Fun and Affordable Vehicles

VW hyping up diesel sales

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Volkswagen of America is running a contest to find the oldest and highest-mileage diesel-powered VWs still running on their original engines. The competition is more than a publicity stunt. It has kicked off one of the most ambitious campaigns to persuade American motorists that their cars will last longer and use far less fuel if they switch to diesel. The German carmaker needs to generate interest ahead of next February’s planned launch of its diesel-powered Jetta TDI, which VW hopes will not only revive the group’s flagging US sales but put it in pole position to capture growing demand for diesels in the world’s biggest car market. The Jetta is expected to be the first diesel to comply with increasingly stringent emission standards in all 50 states.

In spite of its headstart over rivals such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Nissan, Volkswagen faces a Herculean task. It is not only promoting a vehicle but trying to change a mindset. “The US image of diesel today is like Europe 20 years ago,” says Adrian Hallmark, head of VW of America. “It’s got a dirty, noisy, smoky reputation.”

Still, the German carmaker is confident it can show Americans that their perception of diesel lags reality. VW aims to spread the message that diesel, as Mr. Hallmark puts it, is “a guilt-free way of having fun in a car”.

The coming campaign will prefix any mention of diesel with the word “clean”. Performance will also be a big part of VW’s message. Because diesel engines require more compression to ignite the fuel, they also provide more torque, and thus more powerful acceleration.

Americans are “hungry for innovative, efficient and well-made products”, Mr Hallmark says, comparing the new Jetta TDI (short for turbo-charged direct injection) to the success of Toyota’s Prius hybrid hatchback.

“We’re not going to do a lot of different things,” Mr Hallmark adds. “We want to do one or two things really well.”

VW plans to appeal to a relatively narrow group of buyers, mainly on the east and west coasts, who are environmentally aware but also want some fun from their cars. “We’re probably not going to sell too many in Nebraska,” he says.

VW’s long-life diesel car contest could provide another boost. Of the 115-plus cars entered so far, at least 20 have more than half a million miles under their belt. One has clocked almost 900,000. VW hopes this could draw oohs and aahs for diesel when the winner is announced later this year.

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Ode to the Pinto

Friday, March 9th, 2007


Before last month I knew very little about the Ford Pinto. I knew it was from the 70’s, rear drive, not attractive, and had a serious problem with bursting into flames when it caught fire. So why my sudden interest in a vehicle that has been universally condemned by society as one of the ultimate lemons? As it turns out my team for the 24 hours of LeMons is campaigning not one but three Pintos (sub-$500 dollar Pintos I should add) under the team name Squadra Pinto. It only made sense that if I was going to race and work on one of these cast aside Fords I better do a little homework to see what I was getting into.

When the pinto burst onto the scene in 1971 (similar to how it burst into flames) it was one of the first American built vehicles to enter the sub-compact category here in the US. Ford built the Pinto to compete with some of the smaller import cars like the VW Beetle and Toyota Corolla. The fact that those three cars would all be considered competitors is definitely a sign of the times. Eventually Chevy and AMC jumped into the ring with the Vega and Gremlin respectively, and while the Pinto often lost in the magazine shootouts it proved to be the most popular of these American models from a sales stand point.

Cruising Wagon!

The Pinto had a classic layout with a front longitudinally mounted four cylinder engine driving a live rear axle. The front suspension was double wishbones with coil springs while the rear was the tried and true (aka old and unsophisticated) leaf springs under the solid axle. With unibody construction, rack and pinion steering with optional power assist, optional power brakes and an available four speed stick, the Pinto was a pretty good starting point. In fact, on paper the car is pretty damn similar to my MGB (solid axle rear, independent front, 4 banger etc..) Add in the different body styles–two-door coupé with a conventional trunk, three-door hatchback called the Runabout, two-door station wagon, the Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon complete with rear round bubble window (Mad Max) and a top of the line Pinto Squire with fake wood paneling–and you have a car with some real selling points, well mediocre selling points… for the 1970s.


