Friday, August 20, 2010

Why BMW is BMW

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 10: Performance trumps image every time.

Back when I started this process I was on the fence about the BMW 3-series. The poser image, the uninspired, exterior styling, and the price all had me thinking it wasn't for me.

In the showroom nothing really happened to change my mind. No one approached me for 15 minutes even though only one other customer was on the floor and the $90,000 7-series only reinforced the perception I have of the unattainability due to the price.

Everything changed when I got behind the wheel of a 328i equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, X-drive, the Sport and Premium packages.

Yes, at $41,000 this car is expensive and stretches the upper limits of my budget. Yes, it's still the sweet 16 gift of choice to the spoiled daughters of Orange County Housewives.

All that baggage was swept away as I drove the car through the winding roads in the southern Wisconsin countryside. Every shift, every application of the throttle, every turn of the wheel, made it increasingly clear that this 3 honors the legacy of its predecessors the 2002 and 320i. The sound, the feel, the fit, the finish, they're all top notch. Nothing gets in the way of the driving experience. It's hard to find fault with this car.

Is it worth the $10,000 plus premium over the VW or other cars I've looked at? Maybe.

Am I glad I drove one? Absolutely.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A day off

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 9: Buying a new car in a small town stinks

I was in Chicago yesterday and was unable to return home in time to stop by the Ford dealership to drive a Fusion and Taurus. But as I drove past several dealerships in the western suburbs, I realized that I'm hamstrung by geography in my search to find the perfect new car.

Not only do I have to leave Sheboygan to drive Euro brands like BMW, Audi, Mini and Saab, but I can't even find the models I want in Chevy and Ford.

The Chevy dealer here didn't have a Malibu LTZ and was not interested in finding one for me. He wants to sell me what's on the lot.

When I checked the inventory online for my local Ford dealer, it shows I'll have one 2010 Taurus and one 2011 Fusion to choose from. Not much of a choice.

By contrast, there are five Ford dealers within a ten miles of where I was in Chicago yesterday, and any one of them has multiple 2011 Taurus and Fusions equipped the way I want them.

I'm going to be in Madison today, so I'm going to stop by a dealer there to see if they have the cars I want.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Now that's more like it

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 8: Volkswagen and Nissan

Ever since I drove the Volvo Boss Wagon from Connecticut to California when I was working for Car and Driver Magazine in the late '70s, I've been in love with sports wagons. Having grown up in a household with Vista Cruisers and other leviathan vehicles, driving a wagon that handled like a sports car was a revelation to me. It seemed to be the perfect car.

All those feelings came rushing back when I slipped behind the wheel of the Volkwagen Jetta TDI SportWagen. There's something about this tidy package that really appeals to me.

It's small and efficient, quick and fun, refined and sophisticated. The exterior styling is Volkswagen at it's best, restrained and purposeful. The 18 inch wheels, the slightly flared fenders and the spoilers all did a good job of cuing the performance that lay ahead.

I was instantly comfortable behind the wheel and when I fired up the 4-cylinder, turbocharged clean diesel, was surprised how little clatter there was. I'd heard good things about this engine and it didn't disappoint. The six-speed manual transmission made it easy to keep the revs in the powerband for hard driving and while not a rocket ship, it was plenty quick on the freeway entrance ramp. At a 70 mile per hour cruise in top gear the motor turned at a very comfortable and relaxed 2,000 rpms. Even with the taut sport suspension, the road noise was minimal. All this and mileage that rivals the Toyota Prius.

The one drawback is the rear seat legroom. To create enough room for a six-foot passenger I had to pull the driver's seat half-way forward creating a very uncomfortable driving position for my six-foot three-inch frame. It would have made the five-hour drive to Michigan I did last weekend miserable. So the question is, do I care enough about anyone who will be riding in the rear seat to sacrifice my driving pleasure for their comfort. We'll see.

Bottom Line: I could see myself owning this car.

I went to the Nissan dealership wanting to drive an Altima and ended up behind the wheel of the Maxima thanks to a salesman who just didn't listen. This guy was everything I hate in a car salesman. He talked too fast, leapt to conclusions, and wouldn't shut up while on the test drive. That having been said, I liked the Maxima, a lot.

It's fast. It's tight. It's roomy. It looks muscular. It has every feature you could ever want (but that's not really a differentiating factor anymore). This car compares very favorably to the CTS. The Maxima feels lighter, quicker and a less pretentious than the Cadillac.

On the drive the steering was direct and confident. The suspension was sporty without being jarring and on the highway gave enough insulation from road noise and bumps to provide a very comfortable ride. In the corners there was very little body roll and suspension float. This car was set up just the way I like it.

This is the first car I've ever driven with a CVT transmission and it was a little weird at first waiting for shift points that never came. But mated with the 290 horse V-6 it delivered when it mattered. And in manual mode shifts were quick and positive providing excellent control.

