New Digs

I have recently purchased a 2014 Subaru BRZ. Some of you may be surprised by this, especially given that I didn’t exactly review the BRZ favorably when I drove one last year. Well, dear readers, I have (obviously) changed my tune, and I can explain why.


I didn’t understand the BRZ the first time I drove it. I had never really driven a small sports coupe; the hottest car I had ever driven had been my own Mazdaspeed3 (which is not a coupe), or possibly my dad’s 2004 Corvette (which is not small). And the BRZ basically just put me in mind of a shrunken, less practical version of the Mazdaspeed3. It was very Japanese inside: lots of exciting orange LEDs, lots of shiny plastic trim to break and squeak and rattle as the miles rack up. The story seemed a bit too familiar for my taste; so, I was put off.


But time marched on, and I test-drove more cars. Months later, I drove the FR-S, and by the time I drove that car, the Toybaru twins had begun to worm themselves into my heart. The sound of the engine, the way the car looked, and even the interior–it had all grown on me. So I convinced myself that the FR-S was just somehow better than its Subaru counterpart, which I had remembered being so skeptical about.

But all the pieces really fell into place after I drove a 2007 Porsche Cayman S this spring. As I hustled that car over the broken pavement of downtown Denver, and subsequently onto the interstate at Warp Factor 7, it hit me: the Cayman is the best car I’ve ever driven, in so many dimensions, and the BRZ is trying really hard to be a Cayman. That happy little horizontally-opposed mill, that center-mounted tach, the nice steering wheel, and all the all the crazy lightness and stiffness and chassis balance–it all adds up to a pretty decent Cayman impersonation.


And the BRZ isn’t quite the Porsche that it dreams it is. But it’s maybe 70% as good as a Cayman, and being 7/10ths of a perfect car is still damn good. And you can feel that it tries to live up to its German benchmark. That’s what gets me, every time I drive it: it’s endearing the way it wants to be a great driver’s car. It wants you to egg it on. It’s almost like a dog that really wants you to throw a tennis ball for it. I can just hear it every time that little boxer-four clatters up the RPM range: “Come on! Come on! Throw the ball! I’m a Japanese Porsche! I am! I am!”

And it…isn’t. But it’s a hell of a car anyway. And I love how hard it strives to be great. So, as long as the head gaskets aren’t destined for multiple failures, I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.





Quick Spin: 2013 Scion FR-S

I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t expecting much from the Scion-branded version of the Toyobaru. Why not, you may ask? Well, I was quite disappointed by its Subaru counterpart.  Since the Scion is effectively the same car as the Subaru, but with different badges and a (slightly) different interior, I had no reason to expect that the Scion would be measurably better than the Subaru. My worry was compounded by the fact that the FR-S is positioned as the cheaper, younger sibling of the BRZ; did I really expect it to have a nicer interior, or make a nicer noise, or ride more smoothly than its more expensive brother? I wasn’t hopeful. Well, I don’t mean to spoil the review, but folks: I was wrong.

This is the actual car I drove--and I think it looks great in black. (Source:

This is the actual car I drove–and I think it looks great in black. (Source:

Exterior: 8/10

Not a single fake vent in sight!

Nary a fake vent in sight!

The exterior of this car scores one point higher than the Subaru for me because, joy of joys, THERE ARE NO FAKE VENTS ON THIS CAR! That makes the exterior a hundred times better in my book–it’s just more honest design. As it turns out, the more honest design of the FR-S is a bit of a pervasive theme in this review, so keep an eye out for other areas where I find that to be the case. Otherwise, it’s basically the same as the BRZ–a quite well-proportioned sporty 2+2 coupe that vaguely recalls the Toyota 2000GT. There is one notable difference between the two exteriors, and that is in the front fascias and the headlights. The BRZ has a strange sort of “mouthguard”-looking thing covering the top half of its grille (which is shaped like a trapezoid), whereas the FR-S’s hexagonal grille has a subtler piece of plastic in its upper half. The FR-S also has two sort of fang-like (or dagmar-like, if you prefer) protrusions underneath the grille, whereas the BRZ’s front end lacks these, favoring a more rounded edge in profile. Neither one is really more attractive than the other to me; both exteriors excite the eye, but not to the point of overstimulation. The BRZ also gets standard LED running lights (which look really snazzy), whereas the FR-S has to make do with halogens, no matter what trim level you select. This is a bit of a bummer, but I think that even the halogens look great on this taut, sinewy sheetmetal.

The only thing that spoils my impression of this car’s exterior (apart from the lack of the Subie’s LED running lights) is the Scion badges. I don’t think of myself as a brand-snob, but it will take a little while before I’m willing to mentally disassociate Scion from all of those dreadful, boxy economobiles they’ve been producing since their inception. Still, if any car has a chance of making me appreciate the Scion badge, it’s a Toyobaru.

The car I drove came with a tasteful little spoiler on the edge of the trunk. I didn’t expect to like this very much (generally I find spoilers on road cars to be fairly excessive), but it was actually very slick in person.

The little deck spoiler looks really nice on this car, and very subtly enhances the aggressive look of the car. (Source:

The little deck spoiler looks really nice on this car, and very subtly enhances the aggressive look of the car. (Source:

Interior: 7/10

As you can see, there's not too much difference between this cabin and the BRZ's--notable changes include the head unit and the HVAC switchgear.

As you can see, there’s not too much difference between this cabin and the BRZ’s–notable changes include the head unit and the HVAC switchgear. (Source:

This interior is broadly the same as the BRZ’s, so you can check out my BRZ review for an overview of what it’s like to sit in this car. But the little differences between this interior and the Subaru’s interior were surprisingly significant; in total, I ended up awarding this car an extra two points for its improved cabin. Let me explain why.

The FR-S shares many common components with the BRZ–and this is both good and bad. For instance, they both have the same fabulous steering wheel, the same expensive-feeling handbrake, the same pedalbox, which is nicely oriented for heel-toe, and the same intuitive Toyota switchgear (for turn-signals and cruise-control). On the other hand, they both share the same gear knob, which is a bit tragic–it looks and feels cheaper than it should, even on an entry-level car. Moreover, much like the BRZ, this car lacks a center armrest. I still don’t know who thought that was a good idea.

What struck me as I was driving this Scion–something I forgot to mention in my BRZ review–is how small this car feels inside. It’s low to the ground, and quarters are close between driver and passenger. It’s not nearly as close as in, say, a Lotus Elise, but it is cozy in this car. When I drove the BRZ, I interpreted this feeling as “suffocating;” but, for reasons I cannot explain, I really did feel like the FR-S was a pleasantly snug fit rather than a claustrophobic little car. The two cabins really don’t differ much at all; perhaps the interior has simply grown on me.

Nice seats--I truly adore them. They are well-bolstered and hug you in the corners, but they are also remarkably comfortable.

Nice seats–I truly adore them. They are well-bolstered and hug you in the corners, but they are also remarkably comfortable.

The seats on this car are different than the ones you get in a BRZ–all-cloth, rather than Alacantara with leather bolsters. I can’t say that I minded, honestly. They hug the body quite well, and are also remarkably comfortable due to some great cushioning in the very middle of the seat. I could see taking a road trip in these seats and being perfectly happy about it [Ed.: This is based entirely on a hypothetical scenario, and I’ve only ever had 10 or 20 minutes of seat time in this car, so take this with a grain of salt].

One or two small differences that I noticed: I really like that the Scion’s tach is set against a white background, as opposed to the black background behind all of the Subaru’s IP gauges. Moreover, I like the font on the Scion’s IP better. It feels just the slightest bit more mature than the BRZ’s Voltron-looking font does (to my eyes). I’d also like to state for the record that the switches to turn off traction control and engage Sport Mode may look a little flimsy, but they feel very positive and solid to the touch. Oh, and quite happily, the gearknob doesn’t rattle around in its housing like it did in the BRZ; I expect this is due to a recent service bulletin which called for the replacement of the shift bushings in all Toyobarus.

The differences that really caused me to bump this score up two notches are small but important. First of all, this interior feels a lot more honest than the BRZ’s does. The materials and surfaces are all a little bit simpler than the ones in the Subie (because the FR-S is ostensibly the cheaper of the two variants), and the overall effect of this is that the car’s interior feels a lot less…fiddly. If that didn’t make sense to you, then let me see if I can explain anecdotally: the FR-S and the BRZ are both budget sports cars; the price difference between them is not so great that they really appeal to different segments of buyers. But the BRZ is festooned with a mess of Subaru “luxury” equipment: partial leather, climate control knobs with little screens on them, and a truly dreadful integrated stereo head unit and nav screen. All of these things complicate the design of the car’s interior with added “features,” but they’re not high-quality additions, so the inside of the BRZ ends up feeling like a failed attempt to grasp at a luxury/high-tech interior.

The FR-S interior, on the other hand, acknowledges the limitations of its selling price, and because of this, the simple materials and controls come by their simplicity much more honestly. The HVAC knobs in the FR-S are chunky plastic things that don’t purport to tell you exactly how many degrees your side of the car will be set at (Good lord! It was set at 73, but I will positively wilt with the thermostat set even a degree above 72!); it’s a hot-to-cold gradient, with fan speeds ranging from 0-4, and all of the digital gimmickery is left aside. Masterful. And–hold onto your hats–the stereo actually works. More on this later.

In this, among other ways, the FR-S is a bit like using stock Android after having tried a really cumbersome corporate skin (like something from LG, or HTC Sense). You realize that all of the so-called “features” that the skin offered were really just getting in the way of using the device.

Still, the FR-S’s interior is far from perfect. I wish for a better-looking and better-feeling gearknob, and for a center armrest; and, of course, only time will tell if the trim on this car will shake itself to pieces, as I predicted in my BRZ review. And the backseat is still a joke. But the FR-S feels like a far more pleasant place to be than the BRZ ever did. Again, I chalk this up to a combination of my becoming accustomed to the interior, as well as a greater degree of honesty in the use of interior materials.

Ride: 6/10

I had read that the FR-S ride was tuned differently from the BRZ’s. That difference is said to be a subtle one, but during this test-drive, I had very few complaints about the ride on this car. Some bumps were worse than others, but on the whole, my experience of this car’s ride was nowhere near as uncomfortable as my memory of the BRZ led me to expect. The ride was firm, to be sure, but not jerky or painful. I would say that it was well-balanced, leaning decisively toward the sporty side of the equation, and at both city and highway speeds, I found the ride to be a non-issue.

After some reflection, I think I finally understand the Toyobaru’s ride: it really is quite cleverly tuned. Over cracked pavement, potholes, and uneven pavement, the chassis and suspension filter out most of the unpleasantness. You can hear and feel the car’s suspension and chassis reacting to the impact of the broken surface, but you, as an occupant, aren’t actually impacted very much by these bumps.

