Back to BMW? Why no manual tranny any more?

Occasionally I see a very nice condition E46 coupe around town and miss my car…  At the same time, the practical side of me tells myself that it was a wise decision to sell all the cars.  The logical (head) side had won over the passionate (heart) side.

However, having a car in the city is something nice to have.  In the past few years, I’ve been using my sister’s car as well as my Celica for the weekends.  The Celica is now over 20 years old and as with any old car, especially one that is not driven on a daily basis, it is starting to need attention.  It’s not a get-in-and-drive-then-park-it kind of car that I can depend on at all times…

In my experience with using Zip Car, it’s a viable alternative, but it has two major problems:  1) weekend availability of cars in the Manhattan is very low: you literally have to book months in advance to have a car on the weekends; and 2) financially, in the long run, it’s actually not that cheap.

I ran the numbers, based on the days and miles that I drive and it’s actually cheaper to lease a comparable car (which is essentially a rental anyway) if parking is not factored in.  In my few years of living/driving in the city, I found parking solutions that are very cheap, so I am factoring that into my math.  And in the long run, buying a car (with financing) is the cheapest option.  Buying is always better than leasing for me (given how much miles I drive, how well I maintain my cars, and the fact that I keep cars for a long time).  Buying a slightly used car is probably the best option overall.  So yeah, I did all the math and even my wife doesn’t disagree (she’s sat in the car too many times when it wouldn’t start or it would stall or other embarrassing moments).

So I’m car shopping again…  I’m torn, though.  What we really need is a reliable practical car.  What I don’t want to drive is a boring practical car.  Damn it, the head vs. heart fight again!  I really want a MKIII MR2 Spyder!  But yeah, not very practical is it…?  :(  Okay, so where do I look?  No late model cars really excite me.  Maybe a BMW?

BMW that is practical– how about a wagon?  :)))  Then my heart goes: yeah, a stick shift wagon would be awesome!  M5 touring, wooooot!!!!  Then I come back down to earth:  Okay, what are my options?

Did you know that the new 328i wagons don’t come in manual any more?  I didn’t know until I was half-way through the “Build My Car” pages on the website when I realized it never asked me for a transmission choice of row your own gears or slushbox…  Grrr.

Okay, I know wagons are very unpopular in the USA.  But hear me out, BMW:  the only people buying sport wagons in the USA are enthusiasts and wagon fans.  “Regular” people will just get an SUV like everyone else.  Wagons are special because they have car driving dynamics, looks like a car (sedan) but has extra room in the back trunk.  Enthusiasts usually want to row their own gears.  I know DCT and whatever F1 technology you want to put into the cars can shift faster.  But I’m not out to put down the fastest lap times in a wagon or a sedan or a big coupe for that matter.  I want to enjoy driving, and part of that enjoyment is rowing my own gears, hitting that perfect heel-and-toe double-clutch rev-matching downshift as I brake into a corner at high speeds, late braking, hitting the apex and tracking out…  BMWs have always been special in that they offered manual on all their cars from the 3 to the 5 series (compact to medium sized cars).  That’s why you don’t buy a Mercedes, cos they don’t do manual and their customer base is different.  If my option is limited to just a slushbox, then you’re making me cross-shop with a Mercedes (like the E350 Wagon (and then my heart goes, “E63 AMG Wagon!!!!!))…

In any case, that was a true bummer.  So I stopped half-way through my “Build My Car” and researched and found that the last generation, the E91, was still available in manual.  Then I go do a search for CPO (Certified Pre-Owned) inventory in the USA on the BMW site.  LOL.  A whooping total of 3 wagons in manual comes up.  One in Hawaii, one in Pennsylvania, one in Vermont…  ><

And so the story continues…

The end of an era

Today I watched the new owner of my car drive away with the car that I’ve taken good care of for the past almost 10 years…  It was a sentimental day, because looking back, and reading my old posts here too, I realized how this car started a lot of things for me– from my first autocross, to joining my first online car forum and meeting people with similar interests as me, to my first track day…  It was the start of my rediscovered car passion.  It was the beginning of an era for me…

And now that era is coming to a close.  I moved into a small apartment in Manhattan and I hardly drive any more (maybe once a month or two?).  I have no place to keep my cars– $600 a month for parking in the city is not something I can digest!  And so I am put all my cars on the market, including my beloved E46 and my Lotus Exige S.

