Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Langkawi and the Nissan Latio "Sport" and there's Not an Ounce of 'Fairlady 350Z, 370Z or GTR Experience in it.

I recently went on two holiday trips. Each one taking a weekend away from the usual daily weekend routine of frequenting shopping malls, teh tarik sessions with friends, outings with family and also the sometime weekly pilgrimage to the friendly neighbourhood specialist mechanic to ogle at other people’s ride and to have the usual friendly exchange of banter among enthusiasts.

The first trip was down south to Singapore. As some of you readers know, I tend to drive to the island of Singapore regularly. It has become almost a bi-annual ritual for the missus, the little gal and me to head down south every few months to catch up on the latest trends and goings-on with our rich neighbours down south.
The second trip was to the island of Langkawi. It has been almost 5 years since I last visited Langkawi and a lot has happened there. Last time the road to the north (or to the beaches like Cenang, Tengah and Kok) was a single lane normal country road. Now it is a two lane per side carriageway that made travel from the town of Kuah to the airport or to the above mentioned beaches shorter by at least 15 minutes on average. Not that it matters to some local folk, which seems to drive so leisurely that to an outsider like me the guy driving his Proton Wira seem like he’s on a bullock cart.
However, Langkawi is another motoring experience that all you Malaysians should at least experience. Aside from the road mentioned above, the other roads are idyllic, laidback roads that are waiting to be driven on with some anger. For example, the road from the resort where I stayed on Pantai Cenang, passing pantai tengah, the airport (runway and all) towards Pantai Kok (where the beautiful Telaga Harbour Marina is located and where the original ‘The Loaf’ restaurant is located – great fresh breaded prawn burgers and so on) and onwards to Burau Bay etc. etc. is superb for a mad dash in the countryside.

If you’re from Pantai Cenang, the road, a typical B-road is straight with some 90 degree turns through some kampong sections. It then changes as you pass a junction towards the Sheraton Beach resort where it gets slightly hilly and windy with the rain forest on both side of the road (and the sea close to one side). This is a nice short stretch where you find dips, crests and turns that will challenge you a little. This stretch opens up to the Telaga Harbour and the scenery there is wonderful. It is along this stretch the roads straightens a little for some 90 degree bends (that you can take pretty fast as I’ve experienced) and then heads inland for more hilly and forest lined driving. There are other nice roads in Langkawi, some are on a hillslope overlooking the sea, some are through forests, but all are great drives. You could bring your car from the mainland, but it’ll get there a day late and cost as much as renting one for a few days.
I was there for three days and had rented a black Nissan Latio 1.6 Sport. The thing about manufacturers is that they like using the word ‘SPORT’ for most things nowadays. I remember when I was young, manufacturers of everything would use the word ‘TURBO’ on everything from hairdryers, washing machines, freezers, mechanical pencils and so on. Nowadays, automobile manufacturers have decided that it’s a good time to start using the monicker ‘SPORT’ on anything vaguely sporty. Hence the Nissan Latio SPORT.

Driving the Darn Thing
The Latio Sport has a 1.6liter engine coupled to a 4 speed auto transmission that, while being pretty eager to drop a few cogs on full throttle and is pretty closely geared (you can tell as it’s quick off the line but gets pretty coarse higher up even on the 4th overdrive gear), is still an automatic box that does not even have a gated section for spirited drivers. There is no J-gate like in the Swift 1.5 or even paddle shifters (hey, the new non-ugly Honda City has this at around RM92,000.00) so that family type guys can play around and think like they’re driving manuals.

So while the car is pretty quick off the line, it’s still pretty tall. The Latio sedan is one car that is ugly due to the fact that it has a tall roof line. The Latio Sport in its hatchback styling looks better. But there is no disguising the fact that it is rather tall with small 15in rims and tyres. In fact while sitting on the leather and fabric lined seats that are like sofas instead of harder Recaro-like seats I’ve come to expect from sporty cars (like the Lancer GLS/GT or even the Swift 1.5)..... I realised that the car is tall, coupled with seats that make you feel like you’re in a van (mounted high in the cabin) with lack of proper support for the lower back and funny back of your back, at the shoulder blades support, when I was tackling a 90 degree corner somewhere along Pantai Kok on a Sunday morning. You could feel that if this car was slightly lower things would be better. At least your world would be a better place if this car was lower, but it is not. So you take the corner with all four tyres screaming for dear life at around 60km/h somewhere along Pantai Kok. Aside from the screaming tyres, the car is predictable, understeering early and if you be a little aggressive with it by braking late into the corner and manhandling the steering, the rear will assist you through the corner. But it wasn't as satisfying as I'd like it to be.

