Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rental Road Test: Chevrolet Cobalt

A pleasant surprise. I actually wouldn’t mind owning one of these for the daily commute, especially given how cheap it would be. Back when they still made these (production ended in June), you could get a new one for around 13K-14K after rebates and CPO examples with 30,000 miles can be had for 10K or less.

For the money, this is a surprisingly competent car. I expected it to be terrible, like the Cavalier was, but after driving it for a bit I’d hesitate to can’t even call it “bad”. Certainly not class leading, like the Civic, but not awful by any measure.

Build quality and fit and finish is very poor, much worse than any competitor, and the car doesn’t give the impression that it would be very robust in the long run. Otherwise, the Cobalt is a thoroughly average compact commuter car in nearly every respect.

The Cavalier was noisy, rough, uncomfortable, and just decidedly crude feeling overall. In comparison, the Cobalt is actually quite pleasant. Around town, road noise is insulated slightly better than a Civic, but not as well as a Corolla. Wind noise on the freeway is more prevalent than in most new cars, but in the city the cabin stays reasonably civilized, and in any situation the Cobalt is quieter than most of the budget-priced offerings you’ll find a class below (I’m looking at you, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Aveo).

Ride quality is similarly middle-of-the road among compacts. Both a Civic and Corolla are noticeably more refined, but the Cobalt is not so far behind as to be intolerable. The soft suspension cushions small imperfections reasonably well, and the chassis is surprisingly rigid, especially given how much GM has struggled with this in the past. Still, expansion joints and frost heaves filter through with a more pronounced impact than you would find in the Honda or Toyota. Larger bumps, such as a poorly maintained railroad crossing or a non-flush manhole cover, can upset the suspension and bring out undue harshness. Overall, the Cobalt is comfortable enough, but not quite as stable and composed as a Civic.

A few compacts, like the Civic and Golf, are engineered to a more precise standard and have a sharper feel in the handling department. Most take the Toyota-style appliance route of low-effort controls inputs and an easy-to-drive demeanor. The Cobalt falls directly into the latter category, feeling much like a Corolla behind the wheel. The steering is light and somewhat slow, and the brakes are highly assisted with a slightly mushy pedal feel. Handling is strictly pedestrian – not great, not terrible, body motions are kept in check but the car doesn’t even pretend to be sporty. The Cobalt was designed for stress-free commuting, and it gets the job done with little fuss.

No doubt due to a significantly larger engine than its competitors, the Cobalt is among the quicker compacts. Acceleration is almost on par with a 4-cylinder mid-size sedan, with 0-60 times closer to 9 seconds rather than the 10-second compact norm. More impressively, engine noise and refinement is several notches higher than GM’s past attempts at small cars. It’s not quite Honda-smooth, but neither is it Grand-Am-grittty. Smooth transmissions have always been one of General Motors’ few strong points and the Cobalt does not disappoint there, despite having a very outdated four-speeds. A fifth and sixth gear would be helpful on the freeway where the Cobalt cruises at a high 2500 RMP, but otherwise the lack of speeds is not glaringly obvious.

Typical of General Motors, space efficiency is not a strong suit. Despite being one of the largest compacts in exterior dimensions, the interior is significantly less roomy than most competitors. The backseat is downright cramped, and the front seats feel somewhat confined due to overly thick door panels (another GM trademark) and a low roof. On the bright side, the cowl and beltline are both reasonably low and visibility is downright good by today’s standards, even though this is only due to the car’s dated styling. The driving position takes some getting used to; the interior is a time warp to the days before telescoping steering wheels, so the pedals are either too close or the wheel too far away.

I came away impressed with the Cobalt. Not impressed with the car objectively, but impressed with the car given my expectations. Every time I evaluated a new quality – ride, noise, handling, solidity, space, overall refinement - the thought that went through my mind was “it’s almost as good as a Civic, but not quite”. The Cobalt is a sound car, competing with better ones. It’s qualities are only 2/3 of the Civic, and it will probably only last 2/3 as long, but it is also 2/3 the price. Not everyone wants to pay a hefty premium for refinement, and if you just want a reasonably comfortable and pleasant commuter car to buy on the cheap and run for a few years, the Cobalt is not a bad choice.

That is, if they still made them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Test Drive Terror: The Unstoppable DeVille

Test drives can be disappointing. Almost as often, they’re impressive. Once in a while, they’re downright fun. But sometimes, just sometimes, a test drive is a terrifying adventure.

Looking for a half-decent car below $2000 is not a particularly easy task. It can be done, but it takes some diligent searching. Having decided to pick up a cheap spare beater to drive for a few months and then flip, I set out on a search. On the list of possibilities – a dark green 1996 Cadillac Sedan DeVille listed for $1900.

It looked very good – shiny paint, no rust, no dents, clean white leather interior. Turned the key and the Northstar V8 came to life, quietly. Seemed pleasant enough.