While I don’t autocross or track as much as I used to, and so I say it’s an end of an era for me– I think it’s also a start of another…  I am working on realizing a few start-up business ideas aimed at the automotive enthusiast community, so I am funneling my passion into something else.  And I know I’ll be back when the time is right again.

Every now and then I see an E46 coupe and I smile…  What a wonderful car.  What a wonderful experience I had while owning and driving and racing it…

R-Compounds Ordered!

2390 miles, 7/27/2001

My Bieffe helmet is shipping out next week finally, and today I placed an order for a new set of wheels and tires! Finally, after looking at how badly I am burning through the stock tires from all the autocrossing, I decided not to wait until they wear out to replace them. I decided to order a dedicated set of rims and tires strictly for competition events. So I went over to TireRack.com and ordered myself 17×8″ BBS RK rims mounted with 225/45ZR17 Kumho V700 Victoracer tires, heat-cycled. I was going to get a cheaper set of wheels, but nothing really looked good and since the RKs are very very light rims (probably not as light as the SSR rims, Integral and GT1) they are appropriate for track use. I don’t know, but the factory 8-spoke rims are starting to grow on me and I’m beginning to like rim styles other than the standard 5-spoke star configuration. The BBS RKs have 10 spokes total, with a pair of 2 spokes linked to the hub in a 5-star manner. I think they look good. Yes, they’ll be a pain to clean, but wheels are much cleaner when they are off the car, so I can probably wash them after every event with no problem. I post photos of them once they arrive and I have mounted them on my car. I’m pretty excited. I didn’t plan on getting new wheels this soon, but you’ll understand once you’ve seen how fast I’m burning through my stock Michelins… Okay, I have to get well-rested for tomorrow’s BMWCCA Autocross: Logging off for now.

PCA Autocross

2300 miles , 7/22/2001 (PCA Autocross)

I’ve become an autocross nut, it seems. I went to the Metro New York Porsche Club of America autocross today: Again, there were lots of cars, but not as much as last week and the course used the entire parking lot this time, with an interesting 270 degree loop in the middle. There were some familiar faces and cars from last week’s SCCA Solo II. Again, every time I go, I’m a bit more prepared that the last: Yesterday I finally found magnetic sheets and I cut them up for use as stick-on numbers for the side of my car, as shoe polish and masking tape are such a pain to remove after they’ve baked themselves into the paint and window surface. Things still on my autocross wishlist: a gazebo/tent/umbrella thing, a better tire gauge, and of course a new set of wheels/tires: looks like Kumho V700 Victoracer autocross tires are popular. Okay, on with the review of my car: I tried running my first 3 runs with tire pressures of 43.5 in the front and 43 in the rear and I noticed that the sidewalls of the tires were touching the tire. But I did fairly well during those runs, and my car was very predictable and I can feel when the car is about to lose grip. I always have to remind myself that I’m lucky to have a car that is very communicative to the driver and has good neutral handling.

For the 4th run in the afternoon, I tried running with 46 front and 43 rear, and wow my car became so skittish that I almost did a 360 spin-out on the first 90 degree left turn! On the slalom section, my car felt like it wanted to slide all over the place and not weave through the cones. So immediately before the 5th run, I took out the air from the tires and went down to 44 front and 41 end, and the handling was back to what I was used to, although the tires did squeal a bit on the loop and the sharp turns. I think I’ll try running 44/41 next week and see if that’s the ideal setup for me. Anyway, they didn’t distinguish Novices from the regular folks, so I don’t know how well I did compared to other novices, but I was 9th place in the X2 Class for the day (click here to see the results).

With the helmet on, my head hits the headliner and the sun visor when my seat is in the “autocross position.” So today, I took off my sun visor and it helped a little. You’ll see what I mean if you look up at your headliner and see where it meets the front windshield; it hangs down a bit.

