Automatic diffs, wipers, transmissions… boy, aren’t we all getting lazy!

Hi JM,

Could you please explain to us this small mystery… Many versatile 4x4s like the (police) Landcruisers have free-spinning front hubs which you must physically get out into the mud to lock before engaging four-wheel drive.

This free-wheeling, we were told long ago, enhances fuel consumption on tarmac by reducing drag on the front diff. But how come SUVs do not have this feature and one can engage various 4×4 modes from the comfort of one’s leather seat?

Maddo, “Car Clinic fan”

Greetings, cartoonist,

It has been a while since I heard from you. The first part of your query is true: Front-axle free-wheeling does save on consumption by reducing drag and/or rolling resistance occasioned by heavy transmission. It also makes the car easier to turn and reduces wear on the running gear during these turning manoeuvres.

The reason modern (and expensive) SUVs do not have this feature is convenience. In an era where you can get massaged by your own car, doors unlock themselves, wipers activate themselves, as do headlamps and tailgates when needed, the cost of cars shoot skywards.

Premium brands such as the Landcruiser VX and the Range Rover in all its three forms are bought by individuals who live a pampered life and do off-roading out of boredom or curiosity rather than necessity.

When this highly pampered person gets mired in the clag during his weekend adventures, he will not ruin his expensive shoes wallowing through swamp mud to engage the hub locks on his highly engineered front axle. Why go through all that and yet you could just press a button on the dashboard and the car will think things out for you…

I know this is a motoring column, but please allow me to do a bit of social commentary. Society is getting lazier and more reliant on assistance from machines. This explains the imminent death of manual transmission, the existence of smart phones, and the proliferation of the internet.

You could choose to cut costs as a manufacturer and do a basic vehicle like the police Landcruisers, then sell them cheaply. Cheap always sells… well, almost.

But your competitor will add conveniences to his car and sell it at a slightly higher price. Humanity will pay that little bit extra if it makes life easier. That also explains why manual winding windows are nearly extinct. To stay competitive, you have to shape up by adding even more convenience. This is also why power-steering systems are now standard. You can see where this is going.

Even if you do not live a highly pampered life and you do drive in bad conditions as a necessity, which would you rather have? A car that necessitates you stepping out into the rain and sinking knee-deep in malodorous quagmire to turn knobs on the front axle or one where you simply press a button, unseen mechanicals mesh and mate quietly beneath you, and suddenly your mode of transport acquires the surefootedness of a mountain goat escaping a determined predator?

Convenience by automation due to market — and social — pressure. That is the answer to your question.

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Dr Magari,

I was reading your article on 26 March, 2014, and you described your Mazda Demio as quite the car. Personally, I have always thought it is like a pitbull; tiny but will chomp your behind off without you even realising it, hence my love for it. As a professional “job-seeker”, I love to dream of the time I will get mine before moving on up to STi’s then M5s. So, on to my questions,

1) Did your Demio (I would like to know the year and make) come stock as you described it or did you mod it slightly?

2) How would you compare similar cars in its class in terms of performance and availability in our market?

3) Totally unrelated: What do you think of setting up a drag strip à la Kiambu Ring locally… possible locations? Cost? Licences? Appeal?
Jake

Hi,

1. The car is dead stock. The only mod it has is me behind the wheel. All that I described, namely the alloy rims, body kit, spoiler… It is all factory-spec. However, this will not stop me from experimenting with it once the money comes right…

2. Well, the Demio is a bit revvy: 3000 rpm in 5th at 100 km/h. Compare this to the automatic iST, which is essentially ticking over at slightly below 2,500 rpm at roughly the same speed.

It has very good torque too; I sometimes get wheelspin in second gear, or even third, when the road is wet — the key word here is sometimes. This is a Mazda, not a Corvette. It is pretty quick too, for a 1300; I have wound it up to the giddy side of 175 km/h but I will not say where and when lest a keen traffic officer lay a trap for me. This is not saying much since a lot of hatchbacks/superminis nowadays will do 180, but I doubt they will get there as quickly as the Demio Sport (with a manual gearbox) does, more so if they, too, are of 1300cc engine capacity.

Availability: There are very many Demios around, and this includes the Sport version, the likes of which I now drive. Getting one with a manual gearbox, however, calls for real connoisseurship and keenness in searching. You might have to do a DIY import if you are very particular. There is also the “new shape”coming soon (where soon is in a few years’ time) as a used car.

It looks too much like the current effeminate Vitz and might not be available with a manual transmission, so grab this model while you still can. Similar cars would be maybe the Vitz RS (sprightly and unsightly) or a Mitsubishi Colt at a stretch.

3. I think that is a good idea. A very good one. Given the kind of driving mettle I have seen among Kenyans when taking corners, they are better off going in a straight line. The major reason we have only one vehicle on the road at a time during “Kiamburing” is that not everybody knows what to do when you get to a turn and either a) there is a slowpoke in front of you or b) You are the slowpoke and The Paji is tailgating you, looking to pass.

