Category Archives: My Next Car

Respect The (Brown) Van

My growing brood of grease monkeys brings me no shortage of joy (and gray hairs), but they also take up an alarming amount of space.  For example, despite my wife’s 2009 GMC Acadia nominally being a seven passenger vehicle, the addition of three children in car seats meant that the two larger kids were squished in the third row.  Besides being uncomfortable, it was potentially dangerous.  The lovely Mrs. Magicboltbox and I finally decided it was time to fully embrace 30-something parenthood and get a minivan.

Three years ago, we settled on a low-optioned Acadia for various timing and financing reasons, and she never let me forget that it didn’t have a sunroof, a power tailgate, or the chrome trim she preferred.  In exchange for accepting a mommy-mobile, she insisted on the aforementioned sunroof and power liftgate, as well as power sliding doors.  No problem – I wouldn’t mind those options as well.

When shopping for minivans, it quickly becomes apparent that your choices are far more limited than they used to be.  GM and Ford have both discontinued their minvan offerings (replacing them with the Lambda quadruplets and the Explorer/Flex, respectively).  None of the Europeans offer vans in the US (with the exception of the VW Routan, a poorly rebadged Dodge Caravan), so the only options are Toyota’s Sienna (I still want to call it a Previa), the Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, and the Chrysler Caravan/Town & Country siblings.  We rather quickly decided on the Odyssey, based on styling, available options, convenience features, and price.  The only real stumbling block was color.

The wife preferred something in a Navy Blue, but the “Celestial Blue” that Honda offers on the Odyssey was deemed too… elderly:

CB_16

After deciding the “Polished Metal Metallic” took on too many different hues depending on the angle and time of day, I managed to convince my wife that – as the folks at the BCAS already know – brown is in.  Brown is beautiful.  Brown is sexy.  So we got the Smoky Topaz Metallic (brown) with Truffle (brown) interior.

Seen here in its natural habitat

Seen here in its natural habitat

So far, we both agree its the best new car we could have purchased, and I actually don’t mind driving it.  The kids love it, my back loves not having to wrangle the kids into the third row, and most importantly, the lovely Mrs. loves it too.  And it just wouldn’t be as cool if it weren’t brown.

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My New Car

It’s been a little quiet around here, what with an addition to the family and an extraordinarily busy summer keeping me out of the garage for the past few months.  One of the things that derailed my transmission installation was a search for a new daily driver.  The Caddy is generally rust-free, but it’s only a matter of time before a decade-plus of Ohio winters takes its toll, and a number of minor but annoying mechanical issues persuaded me to sell it while it still has some value; I felt like if I didn’t get rid of it soon, I might as well continue to drive it until it completely fell apart around me.

So for the past several months, I’d been scouring Craigslist, Autotrader, and other outlets for cars that fit my criteria.  Of course, the addition of a third child into my household altered those criteria a bit, as I would now need something capable of holding three child seats for the next few years.  I’d basically narrowed it down to the Pontiac G8 and the Dodge Magnum, with the G8 by far the primary choice.  Last week, after months of searching, calling dealers, advice from friends, and suffering through negotiations, I brought home this Sport Red Metallic ’09 G8 GT.

I’ll summarize the purchase process like this: there’s a reason people hate buying cars.  I was unfairly lowballed on my trade-in, so I’m going to sell the Caddy myself.  The G8 had a distinct pull to the right that the dealer fought hard to avoid fixing.  They gave me the car with less than 1/4 tank of gas – something I didn’t notice because I left the dealership as they were closing and they literally locked the doors behind me.  But enough about that experience.

I’ll summarize the first week of ownership like this: I freaking love this car.  It’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever owned but comfortable and pleasant to drive, it’s good-looking and aggressively styled without being ostentatious, and it sounds so good I find myself turning down the radio so I can hear the engine better.  The trunk is huge, big enough for my golf clubs, a load of groceries, and a small stroller all at once, and the backseat is plenty wide enough for the kids.  Speaking of which: my oldest daughter keeps exhorting me to drive faster, so if I get a ticket I’m blaming her.

