Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tales of the STEED - Spark Plugs 'n Coils

Spark plugs, ignition coils and intake port gaskets ready to go!

My back still hurts.


What was supposed to have been a 3 hour repair job, turned into 8 hours of wrenching. All to save a few hundred dollars in repair costs. See, some 10,000-20,000 miles ago, my Mazda 6 started experiencing *ahem* cough symptoms. No not literally coughing, more like stuttering. I noticed that whenever I tried to go full throttle at low rpm (usually below 2000), the car would start hesitating, as if trying to clear its throat while slowly pulling away. For example, the car is loafing along at a steady 65 mph with the cruise control engaged. If I decide to add 5 mph to that cruise setting without downshifting (and by pressing the ACCEL button on the cruise control area) the car would commence subtly bucking, stuttering and wheezing all the way to 70 mph before settling down again. It's a totally unnerving to experience. Every. Time.

After browsing numerous forums, YouTube channels and talking with mechanics, three diagnoses were possible: 1) fouled spark plugs/ignition coils 2) vacuum leak 3) clogged fuel injectors. I ruled out the fuel injectors pretty early, deeming that a serious case since the car has downed its fair share of fuel injector cleaners since being bought (FYI: the fuel you purchase already has additives to keep fuel injectors clean). Next item was to check for a vacuum leak. Feeling around the different hoses, listening for the distinctive hiss of escaping air turned up nothing. So considering the car's age and that the spark plugs/coils had never been replaced I zeroed in on that being the cause. Some forums mentioned a possible oil leak that might enter the spark plug chambers, thereby inhibiting the ability of a spark to be created and causing a cylinder to misfire. With that, my project was set. Here's how it went down.

Engine Cover, gotta remove this first.

Opening up the engine bay, I'm faced with an engine cover. Take that off (held down by three nuts) and the engine block itself becomes visible. The front three spark plugs are right there (in your face) and after loosening up some electrical connectors are quite easy to replace. But wait you ask, where are the other three? Well, they're buried under the plenum/throttle body assembly towards the rear of the engine bay against the firewall. To get to those three involves first removing the battery and airbox. Why? So the multiple hoses and electrical connectors can be removed BEFORE you can even think about removing the plenum and its eight bolts. This, my friends, is where the fun begins.

With the cover off, the forward bank of spark plugs/ignition coils are exposed at the bottom of the picture, just right of the oil dip stick.
Airbox and battery removed, the throttle body is visible (cloth underneath throttle body is catch any coolant from disconnecting the hoses.

A total of 6 hoses (2 coolant and 4 vacuum I believe) are attached to the plastic plenum. Most were a breeze but two of the hoses were located underneath the plenum in an awkward area that was difficult to reach. To make matters worse, while I was able to remove the metal clamp that holds the hose on the fitting, the hose itself remained fused to the fitting. It took me over an hour, using a flathead screwdriver, to reach under the plenum and slowly pry the stuck hose loose before finally pulling it off. My brother, bless his heart, took care of the other hose (by this time my arms were like wet noodles). With the final hoses off and the eight bolts fastening the plenum to the block loosened, we were able to slowly and carefully remove the plenum, taking care not to bend or hit the EGR valve that inserts itself just behind the throttle body. This reveals the six intake ports along the middle of the block where "vee" in V6 comes in. Immediately, the ports were stuffed with paper towels to prevent any debris falling down them. The three rear plugs were finally visible and were replaced, one after the other, and were fitted with new ignition coils.

A better view of the ignition coils. (Instead of having a distributor and ignition wires, each spark plug has its own dedicated plug-on ignition coil)

Two of the hoses that had to be disconnected from the plenum (they put up a fight)... did this coolant hose. Notice the metal clip is off but the hose itself looks fused to the fitting. Prying with a flathead screwdriver eventually fixed this.

Let's back up a bit. Remember that shuddering, stuttering noise the engine made when accelerating below 2000 rpm? While inspecting the front bank of spark plugs, I found the culprit: oil. As you can see in the image, oil not only coated the entire lower half of the middle spark plug, but got past the seal and made its way up the ignition coil itself. This, I reckon, caused the cylinder to misfire, temporarily confusing the engine's ECM and causing the engine itself to hesitate. Where did the oil leak originate? My best educated (read: layman) guess is that the valve cover gasket (the rubber seal that keeps the engine's oil within the block, around each piston and prevents it from leaking into the spark plug chambers) was bad. Which means if I was going to permanently fix this, I was going to have to further disassemble the engine, something I had neither the parts, time (or strength) for. Not only was oil found in the middle spark plug hole, but to a lesser extent on the forward right plug as well. The best course of action at this point was just to take an old (CLEAN and LINT FREE) cloth, wrap it around the extension of my socket wrench and stick it down each hole, trying to mop up as much oil as I could. Having satisfied myself that the holes were mostly clean, only then did I install the new plugs and coils. Luckily, the rear bank of plugs showed no signs of the oil leak (whew).

This is the middle, forward spark plug. Notice the amount of oil and it's up to the socket fitting.

This is the middle spark plug hole. This was the worst of the six.

The three old plugs. The middle by far was the worst.

With the plenum off, the intake ports are visible (stuffed with paper towels to prevent anything falling in them)

The rear bank of spark plugs/ignition coils are now visible.

The lower three spark plugs came from the rear bank, they're in far better condition but I changed them anyway.

While the engine was partially disassembled, I took the opportunity to do an old-fashioned tuneup. This involved cleaning the throttle body, cleaning the MAF sensor, changing the intake port gaskets, cleaning the EGR valve and basically topping off all the fluids.

Cleaned the crud off the EGR valve

Replaced the intake port gaskets (old ones are green)...

...and cleaned the throttle body.

Then came the process of putting everything back together, which you could imagine, was a lot easier. The trick is, just as in the beginning, taking things slowly. I sorta didn't and in my haste, I managed to misplace a small vacuum hose. Thinking it was unnecessary, I fired up the engine which in turn, voiced its disapproval of the unfinished repair by surging to 1500 rpm for a few seconds before allowing the revs to fall below 600 rpm (just above stall). It would repeat this action until I shut it off and spent the next few minutes trying to locate the errant hose. My brother's fresher arms eventually located  and placed it back on it's fitting before I tried again. Everything seemed fine until we noticed a small coolant leak underneath the engine. A quick check of all the hoses we had taken off turned up nothing leaking there, so we assumed a bit of coolant had leaked out of the hoses while they were off (possibly while topping off the reservoir). We performed a bench and then a road test and checked again afterwards and the leak seemed to have stopped. See the video below for the results.

