Showing all posts tagged carplay:

First Impressions

Having now put the first 2000km on my Giulia, across city, motorway, and twisty Alpine road, here are some first impressions and comparisons with the late lamented Beast.

Quite apart from all the differences inherent in going from a lardy SUV to a lithe sports saloon that weighs about as much as one of my old Cayenne’s doors, there is also more than a decade of evolution separating the two cars, so there are all sorts of changes to take into account. Overall though I am just so happy with my choice; the thing looks just perfect, subtle but aggressive, a brawler in an impeccably tailored Italian suit. The gamble with the paint colour paid off, despite looking nothing like the picture in the online configurator! It shifts between grey and blue, with bronze accents in the sunlight, and looks far better than that description – although the full effect doesn’t quite come across in pictures.

The Giulia also manages to pull off that trick that 911s have of feeling special even at parking speeds, and keeps it up all the way to the rev limiter – not that I have explored that too much yet, as I wanted to run the motor in somewhat gently. The good feeling is due in no small part to the mass of the engine being entirely behind the line of the front axle, contributing to that perfect weight distribution.

The lightness and sensitivity of the steering are a huge part of this "specialness", but it’s a feeling that is woven throughout the car, from the way the instruments are angled towards the driver, to the seats that offer a perfectly judged combination of comfort and firm bolsters holding you in place. The DNA modes also help, with a switch into Dynamic feeling like a shot of adrenaline straight into the driver’s veins, vision turning red at the edges in sync with the instruments.

I did miss the air suspension from the Beast on some of the broken cobbled surfaces in Milan, but apart from that I far prefer the Giulia’s sporty setup, which even in standard mode appears to have deep-seated religious objections to any roll in the body. In sport mode it adds a well-judged firmness without becoming crashy – in other words, it’s still comfortable on the straights, and then sends the car around corners absolutely flat.

Mostly my impressions from the test drive were confirmed in spades. It’s a taut, agile car; the engine is very willing even in automatic mode, but also rewards use of the paddles. A four-cylinder engine is inherently never going to sound as good as a V8, but the Beast was not especially vocal, while I suspect the Alfa team had a few meetings with the team that tunes the exhausts over at Abarth. It’s not nearly as bombastic as those little 500s, but the Giulia’s twin exhausts still manage to sound pretty fruity when you push on a bit.

One place where the Chrysler part of Fiat-Chrysler shows through is the very American-sounding beep which goes off if you change lanes without indicating. The lane departure warning can easily be turned on and off from a button on the end of one of the stalks, which is a very Italian touch that is convenient on a twisty mountain road where you're frequently crossing back and forth across the centre line.

There is also radar cruise control, which does a pretty decent job of keeping its distance from traffic. It could be better, as while the distance is adjustable, even the minimum distance is still quite far away, especially by the standards of Italian motorways. The system is also quite eager to drop a cog to accelerate back up to speed, which is not necessary at all. When I’m on the cruise control, by definition I’m in no hurry! Anyway, this feature is mostly helpful, but only with light traffic. In even moderate traffic, it’s too eager to back off, then surge back up to speed – not very relaxing.

The same radar sensor also drives a forward collision warning system, which, yes, I have already heard triggered. I was already braking, but it automatically activated the hazard lights when the warning fired, which could be useful when doing a full emergency stop.

The dashboard screen is gorgeous but not touch sensitive, which is initially disconcerting when trying to navigate CarPlay. After a month of use I think I actually prefer doing it through the clickwheel, as it’s much easier to get things done without taking my eyes off the road. The usual steering wheel buttons also help, with play/pause, cue, and volume buttons all present and correct. The other two ICE-related buttons are used to hang up on a call, and to trigger Siri, so I don’t really miss touching the screen at all.