I took the car around a bit, and apart from a clunky suspension and weak, worn-out brakes, it was acceptable for how I’d expect a 90s DeVille to drive. Before I went back to the dealer, I decided to stop and give a walk around, maybe pop the hood, give it a look over. I pulled into an empty parking lot a few blocks down from the dealership, and shifted it into park. Suddenly, I heard a slightly loud noise coming from under the hood. It sounded like some sort of accessory motor, maybe for the rear air suspension, so I got out and popped the hood. Couldn’t figure out what it was. Got back in, shifted into reverse, and immediately the car jolted and started moving backwards at a frightening pace. I had to really stand on the brakes to get it to slow down. I continued backing out the space, shifted into drive to pull away, and once again, felt a hard, jerking jolt and the car started to fly forward. It was quite clear what was going on – the motor was stuck at part throttle rather than idle. Since the target demographic of this model was primarily octogenarians, there was no tachometer, and the V8 was so naturally quiet I couldn’t even tell it was revving high.

I looked down at the gas pedal, and it wasn’t stuck. Since the car had been sitting on the lot for weeks if not a month, I was afraid to turn it off and restart the engine, because the battery might be too drained to handle it. Somehow, I had to get this thing back to the lot. I would just have to be very careful and keep my foot on the brake.

Oh, but that wasn’t all that was wrong with this damn thing. There was a plethora of electrical issues, and among them, neither of turn signals were functioning. Not a big deal… just wait for room and take extra care when changing lanes, right? Only problem – the dealership was located on a high volume one-way street, and I was test driving it during rush hour on a Friday.

Needless to say, traffic was crawling along, bumper to bumper. The street had three lanes, and the dealership was on the opposite side than the parking lot I had stopped the car in. Not only did I have to get out into the street, I had to get all the way to the other side. I nudged the nose of the Cadillac out, and the drivers in the two closest lanes made a small hole in the traffic flow to let me in. Seizing the opportunity, I quickly pulled into the middle lane. As I crawled along in the sea of cars, I flipped the signal up to the right, so someone would make a space to let me in the far lane. Oh! That’s right, it doesn’t work. But the dealership was right there! Past the lot I went, stuck in the wrong lane. No problem… just have to get in the left lane, make a turn at the next intersection, and circle the block again. Damn! That signal doesn’t work either. So there I was, stuck in the middle lane of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, completely neutered of any navigating abilities. Keep in mind, all this is happening while I’m standing on the brakes to keep the car under control.

What fun. I could be stuck here for miles, crawling along at the mercy of the traffic flow, and if I let off the brakes at any moment the free-revving engine might propel the thing into the back of the next car in line. NO! I was not going to put up with this. Closer and closer I came to next intersection. If I didn’t turn left here and circle the block, it would be at least another mile before I had the chance. I had to get out of here and back to the dealership before this car killed me, it was now or never. I was now in the intersection, almost through it. I had to make the turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight break in traffic to my left. It might even be big even to fit the car through. Maybe. It was my only chance. Suddenly, as if possessed by the fear of being in this situation for any longer than I had to, I floored the gas and yanked the steering wheel sharply to left. The body flopped onto its side and tires squealed in protest as the brute Cadillac squirted sideways. A symphony of angry horns erupted around me, one of them no doubt that beige Malibu in that nearly took out my left tailfin.

Phew, I made it. Hmmm… it looks like I may kill myself before the car has the chance to. Ah well, people do crazy things when they’re scared. Around the block I went, and somehow navigated into the dealership lot without any further incident. Quickly, I parked it and turned the engine off. It was all over.

“How’d you like it?”, asks the salesman as I walk in to return the keys.

“Let’s just say, I’m no longer interested.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

Road Test: 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle

At last, a drive in a Bug that isn’t a rolling piece of Scheiße.

According to owner, and, judging by the way it looked/drove, this is probably the closest thing to a brand new 1971 Super Beetle available in the entire state at this point, if not the entire country. Bone stock in every way, right down the non-retractable seatbelts. My expectations were very high.

Which is why I was so disappointed. I had always assumed that my late mother’s 72 Bug (which, by the way, I have seen driving around every so often with its new owner) was so crappy feeling because it was old, worn out, and hadn’t been taken care of. Well, it turns out they felt like that when they were new, too. The closest thing I can liken it to is a 1940s farm tractor, which, if you think about it, is what the Type 1 really is. A Chevrolet Aveo is a Mercedes S-Class in comparison, and, amazingly, that is not even the slightest bit of an exaggeration.

It seems almost useless to make objective measurements in comparison to anything even vaguely modern, as the levels of unrefinement are so wildly off the charts. What bothered me the most was that, at any given time, it sounded and felt like the thrashy little engine was sitting right next to you. In the past, I’ve made snarky comments in my reviews of modern economy cars about how it seemed like there was no insulation anywhere on the body at all. With the Bug, there literally isn’t any insulation on the body at all. In all but steady cruising in 3rd or 4th gear, it is difficult to hold a conversation with the passenger sitting right next to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you if there was any road or wind noise, the damn engine was so ear-splittingly loud.

