Taking the wheel in Hokkaido

Self-drive holidays are exciting. One, the journey wouldn’t be at the hands of travel agents, who either shuttle you from place to place with little breathing space or usher you to their ‘partner’ merchants. Two – and more importantly – I get to drive. Driving isn’t a chore, like it is to others. Tired as I may be, put me at the wheel and the energy bar tops itself up. It just defies logic.

First Things First

You can’t take the wheel in Japan without an International Driving Permit or IDP. Thankfully, applying for one is super painless – online application + get it delivered to your mailbox within a week or two for $20 + $4. Without this essential document, you wouldn’t be able to rent a car in Japan. Please also remember to bring along your Singapore driving licence and passport too.

Getting a Car

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Pink decal for foreign drivers

In Japan, car manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan don’t just sell new cars; they also provide short-term rentals. These options are more well-known, just based on Google search results. There are lesser known ones which require further digging. Through friends of friends and after thorough price comparison, we decided on OTS Rent-a-Car. Other options include ORIX Rent-a-Car and Nippon Rent-a-Car.

Why OTS? OTS provided the cheapest quote for the features it offered.

We got an almost-brand new 6-seater Toyota Voxy Hybrid (known as Noah in Singapore) with in-built English-speaking GPS (more on this later), an Electronic Toll Collection card and reader combo (without which expressway travels would be inconvenient), a Hokkaido expressway pass for unlimited expressway use (road tolls will cost a bomb without this) and very importantly, two motorised sliding doors (just because). All these and more, at over a couple of hundred of SGD cheaper than the competition.

To enjoy the lowest possible prices for OTS, you gotta submit your reservation four months prior to your trip. OTS would not deduct any amount till you collect the car. In fact, OTS doesn’t even take down your credit card details. Things may change in the future; enjoy while it lasts.

OTS rental cars are available at Okinawa, Hokkaido, Chushikoku Areas, and it allows you to collect the car from one office and return it at another. Just gotta pay a convenience fee for this privilege.

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | The Voxy, thankfully not us, caught many bugs. With only 400km under its belt at point of collection, I felt bad to see so many dead bugs on it. Had wanted to send it for a car wash. Such an eye sore. haha

Navigating

Google Maps work in Japan, but you wouldn’t get far relying on it. Unless the Points-of-Interests are really touristy places, locations are typically labelled in Japanese. Don’t know how to type in Japanese? It’s best you rely on Map Code.

Locations in Japan are identified using a string of numbers called Map Code. For example, the Map Code for Hakodate Kokusai Hotel is 86 072 033*58. So, instead of typing ‘Hakodate Kokusai Hotel’ into the car’s GPS unit, you gotta type in the above-mentioned string of numbers. The GPS unit wouldn’t recognise English entries.

How to get Map Codes? Search for them on the World Wide Web, or ask your friendly car rental car company to provide you a list of popular destinations and their corresponding Map Codes.

On The Road

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Pay close attention to the lights.

The lights in Japan can be confusing. The green arrows are pretty faint, and at some junctions there can be as many as three different directional arrows. In the above scenario, only left turns and straight-ahead passes are allowed. STOP for the rest.

Pump It

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Cosmo fuel station in Hokkaido

The RED pumps are like our Regular fuel. Most cars would just need the RED pumps. Pump prices can vary quite drastically. Hakodate stations offered the cheapest fuel at ~120 Yen/litre. The more ‘ulu’ the town, the more expensive the juice gets. It reached as high as 140 Yen/litre – a difference of about 50 cents/ litre.

Want to save some $? Pump at self-service/ unmanned stations. No lack of such pumps in all the towns we went.

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | A self-service pump. Accepts payment at the pump itself. Change is disbursed either at the pump itself or a nearby change collection machine.

Parking

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Didn’t get to give such self-service parking lots a go.

Expect to pay for parking, from hotels to parks and tourist hotspots. Parking at hotels could cost over 1,000 Yen a night. And the price also differs according to car size. The larger your car, the more expensive it would get.

