View Full Version : Automatic Transmissions and Hybrids and Buses and...

03-13-2015, 11:53 PM
I have a had a few great opportunities this year, barely 2.5 months into 2015. I am flat out of work for the next 3 days, so I'm bored, reminiscing about some of those recent events. One of those involved a very welcome week-long vacation with a very good friend and colleague, whom I've known for almost 30 years, but haven't seen in person since 2008. Like me, he's been Hard-Core immersed in the travel business since before he got out of high school. Unlike me, he is more of a "hands-on" person. He's been collecting aircraft type ratings and driving exotic cars since 1987, and shows no signs of letting up. Which leads me to my story about my recent visit with him... but I'll get to that in a moment.

My problem with Costa Rica and motor vehicles is actually not just one problem, but many. Vehicle ownership in CR just makes no sense... whatsoever. OK... I do get that the taxi drivers and city-dwellers own the tiniest sedans that they can find. They are very economical when it comes to fuel, have four doors, and can seat 4 or 5 people, with a little trunk space for weekend junkets. The roads in CR have been greatly improved in the past few years, giving these tiny sedans access to more of the country, as long as they have the power to climb the next hill.

But I just don't get some of the choices made when Ticos and Ticas purchase vehicles. My cousin drives back and forth to Jaco from San Jose at least 3 times per week. He is almost always alone when he travels, but he chose to purchase a... long-wheelbase crossover? Huh? This thing could carry 7 people to Jaco, but it only carries 1 person, 99% of the time. Now... guess who complains about the price of gasoline at every family event...

Then there's the automatic transmission issue. Automatic transmissions have been reliable for quite some time now, and also so efficient that they practically duplicate the gas mileage of a manual transmission. Ask a Tico why he has a manual transmission, and the stock answer is "Automatic Transmissions are not reliable and are expensive to fix." Huh? It's been a long time since a decent automatic transmission could be called unreliable. Of course, when I ride in a taxi with an automatic transmission, I often witness the driver "hold" the car on a steep incline using the accelerator instead of the brake. Yeah... that's probably not very reliable. I also know several taxi drivers with manual transmissions who go through two clutches per year, every year. Maybe the operator, not the machine, is the real issue.

I have also met several people who won't run their air conditioner on the freeways, but they will put all four windows down while they're cruising at 90 kph or faster. The A/C uses more gas, they say. Not at 90 kph, it doesn't. Roll those windows up and turn on the A/C. The drag from four open windows is enormous at that speed.

Also, I occasionally see a BMW X5 or a Range Rover driving through town, with something like 20-inch wheels and low-profile "35" aspect ratio tires. Huh? Did you want an SUV, or did you want a street cruiser? Because you're sending mixed signals.


So... Back to my story. My buddy invites me to visit, and I go. He entices me with the line, "We haven't seen each other for almost 7 years, and I guarantee that I have something to show you that will blow you away." Well... He knows that I have worshipped the Acura NSX since I first drove one in 1990, but I had no idea that there would be a test vehicle for the 2016 release of the new NSX waiting for me when I arrived. One of my fantasies was immediately destroyed... When I hugged my friend for the first time in almost 7 years, the first thing that he said to me was, "I'm telling you right now... I'm not allowed to let you drive it." I also quickly learned that if I ever post any actual numbers on the vehicle, the guys from "Gung Ho" will jump out of my "Supplies!" closet and beat me to death.

Another dream was shattered when I was told that there were no plans to bring the car to Costa Rica... ever... I guess that you could still import one yourself. I'm not sure how much money and red tape that would involve, but i'm guessing that the answer to that question sounds a lot like "You REALLY don't want to know."

