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.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Regal Turbo Chance Encounter

Nothing ruins a my day like the check engine light. Except for the FLASHING check engine light, which really means "STOP. NOW. Or you and your car might die".

Saturday morning I found myself at the repair shop with the Explorer. Cylinder 6 misfire. Bad coil? Bad plug? Maybe fried my computer? This can only happen on a holiday weekend, of course. And only when Baby Mama is borrowing the Lincoln.

Having reserved an intermediate rental car over the phone, the agency wanted to put me in a Nissan Sentra. In what parallel universe is a Sentra in any way "intermediate"? I asked what other cars were available and to my delight, they had a 2011 Buick Regal Turbo for $15 more.

This black on black rental didn't have a manual transmission. But seeing this as a three-day test drive, I didn't really care. I wanted to know how livable the Regal is beyond the hour we spent with it last December, when I test drove the 220 HP Turbo with three adults on board. Back then, I left thinking the more powerful (and more expensive) 270 HP GS would be the only Regal for us. Now, having driven the Turbo with fewer occupants, I'm in the unenviable position of being on the fence.

Both around town and on a run from northern Connecticut to New York City, I continue to be impressed at this car's quickness, agility, and desire to be driven fast and hard. It proved supremely comfortable and capable. I'm somewhere between proud and ashamed at the way I drove it to New York, tussling with a BMW 5-Series who was particularly pissed at being licked by a Buick.

When flogged, it doesn't come close to the EPA estimated 29 mpg. I don't think I hit 23. But the needle rarely dropped below 80 and spent a little time north of three digits, so go figure.

On one particularly cold 12° morning, however, the Buick was completely unwilling to lay down the power it had the day before. It wouldn't downshift properly in passing maneuvers and power off the line was limited. Later in the day, when the temp had risen another 10 degrees, the Regal seemed back to its old self.

With Anthony and I in the front, the car is really a three-seater, as legroom behind Anthony is severely compromised. When we did have additional passengers, the reports from the back seat were all good, with the exception of a certain bored 13-year-old.

We drove the Regal to the Volvo dealership when we test drove the S60 T5. It gave us a nice chance to compare the two back-to-back. My initial gut reaction was that the Volvo felt substantial, with deep power resources and superior quality in build and materials. The Buick was almost "new age solid". As if it were made from more modern, lightweight materials, giving it a sort of aerospace rigidity. The weight and safety systems of the Volvo are more confidence inspiring, but IIHS gives the two cars equal ratings. NHTSA hasn't weighed in yet.

A few minor quibbles:

- No seat memory - We love this feature in our current cars and really miss it on the Regal
- Awkward shape of side view mirrors
- Quirky iPod integration - Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't
- Center armrest doesn't accommodate front passenger beyond the elbow
- Piano black dash accents reflect blinding sun
- How can the GS not come with fog lamps when the Turbo does?

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the Regal Turbo. Anthony is CONVINCED we need the GS with its Brembo brakes, perforated leather, multiple ride controls, and flat-bottomed steering wheel. But I'm not yet convinced we need it or its $2,500 premium over the Turbo. And, of course, we have to finagle similar experiences with the other vehicles that make the first cut.

If Regal becomes The One, we will have a happy few years of driving ahead of us.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2012 Volvo S60 T5

After driving the S60 yesterday, this search officially got VERY difficult for me. And it was another successful conversion for Anthony, who was not so enthused about this brand... until he drove one.

I've owned a Volvo before (see sidebar), so to a certain extent, I've drunk the Kool Aid. This is a premium brand with exceptional design, ultimate safety, and engaging performance. And while parts of me hate to admit it, I like the idea of driving a premium brand and parking it in my driveway.

Upon entering the showroom, I spotted the exact color combo I would go for: Saville grey metallic with beechwood (think baseball glove) leather. No other brand in our search can match the beautiful aesthetic offerings of this brand. I love the design of this car, inside and out. It looks like it's moving when it's not, and the inside feels... furnished. It had the best fit and finish inside, clearly employing superior materials. The floating center panel of the dash flows into the console in one graceful movement. The placement of controls is intuitive, the graphic interface is simple and elegant, and the seats feel orthopedic in comfort.

Our salesman pulled up in a silver sample, and I was first to take the helm. Upon startup, the asynchronous purr of the turbo 5-cylinder is unmistakeably Volvo. While some might prefer not to hear or feel the engine at idle, there's something I really like about it. Even when laden with three grown men, the S60's 250 horsepower pulls the car with power to spare. The meaty steering wheel was well weighted and the car performed with commendable agility. In addition to traction and stability control, Volvo uses corner torque control - which gives greater power bias to the outside wheel when cornering to push the car in the desired direction, as opposed to both wheels fighting for the same pull under differing motion dynamics. The net result of this and the Volvo's twelve-dozen other safety features and systems is confidence. I felt like I could drive this car like an idiot and it would always take care of me — like a big hug from Dad.

