Friday, October 12, 2007

Se7en - A Prologue

Welcome back! It’s been a long time since I wrote something here so I was determined to write something really worthwhile. Something I can be proud of, something epic. So, I am going to write about the 7 best cars in my favorite racing game of all time – Need For Speed Most Wanted. I’ve been playing this game for more than a year now and have completed the career twice making sure that I’d drive a different set of cars each time. Ok, I admit that I couldn’t resist buying a couple of cars for the second time coz I was in love with them but rest assured, a lot of thought and work has gone into the process of deciding the cars, the order and especially writing about each of them without sounding repetitive.

Writing a bit about these cars from the real world perspective was the easy part, deciding which car in the game was slightly better than the other car and in what way was pretty tricky. I drove these cars over and over again, first over different tracks to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and then over the same track [Petersburg & Camden Tollbooth – Race Event #7/11 under Blacklist #1] to get a measure of their relative performance. I plagiarized Top Gear and stole the phrase “Power Laps”, each Power Lap figure being the time I was left with when I got to the final tollbooth. It represents the ideal run from start to finish such that there were no major head-on collisions with muggle cars [Traffic, I mean. This is my tribute to JK Rowling] or any other mishaps. This Tollbooth event is 8 mins long even in the fastest car which means there’s plenty of time for Murphy’s Law to get to work, so believe me when I tell you that a lot of effort went into obtaining consistent Power Lap figures for each car.

Anyway, I hope you will have as much fun reading this as much Repetitive Strain Injury I sustained to my wrist while writing this. And I would be honored if you were to let me know if you agreed/disagreed with me on what I’ve written here. Later…

#7 - The Ugly Duckling

Mazda RX-7: If you’re a fan of the Fast and the Furious movies [I’m not one, btw], you’d have anticipated this little Japanese gem in the Top 7. And as you can see, you’d be right. This car has a cult following with the street-racing brethren in the US of A and for good reason. First of all, it’s Japanese which means Mankind will have invented zero-calorie chocolate sundaes before something stops working or goes wrong in this car. Secondly, it is powered by a twin-turbocharged 1.3 Liter Wankel Rotary Engine [A different sort of IC Engine which ditches reciprocating pistons for rotating pistons called “rotors”] which makes a scarcely believable 280 hp. Stop scoffing/laughing/staring, it really is a 1.3 and it really does make 280 hp. With an engine so light and the fact that like all Japanese cars, its body panels were made from tin foil, it was a fantastic high performance car which sold nearly a million units worldwide until 2002 when it was replaced by the RX-8, which looked a lot better but wasn’t half as fun to drive as the RX-7.

Power Lap [Awaiting update]: I know, many of you might not have driven this car in the game at all and it’ll mostly be because when you first looked at the RX-7 in the New Car Garage, you’d have probably paused only to laugh at this car’s stupidly bland looks before moving on. And you couldn’t be blamed coz it really does look as pretty as a platypus. But if you happened to play the Challenge Series where you have to drive this car at a certain point of time, you’d have had “what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity”. You’d have gone “I don’t believe this”. The ugly duckling from the Far East transforms magically into a brilliant piece of kit on the road and will make you eat your words.

Since the engine is quite small and light, the fact that it sits in the front doesn’t impede the car’s handling characteristics and there is no understeer at all. Au contraire, the car feels really well-sorted out and light on its foot so you can always hit the apex of corners with ease - be it a high-speed sweeping long one or an abrupt U-turn. And you can have a lot of fun throwing this car around any way you like and you’ll always be able to bring it back under control with opposite lock. You can even do some drifting and impress your mates coz opposite lock is really effective with this car when compared to others and the engine is particularly powerful. It also sounds really good close to the redline, buzzing like a swarm of pissed off bees about to launch a suicide attack on anything that gets in their way. This is probably the best-sounding Japanese car in the whole game and the only Japanese car in the list as well.