On that note, it is so good to have physical controls in the cabin for functions like climate control. I don’t need to take my eyes off the wheel to make it cooler or warmer; there is a lovely tactile wheel that I can twist around a little or a lot, and know right away whether my action was registered. There’s also a physical control between the seats for the ICE, with volume, play/pause, forward/back, and screen off functions – very useful for the passenger, while the driver is probably best served using the steering wheel controls.

Bottom line, I absolutely love my Giulia. If you’re in the market for something similar, I highly recommend it. If you’re not up for the Veloce setup that I got (or for the full-beans Quadrifoglio monster!), you can get most of the same goodness on the Super, with the same two-litre motor in a milder 200bhp tune. Take a test drive, you won’t regret it!

Listen To The Heart

I am now the proud owner of my third1 Alfa Romeo! Well, technically I’ve only made the down payment: the car itself will arrive in a couple of months, so a good late Christmas / early birthday present for me.

Much as I would have loved a Giulia Quadrifoglio, Italy’s horsepower tax (spit) tips that over from "maybe if I scrimp & save" to "sorry, not going to happen". What I really would have liked would have been a Giulia Sportwagon, but Alfa Romeo in their wisdom don’t make one of those. I wonder if this is the American influence speaking, as they have made wagon versions of all their previous cars, going back to the 33 Giardinetta?

Regardless, this lack of a wagon option means that I had a difficult decision between heart (Giulia Veloce – most of the good bits of the Quadrifoglio, but with a thriftier two-litre twin-turbo four-pot, sending 280 bhp to all four wheels) and head (Stelvio Bi-Tech – basically a Giulia on stilts and with a bigger boot).

I had a good long test drive of a Giulia Super, which the dealer had ready to go. This is basically the spec I wanted for a Veloce, but in a lower state of engine tune – 200 bhp instead of 280. As with most modern cars, the Giulia features keyless-go, which I don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other. Alfa Romeo however have taken this excuse to put the start/stop button on the steering wheel, Ferrari-style, which is admittedly a gimmick, but a good one.

Straight away the impressions were good, with light and sensitive steering, reacting instantly to inputs and giving good feedback through the wheel. The Alfa is not only far lighter than the Beast, it’s also the lightest of its peers, usefully edging the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the Audi A4. You can feel this lightness as soon as you turn the wheel, with a level of agility and responsiveness the others struggle to match. The transmission sends drive to all four wheels, but in normal use it’s heavily rear-biased, which also helps.

Even in lukewarm 200 bhp spec, this motor pulls well. Again, the lack of weight helps here, but it’s a willing engine, and it sounds good too. The eight-speed ZF gearbox is technically the same unit as in the Volvo V70 I also drove, but the feeling could not be more different. Left to do its own thing, it shuffles gears quite competently, and indeed invisibly, especially in normal driving. However, should you be in the mood, there are those paddles behind the steering wheel… Slap the BMW-style gearstick left into manual mode, and you are in full control, and I do mean full. The dealer sales rep was sitting beside me, so I couldn’t get too extreme, but I tried hard to catch the system out, and I simply couldn’t.

Alfa Romeo also offers its DNA drive-mode selector, and the three modes are indeed usefully different. You start in N, for Normal, which is a good description. In this mode everything is, well, normal; the car will trickle around town quite happily without making a fuss, but will also downshift promptly if you put your foot down. D is for Dynamic mode, and everything gets just a bit sharper-edged; the engine note hardens, the transmission hangs on to gears for a bit longer, the traction control relaxes a bit (it can’t be turned fully off except on the Quadrifoglio), traction shifts entirely to the rear wheels, and so on. The test car did not have the sport suspension fitted that I specced for my own car, but that is also affected. The third option in the DNA system is A, the All-Weather mode, with the traction control primed and ready to step in at any moment. This mode can also be used for motorway cruising, as a sort of "eco" mode, where it is quiet and unobtrusive.

