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Open-Air Driving: It’s What’s Hot for Summer

Ford Skyliner photoIn a couple of ways, cars that offer open air motoring are like ice cream. Most everyone likes them and they come in a lot of different flavors. Whether you’re cruising along an ocean boulevard in a classic drop top, chasing apexes in a modern sports car, or exploring rugged trails in an opened-up Jeep, these vehicles offer plenty of enjoyment no matter what your tastes are. And like a visit to Baskin Robbins, there’s bound to be a flavor you can’t resist. To this rusty ol’ Gearhead, it’s salted caramel every time.

Within the realm of the classics you’ll find a wide array of choices. There’s plenty here to move you, literally and figuratively. It might be a 1965 GTO ragtop with a 389 V8, a 4-speed stick and rumbling side-splitter exhausts that does it for you. Or, from the same era, maybe a Jaguar XKE roadster or Lincoln Continental convertible, with the former offering sexy styling wrapped around two seats and a sonorous straight six, and the latter boasting four “suicide” style doors, a magic carpet ride and room for five of your biggest friends.car power moonroof

But as you’ll soon realize, your options further range from taking just sips of air and sunshine overhead to fully gorging oneself via environmental exposure that’s second only to a motorcycle’s.

Just a breath of fresh air, please.
A sliding sunroof provides a taste of the outdoors via a panel in the roof that slides back, either manually (as in some older cars) or via power control. If the panel is made of glass, it is usually called a “moonroof” as it ostensibly allows one to view the moon and the stars at night even while closed. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, pop-up/removable sunroofs were a popular aftermarket installation.

Traditional (and not) convertible tops
And then there is the traditional soft top convertible, which when down leaves the whole upper portion of the car’s interior exposed, allowing its passengers to more fully enjoy the sun’s rays. These are usually power operated as well. Soft convertible tops (typically made of canvas or vinyl) have been around since the early days of the automobile.

Ford Mustang convertibleMore recently, retractable hardtops have become popular. Just as the name implies, this design offers the added comfort and security of a hardtop when the top is up. Lowered, it provides the same full top-down experience that a traditional folding soft top does. For those al fresco fans residing in the more inclement areas of the country, a retractable hardtop is great to have. The BMW Z4 roadster and newer 3 Series (which later became the 4 Series) convertibles both offer retracting hardtops, as do the Mercedes-Benz SLK and SL, and outgoing (2015) Mazda Miata.

And yet, this “best of both worlds” idea is not as new as one may think. Back in 1957 Ford brought out its Fairlane 500 Skyliner power retractable hardtop, while Peugeot beat it by some 20 years with its aerodynamic but somewhat grimly named 402BL Eclipse Decapotable in the 1930s. Unlike the Ford’s more complex, folding power top, that Peugeot model featured a simple one-piece top that manually dropped down into the trunk.

Take it all offJeep Wrangler photo
Easy there, we’re talking about full exposure here of the vehicular kind. And nobody does it better than Jeep with its Wrangler model. Like its CJ-series precursors, the Wrangler is usually the model one thinks of when the word Jeep is mentioned. Sure you can fold the soft top down (a rather involved and potentially nail-busting affair), or unbolt the unwieldy hard top (if that’s what your Wrangler is wearing) and leave it in the garage or back yard. But that only gives you standard top-down experience. Detach the doors and flip down the windshield and you’ll enjoy the thrill of maximum exposure that’s second only to that of a motorcycle.

Trans am bandit car photoThe ‘tweeners
Existing somewhere in the middle of all these are the T-roof and Targa-topped vehicles. The T-top (which consists of a pair of removable roof panels) debuted in the U.S. with the 1968 Corvette coupe. In the late 1970s and through the early 2000s, various Camaros, Firebirds and Mustangs offered a T-roof option, while the Japanese car makers joined the party in the ’80s and ’90s with the Toyota MR2 and Datsun/Nissan 280ZX/300ZX, among others.

Similar to the T-top in that it could quickly be manually removed and stowed within the car, the Targa top instead provided a one-piece removable roof panel (no center “T” bar) which ran the full width of the car, providing even more of a true convertible feel than the T-roof. Past and present cars that offer a Targa top include the Porsche 911 and 914, the Honda Civic del Sol, the Toyota Supra, Acura NSX, the current Corvette and various Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren models.

Editor’s note: Whether you drive an airy convertible or tinted limousine, count on Advance Auto Parts to keep your projects humming along all summer.

The Triumph of Technology: 3 Ways Computers Make Cars Better

KITT_Interior

Knight Rider’s KITT interior. Photo by Tabercil.

Think about the muscle-car era, back in the ’60s and early ’70s. If you know anyone who grew up during that era, chances are that his or her father taught them how to wrench on engines from a young age (just like this ol’ wrencher). And you’ve probably heard them lament the fact that fathers just don’t teach their kids how to fix cars anymore.