Yes, the steering is pretty fine. It is slightly rubbery but it does its job. Not as direct as I would have liked but hey, it’s a Latio, not a Fairlady Z. The thing I liked about driving this was it had no tail, being a hatchback. I like driving hatchbacks. With no tail, the rear is pretty obedient, and fast. There is no problems with having inertia (or the pendulum effect) from too much overhang at the rear because there isn’t any. However, because of that feeling, you tend to realise that you’re sitting pretty high up and you’d like the whole car to be lower to make full use of the nippy-ness to its fullest. The high roof-line somehow negates the fun factor of having no tail.

The ride is hard. I think Nissan needs more work on the secondary ride of this car. It tends to jiggle around abit on those bumpier sections. Big humps and bumps do not trouble the Latio Sport, but smaller bumpier sections of road make the car feel jiggly and irritating to the driver. Every small bump is felt and the car felt unresolved. It is nothing like the cheaper by almost RM20K Suzuki Swift 1.5 which feels smooth over small bumps and which feels quieter at 150km/h than this car. Both run torsion beam suspensions at the rear. But Suzuki is the better car. In fact, Ringgit to Ringgit, the RM70K Swift 1.5 is a better performance oriented car than the RM93K Latio Sport. In fact, spend an extra RM10K and get a Swift Sport in Manual for really good thrills.
I however enjoyed its user friendly controls and dash. Usually, there is nothing impossibly bad in most newer cars nowadays. The build quality is decent, materials used decent, but in certain aspects, like ride and handling as well as overall feel, some cars come up tops over others. The one qualm I dislike is this car does not have a water temperature gauge. Just an indicator in blue in the mornings to tell you the water hasn’t warmed up yet and an indicator in red. To tell you that it’s already too late to do anything except to get an overhaul for the engine. I mean, who actually pays attention to red lights on the dash (or the meters on the dashboard except for the speedometer) most of the time.

Now some of you may be asking why in God’s name did I take the Latio Sport then? Well, firstly I haven’t tried it yet. While I was offered a Mazda 3 1.6 I wanted something new in the Malaysian market that wasn’t going to be off the market soon (the Latio was only recently launched here in Malaysia early this year). The new Mazda 3 was recently launched so it’ll be old news soon. Secondly, I got it reasonably cheap. I’m not getting paid for this you know.

So in conclusion, the Latio Sport is not that sporty. It is a decent family hatchback with good carrying space. I went to Langkawi with my wife, kid and parents. We shopped like crazy and the Latio Sport managed to carry all the stuff to the airport without any worries whatsoever. I think you can buy this car if you have a small family, and the hatchback’s versatility for loading up stuff from IKEA. But as a Sports car it needs help. Lowering springs and better shocks to compensate for the overall height of the car and for the pretty bad ride. Maybe the IMPUL kitted version is a good buy. Maybe you should get a Suzuki Swift Sport straightaway. Now that’s a car that is indeed sportier right out of the box.
Buying this:

Does not mean you're experiencing even 10% of this:
Buying a Nissan Latio Sport does not mean you’re buying a performance Nissan. Somehow, Nissan manages to get rid of real sporty-ness from its bread and butter model. Nissan Latio Sport does not equal to driving a Nissan 370Z pictured to the left (lighter, shorter wheelbase than the 350z – new drift/rwd legend? I am looking forward to this) or owning a Nissan GTR. You want actual Nissan performance? Buy the real thing. Somewhere unlike Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Honda or even Subaru. You still can get a satisfying drive from their most basic models. I've driven the 350z, I should know. I mean does driving your 1985 Nissan Sunny 130y make you feel like you’re in an R32 Skyline? If it does, tell me which mental hospital you frequented regularly and come closer so that I can hit you on the head. Hard.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On The Petrol Price Drop, 125,000km With The Subaru Impreza 1.6TS and On Visiting Our Neighbours Down South

