Driver madness is the problem, not the cars

JM,

Let me state from the get go that I’m an irredeemable petrolhead through and through. Having said that, I’ve made some observations that I suspect are not unique to Kenyan roads, such as the fact that most accidents are the handiwork of drivers with “unschooled” blood, you know, the kind that think they are WRC or Formula One drivers with bog standard, used Japanese clunkers.

In light of this observation, I have formulated what I think is a way of purging our roads of this problem, and it is in the form of a law that goes something like this: It should be illegal for all individuals below the age of 25 to drive a vehicle with any form of forced induction, a displacement of more than and including 1800 CC or any vehicle that has 135 bhp, 150 Nm of torque, a cylinder count of more than four and an engine speed of more than 7,500 rpm, unless it’s in a sanctioned motorsports event. What do you think ?

That is a bit harsh. What kills people on the road is stupidity, and not motor vehicle preference. A couple of days ago, I watched an driver in a Suzuki Vitara squeeze into a space that his car would clearly not fit into.

The defining limits of the space? On the left was a flower bed, on the right was a Mercedes-Benz Actros juggernaut. Both the truck driver and I watched speechless as the obviously intelligence challenged Vitara driver knowingly and wilfully drove into the truck’s plastic front left fender, squeeze through like a rat squeezing through a hole in the wall when escaping from a hungry cat — all the while scraping a good deal of paint off his own car — before speeding away without looking back even once.

The Suzuki Vitara has four cylinders, 1600cc, less than 135 hp, is naturally aspirated and has the redline at 6000 rpm, so it clearly falls into your category of “sane” or “safe”. What I saw that day was more shocking than watching a man jump off a building.

Honda cars rev up to 9,000 rpm and they are perfectly safe to drive. One can also drive a Toyota Camry V6, which you will agree with me is a perfectly safe vehicle to drive, even for beginners.

The Mahindra pickup is turbocharged, surely a 24-year old can handle one if he is employed as a delivery driver for some company that buys these pickup. That same company can choose to buy a Nissan NP300, which comes in 2400cc, 2700cc or even 3200cc.

In contrast, one can drive a 660cc Daihatsu Mira TR-XX or Suzuki Capuccino, which is bloody fast and has minimal safety features.

It has a 3-cylinder engine (less than four), 660 cc (less than 1800), does 100 hp and about 140 Nm of torque (both are sub-135 and sub-150 respectively) and has the red line set at 6,500 rpm (less than 7,500).

But if my son found his way into one of those, I would still give him a sound thrashing, irrespective of his age, and tell him to get himself a Camry instead. Luckily, I do not have a son to cane. Yet.

The best way to optimise road safety would be to confiscate the driving licences of intelligence challenged drivers like the one I have described and send them to jail indefinitely.

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Hello JM,

My mother has been searching for a vehicle with a fuel consumption of 32 kilometres per litre. I tell her that the only car you can get such consumption out of is an Indian one, but she still insists. She hates the Toyota Vitz, Probox, Ist, Cami, NZE, Corolla, Premio and Allion, so she is thinking of the new model Mazda Demio. Please help her find the right car.

Roy

The only vehicle that can clock 32 kpl under normal driving conditions and techniques is a motorcycle, and one that has an engine capacity of 250cc or below.

I have heard of things called Bajaj, TVS and Focin. I have also heard of Hongda and Keweseki, all of which have two wheels and no bodywork.

They also have sub-250cc single-cylinder 4-stroke engines, so economy is good. I wouldn’t recommend a tuk-tuk though: I have watched a few do cartwheels, backflips and somersaults, and the acceleration is terrible and top speed is very poor.

However, if your mummy has the skills and know-how on how to extract the maximum number of kilometres from the minimum number of quarts of fuel in something with four wheels, then she could look at a Maruti: its 800cc, 3-cylinder engine is the easiest available engine with which to attempt 32 kpl (and still fail dismally).

Otherwise, the best one can hope for, in ordinary circumstances, is 18-20 kpl.

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Dear Baraza,

What is the difference between a ZZE engine and an NZE engine in a Toyota Corolla vehicle? How suitable are these engines on the Kenyan roads and weather conditions, and do they require different treatment once somebody purchases them?