But there’s a good reason for that: modern cars are as much about computers as they are about carburetors. Maybe more so.

To fix cars today, you often need a special computer just to diagnose the problem, and you may need advanced electrical knowledge to do the job. How about rebuilding a problematic part? If it’s connected to the car’s computer network, you better be an actual electrical engineer, or else you might just make things worse.

So that’s why kids don’t grow up with grease on their fingers anymore.

But they do grow up driving some truly incredible machines.

In this installment, I don’t want to bemoan the fact that times have changed. Even as a weathered, ahem, older car fan, I want to celebrate it. Because the truth is, technology has taken the automobile to heights that were scarcely imaginable 50 years ago.

Let’s look at three specific ways that the triumph of technology has changed cars for the better.

Better Handling

You may not think of suspensions as having much to do with computers, but when you take a closer look, you realize that they’ve got a lot to do with ones and zeros. Consider electric power steering, for example — back in the hydraulic days, we used to talk about the steering of a car as being “heavy” or “light,” but today you can buy a Hyundai or Kia for less than $20,000 that provides electronically adjustable steering effort. Want to move up the price ladder a little? Adaptive suspension dampers with selectable modes are proliferating across the industry, allowing drivers to choose a firm or compliant ride as conditions dictate. And then there are roll-resistant systems like Mercedes-Benz’s Active Body Control that keep the car eerily flat through fast corners. It’s hard to see these technologies as anything but a win for most drivers.

Better Powertrains

We could devote a whole feature to this category alone. Seemingly every aspect of automotive power generation and delivery has been revolutionized. On the engine front, perhaps the biggest news is the rise of advanced computer-controlled turbocharging, enabling small-displacement engines to deliver strong, lag-free acceleration with little if any penalty at the pump. Transmissions have benefited, too, with advancements ranging from automatic rev-matched downshifts for manuals to launch control and adaptive shift programs for automatics. And then there’s the way the power gets to the pavement — increasingly, differentials are equipped with torque-vectoring technology that transfers power laterally to ensure that the tires with the best traction are getting the most oomph. There were certainly fast and capable cars back in the day, but the computer-enabled precision and efficiency we see today is simply unprecedented.

Better Interiors

This one’s really night-and-day. Cars used to be transportation devices with radios thrown in for your driving pleasure, but now they’re like rolling entertainment chambers. What’s interesting is that mass-market personal computers go back to the late ’70s, but it took another few decades for dashboard computer systems — or “infotainment systems,” in current parlance — to become commonplace. But in 2015, you can get an infotainment system with a high-resolution color display in virtually every economy car on the market. Who would argue that cars used to be better when all you had was AM and FM? Now you can enjoy satellite radio, USB connectivity, Bluetooth phone and audio, home theater-quality sound reproduction, mobile-app integration and even Wi-Fi hotspot capability. Nostalgia dies hard, but even hardcore classic-car devotees know the truth: there’s never been a better time to hang out in an automotive interior.

The Power of Change

As a longtime DIY’er and car enthusiast, I’ve done my share of grumbling about the effects of technology on the character and feel of modern cars. Still, I have to admit that cars today are astonishingly capable machines thanks to their computerized components. What are some of your favorite developments in automotive technology? Shout it out for us in the comments

Editor’s note: High tech or no tech, count on Advance Auto Parts for a large selection of parts, tools and accessories to get your projects done right. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Winnebago Motorhome

Winnebago motor home 1From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, our man Gearhead pays tribute to an icon that’s revered in the RV sector: the Winnebago Motorhome.

Along with the warm weather, summertime brings a variety of killer road trip options. There’s everything from cruising the boulevard in a classic muscle machine, to unraveling a twisty road in an athletic sports car, to reaching that remote camping or kayaking spot via a rugged 4WD rig. And let’s not forget seeing the sights of America in a mobile condominium. The latter is more commonly referred to as an RV (Recreational Vehicle). Or, to use old-school parlance, a motorhome.

Like Apple and Nike, certain brands have a way of earning iconic status. And within the realm of motorhomes, so it is with Winnebago. Based in Iowa and debuting in 1958 as a maker of travel trailers, Winnebago started producing motorhomes in 1966. Thanks to its very efficient production methods, including an assembly line (unusual in this business), Winnebago was able to sell its motorhomes at much lower prices than its rivals. One doesn’t need an MBA to know that high quality and low pricing makes for a pretty sound business model. As a result, Winnebago quickly became the number one-selling name in motorhomes.Winnebago 1973 advertisement

Winnebagos, both old and new, remain very popular. As such, there are a number of enthusiast sites for them (which include their essentially identical Itasca sister brand). They include the WIT Club, this Winnebago Owners Forum and the nostalgic My Winnebago Story site.

