Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Volkswagen Passat SE and SEL Premium V6

When we pulled into the VW dealer, Anthony had a face on. Not that much different than the time he tried that awful, trendy, sour frozen yogurt. But that's another story. He simply couldn't imagine us in a VW, even though I came within a heartbeat of buying one the last time we did this dance.

I admire VW's new look. The Jetta was America's first introduction to the new style. Buttoned-down and conservative, it holds its head high even in base trim. The Passat follows that theme in the next size up.

VW has done a great job of using space wisely. Sitting in the back seat behind all 75" of Anthony, and even accounting for his more-than-slightly reclined driving position, I still had six or seven inches of space between my knees and his seatback. The Passat is huge inside.

We had a chance to drive two different trims, a 5-speed SE and an automatic SEL Premium V6.

At 170 hp, the SE was refined and capable, but not even close to exciting. German engineering always shines through, however, making the car feel really connected. Its solid feel and flat cornering impressed us. Controls are simple and logically placed and the cabin materials all had a quality look and feel, despite what I've read in the auto trades – and in contrast to the Kia. Shifting gears was a great experience - slickly and solidly pushing through the notches brought great joy even to Anthony's face.

Hopping into a black, top-line SEL Premium V6 gave us a more exhilarating experience. At 280 hp, it's more powerful than the Kia and Buick. Power was strong and readily available, especially when mashing the pedal on the highway. The SEL was much quieter than the SE - probably a result of added sound deadening materials. The cabin was far more upscale than the SE, featuring wood grain on the dash, footwell lighting (because it's important to see your shoes while driving at night), navigation, and a sound system tuned by Fender. Speaking of the nav, VW has a redundant display in the center of the gauge cluster that tells you what street you're on. Love. That.

After marinating a bit, I began to think that maybe this version is a little TOO conservative. The dash on the Passat is reminiscent of old (and current) Beetle dashes - a relatively flat expanse the width of the interior. This is in stark contrast to the wrap-around cockpits of the Buick and Kia. And the exterior is indeed the most elegant Passat to date, but it's almost yawn inspiring. I wished the wheels were bigger and that there were some additional contours to the bodywork.

VW has great hopes for their lineup. They currently sell about 250,000 vehicles a year in the U.S. By 2018, they want to up that number to 800,000. They plan on achieving their goal through aggressive pricing. The SE was about $24,000. The SEL was about $31,000. Seems they have their pricing right.

The Passat is a strong contender in our search. Especially since Anthony is now convinced that a VW could earn a place in our driveway - or at the drive-thru of our favorite oldskool frozen yogurt place.

Kia Optima SX GDI

It's hard for a lot of people to think of Kia as a real contender in the automotive world. But if you've been paying attention, Kia and its corporate sister, Hyundai, have the competition running scared.

I credit Peter Schreyer for much of Kia's success. Schreyer, who was on the design team for the Audi TT, A3, and A6, went to work for Kia in 2006. But it was only a few years ago when we started seeing the real fruits of his labor in the Kia line. Kia's entire lineup is now a family of beautifully designed, feature-rich vehicles with outstanding warranties. I couldn't wait to get an Optima SX on the road. And we just got that opportunity.

Beside the beautiful exterior, Kia's value proposition is all about content for the dollar. There is a stunning amount of equipment in the SX. Dual sunroofs (coolest ever power sunshades moving in opposite directions from the center of the roof); ventilated front seats and heated seats for all four outboard occupants; navigation; power folding outside mirrors - it comes with a powerful 275 hp turbocharged four cylinder engine that returns 34 mpg highway. And all this for about $32,000. Yikes.

Sitting in the Kia, the cool factor hits you immediately. The all black interior was trimmed nicely with touches of carbon fiber (ish) and chrome. Controls are logically placed, though there is a dizzying array of buttons and knobs to control the infotainment and climate. A few fingernail taps around the cabin reveal some of the cost cutting measures Kia has taken. There is some cheap plastic here and there. For some reason, there is no carbon fiber surrounding nav panel, which is of course front and center on the dash. Instead, it's embedded in a sea of dead, textured black plastic. And the paddle shifters feel like model airplane parts. Still, so much is done right in this car that you find yourself constantly wondering if the cheap bits would really affect your ownership experience.

On the road the SX was pure smoothness. There is no adjustable ride control, so in comparison to the Buick Regal GS on "GS" setting, the ride is always suave and compliant, yet tight in cornering. The car feels long. Power was very good, though the four cylinder doesn't sound nice in the process. Even with three guys in the car, I was still able to stomp the gas and chirp the tires from a stop. Brakes were very good and brought us down from 60 mph quickly and smoothly.

