My "Gangsta" Car

You know, I've never paid too much attention to American cars. I own an old Ford pickup that I dropped a 460 Lincoln engine in. It's not a bad runner but it spends most of its time sitting and waiting to take a trip to the dump, the welding supply place or the steelyard. Hardly an exciting vehicle but, for all of that, very dependable, easy to service and pretty low cost to run(except for its insatiable appetite for premium fuel). My first couple of cars were American and they were fine but never lit my fire the way my first English sportscar did. Add to that my hesitancy about car dealers and how cars are sold today. I mean really, what silliness. Shucking and dancing around on price, trade in value, options, dealer fees,financing and all of that stuff. All in an effort to winkle a few more dollars out of the buyer's pocket. I'm sorry, but I think it is just a rip the way cars are sold today. Why not get rid of those fool dealerships and sell the damn things over the internet? Cut out the middleman. Hell, the Net did that to the travel and stock brokerage industries. Why not automobiles?

So Why in the World Did I buy a New American Car?

So, how come I walk into a dealership and buy an arguably "over the top" American car? I'm not too sure I can identify one reason. I think that partly, I am sensing that the day of the "full size" sedan is rapidly drawing to a close and that these things will become icons of a bygone era in years to come. Much like the wonderful cars of the 30's are today. That's partly the reason. Yes, I know that this car has bloated my carbon footprint-is socially irresponsible and politically incorrect and I think that's another reason I bought it. I have always been a bit contrary. You know the feeling-the urge to do the opposite of what's expected. Anyway, let's assume my reasoning is muddled and let it go at that. Then there's the pasting American car companies have been taking in the press lately-maybe I'm rooting for the underdog a bit, I dunno. I think most of the lambasting they are getting is well deserved and the lame way the car companies try to foist the blame off on the workers just pisses me off to no end. REALLY, does anyone think that the extra money that an American worker gets and winds up embodied in product cost deters a person from buying American? Wake up you twirps! People aren't buying your cars because they don't think they are as good as the better foreign cars-full stop. The workers are making what you tell 'em to. They will make cost accountant controlled, cheese paring crap or they will make a good, relevant product. That's your call-not theirs. You pinheads-flying down in your corporate jets to beg Congress for bailout money. I hope one night soon I will hear these "pops" and that it will be the sound of you people pulling your heads out of your asses. About time.

So, what kinda car did I get? A metallic black 2008 Chrysler 300C SRT8 with every option they had. God is that thing big. Feels like you are driving your living room down the road. I swear I could go for a good walk inside it. Monstrous 20" alloy rims gripping tires about a yard wide, a 6.1 liter engine making 425hp and an ungoverned top speed of about 170-175 mph. Massive Brembo brakes and more electronics than I thought possible.

And that's another reason I bought a new vehicle. I have really been in a time warp with my cars. I mean they are so simple to maintain. A hammer, screwdriver and a business card are about all you need to keep any of 'em on the road. Fuel pump quits? Tap it with a hammer and it will probably start clucking away again and get you home. No spark? Pop the distributor cap off and rub the business card in between the points to clean 'em. Off you go again. Screwdriver? I dunno what you need that for, maybe to clean under your fingernails. Anyway, I know that the manufacturers have computerized their product and I have shied away from anything to do with that. That's of course put me, automotively speaking, at least 20 years out of date. So, I decided to jump in and enter the digital automotive age. That's the main reason I bought the car I did. Loaded with every possible electronic option Chrysler could stuff in it. But definitely no wimp car either. Load that thing up with the biggest engine that will fit. Put brake rotors as big as garbage can lids on it, stiffen the suspension and get more rubber on the road. In addition to being a learning experience, this thing has gotta be fun to drive.

Getting to Know You

Well, the first exercise with this thing is to read the Owner's Manuals. Very interesting. The mechanical stuff is in a smallish section of the manual towards the back. Probably 2/3 of the manuals are devoted to management of the electronics. My God, the manuals I have are all the other way around. Starting, running, tune up specifications and maintenance and then, in the back, lights, heater, body maintenance and such stuff. Yeah, big time change going on here. Aren't the mechanicals as important as they were? That's hard to believe. So what is going on here? I'm not at all sure. Let's press on.