There is such a thing as track decorum and a) we do not have the time to teach it to everybody and b) some people will ignore it anyway. The result would be disastrous and expensive.

So, one person at a time. That way, if you also crash, you will be on your own; you will not take someone out with you. With a drag strip, we could have two, or maybe even three, cars facing off at the same time with no risk of an unplanned coming together.

The tension quotient goes up, along with entertainment value, participant rivalry, and emotions, which should make for good entertainment for those watching. If you know of a disused airstrip with a serviceable tarmac runway, by all means let us know; it would be a good place to start…

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Hi Baraza,

I am an addict (yes, addict) of your Wednesday articles in the Daily Nation. I have been going through them for a very long time now and I have also filed the pages and really appreciate your work.

Now, I got employed two years ago by a private company in Nairobi. My boss says it is time I got myself a car because of the nature of my work and the hurdles I go through trying to use our limited company transport.

My company pays out mileage at the rate of Sh40/km. I have about Sh 1 million in savings and would like to get a car I love: The BMW 318i or 320i. I know I can get either of these second-hand at about Sh800,000.

However, my concern is that most people I talk to are talking me off getting this machine. I know I am a very careful driver and I love my electronics/machines. I have kept my Nintendo game in working condition to date.

Kindly advise on the merits and demerits of this car, including fuel consumption and servicing and overall maintenance cost.

Omega

Hi Omega,

How old is that Nintendo game of yours? You might maintain a gaming console for a long time, but maintaining a car is a different kettle of fish. The principles are the same but execution is different: House-bound electronics do not drive through puddles or over bumps or on dusty roads or get filled with fuel of indeterminate provenance. There is a lot to watch out for when maintaining a car.

So, merits and demerits. The merits are: BMWs make good driver’s cars, so you will enjoy driving it. The 318 and/or 320 have relatively small engines, so fuel economy will not scare you.

But again, these engines are highly developed with enough under-bonnet boffinry to make them quick enough when the situation demands it. Comfort is at a high level, as are NVH, handling, braking, looks and, do not forget: This is a German marque that comes with its own thick shroud of street-cred.

The demerits are this is a high-end German marque, so expect high-end German invoices when the undesirable happens. Repairs will be costly, as will be parts. This is particularly worrisome, because a Sh800,000 3 Series will more likely than not be in a less-than-factory condition.

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Hi,

I will not start by paying you compliments like other readers. I am not a fan of soaps. All these questions your readers ask about fuel economy, availability of spares, maintenance cost, and so on really suck the life out of your column.

For the first time in years, I picked up a copy of the DN2 (the one about the Hiace vs the Caravan), and could not finish it.

It was (and I can hardly believe this), boring! I remember back when it was called Behind The Wheel, you used to preach how it was not about spare part availability or fuel economy, but rather, about the driving feel and pleasure you get behind the wheel (see what I did there? ) How hard it is to wipe that grin off your face when you shift down, give it the beans, and feel like The Stig… on heat.

I used to live vicariously through your experiences you know, because I did not, and still do not, own a car. Now it is just gone.

Allan

Well, well, well! We cannot allow this to happen now, can we? You actually did not finish reading that piece? It must have been really bad.

I know all the questions about spares, economy, and maintenance get really old really fast, but it is not entirely my doing. The reading culture is almost dead: The longest articles young people read nowadays are Facebook posts by celebrities who are not celebrities.

Nobody appreciates the entertainment value of witty wordplay anymore, so all my attempts at humour, alliteration, consonance, metaphors, and hyperbole blow ineffectively past their eyes and ears like the Harmattan would a covered Fulani tribesman’s head. Worse still is when some people take things literally or out of context – “…the silly Prius…” on April 9 actually drew an emotional response from quite a number of people, one of whom wrote, “How can a car be silly? Then tell me of a clever car…” This is what I have to deal with every week.

Demand: This is what drives Car Clinic, not the quality of writing or whatever obscure motoring facts I might have hidden away in the dark corners of my mind. I could do a proper article then along comes someone saying “We are not interested in your personal adventures, fool, we want to read about spares and economy and maintenance.”

Good examples are my experience on a go-kart, the Old Evolution vs New Impreza showdown, and the 2013 Range Rover Vogue review. Intellectual discourse, along with the appreciation of an intricately woven word scarf, is also dead, which is why I rarely discuss industry matters any more. Nobody is interested. What is a man to do? Man must live. If I do not do it, someone else will.

I, too, am getting sick and tired of comparing Foresters to RAV4s, CRVs and X-Trails week in, week out. I have answered this particular question in one form or other more than 10 times now, it is as if people do not read what I write and keep asking the same questions over and over again.

The advice I give, however questionable it may seem at times, is free (for now), but this does not make Car Clinic an avenue of convenience or a personalised service. Some people need to learn that.

However, all is not lost. I am still active in the road test world; all I have to do is find other outlets for my lengthy writings. And find them I will.

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