Friday, October 29, 2004

He ain't heavy, he's my (little) brother - iPod mini tested

I recently met up with Chris, a friend of mine, for coffee. We sat, and chatted for a bit, before he revealed to me that he’d just blown over RM1k for a digital audio player. “Thousands of songs in your pocket!” shrieked my excited friend, as he echoed what I’ve always been hearing from Apple Computer’s ads for the iPod and the new iPod Mini. In a little over two years, Apple has made the iPod not only the number one digital audio player on the market, but a design icon recognized by all and sundry.

The original iPod – a fashion icon, it still looks stylish today

iPod mini fan friend Chris promptly whipped out his new “baby” (literally brand new - the battery wasn’t even fully charged yet) and started showing the little gadget to me. It looked quite awful in the lime green that I saw it in, but then again, it’s a matter of taste – you can always get it in one of the other 4 colours that you can buy the mini in, namely the rather tasty and tech-savvy silver, slightly kitsch gold, cool blue, girlie pink, and of course, the lime green, that my friend was raving about. He drives a matching green Fiat….go figure.

The various colours that the iPod mini is available in

After fiddling with the device for a bit, I asked Chris if he would be willing to relinquish the gadget to my care for a few days so that I could “review it” for this site. After half an hour worth of begging, several rounds of Starbuck’s awesomely good coffee, and promises to download my entire music library for him for free, he agreed and I got the iPod to mess around with for a week. Thankfully Chris had the original packaging and stuff still in his car (he bought it just a few hours before meeting me), so I had everything I needed to get the iPod running and ready for a full review.

Packaged in a small white cubic box, the iPod mini literally screams for you to rip the box open to see whats inside. Apple has mastered the skill of ensuring wonderful consumer experiences from the minute you get your hands on its product’s packaging. The gorgeous little box unfolds into two parts: one contains the manual, installation CD, FireWire and USB 2.0 cables, and the belt clip; while the other holds the iPod mini and the power adapter. For Mac users, the AC power adapter is an extra bonus since the iPod mini can recharge itself from any Mac computer it’s connected to.

Everything you need packaged in a lovely white box screaming to be ripped open

The iPod mini clearly lives up to its name. It’s small - about the size of a business card and half an inch thick - and fits the palm perfectly like a glove. The metallic green aluminum tube-shaped casing feels solid and comfortably cool in the hand. The 3.6-ounce iPod mini really makes third generation iPods look and feel bulky. About the size of a small cellphone, the iPod mini is so light you might forget you put it in your pocket. With the optional armband accessory Apple is selling, the mini is perfect for all those active people who like to do exercises or go jogging.

The size of the Mini compared to a Sony Ericsson cellphone and the bigger iPod

There is a distinct scarcity of control buttons and knobs on the iPod mini. Below the clear backlit LCD display is an innovative new scroll control with four push buttons embedded inside. Now fitted to the 4th generation iPod as well, and quite unlike the third generation iPods, the iPod mini’s “Click Wheel” can not only be used to scroll through the menus with accuracy, but it also doubles as the “menu”, “rewind”, “forward”, and “play/pause” buttons when you press down on the four control sectors of the wheel located along the north-south-east-west axis of the wheel.

Simple, clean lines – distinct scarcity of controls lends it a simplistic look

I personally found the new Click Wheel on the iPod mini not to be the great improvement over the original control layout on the 3rd generation iPods as Apple would lead you to believe. While the iPod was in use by yours truly, my tendency to accidentally activate one or more of the 4 control sectors of the wheel proved to be slightly annoying. It could have been a peculiarity of my larger-than-usual digits, but I still preferred the layout on the 3rd generation iPods. The large 4 control buttons coupled with a clean scroll wheel was easy to use and was just as intuitive as the Click Wheel and less likely to fall foul of large fingers.

The Mini fits into the palm of your hands with space to spare. Controls on the small side though

The display is smaller than those on 3rd generation iPods, but it has a better contrast ratio and appears to be sharper. On top of the mini is the hold switch, used to prevent accidental triggering of the other controls, and the the headphone jack, that is compatible with the iPod wire control. On the bottom is the dock port compatible with other iPod Dock port products. Unfortunately, Dock stations designed for third generation iPods have a different shape and do not perfectly fit the iPod mini. Nonetheless, if you have one of those, you can still use it.

The clear backlit LCD screen is clear and easy-to-read under all lighting conditions

The iPod mini plays both MP3 and AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) format audio files. Developed by the MPEG group that includes Dolby, Fraunhofer (FhG), AT&T, Sony, and cellphone giant Nokia, the AAC audio format features a better compression rate than MP3 and is used for songs downloaded from Apple’s iTunes Music Store, which currently holds 70% of the legal music download market share. The audio chip inside iPod mini also originally supported the WMA format developed by Microsoft but WMA support is disabled in the firmware.

The setup process for the iPod mini is pretty straight forward. All you have to do is make sure you have Apple’s iTunes software installed and plug one end of the included cable into your computer and the other into the Dock port on the bottom of your iPod mini. As I didn’t have iTunes pre-loaded into my PC, I had the additional task of downloading the PC-version of the software and transferring my music from Windows Media Player before I could start downloading them to the iPod mini.

You will need Apple’s iTunes software to run the iPod

Once up and running though, iTunes will automatically detect your iPod mini and ask you to provide a name for your beloved portable audio device. I named this one “Chris the freak” just for laughs. Once you have named it and chosen whether you want the iPod mini to be automatically synchronized with your music library, you are ready to go. If you have less than 4GB of music and choose to auto update the iPod mini, your entire music library will be transferred to the iPod within minutes. If you choose to transfer your songs manually to the iPod, you’ll be able to start filling it up by dragging and dropping tracks from your music library. I had somewhere around 3.5GB on my music library, so I chose to auto update and fill the iPod mini with everything I had.

The iPod mini, like other iPods, not only works as an audio player, but also has other neat features built into its operating software. The extra features include a clock, an alarm clock, a sleep timer, contacts, a calendar, a to-do list, notes, and games. The sleep timer is especially useful when you want to listen to some soft music before going to sleep. The contact list keeps all your address book information with you on the go and is automatically synchronized with your Mac computer. Calendar and to-do list give you a monthly calendar view and from there you are able to browse to specific dates to view your schedules. The calendar is also synchronized with your iCal calendars. By placing text documents in the Notes folder of your iPod, you will be able to read notes with your iPod on-the-go. Apple also includes four games for you to kill your free time with: Brick (similar to Breakout), Music Quiz (plays a random clip and lets you guess which song it is), Parachute (you get to shoot down choppers and parachutists), and Solitaire. The usefulness of this feature however, is questionable as I never once found the urge to play games with the player.