All in all it was a good day. People look at me a bit crazy when I tell them I work on my own car. For myself, it's more gratifying to know you've accomplished something that the majority of the population would rather pay someone else to do. But it's also a win if you save on the labor costs involved. Had I just given the STEED to mechanic, the labor cost would've far exceeded the cost in parts. Unless I'm diving deeper into the engine (eg. changing a timing belt or porting cylinders), I'd rather read forums (Google is your best friend here), look up how-to videos and read manuals on how its done. In many cases, your car's owners manual (that thick book taking up space in your glove compartment) has a wealth of information on your specific car's operation. It not only helps when you want to do stuff yourself, but it also informs on what your car needs so you don't get swindled by the a predatory mechanic. Believe me, it pays dividends to have even a basic knowledge of your car's inner workings. If your car happens to run on just four cylinders, your job will be that much simpler.

A few dozen Tylenol pills later and my back and knees feel better. As of this writing, the STEED still feels fantastic. Will I be doing again? Not before I've had a chance to tackle the valve cover gasket. That, for now, is another Saturday in the making.

My eternal thanks to my bro Roger who stepped in when my back and arms cried uncle. 

FOOTNOTE: MY (Model Year) 2003-2007 V6 equipped Mazda 6 cars are a pain to work on. The majority of markets where the car was sold offered powertrains no bigger than the 2.3L 4 cylinder. As a result, North America's version offered a Ford Duratec 3.0L V6 that barely fit in the engine bay. This, my friends, led to a host of ungodly body contortions in order to reach, pull and disconnect the various hoses, bolts and nuts that held everything in place. If you're mechanically inclined, working on any engine is a relative breeze. However, if you're a layman like myself with more enthusiasm than skill, give yourself time and patience. A second pair of eyes and hands always helps. Always check with a certified mechanic before doing any job on your vehicle, and remember, the Internet has a wealth of information.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

First Impressions - 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

There's just something about the classic British roadster that warms our hearts here at Test Drive. Long hood, short rear deck, compact size and the ability to put the roof down are attributes we almost fall down over ourselves to worship as the hallmark of how proper motoring should be. Forget thoughts of practicality, luggage space and the like. When we want to go out for a Sunday drive to tackle some twisty roads, we almost inevitably reach for a set of keys that start up a roadster of some kind.

Since 1989, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been the go-to car for drivers who want simplicity, tautness, nimbleness and open skies. The last time the Miata was redesigned in 2006 (eons in car years), Mazda has steadily upgraded the car, but not to the extent that its soul was diluted. Sure, you could argue that compared to newer cars, the current NC (chassis code name) Miata is sorely lacking in amenities. Navigation? Nerp. Satellite radio? Nope. Bluetooth? Only for calling. Hell, the cabin barely has space for cup holders, let alone to store your smartphone. Younger drivers might balk at such inconsistencies, but long-time Miata lovers praise this almost extinct level of simplicity that doesn't detract from the reason you're sitting in the driver's seat in the first place. That said, compared to Mazda's recently revamped lineup, the Miata is the sole vehicle (other than the dead-car-driving Mazda5) that looks sorta out of place, still sporting the Joker-like grin of Mazda's previous design language. Fresh off the success of the new Kodo design style and Skyactiv technology, Mazda has now brought the full weight of these attributes to bear on the Miata.

At first glance, the 2016 Miata doesn't appear to share much with the rest of the lineup. You could say we were expecting some version of the 2015 Mazda3's face to be grafted on the front end with the rest of the body following suit. A more detailed look at the images reveal Mazda's styling intent for the Miata: lower, wider, aggressive/assertive. Where the NC Miata is a tidy package in its own right, the new ND is more visually interesting to look at. The front end is almost impossibly low, barely passing front end crash regulations, the headlights follow suit, being placed lower in the front fascia and flanked by aggressive side air inlets for the front brakes. Mazda engineers placed the engine as low and as far back as possible, allowing designers to style the front end for that signature, shark-like look. The fenders, previously afterthoughts on the old Miata, are now prominently styled and flow from their peaks at the top of the front wheels back through doors and towards the rear end where they curve dramatically around the car's rump. The more we stared at the rump, the more "Jaguar F-Type" kept staring back. Just like that British sports car, the Miata's rear end features wide and defined rear fenders and slim tail lights that would make Ian Callum, Jaguar's head honcho of design, blush.

Weight is the enemy of performance and to that end, Mazda went gung-ho on bringing the Miata back to its roots. While the current NC Miata is no tub-o-lard at around 2500 lbs, the new ND car chops a pretty significant 200 lbs from that weight, literally inching it closer to the original Miata. Increased use of ultra high-strength steel and a sprinkling of aluminum pieces has endowed the Miata with a stiffer, lightweight and compact chassis. The wheels are also not oversized and, we suspect, will be no larger than 17 inchers, even as options. These cars were never about high-horsepower engines (even the last Mazdaspeed Miata barely broke 180 hp from its turbocharged 1.8L engine) so we have no reason to expect the new Miata to be any different. We do expect Mazda to power the ND Miata with a SkyActiv engine, the 2.0L 155hp four cylinder currently doing duty in the CX-5 and Mazda3 being the likely candidate (though we expect a bit more power to be extracted for its new duty). The upcoming Mazda2's 1.5L four banger is another motor, perhaps forming the base engine with the 2.0L being the uplevel option. With the Miata's lightness enhanced, the driving experience should be even more driver-focused and slot car-like than the current model.

Interiorwise, the new MX-5 will be light years ahead of the current model in terms of infotainment and connectivity. Expect features like navigation, Bluetooth music streaming and calling, and satellite radio to show up (as well as Mazda's rotary controller on the center console). We wouldn't hold our breath on others like lane departure warning, radar cruise control and City Stop to be anywhere on the options list (remember this is supposed to be a lightweight car). Storage space, another Miata-negative, may improve slightly though from the interior shots we were able to look at, it seems there's no glovebox and perhaps no cupholders. We think Mazda will at least, in a nod to the smartphone world we live in, provide space to store your device as well as USB slots to power the things. 

