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

Electric/Hybrid/Self Driving vehicles

I’ve long held an interest in the motor industry, and the recent developments in driverless cars are as exciting as they are frightening to me.

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Tesla Model S 90D

With that in mind, for the past few months I’ve been working on and off on a website dedicated to following the development of the autonomous and electric/hybrid vehicle market in South Africa. And I finally got it to a usable state.

I give you AutosAndElectric.co.za

Where you can find a list of currently available Hybrid and electric vehicles in South Africa as well as charging stations. Hopefully as time goes on space will be made for the influx of autonomous vehicles coming to our shores :)

Website needs some aesthetic work, and logo redesign, but for now I wanted to get it up.