Monday 22 August 2011

Hong Kong In Car Electronics

According to the web site, CES is the World’s largest consumer electronics show. More important to us is SEMA which, also is showed at the Las Vegas Convention Centre once a year. The latter is considered the premiere speciality automotive products trade event in the World & is not open to the general public.

But, on the other side of the planet, another enormous Electronics & Components Exhibition takes place at the Hong Kong Expo Centre. Like Ces, it typically hosts previews of products and new announcements.

It also has on display innovation of new magic for the car enthusiast & this is what interests us, the car fanatics! With all the new technology squeezed into new cars; this is the place to get the first glimpse of what may be available for after market wizardry. That heads up display initially developed for military aviation & first seen in colour in the auto industry on the 2001 Corvette will be on show. But, even better, some creations are not even available on new cars!

So what’s new??


As in past recent years, GPS in car navigation is a major player. But now, aftermarket is now OEM! I’ll explain. The usual method of installing a DVD player with satellite navigation (SAT/NAV) was to install what was called the double din stereo (a stereo double the size of the standard) which had a screen & needed necessary attachments to fit the dash. This included at the least, a plastic facia adaptor & a wiring harness. Those accessories would make the install as close as possible to OEM; but not exactly. In some cases, in fact in mostly all, certain features like steering controls would be lost. Not anymore.

This is where aftermarket has become OEM, now the replacement aftermarket SAT/NAV looks, feel & functions exactly like an OEM stereo that would be provided by factory. Even steering controls work as normal as well as the car’s Logo is displayed on start up. A reverse camera may also be installed; again just like OEM, no drilling or adjustments.CIMG6640-1

It gets better, better as the aftermarket has gone a few steps further than what is provided by most car manufacturers. The reverse camera assistance in some models even has a gyroscope built in; this helps the driver manoeuvre into the parking space by adjusting the guidance picture according to the steering angle, giving directions so to speak in which way to turn in.

Other models have also introduced 3G internet maximising online possibilities in the car; a great way to keep up with work on a touch screen in the car without the need to open up your lap top or tablet.

To top it all off & amusing for the younger generation, some even have a games console built in. Whip out the controller & fire away while waiting for the last minute touches she has to make; no more complaints why she’s fashionably late!

My favourite wizardry at the show was an invincible device. Everybody knows about remote central locking; touch a button & lock or unlock the car; it’s been around for years, last century’s technology even. But how about, just walk away & the car locks the doors on its own!?! The vehicle now recognises its master & on arrival, will unlock automatically as well. No more fumbling for the remote when carrying a large bag of groceries or on a dark rainy evening. A convenient tool for the commercial van or sales rep jumping in & out of his vehicle a trillion times a day. A small coded electronic chip is kept by the designated driver, this in turn communicates with the vehicle & so understands when the driver has left or came back to lock or unlock accordingly.









DRL(daytime running lights) now compulsory on new European cars. So yes, there is an aftermarket solution for this; LED strips. There were many variations from high power Led lamps to multi colour strips that may be cut to size. But, going back to making a result look like factory, cool white is in demand. For the fussy enthusiast, high powered LED lamps replace tired yellow halogens fog lights which provide a more upmarket feel. Alternatively, LED strips do look spectacular when fitted with passion, especially in the right blend of white to match those tear shedding HID headlamps. Fitted to front or rear & with a twist of creativity, they can even put OEM lights to shame!

HID lights have gone one step further; Battery conditioners have also made progress & made even cheaper to the consumer. Parking sensors are now more interesting & copper wire has taken a new approach to keep the price down...all this & more in future updates.

Maurice Gruppetta

Friday 12 August 2011

A difficult package to beat: the…2007 BMW 335D

Looks are always questionable. But to me this is a very smartly conceived shape undoubtedly worthy of the kidney shaped grille plus the BMW badge. It’s presence is clear & appreciative just like a beautifully contoured lady in a lovely fitted chiffon gown but not showing off too much skin.

BMW test drive

The in-line 6 cylinder diesel doesn’t quite have the finesse of the Merc’sV6, nor the fluid power delivery but it is more exhilarating none the less. Once the maximum torque kicks in, it becomes aggressive, exciting even. Buckets of torque energy provided by the twin turbos are transmitted to the rear wheels. The usual limited rev range in diesel engines keeps this BMW searching for gear changes as it shoots up the revs. This coupe offers an enjoyable solution to that; paddle shift gear change. Not in the commonly encountered method either; this is where it comes alive.

