Thursday, August 29, 2013

Please Re-Lease Me

Twelve months after leasing our 2012 Buick Regal Turbo, we are still in love. Every time we drop it into third and let the turbo sing, every time we quietly cruise in isolated comfort, and every time a passer-by or valet gives us a thumbs-up, we are reminded of solid choice we made in adding this car to our driveway.

GM and Buick have proven to be good partners in this transaction, too, after a recent service appointment nearly resulted in some out-of-pocket expense. With a few calls and tweets, GM covered the expense, reinforcing the fact that they value relationships with their owners.

This is my first lease, and it's already been quite a learning experience. I made some mistakes, mostly in the negotiation and fees departments, but also in grossly underestimating the amount of driving we do. Here we are at the halfway point in a 2-year/20,000 mile lease and the odometer is pushing 18,000. This leaves us with a number of options:

1. Buy more miles from GM at 20¢ per mile
2. Buy the car for about $24,000
3. Pay off the lease and get into something new

None of these thrill me. We would have to buy about $4,000 in miles if we do a comparable amount of driving in the next year. Buying the car would result in a monthly payment close to twice what we pay for our lease (but far less than the final cost of buying miles). And early payoff would cost $2,700, plus whatever we are required to put down on the subsequent vehicle.

And speaking of subsequent vehicles, changes in offerings from some of our favorite brands have created some new opportunities that didn't previously exist for us, and fulfill the needs we compromised on in our 2012 Car Search. Namely, all-wheel-drive. Here's what the early contender landscape looks like in my head:

1. 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD - Sticking with the family that has made us happy this last year seems like a good idea. We really wanted the top-of-the-line GS back in 2012, but shied away from the expense. For 2014, Buick has actually dropped the horsepower a bit on this model, but has added a bevvy of safety features, cool gadgetry, and all-wheel-drive to the mix. Getting into a GS would give us everything we wanted back in 2012.

2. 2014 Cadillac ATS AWD - Cadillac's new and highly acclaimed 3-series fighter offers everything the Regal GS has, and more. While a slightly smaller car, the same engine and transmission combo from the Buick is tuned for another 20 horsepower in the Caddy. And, well, it's a Cadillac. I've always wanted one. The main obstacle is the price. Building one with content comparable to the GS commands a $50,000+ price. YEESH.

3. 2014 Volvo S60 T5 AWD - The S60 and Regal were a dead heat for me last time. But our lust for a manual transmission led us to Buick. While I still adore choosing my own gears, the T5 is now available in all-wheel-drive. I loved everything about the Volvo last time, so I already consider it stiff competition.

4. Wildcards. In 1996, I set out to buy a Jeep Wrangler and came home with an Infiniti G20. Who knows what I'll see at the next car show or read about online that will become a must-have?

So we evaluate. And calculate. And once again mediate our own heated debates about the convergence of what we want and need in a car. I saved a seat for you, as a new blog begins, soon!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Regal Turbo 11,000 Miles Later

We're worried. Seven months into our 24,000 mile lease and we already have 11,000 miles on the OD. So we either have to start driving more conservatively or we will have to bring a large check with us at turn-in time (August 2014). YIKES.

It's getting harder, however, NOT to drive the Regal Turbo for a number of reasons. One is that our fleet is shrinking with the Lincoln being sold. Another is that the warm weather is coming, so our Explorer's snow-rover duty is done for the year. But the biggest reason is that we LOVE driving the Buick.

Probably 10,000 of those miles were clocked by the other half. You might now I travel a lot and spend more time as The Rentalist, behind the wheels of the finest cheapies in Enterprise's fleet. But recently I became reunited with the Buick on some back-to-back tours of the highways connecting New York and New England.

The Regal Turbo is so smooth that I regularly surprise myself looking down at the speedo. Feels like it's going 65 when it's going 90. Its quiet, refined ride and stable stance really feel good on the highway. And it's always ready to lay some passing power down when dropped into 4th or 3rd gear, a faint whistle from the turbine accompanying the increasing thrust. It's great at bobbing and weaving through traffic, too. I do wish the seats had better bolstering, however. During spirited driving I feel like I have to brace my backside more than I should.

A friend and BMW 3-series owner came for a ride with me and was impressed by the design, appointments, and power of the Regal Turbo.

We allowed our XM subscription to lapse. Mixed feelings about that service. Maybe it's just me but I want pure music and NO DJs. We had a hard time finding that. OnStar continues to serve us well, though we get a few too many "all operators are busy" messages. Even when we only have to wait a few seconds, it's an irritating message to hear. Regular vehicle status updates via e-mail from OnStar are pretty cool. We are surprised that we are still running on the original oil. Current status is about 15% life, so I'm sure we'll get told to change it soon.

