What’s wrong with the WRX STI?

April 30th, 2008 by darren

I owned a version 4 Subaru Impreza WRX STI. It was my favourite car. We did a lot together – over 200 laps of Pukekohe, track days, grasskhanas, motorkhanas, etc. It never missed a beat and I really did give it a hammering. You can even see me in it in the video High Octane 2000 (that shows my age a bit).

So why has the version 10 STI I’ve got with only 7500km started to show its age? Surely journalists couldn’t inflict the type of abuse I wreaked on my faithful steed? Well, maybe so. This particular car has seen quite a few laps of Taupo (some of them at my hands). It’s been through a dealer launch programme as well. It already creaks, and it sounds like it needs a new wheel bearing. In fact, I’d say that this would have had a major hammering at every possible opportunity. The temptation is quite high, of course – it’s very very quick, and it hugs the road like it is the love of its life and is leaving for a very long trip and may never come back.

It’d be nothing that couldn’t be put right with a few hundred dollars, but it’s a good reason not to really consider whether you buy a high performance car that’s ex-demo!

WRX STI in the house

April 29th, 2008 by darren

After boxing my eardrums with the extreme subwoofer competence of the Hummer H3 I am now listening to the throbbing boxer engine of the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. In blue. However, I’m disappointed. Not in the performance, but in the fact that this version 10 STI does not have gold wheels like my version 4 had. Yes, I know that Subaru has moved away from the blue/gold combination, but it is an iconic colour scheme – part of recognisable Subaru branding, and therefore a mistake to ignore it, in my opinion.

We’ll have a review to you as soon as possible – the rain needs to let up first so that I can get some photos.

Hummer H3 Luxury 2008 Review

April 27th, 2008 by Darren Cottingham

Hummer H3 Luxury fq

In 1961 Edward Norton Lorenz was a weather researcher and was using numerical computer models to generate weather predictions. Taking a shortcut he entered 0.506 instead of 0.506127 — barely a difference in the number — but the computer spat out a completely different weather scenario. This led one meteorologist to remark that “one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” Since then Lorenz substituted seagull with the more delicate and poetic butterfly, and the phenomenon of these sensitive dependencies in chaos theory has become known as the butterfly effect.

So, if one flap of a butterfly’s wings might be capable of creating a tornado in Texas, driving the rather unaerodynamic Hummer H3 three kilometres is probably capable of causing a distant galaxy to be blasted to pieces by a supernova. That sounds far more palatable than a twister in the Deep South — no danger to humans.

Hummer’s original High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, or Hum-Vee) military vehicle was a danger to humans: humans in armed forces opposed to America. The H3 is the third in Hummer’s lineup of cars derived from its original military Hum-Vee. The H1 was a direct derivative but without armour or weapons mounts. The H2 is slightly narrower and lighter than the H1, but taller and longer. The H3 is smaller than both the H1 and H2, and a similar size to many large SUVs available in New Zealand today such as the Mitsubishi Pajero and Toyota Land Cruiser.

You might not believe the actual size from the photos, but it’s because an optical illusion is created by the small windows. It’s almost like the Hummer has been given a hot rod chop. While this undoubtedly looks cool, it does create some problems with blindspots at the side, and poor rearward visibility. GM could solve the side blindspot easily by providing convex glass in the wing mirrors as opposed to the standard flat mirror.

Our test H3 is the Luxury model with full leather interior, heated electrically adjustable front seats, a six-CD stereo with a subwoofer that will rattle other cars’ windscreens, cruise control and a sunroof.

Despite the size, the Hummer does not feel cavernous inside, and it’s because the floor is high, and almost everything is black. The seats are made for comfort with plenty of support and lots of arm room.

An electrochromatic rearview mirror with eight-point compass and outside temperature display sits further away from you than you’d imagine because of the deep dashboard.

Driving is not as daunting as it may first seem. Sure, you have to be a bit more careful because it doesn’t handle like a car and it’s the same width as the Amazon, but it’s not like driving a truck either. Because you can see well ahead due to the elevated driving position, anticipating the road is easy, and you’ll find yourself cruising through the suburbs with ease.

