Sunday, August 26, 2018

Volkswagen's approaches to the "popular" car in Brazil in '93

Gol 1000: despite having already gone through a few facelifts, the bodyshell was basically the same released in '80 when the Gol still relied on the air-cooled boxer engine, now front-mounted and driving the front wheels, in a 1.3L version. Later the 1.6L boxer had been offered, but the Gol would only become a major player in the Brazilian automotive market once it switched to liquid-cooled engines. During the AutoLatina joint-venture by Volkswagen and Ford in Brazil and Argentina, Ford sourced its Renault-designed CHT engine for Volkswagen to use in entry-level versions of the Gol and its derivatives in exchange for the EA827 to be fitted to the Escort and some Brazilian derivatives of the Renault 12 project taken over by Ford's local branch after merging with Willys-Overland which was Renault's partner for the Brazilian market until '67. In the end, this meant Volkswagen would use a Renault-designed engine for its earlier 1.0L version of the Gol.
Even though it was already outdated by then, the hatchback provided an easier access to the luggage compartment compared to the classic Beetle with its tiny front luggage compartment under the front bonnet and that internal one between the rear seat and the firewall which was only accessible from the inside.
Despite this practical disadvantage, the Beetle was reintroduced to the Brazilian market in '93 after a 7-year hiatus started in '86. Even though it was supposed to not benefit from the same tax break that favored engines with a displacement equal to or below 1.0L or 61 cubic inches, the rule was amended by then-president Itamar Franco to allow air-cooled engines up to 1.6L to also be included in the fiscal benefit. Brazilian Beetles made during this brief '93-'96 reintroduction were soon nicknamed "Fusca Itamar", refering to the personal request of the president for Volkswagen to relaunch the model. Sure its cross-country capabilities, matched only by vehicles with a much higher price tag, were a valuable asset in a country where most roads are still unpaved, but the higher degree of automation on the production of newer cars and some changes on customers' preferences meant the Beetle was not so appealing to the general public anymore.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Gurgel BR-800, the Brazilian subcompact that nearly became an effective replacement for the Volkswagen Beetle

Creating a car that would fill the gap left by the Volkswagen Beetle's first phaseout in Brazil in 1986 was not an easy task, considering the harsh road conditions and lack of infrastructure calling for some mild off-road ability that was not so relevant in the overwhelming majority of the European-designed economy cars of the '80s that were simply stripped down in order to be sold locally. That could not be so much of a nuisance for someone who lived in bigger cities, but the countrymen needed something else, and the engineer João Augusto Conrado do Amaral Gurgel decided to take the challenge. Gurgel was already known in Brazil for the Volkswagen-based mini SUVs made by his company, but he was already envisioning a way to not be dependent of Volkswagen anymore. Even though the Transporter known in Brazil simply as "Kombi" would remain for a longer time, the relationship between Gurgel and Volkswagen has deteriorated after some of his products became a fierce competitor to the Typ181 "Thing" for regional export markets in the Caribbean, so an attempt to become independent of their engines supply turned out to become a critical matter.

With the first production-ready prototypes featured in Brasília during the Independence Day Military Parade in september 7th, 1987, and the deliveries starting in the following year, the Gurgel BR-800 was not so much of a commercial success but had some technical features that rendered it effective as a viable replacement for the Beetle. Despite having a front-mounted engine while retaining the rear-wheel drive, which called for a presumably less-efficient transmission setup due to the presence of a driveshaft, the 50-50 unloaded weight bias meant any compromise to the the cross-country capability would be minimal. Relying on the same 4-speed manual transmission and rear axle found in the 1.4L versions of the Chevette, the Gurgel-designed 0.8L water-cooled OHV flat-twin was meant to reach the then-impressive 25km/l (around 62MPG) fuel consumption. Overall performance was not really something to brag about, but neither were some comparable European-designed cars that were never brought to Brazil by the local branches of foreign automakers such as Fiat. Featurng a space-frame chassis with a fiberglass-reinforced plastic body, its manufacturing was somewhat labor-intensive and time-consuming in a comparison to the pressed-steel unibody layout which was already widespread among major automakers.