Taking It With You As You Get Away From It All
For some folks, “camping out” doesn’t necessarily equate to “roughing it.” Indeed, with the swankier “Class A” (those motorhomes that resemble a rock star’s tour bus) models offered by Winnebago, luxuries such as a washer and dryer, retracting big screen TVs and even an electric fireplace are offered. These units typically also feature “slide-outs.” These sections of the motorhome slide out to increase the living space inside once you’ve arrived at your destination. Go all Will Smith and you can spend up to a half mill on the plushest and roomiest rig Winnebago offers, the Grand Tour diesel.

Still, Winnebago hasn’t forgotten those who don’t play sports or make movies for a living and so the company also offers more affordable options. The latter include the popular and well-equipped “Minnie Winnie” that starts at around $65,000. This is a Class C motorhome, the kind that has the front end (or “cab”) of a full-size van coupled to the living quarters behind.

Bring On The Brave
But what really made Winnebago as recognizable a brand name as Kleenex was the “Brave” model. Debuting in 1967, the Pug-nosed Brave sported an “eyebrow” of sorts that jutted out above the windshield and also featured a flying “W” down the motorhome’s ides. Those styling features made it easy to identify the iconic Brave, whether it was sitting at a campsite or sailing down the freeway, and they lasted for over 10 years during this model’s initial production run.
Winnie reintroduced the Brave for 2015, offering a modern interpretation of this classic. Paying tribute to the original Brave with its familiar silhouette and flying “W”, the new Brave is offered in 1960s song-inspired color schemes such as “Mellow Yellow,” “Crimson ‘n Clover” and “Aquarius.” MotorHome magazine checked out the new Brave and thought it was rather “groovy.”

A Brave With Serious Bravado
Presenting an awesome answer to a question nobody should ever ask, Ringbrothers revitalized a very tired 1972 Winnie Brave they bought at an auction. The Ring brothers are a couple of serious car guys who, along with their skilled crew, are known for turning out some of the finest resto-mod builds on the planet.

As this Boldride article shows, this Brave’s body was left pretty much alone while the interior received a mashup makeover that combined, of all things, World War II airplane and Tiki hut bar themes. The Brave sorely needed a new engine, so out came the Mopar 318 and in went a supercharged LS-series V8, cranking out about 900 hp. The brothers claim that their “Ringabago” can sprint to 60 mph in less than four seconds. If the idea of an old motorhome easily lighting them up and being capable of blowing the doors off a Ferrari F40 or Hemi Cuda doesn’t make you laugh, then probably nothing will.

Have You Ever Seen Anything as Absurd as This?

On the vehicular shock value meter, this “way out there” Winnie easily pegs the needle. Have you seen or heard about anything as crazy yet cool as this? If so, send us your brief comments on the beast.

Before you hit the road this summer, hit up Advance Auto Parts for all the best in savings and selection. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes. 

The Art of Rechroming

Car chrome grille pictureNext time you’re checking out all the hot rides at a car show, ask yourself this question:

What makes these cars look so amazing?

Of course, a lot of it has to do with inherent styling excellence. Any Porsche 911’s going to turn some heads based on its iconic sheet metal alone; ditto the C2 Chevrolet Corvette and countless other models I could mention.

But if you take a closer look, you’ll see there’s a pretty common denominator:

Chrome.

Perfectly smooth, impeccably polished chrome.

You’ll see it shining under the hoods of all those old American muscle cars. Check out the bumpers, too, and you’ll see mirror finishes front and back. Bottom line? You’re not gonna win any prizes if your chrome’s not correct. And for me, it’s just a point of pride in general — when I look at my car in the garage, I want to see that chrome shining right back.

If you’re with me on that, then you’re gonna want to fix up your chrome from time to time. The process is called re-chroming, and it’s something every classic-car buff needs to know about. So let’s run through a quick Rechroming 101 course together, whether it’s an introduction for you or just a refresher.

How Do They Do It?

© Copyright General Motors

© Copyright General Motors

Chroming, or technically chrome plating, is just a particular way of finishing a surface. The craftsman starts by cleaning the part’s existing surface thoroughly, and then he “dips” the part in a chrome-plating vat that’s filled with a chromium-based solution. Through a process known as electroplating, electrical current is used to dissolve the chromium atoms and “plate” them onto the surface. The thickness of the plating is determined by how long the craftsman leaves the part in the vat. Once the desired thickness has been achieved, boom — you’ve got your re-chromed surface. Hey, I’m no scientist, but in a nutshell, that’s more or less how it works.

Popular Cars and Car Parts for Re-Chroming

Chrome Tail pipe photoAlthough chrome continues to be featured on some modern cars, it’s more common among the older cars you tend to see at the shows. Chrome bumpers, for example, are pretty much dead and gone these days, unless you count a handful of pickup trucks. And good luck finding chrome headers under the hood; you’re more likely to see a bunch of molded plastic engine covers. When I think of cars that are candidates for re-chroming, I think of the classics — Mustangs, Corvettes, Chevelles, and certainly European luminaries like Ferraris and Lamborghinis if your budget allows.