I wasn’t sure about the color at first, but it’s really grown on me.  The car has the optional Sport package, the main difference being the 19″ machine-faced wheels and stickier tires (which will likely necessitate snowshoes in the winter – don’t tell my wife).  I’ve yet to really open it up, but it’s alarmingly quick, stops on a dime, corners unbelievably flatly for a car its size, and has so far been responsible for more grins and giggles in a week than the Caddy was for 5 years.

One of the fun things about having a new car (at least for a geek like me) is figuring out all the little quirks and design details that are incorporated.  For example, there’s a nifty window on the rear shelf that allows the trunk light to pass through so you know if the trunk lid is ajar.  The headlight switch pulls out to activate the fog lamps, which to my hydrocarbon-addled brain feels like an homage to the pull-out switches on classic cars.

There are a few flaws, of course.  The stereo and HVAC are controlled by a large LCD screen, which will cost a fortune when it breaks and is sometimes hard to read in direct sunlight.  Being a used car, it has some scratches and curb marks, but maybe that will make me less annoyed when I inevitably scratch it.  It remains to be seen how it will handle the winter, but I’ve spent most of my life in rear-wheel-drive cars and I’ve survived this long.

As my jealous father-in-law pointed out, this is like buying a 1968 GTO in 1970 – if you listen to the automotive press, we are living through the second (or third) coming of the muscle car, and I actually own one when (relatively) new.  I still love the Tempest, and like I keep saying, there’s a certain something that classic cars have and modern ones don’t, but suddenly the old car has some competition for seat time.


My Next Car – MazdaSpeed 3

I’ve taken a bit of a break from daydreaming about new cars, at least until recently.  Driving home one day last week, I was intrigued by one of these:

The 2007-current Mazdaspeed 3 is the souped-up version of the company’s small wagon, which is a car I’ve liked since it was originally introduced as the 2001 Protege5.  It’s been a long time since I’ve owned something that could be described as “nimble,” and adding a useful wagon shape, a 263 HP turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission only sweetens the pot.  The main problem, however, is in my own head.

I’ve been a lifelong defender of the domestic auto industry, even as it’s become harder to square that admittedly silly and jingoistic position with my increasingly cosmopolitan automotive interests – if you had told 19-year-old me that I would one day admire vintage BMWs and contemplate buying a Mazda as a daily driver, I would have have laughed in your face.  I managed to keep my wife from looking too hard at the Japanese and Korean options when we bought her current vehicle, although to be fair that was during the worst of the Big 3’s troubles and it felt like some sort of patriotic duty to buy an American car.  As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of an “American” car is murky, but I would still feel like a hypocrite if I ran out and bought one of these after giving her such a hard time.

Having said that, there are a few reasons that I’m using to try to get past my anti-import bias:

  • I’m buying used.  Any money I spend on this car goes toward the local dealer (or private owner), not the manufacturer.
  • Mazda isn’t the soul-crushing corporate behemoth that Toyota and VW have become (a personal assertion that might be biased and ridiculous, but I stand by it).
  • There isn’t a domestic option in this segment – very few manufacturers offer sporty wagons.  Really, the only thing close is the Subaru WRX wagon, and those are a little too “boy-racer” for my tastes.
  • Rather than make a belabored argument that Mazda of the past decade is analogous the Pontiac of the 1960s, in that it is a brand that caters to a younger, more enthusiast-minded buyer and seems willing to take risks that few automakers would, I’ll just say this – between the subject of this post, the Miata (the best pseudo track car you can buy), the curvaciously beautiful RX-7 (quite possibly the prettiest car of the 90’s), the illogical RX-8 (the last gasp of the fuel-thirsty yet lightweight and free-revving Wankel rotary engine in a suicide-doored slotcar), and the 5 (the closest thing to a cool minivan), Mazda offers by far the most driver-friendly lineup of cars out there.

