November 27th, 2005
OK, so the situation is this: I’m up for a promotion at work this year, and it’s looking very positive. This is the Big One for people in my job, and since we bought a new car for my wife recently, I’ve been thinking that the proper reward would be a new car for me, since it is completely wrong that my wife now drives something faster than I do. Seriously–I’m amazed the world hasn’t spun off its axis. Anyway, even if I don’t get one, it’s fun to think about.
Anyway, the first phase is determining what that basic “must have” requirements are, and thus who the players are. Here’s the must-haves:
• Manual transmission
• Fast, and by fast I mean 0-60 in 6.5 or less, or quarter-mile in 15.1 or less
• Reasonably accessible back seats, since I have to kids to shuffle in and out
• Stability control
• ABS with EBD (turns out this disqualifies next to nothing)
• Decent handling (purely subjective)
• Comfortable driver’s seat (also completely subjective)
• Side airbags
• Non-staggering price tag. I stagger at about $34K, I think.
• Average or better reliability (sorry, VW and Audi)
It turns out this generates a pretty short list:
• Infiniti G35 Sedan
• Mazda RX-8
• Mazda MazdaSPEED6
• Pontiac G6 GTP
• Volvo S40 T5 (the AWD T5 just barely makes the speed cut)
Notable absences include anything made by Subaru (can’t get stability control), the Nissan Maxima (same problem), anything made by Acura (no manual tranny), the Lexus IS (the 250 is too slow and the 350 doesn’t have a stick option), and the Dodge/Chrysler Charger/300 platform (again, no manual tranny). [Edit: Actually, that's a mistake, the Acuras are available with manuals. The TSX is too slow, though, but the TL should be on the list as it just squeaks in on price. I'll get it on there eventually.]
I have a bunch of the features and information summarized in an outline. Some entries I don’t yet know, or the information I can find is inconsistent, hence the question marks. And if there’s a car I seem to be missing, let me know!
Anyway, the MazdaSPEED6 is a brand new car and I can’t yet even find a dealer who has one. However, I’m currently driving a Mazda and I have a great rapport with my sales rep and I know he’ll hook me up with a drive the next time I’m in for routine maintenance. The early reviews (including this) of this car are that it’s blazing fast but that it doesn’t quite feel like a Mazda in terms of handling. Dunno what I’ll think of that until I get behind the wheel.
Because of the Mazda connection, I’ve driven the RX-8 a bunch of times. What a terrific car to drive. Great balance, superb handling, wicked fun 9000 RPM redline, etc. However, I do have concerns about the practicality of the car with the teensy trunk and the funky doors. Lately I’ve been trying to force myself to notice when I think I would have been bothered by either of those and it happens more often than I would have thought. We don’t really need a car for hauling anything serious here, since our other car is a midsize SUV (it’s a hybrid, settle down), but with soccer season the trunk gets pretty full of gear when I’m picking up the boys for soccer practice–not sure about that gaping 7.6 cubic feet of trunk space (in practice, it’s less, because the RX-8 doesn’t come with a spare, but the optional dinky one sucks up trunk space).
One last thing on the Mazdas: through my wife’s employer, I get “s-plan” pricing, meaning I can buy a Mazda for invoice. So that’s also a factor.
I was stunned to end up with a Pontiac on the list at all. I can’t rule it out on the basis of handling or seat comfort because I haven’t driven it yet. More precisely, I haven’t driven the GTP yet. I’ve rented a base G6 once and it was surprisingly non-sucky for a GM car, although the handling was somewhat vague and elastic. However, the GTP uses a different steering system, so there’s hope. I tried to drive one the other day but they didn’t have a stick and I just had no desire to putter around with a GM slushbox, I’ve driven enough rental cars to know that game.
So, the other two, the Volvo and the Infiniti. Well, I got the chance to drive both for the first time this holiday weekend. After being shut out at the Pontiac dealer, I was not going to leave the Volvo dealer without driving something. Of course, they also had no T5s with a stick (much less an AWD T5). Well, the auto in the Volvo is a tiptronic so I gave in and took the T5 for a spin. Heck, it didn’t even have the sport suspension. It’s the slowest car in the bunch and, well, it’s a Volvo. Talk about turning into your father… (my folks have owned many Volvos and my dad still drives one). My expectations were pretty low, given that it’s a Volvo and the handicap of no stick and the softer standard suspension. So was I ever surprised–I really liked it. It’s quick (though not overpoweringly so) and very nimble and responsive. Almost no turbo lag whatsoever. Both comfortable and classy on the inside. Pretty tight quarters in the back seat but I have little kids, so not a big deal. (Heck, even has available integrated booster seats!)
I could not believe I liked a Volvo this much. Later I think I figured it out–I really like my current car, a Mazda Protege5, except that it’s slow and missing some safety and creature features I’d like to have (like stability control). The Volvo S40 shares a lot with the Mazda3, which is the successor to my car. So driving the S40 was a lot like a faster and classier (and safer) version of my car. So I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that I liked it so much. On the other hand, a year ago I was lambasting this car for being a Mazda3 with double the price tag. Why not just get a Mazda3? Well, for one, no stability control, and for another, too slow. Now, when MazdaSPEED gets through with it, which I guess is supposed to happen in the next year or so, the speed thing should be addressed. I wonder about the stability control, though.
Then we went to the Infiniti dealer. They had a G35 sedan with a stick, so I took it for a spin. I was a smidge predisposed against this car because, well, because everyone already has one. They’re extremely popular here in Houston. After driving it, I can see why. It’s very nice, felt very big, and is wicked fast. 298 ponies and a slick 6-speed will do that. There was something about it I didn’t like, though. Perhaps it was a combination of the size and the sheer grandiosity of it. The car is very self-consciously a luxury car with a big engine. It was kind of hard to assess the handling because the test drive route was pre-designated (the sales guy rode with us, unlike with the Volvo, which we drove forever) and almost entirely straight with a couple of right turns at intersections, but I’m sure the handling is fine. It’s a hard car to criticize as it’s very well done and very fast. I guess what I didn’t like is the complete lack of subtlety–the Infiniti is very “in your face” about how fast and luxurious it is. It’s clearly a car designed to impress. It seems to be just short of outright having a sign that says “look at how successful I am!” Except, of course, that on a typical drive home from work I see a half-dozen of them, so it’s success without distinction. Or something like that. Perhaps I’m just not an Infiniti kind of guy. I did just about fall over laughing with the last thing the sales guy said to me: “You deserve it.” Here’s someone who sells a luxury item, all right…
If the Pontiac is indeed in its soul a GM car (though the G6 is based on the Saab 9-3 platform)–which I’m not ready to assume until I actually drive it–and that I can’t convince myself that I want to deal with the impracticality of the RX-8, then it would come down to what I think of driving the killer-turbo’d Mazda and how it compares to the S40. I know the Mazda will be way faster, but other than that, we’ll see…