Master your mechanics using a Japanese car, then get the GT3

Hello Baraza

I really enjoy your articles, keep up the good work. I have always been fascinated by cars and engines since before i can remember. Be it watching rallies, touring car championships, F1 you name it and i love it (except nascar, what is wrong with Americans??) Speed, power, performance, car tuning and driver skill have always intrigued me and i actually hope in my next life i will be race car driver.

Now this passion i have has created an interest in me to better understand cars and their general workings. I’m looking to purchase a vehicle but there is a twist. I want to do ALL general service and repairs that i can on my own. you ask how? Internet forums, YouTube and online manuals. Only when i royally mess up is when ill tuck my tail between my legs, call a breakdown and tow my car to a garage and endure the smug i told you so grin that will be on my mechanics face.

My maximum budget is 800k and would like your opinion on what vehicle to get considering several factors

– Ease of repairs. As you know when you pop the hoods of some cars, things look so complicated you don’t even know what is what.

– Engines made between 1998-2008. I think they are modern enough and most issues they had have solutions.

– This will also be my daily runner so good fuel economy will be a bonus.

My preferences are Honda, Mazda or Subaru (should i mess with boxer engines?) I have access to a garage so tools and diagnostic tools are not an issue. I think my experience with this car will make me understand cars better as i save up for my GT3(I want to do things to that car) and in a few years time be tearing it up and showing a few guys dust at one of your gymkhanas.

Regards and your brutal honesty will be appreciated.

Felix.

Greetings Felix,

It sure does warm the cockles of my twin-charged 60-valve V12 heart to see that the passion is not only alive in you but the petrol flowing in your veins is pure in its octane rating. You are in good company on this page.

The three vehicle makes you choose are ideal for the budding grease monkey in that they are Japanese and thus pretty easy and straightforward to work on. The rule of thumb here is to try and avoid anything with more than four cylinders. You could stretch to 6-cylinders at a pinch, but these engines get more complex the higher the number of cylinders. Complexity aside, there is also the tendency to cramp and crowd the engine bay making simple tasks a knuckle-skinning affair, or necessitating unnecessary extra steps such as removal of other parts. A good example is the boxer engine you inquire about. Try changing the plugs on a flat engine then get back to me on how much skin is left on your hands after the work.

Cars from the 1990s were the best in my opinion as a petrolhead; as an objective car reviewer they are definitely better now than they ever were. There was that perfect balance between simplicity and technological advancement. They weighed less and felt more involving to drive; their designs were purposeful and their interiors, while not exactly pretty, reminded you that you were in fact inside a car and not an Apple Store. Nowadays with telematics, GPS, Bluetooth, and myriad buttons replacing all sorts of controls, cars are becoming more evocative of creations from the Jetsons; when in actual fact all a petrolhead wants is nothing more than a car that goes like a jet, son. So while 1998 may be seen as one of the best years as far as Japanese motoring went – all these cars were on sale at the time: Subaru Impreza GC8/GF8,  Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI, Mazda RX7 FD, Mk. IV Toyota Supra and Honda NSX to list but a few; with the R34 Nissan Skyline GTR and S15 Nissan Silvia being birthed then…the list goes on – my own personal tastes would drive me backwards in time rather than forward. I’d say the decade spanning 1991 to 2001 would rank as the ultimate as far as no-frills driver’s (and enthusiast’s) cars went. They weren’t too complex to understand, especially not now when ECUs have been cracked and the aftermarket parts scene is flourishing; and they weren’t as crude as a Trabant from the 1960s.  Most important, they are epic to drive. I’m not saying cars made in the 2000s aren’t worth it; most of them are superb but they lack the raw connection between man and machine afforded by their predecessors. To get what I mean, if you ever have the chance, compare an Evo VI to an Evo X, or a GC8 Impreza to an N14. The difference is stark.

Back to the real world of garden-variety Hondas, Mazdas and Subarus: good fuel economy is not a fantasy, it can be had. For best results, stick to the hatchbacks and/or small saloons: Civic for the Honda – or an Accord 1.8 but you need a light foot for this, 323 for the Mazda and Impreza for the Subaru. Pre-1998 cars may or may not have carburettors (except for the Subarus, which all have EFI), so find one with fuel injection. Any of these cars will give you the introductory lesson to spannering that you may apply to your GT3 later on when you become master of your craft. If you bring a GT3 to one of our gymkhanas, I will specifically design a track that intentionally disfavors high-horsepower RWD cars; particularly those with the engine in the boot like the GT3; kind of like what I laid down on the airstrip at Masinga.  Then I will stand back and count how many of my precious cones you destroy trying to keep that car pointed in the right direction.