Compared to the others in our fleet, the Buick's seat heat is SUPREME. It gets very hot, and pretty quickly. It's a good thing it has 3 levels of adjustment. We continue to be impressed by the appointment, equipment, and quality of the build in the Buick. By comparison, our seven-year-old Lincoln is showing some terrible quality issues, like cracking and blistering chrome on interior door handles. I just don't see that happening with the Buick. Of course, we'll never know. One continuing gripe on the Buick is the lack of seat memory. It's such an inexpensive and useful feature for multi-driver families and something we enjoyed in both the Lincoln and Explorer.

In comparing the Explorer to the Regal Turbo during daily driving, Anthony made an interesting comment: "I have to remember the difference in travel time when driving these two vehicles. I always get there MUCH faster when driving the Buick." Truer words...

There's great satisfaction in knowing that you have made the right choice. I still look longingly at the Volvo S60 T5 and VW GLI every time I see them on the road. But then I remember the cost difference with the Volvo and the refinement gap with the GLI. And while I wish our budget had allowed the badass Regal GS, we are absolutely confident we landed in the right place with our Regal Turbo.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The "Almost Won"

Nothing brings out my inner Scot like evaluating what I want vs. what I need, with an overlay of cost.

As you know, we just took delivery of a Buick Regal Turbo. But that happy moment almost didn't happen.

We were originally driven to the dealership by an advertised lease deal on the 2012 Buick Verano. Not a lot down, short commitment (24 months), and a $200 payment. I had to dig deeper to see if we could live with all the amenities, but less oomph than the others on our list.

Verano is Buick's smallest offering (until the Encore CUV comes out next year), sharing its platform with the Chevy Cruze. But unlike in the days of badge engineering, Verano is its own animal. It has a unique body, interior, and engine. And not that the Cruze is any slouch. I rented one and quite liked it. But the Verano brings more luxe to the table. It's highly refined, remarkably quiet, and very well equipped for the money. It doesn't hurt that it looks great, inside and out.

The whole package reads as a 7/8 scale Regal.

As anticipated, Verano's sub-200hp mill fell of short everything else we drove in our search, so it was hardly an exhilarating ride. A turbo model coming in 2013 will bring more fun to the table (please please please let it come in a manual transmission). But in these waning days of austerity measures, I found myself pulling out my checkbook.

Long story short, if you are looking for a small four door in the $22,000 - $30,000 range, it's ABSOLUTELY worth your time to give it a ride, particularly if you're shopping brands from Japan and South Korea. You will be impressed at what Buick has become.

Ultimately (and obviously), I changed the VIN on the memo line of that check. A twist of fate afforded me the opportunity to land in our larger, more powerful Regal Turbo. Did I mention it's a stick shift?

Had this good fortune not shined up on us, we certainly would have lived well with the Verano. What it lacks in forward thrust it certainly makes up for in overall appeal.

Monday, September 10, 2012

We have a winner

10 months later, it's over. Through home renovation, a bout of illness, and a career change, I finally signed at the X. We drove some great cars along the way, but when we evaluated the one we liked best (Buick Regal GS), and aligned that with practicality, there was one clear winner:

Still scratching your head over Buick? In 2007, the average Buick buyer was 70 years old. But if you've been paying attention to me and the automotive press, GM is in full renaissance mode. Median age has nosedived into the 50's within the last five years. And based on my close encounter with Regal's little brother, the Verano (blog to come), it will continue to drop. Styling, equipment, performance, safety, and pricing converge to bring younger buyers through the doors, without alienating traditionalists.

You're welcome, Buick, for my contribution to your dropping demo.

The German-designed and engineered Regal is sold in Europe as the Opel Insignia, which makes it look and drive like no Regal before it. As you may have read in my chance encounter with a Regal Turbo, we were hard pressed to rationalize the extra thousands on the GS's price tag when compared to the Turbo.

The best new feature for 2012 is the 7" color touchscreen audio system with vastly improved iPhone connectivity. Pairing two iPhones and an iPod were a breeze. This car is also our introduction to OnStar, which we used about 10 times in the first 2 days—especially for navigation. Directions are beamed to the touchscreen and can also be brought up in a display in the center of the gauge cluster. Fabulous.

Our first cruise from Connecticut to Manhattan returned about 31mpg. I was elated. Handling and power were even better than the rental, because ours has a manual transmission. Comfort and quiet are top notch. Bravo, Buick, for great seats, with full adjustability for driver and front passenger alike. We love this car already.

