Friday, November 19, 2010

Lexus Repair Photos [Smashed]

Update:   As expected, Liberty Mutual ignored my protests and insisted that the car be repaired, despite over $9,000 in confirmed damage.

Earlier this week, the body shop finally got around to emailing me photos of the LS430 being repaired.

Here's what it looks like:

Obviously, these photos are severely lacking in detail.  Most are out of focus.   I might have to make a trip down there to check it out firsthand.   Stay tuned...

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Audi Without Quattro? Say It Isn't So. [Road Tests]

2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI S-Line
It's unclear why the Audi gnomes in Ingolstadt decided to ship the A3 to the United States.   Luxury hatchbacks might be all the rage in Europe, but stateside they're about as common as a chips and curry.

The good news is that there aren't many competitors for the Audi A3 on this side of the pond.  At least, not yet.

The bright red 2007 A3 featured in this story belongs to a Gear Thought's friend and neighbor;  Allan P.    His bone-stock, fire engine red, A3 features a 2.0 liter, turbo charged engine (2.0 FSI)  producing 197 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.

Audi has a long love affair with turbos.  Back in the 1980's, the factory coupled turbo charged engines with a revolutionary all wheel drive system; a combination which dominated rally racing.   Not without significance, Audi has a history of breaking conventions, including putting a woman behind the wheel of its race cars.   Yes, turbos are good and quattro is good.   Breaking free of the orthodoxy is also good.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, see the video below.

The 2007 A3 2.0 FSI tested by Gear Thoughts had 50% of Audi's magic formula.   Yes, it was indeed a turbo charged Audi.  Yet unlike every other Audi I've cared enough to drive over the last twenty years, this car was NOT a Quattro.   The power produced by that fiesty turbo would be going to the front wheels only.


And it got even worse.   This particular Audi was equipped with an automatic transmission.   Yet, the owner assured me this wasn't like any other automatic I'd driven.   This Audi had a dual clutch transmission, also known as a direct shift gearbox (DSG).   In theory, it would deliver more power and offer better control than a traditional automatic, while shifting faster than possible with a traditional manual transmission.

So would the DSG 6 speed automatic transmission make up for the lack of Quattro?   The owner was foolish enough to let me take it for a test ride.

Road Test
2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI
We started with a spin on some twisty roads around Boulder.    I swear, we were only rolling a few minutes before the owner started urging me to try the DSG's paddle shifters.

"Try it, Try it... " he pleaded.

I rolled my eyes.  He was obviously feeling guilty for having purchased an automatic, I thought.   But after a few minutes of taunting, I caved.

First a little background info.  Tiptronic was developed by Porsche to let those who can't operate a clutch feel sporty.  It's now the normal "automatic" transmission for Audis, Volkswagens, and Porsches.    The vast majority of Audis and VW's sold in the United States come with a tiptronic tranny between the front seats.

But not all of them have the paddle shifters and DSG.   Would this change the experience? 

Switching over to using the paddles beneath the steering wheel was intuitive, and yes, it was very simple to select the right gear as I swung the car through the turns.    Yet, despite squinting my eyes and repeatedly telling myself that F1 drivers use paddle shifters, the feeling was all wrong.  It felt like playing a video game instead of doing it for real.
A manual transmission compared to Tiptronic? That's like masturbation compared to sex with a partner.  There's just no comparison.   
I admit, I hoped the paddle shifters would magically improve the Tiptronic experience.  Sadly,  I discovered that despite two decades of development, Tiptronic still sucks and paddle shifters don't make it much better. 

A well balanced, manual gearbox creates a direct link between driver and machine. It's a connection that fly by wire simply can't replicate.   If I want to drive, I still prefer to do it the old fashioned way.  The proper way.  With a honest to god manual transmission and a clutch pedal, the way God intended. 

With that elephant off my chest, I admit that the A3 handled damn well.  Sure, it's easy for all that torque to spin the front wheels, tires chirping in quatrro-less frustration but this hot hatch will put a smile on your face.  It's tossable, tight, and perky.     It almost feels like...  well, a sports car.  And yet... there's all that room behind the front seats.

Which brings us to our next phase of testing...

The Beer Run
The Beer Test
Every road test should include a usability study.  The ski pass-through on the winter package equipped A3 confirmed its ability to cope with long objects.   There won't be a problem stuffing a few sets of boards back there.