My negative experience in the BRZ, I have discovered, is a result of the cars’ inability to cope with regularly undulating pavement–the sort where you hit lots of very small pavement seams, all in a row. The suspension doesn’t crash around over these–well, not exactly, anyway. It jiggles and jounces you up and down at high frequency, so that it almost feels like you’re vibrating. As a result, there are sections of I-70 in midwestern states which I can vividly imagine as absolute hell in a Toyobaru; however, I can also imagine that, most of the time (i.e., if you’re not on a cross-country roadtrip and experiencing this jiggling), the ride would be no problem at all.

Handling: 10/10

This car handles exactly as well as the BRZ did, so I won’t expand on the section I wrote for that car too much, except to say that I took the FR-S on a slightly different route–one where I could put it through some esses. Its performance was nothing short of breathtaking, and even at (relatively) low speeds, I was thunderstruck by the way this car felt; I honestly don’t remember the last time I had this much fun driving. I was grinning like an idiot for the entire duration of the test drive.

Brakes: 9/10

I’m actually knocking a point off of the brakes as compared with the score I gave on the BRZ. The FR-S’s brake pedal felt a little numb to me as compared with the BRZ’s. Perhaps this would change over time–the car I drove had less than a hundred miles on it, so perhaps the calipers, discs, and/or pads were not yet “broken in.” Once I got past this feeling, though, braking performance was admirably progressive and firm.

Gearbox: 9/10

Refer directly to the BRZ review for this section: my opinion is the same for this car is it was for the other Toyobaru. The gearbox is a tiny slice of heaven: snicky, slick, and very mechanical-feeling.

One thing I noticed on this test drive that I hadn’t gotten the chance to try out on the BRZ is that Reverse gear is only accessible by pulling up on the shift boot collar. Will people please stop doing this?! The right way to unlock that gate is to push down on the gearstick, people. Still, it’s easier to get at this car’s Reverse-gate-unlocker-collar than it is on the Focus ST‘s transmission.

I also felt a lot more at ease with the clutch on this car during this test drive. The engagement point is definitely a bit high, but the fact that I’ve acclimated to it over the course of a measly two test drives is proof that it is very possible to acclimate to it. For this reason I’ve bumped up the score by one point: once you get used to that clutch, the whole experience is incredibly immersive.

Acceleration: 8/10

Much as with the gearbox, my opinion of this car’s acceleration hasn’t budged. I got the opportunity to wring out the FR-S a little bit on this test drive, and even with myself and the salesman in the cockpit, it went like hell. The automotive cliche that this car makes 60mph feel like 100mph is totally true–even slight acceleration at low speeds is an exhilarating experience. You simply must drive this lightweight gem of a car–not even the brawny turbocharged 2.3L straight-4 in my old Mazdaspeed3 could compare to this engine for sheer fun, and that’s saying something. If 60mph feels like 100mph, I can only imagine that 90mph must feel like Mach 7.

Sound: 7/10

My current theory is that there was something wrong with the engine of the BRZ I drove (misfire? very small rocks in the gas line?), or that Subaru somehow tuned or symposed their engine to have more of their signature flat-4 clatter, because the sound produced by the FR-S is completely different, to my ear. Granted, the FR-S I sampled was optioned with the TRD exhaust package, but I’m pretty sure that just has to do with the shape of the exhaust pipe tips, and has no effect on the actual flow or sound of the exhaust system. [Ed.: I looked into this and the TRD catback exhaust is certainly at least partially responsible for the difference–it’s tuned for more of a bass note while still minimizing drone; this $1100 option is well worth ticking.] Whatever the reason behind the disparate sounds in these two cars may be, I was smitten with the sound of the FR-S’s engine.

It’s a flat-4, so no matter what, it’s going to be at least a little clattery sounding. But the FR-S’s engine struck me as being generally quieter than the BRZ’s engine at low RPM, and less thrashy-sounding when you push it. Either way, I found myself loving the noise this car makes. It doesn’t shriek with the joie-de-vivre of an Italian V6 or V12, and neither does it snarl like the Corvette’s pushrod V8; it even seems down on character when compared with the vulpine growl of the Focus ST’s I4. But there is something fantastically purposeful about the sound this engine makes. More than anything else, it reminds me of a Porsche flat-6 in that respect. The two don’t sound all that much alike, but the character of the aural delight you get out of a Porsche flat-6 is the same sort of thing that you get from this flat-4: it sounds mechanical. It sounds raw. And there is something inescapably alluring about that. In contrast to the BRZ, which I distinctly recall putting in 6th gear a couple of times just so that it would be quiet, I found myself hanging onto gears in the FR-S, just so that I could hear the way it sounds at higher RPM.

Toys: 5/10

I’m giving the FR-S an extra point in this category over its brother because, though they both offer a paucity of doodads and gizmos, at least you can use the ones that you are given in the FR-S.

Trying to operate the BRZ’s touchscreen stereo/navigation unit at speed was like trying to perform eye surgery with a chainsaw: someone was bound to get hurt in the process. As I mentioned in the “Interior” section, the fact that Scion has owned up to the FR-S’s slightly lower price means that they’ve fitted a stereo system to this car which doesn’t force you to use stupid second-rate touchscreen controls. It’s all physical buttons, and it’s intuitive enough that I figured out the gist of how to operate it on my way out of the dealership parking lot. Bravo, Scion: you’ve fixed one of my least favorite things about the BRZ.

This is the head unit supplied by Scion, and for me, it was light-years better than Subaru's touchscreen nightmare. (Source:

This is the head unit supplied by Scion, and for me, it was light-years better than Subaru’s touchscreen nightmare. (Source:

Like the BRZ, this car comes with AUX-in, USB-in, and Bluetooth. It doesn’t have automatic climate control, but I don’t care, and neither should you. The HVAC system on this car is one of my all-time favorites for its elegance and simplicity.

The FR-S doesn’t have a plethora of gadgets to distance you from the business of driving; on the contrary, it just gives you the essentials: HVAC and a stereo with modern connectivity. Folks, this car doesn’t even come with an armrest–you were expecting radar-guided cruise control?

Value: 8/10

I had a hard time with this score. I gave the BRZ, priced at $25,801, a 5/10. This car has a “no-haggle” price of $24,999. So, to be clear: in this FR-S, you are getting what I judge to be a superior car for just about a thousand dollars less than the cost of the equivalent BRZ. That’s a phenomenal deal. So yes, this FR-S gets three extra points, for being better than the Subaru and cheaper than the Subaru at the same time.

Let me say one more thing on the subject of this car’s value. I got out of the BRZ feeling a little let down. That car was supposed to be a back-to-basics sports coupe, and it just felt like a loud, uncomfortable car with some sporting touches. It had great characteristics, but it didn’t strike me as being a great car. But from the moment I climbed into the FR-S, I knew that it was a more honest machine, and that impression really defined the experience I had with it. Ferdinand Porsche once said that “good design is honest,” and this FR-S is a supremely good piece of automotive design because of its honesty.

Another famous designer, Apple’s Jony Ive, once said that good design should fade into the background, so that the design of a product doesn’t interfere with the experience of using that product. In the FR-S, there were moments when I lost myself in the car; the car itself seemed to disappear as I drove along. This is a profoundly strange feeling, and maybe some of you know what I’m talking about from experience, but essentially my brain stopped distinguishing the steering wheel and my hands as separate entities; in these moments, the urge to change gear felt as natural as the urge to inhale or exhale. It felt like the distinction between myself and the car was blurred.

Source: (


If this has never happened to you, then it must sound unspeakably stupid. But to me, these moments where I get lost in the machine are blissful. Moments like these are a big part of the reason I love cars. I’ve only experienced them a handful of times before; this car put me in a position to have that experience on a test drive. The fact that this machine is available for roughly the same price as a GTI or a Mustang V6–which, while fun, are nowhere near as immersive or engaging as the FR-S–isn’t merely “value.” It’s full-on lunacy.

I stepped out of the FR-S today and immediately felt a pang of intense desire: I wanted badly to make this car mine, to drive it to work every day, to wash it by hand, to take it on road trips and to explore its limits on Flagstaff Road. I haven’t wanted a car this much in a long time, and because it’s as inexpensive as it is, I might just buy one when I return from England next July. I will absolutely drive the new GTI next year before I make a decision, but if I had to decide–right now–between my much-adored GTI and the FR-S I just drove, I would go home with the Scion.

Aggregate Score: 87/100

(C.f. the BRZ’s aggregate score, 64/100)

Quick Spin: 2013 Ford Focus ST

This weekend saw me driving a very special automobile for our Quick Spin series: the Focus ST, the only car ever to de-throne the GTI in one of Car and Driver‘s comparison tests–and as we all know, I am over the moon for the VW GTI.  So, the question on my mind is, is the Focus ST really better than the GTI, or have C&D‘s venerable staff collectively lost their minds?  I went to a Ford dealership in Broomfield to find out.

This is the car I test-drove.  I think the ST actually looks marvelous in black--it really hides that giant, blacked-out radiator.

This is the car I test-drove. I think the ST actually looks marvelous in black–it really hides that giant, blacked-out radiator.

Exterior: 7/10

The Focus ST is, in essence, a regular Focus with some added testosterone.  The grille is blacked-out, there’s a tasteful rear diffuser, a gorgeous center-exit exhaust, and some rakish, exciting alloy wheels.  There’s a very nice continuity in the shapes presented by the wheels and the exhaust–which is good, considering that they are probably the features that are most obviously unique to the ST.  However, they don’t really blend with any of the other shapes on the ST, which is a bit of an aesthetic problem for this car.  It looks busy inside and out, and this is especially noticeable in any of the brash, bright colors in which this car is offered (“Tangerine Scream,” anyone?).

Ford Focus ST at NAIAS 2012

The center-exit exhaust is a really gorgeous, slick dual-hexagon.  It’s one of my favorite design touches on this car. (Photo credit:

Love these alloy wheels--interesting without being immature.  The fluid, geometrical shapes in these wheels are echoed ever so slightly in the design of the exhaust.

Love these alloy wheels–interesting without being immature. The fluid, geometrical shapes in these wheels are echoed ever so slightly in the design of the exhaust.

Ford Focus ST at NAIAS 2012

The bright colors offered for this car really accentuate that gopping “mouth”. (Photo credit:

In short, you’ve simply got to have it in black.  Black hides the wide-open “mouth” on this car, and black allows the shapes of the alloy wheels and the aluminum center-exit exhaust to really stand out and draw the eye.  If you have it in any other color, then the noise of the car’s other creases really starts to become an eyesore if you look at it for too long.

See?  It's MUCH better in black.

See? It’s MUCH better in black.