It took a little more manual reading for this to sink in but Damnit-this car knows where it is. Yup, you can ask it, either verbally or by tapping some keys on its touch screen, "Where am I?" and the damn thing will tell you. This is a little scary. Imagine, this machine knows where it is-street address, latitude and longitude and elevation and it also remembers where it has been. So, what else does it know and who will it tell? Well, it's listening to you through its built in microphones. It also knows which way it's pointing, the temperature outside, whether its being rained on or not and whether anything is in front of or behind it. Frankly, I think it can tell anyone it wants to since it's connected to satellite and my cellphone. This machine is self-aware and that's got my shields up a bit but wait, it gets scarier. There's a Section in my manual called "vocabulary". Evidently, the owner(and there is rapidly becoming in my mind a question as to Who owns Who?) has to learn about a hundred words/phrases in order to effectively communicate with this machine. I'm starting to get into real trouble here. I am going to have to learn how to talk to a machine. I don't mean cuss it-I can already do that. But, the Manual says "Communicate" with it. Verbally communicate with a self-aware machine? What have I gotten myself into? I can't help it but visions of HAL in the movie "2001" have snuk into my head. I just know that, sooner or later, it's gonna say "I'm sorry Claude, but I can't do that." I'm for damn sure never going to ask it to open the pod bay doors.

Yesterday, I am in the garage talking to (with?) this car. I am trying to get it to dial my cellphone and make a call for me. Well, I get into a loop with the stupid thing and it keeps telling me that "the phone is unavailable". No it's not you silly car. I have it right here in my hand. Getting more and more irate, I start hollering commands at the car. Just about this time my neighbor walks in the garage, sticks her nose in the driver's window and asks me who I am talking with. I told her: "My car". She said: "Sounds like you were having an argument." Seemed an easy mental leap for her. Sure, I can imagine her thinking:"Claude was having an argument with his car-hope they're still friends". Happens all the time. Oh well, finally got the phone connection working.

I could go on and on about all the electronic gizmos on this thing. The cruise control that watches the distance between you and the car ahead and will put on the brakes if you get too close. The Infrared sensors that watch for obstacles behind you when you are backing up. Intermittent wipers that know when the windshield is wet and wipe like mad intil it's dry and then go to sleep. Stability control that won't let your tires spin. Thankfully, this "feature" can be defeated. Anti-lock brakes, TV screen for the passengers, 20 gigabyte hard drive and on and on and on. Yeah, the computers are taking over.

But there's a lot of automotive tradition built into this thing as well. Get along side of it and squint your eyes and Damn, if it doesn't start to look a bit like a Jimmy Dean Mercury. High sides and narrow windows. Difficult to see inside because of those narrow windows. Who knows what unspeakable things happen inside that car? Suddenly it's 1958 again and I am cruising down to the drive-in for a burger and a chat with whatever female was around. It makes you want to slouch down in the driver's seat and just peek over the window sill. What silliness! But it's there and the car gives you that feeling. A friend of mine says I need to wear a pimp hat when I drive it. Hell, I don't know what a pimp hat is and I suspect he doesn't either. My neighbor says it looks like a funeral director's car. To me, it just looks "Gangsta" and that's the only option Chrysler missed. They should have an optional door pocket for your nine. And I am not even going to entertain a discussion of why a "Gangsta" car appeals to me but I think it does.

Maybe, Size Does Matter

Ignore the oil pan in the foreground. That's leftovers from a valve adjustment on the Porsche Turbo. But man that car is big. There's a couple of Brit cars hiding behind it in this picture. It just visually swamps 'em. I think, if I don't watch it carefully, it's going to push 'em into the corner so it can have more room to flex, glower and absorb all of the light.

The past is also alive in the engine compartment. "Hemi" boldly embossed on the valve covers. The block is painted hemi orange and the engine sports black valve covers just like a 1970 Hemi engine. Some real gearheads are alive and well in Chrysler and that's sooooo nice to know. Watch out you people. If the Greenies don't get ya, the accountants will. I don't think Chrysler ever referred to their engine as a "Hemi" when they first came out. As I remember, that was the street vernacular for it. But boy, if you had a Hemi in your car, you were to be reckoned with. Arguably, the nastiest street engine Detroit ever produced. That's nice to know-a Hemi is alive and well under my Gangsta car hood.