The iPod mini offers the usual iPod play options – shuffle play and customized playlists. I appreciated the latter feature greatly as it meant that, in stark contrast with my own MP3 player that could not create playlists on-the-go, I didn’t have to change the song names to force the player to play in a particular order and I could arrange a playlist from the library of songs within the player to my heart’s content. It made life a lot easier when I was in the mood for a particular genre of music or when I needed to play only certain tracks in the correct sequence. I know a lot of fitness instructors that would love this feature. The user-interface on the iPod is admittedly one of the best on the market. Emulated and copied by rivals from Creative to Rio for their players, the system is almost completely idiot-proof. I never once had to refer to the user manual for instructions on how to use the player. Apple really did a good job on this one, matching Nokia’s cellphone user interface for ease-of-use.

The iPod’s user interface displaying albums by artistes stored inside its hard disk

The iPod mini, like its bigger brother, has a shock protection memory buffer for a claimed 25 minutes of shock protection. I used the iPod mini while I was on a treadmill in the gym and I can attest that the iPod mini never once skipped a beat. However, the iPod mini did “freeze up” twice while it was in my care. Likely a software related problem, the iPod mini would freeze up midway through a playlist creation, and I would have to wait with my finger on the “menu” button for a few seconds before the player would seemingly cure itself.

The sound quality of the iPod mini is as good as that of other iPods, which means that it is among the best in all digital audio players. However, the sound does tend to lean on the “light” side of things, with bass in curious shortage especially on techno tracks. When compared to my own “el-cheapo” MSI Mega Stick flash memory based player, the sound was distinctly light. Where the MSI would play hard and loud in the most bass-heavy tracks, the same track played on the Apple produced a lighter, leaner sound. Kate Ryan’s thumping techno number “Desenchantee”, which I love using to test the bass response of audio equipment, almost sounded too polite when played on the Apple. Think Zouk vs the MPO and you’ll get the general idea. Whilst the iPod has a sound equalizer, the effects of the equalizer is subtle, and neither one properly addresses the curious bass deficiency of the player with gusto.

The standard Apple ear buds produce pretty decent sound quality on their own, but they don’t feel very comfortable if left in the ear for too long. When I wore them, they had the tendency to fall out after a while as the shape of the earbuds didn’t seem to agree with the shape of my ears. I soon swapped them for a pair of Philips BassVent earphones that I’ve been using on my own MP3 player, and realized that the iPod mini’s sound quality can easily be improved with a good pair of headphones. With the Philips, the bass took on a fuller, richer quality, though it never got to the party-animal quality and quantity of the substantially cheaper MSI.

Over a week of use, I grew to like the iPod mini a lot. It allowed me to carry almost my entire music library with me everywhere I go and the size was a real boon, fitting into my shirt or jeans pocket and small backpacks with consummate ease. However, one thing still bothers me. For 4GB of memory, the player is awfully expensive when you can actually get 20GB players from Creative and Rio for the same price or just slightly more. For example, I found a 60GB Creative Zen Xtra retailing for just RM 1109 at Low Yatt Plaza. It may not look as snazzy, but 60GB is an amazing amount of memory for the money and the Zen Xtra isn’t exactly an ugly duckling either.

The Creative Zen Xtra 60GB – just a few hundred ringgit more than the iPod mini

Retailing for RM 1099 (Recommended Retail Price), the iPod mini is just a few hundred ringgit short of a 20GB iPod, which in my eyes, represents better value for money compared to the paltry 4GB offered by its little brother. What the iPod mini scores for is of course, its style and size. Its usefully smaller than the full sized iPod and I can foresee it being a hit with the ladies, especially in its sweet pink finish. For me though, if I were in the market for a mini hard disk drive player, I’d wait until Creative launches its new Zen Micro range. Already announced for release in the US, the Zen Micro is smaller than the iPod mini and packs a usefully larger 5GB memory from Seagate, for less money, at least from indicative prices in Europe. I’ll keep my eyes out for that one, so in the meantime, if you have to have a stylish, compact digital audio player, and memory capacity is not your overriding concern, the iPod mini would do quite nicely.

The upcoming Creative Zen Micro – promising challenger to the iPod mini

Monday, October 18, 2004

Kia's Little Baby - Driving impressions of the Kia Picanto 1.1

Small cars always amused me. I remember in my second year of college I used to putter about in my sister’s Perodua Kancil. To those unfamiliar with this brand, the Perodua Kancil is manufactured by Malaysia’s second national car manufacturer and is essentially a mildly reworked Daihatsu Mira. This car is small. Think oven-toaster small. Space was always at a premium with this car and sitting in it made me feel like the car had all the crash protection of a crisp packet. Powered by a lawn-mower of an engine (a pint-sized 660cc motor), the little Kancil was cramped and uncomfortable for long distances, but it excelled in being exactly what its designers meant it to be – a nimble little city runabout.

The dimunitive little Perodua Kancil

As much as I loved the idea of such a runabout, there was one serious flaw – I barely fit in the darned thing. Small cars no matter how adeptly suited to their environment will always be suited to smaller people. Driving the car, my knee was perpetually wedged between the steering rim (non adjustable, mind you) and the gear knob, which made engaging 5th gear all but impossible on the car. Pulling out of junctions required a peep out the REAR nearside window because the driver’s seat was pushed so far back the B-pillar of the car was directly in my line of sight.

I pretty much stayed away from such cars after my bout with the little Kancil and kept my rides to “real” cars – cars that occupied a little bit more roadspace than a postage stamp.

But recently, I was coaxed into taking a spin in a friend’s recently-acquired car, the niftily named Kia Picanto. In the past few years, the little Korean car maker has been making leaps and bounds in its design and manufacturing capabilities, thanks to the takeover of the ailing company in the late 90’s by Korean giant, Hyundai. Now safely ensconced in the Hyundai Group, Kia has taken the role of providing affordable models while its parent company moves slowly upmarket to compete with the Japanese giants such as Toyota and Honda.

The Picanto is Kia’s first foray into the supermini category of cars. Hugely popular in European markets, thanks to their narrow streets and demand for more nimble, economical cars, the Picanto was designed specifically with that market in mind, and it shows.

