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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(November 2014)

I like to think of myself as a problem-solver as well as a physicist Ė though I must admit that with some problems I have to wait quite a while for the solution to come to me. Let me give you a couple of examples:

I keep the spare key for my VW Golf in a soft key-case, which I drop into my back trouser-pocket when getting ready to go out anywhere. Early this year (as I mentioned here) I discovered that it was possible to sit on the key and unknowingly depress the unlock button, for long enough to trigger the control system into winding down all the windows! Of course Iím talking about when Iím out of sight of the car (and maybe not even planning to use it). This has happened four times now, including twice when I didnít notice for some hours that the car was open to the elements...

How to prevent it? I tried to think of a way of covering the buttons with something that would be rigid enough to shield them, but thin and soft enough to be comfortable to sit on, and which would stay in place on the key (until I needed to use it). But nothing came to mind.

Then last week my eye fell on an item thatís been sitting in my Ďoffice cornerí for decades, as a container for drawing-pins: a old round Anadin tin (remember them?), really just a tube of thin aluminium. When I cut off the base, the tube became a perfect fit for sliding over the key (changing to an oval shape as it did so) and protecting the buttons from my posterior. The longer it takes to solve a problem like this, I suppose, the more satisfying is the outcome!

If I now open the car and get in, hereís my new solution to the second trouble, namely the slipperiness (in my hands) of any steering-wheel. Previously I could achieve just the right amount of grip, with gloves on or not, by equipping the wheel with a suitable cover (from an car-accessory shop). But the problem with the Golf is that the wheel is on the stout side. With a cover on it as well, Mrs Sís smaller hands canít get round it Ė and the whole reason I switched to an automatic was so that she would be able to drive the car too.

My mind went back 50 years to my cycling days, when you wound thin tape around your drop-handlebars, making them tolerable to hold anywhere along them. But in my memory, the tape was too thin and smooth for my purpose now. Even so, I thought I would take a look inside a bicycle shop: my, how the cycling world has transformed in half a century! In particular, you can get handlebar tape thatís much wider, slightly thicker, and softer and warmer. So I bought some and managed to wind it (spaced out) all around the wheel. And we both find it more comfortable to grip than anything weíve driven with before. Another problem solved!

OK, letís turn the key ... the first time I did this (with the engine of the Golf cold, I mean) I was horrified by the noise: it was approaching that of an old banger. To my relief, after 30 seconds the engine quietened right down. Fortunately, before contacting VW I looked at the manual. The index actually refers you to Engine Noises. And the page itself says: ďStarting from cold, the engine may be a little noisy for the first few seconds. This is quite normal and no cause for concern.Ē Normal? Really, what on earth has engine design come to, that a car maker needs to tell owners not to worry about cold-start rumblings? Can any reader explain?

Anyway, I soon began to overlook this temporary noise, because on the road the engine is practically inaudible and (as Iíve said before) I find the Golf a lovely car to drive. Especially for being an automatic: I will never again listen to people who say that motoring without changing gear yourself isnít real driving! In any case, with this ĎDSGí auto-gearbox (which is found on many VW-Group models) you can move the lever across for full manual control of changing up or down, whenever you want. And even during hard acceleration, the gear-change process (manual or automatic) is so smooth that I never feel it.

Like most other automatics I believe, the Golf creeps, meaning that it inches forward if left in Drive (or backward if in Reverse) with my feet off the pedals. At first I didnít care for this much, perhaps because of an instinctive dislike of the word Ďcreepí! Then I started to appreciate the benefits, particularly during slow manoeuvring. In fact I now hardly ever touch the accelerator when parking etc: the motion is much easier to control with the brake pedal.

Here is another notable sentence from the ownerís manual, in the section on the DSG gearbox: ďNever allow the vehicle to roll down mountains or hills in Neutral.Ē This seems eminently sensible Ė though I looked in vain for advice on how to get the car up the mountain to start with. Nor is there a similar warning for owners of non-automatic Golfs: are these better able to descend across scree and suchlike?

Seriously, the instructions go on to say that on steep descents you should move the lever across (as I mentioned above) and change down manually, to make use of engine-braking. Itís curious then that the Golf supplies rather less of this, in any gear, than did my old Corolla (or Mrs Sís even older Micra). So on a level road, if Iím aiming to slow down without foot-braking, I find I have to look and think even further ahead, in order to release the accelerator in time. No bad thing of course, and is it perhaps a sign that the Golf has an extra-efficient engine?

But itís when Iím on a downward hill that I am aware that thereís a computer-brain hidden in the car and apparently analysing my every action, because I only have to brake for a few seconds and the DSG moves down to a low gear itself, and stays there for a while: no need to change manually as instructed. Iím impressed!

Peter Soul

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