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Project Car Garage

SCC Staff
Jun 15, 2007
Photographers: David Wong, Edward Loh
0708_sccp_01_z+project_car_garage+gas_station Photo 1/6   |   Project Car Garage

We're rapidly approaching a tipping point with our fine fleet of cars. Very soon, at least one will have to go back to its manufacturer. We're running out of modifications to do to a few of the others. And one of our favorites is starting to show signs of impending death.

The question is, what do we replace them with? As you can see from page 138, readers have been sending in massive requests for a J-body. DSM fans have also been pushing for a first and second generation Eclipse/Laser/Talon.

Even manufacturers have been getting in the mix. Anyone interested in another Project Matrix? No? How about a rallyed-out Suzuki SX4? New WRX? We're taking requests, so start sending them in. -Ed.

0708_sccp_03_z+project_car_garage+dodge_neon_srt4_front_view Photo 2/6   |   Project Car Garage

Project SRT-4
Mileage: 24,140
In the CD player: unlabelled burned CD of illegally downloaded Jpop.
It isn't until an enthusiastic Miata owner jokingly refers to the SRT-4 as 'the track bully' that I realize how much fun I've been having bombing around Laguna Seca. It's my first time driving the huge track. And thanks to the kind people at Mazda, it's empty, except for the occasional Miata here and there. With a malfunctioning throttle position sensor, relatively unsticky BFG KDWs and steering feedback that would be embarrassing in an old Cadillac, I'm having the time of my life. The SRT-4 is sputtering up the hills and sliding uncontrollably through the corners. The side-exit exhaust is louder than anything else at the circuit today, including the race cars. But while Laguna Seca is notoriously strict regarding noise regulations, the decibel meters are located on the passenger side of the track. The exhaust pipe exits on the driver's side. Bonus.

Laguna Seca is a two-day affair. By the end of it all, the giant Stoptech brakes are worn to almost nothing. They've done a great job of hauling the car down at the end of the straight in almost six hours of hard driving.

Despite nearly three years of driving Project SRT-4, it's not until this weekend that the beauty of the orange abomination hits me. When the last run-group is done, everyone makes their way out to the parking lot to swap on a new set of pads, wheels and tires, and check tire pressures. Some are loading cars onto trailers and others are returning their rides to street-legal form. Not me. I just hop in the car, turn the key and drive home: 350 miles home.

And as I cruise along at 80mph, it couldn't be clearer what an important role the SRT-4 plays in our project car garage. To understand what being an SCC project car means, you'd have to multiply the rental car factor by about oh... 100. Yet somehow it's quiet in here. There are no squeaks, rattles or banging noises coming from, in, or around the car. And the stereo sounds good, with great bass-despite the engine speed. It's with utter disbelief that I admit this is the car in our fleet that has broken the least. It's almost never been in for repairs. And how about that build quality? Every car in our fleet has one issue or the other: an irritating noise that just won't go away or a special way it has to be driven to avoid a catastrophic crash. But not the lowly Dodge. Impossibly, it is an econobox built by an American company more than four years ago. And those are like dog years with SCC cars. I still don't like the steering feel. It feels as though the car has the turn radius of a nuclear missile launcher. I'd take the blowoff valve and throw it into a lake and the gas gauge doesn't work either. But at long last, I have bonded with our Project SRT-4.-James Tate

0708_sccp_05_z+project_car_garage+toyota_mr2_front_view Photo 3/6   |   Special thanks to Frank Sullivan and the Sullivan family, owners of the Texaco station at 6009 Coffee Road in Bakersfield, CA. Can't beat clean bathrooms and hot corndogs.

Project MR2-Spyder
Mileage: 45,370
In the CD player: Nada. NPR on the radio.
The police car rolled alongside and the driver asked me to pull over. I tried to keep cool, knowing I had done nothing wrong. Both cars now stationary, one of LA's finest, gun at his side, walked up to me. "I've got one of these," the officer said. "And I'd like to get mine turbocharged. This is Sport Compact Car's MR2, isn't it? I've read about this car." Even when you are innocent, it's still a relief to know you're not going to get booked.

Yes, I replied. It does belong to that fine magazine and has indeed been turbocharged. What I didn't say was that the car is also pretty fast and can take corners at speeds that could get someone arrested. I didn't want that someone to be me. I could also have gone into a lengthy monologue about day-to-day life with a daily-driven project car.

Most of the time, that life is good, as long as you're prepared to suck up various things. This car has the strangest steering of any MR2 I've ever encountered. There's some play at dead center, but the action is ultra-light and infra-quick, so almost before it becomes apparent, you've changed direction. Or the ruts in the road will do it instead. The front wheels will follow anything, even a Scientologist. It's best to drive with both hands on the wheel at all times, just to provide some resistance and weight.