In addition to the shape of the gear lever, there is something else in the cabin that is eerily reminiscent of BMW, and that is the in-car entertainment system. There is a click-wheel which is pretty much identical to an iDrive controller, driving a menu system which is also very similar to the BMW setup. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and indeed BMW’s iDrive is by far the best input system I have used. I can’t get on with Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system, and Audi’s MMI is just a mess. Tesla-style systems that hide all the controls in a touchscreen are actively dangerous. Instead, the click-wheel systems that Alfa Romeo and BMW use allow drivers to memorise common paths through the system – two clicks left, press, three clicks right, press – for repeated tasks, without taking their eyes off the wheel.

I don’t intend to spend much time with the Giulia’s onboard systems, though, since it has a very good CarPlay implementation. Upon connecting the phone, the whole screen – a very nice 8.8" TFT, merged beautifully into the curve of the dashboard – is taken over by the CarPlay display, which can be navigated using that wonderfully tactile click-wheel, with its direct haptic feedback. Plus of course there’s Siri, available through her own button on the steering wheel, who will read you messages and take dictation in return.

Everything you touch in the Giulia’s cabin feels premium. In classic Alfa style, the instruments are very much focused on the driver, but all the control surfaces are pleasant, the ICE is competent but not intrusive, and all the other controls fall easily to the hand. The steering wheel in particular is a joy, adjusting easily to suit even my difficult requirements: I have long legs and so I sit quite far back, but even though I also have long arms, I like the steering wheel relatively close to me, low down but not so much that it obstructs the instruments. The sports seats also provide great lateral support during cornering.

When it comes to practical aspects, the boot is larger than I expected, but still compromised (as compared to a wagon) by a big cross-member that sits below the rear screen. Rear leg room is also perfectly adequate, even behind me, but not perhaps ample. These considerations persuaded me to also test-drive the Stelvio SUV.

This is basically the same car, just with longer suspension travel and a larger boot (and apparently slightly more rear leg room). This time I did get to drive the 280 bhp engine, but while I could feel the extra power, its impact was somewhat blunted by the extra weight. The Stelvio is still a light car for what it is, but it’s inevitably taller than the Giulia, and you do feel that when cornering. There is apparently an active suspension pack which mitigates some of the body roll, but it’s throwing technology at a physics problem which can be avoided by simply not jacking a Giulia up on stilts in the first place. I also don’t particularly like the fact that you can see the much smaller real exhaust tips hiding in plain sight inside the massive chromed fake tips. Petty, I know, but there it is.

Ultimately what made my decision was that, after the Beast, I’ve had my fill of SUVs and want to get back low to the ground. I would have happily bought a Giulia Sportwagon, but since Alfa Romeo won’t sell me one, I think I can make the saloon work. The Stelvio is a fine SUV and I would have been happy with it, but the Giulia is just better at being a car.

I did make a bit of a gamble on the colour, opting for what is apparently the rarest colour in the gamut: Grigio Lipari. In the configurator it looks almost burgundy, but in person it’s a rich grey-blue, shifting between one and the other depending on the light, with reddish flecks embedded beneath the surface. I think it will look great, especially with the diamond-cut version of the classic Alfa "telephone dial" wheels, but we shall see when it arrives.

I’m just happy to have rejoined the ranks of the Alfisti.

  1. I previously owned a 156 with the last generation of the venerable Busso V6 engine, as well as a 147 Blackline with every "sport" option in Alfa’s catalogue. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and neither ever gave me any trouble. So much for Alfas’ high-maintenance reputation! 

How To Throw Away A Sale

When it came to be time to replace the Beast, I had a shortlist to work from. I initially wanted a Mini Clubman, in John Cooper Works trim, but was informed by She Who Must Be Obeyed that this was simply not big enough to act as the main family car.

I therefore went back to the drawing board, refined the list to two cars, and started arranging test drives.

The first dealership I visited was Volvo, as I liked the idea of a plug-in hybrid1, and nobody else seems to build them as cars – not SUVs, not city runabouts, but regular-sized family cars. The V70 seemed to fit the bill: gigantic load capacity, Volvo reputation for safety and reliability, and a plug-in hybrid drivetrain available. The Volvo setup even promised some potential for fun, as the hybrid system allows the driver to ghost silently around town on electric power alone, drive normally using the petrol engine, or combine both for a 400 bhp hit.