On the other hand, it did ride better than I expect, thanks to generously sized tires and a softly sprung suspension. The steering wasn’t half bad either, and despite being manual the effort was almost equivalent to an overboosted power unit you would find an old Lincoln. I can only assume this is due to there being almost zero weight over the front wheels, with both the engine and driveline being placed out back. The brakes… yikes. Manual, no-antilocks, coming to a stop was an event every time.

As a whole, driving just a couple blocks took an intense amount of effort. Rather than the car being an entire unit that effortlessly worked in harmony, each part of the driving experience – steering, brakes, clutch, throttle, shifter – had to be closely monitored and kept in check at all times. This is in contrast to most modern cars, where two of those variables are removed altogether and the other three are largely taken care of by the car itself, with only slight inputs from the driver. It really is a whole different world.

I can’t see how a car like this would make a plausible daily driver. If it took that much effort (and fear), to a go a mile or two, I can’t imagine what it must be like for thousands. At least it helped renew my appreciation for the technology we have now. I think I’ll leave this one to someone else, and admire it on the road and in parking lots rather than in my own driveway.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Memory Lane: The Big Brown Cadillac

When I was around four or five years old, my best friend Sonya’s grandma owned a brown 1980s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I can still picture it there, sitting in her parents’ driveway when she would come to visit every month or two. This was in the mid-90s, and back then, every old person in Michigan – and I mean every old person - drove a big, rectangular, excessively ornamented 1980s Detroit land barge. Nowadays we call them pimpmobiles, but to my young eyes, it was the ultimate grandma car. So huge, so square, so formal and old fashioned from the chrome tailfins to the proud, shiny hood ornament. No one under the age of 70 could possibly have one. Certainly not either of my frugal, Toyota Corolla-driving parents, not a chance.

One day, Sonya and I were playing hide-and-seek outside her house. I needed a place to hide, and fast. Her grandma happened to be visiting at the time… see where this is going? It was right there, sitting in the driveway, like the Titanic next to the green Ford Escort that Sonya’s dad owned at the time. I quickly swung open the heavy driver’s door and stealthily climbed inside. It slammed behind me, and there I lay, sprawled across the leather bench seat, body pressed flat against the upholstery as to be completely hidden from sight. In retrospect, fooling around in an adult’s car without their knowledge or permission was probably not to most polite thing to do, but I was too young to realize it at the time. Or maybe I was just an inconsiderate brat. Yeah, that's probably it.

I laid there for quite a while, feeling so proud of my clever hiding spot. But no one came. You see, that is the fundamental flaw with the hide-and-seek. It is a lose-lose proposition. If you are found, your hiding spot was mediocre. If you’re not found after a sufficient amount of time, your hiding spot was excellent, and you want to show it off. But no one will ever know about it, because they never found you.

So, my smug satisfaction having turned to frustration with Sonya’s sub-par seeking ability, I decided to climb out of the super-sized chamber of unapologetic luxury. As a sat up to open the door, I got a quick glimpse of the dashboard out of my peripheral vision. Whoa! Hold on a minute! The interior of this car was almost as wild as the exterior! It was all so foreign to me, having been born and bred on Japanese econoboxes. I distinctly remember being absolutely entranced by the horizontal strip speedometer. It was completely flat; straight across the dashboard! And the digits were all so thin and stylized, or, to quote it more in line with my four-year-old vocabulary; “fancy looking”. How I desperately longed to see it in action. But wait… it stopped at 85 miles per hour. What happened if you went above 85? Did the car explode? Oh, the mysteries of youth. So many questions, no answers.

Sonya never did find me that day. As the years went by, the Cadillac graced the driveway less and less frequently until, eventually, grandma passed away and I never saw it again. Oh well, it was back to mom’s silver Corolla. *Sigh*. Why couldn’t my parents be old and have a cool car with shiny tailfins and a fancy looking speedometer that spread straight across the dash?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Road Test: 2011 Honda CR-Z

I forgot to get out my camera at the dealership, so I do not have any photos to share here. Hopefully I will manage to get some later and revise this. For now, stock photos must suffice.

On paper, I love the idea of this car. And the styling (sans grille) is certainly very sharp. But it just doesn’t feel complete.

The driving experience can be likened to a weird cross between a Prius and a Civic. Much of it is very Honda-esque; the steering and brakes, for instance, could have come straight out of my dad’s Civic LX that I drove to the dealership. Which is to say; quick, firm, relatively responsive. The suspension is considerably harsher than in the Civic, but this translates into much less lean in turns and a more buttoned-down feel overall.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t get that “sporty” feeling behind the wheel. Much of this is a due to a very un-Honda-like attribute – an extremely high front cowl and closed-in cockpit, both of which have the unfortunate effect of making the car seem much larger than it is. This is a tiny car - much smaller than a Civic – but it did not feel like it. No matter how well sorted the suspension and steering, a car will never seem nimble if it does not “feel” small from the driver’s seat.