Most paddle shifts use the left to downshift & the right to shift up. The paddles on this have thumb motivated buttons protruding through the middle of the steering on either side. Press these to downshift. Attached to these are the paddles on either side of the back of the steering; pull back to up shift. Once you get the hang of it, shifting up or down one or two gears becomes a habit for no apparent reason! Nothing replaces the driver/car attachment like that clutch pedal & a proper gear lever. There is a missing connection between man & machine when electronics intervene just like losing one of the 5 senses. But this is the direction where gear change technology is going. In fact, some super cars only have paddles & no longer offer the manual option. So it is time to embrace the advantages.

When on the move, no human is anywhere near the super slick gear change on this car. By the time the brain begins communication with the left leg, gear change has already  been flashed up on the display in the middle of the dash binnacle! On top of that, traffic becomes a doddle & no longer a struggle; just plant the shifter in Drive & relax listening to your favourite tunes. The 3 series range all have one thing common in their DNA; sporty driving dynamics. Throughout the engines & option variations, they all have that emphasis derived from the chassis design. As far as diesel is part of the equation, the 335D Coupe is the summit.

Sitting on 19s with no M Sport, the ride is solid & firm with direct feel under the driver’s pants. An enjoyable balance which helps translate into confidence behind the steering, as if inviting to play. Steering always keeps control with fingertip precision, as though touching the road with them & not the tyres. A wonderful sense of grip is felt. Damping is so good, the body control is magnificent. Hooligan status can also be achieved, just spin up the turbos, switch off DTC, throw the car into a roundabout & twitch the steering on exit; oops sideways! Dump the torque onto the rear rubber & it’s play time, again with steering feel you can let the tail loose as it kicks from one gear to another. This translates over steer into good fun, with diesel power! There is little to wonder why the 3 series is the bench mark in its segment.

All good; no! The dash pod still has the signature of that lazy designer who left it with just two plain dials ahead. 0 for creativity there. A welcoming trend though is the centre dash tilts slightly angled facing the driver. All materials & build quality are up there with the best. This model does get the piano black finished inserts from the dash to the doors which do give an up market feel. This also extends from the centre to the rear seats making this an express carriage for four adults without compromise; two adults really do fit comfortably, unlike many other coupes. Not only that, but there’s also a real boot to accommodate. In the real world, such a practical package is difficult to beat indeed.

Maurice Gruppetta

Thursday 11 August 2011

Mercedes CLS 63 AMG

“Massive. That’s the word”.


When walking up to this Merc, you get the idea straight away that it is impressive. You stop, you look at the beautiful design, a four door, four seater coupe; the stance is gorgeous, up front a distinctive snout, a curved low roofline flowing into a tapered boot.

All the specs are massive, 4915 mm long, 2059mm wide including mirrors. To tug all its weight, 2370kg to be precise, a mighty 514BHP is available. Torque, a seriously healthy 465 lbs/ft. The engine is put together by one man; it actually has his name on it. All the power comes from 6.2 litres of V8 muscle, enough to tow a small house. It does, however cough out CO2 at 345g/km.

Fuel consumption goes along with this theme, urban at 12.5 mpg, tickling the right pedal might get a lucky 19 per gallon. Calais to Pozzallo sucks up just over € 700 & that was before fuel went up again...

The new CLS 63 AMG will get the 5.5 Twin turbo V8 because of the constant battle against CO2 emissions, but until then, this CLS is normally aspirated. O-100Km/hr is reached in 4.5 seconds & who knows how fast it can go if it didn’t have the 250KM/hr speed limiter. This is definitely super car territory in a sports saloon, making it a welcoming achievement; sports car excitement in an executive package.


After walking round & admiring the sleek unique design as one does when mesmerised, it’s time to check out the interior. Once seated, you plug in the remote (yes you don’t insert a key on a Merc) which in turn, releases the electric steering lock, then, motors galore come into play, all synchronised to a preset memory, steering, seats & mirrors adjust accordingly with three memories available. The armchairs look & feel like they are made for high speed cross continent journeys for four adults but, headroom is compromised in the back. A large boot at 495 litres makes sure you don’t leave anything behind.

Build is superb & everything around you feels like quality with luxury everywhere. Nappa leather helps keep you comfy; as always, this makes it look special too. Anything you need is done by the touch of a button, so if you decide that the rear headrests are becoming tedious in your rear view mirror; no points for guessing, press a button & they disappear. The steering is still large as is the usual Mercedes fashion but that does little to ruin what is very nicely conceived and beautifully executed cabin. A lovely wraparound cosiness gives it a unique distinguished character.