Like the engines, pricing has yet to be announced. We don't even know if the Miata will be offered as a hard top or a PRHT (power retractable hard top) model like the current car, though with a take rate of 52% versus the soft top model, we're pretty sure Mazda will offer the option if not sooner then later. While it may not have the giant resources of its competitors like Honda and Toyota, Mazda's newly independent status and its small stature allow it to focus its resources on what matters: the driving experience in all its products. With the new MX-5 Miata, Zoom Zoom truly lives on.

Images courtesy of Car and Driver and Mazda.

Friday, August 29, 2014

First Impressions - 2015 Dodge Challenger

If the 2015 Dodge Challenger is a bullet shot across the respective hoods of the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang, then the new SRT Hellcat is a Tomahawk missile grazing the bonnets of the Camaro ZL1 and the Mustang Shelby GT.

In other words, this Challenger does indeed have a Hemi. And oh, what a nuke of a Hemi it is.

Seven hundred and seven.


Let those numbers sink in. The most powerful V8 Chrysler has ever created, produces 707 stomping, rampaging horses and 650 lb-ft of torque. That, my friends, bests the paltry 580hp of the Camaro ZL1 and trounces the 662hp from Ford's Mustang Shelby GT. Viper fans should look away right now, not even the 640 hp/600 lb-ft 8.0L V10 in SRT's crown jewel can stand up to the supercharged fury of Chrysler's 6.2L Hellcat V8. Shoehorned under the hood of what, to my eyes anyway, is the most direct reinterpretation of the classic muscle car from its heyday, the 2015 Dodge Challenger has officially taken the crown.

You can almost hear the collective jaws of Ford and Chevy engineers hitting the ground in Detroit.

Before we get too far ahead, let's examine the rest of the refreshed Challenger lineup. Six years on the market have done nothing but cement the Challenger as one of the most faithful muscle car reproductions on the road today. Sure, the S95 Mustang had its day in the sun, now being replaced by a futuristic 2015 redesign and the Camaro is certainly aggressive but nothing has the absolute presence and charisma as a Challenger pulling in to the parking lot. As a result, marching orders for Dodge designers were simple: take nothing away from the car's looks.

On the exterior, it seems they did indeed leave well enough alone, until you look at the finer details. The tail light is now split into two distinct elements with LED lighting instead of the original full width unit.  Wheelbase remains the same and up front, LED halo rings now surround the quad headlamps. The grille is a tad thinner and now split in two, mimicking the rear tail light, the hood sports a distinct power bulge while moving the functional hood vents forward a tad (a Shaker hood is optional on V8 models). A deeper air dam and an optional splitter on performance models rounds off the exterior changes. A variety of new heritage colors like Sublime, B5 Blue and Tor Red are also available to give your Challenger a more classic look.

Under the new body, Chrysler has reworked the greasy bits by using an aluminum differential and ditching the old car's hydraulic steering for a new electric unit. Also gone (thankfully) is the dimwitted 5 speed automatic, replaced by the excellent TorqeFlite 8 speed automatic with paddles on all Challengers, giving the ability to rev-match on downshifts when in manual mode. The 6 speed manual returns on R/T and SRT models. Engine choices are largely carry over with the base powerplant remaining the stellar 3.6L Pentastar V6 with 305hp while R/T models carry the standard 5.7L Hemi V8 with 375hp and 410lb-ft of torque. SRT models however see the greatest changes as Chrysler has now split that model in two. Standard SRT 392 Challengers retain the 6.4L Hemi V8 now subtly upgraded to 485hp and 475lb-ft of torque while the suitably named SRT Challenger Hellcat gets the supercharged Hemi.

Inside, the Challenger is also extensively redone. A 7 inch thin-film transistor screen is sits between the tachometer and speedometer in the driver's gauge cluster and is able to display a variety of information including performance pages, navigation prompts and vehicle info. The center stack is also redesigned and includes Chrysler's much heralded UConnect telematics system on either a 5" or 8.4" display. Other modern niceties include a standard rear view camera, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, forward collision alert and adaptive cruise control. The seats themselves are new, sporting either cloth or Nappa leather on upper trim models with the option for heat/cooled surfaces. A performance seat option is available which includes thicker bolstering along the sides and aluminum trim attempts to lighten the interior.

But its the other SRT Challenger, the Hellcat,  that will get Chrysler enthusiasts blood pumping.To make this beast, SRT engineers first threw out all of the standard 6.4L's oily bits, leaving just the bare cast iron block. The engine was then destroked to 6.2L but strengthened cylinders, forged pistons and a massive 2.4L supercharger provided by IHI (the same outfit that provides superchargers to Mercedes) were added. The supercharger, routes incoming air through four heat exchangers (one for every pair of cylinders) before stuffing it into the intake ports. The twin-rotor design gulps air through an Air Catcher inlet, basically a hole punched into the driver's side inboard marker light and spins up to 14,600 rpm.

Everything about the SRT Hellcat is extreme. Chrysler had to develop new dynamometers that were capable of not only testing but handling the Hellcat engine's prodigious torque. Over two million hours were devoted to ensuring the Hellcat's durability in extreme weather and everything a customer could throw at it. Repeated high speed runs were made as well as a stressful 24 hour running period, but the engine never broke a sweat. Hard to believe this is a series production engine.

The Challenger's body was suitably toughened up to handle the engine's power. A three stage adaptive suspension system allows the driver to tailor the drive experience and is accessed through the SRT Performance Pages app on the UConnect infotainment screen. Chrysler's 8HP90 eight speed auto (built under license from ZF) was also upgraded with larger and stronger internals. The six speed manual from the Viper is also available and also upgraded with its own oil cooler to handle the Hellcat's ferocity. Armed with P275/40ZR20 Pirelli P Zero Nero tires, the 20" forged wheels will struggle to put down all 650lb-ft of torque (the rears that is) but their stickiness will work with the firmer suspension to tame the Challenger's still-porky 4400 lbs when the roads get twisty. Inside, the SRT Hellcat benefits from all the interior upgrades apparent in the regular 2015 Challengers. The lucky owner will be presented with two keys. A black key, serving as the valet's key, limits the engine to just (!) 500 hp and 4000 rpm,  locks away SRT Performance Pages while setting the suspension to Street mode and deletes first gear (if your teen wants to drive, THIS is the key to give 'em). The red key on the other hand, opens up all the above.

