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)

A Daring Proposal – “Traction Control: On”

Firstly, I want to briefly apologize for the lack of posts. Maybe you care, maybe you don’t – but I’ve been in the midst of summer classes, car work, and moving. I’ll let you decide the greater from the lesser.

Nonetheless, I want to share a brief revelation I had the other day. My family had Chinese for a takeout dinner the other night, from a place a few miles west of my parents house. I elected not to drive the Celica there. Instead, I took my Mom’s Acura TSX.

The TSX is not really an ordinary TSX. It’s the Sport Edition. It has a Six-Speed gearbox (yes, manual), three pedals, and sway bars larger than the sun(I’m not kidding, those suckers are like 40mm in diameter). Dare I say, it’s actually fun to drive. Except for the Traction Control. Now, I hate traction control. I feel as though it’s an example of the Nanny State trying to tell me what I can and can’t do. Anyone who tells me what to do pisses me off and makes it so I forego sleeping that night and instead plotting revenge.

I do not like Traction Control. I don’t own a car with it. I don’t really plan on owning a car with it. Sure, it’s a safe thing, but Driver Education I feel always wins. There’s more here though. More aside from that (stupid and overrated) safety aspect. Based on a strategic sample of cars equipped with Traction Control (2 coupled with the quite-excellent simulator that is Forza), I can’t stand it. Not because it keeps me in a straight line, but because it interferes. Even in the TSX I can feel when the tires are about to lose grip, and I have already compensated for that. In Forza, I can’t drive with the “Traction Control” on because I correct because it does. So then it kicks in and puts me in a bush. Sure, it tries to help. But it fails miserably and pisses me off. Not to sound full of myself, but I’m better than it. I know what my car is going to do before the traction control kicks in because I’m the one telling it what on earth I want it to do. I don’t think Traction Control can do that.

So I want to propose leaving Traction Control turned off by default. What about those people who don’t know how to drive? Well, newer cars are already set up with such a predictable understeering suspension that I think the only hazard is someone learning how their car responds to being driven.

Anyway, more to come. Just my 2 cents.

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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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)

A Strange Farewell to My Childhood Hero

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My childhood hero, unlike most conventional people, is not a person. And if you would have asked me the question of “Who is your childhood hero?” a matter of years ago, I would have had a completely different answer.

I’m here to say though that this is my hero: a Toyota 5S-FE engine. In particular, really, this 5S-FE. It’s from my Celica. There are countless amounts of my blood and sweat on the engine block. And lots of cursing and profanity and pondering and sitting in my parents garage at 5 in the morning with a wrench in my hand trying to figure out what is going on. This 5S-FE is what got me into cars. It was my first engine. 80,000 miles of it’s life was spent under my command. It powered my first car, gave me my first ounce of freedom, and my true first taste of satisfaction.

I digress though, there’s more. You see, me and this engine actually go much farther back than 2007 when I bought my Celica. in fact, me and this engine go back to 1993.

You see, my mom had one of these:

A 1993 Toyota Corolla. You might be thinking “Hey, 1993 is awfully close to 1994”. And you’d be right. I admit, the Celica and the Camry share quite a great deal of parts. The Camry my mom had also had a 5S-FE mated to an S54 manual transmission. It comprised my earliest memories of being in a car. I’d ask my mom about shifting or what RPMs meant, and the relation to road speed.

But it goes further, because my mom also had one of these:

A 2000 Toyota Camry. It too had an identical drivetrain to the 1993. A 5S-FE (Albeit, one generation newer) and an S54 manual transmission. I remember this one more fondly, but for one big reason.

I learned how to drive a manual transmission on that 2000 Camry. And that S54 gearbox that I’d go on to own several years later. It’s one of those odd cases of something that sticks around in your life but you never really notice it.

Earlier today I tore down my 5S-FE. All 218,560 miles on it. It’s hard not to get a little sentimental. It’s the engine that got me interested in cars and gearboxes. It taught me how to drive. It taught me how to work on a car. It got me where I am today. And for that, I salute you 5S-FE.

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.