One particularly cool feature of the exterior design is the gas-cap (wow, I never thought I would type those words).  It’s integrated extraordinarily well into the body, and you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it.  It’s shaped like just another panel on the car, and in this way it really “hides” in the car’s lines.  This is indicative of a level of detailed thought given to this car’s design which was surprising and very pleasing–and which is also to be found in the interior.

The gas cap is hidden just under this taillight--a masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed detail.  You would notice and appreciate this every time you needed a fill-up.

The gas-cap is hidden just under this taillight–a masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed detail. You would notice and appreciate this every time you needed a fill-up.

Overall, if you get this car in black, it can be a rather pleasing, and–dare I say it?–special thing to look at.  That said, I don’t think that the current-gen Focus is much of a looker in the first place, and the ST’s designers could only tweak it within the bounds of reason.  Bearing that in mind, I think most of the ST-specific design elements are for the better (with the exception of the grille; I really don’t know what they were thinking with that).  The exterior wouldn’t sell me on this car, but in black, it wouldn’t scare me off, either–on the contrary, actually.  In the right color, it’s a properly solid piece of automotive design.

Interior: 7/10

The ST’s interior is very upscale–and very sporty–for this class of car.  There are a variety of interesting shapes available to the driver’s eyes and fingers, and that makes the cockpit a very stimulating place to sit.  The IP’s gauge pods are crazy pentagons with exaggerated corners; the knob for adjusting how much air comes out of the vents is a chunky, conical (rather than cylindrical!) piece; the vents themselves jut out at the driver at something like a 127-degree angle.  Even the handbrake looks like an alien artifact (and comes out of the dash differently than you might expect–it doesn’t hinge up like a lever; rather, the entire, peculiarly-curved apparatus rises up out of the transmission tunnel).

Notice how the handbrake lever comes out of the transmission tunnel; this is disorienting at first, but I suspect you would get used to the way it rises almost straight up.

Notice how the handbrake lever comes out of the transmission tunnel; this is disorienting at first, but I suspect you would get used to the way it rises almost straight up.

I was expecting to hate a lot of this car’s interior, based simply on the press photographs I had seen of it; let me say, definitively, that I was wrong to doubt Ford here.  First, and most prominently, the Recaro seats are fantastic.  I understand that, because these seats are tailored towards the slender, they may not be everyone’s cup of tea; for my 150-lb., 6′ self, however, they were absolutely marvelous.  The Recaros are absolutely worth the nominal fee you’ll pay to upgrade to them.

Notice how the air vent is perched atop this odd, angular protrusion.

Notice how the air vent is perched atop this odd, angular protrusion.

The shift knob is something else I was concerned about.  Given that this car is only offered with a six-speed manual, I was especially worried that the shift knob looked like it came out of an early ’00s Honda Civic Si.  Thankfully, once I actually touched this shifter, I was quite relieved.  It’s made of aluminum (rather than shiny plastic, as I’d feared), and the back of it (which no photographer would ever bother to show you) is made of a spectacularly grippy leather (or leather-like substance).  It actually felt like a very premium thing to hold, even if it didn’t look the part (to my eyes).

(Photo Credit:

(Photo credit:

The steering wheel is a gem; it’s noticeably small in diameter, and wrapped in a fine, slightly cushy, perforated leather.  While the GTI and the Toyobaru each have a solid-feeling, sculpted, grippy wheel, the ST’s feels more like it’s got a millimeter or two of tempur-pedic material just beneath the leather.  I was initially concerned that this would soften up the feel of the whole experience, but mere seconds into the drive, I noticed that it actually felt more sporty than the GTI’s steering wheel(!).  Overall, though, I’m not sure I prefer it over the GTI’s tiller, particularly given that there are far too many buttons on the ST’s wheel for my taste.  I don’t even know what most of them do.  And there are paddles behind the wheel, where shift paddles might go in an automatic: one paddle operates the cruise control, while the other activates voice-command mode.  This made no sense to me.  Perhaps the best illustration of this problem comes from the fact that there are two separate four-way switches on either side of the wheel.  That’s fairly annoying to me on general principle, as I like a steering wheel to have as few buttons as possible.  I like a car to have as few buttons as possible, actually, and this is the opposite of that.  In total, the ST’s steering wheel has nineteen buttons on it.  Ford: knock it off with this, already.  Just because I’m part of the “smartphone generation” or whatever doesn’t mean I want my car to be a smartphone.  I want my car to be a car.


Speaking of electronics, Ford’s voice-control technology (SYNC) is universally detested by consumers and journalists alike, and it is, sadly, a mandatory “feature” on every trim level of the Focus ST.  Blissfully, though, there are physical buttons for stereo and HVAC controls, and these were quite straightforward to operate.  This is a nice change of pace from some other Ford-family vehicles (Lincoln, I’m looking at you), which make you control HVAC and audio from the touchscreen.  This is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do to a car, especially if your touchscreen interface is as slow and un-intuitive as SYNC.  So even though the ST’s implementation of SYNC is relatively harmless, I don’t understand why Ford bothered with putting SYNC in there in the first place.  This would have been a better car without it.

There are some other gripes, to be sure: I think the driver sits too low and too far back in this car, and as a result it can be hard to use all of the visibility which the windows afford.  This also makes the driving position (initially, at least) fairly awkward; it feels like you’re looking up and out at all of the controls, like they’re farther away from you than they should be–which is very weird.  I can’t say whether this is something one would get used to, but it was a noticeable (though not insurmountable) issue I noticed for the duration of my test drive.  I’m also not impressed by the amount of space in the rear.  With the Recaros taking up all of the rear knee-space, your rear-seat passengers won’t be getting too comfortable.  It would probably be fine for kids, or adults on a (very) short trip, but there’s no one I hate enough to make them spend a road trip back there.  The lovely Recaros in front are absolutely worth the tradeoff for the driver and front-seat passenger, but if your backseat is going to be rendered useless anyway, then why not just get a V6 Mustang instead for the same price?  And while we’re on the subject of compromised utility, allow me to report that the trunk space is noticeably less than what you’d get in a GTI, and the rear seats don’t fold all the way down–they just sort of lie at an angle.

Kind of an appalling amount of rear seat space for a hatchback, really.  Those front Recaros totally make up for it, though--anyone big enough to be uncomfortable in the backseat of this car should stop complaining and buy their own car instead of bumming rides off of you.

Kind of an appalling amount of rear seat space for a hatchback, really. Those front Recaros totally make up for it, though–anyone big enough to be uncomfortable in the backseat of this car should stop complaining and buy their own car instead of bumming rides off of you.

The SYNC Console.  Redundant stereo controls also pictured.

The SYNC Console. Some of the redundant stereo controls are also pictured here.

Overall, the interior is very well put-together, and it uses some marvelous materials.  Panel gap, build quality, and general fit and finish are absolutely up there with the Mk 6 GTI.  Everything you touch is either premium or close to it.  My only gripe is with how busy all of the lines are.  It’s exciting, to be sure–it’s a downright visual feast–but there are lines coming out of nowhere and ending nowhere; hard angles and swooping, gradual angles; pentagons and parallelograms and hexagons and squares and circles and squircles.  It’s almost exhausting to look at it all.  In short, then, while the ST’s interior may feel quite premium, it does so with too much drama for my taste.  Because all of the shapes and lines in the cockpit are all screaming at you, it can be hard to relax.  if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, though, then you’ll be more than satisfied with this cockpit–and it does feel like a cockpit; more like the inside of a stealth bomber than a car, really.  Ford has made a worthy competitor to the GTI in terms of build quality here (if not in terms of design harmony; the ST’s feng shui is WAY off).  Now, if only they would ditch SYNC…

Ride: 7/10

The previous-generation Focus chassis underpinned my old Mazdaspeed3.  As such, I was anticipating punishment from this car, what with its lowered ride height, sporty suspension, and minimal tire sidewalls.  I was actually taken aback by how comfortable the ST was over bumps.  Rough tarmac will definitely upset the car’s zen mojo–you wouldn’t call it “comfortable.”  But neither is it painful, or even uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not nearly as bad as the Mazdaspeed3’s suspension (the ‘speed3 rode on specially designed pain-coils).

The ST doesn’t shield the driver from unwanted noise as well as the GTI’s suspension does, but the ST is a lot more comfortable than I was expecting it to be.  I cannot say for sure how the ride would hold up over time (considering tire wear in particular), but the suspension was obviously given considerable tuning so that human beings, with spines, would be able to comfortably sit in the vehicle as it goes along the road.  I think it’s a smashing compromise, though a part of me would probably still yearn for the GTI’s Teutonic chassis tuning if I ran into a particularly bad pothole.

Handling: 8/10

This thing can absolutely handle.  We took it on a twisty road, with a few esses, and the salesman told me I could put my foot in it, “because cops don’t usually hang out on this road.”  What a guy.  Wanting only to oblige, I downshifted and gave it a bootful through the esses.  I didn’t exactly have the opportunity to explore the limits of grip, but I could sense through the steering wheel that the car was capable of a lot more than the backroad curves could throw at it.  It was magnificent, and the steering response was informative without being punishing–it really was tuned very, very well.  I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by this car’s handling.  One more notable feature–the absence of torque steer.  A couple of times, I put myself in second and floored it, thinking, “THIS will generate some torque steer!” and, as I sat there, waiting for the car to jump leftward into oncoming traffic without provocation….it did nothing.  It just kept going straight.  Whatever wonders Ford has worked with eliminating the torque steer from this 252hp, 270 lb.-ft., FWD monster, it is simply brilliant to drive.

When we turned around to head back to the dealership, I did notice that the turning circle on this car is absolutely hilarious.  It needed a K-turn to handle a curve that would have been a simple U-turn for most cars.  This is not a deal-breaker for me by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worth mentioning.

Brakes: 9/10

The brakes are almost flawless.  There’s quite a lot of initial bite, but in this car, that bite just inspires confidence in the stoppers from the second you touch the pedal.  They are progressive and natural-feeling, while also being very effective at scrubbing speed.  This is especially gratifying given that Ford’s brakes are usually about 75% too spongy for me; I’m glad to see that they’ve taken a different tack here.

Gearbox: 10/10

This is one of the all-time great modern manual transmissions.  The shifter moves very fluidly from gate to gate, but it also has a very short throw, and when you put it into a gear, it locks into the gate with a lovely, mechanical-feeling snick.  It is a work of art, and even despite the fact that the shift knob looks a bit bargain-bin, it fits the hand very well and is an utter joy to row.  My only complaint is that, in order to unlock the Reverse gate, you have to lift the collar on the shift boot, which seems very counter-intuitive to me; it seems to me that the best method for separating Reverse from the other gears is to push down on the shift knob in order to access it.  I’m also fine with shifters that require you to add extra elbow-grease to get to the Reverse gate.  But lifting the little metal ring that connects the shift boot to the knob?  That’s just a weird, awkward motion for your hand to perform.

