Sunday, January 01, 2006

#10: Gearknobs and grab handles

I had a fantastic Christmas present this year. Out of necessity rather than vanity, I’ve been given a racy new Momo gearknob (the old stock one was split, and would occasionally come off in my hand).

What’s fantastic, however, is that unlike the old one, which was grisly plastic over a secondary metal coupling mechanism, this new one is a simple aluminium cylinder that bolts directly to the shaft, upping the interaction when stirring cogs. Sounds absurd but it’s like a layer of cotton wool has been removed between driver and gearbox; now you can feel precisely every oily movement – the meshing teeth, the stress on the drive train. This got me thinking about something:

The damped grab handle. Obviously.

It has become a cliché in the motoring press, but a damped grab handle is the must have signifier of automotive quality as we break into 2006. This, I’m told, is Volkswagen’s fault, the phenomenon first appearing at “affordable” level in the Golf a generation ago. In the same way that dashboard plastics are the subject of many an obsessive compulsive disorder – to the extent that you can imagine the scene as magazine staffers take it in turns to position themselves strategically in the passenger seat and prod the glove box lid to measure the material’s absorption and rebound characteristics – if your grab handle isn’t sufficiently silky smooth in operation then God help you in the appraisal of your interior.

Ah, what a joke. There’s no such thing as a really bad car in this country any more, so manufacturers are reduced to shadow games and clever props in an effort to impress the press. It used to be that an understanding existed for when the money had been spent on the engineering instead of the cabin prosthetics; with the old Evo V and VI, the brittle bits were irrelevant given the cars’ chassis acrobatics and the small matter of extracting nearly three hundred horsepower from a 2 litre four. But despite improvements in more recent versions, the reports still read “must try harder” in this area if they’re ever to be accepted by buyers of BMWs and Mercedes.

The same problem afflicts the Z06 Corvette. I love this car – I’ve never driven one, and maybe I never will, but the technical detailing makes me weak at the knees. This is a performance derivative of a performance car, and one so comprehensively obsessed over in the enhancement department that it merely looks like its lesser siblings. The Zee – correct pronunciation, please – has been picking up car of the year awards all over the States, does zero to 60 in under four seconds, scratches at the double ton, has carbon fibre body panels and magnesium engine and suspension parts, costs less the $65,000…but still the British press takes issue at the quality of the interior plastics.

I suppose the argument runs that others can do the same thing for the same price and still have a dashboard that doesn’t get scuffed by a particularly hardwearing denim. But can they really? Current exchange rates – xe.com, as of 17.48 on 31.12.05 – make $65,000 just under £38,000; name me a new car that gets close to the Corvette’s vital statistics for that kind of money – let alone one that packs a seven litre “small block” (ha! seriously…) V8 with 505bhp, and anything like the Z06’s carbon fibre gurney flaps on the front wheel arches (for example), or a weight saving balsawood floor.

What’s worse is that the joke is sometimes actually a con. A damped grab handle isn’t any kind of genuine signifier of quality; it’s only a fingertip finessing perception. It’s all very well that the handle doesn’t return to the headlining with a heavy-handed thwack, but that’s scant consolation when a clip supporting the electric window fails and the glass drops irretrievably into the door, or if you occasionally have to thump the centre console to make the ventilation controls light-up – both problems that have happened on a friend of mine’s Mk4 GTi. (VW have replaced the weak plastic clips with coated metal items, a service they generously performed for half-price – the second time it occurred. The fault with the dashboard lighting remains; still, the softness of the facia does at least mean you’re in no danger of hurting yourself when you hit it.) Out of a reluctance to engender a cliché myself, I’ll resist the temptation to remind readers again about Mercedes’ quality control issues of recent times. Hoho.

Perhaps I’m in a minority, but I’d much rather spend money on proper engineering. CAR magazine’s recent Evo buying guide reveals that these maximum-attack machines have virtually no reliability issues – Mitsubishi put the effort into making the things simply work. Although I will confess to marvelling at the amount of mechanical understanding that went into engineering the way the ashtray opened on my Y-reg Saab 900 (the first car I ever owned, incidentally), my new gearknob tells me I really don’t need any more damping or assistance than is strictly necessary on, or inside, a car.

Someone else’s filtered interpretation of reality? I’ll take a pass.

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