Road Signs

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PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | One of the least cluttered roads in Hokkaido. Typically, you will be treated to a mesh of power cables and overhead structures as well as road and tsunami warning signs.

Importantly, look out for 速度 signs along the expressways. Fixed speed cameras await you. Another way to tell is to monitor closely the driving behaviour of locals. With the expressway speed limit at 80km/h, you will definitely be tempted to go faster. Roads within towns are generally around 50km/h. Crawling.

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Click here for the Itinerary in Summary; details in the following articles:

Protip #1: Taking the wheel in Hokkaido [You are here]
Protip #2: Enjoying some rest in the restroom
Protip #3: Avoiding bill shock at restaurants
Protip #4: Chilling and dropping off at convenience stores
Protip #5: Taking the Dreamliner Boeing 787

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Forte K3 – The Drive + Some Tips

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Under the cloudless sky

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Under the cloudless sky

Accelerating

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Free 3A mats from my salesperson

Photo | BIG_MOUSE

KIAs are not known to be exciting in this aspect – just do a Google – and the Forte K3 is no different. Don’t expect blistering performance when you put the floor-mounted accelerator pedal to the metal. Just don’t, cause you will be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. The K3 isn’t slow; it’s just not as torque-y as the Jetta, Altis or even the Avante. Expect a more gradual pick-up – think comfortable.

Speed aside, the gearbox is actually tuned for ‘performance. The auto transmission tends to hold the lower gears for a longer period of time during acceleration. This is contrasted with the Avante’s cogs that want to shift upwards as quickly as possible.

But the engine growl sure sounds good for a 1.6-litre car. Vroom.

A tip for K3 drivers: To accelerate smoothly and overcome the gear-dragging tendency, depress the accelerator pedal by about 25% from standstill and keep it there till you reach cruising city speeds, say 60km/h. Actually, the percentage doesn’t matter. The trick is to keep the pedal at constant pressure every time you accelerate till the car learns your driving style. If you move the pedal up and down during initial acceleration, surely you will get up to speed, but for me, the drive would get a little jerky as the gearbox needed to hunt for the right gear.

Braking

Engine braking is not just for cars with manual transmission. Auto car drivers, like me, are used to decelerating without any engine/ gearbox assistance. I was pleasantly surprised that the K3 gearbox is smart enough to downshift as I slow the car down. For the K3, you can feel the downshifts as you slow down. One, I think this feature gives the driver some braking confidence. Two, the brake pads will wear less quickly with the engine kicking in to help slow the car down.

Steering

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Weighted steering

Photo | BIG_MOUSE

See the steering wheel icon in the picture on the right? You have three steering weight choices – comfort, normal and sports. Leave it on comfort, I say. The other two modes add steering resistance so artificially that it changes steering dynamics. The normal and sports mode left me disconnected from the road. Try it for yourself.

On ‘light’ mode, the steering is light at city speeds (you can even do a u-turn with your pinky), and tightens up the faster you go (moving the steering wheel at higher speeds requires more strength).

Highway

Driving on expressways is satisfying. The K3 is pretty stable at highway speeds and tracks corners well. Suspension absorbs most road imperfections, but as the springs are apparently tuned for a harder ride as compared to its Korean cousin, expect cabin peace to be interrupted by bigger bumps, for example, deeper portholes along trunk roads up North or big road imperfections such as the bump at Pan Island Expressway (Westbound) exit to Kallang Paya Lebar Expressway.

The K3’s ventilated driver seat, which pumps cool air (or hot) around your butt, is great motivation to go for long rides.

On Slopes

A little known feature on the K3 is the hill-stop/start assist. This just means that on a slope greater than a certain degree, the K3 will hold its position after it comes to a stop. Depress the brake pedal and bring the car to a complete stop. Lift off the pedal and the car will hold its position. So far, this feature works on multi-storey carpark ramps but doesn’t kick in on the gentle inclines of our expressways.