The Kia Picanto - odd little grille on the front

From the outside, the Picanto has a very pretty shape. Large headlamps flank a somewhat oddly-shaped grille, which is the only jarring styling element in an otherwise harmonious design that stands out from the crop of characterless cars that are common in this category. The car I was lucky enough to test was painted in a bright red hue and it looked really cute. The Picanto is also available in several other bright, youthful colours like copper, apple green and yellow. Models sold here in Malaysia come standard with alloy rims, which I feel are an awful mismatch for the car, as they are painted in a shade of gunmetal grey. This sort of colour would suit a sports car like a Lotus Elise, but when applied to the cute Picanto, it looks sorely out of place.

Another view of the little Kia, in a very nice shade of green. Local spec cars have awful grey rims instead of the stylish white ones pictured here

Getting into the car is easy, thanks to the high hip point of the car, allowing occupants to slide in rather than drop their bottoms into the car. One thing struck me immediately was the spaciousness of the cabin, at least up front. I stand a pretty lanky 6ft 3in and my build would make Jabba the Hutt proud – and most times, cars this size barely accommodate me. I always feel squashed. In the Picanto, there was enough space around me to suggest I was in a much bigger car – it was at least as spacious as the front seats of a Hyundai Elantra, which is a car from two classes above the Picanto. Kia makes a big deal about the Picanto’s accommodations, and for once, the manufacturer hype isn’t misplaced. As long as you stay up front, a 6-footer will be very happy. There’s more than enough leg and headroom for you to lounge about and I can easily imagine staying comfortable in this car’s front cabin even over extended drives.

What’s not so good though is the rear legroom. It’s about average for the class, and if anyone taller than 5ft 9in sits up front, only children and very small adults would fit in the back. Luggage space is about enough for 2 duffle bags with the rear seats up, extending to a pretty respectable 882 litres (more than a Proton Waja’s luggage space) if you fold down the back seats and load the car to the ceiling with luggage.

Nicely damped actions of controls suggest high quality materials and construction

The fit and finish of the car, from its smooth, well applied paint, to its narrow shutlines on body panels, to its soft-touch plastics in the cabin spoke of an attention to detail that is shocking for this price. In fact, the RM46k Picanto felt heaps better put together than the RM75k+ Proton Waja that I’ve been puttering about for the past month or so. Buttons and knobs clicked with damped precision and plastic parts matched up perfectly beneath razor thin joints that would not look out of place in a car costing at least 3 times the Picanto’s price. Equipment levels are very impressive too, the Picanto packing in dual front SRS airbags, electronic brake force distribution and anti-lock brakes.

The Picanto is powered by a 65bhp 1.1 litre 12 valve 4 pot engine. Not the most powerful of engines, but in this application, it is should prove adequate – afterall, the Picanto weighs in fully equipped at a lightweight 852kg’s. This engine can be paired with either a 5 speed manual gearbox or a 4 speed automatic transmission, and the car I drove was fitted with the latter transmission.

The 1.1 litre 65bhp engine that powers the Picanto

Started up, the engine hums along quite silently, and is virtually inaudible from inside the cabin. Small vibrations inherent in a 4 pot engine with no balancer shafts does get through to the steering column though, but in all honesty, this is a common trait even in cars costing twice as much as the little Kia.

On the move though, the vibrations get smoothed out, but it’s replaced with a coarse drone from 3,000rpm onwards. The little motor obviously struggles with the amount of mass it’s asked to shift. With 3 adults on board, and a torque converter in the transmission sapping up valuable horsepower, the engine felt laboured when pulling away from standstill. I have doubts this car will make it up steep inclines in the highlands, for example, where even the 118bhp 1.8 litre motor in my long-term Proton Waja felt laboured.

Another view of the Picanto - odd front grows on you after a while

Acceleration is tepid, though entirely acceptable for a car that was designed with slow city traffic in mind. In all honesty the Picanto’s nearest competitor, the Perodua Kelisa, which is equipped with a 1.0 litre engine putting out about 55bhp but weighing almost 100kg's less, feels just as mild when asked to scoot away from the lights. It eventually gets to 100km/h in about 18 seconds or so, according to our impromptu acceleration tests, and tops out at about 145km/h, as indicated on the car's speedometer, where the little Kia starts to feel like too much is being asked of it. The combination of a little engine screaming its lungs out close to its redline, wind noise and tyre rumble positively discourages drivers from maintaining this sort of pace in the car. Cruising at 110km/h seems fine though, with road and engine noise kept to within reasonable standards of the class. I didn't get a chance to put the car's economy to the test, but the owner assures me that he's done over a week's worth of daily commuting to the tune of 70km a day on a tankful of super unleaded. That's impressive economy at any rate.

What impressed me even more than the frugality of the Picanto was its ride quality. Cars with wheelbases this abrupt have no right to ride this serenely. The little red Picanto I was in soaked up all sorts of bumps and ruts with considerable poise and was never overtly flustered by potholes that are standard fare in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Soft, absorbent ride ensures occupant comfort that Kia genuinely should be proud of. In fact, the ride comfort of the Picanto easily beats that of the much, much larger Sorento SUV from Kia. Where the large SUV would bounce and lurch uncomfortably, suggesting inadequate damping, the little Picanto just takes it in its stride and always stays calm and composed.

At silly speeds though, the soft, pliant suspension exacts a toll as the car is easily thrown off course by small bumps in the road. We also found that the Picanto was very sensitive to cross-winds, something drivers should be aware of. Driving on the highway, gusts of wind to the side of the car could easily be felt pushing the car off course, no doubt caused by the car’s rather slab-sided body.

The suspension also bottoms out readily when fully laden, and enthusiastic cornering is best avoided as the tall body of the Picanto readily leans into corners, understeering pretty early and rolling onto the sidewalls of its outside front wheel at relatively modest cornering speeds, threatening to take the nearest guardrail along for the ride is the driver isn’t cautious of the car’s limits.

The little Kia’s driver will certainly also not appreciate the woolly steering. The power assisted tiller lacks feel, and never really encourages you to explore the car’s handling. The driver is never fully aware of what the front wheels are doing, but truth be told, its normal for this class of car. Expecting a razor-sharp helm is perhaps too much to ask from what is still essentially a budget city car.