But the problem is, this car looks as featureless as the plains of Kansas, as classy as an Orkut profile that says “Hai, I’m koooool guy”, as if this car’s Designers didn’t have even the most rudimentary concept of aesthetic flair. They did not even know that they were supposed to make the car look fast or beautiful, let alone both at the same time. They would probably just die of shock if you were to show them a Jaguar XJ220 or a Lamborghini Miura. Unfortunately, the Mazda’s woes don’t end here. Remember how I said there’s no understeer? That’s because the car oversteers, not severely but constantly, all the bloody time. You have to live with the perpetually present squealing of the rear tires which seem to be constantly fighting for traction while being bullied by the powerful engine at the front. It just annoys you so much when something comes close to being good but is ruined completely because of minor flaws. Sorry, Japan. This is as far as you go…

#6 - The Raging Bull

Lamborghini Gallardo: It is well known among motorheads that Lamborghinis were the maddest, most impractical and most difficult to drive supercars in the world until Audi bought the company in 1998 and added a sprinkling of sensibility which only made the cars even more desirable. The first Lamborghini after this was the stupendous Murcielago but it was outdone by the mean-looking Gallardo which promptly became the best-selling Lambo ever in record time. So what if it didn’t have scissor doors and had “only” 490 bhp when compared to the Murcielago’s colossal 580? For an "entry-level supercar", it was still blisteringly quick on the track and it could still make heads turn, necks crane, jaws drop and eyes bleed. Furthermore, people loved the Gallardo’s better all-round visibility which made it far more manageable in city traffic than the Murcielago. People who could afford one, anyway... It was so good, in fact, that Ferrari were forced to retire their entry-level 360 series and take action because the similarly-priced Gallardo was becoming worryingly popular. But unfortunately for Lamborghini, the situation backfired horribly when Ferrari released the F430 which just made mincemeat out of the baby Bull. Anyway, back to the game now...

Power Lap [Awaiting update]: Before starting off, I feel the need to devote some attention to the Gallardo’s looks. I mean, even by Lamborghini standards, it looks absolutely staggering. While the Murcielago was curvier and sensuously feminine, the Gallardo looks positively wicked and menacing with its sharp lines and quadrangular headlamps. It resembles a predatory beast crouching low just before pouncing on its unsuspecting prey. Unlike most other cars, adding a large spoiler will only ruin this car’s breath-taking Lambo silhouette and I would agree with Ming who likes to keep his Gallardo’s stock looks intact. Anyway, back to the start line; you can effortlessly get a Perfect Launch almost every single time with the Gallardo, which is courtesy of the rear-biased four-wheel drive system. The Gallardo’s 5.0 Liter V10 puts out a nasal roar every time you change gears as if the predatory beast is breathing in and out while hurtling along at insane speeds. Oh yes, it is a mighty quick animal, the Gallardo, and long straight sections form its staple food.

But all is not well when you’re driving the baby Lambo hard. Despite the V10 being positioned ideally [between the driver and the rear axle] the car does not feel as sharp as it should. The nose feels heavy even at low speeds and the understeer only gets worse as you go faster which means the Gallardo can only handle long, sweeping turns and will fumble miserably with tight corners. Due to the car’s XL-sized width, collisions with muggle cars are going to be more likely when you’re trying to squeeze past them on narrow roads and the fact that the car doesn’t react quickly enough when you try to avoid hitting them will only make matters worse. So you collide. Annoyingly, the misery doesn’t end there. If you even hit a water barrel, the engine loses a lot of revs and asks you to shift down and when you do, the revs don’t climb with the same ease as if the engine has a solid-uranium flywheel.

Even if you ignore the collision-angle, the car’s unnecessarily daft handling is a glaring shortcoming which only gets worse as you go faster and you literally have to wrestle with the car to change direction at speeds approaching 190 mph and above. I don’t like to have a wrestling match when I’m driving, I don’t know about you. Jeremy Clarkson somehow seems to love this thing coz he sold his Ford GT and bought the convertible version of the Lamborghini Gallardo. But I have an update. In the October 2007 edition of Top Gear, he wrote that he’s scheming to somehow return the Gallardo Spyder and get his money back so he can buy the new Audi R8…

#5 - The Bavarian Bruiser

BMW M3 GTR: This car, of course, is what the whole game of NFS-MW is all about. In the game, this will be your original ride before Razor boy pulls a fast one on you and uses your car to get to from Blacklist #15 all the way to the top. So this must mean that the M3 GTR is quite a machine. In the real world, the stock 2001 M3 ran on one of the most highly regarded engines in the automotive world – the 3.2 liter straight six dubbed S54B32 which made 333 BHP. However, the BMW M3 GTR was an extremely rare prototype powered by a 4.0 liter V8 which made nearly 450 BHP – more than a hundred horses extra. The racing version of this car was very successful in the American Le Mans Series but only two road-going M3 GTR’s are known to exist. In spite of being virtually non-existent on roads, this car is featured not only in NFS-MW but also in GTR - FIA GT Racing Game 2, Gran Turismo 4, Forza Motorsport 1 and 2. What’s the deal with that? Let’s find out what makes this car, well, “Most Wanted”.