Unfortunately, as the story goes, Ford rushed the Pinto into production quite quickly. When they did their crash testing they found that the Pinto had a problem with gas tank related ruptures when it took a hit from the back. Tooling was already in place when the defect was discovered, so Ford officials decided to push ahead with production. In a great example of “what not to do” Ford did a cost benefit analysis on dealing with the faulty Pinto and decided to keep it in production until 1977 before making any major safety changes to the cars problem area. They figured it would be cheaper to settle claims than to recall the cars. As a result over 500 Pinto related burn deaths (some estimate it closer to 900) have been recorded. Eventually Ford was forced to recall all affected vehicles and ended up losing millions of dollars and tarnishing their name over a car that could have made them a tidy profit (they sold several million Pintos). It should also be mentioned that in 1991 Gary Schwartz refuted the number of Pinto burn victims claiming the actual number was more like 27. It should also be noted that Ford came very close to installing a bladder inside the gas tank which would have prevented most of the ruptures, but hindsight is 20/20.

Pinto Crash Test

So after hearing all of this you might ask why I would want to race one of these things. Well the car makes a good race car platform. It is relatively light weight, has sturdy construction, is rear wheel drive and has reliable and simple components. We plan on defusing the bomb by moving the gas tank location, and with a few other safety and go fast modifications we should have 3 good little Pinto race cars. Winning might not be in our destiny (although I sure as hell am going to try) but if we can finish, ok maybe finish in the top ten, I will be thrilled.


Vive Pinto!

-Bill Mertz

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Wanted: Small Diesel 4×4 Pickup For Veggie Conversion

Friday, February 16th, 2007


My girlfriend loves the mountains. She frequently hauls her dogs and ski equipment up to the Sierra Nevada range or up to Oregon to hit the slopes in the winter. For anyone who has driven to the mountains in the winter, you know it is much easier to pass by the chain control people if you have four wheel drive and snow tires instead of pulling over and chaining up in the bitter cold, or shelling out big bucks for someone else to do it.

She came up with the idea of getting a small diesel 4×4 and running it on Biodiesel. I must admit I liked the plan, although I’m a big advocate of SVO (Straight Veggie Oil) as it can be attained for free. Small trucks are great; they are easy to park and maneuver in city traffic, they get good gas mileage, pollute less than larger trucks and you can still haul a ton of stuff (scooters, beds, gravel, dogs). Diesels are pretty cool too; they are torquey, get good mileage and run forever if you take car of them. And of course I love 4×4’s and I’m all for alternative fuels, so the package did sound appealing. The only problem is there aren’t very many trucks in the US that meet these requirements.

I spent hours scouring the internet for small diesel 4×4’s and I cam up with a very short list of possibilities. The first, and best in my opinion, is the Mitsubishi Mighty Max which was also sold under the Dodge brand as the Ram 50 or D50 and under the Plymouth badge as the Arrow Truck. I believe the Mighty Max was available in the US from 1982 through 1996. The reason I like the Mitsubishi is it came in 4×4 and with a turbo diesel four banger, the 4D55 (later replaced by the 4D56). The 4D55 puts out a respectable 83 horsepower and 129 lb-ft of torque. This means that compared to other diesel trucks of its size it could actually develop a little speed on the road. Fortunately the Mitsubishi diesels were also very popular outside the US so there are numerous low mileage motors floating around and parts are still readily available.

Mighty Max

Option number two is the Isuzu Pup or more correctly P’up. Like the Mitsu, the Pup was also sold under the Chevrolet brand as the Chevy Luv. In my own personal searches it appears that the Isuzu diesel 4×4’s are a bit more common than the Mitsubishi’s and have quite a cult following. The C223 diesel engine became available in 1981. Producing 58 horsepower and 93 lb-ft of torque the diesel powered Isuzu achieved a remarkable 33 mpg city/44 mpg highway. The C223 diesel also proved to be extremely robust and it was not uncommon for them to go 500,000 miles between rebuilds. With production running into the mid-1990’s there were plenty of Pups made. Also like the Mitsubishi this truck had a large following outside the US so parts availability isn’t much of a problem. While the Pup is a naturally aspirated truck there are also plenty of upgrades available from bolt on tubochargers to complete turbo motor swaps. I also heard mutterings of a factory turbo, but I have a feeling it was only available on the gas powered engines.

Isuzu Pup on the trail

Nissan/Datsun also made a small diesel pickup from 1981-1986 called the 720. Unfortunately in the US the diesel was only offered in the 2wd truck, however a swap into a 4×4 would probably be a straight forward endeavor. Sporting a naturally aspirated SD22 diesel engine up to ‘83 when it was replaced by the SD25, the Datsun is similar to the Pup in performance, and like the other two trucks parts are readily available for this vehicle.

