Monday, May 08, 2017

Rental Bliss: 1973 Dodge Challenger

Driving this gorgeous beast was like trying to juggle running chainsaws: All at once it's loud, terrifying, attention-grabbing, smells like gasoline, and is cool as hell.

On a previous visit to South Florida I was interested in renting something more interesting than a Focus or a Versa and came across the now-closed Classic Dream Rides. The owner Cameron would toss you a set of keys from his collection of muscle cars for not much more than you’d pay for that Focus. The cars were in great shape but weren’t “restored,” so they were full of character and stories and experiences that weren’t muted by modern concessions or extensive rebuilding.

The Challenger is Barney-the-Dinosaur-purple with a wide matte-black stripe up the middle of the hood, a black vinyl roof, and gleaming chrome bumpers. Beautifully proportioned, the car is nonetheless BIG. The doors seem like they’re six feet long and feel like they weigh as much as I do. The windows were already rolled down when I got in the car, and the glorious racket the glass made clattering around when the doors were slammed closed instantly reminded me that I was about to spend the day with a machine that had seen 40 years of different roads and drivers. The seats front and rear are interrupted by the center console, although they aren't exactly buckets. Everything is black leather and plastic, with chrome accents and lots of wood both real and fake throughout. The trunk is the size of a studio apartment, and the ample space carries through to the interior as there is plenty of head, leg, and elbow room. The seats are low to the floor so your legs stick out ahead of you, and although there is very little to brace yourself against the driving position is comfortable.

After a quick walkaround, Cameron twisted the key and the 340 four-barrel fired up immediately with a gutsy roar and settled into a high idle. Stabbing the throttle a minute later settled the big V8 down into a smooth growl.

Driving the big Dodge is certainly different from driving a modern car. The steering wheel is thin but has a huge diameter, and the car requires armloads of cranking to make any sharp turns. The throttle is responsive and the engine torquey, although there isn’t enough grunt to require a delicate foot. Precise inputs would be tricky; the lack of seat bolstering or a dead pedal, along with vestigial lap belts, mean the steering wheel and pedals double as braces to keep you in place.

At speed the steering exhibits a split personality: During small corrections such as cruising on the highway the car feels tall and a bit wobbly, but harder cornering causes the Challenger to take a firm set as it seems to want to tighten the radius on your behalf. Of all of the distinguishing characteristics of the car, this took the longest to get used to. Where a modern car will go where you tell it to, you don’t so much steer the Challenger as much as guide it - a bit like walking someone else’s dog.The wide, modern tires generated impressive grip and although I didn't corner hard enough to find out which end would let go first, the old car felt remarkably well-balanced. The brakes were a bit squeaky at low speed and lacked ABS but otherwise worked great. Once the car's steering and size became familiar, it was quite easy to drive both on the highway and through the crowded streets of Miami. The Challenger may be vintage but roads are still roads, even forty years later.

Cruising through Miami and the Florida Keys in this old Challenger was a blast. The quirks in the handling give the car an unmistakable feel, and the sounds and smells remind you that something is happening. Far from isolating the driver from the act of driving, cars like this one fully immerse you in it. The engine is always rumbling and burbling, even when you’re off the throttle. Get into the gas pedal and the nose lurches up as the smell of gasoline wafts into the cabin. Lean on the brakes and the front pitches down, lean on them harder and the tires scream and lock up while you neither slow down nor turn. The steering wheel communicates everything the front tires are up to, quivering and shaking over bumps and expansion joints, and doubles as a hand hold to keep you in the slick leather seats while the car leans out around corners. The Challenger is perfectly capable of navigating the city and seaside highways, but will do you no favors. Driving this car requires *attention*, but rewards with a feeling of activity, of covering ground, of participating in the act of beginning in one place and ending up in another.