As far as specific car parts go, you’ve got the bumpers and headers that I already pointed out, but it doesn’t stop there. Wheels are a big one, of course, and since they’re so close to the road with all its dust and debris, they’re gonna need more frequent attention than other parts. Chrome grilles, too, are in a vulnerable spot; you’ll often see pitting and tarnishing up there.

But more broadly, just think about that C2 Corvette I mentioned, for example — there’s chrome everywhere! You’ve got those iconic side-exit exhaust pipes, the fuel flap on the rear deck and various other exterior parts, not to mention all the chrome switches and knobs inside. Back in the day, chrome was a much more significant part of car styling, so if you want to make your classic car tip-top, you might have a real laundry list of parts that need to be re-chromed.

Have You Had Any Car-Parts Rechromed?

You know I’m always looking for people’s real-world experience with the stuff I write about. Have you re-chromed any of your car parts before? Tell us any tips you have in the comments.

Editor’s note: Check out Advance Auto Parts for a wide selection of chrome parts and accessories. Buy online, pick up in-store.

Ultimate Beach Bum Vehicles

VW T2 Van picture

With Memorial Day on the horizon and summer soon to follow, our resident Gearhead dishes on his favorite beach bum rides. 

When I start talking about cars, it usually isn’t long before I’m quoting zero-to-60 times, horsepower numbers and all that stuff. I’m just an old speed freak, you know? It’s in my blood. Can’t help myself.

But today I want to talk about a type of car that’s all the way on the other end of the spectrum.

It doesn’t even have an official name, so let’s just call it the Beach Bum Mobile.

I know that sounds vague, but you know one when you see one. First and foremost, it’s got to have room for a mattress in back, if not a full-on bed. Rear windows are optional, though a nice round porthole job with a curtain is a classy choice. You can live out of a Beach Bum Mobile if you need to, but you can also just keep it in the driveway for the occasional trip through the countryside, stopping where you please.

Got the picture? Like I said, we all know one when we see one. Now let’s look at a few of the ultimate Beach Bum Mobiles, from my childhood in the ’50s and ’60s to the present.

VW T2 van photoVolkswagen Bus

This is arguably where it all started. Technically known as the Volkswagen Type 2 (it was VW’s second car, after the Beetle), the “Bus” goes all the way back to the ’50s. Soon after showing up in the U.S., it became a fixture on the beaches of both coasts, showing a particular affinity for the laid-back Southern California lifestyle. You could get it as a passenger van or a panel van — the pickup version is a separate story — and folks quickly got creative, coming up with all sorts of camper-type variants. The rear-mounted, air-cooled boxer four-cylinder barely made enough power to get the Bus up a hill, but it was also incredibly easy to wrench on. This van is a legend; if you ask me, it’s still the best Beach Bum Mobile of all time.

Toyota Previa photo

Photo credit: Mr. Choppers

Modern Minivans

They may not have the character of a VW Bus, but modern minivans are perfect for Beach Bum duty. You can usually fold the rear seats down or remove them entirely, and there’s plenty of room in there for an air mattress. Plus, minivans get better fuel economy than those full-size vans with their thirsty V8 engines.

If you’re strapped for cash, as beach bums tend to be, you can set your sights on aging workhorses like the Nissan Quest from the ’90s, or even an original Dodge Caravan from the ’80s. My personal favorite is the Toyota Previa, which rocked out in the ’90s with its supercharged engine and available all-wheel drive. If you’ve got a little more scratch, early versions of the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna make for great pre-owned options.

2014 Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter Van photoMercedes-Benz Sprinter

Let’s say you’re a beach bum in spirit, but your bank account says otherwise. Cost no object, there’s one current Beach Bum Mobile on the market that would earn my vote, and it’s a stoic German van called the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. To me, this is today’s equivalent of the VW Bus, albeit with a starting price in the $40,000 range. Powered by a torque-rich turbodiesel V6 that’s reportedly capable of 30 mpg on the highway, it’s offered in passenger and cargo versions, and the aftermarket is full of awesome conversion options, from pop-top camper roofs to full off-road kits with massive tires. The styling is so anonymous that it’ll never be an icon like the Bus, but it certainly has everything the well-heeled beach bum could ask for.

What’s Your Beach Bum Story?

Have you spent any time in a Beach Bum Mobile? Tell us all about it in the comments.

Editor’s note: Beach bum or garage guru, Advance Auto Parts is here to help with a wide selection of auto parts and tools for most all projects. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Dodge Charger

Dodge Charger red picture

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, our man Gearhead digs deep into one of the baddest muscle cars in the land: the mighty Dodge Charger.

Calling the Dodge Charger a Crucial Car is kind of like calling asphalt black.