Start up, no fuss here, rev counter jumps up & settles smoothly as does the engine. Quite a masterpiece really, the engine; sonorous & effortlessly powerful in any rev range reaching aggressive at full throttle.


This is a big car with a big engine based on the E Class platform but is sportier & more dynamic. It’s all the electronics that keep everything in place but make no mistake, this is really rewarding to press on; blisteringly fast flashing into three figure speeds in a matter of seconds. Automatics are the way to go on Mercs, they don’t seem to have quite mastered the manual. Seamingless gear change is slick in auto, switch to paddles & it gets more personal; flick down, it’s in fighter mode, flick up & power just keeps thrusting forward. Kick down is accompanied by a furiously flashing traction control light until the rubber really bites into the ground, this is where that silly smile emerges across & soon becomes laughter of excitement at the tremendous developing power.

Shooting down the motorway with V8 thunder under the bonnet is most probably any enthusiasts prayer being answered, especially when the residence is on an island 17 miles long! So when the time comes to slam the right foot down with a slab of tarmac going on forever, this is defintiely, absolutely the place to experience that V8 orchestra commencing from a deep growl that turns into an exciting symphony. Acceleration is constant whether the needle is at two or three digit speeds as is the solid feel of German engineering. Ease off the pedal as everything around you becomes a blur; this is quick in a new dimension.

Mercedes_9“AMG magic is present throughout the car & not just in the wheels or styling”. Steering is weighty & not over powered with the feel of handling a large car but gives control over behaviour in the bends. Brakes can keep up with whatever driving style chosen; urgency to a halt depends on the big pedal’s feedback with millimeter precision. Combine these with the tuned marriage between the chassis & suspension & this gives an enjoyable agility; always composed & balanced. After experiencing a CLS 320 Cdi, it certainly has the emphasis on control, the diesel version is for comfort cruising in style, the AMG version is for bragging with your mates when you get there!

After the thunder provided by this excellent piece of machinery, there is one conclusion: the CLS 63 AMG is an accomplished super saloon or, as it is marketed ‘Coupe’.


Maurice Gruppetta

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The wonderful world of aftermarket car products, just keeps getting better!

Fitting an Eight track to your pride & glory back in the day was sheer amazement; the transition from choosing your own music than listening to what the radio before it had to offer. Now, well now in car music has progressed to in car entertainment & more! Sometimes even called Infotainment. Music from practictly any source can be played, CD, MP3, SD card, USB, iPod & so on. But that is just the beginning; DVD play, Bluetooth cellular hands free including touch dial keypad, Navigation information so that you don’t get lost, even rear view camera when engaging reverse gear are all available instead of just having a dull CD Radio in the centre of your dash. Believe it or not there’s more...

After market products no longer just make the car look nicer or give higher quality of music, but, more importantly to me, provide much more convenience! Luxuries like electric windows & central locking could be installed to cars that did not come factory Through the 80s & 90s, German car brands started to introduce convenient features such as total closure; keeping the key in the lock position would lock all doors & at the same time close all windows & sunroof. This advanced to remote control activation. The after market brands started providing the same convenience to other cars that did not have this feature thus giving this more upmarket feel to the enthusiast; or to anyone who appreciated this convenience. This opened up a whole new world of aftermarket products to compensate what was not provided from factory equipped.

In reality, most ideas for aftermarket products actually begin with products that are introduced with new cars. If a car manufacturer offers an innovation on a new model, aftermarket companies will pick up on this. It is then analysed & if possible will be produced as an aftermarket gadget.

So, if a rain sensor for automatic activation of windscreen wipers is introduced on a new car, there is a good chance that some time later this will be available as an aftermarket accessory.

This brings us to what is available today. Many know about remote control locking or even light sensors for automatic lights activation. But after market products have gone way further than that & even make cars much safer too.

A perfect example is the mobile phone hands free kit. This is definitely one of the most convenient gadgets on the market; even better, it assists safer driving! Once an outgoing or incoming call is being made, the car stereo is muted whilst speech is heard through the car’s speakers. The driver may talk to the other party via a microphone. All of this without even touching a button. Not only that, music can also be played through the cars speakers from the mobile phone; wireless!

