OT review: the 2018/9 BMW M2, midterm

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I make no secret of the fact that I’m a bit of a petrolhead; at least to the extent possible in Malaysia given the heftiness of our taxes and limited market affordability leading to a fairly uninspiring range of choices for the motoring enthusiast. That’s partially offset by affordable petrol and lax speeding enforcement, but given the state of traffic in Kuala Lumpur – the opportunities to enjoy it are few and far between. Nevertheless, I’ve often made my transportation choices emotionally driven rather than rational; the last time I did the latter, it was competent but not very fun. My options boiled down to either something completely impractical but fun (like a Lotus Elise) but cheap enough to afford a second family car where I would spend most of my time (and thus itself have to be tolerably interesting) – or something that could do double duty and have four seats (but not necessarily four doors). Some of you may recall I had a Z4 some time back. It turns out the limits of the car weren’t that high, no matter what one did to the underlying oily bits – there remained this delayed feeing to the steering that felt too indirect and vague for my liking. And whilst the 2.0T motor put out a healthy ~300bhp at the crank after tuning and on the right fuel, there was always a feeling of fragility given how often it would knock if not on RON 98 or RON 100. Fast forwarding a bit though several sensible diversions, I arrived at the M2 after a) waiting a very long time for a manual transmission and giving up, and b) somewhat regretting the F56 Mini Cooper S I purchased previously.

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Photoessay: Carflections, Lisbon

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This post is probably going to read as odd to a lot of people, and I apologise in advance if any local Lisboans are offended by it.

During the week or so I spent in Lisbon, one thing kept nagging at me: what is the ‘essence’ of the city? After a lot of walking around, I came to three observations: firstly, there were a lot of cars – especially for an ‘old’ city with narrower streets and lots of elevation changes. Secondly, ornate architecture, some in good repair, some not. Finally, a surprising absence of people – I’d expected more inhabitants, but as it turns out, population contraction and economics issues have meant that there is far more real estate available than people to fill it, let alone people to buy it. If Lisbon were viewed from space by another species, I can’t help coming to the conclusion that more than many other cities – except perhaps LA – that the dominant species was the car. And here we have the genesis of this photoessay, which I personally feel was quite representative of Lisbon. Visually, I feel the juxtaposition between classical/hard/strong/colorful buildings and more organic, curved and ‘cleaner’ cars is quite interesting; there’s a sort of flow between them that is suggestive of water and progression of time. MT

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50c with various lenses, a Leica Q 116 and processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow III

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Photoessay: People and cars, Havana

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In the modern age, the car is a machine, a tool, something utilitarian. Features are added to meet regulations or to make you spend your money on something slightly better than what you had, or so Brand A can win a spec sheet comparison against Brand B. There’s very, very little soul; whatever little there is has to be engineered in. I don’t think this is the case with cars that are 50, 60, even 70+ years old; even if they had no soul to begin with, over the years they’ve certainly acquired patina, and with it, a history.

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OT: Of cars and cameras

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In many ways, the two industries are frighteningly similar: technologically complex, requiring huge capital investment for relatively small margins, enormous marketing machines, some semblance of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, and ever shrinking improvements just waiting for whatever technology is just over the bend (hybrids, Foveon sensors, etc.). Perception over substance rules, too. And there’s a lot of crossover between the enthusiasts of both – I have a huge number of students who are also petrolheads. But there are enough differences that one could learn from the other, I think…

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A very OT review: the 2013 BMW Z4 28i

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In a break from regular programming, I’m going to take up one of my readers’ suggestions from a flickr comment and review something different for a change: a car. There are a few automotive journalists I admire and whose work I enjoy for various reasons; the Top Gear trio, Chris Harris, etc. But I’m going to approach this in the same style I approach my camera reviews: from an unashamedly practical standpoint and with some nice images. I’m an enthusiast and nothing more. Read on if you dare.

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Choice, compromise and creativity

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What do these two things have in common, other than they’re from (very, very loosely, give or take a decade) the same era?

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Off topic: hobbies and photographers

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It seems that a lot of my other photographically-inclined friends and students share the same few passions – watches/ horology, cars, cigars, food/ wine, travel, and to some extent, hi-fi. It could be because serious photographers tend to be mostly male (no sexism intended, but 90% of my reader demographic and students are male) and these are male pursuits; however, the funny thing is that a good number of the ladies in the 10% share these interests, too. I’m not counting casual or passing fancies here – I’m only including people serious enough to devote a meaningful chunk of time and income towards these hobbies. Even so, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of just a few pursuits*.

*My point of view could however be biased by the demographic of my readers; I suppose if I surveyed those who lived in countries with strong anti-smoking laws, expensive car operating costs, and reasonable public transport – sounds like the UK – we’d find that cigars and cars drop off the list.

