Category Archives: Cars

Audi R8 – Ingolstadt Ingenuity

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Note: While the R8 is still in production, this post covers 2007 through 2012 models. Additional variants will be covered at a later date.

Audi created the R8 to celebrate its success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (13 wins since 2000) and introduce a competitor to the Porsche 911.

It is a very different sports car. Not because of its longitudinal, mid-engine layout. Not because of its V8 engine. But because it contains so many unique technologies, synthesizing the great strides that Audi made in the years since the fallout from the unfounded accusations leveled at its cars by a 60 Minutes report on unintended acceleration. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fistful of patents were granted for the design of this car.

To get an idea of the magnitude, think of the Audi’s aluminum spaceframe structure, all wheel drive, optional carbon ceramic brakes, direct injection engine, semi-automatic gearbox and magnetorheological suspension. Then blend those elements in a package capable of nearly 190 mph that has, by all accounts, the usability and comfort of a daily driver.

Surprisingly, despite the company’s long history in motorsport dating back to its pre-war (WWII that is) Auto Union days, Audi had never produced a sports car in the modern era. Sure, there was the Audi Quattro with its remarkable performance, but it was more of a rally car than a sports car. The R8 was  Audi’s foray into such territory.


One of its differentiating elements is the extensive use of aluminum. Like Honda with its Acura NSX, Audi chose to employ aluminum throughout its flagship sports car, continuing the work it began with the 1997 Audi A8 sedan.

The production version was unveiled at the 2006 Paris Motor Show, a potent mix of German technology and Italian flair. VW Group, Audi’s parent company, acquired Lamborghini in 1998. As a result, the R8 and Lamborghini Gallardo share structural aluminum technology and a number of components, notably the all-wheel drive (AWD) system, transmission and, in certain models, the same V10 engine.
Continue reading “Audi R8 – Ingolstadt Ingenuity” »

Mazda MX-5 Miata, Time In A Bottle

Red Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster (NC chassis designation)

Mazda MX-5 Miata

It was 1989. Mazda came out with this neat little car called the MX-5 Miata, an anachronistic two seat roadster that looked of 1960s British origin, with solid build quality (shiny paint, precise and consistent body panel gaps, reliable electronics), and a starting price of around $13,000 ($25,000 in 2014 dollars).

Lo and behold the market embraced it and the Miata became a runaway hit. Fast forward to 1998 and Mazda did it again with the next generation model. By 2000, with more than 700,000 units sold, it was named the best selling two seat convertible of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records.

At the 2005 Geneva Motor Show Mazda unveiled the third generation MX-5 for model year 2006. The U.S.-only Miata moniker was formally dropped in favor of global consistency, but seems to have survived nonetheless.

Body and Chassis

Designed as a lightweight, compact two seat roadster with the simple purpose of pure driving pleasure, it shares its platform with the rotary engined Mazda RX-8. Engineers worked diligently on a “gram strategy” to reduce weight wherever possible.

Compared to the outgoing model (internally designated NB), the third generation NC model is slightly longer and wider. The wheelbase grew 2.6 inches while track width increased more than three inches. These changes allowed for placement of the engine and gearbox about six inches further back in the chassis for improved weight distribution and reduced polar moment of inertia, which can be explained as running around a corner with a bowling ball instead of a ladder of the same weight. It’s easier with the bowling ball.

Further weight savings were achieved through the use of aluminum in the hood, trunklid, wheels and front suspension arms. Double wishbone front suspension and a five link setup at the rear, to better control toe angle, are connected to the road via standard 16 x 6.5 inch wheels all around.
Continue reading “Mazda MX-5 Miata, Time In A Bottle” »

The Fabulously Fast Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Throughout its long history Ferrari’s mission has largely been to win races, and then apply its technical expertise to building exotic sports cars for well-heeled clientele. Each car was a statement about Ferrari’s capability at the time.

The company made another emphatic statement at the 2006 Geneva Motor Show with the premiere of its flagship model, the 599GTB Fiorano. The front engine V12 sports car was intended to do nothing less than advance the state of the art in a manner that was unmistakably Ferrari.