I did some time in the front passenger seat which left me with concerns about taking long cruises in the Optima. First, the too-low, too-soft passenger seat is only 4-way adjustable. No up/down; no lumbar support. The arm rest on the door includes an angled panel on which the window control resides. The placement of this panel makes it impossible for me to rest my arm without a 45 degree vertical bend at the wrist. And the wheel hump intrudes far enough into the foot well that I felt I was having to sit slightly askew with my feet toward the console.

There really is a lot to love about this car. I'm still a sucker for the way it looks. The competition, however, is stiff - but is it stiff enough to beat the content and price? Don't know yet. There's still more driving to do.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Buick Regal Turbo and GS

Dad's 1976 Buick Electra Limited was a thing of beauty. Twenty feet of Independence Red paint and glinty chrome; black leather inside with engraved faux-wood inlays in the doors. It floated, silently, above the road. My, how things have changed.

I've been watching GM for years and am in love with the direction they're taking. Buick is aiming to be the luxury/performance division of GM, targeting Lexus as a prime competitor. Their efforts are working and the demographic of their buyers is dropping.

The new Regal is nothing like the last one, which was a Chevy Impala sister-ship. This one started as an Opel Insignia, in Europe, and it looks and performs like no other Buick you've experienced.

What we (Anthony in particular) likes most about the Buick is that it's available in a manual transmission - very rare for this class of car. And a welcome feature!

We spotted two examples, a Turbo and a GS and decided to drive both in order to solidify our focus on one vehicle.

We drove the 220 hp Turbo, first. It was a 2011 - black on black - well equipped but lacking a few things we'd like, like touchscreen navigation and push-button start.

The fit and finish was first rate. And the interior gives the driver and front passenger a real "cockpit" feel. The cowl wraps around the occupants. Outward visibility is good (not great). I prefer a little wood on the dash, rather than the aluminum and piano black accents the Regal has. But it works. It conveys a sporting feeling. The interior is more intimate than we thought we wanted, but it's not uncomfortably tight and rear seat legroom is acceptable, even with a 6' 2" driver.

Saddled with about 500 lbs of passengers (the two of us and a 6' 2" salesman), power from the turbo four cylinder was sufficient, but not at all enthralling. Fuel economy at 32 highway is good. Shifting is smooth and linear. Clutch engagement was just right.

Switching to a silver GS, the first thing you notice is more aggressive styling. Beautiful open-spoke rims revealing Brembo calipers on giant discs. A unique front fascia with aggressive vertical air intakes. It continues in the interior with heavily bolstered seats, perforated leather, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel.

The GS's added 50 hp was evident the moment we pulled out of the driveway. The car WANTS to go 80 and provides a nice push of thrust at each row of the 6-speed. I am really looking forward to driving this car alone, without the weight of other passengers. The drivetrain has multiple modes, including GS, which tightens steering and suspension and provided the most fun weaving in and out of 4 lanes of highway traffic.

The car would benefit from a panoramic glass roof. And our salesperson expressed concerns about iPhone connectivity, but Buick's website claims it's easy. We were surprised not to see fog lamps, ventilated front seats, and heated rear seats. These might be available as options. American manufacturers still haven't caught on to the fact that fewer options packages are better, and the top of the line model should have EVERYTHING.

GM set the bar high in our search. We adored the GS - it will be our choice if we decide on Buick. I can't wait to see how the competition stacks up.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Short List

Auto shows are great places in which to kick a lot of tires and meet knowledge experts from the whole spectrum of brands, without any sales pressure. I attend the New York International Auto Show every year, and this year scored a VIP tour before the show opened to the public. This gave me my first glimpse into the candidates for my next purchase.

A few weeks ago, I brought my family to a smaller show, near our "country" home, to get their feedback on the vehicles on the short list.

Here's what we like, in no particular order:

2012 Kia Optima SX GDI
I've been watching Kia since Audi designer, Peter Schreyer, joined the firm as design lead. His influence is groundbreaking. Different from Hyundai's trendy, polarizing Korean aesthetic, Schreyer has given Kia a more European flavor that I believe will endure. Combine that with the astonishing level of content for the price and a lengthy warranty, and it seems hard to go wrong. The Optima is gorgeous. In SX trim it packs 275 horsepower but serves up 34 mpg (highway). It can be had with navigation, panoramic glass roof, and heated seats for all four outboard positions for about $31,000.