It pretty much goes without saying.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another model through the years that’s been as meaningful to enthusiasts as the Charger. In the ’60s and early ’70s, it was a king-of-the-hill muscle car that young men (including yours truly) fantasized about owning. In the ’80s, it was reborn as a sporty front-wheel-drive hatchback. All the while, the Charger name stayed relevant for folks who loved to drive.

But as the politicians like to say, I’m here today to focus on the present. Since 2006, the Charger has gotten back to its muscle-car roots, with one exception: it’s got four doors instead of two. Let’s take a few minutes and appreciate what the modern Charger has accomplished.

Dodge Charger 2 photoHemi V8 Power

From the get-go, the four-door Charger has been available with a brawny 5.7-liter Hemi V8. Now, does it truly have a hemispherical combustion chamber like Chrysler’s so-called “Elephant Engine,” the monstrous 426 Hemi from the ’60s? Some say no, because the chamber’s too shallow. But when an engine hauls this much you-know-what, who cares? Initially rated at 340 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, the 5.7-liter Hemi has seen various improvements since, with output now creeping toward 380 hp and 400 lb-ft. But the basic design remains remarkably true to the original Hemis from my childhood, and if you ask me, that’s pretty doggone cool.

Of course, the modern Charger offers other Hemis, too — and by “other,” I mean bigger and better. There’s the Charger Hellcat’s supercharged 6.2-liter Hemi, of course, which makes an insane 707 hp. But that’s not the one I want, believe it or not. I want the 6.4-liter Hemi, naturally aspirated, with 485 hp and 475 lb-ft. It sounds like NASCAR when you’re on the throttle, and if you get the Charger Scat Pack model, you can have all that motor for a shade over $40 grand.

Luxury-Car Credentials

Underneath, the current Charger dates back to the ill-fated Daimler-Chrysler merger, which is actually a very good thing for Dodge. Basically, Mercedes shared its midsize sedan platforms and suspension technology with Chrysler, and the Charger’s still using that Benz know-how on the road today. Listen, don’t knock it just because it’s not the latest and greatest; Mercedes has been building tank-like sedans for decades, and that’s exactly what the Charger feels like from behind the wheel. It’s large, it’s hunkered-down, and it’s unflappable at any speed. Bottom line, it’s a luxury car in disguise, and that even goes for the ambient noise at speed — it’s almost nonexistent.

Aftermarket Support From the FactoryDodge Charger 3 photo

One of the great things about Dodge performance cars is that they’re backed by a factory-certified speed shop. Mopar is the name, and personalizing your Charger is what they’re all about. I’m talking about big wheels, slammed suspensions, audio upgrades, you name it. They’ll even help you squeeze some more power out of that Hemi if you want, and they’ll certainly hook you up with an awesome exhaust system to make it sing. If you’re a Charger fan, the stock specification is just a starting point for your creativity, and Dodge knows it.

Tell Us Your Charger Story

Have you owned or driven a modern Charger (2006 – present)? Leave your impressions of this four-door muscle car in the comments.

Editor’s note: Whether your drive a muscle car or a mini van, Advance Auto Parts has the parts and tools you need to keep it running right. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Top 5 Car Engines Shared Between Models

Our man Gearhead talks through his top interchange engines.

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to light an enthusiast’s hair on fire, it’s a purpose-built engine that doesn’t appear in any other car.

Car guys like me will geek out for hours about the Porsche Carrera GT’s 5.7-liter V10, for example, or any number of air-cooled Porsche 911 engines. Lamborghini’s distinguished line of V12s also comes to mind. If you know cars, you’re no doubt thinking of other candidates, too.

But there’s a flip side to that coin. Just because an engine is shared between multiple models doesn’t mean it’s a dud. In fact, some of the greatest engines ever have enjoyed multiple applications, because if something’s that great, why not spread the love around?

With that in mind, I racked my brain — or what’s left of it at this point — and came up with my personal Top 5 engines that have known more than one master. There are a lot of illustrious motors out there fitting that description, so it wasn’t easy to whittle ’em down. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Dodge Viper engine 8.0-liter V10 pictureDodge Viper V10

When Dodge brought out the Viper exotic sports car back in the early ’90s, they needed something that would shock the world. The radical styling was almost enough in itself, but the engineering team chipped in with an 8.0-liter V10 that made an even 400 horsepower — heady output for the day. Never mind that it sounded like a UPS truck; the Viper V10 was the stuff of dreams, and it helped make the car a legend virtually overnight.

Since then, the V10 has gone through a few iterations, now displacing 8.4 liters and pumping out a just-plain-silly 640 horsepower at last count. But that’s not all; it has also been borrowed by two other vehicles for limited-production use. The first, Dodge’s gonzo Ram SRT-10 full-size pickup truck, used an 8.3-liter version of the massive motor that was good for a truck-record 154 mph. The second, the Bristol Fighter, was an exotic British sports car that reportedly sold just 13 copies.

