The New Insurance Institute Crash Tests: Smashing Successes, Crushing Defeats

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

A Crash Course in Standards

The results of the latest rounds of crash testing by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are out – and the results are dramatic. Why should you care? The IIHS is famous for pushing cars far beyond the standards that either the US NHTSA or European NCAP test to, and in 2012 they introduced the most demanding test yet: the small overlap test, pushing a car toward a fixed barrier at roughly 64 km/h with only the leftmost 20% of the vehicle front coming in contact. This kind of crash largely bypasses the safety structures designed into many cars, pushing their structures to the limit. These are also amongst the most dangerous class of accidents, accounting for 25% of fatalities and injuries in the US. Japan’s tests are based on the Euro NCAP standard, at the same speed but with a 40% offset, leading to generally higher performance.

The Good, the Bad and the Crumpled

As can be seen here, the results vary significantly. The top models tested, the 2013 Accord (US market only) and Suzuki Kizashi offered excellent structural integrity and occupant protection, with good control of movement, keeping the passengers protected by the airbags. The two Toyota models tested, the Camry and Prius α (Prius V in the US) showed significant intrusion into the cabin, heavy impacts of the head against the dashboard due to uncontrolled movement and ineffective airbags, and earned a “poor” rating, meaning a significant chance of serious injury or death in such an accident. The other vehicles available in Japan to secure a good rating in the new test are the Subaru Legacy and Legacy Outback 

A previous test of midsize luxury cars had similar results, with the Lexus IS scoring a poor in the new test, despite a good rating in the 40% offset; the Nissan Skyline (Infinity G in the US) and Japan market Honda Accord (Acura TSX in the US) both scored a marginal while the Acura TL (US market only) was one of only two to score a good rating in the class (the other being Volvo’s S60).

Don’t Be a Dummy

What’s most important to take away from this is that we need newer, more stringent tests: This common accident scenario can be fatal in some cars, and leave a driver without a scratch in others. And unlike in the US or Europe, not all cars in Japan are subjected to JNCAP testing – the government leaves it to manufacturers to police themselves.

If history is a guide, two Japanese makes always come up on top for safety: Subaru and Honda. Nissan and Toyota have checkered records, and as stated by the Institute, Toyota has a huge job ahead to overhaul safety in their vehicles. So have a look before you buy – your life may depend on it!

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Kobayashi Gone Begging

November 23, 2012 1 comment

For those of you with an interest in F1 – I just saw on Twitter that Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi has posted a link (only in Japanese) that directs fans to a site with information on how to donate to help cover the amount teams are demanding he pay to obtain a seat – they’re accepting donations of ¥10,000 (roughly $121, £76) and higher, in excahnge for which donors will receive a wristband.

It’s not explicitly stated that his negotiations with Sauber are finished, but if so, it also implies his seat comes at a cost.

The site states that “in the economic climate in F1 over the past several years, drivers are facing a situation where they need not only superior ability, but also financial clout to secure a drive.”

He doesn’t guarantee that he’ll win a seat even if he gets enough money, either, which is unfortunate but honest.

The page is also linked from the news section of his home page, seen here:

I’m not sure what’s more shameful – the fact that he’s been forced into this approach or the pay-to-play attitude so prevalent through the midfield these days.

One for the Road: Honda N-one road test

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Japanese drivers have been making due with less for quite a while now: the kei microcar segment, along with compact hatches and micro-minivans, has pushed sedans, wagons, sports cars and just about everything else out of the market. Particularly with the most diminutive of the breed, styling, comfort, utility and driving fun took a back seat to lightness, efficiency and cost. But no longer – as market moves smaller, drivers are demanding more, and Honda has just taken a massive leap with their new N-one.

The N-One

Putting its best face forward

The styling is pure retro-chic, riffing on the N-360 of yesteryear, but doing so in a way that plays to contemporary, design sensitive younger audiences. The huge range of color options – eleven to be specific, with five two-tone options a la Mini – is trendy and spot on for the market. While hardly original – I spy the Fiat 500’s rear quarters and beltline crease, the Mini’s upright windshield and black A- and B-pillars – it is cohesive and looks the part. It also conveys an impression that few in its class do: it looks like it should be fun to drive.