Every political or social movement needs an icon to pillory and unfortunately Hummer is the one for the environmentalists. Granted, the first two iterations were fairly thirsty and a very visible symbol of American largesse and military activity.

Still, I thought it would be funny do drive the H3 to a gig we played on Saturday at the Kahikatea Eco Village in Albany. A great deal of juxtapositional mirth was had by several of us as we debated what reaction it would get. I was armed with facts and figures because this new H3 is no heavier or bigger than some other SUVs available in New Zealand, and has an inline five-cylinder 3.7-litre VORTEC engine producing 180kW and 328Nm of torque as opposed to an enormous V8. With the five-speed manual transmission (available on the H3 and H3 Adventure) Hummer quotes fuel economy of 13.7l/100km, and 14.5l/100km with the four-speed auto ‘box that comes with the Luxury model. So, it’s not a diesel Polo, but you can’t pull over 2000kg with a diesel Polo, or carry 430kg of cargo inside.

While it looks large, because of the high floor pan needed to afford the H3 its excellent ground clearance and approach/departure angles the cargo volume is slightly less than the Mitsubishi Outlander, which is a medium-sized SUV. The ground clearance is 219mm (6mm less than a Mitsubishi Pajero), but the departure angle at 35.7 degrees is a full 10 degrees better. The approach and breakover angles are one degree better at 37.5 degrees and 23.5 degrees respectively. But it loses out on towing ability, only capable of 2040kg, as opposed to the Pajero’s 3500kg.

There might be some more ‘sensible’ options when it comes to purchasing a vehicle, but there are not many that have the iconic image of the Hummer. The Americans have had the H3 since 2005, and it’s about time it came to New Zealand. If you’re buying a Hummer you are buying it for its image and/or its exceptional off-road ability. There’s a certain feeling you get when driving it — you know it can handle the rough stuff, with its ability to climb a 60-degree slope and wade through water 0.6m deep. So if that tornado ever comes over from Texas, the Hummer would just keep driving straight on through it.

Hummer has a very useful online configurator at www.hummernewzealand.co.nz.

Price: H3 Luxury from $70,990 (base model H3 from $61,990)

What we like

  • It’s the iconic off-roader, and with ability to live up to its reputation
  • Good rear legroom
  • Lots of width
  • Stereo is meaty
  • You’re the centre of attention (most of it good, fortunately)

What we don’t like

  • No boot blind
  • Cabin feels a bit cramped (not so bad with the sunroof open, though)
  • Should be able to tow more — Pajero does 3500kg, for example
  • Visibility compromised

Words Darren Cottingham, photos Dan Wakelin

It’s official: I am soft.

April 24th, 2008 by darren

Last night I drove a 1975 Porsche 911S. I’m reviewing it for the next Classic Car. When I got out of the Porsche and back into the Subaru Forester, driving the Forester was like having a warm milk bath while being caressed by nubile young Egyptian women. The Porsche required a right thigh like a sprinter and forearms like a wrestler. Not only that, but the 911S was left-hand drive, so it’s the first time I’ve had to change gears with my right hand since racing Formula V about 8 years ago. The Forester is relaxing to the extreme in comparison (imagine what it would have been like if I’d had the Mercedes C220!)

So driving a classic Porsche is like a badge of honour saying that you’re hard enough. Well, I’m afraid that, while I see its fun appeal, I’m probably a bit soft.

Are press cars making me soft?

April 23rd, 2008 by darren

Let’s go back 5 years: I was a die-hard close-ratio gearbox manual kind of guy. Swapping cogs while exercising my left leg was my deity-given right as a motorist, and I relished heel-toeing the throttle on the downshifts. But am I now turning into a bit of a slushmatic-driving softy? Most of the press cars I get are autos. They’re easy to drive in Auckland’s traffic, and I can annoy other motorists by talking on my cellphone while continuing to maintain at least one hand in contact with the wheel.