Get that GT3. I will be waiting…

P.S: NASCAR does look like a joke. Turning left endlessly over a distance of several hundred kilometers for many hours until one of you finishes first sounds silly in theory but in reality it is a bit entertaining. For one, drivers are allowed to punt off rivals who drive a defensive line (“Gerrarrahiaaa..!!!”); so spectacular crashes abound. Slipstreaming moves are also applied a lot: using your enemy to your advantage is a tactic straight out of Dick Dastardly’s Race Winner’s Handbook. Tempers flare and sometimes fights break out. The cars themselves are -or were- delightfully simple: four-speed manual transmissions, huge engines, rear-wheel drive and get this: up until last year or so, they still used carburettors. Carb-fed big-block V8s tuned to 900hp create a hell of a racket and with hillbilly drivers dicing for a shot at posterity at 320km/h while driving in a circle over and over and over again, the entertainment value is stratospheric.

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I love the work you do. Your Articles are not only informative but very funny as well.

First i would like to know how did you gather such an extensive know-how on all things car related.

Second, as a new driver who just finished driving school, how can i perfect my driving skills and remain road confident and competent. I find it somewhat scary but exciting. However cant go above 60km/hr though am aspiring to be a future Petrolhead.

Ms.Mwaura

Hi Ms. Mwaura,

The know-how was acquired over years and years of ingesting automotive publications and bingeing on videos, manuals, magazines, books and the internet. Being the son of a  man  who was his own mechanic also helped a lot; as did exposure to an inordinately large number of vehicles up to and including but not limited to saloons, sports cars, agricultural equipment and  motorbikes, which I have flatly refused to be involved in any further than knowing they are uncomfortable, they buzz annoyingly, they burn your shins and will kill you at one point or the other. It is a never-ending process: every day I learn something new; I experience something noteworthy which will be filed away for strategic deployment should the appropriate query ever hit my inbox.

There is only one way to improve on your driving skills and boost your confidence: like all other arts and skills the code is practice, practice, practice. Just drive and keep driving as long as you can and as far as you can through as many situations as you can find. I have pushed a Chevy Lumina SS close to three times the legal highway speed limit (I won’t say where). I have thrashed a Nissan GTR on a race track. I have driven a Starlet in a mud pit that swallowed a Land Rover Discovery and an Isuzu Trooper – and I made it through. I have dabbled in go karts, tractors, trailers, buses, vans, Lorries, hatchbacks and God-knows-what-else. While I cannot and will not claim to be a master of any of them, the exposure has helped a lot with my confidence and skill and nowadays, I feel comfortable when presented with anything to drive; and I do mean anything. The only vehicle I cannot handle is a Ford Model T; and not many people can drive that either. The process involved is as ridiculous as it is counterintuitive.

It is always scary in the early days, but you will find yourself driving faster and better the more adapted you become to the exercise. It just takes time. The excitement rarely dies, and even if you get used to the speed and the temptation to provoke the NTSA is there, there are other ways to keep things interesting. Don’t do this at this stage, but little petrolhead experiments go a long way in livening up a drive. Go on an economy run. See how far you can drive without braking (and without being a hazard to other people or to yourself: if you have to brake then do so, don’t let a little game you are playing create chaos in the community). Try and perfect the heel-and-toe method of changing gear with a manual car. Perform calculations using the rev counter, e.g what is the gearing in top? In first? Through the intermediates? A good example is my car is set up to do 31.25km/h per 1000 rpm and it has an 8000 rpm rev ceiling so technically, if I had the necessary power I could wind it up to exactly 250km/h; but that will not happen.

Being a petrolhead is not about tossing the needle to the rightmost corner of the speedometer. That is just a stressful, dangerous and wasteful effort that might land you in jail if you don’t crash first. The world of the car anorak centers on the love of all things automotive: be it outward appearance, technical aspects, fingertip knowledge, driving… if you like anything to do with cars then you are a petrolhead. You don’t need to be a Transporter-grade professional getaway driver or a world-class race-worthy mechanic to qualify, though more than average skills/knowledge in these two fields will optimize your rank in places where it doesn’t really matter.

Long story short: you are not a future petrolhead. You are a current petrolhead. Peace!

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Hi Baraza,

I want to express my gratitude to you for your immense support to Kenyans by educating them on motoring issues. Your contribution to nation building is immeasurable.

I’m a regular reader of your articles and this is the third time I’m invading your rich knowledge cabinet, having gotten sufficient answers in my last two attempts.

Now,  there seems to be a revolution of diesel technology on cars in more so in  Europe. Lately I have realized they are creeping in the US, a market that was previously shy to embrace torqued cars preferring gasoline instead. These cars seem to be very fuel economical. Kindly delve into this issue and if possible challenge the Japanese manufactures who most Kenyans buy from to churn more diesels cars off their production lines.

Tell us about the reliability, pricing, durability etc.

Why aren’t we seeing many of these on our Kenyan roads?

Are Kenyans still skeptical about this technology yet European Engineers believe it’s the future because of the many advantages of these engines?

May be it’s high time we conquered misplaced fears to benefit.

Give us any other relevant information on this subject.

Regards

Kenneth Murithi Itonga.

Despite what many may think diesel power is a bit of an oddity in the motoring world. Diesel stinks, it is not volatile (despite what Hollywood may present in a Transformers film), its combustion cycle is difficult to understand and hard to properly control, it is oily -in fact it IS oil and is actually called diesel oil- and diesel powered cars are inappropriately named because diesel cars have no power at all (what they have is torque) and they are slow. Turbos are to diesel engines what the discovery of fire was to Early Man: an opening into a whole other world of advancement and improvement.

