We were in the thick of the Marifanta twisties, the turns of the Marikina-Infanta Highway, already heading back to Manila when the truth of it struck me: instead of a De Niro Taxi Driver vibe romancing the road trip, we were talking Ackroyd and Belushi, the Blues Brothers, the vision of an outlaw black and white cruiser charming our drive.

Just before dawn at Real, Quezon (collaborative work of Jo Avila, javila.com, and James Enriquez, knifebox.lens.ph, using a Pixel Stick)
Just before dawn at Real, Quezon (collaborative work of Jo Avila, javila.com, and James Enriquez, knifebox.lens.ph, using the Pixelstick light painter exclusively distributed by Shutter Master Pro, shuttermaster.com.ph)
Heading back on the Marifanta Highway
Heading back on the Marifanta Highway

The sun was high in a noon sky as we topped yet another rise, and there in plain sight ahead of us were the dips, curves and eventual turning climb of the next kilometer. A “woohoo!” echoed through the car, coming from my passengers, and me too. You could feel the smiles behind the expletive. The anticipation was palpable, and shared. On the BYD F3 taxi sedan we had that day, we were in for a rollin’ coastin’ glide, a groovy smooth slalom on a beautiful mountain drive. The car ate up the miles, and in style.

The BYD F3, a big sedan despite its “compact” label, is a model meant for taxi service, from the outset intended to be a cab on the transport grid. So imagine our surprise when we found it to be a sublimely strong, solid, smooth, and yes, even sporty, ride.

Night run to meet the sunrise

“ … a thing people do … leave the city after midnight … reach Real, Quezon before dawn to photograph the sunrise “

We had been on the road for ten hours by then, homeward bound and loaded with treasure. It’s a thing people do, apparently. Leave the city after midnight to reach Real, Quezon before dawn and then photograph the sunrise.route-map

Outward bound on the Siniloan-Famy-Real road (photo by James Enriquez, Knifebox Images, knifebox.lens.ph)
Outward bound on the Siniloan-Famy-Real-Infanta Road (photo by James Enriquez, Knifebox Images, knifebox.lens.ph)

The route can be dizzying, more so in the dark. First, head east out of the city, through Ortigas Avenue, and up to Antipolo. Then it’s beyond onto the new diversion road to get onto the Manila East Road for the leg to Banaba where you’d turn onto the famous Siniloan-Famy-Real-Infanta zigzags that’d take you up over the mountains and down to Luzon’s coast on the big Pacific side.

So, on what eventually became a bright Saturday, we had rolled out from our meeting point in Cainta at the dark 2AM witching hour, four of us seated on leather and our gear snug in the cavernous trunk, and drove to Real.

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Long and stable

“ Its long 2600mm wheelbase always felt like it anchored the car upright while the front end bit into a turn.”

Most of the route on the outward trip was through moderate to intense road twists, both up and downhill. And, on the dark twisting transit, the F3 would handle turns with aplomb, maybe not sporty in the cornering but definitely stately, always poised.

JA-11715038_101558033166805
(photo by Jo Avila, joavila.com)

Heavy with a curb weight of 1200kg, the F3 uses that heft to its advantage with gravity and vehicle dynamics putting strong traction on its big 195/60 R15 tires front and back. Its long 2600mm wheelbase always felt like it anchored the car upright while the front end bit into a turn.

And the brakes! With discs all-around and on all fours, I could confidently do firm braking before the turn-in on each and every curve, they were that assertive and consistent.

There was some body roll, but always less than what you’d expect in the face of the G’s we loaded up on the turns. The car was grippy and stable enough that the passengers in back might feel their behinds slipping sideways because of the centrifugal force, but not due to any heavy listing away from the turn.

Strong, subtle suspension

“ the tires feeling like they’d just conform around any irregularity in the road “

Certainly, the suspension’s stiffness contributed much to the F3’s stability, but the percussiveness of road bumps is readily dampened by keeping the tires supple.