Unfortunately it was not possible to arrange a test-drive of the hybrid option. This was my first warning sign, especially when I tried other dealers in nearby cities and nobody had one to drive, not even fitted to a different car (the same drivetrain powers the larger V90 wagon, as well as the XC60 and XC90 SUVs and S70 and S90 saloons). I am not excited by the idea of owning some sort of unicorn and potentially having to wait for parts to be shipped from China if anything goes wrong.

Regardless, I agreed to test-drive a V70 with the popular D4 drivetrain. This is a common-or-garden turbo diesel four-pot, which sounds quite clattery from the outside of the car. On the inside, Volvo’s usual understated Scandinavian luxury muffles the racket to a distant drone, but it’s never a particularly pleasant sound.

That first impression of luxury was short-lived, though. The test-drive car had a middle-of-the-road Business spec, which looked fine but did not quite live up to its billing when it came to various important touch-points. The engine is started by twisting a little knob, which felt fiddly and flimsy. The steering wheel was nice enough, but had some very rough stitching right where the driver’s thumbs rest. The buttons all felt plasticky, too.

These may seem like quibbles, and indeed I would happily be able to put up with them on a Škoda, or indeed on something that compensated by being more driver-focused. However, the Volvo’s big selling point is that it’s a nice, safe place to be. It plays on that Scandinavian notion of hygge, which is probably best translated as "coziness", although that does not quite cover it. For a car this expensive, everything I touch has to fit into that overall impression. Instead, every touch point I came in contact with undermined that cozy feeling.

The next disappointment was the in-car stereo. New Volvos have an iPad-style portrait-oriented touchscreen high in the middle of the dashboard. This is fine, although I found it a bit distracting even on a brief test-drive. It doesn’t go quite as far as new Teslas in putting all the controls there, but it goes far enough in that direction that I would worry about not being able to access controls easily on the move without taking my eyes off the road.

CarPlay is also a must-have feature for me, and as Volvo was a launch partner of this technology, I was looking forward to testing out their implementation. Unfortunately, it took far too long to get my phone recognised by the Volvo’s systems, and once it was connected (by cable – still no wireless CarPlay 2), instead of taking over that big screen, it just created a little letterbox window towards the bottom, with the rest of the Volvo chrome still cluttering up the rest of the screen. The resulting CarPlay view was actually smaller than my iPhone X’s screen, which undermines a large part of what makes CarPlay useful in the first place.

The driving experience was pretty much as expected: very competent in a quiet way, and almost entirely insulated from the road. In typical Volvo fashion, the V70 is loaded with safety systems, all of which seem to be well thought out. I particularly liked the lane-departure warning system, which gently guides you back into your lane if you stray across a white line – unless your indicator is on, in which case it assumes you know what you’re doing. It doesn’t vibrate the wheel or do anything annoying, instead simply applying a little extra pressure to the power steering. It’s possible to override this guidance quite easily, but it’s just enough to catch your attention. Imagine Jeeves delivering a quiet cough to draw your attention to a potentially unfortunate choice, but resigning himself with a pained look if you do insist.

Despite this late break, and the truly cavernous boot ("trunk" for American readers), the test drive was a bit of a let-down. I don’t know whether my reaction might have been different if I had been able to drive the sportier hybrid R-Design spec I had in mind, but I got out of the car with that feeling I get when I hand back a rental car: "that was perfectly fine, but I’m glad I’m going back to my own car now". In other words, I had no intention of spending my own money on the thing, especially once the salesman made it clear he was extremely uninterested in offering me any reasonable trade-in on the Beast.

A pity; I was ready to embrace the green EV/hybrid lifestyle, but it seems it was not meant to be – yet, at least.

