Thursday, March 30, 2017

Behind the Boxersled

While one Higgins is dominating the American rally circuit, the other is seemingly doing Subaru's stunt work.  Mark Higgins, brother of rally champion David Higgins, has undertaken several challenges behind the wheel of a Subaru in the last few years.  Most of these have been in the form of tackling the Isle of Man's "TT Course" for motorcycles in a Subaru WRX STI.  However this year Subaru decided to send Mark down a different course intended for a different craft altogether: bobsleds.

The bobsleigh track used is the oldest in the world.  St Mortiz-Celerina was home to the bobsleigh events for the 1928 and 1948 Olympics.  While the track has changed over the years, for 2017 it was 1,722 meters long with an elevation difference of 130 meters and an average grade of 8.14%.

St Mortiz-Celerina hosts Bobsleigh runs from November until February or March, so Subaru's stunt was scheduled just before the track dismantling began.  Running a car with studded tires through a bobsleigh course is obviously not ideal for future events but because the course is a natural track and it is rebuilt every year, the changes made for Subaru were not detrimental to the regular bobsleigh season.  Sections of the course obviously needed to be widened in order to fit a 2017 Subaru WRX STI down the track.

In 2016, Mark Higgins drove a Prodrive-prepared WRX STI to shatter the record set at the Isle of Man TT Course.  Nearly the entire car was modified to wring every ounce of performance out to tackle that challenge.  For this event, the 2017 WRX STI used for this run remained mostly stock aside from some necessary safety improvements..  A roll cage was added and a reinforced bumper beam was fitted behind the bumper skin to help if the car slid into the icy walls.  Minor modifications were made to the edges of the front and rear bumpers to help protect the car from those walls, too.  For grip, they added narrower studded tires fitted to Speedline Corse rally wheels but the rest was up to Mark.

Before these changes were made, Mark went for a run in a bobsleigh with Olympic Medalist Sean Olsson.  The run revealed that this would be much more than an icy run in a Subaru down the side of a mountain.  In most road courses, banked turns help guide cars around twisty sections and this is true of a bobsleigh course.  However, the banking is incredibly extreme, especially the "Horseshoe" section, where the car is practically horizontal to level ground as it whips around the corner.  Entering the corner is relatively easy, but exiting and straightening out is a different story.  The car's larger size and weight had a dramatic effect on cornering and the peak of those effects could be seen at the tail end of the run.  Thanks to the grip provided by the studded tires, the control through the car, and the abilities of Mark Higgins, the car managed to make it to the bottom in one piece (mostly).

To continue the showcase of Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, he turned right around in the same car and rocketed back up to the starting point.  It's an excellent display of what this car is capable of even with just a few changes made to it.  One could argue that it's an even better display of what this car can do in the capable hands of a professional, and Mark Higgins certainly earned a space in the record books for his incredible abilities behind the wheel!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

5 Years with Subarus

5 Years ago today, I picked up a 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Hatchback from Stan Olsen Subaru (now Baxter Subaru).  There's really been no looking back since then!  Ask anyone who knows me.  I bleed Subaru!

On the one hand, yeah I could probably be "Brand Bias" which can easily be frowned upon.  However, in the last 5 years, the experiences I've had with Subaru ownership and the community I've discovered around it, it's become a great part of my life.  Are Subarus the best cars ever built?  No, I'm not sure anyone can make that claim 100%.  But with everything I've experienced with Subaru so far, it's been the best for me.

Literally the day after I bought my car, I went to a local Subaru meet.  I already knew a couple of the guys there.  A friend had taken me to a meet even before I owned my Impreza.  But there were tuners, outdoor adventurers, mechanics, daily drivers, such a wide variety of people who enjoyed these cars but all came together to hang out.  Many of the people I met through those first couple of meets have become great friends over the years.  They've helped me fix my car, fix my house, come over for dinner, gone on trips together, it's a whole family!  I would've missed the chance to meet them had I owned something else.

Through owning Subarus, I've also been introduced to Rallying.  It's gone from casually watching videos online to building and competing with my own Rallycross car, to going to a Stage Rally to spectate and see this awesome form of motorsport unfold before me.  And now, thanks to people I've met through going to events, I'm going to start the pursuit of actually competing in a Stage Rally someday!  If you had asked me 6 years ago "hey Mike, are you ever going to be a rally driver?" I'd probably ask "what's that?".  It's been so fun working towards this new goal and the road taken so far has been rewarding!

Since I picked up that 2012 Impreza, I've had a few Subarus.  In September of 2013 I picked up a Project Car: a 2000 Impreza 2.5 RS Coupe in need of some serious care.  I turned that into a rallycross machine and sold it to a friend of mine.  In October of 2015 I picked up a 2016 WRX STI Series.HyperBlue and donned "Higgins 75" logos on the wing to support and commemorate the Perfect Season he and Craig Drew had that year.  Last summer I replaced my '00 Impreza rallycross car with a "new" '99 Impreza 2.5 RS Coupe and have been competing with that car now.