(By the way, I found a great page that explains Autocross/Solo II, on tirerack.com if you have been reading my reviews/logs so far and wondering what an autocross is…)

SCCA Solo II

2100 miles , 7/16/2001 (SCCA Solo II)

Whoohoo! My second autocross event; the first timed event for me. My car is in the G-Stock class, and I registered as Novice, because, well, I am a novice. I was definitely more prepared for this autocross than last time: ice box with Gatorade, sunblock lotion, towel, etc. I ordered a helmet last week but it was out of stock, so I didn’t have it for this event, but SCCA had a few loaners and I was able to get one before each run. There were about 130 cars there: it was huge! There were lots of Integras and S2000s, it seemed. I got 6 runs, which was a lot, and my best run was the 5th. I got a bit too excited on my last run and went a little too fast into the last 180 degree turn and my car understeered a lot and I had to almost come to a stop to get back in line! I was running 44psi on all 4 tires, but I think that isn’t the right set-up, as my car showed tendancies to understeer on the corners. Also, I forgot to turn off the DSC/AST on my first 3 runs! Ooops. Overall, I was a lot better than last time, and I never ran off course (no DNF). I placed 7th in Novice, 1st for Novice G-Stock. :) If I ran non-novice, I would have been #2 in my class… Hmm… The full results are here. (Scroll down and look for “Mike Choi 325Ci”) My steering controls were a lot smoother and I did a good job in memorizing the course, having walked through the course 3 times and I actually drew a map of it and practiced imaginary runs while waiting for my turn. I think next on my list of things to work on is throttle inputs and braking. That’s for the next event, the Porsche Club of America autocross this coming Sunday…

There were only 3 BMWs there: an E36 M3, and a Z3, and my car. I chatted with a few folks about my car, and overall, even though there were lots of people there, it was a friendly environment. I’d definitely come back for their next autocross. I’m definitely happy with my car. It’s well-balanced and even in stock condition it handles well and it’s predictable. There was a VW New Beetle there that was literally hopping and running on 3 tires on the turns; it looked really funny. And the Civics were very wobbly on the turns and slalom sections. The muscle cars (Corvette, Camaro, Mustang) had great acceleration on the straights, but they were overpowered for the corners and the drivers had to cut back on the speed a lot on the corners. I also realized how important car weight is: i.e. a lighter car is better on the track. I mean, look at the little kart with a motorcycle engine (not sure about that): its acceleration was no joke.

I’ve been running these events on my stock tires, and I’m going to keep running them on the street and on the track until they wear out. Then I’ll get some Kumhos for autocrosses and use Yokohama AVS Sports for the street.

Z3 Coupe 3.0i, Bimmerfest 2001, BMWCCA Autocross School

1800 miles , 6/30/2001 (Z3 Coupe 3.0i, Bimmerfest 2001, BMWCCA Autocross School)

Road Trip to drive the Z3 Coupe 3.0i
A few weeks ago, I drove up to Connecticut for my first “road trip.” I did a little experiment with my tire pressure and inflated it to the maximum recommened pressure, 35 in the front, 42 in the rear. With only me in the car, that yielded a slightly harsh ride on the freeway. It wasn’t terrible, but the tires communicated a lot more through the steering wheel and body than compared to when I inflated it to 32 in the front and 38 in the rear (on the way back home). Like on the autobahn a few months ago, the tires do make sounds at high speeds (80mph+), but it’s fairly inaudible especially if you have the music playing. Again, there is no wind noise at all coming into the cabin, and the steering wheel is precise. The most disappointing thing about that particular day was going back into my car aftering having driven a Z3 Coupe 3.0i about 5 minutes before (for the Ultimate Drive event held at Darien, CT). Whereas the Z3 Coupe made a loud and pleasant exhaust and engine sound, my car was so quiet in comparison. The Z3 was small and tight, and my 325Ci felt so big now. The steering on the Z3 was nice and tight, and my 325Ci steering felt so overboosted! I was so bummed to return to my car! I really fell in love with the Z3 Coupe that day, and I made a mental note that it will be my next car.