Drawing on its lineage of classic front-engine V12 Ferrari Gran Turismos of the 1960s as well as its immediate predecessors, the 550 Maranello and 575M V12, the 599GTB did so on many fronts. The advancements are apparent in its aerodynamics, engine, transmission and drivetrain, engine, brakes and suspension.

Its design was based on an aluminum spaceframe derived from that of the four seat 612 Scaglietti. Ferrari had been developing aluminum forming and joining technologies for years, showing glimpses of what was to come with the 408 RM testbed of 1987, then gradually transitioning its volume production models to this type of construction.

The 599GTB’s chassis consists mostly of extrusions bonded, bolted or welded to cast nodules and body panels. Further, forged aluminum double wishbone suspension and wheels all around contributed to an overall weight of about 3,800 lbs., a reduction of some 88 lb. (40 kg) compared with the 575M. It came standard with 19” diameter wheels in front and 20” wheels at the rear.

The heart of the 599GTB is a DOHC 65 degree 6.0 liter V12 derived from the mill found in the Ferrari Enzo. At the time of its launch the 599GTB’s output of 611 hp and 448 lb-ft of torque made it the second most powerful Ferrari road car ever produced.
Continue reading “The Fabulously Fast Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano” »

The “Where Were You?” Nissan 350Z

2005 Nissan 350Z hardtop coupe

2005 Nissan 350Z sports car

Nissan began its sports car line in the U.S. with the 1970 Datsun 240Z – Japan’s first big hit with sports cars on these shores. Subsequent model designations evolved with engine displacement (260Z, 280Z, 280ZX) and the shift in branding eventually led to the Nissan 300ZX of 1990-1996.

After an extended absence Nissan’s halo sports car returned for the 2003 model year as the 350Z. It had the familiar ring of the comeback of an athlete who gets carried away with celebrity and comes back leaner and stronger – after a seven year stint in rehab and seclusion.

Unlike its 300ZX Turbo predecessor, whose sticker price approached the $50,000 mark by the end of its model cycle, the 350Z harkened back to Nissan’s affordable sports car roots.

A mid-front engine and rear wheel drive layout provided front/rear weight distribution of 53%/47%. The two seat chassis consisted of a rigid steel unibody with bracing front and rear supported by forged aluminum multi-link suspension, disc brakes and 17” wheels all around. Its distinctive styling also yielded a drag coefficient of just 0.29.

Motive power for the 3,300 lb. Z came from a normally aspirated 3.5 liter 24 valve V6, which initially delivered 287 horsepower (260 for the automatic) at 6,600 rpm through a six speed manual or five speed automatic transmission.
Continue reading “The “Where Were You?” Nissan 350Z” »

Late to the Party Lamborghini Gallardo

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ah yes, Lamborghini, that upstart Italian marque that was perpetually in crisis during its time as an independent maker of exotic cars. It changed hands multiple times, at one point serving as a corporate trophy of Chrysler, until it was acquired by current owner Audi in 1998.

Since then the company has rationalized its lineup and produced a steady stream of new models to take on the likes of Ferrari and Porsche. First it replaced the Diablo with the Murcielago in 2001.

Then after some 20 years of rumors, conjecture and false starts regarding a “Baby Lambo”, including the stillborn Project L140 and Cala concept car of 1995, the Gallardo finally showed up at the 2003 Geneva auto show. It was late to the party but stayed up all night.

The mid-engine, all wheel drive, two seat coupe was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign in conjunction with Lamborghini. Featuring steel door panels and a mostly aluminum skin over an extruded aluminum spaceframe, it was more practical (and 15% stiffer in torsion) than the Murcielago. It also served as the basis for the acclaimed Audi R8 sports car.

Power was initially provided by an aluminum 5.0 liter 90 degree V10. A dry sump oil system, drive-by-wire throttle, and variable valve timing all conspired to produce 492 hp at an impressive 8,200 rpm redline. Peak torque was 376 lb-ft.