Drive One and See

Around town, the N-one feels more confident and capable than a kei car has rights to be – a sign that the expectations for the smallest of Japanese compacts continue to rise at pace with their sales. A push of the standard start button and the DOHC 3-cylinder engine springs to life effortlessly with the touch of a button. The idle is smooth and vibration minimal, and it’s clear that great strides have been made in improving NVH .The expected bounce and throb of three cylinder engines is largely absent in this model, and the engine note in both models is much improved over the previous two valve motor, less tinny and burbly, and much more like a typical Honda four cylinder.

The N-One engine

The standard engine of the base G- and premium trim. The Touring option ads a turbocharger and paddle shifters.

The CVT goes about its business quickly and efficiently, and never gives the impression of being connected to the wheels by rubber band.  It still exhibits some of the drone under hard acceleration common to all CVT’s, but particularly in the case of the turbocharged Tourer model, there’s sufficient low-end torque to keep tach needle from wandering far from comfortable territory. As long as one isn’t asking too much of the long pedal, it’s easy to modulate in traffic and at low speeds, the natural environment of this breed. In my city circuit, I never had the opportunity to get the speedo above 50 km/h, and that will be typical of many drivers’ experience with this vehicle.

The McPherson struts up front and torsion-beam in the back go about their business more smoothly and with less squirminess than one would expect from a car which tips the scales at only 840 kg (1851 lbs). Road noise is present but unobtrusive, and the brakes are linear, with good engagement and appropriate boost. The electric power steering is an improvement in feel over the previous generation’s, but still lacks the on-center feel and communication of Honda’s dearly departed hydraulic racks of old. Much is made of the stabilizer bar included with the turbocharged “tourer” trim, but most owners will never notice the difference. Indeed, in this class, driving dynamics are not high on the priority list – and it’s admirable that Honda took the time to make it work.

This One Comes Fully Loaded

Clever features are what really set a car apart in this class, and in this regard the N-one brings some innovation to the table, as standard: First up is the slick audio unit, which integrates into the curve of the dash perfectly, with all controls located further down on the dash. when powered up ,the 6.1 inch LCD is easily legible, and the physical buttons are vastly superior to the touch controls on most such systems. The system has a plethora of connectivity options – audio can be delivered by Bluetooth from a smartphone or mobile device, and there’s an HDMI jack – no primitive RCA connectors – to input high resolution video and audio. There’s also a USB port with control for iOS devices built in, and most importantly, a Honda-provided iOS application which can use your Apple phone to supply turn-by-turn directions via the audio system’s display. This system importantly doesn’t make use of Apple’s own map data, but the same database Honda uses for factory navigation, giving you a better chance of getting to your destination properly. Dealers were mum on the prospects of Android connectivity, but I would assume an application is around the corner.

Other goodies standard across the line are projector headlights with ring-shape LED position lights, upgradable to HID, full auto climate control, smart entry, HID tail lamps which flash the hazard lights automatically in a panic stop, side curtain airbags, vehicle stability assist, hill start assist, UV rejecting glass, Honda’s storied magic seat and loads of other content that is rare in the class.

The N-One Rear Seat

Honda’s magic seat places folds either flat or up to accommodate tall items.

It’s in the interior where most battles in this segment are won or lost, and this one is a winner – the seats are gently sculpted but very accommodating, the dash design is simple and uncluttered, buttons and control stalks feel upscale and materials, while selected with lightness and cost in mind, are considerably more substantial than previous Hondas. Opting for the premium package – typically a ¥200,000 option – brings a vast swath of black woodgrain trim – thankfully tastefully understated – and a black and burgundy color-palate with handsome black cloth which feels contemporary, almost swanky. The premium cloth is some of the softest and most comfortable I’ve felt at any price point, and the leather wrapped steering wheel and soft-blue backlit gauges could almost trick you into forgetting you into forgetting you were driving anything eligible to wear a yellow plate. Almost, that is, as hard plastics and low-rent materials inevitably make themselves known.

The One You Want

In a very crowded market, the N-One succeeds in standing out – it looks and feels like much more car than it really is, and it leapfrogs its most direct competition – Suzuki’s smaller, simpler Lapin, and Daihatsu’s cute but cheap Cocoa – in almost every way. In fact, it’s likely that the N-One will not only draw sales away from those, but also more mainstream, taller and boxier cars as well. It’s simply hard to argue against the N-One’s combination of great design, build quality, standard equipment, and yes, drive. Don’t believe me? Go look at one yourself.