While I heard rumors that both Toyota and Ford made small diesel 4×4’s for the US market, I couldn’t find any concrete evidence to prove it. However, many of these companies sold small diesel trucks in other countries such as Canada and Mexico. This led me to investigate the last option, importing a truck to the US. After sifting through mountains of info from government sites like the DMV, to private accounts of bringing cars across the border I decided to throw this idea out the window. It appears to be an incredible hassle with high odds of failure and an extremely high price. The chances that you could buy a vehicle and have it not allowed into the US were too high for me to seriously consider.

Despite the fact that these trucks are hard to come by, they are still remarkably affordable, usually in the $1500-$5000 range. Now if anyone knows where I can find one of these diesel 4×4s at a decent price please let me know. If I do succeed in my search and convince my girlfriend to actually buy the truck, look for an in depth write-up on straight vegetable oil conversions.

Pup in the mud

-Bill Mertz

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Cheap Mid-Engine Fun in a Second Gen MR2

Sunday, December 10th, 2006


Toyota’s two seat sports car, the MR2, first debuted in 1985. At the time it really had no direct competition. Fiat’s X1/9 had already outlived its usefulness, and all the other mid-engine cars on the road were of the much more expensive exotic Italian variety. Well there was the Fiero, but unless you wanted to invest in a good Nomex suit and fire insurance most people avoided the Pontiac. By 1989 the old wedge body design was getting long in the tooth so for 1990 Toyota unwrapped a new second generation MR2, dubbed the SW20, that was slightly larger with a curvier body that gave the MR2 some much needed sex appeal.

The layout of the MR2 was the same familiar setup that made it such a great car to begin with. The combination of a small light chassis with a mid-mounted four cylinder engine and four wheel independent suspension was a certain recipe for a fun and great performing vehicle. The more spacious interior was also more luxurious than its predecessor with options like leather seats, air bags, a 7 position tilt-wheel and variable-assist power steering. The body work was also a giant leap from the first MR2 with exotic looking body complete with Ferrari style rear fender scoops and a swoopy rear wing.


There were two different power plant options for US spec cars. The majority of the MK IIs received a naturally aspirated 2.2 liter twin-cam four cylinder that produced a respectable 135 horsepower and 145 lbs-ft of torque. This N/A engine was peppy enough to give the MR2 a low seven second 0-60 time, but anyone who wanted real seat-pinning performance need to buy the turbocharged version which sported 3S-GTE motor putting out a mammoth 200 horsepower. With that much power on tap the 2300 lb Toyota becomes an over steer machine. In fact if you aren’t used to mid-engine cars a turbo MR2 can be down right dangerous, especially in the rain.

Handling characteristics are pretty much what you would expect from a light mid-engine Toyota. Early on the second generation MR2 was heavily criticized for being too twitchy, but in 1993 Toyota revised the rear suspension with enough tweaks to really settle the MR2. Post ‘93 the Toyota’s work very well. Even with a mid-engine they can be worked to the limit and still feel quite predictable and easy to handle. Turn-in is also light and easy, and while the car isn’t quite 914 nimble, it can get through a twisty stretch of road with the best of them.

The good news for MR2 fans is that this more luxurious SW20 version of Toyotas tiny two-seater is extremely affordable. Good clean versions with the naturally aspirated engine range from $2000-$5000. Turbos will fetch a bit more and are getting hard to come by but there are plenty of people who have swapped turbo motors into non-turbo cars. While these cars are pretty bullet proof, there are plenty of MR2s out there that have been thrashed around pretty hard. A thorough mechanical inspection is highly recommended and it is important to be extra-wary of any vehicles that have had engines swapped into them. But if you can find a nice clean example this is great way to own a fun sports car with Toyota dependability.

-Bill Mertz

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1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

When I started the Fun and Affordable Cars section of this blog I initially intended to profile sports cars, sports sedans and wagons, but after a little thought I decided to include a few truck/4×4 type vehicles because hey, they can be fun and affordable too. And that brings me to the Jeep Cherokee.

1989-1997 Mazda Miata

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

In 1989 the Mazda Miata revolutionized the world of 2-seater sports cars. I can already here the British car guys complaining, “the Miata just copied Lotus and MG”. Ok, so the first generation Mazda Miata looks dead on like a Lotus Elan, you got me there. But what the Miata did that was so revolutionary was to take a small two-seater like the Elan and make it reliable enough to drive every day, have a soft-top that is both easy to use and that actually keeps the rain out, and still be extremely fun to drive.

