The Great Used Car Adventure of 2016, Episode 3
My oldest son took a job in the Cleveland suburbs last year and moved to an apartment in Streetsboro, where there is one of those “automall” commercial developments which puts five or six dealerships on one street all within sight of one another. We started at one end and worked our way to the other, searching for cars with entertaining driving dynamics and manual transmissions. I found two that day which were worth trying on for size.
The VW dealer had a black four-door GTI Mark VI on offer. The Mark VI is an evolution of the Mark V that I was replacing. Different grille, better sound system, a few minor upgrades and rearrangements here and there, but otherwise it was the same car: same smooth shifter and clutch, same great steering feel, same nice fat VW torque curve. Driving it was, as I told the salesman, “like going home again.” Asking price. a little north of $13k. So far, so good.
The Honda store just down the road had a shiny red certified pre-owned 2012 Civic Si sedan for which they wanted $17k. I’ve never particularly liked the styling on this generation of Civic because of the way the A-pillars meet the front quarter panels, but that was no deal-breaker. Inside was an electronic instrument suite in the style of something from the set of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—easy to read, fun to watch, and oh so twenty-minutes-into-the-future.
As for how it drove, the handling was on a par with the GTI, and the clutch and shifter were silky smooth. Honda engines don’t develop peak torque as far down in the low-rev ranges as VW’s do, so merging into freeway traffic requires dropping down a gear or two to get the tachometer up over four grand, while a GTI could just buzz along in sixth in the same circumstance. On the other hand, once the Honda’s tach needle gets up to where the VTEC (variable valve timing) cuts in, the power surge feels like there’s a Space Shuttle Main Engine bolted to the rear bumper.
I must also take a moment to give a shout-out to the salesman, Todd, who was the best car salesman I’ve ever taken a drive with, no contest. He knew everything about the Si, and I mean everything–I’d swear he knew it better than the engineers who designed it!
I came away from the day with the Civic as my first choice between the two, though that’s no knock on the VW by any means. Given that the GTI was significantly cheaper, I deferred a final decision until I consulted the Finance Director (my wife) when I got home that evening. If we could afford the Si, that’s what I’d get; otherwise, the Mark VI GTI.
That evening, my wife
crushed my dream of playing astronaut in the Civic Si beneath her mailed fist let me know that, between one thing and another, the budget for my new ride could not exceed $10,000, and I needed to adjust my expectations accordingly. Returning to the search engines, I took note of a few possibilities that I could check out on my way home after work.
The first was a 2009 Mini Cooper listed for a bit under $8,000 at a small independent lot in Akron. It was painted a proper British Racing Green with black hood stripes, featured a panoramic sunroof, and was in excellent cosmetic condition.
I’d never driven a Mini before, and I am happy to report that they are as much fun to tool around in as they are reputed to be. Light, quick, nimble, responsive, great tactile feedback from the steering wheel, good ergonomics (even though the center-mounted speedometer would take some getting used to), so much doggone fun to play with that you could forgive the less-than-supple ride on rough pavement. I would have been quite happy to take it home with me, but the missus exercised her veto power because she could not get comfortable sitting in it.
Next came a 2008 BMW 328xi, on the lot at a used luxury car brokerage, dark green with a beige interior, 140-some thousand on the odometer, a bit over nine grand on the price tag.
This was my first experience piloting a BMW. “Ultimate driving machine?” I don’t know whether you can truly call it “ultimate,” but it’s petty doggone good. Classy and comfortable interior, excellent instrument panel, responsive handling, good steering feel, sprightly acceleration, and the all-wheel drive would be nice to have in the winter. The clutch and shifter were, well, different from what I was used to. Not different in a bad way, just different enough that it would take me a while to get used to them.
There were other things about it that would take getting used to. The driver’s seat, comfortable, well-bolstered and power-adjustable in ways beyond my wildest imaginings of how a seat could be adjusted, was saddled with an overengineered and counterintuitive control interface, and I never did figure out how to get it positioned properly. But that was a minor complaint, and I came away very favorably inclined toward the Bimmer.
I mentioned the test drive on Facebook, and a couple of my law school classmates with previous BMW ownership experience went to some lengths to talk me out of buying it, arguing that while BMWs were indeed delightful to drive, one with that kind of mileage would have significant reliability problems and could easily become a private annuity for my mechanic. I didn’t take it off the list, but I did decide to keep looking.
A local Mazda dealer was listing a 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid for about $7,800, with a clean Carfax report and under 100,000 miles on it. My first impression of it was that someone at Honda really wanted you to think “CRX” when you looked at it. The basic shape and major styling cues were right off the 1988-91 second generation CRX. Some of the character lines are overstated and too sharply tapered, but that’s true of a lot of modern cars. Inside was another of Honda’s nifty Deep Space Nine electronic instrument panels.
The buff books and their test instruments say that a CR-Z with a stick takes about nine and a half seconds to get from zero to sixty. That may be so, but the car feels zippier than that, thanks to the electric motor’s high torque at low RPMs. The clutch and shifter were up to Honda’s usual standards. The gas mileage is, of course, insanely good.
The biggest downside was the steering gear. There was no road feel. None at all. Total sensory deprivation. The steering on my father’s 1976 Ford LTD had more tactile feedback. That’s perhaps to be expected in a two-ton Detroit land barge that corners like a drunken hippo on roller skates, but it drains a lot of the fun out of a car that is allegedly designed for charging down squiggly roads at extralegal velocities. At the end of the day, that, and the fact that it only had two seats, weighed against it, but not quite enough to take it off the list.
We were getting to the end of September by this time, and the quest for new wheels was hitting another snag–the insurance company’s appraiser had inspected the GTI a couple of days after the accident, and rendered his report within a week, but the insurance company had yet to issue me a check, and even after several emails and phone conversations, I had no clue when the money would arrive. The days dragged on, and the 328 and CRX were sold to other buyers, and the search continued. I’ll tell that chapter of the story next time, in Episode 4.
–Mike (Cookie the Dog’s Owner)