I picked up a Subaru Forester yesterday. It’s manual, it’s not like it’s got the hugest amount of power, and my brain is now thinking, “Darren, you’ve had a hard day at work, you don’t need to change gears.” The voice in my head is soothing. Hang on, isn’t part of the fun of driving changing gears? Isn’t the driver’s responsibility to be in the right gear at the right time one of the skills of driving that one works hard to acquire? Isn’t it even something that keeps you alert, gives you options, and enables you to drive more fuel efficiently if you so please? It is. I must fight human nature to take the easy road. Gear changing is fun. Gear changing is manly. OK, I might have gone a bit too far with the manly thing.

Our cars are becoming more and more like computer games. Losing the need to change gears is removing the driver from the car by one step.

Mitsbushi Outlander XLS 2007 Review

April 23rd, 2008 by Darren Cottingham

Mitsubishi Outlander VR-X fq

In a society where women are having children later in life, and less of them, why is it that cars and SUVs with lots of seats are selling so well? The SUV and premium SUV market has shown huge growth at the expense of the large car market.

Manufacturers even bring out vehicles with seating for eight! With declining birth rates amongst the moneyed demographic, you’d think that seven-seat SUVs costing forty to fifty grand would sell like bikinis in Iceland. But that’s not the case. The best selling SUV in 2007 was the Mitsubishi Outlander and it sold 1665 units, more than many cars. All but the base 2.4-litre has seven seats. Why did it sell so well?

My theory is that we may be having less children (in my case, zero), but we’re making up for our kids’ lack of siblings by carting everyone else’s kids to soccer/netball/rugby/ballet practice. Of course, it makes sense. Firstly we want to carpool because it’s good for ‘the environment’. Secondly, people are busy so can’t always get their kids to wherever they need to be, and the back of someone else’s SUV is a safe enough place to be — they’re in the hands of a responsible adult; they’re twelve feet off the ground; they’re surrounded by ultra-reinforced, missile-proof high-tensile steel, and cushioned by airbags. So it seems.

This Outlander V6 XLS is perfect for delivering Timmy and Penelope to ballet and go-karting, respectively (this is the 21st Century). It’s also great for their friends. And yours.

Part of its success will be the fact that it is one of the better looking SUVs on the market. It’s not overly imposing — almost the transition between something like an Audi allroad or Subaru Outback, and a big chunky SUV like the Pajero.

The Outlander has some useful off-road features. In normal road driving, 2WD is sufficient, and the rear wheels coast. When AWD Auto is selected the rear wheels are only called upon when the fronts start struggling. AWD Lock ensures all wheels are propelling the car with an optimum level of torque. If one wheel begins to slip the Outlander’s Active Stability Control (traction control) will apply the brakes to the spinning wheel and transfer torque to the remaining three wheels. The modes can be changed while driving.

The eighteen-inch wheels are wrapped in 225/55R18 tyres and transmit to the road the 280Nm of torque and 165kW generated from the 3-litre V6 MIVEC engine with INVECS-II six-speed transmission. This can be left in auto or used in sequential sports mode using either the gearstick or paddle shifters mounted on the steering column. INVECS-II monitors the driver’s driving style, adjusting the gears to suit. Drivers who prefer a sportier feel with later upshifts and earlier downshifts will find the Outlander responds well.

Combined with MacPherson strut front suspension and a trailing arm multilink arrangement (with mono-tube shocks like on the Evo IX) at the rear, the Outlander feels lively, though you are still aware that the seating position is high and you are in an SUV. Mitsubishi has undertaken weight saving measures such as an aluminium roof to reduce body roll and the centre of gravity.

The Outlander is also designed with some features useful for towing such as self-levelling headlights. The third row of seats folds flat into the floor giving a good load space of 882 litres, and for those carrying extra large loads the second row of seats folds forwards to give almost 1700 litres of load space. A split tailgate adds versatility. The top of the gate opens upwards for quick access to luggage without the risk of carefully packed items spilling out. The lower portion of the tailgate can be lowered to floor level giving more luggage accessibility for large loads. And it can be used as a seat.