So, What's this Thing Like to Drive?

I don't really know yet. Just had one long drive in it so far. But I should talk a bit about that. I bought the car from a Chryslet/Jeep dealership in Long Beach, California. Flew down to pick it up and drove it back. Trip total about 1,100 miles, 900 of which I did in one day. That's, rallies excluded, the most miles I have put on a car in one sitting. Started out in Bakersfield about 8:00am and pulled into Tacoma about 1:00am the next morning. Actually, could have driven more and I think that says quite a bit about the driving qualities of this car. It's nice and quiet, the seats are quite comfy and supportive. the temperature control works very well and, with that engine, cruising at 70-80 is a snap. No way could I have done that trip with any of my other cars. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't fit too well on a racetrack but it might be just the ticket for a long, high speed trip. Actually, it shares a quality with the Jag XJ12. These are both big cars but, they both seem to get smaller the more you drive 'em.

I do have a couple of gripes and the first one is the "black box" or, as Chrysler calls it, the "event data recorder". That thing is an affront to me and has to go. If anyone reading this knows how to disable it, PLEASE let me know. If you don't know about EDRs, just Google them. It's like Chrysler installed an insurance agent, prosecuting attorney and policeman in your car and they are all just waiting to nail you if you screw up. I just can't believe that the manufacturers have the gall to put this tattletale in our cars and then charge us for it. I'm writing my Congressman about this. The second is the automatic transmission. Maybe it's me but, I seem to have to plan ahead to punch the damn thing and I never seem to be in the right gear when I am in town. Either the thing shifts right up to fifth or, for no particular reason, piddles around in a lower gear. It's nice in stop and go traffic though. On balance, a stick would have been better for me. I know, I could shift the thing manually but then, what's the point of an automatic?

Is This Car Tinkerable?

I ordered a "shop manual" for this car a while ago because, of course as any gearhead would, I want to tinker with it. I have spent the last several days browsing through that manual and frankly, am a little discouraged. The shop manual(a CD of course), just like the owner's manual I talked about before, spends most of it's time talking about the electronics on the vehicle. As I suspected, it turns out that the entire car is controlled by about 20 microprocessors that communicate with one another over central data buses. These computers are controlling and surveying the health of nearly all of the car's systems in real time as the car is driven. Fine so far. BUT, and this is a big but, anytime any of the subsystems that are computer controlled(nearly all of the car's systems) are defective or disassembled/repaired, the appropriate computer needs to be reset. The resetting process requires a - guess what? Yep, another computer that is plugged into the car's data bus and reads and resets and recalibrates the car's computers. This computer, is called a STARSCAN or STARMOBILE and costs several grand although I did see one on E-Bay the other day that looked about ready to sell at $1,300. You can't even replace the battery without this computer. The owner appears to be limited to changing oil and filters and polishing the damn car unless they own a STARSCAN/STARMOBILE device. Forget trying to get the car running again if it stops on the road.

Well, shucks. On the one hand, I'm glad I really haggled the dealer down and bought the extended warranty since, I'm sure this car will be visiting the Dealer's often. On the other hand, I'm really disappointed. Who wants to fiddle around at the Dealer's waiting for them to fix something you could do yourself? In fact, I've already spent two afternoons at the Dealer's on these computer gremlins plus one gremlin which was exorcised over the phone. Trip one resulted because I couldn't hear the navigation system's directions and the passenger side front door latch wouldn't work. Bad speaker fixed under warranty and door latch solenoid plugged in. Since the car had been sitting on the Long Beach dealer's lot for about a year, I also treated it to an oil and filter change during that visit.

