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Explain how a car engine works to a 6-year-old? They’ll learn nothing

Hi Baraza,

Over the past one year I have been reading your articles and have to say nowadays I find myself making smart car comments thanks to you, even though I am yet to own one. I was asked by my nephew whether cars have stomachs and the questioning deteriorated towards embarrassing as I tried to explain how cars “drink” fuel and use it to move.  Would you be so kind as to explain the working of a car engine in a way that a six-year-old would understand. Alexius M

I have wracked my mind-brain for a clean week-and-a-half concerning this matter and arrived at the following conclusion: a six-year old will never understand the working of a car engine, no matter how oversimplified the explanation gets.

The best one I can come up with is this: petrol goes into the tank, from the tank it goes to the engine, in the engine it gets burnt out of sight and this burning produces the vroom-vroom sound and makes the car move.

Anything beyond this will start involving talk of combustion cycles, crankshafts, chemical reactions, compression and whatnot, and 1. Six-year olds have no idea what these are, and 2.

Six-year olds have notoriously short attention spans and you will probably lose them long before you start explaining the role of a fuel pump

INACCURACIES

As a car enthusiast, I find your responses to queries from your readers factually accurate…most of the time.

However, your take on the debate between the Merc E240 211 and the Bima E39 had glaring inaccuracies, first of which was that the E240 is a 2600cc V6 engine, and not 2400cc as is commonly assumed.

The E39 Bima has a straight six, or inline engine if you like, that is 2500cc. The differential 100cc is in favour of the Merc.

Secondly, the Merc doesn’t have the electronic issues you mentioned. The starter regulates the cranking and automatically disengages once the motor fires, leading to almost no wear and tear.

The central locking/plipper, electrical windows, etc. are all regulated by a system called Canbas, which makes diagnostics practically kids’ play given the right tool set.

I suspect the people who have had issues have never really had their cars worked on by experts.

COMFORTABLE RIDE
Thirdly, the Merc has a more comfortable ride with excellent response. The 211 was a vast improvement on the 210 and can take on the Bima, both in straight runs and cornering.

The details are in the suspension system. I own both cars and overall, the Merc takes our road conditions well and ages very gracefully compared to the Bima.

I suspect it’s the reason you will find them, rather than Bimas, serving as VIP escorts in the presidential motorcade.

Please Countercheck my facts and revise your views accordingly.
L Khafafa

Interesting. From your response, I can tell you are a Mercedes fan (and possibly pundit), a fact that comes to light given that you have chosen to extol the virtues of the wrong car.

You are talking about a W211 while my response was in reference to the W210; the same car that you say the W211 was a vast improvement of.

The E39 BMW 5 Series was a direct rival of the W210, not the W211. The latter Merc’s BMW competitor is the rather awkward-looking E60 model.

That said, I agree with all your views about the W211, more so in comparison to the E39, but why compare fresh apples with overripe oranges? The oranges don’t stand a chance, do they?

While the E39 vs W210 showdown leaves a noticeable gap between the two Teutonic titans — a gap in favour of the blue propeller — a similar standoff between both their successors makes it harder to pick a winner.

Sure, the W211 is far prettier than the E60 (a minger, if you ask me), but the E60 is more of a driver’s car. The E60 is more responsive, the W211 is more comfortable.

GEARBOX IMPROVEMENT

The E60’s automatic gearbox could do with some improvement; the W211’s manual gearbox could do with some improvement.

The E270 CDI and E320 CDI are paragons of efficiency, the 530d can be an alternative M5 through some simple tweaks and increasing the boost pressure in the turbos.

This leaves one in a quandary. Mid-size premium German saloons are as much about status as they are about comfort, and nowhere will you find gravitas and pamper if you can’t find it in a Mercedes.

But German saloons are also about blowing cheaper machinery out of the water, both on an autobahn at 300km/h and in a twisty backroad on a Sunday morning, and the BMW is the Walther PPK you need for this exercise: it handles better and is faster than the equivalent Benz.

For a good ride, get the Merc. For a good drive, get the BMW.

Hi Baraza,
Congratulations on the good work you are doing to enlighten us about cars.

My question is related to tyres. Who or what determines the use of low- or high-profile tyres? Are there any significant benefits or differences between them?
Fred

Hello,
The use of low or high-profile tyres is determined for the most part by two factors: personal preference and application.

Personal preference: The biggest difference in these tyre types is felt most by the driver/owner. Low-profile tyres trade mostly on looks and appearance, while high-profile tyres offer greater comfort.