The running joke among my friends and family has been "If you know Mike, you either own a Subaru now or you will."  My Wife had a '04 Outback and has a '15 Forester XT now.  My mom has a '13 Outback.  My dad had a '14 Forester that he gave to my sister after he got a '16 Forester.  My father-in-law has had two Legacies and a Crosstrek.  Most of the Groomsmen in my wedding own Subarus, too!  These cars have taken care of the people I care about, so I keep recommending them to friends and family.

Consider this my "Thank You" to everything Subaru.  From the people who built my car in Japan to the friends I can now call 'family' that I've met over the years, thanks for all the great experiences so far!  Here's to "what's to come"

Thursday, March 9, 2017

My First Step towards Stage Rallying

Back in June of 2011, I watched a video of some guy named David Higgins driving a strange car to the top of Mt Washington like he was being chased by a swarm of killer bees.  After further investigation, it turned out this guy was part of Subaru Rally Team USA... and he was rather good at rallying.  I had never seen anything like it and wanted to learn more about it.  I dove in and started reading more, watching videos, and got hooked on rallying.

Four Subarus, two SCCA rallycross seasons, and one Stage Rally I volunteered at later, and I'm in love with driving in the dusty stuff.  I follow Launch Control like normal people follow Prime Time Television.  I have an entire wall in my garage covered in posters, photos, medals, and signatures from rallying.  But, at the end of the day, all of this has made me realize that I want to do more than follow it.  I want to experience it.

When I went to the 2016 Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, I met a lot of awesome people.  From fans like me to technicians, co-drivers, and factory drivers, I really got to immerse myself in the world of rallying.  I even got to meet the heroes I had been following: Travis Pastrana, Christian Edstrom, Piotr Fetela, Agatino Fortunato, Lauchlin O'Sullivan, Nate Ellis, David Higgins, and Craig Drew.  They were all there, all regular people to talk with that just happened to have extraordinary talents.  The whole experience was incredible to finally see and feel in person and, on the 7-hour trek back home, I realized it was something I wanted to do someday.
Of the friends I made at that rally, I've managed to keep in contact with a few of them.  Agatino Fortunato and the All Fours Rally Team helped me get my new rallycross car over the summer.  The SRT USA technicians let me take some photos by David's car at Ojibwe.  But the person who put things in motion for my Stage Rallying hopes was Craig Drew.  I had been talking with him on and off for awhile and was curious about codriving and pacenotes.  What started as a mere question to learn more about rallying turned into an invitation to shake off my doubts and take a stab at it.  Craig mentioned his codriving course that would be held at DirtFish Rally School that they were planning to do again and told me to sign up.  At first, I kind of laughed at the idea.  After all, I had zero experience with codriving... let alone Stage Rally so taking instruction from a Top-Level competitor seemed like a bit of overkill to me.  Still, Craig assured me that I'd be able to survive the 2-day course he'd be instructing.

After thinking it over, talking to my wife about it, and asking a few friends, I started to think that maybe it wasn't such a crazy idea after all.  Just reading and watching wasn't going to get me to a Stage Rally any time soon... so I went for it.  Even as I write this now, just shy of a month away from attending this weekend course, I can feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins just THINKING of getting a start with this.

Creating and using pacenotes is probably the most crucial thing I want to understand from this course.  I've been driving competitively in Rallycross for 2 years so far, so I'm fairly confident behind the wheel of a car on the dirt and gravel.  However, the ability to "see around corners" that pacenotes grant the driver a huge advantage in the jump from rallycross to Stage Rally.  Whether my future with rallying lies in the driver or codriver seat, learning how this process works from an expert like Craig is an excellent starting point.

Can't wait to finally get cracking at this!!

Monday, March 6, 2017

2018 Crosstrek = Lifted Impreza again

Another auto show is approaching, which means blogs and websites are counting on clickbait to drive their pageviews.  They'll tout the "All-New Crosstrek" featuring new sweeping lines and aggressive styling over it's predecessor, but for those hoping the new Crosstrek is more than a lifted Impreza Hatchback donning some beefy wheel archs, it's gonna be that again.

Granted, this really isn't that much of a problem.  The new 2017 Subaru Impreza, built on the new Subaru Global Platform (SGP) has been received well and this new Crosstrek (XV in international markets) will benefit the same.  Like the previous generation Impreza and Crosstrek, they'll share the much of the same in this latest incarnation.  The hood, roof, hatch, headlights tail lights, all four doors, all the glass, and the entire interior will be shared between the two cars.  The roof rails on the new 2018 Crosstrek will also carry over from the Premium and Limited Impreza Hatchback models.  The main changes are in suspension, ride height, structural adjustments, wheels (which look nifty in the teaser photo) front and rear bumper, and the wheel arch moldings.  As with before, the Crosstrek's tougher exterior gives off more of an off-road warrior look to the Impreza's smoother flowing lines.

