the "fastback" Fiero to the world. Its was a remodel of the rear of the car and a true update to the overall look. The new tail-lights were accompanied with new "C-pillar sails". The new C-pillars did without artificial black Plexiglas rear side windows. Instead they were purely for aesthetics as they extended farther from the rear of the cabin for the illusion of a bigger car with more space and aerodynamics. Drive-trains remained the same with the exception of a 5-speeds becoming available mid year for the V6(Getrag variant). The Fiero was entering its 3rd year of production and news of the vehicles reliability issues were surfacing. With the previous bad media, the Fiero's days were numbered and sales would never again reach as high as they once were.

        Some Fiero aficionados today consider the Fiero's last year in production to be the car it should have been from day one if it was to be destined for success. It's a good argument because vast improvements were made in 1988. The suspension was re-designed along with the steering knuckles. The stance of the car also improved accordingly, helping its aesthetics. The option code for the improved suspension, might be recognized by fans of Pontiac's most successful sports car: the Trans Am. By checking "WS6" in the order form buyers received the best handling car the General had ever made with the exception of the new C4 Corvette. As a treat for minimalists Pontiac also offered the 1988 Fiero GT's performance features in a "notchback" body in the Fiero Formula.

        By this time the 1980's were winding down and the trend of the 1990's was expected to be larger SUVs and a resurgence of Trucks alike. Gas prices had loosened their choke hold on society and small cars would take a back seat to any larger models in development. In it's final year of production the greatest Fiero model year ever, a total of less than 27,000 units were sold.

To be continued...

2001 Chrysler Sebring LX V6

2001 Chrysler Sebring LXi
The 2001 Chrysler Sebring is a car that could have very well become a popular choice for cabbies around the world. Unfortunately they all seem to avoid Chrysler's products in comparison to similar Ford/GM vehicles. In a nutshell it is a mid-sized car that doesn't really stand out. Styling cues come from its bigger brother the 300M. The style suits the car nicely but does feel a bit bubbly. That can associate with the less desirable "Neon" model. Mechanically the car is a love child from the relationship between Chrysler and Mitsubishi. Good things have come from that relationship in the 1990's. Things such as the Dodge stealth(Mitsubishi 3000GT). What you get is a car with Chrysler's affordability and a bulletproof drive-train. The transverse mounted 2.7 liter V6 is derived from Mitsubishi's very successful 3.0l engine and in this configuration makes 200hp and 192 ft.lbs of torque. It puts that power to the ground through a, mundane and adequate 4 speed automatic that is best described as forgettable.
2.7L DOHC V6 - With 200hp it has that "Pep"

        Steering is a strong point as the chassis and suspension was well set up compared to similar sedans from that model year. It feels accurate but with little feedback. Consequently driving the Sebring is as engaging as having a conversation with a deaf centenarian. It takes anything you throw at it and has a slightly rewarding exhaust note but lacked the "seat of the pants" feel that should follow a heavy dose of right foot. As a daily driver it scores points for its cargo space and reliability. The rear seats fold down nicely and the trunk hinges do not take up any space inside. Four adults of normal size can fit comfortably, with the fifth person feeling a little pinched as would be expected in any none Cadillac. As for reliability: the car was subject to a teenager that had a plainly incorrect sense of entitlement driving the car on a daily basis for some time. You can imagine how "gentle" it was treated. Amazingly the Chrysler managed to stave off any reliability issues that a lesser vehicle might succumb to with abuse. It's unsuspected sharpness in self-inflicted emergencies will keep the car out of any police reports or insurance forms, which is important trait for a car piloted by a teen.

        The interior of the car has the type of plastic present that you would expect in an American entry level sedan from around the millennium. It stands the test of time well but is very mono-tone(void one strip of faux wood-grain) which makes every trip in the car feel just that little bit longer. A vehicle's interior is what you see 90% of the time and it should be the nice place that you want it to be for a long trip. I should mention that ride quality was adequate and can be described similarly to the vehicles transmission; average and forgettable.

        As a whole: the car offers no excitement and has few minor drawbacks. Those qualities alone should make it a smash hit with the Toyota crowd, but it suffers from the sort of depreciation you see with homes accidentally build over fault lines. It is no doubt that the depreciation is due to the emblem on the hood and the car's relation to dismal vehicles. Chrysler badges to this day draw up horrible unspeakable things in the minds of potential buyers. As a used car it could offer someone good value if it has been maintained well over the past decade and could easily go shoulder to shoulder with any of the respective competition from its day. Criticism aside, its a decent car that got good mileage, had surprising reliability and could do everything a sedan owner wants his car to do. I give it a 6.5/10.


As a genuine car guy, I am an amateur journalist interested in a way to share my views and opinions about cars to anyone. I hope to one day become a professional. In building a portfolio I welcome the opportunity to review vehicles and hope that I have an interesting and informative way of bringing that vehicle to life for readers. As an amatuer I would aslo like to welcome any constructive criticism. I hope to be constantly improving while being somewhat unique in delivery. As this will be my first post it will forever stand as the yard stick for which my improvement can be measured.

Wish me luck,


Myself & Chip Foose