Marketing was not so great, with the sales between 1988 and 1990 being tied to stockholding of the company and therefore it became a less attractive option for those buyers who were just looking for a no-frills car and nothing else. The situation became worse for Gurgel in 1990 when Fiat applied for a fiscal incentive for cars up to 1.0L instead of 0.8L and the Fiat Uno Mille could be offered at a more competitive price due to the greater production scale inherent to its design. As a former director of the local branch of Mercedes-Benz once said, Brazilian people consider the size of a car as one of the most relevant matters comparing different models close in price, so the 3.195-metre long and 1.47-metre wide BR-800 was in a clear disadvantage against the Fiat Uno, being phased out in 1991 with a technically-similar model named Supermini replacing it from 1992 to 1994 when Gurgel went out of business. However, nowadays with a new generation of small city-cars flourishing even in Brazil, it's worth to remind the Gurgel BR-800 and the attempt to effectively replace the Volkswagen Beetle.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A quick reflection about the suitability of motorcycle engines for swaps into cars

Sometimes it might feel kinda temptating to adapt the engine of a motorcycle into a car, due to some inherently simpler design features, plus the expectations for an eventual decrease in fuel consumption and maintenance cost. It may eventually work, but it's not so likely for a 250cc motorcycle engine such as the one fitted to the Yamaha FZ-25 to be a perfect match even for a subcompact car like the previous-generation Chevrolet Spark originally available with 1.0L and 1.2L engines in most markets. Even though the smaller displacement might sound at first as an obvious approach to save fuel, combined to a smaller amount of parts that would require a few replacements throughout the useful life, matching a smaller torque output to some gear ratio that makes it remain useful is quite a challenge, even when the useful RPM range is broader.

Even something not so small, for example a Chevrolet Cruze, might seem as if it would be better served by a Honda CB 600 F Hornet in the eyes of a random shade tree mechanic, instead of the 1.6L Ecotec originally offered in some countries. Despite the lower total power and torque rating for the motorcycle engine, which is no surprise since the Ecotec has a roughly 166% greater displacement, the speed at the drive wheels could be matched in most traffic conditions resorting to a lower final gearing which would still allow a reasonable cruising speed even if the top speed decreases slightly. Considering a 2.5:1 reduction to match only the peak torque speed at the wheels, the stock rating of 63.5Nm at 10500RPM from the fuel-injected Hornet would equate to 158.75Nm at 4200RPM which is slightly better than the 155Nm rating for the Ecotec. However, the fact that most modern motorcycles have their transmission integrated to the engine's crankcase as a single unit makes it harder to bolt them straight to a car transmission, unless both are kept and some cross-shifting might be applied.
The fact that motorcycle engines usually don't have a provision for accessory drive should also be taken in consideration, since it would require either some extensive modification to enable the fitment of an accessory drive pulley or replace all engine-driven systems such as a hydraulic power-assisted steering pump or an air-conditioner compressor with electric ones, eventually overloading the magneto usually fitted to motorcycle engines to provide both electric power and ignition timing. Simply adapting a belt-driven car-type alternator could then become quite troublesome. So, despite being technically possible in some circumstances, the swap of a motorcycle engine into a car may not be always suitable to fulfill the expectations.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

What's so great about the Citroën 2CV compared to the Beetle?

Among some "people's car" projects which development started in Europe at the interwar period, the Citroën 2CV is arguably one of the smartest designs. Versatile, simple to mantain and capable to overcome harsh environmental conditions, it served not just the urban folks but also became a valuable workhorse for small farmers. Popular not only in France, but also in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile among other countries, in some of those it reached the same cult status enjoyed by the Volkswagen Beetle in my homeland Brazil.