Even though it wasn't my intent to drive the Maxima, I'm glad I did. Now I just have to go back there when Chatty Charley (the names have been changed to protect the guilty) isn't around and drive an Altima as well.

Bottom Line: Aggressive styling. Performance to match. I wish the Buick had been this good.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is good enough, good enough?

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 7: Chevrolet, Cadillac and (gasp) Buick

There's a lot of pressure on GM right now. Saved from bankruptcy by a massive infusion of cash, it's time to put up or shut up from a product standpoint. No excuses.

The first car I drove yesterday evening was the new Buick Regal. If the folks at GM are trying to change people's mind about what a Buick is, this is a good start. I like the profile of the car, but am not a huge fan of the big grill. The chrome accents are a little too precious for my taste but this is a huge improvement from the Electras and Skylarks of the past. Best of all, no fake portholes.

On the inside this is no Buick. The seats are firm and supportive. The gauges and dash showed restraint and purpose. The monochromatic center console might have been a little too plain, but well organized making it easy to operate all the hvac and radio controls. All in all, a nice package.

On the road the Regal gets mixed reviews. I pulled out from the showroom onto Washington avenue which is under construction and hit a few small imperfections and was surprised by the noise transferred through the suspension. When I turned onto the entrance ramp to I-43 and hit the accelerator, I was disappointed by the lack of thrust from the 2.4 liter ECOTEC. It ran all the way up to 6,500 RPM before upshifting, feeling just a little busy and unrefined.

At cruising speed the car was comfortable, quiet and very pleasant and when I tossed it into the curves on the cloverleaves 20 miles over the posted speed, it dug in tightly with very little body roll. Other than the noise over sharp bumps, the suspension is clearly the best part of this car. No more floating prairie schooner dynamics, just a tight, confident Euro feel. Too bad the rest of the car isn't this good.

Bottom line: Give me a smoother, beefier powerplant with a six-speed manual transmission and I'd seriously consider this car.

Next up was the Cadillac CTS. I like the way the Cadillac looks. I always have. For some reason the bright wheels and chrome accents work here. I like the aggressive styling of the low roofline and sharp angles. It's a design that's held up since it's introduction and they've done a good job of keeping fresh.

Inside the car feels snug in a comfortable way and the level of quality is undeniable. Great seats, a thick beefy steering wheel and an instrument cluster that makes it easy to dial in the information I need.

On the road the Cadillac is clearly a heavier car than the Buick and feels it. Thanks to the V6 it has plenty of power and acceleration. My demo was equipped with AWD and as you would expect it was quiet and smooth on the highway. In the fast corners there was a little more float and roll than I would have expected. I didn't check the suspension package and wonder if there's a more sporting set up available. I hope so.

Bottom line: Everything I expected. Enjoyable but not necessarily fun to drive in this set up. I may have to come back for more.

The Chevy Malibu is getting great reviews and I really wanted to drive the LTZ version. Unfortunately my dealer didn't have one and I'll have to go looking for it. For now I was able to experience an 2LT with the ECOTEC engine and 6-speed transmission with the paddle shifters. I really liked the seat in this car. Excellent side support, nice and firm but the back angle adjustment was the ratcheting type which made finding the perfect angle a little more difficult. The design of the interior is nice. Like the Buick understated and more purposeful than any of my old Chevys. Fit and finish was good, but not best in class. Some of the buttons and materials felt a little cheap and the gaps and transitions between materials wasn't quite as refined as I would have expected.

On the road the Malibu felt more powerful than the Buick even though it had the same engine. It must be the transmission making better use of the power. On the highway the car was louder than the other two, but not unpleasant. Cornering was predictable but a little soft in this set up and not really to my liking. Again, I need to test the LTZ trim and will withhold final judgement until then.

Bottom line: In this trim, it's a good car but not my car.

My dealer was helpful, even if a bit incredulous that I was actually considering such a broad range of sedans. Helpful, not hard sell. A good experience overall.

Each GM sedan was more than competent and I'll be interested to see how they stack up to the cars I'll be driving in the coming days. We'll shall see.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's test drive week

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 6: Test drives begin this evening with GM Brands

Today, I will test drive four cars. After a weekend of reflection,  a few emails from interested parties, and realizing that my multi-brand GM dealership makes test driving several cars easier, I've decided to see if my earlier criticism of Buick was warranted.

In addition to the Chevy Malibu and Cadillac CTS, I'll also drive a Buick Regal and Lacrosse.

I've created a 10-mile test loop that includes some pretty rough pavement, a few miles of freeway, a couple of decreasing radius 270 degree cloverleaves and a short stretch of county highway with a sweeping high speed right hander and a steep uphill grade. It's not Road America, but this route should provide enough variety to get a sense of each car's capabilities.

After a week of an academic exercise, I'm looking forward to getting behind the wheel.