But this is Boulder, a college town where alcohol remains the primary fuel to social events.  We care about the after party.   So, how about a good old fashion case of beer case test?  Off to Liquor Mart, Boulder's famous wal-mart of alcohol.

Sadly,  we failed to convince the manager to loan us a few cases.   Initially, he seemed to like the idea but then grew suspicious when we told him we didn't want Coors.   No, we needed good beer.  Lots of good beer, in fact.

Failing to obtain the cases as a gesture of goodwill, I handed over my credit card and bought a dozen cases of Boulder Beer's Hazed and Infused.    We're professionals, trust us.  It's good beer.     Maybe not New Belgian good, but still damn good.

The Key Question:  Can you stack 144 bottles of beer in the boot?   The answer is yes, but only if you stack the cases sideways.

Beer WIN. 

Nice Legs - The Legroom Test
How many 6'2 people will fit? 
Maybe this isn't such a big factor for you stubby types.  But as far as I'm concerned, if a car has  four seats, you better know whether you can pack 'em in.  

The short answer is no.   With the driver's seat fully back, an adult male cannot fit behind the driver's seat.   The leg room in the back seat is only suitable to dogs, children, and short people.

The good news is that you won't be taking your in-laws on a road trip with the A3.   And unless you're an Umpa Lumpa, forget about those back doors. There just isn't much room back there.

Umpa Lumpas WIN.   Adult Leg Room FAIL

What Else Could You Buy
Allan's purchased his A3 after a nationwide search.   The fact is, there aren't many automatic Audi A3 Sportline models out there.    With it's super flash red on all business black interior, this puppy is a rarity.

If you were looking to buy a similar car today, here's what thinks it might cost you:

As you can see from the diagram, you might expect to pay between $17,325 and $21,775 for an excellent condition vehicle.

The question: What else could you buy in that price range?     A brief review of eBay offers more than a few ideas:
  • Subaru WRX
  • Mini Cooper S or Clubman
  • BMW X3
  • Mazda Speed3
  • Volkswagen R32

OR, if you were willing to deal with higher repair and maintenance costs - and cut your purchase price in half - you could look for an Audi that remedies all the faults of the A3.   You could find a low mileage, well loved 2001 Audi S4 Avant.    In bone-stock condition, it produces 250hp and is only available with Quattro.

To wrap up this review, Gear Thoughts will rate the 2007 Audi A3 2.0 FSI on six criteria.  

Performance:   The lady is fast and frisky.  She looks sexy too and despite two gargantuan club feet, she can move fairly well.   Oh...  if she only had a traditional manual transmission and Quattro.  SCORE:  6.0  (note:  Gear Thoughts would be pushed to rate any automatic equipped vehicle above a 5.  This is a good score, for an automatic). 

Fuel Economy:  The EPA says 22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, with a combined score of 25 mpg.   That's not particularly good, especially when the lady's thirst requires premium fuel.   Then again, with nearly 200 ponies chirping the tires, you're getting decent acceleration.    SCORE:  7.0

Style: This little Audi is very nicely put together car and it literally turns heads.  Inside and outside, you're looking at efficient, purpose driven design.  It's a thing of beauty.   SCORE:  9.0
Versatility:   The hatchbox design is the true Swiss Army Knife of the automotive kingdom.   The A3 can easily carry odd shaped items, a huge volume of luggage, or even - as we proved - a dozen cases of beer.  And that's WITHOUT putting the seats down.   SCORE:  9.0

Execution:   As every designer knows, each design has an intended purpose.  This car was designed to offer sophisticated, versatile transportation for a driver of discerning taste; someone who likes to play hard and dress fashionably.   It's a design largely uncorrupted by deviating ideas. SCORE: 8.5

Bang for the Buck:   Shop around, and you can put this 2007 A3 in your garage for under $20K.   That's remarkable given the engineering, design, and execution of this vehicle.   Of course, it's also darn similar to a well equipped Volkswagen GTI.  According to KBB, for that same $20K, you could buy a 2009 GTI.    SCORE: 7.0  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Car Crashes and Liberty Mutual Insurance

A few weeks ago, my wife was rear-ended while driving our 2001 Lexus LS430. This post initiates a series on the topic.