The powertrain is equally disappointing. No, it is not quite as slow as many reviews would have you believe, but what bothered me most was the CVT transmission. Now, this is the first car I have ever driven with a CVT, so perhaps I’m just not used to it. It is certainly something that you have to experience yourself, so I will refrain from describing what exactly I dislike about it. Actually, I can’t really put it in words, nor am I sure what it is I don’t like about it. All I really know is that I just don’t like it.

Transitions from gas to electric are much smoother than in the previous generation Prius, a car that sends a long and pronounced shake through the entire body with its engine on/off mode. Having not experienced a Gen3 Prius yet, I cannot compare it to the CR-Z. Though not quite as slow as many reviewers would have you believe, almost any other car will outrun the CR-Z in a drag race, including the base Civic. Typical of Honda, this engine revs very high (nearly 7000 RPM), and you are certainly audibly aware of it under WOT, something you will be doing often given the 0-60 time north of 10 seconds.

It goes without saying that there is an abundance of road, tire, and suspension noise present; after all, this is a Honda. Having said that, it is not as objectionable as you would think. Oddly, the sporty mission of the car almost makes it seem a required part of the package. More connection to the road, I guess? Who knows. Bottom line; if you want quiet, there will always be Corollas.

Overall, I couldn’t decide whether this car wants to be fun and sporty or practical and efficient. It’s too compromised for the former, not quite appliance-like enough for the latter.

Comparisons always bring out the best and worst of a particular model. In the CR-Z's case, slipping back into the Civic LX after the test drive did not provide a favorable comparison. Visibility! Ride quality! A genuine gasoline engine and a transmission that actually shifts gears! Hallelujah!

In the end, the only real hope I see for this car in terms of success is in its styling. Though it does most everything competently, it does not function as a legitimately sporty car nor does it function as a true Hybrid. Lower the cowl, offer a more powerful all-gas powertrain (the Civic motor would work nicely), and most of its shortcoming would be rectified. Otherwise, the sharp silhouette is the only way this car will likely gain any sales. A car selling solely due to its styling? Certainly not unheard of… how else did Ford sell so many of those god-awful Explorers back in the 90s?

Friday, September 10, 2010

New cars are cheap! : Part One

So, I decided to sit down and crunch the numbers on how much a new car really costs over time. The results were astounding and completely unexpected. I had always thought of new cars – even cheap new cars like Hondas - as a luxury… something you had to pay much more for than a used car, the “uneconomical choice”. But it’s looking like, when done right, it can actually be very affordable.

To come up with these numbers, I started with the price of the new car. Then, I went on and searched listings for one, two, three, etc –year-old cars and recorded the average prices out of thousands of national real-world used car listings (the site does this for you at the bottom of the page so it’s just a matter of typing in the year, make, model, and trim and copying the result). To find the overall “cost per year” at any given point in time, you simply subtract the corresponding value of the car from the original price and divide it by years of ownership. For example, if you buy a $20,000 car and it is worth $14,000 three years later, you divide 6000 (the difference in value) by 3 (the amount of years you’ve owned it) and find that you have spent a mere $2000 per year to own that car.

The chart above is for my Camry. The original transaction price was $21,900 (in retrospect I could have gotten a much better deal… but I digress), the other figures all come from the average Autotrader values (4-cylinder LE models only). First year depreciation is steepest, after that it levels off at a slower rate. The sharp 5-year-mark dropoff is no doubt due to that being the older generation (2006 model), from there onwards it declines rather steadily.

Granted, there are a lot of disclaimers here. For one, these result only apply if you pay in cash, since financing will not only cost more over time but also bind you to the car for a predetermined amount of years… I think 60 months is the typical term now, depressing as that is. I have yet to finance any car so I don’t really know.

Second, this can only really work if you choose a car that’s affordable in the first place (i.e. well under $25k) AND has stellar resale value, which these days pretty much limits your choices exclusively to Toyotas and Hondas. Again, fine by me, I decided quite a bit ago that those are the only the way to go for various other reasons.