(photo by James Enriquez, Knifebox Images, knifebox.lens.ph)
(photo by James Enriquez, Knifebox Images, knifebox.lens.ph)

The door sticker specifies 210kpa or 30psi on all tires, front and back. But on a pre-drive shakedown run I found that this stock spec made the tires dribble and drum, clearly too hard and doing less shock absorption than they could.

So I settled for 28psi and seemed to hit the jackpot. Steering control felt positive while the ride softened up considerably, the tires feeling like they’d just conform around any irregularity on the road.

High-riding soft-roader

“ ground clearance of 170mm—equal … to that of the 2015 Honda CR-V “

IMG20150629085530The decision to keep the tires at 28psi proved fortunate when, at Real and already on the seaside road, the concrete pavement gave way to a long stretch undergoing upgrade. The bare ground still being tamped down had apparently been reshaped by heavy rain, the terrain turned into mounds and valleys.

The F3 taxi sedan, bare of any fairings that’d be more for aesthetic rather than aerodynamic value at city commuting speeds, has high ground clearance of 170mm—equal, in fact, to that of the 2015 Honda CR-V crossover softroader. So, even with a long wheelbase span and typical sedan overhangs in front and in back, that 170mm kept the car’s bottom from scraping any of the mounds on the undulating surface. This high ground clearance and the traction of the big tires at 28psi worked together to let us roll gently over the worst of it.

Leather amidst utility

“ while the lack of powered features may sound unappealing, the manually operated controls are all simpler to maintain … “

The driver and passenger seats are all of firm foam with pillowed cushioning on the sides that center the rider. The dark interior finish makes the plush leather upholstery blend in nicely even among the F3 taxi sedan’s spartan appointments.IMG20150701093331

Windows, locks and side mirrors are all worked manually—none of the servos common on late-model sedans that replace muscle work with button-pushing. For all that, the feel of the car is still somehow premium. The windows are seldom rolled down or up anyway since the AC does its work so well. We had it at 2 (in a set going up to 4) even during the hottest part of the trip.

IMG20150701093126While the lack of powered features may sound unappealing, the manually operated controls are all simpler to maintain and keep expensive motors, wiring and switches off the list of parts that’ll probably need replacing during the useful life of the taxi sedan. Good news for fleet operators.

The one cost-cutting thing that was really inconvenient was in the locksets. There’s no centralized locking, as mentioned, and the only door with a keylock is that of the driver (not counting the trunk which also has one). This becomes an issue when unlocking doors for multiple passengers. The driver would have to unlock all the doors from the inside. While this may work for taxis, might even be an excellent security feature, private users will certainly find it worrisome.

Superb short-shifter

” I could kick things up to second gear at 15, third at 30, fourth at 45, and finally up to fifth at 60km/h “

IMG20150701094004On the return trip, after the Marifanta Highway (labelled “Marcos Highway” on some maps), we eventually hit traffic where I strove to conserve fuel by short-shifting, emulating what veteran cabbies do whenever they can get away with it, and I discovered that the F3 could short-shift with the best of them.

With up-shifts coming in when the tachymeter was at 1600 to 1800rpm, I could kick things up to second gear at 15, third at 30, fourth at 45, and finally up to fifth at 60km/h. The last up-shift point is significant because it meant that the F3 can hit and stay in fifth gear at typical city cruising speeds whenever there’s an open patch of road. And at no point did the engine shudder or approach stall. In fact, it kept sounding its aggressive throaty self throughout the climb to cruising speed.

Tall gears, excellent torque

” While the engine’s 107hp at 5600rpm and 107lb-ft at 4800rpm seem unimpressive, its power contour is another thing altogether. “

The reason the F3 short-shifts so well is not a short gearbox. All gears are relatively tall, with reduction ratios that are just 88%, on average, of those for typical transmissions. In fact, its fourth gear, the typical direct drive gear with a 1.000 ratio, is actually an overdrive gear made tall at 0.939.