Bimmerfest 2001
Despite the light rain, I drove down with my cousin to New Brunswick, New Jersey to check out the east coast Bimmerfest 2001. Some highlights were the E46 Coupe at the StreetEffectz.com booth that had a very nice and clean audio installation with LCD screens galore (even one in the trunk lid and a tiny one inside the rear view mirror!). I liked the blue suede replacement on the doors. As for non-vendor cars, there was a blue E46 M3 which was nice to see in person, as well as a few M6s (aka M635CSi). The rest of the cars were “riced out” E30s, E36s, and E46s, which isn’t much to see. It’s a shame that a BMW has to be riced out like that, but oh well. I hope that they are not poseurs, but folks that actually use those modifications to help them in racing events and such (insert sarcastic smirk here)… After eating lunch and failing to find a way back to the Rutgers campus, we just drove back home. It wasn’t worth my time, and the folks there didn’t seem that friendly or eager to chat with you (unlike the folks at the BMWCCA Autocross, see below).

BMWCCA Autocross School, 6/30/2001
I got badly sunburnt today, being out in the sun all day with not a shade in sight for my first autocross event / school with the BMWCCA. I had a blast though, but next time I will be a lot more prepared: lawn chair with sunshade, ice box with tons of water, sunblock lotion, baseball cap, and my own helmet. There were only 4 helmets to share among 6-7 folks, so we had to rotate them and didn’t get to drive through the course as often as those that had their own helmets… But I went through the course 5 times. It feels like your car is barely on the pavement the whole time, with the smell of burning rubber from the tires and just sliding around cones at 30-40mph providing gobs of fun. I was amazed how composed my car was through all that crazy driving. Through the slalom section of the course, the car did lean from side to side, but only once and went back to being level right away, and it never wobbled. Going through 180 turns was truly fun, but I found that my car has a slight tendency to understeer. Remember how I was complaining that I couldn’t make the tires screech (on public roads)? Well, I got what I wanted: the tires squealed a bit on the 180 turns, but it was mostly the sound of the tires rubbing against the pavement (accompanied by the smell of burning rubber) and it still wouldn’t break loose. When my instrutor drove my car (and redlined it at 6250rpm on one turn), I realized that I was far from reaching the potential and limits of my car’s abilities. It was quite humbling: like the instructors said, the car can do so much more than we think, it’s just that our driving abilities are not up to using the car to the fullest potential…

And I was surprised at how much adreneline rush you can get from a sport that I didn’t think was as physically demanding as it was. I gained a newfound respect for race car drivers, especially those who do endurance races! You should see my tires after that day: They look melted, scratched, and bubbled from all that heat and friction. They are fairly soft tires, so they work fine on the track, but they are expensive to just burn through like that. I think I need to get dedicated racing tires if I am going to do this often (I plan on doing it at least once every month), as my stock Michelin Pilot HX MXM tires are very expensive ($250+ each, to be exact)… I’m sure I don’t need to comment on the ridiculous amount of brake dust that covers my wheels now. Thanks a million to my great instructor, Mark Valera (with the Blue Camaro Z28) from the SCCA, for the great driving tips and being patient with me.

Impressions at 1167 miles

1167 miles , 5/19/2001

I did a full-on car detailing job today: Wiped down the entire car with Griot’s Garage Speed Shine, washed and waxed the rims (Griot’s Garage Wheel Cleaner and Best of Show Wax) which were covered in brake dust, and I’ve only driven the damn thing for maybe 5 hours total since I picked it up from the dealer! Anyway, the rims are so clean I can stick my bare hands through the spokes and wipe the inside of the rim and it will come out clean.

I’ve driven the car a bit more this week, doing occasional accelerations up to 5000rpm (the engine sounds really sweet up there) and doing a lot of fast corners. I’ve actually managed to cause car computer to get involved: I was doing a 90 degree right turn at around 40mph and when I braked hard, the brake pedal started pumping a bit (don’t know if it was ABS or the Stability System). No peep from the tires though. The car is so stable and stiff on the corners it’s so much fun. I was going up a 180 degrees clockwise highway ramp (probably doing 45mph) and it felt like my brain was pushing up against the left side of my head; a little G-force in action. And through the whole thing, my car was flat on the ground with not a whisper from the tires.

