US (CA) vs SA driving licences

Planning to be in the US for a while still, I figured I might as well try get a US driver’s licence. It makes life a lot easier, and means I get to leave my passport at home more often. Each state has its own testing procedures, and for California (CA), as a foreign driver, you are required to go through the whole process. That means write a theory based learner’s permit, and then do a practical driving test. If you’re from another state in the US and want a CA driver’s license, you are required to only do a theory test.

Overall I’ve found the admin side of things to be far better in the US, and the actual testing to be easier. Firstly I booked online for both my learner’s and driver’s tests. For the learners you can go in person any day and write the licence immediately, but will wait in queues. For the driver’s test I waited a week for the earliest booking. For the learner’s I probably sat about 40min waiting for my number to be called, 10min answering  multiple choice questions on a computer, and that was it. This website (not official) says there are 46 questions, and you can get 8 wrong. I don’t remember answering that many questions, but anyway, I passed.

Also the eye-test you do is amazing. None of this fancy machinery, no, they have a board hanging behind the counter, they ask you to read a few letters, close one eye, repeat, close other eye, repeat. That’s it. None of this struggling to make out vague squares, pressing your forehead up to try get closer.

Example of eye test board – source

When studying for the learners, at first I was a bit intimidated. The material is a 100+ page PDF referred to as the California Driver Handbook. I read it through once, then did some test questions. After getting a feel for the questions, I scanned through it again, memorised some values, and went and wrote the test. I got one question wrong.Unlike the SA learners test, the CA questions are much more straightforward, have more logical answers and were less less ambiguous. The material itself can also be read like a book, and not hard learned like the SA ‘pass your driver’s first time’ style books. And is set out for learning as opposed to the official eNATIS documentation, which is literally extracts from the National Road Traffic Act. The CA driver handbook explains the laws, why they exist, and goes on to give best-practices and consequences of not following the law (not getting a fine, but the direct result).It’s hard to say which is better. SA test makes sure you know the laws better, and sets a higher barrier to pass, but the material for the CA test was better, although the test was much easier. If you are under 18 years old, before you can get your licence you are subject to completing a driver’s ed course at school, and also a certain amount of hours driving (think 50 hours).

The driver’s test for CA is also easier. There is no pre-inspection like the SA one, you merely need to show that you know all the controls within the car: lights, hooter etc.

There is no yard test. That means no parallel parking, no alley-docking, no hill start, and no 3-point turn. At some stage during your behind-the-wheel test, you will be asked to pull up next to the curb and reverse three car lengths in a straight line. That’s as hard as it gets.

The on the road section is very similar to back home, with a list of actions you need to perform throughout the test, and a minimum amount of points you’re allowed to lose, with a list of instant fails. The test is slightly more relaxed, they are not as strict about order of things done. Handbrake never has to be used throughout the test. Push-pull steering method is lenient. You don’t need to check every mirror every time you do anything, but must check behind you when braking, check blind spots when turning, and constantly scan road.

You are only allowed to lose 15 points (compared to 120+ in SA), but the rules aren’t as strict. Personally I feel like it is an adequate test to ensure that someone can drive, and negates a lot of fluff in the SA test (although I understand the reasoning).

What I found funny out of the whole experience is that, besides the points I lost during the test, the only recommendation the tester had for me is that I drive too slowly. And that she hopes I will speed up in the future :)

Overall a relatively straightforward and painless experience, especially having already had a driver’s licence for almost 10 years.

Octane Ratings (in America)

Besides Americans calling petrol gas (and gas propane, diesel is still diesel (when you can find it)), their octane ratings are different to what I was used to. Back home (in South Africa), the standard octane rating at the coast was 95, and 93 at higher altitudes. If I recall correctly my Audi’s manual told me to always use the highest octane possible, but at least 91.

So I was quite surprised when going through our Tucson’s manual and came across the statement:

Fuel Grade: Pump Octane Rating of 87 or higher

This seemed oddly low to me. When we went to go fill up at the gas station in the US, we were greeted by a choice of Regular, Mid or Premium fuel. Referring to fuel with an octane level of 87, 89 or 91 respectively. Another surprise, as by the coast in SA, all you get is 95. No choice.