The drivetrain is unhappy and lurchy in a high gear at low revs, which I took to be a trait of the lightweight TRD flywheel, but Chen says it's something to do with the throttle mapping. Ah well, I'll just have to use more revs.

Driving through a canyon the other day, I noticed the inside rear wheel spinning on tight corners. A limited-slip diff would have been nice. And even though the suspension could never be accused of being pliable, I don't mind. But I do worry sometimes that the car might shake itself apart. The driver's door handle is looking a bit loose and the front of the instrument binnacle is coming away.

0708_sccp_04_z+project_car_garage+dodge_neon_srt4_left_front_view Photo 4/6   |   Project Car Garage

Our long drive to Bakersfield, California, and back (for the photo shoot) further underlined that this cabin is not a quiet one. Wind, tire, and engine noise joined forces with thuds that rattled through the whole body whenever there was a washboard road surface or expansion joint.

But I don't mind. I like this car. A lot. Because it's light and nimble. It makes most other cars feel like buses. And I like the sweet gearchange (I'd like it even more if there was a sixth gear), and I like the poise and balance of the chassis.

"I've looked at XS Engineering's website," said the officer, "but it just has a turbo kit for a Celica. Could you find out if I could get one for my MR2?" I said yes (are you gonna say no?) and while it looked to passers-by that this policeman was writing out a ticket for that reprobate in the red sports car, he was giving me his e-mail address. I sent him the details, but I never found out if he got them. The LAPD are kept pretty busy.-Colin Ryan

0708_sccp_06_z+project_car_garage+nissan_350z_front_view Photo 5/6   |   Project Car Garage

Project 350Z
Mileage: 92,530
In the CD player: CD ERR F2 or The Chillout Album Vol. 1
Tate wrinkles his nose in scorn when I breathlessly recount a recent tale of freeway domination. "You know," he drawls, "it was waaaayyy more powerful before you got here."

I don't care. Though it barely grinds to life on chillier mornings and idles like we replaced the 30-weight with 80-grit, our Zed is far from dead.

Like up the Grapevine the other day: Interstate 5 is LA-LA-land's major artery to central California and points north. It's our version of the autobahn. Those desirous of a scenic route take the 101 and PCH. All business individuals interested getting from point LA to point SF as fast as possible charge up the 5. This means a lot of big rigs and family-laden SUVs clogging up the windswept passes that wind through Gorman and Frazier Park. No matter, Zed's a GT bruiser, perfect for this kind of action.

0708_sccp_07_z+project_car_garage+gas_station Photo 6/6   |   Project Car Garage

I'm lazily chasing Chen and Tate, both in SCC's two sedans, towards Bakersfield. Somewhere behind us, the MR2 is slowly robbing Ryan of what is left of his hearing.

Despite a grade that has truckers hitting their flashers and grabbing low gears, I'm ambling along in a serene state of Zed-induced zen. I can pass my two guys at will, but stay behind Tate, who is radar-equipped. I'm not willing to bet that the CHiPs up here are also SCC fans.

At speed, Zed's mass and slippery silhouette means I'm immune from the gale-force turbulence that rips across the road. When we stop for a pee break, both my compadres complain of fighting the crosswinds and the vortices generated by the 18-wheelers we blow by. I just shrug: "I didn't notice."

What I did notice is that the new brakes have developed an annoying stutter. Pedal feel is reminiscent of the semi-drilled rotors on the ipd S40 (page 38), a fast, rhythmic vibration and quiet wuffling as they spin down from speed. Zed got its brakes done a month ago, prior to the Mazda track day Tate so fondly related. Chen points out uneven rotor surfaces and mumbles something about a bad brake-bedding job.

This isn't the only deficiency of our rapidly aging heavyweight. The fuel gauge is comically deceiving, clicking on the reserve light even when completely full. The latter explains why my wallet is full of gas station receipts for 'fill-ups' of 0.96, 0.82, and 0.45 gallons. Ridiculous.

Zed plays CDs went it wants to, flashes CD ERR F2 when it does not. Zed drinks heavily-about a quart of oil a month-and its heart is in bad shape. The Service Engine light is now on continually. Chen is getting morbidly excited. He thinks a coronary is imminent, which means a fully built twin turbo transplant will shortly follow. I'm not so sure. I think Zed's going to make it to 100k and beyond-still spitting grey smoke and grinding its diff around corners.-Edward Loh

By SCC Staff
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