Of course, maintenance and upkeep are not taken into account here either, but up until year five these costs should be minimal. My Camry actually has completely free maintenance for the first two years, courtesy of Toyota. Even if maintenance wasn’t free, assuming you have oil changes every 5,000 miles and that you drive no more than 10-12K per year, the cost will be under $100 per year. Hardly worth taking into account. By year four or five, you may have to start to factor in brakes, tires, and major services such as the 30K and 50K scheduled maintenance intervals (which will run in the hundreds), at which point it will be somewhat more expensive. Until year five any mechanical repairs will be covered under warranty, after that, they have the possibility to show up. Given that the cars in question, though, are Toyotas and Hondas, they should be able to easily make 100,000 miles (about 8 or 9 years) without any mechanical issues. Actually, some American and Korean cars are even able to that these days, but they still won’t be worth as much when it comes time to sell.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Well, the perfect amount of time to own a new car looks to be five years. At this point, the depreciation curve has leveled off, but additional costs in maintenance and repairs haven’t reared their ugly heads yet. By keeping it more than five years, you are risking repairs out of warranty that could add significantly to the overall cost of owning the car. Even so, plenty of people do this, and it is not unlikely that you will reach 10 years without too many out-of-pocket costs. To be safe, I’d pick five years since the “cost per year” (sans maintenance/repairs) is only a bit higher than in year 8 or 9, and there’s a lot less risk since it will be under warranty. Plus, that way, your car will never descend out of “late-model” territory, which is certainly a nice benefit.

For around $2000 per year you can buy a brand new car every five years. Sounds too good to be, true, doesn’t it? Just remember to choose a CamCord, pay in cash, don’t drive more than 12,000 miles per year, and it keep it for at least 5 years.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Rental Road Test: Dodge Avenger

Never before have I been so excited about something so mediocre. I’ve read a lot about the Chrysler Sebring over the past couple years, mainly in regards to how it’s the “Worst New Car in America”. So, of course, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a chance to try one out and see for myself what exactly all the fuss is about. Since the Avenger is nothing more than a Sebring dressed in (slightly) less hideous clothes, I figured it would provide pretty much the same experience.

Surprisingly, it’s not quite as unutterably awful as the reviews would lead you to believe. Which isn’t to say that it’s good, or that it even approaches “good”. The Avenger thoroughly and utterly defines what comes to mind when you think “Rental Car”.

Let’s start with what everyone knows already – Chrysler makes, by far, the worst interiors in the business. They also sport the poorest fit and finish this side of a Hyundai Excel. The Avenger is no exception to this. Just a few examples: The gap where the glove box meets the dashboard is large enough that my fingers fit inside; close examination of the trunk lid revealed a large clumpy paint splotch (almost like an assembly line worker dropped his used gum on the sheetmetal, and didn’t bother to take it off before the paint had been applied); and the headliner bends and folds to the touch as if it’s made of aluminum foil. These are just a few examples… I could easily go on. Long story short: This is the cheapest-feeling and most shoddily built car I have rented thus far, and *that* is saying something. As for interior materials, let’s just say the cabin of the Avenger make a Kia Rio feel upscale. About the only place you’re going to find lower grade plastics is inside a bus station, or, well… in a Dodge Caliber.

One part of the Avenger that really is as bad as they say is the powertrain. Yes, the fleet-grade four-cylinder is noisy, slow, and produces liberal amounts of vibration, but the unbearable 4-speed transmission is what really crashes the party. A good automatic transmission is a transmission you don’t notice. If you notice it, that means there’s something wrong with it. You shouldn’t hear it, you shouldn’t feel it, and you shouldn’t have to wait for it. 95 percent of new cars today - large and small, cheap and expensive - are somehow able to pull this off. So why can’t the Avenger?

Well, because it’s using the same four-speed “Ultradrive” transmission my 1992 LeBaron had. I remember the tranny in that car well – upshifts came with a jerking clunk, downshifts were by appointment only, and, worst of all, slowing down to stop produced the loud, intrusive, and unrefined whine of a gearbox at work. Cut, copy, paste – it all holds true for the Avenger. At least the wide gearing was less noticeable with the LeBaron’s torque-rich V6. You could almost write a book before the trans decides to downshift after stomping the pedal in the four-pot Dodge.

What keeps the Avenger from descending down into A.L.A. [Aveo-level awful] is how it manages to pass the “cruiser” part of the exam acceptably well. This rental-spec model with smallish 16-inch wheels actually rides quite decently, and, apart from the noisy engine and transmission, there is surprisingly little wind and road noise inside the cabin. Still, larger bumps pound through the suspension and cause the rigidly deficient chassis to flex and rattle with all the structural assurance of Chevrolet Celebrity. On all but the worst roads, though, the Avenger is relatively smooth and hushed. It’s a nice surprise in a car that otherwise assaults most of the human senses.

Apart from the relatively good ride and somewhat low noise levels, this car has little to offer over, erm… pretty much anything else on the market. Despite the fact that the Avenger is a mid-size sedan, a number of lower-priced compacts outperform it in a number of ways. Some outperform it in virtually every way. While evaluating the Avenger, I found myself indirectly comparing it to my father’s new Honda Civic – a less expensive car that is a whole size class below it. You don’t have to wait for the transmission in the Civic, and you don’t feel or hear it either. The engine, despite being smaller, is smoother, quieter, and produces little to no vibration or thrash. The ride is steady and supple, and the body stays rigid over rough surfaces. Materials quality and fit and finish? So far ahead they’re in another galaxy. Actually, apart from better sound insulation, I can’t think of a single way the Avenger outdoes the Civic. Save width, the Civic even has a larger interior, and, compared the Avenger’s prison-cell cockpit, the Honda feels much nicer thanks to its airy interior and good sight lines.