Here's a picture of the car the night of the accident:

As I write this, I feel a lot of anger and frustration, only a small portion of which is about the damaged car. My wife was injured in the crash. Cars are disposable. People are not.

The pain that she experienced and continues to experience is the worst part. She's going to several medical appointments each week and treatment is ongoing.

But this post isn't about whip lash or medical treatments. This is GearThoughts. Let's talk about cars, car repair, and the ongoing scam called automobile insurance.

The Lexus itself appears to have done an admirable job of crumpling on impact. The speed limit on that stretch of road is 35 mph. Most people exceed that speed by 5 to 10 mph.

The other driver was at fault and ticketed. At the scene, he told me that his brakes locked up and he couldn't stop. He said his tires were nearly bald which likely contributed.

The other driver may have been negligent driving around on bald tires, or he may have been going too fast, or he may have been distracted. Yet my anger isn't really directed at him either.

Liberty Mutual is the source of my ongoing frustration. They're our automobile insurance company and they've been handling the claim process.

Over the years, we've been pretty good customers. We have multiple vehicles and our house on the policy. I've never paid a premium late and prior to this experience, I've never filed a claim.
Unfortunately, Liberty Mutual hasn't been treating us nearly as well as we've treat them.

After experiencing delays and getting the run-around (details below), and despite complaining to supervisors, Liberty Mutual continues to be horribly unresponsive and uncooperative. Worse, when I asked about previous complaints regarding the same issue, the supervisor told me there was no record of any complaints in my file.

I've discovered that auto-insurance is really only as good as the claims process. Just because you pay for coverage doesn't mean you're going to have a good experience when it comes time to file a claim.

My mom taught me that you always get what you pay for. Except in this case, we've been paying a lot. Why are we receiving so very little? Something doesn't add up.

My experiences thus far dealing with Liberty Mutual:
  • 4 days to get a rental car.

  • 1 full week before Liberty Mutual sent an adjuster to evaluate the damage to my car. The excuse: Everyone was attending a meeting (seriously). Maybe they were counting their yet to vest stock options in the upcoming IPO.

  • Several days, and repeated phone calls and emails to get a tow authorization. The excuse: My claims adjuster went on vacation (but the supervisor confirmed he was in the office for a full day and half after I sent email and left voice messages).

  • Liberty Mutual's initial estimate was about $7,500. The body shop evaluated the car and the estimate is now about $10,000. It's been 4 days since the body shop called Liberty Mutual to have the additional work approved and, as far as I know, they're still waiting for a visit from the claims adjuster. As of the date of this post, Liberty Mutual has not yet visited the body shop to inspect the damage and approve the work.

  • I told Liberty Mutual that I was concerned about the fact that when I sell or trade in the car, the CarFax will show it's been in an accident. My claims adjuster told me I could file a diminished value claim against the other driver's insurance (Geico), but not to be surprised when Geico offers very little. Translation: Too bad about your loss but it's your problem.

  • Despite previous complaints about unresponsiveness, Liberty Mutual continues to perform poorly. As of this writing, they have yet to respond to my last inquiry and it's been +60 hours.

  • The purpose of my last call was to go over the evidence I've gathered showing the vehicle should probably be considered a total loss including estimates of market and salvage value from dealers. I've sent Liberty Mutual email and I've left voice messages. I'm still waiting to hear back.
The saga continues...

Here's the damage to the car in the daylight:

Here's the car being towed away:

On a side note - Liberty Mutual appears to be going public. They've filed a registration for an IPO (S1) which highlights that their net income nearly tripled in 1Q10 to $306MM. Gee, I wonder how they managed to do that?

How Cheap Can You Be? [Repairs]

Kawasaki KLR owners are famous for out-cheaping each other, but there's a limit to how cheap you can be.

Today, I reached my limit.

The switch above is pretty simple. Unfortunately it cost me several hours of chasing phantom electrical glitches.

I wired it in-line with my bike's aftermarket Oxford heated grips. The grips themselves work great, but after installation I noticed the battery completely drains if left unattended for a few weeks. Rather than unplug the grips manually, the easy fix was to wire in a toggle switch.

The switch was purchased at Wal-mart for some ridiculously low price. Unfortunately, in cutting the price that low they also decided to cut quality control too. Although it's a basic, very simple design - the switch is intermittent with the vibration of the KLR's single cylinder.