BMW S54 Inline-6 engine pictureBMW S54 Inline-6

So many great straight-sixes have come out of BMW’s factories over the years, but for my money, the 3.2-liter S54 is the greatest of them all. It debuted in 2001, appearing simultaneously in the E46 M3 and the Z3 M Roadster and Coupe. The S54 was limited to 315 hp in the latter pair, but it cranked out a full 333 hp in the M3.

With a sky-high fuel cutoff at 8,400 rpm, this engine loved to rev, yet it also had muscular midrange response that always felt like enough. The sound was nearly as thrilling, a metallic banshee wail that got more and more frantic as redline approached.

BMW gave the S54 new life when the 330-hp Z4 M Roadster and Coupe debuted in 2006, but it was brief, as both models bid adieu in 2008. Even today, I still cruise the classifieds looking for all of the above models. It’s on my engine bucket list, for sure.

Chevrolet LS7 V8 engine pictureChevrolet LS7 V8

When the C6 Corvette Z06 bowed for the 2006 model year, it came with a great big surprise under the hood. Displacing a full 7.0 liters, the LS7 was the biggest small-block V8 that GM had ever installed in a factory model. Unlike most small-blocks, the LS7 had an affinity for redline, making it ferociously fun when driven to its full potential. The noises were sublime, and 60 mph was yours in less than 4 seconds via the 6-speed manual transmission — no automatic was offered.

Now that the C7 Corvette Z06 has come out with its supercharged 6.2-liter V8, it looks like forced induction will carry the day going forward. But if you’re like me, you know there’s no replacement for displacement. Plain and simple, the LS7 is the best small-block V8 there ever was.

Thankfully, the C6 Z06 team wasn’t a selfish bunch. The LS7 has turned up in all kinds of places since it appeared, including the Corvette 427 Convertible (basically a Z06 drop-top), the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, the Hennessey Venom GT supercar and even a helicopter.

Mercedes-Benz M156 V8 engine pictureMercedes-Benz M156 V8

If you don’t think Mercedes-Benz and NASCAR belong in the same sentence, you haven’t driven one of the cars from the “AMG 63″ series. Ranging from approximately 450 to 580 hp, and technically displacing 6.2 liters, the M156 V8 was the first engine to be developed from start to finish by the performance wizards at AMG. You can certainly feel that hand-built touch. There’s endless thrust throughout the operating range, and the sound is astonishing — like a Detroit muscle car with impeccable manners. It’s impossibly well-behaved for such a beastly engine, but those noises betray its animal nature. Pity that Mercedes never saw fit to pair it with a manual transmission; otherwise, the M156 is a perfect 10.

What’s particularly awesome about the M156 is that it was made available across most of the Mercedes lineup, from the humble C-Class to the exotic SLS AMG sports car. Turbocharged V8s have since taken its place, but only recently, so there are plenty of low-mileage used M156 cars out there for the taking.

Volkswagen Golf 2.0T Inline-4 engine pictureVolkswagen/Audi 2.0T Inline-4

You don’t always need huge horsepower to have a good time. It took me decades to realize that, and the VW/Audi “2.0T” turbocharged 4-cylinder engine helped me see the light. There are actually a bunch of slightly different engines that fall under this heading, but you know what I’m talking about, right? Volkswagen has been putting a 2.0T in the GTI for about a decade, to take one example, and Audi offers a similar 2.0T in seemingly everything it makes. Whatever the setting, this engine serves up an amazing blend of refinement, fuel economy and smooth, spirited acceleration.

If there’s a better all-around engine that you can have brand-new in the $25,000 price bracket or thereabouts, I haven’t met it.

What’d I Forget?

A lot, I’m sure. My wife’s sure, too. Did any of your favorites get unfairly excluded? Let’s have it out in the comments.

 

Editor’s note: Keep your engine running right with parts, tools and accessories from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Quick Spin: 2015 Hyundai Sonata

2015 Hyundai Sonata pictureRead our exclusive review of this latest model.

If you’ve read any of my columns, you’re probably aware that I’m a muscle car guy. A horsepower guy. Big numbers, fast times. You get the idea.

But I’m also a man who likes to give credit where credit’s due.

When the Hyundai Sonata was redesigned for the 2010 model year, everyone wanted to crown it king, but I had my reservations. Where others saw a revolutionary exterior with ultra-sleek styling, I saw some overwrought lines that were bound to age poorly. And amid all the noise about its futuristic interior with a Volvo-inspired “mode man” for the climate vents, I wondered why no one mentioned that mode man’s head didn’t even work.

Sheesh.

But now there’s a new model — the 2015 Hyundai Sonata — and this one’s got my attention. I still say the critics were too eager to embrace the previous model, but this latest effort is the real deal.

Here are three reasons why.

  1. It Looks Like Money

I saw a 2015 Sonata on the road the other day, and this rarely happens to me, but I really didn’t know what it was. Maybe a new Genesis, Hyundai’s full-on executive sedan? Or some other premium car that just hit the market? Nope — it was a Sonata. You know, the one that competes with Camrys and Accords. And with its LED headlight accents, crisp new contours (none of that swoopy stuff from the previous model) and strong trapezoidal grille, it was a revelation.

