Car Shopping

It’s been almost three years since I started my lease on a 2010 Volkswagen CC, so it’s time for the car shopping extravaganza, once more. Over the years, I’ve developed a habit of over-analyzing, researching to death, any major purchase relative to that point in my life (video cards, full computers, cellphones, DSLRs, and cars). For me, the car thing started shortly before I moved to Washington for work, leading up to the choice of the Volkswagen CC. Since then, I’ve followed the industry on and off, casually reading Car and Driver, Autoblog, Road and Track, and the sort. It was usually for the awe and insight into driving a sweet sports car or a luxo-barge. Over the past year, I steadily prepared myself for replacing the CC at the end if its three year lease.

In general, the CC has been a joy to own and drive. Nicely equipped for under $30k (seriously, amongst somewhat uncommon features 3 years back, it has rain-sensing wipers, heated seats, large touchscreen, power lumbar adjustments, just to name a few), it is also a beautifully designed car, and the VW turbo-4 is a decent performer. Beyond a bit of a odd front suspension sound, which was never diagnosed to root cause, it has been reliable, as well. As a first car, and not really knowing at the time what I wanted, it has shown me what to look for in my next car. Despite the sporty styling, the suspension wasn’t designed or tuned to match its design aspirations. The ride is wafting and suspension under-damped (lots of gyrations after a speed bump, for example). The steering feels a bit rubber-band-like. And, oh boy, the combination of the engine’s turbo surge and 6-speed DSG is a match made in hell. It results in seriously jerky downshifts at just the wrong moment. A particularly common way to trip it up is to go up a steep hill, in say 4th, at constant revs. Despite no changes in throttle (or at least none intended), the transmission would, mid-ascent, decide to drop down a couple gears, resulting in significantly higher engine speeds and slingshot the car with all that turbo-torque on tap. Finally, the car is damned long. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the greatest parallel parker (it was never needed on PEI, where I learned to drive), so something a bit shorter wouldn’t hurt, either.

So, as I went into driving several cars, I looked for a few things about the experience (aside from the aesthetics and gizmos and gadgets):

  • Tighter, sportier suspension
  • More precise and firmer steering
  • Linear power delivery from the engine
  • Logical transmission
  • Shorter in length

Mazda6

mazda6

I drove the Mazda6 first, several months before I was seriously in the market for a new car. The 2014 Mazda6 had just started hitting showrooms, and, on paper, it looked like a fantastic value, great design, and very fuel efficient. With Mazda moving back to its zoom-zoom heritage, early reviews also remarked on its brilliant handling, relative to the class. If I had a family and needed a large car to ferry them all, the Mazda6 would have been a fabulous choice. For $30k, it had just about everything anyone could realistically expect: good looks, roomy interior, leather seats, heated seats, navigation, rear view camera and parking sensors, xenon headlights, moonroof, big, bold wheels, good handling, nice engine and power-everything.

Of course, for me, a family-less guy, it just ended up being an even larger, longer, and no more powerful version of my car. It wasn’t what I was in the market for. Other vehicles in this class that I initially considered, which I didn’t end up trying out, were the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. I passed those up, after driving the Mazda6, primarily because they’re as large or larger than the Mazda, and I had already written off that due to size.

Mercedes C300 4MATIC

c300

The current generation C-class is reaching the end of its life, with an update expected for the 2015 model year, due out in calendar year 2014. That said, the design has aged well, with a minor refresh for the 2012 model year helping. So, Mercedes was the first place I went to, as I started my car shopping in earnest. I’ve found that, despite not being the most beautiful or graceful design, it has presence and an stately air about it. Call me blasphemous, but the old grill and hood ornament raised-star design was never going to get me to seriously consider a Mercedes. The direction to offer “sport” designs of some of the popular models, like the C-class has significantly changed the brand’s perception in my eye and generally for the younger demographics, as well.

Unlike Audi, Infiniti, and Volvo, where cars end up starting with an acceptable level of basic features and then optioned in a reasonable and logical manner, Mercedes, like BMW, decontent their base model cars and then add back a dizzying array of packages and one-off add-ons. Perhaps particularly exaggerated at the Bellevue location I visited, it was impossible to find the exact features I wanted, without also tacking on extraneous other options, like larger wheels, different wood trim, a spoiler, etc. It didn’t help with the winding down of the 2013 model year, one couldn’t order a new car, either, and expect it to be delivered any time close to my CC’s lease end.

Still, I wanted to see how the car was to drive, so I went out in a fully loaded C300 4MATIC, replete with premium, lighting and multimedia packages, plus panoramic roof, various trim bits, and upgraded wheels. The ride balanced soaking up road imperfections, while remaining taught. Taking a quick turn around a corner felt more confident than in my CC; I imagine it was a combination of the AWD and stiffer suspension. Road noise was still a bit high, perhaps in part due to the larger wheels than on my CC, but it’s possible my expectations of Mercedes isolation only applies to some of their higher-end or luxury models. Steering was much more direct and weightier than the CC, but gains up significantly under higher speed driving. The gain is noticeable and makes the steering feel a bit artificial, but still more precise than the CC. Lastly, the car comes with Start/Stop, turning off the engine when idling for some period of time, like at traffic lights. The best thing I can say about it is that I didn’t notice, until my attention was directed to the feature by the salesperson.