More often than not, the low-profile tyres you see fitted on cars are put there because they simply look good, while thicker sidewalls are normally used where a plushy ride is the desired effect.

Application: There is the 10 per cent or so of drivers who install tyres according to exactly how they intend to use them. Low-profile tyres are good for handling and road-holding, which is why any vehicle with sporty pretensions has them.

The thinner sidewalls resist flex to a higher degree compared to taller rubbers, thus eliminating understeer and/or oversteer, and also sharpen the handling.

In a vast majority of cases, tyres with thin sidewalls tend to have a wider tread, which in turn means increased grip levels.

OFF-ROADING
High-profile tyres are ideal for off-roading. The chunky doughnuts allow for a more detailed and deeply grooved tread pattern and also give allowance for regulated tyre pressures (different off-road conditions call for different tyre pressures).

The fatter air cushion also filters out the bumps, holes and surface imperfections that define off-road conditions.

There is also reduced risk of damage to the rims and/or the tyres themselves peeling off the rim in extreme conditions.

Hi Baraza,
I have used Xado Revitalizant and trust me, it works! I used the 1 Stage Engine Revitalisant in my 2005 Nissan Wingroad and there is a significant difference, especially with power output. I read that you also want to use Revitalisant for automatic transmissions in your Mazda Demio (Haha!)… It’s strange since you never tell us the things you use in your car. Do you also run on V-Power?

Hello,
Interesting. So the Russian juice works, eh? I’m almost at the end of the research stage with the Xado gearbox oil and my results will be out sooner rather than later.

One question, though: the power jump you refer to, is it an actual increase in power or is it better engine response? I don’t think an oil additive would contribute anything to the power output of an engine unless there was compression leakage originally which has since been cured.

Now, to my Demio. It has a manual transmission (Duh!), not automatic, and it is the guinea pig in use for the experiment mentioned above. I sometimes run on V Power but have no particular formula.

I put about 20 litres of V Power every now and then, the now and then in question being 1: when I can afford it and 2: if I can afford it and the pump attendant asks, “Premium or V Power?”

Hi,
There is no turning back once you go Prado. I bought a 2006 VVT- I and keeping to the speed limits and below 2500rpm, it uses less fuel to Kisumu than my Noah. Now I find excuses to travel upcountry often. You are right.

Of course I’m right: a 5-door Landcruiser Prado is about all the car you will ever need if your driving covers a wide range of conditions and includes an equally wide range of loads, both human and nonhuman; and your situation precludes the ownership/operation of more than one motor vehicle.

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Buy Evoque if you want luxury, and Evo if you want to corner like a rat

Hi,

I drive a Mercedes E240 year 2003 model. Now I want to upgrade to a bigger car. I am thinking of an Audi Q7/Lexus RX/Evoque. I want comfort, luxury, looks, and speed in that order.

I do not expect to go offroad; it just needs to handle potholes and diversions (during road constructions). I live in Kericho and travel to Nairobi and Kisumu twice a month.

Which one would you prefer, and why?

Shah

Hi,

I would buy a Land Rover Discovery with that kind of money and your priorities, but since the Discovery is not on your list, let us just pretend you did not ask me what I would prefer.

Speed: This depends on which engine you have in your car, but I will not even go into details here because:

1. All these cars will top 200 km/h, which I strongly advise against anyway (what for?) and

2. The biggest differences come in acceleration, but again, how many people do you see taking part in a drag race with an Evoque or a Q7 or an RX Lexus? There are SUVs built for that kind of thing (SRT Jeeps, AMG ML Mercs, Porsche Cayenne Turbos, BMW X5M and such).

What is more important is in-gear acceleration, or in pedestrian parlance, overtaking power. The Evoque takes the cake here: With the new nine-speed gearbox (yes, nine) and those clever-clever trick turbos used in both the petrol and diesel versions (plus the Evoque’s lower GVW overall), the Range Rover will go “like a starved rat”, to quote someone.

Luxury goes to the Range Rover. Does it now? The four pillars of luxury are space, light, silence, and comfort. The baby Rangie is quiet (if you drive soberly) and well-lit, especially if you open up the roof: The extended sun-roof opens all the way back, a feat none of these other cars can claim.

Comfort is a 70-30 split affair: The magneto-rheological suspension is optimised more towards handling and response rather than wafting, which is best left to the daddy: The Vogue (also not on your list), but then again, that active suspension does make for a good ride when the going is soft.

Space is where we might have an argument. The Evoque is certainly superior to the Lexus when inside (the spaciousness, whether real or perceived, is certainly not the same), but what of the Q7? It is a bigger car, but do the exterior dimensions reflect on the inside too?