Trip two resulted from my inability to balance the radio's output from side to side. Fixed under warranty by loading a new release of software into the computer that controlled the radio. A week or two after that visit, the dashboard display announced that it was time to change my oil. Oh, for Christ's sake, you dimbulb car, we changed your oil less than a thousand miles ago. What the hell's wrong now? So, I call the dealer about this. Get transferred to the service department and tell the guy what the problem is. "OK, hang on for a minute, I'll check with the tech." He comes back in a minute and asks: "Is that car a 300?" Yep, sure is. "Well, turn the key on but don't start the engine. Then, press the gas pedal to the floor three times and turn the key off". I did that and the message disappeared. Spooky, and I just don't like this sort of goofiness. What the hell does pressing on the gas pedal have to do with when you should change your oil? Nothing, that's what. But, for right now, that's what I am faced with.

And, as far as "tuning"(nicer word for hopping it up)goes - forget it. I mean, you could install some loud mufflers and maybe a free flow air filter but, come on, that's rookie stuff. And those mods might actually slow you down since any alteration of the intake or exhaust systems affects airflow which affects the mixture which would require that you reprogram the computer that controls the engine which, of course, you can't do. So, I'm beginning to think that what you see is what you get with one of these newer cars and I also think you had better make good friends with your Dealer. Maybe I'll just drive it. I would like a STARSCAN though. It would be interesting to eavesdrop on what those computers are babbling to one another about.

I've just finished reading these last paragraphs and am starting to get upset. Here I have a car that diagnoses and manages itself and this makes me feel ineffective and a whole lot out of date. I kinda like the car but I really don't like how it makes me feel, which is useless. I could rant for pages sorta along the lines of: "Is this what America's come to? A nation of ninnies that only know the pedal on the right makes you go and the left hand one makes you stop and that when you spin that big wheel thing in front of you, the car goes around corners." Nope, I'm not going to whine-I'm going to crack this sucker and regain my self respect. The owner should be able to do more than write checks to the Dealer. Stay tuned.

Final Thoughts

Well, the car has just turned over 10K miles and I think it's time to wrap up this story. I guess I must really like Gangsta 'cause it's turned out to be my daily driver. Who would of thought? Occasionally. I take out one of my other vehicles and Jesus, they are noisy, a little cramped and, my God, no A/C and no satellite radio. Gangsta and I have taken several long trips and it is just a hoot to pass someone in this thing. I like secondary roads and avoid freeways whenever possible and there's a lot of deserted secondary roads in Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon. Good roads, well maintained and very light traffic. You can really book on them. Come up on a slowpoke(anyone driving under 60-70), pick your spot, kick her down a gear or two and WHAM!, you are by them and they are just a dot in your rearview. keep your foot down a bit longer and you are going at an insane speed and still accelerating like crazy. That's just great. Uphill-downhill. This thing just doesn't care. A/C and satellite radio on, comfy seats, quiet cabin, lots of room and tons of fun when you put your foot down. It's a darn good cruiser.

Now, it's not all roses with Gangsta. I've already mentioned a few things I don't like about this car but, there's one more that is significant. I can't seem to place this car accurately. You drivers will know what I am talking about. Come up to a corner and pick a line through it. Select your turn-in point, apex and track-out. Turn in to the apex, kiss the apex and feed the car some gas as you straighten out the wheel to hit the track out point. Do this right and it's a joy and a thing of beauty. Miss your turn-in by a foot and the entire corner's buggered. Maybe it's just me but, my inability to know where the car's front wheels are detracts quite a bit from my driving enjoyment. I only seem to get it right on about a quarter of the corners and this is frustrating. Prehaps it is just Gangsta's styling. The front fenders are almost horizontal and quite smooth, giving little indication to the driver of where the front wheels are.

Also, I did buy a programmer for Gangsta. It's a device called a "Predator". Hooks in to your OBDII port and allows you to read some of the codes the system can produce. Also, and more importantly, allows you to set the timing, mixture, shift points, idle RPM and such stuff. Also lets you capture the engine's behaviour to a datafile and replay that file on your PC. You can study the effects of your modifications. There's a lot to learn here and I am still working through the Predator's capabilities but am pretty optomistic that this device will allow the owner substantial "tuning" opportunities.

So that's it. Gangsta's OK. Detroit can still make a fun car but, I think you really have to be choosy when you shop. There's still a lot of singularly horrible cars on the market and I am sure the Dealers will try to sell you one of them. You have to sort of know what you want first and then ASK for the good 'uns.

Created on ... January 03, 2009