Thankfully, the clutch is every inch as beautifully engineered as the gearbox itself.  It’s light–not so light as to feel numb, but just light enough that operating it isn’t a chore.  Clutch-flywheel engagement is very progressive, and you can feel it through the pedal just enough so that you know what’s going on.  The friction point is wide enough that it doesn’t feel like a switch, but not so wide that you might accidentally drop out of a gear before it’s all the way engaged.

Simply put: it’s a fantastic gearbox.  It might be one of the best transmissions I’ve ever used; it’s certainly in the top five.  As a manual junkie, I was floored by how much fun it was to row this thing.  It strikes the perfect balance between notchiness and smoothness, a feat that few other gearboxes I’ve encountered have been able to match: for instance, the GTI’s ‘box is a marvel of smoothness with not enough notchiness, while the Mazdaspeed3’s is so notchy that it’s hard to shift it without a major application of violence and force.  On the test drive, I even found myself changing gears even when I didn’t have to, just because it was such great fun to operate this transmission.

Acceleration: 9/10

This car has 270 lb.-ft. of torque, and you can absolutely tell that from the driver’s seat.  A generous helping of that torque is available from about 2000 RPM, and so it’s quite easy to have fun in almost any gear at almost any time.  It’s really shocking how favorably this compares to the Mazdaspeed3, which has more bhp (263) and more torque (280); it just feels like the ST makes that power a lot earlier and a lot more consistently.  (Don’t tell Mazda, but I also feel like more of The ST’s 252bhp are making it to the wheels).

The moral of the story is that, with an ocean of torque consistently available throughout the rev-band, the ST flies.  It just absolutely flies.  The ST gets 9/10 points in this category–not because it could objectively out-accelerate 90% of the cars on the road (although that may be true), but rather because the sensation of acceleration you get in this car is more exhilarating than the experience of accelerating in a great many other cars, including ones that cost much more.

Sound: 9/10

You can definitely tell that the ST’s sound is being piped through an active sound symposer (or “snorkus”).  In this car, that isn’t even close to a bad thing.  You can feel the deep basso profundo thrum of the engine’s exhaust note in your kidneys, and this would be true even without the symposer’s help; it’s there to add the treble notes of induction noise to this composition, and it does so with the precision of a 1st-chair violinist from the London Symphony Orchestra.  When you get on the throttle, the symposer snarls at you.  It chucks out this positively lupine growl that sends shivers down your spine.  It’s marvelous technology.

The thing is, apart from the engine noise (and the sound coming from the excellent stereo), there isn’t much to hear with this car.  Sound-deadening has been applied here to great effect, and road noise is effectively a non-issue.  I can’t speak to the presence or absence of engine drone at cruising speeds, but I can tell you that the cabin is a very sonically comfortable place, and that the engine note is positively demonic.  For me, this is just about a perfect combination.

Toys: 4/10

This is really the ST’s weak spot.  The thing is, it does have the toys you’d expect a hot hatch with options to possess: heated seats, nav, touchscreen…things, bluetooth for your phone, hookups for your MP3 player, and so on.  My only issue with these toys is that many of them are connected with Ford’s truly horrible SYNC interface, which is unendingly frustrating to use.  It’s such a distracting piece of technology to operate that I honestly believe it’s unsafe to use SYNC while you’re driving.  If that condemnation isn’t enough to frighten you, then consider the following anecdote, which should give you chills: when I was talking to the salesman about SYNC, he said that Ford’s plan was to phase out physical buttons and eventually have the entire car be operated with voice commands.  This is a bad idea.

Value: 8/10

This car’s base price is $24,115.  For what you’re getting, that is incredible INSANE value.  Admittedly, given that you will want some of the options for this car (do yourself a favor and get the Recaros, rear legroom be damned), the price of the model you actually buy would probably be closer to the model I tested, which was fully-loaded at about $29,000 (MSRP).  Now, if you were to go with an ST specced somewhere in between those two prices?  At about $27,000, this car would be a very, very sweet deal.  I would even say that it’s a serious rival for the current-generation GTI.  The busy design of the ST, inside and out, might keep me from buying one, especially considering the wonderfully simple, clean design of a GTI, but if a salesman made me a particularly good offer on a day when I was feeling particularly rakish?  …..I might just end up in this fast Ford.

At least, until the Mk. 7 GTI comes to America next summer.

Aggregate Score: 78/100

Quick Spin: 2013 Audi A4

This weekend I drove a new Audi A4.  This was something of a momentous occasion for me, for multiple reasons:  firstly, because this is my girlfriend’s dream car (particularly in S4 trim), and so there is a reasonably high chance that one of these will sit in my garage one day.  Secondly, I think this is the best-looking sedan you can buy right now, both inside and out, and I really wanted to see whether it drove half as well as it looked.

Quick Spin is a new segment on PRNDLoser in which I go to dealerships and test drive the cars there.  I really am in the market for a new car, though in the interest of total honesty, some of the cars I test drive–like this A4–are not, strictly speaking, in my price range.

This is the actual car I drove, courtesy of the lovely people at Stammler Audi in Boulder.

This is the actual car I drove, courtesy of the lovely, lovely, trusting people at Stammler Audi in Boulder.

Exterior: 9/10

This is the best-looking sedan I have ever laid eyes on, bar none.  VW/Audi/Porsche A.G. is very good at bending sheetmetal to their will, and this car is a marvelous example of that.   Bygone is the weird, geometric, bauhaus-y roundness of older Audis.  Today, Audi’s design language is all about subtly chiseled aluminum and a marvelous combination of pleasing angles that seem to flow all around the exterior.  The exterior is a rounded shape, in a very general sense, but it’s creased along the hood and shoulder-line so that the whole shape looks sharper along the edges, and the end result is a car that manages to look both aggressive and yet somehow also friendly–a bit like a big, smiling German Shepherd.

The head and tail lights contribute to this overall look of cool aggression in spectacular fashion.  Audi has long been ahead of the game with its LED lights, and the A4 is no exception in this respect.

photo credit: Automobile Magazine

photo credit: Automobile Magazine

The “track” of LED light running around the perimeter and into the depth of of the headlight housing performs two very important visual functions.  On the outer edge (and on the top-side, which slopes inward and downward), it accentuates the “sharpness” of the body’s creases and contributes to the subtle aggression of the styling.  On the inner edge, it mirrors the angle of the trapezoidal grill’s corner, which contributes to a feeling of symmetry that makes the headlight design feel cohesive with the design language on the rest of the car’s face.  In this way, the trademark “swooping” (or, if you prefer, “drooping”) LED line which constitutes the Audi “corporate look” for headlight design is eschewed for a more eye-catching (and, to my eye, vastly more attractive) set of visual cues.

This is a second photo of the car I actually drove.

This is a second photo of the car I actually drove.

The rear end is slightly less focused than the front, and displays more rounding and more of that characteristic Audi swoop/droop, but is nevertheless attractive to look at, especially in person (photos don’t really do justice to the sheer presence this car has, both on the street and in a parking lot).  Overall, the exterior leaves one with the impression of superb luxury build quality, and–particularly when viewed from the front–a considerable amount of well-executed swagger.  I think that if the rear lights were as sharp-looking as the front lights, this would be an unassailable sedan design.  As it stands, however, it is peerless (in my opinion): it is interesting without being busy, and understated without being boring.  Well done, Audi.

Interior: 9/10

photo credit: Audi

photo credit: Audi

The interior is the A4’s party piece.  Even in this relatively lofty price bracket, it is leagues ahead of its main rivals from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.  I don’t even know where to begin with my outpouring of praise.  The standard seats are better than any BMW seats I’ve ever been in. BMW seats used to be my benchmark, but Audi has taken that benchmark and knocked it straight out of the stadium with these thrones.  The seats that come with the Sport package (a $750 extra which you should definitely tick) are exponentially better still, and after careful consideration, I am prepared to say that Audi’s sport seats are the most comfortable things, movable or stationary, that I have ever sat in.  They are deep, sculpted leather buckets with adjustable side and leg bolsters, and they manage to be both astonishingly plush and yet very supportive.  They are masterpieces.

photo credit: Audi

photo credit: Audi

The steering wheel also manages to be a cut above my benchmark car for steering wheels, the GTI.  I did not think this was possible, but somehow, the material feels even more upscale than the perforated leather on a GTI’s steering wheel, while still retaining more than a whiff of sporting pretension.  It is thick-rimmed, small-diameter, grippy, and contoured in such a way as one’s fingers cannot help but delight to hold it.  Steering wheel controls are well-placed and they certainly seem easy enough to understand.

The rest of the cockpit is furnished with some really lovely details, and it’s nearly impossible to enumerate them all, but here’s a sampling of some of my favorite things:

-The knobs in the car were all finished with a textured edge, which makes them feel expensive and makes operating them feel genuinely special.  Any switch you might have occasion to touch clicks into place with a very satisfying weight; this includes the turn signal stalk, which is a deliciously tactile thing to flick into place.  A lot of thought was obviously invested in the selection of materials used in this interior, because they are all stellar.

-While the large infotainment display is a dominating point of contact for the car, it integrates seamlessly into the lines of the Instrument Panel.  This is something few automakers are ever able to get right, but the display in this car doesn’t protrude sharply from the dash at unexpected angles–rather, it looks as though the instrument panel and the center display were hewn from a single chunk of leather, and the meeting of display and IP represents a very pleasing convergence of shapes.

-I wouldn’t call the center stack “intuitive,” as there are a lot of buttons and it isn’t immediately clear what many of them do.  However–much to my surprise and delight–the center stack has physical buttons to perform tasks on the display, which is a very nice departure from systems like MyFord touch or CUE, which use touchscreen input only.  Physical buttons make it a lot easier to operate the Audi’s infotainment system on the road, as does the addition of a small display between the tach and the speedometer which allows you to perform some basic tasks using the steering wheel controls.  Overall, button placement is something that, with a little time, you could easily get used to.

-The quality, fit and finish, and even color scheme of the interior is unrivaled in this class.  It makes the 3-series look positively low-rent.  I particularly like the matte-finish wood trim on the car I drove, which manages to look very upscale in that it really does look like wood, from a tree, rather than some kind of glossy laminate insert.

-Outward visibility is average for a sedan.  Trunk space is above average, and with the rear seats folded down, there is an astounding amount of storage space..

-I was also especially impressed by the amount of space in the backseat.  The rear seats are better than most cars’ front seats, and there is ample leg room.  It’s a truly nice place to be.  It almost makes me wonder why anyone would buy an A6.

photo credit: Audi

photo credit: Audi

I could go on and on about this car’s interior, and though it is not flawless, it is truly excellent, particularly for a car in this segment.