IMG20150629084926The answer is in the engine’s output. While the engine’s 107hp at 5600rpm and 107lb-ft at 4800rpm seem unimpressive, its power contour is another thing altogether. The F3’s 1.5liter inline-4 already produces 70% of peak torque while still just idling at 800rpm . That’s 72lb-ft of torque coming off the engine even before you step on the gas.   (In fact, you can roll-out with the engine at idle. Put her in first gear and then slowly let up on the clutch pedal without stepping on the gas. You’ll roll out past a slight engine shudder and accelerate to 8km/h—enough speed to gently roll over speed bumps—even with a full passenger load.)

Segmented power band

” The effect of the two torque ‘peaks’ is this astonishing performance from a diminutive and otherwise efficient 1.5 liter powerplant. “

The F3’s torque climbs rapidly at two points, one at the low end, the other one at high.

Step on the gas and the engine quickly reaches 84lb-ft, or 82% of peak torque, at just 1200rpm, and surges up to 93% at 2400. Beyond that, torque levels off while horsepower keeps climbing due mainly to the increased revolutions. Then, torque  resurges to 97% at 4000, goes through 99.6% at 4400, and reaches peak at 4800rpm.

The effect of the two torque “peaks” is this astonishing performance from a diminutive and otherwise efficient 1.5 liter powerplant. Going full burn in first gear up to and beyond 3000rpm would see you going through the lower peak while getting speed up quickly to 30km/h. The subsequent shift into second gear puts the big sedan in its sweet spot, the gearing ready to bring it to 90km/h and the revs reaching the second and higher torque peak at 4800rpm. Then shifting up through the taller gears would bring the lower torque peak back into play, the engine revs finally settling down to 2000rpm for a 100km/h cruise, or 2400rpm for 120km/h, in fifth gear.

Variable valve lift (VVL)

” It took a second look at the F3’s technology package to discover that it has the equivalent of Honda’s legendary VTEC system under the hood. “

Through all these, particularly with the cabbie’s short-shifting tactic, fuel efficiency stays respectable at 12 to 16km/l in the city, depending on passenger load, and up to 18km/l on the highway. Clearly, the 1.5liter acted in one instance like it was tuned for power, and in another like it was holding back for efficiency. How was it doing that?

IMG20150701074008It took a second look at the F3’s technology package to discover that it has the equivalent of Honda’s legendary VTEC system under the hood. The F3’s BYD473QE engine features VVL, not just VVT, that last letter signifying it could vary not only valve timing but valve lift as well. On the fly adjustment of both lift and timing gives the F3 a wide range of settings to optimize either power or efficiency depending on the car’s load and speed. It’s like having two kinds of powerplants doing the pushing—a booster for lift-off and an endurance engine for cruise, so to speak.

Big, comfortable and a great drive

” looking familiar but dated is an excellent way of communicating a car’s focus on utility “

The BYD F3 looks a lot like the Toyota Altis from two generations back, back when it still had the small “Corolla” prefix. And, by revisiting left-behind sensibilities, it brings back the old feel of things being big inside simply because they’re big on the outside. The F3’s coachwork harks back to the times when you could really squeeze in four people on the rear bench, and when you can put a wheelchair in the full-sized trunk.IMG20150627115521-1024

As it turns out, looking familiar but dated is an excellent way of communicating a car’s focus on utility, on articulating how it’s supposed to blend into entire fleets of identical clones. And, call me Amish, but I find that the F3 looking unremarkable and plain actually works, particularly since it obscures the big sedan’s notable strengths, its handling, its versatility, and most of all, its power.

That trip to Real to greet a VIP star, literally a star, saw us getting back at our meeting point after 12 long hours on the road, back at our homes after 14, and after travelling nearly 300 kilometers. Although our adventure took less time, it did make us travel about the same distance that a taxicab would during a typical 24-hour tour. Enough butt-numbing distance to report that the BYD F3 is so big and comfortable that my fellow travellers couldn’t help but nod off at several times during the trip, and to admit that the sedan is such an enjoyable drive, I really didn’t mind being their cabbie, at times alone with only the sound of the throaty engine as company.

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