  1. Pure EVs are not really an option in Italy. I did test-drive a Tesla around the time I bought the Beast, because all of my friends and colleagues in California raved about all the state and federal subsidies they got, the access to HOV lanes, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, not only does Italy not offer any of that – EVs are subject to all the normal taxes2 – because of the Tesla’s power rating, it also came in for an additional horsepower tax, with no discount for its non-polluting nature. In the same way, there was no equivalent of the HOV lane access, or London’s free access to the congestion charging zone. In other words, a Tesla Model S would cost in the same range as a BMW M5, and I wasn’t able to justify that even if I had had the budget. 

  2. Matters have improved slightly, although in a very Italian way: the taxes are still due, but then a partial rebate can be applied for through the regional government. It’s still not quite worth it, especially given that roll-out of the charging infrastructure around here appears to have stalled. With the recent ban on older diesels, maybe that calculation will change in time for my next car. Conspiracy theorists might also suspect that government incentives will coincidentally be introduced once FCA get around to launching a hybrid offering of their own. 

Updating the Car

As I mentioned in my one-year review of my car, the one aftermarket upgrade I made was to swap the rather dated factory ICE for a CarPlay head unit. That modification is itself now about a year into its service, so it is also about due a review.

The reason for the upgrade is that the factory PCM 2.1 unit was really showing its age, with no USB, Bluetooth, or even Aux-in. In other words, Porsche were way ahead of Apple in removing the headphone jack… Courage!

This meant it was not possible to connect my phone to the car. Instead, I had a second SIM card which lived in the dash itself, and a curly-cord handset in the armrest between the front seats. Very retro, but not the most practical solution.

The worst part, though, was the near decade-old maps. While we do have some roads around here that are a couple of thousand years old, lots of them are quite a bit newer, and even on the Roman roads, it’s important to know about one-way systems and traffic restrictions.


My solution for these problems was to swap the PCM 2.1 system for a head unit that is basically just a dumb screen driven by an iPhone, with no functionality of its own beyond a FM tuner. The reason is that I change phones much more frequently than I change cars, and upgrade the software on my phone more frequently than that.

The specific device is an Alpine ILX-007, and I am quite satisfied with it. It has a decent screen, which seems to be one of the key complaints people have about other CarPlay systems. There is occasionally a little lag, but I assume that’s software rather than hardware, since it’s not reproducible. It did crash on me once, losing my radio presets, but that’s it.


Adding this system to my car has been a substantial upgrade. I have all my music, podcasts and so on immediately available, I can make phone calls, and there is even a dedicated button to talk to Siri. I use this a lot to add reminders to myself while driving, as well as obvious stuff like calling people.

Siri also reads messages that come in while the phone is in CarPlay mode, which is occasionally hilarious when she tries to read something written in a language other than English. On the other hand Siri handles emoji pretty well, reading their name (e.g. "face blowing kisses"), which is very effective at getting the meaning across - although it’s a bit disconcerting the first time it happens!

Contrary to my early fears about CarPlay, it works perfectly with my steering-wheel controls too, so ergonomics are great.

The main win though is that my in-car entertainment now benefits from iOS upgrades in a big way. In particular, iOS 10 brings a redesigned Music screen and a major update to Maps.

Show me around

The Music screen used to have five tabs, which is way too many to navigate while driving. The new version has three tabs, and is generally much clearer to use. I don’t use Apple Music, and one of the things that I hated about the old version was that it would default to the Apple Music tab. The biggest reason why I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music is that the only time I really get to listen to music is while I’m out and about. That means either in aeroplanes, where connectivity is generally entirely absent, or in the car, where it is unreliable and expensive. Therefore, I only listen to music stored locally on my phone, but I had to switch away each and every time I launched the Music app. iOS 10 fixes that.

The biggest change iOS 10 brings to the CarPlay experience is to Maps. Many people have pointed out that Maps will now add a waypoint when the iPhone is disconnected from the car, so that drivers can easily retrace their steps to their parked car. I have to admit that I have never lost my car, but it’s good to know that it’s, say, ten minutes’ walk away when it’s raining.