With the top-level 3.5-liter V6, six-speed automatic, and slightly better interior trimmings found on a higher trim level, the Avenger might even be able to approach “acceptable”. Still, the only way I would ever even begin to consider one as a serious purchase would be if the price was, really, really low….say; $15,000 maybe. No, wait, scratch that. You can get a base Civic for $15,000.

Yes, yes, I know… some seemingly mediocre cars are desirable for reasons other than objective qualities. They’re charming, they have character, they give you a special “feeling” behind the wheel. Sorry – the Avenger is not one of those cars. It’s mediocre and that’s all. In fact, the only “feeling” I get from this car is regret that I did not put forth the extra five dollars for that Impala I could have gotten.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: Chevrolet Aveo

Having sampled the top and middle sections of the automotive food chain in my previous rental road tests, it was time to get down and dirty at the bottom of the heap. The perennial bottom feeder, the not-so-spectacular subcompact everyone loves to hate, insert additional pretentious snobbery here: The Chevrolet Aveo.

I have yet to read a positive review of the Aveo. It seems that everyone from Consumer Reports to to the biased jerks at The Truth About Cars have a unanimous disapproval of this Daewoo-cum-Chevy. I always assumed they were just spoiled by all the luxury and sports cars they get to spend time in, and that they had lost touch with the average car buyer. Basically, I thought they were simply being whiny babies.

Well, apparently I’m a whiny baby too, because I cannot find a single redeeming quality in this car apart from the roomy interior.

Some will argue that the Aveo is a simply a cheap little economy car… “It costs 10,000 dollars, it’s not supposed to be quiet or have a good ride”. To that I say; for $10,000 you can get an 8-year-old Lexus that runs circles around the Aveo in every single regard, or if you prefer a 4-year-old Corolla that is still so wildly superior it’s not even on the same level.

Now let's get to the car itself. Perhaps the worst part of the Aveo, and the part that puts me off to it the most, is the engine. Open the hood and you will find a warning label reading “FOR AGRICULTURAL USE ONLY”. If you have never heard the automotive term NVH, take one ride in the Aveo and the meaning will become quite clear. Go ahead, pull up to a stoplight and let the engine idle at rest for a moment… but make sure to remove your hands from the steering wheel first so the vibration doesn’t break your wrists. Ever wonder what it’s like to puncture an eardrum? The answer requires nothing more than a deep stab at the Aveo’s accelerator. Just be prepared to hold it down for a while, since you won’t be going anywhere quickly.

Now let’s move on to sound insulation. Wait… sound insulation? What’s that? Around here, we put a lot of salt on the roads to melt the snow and ice. Drive down any street in the Aveo and you will hear every single grain clink and clank against the underbody. Swoosh over a patch of slush, and it sounds like Niagara Falls is flowing under the floorboard… a body panel that I estimate is about two millimeters thick.

Then there’s the build quality. Perhaps “quality” shouldn’t be part of that phrase. No, actually, labeling this car as “built” is being a little too generous. Misaligned interior panels, chintzy feel components and switchgear, insubstantial *everything*. Ok, this is an economy car. Perhaps this inattention to detail can be somewhat forgiven. You win this round, Aveo. Barely.

Handing? Oh, sorry, I was too busy vomiting out the window (which I had to roll down manually) from body lean-induced seasickness to notice. Bopping around town in the Aveo is bad enough, but the freeway is downright torture. At around 60 miles per hour the severe shaking sets in, and at even the slightest hint of a directional change the top-heavy body wallows and bobs upon its overly soft springs like a ship at sea. It’s a wonder the speedometer actually goes past 55.

Live in an area where every single road is brand new, completely smooth, and has no potholes, imperfections, or expansion joints? Neither do I. Don’t buy an Aveo. Unless of course, the idea of compressed spines and sore necks sounds appealing. In that case the Aveo was built for you.

Perhaps this all sounds like an exaggeration. While parts of it are, most of it is not. Don’t believe me? Then simply try one out for yourself. It’s waiting for you down at the local rental lot.

Yet, for all its mediocrity, I still like the Aveo. More specifically I like the concept of the Aveo. I would not want to have one myself by any means, but for some reason it makes me feel so good that they still make things like this. Previous to experiencing this car I had some glorified image that all new cars are wonderful and spectacular and marvels of technology and engineering. The Aveo shows that clearly this is not the case … apart from the styling it very well could have been built in 1987.

I guess what I’m saying is I like how humble the Aveo is. Odd as it may sound, it’s nice to know that you can still buy a car whose windows you roll up with your own hands and whose gruff engine vibrations you can feel through the passenger compartment. I’ll never, ever buy something like this, but I admire the people who do in an odd sort of way. Perhaps because it shows that they have the patience of a saint.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Review: Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

For quite a few years Chrysler was stuck in a rut. Not necessarily a design rut or a product rut (though they certainly had their share of that too), but rather a naming rut. I can just imagine a meeting in the marketing department going something like this...