I feel like I'm gushing. And I am.

There were a few shortcomings. The Volvo is small. I think our little family of tall people could get comfortable on a long road trip, but not nearly as comfortable as we'd get in the VW or Dodge. The next size up is the S80, which is a bit dowdy in design and I'm told is more sluggish on the road. We will probably drive one just to compare. Ticking options on the Volvo makes the price climb fast — though the base model is still very well equipped. And then there's maintenance. It's covered under the Volvo lease, but I still have nightmarish memories of the cost to maintain my old 850.

I want my family to be safe. I want classic design that endures. I want to have fun while I'm driving. For all of these reasons, we need to seriously consider the S60.

We are ready for eliminations in this search. I'm confident we will agree on the cars that won't make the first cut. But I'm concerned for our marital bliss when it comes to evaluating the finalists. To help us along, we will be returning to the dealerships for a deeper dive into the ones we like. I doubt I'll be able to keep myself from sniffing out an additional contender or two — but that's the fun of this. At least it is for me.

I have history with Volvo. I have a rare 1995 850 T-5r Estate — the first-ever R-series Volvo — that has been relegated to a project car (a car that sits in the driveway waiting for me to afford to restore it). If anything, our old T-5r is a testament to the renowned durability of this brand. She has 210,000+ on the odometer. And in all her hearse-like charm, she is fast as all get out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 Dodge Charger V-6 AWD

The embarrassing truth is that I'm not exactly sure which Charger we just drove. I didn't read the Monroney sticker and there are no less than eight flavors of the Charger on Dodge's site (pull it back, Dodge, that's ridiculous). When I called our salesperson, who was as knowledgeable about her product as I am about the relative viscosity of maple syrup, she told me it was a "Rallye". Yeah no. There's no Rallye in the 2012 lineup, according to Dodge.com. But I DO know it was a 2012 model with a V-6, AWD, and the new, 8-speed automatic transmission.

The car we drove was bright red with matching leather. So once we overcame the feeling of driving a hooker, we were free to enjoy our test drive.

It's aggressive. The Charger is a triumph in unabashed, American design that screams to other drivers, "Get the hell out of my way". That huge crosshair grille makes it look like a giant Prius-eating machine.

In an earlier post, I griped about the interior of the Charger. I'm just not a fan of the dash design. The focal point of the dash is a large, touchscreen, non-nav display that controls many vital functions. There are redundant analog climate controls beneath it. It has ample power ports, front and rear, and multiple ways to connect iPhone to the audio system. Blind-spot warnings and remote start were great features.

Pushing the start button triggered a pleasant exhaust note and idle purr. Shifting into reverse, the touchscreen was taken over by the backup camera image, with trajectory guides. We eased out into open traffic and experienced a smooth, quiet ride. The 292 horsepower provided solid, but not earth-shattering acceleration. While this car has the highest horsepower of any we've tested, I believe it's also the heaviest. Once at highway speed, the 8-speed transmission delivered nearly seamless downshifts and great access to passing power. At cruising speed, the car is quiet and smooth with flat, sure-footed cornering.

Most of all, what we like about the Charger is the size. It's a big car. We have no doubt that we would be comfortable on drives of any length. It drives much smaller than it is, however. Anthony noted how nimble it was when changing lanes in busy traffic. Both front seats were multi-adjustable, heated, and incredibly supportive and comfortable. Back seats were heated, too - a trait only the Optima shared. My size 11's did feel a bit crowded because of the transmission's foot well intrusion on the passenger side. And although it's a spacious interior, the wide a-pillar, short windshield, black headliner deco and high beltline make it feel a bit claustrophobic. Parking it on the streets of New York, might prove challenging.

Overall, I liked the Charger. But when I look at the high price of entry ($37,000+), I have issues. For a thousand more, we saw its platform-mate, the AWD Chrylser 300 on the lot - a car I like MUCH more in terms of aesthetics. Anthony is not in complete agreement with me on that point. Further, I liked the Buick SO much more than the Charger - and the Buick costs less. Still, the Buick Regal isn't available in AWD - and frankly we wouldn't consider the Charger (or 300) if it didn't have AWD.

We may return and drive a 300. But first, we have to get the Volvo on the road and see how it stacks up against the others. Once that's done, elimination begins!