There are also updated graphics, which are much clearer to read in a hurry. These are not just limited to pretty icons, though; there is actual improved functionality. Previously, users had to switch manually between separate Overview and Detail modes. Annoyingly, there was a significant gap between the greatest zoom on Overview and the widest area on Detail. Also, Detail did not include traffic alerts, while Overview by default showed the entire route, not just currently relevant parts, so a typical journey required a fair amount of switching back and forth between modes.

The new Maps zooms gradually over the course of the journey, always showing current position near one edge of the screen and destination near another edge. This is much more useful, allowing the driver to focus on alerts that are coming up rather than being distracted by ones that are already passed. There is also more intelligence about proposing alternate routes around congestion.


And yes, Maps works perfectly well for me, thank you. I would probably use it anyway given that, as the system-level mapping service, it plugs into everything, so I can quickly get directions to my next appointment from the calendar or go to a contact’s home or office address. The search could still be better, requiring very precise phrasing, but contrary to Maps’ reputation out there, landmarks generally exist and are in the correct place.

I am on record as an Apple Maps fan even in the early days, and it’s improved enormously since then. Don’t believe the hype, give it a go.

The integration is a big deal, as I saw last Wednesday. I was supposed to meet a colleague out and about, so I used Messages to send him my current location. To be extra sure, I chose the actual restaurant I was in, rather than just my GPS location. All my colleague needed to do was to tap on the location in the chat to be routed to my location. Unfortunately, he is one of those who prefer Google Maps, so he eyeballed the pin location and entered that in Google Maps. Unfortunately for him, the location he eyeballed turned out to correspond to a chain, and Google in its eagerness to give a result (any result) gave him the location of the nearest branch of that chain, rather than the specific location I was near.

It all worked out in the end, after a half-hour detour and a second taxi trip…

Trust the system, it works.

The System Works

This is exactly why I got a CarPlay unit in the first place: so I would get updates in the car more frequently than every few years when I get a whole new car. So far, that’s working out just perfectly. The iOS 10 upgrade cleaned up some annoyances and added convenient new features without requiring me to rip out all my dashboard wiring. I won’t consider another car without CarPlay support.

Stupid Car Review, One Year In

Since I just renewed the insurance on the ridiculous thing, I thought it an appropriate time to look back on a year with a very silly car.

A year ago I had just quit my job. The old job was one of the few that still came with a company car, so I had to get myself a new car quickly to be able to drive to the airport for the new gig. Luckily I’m a fool car nut, so I had a short list ready to deploy. (As it happens, I have a short list for every occasion…)

I ran the short list past my wife, AKA the sensible person in my house, and she immediately nixed all but one of the options. So that was easy.

So what did you get?

I got myself a Porsche Cayenne (955) Turbo S. No, the new job was not as a bank robber! I found a lightly used one that was eight years old by the time I got it, and despite the low mileage and generally excellent condition, it cost about the same as my wife’s new mid-spec Golf. Still an extremely silly car, but not entirely idiotic.

Let's review some of the relevant stats (emphasis mine):

It was powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.5-L V8 that produced 521 PS (383 kW) and 720 N·m (530 lb·ft) of torque. Acceleration from 0–60 mph (96 km/h) was 5.0 seconds and the top speed was 171 miles per hour.

Beyond a certain point, I think car manufacturers should just do like Rolls-Royce and simply declare horsepower to be "adequate".

Since I bought it I’ve put 30k on it with zero maintenance issues so far, apart from a single burned-out light bulb (touch wood). Sure, it drinks like a drunken sailor with a drinking problem who’s really thirsty and also isn’t paying for his own drinks, and likes to wash its drink down with the occasional drop of oil too - but every time I put my foot down I forgive it. Basically it’s the cheapest way I could find to drive something fun that could haul the kids and all their clobber. It also very definitely has presence - looming suddenly into someone’s rear view mirror generally causes them to jump out of the way pretty promptly, and if they don’t move over, the xenons are probably bright enough to give them sunburn.

