Hard and honest car assessments

Posted on November 16th, 2003 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

The other day I was in communication with an engineer who works for an Australian car company. He’s also an AutoSpeed reader, and our discussion initially wasn’t about his company, but about a personal matter. Simply, he had read that I’d bought a 1988 Maxima Turbo grey market import and was wondering whether I’d like to buy the Nissan workshop manual for a car which came with a very similar engine. He had the manual but no longer needed it. The answer was that yes, I would like it, and over some subsequent emails some amiable negotiating went on over price.

That sorted, the conversation turned to a car that he was driving – his company’s latest and greatest.

In one email he described – at some length – what a wonderful car it was. He listed many other cars that he had driven and/or owned, commenting how good his company’s product was in this light. Since I have heard this from employees of every car company I have ever had contact with (ie ‘my company’s latest product is fantastic’) I simply raised my eyes heavenwards and sent back an email suggesting that I’d heard it all before, and could he come up with some faults that the car had?

This is an anathema to anyone who works for a car company: the current model is always so perfect that nothing could be better… until the next model comes out, of course. To give the man his due (I think he was genuinely enthusiastic about the product, not just pushing the company line), he responded with a few problems he perceived with the car.

Trouble is, they were relatively trivial…

So I started thinking about this. What is it with people who work for car companies? Why can’t they assess their own products harshly, looking at both the positives and the negatives? (Another car company engineer I once spoke to was genuinely taken aback at theconcept that it should be fairly easy to come up with ten good points and ten bad points about his newly-released car.) Are these people simply so deeply involved with producing something that they’re blinded? Perhaps it’s the very familiarity with the car that renders them incapable of seeing (most of) another side?

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Trying to empathise with that, I thought about my own car. It’s a 1998 Lexus LS400 that costs me a fearsome amount in lease payments each month. The financial outlay is relatively large for me, and with the Nissan Maxima in the household there’s really no need to have two cars.

But I keep the Lexus because I love it.

I love the silken punch of the 4-litre DOHC variable valve timed V8 that has such a wide spread of torque; I love the sound system; I love the quietness and comfort. I also love how when I push it hard on the winding country roads around here it hangs on and hangs on – and when it doesn’t, I love the stability control. I also love the fuel consumption, which is simply stunning for a car of this size and performance.

Perhaps this is what it is like with the car company people – they love their cars so much they can’t see the faults?

But hold on! I can see plenty of faults with the Lexus! Where will I start?… perhaps with the steering.

The steering is both super light and has a lack of linearity around centre which is disconcerting. Start to turn the wheel and for a heartbeat there’s no response – then – as if the castor suddenly alters – the front wheels suddenly change direction. The turn-in to a corner isn’t a gradual and subtle and intuitive action; nope it’s a darty movement lacking in grace and precision. Worse, the same thing happens at speed on freeways, where together with an appalling lack of aerodynamic stability, the steering persuades you to become involved in a game of let’s-chase-the-front-end. If you don’t actively choose to reject the game, you can end up waggling all the way down your lane…

And there’s another real negative about turn-in… and the moments directly after that. The Lexus initially leans as if it is a super-softly sprung car… and then abruptly stops any further body-roll. Well, that’s not quite right either. It’s better to say that the rate of roll changes – which is very unreassuring. Turn into a corner hard and your butt contracts… the bloody car’s leaning so much that you’re sure that you’re going to plough straight on! Then when committed, the car’s rate of roll increase suddenly drops – and you know you’ll be right. (My fiancé’s Series I LS400 is much better in this respect – it has wonderful roll linearity.)

Then there’s the auto trans. Lacking a tiptronic-style function (though the wobbly gate allows you to easily select fourth or third in the 5-speed box), in many situations you need to put up with the Lexus gear selection philosophy. Which means it is slow to react – especially when you’re in the cut and thrust of cornering. Come up to a corner, get hard on the gas and – well, the trans thinks about it. Unfortunately you’ll be past the apex before the auto kickdown occurs. It’s an auto that has to be driven manually if you want the throttle control over cornering that’s possible.

And another thing is the traction control. It directly influences the electronic butterfly so it’s super-smooth – but it comes in much too early. Perhaps designed for snow (precious little of that around here) it will activate when turning out of a steep, glassy-smooth bitumen side road. In the dry. If the traction control wheel speed difference threshold could be boosted by – oh, say, 20 per cent – it would be a damn goo d thing.

You don’t want to sit in the back, either. There’s bloody little room there for a car the size of the Lexus… in fact, you can easily wonder where all the space has gone. You won’t find it in the boot. But at least the rear passengers will enjoy the ride – it’s far better when there’s extra weight on board. Have just the driver in the car and the car feels floaty and under-damped: sure it’s a luxury car, but whatever extra damping comes into action when there are passengers present should be there all the time.

And talking about the seats, they’re not very good. With the multitude of electronic adjustments, it’s possible to get the leather shaped not too badly – but even so, you’ll flop around with little lateral support and you’re always conscious that your bum is on a large flat panel.

The headlight high beam is also pretty average. Sure, for the low beam you have HID – a very white light that works superbly at pulling road reflectors and white lines out of the darkness – but turn on the high beam and a yellow and feeble glow eventuates. I’ve overcome some of the deficiency by setting the low beam aim higher, but the bottom line is that the factory combination is nothing outstanding.

Hell, I could go on and on! The way the front suspension allows shaking to come back through the wheel over cornering bumps, the stupid handbrake release positioned under the dash, the long-travel brake pedal….

If you really know a car, it’s never hard to come up with a long list of faults.

Unless of course you’re not looking for them ….

One Response to 'Hard and honest car assessments'

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  1. Jack Lexus said,

    on October 6th, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Lexus LS400 is a great car, you shold too keep it for her death 🙂 really… About newest cars: my friend work in company who building one small part to BMW. He work in this company about 8 years. He said, that 8 year ago they made this part very strong it has 0,6 mm. Now they made the same part of this car with the same material, but it has 0,35 mm. So now I know why older cars are so strong…