Ride: 5/5

This is another area in which this car really shines.  I drove over several bumps and potholes on some very familiar roads, and I mentally prepare myself for the impact these bumps cause whenever I approach them.  In the A4, they just didn’t happen.  They were imperceptible through both the steering wheel and the suspension, and they were totally inaudible.  This suspension is incredible in that respect, and frankly it makes the ’07 3-series I’m daily driving at the moment look downright harsh by comparison.  Drive one, and you’ll see what I mean.  it’s deeply impressive.

Handling: 4/5

This is where you might expect me to chide the A4 for losing its sporty roots in favor of that sweet, sweet ride quality I just described.  This is not entirely false, but neither is it entirely true.

The enduring characteristic of this car’s steering is lightness.  It doesn’t feel floaty, and I would hesitate to call it numb, but the rack is extremely light.  The variable-ratio steering rack adjusts the quickness of the steering depending on your speed, so lightness in a parking lot doesn’t equate to nervousness on a freeway.  Steering this car is a marvelous task, actually–it’s extremely comfortable, and yet you can definitely put it where you want it in a corner with a high degree of confidence.

I have driven cars with depressing, numb, detached steering feel, and this isn’t any of those things. It’s just comfortable, and if you’re the sort of person who would buy an A4, then rest assured: Audi has taken a luxury car, kept all of the luxury car comfort in the steering, and then gone a step further, endowing it with the ability to handle shockingly well.

I took a 90-degree increasing-elevation corner at, shall we say, inadvisable speeds, half expecting the I4 hanging over the front axle (in true Audi tradition) to understeer me into a nearby tree.  But not only did that not happen, the car tracked perfectly.  The steering wheel managed to tell me what was going on (if somewhat vaguely), and I am still astonished by that fact.  The all-wheel-drive system works wonders with this car’s handling, and the suspension is certainly no slouch, either.

So, the verdict on this car’s handling: it is very, very good at being comfortable, which is what most A4 buyers want.  It is also unexpectedly good at being sporty if you push it.  If it has one notable flaw, I would say it’s not quite informative enough–the GTI probably strikes a better balance for my personal taste–but the A4’s handling is very, very good.

Brakes: 5/5

The first time I stabbed at the brakes in this car, it felt like quite a high-effort pedal; that will probably be your first impression as well.  But then I started braking a little bit more as we got out onto the road, and my revised opinion of these brakes is that, once you feel how the bite works, they are incredibly easy to modulate.  Pedal travel is on the firmer side, but once you get used to that, the brakes on this car do exactly what your foot tells them.  I’m hugely impressed, and though of course I didn’t have the chance to scrutinize them under extreme stopping conditions, I am confident that they would hold up well based on my experience with them.

Gearbox: 8/10

There was no manual-transmission A4 on the lot at all.  I therefore drove one outfitted with an 8-speed automatic gearbox–the same ZF 8-speed that /DRIVE’s Chris Harris is so very keen on.  This is the 8-speed transmission that everyone is talking about right now, and I had never understood the hype around this transmission until I drove a car that had one.

I am a die-hard Save The Manuals kind of guy, but this 8-speed is fantastic.  It’s incredibly smooth; if I weren’t watching the tach, I might have a hard time figuring out when the car is shifting by sound or feel.  It also puts the power down very, very well, actively shifting around during spirited acceleration to stay in the power band, but keeping the revs low on the highway.  It’s not perfect, of course–automatics will always add a layer of abstraction between the driver and the car, and that’s especially noticeable in sport mode.  On the A4, sport mode doesn’t seem to do much to the car’s shift points.  I think sport mode should mean higher-RPM shifts, at the very least, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between “D” and “S” in this car.  That’s fine, considering how refined and quick this car feels in “D,” but it was still something of a disappointment.

On the whole, though, this is one of the most intelligent, refined, and capable automatic transmissions I’ve ever used.  Would I have it instead of the manual?  No.  Not unless the manual version of this car comes with a tiger in the backseat (and that’s not in the promotional materials).  But if you commute a lot, or if you don’t know how to drive stick, or if you just prefer automatics in general, then this transmission won’t disappoint.  This ZF ‘box represents a huge leap forward for automatic transmissions.  As it is utilized in the A4, specifically, it feels as silky-smooth as the rest of the car, and it responds willingly when you hotshoe it.  In short, it doesn’t merely work; rather, it feels like a harmonious part of the machine.  Rather than standing out from the rest of the car like a dimwitted electronic au pair for the driver, this automatic gearbox fades into the background and makes driving the car easier.  In that way, it really does exactly what most Audi buyers will want, and so, to my eye, it is an exceptional component in this car.

But do yourself a favor and get the manual.  Please.

Acceleration: 8/10

Thanks in no small part to that excellent gearbox, this car really flies.  It builds velocity with a feeling of uncompromising smoothness and relentless vigor.  Acceleration is quiet (more on this in the “Sound” section), and so sometimes you can be caught by surprise when the engine takes you from 50 to 60 mph in the blink of an eye.  This variant of the VW A.G.’s EA888 turbo-4 is extremely torquey (256 ft.-lbs!), but because the suspension is tuned for total isolation (in true Teutonic fashion), the sensation of acceleration is quite subtle, and you can get up to illegal speeds easily if you’re not paying too much attention.

On paper, the A4’s engine is the equal of BMW’s 328i’s engine (also a turbocharged inline-4, which is new as of last year).  The key difference is that Audi has been powering the A4 with a four-cylinder engine for ages now, while BMW’s 3-series is quite new to this configuration.   You can absolutely feel that in the cabin.  This engine is a gem, showing nary a hint of a four-cylinder’s characteristic imbalance, and if smooth, effortless acceleration is your preference, then look no further than this car.

The flip-side of that equation is, of course, that acceleration does feel a bit remote (much like the handling), but (also much like the handling) I hesitate to complain of numbness, because that’s not the whole story of what’s going on.  The acceleration in this car isn’t visceral, but it is remarkably quick, and exquisitely, astoundingly smooth.  I take a lot of pleasure from feeling like, as a driver, I’m “down in the engine-room,” and deeply connected with the vehicle.  That isn’t what the A4 is about, but it is nonetheless an excellent car to drive.  It feels like driving a Swiss watch, and there’s something very rewarding about that, too, because, as a driver, I also take great pleasure in things that simply work.  As a driving machine, the A4 is one of those things.

Sound: 7/10

Mostly the thing you notice about the A4 is that it is incredibly quiet.  Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH) never seem able to penetrate into this car’s well-insulated interior.  When you give the throttle a little nudge, the engine doesn’t snort and rear or deliver a throaty rasp like the BMW 3-series; instead, it growls, sort of like a perturbed tiger which you’ve just woken up with your right foot.  It’s a bit surprising to hear this sort of rumble coming out of an inline-4, but it very nearly sent shivers up my spine the first time I heard it.  It makes quite a good noise, when it does make a noise, but you really have to coax it to get to that point.

The very quiet cabin makes it quite easy to hear the speakers, which are nicer than standard BMW 3-series speakers, but not mind-blowing.

Toys: 4/5

The cabin has everything you expect of a luxury sport sedan: Bluetooth phone and MP3 support, heated seats, and all manner of creature comforts.  The toys in the A4 are perfectly in step with everything offered by BMW and Mercedes at this price point, but there’s no “killer app” that sets it apart from those two manufacturers’ competitors.  What I will say for this interior’s selection of gadgets and goodies is that they are well-thought-out and well-executed, and that there’s nothing gimmicky in their execution, despite the massive amount of buttons on the console demanding your attention.

Value: 7/10

One the one hand, you’ve probably noticed that I keep saying things like “this car has exceptional ________ for a car at this price point,” and given that, you may be surprised that this score is so low, but hear me out.  This car starts at $32,500 for a bare-bones, Front Wheel Drive(!) car with a rather unfortunate automatic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).  You read that right–hilariously, somehow, the 6-speed manual costs more than the base automatic option.  The car I actually drove has an MSRP of about $40,995, and that’s without either navigation ($3050) or the Sport package ($750).  Optioned as I would want it, with Nav, the Sport Package, a six-speed manual, and some of that lovely matte wood trim, this car sits at a lofty MSRP of $42,650.  Yikes.

You can, of course, easily spec a BMW 3-series or a Mercedes C-class to a similar cost (or even a higher cost), and each option you add for any of these cars is truly highway robbery, but–but, in the A4, the extra expense is very nearly worth it.  The base car, even with its sad CVT, is still a much nicer place to be than the equivalent base-trim BMW or Mercedes, not by inches, but by miles.  And each option–Nav, Sport package, six-speed manual or 8-speed automatic, matte wood trim–is a marked improvement over the stock package.  When you step into an optioned-out 3-series, sometimes it can be hard to tell that it has options, because BMW’s options don’t really add many features or much comfort.  On the contrary, when you step from a base A4 into a seriously up-model one, you can immediately see where the money has gone.

So, for a car, in general?  The A4 you want is probably too expensive to be considered particularly “good value.”  But, for a luxury sport sedan, especially as compared with its German rivals?  Any A4 is a relatively high-value proposition, because you are getting a lot more for your money with this car than you would from a Bimmer or a Merc.

In summary: this is a very refined driving machine with impeccable creature comforts, and to boot, it glides down the road silently, looking like a cross between a disapproving centurion and a TIE fighter.  It is the best-looking, best-appointed car in its class, and every part of it–both mechanical and electronic–works with the ruthless, harmonious efficiency of the German postal system.  Don’t take that simile as disparaging, however: this is one of the most precise and smoothest machines you may ever have the pleasure to operate, and if precision excites you, then the A4 can amount to a seriously satisfying drive.

Aggregate Score: 66/75 (=88/100)

Quick Spin: 2013 Subaru BRZ

So: the motoring press has given the BRZ/FR-S/GT-86 quite the moment in the sun.  Many (if not most) auto journalists have heralded this car as the second coming of the lightweight, budget sports car.  The question on everyone’s lips is, “Does it live up to the hype?”  Few cars of any stripe could live up to the outpouring of praise which this car has garnered.  I must say, I came away with a much more mixed impression of the vehicle than many others have.  Massive disclaimer: this review is based entirely upon a test drive of about ten miles, which I undertook at my local Subaru dealer, so I can’t speak to livability or practicality in any meaningful way.  But those were ten extremely revealing miles, as I hope this review will demonstrate.

Note: while this is not a photo of the exact car I drove (I was too busy convincing them to let me drive it to take any pictures), it is exactly the same color and trim level (Limited).

Note: while this is not a photo of the exact car I drove, it is a photo from the same dealer, in the same color. I drove the lower-spec, Premium trim, however, which does not come with this sporty rear wing.