What’s it like to drive?

It’s surprisingly capable in the twisty stuff, unless the going gets really tight. It’s definitely better than it has any right to be, especially with the air suspension dropped a notch and set to Sport mode. I have had the tyres chirping a few times on late night drives - the rear tyres, note. Even though it can feel like it’s reluctant to get its nose into the corner, you can drive around that and find a surprising level of agility. Okay, it’s no Caterham, but compared to other big SUVs I’ve driven, it’s night and day. "Worst Porsche, best SUV", as the saying goes.

Straight-line speed is, predictably, ridiculous, being apparently unrestrained by mere laws of physics, but only by the driver's desire to hang onto their license. Amazingly, I have so far managed to avoid speeding tickets too. Probably jinxed myself on both counts (that and maintenance) now!

I will say that having this much power under my right foot has paradoxically made me a more relaxed driver. Knowing that I can at any moment summon the thunder and disappear into the distance in a cloud of dust means I don't feel the urge to floor it at every possible opportunity, and am more likely to view aggressive drivers' antics with amused condescension than as any sort of challenge.

The Tiptronic S transmission is… fine. In automatic mode it shuffles ratios fairly competently, although it has the usual failing of automatics, where it is always either trying to hang onto a gear too long, or dropping two cogs at once. The former isn’t that big a problem with this much torque, just giving you a moment to enjoy the feeling of the building boooOOOOST, but the latter can leave you with a double-handful of unwanted revs and sudden acceleration. Fortunately there are steering-wheel-mounted buttons to control matters. Even one year in, I still find it odd that there is a + and a - control on each side of the wheel, rather than one side being + and the other being -. To avoid confusing myself, I tend to use each side for only one purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever shifted with the gear lever - not least because you can still use the Tiptronic controls while remaining in automatic mode. This will let you drop a gear or two for an overtake or a tight corner, and then revert to slushmatic mode a few seconds later - very convenient.

Being a Turbo S, the thing comes with front and rear locking diffs and a low-range gear box, so it’s probably more capable off road than I am. The worst terrain I need to deal with is the occasional dirt road, though, so I haven’t actually used those features yet beyond checking that they worked. I did overtake the snow plough driving up an Alpine pass one night, but that was enabled more by good winter tyres than any special drivetrain mode.

Surely it can’t be all good, right?

If you want a real-world picture of the downsides, I’ll just say that I’m now on first-name terms with the staff at my usual petrol station… The Beast (as it is nicknamed for obvious reasons) is picky about its fuel, too, preferring to drink the 98-octane-plus top-shelf stuff, which is only available at two locations that are convenient to me.

Also, even though I bought the thing on the right side of the depreciation curve (seriously, I paid something like one-sixth of the original list price), parts are still Porsche parts, with a price tag to suit. I had to fit new front brake disks, and each one ran over €900! I was actually braced to replace all four, since you don’t want to skimp on brakes, especially on something that big, fast, and heavy. However my local Porsche dealer was scrupulously honest, and after I had already approved replacing both fronts and rears, they called me up and told me the rears were good for another year or so. After that one, they’ve got themselves a customer for life.

Tyre prices are equally terrifying, but when you see the sheer acreage of rubber (245/40/20) next to more normal tyres, you begin to understand why - plus of course you need compounds rated for the speeds and loads the Beast puts on them. Once they’re on, they seem to last well enough; the new winter set that just came off looked nicely healthy and evenly worn, and still had plenty of tread left.

On the plus side of that equation, Porsche ownership gets you invited to Porsche events - so last weekend found me haring around the Circuito Tazio Nuvolari in the new 718 Boxster S, before hitting the handling track in the new 911 C4S (the one with the rear-wheel steering - very nice).