“All right, so we’ve got this new model here. The blueprints are drawn and it’s all ready to go. We’ve just got to think of a catchy, memorable new name that will grab the public’s attention.”

“How about, ‘Fifth Avenue’?”

“No, no… we’ve already used that.”

“Maybe… ‘Cordoba’?"

“That’s old news. Come on people, we’ve got to think of something new!”

“I’ve got it! We’ll call it… LeBaron!”


“Hold on guys… don’t we already have two of those?”

“Third time’s a charm!”

“I’ll send it over to Iacocca.. He’ll love it!”

Apparently the third time wasn’t a charm, as by 1995 no fewer than five different models had carried the LeBaron moniker. There was the original and often forgotten first series model (Diplomat clone), which ran from 1978-1981. Then came the K-body LeBaron (Aries/Reliant clone) produced from 1982-1988. We can’t forget the BMW-inspired LeBaron GTS hatchback (Lancer clone) from 1985-1989, and the 1990-1994 LeBaron sedan (Spirit/Acclaim clone).

Though all of these cars may have technically carried the LeBaron name, what really is the true, definitive “LeBaron”? What is the iconic shape people think of when they hear that oh-so-pretentious sounding word? The curvaceous 1987-1995 convertible-coupe, naturally!

In the process of summarizing the pros and cons that come with the LeBaron, I realized that there are actually more negative attributes than there are positive ones. When you really get down to it, the LeBaron has a substantial amount of flaws. So then why do I love it? To put it simply, the LeBaron is just plain fun. Perhaps more importantly, it looks fantastic. Styling is the most subjective area of an automobile, and for that reason I try as much as possible to keep it out of my actual reviews. When discussing the LeBaron though, it simply has to be mentioned. While not everyone is going to go gaga over the silhouette, few people will actively dislike it. Indeed, I have yet to encounter anyone who considers this shape to be ugly, or even mildly unattractive. The appeal of the LeBaron’s design is the simplicity itself. The exterior carries no unneeded ornamentation and all the lines are clean and crisp. From the smooth hidden headlamps and sleek waterfall grille to the long, sloping hood and curvaceous rocker panels, the LeBaron manages to look elegant and sporting all at once. This is, of course, all my own opinion, and while many will agree, there’s bound to be someone who doesn’t.

Despite the impression it may give from the outside, is the LeBaron really sporting and elegant under the skin? In short: yes and no. From 1990 onwards the majority of LeBarons sold came equipped with the ubiquitous Mitsubishi 3.0-liter V6 paired to Chrysler’s then-new “Ultradrive” 4-speed automatic transmission. Though a six-cylinder engine delivering a mere 141 horsepower seems paltry by 2010 standards, it was a respectable output for its day. Turbocharged 4-cylinder engines were also available until 1993, and while they technically have higher horsepower and torque ratings than the 3.0-liter, the V6’s power delivery is infinitely smoother and more refined. Equipped with the V6 and four-speed auto, the 3000-pound LeBaron reaches 60 in an adequate if not tire-screeching 9 to 10 seconds. It is worth noting, however, that the LeBaron gives the impression of being much faster than this, thanks to an extremely sensitive throttle. While this touchy accelerator pedal makes smooth starts from a standstill rather laborious, it can also be very helpful when you’re in a performance-oriented mood. Brake feel is well balanced, finding a happy medium between grabby and vague. In American tradition steering effort is light, though the wheel transmits more feedback than one would expect. To back up the LeBaron’s sporty image, Chrysler has tuned the suspension for handling rather than comfort. While body motions are better controlled because of this, ride quality suffers greatly. The LeBaron’s ride is smooth… provided the road is. The firm suspension hammers over bumps more than it absorbs them. Even worse, the LeBaron’s rigidity is similar to that of a wet noodle. Minor road imperfections cause the body to twist and flex, while rough roads can leave you wondering if the car is still in one piece. It doesn’t take much time in the LeBaron to memorize which roads are properly maintained and which are not. On the bright side, interior design and appointments are impressive. Though the unorthodox dashboard controls take some getting used to, the dashboard and door panels have a smooth, organic design and a rich appearance despite some hard plastic surfaces. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for build quality, with certain exterior body panels such as the doors and trunk glaringly misaligned and ill fitted. Interior space is adequate for driver and front passenger, with backseat and cargo room, though not ample, substantially more generous than other ragtops.

Dashing good looks, respectably sporty road manners, sprightly feeling acceleration. Well styled, luxurious interior with many useful creature comforts. Smooth, quiet V6 engine.

Harsh ride, excessive body flex even by convertible standards. Build quality is poor. Reliability is not impressive either: 4-speed transmissions are prone to premature failure, even when working properly shifts are sloppy and often ill timed. 3.0-liter engines are also notorious for burning oil.