If you're listening, Buick, consider driver seat memory, easier toggling between dual and single modes for climate control, and a gear indicator in the gauge cluster.

Kudos go to John Beckish from Parsons Buick in Plainville, Connecticut—and not because he's the only salesman we met who actually read and responded to my blog. He's a gentleman with an encyclopedia of Buick knowledge in his head. I thoroughly enjoyed our multiple visits to his dealership, and the test rides of all three Regal engine examples.

And Kudos to you for joining me on this trek. Now that I'm traveling all over the place, look for blogs about everything I rent, details about our Buick experience, and the search for the next new ride. Our Regal lease ends in October, 2014—so I should probably start blogging the pre-selections for its replacement in a week or two.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Consider a Kenmore

Our search isn't over. I mentioned that this could take six months and I wasn't kidding. Part of it is my desire to make the move when I'm damn well ready. But the other part is my distractions - not just life distractions (shower leaking through kitchen ceiling; son needs braces), but auto industry distractions.

Gas prices are on the rise again because. . . well let's just say it: Because summer is coming and the warmth of spring makes the greed blooms blossom. At over $4 a gallon in my home state, it's now a whopping $80 to fill the Explorer's tank. $320 a month on gas makes a guy think - especially when many predict a $5+ price by summer.

I've been paying attention to the Chevy Volt since it was just a concept. And BOY, did the concept look better than the production reality (see photo above). Back in 2010, while Ant and I were attending Stephen Colbert's "Keep Fear Alive" rally in D.C. (look - it's STILL alive!), we had a chance to drive a pre-production Volt around a parking lot test track. It didn't come close to giving us a real world feel for the car, but you know I was all tingly the whole time. It was a cool experience. And if you've been reading this blog, I'll add that Chevy gave us a free frozen yogurt coupon after the drive. It's the very yogurt experience I mention in the Passat blog. Oh! I just found the pic I took of Ant after he tasted the frozen deceit. Enjoy.

Knowing that a Volt purchase came with a tax incentive, I contacted my accountant to see if a pre-4/15 purchase would have an impact on my return. Unfortunately, a Volt purchase this year wouldn't bring any relief to my 2011 taxes. I'd have to wait till next year.

That whooshing sound you hear is either the wind exiting my sails or Ant's sigh of relief. He wants to drive an electric about as much as I want to wear Crocs.

The real point here is that I've uncovered my green side and must confess that it has little to do with chlorophyll and everything to do with cash. A $7,000 deduction on taxes and serious savings at the pump could make Volt a contender. Long-range trips would require us to rent something. But such jaunts are few and far between. Our daily driving really involves around-town stuff and twice-weekly, 90-minute trips to get me to and from the train.

Ant made his feelings plain. And I admit I'm not even sure I could make the image and performance trade-off. I would miss that magic moment when fossil fuel combusts at the tap of my right foot and my neck snaps back. I'd also miss that over-the-shoulder look I give my car every time I walk away from it. It's a guy thing. And I simply can't see myself doing that with a vehicle that seems less like a car and more like an appliance. Not to mention, the Volt ain't cheap. $40 g's ($33,000 after the tax credit). That's a $350/mo. payment on a car with the panache of a 2003 Chrysler Sebring. That's Volvo money.

I can proselytize from both sides of the issue. But the true test will happen in July, the first time a fill-up of the truck hits three digits. You just watch how fast my priorities change.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Round 1 Eliminations

Reciting the list of contenders to the various salespeople we've met caused a few knitted brows, some minor vertigo, and one or two episodes of swelling of the hands and feet. Our list only seemed all over the place. It was actually a thoughtfully compiled exploration of brands and features intended to inform us on what matters most in our daily drive.

If anything, we've learned to appreciate the differences between German, Swedish, American, and South Korean. They all have their own charm and idiosyncrasies. And they all performed admirably as we beat them down on highway and back road test drives.

But this search can't last forever. The time has come to cross some off our list. The following cars have been dropped from consideration:

Click. They get bigger!
Dodge Charger
I will forever be a sucker for bodacious American design. And every new Charger I see on the road still turns my head - if only to watch those tail lights. But Charger fell short in too many categories for us to consider it. First, it's just too big. We love the cabin size, but squeezing it into a SoHo parking spot would be painful. Second, while the exterior looks great, the interior is seriously lacking in any measure of appeal. Finally, it's way too expensive. Although it was the only one on our list to offer AWD, $37,000 is just too much for a car that was outgunned by all of the others in this competition.

Volkswagen Passat
Passat is gorgeous, refined, and elegant. It could easily serve our purposes for the next three years, but it was a solid miss on the fun factor. We just couldn't get emotional about it.