When you see a new Sonata in the flesh, I think you’ll agree that it just looks like money. It’s a car that would look good in any driveway; there’s nothing about it that says, “I settled for less.”

It’s a downright handsome automobile.

  1. It Drives Like a Luxury Car

Behind the 2015 Sonata’s wheel, I truly am reminded of the Genesis, which starts at about $40,000 but looks and feels like about $60,000. Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement; if you’re on a mission to find some average-quality plastics in the Sonata’s interior, you’ll eventually come up with a few examples. But by and large, the Sonata comes across as decidedly upscale, from the cohesive flow of its dashboard design to its supple, well-damped underpinnings that keep road noise at bay. The steering’s more responsive than I’m used to in Hyundai products, and there’s a real confidence at higher speeds that belies the Sonata’s bargain pricing.

I’ll tell you something else I like — in well-equipped Sonatas, you get a 4.2-inch color trip computer along with an 8-in touchscreen navigation system, and they both look beautiful. I’m talking high-resolution graphics, smooth transitions between screens, you name it. They thought of everything. This really is Genesis-grade technology, and it puts those Camrys and Accords to shame, no doubt about it. You’ll pay for the privilege, of course, but even a fully loaded Sonata is still a good deal.2015 Hyundai Sonata 2 picture

  1. It’s Still a Great Value

So let’s talk pricing. Looking at Hyundai’s MSRPs for the 2015 Sonata, you can get into one for as little as $21,150 plus destination. That includes stuff like alloy wheels, those LED running lights, power everything, convincing “metalgrain” interior trim and 6-speaker audio with Bluetooth. An enticing Popular Equipment package ($1,150) adds automatic headlights, a rearview camera, a 10-way power driver seat, leatherette door-panel trim and a 5-inch color touchscreen. If you’re a sensible shopper, you could stop right there and be perfectly content for $22,500.

That’s what I call value.

2015 Hyundai Sonata engine pictureBut let’s say you want to go all-out and get the color trip computer and 8-inch touchscreen I mentioned. Say you want the optional turbocharged engine, too, because I sure would. Listen, 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque beats 185 and 178 any day, and that’s the difference between the “2.0T” turbo engine and the base, non-turbocharged 2.4.

So let’s zero in on the Sport 2.0T trim level, which incidentally throws in an exclusive flat-bottomed steering wheel, paddle shifters, xenon headlights, quad exhaust tips, a sport-tuned suspension and some other nifty touches. It’s the one I’d recommend if you want to treat yourself. You’ll also need the Tech package ($1,750) to get the upgraded screens, and that package tacks on a premium audio system and an auto-dimming rearview mirror for good measure.

Ready for the total tab?

How’s $30,325 strike you?

I’m ready to rest my case on that one. I’m telling you, I can’t think of a midsize sedan on the market that gives you more for the money.

Like I said, I’m a muscle-car man at heart.2015 Hyundai Sonata dash picture

But if I had to buy a family sedan right now, there’s no question where my hard-earned dollars would be going.

Your Thoughts

What do you all think of the new Sonata? Are you with me in thinking that Hyundai really turned a corner this time? Give me a shout in the comments, let’s hear it.

Editor’s note: Visit Advance Auto Parts for all of the parts and tools needed to maintain your muscle. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Chevrolet Blazer

Chevrolet Blazer pictureFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, Ol’ Man Gearhead digs up some dirt on one of his favorite SUV’s—the iconic Chevy Blazer.

When you think about the Chevrolet Blazer, what comes to mind? These days, chances are it’s the Trailblazer, a short-lived SUV from the 2000s chiefly remembered for its quirky 4.2-liter inline-6 engine. Or maybe you’re thinking of the S-10 Blazer, a popular SUV from the ’90s based on Chevy’s compact pickup.

But those aren’t real Blazers.

If you want the real deal, you’ve got to go back in time to the so-called K5 Blazer, which debuted in 1969 as an SUV version of Chevy’s full-size C/K truck. That’s what a Blazer is supposed to be. Chevy calls it the Tahoe now, and there’s not much of that original rough-and-tumble character remaining. But back in the day, the Blazer had attitude like no other SUV on the road.

No-Nonsense Capabilities

If you look around today, it’s genuinely difficult to find a true SUV with body-on-frame construction. The Tahoe’s one of them, but between you and me, it’s tuned more for suburban shopping malls than off-roading. The Blazer, though, was all muscle, all the time. From ’69 until its demise after the 1994 model year (the final chassis actually continued on as the Tahoe through ’99), the Blazer rode atop a short-wheelbase version of GM’s full-size truck platform, and four-wheel drive with low-range gearing was always available. An off-road package added various beefed-up components for even more trail-busting ability. You could even get removable top until ’92, which meant the Blazer was kind of like a full-size Jeep Wrangler. They don’t make SUVs like this anymore, and that’s a shame.