Exterior: 7/10

This is a fairly polarizing exterior, and you could be forgiven for looking at it and coming away unimpressed, or even disappointed.  I especially dislike those fake vents between the front wheels and the A-pillar; they cheapen the entire exterior of the car, and they really diminish the curb appeal.  But I do like the shape of the body; it’s very classically proportioned, with the stubby rear and the long hood.  I particularly like the feeling of looking out over that long, sloping hood from the driver’s seat.  It’s a silly thing to be excited by, I know, but it felt really special to me.  And I am a fan of the front and rear lights, as well as those wheels, which I think are classy.  There are some lovely details, like the rear windows, which come to a delicate point, and the LEDs in the front lights (Subaru version only), which I think are aggressive and striking.  I am firmly in the “like-it” camp where this car’s exterior is concerned, then, but that is naturally a matter of opinion.

Interior: 5/10

This, I’m afraid, is where things start to go badly wrong for the BRZ.  All five points I give this car are for the seats and the steering wheel, both of which are top-notch.  The steering wheel is very similar to the GTI’s, except for the fact that it has a round profile (rather than a flat bottom).  It’s chunky, sculpted, and grippy, and it’s made of some kind of deliciously supple perforated leather (or leather-like substance).  Top marks there.  The seats, too, are marvelous, much nicer than anything I’ve ever seen in a Toyota or a Subaru.  They’re supportive, yet nicely cushioned.  By the end of my test drive, I started to wonder if the side-bolsters were a bit too tight (especially given that I’m a pretty skinny guy), but in absence of prolonged exposure to them, I only have positive things to say.

Other, minor things I liked: the center tachometer was very informative–though I wasn’t a huge fan of the digital speedometer, and the analog speedometer, being scrunched off to the side, was pretty hard to read at a glance.  I also liked the pedals, which were positioned well for heel-toe, and about half of the surfaces (shift and e-brake boots in particular) are quite nice to touch.  The controls were also very easy to operate.  I’m a huge fan of simple, easy-to-use HVAC controls, and those are done well in this car.

I was not, however, a fan of the cheap-feeling stereo in this car.  It felt like an aftermarket head unit, and it seemed perilous to try and operate the thing at highway speeds.

The gear knob is a letdown, to be sure.  It looks and feels cheap, and at idle, it vibrates around quite noticeably.  The vibration (originating, presumably, with Subaru’s characteristically choppy Boxer engine) is so intense that you can’t steady it with your hand–if you rest your hand on it, your hand just vibrates along with it.  An enormous, critical omission is that of a center armrest.  Every time I settled into a gear and wanted to rest my elbow on something, I ended up thunking it down onto a very uncomfortable cupholder/cubby abyss.  I’m sure you can buy an armrest as a dealer-installed accessory [Ed.: No, actually, you can’t.] but…really?  Should you have to?  This is something that would annoy me every day. But I would almost hate to lose the storage space represented by the cupholders in the center console–mostly because there’s so little storage space in the cabin. There’s the cupholders in the center console, and a little cubby underneath the radio, and that’s pretty much it.

The rear seats are “seats” in name only.  There’s no one I hate enough to make them attempt to fold their legs into that space.  Folded down, they allow a huge amount of storage space, though; so here’s my proposal: make this car a two-seater with a lot of storage space.  That would be an entirely more satisfactory solution.  Because, right now, I can’t look at those rear seats without frowning at the wasted space they represent. Also, it’s impossible to see anything out of those rear windows; that is the price one must pay, apparently, for those lovely little Toyota 2000GT-style kinks.

I was hoping the interior would feel snug, like a glove, but really it just felt claustrophobic to me. I am hoping that future versions of the car incorporate a marked re-thinking of the materials and the space of this interior.  Still, it wasn’t all bad, particularly from the driver’s seat; as previously mentioned, the steering wheel and seats, as well as some strategic cushioning with convincing leather padding, combine to make the driver’s seat eminently sporty. My girlfriend, who was riding shotgun, found the interior to be deeply unpleasant, and called it “suffocating,” though, so I gather that the passenger seat is not quite so charming.  So the BRZ gets 5/10 in this category, for doing several important things right, but also for doing several important things wrong.  All in all, I couldn’t help but wonder: what would this car be like with the GTI’s interior?  I’ll go ahead and answer my own question: it would be almost flawless.

Ride: 2/5

This car rides nearly as poorly as my ’11 Mazdaspeed3, which I firmly believe has one of the bumpiest, jiggliest rides available on a production car in America.  Also, based on prior experience with this kind of thing, I am 90% sure that in the first 10,000 miles of the life of a BRZ, all of the air vents and the other pieces of plastic trim are going to shake themselves loose and start rattling and/or buzzing in a really annoying way whenever you rev the engine or go over a bump.

“But Scott,” you’ll protest, “the BRZ is a sports car.  Stop being Captain Slow and put yourself in the shoes of someone who would actually buy a car because it’s, you know, fun.”

Look, I am the sort of person who would buy a car because it’s fun.  I wanted to like this car, and I wanted to tell you that it has a ride which is firm but supple.  Mais, non, I’m afraid.  Over pavement even the least bit choppy pavement dotting the roads in Boulder, CO (some of the nicest, smoothest American roads I’ve ever driven on, actually), every little bump jiggled me around, and overall, the ride actually instilled less confidence in my right foot.  The chassis was just very busy on anything but perfectly level tarmac.  If this is your only car, and if you live somewhere where you’ll need to drive on even slightly imperfect roads, then the ride in the BRZ borders on unacceptable.

I’ve driven sporty cars on public roads before, and I am familiar with cars which are both connected to the road, and compliant on less-than-perfect pavement.  A C5 Corvette has an excellent, sporty, connected-yet-comfortable ride quality; the BRZ (much like my old Mazdaspeed3) does not.

Handling: 5/5

This score should surprise no one.  The BRZ’s cheerleaders are all absolutely right about this chassis.  The handling-feel, transferred through the truly excellent steering wheel, is awe-inspiring.  It’s just about telepathic.  And the thing is, though the ride is choppy, you don’t feel any of that punishment through the steering wheel like you do in a Mazdaspeed3.  It conveys just the right amount of information about what the wheels are doing.  It’s sublime, and in this price bracket, you’d have to get a used Porsche Cayman to even be on the same planet as the BRZ’s handling.  I’ve driven a Porsche Cayman, and if you bought one of those, you’d be a lot more comfortable when you hit a pothole, so that’s worth thinking about.  But if you bought a used Cayman, your repair bills would be astronomical, so that’s something to think about as well.

Brakes: 5/5

These were confidence-inspiring and progressive, and I could tell just by giving them a couple of hard stops that they’re more than adequate for scrubbing high speeds off of the wheels.  These are some of the nicest brakes I’ve ever used, actually.  I actually like them better than E90 3-series’ brakes (one of my benchmark cars for braking), because the Bimmer’s brakes are likewise very grippy but also comparatively hard to modulate; these lights are less like an on/off switch and more like a rheostat.

Gearbox: 8/10

This gearbox is a real sweetheart.  Throws are short, positive, and notchy (which is my preference, though others understandably sing the praises of the GTI’s silky-smooth, low-effort throws).  It’s a shame that the gear knob is such a cheap-feeling part, but I quickly got over that once I started running it through the gears.  It’s not as short or positive as the S2000’s transmission (which is my benchmark for gearboxes–it is absolute perfection; fun fact, also: the Aisin unit in the BRZ is actually derived from the same unit that Honda modified for use in the S2k), but it feels sporty–it feels special, somehow.  It’s certainly a far cry from the WRX’s rubbery ‘box, which feels like it was lifted straight out of a 20-year-old 18-wheeler.  If you like rowing a car through the gears–if that experience gives you any pleasure at all–then this shifter is a real delight.

The clutch is not as good, I’m afraid.  It’s on the lighter side (which is good for everyday driving), but I honestly couldn’t feel the friction point at all.  I just kind of had to guess where it was, and hope that it was there–which led to a couple of accidental clutch-dumps.  The best analogy I can muster is the current-generation Mustang’s clutch, which is also light and a bit numb.  But even the Mustang’s clutch is more informative than the poor Subie’s, which was a mark against its otherwise excellent transmission.  I assume this is something that you would get used to (rather like the Mazdaspeed3’s on/off clutch), but it could have been a lot better than it is.  Still, the clutch isn’t enough to ruin that magnificent shifter.  As a manual enthusiast, I came away impressed, and I think you will, too.

Acceleration: 8/10

If there’s one criticism I’ve heard consistently leveled against this car, it’s that its flat-4 is underpowered by about 40 horsepower.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I think this engine has plenty of grunt, almost anywhere in the rev band.  5th gear, 30mph?  Put your foot in the throttle, and the torque squeezes out, progressively and predictably.  I have absolutely zero gripes with the way this car builds velocity, and unless you’re looking to demolish a straightaway at a track or beat a Mustang between the lights, you probably won’t have any gripes either.  It’s just a blast to wring out this engine.  At city speeds, you can accidentally get yourself in quite a bit of trouble.  It gives the illusion of having a lot more power and torque than I know it has; it’s just so eager to rev.  It’s a gem of an engine.

Anyway, if someone tells you this car doesn’t have enough power, then either a) they haven’t driven it (haters will inevitably hate); or b) they are just wrong.  There is one thing wrong with this engine, though…

Sound: 1/5

Maybe you’re someone who likes the sound this car makes.  I can’t imagine what sort of person that is, but maybe they’re out there.  Anyway, I hate it.  First of all, it’s loud, and I mean loud.  I’m all for shedding sound-deadening material to save weight, but this engine makes a terrible racket, and a bit of sound insulation wouldn’t hurt this car.  It’s throaty, which is nice, but it’s not sonorous.  It’s not tuned, so to speak.  This is a fine thing in one respect: it doesn’t feel fake in any way.  With the GTI or the Focus ST or even the M5, your sound has been symposed through a snorkus for your auditory pleasure, and there’s something slightly disingenuous about that.  The BRZ’s exhaust note (if you can call it a note) is, at least, honest.  But I don’t think I could bear to live with it on a daily basis.  It’s drony and clattery, and it sounds like it’s fueled by rusty scrap metal.  This is especially painful because it’s such a hoot to rev the engine.  Truthfully, though, I found myself backing off the throttle just because I didn’t want to hear it anymore.

In short, I think this is the sort of car you buy despite its engine note, rather than because of its engine note.