If 707 hp has you already salivating, the price will have you rushing to your nearest Dodge dealership. The SRT Hellcat with the standard six speed manual will have a base price of $60,990 which includes $995 for destination and a $2100 gas guzzler tax. Opt for the eight speed automatic and the gas guzzler tax drops to $1700 but tacks on $1995 for two pedal set up. Not only is the SRT Hellcat America's most powerful mas produced car, but it's the most affordable car with a horspower rating above 700. The only other cars to..err...challenge the SRT Hellcat's numbers are in the realm of super-hyper exotica. Cars like the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (731 hp) or LaFerrari (950 hp) or McLaren's P1 (903 hp). The Lamborghini Aventador? A paltry 691 hp. Hell, even Chevy's upcoming Corvette ZO6 can only muster a preliminary 650 hp. Let's face it folks, the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is now the defacto bargain of the year as far as dollar-per-horse is concerned. It will be pretty interesting to see how Ford and Chevy will respond to Dodge's latest volley in these muscle car wars.

For now though, make my Hellcat black please.

Edit: We've recently learned that Viper boys need not fear the wrath of the Hellcat as SRT engineers have heard their cries of anguish and will seek to restore the Viper's place atop the SRT hierarchy by possibly supercharging the 8.4L V10. No, the Hellcat Hemi won't fit as the Viper's hood is much too low. Also, those who'd like the practicality of four doors need not worry as the also-updated-for-2015 Charger will also inherit the Hellcat under its hood. Yay!

Images courtesy of SRT.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

First Impressions - 2013 BMW M5

The following article is an earlier post done for another website that is no longer in business. I've moved it here in an effort to consolidate all of my posts. Consider it ride back in to time. Enjoy!

2013 BMW M5

It's been 40 years since BMW's secret skunkworks M Division has been pumping out uber powerful, yet subtly styled cars for the discerning executive driver. The kind of driver that wants super car performance without drawing attention to himself. Since it debuted, the M5 has been the de-facto bogey by which all other pretenders to the crown of super sports sedans are judged. Through each generation, the M5 offered opulent levels of luxury with seating for five, while packing enough horsepower and handling to make even the stalwart Ferrari jock think twice before a challenge.The last generation E60 M5 packed a Formula One inspired, high revving 5.0 liter V10 which powered the rear wheels with 507hp at a screaming 8200 rpm redline. Naturally aspirated, high revving engines have been a BMW M hallmark ever since the outfit's inception. Equipped with a fast shifting 7 speed sequential gearbox, the E60 could sprint from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds while belting out the closest thing to Formula One race car's engine wail. Despite this performance, the E60 was often derided as being too raw (one of my personal favorite qualities), too complicated (3 settings for the engine, 11 settings for the transmission plus countless others for varying systems) and the dimwittedness of the transmission when not going balls out. Basically, the M5 worked extremely well on the track but felt misplaced at saner speeds and calmer settings.

2005-2010 E60 M5

Enter the new F10 model, which BMW probably wouldn't admit as much, but addresses most of the E60's minor (okay, major) shortcomings. Gone is the high revving-but-quite-thirsty V10 and herky-jerky SMG single clutch transmission, replaced by a new "M TwinPower Turbo" twin turbocharged, directed-injected, 4.4 liter V8 engine and an equally new seven speed dual clutch transmission to dole out the twin-turbocharged engine's impressive 560hp and 500 lb-ft of torque (more on this impressive yet major departure of an engine later). The basic 5 Series chassis has been substantially revised with an aluminum-intensive suspension (the rear components mounted in a rigid cradle to alleviate the flex of rubber bushings), an electronic version of the M differential which can split torque between the rear wheels for maximum grip, a tuned hydraulic steering rack (because the standard electronic unit lacked feel) and six piston brake calipers per wheel.

2013 BMW M5

One of the more peculiar traits of the new F10 M5 is the engine's lack of aural character, at least compared with its raucous predecessor. The E60's V10 had such character that it made the hair on your skin stand up every time the driver touched the gas pedal. The new forced induction V8 on the other has hand is almost too refined. M engineers allegedly tried everything to alleviate this muffling effect of turbocharging (and the isolating effect of the 5's platform) by employing a number of options such as routing the intake housings closer to the firewall and cabin, installing microphones next to the intake and piping the sound directly into the cabin, none of which worked to their favor. They finally decided to use recorded sounds of the engine revving through its range and playing the sound back through the sound system in tune with the driver's placement of the throttle. Artificial yes, but it could be worse.

2013 BMW M5 Interior

One thing this new M5 improves on is in the electronics area. The E60 driver was simply overwhelmed with settings for everything controlling the car and no simple way to access or change them. This was the effect of the oft-derided iDrive system. The new F10 seeks to change this with simpler settings and easier access to them with either buttons or a simplified version of iDrive. Where the previous SMG transmission had ELEVEN (how quickly would you like your head snapped off?) settings, the V10 having THREE (how much power do you want?) settings along with a myriad others (some as trivial as allowing timer settings for the interior/exterior lights...really?), the F10 pares all of this customization down to the driving details in four simple modes: Economy, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. In Economy and Comfort mode, the transmission and suspension are tuned to make the M5 as docile as a regular 528i, the transmission slurring between gears (shooting for the highest in Economy) and the suspension absorbing bumps and giving a very compliant ride. Switch to Sport and the engine note becomes noticeably angrier, the transmission swaps gears more aggressively, steering gains more load and the suspension firms up. Sport+ stiffens up the springs even more, adds even more heft to the steering and turns the M5 into an apex eating, turn gobbling, straights chomping monster. These settings are programmable through two M buttons on the steering wheel, allowing the driver to customize and store preferences (easier done here than in the E60). North America can take comfort in the fact that unlike the previous M5 which offered a manual transmission late in its life cycle, one will be offered in the new F10 from the start (without the penalty of not being able to switch off traction and stability control completely...and the heavens rejoiced!)