Plenty of Power

The Blazer also came with plenty of motor. Right off the bat, Chevy offered the legendary small-block 5.7-liter V8, and that continued to be the featured engine throughout the Blazer’s run. With ample thrust across the powerband and an exhaust note that announces your presence from blocks away, the small-block is one of the great motors in automotive history. It’s also one of the easiest engines to work on yourself, and that’s one of the charms of owning a Blazer, even today. If you find a used one in decent condition, you can rest easy knowing that any engine work can be done by a decent shade-tree mechanic.Chevy Blazer picture

SUV Functionality

There’s a reason that real enthusiasts like body-on-frame SUVs so much: they’re as tough as the trucks they’re based on, yet the offer the interior accoutrements and passenger space of a wagon. True to form, the K5 Blazer always provided the most luxurious features available on the C/K trucks of the day, and the spacious backseat made it a viable family vehicle. These were do-it-all SUVs that could handle whatever you threw at them — and still can. If you’ve driven a K5 Blazer, you know what I’m talking about. For my money, you still can’t find a cooler all-around SUV than the original Blazer, no matter what era you’re talking about.

Blazer Fan Forum

Let’s hear from you, Blazer fans. You know that SUVs don’t get any better than this. What are your favorite K5 Blazer stories?

Editor’s note: To keep your Blazer and all other vehicles in check, count on Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Cars of the World: Ireland

St Patricks Day car picture

In this new blog series, our trusty Gearhead explores the cars of his heritage, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Everyone knows about the illustrious history of British motorcars — emphasis on the history part, since it’s all foreign ownership now — but what about Ireland? You know, the Emerald Isle? It’s where my people are from. I understand that my dear old uncle Gearhead O’Malley is still roaming the countryside with his trusty pint glass in hand. They must have some homegrown cars over there, right?

Well, technically, yes. But only in that sense. Turns out there’s virtually nothing to be proud of if you’re a car-loving Irishman like me. But in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s do a little historical review anyway, shall we? No doubt these automotive misadventures have given the self-deprecating Irish plenty of laughs over the years.

Alesbury

Starting the Irish auto industry off with a bang — of the self-destructing variety — the Alesbury hit the cobblestone streets in 1907, featuring a Stevens-Duryea engine built in Massachusetts. Not much is known about the Alesbury other than the fact that production ceased shortly thereafter in 1908.

DeLorean Motor Company

The DeLorean DMC-12, on the other hand, is famous the world over thanks to its Hollywood turn as Marty McFly’s time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. But did you know the stainless-steel sports car with gullwing doors was built in Ireland? Northern Ireland, to be exact, in a 660,000-square-foot facility near Belfast. Alas, the factory was plagued by delays and ballooning costs from the get-go. Then founder John DeLorean got ensnared in a drug controversy, and DMC folded in 1982.

Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford’s father was born in County Cork, Ireland, and Ford paid homage to his ancestral homeland with the Ford Cork plant, which opened in 1917 and kept on cranking till 1984. Best known for producing popular cars like the Cortina and Sierra, the plant was a landmark in Cork’s center of industry for the better part of a century. Of course, the company itself was Detroit-based, but we’ll take what we can get.

Heinkel Kabine

Inspired by the uber-cute Iso (later BMW) Isetta “bubble car,” the Heinkel Kabine was designed in Germany and built for a spell by the Dundalk Engineering Company in Ireland. Like Alesbury before it, Dundalk had quality-control issues and was forced to cease production mere months after starting.

Shamrock

With a name like that, how could you lose? Sadly, the fiberglass-bodied Shamrock is yet another Irish car with a comically brief production history. Designed to be a luxury car that would compete with America’s finest, the Shamrock was confusingly equipped with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at a pathetic 50 horsepower. The car was a colossal failure, with barely 10 examples being produced before the factory was closed.

TMC Costin

Best for last? Quite possibly, though that’s no great honor in this bunch. Built from 1983-’87, the Costin was a lightweight, elemental roadster with two seats, rear-wheel drive and a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that made 82 horsepower. Even though the car weighed just 1,450 pounds, those 82 horses could only pull it to a top speed of 112 mph. Although the company met a familiar Irish end — production ceased after the 39th car rolled off the line — the Costin’s spirit lives on in the high-performance, American-built Panoz Roadster, as Panoz bought the rights to the Costin’s chassis design and used it for inspiration.

DeLorean DMC-12 picture

DeLorean DMC-12

Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

There may not be much to celebrate in the history of Irish automobiles, but that’s never stopped Irish folks from celebrating anyway. Cheers, my friends!

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more installments of Cars of the World, right here on the DIY Garage Blog. In the meantime, hit up Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection. Buy online, pick up in-store—in 30 minutes.