2012 Buick Regal GS
My Dad was a Buick guy. But his was a whole different kind of Buick. This brand has undergone a metamorphosis from floaty, couches-on-wheels for the 70+ crowd to driver-centric cars with flowing designs and beautiful interiors. The Regal GS is an Americanization of the European Opel Insignia. It has a 270 horsepower turbo four cylinder in a taut package that fits like a glove. Careful selection of options puts it in the right price point for our purposes.

2012 Volkswagen Passat
Volkswagen's new design language is all about conservative elegance. The new Passat is (visually) the understated big brother of the new Jetta. Its clean lines and massive rear leg room stood out to me. While I'm reluctant to by any car, especially a VW, in its first year of production, my experiences with the previous model leave me wanting to give it a try.

2012 Dodge Charger AWD
When I first saw the 2012 Charger at the NY show, it took me five minutes to take it all in. It's a seriously badass car. To some, it might seem a waste to forgo the Hemi - as it looks like it's BEGGING to be driven fast. But we're interested in the V-6 with all-wheel-drive. The interior is the Charger's shortcoming. The dash is uninspired. But we'll reserve judgment until we drive one.

2012 Volvo S60 T5
This one is pushing the price point. But Volvo has done an excellent job at implementing its new, flowing design language into a beautifully sculpted sedan with gorgeous interior treatments. Volvo leases include basic maintenance and the warranty covers wear and tear. From past experience, however, I'd never own another Volvo that's out-of-warranty. Price for entry in the repair shop for the last Volvo I owned rarely dropped below four digits.

Let the test drives begin!

S x 5

We all have a list of wants and needs when we look for a car. These include everything from features and options to satisfying our own sense of vanity – and everything in between. Of course, these decisions affect everyone who will ride in the car on a regular basis, not just the purchaser. Here are the five S's that establish my family's criteria for our next purchase:

We are a family of three guys. My partner and I are both six-footers plus. And our 13-year-old son seems to grow an inch a month. So size is certainly a big consideration. We want to make sure we are comfortable both on trips around town and on longer, interstate jaunts.

We have become accustomed to a high level of features. The Lincoln and our other car, a Ford Explorer Limited, are both top trim levels loaded with equipment. I'm pragmatic, but I don't believe in roughing it.

Price is an issue. We're not the 1%, and we live in a state that charges property tax on vehicles. A modest $25,000 purchase brings a $1,500 tax bill the first year of ownership (or even lease...ship). We have a $35,000 cap (ish). I consider this a post-negotiation figure.

Bring on the airbags, stability control, lane departure warning, laser cruise control, drowsiness monitors, seatbelt pretensioners, and 5-star crash test ratings.

We're guys. We want a car that looks good. More concisely, we want a car that looks BADASS. In other words, if there's a Toyota in our driveway, rest assured it's a guest.

Our purchase experience will be a balance of the S's. We will identify the compromises in each vehicle we consider. I'm looking forward to that.


I feel like the Terminator, sometimes. Every time I see cars outside, online, or in TV shows and movies, the heads-up display in my mind pops up with copious data on every vehicle within my field of vision. Suffice to say, I'm obsessed.

Unlike a lot of car enthusiasts, 500+ horsepower and impressive times around the Nürburgring don't mean much to me. I'm much more interested in vehicles that meet the needs of average American daily drivers. For this reason, I am blissfully ignorant of brands like Porsche, as I could never see myself buying something that I could never use within a fraction of its potential. Unless it was a Cadillac CTS-V SportWagon. But I digress.

When buying vehicles for myself, I'm pragmatic. Vehicle purchases are often mistakenly referred to as investments. Buying a car is a guaranteed money-loser, so I avoid the "I-word" at all costs. In order to mitigate my own inevitable losses, I use my powers for good by using my knowledge as leverage in negotiating the best price.

My last purchase is a good example of this. In 2009, I purchased a three-year-old Lincoln Zephyr. The Zephyr's MSRP in 2006 was $36,500. With 38,000 miles on the odometer, the dealer was asking $23,000 for this gently used example. Knowing that in 2007, Lincoln changed the name of this car to "MKZ", and recognizing the potential difficulty of selling a little-known model name a few years down the road, I used that knowledge to settle on a selling price of $17,800.

It was a good purchase. In addition to being a great looking car with an enormous equipment list and a smooth ride, the Zephyr (and it's sister ships the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan) made it onto the recommended-buy list of a popular consumer publication. Further, Lincoln beat Lexus in a recent JD Power reliability survey. For this reason, the car should hold a pretty good resale value. We'll soon see.

After attending a VIP preview of the 2011 New York International Auto Show last spring, I'm beginning my search for something new. So I'm sharing my experience, either to help others in the process or to seek help with my obsession. Either way, it feels good to get it all out.