Anyway, on to the car.  Besides my own pathos, there are a few legitimate issues with these cars:

  • Since the cars are turbocharged and aggressively tuned from the factory, the gas mileage isn’t great for a car this size (18/26), but my short commute means that’s not much of an issue, and it would still be a increase over my current mileage in the Caddy.
  • The bigger issue with regard to gas is the premium fuel requirement.  I’m kind of cheap, so having to push that “91” button would twist the knife every time.
  • Mazda provided very short-sidewall performance tires, so I’d likely want to buy winter tires.
  • As much as I think I want a small car, I’d have to see how well a stroller and a set of golf clubs fit in the back.
  • I’d be limited to the 2007-09 models, since Mazda has decided to attach a gaudy hood scoop and inflict a Chelsea smile on the newer cars:

At the end of the day, I find myself as excited by the prospect of one of these cars as I do the G8 and CTS-V, both of which are still out of my price range at this point.  Outdated notions of patriotism be damned, I just might end up a Mazda owner.


My Next Car – Saab 9-fillintheblank

Despite my earlier statement that I would have a hard time buying a foreign car (because it goes against years of my own “buy American” rhetoric, despite knowing that that is fairly meaningless) there are a number of Saabs I would consider.  This is kind of cheating, since GM owned Saab during the years that I would be looking at.  Anyway, there are two main choices.

The 9-2X is commonly referred to as the “Saabaru,” since it is a rebadged Subaru WRX.  Personally, I much prefer the Saab styling, and being a WRX, it’s practically a rally car for the street.  It’s a little small, but in all actuality the cars I’ve mentioned in this space before are larger than I really need; I rarely have passengers other than small children, and the biggest thing I regularly toss in the trunk is a golf bag (my wife’s Acadia and our small utility trailer have taken over all Christmas tree and junkyard parts hauling duties).  They were only built from 2005-06 and are a little hard to find, but many have manual transmissions and are generally reliable.

The Saab 9-3 is their mid-size model, easily found with relatively low miles and a stick shift, and were available in an attractive wagon version.  I would search for an example with the turbocharged V6 and 6 speed, of course.

These probably fall in the same category as the Saturn I talked about earlier, in that they wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice – but given a lower price threshold, I could easily see myself tossing one of those 9-2x’s around a corner or hauling the kids around in a 9-3 wagon.  I’ve never been one to lust after a European car, although I understand the appeal.  These cars seem like the best way to get that feeling without forking over the big bucks for a BMW.


My Next Car – Last Hurrah of the W-Body

I’m not actually sure how seriously I would consider a 2006-09 Impala SS, 2005-08 Grand Prix GXP, or 2004-05 Bonneville GXP for my next purchase.  These were the last high-performance variants of GM’s “W” chassis, which dates back to 1997 (and originally debuted in 1988).  In a perverse sense, these cars are interesting because they represent the (hopefully) last vestiges of the old, “bad” GM – basic platforms prostituted and copied to within an inch of their lives in an attempt to amortize tooling costs and maximize profitability, but in the process destroying any real autonomy or uniqueness between GM’s divisions.  See this for a breakdown of the various cars GM built on the W-body frame.

The Impala is the last car still built on this chassis, and is the roomiest and most comfortable of the three.  The SS model is powered by a front-wheel-drive version of GM’s 5.3L LS V8, which is basically the same engine in most GM pickups.  Straight-line acceleration is great and GM had 20 years to perfect the suspension design, so these relatively large cars handle quite well, especially when equipped with higher-rate springs and shocks on the performance models.  The Impala also benefits from a more restrained (if a little sterile) interior treatment, making it feel quite roomy.  The Grand Prix GXP also comes with the 5.3L V8 and is more aggressively styled, although the “cockpit” style dashboard, angled toward the driver in an attempt to emulate the groundbreaking 1969 Grand Prix, leads to a claustrophobic feeling from the driver’s seat.  The Bonneville GXP actually utilizes the same 4.6L Northstar V8 as my current Cadillac DTS, so I’m familiar with this great (albeit older) engine design.  It is also afflicted with the same closed-in dashboard effect and Pontiac’s desire to fill the dash with ovoid tchotchkes in an attempt to differentiate itself from other brands.  Since these cars typically represent the top of their respective model lines, used cars are usually well-equipped and cared for.  And since GM churned out a couple billion of them in an attempt to stave off their own demise, low-mileage examples are easily found.