As package, the little Kia is an amazing car for its price. It has the quality, equipment levels and ride comfort of a car much larger in size and price yet remains awesomely affordable. If you don’t really need the rear seat space to lug around the wife, 2.5 kids and the golden retriever, the Picanto represents a brilliant buy. Definitely worth having a look, but if you want one now, you better be patient, because nationwide waiting lists run longer than that for the BMW 5-series. Kia is quoting 3-6 months for delivery – and for once, I feel that waiting list is there for a really, really good reason.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Mobile warrior - Motorola E398

I used to own a Motorola Star Tac. One of the earlier models, it was back then the best mobile phone on the market. About the size of a credit card, it was awesomely tiny. But I hated the phone. Why? Cos I could never figure out how to work it, other than to make and take calls. The operating system was, at best, cryptic. From the day I took it out of its protective shrink-wrap, until the day I sold it off, I could never figure out how to even retrieve my missed calls.

The baffling Motorola StarTac

After that debacle, I swore off the brand and stuck to Nokia, which by then had risen to fame thanks to the immortalization of the 8100-series in the cult film “The Matrix”. The Nokia 8148 replaced my Star Tac and a succession of Finnish phones such as the 3210, 7110 and the 6100 followed. I was in love with these phones. They were stylish, feature packed and most of all, ridiculously easy to use. My 6 year old nephew could work the 6100 with little trouble, homing into its built-in games function like a laser guided missile.

The Nokia 8148 - Neo's mobile phone of choice in "The Matrix"

Alas, my love affair with the Nokia range gave me the label of a “Nokiaphile” and that was something I rarely disputed, as in my mind, only Nokia’s would do. As they say, once you go Finnish, you never go back. But recently, my much-loved Nokia 6100 started to give me a string of problems, which admittedly was a Nokia tradition with my phones. The screen packed up and headed south for the winter and I was left with a highly advanced paper weight.

The Nokia 6100 - Finnish mobile technology at its best

I needed a replacement and needed one quick. My budget was about RM1500 and looking around, it was surprising that Nokia’s range of phones had steadily risen in price, placing most of the models I wanted out of my limited budget. It was also amazing to see so many new models being displayed at the infamous Sungai Wang shopping complex at Bukit Bintang. Samsungs were notable for their increasing popularity and Motorola had a brand new range of phones that looked really good. Sony had merged with Ericsson to produce some awesome looking phones so I was completely lost in a sea of choices.

Stylish new models from SonyEricsson

After a long and protracted debate with my Nokiaphile self, I decided to be brave and get a non-Nokia phone. My logic being that none of the Nokia’s below RM1500 really struck my fancy and there was one particular phone that stood out in the display case in the shop I was in. The Motorola E398. At RM1499, the E398 fitted my budget perfectly and offered the most “bang-for-my-buck” by packing a long features list in a design no bigger than the 6100. I closed my eyes, handed over the plastic card and before you know it, I was home with the Nokia one hand, stripped of its SIM card, and the spanking new Motorola on the other, complete with its optional Bluetooth headset. Over the next month or so, I set out to see if the American phone could match, or perhaps beat Nokia at its own game.

The E398 is powered by a slim lithium-ion battery that takes about 4 hours to fully charge. Fully charged from the dealer, I popped it into the back of the E398, together with the SIM card from the old Nokia, and turned it on. Nothing happened. Not a great sign. Was I wrong with abandoning my beloved Nokia brand? Undeterred, I tried again and it turns out that I had to hold the power button for a few seconds continuously before the phone would power up. Lesson learnt - read the user manual first. With the phone powered up, it promptly logged onto my network and I started to fiddle with the unit.

The Motorola E398 - classy good looks

First impressions are good. The unit itself is actually pretty weighty, which I actually like. Gives the impression of solidity. The surfaces of the E398, with the exception of the silver buttons and a strip of classy chrome around the phone's chassis, are textured, and feels kinda like rubber, but isn’t, of course. In the black and silver unit I got ( it’s also available in silver and red), the phone looks understated and classy. Feature wise, the E398 has far too much features to list in full here, but amongst those that got my attention was its VGA camera, high resolution colour screen, video and audio playback (MP3 and MP4 compatible), Motorola’s own iTap predictive text technology and, most notably, a TransFlash memory card. The E398 is significant for the industry as it is the first phone to incorporate SanDisk’s 64MB transflash memory card and offers the user huge amounts of memory capacity for a device so small.

Exploring the new Motorola user-interface, I found that I could navigate my way through the phone’ features pretty easily. In fact, compared to the Nokia interface on the 6100, I couldn’t say that one had the edge over the other in terms of ease-of-use. Both present the phone’s features in windows on the main menu and navigating through the various features was a breeze. I even figured out how to connect to the E398’s optional Bluetooth headset and the call history lists without resorting to the user manual, and that is an achievement for me of sorts as past experiences with Motorola products had left me dumbfounded at the logic that the programmers used when laying out the menu system.

Screen shot of the new Motorola user interface - simple and very Nokia-like

I also found that the E398’s signal strength and ability to lock onto networks to be heaps better than the 6100. I live in an area where reception isn’t great. One or two bars on the indicator is about the best you’ll get and the 6100 had the tendency to drop calls when I ventured anywhere past my doorway in the apartment. The E398 coped admirably with the weak reception and never dropped a call, even when it was hanging on to the last bar on its indicator. Sound quality on the E398’s earpiece and built-in speakerphone is a little weak though, most callers sounding like they are talking to you through a can. In that aspect, the Nokia was better, with voices coming through naturally. To its credit, the volume on the E398 is louder, enabling you to hear better in crowded and noisy environments.

Another thing the Nokia had the advantage was when it came to messaging. Nokia utilizes the widely-used T9 software that is pretty adept at predicting what you’re typing. The iTap software on the E398 can prove frustrating from someone who is used to T9. Some words that you take for granted that a T9 equipped phone can predict is completely lost on iTap. Whats doubly frustrating is the fact that the iTap software is incredibly slow. The 6100 had no problems keeping up with my rather fast typing speeds. The E398, in comparison, struggles at what feels like half the speed at which I normally type. By the time I’ve completed four to six words on the keypad, the iTap software is still figuring out what I typed as my second or third word on the screen. So it’s a constant type-stop-wait affair with the Motorola. Its learning capabilities are also suspect, as words that I’ve entered into its database (it automatically learns new words it hasn’t seen before and stores it in memory, at least in theory) sometimes appears when it tries to predict what you've typed, and sometimes doesn’t.