I’ve been working on smoother downshifting, specifically, pressing briefly on the throttle while between gears when shifting down a gear. By the way, I found that fourth and fifth gear are a bit slow in giving instant pulling power compared to gears 1 to 3. At pretty much any RPM in those gears (1 to 3), I can press down on the accelerator and the car takes off immediately and pulls very strong. At gears 4 and 5, it responds immediately, but the pull is not as urgent.

325Ci vs. Mercedes-Benz S500

1064 miles , 5/13/2001 (325Ci vs. Mercedes-Benz S500)

I installed the deer warning system and hard-wired my radar detector today. (I wrote up the instructions here). I think I learned what the complaints about the E46 steering may be about: I drove a 2001 Mercedes S500 yesterday and the steering of that car was very very similar to that of my 325Ci. The S500 is a luxury car and that kind of steering is fitting for that kind of car. And since most folks see the 325Ci as a sports coupe, not a luxury car, the steering may be considered too soft by some. Now I get it. In any case, I still like the steering because of its precision and practicality in everyday driving. Comparitively, my 325Ci sways a lot less and handles the corners better than the S500, although the S500 has a lot of power (but then, it’s engine displacement is 2X that of my car). And no other car I’ve personally driven is as fun to drive as my 325Ci, so that still holds true. I have yet to make my tires screech, as hard as I try (40mph through a 120 degree right turn didn’t make my car flinch). I guess that’s what next month’s BMW CCA AutoCross is for… :) I’m not sure if my engine break-in period is done or not, but I haven’t revved over 4500rpm yet– I think I’ll wait until 1500 miles until I do that.

Second Impressions (Back in the USA)

Second Impressions (USA, 963 to 1010 miles , 5/9/2001)
I picked up my car today and I was noticing how quiet everything is. After you start the engine, you can barely hear it while idle. You can barely hear it while driving unless you go past 2700rpm or so. There is definitely no wind noise at all: Very quiet. I can now see why folks want a free-flowing air induction and custom exhausts, to let them know the car is doing some work… But like I said, past 2700rpm the engine makes a nice sound, a sort of snarl that is pleasant and mean at the same time. I ran it past 4000rpm a few times just to hear the sound, but backed down since I am technically still breaking in the engine. I can’t wait to reach the upper 5000s…

I pumped up the stereo a bit today while going around 55mph and I think that it sounds good and gets as loud as I’d ever need. I feel that there’s a tad bit too much bass (all at middle settings), but that’s probably because I’m so used to hearing non-thumping bass through my (relatively flat and accurate) earphones (Etymotic ER4S). But the sound is fairly flat overall, just the way I like it.

Driving the car, I just love how well it takes the turns, finding it frustrating that the drivers in front of me are slowing down and braking when I want to just fly through the turns… Again, I like the steering. I can steer with one hand with little effort, but when you turn it, the car responds immediately. I won’t be one of those folks getting the steering fix/retrofit because frankly, why fix something if it ain’t broke? I almost forgot how smooth the shifter was in this car… I’m almost there in getting the feel for this car’s clutch and shifting points; i need a little work on the 1st to 2nd gear shifting and proper downshifting, and then the car will be just like an extension of my body.

I installed the factory alarm (getting to the firewall in the engine compartment for the siren was time-consuming) and the clears (the front clears were a pain to take out, and a pain to get it to snap back in) today. My car looks so much better with the clears; hopefully BMW will make them standard on their future models in the USA. I’ll work on the Escort Passport 8500 direct-wire installation this weekend. I noticed that the cigarette lighter plug is unswitched, i.e. even without the key, there is power to the plug. Which is not good, because I have to unplug the detector when the car is not running. Also, the windshield/rear-view mirror presents mounting challenges for the detector. I ended up having to mount smack in the middle of the windshield for the rear laser detector to be able to have a clear line of sight. I think I’ll have to mount it to the right of the rear view mirror or attach it to the passenger side sun visor.