The past few weeks have brought us good news in the sense that petrol prices have gone down to RM1.90 per liter from an incredible and outrageous high of RM2.70 per liter. This has brought me some joy as I don't have to drive like a 'good muslim' all the time. I recently drove down to Singapore to spend a weekend of shopping and my pocket was only slightly dented to the tune of RM160.00 for a round trip. Kuala Lumpur - Singapore - Kuala Lumpur at speeds higher than recommended by most people. This was with 4 of us in the car and travelling to and fro places in Singapore for shopping and dining. I'd be spending close to RM260.00 to be doing the same trip at the earlier prices. Of course this is temporary, once the speculators start their nonsense again, and if indeed the oil companies find it harder to get oil from the ground, it is bound to rise again. This time I hope that everyone will be prepared for it by remembering what I am stating below:


One of the reasons a trip to Singapore takes only so little petrol is that the car I am driving. The Subaru Impreza 1.6TS is a wonderful highway/city/b-road car. It has ample poke and great handling coupled with great fuel economy from its 1.6litre engine. The only drawback in owning this car is an air-conditioning system that's insufficient to handle long journeys during mid-day. You feel the heat. After 125,000km of driving it, I'd have to say that I would not swap it for any other brand new car in Malaysia for the price I bought it for. With some tinkering by yours truly, the 0-60km/h time has been brought down from about 12.5secs to around 10secs and the top speed has risen from 180km/h to around 210km/h (unassisted by slopes or wind). I'd say that I've hit my initial target when I bought the car; which was to make it go as fast as a BMW Mini Cooper (Not Cooper S).

Now the point of this article is for me to tell you people out there that if you are a motorhead, you should at least once a year make a short trip to that island down south, Singapore. The reason is that on that small island nation you can get to see the latest in automotive hardware. Yes, occasionally you get to see Singapore plate Ferraris, Lambos and so forth driving to Genting for a bout of gambling but it is nothing compared to what you get to picture there. Yes, you might curse and swear at some of them when they drive up and down the North-South highway but if you haven't been there recently it's a bloody waste.

I mean, where can you get to see the latest Audis, BMWs, Mercedes', Hondas, Mazdas or even Alfas? Especially Alfas since Sime Darby seems to have given up on their quest to best Ron Lim in selling Alfas. I believe he's outselling them selling used Alfas to people compared to them. On my recent trip there I got to check out the latest Mazda 2. It's such a fabulous small car. It looks cool to drive one and it's styled uniquely enough that it won't be mistaken for any other small hatch. I even managed to park right beside a Maserati Gran Turismo (don't know whether it was the latest 'S' version or not) which looked smashing. No other car this side of an Aston Martin DB9 would have presence like the Maserati.

I managed to catch a Murcielago in white, 2 Lancer Evo Xs, a few Impreza 1.5s and S-GTs (but no STI), an Audi TT Cabrio with 19in S-line wheels in white (could have been a TTS Cabrio), some Chrysler 300s, the latest A4 Avant, the new R35 GTR in that dirty VSPEC Nur Green (it looked sublime in that colour), the new Porsche Cayenne GTS and some other cars that you don't see everyday here in Kuala Lumpur. At Second Link, you also may bump into fancy Malaysian and Singapore cars like a CLK350 (not as common like the CLK240), a brand new Saab Convertible, a few CLS's and Porsches.

The thing I'm trying to say is that while Kuala Lumpur has some fabulous cars to view, like the recent white Mansory GT650 Bentley Continental GT (Imagine someone ridiculously rich enough to body-kit a Bentley and let it ride on 20inch wheels), there is nothing like taking that short 3-4hour drive south and visit our neighbours. Aside from getting out of Kuala Lumpur and enjoying the interaction between your car and you (albeit on a straight highway and not on some fab B-road), you'd be amazed by the cars, the fabulous traffic system and also the shopping. On the shopping, you get to also see rich Indonesians, Singaporeans, Caucasians, Filipinos, Bruneians Malaysians but not as many rich Arabs who think money can buy anything like here in Kuala Lumpur. What more could you ask for?