Fuel Economy

A saying from my friend’s dad: If you get so obsessed with the minor stuff like saving on parking (and cheating) and driving like a tortoise to hopefully save some fuel, you might as well don’t drive. Quite true, I think. Seeing the fuel consumption meter fluctuate and move from 7.9l/100km to 8.9l/100km can sometimes be depressing. Again, KIAs are not known for their economy. On the Avante, we could easily hit 14km/l in the first few years. On the K3, we are hitting 12km/l (a mixed of city and highway driving), and got close to 13km/l for close to 100% highway driving. Note that we accelerate freely in line with traffic conditions. We do not keep RPMs below 2k most of the time during acceleration: 1) the car feels heavy, and 2) the engine sounds better at higher RPMs.

Insulation

If the K3 were to come with a set of better tyres instead of the factory installed Nexens, I’m quite sure there will be less cabin intrusion. Road bumps are just soft thuds from inside the car. Wind noise is present, but muted. It’s on par, if not better than the Avante. Sadly, the Nexens are quite a noisemaker.

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What’s next in this series?

Forte K3 – The Features

This is going to be a long post, full of images and my thoughts on the features that stand out to me. Here goes:

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | 17-inchers

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | 17-inchers

From afar, the 17″ rims and wheel will grab your eyes. The Nexen branded (or unbranded) tyres didn’t though. That aside, the previous ride came with 15-inchers, so this is a huge upgrade. This visual upgrade comes with a cutter, a cutting tool to enlarge the hole in your wallet. I understand that the price of 17″ replacement rubber shoes is significantly higher. As for the gun metal tinted rims, they are easy to clean – big holes between spokes and my, my they are shiny.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Leave the keys in your pocket

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Leave the keys in your pocket

Now, there is no need to fumble with your fobs. Just leave them keys in your pocket, walk up to the vehicle and press the rectangle chrome switch on the handle to unlock the car. Thankfully, the switch isn’t decked in rubber – doesn’t hold up well in our weather. Something that I don’t see in other cars in this range – when you walk up to the K3, the side mirrors will unfold. The car will welcome you with lights at the handles and from the side mirrors. The most gimmicky feature in this post, but it was the first thing that caught my eye. Nice touch, Kia.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | The side mirrors with LED signal indicators

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | The side mirrors with LED signal indicators

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Free 3A mats from my salesperson

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Free 3A mats from my salesperson

Stepping in, the K3-branded 3A car mats welcome you. Yes, 3A and not 3M. The sales executive could only offer 3A mats. Since it’s free, no complaints.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Some controls at the driver's arm rest

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Some controls at the driver’s arm rest

Finally, auto windows (both up and down) for the driver and front passenger. The Avante came with auto windows (only down) for the driver. Leave the switch on ‘AUTO’ for the side mirrors to make use of the welcome-lights feature.

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Keyless Start

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Keyless Start

Gentlemen, start your engines. In this case, one, and it’s for both ladies and gentlemen. lol. Keyless Entry and Start button in an accessible location just beside fake carbon fibre decor.

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Trip computer

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Trip computer

Finally, a digital trip computer that gives details like a buffet restaurant, somewhat. Ranks high in my list of must-haves. Controls on the steering allow you to configure a handful of features and track your usage. #Geek

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Memory seats

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Memory seats

The K3 has to serve two drivers, 1 for my dad and 2 for me. Just nice. We can save our own x-y-z+lumbar seat position and recall our preference with just one touch (you can only save and recall when the car is stationary).

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Dual climate control aircon

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Dual climate control aircon

Pretty standard feature for Cat A vehicles nowadays. Note: The Hyundai Elantra currently being sold doesn’t though. The launch model had, but was removed somewhere down the line. “Dual” means that the front passenger can set a temperature that is different from the driver’s. The driver’s temperature controls the rear aircon vents too. One more thing: the K3 comes with ventilated/ heated function for the driver seat. This means that the driver can decide to heat up or cool down his butt. The make-it-hot-or-cold control’s just beside the gear stick.