The keypad layout closely mimics the Nokia 6100, which is no bad thing, with nice large buttons laid out in a symmetrical array. Instead of a 4-way directional button on the Nokia, the Motorola has a small joystick on the keypad to navigate the phone’s functions. In practice, the joystick can prove to be a little slippery and small for quick navigation, but that’s more likely caused by the fact that its owner’s fingers are of the “XXL” variety. Certainly others who fiddled with my phone had no trouble with the joystick.

The dimunitive little joystick on the E398

The E398 also boasts of “Stereo Surround Sound”, but the effects were lost on me as I detected little difference between the playback of ringtones on the Motorola and the Nokia. What I did appreciate was the quality of the sound played back on the tiny stereo speakers flanking the E398’s screen. Compared to the weedy sound of the Nokia, the Motorola was excellent, playing back Kylie’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” ringtone with convincing bass and clear treble. I even loaded the E398 with some MP3 tunes and it played back well. It gets better if you plug the E398 into proper stereo headphones through the socket at the top of the phone. It quickly became a favourite feature of mine to store a few tunes in the E398 for playback in the car where I have a matching jack to plug the E398 into the car’s audio system.

Its interesting to note that the E398 has flashing coloured lights on the sides of its screen that change colour as the phone rings, creating a disco-light effect. It’s a huge hit with a few of my friends and it certainly makes people look and stare when my phone rings. Certainly not a feature for those who want to remain discreet.

The display screen is crisp and clear, and beats the Nokia hands-down for clarity. Where the Nokia’s display would wash out in sunlight, the Motorola’s would remain highly legible. This is possibly due to the fact that Nokia persists in using passive LCD displays whereas Motorola has moved on to clearer active matrix screens for phones like the E398.

Battery life was pretty good while I was using the E398 for daily use. I’m a self confessed SMS-addict, sending out on average 40-50 messages daily, and taking that in mind, the E398 lasted 3 days before requiring a recharge. The Nokia was about equal in terms of battery life. Using the camera feature often on the E398 saps battery power quickly though, and should be best avoided if you’re trying to squeeze the last ounce of talktime on the Motorola.

The VGA camera on the E398 produces acceptable quality pictures. Nothing great, and I’ve only used it for candid shots of myself so far. Sometimes I wonder why people make a big deal about camera phones.

The VGA camera sits at the back of the E398

Overall, the E398 represents what Motorola has successfully done to counter the brilliance of Nokia’s products. Its stylish, easy to use and has almost too many features for its own good. Short of a full fledged smartphone like the Nokia Communicator, I think the E398 represents all an average joe would ever need in a mobile phone. And for once, you don’t have to justify why it isn’t made in Finland. Motorola’s back in the game, and the E398 is the best example of how far it has come.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Music on-the-go - MSI Mega Stick

MP3 players are now all the rage. It was the iPod that made the MP3 player a fashionista's must-have accessory and other makers of similar devices have been capitalising on this phenomenon as of late.

The iconic Apple iPod that started the MP3 player craze

Such players can be divided into 2 general categories - the hard-disk based players such as the iPod and Creative's Zen range of 15-60GB players, and the flash memory based players which use solid-state memory to store between 128MB to 256MB of music.

Hard-disk based players offer copious amounts of memory capacity for users, often allowing one to store virtually all of one's CD collection in one single device. 20GB on an iPod itself is sufficient for almost 10,000 songs. I doubt even I have that many songs in my entire music collection. Creative's Zen Xtra goes one step further by offering a phenomenal 60GB version of its popular player. Thats massive amounts of music in a device no larger than a pack of cigarettes.

Creative's Zen Xtra which offers a mind boggling 60GB of memory

But the downside of such players is mainly cost. In Malaysia, the iconic iPod retails for almost RM 1,500, which is a lot of money for most people. The Creative Zen range retails for slightly less, but even in its cheapest versions, are a few hundred Ringgit north of the big 1k.

Hence the increasing popularity of solid-state players like Creative's MuVo which offers decent memory capacity for a lot less money than the iPod and its hard-disk based brethren. Offering between 128MB and 256MB of memory, these players can store between 30-40 songs (dependant on the size of the file), enough for the weekend warriors to load up on favourite music for the gym or a weekend away with your must-have tunes.

Creative's MuVo solid state MP3 player

Solid state memory is cheap, and hence players like the MuVo retail for less than RM800. And as an additional bonus, these players are very resilient to rough treatment since they have no moving parts to damage, unlike the tiny hard-disk mechanisms of the iPod which don't take too kindly to being roughed up. Drop a solid state player and you'll likely have no more than a few scratches. Do the same to an iPod and you'll likely be paying a visit to your friendly Apple store for repairs.

Part of the growing family of solid state players is the MSI Mega Stick. Odd name, that, sounding more like an "adult" toy rather than an MP3 player, to be honest. For those who haven't heard of the manufacturer, MSI ("Micro Star International") is a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer that makes everything from computer boards to consumer electronics like stereos. The Mega Stick is their latest offering in the fast-growing market for affordable MP3 players.

The tiny Mega Stick from MSI

The Mega Stick is available in 128MB and 256MB incarnations, and costs a reasonable RM280 for the 128MB version and RM330 for the more capacious 256MB model. Prices of course, differ from dealer to dealer by a few Ringgit, but either way, they represent tremendous value for money. After deciding pointedly that the music selection at my gym was no longer condusive for my health, I acquired one of these players for my own use, and I must say, I was most surprised at the performance of this little player from Taiwan.

The Mega Stick trumps most of its rivals in its price range for features, offering MP3 playback (it is compatible with WMA files), a voice recording function, an FM tuner and it also has the ability to store files, effectively turning the Mega Stick into a thumb drive.

The Mega Stick is a simple design, clad in the now-compulsory iPod white. On its front fascia is a simple button for power, play and pause functions. Press once to turn the unit on, press again to start playback and once more to pause playback. On its side, are buttons to activate the voice recording and the FM tuner functions as well as a jog dial that controls the players fast forward/review, track skip and FM tuner frequency search functions. Flip it over to its other side and there's a slide switch to activate the keylock function that deactivates all the controls on the player. On top is the headphone jack and in-built microphone and at the bottom of the player, protected by a snap-on cap, is the USB connector.

Simple control layout on the Mega Stick

Fitted with a single line blue-backlit LCD display that displays battery life, current track in play and playback status, the player is extremely easy to use and one needn't have a degree on rocket science to figure out the player's functions.