Mitsubishi obviously expects purchasers to be carrying legions of ‘young adults’ because the apparently the ceiling is made to absorb and break down annoying interior smells. There is also a large amount of sound deadening to keep the interior isolated from road noise, optimising the sound of the nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate stereo. A subwoofer is housed in the rear of the Outlander. Curtain airbags accompany the dual driver/passenger front and side airbags.

Predictably the V6 is not frugal, but it does offer a large dollop of overtaking power and excellent cruising characteristics. Mitsubishi quotes 10.9l/100km. We achieved 12.1l/100km average on two typical runs incorporating city and motorway driving in fairly light traffic. Using the cruise control and perhaps a less hilly route would likely bring our figure more in line with Mitsubishi’s.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why the Outlander is very popular. Attractive styling, sensible price, plenty of interior room both for passengers and luggage, and an engine selection to match a wide range of driver requirements should see it maintain a position at or near the top for a while.

Price: 3.0 XLS from $44,990 (base model 2.4 LS from $34,990)

What we like

  • Versatile
  • Comfortable
  • Lots of legroom
  • Good styling

What we don’t like

  • Easy to provoke the traction control in 2WD
  • V6 is predictably thirsty — we couldn’t achieve the quoted 10.9l/100km

Words and photos Darren Cottingham



type: 3.0L V6 MIVEC

compression ratio: 9.5:1

displacement: 2998

bore and stroke:  87.6 x 82.9

max power DIN (kw/rpm): 165/6250

max torque DIN (Nm/rpm): 280/4000

valves: 24


type: 6-speed A/T with Sport Mode

gear ratio range: 4.199 – 0.685

rev: 3.457

final: 3.571


fuel tank size – litres: 60

fuel type: unleaded regular


wheel type: alloy

wheel size: 18″

tyre size: 225/55R18 97H

spare wheel and tyre: space saver type


front suspension: macpherson strut with coil spring and stabiliser

rear suspension: multi-link with stabiliser


power steering rack and pinion type


ABS brakes with EBD (electronic brake distribution)

front – disc 16″ ventilated

rear – disc 16″ drum in


overall length – mm: 4640
overall width – mm: 1800
overall height – mm (with roof rails): 1720
wheelbase – mm: 2670
track front – mm: 1540
track rear – mm: 1540
ground clearance – mm: 215
turning circle – m: 10.6
kerb weight – kg: 1695
gross vehicle weight – kg: 2335
seating capacity – persons: 7
cargo room length (seat down) – mm: 1030
cargo room length (seat up) – mm: 1650
cargo room width – mm: 1335
cargo room height – mm: 1020 (with
cargo volume – litres
(5 seats up – no third row): 882
(2 seats up – 2nd row flat): 1691

Subaru plus Toyota. Will it be disastrous for the Subaru brand?

April 22nd, 2008 by darren

In New Zealand Subaru only deals with all-wheel drive cars. The symmetrical all-wheel drive is the brand’s key market positioning statement. So, what’s Subaru doing with Toyota developing a rear-wheel drive platform? Sure, Subaru’s got the R1e electric car – all manufacturers have to have one of those, and you wouldn’t put four-wheel drive in it because it would be an unnecessary drain on the battery, making your electric car seem inefficient compared to others.

Will it all end in tears? Probably not. Toyota may badge any joint venture with its name, or create a whole new name. After all, symmetrical rear-wheel drive just doesn’t have the same ring about it.

Ariel Atom 3 2008 Review

April 22nd, 2008 by Darren Cottingham

Ariel Atom 3 rq

The Ariel Atom is like Michael Jackson. It’s wacky, highly talented and is capable of the most captivating sounds. It’s bad. It grabs its crotch and moonwalks off into the distance at obscene speeds. The Atom will also most definitely grab you by the metaphorical cajones. Hard. That’s because the Atom is a true thriller: it is as raw an experience as you’d have in any car.

And everyone looks. The majority of the non-suicidal at least gawp, if not beam from ear-to-ear. In fact, it attracted so much attention that a lad who must have been all of 16 ran into the back of another car smashing his headlight because he wasn’t looking what he was doing.