Debates about which technical solution is effectively better become quite fierce when the front-engine front-wheel drive approach is compared to the Beetle's rear-engine and rear-wheel drive, but the 2CV doesn't disappoint when it comes to off-road capability. Its suspension system with each side wheels interconnected through a longitudinal spring leads it to incline a lot while cornering at higher speeds, but FWD makes its reactions quite predictable, plus it helps balancing the weight bias even while loaded and therefore not compromising its aptitude to go through rough terrain and unimproved roads. The engine, which is often anedoctally quoted as a copy of some early BMW R-Series, is actually quite advanced for its time, featuring overhead valves when BMW still relied mostly on the flathead layout at the time the 2CV was initially designed. Even though the air-cooling and wasted-spark ignition could be deemed outdated, these features were desirable to improve its capability to survive under the extreme cold weather which could damage a water-cooled engine, while the lack of a distributor meant the ignition to be more resistent to water/moisture. With so many clever design features, no wonder the Citroën 2CV served as a base for what might be one of the earliest "crossover" SUVs, the Méhari, which also had the availability of a dual-range 4-wheel drive system as a premium feature despite the regular front-wheel drive serving just right for the overwhelming majority of its buyers.

Front-engine also led to an easier accessibility of the luggage compartment from the outside, and eventually some load hauling. The 4-door body provides an easier access to the luggage compartment from the inside too, and to accomodate bulkier items compared to the Beetle with the rear seat folded. Much like soccer matches, choosing one "people's car" design and singling it out as the smartest or more influent on a worldwide basis becomes quite a passionate matter. But in the end, despite the noticeable difference in the performance which is usually more modest for the 2CV, it's still quite a masterpiece as much as the Beetle.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

5 reasons why it's roughly impossible to effectively replace the Volkswagen Beetle

It's no surprise the Volkswagen Beetle was quite revolutionary at its time, and became an effective contender to the sidecar rigs which used to be the mainstream "people's car" of Germany. But its success was not confined to its native country, to the point that it's still a fairly common sight in Brazil. Be it a "Baja Bug" or something closer to stock, the "Fusca" is an important part of the modern history of the country. Its local production, originally phased out in '86, had even been resumed from '93 to '96 at the request of former president Itamar Franco. Well, it was not so successful at this reintroduction, basically because most urban buyers tended to prefer the then-modern "people's cars" which were nothing but impoverished versions of random compacts such as the Fiat Uno and the Opel Corsa. However, there are at least 5 reasons why the Beetle is effectively irreplaceable.
1. - Ease of maintenance: the simple mechanicals requires fewer servicing than a water-cooled counterpart, plus it's one of the easiest engines for novice mechanics to learn the basic concepts of internal-combustion engines. Its perceived lack of sophistication then becomes somewhat advantageous.
2. - Ruggedness: this is still a desirable feature for many owners who may not be so mechanically-inclined, or who may go through harsh riding conditions. The air-cooled engine, which also has a gear-driven valvetrain instead of chain-driven or belt-driven like most modern cars, was developed for the Beetle exactly due to its resilience to harsh environmental conditions such as the extreme cold while parked outside when no heated garage (or no garage at all) were available to prevent ice damage to a radiator or even to the engine block due to the lack of antifreezing radiator fluid back in the day...

3. - Off-road capability: maybe one of the most noticeable reasons why the Beetle remains popular, with the "Baja bugs" as one evidence. The rear-engine rear-wheel drive layout enhances the traction in loose surfaces, plus it's quite easy to adapt selective rear-wheel braking to emulate the effect of a locker differential. Gurgel has done it with its Beetle-based mini-SUVs...

4. - Suitability to alternate fuels such as ethanol and CNG: it may seem not that easy at first, but the Beetle is effectively a gasoline/ethanol flexfuel vehicle. There were some versions labelled as dedicated-ethanol in the '80s, but due to the rough idling (most noticeably in cold weather) most owners simply used gasoline instead of ethanol with no harm to the engine reliability. It was also not uncommon to hear people talking about driving a Beetle on kerosene when it was still easily available at fuel stations all across the country.