A Means to an End: Why We Get Up

Upon meeting a new person I default to two general set of questions that I ask them. The first is:

“Why did you get up this morning? Why are you alive? Why not just kill yourself? What are you doing that’s useful? Or are you just aimlessly wandering around and wasting air for the rest of us?”.

The second question (more important in my opinion) is:

“What are you passionate about? What is that thing that when you sit down for a cup of coffee with somebody and a certain topic crops up that you could find yourself chatting about for hours with ease? The thing that lights a fire inside of you?”

Now I wouldn’t call assaulting a new relationship with these interrogations standard to the norm. That’s exactly why I ask them. I have substantial problems with people asking the vague and standard questions of: “What’s your major? What do you want to do? How was your day?” (and not actually giving a hoot about how your day really was). Those questions are bland, and usually courtesy questions. I’m not about courtesy questions, I’m about getting to know the real you. What were the events that shaped your identity into the person that stands before me? What do you struggle with on a constant basis? What do you really enjoy, and why you enjoy it?! Sub-standard relationships are boring and unfruitful to me, and for that I chose to ignore them for the more important and depth filled encounters that I come across.

I’ve been asking varieties of those two essential questions (why not kill yourself, and what are your passionate about) for around two years now to a host of individuals with varying responses. Usually the person is pushed back on their feet conversationally by the barrage and is uncertain as to how to answer such an inquiry. But after a few examples and guiding comments there arise some answers. Few people actually find themselves a substantial answer to the first one, but always some response to the second. Those range from a  love of music, working with animals, bringing a changing force to society, helping people or what have you. The beautiful thing about these discussions is that unless an honest answer is found the question will bite at the individual until such a conclusion has been reached.

However the questions always turn their attention from the person whom I asked them to, back to my own response. I found a long time ago that if you ask questions like that and don’t have answers for yourself it voids your authority to ask such questions. Because of this I give these inquiries much thought on a regular basis since the answers are malleable and dynamic. My response two years ago looks a little different than it does today.

My response lately to the first question came in the middle of a class I took last semester at my university. The answer had little to do with the social psychology class I was sitting in, but more to do with where I was at in my life. At this time I had just recently broken up a long-term relationship that meant very much to my on a personal level and the absence of said relationship left a void and many questions about my identity. When such identity questions arise I take them to what I consider my God, a higher power that has saved my life on many occasions. Now don’t discount this post, my ideas and thoughts due to my relationship with a higher being as I understand Him. Rather approach the rest of this with an open mind and save that debate and prejudice for a later discussion. I sat in my early morning lecture quite depressed and lost with the radical emotional changes of this break up. The professors words entering one ear and leaving the other with much ambivalence. I was asking why did I show up to class today, why am I still trying? I got a response. “Wake up my beloved son. There is life to be had today, come alive in me and be free.” Though there is nothing of substance to those words alone, but spoken to the depths of me at that particular time they hit me like a sack of bricks. The right answer for the right time. I wake up every morning because there is life to be had. I am not alive on this earth to wander aimlessly, I am here for a purpose. This answer lead into a response to the second question…

My passions are cars (why I’m writing on this blog), writing and people. I love people. Over the past two years I’ve had countless opportunities to walk alongside dozens upon dozens of young men and women as they search for the answer to the first question. To dig into the trials and tribulations they were suffering and provide help. There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching someone who is struggling so hard with life one day wake up and have the light behind their eyes beam up and everything click into place. A deeper understanding of why we wake up everyday. This gift I’ve been given to aid others in times of emotional wars brings me no greater joy and meaning to why I wake up. On the reverse side many of these men have been able to aid me when I’ve fallen down. A true connection and community in relation with others. What we are all searching for.

Now you might be asking, this is all fine and dandy, but what does this have to do with cars on an auto-blog? I’m glad you asked. I’ve been working on cars for about four years now, I’m a self-taught mechanic who’s owned more cars than years I’ve been alive. I have done every job on a vehicle except a transmission rebuild or a quality paint project (I have done a few rattle-cans and Rustoloem jobs). I’ve always been a tinker, I can remember when I was a kid I would take random objects in my house apart to see what was inside. I didn’t always get them back together though, my parents didn’t like that part….However through the process of learning how to work on cars and spin wrenches around I have found it to be a very meditative process for me. In essence car repair is quite simple. If broken, remove parts to access broken piece, replace then re-install in reverse order. Any gear-head will know though it isn’t always that simple. There are stuck bolts to deal with, rusted on pieces, broken knuckles and such. Why all of this is important however is how automotive related ideas can be the spark (means) to a new community and relationships (the end).