It didn't take long for the "newness" and awe to wear off. By the time my buddy drove me from the airport to his home... about a 35-minute drive... I realized that this was most definitely a Honda. There is no mistaking the complete lack of visual design boldness and innovation. Once you are used to the car, it's an Accord with a few extra air ducts and some larger wheels. I have often admired Honda's approach to the performance car. Just like the original NSX, the new NSX is "All Go and No Show." To Quote... noted automotive design critic Robert Cumberford said that its "very hard to mess up the styling of a mid-engine sports car... but Acura has managed it."

But... When it comes to performance... I shit you not... The NSX delivers. The car specs out at around 6.5 pounds per horsepower (the only stat that I'm allowed to post) and has one gasoline twin-turbo V6 engine and 3 electric motors. "Hybrid" has gone from meaning fuel-efficient, to instead meaning "insta-power." The electric motors deliver their maximum torque at Zero mph and Zero rpm. The new NSX does have a "launch mode," but it's practically useless. Just mash the gas to the floor, count to four, and you've exceeded every published speed limit on Planet Earth. The quarter-mile comes up in roughly 10 seconds, and all you can hear is what sounds like the distant snore of a hibernating bear. At that point, you're still pinned to the back of your seat, and the speedometer needle is still climbing like the second-hand of a stopwatch.

In the corners, the "HAL-9000" SH-AWD system makes you look like Ayrton Senna... on a Good day.

Other than the "yawn" looks, the car is outstanding.

03-14-2015, 09:47 PM
A little more on cars and air conditioning:

With the high price of gasoline in Costa Rica, I was very attentive and thorough when I finally decided to purchase a vehicle. I learned a few things along the way that I would just never have considered when shopping for a car in the USA.

In the USA, I had a consistent habit of purchasing new, relatively high-powered, small, lightweight coupes. I had a BMW 135i, a Nissan 370Z, a Toyota MR-2 Turbo, and others. Every 2 or 3 years, I would sell my current car and buy a new one. I enjoyed driving them, and they worked just fine for me in the USA. 2 people, and luggage for 1 week, can go almost anywhere in the USA in those cars.

That philosophy just doesn't work in Costa Rica. Here, there are lots of places where I need to travel that just won't work with a sports car. It could work if I only drove within San Jose, with an occasional trip to Jaco, but that's about it.

This info is mostly about purchasing a vehicle, but most of this stuff applies whether you're renting or buying...

1) Most Importantly -- If you're going to be moving around Costa Rica, and not just sticking to San Jose and Jaco, you want a 4-Wheel-Drive or All-Wheel-Drive SUV or Crossover vehicle. That is simply not negotiable.

Crossover vehicles tend to have a lower center of gravity and a better track-to-wheelbase ratio. SUV's usually sacrifice those 2 qualities a little, in exchange for improved ground clearance. Look for a vehicle that best meets those 3 qualities, and that still meets your needs.

A true 4-Wheel-Drive vehicle can often be more tough and durable, and may save a little fuel when in 2-Wheel-Drive mode, versus an All-Wheel-Drive vehicle. I personally prefer full-time All-Wheel-Drive vehicles. The road conditions in Costa Rica are so uncertain and dynamic that it's best to have all 4 drive wheels instantly available.

2) The second-most-important consideration is meeting your personal needs. How many people will you typically be carrying? How much stuff will you be carrying? Will you be making certain trips repeatedly, or will each trip involve a new destination and route? How much out-of-town driving versus within-town driving will you be doing? Based on that information, you need a vehicle that has the volume and weight-carrying capacity to transport you, your family or traveling companions, and all of your stuff. The vehicle will occasionally be pulling all that weight up some steep inclines on rocky dirt roads made slippery and rough by torrential rainfall.

You want to get the smallest, lightest vehicle that you can find that can confidently pull you and all of that weight up those inclines. Make sure that the vehicle's Powertrain is up to the challenge, but don't buy more engine than you need, or your wallet will get killed at the gas pump. Gas prices in Costa Rica are high, and are fixed by the government. Also, I have personally had some issues with using regular (octane rating) gasoline, and have spoken with several other people who have had issues also. This means that you may end up using "Super" (octane rating) gasoline. Super costs more money, of course, and using Super slightly reduces your gas mileage (fuel efficiency).