The first one or two letters specify the engine family (NZ or ZZ), while the E represents fuel injection. The NZ family uses straight-four aluminium engine blocks with 16 valves, double camshafts (overhead) and VVT-i. SFI fuel injection is present, hence NZE.

The ZZ family also uses an aluminium straight-four block with aluminium cylinder heads. Double camshafts (DOHC) with chain drive are also used, with bore and stroke varying within the range depending on how sporty the engine is.

The basic layout does not need anything special to be able to run in Kenyan conditions. However, the sporty ZZ family engines (2ZZ, especially) having been developed for power at high revs, might need a cylinder head replacement to lower the compression ratio to enable it run on low octane fuel. This is not too much of a problem though, both engine families will run okay.

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Hi Baraza,

What’s your take on tiptronic cars, and in case of emergency braking, how do you shift the gears down to avoid stalling? (In a manual car, you depress the clutch and shift to neutral).

William

Actually, for a sportier, smoother and more effective braking effect, a technique called heel and toe is used. It synchronizes engine speed and gearbox speed by using all the three pedals at the same time (the brake slows you down, the clutch allows you to shift down — you have to declutch after each downshift — and the accelerator raises the engine revs to match the gearbox speed) and complements wheel braking with engine braking. It does not involve braking with the transmission in neutral.

Anyway, tiptronic cars are driven just like automatic cars, no clutch work is needed (because there is no clutch pedal) and the car will prevent itself from stalling. Nothing to panic about.

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Baraza,

What do you think of the BMW owned MINI (whichever make starting from 2001)?

I rarely see them on the streets but I think they look great, especially for a young guy (size of a Vitz but definitely more manly), plus there is an option for a 5-speed, 1.6-litre turbocharged engine that I’m guessing has quite a kick. Let me know more about the car in terms of the following:

1. Fuel consumption with sane driving.

2. Safety record.

3. Price.

4. Ability to handle Kenyan roads and a little bit of offroading.

1. Which of the models? For sure, the supercharged car will not burn fuel at the same rate as the NA versions. And anyway, why would you be concerned about fuel economy for a car that size, it is bound to be impressive no matter what.

2. It has a good safety record. No recalls, no reports of nasty cornering surprises or infidelity at speed.

3. You will need to shop around for prices because they vary.

4. Some Kenyan roads, yes. Offroading: you must be out of your mind. Unless you are referring to the MINI Countryman, in which case, yes.

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Hi Baraza,

I must say I really miss the days when a full column was dedicated to a particular subject as opposed to the Q&A.

However, it’s still encouraging to see people appreciate good advice from qualified persons (the days of “Grogan engineers” are numbered).

I currently own a year 2000 1500cc Toyota EE103 and it has served me very well. The pros of this car: large boot space, rear leaf suspension, good fuel consumption, available spares, hardiness (you should see what we call roads here), etc. The cons: none that I can’t cope with.

But I now want to upgrade to another station wagon that can endure some donkey work and still be a comfortable family car.

A Probox is not an option: I am torn between a Toyota Caldina (new and old shape) and Avensis, both 1800cc. I would like to get your opinion on these, and feel free to add any other make or model that can fall in the same class.

Another thing, some mitumba cars that we usually run to buy were not originally meant for a market in the tropics.

Some are rumoured to break down on the first long trip on Kenyan roads, which could be somewhere along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway immediately after importation.

What is your take on this issue, and if its true, how can one tell whether a particular car is fit for a given climatic condition?

MK

Let me answer the second part first. That was a topic I covered in a two-piece special called “Tropicalisation” that ran during the first two weeks of 2011.

The result was vitriol from a good number of people who accused me of capitalist thinking and being elitist and/or receiving brown envelopes under a table. So I decided to let them suffer with inappropriate cars for a while. I will get on their case again very soon.

Anyway, the old-shape Caldina is the best. It also has leaf spring rear suspension (which, for some reason, you seem to like) and a massive boot, and it will ferry your family in relative comfort.