If you go to a car meet-up you will find an eclectic group of people who would not co-mingle otherwise. A skin-head with tattoos talking to 60-year-old man about a classic 454 V8 in a fastback mustang. A 16-year-old kid who works at McDonalds with a Honda Civic talking to a 29-year-old IT Consultant with an Integra Type-R. Cars open the door to a whole host of new interactions that otherwise wouldn’t exist. There is a love and bond created over the engineering quality of a vehicle, or the exterior design that just can’t be formed any other way. If you read websites such as Canibeat or Stanceworks their origin stories start out in the same fashion. Some guys bonded over a genre of cars that they loved and life-long families were born. Not just friendships, but brothers who carry each other when no one else will. The point of me working on my car isn’t the inanimate object itself, but it’s what I get out of that frame wearing rubber shoes in relation to others that makes it significant. The relationships I’ve formed through auto-work when someone heard that I can work on a car and didn’t want to take their truck into a shop where some guy named Gary doesn’t actually give a shit if the job is done right or not. But I do. Because I give a shit about you.

My roommate just swapped a 3s-GE Beams engine into his 6th generation Celica. Over the six weeks that this project took place we argued about how to do things, bickered over whose car was better and almost got into some fist fights. But even through that there is a bond that him and I share that started with our love of cars and torquing down bolts to the right specification that goes beyond the bickering. I ask him hard questions because I care about his overall well-being, I push him (sometimes too far) because I know he has more potential than what he is giving. That’s the end that matters, not the means of a car that will come and go. But the substance that is formed over them.

So why do you get up? What are you passionate about? Where does your meaning in this life lay?

matt and I

Holy Crap Autocross

Autocrossing – known as Solo in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) terms is many things. As a race, it’s time trials around a course set up exclusively for that day with orange traffic cones outlining the route, in a parking lot. It’s competitive – there’s nationals – and there are different classes, and different rules. It’s surprisingly fast. Think racing in the realm of 30-45 miles per hour. Maybe faster. Autocross is also one of those things though where you want to do it, but you never get around to it. Far too often I think it gets treated as “I should go, but I don’t know where to begin, maybe I’ll wait or do some upgrades to my car or get some new brakes at least” and then the season is over and you partook in no racing whatsoever.

What it should be instead is more like “Man, when can I get down to the bank to collect my $10,000 cash prize” because it really is that great.

This past weekend, I had an easy entry into it. I attended an autocross school on Saturday and then raced competitively on Sunday. What I found was this: It’s extremely fun. Extremely, extremely fun. Who doesn’t like driving cars? No one reading this blog certainly. If you have qualms about not knowing anything or anyone or the like, put them away. Everyone who autocrosses is exactly like you – which is to say AWESOME! – so don’t fret about it. Now, do read up on what working a corner is like and some basics for how to drive, but you’re wanted to there. People will be accommodating. And you’ll have tons of fun.

As far as me? Out of the kindness of their heart I got to drive an S2000 outfitted with R-Compound tires(I told you the people are nice). They’re amazing. I also got 907 points (out of 1000 – they normalize it across all cars that run) so I did really, really well for my first time out. You too should be there. If you’re in the Denver Area like me, check out http://www.rmsolo.org or http://www.scca.com.

One last reason why you should do autocross? Because when I sat down in my summer class on Monday, someone asked “So Matt, you’re a race car driver, right?”. Yes, yes I am.

Electric Cars and Me – Part 1

TL;DR I do not like Electric Cars. Cool. Because this post was originally quite long, and after some editing and slicing and dicing, it’s been trimmed of excess fat quite excessively.

