Monday, March 16, 2009

More SoCal Cars

My recent trip to Santa Barbara was perhaps the best yet. Not only did I get to go skiing in a t-shirt in Big Bear, but I got to drive quite a sweet collection of cars. (Hey look, it's a couple riding an ATV down my suburban street! Sorry, I got distracted.)

Anyway, I was treated to, among other things, a drive in what I had considered my "white whale", a water-cooled Porsche 911. Not only did I get to drive one, but it happened to be one of the top examples, a Carrera 4S cabriolet, with Porsche's new PDK double-clutch transmission. I had two days of bliss with this car, and loved every minute of it. It's been quite a while since I've driven my uncle's air-cooled '88 911 cab, but I can say with certainty that this is a whole different beast. The stability is second to none, with none of the fear of swing-tailed antics to which earlier cars were subject. The sounds were perfect, and the thrust is astounding from a 6-cylinder.
In terms of usability, well, you've gotta give up something for this kind of perfection. The interior feels perfectly spacious in front, but don't expect any real humans to ride in the back seat. And the dash layout of 911s is a bit behind the trends of the day, though the materials are top notch. The one not-so-pleasant surface inside was the bottoms of the doors, where Porsche, in an effort to prevent door scuffs--which are certainly common getting in and out of a car--has placed a very course carpeting. The "trunk", which is a relatively small compartment under the hood, actually seemed to be custom fitted for my expanded roller luggage bag, but could not have fit anything else. The one final gripe about the 911 was its lack of auto headlights. This car starts at $103,900, and it can't match this feature on my $30K VW? 

Still, this car was pure joy to drive, and now that I have, I guess I'll have to look for a new white whale. I'm thinking Aston Martin...

I was also able to enjoy some Audis, including the new A4 and A6. The A6 I drove was the new 3.0T model, which contrary to its name actually has a supercharged 3.0L V6. While I've given turbos a personal pass since I moved to (relatively) larger naturally aspirated engines, I've gotta say that I'm thinking my next car my have a supercharger. This engine was wonderfully powerful, and gave no hint of the inherent trade-offs of a turbo: namely the lag. Some people object to superchargers because of their whine, but I noticed none of that disagreeableness here.  I can't wait to drive the new S4 with this engine, which will be a phenomenal driver's car, lighter than the V8 S5, and nearly as powerful. 

The A4s I drove were nice, solid competitors in the segment, but nothing that remarkable. The one thing I will say is that Audi has done a great job tuning it's new clutch-operated automatic transmission to feel as though it still has a torque converter. I'm assuming it was created to improve fuel economy, but unlike my R32, which has a bit of a jerky, unnatural feel as it starts to roll when you take your foot off the brake, the A4s had an immediate, smooth take-off that hid the nature of the driveline connection.

I got to drive a new VW CC, as well, and while it's not really that special compared with the Passat, boy does it look good. Interestingly, people seem to comment a lot on the interior of this car. It actually has the same dash as the Passat, but that's a car that has largely flown under the radar in its latest iteration. Back when I was selling VWs, around 2002-03, Passats were hot, having just gotten an '01.5 refresh that added strategic chrome and new head and taillights to give the car an upscale air at a relatively small price premium. The current generation has not done as well, possibly as a result of VW's quality issues, but also I think because the look of the car is slightly awkward. On top of that, the new car starts at nearly $30K, which is pushing it for many people in the mid-size segment. 

The CC, however, aims at a slightly different class of competitors, which we in the biz call Near Luxury. It ranges from bigger cars like the Nissan Maxima, to smaller models from luxury brands, like the BMW 3-Series. With the CC's style, it has legitimate claim to compete within this segment, and since VW has actually been advertising the CC (something they haven't done for the Passat in quite a while) many of my friends have been commenting on how nice it is, especially inside. Well, the ultimate conclusion is that it took a lovelier outer shape to bring out the inherent inner beauty of the Passat. I think once the CC catches on, it'll take the Passat's slot nicely, and allow the upcoming domestically-produced Altima fighter to take over as VW's mainstream family sedan. 

Another VW I was finally able to drive is the Jetta TDI. While wholly unremarkable in most ways (aside from VW's normal elevated level of fit, finish and tuning), the engine was great. I truly hope that diesels take of in American passenger cars, since these motors will allow even automotive enthusiasts to get in on the act of saving energy. 

My drive in the Nissan 370Z was quite entertaining, what with the car's magical rev-matching software. It's exactly what an affordable sports car should be, and the interior materials left me quite impressed. I really don't have that much more to say about this car, other than to segue into my impressions of the new Hyundai Genesis coupe. 

Compared with the Z, the Genesis coupe clearly does not have the decades of pedigree behind it that Nissan offers. But the differences are in degree, not whole orders of magnitude. The steering, for example, did not have the right boost level for every situation, being too tight in parking lots. But overall, it's a phenomenal effort on Hyundai's part, and the V6 model starts at around 5 grand less than the Z. The biggest surprise for me was the engine, which sounded even better than the Z's. With plenty of pull, it's an amazing sports car value. I highly recommend taking a drive in one of these. I'm sure the dealer will be eager to let you. 

After missing the opportunity to drive the Jaguar XF last time I was in town, my wait paid off. Instead of the base model we had 6 months ago, I was treated to the supercharged variant, and it was a blast. While I'm only 28, and haven't driven too many Jags, I can confidently say that this is exactly what a Jaguar should be. While it's tuning was softer than a youngblood like myself would desire, the ride was fantastic, with an effortless sense of speed, even on twisty back roads. It presents the ultimate in comfort and stability, no matter what the road throws at it, and it's lightning fast. It's too bad the reliability of the car is sub-par, especially with all the bells and whistles they've thrown in. I could easily see this car being rendered undriveable due to a faulty, non-rising gear selector knob. 

Finally, I'll end with the car I had the pleasure to drive up the mountain for my ski trip: the BMW M3. There are no adequate words to describe this car, but to sum it up succinctly it was simply bad-ass. A monster flow of power and torque at all rev ranges gave this car a menacing presence that was matched by its power dome hood. And what a comfortable cruiser! My friend's girlfriend, who is not short, rode in the back the whole way (about 4 hours) with nary a complaint. For me, the driver's seat was a wonderful place to spend those hours, fending off fatigue easily. And BMW's new dual-clutch gearbox was a joy, an serious improvement over my DSG 1.0, especially in the down-shift department. 

The interior was a step up from the typical 3-Series boringness, with woven leather covering the dash, indicating this car's specialness, just like the engine-turned aluminum does in my car. I've always had a preference for Audis over BMWs because of design, but this latest M3 gives me pause. The fact is there's one factor which could actually push me over the top in selecting a Bimmer, and that's seat comfort. I realized on this trip that Audi and Porsche, two brands I've admired and desired for years, bolster their lower seatbacks far too aggressively for my tastes. The TT I drove last year was uncomfortable shortly into each trip I made with it, and this is exactly why. I know many drivers prefer more lower back support, but I like very little, and this has become a deal-breaker for me. Ironically, VWs have great seats for my taste, and so my planned brand upgrade may not happen as I'd hoped. The M3's seat was superlatively comfortable, and it'll be my standard for years to come. 

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