Kia Optima
Dropping Optima makes me sad. I've been a big proponent of the brand and am confident they will continue their trajectory, gobbling-up market share from the Japanese brands along the way. They've got the right combination of aesthetics and content with unbeatable price and warranty. But they got beat on the road by some much more engaging rides, and the cheap bits really got to me. The thought of a 5-hour trip to DC in that front passenger seat is more than I could handle. Another thing that killed Optima for us was the dealer experience. Nothing says bargain brand like a salesman who calls 12 times in two weeks. I had to get rude with the guy. If I don't call you back after your second voicemail, TAKE THE HINT.

And then there were three.

Buick continues to captivate us with its German engineering, refined ride, athleticism, and great looks inside and out. I still don't know if GS or Turbo are the right fit - we'll need another round of test drives to decide that. Buick's lease deals are not as in-your-face as the other two offerings, and early prodding of our salesman did not reveal good numbers. We can't cross if off the list yet. We're still too in love.

Volvo impressed me from jump (not so much Anthony). The only flaw I can think of is rear seat legroom. And while roominess was a main consideration from the beginning, S60 is THAT good that I might overlook it. The design is thoroughly beautiful. It gets up and goes. And the safety is snuggly. Volvo's leases are priced competitively and include basic maintenance. Sounds like the recipe for a carefree ownership experience.

VW's GLI gave me what the Passat couldn't - though in a junior package. Ego isn't a smart thing to consider when shopping for cars, so I think I can live with being an outsider to that model's general demographic. My only fear is it's propensity to rack up adolescent speeding tickets. VW leases are low-money-down and early numbers are squarely in our range. Like Volvo, basic maintenance is included.

If I can keep from thinking of other participants (I haven't told you the Kizashi story), we'll be focusing on these three for the next few weeks. In that time, I'll be making the Zephyr as pretty as possible and will be spending countless hours online, buried in research.

Why isn't this my day job?

2012 Volkswagen GLI

After changing Anthony's mind about the VW brand, I decided to take on the challenge of introducing a car to the mix that broke a few of our rules.

Our experience in the 2012 Passat was very good and showed us that VW is off to a good start in their quest for world dominance though well-equipped, well-executed cars. But we just couldn't get excited about Passat. If you want a manual transmission, you have to get a lower-end model, and the horsepower is lacking. The V-6 provides much more thrust, but still we didn't leave our test drive with a lingering smile.

Another of VW's offerings is the Jetta-based GLI. Jetta and Passat share the same generation of design language and are both conservatively rendered, tidy, and smart looking. The Jetta is smaller, but VW has gone to great lengths to make it big on the inside. Rear legroom is outstanding for a car of this size. We had no trouble getting comfortable in any seat in this car - even with the front seats in their most rearward position.

GLI's value proposition is great performance, appropriate equipment, and a fair price. They got it right. A GLI purchase would mean going without some of the little things we've become accustomed to (like memory power seats). But when you do the math, you have to wonder if those niceties are worth $5,000-$7,000.

Where GLI shined was in the fun-to-drive category. The car has a small, turbo 4-cylinder delivering 200 HP with a 6-speed manual transmission. On paper, it seems anemic compared to some of the other cars we've driven - but on the road, it's a whole different story. The powerplant has more than it needs to push this lightweight around. Our salesman took us on his "private route" - a mini Nürburgring of twists, hills, and tight curves in the Connecticut wilderness. He made speed and maneuvering recos that frightened us, frankly. The GLI took them in stride, powering over rises and eating the corners. On the highway, GLI hits three digits in the blink of an eye - and rewards you with a spitfire exhaust note that only makes you want more. It doesn't hurt that it returns 33 mpg - at least during normal driving.

So do the tingles in our feet represent a shift in thinking about our next car? After some preliminary gushing about the test drive, Anthony hit me with some realness: "This is the kind of car rich parents buy their kids in high school." I get that. And GLI is a bit noisy on the highway. Beyond the awesome engine note, wind noise and other aural interference could get irritating on a long trip. We ran to the Buick dealer after our GLI test drive and agreed that the Regal makes us feel like adults in a way the Jetta could never, through a refined cabin experience and better look.

I return to the numbers, however. Compared to Buick and Volvo, GLI delivers 70% of the refinement, 85% of the features, and 100% of the fun - all for more than $5,000 less. And using Geico's handy online quote feature, our insurance would actually go down slightly with GLI, rather than rising mildly with the others.

In the end, I'm all about austerity measures after the past few years. So I have to consider GLI a contender, regardless of my questions about age propriety. At these numbers we would still get everything we need - and would have lots of fun in the process. And I've never cared much about keeping up with the Joneses.