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Michael's Speed Zone

2 November 1999

By Michael Knowling

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You've gotta wonder about the merits of some manufacturers' warranties. If there's any possible way of them wiggling out of the deal, then you can bet they'll take it. For example, take the case of a guy I know.

At 22 years of age Jean-Paul invested over $50,000 in a 1996 Honda Prelude Si, which was new at the time of purchase. Instantly seduced by the car in the sales yard, he signed himself up for a sizable $625 a month for 5 years, with a residual payment of $24,000 at the end of the term. Obviously, he's extended himself a long way to get that dream car - but, unfortunately, the dream looks like a bit of a nightmare at the moment. Having recently improved the car with a custom exhaust and K&N air intake, the Prelude Si (the non-VTEC version) now makes around 20kW more than standard. It's a power level you'd expect a well-built Honda engine to push out for nearly ever - remember, the VTEC version of the same engine makes a lot more power than the Si anyway.

Here's how the drama unfolded...

After covering a genuine 35,000km, the car recently got stranded with a mechanical fault. Travelling along a country highway, the engine suddenly lost power, the engine light came on and, after pulling over to the side of the road, the engine refused to start. It simply wouldn't turn over. So after the headache of organising a ride back to civilisation on the back of a flat bed truck, the car went straight off to the local Honda dealer for a diagnosis. At this stage, the problem was thought to be something only fairly minor.

Then, on the following Monday morning, Jean-Paul received word from the service manger that "it doesn't look good". The motor had seized. That's a pity, thought Jean-Paul, but it wasn't really his problem - the car's still all covered under the Honda factory warranty. Or, at least, that's what he'd imagined... The main cause of the problem, the service centre said, came from the K&N filter that replaced the standard airbox and element. "Dirt must have got into the engine...". So you can see that things started to get ugly. The dealership wanted to get out of fixing the "modified" car under warranty.

With the K&N filter installed only a couple of months before the seizure, I'd reckon you'd have to be driving across the Sahara desert during a sand storm to get enough crap into the engine to shut it down. And no, he hadn't driven across the Sahara. What's more, the car had been serviced every 5000kms by that very same Honda dealer - who, we're told, said that there were no warranty hassles installing the K&N. And so the web gets even more tangled...

Being realistic, exactly how could fitting a K&N (for only a few months) cause a 30-odd thousand kay old engine to expire? People mutter airy-fairy things about dust infiltration and the like, but come on - after only a few months of driving with the filter in place, I'm positive a directly related engine seizure is about as likely as me winning the lottery. And I don't even buy tickets. I'm sure K&N filters actually do filter out dust particles - that, by definition, is what they do. So how come that's being blamed for the stuffed motor?

The thing is, how will Jean-Paul prove this to his warranty people? It looks like there's gonna be a tough fight ahead!

After running our buying used feature "Nissan Bluebird (Altima) 4WD Turbo" on the Japanese spec Bluebird 4WD turbo, we've since been offered that very same car to test again - but this time, with a manual gearbox.

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For readers that can't recall, the black Bluebird ATTESSA Ltd (which was supplied by Adelaide Japanese Imports) was originally given to us with the factory 4-speed auto, which after about 112,000 kilometres, was slipping quite badly under power. But rather than fit another replacement auto, AJI installed a 5-speed manual 'box that was pulled from another Bluebird half-cut. The conversion was a doddle - the only tell-tale sign are the remaining illuminated auto gear indicators in the instrument binnacle.

And what a transformation it has made on the road! The car is now much quicker in every acceleration increment (remembering, though, that previously the auto was slipping). Its handling is also much improved, with a heap more throttle control. Now you can keep the turbo engine at the revs you want, ready to fire you out of corners with boost: it's a vastly more rewarding car to pedal.

Following this, I can't help but wonder about the pros and cons of both auto and manual boxes linked to turbo engines. Obviously, once a car starts getting seriously quick (like into the 10 second quarter mile bracket) it needs an automatic trans. But what about a road car?

For sure, if you're driving a manual and you put your foot down in the wrong gear, you won't go anywhere. You have to change down, spool the turbine up and move back up though the cogs. An auto is much better in this situation. Just plant it, let the trans kick back and feel the sudden multiplication of torque push you in the back.

I know, I know, you should always be in the right gear anyhow- but what about when you're cruising along in top gear and you suddenly want to blast off? In my Subaru Liberty (Legacy) RS for example, I can j-u-s-t drive along at about 65-70km/h in top, but if I ever want to catch that HSV that just roared past I find myself dropping way down into second gear! And don't forget, I've already lost time having to push the clutch in to do this. Say bye-bye Mr HSV.

Launching off the line seems to be an area where it could swing either way. In theory, holding the auto under load and releasing the brake would have the car getting the jump with boost already on-board. And it'd be a very consistent launch technique too. But is dumping or slipping the clutch of a manual car better? If you can manage a good launch every time it might be an easy answer, but is that really possible? Obviously, things like the engine's torque curve, traction and the type of clutch will each have an impact on whether or not this is possible. Traction amongst 4WD turbos usually isn't an issue, so it is possible (but not necessarily wise!) to dump at near the redline and leap off the line ferociously. After that initial jump though, the engine's had a heap of load placed on it and chances are (if there's no wheelspin) it'll bog down.

The other option is to slip the poor clutch. I'm much more inclined to slip the clutch slightly for a much less violent take-off. And in the long run it appears just as quick. When I manage to get this action right, I can feel boost building as the clutch grabs - and it's quite an odd feeling. The clutch doesn't like it too much, but then it's probably less damaging than 7000 rpm dumps...

And while I'm on 4WD turbos - that launch is s-o-o important. I'm getting tired of pulling up next to cars (especially V6/8 Commodores etc) and knowing if that turkey wants to run me I'd better commit myself to a hard launch from the very beginning. If not, I'm mincemeat - for a little while at least. It's so damn frustrating!

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