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Hi Baraza,

Kindly tell me:

1. What produces the distinctive sounds of the different vehicles; is it the engine or the exhaust?

2. The engine brake (freno), according to the little power mechanics I know, should be used when the momentum of the vehicle is driving the engine, especially on descent, so why do the small bus (like Nissan Diesel MK210) drivers use it every time they are braking? I suspect they are thrilled by the sound, like I am.

3. Eicher looks like an Isuzu; where is it from and who assembles it?

4. Do all direct injection lorries have engine brakes?

Mwangi

1. When it comes to the sound, it’s a little of both, but more of the exhaust than the engine.

2. Actually, the exhaust brake (engine brake, or retarder, or exhaust retarder) is used as the primary speed-shedding device before the foot (wheel) brakes are applied. This is to save the wheel brakes (brake pads) from rapid wear because they are easily prone to failure owing to the great mass of the vehicle. In some vehicle models, such as Scania trucks and buses, it has been incorporated into the foot brake just in case the driver thinks using the column mounted stalk/lever is too much work.

The procedure is: apply the retarder, lose speed, maybe dab the foot brakes a bit to shed more speed, double-declutch down one gear, apply the retarder again, when slow enough, downshift again, and repeat until such a point when the foot brake is needed for a complete stop.

3. Actually the Eicher started off as a defunct Mitsubishi manufactured under license. The parent company is based in New Delhi, India, but they are assembled and sold locally by CMC Motors.
4. Most lorries do have the exhaust retarder.

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Dear Baraza

I drive a Subaru Cross Sport, which requires that refill the coolant every week, if I go for more than a week, I find it empty but the car does not overheat and everything else is fine.

I have asked several mechanics about this; one told me that it could be that the radiator lead was worn out (I changed it but nothing changed), while another told me it was because I am always using the AC .

I have had the car checked and no leakages have been found. What could be the problem?

Beverly

There is clearly a leak somewhere. If your car does not wet the floor every time it is parked, then the leak could be by evaporation through some unwanted aperture. A third theory is a worn out head gasket, through which coolant seeps and gets into the engine.

The way to confirm this is to check for smoke pouring out of your exhaust pipe: if you see white smoke, there you have it. Also check the overflow bottle in case it is the one leaking. But there is definitely a leak.

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Mr Baraza,

I drive a turbocharged year 2005 Subaru Forester and I have two concerns regarding it:

1. If the makers of the Forester understand the delicateness of the turbo, why not fit it with a turbo timer?

2. I have noticed that in the morning the car produces blue smoke after idling in the traffic jam, then the smoke disappears once I hit the highway . The performance and service of the car is okay.

Nderitu

Much as I said turbo engines need care and are delicate, I did not mean THAT delicate. Nowadays they can do without turbo timers given the amount of R&D that has gone into improving forced induction systems.

The most susceptible vehicles to turbo failures, by the way, are the ones with turbo diesel engines because they run higher boost pressures, generate more heat and the turbos spool at higher speeds compared to turbocharged petrol engines. Don’t worry, your Forester is fine without the timer.

However, it is not fine if it continues producing blue smoke. The car is burning oil, so there could be blow-by, the rings might be worn out or the valve seals need replacement. Get it checked ASAP.

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Hi Baraza,

Is it possible to modify an old model car by fitting it with extras like airbags, ABS, automatic gearbox, sensors and so on? Secondly, is it true that Volvos are the safest cars in the world, and if so why are they not common?

Kahara

About the modification, yes you can, but by the time you are through, you will feel like you have built a whole new car, which in a way, you will have, given the degree of modification you have to do to almost all major systems. It is easier and more sensible to just buy another car that has all those features.

Volvos: At one time, they were. This does not mean that they no longer are, just that almost everybody else has caught up now, so the top slot is shared among many (except the Chinese, and maybe Russian).

The reason they are not common is because Kenyans have this unique mindset that they’d rather die than spend more than the bare minimum on buying price, spares and fuel costs.

The bare minimum is what it costs to own a used car from a faraway land, buying parts poached from a vehicle whose owner did not invest in an alarm system, and the fuel charges of a 3-cylinder sub-1100cc Japanese engine driving downhill on an extra-wide highway.

The erroneous perception extends to the belief that Volvos are thirsty, which they are not.

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