Porsche 914

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Original sales brochure by provided by Patrick Casey.

The 914 was the ugly duckling of the Porsche lineup when it came out. Scoffed at as a re-badged Volkswagen (which is partially true), the 914 wasn’t given much of a chance by Porsche enthusiasts. But time has shown that the mid-engine sports car is both durable and fun.

Production of the 914 started in 1969 and continued all the way through 1975. Originally it was offered with a 1.7 liter fuel injected air-cooled Volkswagen engine that produced around 80 horsepower. The boxer 4 cylinder was compact and kept the weight low in the car. This same engine was eventually bored out to 1.8 liters and even more powerful (95hp) 2.0 liter Bosch injected motor also became part of the lineup.

The less affordable more collectable 914/6 was a hotrod version of the little Porsche that sported a 2.0 liter 6 cylinder motor and used a similar suspension and brake setup to the higher end 911. This package made the 914/6 a really exciting car on both road and track.

However a base 914 is quite capable of holding its own on a good twisty road and the 2.0 liter 4 cylinder car is downright quick. With a five-speed transmission cruising on highways is an easy task unlike most vintage cars. With four wheel independent suspension and four wheel disc brakes it is easy to drive briskly in the low slung Porsche. Despite its low ride height and ground clearance the 914 also soaks up bumps amazingly well.

Styling is perhaps the 914’s biggest weak point. It is definitely an example of function before form. From a distance with the headlights down you can’t tell which direction the car is pointed. Fortunately Porsche offered the car in some sweet 70’s colors that are loud enough to make most onlookers completely miss the oddball styling.

With 108,000 cars produced there are still plenty of good 914’s floating around. Prices for 914’s are all over the board. If you look hard you should be able to find a nice example for between $4000-7000, with projects being a bit less and perfect condition cars fetching up to $10,000. When buying one beware of the usual old car faults, rust, worn suspension, and previous owners who have tampered with an otherwise perfectly good car.


-Bill Mertz


1984-87 Toyota Corolla GT-S

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

The star of the fifth generation Toyota Corolla lineup was the GT-S model. A lightweight coupe with a high-strung twin-cam engine and 5 speed manual transmission driving the rear wheels, the Corolla GT-S was the last of its breed.

We first began seeing the Corolla GT-S in North America in 1984 and production continued until early 1987. The car was available in two body styles; a three door hatchback (lift back) and a two door coupe. With pop-up headlights and a wedge-shaped body design the corolla epitomized car design of the era. One of the nicest features of the Corolla was that the entire package only weighed around 2300 pounds which is really quite light, especially by today’s standards.
Corolla GTS
Photo courtesy of Driftmania
Power for the GT-S came from a 16 valve 1587cc 4 cylinder engine dubbed the 4A-GEC. With multiport fuel injection, the twin-cam motor was smooth and free revving. It was capable of producing roughly 112 horsepower at 6,600 rpm. With a strong transmission and rear-end, this was a very well packaged drive train. The suspension for the GT-S was independent coil-sprung in the front, and live axle coil-sprung in the rear. Although not the cutting edge of suspension design it proved very fun and tossable.

With a large cult following and a huge aftermarket it is possible to really transform the car. It is possible to get gobs of power out of the 4A-G and the Corolla can be made to stick to the road like glue. But like any car with a big following, it makes finding a nice unabused car that much more difficult. They are still out there however. A quick search on Craigslist will reveal cars ranging from $1500 for a total basket case all the way up to $7,000 for a heavily modified and nicely done example.
Photos by Colin Frost

Club 4AG is an excellent resource for all of your Corolla GT-S questions and needs.
-Bill Mertz

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About Automotive Blogger

Some people use their automobiles only to get from Point A to Point B. You know there's more than that. You get mad when someone makes a remark about your car that's less than flattering. You get riled when a cool car is destroyed in a straight-to-video movie. You realize when a new car doesn't deserve it's name of a great car of the past. When you see someone driving a boring vehicle, you feel sorry for them. You know it's not the destination that counts - it's the journey. Welcome home gearheads. Welcome home, car freaks. Welcome to the site that fuels your automotive obsession -

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