The ONE you’ve been waiting for

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

This week, Honda unleashed it’s newest model, and one that looks poised to follow a trend in recent years toward premium small cars: the N-ONE.


Previewed at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, the N-ONE is the next model in Honda’s new N series, the lineage of which they would have you believe goes all the way back to the N360 of 1967. While that car was succeeded by the first Life in Honda’s line up, there is a undeniable – and intentional – family resemblance, making the N-ONE much in the vein of the New Beetle, Mini and Fiat 500 in recasting utilitarian transportation of old as the posh compact of today.

What does the N-ONE have to offer? Well, for one, along with the previous N BOX, it features Honda’s own CVT, a unit which has done wonders for mileage, offering a 50% better rating than the slightly larger Life (which continues with a 4AT). It also marks the return to a four valve DOHC engine which promises superior smoothness, responsiveness and power: horsepower and torque are both up about 10% in the non-turbo model versus Honda’s previous engine. The result? A JC08 mode mileage of 27.0 km/l, an increase only 19.6 in the Life, and approaching the stripped-down class leader, Daihatsu’s Mira e:S, which registers an impressive 30.

Numbers alone, however, won’t make this car a hit. That’s what they styling is for. It’s as beautiful and elegant as a car in the kei class can be, and while such things are subjective, it’s a more satisfying and modern take on the language than either Suzuki’s Lapin or Daihatsu’s Cocoa.

I’ll be conducting a proper drive and review of the car shortly, with pictures to accompany. Until then, feel free to peek through at the link above and decide whether Honda’s new offering is worth a look.

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Rumion Wrap-up: the Verdict

October 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Two weeks and a good number of kilometers later, how did the Rumion fare, you wonder? Well wonder no more, as I have a few more insights to share.

First, with the good: this capable little hauler managed to get four adults, a toddler in car seat and luggage everywhere we needed to go, and for most of us, in comfort – more on that later. It proved confidence inspiring on the highway – well planted, easy to maneuver though traffic and remarkably quiet, given the big, upright windshield. And it did so, when driven judiciously, with reasonable economy, reaching close to the rated 16.6 km/l on the highway over a few stretches. (Toyota still refuses to use the modern JC08 standard for mileage, stubbornly and misleadingly sticking to the uselessly optimistic and outdated 10・15 mode numbers). But more on this later as well.

Now, for a few gripes – none of them deal-breakers, but all frustrations none the less: First, the counter-intuitive smart key system, about which I’m not sure where to start. I’m extremely tech savvy and my wife is not – predictably, both of us had issues with the system. I did my best to use it as intended – never pushing the buttons on the key – but I found the variety of alarms, beeps, inadvertent multiple pushes on the door handle sensors and a variety of other quirks endlessly frustrating. This was compounded when a passenger would manually lock or unlock a door, sending the system into hysterics. After two weeks, I had wrapped my head around all the impossibly large number of permutations of inputs and could suss out what state the car would be in after a variety of interactions, but it took much too much effort. For my wife, it became too much of a frustration, and she settled on using the buttons on the fob, turning it into a traditional remote-keyless system. The only difference is that in the end, she wasted less time and mental energy. So much for ‘smart’ key – it is unquestionably the opposite.

The CVT, which initially I sang the praises of, also hit a snag in the form of an unaccustomed driver. While I enjoyed driving the car as if it were a game, trying to keep my RPM’s as low as possible under every circumstance, my wife while driving on the highway, was in love with the responsiveness. In top gear of an automatic, the engine doesn’t have enough in it to really accelerate quickly, but that helps keep your speed constant by smoothing out inadvertent inputs; you really have to give it some gas before the engine will kick down a gear when you need acceleration. With a CVT, and particularly with the programming of this CVT, tiny inputs can be quickly translated into acceleration without the need to drop a gear, which has the side effect of leading do frequent unintended changes in speed, as well as a lot of additional fuel burned. Thus my wife frequently found herself suddenly driving 15 km/h faster than intended. Predictably, during her stints, even on the expressway, mileage fell to an appalling 11.5 km/l – a 25 percent reduction. Obviously this is an error that needs pretty immediate attention by Toyota’s transmission engineers.