These absurd qualities of diesel oil are what led to the Great American Dislike of derv. You see, American manufacturers in the ’70s decided to experiment with diesel engines; the problem was at that time not many people understood diesel properly and R&D was not taken very seriously. The result was… horsesh*t. The cars were worse than terrible: they smoked badly, they had no power, they were unreliable and they were not as economical as the makers thought they were because the only way (at the time) of getting more power out of an engine was to burn more fuel which is self-defeating when discussing diesel. It doesn’t exactly work like that with diesel: burning more fuel without increasing the amount of air (overfuelling, it is called in the tuning community) doesn’t help much with a diesel engine. Again: one of the quirks with a diesel engine is that the accelerator only varies the fuel delivered into the engine but the mass of air going into the engine stays constant at all times, unlike a petrol engine where the air entering is controlled by a butterfly valve (to which the accelerator is connected) and the fuel used is metered accordingly.

The American diesel cars of the ’70s were so bad the Yanks swore off them completely and wouldn’t touch one with a ten-foot pole. It has taken more than 40 years to have them even consider diesel again, and they are still not fully convinced. This is where the Europeans come in.

They on the other hand, looked at diesel and decided to make it work for them. No power from a diesel engine, right? Well, adding more fuel doesn’t really work; so we’ll add more air. No butterfly valves, eh? No problem, we have this little magic trick we call TURBOCHARGING, let’s see if it works…ahh, it does. Good. Now what? Turbo lag? Narrow torque bands? Hmm.., Oh wait, how about we use two turbos: one for low rpm another one for high rpm? That works too. If we only we can fiddle with the injector pulses, valve timing and use direct injection…. Long story short: the Europeans developed diesel engines to the point where they became the must have accessory for the thinking motorist. The turbos added useable power, while not only maintaining but also boosting the naturally high torque characteristics of the diesel engine and the outstanding fuel economy. Small diesel cars are  more economical than the hateful Toyota Prius. They became as good as -and in some cases better than- petrol engines. These engines became so good now more than half the cars sold in Europe run on diesel. So now?

The three qualities you list are actually the three biggest weaknesses of diesel engines.

  1. Reliability: it is not exactly poor but repairs and maintenance are more common with a diesel engine compared to a petrol one. The service intervals are also noticeably shorter. This is for the same reason as the next two:
  2. Pricing: diesel engines are generally more expensive than their equivalent petrol units. This also applies to parts.
  3. Durability: diesel engine have shorter life spans than petrol ones. Poor care will trim down these life spans even further.

This is why. The explosive properties of diesel (when you finally get it to burn; not by setting fire to it using a spark plug but by atomizing it first then mixing it with hot compressed air) tend to generate very high torque in discrete bursts which places a lot of stress on engine and transmission components. This affects reliability and durability. As such, these engines and transmissions have to be built stronger and more robust; which in turn affects pricing. You can’t win. This is further exacerbated by the fact that diesel oil is more viscous than most fluids and is notoriously difficult to vaporize. This calls for an extremely high pressure fuel delivery system- be it common-rail or direct injection- which is expensive to develop and is still somewhat tortured by the high pressure; and this high pressure fuel rail has to terminate in a very fine injector nozzle for proper atomization to occur: again costly and susceptible to pressure-related distress. You can see why the Americans never bothered to follow up on it: it is too much work and they were too busy developing desktop computers to care.

There are other downsides. The engines are gruff, they don’t sound right (who want a Mercedes that sounds like a posho mill wrapped in a thin mattress?), the vibrations are difficult to tame and emissions control via DPF (diesel particulate filter) is something akin to a Chinese Fire Drill: a vicious cycle that looks self-defeating. The DPF is meant to filter out sulphur from the exhaust fumes. Over time, these deposits start clogging up the DPF which sends an SOS to the ECU (engine management computer) to do something; that something being to declog the DPF. Declogging the DPF uses heat, so to generate more heat, the engine burns more fuel, which in turn causes the deposits to form faster, further clogging the DPF which keeps telling the engine to help by providing heat, which is…. you can see where this is going. To this quandary, add a stench that makes everything around it reek of an old bus’ exhaust fumes. That is why European diesel engines are a nightmare to run on these shores: the DPF won’t last. Replacing it is tear-jerkingly hard on the pocket.

The advantages are attractive though. Endless torque and outstanding fuel economy are the main ones; while turbocharging introduces wider power bands and the oomph that naturally aspirated units sorely lacked. I would have delved into the Volkswagen “Diesel-gate” scandal but let us end it here for today (word limits). As it is, there is a lot I have glossed over; maybe I will get into proper details in future.

Comments

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2 thoughts on “Master your mechanics using a Japanese car, then get the GT3

  1. Awesome… NMG editors… Totally wasted petrolheads jana… Classic piece this.. Lots of useful info… Now I’ll stop slamming the gas pedal and start actually driving

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