2013 BMW M5

Now, about that engine. Why turbos? Why forced induction? Why abandon a central theme important to M heritage by throwing away natural aspiration in favor of turbocharging? If you're an M enthusiast you can recall some time in BMW's history when uttering the term "forced induction" in a BMW building was akin to showing the Nazi sign. At Buckingham Palace. While dining with the Queen. It was unthinkable. Well, you'll have to get over it and cut BMW some slack. We now live in an era where fuel isn't as cheap as it once was and the reduction of vehicle emissions is now a central part of every automaker's R&D. The Germans are not immune to this and in order to comply with ever tightening emissions regulations, BMW has had to forego this central tradition (if you need any more proof, the next M3 will also use some form of turbocharging while downsizing from its current V8 back to a six cylinder). However, it's not all gloom and doom. With the new turbo V8 comes a new emphasis on economy. The S63B44Tu is an evolution of the S63 engine (itself a M-ified version of the regular N63 4.4 liter in 550i/750i sedans) used in the X5 M/X6 M high performance SUVs. As such, it boasts 30% better fuel economy ratings than the old 5.0 liter V10 of the E60. Sure the engine redlines at a tamer 7200 rpm, but for that you get 53 more horse over the old V10. Much more impressive is the jump in torque from 383lb-ft to an even 500lb-ft at a more accessible 1500rpm and the torque curve is as flat as the Great Plains. Drivers of the old M5 take notice: revving is not required but if you do, hang on.

Despite the F10 M5's gain in weight (thanks to the 5 Series architecture being based on the larger 7 Series) BMW has worked hard to minimize this penalty by using as much lightweight materials as possible throughout the car. Aluminum comprises the hood, fenders and doors as well as ultra high-strength steel through much of the chassis. Still the M5 comes it at a porky 4250lbs, some 200lbs heavier than the outgoing E60. Continuing the M tradition for Q ship styling, the M5 sports subtle exterior tweaks over the regular 5 Series that only the M faithful will identify at a distance. Larger air intakes at the front, larger fender flares framing 19 (or optional 20) inch wheels, a lowered suspension, the signature quad pipe exhaust and a subtle trunklid spoiler along with a sprinkling of M badges are among the calling cards for this cruise missile on wheels. Compared to the Bangle-esque styling of the E60 with its dramatic, flame surfaced exterior, the F10 model is quietly exotic. In many ways, it recalls the executive yet wolf-in-sheep's-clothes styling of the cult-status E39 model.

The 2013 BMW M5 should be on sale as of this writing at an MSRP of $90,795 (including $895 destination/handling). Go crazy with options like the Driver's Assistance package which includes systems such as blind spot warning, lane departure warning, side and top view cameras; the Executive package which further enhances luxury with heated rear seats and steering wheels, power trunklid, soft close doors plus a DVD entertainment system with screens in the front headrests (in case the kids get bored with your track driving)  and you're looking at a price tag of well over $110,000. Eye watering for sure but look on the bright side, that Porsche driver in the next lane will never know what hit him.

Images courtesy of BMW

First Impressions - 2015 Ford Mustang

If you're a fan of sports cars (or any car for that matter) saddled with live axle rear suspensions,stop reading right now.

The 2015 Ford Mustang is perhaps the most widely anticipated car this year, next to the Chevy Corvette Stingray. And for good reason. The sixth generation pony car marks not only the 50th anniversary of the model, but also the first fully comprehensive redesign since the Fox body took the reins for the Mustang's underpinnings in the late 1970s. And with the redesign, comes a beautifully sculpted body that takes its inspiration from the Evos concept of 2012. While Ford shied away from diving into the deep end of the retro-design pool (like the 2005-2013 S197 generation), subtle cues in the body details and lines link the new Mustang to its predecessors. Let's indulge shall we?

First let's get this out of the way: the 2015 Mustang isn't simply a 2-door Ford Fusion although the snouts do look similar. The design mantra first and foremost was "get it right". That said, almost nothing from the previous generation was carried over, giving designers and engineers the freedom to get the proportions of the new car right. Fifty years of out-of-proportion looks and 1970s-era platform nip-and-tucking are swept out the door with the 2015 Mustang's stunning new looks. A brand new platform, lighter and stronger than before provides a suitable anchor for the new independent rear suspension featuring a sophisticated multilink design (take that Camaro). The front end is fitted with struts featuring a ball jointed design that improves ride isolation and steering feel while allowing for bigger brakes to be fitted. The wheelbase is carried over but everything else was altered: the track was widened, the hood and roof lowered while overall length is a tad longer giving the Mustang a true performance stance.

Outside, the 2015 Ford Mustang looks like no other. The shark-like snout features the pony emblem front-and-center in the grille while the headlights are slimmed and menacing, made all the more so by three diagonal light stripes in each bezel. The wide lower intakes add to the width of the car and the hood features details such as creasing that begins at the snout and a domed look to emphasize the power lurking beneath. From the side, the Mustang has heavy details in the sheetmetal with a character line that begins at the top of puffed-out front fenders, runs down the side just below the window and is then carried up over the similarly widened rear fender ending at the tail. The rear end is signature Mustang with individual, sequential three-light bar vertical tail lights framing a blackened center with the chrome pony emblem again in the center (GT models will have the letters 'GT' instead). Below that, a diffuser is framed by twin exhaust pipes. Overall, the exterior design is clean, crisp and new age edgy. On first glance, not only are you assured you're looking at a Mustang but the design featured subtle cues that hark back to previous generations for example, the blacked out B pillar and the angled rear end. Low, mean, ready-to-pounce-on-Camaro-and-Challenger. Apt descriptors.

Inside, the Mustang finally leaves the 20th century behind in favor of higher end materials and a clean, sophisticated. almost aviator-like theme. Longtime Mustang owners will sing kumbaya at the sight of such advanced features as remote start, keyless entry, tire pressure monitoring and a track app for GT models which includes launch control. They might be divided at the thought of a drive mode selector coming between them and pure driving bliss but the majority should welcome the feature. With the selector, drivers will be able to choose between three stages of stability control thresholds, throttle input, steering feel, traction control and shift points on automatic equipped models. Row-your-own-gears Mustangs will also feature a new rev-match option similar to the kind on Nissan 370Zs. Of course, Sync and MyFord Touch are options as well as an abundance of USB and 12V ports.