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Weighted steering

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Weighted steering

Cruise control is useless in Singapore. I refused to believe my dad till I actually tried using it. Pretty good for drives up north though. But what’s more important? The button that shows a steering wheel emitting Wi-Fi signals – allows you to toggle between COMFORT, NORMAL and SPORTS. I will suggest you stick to COMFORT. The NORMAL and SPORTS modes feel too artificial – the added weight dulls the steering and messes up tracking turns. COMFORT offers the most direct feel of the road and turns. And don’t worry, the steering will stiffen up as the speedo climbs – speed sensitive.

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Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Something else to ask your salesperson for

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Something else to ask your salesperson for

A $2k optional upgrade, try asking your sales exec to include this free. The K3 from the factory comes with a solid in-car entertainment system – the one you see in brochures without a touchscreen and reverse camera. Not a must have cause the UI’s a little wonky with huge fonts and all.

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What’s next in this series?

Forte K3 – The Rear

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | In the day

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | In the day

Nothing much to look at here, save for the unique looking ‘LED combination’ rear lamps, bi-coloured bumper, nicer-than-altis rear reflectors and proper exhaust tip.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | In a carpark

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | In a carpark

At night (or when the headlamp’s on), the rear transforms into a looker. The LEDs, as above, light the fixture evenly, just like the old-school lamps on a 1980s Daihatsu. When the brake pedal is depressed, five individual LEDs on each side in the blank space within the somewhat-triangles will light up. Two more LEDs are reserved for the activation of the rear fog lamp switch.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Rear-on

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | Rear-on

The signal and licence plate lamps are the only filament powered ones you can find here. Changing the licence plate bulbs to LED is doable (tried and tested), but pretty mafan (troublesome in Singlish) – 1) remove the insulation panel under the boot lid; 2) unplug the power cables to the bulbs; 3) pop out the lamp holders from the outside (where the licence plate is); 4) carefully unclip the translucent cover of the lamp holders; 5) tada.

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What’s next in this series?

Forte K3 – The Nose

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | I love cones

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | I love cones

Love or hate, I will leave the decision to you. I’m on the fence and here’s why.

Like:

  • The pair of daytime running lights (DRL), running down in a straight line, reminds of me of an emoticon. It’s quite a sight when a K3 comes up behind you on the road – Grrrr. Anyhow, DRL is an important feature in my list of things that today’s cars should have.
  • The radiator grill honeycomb design is a looker. Reminds me of bees and honey. Yum.
  • Height adjustable projector (eyeball-like) headlights – wide coverage and excellent beam patterns
  • Fog lights (halogen) come as standard
  • The wiper washer nozzle, unlike the Avante, is now placed away from the painted surface. Wiper washer additives and paint aren’t friends.
  • The windscreen doesn’t have exposed rubber seals. From what I can tell, the watertight rubber seals are hidden just behind the glass. Less chance for sun damage. Good design improvement over the Avante.
  • Gaps between panels are not an eyesore – consistent and small.
Photo | BIG_MOUSE | DRL baby

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | DRL baby

Dislike:

  • Some of the contents in the headlamp assembly. Signal lights aren’t in LED. To get HID headlamps, you need to buy the SX Sport variant – priced $4,000 above the SX Premium.
  • Because the headlamp assembly rides high up the bonnet, based on what I went through previously, the plastic transparent cover will turn opaque/ yellowish in about five years.
  • Rubber strips in Singapore’s hot and humid weather – not a good combination. Like many other current models available today, there is a small rubber strip separating the bonnet from the grill/front bumper. I can foresee the rubber failing in a few years time.
  • The complex bumper design, which is nice, makes for harder cleaning. 🙂
  • The KIA badge looks a little out of place.

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What’s next in this series?

Forte K3 – The Journey To The West

The West to me is not just about Pulau NTU (Nanyang Technological University). Leng Kee Rd is considered West enough for me, and most recently, the Big Box, JEM and WestGate area too, but I shall leave the former till another day.

Since I can’t remember when, Leng Kee Rd has been one of my favourite roads. Lining its streets are showrooms after showrooms containing the flashiest made-from-sheet-metal wonders-on-wheels. These six-wheelers (counting the steering and spare) have never been out of my sight since young. Sitting somewhere in my home is a collection of Hot Wheels miniature cars, and not far from that are a number of remote-controlled cars parked in neat rows.