At the end of the day, it’s actually rather boring. Basically there are different ways to to calculate a fuel’s octane rating, and different countries use different methods. It can be summarised like this:

US shows the average of the Research Octane Number (RON) and Motor Octane Number (MON) rating, which is the Anti-Knock Index (AKI) while Europe just shows the RON rating which gives a higher number than the MON rating – source

If you want to know more about octane, spend two and a half minute’s of your life watching this guy’s video. If you want to know more about measurement methods, RON and MON, check out Wikipedia.

But what it boils down to is an 89 Octane in the US, is actually equivalent to around a 94 octane back home. You also have price discrepancies between fuel grades:

Fuel prices at our local garage

We are also fortunate enough to live in California, who have the second highest gas price in America, after Hawaii. At an average price of $2.80 per gallon (ZAR10.17 per litre), it is $0.70 more per gallon than South Carolina.

Gas prices also fluctuate tremendously within a city. In South Africa, petrol prices are basically fixed, meaning you pick a garage by convenience. In LA, I can pay anywhere from $2.60, to almost $4.00 per gallon! That makes petrol almost as expensive as in SA!

2016 Mercedes-Benz C200 4matic (W205)

Earlier this year I got the opportunity to take out a new C200 4Matic for a couple days. It was my first opportunity with the W205, and quite an enjoyable one too. Mine came out in the new Brilliant Blue colour, which suits the car really well. The car further had the AMG suspension and trim kits. It had the 7 Speed DCT gearbox fitted.

terrible quality photo of the car I had

terrible quality photo of the car I had

With a starting price of R495,000, these are not cheap cars. The model I had had a plethora of extras, pushing the retail price all the way up to R631,500. So I packed in some friends and did a mini-road trip covering 1500km and various terrain over a few days. It is a really nice car. A noticeable upgrade to the W204, interior is impeccable, and the shape has started to grow on me.

The car seated 4 of us comfortably. Leg room in the rear is sufficient, if not great, and the coupe sloping rear window does not impede head room. The boot was large enough, but feels smaller than that of the CLA. There is a surprisingly large storage area underneath the boot, where a spare-wheel would have gone in a previous car, although not large enough to support even a modern-day space-saver (I did at least get run-flats). The back row does have space and a seat-belt for a 3rd person, but this would be quite tight, and the space is put to better use by the armrest (with storage compartment and cupholders).

The C200 is a 1.9 litre turbocharged engine, putting out 135kw. The engine has 4 driving modes, Economy, Comfort, Sports and Sports+. It’s nice and easy to flip through these settings (better than the 204), and each one adjusts the engine/transmission, steering and aircon performance. I’m not 100% sure, but it seemed to affect the stiffness of the suspension as well. Maybe this was just in my mind, but we did some very scientific tests driving over speedbumps and it seemed to have an affect.

I spent 80% of the time in Sports mode, 15% in Sports+, and only the remainder in Comfort. And I noticed this when I filled up with petrol. The car has claimed consumption figures of between 4.4 and 7.3 l/100km. I averaged 9.5 at normal highway cruising speeds. The car had the extended range fuel tank, which can take somewhere over 70litres, including the reserve. Which gives you a really great range, especially for South Africa.

Driving mode selector (source: Mercedes-Benz)

Driving mode selector (source: Mercedes-Benz)

The entertainment system and centre console is mostly well put together. All the functionality worked and was relatively easy to navigate. The car had the standard Merc joystick, but included the optional touchpad. The touchpad is terrible. I really didn’t like using it, and ended up disabling it. Maybe it would have gotten better with more use, but I found it much easier to navigate with the joystick. Additional USB and SD card inputs are located within the centre armrest, which is convenient.

Centre console touchpad (source: Mercedes-Benz)

Centre console touchpad (source: Mercedes-Benz)

Although this car didn’t have it, a heads-up-display (HUD) is an optional extra on the C-Class. I’ve driven short distances in a car which has this option, and it’s really great. It displays your speed, navigation information and other info on the windscreen in front of you. It worked well even in bright daylight. Definitely recommended if it’s in your price range.