The Mega Stick ships with a pair of headphones (integrated into the unit's snap-on neckstrap), a USB wire (for hard-to-reach ports) and a CD containing the necessary driver for PC users using anything less than Windows 98. On anything above Windows 98, the Mega Stick is completely plug-and-play compatible.

The Mega Stick and its neckstrap headphones

Getting started with the Mega Stick was a simple affair. Pop in a single AAA battery, turn it on and plug it into your PC or laptop. Automatically, my laptop recognised the player as an external USB device. Open Windows Media Player and start copying your music of choice to the player. A point to note is that the Mega Stick arranges files alphabetically, so songs are listed and played back in that order. With no ability to create playlists on the go, it may be wise to change your file names if you want your songs to play in a particular order. I ended up adding an alphabet in front of my song titles to force the player to play the tracks in the order I wanted.

Just plug in this connector to your PC and you're ready go

Once full, I plugged in the headphones and started playback. The Mega Stick has a 5 setting sound equaliser, offering Normal, Jazz, Rock, Pop and Classic settings. Jazz proved to have the best balance and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of sound pumped out by the little player. It won't win any fans amongst audiophiles, but it was no worse than the sound quality from far more expensive players such as the Creative MuVo. Bass was a bit crackly when played at high volumes but otherwise the little player did justice to tracks ranging from the thumping bassline of Kylie's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" to Kate Ryan's dreamy techno number, "Desenchantee". Even rock numbers such as Linkin Park's "Faint" played at incredibly high volumes without distorting. Amazing stuff, considering the price of this player.

Downsides of this player? Well, the cheap plastic casing of the player has already picked up nicks and scratches, especially on the mirror-finish display surface. The LCD display washes out in bright light and the blue backlighting sucks up a lot of battery power. Turning it off almost doubled the battery life of the player. I got almost 8 hours of playback time with the volume at three-quarters most of the time and the backlight turned off. FM reception on the in-built tuner is crackly at best, and gets progressively worse in built up areas as the tuner seems to have difficulty locking on to stations.

The build quality of the headphones are also suspect, as my original pair gave up after a week's worth of gym-based work. The left earbud fell silent and refused to make a peep despite all my efforts to coax it back to life. They were replaced under warranty though, and the new pair seem to be standing up to abuse pretty well. The earbuds don't really fit my ear very well either, but thats more of a peculiarity of its owner than any fault of the design. Swapping the original headphones for more expensive units, I plugged the player into a pair of Audio-Technica headphones, and whilst the sound was hugely better, with deeper bass and clearer highs, the player struggled to power the large headphones, with its playback volume suffering badly.

Overall though, for what I use the player for, it represents excellent value, packing in a weekend's worth of gym tunes for not a lot of money. If you don't need the capacity of a hard-disk based player like the iPod, the Mega Stick makes a compelling case for itself. It can match, if not better, rivals from more established names at almost half the cost. Now who doesn't love that?

Waja woes - The Proton Waja 1.8

When the Proton Waja was launched in 2000, it was a promising start for the Malaysian national car manufacturer's future as an independent car maker. Up till then, Proton had been producing old Mitsubishi Lancers and Galants under license from the Japanese manufacturer, renaming them the Saga, Wira and Perdana. It even tried a tie-up with French manufacturer Citroen, which resulted in the horrid Proton Tiara.

The Waja was Proton's first attempt at building a car of its own from scratch. And to do so, it developed its own platform with the help of german specialist EDAG, and clothed it with bodywork that was safe but not totally unattractive. Combining elements of the Volkswagen Bora and the current-generation Mitsubishi Lancer, the Waja was a car that was best described as "conservative".

The conservative lines of the Waja - unchanged since its launch in 2000

Initially offered with a reworked version of Mistubishi's venerable 4G15 engine bored out to 1.6 litres and fitted with a DOHC head and mated to either a 5 speed manual or a 4 speed electronically governed automatic transmission, the Waja range was later expanded to include a 1.8 litre model, powered by a Renault engine.

When it was first launched, the car was hailed as "Asia's answer to BMW". Proton has probably learnt the hard way that merely having a Lotus (Proton owns the British outfit) tuned suspension does not justify that tag. BMW built its reputation on handling as well as impeachable build quality. The Waja was anything but a quality product.

The Waja interior - looks good, but feels quite dreadful

The first batch of Waja's were praised for their handling characteristics but booed incessantly for their appaling build quality. Hard, shiny, brittle plastics peppered the interior, body panels barely fitted together and most cars were riddled with electrical and mechanical failures. But the Waja continued to sell, thanks to its keen pricing. At slightly more than RM 60k, it offered the space of a 1.6 litre car for the price of a 1.3 litre subcompact.

Over time, Proton tried to make amends, and admittedly, by 2002, the quality of the Waja had improved noticeably, though quality control issues still plagued most cars. I know of many owners complaining of failed power window motors, water leaks, squeaks and rattles from day 1 of ownership and even cars catching fire due to electrical failures.

Its been a good 4 years since the car was launched, and recently I had the oppurtunity to drive, for an extended period of time, a 1.8 litre Waja automatic kindly loaned to me by the people at Proton Edar.

Taking delivery of the car at the impressive Proton Edar facility at Ampang, the car was in a nice shade of silver that brought out the best of the car's slightly staid lines. It may be boring and safe, but the car's design has aged well and still looks current despite the emergence of newer, more stylish models from Korean and Japanese manufacturers who are increasingly making inroads into the Malaysian market.

The 1.8 Waja - wearing larger wheels and tyres to distinguish it from the 1.6

Getting on board, the cabin looked familiar. Nothing has been changed in terms of design and the ergonomics remain well thought out. Controls are still where you'd expect them to be, bar the cruise control stalk, which is obscured by the thick spokes of the steering wheel. Instrumentation is good, the speedo, tacho and the fuel and coolant gauges being clearly marked and sportily decked out in silver.

Stylish instrument pack lit in red at night

But venture beyond looking and start touching bits of the interior and the truth hits home. The quality of the plastics in the cabin is simply woeful. Tap on any part of the dashboard and you're greeted by the hollow sound sound of thin, brittle plastic. All surfaces are unyielding to the touch and the fit and finish of the bits that make up the interior is frightful.

The air vents for the air conditioning are possibly the worst bit of automotive design yet. They swivel only about 15 degrees up and down, meaning that re-direction of airflow vertically within the cabin is strictly limited. They cannot swivel down beyond the horizontal, meaning its impossible to get airflow directed below the driver's chest. Worst still is the fact that the centre air vents is angled towards the driver and is constantly either blowing at his face or his palms. Very annoying.