5. - Ease to modify its body without major harm to structural integrity: its chassis separated from the body allows not just repairs but also some more extensive works such as turning it into some sort of convertible or into a station-wagon, rendering the Beetle easier to upfit to different users' needs compared to modern "people's cars" with an unibody layout.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Would a 125cc motorcycle make sense in the American market?

One matter that has been more frequent when I get into motorcycle talks with Americans is the lack of options in the 125cc class for the United States, even though it sounds quite unlikely that models like the Honda NXR 125 Bros currently made in Brazil nowadays only for export due to its outdated emissions certification (and frequently rebadged as XR 125L in the markets where it's still available) could be easily made compliant to EPA and DOT standards. Their road system, famous for the long straight-line stretches meant to also serve as improvised emergency runways for aircraft, is also more appealing to a random Harley-Davidson than to a present-day Honda CG 125i Fan (which got rid of the OHV engine still deeply beloved by some of my fellow Brazilians due to its ruggedness and ease of maintenance), while other factors such as the "there is no replacement for displacement" culture may be harder to overcome. However, other motivations such as purchase and maintenance costs, or seasonal increases in the fuel prices, are highlighted quite often by those who want a real motorcycle in this displacement class instead of some scooter or something else which becomes quite excessively optimized for a strict inner-city use. Well, even though a 125 feels more at home in the city than in a highway, it's not impossible at all to have some occasional road trips with a Honda CG for example...

Sure there are cultural differences in the usage of a motorcycle in the United States and in Brazil, and the perception of a small motorcycle as a working tool or an "urban mobility" option is more widely accepted year-round in Brazil instead of the recreational and more seasonal approach in the United States. Unfortunately both these situations may lead to the perception of a motorcycle as somewhat "inferior" to cars, even though it doesn't prevent small-displacement ones to remain popular in Brazil to the point of a '94-'99 square-headlight Honda CG 125 Cargo remaining used for urban deliveries despite the newest model-year approaching the 20-year milestone and harsh operating conditions. It's also worth to consider the ease of maintenance, which may become appealing not only for couriers and urban comutters who ride them year-round in a 3rd-world country, rendering them eventually more justifiable as a leisure vehicle for those summertime errands instead of something heavier and more expensive. Another matter of extreme controversy is the notoriously more effective cooling of a single-cylinder engine compared to the stereotypical air-cooled V-Twin still favored by most of the Americans who grew up surrounded by Harley-Davidson motorcycles which are anedoctally refered to burn all the hair in the leg of their riders. In the end, for those who want to ride only in the summer, even a modest 125cc utilitarian motorcycle may be somewhat pleasurable.

Performance-wise, even though a 125cc motorcycle may seem restricted to an urban environment, it's also worth to consider other aspects that may affect their aptitude to road operation. A smaller engine may need to be taken to a higher RPM band in order to reach a certain speed, which may bring not only the downsizing vs. downspeeding argument back to the table but also raise some controversies about an eventual lack of some power reserve which may become useful in situations such as overtakes. Operating at a higher RPM for extended periods may be pointed out to increase wear and tear compared to a larger and lower-revving engine, and the perceived fuel-efficiency advantage of a smaller displacement may also negate itself to the point of being either just marginally better or nearly identical to a bigger engine when these conditions are reminded, but it's still far from being an irrefutable truth. Even though the top speed also tends to be lower in a 125cc motorcycle, it might not be absolutely disadvantageous once we consider it may remain within the speed limits set for highway traffic. Sure it would sound more appealing to some random penny-pincher or to the folks at who are more focused on hypermiling and fuel-savings instead of the average Joe, but it's definitely not out of question. There is an opportunity to sell 125cc motorcycles in the United States, even though they might not retain the same degree of popularity they enjoy nearly everywhere else.
Different approaches to the motorcycling culture, politics such as tiered licensing, and operating costs might be easily pointed out as the main reasons for the popularity of 125cc motorcycles throughout the world, but it doesn't seem to justify their absence in the United States. Be it some basic utilitarian model or something more stylish such as those Hyosung and Daelim cruisers from the '90s, there is a potential demand for a simpler approach to the motorcycling that may be better represented by an affordable small-displacement motorcycle catering not just to novice riders but also to some older folks who may consider their Harleys too heavy and not willing to converting them into tricycles or to add a reverse gear to improve the handling. Sure it may seem confusing at first, but an increased availability of street-legal 125cc motorcycles in the United States would be actually a smart move.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

