Blogs: I know why New Zealand produces great racing drivers

New Zealand has a small pool of racing drivers and a small number of tracks compared to the USA and Europe. We have a small number of classes and series that don’t feature enormous numbers of races. There’s a reasonable selection of circuits, and it’s about to get better with Hampton Downs.  We do have a bit of a travelling logistical problem with the north and south islands, but it’s not like you’re racing in Miami one week and LA the next.

So, motorsport at the top level in New Zealand is more accessible. In the UK and USA I think that there are a lot of chequebook racers. In NZ I don’t think this is the case. Natural talent is much more easily spotted amongst the pool. In the USA there might be 1000 guys in contention for the top spots in various series. In New Zealand there will be 10. In America to be heard above the din of the 1000 you need to have a marketing machine behind you. The best marketers aren’t necessarily the best race drivers.

At some point there will need to be a significant financial outlay – a driver will need to go to Australia, Europe or the USA and prove their worth there. But, at least it’s likely to be the most talented. We’ve seen this with McLaren (who was the recipient of a Driver to Europe scholarship in the late 1950s), Hulme, Radisich, Dixon, Murphy and now Hartley (European open wheelers), Whiddet (international drifting), Coppins (motocross) and Cunningham (Indy Lights).

Let’s hope the situation doesn’t change so that New Zealand can keep fielding racing drivers who show the world the way.

Blogs: Dixon wins the Indy 500

Apparently the Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world, but from the footage it seems that it’s the race with the biggest spectators in the world. Congratulations to Scott Dixon, though, who thoroughly deserves the win. I never raced against him in New Zealand (he was a league or two ahead of me). It’s comforting that a country of so many people and so few decent racetracks (compared to the UK and USA) can turn out so many top-flight race drivers. McLaren, Hulme, Dixon, Cunningham, Hartley, etc – when all you’ve got is Taupo, Pukekohe and Manfeild in the North Island, how can you prepare for something like Laguna Seca, Indianapolis and the other iconic tracks of the world?

Roll on Hampton Downs. Perhaps it will see a new breed of race driver who is even more versatile. Look out world

Holden: Holden Astra SRi Turbo 2008 Review

Holden Astra SRi turbo fq

Like Marshall Bruce Mathers III, the Holden Astra suffered hardship as a child. The first generation was a rebadged Nissan Pulsar and therefore was beaten up by other cars on the block; primarily at the traffic light freestyle battles. While Mathers grew up to be Eminem, the Astra grew up to be the SRi Turbo.

Now with much less chance of being bullied (and much more respec’, as they say in the ‘hood), Holden’s most sporty Astra competes with the likes of the Ford Focus XR5, Peugeot 207 GTI and the Mini Cooper S in the front-wheel drive hot hatch market — some quite capable contenders, all with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Hot hatches should be designed for maximum driving pleasure, and the Astra SRi Turbo does not disappoint. Lose yourself in the music the engine creates — a harmonious distortion of force-fed cylinders and exhaust resonance that rises quickly until punctuated by a faint hint of blow-off valve as you snatch another one of the six gears. It doesn’t have the annoying turbo whistle that the Ford Focus XR5 has, but it does have the punch. The gearshift action could be slightly shorter, but is precise and slick enough to make quick changes to keep that turbo spinning.

Using the inbuilt stopwatch you could attempt a 0-100kph measurement. I would guess a low seven-second pass — good, but not enough to leave you uttering expletives like a Detroit rapper.

The tasty sports pedals are not quite set up right for efficient heel-toe action on the downshifts you’ll want to make on your favourite piece of winding blacktop, so be careful bringing that clutch back up under brakes that the engine braking doesn’t unsettle the car too much. Not that it should have too much effect because the Astra SRi comes with Electronic Stability Program (ESP) as standard, which controls the brake force to each wheel in the event of a skid, correcting ham-fisted over-enthusiastic cornering.

You really have to push the SRi Turbo into a corner to invoke this, though. The 225/40ZR18 tyres stretched around 18-inch five-spoke alloys bite hard into the tarmac. On the other side of the corner traction control stops the fronts from spinning up. Couple this with the IDS+ (Interactive Driving System Plus) sports chassis pack with Continuous Damping Control and there’s some joy to be had switching directions.

Now, I’m assuming that the ‘Sport’ button on the dashboard somehow changes the car’s attitude but, unlike the Mercedes-Benz C320 CDi I collected after the Astra, which has a similar sport button, I couldn’t detect it. The IDS+ system works towards reducing body roll, and if the Sport button accentuates this, it’s subtle, because it already seemed to be working fine.

Speaking of buttons, this is the major downfall of the Astra SRi. The heated seats are great (maybe not quite as good as a Focus XR5, but still very supportive laterally), pedals are nice, steering wheel is perfect (like wrestling a baby anaconda), and there’s plenty of safety in the form of front driver/passenger airbags and full-length curtain airbags, but there are some seriously unfunky things happening in the middle of the dashboard. Most Japanese and German cars have fairly standard ways of performing simple operations like changing the direction of the air from the vents. Not so for some of General Motors’ products. After four days of driving the Astra SRi Turbo I was still not quite sure how to consistently navigate the computer, and I definitely didn’t try it while driving.