I would highly recommend taking any available chance to spend time behind the wheel of a car like this to remind you how much you can really get out of such an involved experience.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Rental Bliss: 2015 Mercedes-Benz SL550

If one is presented with the opportunity to drive a brand new Mercedes-Benz SL550 (MSRP $108,050 before options) for a couple of hours, subject to the terms of a terrifying liability waiver, does one do so?


What does one learn, after driving said SL550 on unfamiliar roads with the Waiver of Damocles hanging over one’s head the entire time?

My first impression of this thing is the expansive list of matters that an SL550 handles for you:

  1. Locking and unlocking doors.
  2. Darkness, not only in front of the car, but also below and within. 
  3. Remembering how you like your seat and mirrors adjusted.
  4. Convertibleness; this car is both a convertible and not a convertible, according to your whim.
  5. Weather-appropriate clothing (on account of AIRSCARF).
  6. Deciding what information you need to know about. 
  7. Looking beside you while driving forward. 
  8. Looking behind you while backing up. 
  9. The fact that mirrors take up space.

The interior is beyond reproach in design, materials, and workmanship.

(Image credit: Autoblog)

Speaking as a motorist who still sees 2005 model year cars as “newish,” and electric windows as a cushy luxury, it’s a lot to take in.

Anyway, let’s move past that. How does it drive? Steering feel is numb, or even nonexistent. This is probably intended to be a feature, prominent on the list of things that are handled for you. But for your humble correspondent, it’s disconcerting.

Cornering at feisty-yet-waiver-compliant speeds on California back roads is absolutely rock solid. The thing is go kart flat, and yet the ride is butter-smooth. It’s feather-quiet, too. How does this 4,001-pound convertible with 18 inch wheels avoid any trace of body roll or tire noise? Quoting Mercedes,
The semi-active Adaptive Damping System continually adjusts to driving inputs and the road surface, and can respond at each wheel in just 10 milliseconds to sharpen handling while the ride stays silky. Comfort and Sport modes let you tailor handling response and ride firmness to your present driving style. Virtually all components of the 4-wheel multilink suspension are made of rigid, lightweight aluminum.
I’m usually skeptical of features that are described like this, in salesman-speak instead of engineer-speak. But this system works.

This obsessive computational optimization isn’t limited to suspension tuning, though. The car also makes value judgments about your passenger's weight!
Occupant Classification System (OCS) automatically turns the passenger's front air bag on or off and adjusts the air bag inflation rate based on the weight category determined by weight sensor readings from the passenger seat.
The engine is a 4.7-liter twin-turbo V8 (ahem, “biturbo” because Europe), rated for 449 hp and 516 lb-ft routed through a 7-speed hydraulic automatic transmission. Due to the whole waiver situation, hooning was limited to rolling 10-50 mph sprints, once in Comfort and once in Sport. In Comfort mode there is a distressingly-long turbo lag (one-Mississippi), followed by a quiet yet forceful whoosh, followed by a disapproving blowoff. In Sport mode the turbo lag is reduced, though still quite apparent, and the noise was a more pleasing purr. There’s absolutely no squat, wheel slip, roar, or really any other drama, which cuts both ways. The experience is less like a burnout and more like jumping to hyperspace.

The SL550 does just about everything well. It’s hard to imagine a more comfortable or stylish grand touring coupe. I wager it could out-track the fastest sports cars of 10 years ago and out-muscle the fastest muscle cars of 10 years ago. But I find myself struggling to understand why someone would ever buy one. If you’re in the market for an SL, price isn't an object, and an S-class would offer better comfort and storage on a road trip. Likewise, a modern supercar would track better and a Hellcat would drag better. The SL’s refinement and technology saps all the spectacle and danger out of mindless acceleration; flogging trashier, slower muscle cars is actually more fun.

The flaw in this thinking is the whole premise of evaluating a car like this on functional grounds. Cars like this are a “thing” for the same reason that trophy wives are a “thing.” You don’t buy an SL550 because you care about gearhead stuff like lap times and cubic feet of trunk room. You buy one for the bragging rights, for having a car that’s better than practically everyone else’s in practically every way. It demonstrates that you're inclined to scrutinize the "weight category" of the person at your side and factor that into important decisions. It demonstrates that you don’t have to handle things; things are handled for you. It’s a status symbol.