At the end of the day, these cars are hampered by their older 4-speed automatic transmissions, dated styling, and the stench of flop sweat that emanates from GM’s flailing attempts to keep afloat at the end of the last decade.  However, they are relatively cheap, durable, great in the winter, and reasonably fast.  They have excellent interior room and would make a perfectly suitable daily driver with enough oomph to make freeway onramps and country roads fun.  If my primary choices aren’t viable when I actually sit down to buy a new car, I could do worse than one of these three.  Faint, if damning, praise, but that about sums up the domestic auto industry during this period.


My Next Car – Saturn Ion Redline

I know what you’re thinking – a Saturn, really?  But despite the brand’s reputation, these souped-up commuter cars are reliable and economical, the supercharged Ecotec 4 cylinder revs like crazy and will hang with any WRX or Civic Si, and the chassis is well-sorted and handles great.  The typical criticisms of these cars are the cheap, plasticky interior, the large, uneven panel gaps (a necessary evil when dealing with plastic fenders and doors), and the fact that it’s a Saturn.  I don’t really care about any of those things – it’s quick and handles sharply, so I can live with hard gray interior finishes and wonky fenders.  I do have a problem with the factory spoilers on these cars, however.  I don’t need another place to iron my clothes or store canned goods, so that shelf would have to come off the trunk if I bought one.

Pros:

  • The suicide door setup in the rear allows unfettered access to the back seats, which would be great for getting kids in and out of this rather small car.
  • Cheap, if not readily available.  Clean examples can be found for under $8000 if you look hard enough.
  • 5-speed manual transmission is common, and the aforementioned supercharged engine is well-built and reportedly great to drive.

Cons:

  • Styling is questionable to the point of being tacky.  I’m not a “Fast and Furious” type of guy.
  • Center-mounted gauge cluster is idiotic and distracting.
  • Factory thin-sidewall tires are useless in the winter; snow tires would be a necessary added expense.

Overall, the Ion Redline hits all the right notes – cheap, four-door, stick shift, quick and fun to drive, and there’s the novelty factor of a car from a dead brand.  If you can get past the Saturn stigma (which I can), it’s a great car for the value.  It’s not a rip-snorting muscle car like the G8 or Magnum, and its certainly not a luxury car like the CTS-V, but it might actually fit my needs perfectly.


My Next Car – Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon

I’ve owned two trucks (although the first was a brief and forgettable experiment in buying auction vehicles), and the utility of having a vehicle you can throw greasy parts or a load of mulch in without worrying about it is alluring.  The problem with modern pickups, aside from the gas mileage, is that they are just too big for weekend warrior duty.  I’ve sat in new trucks from GM, Ford, and Dodge, and all of them felt unwieldy and cavernous.  I only really need a truck about once a month in the summer, and driving around in something that could fit six construction workers and pull down the Empire State building, while fun in theory, would get tedious after a while.  The once-flourishing small truck market has pretty much dried up, because manufacturers realized that it isn’t much cheaper to build smaller trucks and most truck buyers are easily wowed by horsepower and payload ratings they will likely never need.

The Chevrolet Colorado and its twin, the GMC Canyon, replaced the old S-10 pickup in 2004.  While generally out-everythinged by the Toyota Tacoma, these trucks are durable, handle surprisingly well, and would fit my needs perfectly.  They are available with a roomy crew cab and manual transmission, although the stick is understandably rare.  Most are equipped with the “power of a 4 cylinder with the economy of a 6” inline 5 cylinder engine, although V8 models also exist.

Pros:

  • Readily available and prices are cheap.  There are over 100 low-mileage crew cabs in my area for under 15k.
  • Useful without being the size of a small apartment.
  • I’ve never driven one, but they are supposedly very car-like in their handling.  Which is good considering the trucks I have driven felt like, well, a truck.
  • Attractive when compared to the competition.

Cons:

  • Notice I said “attractive when compared to the competition.”  These things aren’t going to win any beauty contests.
  • It’s still a truck, and I’d really rather have a car.
  • Less-than-stellar crash ratings.

Overall, these might be the best of the “small” pickups available, considering the Tacoma has bloated to the size of most older full-size trucks.  And while the utility of a truck is appealing, like most Americans, I don’t really NEED one.  I might be swayed after driving one, but I think I’d really rather have a G8 or CTS-V and hang a trailer off the back.