BMW, Lotus, Aston Martin. For the automotive enthusiast the brands of Bond are the stuff of legend. From oil slicks and ejector seats to submarine conversions and holograms, Commander Bond’s rides were far from stock and, for the everyday driver, quite out of reach (if not reality). Also, most of us don’t have Her Majesty’s Treasury or Q Branch at our disposal. However, if we learned anything from For Her Eyes Only, the only thing more important than what’s under the hood is who’s behind the wheel. I just lack the requisite training.
I’ve been a car guy for years. It’s not by choice really. Nature, nurture, or a bit of both, New Car-itis has afflicted my family for decades. As hereditary ailments go there are worse fates. Some families’ fates are set by a shared abnormality; others, like mine, an addiction – new car smell.
Calling myself a ‘car guy’ is perhaps a misnomer. I’m not fixing anything. I don’t tinker. Truth be told, until recently I had less than passing knowledge on how a car engine actually functions. And while I purchase a Car & Driver or Road & Track on virtually all major flights, I’ve never knowingly experienced oversteer or understeer. I couldn’t have told you, until recently, what a skidpad rating was. Not exactly the makings for a great secret agent.
So, last December, in a late fit of Christmas shopping, an epiphany struck. Car racing classes. Of course. The perfect gift for Dad and an ideal next step in my training. A quick Google search yielded the just right answer. Hosted by Proformance Racing at the old Seattle International Raceway, the one day high performance driving class included expert instruction in the classroom and plenty of time on the track. In your own car no less. Sign
me us up.
Now, I’ve been accused of the odd self-serving gift before, but this was inspired. Dad’s love for the small block Chevy is well documented – the 2005 Corvette in the garage being principal evidence. While he has never been one to turn down a good book he, not unlike most fathers, would really rather spend time with those he holds most dear. And what better way to do that than a day of shared testosterone on a racetrack? Fast forward two weeks to Christmas Eve and the gift was well received. The only problem – it was the dead of winter. Since neither of us were about to invest in wet racing tires for our respective vehicles, we decided to wait until summer.
A funny thing happened while waiting for Seattle’s unrelenting grey skies to pass – my beloved 335i fell apart. Technically speaking this shouldn’t have surprised me. Even though I had less than 50k on the odometer the car was seven years old and well past the warranty. What I wasn’t ready for was the price tag. First the fuel injectors went – 2k. Then the NOC sensor – about $750. Then the water pump. Another 1k. Consulting a few friendly gear heads provided little comfort. “First generation turbo?” they knowingly asked. “Yeah, dump it now, this is just the start.”
The clarion call for car shopping had never been so clear. Considering my family affliction this advice was the equivalent of handing a pyromaniac oily rags and a Zippo. Truth be told, there was little actual ‘shopping.’ Long a fan of the hot hatch, I’d had my eyes on the new 300hp, AWD VW Golf R for months, but I had a small problem. My dream car wouldn’t be released for another year. And my lack of patience is well documented. However, the new GTI was just rolling out and receiving love-letter reviews from nearly all the automotive press. If I could forego 100hp and AWD my prayers were answered.
“Every so often, an automaker just gets a car right. Everything feels in sync with everything else. Nothing draws attention to itself, which calls attention to the car as a whole. The Volkswagen GTI is one such car.” – Car & Driver July 2014
Compounding my desires was the nagging tug of nostalgia. My first car was a 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit. My second a Rabbit Convertible (no, not a Cabriolet, those are ladies cars). And then, after a brief affair with the Japanese, I went back to a 2001 GTI. A 2015 was pre-ordained. All that was missing was the telltale smoke. With a single call to my car salesman brother I was off to the dealership. The only question in my mind was whether or not to get a stick shift or try my hand at the direct-shift gearbox (DSG). For years I’ve always considered myself a stick-shift purist. An automatic? Aren’t those for mini-vans and Subaru wagons?
One test drive cleared that up. The DSG is an exceptional system; more F1 than soccer mom. Not only is paddle shifting simply faster, easily reducing one’s 0-60 times, it’s also irresistibly convenient to be able to pop in and out of automatic mode with a single tap. My commute home, being more gridlock than Autobahn, makes the DSG system the proverbial chocolate and peanut butter of driving experiences. Innovation 1, Purists 0.
New car in hand I was more than ready for class. Or so I thought. One of the aforementioned gear heads sent me an email suggesting a few after-market modifications to boost performance. Enter Achtuning in Redmond, WA. Achtuning is a very well regarded after-market performance shop. The list of performance options ranges from in-take systems to chip modifications; everything you need to take my ‘people’s car’ into something more track ready. Could this be my Q Branch?
The best bang for the buck, it turns out, is simply a software upgrade. That’s right. Software. Just like updating an app on your iPhone you can get the Engine Control Unit (ECU) upgraded on your VW. But what can a simple software update really do? How about 95 more hp and about 80 lbs of torque? The ECU upgrade increases turbocharger boost pressure and optimizes cam timing, valve lift, ignition timing and more to produce higher output. While I have a tenuous grasp on what that means I do understand torque and hp – more is better.
A quick call to my dealership’s service department confirms that they are modification friendly. If my ECU fails they won’t cover it. They won’t, however, nullify the warranty for the other aspects of the car. I gave the matter the due 500 milliseconds of consideration and scheduled my upgrade immediately – just a day before our scheduled class.
Mere days later, while waiting for my upgrade at the Achtuning garage, I chatted up the sales guy at the main desk inquiring how much exactly I would notice the change. “Oh, you’ll notice immediately. It’s a dramatic improvement.” He was right. In little more time than it takes up upgrade to a new version of iOS, I was behind the wheel – knuckles white and a slight flutter in my chest.
As luck would have it I had just 20 minutes to make it from Redmond back to the office for a meeting; the perfect, albeit unnecessary, ‘excuse’ to drive like leaving a crime scene. Pulling out of the parking lot the difference in acceleration was extraordinary; particularly in 2nd gear. Spinning the wheels shifting from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd the torque feel was dramatic. My hatch had gone from peppy (0-60 in 5.8 seconds) to flat out fast. I’d estimate my 0-60 times are now sub 5.0. Not exactly fast enough to catch a V12 Aston Martin Vanquish, but not too shabby either. To those who scoffed at the notion of a VW being Bond-worthy, enjoy my taillights.
How would it perform on the track? How would I perform? How much would Dan worry? I’d soon find out. One day till track day.