Here’s where I want to start. Electric Cars are not ostentatious. Here I’ve provided you with a dictionary definition of what I mean:

Ostentatious, adjective:

1) intended to attract notice

2) characterized by or given to pretentious or

 conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others

Stellar. Now, I personally, I define ostenatiousness(it’s not a word unless you’re me – deal with it) by the sound. Herein lies the key issues. Electric cars are silent. Sure, you can throw some speakers on them and make them seem more exciting than they really are, but by definition electric motors are silent and hence electric cars are silent.

Some may call Silence a good thing. I do not. I like attracting attention. No matter how pretty an electric car is – if it’s bright orange and has twenty-four inch wheels – if I’m not looking out the window while eating dinner and it drives by, I’m not going to notice it. Plain and simple. Replace that blasted electric piece of worthless garbage though with a bright orange Lamborghini that is shooting fire out it’s exhaust pipe (and for once, not because it’s on fire, but because it’s burning gasoline in it’s engine like it’s supposed to), then you can bet I’ll turn my head right around and try to catch a glimpse of the beast.

Here’s an analogy that I sort of like. My friend Rob (who hopefully someday will join the ranks of writers here at PRNDLoser) and I came up with it the other day.

Imagine you’re out to dinner with a lovely woman(or man, if you prefer). They’re great. They’re attractive. They’re wearing a great outfit. Hell. They’re the single most physically attractive specimen of the human race that you have ever seen. There’s just one issue. They’re mute. They can’t talk(just roll with some ‘magical realism’ of mine here, please). No matter how much you want them to be able to, they’ll never look at you with their great set of eyes and say something like “Lets go steal some street signs, tear up the town and wreck havoc”. They don’t ooze danger or excitement because, well, they simply can’t be exciting. They can’t even say “Lets get out of here. Your place or mine?”. They Can’t. Talk. At. All.

I think that the Internal Combustion Engine is that equally attractive person who will ask for the bill when the two of you have better things to do. It will be your partner in crime. The two of you will get thrown in jail for causing a public disturbance(like squealing tires or doing endless burnouts) – and I think that is a good thing.

If you’re lucky though, you might get to meet the attractive mute’s parents though. I’m sure they’re lovely people.

59 Horsepower of German Perfection – The (brief) Volkswagen Polo Review

PoloYou may recall that the last time someone handed me the keys to a rental car, I found myself with a 2011 Kia Optima. And I quite liked it.

This time though, I wasn’t just going to California, I was going to Germany. Germany. The land of no speed limits (which is entirely a story for another post). Alas though, after landing in Munich, I wanted in a 3 person line for about 20 minutes (I was told I should be prepared to wait). After some snafus, I had the keys to a 2011 Volkswagen Polo. The next twenty minutes were spent trying to find the stupid thing in the parking garage.

There was concern in the back of my mind that it would be an automatic. After all, I was from America. Thankfully though, it had a proper gearbox. That’s about all it had. They don’t do entry-level cars in America quite like they do entry level cars in other places. I wouldn’t be too surprised someday to be on a trip to Eastern Europe and getting asked if I would like all four tires that came with the car, or if 3 tires was sufficient. Anyway, here’s what my

Polo had:

  • Four snow tires
  • Four doors
  • Five gears
  • A very small fuel tank
  • A steering wheel
  • A radio

What it did not have:

  • More than four cylinders
  • More than 60 horsepower
  • Cruise Control
  • Any notion of comfort whatsoever

First though, I want to address the fuel economy. We drove it a lot. And while some of it was on unrestricted roads, most was on (unfortunately) restricted Autobahn. This meant that we were usually only doing 100kph. We got about 16 litres per 100 kilometres. This came out to be about 37 mpg. That was awful.

Awful why though? Because the car also had no power. I got it up to 170kph. It took quite a lot of time. That’s only a smidge over 100 miles per hour. The car could not go up hills.

With that said though, it was pretty fun to flick around town. I can’t recommend it for ever touching any sort of freeway though. As far as a city car it’s great. But really, in Europe with exceptional public transport, do you really need a city car anyway? (having not lived in Europe, I’m not sure)

I think you get the feeling on this car. One other thing though, like my Kia, the seats were awful. In fact worse maybe. Try driving 100kph for a few hours in the drivers seat and yet again I wanted to cut off my own bottom. Maybe it’s a rental car thing.