What the cars say about the man
Dear Tom and Ray:
I have become very interested in someone, and I'm trying to decide if I should ask him out or not. I noticed that he drives a Subaru Forester, and I cannot figure out what that says about the kind of guy he is. Possibly adventurous? Reliable? Any insight into this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. — Melissa
TOM: What a great question, Melissa! We all know that a person's car is like a 3,000-pound rolling personality test, so why not analyze the car before getting involved? I mean, I drive a 1952 MGTD. What more do you need to know about me? I'm fun, I'm loyal, and I'm a classic!
RAY: Not to mention dilapidated, hopelessly out of date and hard to start in the morning! Now, in my case, I drive a 1987 Dodge Colt Vista. So you know that I'm just what you need, and nothing extravagant. I'm practical, reliable and not overly showy.
TOM: Not to mention peeling on top, wide in the back end and of questionable exhaust habits.
RAY: Well, as you can see, Melissa, descriptions like these can cut both ways. So we'll give you both sides of your Subaru Forester guy.
TOM: First, let's go straight from Subaru's marketing material: "Engineered to deliver safety, comfort and high performance, the Forester achieves excellence on all levels. And with its good looks and exceptional value, Forester is the ideal choice for the discerning driver."
RAY: But if you read between the lines, you could interpret those same words as meaning that he's too careful, comfortable but not exciting, and "performs" at a high level but is rarely at that high level naturally. If someone has to protest that he looks good -- well, you can figure out what that means, Melissa. Finally, "value" suggests he's a cheapskate.
TOM: I hope we've helped, Melissa. Please do write back and let us know how it turns out. America is dying to know!
Making sense of the different engine types
Dear Tom and Ray:
I have a question about horizontally opposed, or "boxer," engines. To the best of my knowledge, only Porsche and Subaru use this type of engine design now. Subaru goes so far as to point out the advantages of this design in its literature. Assuming that these advantages are real, why don't the other car makers use this design? Since this design is not new, I can't believe that Porsche and Subaru have found something that the others haven't caught on to yet. What's the real story? — Jim
TOM: The boxer engine, also called a "flat engine" or "pancake engine," is an engine whose cylinders are laid down on their sides. So instead of pumping up and down, as on an "in line" engine, or diagonally, as on a "V" engine, the pistons are "horizontally opposed," or on opposite sides of the crankshaft, pumping toward one another.
RAY: The major advantage of a flat engine is that it's flatter, which means it can be installed closer to the ground. And with the mass of the engine lower, the car's center of gravity is lower. And the lower a car's center of gravity, the better the car's handling.
TOM: The engine is the single largest mass in the car (unless my brother is behind the wheel). And in fact, sources tell us that one of the problems with the previous generation of Ford Explorers (which, you might remember, had some handling issues) is that Ford made a series of engineering compromises that resulted in the engine being a few inches higher than it should ideally be.
RAY: So in addition to making the new Explorer longer and wider, the center of gravity was also lowered. And lowering the center of gravity by even a fraction of an inch can result in handling improvements that a driver will notice.
TOM: So why doesn't everybody use a flat engine? Well, I think there are two reasons. One is packaging. A flat engine is a wide engine, for obvious reasons. And a lot of designers don't want to design wide engine compartments. A "V" engine, on the other hand, is the closest to a square in shape, and it tends to fit engine compartments more easily.
RAY: The other reason why you don't see more flat engines is because of tradition. Manufacturers tend to do things the way they've always done them. Plus, they have a lot of money and engineering time invested in their current engines.
and are reluctant to start over.
TOM: Interestingly, however, GM now owns part of Subaru and is planning some new GM vehicles that use Subaru platforms. So it'll be interesting to see whether flat engines start to make a comeback. If you see the introduction of the new Pontiac Pancake, Jim, you'll know what's happening.