Would I ever buy one? Nope, at that price point I’d rather have a Tesla S for weekdays and a 4C or a Cayman for weekends. But I think functionally.

Did I mention that they made me sign a waiver?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ownership Bliss: 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium
(Month 1)

One month into ownership of the 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium, life is still as good as it was after the first week. The sheer joy of intentional oversteer shows no sign of wearing off and the car continues to impress by providing an enormous amount of entertainment on a regular basis.

Road trips are a pleasure as the seats are comfortable even for hours-long stints, the trunk fits several large suitcases and bags, and this BRZ has averaged 30+ mpg on the highway. Spirited back-road driving is visceral and engaging thanks to exceptionally communicative steering, crisp handling, and a shifter that is an absolute blast to row through the gates. Keeping the two liter boxer screaming near the 7400 rpm redline certainly produces the best results although the rev limiter is rather aggressive, cutting power abruptly.

The shift light and accompanying beep can fortunately be set by the driver to any RPM, one of a few clever features that may not be apparent during a short test but certainly increase the quality of life for the owner; the seatbelt warning light comes on if an occupied seat’s belt isn’t buckled of course, but the audible chime only starts if the car is in motion, which is a nice touch. The spare tire, jack, and associated hardware are stored under the trunk’s lifting floor panel, tightly-molded in Styrofoam which does a great job of keeping everything accessible and organized.

The driver’s seat unfortunately does not remember its previous position when it is pushed forward to allow a back-seat passenger in or out, but the Subaru makes it very easy to quickly relocate an excellent driving position. Those comfortable, deep front buckets combine with the high door sills to make it challenging for passengers to exit the BRZ without knocking heels on the rocker panel, though it shows no signs of any resulting wear. Another more pressing annoyance is an entertainment system that relies on an SD card that is specific to the particular car. Should it go missing the only recourse is to order one through a Subaru dealer, something that will run $500 if the car is out of warranty.

A cold Massachusetts winter has revealed a few interesting traits beginning with a rougher, burbly idle from the boxer engine on startup, followed by a clutch that doesn't seem to disengage completely leading to a balky shifter, and a trunk that has to be shut rather firmly to stay latched. All of these issues go away once the car warms up. A visit to a Subaru dealer for the 15,000 mile service confirmed everything was functioning normally and these are all known traits of the car. The cold weather also brought snow and the stock Michelins are ill-suited to the task. Getting stuck in the snow, in a Subaru no less, is something to be avoided, so General Altimax Arctics were recently installed and have an encouragingly-aggressive tread. The steering feels a bit less direct and communicative on the winter rubber but overall grip on cold pavement is up and the ride over frost heaves and broken pavement is softer.

On several occasions all four seats have been occupied by full-size adults; while ingress and egress is something of a challenge, once everyone is seated there is enough room to be comfortable. The deep buckets of the back seats leave everyone with plenty of headroom, and legroom is adequate if feet get tucked under the front seats. One such trip included a pregnant passenger and while the BRZ shouldn’t be called “roomy,” none of the five occupants had any complaints.

This 2013 Subaru BRZ continues to impress by remaining a capable every-day car while regularly delivering a massive amount of entertainment. The winter climate limits recreational driving somewhat, but the BRZ needs no preparation or planning to be incredibly fun. Every stint in the car, from quick trips to the store, through weekend drives through the countryside, to long freeway road trips are sweetened by the car’s excellent ergonomics and responsive handling, and liberal dollops of tasty oversteer are the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ownership Bliss: 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium
(Week 1)

The Subaru BRZ and its sister the Scion FR-S are a joint effort by Toyota and Subaru to establish themselves in the "Driver's Car" segment. They are 2700 lb 2+2 coupes with a boxer four up front, putting 197 hp and 151 lb-ft through a six-speed manual transmission and Torsen limited-slip differential to the rear wheels. This example is a 2013 BRZ Premium and had about 15,000 miles on it when it was picked up.