If you decide to put some funky beats on the Blaupunkt six-disc, seven-speaker, 130W, MP3-compatible stereo you’ll find it’s acceptable but not stellar. Again, its operation is not as intuitive as most other marques.

Overall we have a car that’s optimised extremely well for the driving experience, but with some of the interior ergonomics left wanting some attention. I’m sure that with an instruction manual and a couple of hours an owner will master the controls. I never did find that stopwatch to do the 0-100kph time, though.

Price: from $40,990

What we like

  • All the driving bits are great — power, engine note, grip, gearshift action, steering wheel, seats

What we don’t like

  • The rest of the interior needs some work to make it user-friendly

Holden Astra SRi Turbo

Powertrain

1998cc, Turbo, DOHC 16 valve ECOTEC 4 cylinder engine

6-speed manual transmission

Four cylinders. Double overhead camshafts operate four valves per cylinder. Sequential multipoint fuel injection. Electronic Spark Timing (EST) with hall sensor. Cylinder selective knock control and direct ignition system (DIS). Electric cooling fan. Variable intake manifold.

Coil-at-plug ignition. Turbocharger with intercooler. Electronic Throttle Control. Aluminium cylinder head

147kW @ 5400rpm

262Nm @ 4200rpm

Mechanical

Electro-hydraulic rack and pinion power steering

4-wheel disc brakes, front ventilated

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS). Four sensor/four channel

Brake Assist (BA)

Double-isolated front suspension, using subframe

Compound torsion beam and trailing arm rear suspension

IDSPlus Sports Chassis Pack with Continuous Damping Control (CDC)

Traction Control (TC)

Electronic Stability Program

Wheels

18″ x 7.5″ alloy wheels (five-spoke).

225/40R18 tyres

Tyre valve cap tool located behind fuel filler flap

Exterior

Body coloured, heated mirrors

Body coloured door handles

Body coloured bumpers, front and rear

Body coloured side protection mouldings

Chromed tailgate handle with electronic touch pad

Rear fog lamp

Front fog lamps

Turbo lower body kit (front, rear and side skirts)

Rear roof spoiler

Anti-corrosion: Galvanised body panels. Bodyshell dip-primed electrostatically

Driver

Steering wheel, height and reach adjust

Leather wrap sports steering wheel (standard for CDTi manual only)

Alloy-look sports pedals

Electric remote control mirrors. Heated glass with auto off

Intermittent wipers front and rear (front only on TwinTop)

Rear window demister

Cruise control

Variable instrument dimming

Tachometer

Graphic information display: Time. Date. Outside temperature. Warning messages.

Audio settings. Trip computer functions. Trip computer includes: Instant economy. Average economy.

Fuel used on trip. Average speed. Trip distance. Distance to empty. Stop watch

Check control: Remote control key batteries. Brake light bulb and circuit. Brake pads.

Washer fluid level. Coolant level

Headlight level adjust

Headlamps left on warning buzzer

Door ajar warning lamp

Seatbelt warning lamp

Foldable keys

Service reminder

Sound system

AM/FM stereo electronic tune radio. Seek. Preset station scan

6-disc in-dash CD player

Multi function or graphic display includes: Radio band. Preset station number. Frequency. CD/radio functions

Seven premium speakers. Total 130 watts

Sound system remote controls on steering wheel

Speed dependent volume control

Seating

Seat trim in woven cloth

Heatable front seats

Padded front seat head restraints. Height adjust

8-way adjustment of front sports seats. Recline. Slide. Height. Cushion tilt

Adjustable lumbar support — driver and front passenger

Driver and front passenger front airbags

Driver and front passenger side impact airbags

Curtain airbags

Three padded rear head restraints with height adjust

Pyrotechnic front seatbelt pretensioners. Lower belt mounts on seat frame for consistent fit when seat moved forward or back

Front seatbelt force limiters, controls maximum force on chest

Front seatbelt sash height adjust

Brake pedal (and clutch pedal on manual vehicles) release in serious frontal collision

Anti-submarining ramps in all seats reduce the risk of sliding under seatbelt in collision

All seatbelts retracting lap/sash

Rear seat child restraint anchor points located on back of rear seats

Cabin comfort

Electronic climate control air conditioning

Heating/ventilation system includes pollen filter

Power windows, front. Express down/up

Power windows auto reverse safety function (when power windows fitted)

Sunglasses storage

Interior lighting auto off when ignition switched on. Auto off timer if engine remains off

Tinted windows

Cup holders, one in each front door and glove box lid

Rear seat back 60:40 split, foldable

Split level glovebox for smaller items. Removable middle shelf. Pen holder. Lamp

Centre console storage tray

Compartment in centre console

Storage bins in all doors

Coat hooks

Lamp in boot or cargo area

Security

Radio frequency remote control key operates: Interior lighting. Central locking for keyless entry.

Door deadlocks. Boot or tailgate. Fuel filler door

Key has rolling security code

Engine immobilised automatically when key removed from ignition.

