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October 21, 2003

What would Frank drive?

So I'm closing in on replacing my 1994 Jetta GLS.

I'm a car guy at heart. I've been reading Car and Driver since I turned 16, and still fondly remember the time I got to drive a friend's Porsche Boxster.

I'm finding my car search doesn't follow what I would consider to be a normal process. When we bought the Odyssey, we knew we were going to switch from sport-ute (an Isuzu Trooper) to a minivan, so we were shopping all the minivans. This time around, we don't have quite the focus on a particular style.

It seems like I'm interested in cars that are, well, a little off. My favorite car that I've driven regularly was a 1983 Rabbit GTI, totalled by a Cadillac driver on Atlanta Highway in Athens. We replaced it with a 1987 Golf GTI 16v, a better car in every objective measure than the '83, but not nearly as much fun. The cars I'm interested in (as a rule) don't drive the beaten path, but they all take some chances and express a unique personality.

Ninety percent of the new car's driving will be commuting to work and back. The biggest thing I need to carry regularly is a bike, and being able to carry one inside is an advantage, since I sometimes ride before work, then drive in, and sometime work, then drive straight to a ride.

I've nearly finalized my short list:

Not entirely off the list: the New Beetle Convertible, the PT Cruiser GT. "Safety car": Honda Accord. If I'm unable to decide on a car, I will be forced to buy the Accord, secure in the knowledge that it will do a good job reliably.

The only thing these cars have in common is that they're all available for the average cost of a new car or less, and they'll hold my whole family if the van is in the shop.

A quick rundown of my attitudes and issues:

Honda Element. The cheapest new car I find at all appealing. Christy likes it a lot. Honda's Jeep, the Element is a chunky small sport-ute with styling reminiscent of the original Toyota Land Cruiser, no b-pillars (the rear doors are rear-hinged) and clever rear seats that fold up flat against the side walls. Pros: practical for hauling things I wouldn't want to haul in the Odyssey, inexpensive, auxiliary in for the iPod. Cons: Ugly duckling styling, lowest gas mileage on the list.

Mini Cooper S. My personal favorite. It reminds me of the GTI I liked so much, with reasonable power and great handling. It corners like the center of gravity is a foot below the road surface, like a go-kart. Pros: Styling, community, handling. Cons: Don't think it will pass the bike test, availability (don't know if they're selling from stock yet, or still running a waiting list), tough back-seat access for putting the occasional kid in the occasional car seat.

Acura TSX. Priciest entry on the list. Kind of a 4-door Prelude, the TSX is built off the Euro-spec Accord (we get a US-only bigger Accord). Pros: Acura-level amenities, sharp handling, BMW-esque styling. Cons: Most expensive on my list, second-least cargo capacity (to the Mini). I have a brother-in-law-in-law (Christy's sister's husband) who works for Acura, so might be able to get a deal on a demo.

2004 Toyota Prius. The Prius officially launched on Oct. 17th. It's Toyota's next take on hybrid gas-electric cars. A small (1.5-liter) gas engine augments an electric motor, and the engine and regenerative braking charge the car's batteries. Pros: 60 miles to the gallon IN THE CITY, gadgets out the wazoo (keyless entry and start, Bluetooth hands-free, navigation system), 5-door configuration second only to the Element for hauling bikes, etc. Cons: None of the dealers in Atlanta have one yet, and there are reports that people are being told current orders will be filled in April, corresponding "additional dealer markup."

I've driven the Mini, been in the Element, seen the TSX, and read about the Prius. I'm trying to drive the Element and the TSX, and find a Prius.

So I welcome feedback on these cars, or any others that you think I should give consideration.

October 21, 2003 in Cars | Permalink


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We've got amazingly similar tastes. I'm driving a '98 VW GTi VR6, which followed an '87 Integra, which followed an '81 Civic (Paul will remember that one). The VR6 is faster/quicker/smoother/etc than my Integra -- as was Sandy's '91 Integra -- but my Acura was more fun to drive; more tossable than both, and a delight to run through the gears. The VW's shifter is a balky mess; it does feel great on the highway, though. But this isn't about my next car...

My wife is driving a first-generation Toyota Tacoma pickup which used to be my sister's (the story is not worth going into here). It's quite basic but rugged as heck. Since I work from home while Sandy commutes, she's ready for a new car. Because of my work-from-home status, we may just keep what we've got and San will drive the VW more often. But the list of cars she's considering is as follows:

Toyota Prius
Honda Element
Mini Cooper

We really would like to get a hybrid. The Prius beats the Civic Hybrid in cargo capacity, size, and fuel mileage; it looks a little weird but not so boring as the Honda. Toyota has moved hybrid production to a new factory and is ramping up the numbers, so supply problems should be short lived, while more Toyota models will become available with hybrid motors.

Were the Element available as a hybrid, Sandy might already be driving one. But, noooo! The cargo capability of the Element is fabulous, though, with the rear seats icing the cake.

Sandy and I both love the Minis. She once owned a Honda CRX, so small, fun cars are nothing new to us. However, we'd like to have one cargo hauler, which rules out the Minge, for now.

I like the TSX, too. (By the way, it's on the Euro/Japanese chassis -- the home market gets what you called the "Euro-spec" platform -- but you probably know that.) But it's not what we need are looking for right now, and the price is higher than we like.

We have yet to see a Prius in person, ourselves, but we're not in a huge hurry. Once the supply pipe is full of cars, we can see how we really like them. I think that will be sooner than April, but that's based on nothing at all.

My car interests were sparked by reading my brother's Cycle and Popular Science magazines for years plus an interest in auto racing (but not NASCAR) that I got from my father. My only car mag subscription anymore is to AutoWeek.

AutoWeek, by the way, has an Element in a long-term test, and reported last week that they like it but it's a little underpowered (shades of the CRV and gen-1 Odyssey) and a few interior plastic bits have fallen off. Nobody understands why Honda thinks this car should appeal primarily to 20-something year olds.

The New Beetle Convertible? Ack, I can't stand the driving position, but your minivan experience might serve you well.

A car I find interesting is the VW Golf 5-door TDI. I'd have a 5-door GTi if VW would sell them here (I think they are sold in Europe). The TDI is a relatively clean diesel with loads of torque. What most people think of as "power" is really torque, also known as "low end grunt." The fuel mileage is excellent, too, but I'm a little concerned with just how clean the engine really is -- I haven't researched the environmental aspects.

While we're talking cars, let me mention tires. My Vee Dub came shod with lousy Goodyears that looked sporty but were not sticky at all. Wanting good wet traction for often-rainy South Florida, I replaced the Eagle GS-Cs with Bridgestone Potenza RE730s. These rubbers are awesome in the wet, yet these tires don't even have Bridgestone's vaunted Uni-T AQ technology (AQ as in Aqua). Dry grip is also excellent. I wish better tires were available on new cars.

Well, have fun car shopping!

(P.S. Sandy's away on business, so here I am, on the computer at 1 AM on a Friday night. Ha!)

Posted by: john m at Oct 25, 2003 1:16:44 AM

Hmm, I was going to suggest the CR/V as an option to the Element (never buy a car in its first year of production, after all) or even the Pilot, though that may be too ordinary. I don't drive enough to g et excited about performance (or the lack of same), plus it's all intown commuting with kids: not many chances to take corners on two wheels ;-)

Posted by: paul at Oct 26, 2003 4:20:21 PM

Lara is getting an Element. She's had a few days unofficially and It's nota bad ride.; It has typical honda styling with a bit more attention to being spill and stain resistant on the floor.

You know about the FJ Cruiser right?

Posted by: Ryan Gill at Nov 14, 2003 11:50:36 AM