North by Northeast


The Car Shopping Post
6 October, 2006, 4:07 pm
Filed under: General

I love automobiles. Cars especially. I have an appreciation for true off-road vehicles like Land Rovers and such, but they don’t belong on the highway. I can’t stand SUVs in general, for everyday transit. They’re a bad idea.

Cars, too can be a bad idea. There are certainly too many in the US, but that won’t change until we get more and better mass transit. And by that I mean specifically train service. Trains move more people, more quickly, reduce traffic, pollution, and don’t punish its riders with sitting in traffic like a bus does. Electric trains are best. Subways count of course.

Sadly, my new job takes me away from the reasonably good Boston Metro alternative commuting options. So I have to buy a car. One More Car.

I’ve decided to strike the best compromise I can between compact and environmentally responsible (low emission, low fuel consumption), with usable space, comfort for the journey and lastly style and substance. The last is an intangible, that for me right now means “of European in origin.” I would love to buy an American car. I buy as many products as possible, and I usually do so at a premium. But currently nearly all suck. Except the Corvette. But that’s for another discussion. They don’t suck because they are American, nor because they’re built in America. They suck because they’re designed by designers who are either a) ignorant, or b) so severely constrained by management that they have to design in an ignorant way.

American cars priced less than $25,000 are ugly. Their interiors lack general ergonomics. Their seats are painful. The interior materials feel like junk. Their engines are down right wasteful of gasoline. Their emissions are high. And all American car companies want to do is sell high-margin, less regulated SUVs… and they’ve conned the American public into the right mind set to buy them: you need a big truck to protect you. And because you’re a tough guy and you have to show that off. This same part of the American psyche is also exploited by the government, who likes to scare its citizens with terrorism by saying we need to be tough, spend tons on ineffectual things and blow shit up.

So, back to cars… We’re buying new, because a) we want a warranty. b) we’ve never had a new car.

The best cars I’ve found that fit my requirements of decent milage, emissions, design and functionality are the following. VW Rabbit, Mini Cooper, Subaru Impreza, and a Saab 9-2x. A note on the last two… the Subaru is not European… and is frankly ugly. The Saab 9-2x is a Subaru Impreza with a better exterior and interior, re-designed by Swedes. It’s a beautiful thing. Well the car isn’t beautiful to look at… it’s attractive though. It’s a beautiful combination of functionality: All Wheel Drive, decent emissions, consumption and power from a 4 cylinder engine, flexibility of the hatch, 4 doors and fold down seats. And its pedigree has been proven on the World Rallye Circuit. It’s perfect… but the sticker price is $24,000… since GM (Saab’s owner) broke up with Subaru (GM sold its 20% stake to Toyota) the car has been discontinued. Even with the $5,000 discount, the car is still over my magic number of $18,000 for a new car. Sadly that means my third car will be the first that I buy that does not say “Saab” on the hood. That does make me sad.

Subarus are great. They’re all over New England. They’re tough and reliable. They handle great. They ergonomics aren’t stellar unless you buy one for $25,000 or more (then they’re decent, but still not of European quality) but their utility would make up for it. All things being equal, I’d buy one, but the AWD puts their price beyond our reach. Just barely, but still.

That brings the Mini Cooper to the stage. What a cool car! A little small for our tastes, but seeing that it would be 95% commuter, that’s just fine. The gas milage is great, 35mpg on the highway thanks to a tiny 1.5 liter engine, which still has enough gusto to pull the car since it’s so small. Handling is awesome. Ergonomics, check (thanks parent BMW). So what’s wrong with the Mini? Price! A little over $18,000 gets the base model (not bad, but no heated seats), but thanks to the Mini’s raging cute factor, there’s no negotiating. Economic of demand mean I can’t even buy a 2003 for more than a thousand or two less than a brand new car! Absurd!

2007 VW Rabbit 4 door hatch

That leaves the VW Rabbit. The car is attractive, but certainly pedestrian. It won’t really offend anyone. The interior is great. There are two flaws to it though: first the interior lighting color scheme. The blue is cool. Unfortunately, that was a marketing decision, not a scientific one. The color blue they use is perceived by young men like myself as denoting quality electronics. I won’t go into the studies that told me that here. But that’s the story. The other electronics are lit in red. Now blue is the color the human eye has the most trouble in focusing on. An orangey-red is the best color for noticing something at night… but it also causes a certain amount of night blindness after looking at it. Green is the best color (hey, what color are night vision goggles, again? Oh yeah! Green.) Audi and BMW light all their electronics in orangey-red, based on the perception it’s best. Saab is the only company I’ve seen do it right.

Second, the tachometer. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the gauge telling your how fast your engine is turning (RPM) for use in knowing when to shift. VW thought it would be cool to list revs in a different factors than the rest of the world. Most tachs would show a “3” for “3,000 RPM.” VW shows “30.” Why is this a problem? The spedometer and the tachometer look nearly the same, and are thus confusing. Am I going 30mph or spinning 30 (x100) RPM?

Despite this gaffes, and the uninspiring engine, which is however, rated as a PZEV, the Rabbit delivers when it comes to many aspects: handling, comfort, and versatility. The biggest plus is the standard traction control, which with an optional Electronic Stability program would act like a limited slip differential, bringing most of the advantages of AWD, without a big mileage hit. The biggest minus is that you must buy the four-door if you want to have the option of a sunroof or heated seats. I wanted both.

So right now, it’s the Rabbit. We’ll see if we can make it work, or if there are some last inning heroics by any other contenders.

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