Lastly, on design, the expected update next calendar year will bring the C-class’ look more in line with the styling changes introduced by the E, S, and CLA models this year. I’m a bit wary of buying a car on its last generational legs, but the design, both interior and exterior, still look good to me. The front looks aggressive, the profile is buttoned up and squared-off, and most of the angles and creases on the body-work are tasteful, not overdone, as I perceive something like the CLA to be (similar to how I’d prefer a VW Golf’s design over a Hyundai Elantra GT’s design). The interior is cozy, with enough space for 4 people. The driving position is not as cockpit-like as some of the others (e.g. Audi A4 and BMW 3, where the center stack is canted towards the driver), but the front feel airy. There are a ton of buttons on the center stack, and I’m not sure why there remains a keypad, when I’d just dial any contact through the Bluetooth/contact list integration. Materials and finish are nice, and according to reviews, apparently a significant step up from just a couple years ago in the same class.

Volvo S60 T5 AWD

s60

Volvos were also not initially high on my list of cars to consider. Volvo may make the best box on wheels, but I was looking for something more aesthetically pleasing, more design-forward. Then a few years ago, the redesigned S60 burst onto the scene. With the 2013 model year refresh, the turbo-5 was offered with AWD. With its fastback roofline, new S60’s on the road have caught my eye for a glance-back more than once. Reflecting its tweener positioning between more traditional brands, like Honda, Toyota, Ford, and luxury nameplates, such as BMW, Mercedes or Lexus, it has a similarly tweener price tag, which is very attractive. For similar performance and features, the S60 ends up costing around 10% less than the Germans.

Call it a placebo, but as the reviews all noted, the seats in the S60 are very comfortable. They’re a little more pliable and conforms to body shape a little more than the harder seating surfaces in other “sport” sedans. They’re also leather-wrapped in the Premier Plus edition, as opposed to the standard leatherette in much of the competition’s offerings, even with premium packages added. Internal materials were only marginally better than the Mazda6, which is saying more good about the Mazda than bad about the Volvo, but the Volvo does have a much cleaner center stack. The brushed aluminum trim is a nice touch, and interior lines are tidy. Rearward visibility isn’t very good, similar to my CC, since the rear windshield slopes off towards the trunk at a shallow angle. The button to drop the rear headrests does compensate somewhat.

Externally, continuing an internal theme, lines are clean, there aren’t weird creases, and I think the design will age gracefully. Based on proportions, the car is clearly identified as a front-wheel drive car; the greenhouse has some visual tricks about it that does make the nose look much longer than the trunk, which helps. The front looks aggressive, and the daytime running light adds differentiation, compared to the masses of LED headlight surrounds that appear on all sorts of vehicles from KIA’s to the top lines of Mercedes and Lexus. The upward sloping character line from the front fender through the trunk at the rear results in a very high “butt”. At least the taillights are nicely integrated into the shape of the trunk. Speaking of the trunk, both the opening and the interior seemed small.

The five cylinder engine starts off with a bit of a rattle, but quickly settles down and then feels more substantial the 2.0 turbos in the Audi A4 or the BMW 328xi. Turbo lag is a bit more pronounced though. Once I found myself on a low-traffic side road, the salesperson suggested I floor the throttle and see how the 250hp, 266lb/ft (295lb/ft with overboost) engine moved the car. It had no shortage of power, but you could feel the turbo spool quickly then give its shot of torque. It felt like a much stronger version of the 2.0T in the CC. The turbo lag is still apparent. Steering is a bit looser and overboosted compared to most of the other cars I test drove. It made it effortless to drive (probably the best combination of comfort, between the easy steering and the comfy seats), but less attached to the road.

Audi A4 Quattro

a4

I’ve been a big fan of the Audi A4 and A5 ever since the A4’s B8 design, and, well, since the A5 launched. It started the LED daytime running lights craze, has an absolutely gorgeous profile (the A5 still turns my head every time one passes by) and has a great interior for the class. It’s a bit longer than its rivals, things are a bit more spread out, and despite being a front-wheel drive platform, adding Quattro largely makes up for it in spirited driving, compared to its peers.

I test drove an A4 Premium Plus Quattro w/ MMI nav package (although, I couldn’t help but be also drawn by the red S4 in the showroom), which includes features like navigation and rear-view camera. The dealership in Bellevue had a promotional $1600 credit for cars equipped with the nav package, which brought the price of the car down to levels comparable to non-nav models of the C-Class and 3-Series competition. As a result, the A4 offers a bit more for the money, leather seats, nav, parking sensors, larger wheels, and cool headlights. The 2.0 liter turbocharged engine is not unlike the engine in the CC. It adds direct injection and higher compression ratio and eeks out 11 more horsepower and 51lbs/ft more torque. Given the A4 is 150lbs heavier than the CC, it’ll still do 0-60 in about 1 second less.