Trips to the West realised when I crossed my twenties. I would go there with friends and sometimes family, about two to three times or so a year, to enjoy the aircon (Singapore’s quite hot), savour the latest car designs, take short discussion breaks over free coffee/milo (yum), test drive and most importantly, evaluate the service standards offered by the various dealers.

My belief: It would do dealers good to treat young or young-looking visitors as potential customers, who may be the ones doing the first cut for their parents or friends. I have gotten the cold shoulder from a number, and no matter how good the car models seem, I would not want to step or bring anyone into their territory. It is said that frontline staff carry the image of the brand and have the power to shape perception. One less-than-ideal service experience is all it takes.

Cycle & Carriage

Thankfully, Mimi from Cycle & Carriage (C&C) warmly welcomed us when we stepped into the showroom about the month ago. KIA cars, including the last Cerato Forte variant, unlike the twin brothers birthed from its parent company, didn’t quite impress us. Body panels were soft, engine was weak and noisy, insulation was lacking and though C&C agents weren’t rude and dismissive, we didn’t feel welcome the past few times we visited, till Mimi entered the picture.

In this job for about five years, Mimi is knowledgeable, patient and eloquently explained the features of the Forte K3 and got us hooked. She is one of very few sales executives who demonstrate good customer service throughout the entire sales process. Meticulous, she was, and as a testament to her commitment, she stayed with us throughout the handover, which took close to three hours! My parents, to my pleasant surprise, were impressed.

C&C was our unexpected stop during this shopping journey, and now the rest is history. Trans Eurokars, you came in a close, an extremely close, second.

Before The Purchase

Do your research. Search the forums. For starters, try MyCarForum (you get a small gift for signing up and verifying your account) and for KIA, ceratofortekoup. Read reviews, dig up common service and product issues online. Importantly, find out how you can convince the sales person to give you freebies.

This post shall have only one photo, for I’m saving them for my next few posts.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | The Forte K3 Emblem

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | The Forte K3 Emblem

Till next time, goodnight! [delete; not valid Liao: Quote BIG_MOUSE to Mimi when you pass by C&C, if you want to of course.]

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What’s next in this series?

Second Serving of Kimchi – The KIA Forte K3

The old has passed. The new has come. ‘旧的不去,新的不来’ is another commonly used phrase in this part of the world.

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | A Sneak Peak

Photo | BIG_MOUSE | A Sneak Peak

And nope, paid to pen my thoughts I am not. I am not a professional car reviewer or transport correspondent. Instead, I am writing as a lay person, sharing my real-life experience with the vehicle, which came in after years of daddy’s blood, sweat and tears (okay, I’m exaggerating but you get the drift).

This is our second car, coming right after the Hyundai Avante, which served us pretty well for all 193,182KM till the last day it left us for the second hand market.

While waiting for me to get some inspiration on how to help you savour this new Korean dish made available in Singapore since July 2013, read my past articles on the Avante here.

To Korean car haters, I have said this, and will say this again. You gotta give kimchi cars a chance to impress you. The change started with the Avante in 2006. The momentum has not stopped, yet. And they are generally cheaper than the Thai-made ones. 🙂

### What’s next in this series?

Eight years and counting

Amid the glitter, there was a car. And the car didn’t have a personalised name. It just goes by ‘Hyundai Avante’, the name given by the manufacturer.

The Avante was bought at a price, which includes the compulsory Certificate of Entitlement (COE), just over eight years ago. The COE then was just one-seventh the cost today.

Instead of showing how well taken care the car is (no doubt it is), I’m gonna do something different.

The pictures below show the torture the car went through, at least externally. See the dings, dongs, doremons, scratches and interesting looking marks tattoos left behind by an act of a serial vandal, inconsiderate people who can’t open doors properly and who must push trolleys in between cars.

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Internally though, everything seems well. I’m no car mechanic, but it looks like it can serve us well for another two years till November 2017, when the COE expires. In Singapore, without a COE (among other requirements), the car isn’t roadworthy.