What would you change

I already changed the one thing that really bugged me, which was the in-car entertainment system. The Beast came with PCM 2.1, and that is really quite dated, with no Bluetooth, USB, or even aux-in - basically no way whatsoever of talking to the outside world. The novelty factor of the curly-cord handset in the armrest was cute, and I was able to get a second SIM card for my mobile number to put in the car, so I ran it like that for a while. However, after a few months I had had enough of having to swap out CDs in the six-disc changer in the back, not being able to listen to podcasts, and having nearly decade-old maps in the satnav.

I replaced the original ICE system with an Alpine head unit with CarPlay1, so now I just plug my iPhone into the armrest where that phone handset used to go, and I have all my music, podcasts, and maps on the screen in the dashboard. There’s even a dedicated Siri button, so the Son&Heir can tell her to "play some Ramones" as soon as he gets in the car. I had to get an additional amp to feed the (very nice) Bose system that the car came with, but I am very happy with the results.

The only other thing I am tempted to change is the exhaust. There’s a lovely burble when starting the engine from cold, but unless you’re really hoofing it, it’s pretty subtle on the move. (Tunnels are great fun, though!) I would quite like to hear more of the engine’s voice, but I can’t really justify the four-figure cost, especially for something that would probably make my wife’s eyes roll right back into her head.

There is absolutely no call for chipping it, what with the amount of power it’s throwing about already. I love the looks just as they are, and the 20" Porsche OEM wheels are perfect too, so I think it will stay stock apart from the PCM swap.

Now tell us what you really think

Bottom line, I love the thing to bits, even though it has probably spoiled me for any other car that does not have heated electric everything and all the POWERRRR in the world. Buy with care, and you can have a lot of fun with one of these things.

  1. Yes, the steering wheel buttons work with the new head unit thanks to a little adapter, so between that and Siri, my fears over CarPlay were not justified. 

The Problem with CarPlay

Today at the Geneva International Motor Show, Apple announced CarPlay, with is the new name for "iOS in the car". It looks great!

They are pitching it as "a Smarter, Safer & More Fun Way to Use iPhone in the Car", and I love the concept. We upgrade our phones every year or two, but our cars much less frequently than that. In-car entertainment systems are limited by the automotive industry’s product cycles, so they are basically already obsolete (in consumer terms) by the time the car hits the showroom. Enabling cars to piggy-back on the smart, GPS-navigating, voice-recognising, music-playing computers that we already carry in our pockets can only be a good thing.

If you take a look at a video of CarPlay in action, though, I see one huge issue.

Touchscreens in cars are a terrible idea. Old-school controls gave drivers haptic feedback: if you turn the dial one notch, you feel the click, and you get the next radio station, or one increment of temperature, or whatever it is. This is something drivers can do completely blind, without taking their eyes off the road.

It’s been at least a decade since cars could accommodate physical controls for all of their functions, so multi-function control systems like iDrive, Comand or MMI were introduced to help with the plethora of systems and settings that modern cars require. All of these systems allow users to navigate hierarchical menu trees to control in-car entertainment, navigation, and vehicle settings.

These systems are still better than touchscreens, though, because at least the driver’s hand rests on the one control, and that control still has tactile increments to it. The haptic feedback from those clicks is enough for seasoned users to be able to navigate the menu tree with only occasional glances at the screen - very important at highway speeds.

Touchscreens are terrible for non-visual feedback. Users have no idea, short of looking at the screen, whether their action achieved the result they wanted or not.

Apple’s suggestion of using Siri is not much of a fix. I like Siri and use the feature a lot in my car to dictate e-mails or messages, but it depends entirely on network access. Out of major cities - you know, where I take my car - network access is often insufficient to use Siri with any reliability, so drivers will almost certainly need to use the touchscreen as well.

I really hope that CarPlay also works with steering-wheel mounted controls, as those allow control with an absolute minimum of interruption. If we could have audio feedback that did not require network access, using the existing Accessibility text-to-speech functionality in iOS, that would be perfect.