The offending air vents - limited directional adjustment

The front seats of the Waja, which initially came under fire for its overtly aggresive lumbar support and rock-hard cushions, has been softened up considerably, though the lumbar support curve on the backrest still causes the occupant to sit as if he/she was preggers.

Overall though, quality has been upped a notch compared to the first batch of Waja's that rolled off the Proton factory at Shah Alam, but its way behind its more contemporary competitors such as the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Interior space though, is very good, with enough space for two 6-footers to sit back-to-back. I would have wished for a little more rearward travel on the driver's seat adjustment, but set at its rearmost position, the driving position was satisfactory if not brilliant. The steering wheel adjusts for height only, and even at its highest setting, my thigh was constantly grazing the lower edge of the wheel when exiting or entering the car.

This version of the Waja is powered by a 118bhp Renault engine and paired with a 4 speed "Proactive" automatic from the french car maker. The engine incorporates fancy drive-by-wire throttle technology and variable valve timing, and the gearbox is of the "fuzzy logic" variety that is claimed to learn the driver's style and adapt its shift map to suit.

Driving the car, I honestly thought the car had gone wonky on me. The gearbox was more "fuzzy" than "logic", shifting with noticable clunks in the driveline. It also held on to gears unecessarily. Trigger a kickdown to overtake and the gearbox hangs on to the lower ratio for 10-20 seconds more despite the fact that you've come off the throttle. Shifting between 1st and 2nd was particularly awful, the gearbox doing so with a thump akin to shifting a manual tranny without disengaging the clutch.

Another thing that struck me was how unbelievably loud the engine was. The engine whooshes along loudly even when idle, and whines incessantly when asked to rev. It builds into a harsh roar once past 2,000rpm, which unfortunately is where the gearbox likes to keep the revs at.

The 1.8 litre Renault engine - powerful but impossibly noisy

Taking off from standstill was not something I relished as earplugs should have been standard equipment for this car. Step on the gas and you're greeted by the coarse wail of the engine, acccompanied by the whining of the gearbox that shudders its way from 1st to 2nd and then lurches into 3rd before abruptly getting into overdrive 4th. I've driven the Renault Laguna before, with the same drivetrain, and I honestly do not recall it having such crude manners.

The stylish Laguna which donated its drivetrain to the Waja

Power is adequate, if not mind-boggling. In all honesty, the 1.6 which I've tried many times, feels spritelier. For some strange reason, step-off is particularly tardy on the 1.8, the torque converter in the gearbox taking an inordinate amount of time to load up before delivering forward thrust. But once on the move, passing power is impressive, the car overtakes slower traffic with distinct ease, if not particularly silent when doing so. The effect of the variable valve timing can be felt between 2,500rpm and 3,500rpm, where the engine gets a second wind and picks up cleanly even when the gearbox decides it wants to stay in overdrive for overtaking.

Manual downshifts from overdrive to 3rd is facilitated by an "O/D Off" button on the side of the gear selector, but I found that it was all too easy to accidentally hit this button with my knee when resting my left leg against the centre console. Troubling ergonomic error on Proton's part. Once I wondered why the car was screaming at 4,000rpm at a steady 80km/h cruise only to find my knee had accidentally triggered this function on the gear selector.

Throughout the time I had with this car, the gearbox produced odd, often frustrating results. Sometimes the electronics and I would sync and the drivetrain performed faultlessly, with well-timed down and up shifts. Its tendency to drop gears on downhill stretches and hold on to lower gears intuitively when I was pressing on was particularly impressive. Here was an automatic gearbox that thought it was a manual.

But most of the time the darned transmission and I just didn't see eye to eye. It upshifted when I really wanted it to stay in gear, downshifted when I didn't really want it to and held on to gears that were far too low on some declines, forcing me to crawl downhill at 40km/h with the engine bouncing off its rev limiter and doing its best to render the occupants deaf. For this reason alone, if I were in the market for a Waja, I'd plump for the 1.6 with the Mitsubishi automatic. Shifts on that model are a lot smoother and it never tries to second-guess the driver.

Ride and handling however, is quite brilliant. Lotus engineering really did a good job of giving the Waja handling that an enthusiast would appreciate. Compared to cars like the Corolla Altis and Honda Civic, the Waja is the sports car of the trio. Turn ins are sharp and the steering remains communicative throughout. Body roll is well contained but naturally, the trade off is a slightly stiff ride that can prove tiring on bumpier stretches of road. On highways, the suspension feels constantly busy though, never settling down into a restful gait. Cars like the Corolla are far better at cosseting the occupants from road harshness.

At the end of the day, the Waja 1.8 is a flawed car. Seriously flawed. The only reason I would plump for one is purely on price, as most of its 1.8 competitors such as the Chevrolet Optra 1.8 retails for almost RM 20k more. But at RM 72k for the model I drove, its silly money for a car that is as badly built and as bad to drive as this.

Sure, it handles well, but the handling benefits of its suspension tuning is hardly ever exploited by the owners since cars like these are destined to a life of rush hour commute. For just under RM 10k less, I'd rather live with the 1.6 version of the Waja. At about RM 65k, the smaller engined car delivers all the handling benefits of the 1.8 litre with a hugely better drivetrain. Low tech it may be, but the Mitsubishi-derived engine and gearbox combo proves to be a better pairing than the temperamental Renault units in the larger capacity Waja. Refinement and transmission performance are in a different league altogether. Although far from being class-competitive with the best from Japan, the 1.6 proves a better partner in the long run.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Zoom Zoom - Mazda 6 2.0

When was the last time you heard a car company use a sound as its motto? Well, I've never heard of it, quite frankly. Usually its some fancy tagline like "the Relentless persuit of Perfection" or "The Ultimate Driving Machine". Well, Mazda, obviously, had a different idea. The thrust behind its new campaign is its "Zoom Zoom" mantra. Its a cute mantra that quickly encapsulates what Mazda is trying to do with its new product line. Suggestions of youthful energy and driving passion come to mind when I hear that line in the catchy Mazda ad playing on radio nowadays.

Once the maker of ultra-reliable but ultra-boring transportation devices (I shall not use the word "cars" on the much unloved 323, 626 and 929 ranges which had all the appeal of a Singer sewing machine to car enthusiasts), Mazda is in the midst of re-inventing itself as the purveyor of exciting driver's cars, best expressed by the cult-status MX-5 Miata roadster, which has won countless accolades worldwide for its affordable fun.