That all went out the window in 2009 when the engine was punched out to 5.2 liters and direct injection was added via some magic bits from Bosch. Power increased to 552 hp.
Continue reading “Late to the Party Lamborghini Gallardo” »

Jaguar Project 7

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Jaguar debuted its Project 7 sports car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Named after its seven 24 Hours of Le Mans victories, 250 copies of the fully street legal roadster will be hand-built by the company’s Special Operations Team. Customer deliveries will begin in mid-2015.

Based on the F-Type it features a distinctive driver fairing and other styling elements inspired by the  Jaguar D-Type, now celebrating the 60th anniversary of its launch.
Continue reading “Jaguar Project 7” »

Aston Martin DB9, A Modern Sports Car For Old Money

Aston-Martin DB9 and DB9 Volante

Aston Martin DB9, humming along on 12 cylinders since 2004…

Aston Martin unveiled the DB9 at the 2003 Frankfurt motor show as the replacement for its highly successful DB7, of which more than 7,000 units were sold during its 11 year production run.

Designed by Ian Callum and Henrik Fisker, the DB9 used Aston Martin’s then-new VH (Vertical/Horizontal) platform, which has underpinned most of the company’s lineup since.

Available as both a coupe and convertible (Volante in Aston-speak) and sporting an unmistakably Aston Martin body, its aerodynamic drag coefficient was a conservative 0.34 Cd to favor style and high speed stability.

The chassis consisted largely of aluminum extrusions, forgings and castings joined with structural adhesives and self-piercing rivets. Aluminum was also used for the hood, roof and rear fenders. Door frames were of cast magnesium while front fenders and the trunklid were formed from composite plastic.
Continue reading “Aston Martin DB9, A Modern Sports Car For Old Money” »

24 Hours of Le Mans Review [SPOILER ALERT]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The 2014 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is now in the books. One of the three top contenders won the race as expected… but a whole lot of other things happened too. Here’s the short, short version of  events:


Audi took the overall and LMP-1 win with a 1-2 finish, an amazing 13th victory in 16 attempts, though it was not without drama. The third Audi (#3) and #8 Toyota were involved in a crash in wet conditions about 90 minutes into the race. The Audi was unable to continue while the Toyota limped back to the pits and was in the garage for about 50 minutes to repair the damage.

The winning team consisted of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer in their R18 etron quattro. Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen was part of the team that finished second in the sister Audi after the car experienced turbo problems. His teammates were Lucas Di Grassi and Marc Gene, both ex-F1 drivers.

Gene was called in at the last minute to replace Loic Duval, who was not cleared to race as a precaution following the massive practice crash on Wednesday from which he fortunately emerged largely unscathed.
Continue reading “24 Hours of Le Mans Review [SPOILER ALERT]” »

How the Less Was Won By the Lotus Elise

Lotus Elise Supercharged

Lotus Elise sports car

There have been a number of landmark designs since the earliest sports cars were introduced. In the post-WWII era that has included classics like the Jaguar E-Type, Ferrari Dino, and the original 1960s Elan. Usually such cars are supplanted by heavier, larger and more luxurious models in an effort to broaden the market appeal and expand sales. Or they die. Or the companies behind them flirt with bankruptcy.

By the 1990s Lotus Cars, had taken the Esprit far upmarket, and then went into a front wheel drive cul-de-sac with the unloved M100 Elan. The company returned to the basics with the Elise, a featherweight really no-frills, mid-engine sports car with an aluminum chassis and fiberglass body.

The first generation was not available in the U.S. market. But the following “Federal” model was introduced to the U.S. for the 2005 model year and facelifted versions remain in production. It carved out a unique place for itself on the sports car scene as the lightest and arguably the most exhilarating machine in terms of handling prowess. It is still the purest production sports car on the market.
Continue reading “How the Less Was Won By the Lotus Elise” »

Ferrari 360 Modena Millennium Marvel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the turn of the century Ferrari introduced the 360 Modena. It was the latest chapter in its storied line of two seat, mid-engine V8 sports cars which began with the 308 GTB in 1975. With a base price of around $150,000 Ferrari’s entry-level model was hardly inexpensive. But in the world of exotic cars it was a relative bargain.