Heads Up Display source: Mercedes-Benz

Heads Up Display (source: Mercedes-Benz)

As mentioned, this car came fitted with Merc’s all wheel drive system, 4matic. It was my first time driving an all-wheel drive sedan, and what a pleasure. No matter the corner you take, the car just sticks. It was a pleasure to drive, and something I’d love to test out round a track. While we did do a few short sections on gravel, the cars AMG suspension made this unenjoyable, extremely harsh, and completely put me off trying to test out its all wheel drive capabilities.

While the car was comfortable to drive, and came with electronically adjustable seats and steering wheel, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the steering wheel wasn’t centred around the driver’s seat, and that it was slightly more towards the centre of the car. It didn’t bother me too much, but after long stretches, I needed a bit of a stretch.

The car was fitted with two unusual extras for South Africa. Firstly seat warmers, and secondly a remote control to activate heating in the car. Even though it was well over 20 degrees C outside we tested out the seat warmers which blow nice hot air at the driver and front passenger’s bodies. The remote control makes use of an additional petrol powered heating unit in the engine bay to warm up the cabin. It can be activated from inside your house a few minutes before you have to go somewhere, so when you get to your car, it’s already warm.

I really enjoyed my time with the car. As mentioned, a definite upgrade on the 204, and noticeably placed in a higher class than the CLA to which I was accustomed. The C200 is an acceptable version, although with the extra wait of the 4matic, a larger engine would be preferable. That being said, it cruises easily, and is happy to drop gears when the need for overtaking is required. A well put together car, the trim is exceptional (especially the black ash in this model), and it was a pleasure to drive.

Deciphering your VIN

Have you ever wondered where your car was built? Maybe not, but having worked for a car manufacturer in South Africa for 3 years, I was always curious upon coming across such a car whether it was built in my plant or not. Fortunately every car since 1981 (at least) comes with its own special identity number, known as a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).

What’s better is that the VIN is fairly straightforward to decode (usually) as per ISO 3779. Although it can become quite complicated, the basics are there for anyone to read.

The VIN is a 17 digit alpha-numeric string consisting of 3 pain parts. They are:

  • digits 1-3: World manufacturer identity
  • digits 4-9: Vehicle descriptor section (VDS)
  • digits 10-17: Vehicle identifier section (VIS)

World Manufacturer Identity
Each country that manufactures cars is assigned an array to give out to manufacturers in their country. South Africa for example has the array AA(A)-AH(9). The Society for Automotive Engineers in the US decides how these are assigned, so there is no fixed pattern to deciphering extra meaning. In SA, VW is AAV, while Hyundai has both the AC5 and ADD nominations. You can view more of them on the wiki page.

So I can look at any car in the world, and if its VIN starts with the letters AA-AH, I can know it was built in SA.

Vehicle Descriptor Section
This will be a 5 digit value, followed by a check digit. The 5 digit value may include information relating to the type of vehicle (sedan, truck etc), the engine type or other vehicle specific information, but it is not consistent and varies across manufacturer and producing region.

Vehicle Identifier Section
This is an 8 digit value. Usually it starts with a digit indicating the model year of the car (10th digit overall), followed by a 7 digit number. This might be sequential as defined by a manufacturer, but it must somehow be unique to a particular vehicle.

As you can see there’s not really that much to VIN numbers, but at the same time there’s a lot. Certain websites can decode your VIN to give you information about it, but results will vary a lot depending on what car you have.

The US Department of Transport (linked with the SAE) actually provide a lot of information. Check out their main page here. They have a decode your VIN tool, you can search for MFI’s and a number of data. An MFI search for Mercedes-Benz in South Africa returns the codes ADB, AFV and AHM. BMW returns the MFI ABM.

I found a random VIN on the internet, and it decoded and gave me info on the make, model and year. Told me it was an SUV, what transmission it had, the engine model, what horse power it what as well as some more info. Testing with my old South African car however provided an error stating the manufacturer was not registered for sale in the US.

If you’re every looking for your car’s VIN, you should be able to find it at the bottom of your windscreen when viewed from the outside. It will also be inscribed somewhere in your car, usually under/near the driver’s seat. Certain OBD applications will also be able to electronically read your car’s VIN.

Source: wiki