Power Lap [+1 min 41 sec]: It is first of all, hugely fast as you can conclude from the Power Lap time. Secondly, because it’s a pretty heavy car, it is utterly calm and collected in every situation, and it’s nearly impossible to upset the composure. It also means even if you hit something, nothing really happens. You just shift down and the engine will be back in its element in no time making you feel unstoppable pretty much like the mutant “Juggernaut” in X-Men 3. It’s not only the engine either. The way the chassis treats tricky corners with utter contempt and just glides over anything you throw at it with absolutely no drama or histrionics whatsoever is unnerving. Driving the M3 GTR is rather like having Don Vito Corleone as your Personal Assistant – you just tell him what to do and he will get it done, no sweat. Nothing is impossible. But he will not smile when you say “Good job, Vito!” He will just give you a curt nod - “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business”.

And that brings me to the car’s shortcomings and there are quite a few. Firstly, the Nitrous boost in this car is short-lived and to make matters worse, you’re not allowed to upgrade any parts at all. Furthermore, its exhaust noise is as exciting as a Simon Webbe song which means it’s a lifeless monotonous drone of a steam boiler. But most of all, it is quite simply the victim of its own success. After the initial period where you drive the M3 GTR again and again just to be struck dumb by its absolutely staggering abilities, you start to think “Oh what’s the point? I’m going to win before the others reach 4th gear.” And that is not good. What’s most annoying is the fact that this car does not slip or slide at all and so you rarely need to really get in there with opposite lock to bring it back under control. This gives the whole driving experience a detached feel; you don’t feel like you’re involved because the car just doggedly does what it's told and doesn’t ask you to put in real effort. I know it sounds weird but the biggest fault of this car is the apparent absence or shortage of significant faults. Lack of faults is lack of character. Whom would you remember better – the mild-mannered guy who never talked but always topped the class or that guitarist who got detained again but still refuses to attend classes coz he’s too busy writing songs? I hope you picked the guitarist dude…

#4 - The British Ballerina

Lotus Elise: Ah, the Elise… The name sounds particularly feminine, but you’d be an idiot if you thought this was a girl-car like the Mazda Miata. This is the perfect badass little sports car for the discerning bloke, make no mistake. It’s a radically styled, aggressively priced roadster that you can take to a Track Day event and send pompous Aston Martin drivers scurrying for cover. This little baby, unlike the big dumb muscle cars from the other side of the Atlantic, wants nothing to do with gas-guzzling engine-pigs because Lotus aims at obtaining high performance through building light-weight cars which can be fairly brisk even if they’re powered by souped up lawnmower engines. The newest Elise “111R”, for instance, is powered by a clever 1.8 Liter engine good for 190 hp. Seems rather anemic, I know, but since the car weighs only about 800 kilos, that’s not at all bad. That’s mainly because Lotus employs some of the world’s finest suspension and chassis engineers who have gone to great lengths to make sure that even a spoilt-brat supercar chauvinist would agree that the Elise is a symphony of delicate balance and handling genius.

Power Lap [+1 min 36 sec]: I can already see jaws hanging open at the Elise’s Power Lap figures. Only 5 seconds slower than the M3 GTR despite having an unbelievable 250 horses less?? I hope the Elise has earned your respect by now. You only need to drive it for a few seconds through a twisting piece of track to realize how truly special this car is. This car feels so incredibly nimble and light that you’d think it was built entirely out of rubber bands and aluminum springs. NO other cars in this game, not even the cars above the Elise in this list feel so graceful through corners, it feels as if you’re dancing with the World Figure Skating Champion and she’s lovingly whispering in your ear to tell you what the next move is going to be. I have absolutely no clue what the Lotus Engineers have done with the Chassis and the Suspension to make them so communicative. Back in the ballroom, you know how you tenderly caress your dance partner’s body with your fingertips? That’s what driving the Elise is like. You can prepare a highly accurate 3-D map of the road labeling every little change in the surface after driving this car, that’s how much feedback you get from the Chassis-Suspension combo. It is just utterly magical. I simply cannot make you realize how lovely this car is around bends.