Toys: 2/5

The BRZ doesn’t have very many toys, but it doesn’t purport to.  It advertises itself as a pure enthusiast machine, and while I’m not sure it delivers on that promise in all areas, it does deliver on its promise of a lightweight, no-frills experience.  Ordinarily, when I see a car that does exactly what it sets out to do in terms of a feature like toys, I’ll give that car 3/5 for performing honestly.  5/5 would be the score for a car that manages to exceed expectations.  This car gets 2/5 because the one area in which it does purport to deliver toys (i.e., its audio head unit) is unforgivably bad.  It’s confusing and low-rent, and you would do much better to replace it with an aftermarket unit.  The thing is, you shouldn’t have to.  I don’t care that it doesn’t have radar-guided cruise control or night vision, but the stereo is a basic thing, and doing it right doesn’t add much extra cost or weight, so Subaru doesn’t have much of an excuse on this one.  Still, it’s passably equipped if you’re willing to put up with the head unit’s nonsense. Dual-zone climate control is available, as is bluetooth for your phone–so the BRZ gets 2 points here.

Value: 5/10

This was a particularly difficult section to score.  On the one hand, if you can put up with the din of an engine note and the rough-and-ready interior and the exceptionally bad ride, then you’ll find a car that drives like an absolute dream, and at a totally compelling price.  The BRZ Premium I drove has an MSRP of $27,264, and the salesman I talked to said he would let go of it for $25,801.  That is an exceptionally low price for a car that steers and stops and hauls ass like the BRZ does.  But it’s entirely too much for a car with the BRZ’s interior and build quality.

For the right person, this car is a 10/10 value, but for the wrong person (count me in that category), it just doesn’t make any kind of sense to buy a BRZ.  So I’m going to split the difference, giving it a score of 5/10 for value.  If you get in this car and decide that you can deal with the depressing interior and the god-awful racket its engine produces and the way it crashes around over bumps, then I wholeheartedly recommend that you buy it.  But I cannot recommend it without that caveat.

No car should have to be judged against the hype which has been generated around the Toyobaru, and though I tried to rate this machine objectively, it was hard not to feel a pang of disappointment at the reality of the car that lurks beneath all that praise.  Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see what version 2.0 of this car is like.  And, unlike every other auto journalist in the world, I’m hoping that what gets added to BRZ 2.0 is not more power, but rather more refinement.  That would make all the difference in the world for this car.

Aggregate Score: 48/75 (= 64/100)

PRNDLoser RentalReview: 2012(?) Toyota Corolla LE

Welcome to PRNDLoser’s RentalReview feature, where we give brief but detailed reviews of the rental fleet cars we encounter in our travels.

This weekend, Budget Rentals stuck me in a Toyota Corolla.  As a long-time fan of cars designed with passion and soul, I was less than pleased with these circumstances.  Still, I thought, who knows?  Maybe this car, with the best-selling nameplate in the history of automotive sales, will have a charm of its own.  Maybe Japan’s volume sedan for the masses will have some sort of character.  Spoiler: no, no it does not.


Exterior: 3/10

This car gets one point because it does, in fact, have an exterior, and a second point because it’s actually a rather pleasing shade of red.  The third point is for it not being as hideous as the Pontiac Aztek, Fiat Multipla, or 2004/5 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback.


It’s a relatively inoffensive shape, but only because it is so completely anonymous.  There are one or two design flourishes—the outer corners of either headlamp, for instance, protrude slightly off the edge of the body.  This is a pretty common Japanese design touch, seen in the taillights on the Mazda3 hatchback and the headlights on the Nissan Juke and Nissan Leaf.  Another very Japanese design touch is the sharp tapering of the edges of the headlights, and the curious mixture of circles and lines in the taillights.  My impression overall is that the exterior looks busy, generic, and cheap.

Interior: 4/10


Oh, god.  I don’t even know where to start with this interior.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a car finished quite so unimpressively as this one.  It’s not that the controls are confusing—far from it.  They’re straightforward and relatively intuitive, but only because there are literally three of them.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of a simplified HVAC/infotainment system, and this is absolutely that.  The HVAC system isn’t the problem (and I’m definitely not complaining about a lack of superfluous buttons).  This car is just an unpleasant place to be.


You know how when you touch literally anything in a German car, it has a satisfying sort of weight to it?  Case in point: shut the door on a 3-series or a Golf, and it makes this gratifying whud that makes you pause and think,

“Wow, this car is incredibly well-engineered.  Forty engineers probably had to work nights and weekends to get the door to feel like this.  This door will still feel as solid as it does right now when I am dead in the cold ground.”

When you touch literally anything in this Corolla, it has just a little too much give in it (or not enough), to the point where you must pause and think,

“Wow, this is uncomfortable-feeling, but it probably won’t break.”

The thing is, a base Corolla costs $16,230.  A base Jetta costs $16,720, and its interior is light-years nicer than the Corolla’s.  What rational human being picks the Corolla over the Jetta?



This car’s interior gets four points because it’s fine.  It’s an interior.  It has (cheap-feeling) seats, and it’s not lacking any important controls.  And it’s not, strictly speaking, hazardous to your health in any way.  But it’s impossible to find a comfortable driver position, and everything feels unapologetically cheap.  Considering the high caliber of the Jetta’s interior, I don’t think Toyota has any excuse for how low-rent these materials are.  Hard plastics are everywhere, the head unit looks like it’s straight out of the 1990s, and the steering wheel is incredibly uncomfortable.  Oh, and I hate the way the numbers on the IP look.  They’re in some kind of italicized sans serif font that makes me want to retch.  And the interior lights don’t turn on when you open the car, even when you turn on the headlights, so that’s annoying anytime it happens to be dark out.  Bottom line: I didn’t know carmakers still sold things in the U.S. that could pass for 1990s vehicles, but if you stuck me in this car with a blindfold on, took it off, and asked me who was president when this vehicle was made, I would say it was Bill Clinton.


Ride: 4/5

One of this car’s only redeeming features is the way it rides.  It’s not unforgivably floaty, but on the badly-worn, potholed roads of upstate New York, it kept us satisfactorily insulated from turbulence.  Not a big surprise coming from a Toyota, but there you go.  I’ve been in cars that ride better, but not cars as small as this one.

Handling: 1/5

You expected something different?  The steering wheel is positively numb.  I chucked it into a few corners at, shall we say, inadvisable speeds, and it tracked fine, but it inspired literally no confidence that we’d make it out of the corner pointed in the right direction.  Despite this, it still manages to torque steer off the line.  If I could, I would score this “depressing/5”

Brakes: 4/5

The brakes are actually quite nice, and easy to modulate.  They were a surprising bright spot in the hell that Toyota hat wrought.  Unfortunately, by day two of my experience with this car, it had developed an unfortunate squeak which reared its head every time I so much as looked at the pedal.  That was annoying, but the only thing that separates these brakes from a perfect 5/5 is that I’ve used better brakes before.  These are about all the brakes most people will need, though.

Gearbox: 1/10

I am extremely disappointed in this car’s gearbox.  I drove around for a while trying to figure out how many speeds the gearbox has, and eventually, not being able to suss this out by listening to the shifts (because the car was so determined to be in its highest gear at all times), I turned to the internet.  Wikipedia tells me it is a 4-speed automatic, and I’m sorry, but a four-speed?!  What year is this?


Long ago, I inherited my mother’s 2003 Lexus RX300.  That car had a four-speed transmission.  And, you know, this Corolla feels almost exactly the same to drive as that SUV which was produced ten years ago.

The car is constantly seeking 4th gear, so much so that I once floored it on a very steep hill trying to accelerate away from a light, and it refused to leave 4th.  Frequently I find that I mash the pedal to the floor, and it just hums away, one or two gears too high, refusing to come down to a gear where there’s some power.  I’m surprised there’s no Overdrive button on this thing.  It’s just pitiful, and by far my least favorite thing about the car.

Acceleration: 4/10

Here’s the most frustrating thing about this car.  The 1.8L I4 chucks out 132 bhp and 128 lb-ft, all of which is noticeable around 4250 rpm (the spec sheet says that peak torque is at 4400).  Now, in a car that only weights about 2,800 lbs, this is actually plenty of grunt for the car to get out of its own way if you can keep it in the torque band.  I’d almost call it peppy in second gear.  But!  The transmission—being the work of Satan himself—conspires at every moment to shove the car into 4th gear to maximize fuel economy (which it sort of has to do, being as it only has four gears to work with).  So every time you squeeze the throttle up a steep hill, it downshifts, revs for about two seconds, and then falls back into fourth, leaving you with no power.  It’s maddening.  The power is up there, but the gearbox won’t let you have it.  It wants you to be in fourth.

Now, the transmission does have individual manual gates for gears 1, 2, and 3 (which it needs, because in this car, “Drive” equals “fourth gear”), and that’s all well and good, but the automatic shift lever is vague and annoying to use, and if you’re going to have to shift every gear yourself anyway, what’s the point of having an automatic?  In short, the 4-speed transmission has completely compromised the utility of this otherwise competent engine.

Sound: 1/5

My girlfriend and I tried for about fifteen minutes to nail down exactly which kitchen appliance this sounds most like.  “Is it a blender?” I asked seriously.  “No,” she replied, “it’s more like the noise a vacuum cleaner makes when you lift it off of the carpet.” Ultimately we decided that the engine note most resembles an electric mixer on a low speed.  It’s not a pleasant sound.  So one moment you’re wishing the engine would just get out of fourth already, and the next you’re wishing it had stayed there instead of spinning up to 4000 rpm and making such a dismal din in the process.

The stereo is harmless—even if the head unit looks like an aftermarket piece from the late 1990s.  One weird thing, though: more so than other cars we’ve driven out here, the radio goes in and out of stations that I know to be perfectly fine in certain areas.  Anyway, I gave the Corolla a point for having speakers for the audio, and a second point for having an engine note at all (i.e., not being electric and therefore a silent assassin of joy).

Toys: 1/5

It doesn’t have any.  Unless A/C, cruise control, or power windows count as toys.  This is understandable, since it’s a rental, but still.  It gets one point for having an AUX-in port, but that’s it.

Value: 2/10


I got into this car thinking it would be anonymous, generic, boring-but-reliable transportation.  I thought, “You know, this is the best-selling nameplate on the planet.  Maybe this machine will resonate with the deep sense of quality that comes from things that simply work well.”  It did not.  I believe that the kindest thing I can say about the Corolla is that it is functional and it is probably not dangerous in itself.

I cannot recommend that you buy this car.  I cannot even in good conscience recommend that you accept one as a gift.  For basically the same money, you could have a Jetta, and for a couple grand more, you could have a Golf, and the gulf in quality between those VWs and this Corolla is simply immense.  The Corolla has been described as sort of a 7/8ths-scale Camry, but honestly, this isn’t half the car a Camry is.  And I hate the Camry!

It’s not often that I get the chance to write a review which takes the position that a car is irredeemably bad.  Most modern cars are good, or at least competitive with each other.  But this car feels like it may have been competitive a decade or more ago.  Today, if you buy this car, it is because you’ve never looked at any other car in that price range.  Don’t buy this car, because it’s not worth the money you’ll pay for it.  Not even close.