The test drive car, which had only 100 miles on it, had odd rattles coming from the front, driver-side trim, which didn’t instill confidence in the craftsmanship of the vehicle. Aside from that, the interior is cozy, layout logical, and the added features of the nav package were welcomed, especially at this price. The nice infotainment/nav display is controlled by a bevy of buttons and a knob (MMI), and despite some reviews indicating it was challenging to learn and use, I got the hang of it just over the course of the test drive. It wouldn’t be a show-stopper for sure, for me.

BMW 328xi

bmw3

Of all the cars here, the BMW 328xi is the only to have undergone a complete refresh within the past year or so. I’m agnostic to the new exterior design, I liked the more buttoned up E90 design just fine, but the interior received a much-needed bump in both flair and materials. I particularly like the raised, nearly eye-level, information display. Each of the four “trim” lines do a ton to spruce up the exterior. The base 17″ wheels are a bit plain, but the Sport and Luxury line 18″ rims look great. Appearing very logically like a shrunken 5 series, the car commands road presence.

For something more in my price range, I took out a standard (non-Sport or Modern, etc.) 328xi for a spin. Without spending another roughly $1000, you don’t even get the signature corona headlights! The car is motivated by an efficient, yet powerful turbo-4. The inline-6, popular amongst BMW’s of last generation have become extinct, except in turbo form. I’ve always enjoyed driving my parents’ BMW, if for nothing else than the steering and the inline-6. It’s smooth, revs freely, and makes a nice sound when pushed. It wasn’t particularly quick or efficient, both of which are better with the new 4 cylinder turbo. The new engine gives the car a sprightlier character and is quicker off the line. There are multiple “modes” of vehicle operation, Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport. I’m not sure of all the specifics, but each mode increasingly makes steering and throttle response more aggressive. I punched the system into sport and found that light jabs of the gas made the car leap forward. Pretty good for canyon carving, I’m sure. In the city, Comfort was a nice compromise. Eco Pro felt a bit lazy, but the dash indicators teaching you to drive efficiently was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, a major issue is price, or rather value. The base 328xi is atrociously under-equipped, and the dealers didn’t seem to have anything on the lots that wasn’t over-equipped to the gills, and thus priced very high. The salesman at BMW Bellevue also acted as though I should feel it a privilege to be given the opportunity to own a BMW. I was greeted at the door, never made it inside to see a brochure or hear talk about the car’s features, made promptly to test drive the car, and when over and didn’t immediately jump to ask where to sign, I was stopped before I could even make it back into the dealership, handed a card at the door and told to let him know if I needed anything else. I wouldn’t be buying anything at that dealership.

Infiniti G37x

g37

The Q50’s are coming in a couple months, so there are very nice incentives ongoing at Infiniti, and a friend was happy with his G37 coupe, so the last car I test drove was the G37x sedan.

This car has a fantastically powerful engine for the price segment, great sounds from the exhaust, and handled extremely well. It felt peppy, steering was precise, and the suspension was taught, nearly to a fault. The front seats had excellent bolstering and I felt very planted in the sitting position. The side bolsters are so significant that the salesperson recounted a recent story in which the manager respectfully asked for a woman’s “build”, as she was planning to buy the car over the phone, sight unseen. As a pure-bred sports sedan, I think this was the best combination of power and luxury for the price.

However, the interior, while replete with technology and features that cost many thousands more in the other cars (rear view camera, xenon headlights, leather), was a slight half-step behind in quality and materials compared to the Mercedes and Audi in particular. There were a few too many hard plastics near where hands may lay, such as the sides of the center stack and the door armrests. Even the cup holders felt a bit flimsy. The center stack, awash in silver plastic, was not the most elegant piece, given its prominence in a car’s interior. I was also only satisfied with the exterior looks. The upcoming Q50 looks to solve all those ails, and then some. It’ll be a fearsome competitor in the space, I’m sure. The G is beginning to look its age, but has an attractive price tag, if you’re willing to negotiate hard, to compensate. It also remains the most driver’s car of them all, in this group. Easy pick if that’s what you’re looking for.

Wrap

Through the evaluation process, which lasted around 3 weeks, I found that one would quickly and easily forget details of a particular car only days after having driven it. It was, frankly, also telling that much of what separated one car in this class from another was 90% personal taste and subjectivity. That speaks highly of the competition between these models. Cars are often a natural extension of one’s personality, so things like design and aesthetics play an important part in the decision-making process.

I did clearly note two themes through the weeks of deliberation.

  1. I have a clear preference for naturally aspirated engines, especially when compared with smaller displacement turbos.
  2. Based on what I’m seeing from cars like the Mazda6 or Honda Accord, the luxury manufacturers will need to step up their game to maintain some distance between their experiences and significantly cheaper ones. I imagine tweener brands, like Volvo and Acura are going to need to do something drastically different to move their trajectories closer to the high end or risk being squeezed by $30-32k cars creeping up from mainstream with good design, great feature sets, and increasingly powerful and efficient engines.

With 3000+ words written, this would likely come down to determining which cars equipped the way I wanted them would fall into my price range, plus a large dash of aesthetics.

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