How about parking sensors? I remember the first time I saw these was quite some years ago whilst driving my friend’s car in Japan. At the time, when switched on, they would detect obstacles at each corner of the car to assist manoeuvring when parking. Now parking sensors can be installed front & rear which are activated automatically. In some cases, even speed activated. A beeper sounds more frequently the closer you get to another car, wall, high pavements etc, until a continuous beep is heard when too close as an indication to stop. This may even be complimented with a display to show which sensor is closest to an obstacle & by what distance. In some cases, believe me; they even look better than some factory fitted sensors. (Picture may be provided)

Yes, these are some things that can be achieved in the aftermarket world. As previously mentioned, it normally starts with OEM (original equipment by manufacturer). Therefore, as we already see upmarket cars including night vision in the dash or even radar activated safety braking; watch out for them, these could be available in the future as aftermarket products!

Maurice Gruppetta

Monday 8 August 2011

Test Drive: 2005 Porsche Boxster

The Porsche Boxster is definitely no Grand Tourer. It is not as comfortable on cross country runs as maybe a four door junior executive. It is not as quiet as a coupe cruising down the Autobahn. Visibility to the rear is horrendous. It does, however, have cup holders that reach out from concealed storage in the dash like mechanical arms.

But, it is definitely a genuine sports car; it is at the top of its game. I have driven the recent versions, known as the 987, in 2.7, 3.2 or even 3.4. with 5 speed, 6 speed & also Tiptronic. They are superb driving machines & wonderfully balanced thanks to a mid engine layout; right where it's supposed to be in a thoroughbred sports car. Just like the first Porsche was designed; the 356/1

Driving the Boxster all the way from the UK to Malta is where you really enjoy any car. High speed runs on motorways are the real deal, although Mountain passes are where it really gets your attention; this is where this two seated roadster really becomes exhilarating.

Leaving Livigno through the picturesque green meadows for a 120KM sprint with the top down, sun shining, White Mountain tops; this is open top driving at its best.

Sit down behind the wheel, turn the key & sitting right behind you, a flat 6 cylinder engine ignites into life. The boxer engine is a key element to provide a low centre of gravity, unique in this category. You don’t just hear the engine, you feel it! The injector’s fire up the combustion chambers & the engine sounds angry with a deep yowl as the revs get higher all the way to 7000rpm. A constant surge of acceleration rounds off with an extra lunge from 5000rpm upwards.

This particular model, the 2.7 with 240BHP, reaches the 0-100KM dash in 6 seconds dead & goes all the way to 258KM/Hr. But this is not all about speed; it's the handling. The steering is precise & sensitive so you point & it obeys, giving the ability to decode the road through your palms. It always feels planted to the road coming to life the faster you go; inevitably you push harder. The chassis is so good, it just begs for more power. Amazingly, although having such a sharp balance in & out of the corners, even when pressed, the ride stays calm.

Once settled down inside, there are no spectacular Gizmos or space travel equipment. No messy buttons scattered all over just like left over litter after a windy day. There are better places to be. In fact, there is nothing really striking about the dash except for the binnacle. That's it, the binnacle, it says it all at first glance; no nonsense, it is completely driver focused. As with all Porsche sports cars, a massive rev counter dominates the centre, flanked by all the information you need. On board computer nestled in the rev counter which also displays speed.

When seated, you realize there really is no other better place to be as this cockpit shouts out; driving enjoyment. The seats grasp you in place, everything within easy reach. The clutch just hard enough for true feel of engagement. Gear lever is no flick of

the wrist action although has a wonderful throw when deciding which gear & resides in the exact position for spirited driving.

There is one button you do need; PSM. Porsche Stability Management is standard throughout the range. When you do get carried away & believe me you will, this keeps you on the road by applying selective braking on individual wheels. There is a certain level of play before the electronic wizardry interferes, just enough for the driver to feel in control before the limit. If brave enough, it can be switched off. This transforms the car’s handling according to the driver’s ability & the amount of juice applied. Once it starts to lose it, back off the power & it stabilizes in an instant. Very exciting on the twisties but better kept in check with PSM on.

As with all Porsches, the brakes are excellent. Cross drilled discs front & rear with aluminium monobloc four-piston fixed calipers. Great feel & no abrupt braking at any speed. Obvoiusly accompanied by ABS.

Boxsters still prefer rag top which is convenient since most tin top cabrios use quite a large chunk of the boot space when hidden. Not being able to lower the top as the boot is full becomes quite irritating on a lovely day; especially on a scenic drive or that weekend break. The real surprize is, this roadster, has two completely free boots; one in front & one at the back! Open air is accessible in twelve seconds with just a flick of a switch even whilst in motion up to 50KM/hr

So there you have it. It's the standard reference point for what makes a sports car. An all round balance of wonderful handling & performance combined with the practiaclitiy to enjoy as a daily runabout or an outstanding weekend of fun!

Maurice Gruppetta