Lastly, we come to the center seat in back. I won’t dwell here; suffice it to say that between the pronounced hump and the lack of cushioning, bolstering, shoulder belt or adequate head rest, the Rumion fails at carrying a 5th passenger for any distance despite its ample width.

Do these shortcomings outweigh the otherwise commendable attributes of the car? That depends on the kind of driver you are. If you’re someone who wants space but values style and performance, and who is capable of adapting to some of the attendant quirks , by all means, I recommend it. If you’re a casual driver, it’s a very tough sell. And perhaps that’s why they’re not a common sight on Japan’s roads.

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Long term test – Corolla Rumion

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Starting this weekend, I’ve embarked on something of a three week road test with a Toyota Corolla Rumion. While I won’t go into the details, I did want to give a first take from two days’ experience with the car:

Sold in the US as the second generation Scion xB, the Rumion is definitely a car more adapted to the US market than the Japanese. If you’ve been clever enough to notice that the name is derived from ‘roomy,’ you might have also surmised that it’s intended to be accommodating to those who need a bit of extra space. At 1760mm wide, it’s actually wider than a family member’s 2003 Acura 3.2TL, wider than the current Noah and Voxy minivans and just shy of the Crown Athlete full size sedan. this makes parking in my very confined structure a challenge, but will ease the accommodation of two adults next to a child seat in back. It’s also has reasonable luggage space in the rear due to it’s ample length, but fortunately maintains a reasonable turning circle, making it easy to manage around town.

Despite its size, the interior feels a bit cramped due to the high belt line and dark color palette, and the forward placed, upright windshield increases the sensation of peering out of a tunnel – this accentuated by massive  A-pillars which give the car a substantial blind spot. Overall, visibility is amongst the poorest of any car of its ilk I’ve driven, and hopefully its successor will make good use of high strength alloys in the A-pillars and doors to open up the greenhouse a bit, as has been done on the newest Corolla.

The steering is surprisingly taut for the breed, and the wheel has a nice weight to it; while it lacks on-center feel and isn’t very communicative, it does enough to inspire confidence on the highway and never feels floaty. Controls were generally accessible, but the placement of the paddle shifters will take some getting used to – so close to the rim of the wheel that I often found my fingers brushing against them while making sharp turns. The brakes are strong enough but very isolated and a bit soft in feel, and the CVT does its part to encourage driving for mileage, rather than fun – but that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a car whose main purpose is to move reasonable amounts of people and stuff comfortably and quietly.

It’s in comfort and quiet that this car excels. Materials are surprisingly upscale compared to other recent Toyotas (particularly the low rent Aqua and 86, and the bottom of the barrel Spade and Porte twins), the seats were soft and supportive without being cushy, and the cabin was serene to great engine isolation (huge fluid-filled mounts!) and plenty of insulation in the cabin. This vehicle, as tested, was shod with well worn Yokohama Advans, which should be a recipe for excessive road noise, but that was also well controlled except on the most uneven of pavement. Wind noise crept up over 100 km/h, largely due to the aforementioned vertical windshield, but I never reached speeds which made it obtrusive.

Other than visibility, my biggest gripe is the central gauge placement, as well as the stylistic choice to use both a row of tiny circular gauges, along with a digital speedometer – I found it very difficult to read my speed with just a glance, and it took attention away from the road – a very poor trend indeed. Otherwise, I’m satisfied at first blush – let’s see how it holds up after three weeks of hard use!

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‘That’s’ my loaner?

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Just a quick post for now; while I promised an upcoming review of the new Honda Insight I was supposed to receive as a loaner car, I’ve been given a 2003 Honda ‘That’s’ in it’s place. Not entirely the substitution I was looking for, but it will give me a chance to make some pretty interesting comparisons between a very traditional architecture and a very modern one, the old turbocharged E07Z four valve engine and the new P07A two valve iDSI engine and some other changes. Initial impressions: the JC life has a much more sophisticated interior, smoother ride but feels, overall, less like a car if that makes any sense, while the That’s reminds me of my old Integra. Let’s see how it pans out over a week, with a full write-up to follow.

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