Ignition lock cylinder ‘freewheels’ if anything other than correct key is inserted

Door lock in driver’s door only. Lock cylinder ‘freewheels’ if anything other than correct key is inserted

Hinged, removable cargo cover, with colour keyed fabric

Audio display in multi function display separate from sound system unit to deter theft. Security PIN coding

Specification

Fuel tank (litres) 52

4 wheel disc brakes, Front ventilated,

4-channel ABS with brake assist

Suspension: IDSplus Suspension. Independent. MacPherson strut. Decoupled strut mounts. Continuously Controlled Dampers. Coil springs. Stabiliser bar

Steering: Electro-hydraulic power rack and pinion

Front track (mm):  1484

Rear track (mm): 1481

Turning circle (m): 10.85

Dimensions and weights

Length: 4290

Width (inc mirrors): 2033

Width (exc mirrors): 1753

Height: 1460

Cargo volume: rear seats up 302 litres, rear seats down 1030 litres

Kerb weight: 1401kg

Towing capacity: 630 unbraked, 1300 braked.

Warranty/service

3,000km (at no cost) inspection, then every 15,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first. Holden Dealer ‘Tech 2’ latest computerized analysis system available for engine management system. Spark plug replacement every 60,000km. Cartridgeless paper oil filter. Audible disc pad replacement warning.

Engine timing belt replacement every 120,000km.

Words and photos Darren Cottingham


Blogs: Even the Indy 500 is now green

The 2008 Indy 500 is set to include a few firsts: the first woman driver with a legitimate chance of winning is a big one. But also the Indy is going a bit green – the cars are using ethanol (though we’re not sure how green that is if it comes from corn because of the environmental destruction wrought on farmland in the US). Even the pace car – an ethanol-powered Corvette Z06 – is a bit ‘greener’ than a standard ‘Vette.

I have an even better idea on how to make the Indy 500 greener: call it the Indy 50. Then there’ll only be one-tenth the emissions. I am a genius! Someone send me some money for that idea.

Blogs: What is too much ‘luxury’

The Mercedes-Benz C320 CDi that’s sitting in the carpark, trying to entice me to drive it, has an electric headrest. That means it has a motor and a switch and wires that go between the switch on the door right around underneath the seat and up into the top of the seat. All that means weight. Lots of it. You see, I can understand the reason for an electronic headrest – if you have two drivers, one short and one tall, the Merc has different seating settings, and that may also involve adjusting the headrest.

But, we’re just adding more and more weight to our cars unnecessarily. I predict that many of these items may start to be regretted by the manufacturers as they have to progressively meet emissions requirements. Extra weight equals extra fuel costs. So, if Mercedes has a goal to average, say 180g C02/km you may find that heavy items such as headrest adjustment motors are the unwanted baby that you just can’t throw out with the bathwater.

Blogs: What is too much ‘luxury’?

The Mercedes-Benz C320 CDi that’s sitting in the carpark, trying to entice me to drive it, has an electric headrest. That means it has a motor and a switch and wires that go between the switch on the door right around underneath the seat and up into the top of the seat. All that means weight. Lots of it. You see, I can understand the reason for an electronic headrest – if you have two drivers, one short and one tall, the Merc has different seating settings, and that may also involve adjusting the headrest.

But, we’re just adding more and more weight to our cars unnecessarily. I predict that many of these items may start to be regretted by the manufacturers as they have to progressively meet emissions requirements. Extra weight equals extra fuel costs. So, if Mercedes has a goal to average, say 180g C02/km you may find that heavy items such as headrest adjustment motors are the unwanted baby that you just can’t throw out with the bathwater.

Blogs: Mercedes C320 CDI – diesel power in the house

I really liked the C220 CDI so was anticipating what improvements the C320 could make, especially with some AMG kit on it and the optional sat nav.

The answer is that with all the extra grunt and 510Nm of torque it’s not nearly as relaxing as the C220 (far more fun), and that the sat nav seems very good (now I’ve figured it out). I like the way you can position your cursor somewhere and set that as the destination – some other sat nav systems don’t do that. And I like electronically adjustable headrests (only for the bragging rights).

I’m still not sure Merc has its interior right on the C-Class. There’s a bit of a cheapness to parts of the dash. Anyway, we’ll see how I feel in 4 days when I have to give it back!

Blogs: Holden Astra SRi – the drive is great, the interior isn’t

There should be generally accepted ways of doing things in a car – methods of adjusting the air vents, switches for adjusting the stereo, etc. In pretty much any Japanese or German car there are roughly similar ways of doing things. The switches are labelled in a similar way. But come to General Motors’ cars and it’s a different ball game. Here, there are lots of unconventional ways of adjusting things in the car which often aren’t even consistent from model to model. Which brings me to Holden’s hot hatch, the Astra SRi. The Astra functions nothing like an HSV, for example. I still haven’t figured out what all the buttons do, or how to consistently get to the average fuel consumption screen.

But its saving grace is the engine note, the power and the handling. I’m looking forward to driving HSV’s version – the VXR, it’s going to be even meaner!