No. The inside of the Q7 may not exactly be a portable toilet — it is actually quite roomy — but some of those interior colours work against that effect. A Q7 with a dark interior feels a bit like being inside a hole, and anybody who has been in a hole will tell you that the roominess of the hole is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Well-built and elegant interior it is, though, one of the best in the world outside of a Bentley. So the Q7 drops back in light and perception of space… and comfort: The ride is a bit hard. Silence also suffers a little (the competition here is very stiff, in the form of a Range Rover and a Lexus, hence the harsh judgement). The Lexus… well, the Lexus is certainly quiet and comfortable, but it is not very roomy, nor is it exceptionally well-lit.

A good car, it is also slain by the same sword that fells the Q7: The third option is just too good. Oh, well….

Looks: This is highly subjective. I have always detested the Q7’s marine appearance (I once called it “The Prince of Whales”), and the Lexus looks really boring and just a little bit aloof, the kind of thing you would expect from someone in IT who earned billions for making an app before they turned 22.

They have not had enough time to fully develop tastes and preferences and priorities and have life experiences like sleeping in jail (or with a streetwalker) but because they are a genius, they come up with something that works really well but lacks sex appeal, passion, and character. It is just there, functional and neat. Exactly like his billion-dollar app. The Evoque, in my eyes, reeks of Victoria Beckham, which in turn brings to mind Victoria’s Secret and I think I need to stop now…. Where is that Discovery?

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Dear Baraza,

I hope you have been well. I am torn between the following vehicles and I just cannot make up my mind on which to go for. Please advise on which is the better option between the Mitsubishi Evo 10 and the Subaru N14 WRX STi hatchback in terms of performance (both in six-speed manual transmission).

I have owned Subarus and can confirm that getting parts in not a problem. How about the Evo? Will parts be readily available? Also, what reliability issues should I expect from these cars? Finally, which will cope better with enhancements to boost the horses?

Thanks and regards.

Hello Sir,

Thank you for opening Pandora’s Box yet again. The last time I wrote extensively about the two cars — which people mistook for a consumer report based on a comparison even after I had specifically introduced my writing as not consumer advice, I mean, one car was from 1996, the other from 2004 — I almost got murdered by loyalists of The Blue Oval. I guess it is time I sought protection again… or maybe not.

This time I will answer your queries randomly (on purpose). Evo parts may or may not be readily available. This is mostly determined by what exact parts you want and what your idea of “readily available” is: Over-the-counter? A day’s delay? A month’s delay? Or can they be acquired at all? For a performance car (such as the Evo), a little wait for model-specific parts is not unusual.

Modification/tuning/enhancement of horsepower is a common practice in the world dominated by these two cars, but some characters in Japan, whom I follow with keen interest, claim that these two particular vehicles are not easy to tune.

They seem complicated, and they are, but that has not stopped people from tuning them anyway. The response to increased performance will depend on how the enhancement itself is done, but the fact that the Evo — and not the Subaru — is available with 440hp straight from the factory speaks a lot about the drivetrain and chassis’ receptiveness to extra horsepower. It seems to be better adapted to these power upgrades, or so Mitsubishi Motors would want us to believe.

Then again, those same Japanese that I follow pitted a tuned N14 (or N16, whatever) against a tuned R35 Nissan GTR in one of their hardcore showdowns, and not an Evo… this also tells a lot, seeing how an Evo X had dropped out of contention earlier, tournament-style. For now, I will call a draw and say they are both tunable with exceptional results, but only if done properly.

Discussion of reliability is where I will probably get myself killed. I am not saying that Subies are unreliable (twin turbo Subaru engines are unreliable, but the N14 does not have this).

However, from local observation, STis suffer more turbo and engine failures compared to Evos. And they crash more often — a lot, actually. This could boil down to the driver: Maybe Evo owners are more fastidious in car maintenance and are generally better drivers, or maybe, just maybe, Evos are better cars overall, I cannot say for sure (I need to stay alive long enough to provide next week’s Car Clinic, you know), but statistics say this is so.

And now to the can of worms: Performance. There are few rival cars as evenly matched as these two models. Their engines are of the same capacity, they develop similar power and torque (a kilowatt here and Newton-meter there do not make much difference), both use 4WD powertrains and when raced flat out, they will generally invade each other’s privacy in a battle for supremacy… until you get to a corner.