No Mustang would be worth its pony emblem without a lineup of engines to match the aggressive looks. With the 2015 model, the engines are more or less carried over with a few tweaks and one brand new option. First, base Mustangs carry on with a 3.7L V6 with 305hp and 280lb-ft of torque hooked up to either a 6 speed manual or 6 speed automatic. If you need a V8 in your life, the GT is your model and it carries a tweaked 5.0L V8 with engineering from the Boss 302 program. Expect output to exceed the current model's 420hp and 390lb-ft of torque with your choice of either a manual or automatic, both also featuring 6 speeds. The real big news under the hood will excite those who long for a return of the SVO badge fitted 80s-era Mustangs. For the first time since 1986, the Mustang's engine bay will play host to a turbocharged inline four with EcoBoost technology. Displacing 2.3L, the new mill will produce 305hp. matching the 3.7L V6 but trouncing it with over 300lb-ft of torque. A twin scroll turbocharger along with direct injection and variable timing along the valves are at the heart of this new engine (which will see duty in the upcoming Focus RS).

Pricing for the 2015 Mustang has elevated slightly. Base V6 models with manual transmissions start at $24,495 (add $1195 for the 6 speed automatic). The base EcoBoost model will begin at $25,995 (premium EcoBoost models will sticker for $29,995) while the base GT will open up at $32,925. The most expensive Mustang will be the GT Premium which starts at $36,925 and, of course, a wide range of options will be available. All MSRPs include a destination charge of $825. Convertible Mustangs will follow within a year of release with a a few thousand more greenbacks tacked on to their MSRPs. What would my ideal Mustang look like? Starting with a base GT with the 6 speed manual (while the EcoBoost is an enticing option, a V8 just sounds more proper and I like rowing my own gears) I'd add the GT Track Package for $2495 (includes front strut tower brace, gorgeous black 19" wheels with summer tires, larger radiator, Brembo front brakes, heavier duty front springs, a Torsen rear limited slip differential and deletion of the rear spoiler...who needs it?), a Reverse Parking Sensor system for $295 (can't scratch the paint) and the Recaro Cloth Front Seating for $1595. All in, we're talking a track ready Mustang for $37,310. Oh, and let's not forget that it would be painted in black....cuz that's just how I roll.

With a huge sweep of the broom, Ford has redesigned and re-engineered the 2015 Mustang in such a way that it is primed for the next 50 years. With styling that looks toward the future, cues that provide a glimpse in its past and swathe of engines that are powerful as well as efficient, the 2015 Ford Mustang looks set to take the muscle car wars to the next level. If your heart is still set on live axles, you'd better get a move on to your Ford dealer to catch the last of the 2014s. Otherwise, welcome to the 21st century pony car. 

Images courtesy of Ford.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Long Term: 2006 Mazda6 S

The STEED has finally hit the100,000 mile marker, after an ownership tenure that has spanned just over 5 years. The momentous occasion happened, rather low key, the night of Memorial Day on my way back home from a food charity event. Having left the church, I looked down on the odometer and noticed I was a few miles shy of the milestone and I could potentially hit it that night. Opting for the long way home, I careful managed my routing with the result being the odometer turning to the magic number just as I pulled into my complex. I'll say this though, getting there over the last half decade has been mostly a smooth affair with moments of hair pulling thrown in.

As I've stated in my last long term update (which was, yes I know, the first), most of the maintenance was hands on with the more difficult, complex tasks left to the experts. Oil changes were done strictly at 3000-5000 mile intervals and with only synthetic oil, a coolant flush was done at around 75,000 miles and the brakes are still pretty strong, even after not being touched since the 85,000 mile marker. Overall, the STEED still feels tight as a drum, rides like a champ and the transmission still snickety-snicks from gear to gear with rifle-bolt precision and action. That's not to say all is well with her though.

Let's start with the engine. Even after five years of exuberant driving, it sounds pretty much how I got it. Which is to say, as throaty and balanced as a port injected, Duratec 3.0L V6 can sound when attached to a manual transmission. However, since the 81,000 mile marker, I've noticed the engine tends to lug when at low speeds between 1000-2000 rpm. If you've ever tried to accelerate away from a slow speeds in high gear (say 4th or 5th) without bringing the RPMs up, then you know what I mean. Only this happens even in 1st or 2nd gear. If I goose the throttle too heavily before bringing the revs above 2000 rpm, the STEED will hesitate as if the engine is misfiring, before smoothly going up the rev range. While upshifting I've had to be careful not to let the revs fall below 2000 rpm, lest I go through another round of apparent cylinder misfiring and 'check-engine-light-flashing' before the engine finds its voice again. Delving through the Mazda forums, I've read up a few reasons for this. One specifies bad spark plugs, another suggests a vacuum leak and still another thinks bad ignition coils. First thing I'll try are the spark plug replacements which (according to a DIY Youtuber) aren't as simple to do. Why? The first generation Mazda6 was not originally designed to have a V6 engine. Then-partner Ford insisted on having a V6 engine to satiate US consumers and as a result, the Duratec 3.0L V6 was shoehorned into the bay. This doesn't leave a lot of space under the hood to perform a lot of DIY work (still a lot easier than a Volkswagen GTI though).

Another, particularly annoying, item on my to-repair list is the climate control system. It conked out about 2 years ago around the 70k mark and when I took the car in for diagnosis, I was told it needed a new compressor (!). Hearing that such work along with the parts themselves would cost just shy of $2,000 I opted for a second opinion which slashed the repair cost in half. The cost was slashed even further when the mechanic noticed that the clutch which engages the compressor was at fault. This led to a very cool 2013 summer season....right up to Thanksgiving when the AC went kaput, yet again. With the repair warranty already expired I'll be taking the car back to the repair shop and hope (and pray) that it's just the compressor clutch again. Seriously, it's not even fully summer yet and already daytime temperatures are already exceeding 90 degrees. There's only so much that driving with the windows down can do; which, interestingly enough, has lead to the next item up for repair: the headliner.

Yes, the mouse-fuzz material that lines the ceiling of the roof is slowly starting its downward journey towards my noggin'. It's not as bad as it sounds, and a dose of 3M glue has stymied the deterioration somewhat. But before long, the central area around the sunroof is going to start sagging and I'll have no choice but to replace the entire headliner.  Besides, it looks wrong driving and seeing the material flapping away in the breeze.