You also need a vehicle that won't be pushed close to its suspension or handling limits. The roads in Costa Rica demand sure-footed handling in all road and weather conditions. Many mountain roads here in CR have no shoulder and no guardrail separating you from a 1000-foot drop.

3) An automatic transmission is, in my opinion, a must. Modern automatic transmissions are extremely reliable in most cases, and will probably end up putting less wear on the vehicle than a manual transmission. The auto doesn't usually make mistakes, but unless you have a perfect touch on the gearshift and clutch, you will make plenty of mistakes operating a manual on the roads of Costa Rica. Modern autos here in Costa Rica get gas mileage (fuel efficiency) that is just as good as the same car with a manual -- all else being equal. However, finding a vehicle with an automatic transmission in Costa Rica can be difficult. They are not that common here, although that has improved in recent years.

4) Skip any extras that you don't need, which add weight or drain power. Of course, if you expect to be "married" to your vehicle for a long period of time, you don't want to be miserable while you're driving it. If you need air conditioning to be comfortable, then get it. A nice audio system makes those long drives and getting stuck in traffic more bearable.

5) Skip any fancy cosmetic or luxury items. Leather seats, specialty paint jobs, and awesome-looking wheels will get damage and show wear much more quickly than in the USA, in most cases. It looks great when it's new, but if you're doing any real traveling, in about 2 years you are going to wish that you had just saved your money.

6) Stay away from large wheels and low-profile tires. Putting low-profile tires on a vehicle in Costa Rica is like Tina Turner saying, "Hit me again, Ike! And this time... Put some STANK on it!" When it comes time to replace your tires, look for good all-weather tires that have good traction on dirt, sand, and mud. Muddy mountain roads require some grip. Don't forget the fifth tire. You definitely want a full-size spare wheel and tire in CR.

I highly recommend keeping a portable air compressor in your vehicle, which can be powered by a standard 12-volt vehicle power outlet. I recommend keeping your tires inflated towards the low end of the recommended pressure range. You may sacrifice a little gas mileage, but lower tire pressure means better traction on uneven surfaces, a situation you'll face quite often in Costa Rica, especially when climbing or descending steep, wet, slick, narrow, muddy mountain roads.

Over-inflated hard-compound high-mileage street tires are a disaster just waiting to happen in CR.

7) Try to find a vehicle with all of the vehicle-handling-assist features that you can find... Anti-Lock Brakes, Variable-Assist Power Steering, 4-Wheel Handling Control, etc. All of that stuff will help you when you need it.

8) Shop for used vehicles. Buying a new vehicle in Costa Rica is pretty much a waste of money. A new vehicle is usually significantly more expensive to purchase than the same vehicle in the USA, and it won't look new within a year, if you're really using it for travel. Many manufacturers are not as generous with their warranties in Costa Rica as they are in the USA and other countries. Some manufacturers are very stingy with their suspension, wheel, and tire warranties.

Buying a used vehicle means that it can be tough to find the options and features that you want or need. My advice is to concentrate on the features that cannot easily be installed after-market. The handling features in item #7 and air conditioning (if you need it) are difficult or even impossible to install after-market, so look for a vehicle that has those features. Audio systems, fog lights, etc. can all easily be installed after-market.

9) I wouldn't consider Cruise Control to be a necessity in Costa Rica, but it can come in handy. Driving uphill on a long, twisty mountain road can be greatly aided by Cruise Control, if you set it a very leisurely speed to compensate for the curves. It will take you more time to get to your destination, but your fuel efficiency can benefit greatly, and you can be more attentive to actually maneuvering the vehicle.