Then comes the engine. It’s a 1.8 Liter unit with Double Overhead Camshafts built by Toyota of all people but is pretty revolutionary because the two camshafts work in shifts, so to speak. One is devoted to playing the conscientious adult who drives “responsibly” to the grocery store to pick up Breakfast cereal for the kids and the other one, well, let’s just say it kicks in above 6000 rpm. And when it does, the engine simply mutates into a loud, bad-tempered, and foul-mouthed barbarian. The noise you get past 6000 rpm under full-bore acceleration is just fantastic, it sounds like Gene Hackman and Yosemite Sam swearing at each other while brandishing chainsaws. It sounds refreshing in a thoroughly unrestrained way.

But sadly, I’m afraid I have to stop the eulogizing right there. The engine, for all its technical and aural brilliance, is hugely underpowered for a chassis that’s so talented. This car can take so much more power, you can hear it pleading you to take it faster and faster through corners. But the problem is, the “responsible adult” camshaft is an extremely annoying control freak and whenever you hit something or you’re going up a steep incline, it refuses to rev up quickly and put Gene Hackman back in control. Unfortunately, this problem is compounded by the fact that the Elise weighs as much as Kate Moss’s Dior nightgown and whenever you hit something head-on, the massive loss of momentum forces you to shift all the way down to 2nd. Oh god, I can’t bear to elaborate on the Elise’s problems anymore coz it’s just too painful. Suffice to say that I loathe vicious circles...But not to worry, my darling. I still love you!

#3 - The Feisty Firecracker

Renault-Sport Clio V6: Let me tell you how the Clio V6 was created. Renault took the best-selling Standard Clio, threw the standard spec engine away and put a terrifying 255 hp 3.0 liter 24-valve V6 where the backseats used to be. People thought Renault had clearly lost its mind because it converted a nice, sensible family hatchback into a loud, mid-engined psychopath with no backseats and only enough space in the boot for the day’s laundry. Oh and had the turning-radius the size of the Arctic Circle. People would openly laugh at you if you even thought this car was not ridiculous. But they are the sort of people who spend their whole lives trying to be normal, like everyone else. They drive white Toyota Corollas not because they love the car but because it’s the best-selling car in the world. The sort of people who have no sense of identity or imagination whatsoever and can’t even think on their own. If I was a Secret Agent, I’d drive a Corolla coz nobody would even notice me in it and I would blend effortlessly into the overwhelming mediocrity all around. And I’d probably get sick of it all in about 4 mins and quit the CIA so I could drive a Clio V6.

Power Lap [+1 min 34 sec]: Right, you may notice that the Clio V6 is the second-quickest car so far. What may not be so obvious is that the Clio is by far the most fun car to drive in the whole game. Thanks to the ideally located engine, the Clio doesn’t understeer or oversteer - it just dives madly towards wherever you point its nose like a crazed greyhound. Every steering input you give is magnified a million fold and it’s not just the front wheels that react, it’s the whole bloody car. The handling on this car is responsive to the point of being jumpy and twitchy as hell.

And just imagine what happens when you hit the Nitrous. For a few terrifying moments, you will have absolutely no control over the car. Even after you yell yourself hoarse at it and bring it back, it refuses to go calmly along a straight line; it weaves along erratically as if bouncing off invisible barriers, giggling madly and screaming “Wheeeeeeee!!” When you’re driving this thing flat out, you are millimeters from being completely and utterly out of control which makes this car so adorable and forms the biggest chunk of its absolutely delightful appeal. This car should come with a Statutory Warning Sticker that says “Will cause dangerously hysterical laughs. For Safety reasons, it must be driven under the supervision of people who have no sense of adventure”.

Secondly, since the car is tiny – as wide as Mona Lisa’s smile and a wheelbase as long as the life expectancy of minor characters in a Matthew Reilly novel, the Clio is simply invincible when the track is chock full of abrupt 90-degree corners and U-turns and narrow lanes. You can bring any car you like. You simply cannot catch a Clio V6 on a twisty track.

Then there’s the exhaust noise. It faintly resembles the Ferrari F430’s low-rev bellow before it goes all seductive but the Clio V6 is so thuggishly loud; the astonishing racket it makes will leave you feeling like an eight year old let inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. Or a seventeen year old let inside the Cheerleaders changing room, whatever makes you happy. There is no subtlety about it, no attempt at pseudo-refinement like the pitiful SLR McLaren-Mercedes. Its only purpose, like everything else on the Clio V6 including the cheeky looks, is to put a silly grin on your face whenever you even think of the car.