5 reasons why sidecars are often seen as a taboo in some 3rd-world countries

Sidecars have been around for a long time, serving for many different purposes since the early days of motoring. The world has changed a lot in the meantime, with conventional cars taking over some of the market-share that used to be captive for sidecars due to their technical simplicity and perceived lower cost since the early postwar when affordable cars with air-cooled engines suitable to be parked outside even in the European winter such as the Citroën 2CV and the Volkswagen Beetle got their days of glory. Even though the market-share for sidecars in developed markets have now been more restricted to recreational/enthusiast uses, mostly for passenger transport, they still have plenty of potential to address the needs of affordable light transport in emerging and underdeveloped countries. Cargo applications have become quite popular in Brazil in the last two decades but, like other 3rd-world countries, its use for passenger hauling became quite a taboo. Among the reasons that led to this awkward situation, at least 5 are more relevant.

Exposure to the elements: this might be more critical for passenger transport, while some enclosures are more easily available (though not always effectively implemented) for cargo. Be it due to weather conditions, unpleasant smells on the way and fumes out of poorly-mantained vehicles, or fearing that some loose objects falling from other vehicles and debris could harm the physical integrity of the rider and passengers, it's not a negligible concern.
Lack of a perceived "prestige": even though this matter is not so relevant for commercial operators, who value functionality and lower operating cost overall, it's known that a car may be regarded more aspirational for private users. So, even though a sidecar may be easily achievable in a shorter term, is not usually the first choice.
Nazi stereotypes: this seems to be more prevalent in Brazil. Whenever the possibility of getting a passenger-hauling sidecar rig is mentioned, its usage by Nazi German troops during World War II is always reminded. Surprisingly, all the people who expressed me their objections toward sidecars due to some reminiscence of Nazi military motorcycles were non-Jewish.
Requirement of a motorcycle endorsement for the driver license: sidecars rigs actually don't have a handling so close to the one of a motorcycle not fitted with this device, and are also not so identical to a car in this regard. However, since they occupy roughly the same space of a car over the roadway, most noticeably width-wise, the usage of sidecars could become more widespread among low-income customers in third-world countries if they were entitled to ride them without the requirement of a motorcycle endorsement on their driver licenses. Considering the lower purchase price compared to an average subcompact car and the higher maintenance cost of older jalopies which could be replaced by a sidecar rig, a legal provision enabling their riding by holders of a standard car driving license may become an effective way to decrease fuel consumption and emissions.
Perception as a makeshift approach: despite having its cost-effectiveness and suitability to many different tasks already proven, sidecars are still often pointed out as a mere makeshift. It's worth to notice that sidecars and trailers have a similar function, which is basically to expand the capabilities of the vehicles they're fitted to, so since trailers have already had their utility recognised maybe it's time to also consider giving sidecars a try.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Why is it pointless to ban older Diesel cars like it's been proposed in Germany?

The recent decision of a federal administrative court in Leipzig, recognising the legality of proposed restrictions to the circulation of Diesel-powered cars certified according to emission standards other than the current Euro-6, is one of those initiatives that may initially sound reasonable, but in fact are not so effective in regard to the "sustainability". Let's consider some aspects that render it pointless...