Other items? Well the headlights have become clouded and hazy, this despite repeated uses of 'headlight restorer' products. I've been toying with the idea of replacing the headlights outright with new, state-of-the-art LED units, IF they can be acquired at reasonable cost (swapping them should be a no brainer). One particularly annoying (and ill-timed) repair I had to make was to the water pump, which failed just over 98,000 miles (the same day and literally a few hours before my flight to begin the West Coast Road Trip). It was one which I had meant to coincide with the timing belt replacement, the two big-ticket items that are usually performed around this time. Despite all these, I still thoroughly enjoy driving her and she has been otherwise very reliable. Passengers never stop gaping at the fact that this is a manual transmission (one of my students apparently has never seen one these days). The performance minded drivers that have also been passengers have expressed a hint of jealousy that a 4 door sedan with a V6 can be had with three pedals. At the moment, I have no desire to part with her and I'm hoping with a bit of luck and time that all her present maladies will be repaired. Don't get me wrong, it's hard not to be tempted by newer metal (the new Mazda 6 has certainly caught my eye) but the fact that the six cylinder/three pedal sedan combo is no more sort of compels me to cherish what I have.

Here's to another 100k STEED!

Short Test - 2014 Audi RS5

"You ok boss?"

"Yeah, I good."

Cruising around some B roads, I remarked at how smooth the ride was. This being a performance car, the Audi RS5 I was piloting rode quite comfortably in Comfort mode, though the firmness in the suspension was apparent.

"Switch it to Dynamic mode."

"Ok, sure."

A few seconds later: "Holy %#$!"

Through the bottom of my seat and the steering wheel in my hands, I felt the RS5's personality do a pretty dramatic shift. Everything suddenly felt tense. Gone was the docile steering, the soft (relatively) ride, the purring of the engine in the distance and slurring of the transmission through the gears. The suspension got tighter, the throttle got touchier (the exhaust got notably louder), the steering went extra firm and the transmission dropped a gear as if anticipating a corner. And then I got the nerve to goose the gas. In an instant, the dual clutch transmission dropped to second gear, the revs swung to the far right of the 8200 tachometer and the cabin was positively filled with the glorious sound of a naturally aspirated, direct injected 4.2L V8 clearing its throat and belting out a ferocious battle cry. Or it could've been the sound of Zeus firing off multiple lightning bolts milliseconds apart in Hades' direction. All I know is that the Bob Marley song being piped via Bluetooth through the fantastic sounding Bang and Olufsen audio system suddenly became irrelevant.

Bob Marley being irrelevant doesn't ordinarily happen. Bob Marley being turned down doesn't ordinarily happen.

This wasn't an ordinary occasion.

I'm behind the wheel of a 2014 Audi RS5, the tip of the spear as far as the A5 lineup is concerned. Gone is the dinky 2.0L turbo four of the base A5, gone is the supercharged 3.0L V6 puppy of the S5 and in their place sits a Quattro GmbH-tuned 4.2L V8, fortified with direct injection, forged pistons, a strengthened aluminum engine block and a screaming 8200 rpm redline. All in, output registers at 450hp and 317lb-ft of torque routed through a seven speed, dual clutch transmission to all four wheels via Audi's signature Quattro all wheel drive system.

Outside, you can tell the more aggressive nature of the RS5 relative to its tamer stablemates by eyeballing the lowered ride height as it sits, hunkered on its massive 20" wheels. The Daytona Gray paint is also an RS5 exclusive and, though a tad plain, goes quite nicely with the silver-finished mesh grille and the forged aluminum, turbine wheels. A positively bonkers front splitter underlines huge intake openings, themselves framing the one-piece grille and topped by Audi's signature LED running lights. Looking at the RS5 from the side, "ready to pounce" would be an accurate descriptor. At the rear, large dual oval exhausts announce the RS5's presence and frame the lower diffuser. Equipped with the Sport Exhaust option, the 4.2L V8 becomes deliciously raucous with every dip of the throttle, opening flaps in the mufflers and enticing you to drop a few gears just to hear the motor's pops and crackles on overrun.

Despite the meager torque figure, the Quattro AWD system makes this car seriously quick. From a standstill, booting the throttle pressing you into the cosseting seat as the RS5 rockets forward with nary a hint of wheelspin. Just all four tires digging into the asphalt like a cheetah in full acceleration. The free revving nature of the engine makes it quite easy to hit the redline before you realize an upshift is necessary. Attacking a tight corner reveals just how nimble this chassis is when equipped with Rear Sport Differential. Just like the Audi S4 I tested last year, the differential can route power between the rear wheels, adding more torque to the outside wheel when cornering to aid in rotating the car. Unlike the S4 however, the RS5's huge tires cling to the road with such alacrity that there was no wheelspin to be had. Just the relentless acceleration through the corner and a planted, confidence-lending feeling. Yes, you have to ignore the initial brain command to back off the throttle once the first hint of understeer shows up but bury the throttle mid-corner and the RS5 rewards you by tucking in its nose and thrusting you through the apex and on to the straight, the V8 on full boil.

Once back to calmer, saner speeds with the Audi Drive Select switched to Comfort, I had a chance to take in the RS5's sumptuous cabin. Bumps are felt but don't make their way through the sports seats to your behind and the exhaust, which was all LeMans racer a few minutes ago, is barely heard in the sumptuous cabin. Audi cockpits are arguably the industry standard when it comes to quality and design and here the RS5 doesn't disappoint. Leather is buttery soft and the seats are at once supportive and comfortable for long distance stints. The steering wheel is grippy and features paddle shifters that fall easily to hand while the gauges are legible and easy to read at a glance.This being a coupe, rear seat room is marginal at best but surprisingly I was able to sit behind myself without too much trouble. Wouldn't want to take a road trip back there though.

With a base price of $69,600.00, the RS5 does battle with the likes of BMW's new M4 and the outgoing Mercedes C63 AMG. To that price, my tester was fitted with the $750 Matte Aluminum Optic package which features the silver finished grille, aluminum painted front splitter and silver finish 20" wheels on summer tires, Sport exhaust system with black outlets for $1000, the $2750 Driver Assist Package that brought adaptive cruise control and dynamic steering and the always-brilliant $4000 Audi MMI navigation package. Other doodads pushed the as-tested price to $79,600 (destination not included).

If you're a fan of naturally aspirated engines, you'd better order your Audi RS5 pronto as this is the last and only place you'll still find the magnificent 4.2L V8 in all its unboosted glory. While Audi's new 4.0L twin-turbo V8 is a marvelous piece with big horsepower and greater efficiency, the 4.2L still has it on the ropes with a sound that is earsplittingly good. The RS5 might be getting on in years but its designed has aged beautifully and still offers enough performance to make that M3/M4 driver in the other lane think twice.

