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 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!