Relatively ease of retrofits to make 2000 and newer model-years compliant to current standards when their engines get due to an overhaul instead of simply getting rid of them: taking as example the Alfa Romeo 146 when fitted with the 1.9 JTD engine, fitted with a 1st-generation common-rail injection, much of its basic engine design is shared with newer models such as the Jeep Renegade, which in its Diesel-powered versions rely on engines from the Pratola Serra modular engine series that also originated the 1.9 JTD. Well, even though an eventual need to fit an AdBlue tank could become an issue, I can relate that to the usage of an auxiliary gasoline/petrol reservoir in older Brazilian dedicated-ethanol and flexfuel vehicles as a cold-start aid. Quite bothersome, but not impossible at all.

Cost and energy consumption of the manufacturing of replacement vehicles: an overwhelming majority of the 15 million Diesel-powered vehicles in Germany is now deemed "outdated" according to the proposed restrictions to be implemented initially in cities like Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, with only around 2.6 million or 8.6% of all Diesel vehicles in Germany already being certified in accordance to the Euro-6 standards. Even though the recycling of end-of-life vehicles is taken more seriously in Europe than in other regions, an extension to the operating useful life of an earlier model that is still roadworthy makes more sense than scrapping it from a sustainability standpoint. Well, just a few mechanical parts that might require a replacement and eventual updates to the engine management software require a lower energy input and fewer raw materials.

Impact on the resale value of used vehicles: this is another possible matter of concern, not just for the German domestic market but also for used car exports to African, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries where the import of used cars is allowed. Well, even though some older models still fitted with mechanically-governed indirect-injection engines such as the Citroën AX 1.5D or the Ford Fiesta Mk.4-based Courier Kombi 1.8D might not have an expressive resale value nowadays, others such as the 2nd-generation Fiat Doblò and the Hyundai Matrix which had been available with common-rail injection and forced induction since day one would be more heavily impaired in this aspect. Well, even though it may be arguable that North African used car dealers would try to stockpile as many cheap older Diesel cars as they could, it's not clear to which point the current owners of vehicles with a more advanced engine would receive a fair compensation to either replace them with a newer spark-ignited equivalent (eventually hybrid) or to retrofit them to become compliant to Euro-6. In a worst-case scenario, should we expect some Germans to resort to motorcycles with sidecars like their ancestors used to do before the introduction of the Beetle???

Higher suitability of most "jalopies" to alternate fuels: most noticeably the ones fitted with old-school indirect injection such as pre-2000 versions of the Opel Combo still fitted with the Euro-2 Isuzu 4EE1 engine or the Peugeot Partner/Citroën Berlingo with the Euro-3 DW8 engine, older Diesel-powered vehicles not fitted with some devices such as the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) are easier to adapt to run on pure vegetable oils, either fresh or reclaimed from culinary applications, plus the slower combustion process makes it have an even better fuel economy due to the slower burn of those oils with their natural glycerin content. Other models and versions already resorting to direct injection may not have issues associated with the evaporation of the fuel at the DPF core during its self-cleaning (also called "regeneration") process when running on biodiesel.
Ignoring the impact on commercial operators and prices of goods and services: even though the proposal of "blue corridors" with a steady supply of natural gas (Erdgas) in the most important motorway routes throughout the European Union is already meant to address an eventual need for replacement of Diesel fuel in the commercial transport, plus the German expertise on biogas/biomethane leading to a rather easy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, there is a high cost involved and it may affect either the profitability of businesses and individual entrepreneurs or increase the price of goods and services in order to rebate the expenses of either a fleet renewal or the retrofit of newer engines with their associate fuel systems and emission-control devices.

There might be many other aspects to consider, but these 5 might already highlight why a Diesel ban goes against the best interests of German people, and also represents a dangerous precedent for the eventual loss of many other individual freedoms in Europe...