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Photoessay: Cars and film

From a recent roll shot with the Nikon F2 Titan, Zeiss 2/28 Distagon and Nikon 58/1.2 Noct on Ilford XP2-400 – somehow, a good number of the images turned out to be of cars, even though they were shot a quite different times. Even more curiously there are quite a few BMWs in there…

Note: Ilford XP2-400 is a C41 process black and white film, which means it’ll give monochrome (if in my experience, slightly toned due to the development chemistry) images through a normal minilab process. However, what isn’t so well known is that the film is also developable in regular black and white chemistry; I used DDX 4:1 at 26C for five minutes, and it worked out just fine – as you can see here. Contrast needed a bit of a boost after digital copying (with my usual D800E and macro lens setup), though, and dynamic range appears to be a bit limited compared to normal black and white negative film. Still, I’m quite pleased with the results. Enjoy! MT

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POTD and Off Topic: Test drive notes of a different sort

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Eyes, part one. New F30 BMW 328i Sport. Nikon D800, 28-300VR.

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Eyes, part two. Outgoing E90 LCI BMW 320d M. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Perhaps I should have called this post ‘a parable in headlights’. I am a BMW fan, which isn’t to say I don’t like other makes; the lower vehicle is my daily car, and serves me well in a versatile manner for everything from grocery shopping to ferrying the wife around to the occasional spot of sideways driving along my favorite piece of road on Sunday morning. It also has a remarkable engine that puts out somewhere in the region of 210bhp and 450Nm after a little ECU tweaking – oh, whilst managing a consistent 35mpg in our abysmal traffic. (I’ve seen it go as high as 58mpg for long distance cruising, and it’ll do 0-62mph in about seven seconds). I’d say this is much like the car equivalent of the D700: you can do pretty much anything with it, and it does a very competent job and doesn’t get in your way. Even the standard non-M sport base 320i petrol version is a nice drive, and the only difference between the two is body roll, power and suspension stiffness. Otherwise, they handle much the same – think of one as moving along at five-tenths, and the other as eight-tenths.

The new model – codename F30 for BMW geeks – is a bit of a different beast. I test drove two versions – the normal, base, bog-standard 320d with no frills or options; and the ‘sport’ package 328i with (optional) adaptive suspension, active steering and BMW’s new masterpiece turbocharged 2-litre petrol that puts out about 250bhp and 350Nm. The 328i was one of the most nimble, responsive cars I’ve ever driven. It was just so easy to drive; I felt confident straight away and able to push the car to perhaps 90% of its limits (or at least the limits to which I feel comfortable driving on public roads). Even the new electric power steering system, whilst oddly and irregularly weighted at low speeds – the sensation of the rack ratio changing while maneuvering at 5mph feels like the front wheels are losing traction, but you’re most certainly not – becomes perfectly weighted and direct (if a little less communicative than I’m used to) at speed. The paddle shifters, combined with the new 8-speed ZF gearbox, make firing off a gear change fast and easy. And that engine…oh boy. It’s got power and torque everywhere in the rev range, and just feels more eager to rev than the 2 litre turbo diesel I’m driving now, even though the car I drove only had 40km on the odometer. The only thing I didn’t like about the car (apart from the increased price tag, nearly 10%!) was the odd-feeling steering at low speeds. Would I buy this? Hell yes, if I could find some spare organs I didn’t need, or perhaps a hidden hoard of diamonds under my floorboards.

The base 320d (F30) on the other hand, was utterly horrid. I hated it. I didn’t feel confident in the car at all; the suspension wallowed and rolled; the steering was equally odd at low speeds, but strangely disconnected and uncommunicative at high speeds; even the interior materials felt a step down from the other car – even though they were supposedly built at the same plant. Even though the engine was a supposedly updated version of the one in my car, it felt tight and underpowered, lacking the midrange punch between 1800 and 2800rpm that I’m used to. Would I buy this one? No.

I felt that this odd duality gave the new 3 series a similar personality to the D800: a specific tool, which if configured (optioned?) correctly, would do a peerless job; but was also capable of being entirely inappropriate in some situations compared to the old model.

Conclusion: newer isn’t always better, often the refinements mean that what you’re going to use it with (i.e. the engine and options, in this case) is almost equally as important as how you’re going to use it. As a consumer, don’t always get fooled into thinking that you need to change something. Just because a new model is out doesn’t in any way reduce the capability of the existing model you own: yes, it might be better for some things, but if those things aren’t important to you, then why spend more money? You’d be surprised at the number of emails I’ve been getting in the last few days asking ‘D800 or D700?’ when clearly the person using the camera has no need for large file sizes, but every need for speed or higher ISO. Know what you need your tools to do first before you buy them. MT