10) Smartphones and GPS: GPS is very helpful in Costa Rica, but I would avoid an in-dash GPS receiver. I highly recommend using a Smartphone as your GPS receiver and map. Get a high-quality mount for your phone, so that you can position it where you can see and easily use the phone's touch-screen. Keep at least two or three good GPS applications on your phone. At least one of those apps should be an "offline" app -- an app that requires no access to the Internet. No single GPS app works in every situation, here in CR. Be prepared to switch apps when necessary. If any of your GPS apps require you to manually update your maps, do so before every trip. Use the voice navigation feature of your GPS apps whenever possible -- this works even better if you can link your phone to your audio system via a cable or Bluetooth connection. You can also use your phone for hands-free calls, as well as receive text messages voice-translated so that you don't have to play with the phone.

Other apps and features that are useful for travel are altimeters, and receiving updates on road status via Twitter, which MOPT (the Costa Rica version of DOT) or its contractors now offer on some highways. If your GPS app has a connection to the Internet, road status updates are usually timely and accurate. A lot of people in Costa Rica use the "Waze" GPS and travel information app, so you can expect plenty of timely updates via that app, if you have it installed on your phone.

11) Because of the large percentage of rough and mountainous terrain and roads in Costa Rica, varying your speed, carrying unnecessary extra weight, and reducing the aerodynamic efficiency of your vehicle can have a significant negative impact on your fuel efficiency. When driving on twisty mountain roads, try to drive in a manner that avoids constant acceleration and deceleration. A more leisurely constant speed will greatly improve your fuel efficiency.

Don't keep anything in your vehicle that you don't need. You want to keep it as lightweight as practical. This reduces the strain on your Powertrain and improves your fuel efficiency. Don't keep your gas tank full when you're not traveling out of town. For basic within-town operations, put 5.000 or 10.000 Colones worth of gas in your vehicle when your fuel level drops below 1/4 tank. Gasoline typically weighs just over 6 pounds per gallon, although the exact weight depends on the temperature of the gasoline and the additives contained within it. For traveling out-of-town, especially in unfamiliar areas, it is better to keep your fuel level closer to full.

You don't want to install roof racks, light bars, or any other unnecessary items on the outside of your vehicle unless they are absolutely necessary. Try to keep your vehicle as aerodynamic as possible. If you are constantly traveling with baggage strapped to the roof of your vehicle, then you should have bought a larger vehicle. A bag or two on top of your vehicle can have a very significant negative effect on your fuel efficiency, especially at freeway speeds. Also, carrying items on top of your vehicle moves its center of gravity higher, which is something that you do not want on twisty mountain roads.

12) Emergencies and Emergency Vehicle Kit: Having a vehicle breakdown or an accident in Costa Rica can be a very frightening experience in a remote area, especially at night. I have already mentioned that you don't want to carry any extra weight, but some things are essential for any out-of-town trips, and some things are required to be in the vehicle and available at all times:

You MUST always have 2 emergency reflective triangles and a safety vest, which meet Costa Rican safety requirements, present in the vehicle. These items are widely available in Costa Rica at vehicle supply stores, Walmart, and many other stores. I don't think that I have ever seen any police actually check a vehicle for these items, but if you have an accident or a flat tire, or if your vehicle breaks down, you will get in trouble if you don't have them. In the event that your vehicle breaks down or has a flat tire, you should try to exit the road or move as far away from the road as possible. In the event of an accident, you must stop immediately, and refrain from moving the vehicle any further. If your vehicle is still moving after the accident, it is OK to pull off the road while you are in the process of stopping, but you must not allow that to delay the stopping of the vehicle. You must place the two triangles about 5 feet and 30 feet behind the vehicle, and put on the safety vest, especially if you are still near or on the road. It is a really good idea to have a safety vest in the car for each of your passengers, as well.

Other items that I recommend having in the vehicle: Flashlight (and batteries), Fire Extinguisher, a few old towels, a blanket, one or two bottles of water, and some high-carb snack foods -- preferably sealed, and with a long shelf-life.