Newer convertibles, even Chrysler’s own Sebring, offer greater refinement and better rigidity. None however, exhibit the LeBaron’s shapely, classic lines. They will also cost a lot more. Those who are not diehard fans of the styling likely won’t be able to look past the LeBaron’s rough ride and mediocre construction. For those who do appreciate the looks, the LeBaron offers fun, sporty, open-top driving pleasure for little money. It is much wiser to acquire a well-maintained, low mileage LeBaron in order to avoid the reliability issues of more worn examples. Just don’t expect to rack up as many miles as your Toyota Camry in the long run.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: 2009 Chevrolet Impala

The Chevrolet Impala, as we know it today that is, first debuted for the 2000 model year to replace the aging Lumina. The only similarity between this new Impala and previous models was the name itself, as Chevrolet’s flagship became a front-wheel-drive unibody car initially available with only V6 engines. Though sometimes marketed as a mid-size car by Chevrolet, both the interior volume and exterior dimensions fall well within full-size (or “large”) classification. The original FWD Impala series ran from 2000-2005 with little change. For the 2006 model year a redesigned Impala was introduced, though in essence it was largely a reskin of the previous generation, with mechanical updates consisting merely of suspension tweaks and revised powertrains. Even with virtually no revision since the 2006 redesign, the Impala remains Chevrolet’s best selling model as well as one of the top selling passenger cars in the United States.

And that bestseller status is curious, as I’m left wondering why anyone would buy this car. Ever since it was introduced a decade ago, the Impala has always been among my favorite sedans of the new millennium. I guess that’s because I had never driven one. Don’t get the wrong message, the Impala is by no means a bad car. But it is certainly not an impressive one either. For starters, this Impala does not deserve its spoiler and body skirts by a long shot. The driving dynamics are strictly old-school American; it has been quite a while since I’ve driven a car with such a soft suspension. Even moderate braking induces unsettling amounts of nosedive, and panic stops cause the tail to become airborne. Not only that, but the brake pedal suffers from typical “General Motors Mushiness” when applied hard. Though the Impala doesn’t quite qualify as aquatic, body lean is noticeable in corners. Continuing with the “American” theme, the Impala has almost no steering feedback and doesn’t feel agile in the slightest. All this is rather distressing when I compare it to my ’97 Monte Carlo, the predecessor to this Impala albeit in two-door form. Though neither is meant to be a sports car, it almost seems as though Chevrolet has gone backwards in some regards. Yes, the Monte suffered from the same mushy brakes and numb steering as the Impala, but body motions felt much more controlled. The Monte Carlo also felt like a much trimmer and more manageable car, despite having the exact same 200-inch length and 73-inch width. This disparity can be attributed to both the Impala’s greatly increased height (almost 5 inches), and severely sloped windshield, combined with criminally thick pillars and a high beltline. The latter also contributes to positively abysmal visibility, specifically to the sides and rear, a major drawback to 21st century styling. Another blow to the Impala’s overall appeal is the interior. I thought the Monte Carlo had too many hard plastic surfaces throughout the cabin, but the Impala’s dashboard and door panels make it seem like a Lexus. If you’re going to part with 25,000 dollars for an automobile, I doubt you want to tap on the top of the dash and hear a noise that sounds similar to knocking on the door of a bank vault. On the bright side, the design and appearance of the cabin is flowing and pleasant, and controls fall easily and naturally to hand. For all the disappointing areas of the Impala, the powertrain is not one of them. Though 0 to 60 times of around 9 seconds are not very impressive by new car standards, the power delivery of the V6 is effortless and silky smooth. Only under hard acceleration will you even hear the engine at all. Transmission performance is equally pleasing, in all but hard driving shifts are completely undetectable. The cabin is roomy and spacious as one would expect from a car this size, though backseat space in not quite as generous considering the car’s full-size dimensions.

The soft suspension absorbs road imperfections reasonably well, and is very compliant in highway driving. Engine and transmission performance are where the Impala truly shines, both operate with buttery smoothness and ease. Interior room is ample apart from backseat legroom, and the front seats are comfortable and well shaped. Engine and traffic noise is kept out of the cabin extremely well.

Interior materials are sub par even by economy car standards, which is downright pathetic considering the Impala is Chevrolet’s flagship. Handling and roadholding are at least a decade behind the curve (no pun intended). Visibility is poor to the level where it becomes unsafe.

Many advocates will claim that American cars have been improving dramatically in recent years. While this may be true for some models, this one still has a ways to go. The Impala is adequate, average, and unexceptional. In today’s market a car has to be more than that to succeed. The Impala simply feels dated. When the second generation Lumina was introduced back in 1995, its two main criticisms were the sub par hard-plastic interior and flaccid, unimpressive handling. Sound familiar? Somebody better show the GM executives a calendar, because last time I checked it’s 2010.