Aggregate Score: 25/75 (= 33/100)

I Am Captain Slow

It pains me slightly to admit this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I really want my car to be comfortable.  This is kind of a painful, heretical admission for me, but hear me out.

Two years ago, I bought a 2011 Mazdaspeed3.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me that the inside of the ‘speed3 was a nightmare of mismatched, rattling, cheap plastics, or that the designers of its suspension should be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.  I only cared that it had 263 horsepower and 280 torque, a stupid amount of power (especially for a front-wheel-drive hatch).  I loved that car for all its mad, ridiculous faults, because it accelerated like a wild beast and it cornered like few other cars I’ve driven.  But the ‘speed3 positively ruined my spine, and that’s why I’ve just recently sold it.  Next time I buy a car, I’m making ride quality a priority, and I don’t care if it’s a little bit slower than the fire-snorting Mazdaspeed3.

Matt and Rob will make fun of me for writing that last sentence.  Matt in particular, being the most Jeremy Clarkson-esque figure of our trio, will probably tell me that I’m no longer allowed in his garage after he reads this post, and he won’t let me touch his new engine.  But this blog is a place for differing perspectives, and I’ve just decided that in the spirit of that, I will be our resident Captain Slow: representing the interests of the performance-oriented motorist who also sometimes experiences back pain.

Top Gear’s James May—the real/eponymous Captain Slow—once (well, maybe twice) suggested that the Nürburgring should simply be bombed, since it is now used almost exclusively as a proving ground at which automakers are inspired to make their cars completely unusable on real-world pavement.  He has bemoaned the fact that the auto industry gets so bogged down in the pursuit of Good Handling and Nürburgring Lap Times that they forget to focus on the preservation of a vehicle’s occupants.

I agree with Mr. May on this point.  Having watched Top Gear for years, I never thought I would find myself agreeing with “Mister Slowly” (as the Italians call him), but after two years of owning a car that despised and brutally punished its occupants, I am utterly convinced that he is correct.  Luckily for me, cars which tread the fine line between comfort and performance do exist.  Before I talk about them, however, I’d like to spend a minute looking at what, precisely, is wrong with the Mazdaspeed that broke the writer’s back.

For those of you who don’t keep up with the historical chassis engineering of hot hatchbacks (and really, why wouldn’t you keep up with that?), I want to tell you two things about the 2011 Mazdaspeed3:

1)      It’s not, strictly speaking, a Mazda, and

2)      It’s older than you might think it is.

Underneath the hideous, characterful, goofy Mazda3 grin, the ‘speed3 chassis is basically a tweaked version of the last-gen Ford Focus chassis—and engine, for that matter; what Mazda calls its MZR 2.3L DISI Turbo is basically just a bored-out Ford 2.0L Duratec.  As you can see from this detailed walkaround of the MS3 suspension, it is stamped in many places with “FoMoCo,” short for “Ford Motor Company.”  That’s because Ford owned Mazda a few years back, and Ford therefore decided to give Mazda its platforms to underpin Mazda models.  The problem is that this car is still on sale, with a suspension engineered almost ten years ago, tweaked—not redesigned—by Mazda.  If you don’t know from experience, take my word for it: Mazda engineers only know how to make things sportier (read: harsher on real roads).

Judging by the acclaim which Mazda’s CX-5 and 6 have garnered in recent press, their solo engineering endeavors since the breakup with Ford are producing wonderful results, and I expect the forthcoming 3 (and strongly hinted-at ‘speed3) to be impressive indeed.  But when it comes time to put my money down on a vehicle, I’m going to end up in a VW GTI this time.  Why?  Because it has something in its history that few other models can claim—progressive, iterative development.

So right now, you’re probably asking yourself how in the name of all things holy I could possibly be excited about something that sounds as unexciting as “progressive, iterative development,” but hear me out, because this is the best thing about a lot of great cars.  Some of the best cars your money can buy right now are the products of decades of iterative development.

Porsche 911.  Mustang.  Corvette.  Class leaders by many metrics.  The 911 has been around for 50 years; next year will see the 50th birthday of the Mustang as well.  The Corvette is already over 60 years old.  Many things make these cars special, but one of the intangible things is the sense of tradition you feel when you get in one of these cars.  You get in a modern 911, and you think, “Wow, fifty years of engineering and refinement and re-engineering and crazy, off-the-wall ideas went into the creation of this one car.”  It is the ultimate, distilled expression of the work of dozens, maybe hundreds of brilliant minds working over many years.  This is what I’m talking about when I preach the benefits of progressive and iterative development: not just the feeling that a car is special because of its heritage (though that is a wonderful feeling), but indeed the results of the process: some great minds started with an exciting idea, and through the endeavors of countless more great minds over a long period of time, a lot of work has been put into the improvement of that idea, so that the idea is now light-years ahead of its original design, and as close to the perfect realization of the initial concept as possible.

Porsche has honed its insane rear-engine setup for fifty years.  Ford has made a sports coupe with a live rear-axle that handles better than a lot of cars with fully independent suspensions can manage.  The Corvette is a supremely American sports car and grand tourer, for less than the price of almost all of its rivals.  Just so, the GTI is the realization of the idea that a practical car need not be slow, uninteresting or unengaging—and that a fast car need not be hilariously impractical or impossibly rough-riding.

The Mazdaspeed3 is a second-generation vehicle—though I suspect that the only reason the third generation didn’t come along two years sooner is because Mazda has been in a deep financial mess.  The VW GTI is now in its seventh generation over the course of nearly four decades of development.  That’s as many generations as there have been of Corvettes.  The GTI has been refined, reinvented, and honed, over and over again, since the 1980s.  The mere fact that the GTI was the original hot hatch is by no means the thing that makes it the definitive hot hatch; the thing that does that is its refinement.  Others may do certain things better, but VW has been doing it longer.  Chris Harris once said (quite profoundly), “[The GTI] has a very particular set of responsibilities.”  Those responsibilities have developed over the years, as VW’s engineers decided what they wanted the car to be; now it has well-defined parameters for each successive generation, and a fanatically dedicated share of the market.

When I bought my erstwhile Mazda two years ago, I was ready to be a Mazda zealot.  I bought t-shirts with “Mazda” printed on them.  I bought a coffee mug that said “zoom-zoom.”  I was even thinking of joining an owners’ club.  But somewhere along the line, the car lost track of what I wanted—or maybe I lost track of what it wanted.  Driving the MS3 taught me a lot of things—it taught me how to manage understeer when you absolutely cook a corner.  It taught me how to shatter speed limits on interstates.  It taught me that even Japanese cars can have bits rattle and go wrong, forcing your already-ridiculous 3,500-mile service schedule into a never-ending spiral of trips to the garage.  Most importantly of all, though, that car taught me what kind of car I want to own (or, more bluntly, what kind of car I don’t want to own).  The second-generation ‘speed3, with its Ford chassis (seemingly dipped in liquid nitrogen to improve turn-in), its Ford motor, and its not-entirely-endearing styling inside and out, was something of a factory FrankenCar, and none of this was helped by the fact that it was a markedly uncomfortable place to be.  Some would call these quirks “marks of character.”  Having lived through them, I have some other language in mind.

I have high hopes for Mazda’s new ‘speed3 to really refine that car’s raison d’etre, but until those insane, mad, crazy engineers at Mazda figure out that their car will be driven by people with spines—and I really believe it will take another couple of generations of MS3 for that to sink in—I will have to put my Mazda t-shirts and mug in a box in the attic.  I’m prepared to replace the old zoom-zoom with a bit of Fahrvergnügen.

Hello (again), world

This is PRNDLoser, version 2.0 (I think).  Maybe it’s technically version 1.2.  I guess that depends on your perspective.

I thought I’d write a little about why I’m here–maybe speculate about why Matt has so graciously asked me to write here with him.

Matt and I agree about cars in a lot of important ways.  We think they should be more exciting to use than blenders.  And more challenging to use than blenders.  And better-looking than blenders.  You know what?  Just keep cars as different from blenders as possible.

We also agree that a manual transmission is an excellent thing.  I don’t share Matt’s full-throated support of a stick in every case, though–I really believe that there are a lot of applications where an automatic is the correct transmission.  There are many types of cars (and trucks) where the driver has a lot to worry about besides shifting, and a lot of these can be really enjoyable, and really well-suited to their respective purposes.  Luxury cars need automatics.  Family cars, too, are better for the tractability of an automatic.   They’re also great in vehicles which are meant for serious hauling: utility vehicles, (arguably) pickup trucks, and the like.  So I think having a (P-R-N-D-L) transmission doesn’t necessarily make someone a (P-R-N-D-Loser).

There are some gray areas around GTIs with dual-clutch flappy-paddles, and the death of the manual in thoroughbred sports cars (like Lamborghini and Ferrari), and we’re going to talk about that.  We’re going to talk about it earnestly, and we’re going to talk about it without sounding too pompous about the fact that we prefer three pedals.  We’ll get to that as this blog grows a little bit.  My point, for now, is that my perspective on the manual transmission is a little less die-hard than Matt’s, which I think is a good thing.  We can bring different perspectives to the table on that matter.

Oh, and Matt thinks that Porsche’s 7-speed manual is heresy, and to that I say, “Pish-posh, they’re Porsche.”  Porsche could make a car out of twigs and hammers, and I’d still drool over it.

I can’t vouch for Matt, but I like to think that we both believe that driving gives you a lot of control.  Feeling like you’re at the reins (if just barely) of hundreds of raucous, exploding horsepowers–that’s excitement.  That’s control.  That’s the sort of thing you can get addicted to in a hurry.  I think that sums up the message I want to convey to readers, new and old: this is a place for anyone who loves driving.

Matt and I have very different driving backgrounds.  I drive an ’11 Mazdaspeed3, which is mostly stock.  Matt is (as you can probably tell from his recent entries) the master of a Celica and an S2000.  Mine is a hatchback with an axe-murderer under the hood; his are a stellar GT and probably the best droptop driver’s car ever made (respectively).  It’s a decent contrast, that.

We don’t disagree on many key points, but we play different favorites–and I think that’s key.  Matt has a very strong relationship with Japanese manufacturers that I absolutely understand, but I think my next car is going to be German.  I’ve had my heart broken by Japanese makes one too many times.  I also have a fondness for the Corvette that borders on the obsessive, and I have an incredible yearning for classics–classic American cars, that is. I’m still hunting down my dream Chevy Corvair, a 1965 with a turbo and a 4-on-the-floor.

Mostly, I think I’m here because I love driving and I love writing.  I’m also going to merry old England next year for graduate school, so I will of course be reporting on whatever tasty EU-only cars that I can get my hands on.

For now, though, I think there’s only one thing to say:

It’s great to be back.