More details will emerge during the Geneva auto show this week and I'm looking forward to seeing what aesthetic changes have been made between the two.  Regardless of the similarities, the Crosstrek will likely continue to lead the Compact Crossover SUV segment.

EDIT: The 2018 Crosstrek has been revealed!  See?  It's the same formula as before.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Why do Subarus Last?

In recent years, Subaru has been noted to be one of the most reliable automotive brands in the United States. While they have been long criticized for "cheaper" interiors and plain styling, they have been known to build cars that last longer than other competitors.  It's easy to find consumer claims and testimonials about how long their Subaru has lasted them, but there's more to it than that.

Based on findings from Polk, an automotive data information gathering organization, 96% of all Subaru cars built in the last 12 years are still on the road today.  Considering that Subarus undertake a great many tasks outside of daily driving (outdoor recreation, racing, extreme weather conditions) this is quite an impressive finding.  In the United Kingdom, Subarus boast a staggering 99.3% of all Subarus still kicking arse in the last 10 years.  

Consumer Reports recently had a study that found the Subaru Legacy made the list of cars most likely to go over the 200,000 mile mark. They compiled the list from about 30 million vehicles advertised for sale during the year and looked at model years 1981-2010.  The Subaru Legacy was at the top of that list. Unsurprisingly, the Legacy's cousin, the Outback wagon, was also on that list.

One of the things you notice about most Subaru owners is how long they keep their cars. Many owners consider them a member of the family and, when tasked with replacing them, hand them down like family heirlooms instead of trading them in.  These loyal owners are an important part of that statistic for the care they give their cars.  The more someone tends to like something, the better care they take of them.  I'm sure if there were data on the vehicles that have lasted a long time, Subaru or otherwise, you'd see cars with diligent service records kept over their lifespan.  

I've seen the flip-side of this happen with Subaru vehicles, too.  When customers that are new to Subaru buy one, they've heard these claims of how reliable and solid these vehicles are.  It's a bulletproof car, so why bother with general maintenance?  Oops, you missed your Oil Change 30k miles ago... so your engine kinda stopped working.  "But I thought Subarus were supposed to be reliable?!?"  Yes, but anything that is neglected can and will go wrong.  Whether it's a '92 Chevy Lumina or a 2017 Subaru Impreza, you get out what you put in.  For the most part, this isn't the case.  As with any growing brand, issues start to surface.  But many of the knocks I've seen on Subaru vehicle reliability have been less of a manufacturing flaw and more of a neglect issue.

That's not to say Subarus are 100% free of issues.  Ask anyone who's had a head gasket go bad in a early 90s Subaru (all the way up to about 2010 or so) and they might grimace a bit at the reliability claims.  There was also an issue with Oil Consumption on Subarus from about 2011 to 2014, but most of those issues have been resolved or taken care of by Subaru.  No automotive manufacturer can say they've built a "perfect car", but it still seems that Subaru's list of recalls, issues, and nagging problems have been noticeably less common compared to others.

Subaru didn't suddenly become recognized as a Long-Lasting brand overnight.  This kind of trust has been built over a long time.  Remember those cheap interiors and plain styling I mentioned earlier?  Subaru has made a point to focus less on those aesthetic things and more on how the car works.  A smooth-running Boxer engine at the core of every Subaru vehicle is a great starting point.  In a Subaru Boxer engine, the pistons face opposite each other in a side-to-side symmetrical layout. The opposing pistons work to cancel out the inertia force of each other, resulting in less vibration, superb rotational balance, and a smooth feel when approaching the high rev range.  This results in less wear and tear over long periods of time. Add these advantages to an easily-accessible layout under the hood and your labor times go down as well.  Repair costs aren't as high when things are simple and easy to get to.

There's another element at work here that has been helping keep Subarus on the road that you might not expect: Safety.  Remember that for a longevity study to reflect as strongly as the results that Polk compiled the car still needs to be functioning on the road.  While many newer Subarus now have sophisticated collision avoidance systems, the longevity studies predate those.  Subarus tend to stick to the road and provide better control than other cars thanks to their All-Wheel Drive system, low center of gravity, and even weight distribution.  Mix in the great interior visibility for the driver to see and avoid tricky situations and you've got a recipe for street survival.  These components help Subarus stay sure-footed through bad weather and slick conditions.  

So really, it started with Subaru making good cars from the get-go.  Nothing is perfect, but the "Cheap and Easy Does It" slogan really drives home the idea behind making Subarus.  Instead of a lavish interior sprinkled with smartphone tech that will go wrong in a week, they've opted to go the conservative route which has not only made things last longer, but also easier for owners to use.  From there, a loyal group of owners kept their vehicles on the road with religious service intervals so they could hand their trusty Subaru down to their Family member, friend, or neighbor.  These owners know that their car will take care of whomever they're passing the torch with reliability under the hood and a safe grip to keep them on the road when it's bad outside.  It's all a recipe for making a great car with can-do attitude.  In a day and age where everyone is trying to make their dollar go further, finding a car that lasts makes a lot of sense.