The 626 pretty much defined Mazda - reliable but boring

But as successful as the MX-5 was, Mazda was falling into the trap of being a one-car brand. To break this trend, Mazda, aided by its parent Ford, set out to replace the ageing 626 with a new model, based on the acclaimed Ford Mondeo platform which its parent had developed for the European market. It was to be christened simply the "6".

In the age of "platform sharing", having the Mondeo as the base on which to work on was a blessing for Mazda, as this car had, in all its incarnations and versions, won high acclaim for its handling prowess. All Mazda needed to do was to clothe it in a distinctive body and it would have had a winner on its hands.

The Ford Mondeo from which the 6 was based on

And clothe the car it did. Mazda outdid itself by re-skinning the Mondeo with a swoopy new bodywork that had a rakish nose inspired by the long-nosed bullet trains in Japan. Dressed in full bodykit on the upper-end 2.3 Sport versions, the car looks quite stunning, especially in the Pacific Blue Mica that most of the press photos depict the car in.

The Mazda 6 decked out in full bodykit looks quite stunning

A clean and stylish break from the gutless and safe design of its predecessor, the new car cathes your eye and suggests speed even when standing still. Stylish slit-like projector headlamps grace the front end, flanking the new Mazda corporate grille, and up at the rear, Lexus IS200-style "jewel effect" lights add some drama to the car's pert rear end.

Sexy new bodywork on the Mazda 6

Mazda didn't stop on the bodywork. Its crafty designers obviously took inspiration from Italian car interiors and gave the new 6 a fabulous interior. On well equipped versions that are imported into Malaysia by Cycle & Carriage, the interior is in a classy black, with soft touch plastics wherever the driver comes into contact with the car. Silver mock-titanium inserts liven up the interior inmeasurably and certainly beats the faux-wood that is increasingly becoming standard fare with most cars in this category. Stylish round air vents for the automatic climate control gives a nice italianate touch to the interior, and if the buyer so wishes, the interior can further be decked out in lush leather.

Stylish centre console clad in mock-titanium trim

Unlike Mazda's of old, the 6 is fitted with expensive-feeling controls that give a reassuring feel of solidity. Well damped clicks are not strictly necessary to make a car work, but it certainly makes a difference if the 6 is, as Mazda intends, to tempt buyers away from entry-level BMW's and Audi's. In the age of cost cutting, the sheer quality that the 6's cabin exudes is something Mazda can truly be proud of.

Gorgeously tactile interior of the 6

Equipment is generous - a CD player, 4 airbags and cruise control coming as standard on all models. Space on the inside is generous, and being a rather lanky 6ft 3in driver, I found that I could sit in the driver's seat comfortably and still have enough space behind me for another 6-footer. This is something that is rare amongst cars in this price range. Another rarity is the 6's steering wheel that adjusts for both height AND reach!

Huge amouts of sprawling space for passengers at the back

Powering the 6 is a new 2-litre 16 valve DOHC number designed and manufactured by Mazda. Designated the "MZR", the engine produces 141bhp and 181Nm, which is adequate, if not exactly exciting. Compared to its class competitors such as the 2 litre Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, this engine isn't exactly at the top of the horsepower race as it eschews fancy valvetrains such as Toyota's VVT-i and Honda's i-VTEC. What the MZR does have however, is a variable length induction system that helps it produce slightly more useable torque at lower rpm's.

The 2.0 litre MZR engine in the 6

Drive goes through an electronically governed 4 speed automatic gearbox, which is pretty much standard fare in this class of cars. The 2.0 litre 6 does miss out on the increasingly common sequential manual override that german cars offer. This feature is standard on the 2.3litre 6, which Cycle & Carriage has yet to import to Malaysia. Called "Activematic", the gearbox is essentially the same as the one fitted to the 2.0 litre bar some changes to the electronics to facilitate the sequential shifting.

Driving impressions are mostly positive. The comfortable driving position and the brilliantly compliant suspension does its best to keep you from feeling fatigued. Even the worse Kuala Lumpur roads are tackled with aplomb, the 6 dismissing most road blemishes with a distinctly teutonic arrogance. Only sharp rutted surfaces causes the 6 to lose the plot momentarily, but in all honesty, it isn't any worse than the Honda Accord. The big Camry, however, still holds the prize for ride comfort in this class.

One thing the Camry cannot do however, is match the 6's composure when the driver wants to have a bit of fun. Mazda engineers have been busy tuning the suspension of the 6 to give excellent handling characteristics. When driven enthusiastically, understeer never rears its ugly head until the car is very well near its adhesion limits, at which point backing off merely tucks the nose in cleanly and the car sails through the curve with minimal body roll.

Sudden changes in direction are executed cleanly in the 6 with no lurching, something the larger Toyota has a problem with at most times. Where the Camry would start to wallow and head for the nearest guardrail, the 6 would just hang on and stay flat. Both eventually wash out in a messy trail of understeer and squealing rubber if asked to tackle curves at silly speeds, but its the 6 that holds on much longer. In many ways, it handles like a slightly heavier MX-5. In the 2.0 litre, there's hardly enough power to provoke torque steer, so the steering feel remains sharp and uncorrupted from drive forces being channeled through the front wheels.

Having a bit of fun in the 6 is not an impossibility

The brilliance of the 6's newfound handling prowess is somewhat let down by the engine's nature when extended. Quiet and sedate below 3,000rpm, the engine takes on a gruff note when revved above 4000rpm, which is coincidentally where the powerband starts to build nicely. From that point onwards, the engine emits a strictly machanical whine that does nothing for the enthusiast. While it remains reasonable smooth all the way to its 6500rpm redline and cut-out, its coarseness as it nears 6000rpm will make you think twice about exploring that area of the engine's rev range. In this regard, Toyota and Honda have the upper hand, with engines that stay commendably smooth and composed no matter where the tacho needle is pointing.

But driven more sedately, the 6 is a brilliant package. At around RM 165k a piece, it isn't expensive and is competitive with its class adversaries like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. Add in the fact that the 6 handles brilliantly and copes with anything you can throw at it with aplomb and there just might be a case to choose the 6 over its competitors if you're the type that loves driving.

Whilst the Accord and the Camry have better engines, and likely better residuals when it comes to trade-in time, the 6 is the clearly the driver's choice. Take a trip to the nearest Cycle & Carriage showroom and see the car for yourself. Trust me, you won't be disappointed...."Zoom zoom" indeed.