Automobile Magazine said, “The Modena’s performance envelope is too huge for mailing” (Nov. 2003). Such a statement was understandable for a car with zero to 60 mph times of 4.3 seconds, lateral acceleration of 0.95g and a top speed of about 185 mph.

The design adhered to the classic formula of more power, lower weight and better handling. Compared with the outgoing F355 model, Ferrari extended the wheelbase, increased chassis stiffness and reduced weight some 200 pounds. This was accomplished in large part through extensive use of aluminum in the chassis and suspension.

Brakes are 13.0” vented and drilled discs all around, mounted inside 18” wheels. In addition to standard anti-lock brakes and traction control, electronically controlled shocks offer standard and sport modes, with settings varying with vehicle speed and input from three accelerometers.

Styled by Pininfarina, Ferrari’s long time design firm, the body was sculpted to reduce the drag coefficient to 0.335 while increasing downforce to some 400 pounds at 180 mph. A contributing element is the lack of a front grill. Instead one radiator is mounted on each side of the nose. The resulting center channel enables air to be better directed along the flat underbody and through the rear diffuser.

The heart of the car is a 3.6 liter aluminum V8 featuring five valves per cylinder. Redline is a dizzying  8,500 rpm. The 40 valve unit produces 395 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque at 4,750 rpm. Its red intake plenums are visible through a tempered glass cover on the rear decklid.

A dry sump oil system, titanium connecting rods, drive-by-wire throttle system, variable intake valve timing and servo controlled variable length intake runners round out the longitudinally mounted powerplant.

Output is channeled through either a six speed manual transmission or a semi-automatic version with paddle operated shifters. In automatic mode it was reported to be clunky in city driving. But the electro-hydraulic system can execute shifts in as little as 150 milliseconds and precisely blip the throttle on downshifts.

The 360 Modena formed the basis for several variants including the 360 Modena Spider, 360 Challenge and 360 Challenge Stradale. The Modena Spider, while similar to the hardtop berlinetta, features a power operated canvas top and chassis reinforcements which increases weight by about 400 pounds. In 2000 the Spider’s starting price was about $165,000.

The 360 Challenge was built for the one make Ferrari Challenge race series. At approximately 2,800 pounds it weighs 260 pounds less than the standard 360 due to the use of carbon fiber door panels and bodywork front and rear, and the absence of air conditioning, power windows and much of the interior trim.

A roll cage and associated safety equipment (e.g. fire extinguisher) were added. The semi-automatic gearbox received its own oil radiator and a beefier clutch. Brakes were upgraded to larger 14” discs in the front, and four piston calipers front and rear. Shocks are non-adjustable but camber, toe, and ride height are. Pirelli P Zero slicks, combined with lower and stiffer suspension were the finishing touches  for the track. Sticker price was in the region of $185,000.

The 360 Challenge Stradale, the ultimate roadgoing 360, was introduced for the lineup’s final year of production in 2004. A revised rear spoiler and bodywork increased downforce, while larger 19” wheels and carbon ceramic brakes all around and a stiffer suspension – offering sport or race settings – help translate that to mechanical grip.

The cylinder heads were ported and polished and the exhaust system was tuned for lower back pressure, bumping power up to about 425 hp.

The Challenge Stradale is about 240 pounds lighter than the standard coupe through the use of carbon fiber inner door panels, seat shells and center tunnel, and Lexan instead of glass for the engine cover. A racing stripe and sliding Lexan side windows were optional. Really. Some 250 units were allocated for North America at about $200,000 apiece.

Significantly, Ferrari’s utter dominance of Formula One between 2000 and 2004 largely coincided with production of the 360 Modena, which was replaced for the 2005 model year by the F430. The advancements made with the F430 reflect the racing lessons learned during Ferrari’s racing hot streak.