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.