By all accounts, the collaboration is a successful one and the cars are extremely entertaining to drive. One week and almost 1,000 miles later, the initial impression is that this car is every bit as fun as it is purported to be. The seating position, the controls, the handling, and the balance of the car all seem purpose-built for entertainment, and it never does anything scary or unexpected.

Some common complaints in other reviews are that the BRZ is slow and lacks power. Compared to the decade-old Mustang this one replaced, the car feels like a cruise missile. It pulls much harder and sounds much better than expected, with the ultra-low seating position and tight chassis magnifying the sensation of speed during six-and-a-half-second 0 - 60 runs. The high-pressure fuel pump for the direct-injection motor does sound like a group of Spring Peeper frogs (and is sometimes referred to as the BRZ Crickets), but that same motor has contributed to a first-week average of 25.3 mpg. The small, tilting and telescoping steering wheel makes finding a perfect driving position easy and the deep, comfortable bucket seats keep the driver firmly planted. The shifter can be balky when the car is cold, but once everything is warmed up it smooths out, and the shift lever almost seems to get pulled into the gates as if by a magnet.

The sporty suspension gives the BRZ a jostly ride around the city but commuting is by no means unpleasant and the car can very definitely be used as a daily driver. The engine pulls usefully from as low as about 2,000 RPM, so slow-moving traffic isn't the shift-frenzy that might be expected with such a small motor. The only real difficulty in day-to-day driving is the limited rear visibility. The view straight-back is usable, but objects off the rear quarters are particularly difficult to see, and if the side-view mirrors are fogged things get quite difficult indeed.

The headlights are very good, and can be adjusted vertically via a thumb dial on the dashboard. Ostensibly to deal with suspension squat from a full load of passengers or cargo, this is a bit of a quirky feature that seems ripe for modification. The wipers are also quite effective, although the windshield seems to catch a huge amount of spray. The only other trouble is that the entertainment system relies on an encrypted SD card that must be periodically inserted for the unit to function at all, and the SD card went missing out of this one sometime before it was resold. The dealer is in the midst of resolving the issue, so until then the soundtrack is exclusively the boxer four up front and the howling tires out back.

The first week with the BRZ has been a reminder of what driving for recreation is supposed to feel like. The car is comfortable while cruising around town, but every sharp corner can be spiced up with a dollop of oversteer. The hard, skinny Michelin Primacy tires give plenty of warning while breaking loose, and do so very progressively, but provide loads of grip when the BRZ is driven smoothly. The engine sounds great when revved up to the 7400 RPM redline and the short shifter feels great to row through the gates.

It has only been a week, but so far this is the most fun I've ever had in a car.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rental Bliss: 2010 Mitsubishi Galant FE

Unless your daily driver is a new car itself, most new cars will impress with their fit, finish, and comfort. The industry as a whole has done a remarkable job of upping the refinement ante, even in vehicles at the shallow end of the range. Unfortunately, nobody told the Galant.

The exterior styling of the 2010 Mistubishi is conservative, but inoffensive. The compound headlights suggest modern touch and by themselves exceed most expectations one would have of a low-rate rental. The flush mesh grille could even remind you of a Cadillac from the right angles. The rest of the body is pure vanilla, but there are no surprises there. The trunk capably handles two real-world suitcases and is as easy as any to load.

Getting into the Galant, one is instantly transported to the early 2000's. Hard, shiny, textured plastic is almost everywhere, with only massive seams between the molded pieces breaking up the proceedings. Getting comfortable in the car is admittedly easy, and the mirrors ably manage any potential blindspots. This particular example had been generously ArmorAll'd, which made for a steering wheel that was both slippery and sticky at the same time.