So, the Atom is dangerous to others. What’s it like for the driver? The Atom demonstrates how little you need in a road car. Driving the Atom is like being able to look at your body while exercising and see all your muscles and tendons straining. It doesn’t have carpets, a windscreen, a stereo, doors, a roof, a heater or skin. But, it has plenty of air conditioning (depending on how fast you are driving.)

It’s not advised to drive at any significant speed without a helmet. Wind buffeting it at 100kph plus the lateral g-force you can pull around a corner are excellent for testing the quality of your neck muscles.

This third-generation Atom is more refined than the original Atom I drove back in 2005. That was even more exhilarating and raw. There’s a new 245hp two-litre Honda i-VTEC engine from the Civic Type-R with twin balancing shafts and new engine mounts that makes it smoother.

It will still shake your body as it doesn’t stop the vibration completely. Though, according to NASA vibrations increase bone density – perfect for osteoporosis sufferers, then? Perhaps not as to get into the car one has to clamber over what looks like two rungs of scaffold to sink inelegantly into the moulded plastic driver’s seat. You can’t even do it Bo and Luke Duke-style because there are no door frames to hold onto as you slide in.

What you can do Duke-style is hang the back end out if you so desire. The Atom is perfectly balanced and because you can see what the wheels are doing on the road it’s a natural feeling to counter-steer away any tail happy shenanigans (or keep them going for longer – don’t stop ’til you get enough!)

The Atom is so communicative it makes you feel like you are not alone on the road, holding your hand over ever minute ripple in the tarmac. The cornering prowess is achieved by firstly weighing around one-third of a Porsche 911. Secondly the suspension is a serious piece of kit, and you can see it working as you are driving. Double unequal length wishbones, pushrod-operated inboard dampers, adjustable outboard rod ends, lightweight fabricated uprights, and the ability to adjust ride height, toe and camber mean that the Atom can be set up for road or track quickly.

Components come from top companies such as Willwood, Bilstein, Eibach, Alcon and more. The brake bias is adjustable just like a proper racecar, and the red knob that achieves this is situated on the instrument cluster just beneath the switch for the indicators (which is like a motorbike switch so you have to cancel it manually.)

There are a lot of detail changes from the Atom 2, the most noticeable of which are that the diagonals in the frame run the opposite direction to give more interior room. This also seems to reduce the turbulence in the footwell — my trouser legs didn’t get blown upwards like they did in the version 1. There also seems to be a better build quality with the welds neater, and the car looking tidier in its exposed innards.

But you won’t be looking at this when you bury the accelerator because vision becomes blurry and full concentration is required on the road. I have been in faster cars, but none so tractable on the road. The Honda’s VTEC engine screams behind your head to beyond 8000rpm, tickling your ear canals between each rapid gearshift. The suede covered steering wheel is small, and the turning circle is worse than an SUV — just like a real race car.

In fact, the Atom has all the advantages of a car (stability, safety and no need for a separate motorbike license) with the performance of a seriously quick motorbike. But, it also has the disadvantages of the two: you’re exposed to the elements (and the smells) of the road and you can’t weave through rush hour traffic; there’s only enough storage for a small batch of muffins, and you can’t park it as easily as a motorbike.

Can you find justification for an Atom, then? If you have a motorbike license, you’ll probably stick with a motorbike. But, for track-day junkies, motoring enthusiasts, and those who want to be quite unique on the road in a machine that gives a satisfying driving experience you’re picking from a short list of options in New Zealand (basically Fraser, Saker, Lotus Exige, or Carver). Any one of these cars will give you a hell of a lot of fun, but none quite like the Atom.

Price: Expect to pay upwards of $90,000 and have a 12-15-month wait

What we like

  • You’re the centre of attention
  • All the advantages of a car and motorbike combined
  • Performance
  • If you’re insane enough you can have a supercharged one, and if you’re really insane you can have a V8 and wings!

What we don’t like

  • All the disadvantages of a car and motorbike combined
  • No real usable storage
  • Rain and following old diesel vehicles

Words and photos Darren Cottingham

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