In stock form, the Evo will gracefully make short work of the turn and keep charging until the driver takes his foot off the accelerator. The Subaru will head for the nearest thicket, or tree, or ditch, or whatever obstacle will inflict the most pain and/or embarrassment on the hapless and helpless driver as the vehicle ignores all instructions to change direction and washes its nose wide in a humiliating, tyre-wasting phenomenon called understeer.

This is where the Blue Oval loyalists come out with their pitchforks and torches, so I have to run now. Goodbye!

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Hello JM,I was pleasantly surprised to read my question to you about the Discovery 2.

Ever since, I have been looking at the Outback, Box Prado, and Toyota Surf (year 2002, 3000TD). I steered clear of the Outback after I found out it does not have protection on its underbelly. Good car all round, though, although on the online forums, there were many complaints. The Box Prado did not have airbags and ABS.

The Surf… many thumbs up online, so I have been taking a second look at it. What is your take on it? I am looking for a comfortable, powerful all-terrain car.

Robert Kyalo.

Hello Kyalo,

Glad I was of help. That is what I go for in this column. Now, the Surf fits the bill of “comfortable, powerful, all-terrain car”.

It is comfortable, at least a lot more comfortable than some SUVs on offer (Land Rover Defender, Toyota Fortuner, to name a few…). It actually feels a bit similar to the Prado, with less body roll on corners and oceanic wallow on undulating surfaces.

It is powerful… in a way, and if the power is not to your liking, it is nothing that a tweak to the turbo (for diesel engines), an addition of an intercooler, or an engine swap will not fix.

And it is all-terrain. It has the full off-road tackling gear: Good ground clearance, 4WD transfer box, low-range gearbox, and locking diffs. It also has airbags and ABS.

The Outback lacks clearance, low range and diff locks (alleviated by use of AWD rather than conventional 4WD), and the Box Prado, which I like very much (70 Series), has no ABS and airbags, as you say (are you very sure about this?) So, Surf it is. Problem solved, if you ask me.

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Baraza,

With all due respect, you have all your facts wrong on the Toyota Prius. I have, for the third time, read your views on the Hybrid and decided that enough is enough.

You are either misadvised or too ignorant. I have been a driver for the past 26 years and, as you can imagine, have driven quite a number of vehicles, from the Mitsubishi Rosa that was popular on the Eastleigh Route, through to half-gear vehicles, trucks, pick-ups, station wagons, and saloons.

Now, let us get back to the Prius. We Prius lovers feel insulted by your continuous criticism. I have driven a Prius since 2008, when I imported the first-generation NHW11 and I have no regrets whatsoever. I am now driving a 2005 NHW20 and still have the older one.

My sister drives a 2004 NHW20 and I have two friends who drive the same. None has had any problem with the vehicles and their contacts are available, should you wish to clarify anything.

I have yet to drive a used import vehicle of the same capacity that picks and is as fuel-efficient as my Prius and I can challenge you to a drive down to Mombasa (never been more serious) if only to have you set the record straight on the Prius Hybrid (I am willing to fuel both vehicles).

I hope you will be bold enough to publish this and accept my challenge down to the coast. If you will not, please give Prius lovers a break!

Francis

Hello Sir,

I will start off by saying I will give Prius lovers a break, simply because this has been going on for far too long and needs to come to an end.

I also need to clarify a few things, the first being my criticism of the Prius. I have not declared it a mechanical fiend, nor have I called it problematic.

My biggest gripe with this car is that it is over-glorified. It does not live up to its name. Do not believe the hype. You and your friends might drive Prii — I finally confirmed it: Toyota says it is “Prii” and not “Pria” or “Priuses”— with the best of intentions: Saving the planet for capitalists who do not care and who compensate for your good deeds by driving Lamborghinis and pointless SUVs, but that Prius you are so proud of does not save the planet. This much I have repeated several times.

The second problem comes with Prius owners: Self-righteousness. Holier-than-thou.

The salt of the earth, while the rest of us petrolheads are the bane of human existence who should be banished to a world where we will be forced to ride bicycles for the rest of our lives as penitence for taking too much pleasure in big-bore throttle bodies and Stage 2 Supercharger kits.

Owning a Prius was fast-approaching religious fanaticism, the kind of zealotic snobbishness that eventually leads to fundamentalism: “I am right and you are wrong and if you don’t agree with me I have some sticks of dynamite under my shirt that will convince you otherwise”.

Prii are good, but so are other cars. Also, Prii, like other cars, are fallible. The kind of pomp and circumstance that accompanied the vehicle’s entry into this world did nothing but set it up for backlash from the likes of yours truly. If you claim to be a horse, someone will pull down your trousers to confirm it.

The Prius is no horse.