So why is it only third-best? Well, for starters, you will be distinctly disadvantaged while racing this car on tracks with long straights because there is a noticeable lack of power towards the Clio’s top-end. More importantly, it is too easy to completely ruin your lap in this car. You only need to lightly brush against an oncoming car or a barrier and you’ll be going sideways in no time aided and abetted by the car’s short wheelbase; backwards if you’re unlucky. And when that happens, there’s no bringing it back. There’s nothing you can do except restart the race – as I must have done about six hundred times when I was trying to get it round the track for its Power Lap time. Honestly, it drove me nuts. I felt so relieved after I got the figures, not because I didn’t have to try again but because I didn’t have to be angry at this car anymore. All in all, effing good job, Renault! Viva la France!

#2 - Some Kind of Monster

Porsche Carrera GT: The Carrera GT comes with quite an intimidating reputation for being a fiendishly difficult car to drive in the real world. You may have read or heard much about the clutch made from er, Silicon Carbide and the 612 bhp, 5.7 liter V10 monstrosity originally developed for Le Mans racing and the world’s first all-carbon fiber chassis. While this uncompromising combination maybe the perfect recipe for a take-no-prisoners hypercar, it also means it can bite seriously hard as Top Gear’s superhuman test driver “The Stig” found out. For instance, it is said that for all practical purposes, there is no flywheel in the Carrera GT’s engine which means the revs climb and fall with ridiculous ease which in turn means just getting this car rolling from a standstill is a challenge. If you apply too little throttle, you’ll stall the car which will be embarrassing and if you apply too much, you’ll find yourself in orbit around a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, which will be rather more inconvenient. And this car comes only with a manual gearbox and few bells and whistles which is good because it scares away rich snobs who neither have taste nor the balls to drive a frantically, frighteningly fast car like this one. They’d be better off with an SLR McLaren. Ok, back to the game now…

Power Lap [+1 min 46 sec]: Well, I told you this car is quick - quicker than any other car in the game in fact. Anyway, you need to floor the throttle at the last possible moment to get a Perfect Launch and when you do, there’s literally an explosion of revs, noise and power that’ll make you whimper pitifully and hang on for dear life as the Carrera GT goes into Warp Drive [Oh look, Microsoft Word thinks “Warp Drive” could be part of an address! Cho cute…]. As you move along and overtake USS Enterprise, you can almost feel the downforce pressing the car into the tarmac and marvel at the excellent aerodynamic properties of the car’s seemingly no-frills exterior. Expectedly, mid-engine layout means the car feels alive in your hands, responding instantaneously to even the tiniest of inputs giving you incredibly responsive and razor-sharp handling. Since the car weighs so little, all that power from the insane V10 just eats up straight sections with indecent gusto and catapults you out of corners with alarming acceleration. Speaking of the V10, the noise it makes just can't be described. All I can think of now is "Oh-My-God". The awesome howl will not only give you goosebumps but also tons of feedback and help you use the gearbox quite effectively for engine braking.

But that said, getting used to the savage power and violent acceleration of this Cruise Missile is not easy for beginners because you need lightning-quick reflexes to avoid getting in trouble and greeting the walls. Even for seasoned drivers, it takes phenomenal amounts of concentration to drive this car flat out without losing control and unlike the BMW M3 GTR, you will be asked to display considerable skill if you want quick laps. The incredibly free-revving V10 will not stay in any gear for more than a few seconds while you’re accelerating and unless you’re on a particularly long straight section of track, you will find yourself relentlessly shifting up or down as you just obliterate one corner after another. When you’re at the helm of this car, there will not be a single dull moment till you finally finish the race or just die of sheer terror and mental exhaustion.

And that’s what makes this car so addictively mind-blowing. After driving the Carrera GT at full tilt nudging 230+ mph and listening to the engine which sounds like Amy Lee having an orgasm, you will be left gasping for breath and perilously light-headed from all the white-knuckle fast dashes down the freeway and frantic sprints through the city dodging muggle cars all along. And you’ll want to do it again. And again. And again...

But why isn’t it #1? The only flaw with this car I can think of is the fact that you are not allowed to buy it until you’ve almost completed your career. When you finally get to buy it, you will be asked to shell out freaking 280,000 for the car alone and then half a million more on ultimate upgrades. But if you think about it, you don’t really need to spend so much on a seriously fast car like the Carrera GT coz you’ll be skilled enough to manage with slower cars that you already own. It’s really hard for me to say this but to be brutally honest, it feels a little pointless to buy the Carrera GT at the fag end of the game where it won’t play a significant role in your career. How I wish I was allowed to buy this car sooner… How I wish it was not a Forbidden Fruit…