The gauges were easy to read, but sported the now-vintage orange backlighting that seemed to be the trademark of midsize Asian sedans of the 90s. The center console is attractive to look at, but rather difficult to actually use by current standards. The console is topped by an old LCD clock which dominates the display, leaving only a small band at the bottom for the sound system display. The buttons are large but feel cheap, and inputs were registered only intermittently. Not even the shift lever was immune to mediocrity, as the screw holding the lever in place came loose twice during the week and would have rendered the car unable to shift from park had a multitool not been nearby.

Driving the Galant smoothly was something of a challenge. Releasing the exceptionally touchy brakes resulted in an authoritative surge forward, and balancing the two required practice and focus. The steering was incredibly light making straight-line highway driving easy, but response to steering inputs was lethargic. The skinny tires gave up their grip without much protest, and the touchy brakes turned spongy without much prompting.

Piloting the car around for a week brought back years-old memories of rental clunkers. It would be impossible to recommend to anyone, and one would be ill-advised to choose it over something else for the same price. This is unfortunately very much a car you get stuck with.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rental Bliss: 2011 Ford Escape Limited

Ford's littlest truck has come a long way since the Bronco II. Driving a black-on-black Limited offered a few pleasant surprises.

The truck looks very sharp, with tasteful chrome highlighting the otherwise all-black exterior. Good looking by itself, it's downright gorgeous compared to older Escapes. The bubble styling and exposed plastics are gone, replaced by straighter lines and painted surfaces. The bumpers themselves are an attractive painted plastic, but are unfortunately extremely soft and easy to scratch. The rear hatch has handles built into the bottom edge, but they're not in an ideal spot to close the hatch from and otherwise there is no good place to put your hand without leaving a print on your chrome or paint. Besides those few quirks, the exterior of the truck is rather well done.

Inside it becomes clear that Ford has taken the truck upscale. The doors close with a solid-sounding thud, and the leather seats with optional heaters are very comfortable and offer good lumbar and lateral support. Piano black surfaces are everywhere, accentuated by the color-selectable accent lighting in the footwells and cup holders. There are a few sharp edges, including one knuckle-skinning mold edge in the center console, but otherwise the various seams and panels fit well together. There are many cup holders and nooks for gadgets, including Ford's trademark burrito tray in the middle of the dash, although most of the nooks are large and shallow making it difficult to keep things in place.

There is ample headroom and getting comfortable is easy, although the lower dash hangs so low as to make reaching the pedals more difficult than it should be. Rear visibility is hampered by the absolutely massive rear seat headrests. Ford has done a good job muffling the road and wind noise and coupled with the light steering, spunky 3.0 liter V6 engine, and great exhaust sound it's easy to get going faster than intended. Slowing the truck down is no problem as the brakes are adequate, and there is surprisingly little body roll.

After spending a week with the truck, it was difficult to give it back. City driving was made pleasant by the punchy engine and comfortable interior, and long trips were effortless. $27,000 is a lot to ask for a small SUV, but Ford seems to have packed theirs full of appeal and it would be hard to come away disappointed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Old Parked Cars

My new favorite automotive blog is Old Parked Cars.

Car museums and shows are fun and all, but it's always a treat to see a rare or notable car out in the wild, doing what it was built for. Case in point: I hardly remember the details of the Lexus LF-A I saw at the LA Auto Show, but the Merkur XR4Ti I saw on the highway, or the De Tomaso Pantera I saw in a grocery store parking lot --- those are burned into memory.

I also have to give my respects to the unsung heroes: the meticulously maintained powder blue Plymouth Reliant K parked at the train station every morning, and the packed first-generation Lexus LS that still commands an air of dignity despite a broken tail light and keyed paint. Attitudes toward these cars range from indifference to contempt among the automotive press and internet peanut gallery. But the cars are still there, logging miles, taking care of business, earning their keep.

Here's to old parked cars.