Special thanks to Mr. Khan for his time and support!

Friday, May 16, 2014

West Coast Road Trippin' - Day Seven

Today was going to be a great day.

No, it was going to be an totally awesome day. Long one, but awesome nonetheless.

After saying our farewells to the Golden Gate Bridge, we went in search of a place to eat, figuring we'd just start heading south (and staying true to our bond of not eating small business folks!). Taking the I-280 and then the CA17 south, we decided to make a pit stop in Los Gatos and fuel up, on food and to top off Big Sexy Grey's (the Challenger's) 19 gallon tank (California fuel prices are insane but not the worst we'd seen that day...just wait). One restaurant that caught our eye was Double Ds Sports Grille since it was located just off the highway and right across from a nearby gas station. Filling our bellies on a Carne Sada sandwich (me) and Artichoke Chicken (Roger...fancy). we then topped off Big Sexy Grey and continued on CA17 with Roger at the wheel towards Monterey and the beginning point for our epic Pacific Coast Highway run.

Roger doing windshield cleaning duty in Los Gatos

The drive to Monterey gave us just a taste of what we would encounter later that day. Seaside farms, beaches right next to the road and undulatimg tarmac at times served to exercise the Challenger's suspension in preparation. Monterey itself wasn't that interesting in my view but that was probably due to my salivating at what lied beyond. So after taking a brief break at a nearby beach, we switched places and headed off.

We hit school traffic (this was a Thursday after all) heading out of Monterey and for a few miles, the drive was uneventful. It didn't get interesting until we were well past the small town of Carmel and headed into Point Lobos State Reserve. The road opened up and before we knew it, we were viewing what it's like to see mountains unwittingly meet the ocean. The scenery was breathtaking and the road was incredible. There were various points along our route called vista points and turnouts where anyone can park their cars right up to the cliff (or beach) and explore the surrounding area. We stopped at a few of these, thinking each was the best view but it really didn't matter: it seemed like just when we found the perfect point for taking photos, down the road was another, even better location. In some areas the cliffs were jagged and steep while in others, the terrain rolled gently from the road into a beach. The cliffs ranged in height from just above sea level to over 1,000ft, as high as I fly my aircraft at Tamiami airport. Along the way, we saw an elephant seal colony (they stink even worse than cow manure), dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean at one of the many almost-deserted beaches (Roger collected a bottle of Pacific sea water and sand to bring back) and came reeeeaaaallllly close to driving off the edge of the road. Anyone undertaking what we did better have nerves of steel. If you've never driven along cliff-side roads with no guardrails, you will have ass-pucker moments. Our stops were short and quick, just enough to take in the scenery and snap a few "yes-we-were-really-here" images. Briefly, the road took us away from the coast through the redwood forest of Big Sur but the road was no less challenging for the, uh, Challenger. One observations we made was that Mustangs littered the road here. At one of our stops were quite taken aback to see just as many Ford Mustang convertibles as there were minivans surrounding our Challenger. But seeing Big Sexy Grey stand our proudly in a sea of lower vehicles, we were confident we made the right choice. Another confirmation was seeing some of those Mustang pilots eyeing our Challenger quite jealously as they either pulled in to park or departed with a tire chirp.

Big Sexy Grey stands proudly

The drive itself was pretty spectacular, this part of the PCH being all I read it to be. Blind turns, good straights to wind out the big Pentastar V6 and enough elevation changes to almost cause worry regarding how well the transmission would hold up. I kid you not, the five-speed automatic was poor at this sort of exuberant driving. I was using manual mode most of the time but it didn't matter. One example was approaching a hairpin turn while playing cat-and-mouse with one particular black Mustang convertible. Using Autostick I downshifted to second gear in preparation, hoping the transmission would hold the gear through the corner. It downshifted alright, but midway in the turn it upshifted itself into FOURTH, bogging the engine and making me lose any momentum I had to help accelerate out of the turn. Seeing the Mustang I was chasing pull out a significant lead I nailed the throttle, hoping to get V6 back into its power band so I could use what adequate horsepower there was to get the big Challenger up and running after the disappearing Ford. Over the last few days with Big Sexy Grey, I had gotten used to the soft suspension and skinny 18" tires, coupled with the quick steering rack but the transmission had me cursing each time one of the many Mustang convertibles along our route caught up with us. I'll give it to the Mustang driver, he doesn't have much to worry about as his car is a few hundred pounds lighter than Big Sexy Grey. I, on the other hand, had to be fully conscious of her weight as I sawed at the wheel, trying to place her on the correct line while cornering and praying her brakes would halt all that momentum. Didn't matter though, I always caught up to his tailpipes, ensuring he'd always have a rearview mirrorful of Challenger face glaring at him

Enough about the car, you might be saying at this point. Did you take pictures? Did you shoot video?

Here's your answer:

Just outside an elephant seal colony

After a few hours we made it down to the end of our route at Morro Bay, partially exhausted but with a sense of accomplishment. Morro Bay is sleepy and quiet seaside town with its most prominent feature being the Morro Rock, a large volcanic plug that is tied to the mainland via causeway. We wanted to visit it but time was against us since we needed to be in Bakersfield that night (plus it was getting pretty dark and the tours had already ended). After exploring the road directly next to the harbour (and remembering our earlier experience with "authentic Chinese food"), we settled on getting dinner at Rose's Landing Cafe. Taking in the NFL draft on their large big screen monitors, we chowed down on fish burritos (Roger) and chicken fettuccine (me...yes, I was feeling fancy).

Some factory or powerplant

The Morro Rock landmark

Even Embracadero is down here

By this time, night had fallen so Roger took piloting duties and nosed Big Sexy Grey northward along CA41 to CA46 and finally I-5 towards our resting spot for the night in Bakersfield. Remember that earlier bit about California's extraordinarily high gas prices? Just outside the city, we passed a gas station which was selling fuel for $5.09/gallon. That's FIVE DOLLARS folks...and not premium either. Good ol' regular, the stuff our Challenger had been feeding on for the last six days. It took a while for us to collect our jaws off the floor and resume navigating to our hotel. And then Tupac's California Love came on the radio. Sure we were nowhere near Compton or Los Angeles, but the song was just as appropriate as we pulled into our Bakersfield, CA. Sleep was calling to us and we knew tomorrow would be an equally epic day. Desert run? Vegas baby?

Yeah baby.

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