The New Arrival

On Saturday, September 15, my little family unit brought home a 2012 Chevrolet Volt, resplendent in White Diamond Tricoat with a Light Neutral Leather interior.  It stickered at $45,729, dealer invoice was $43,700, and we closed at $43,500.  We traded in our 2004 Nissan Murano SL AWD with just over 133k on the clock for $7k.  After tax, title, and fees, $37,941 was the total on the car.  Because it’s my first-ever GM ownership experience and the Volt is a rather complex bit of tech, we also rolled $2,675 into a Platinum Protection Plan good for 6 years or 125k miles.  We had a GM Card Earnings Rebate of $1,000 factored in as well, which brought the amount financed (at zero percent over 72 months) to $39,616.  The last bit of math to do here is the inclusion of the federal “Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit” tax adjustment, to the tune of $7,500.  When all is said and done, I’ll spend a total of $32,116 in liquid assets for the purchase of this car and the warranty—not much more than the average new-car purchase price in the United States.  But that’s just the money.  This is a post about the future.


It was a long journey that brought our family, and specifically me, to this point.  It started with seeing the Volt concept at an auto show back in 2008, then seeing it morph at subsequent shows to its present production form.  It continued with the Volt pulling down impressive awards: Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year” (2011) and Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” (2011) among them.  The Volt got a whole chapter in Bob Lutz’s latest book as well.  In all cases, it was presented as a widely misunderstood winner of a car that carried an admittedly high sticker price but offered incredible fuel savings if employed in a certain way.  Whenever I glimpsed one in person, I was always struck with a sense of the intriguing possibilities it presented—especially its unique ability to make a 40-ish mile trip purely under electric power while still retaining the option to press onward ad infinitum (at 37mpg combined) as long as there was premium fuel in the 9.3-gallon tank.

The Volt Concept, circa 2008.

In mid-2012, for the first time in my military career, we moved into a house on base.  Suddenly I wasn’t paying for electricity (they haven’t figured out how to bill individual households on the base grid yet) and the only driving that we needed to do was from base to town and back, twice a day, four days a week, for the boys’ preschool.  The Murano had some quirks from many long, hard miles, we were perpetually worried that it would fail us at an inopportune time, and now it seemed silly to burn $65 in gas per week at a subpar rate of 18-20mpg when we could be making that trip for free in a new Volt.

The only nearby option was right in town at the local dealer, and had been there for quite some time.  It was packed with almost all of the options available on a Volt, and actually had been branded with a huge vinyl “VOLT” graphic when it arrived in our little burg.  The combination of the graphic, the near-$46k sticker, and the many common misunderstandings about the Volt must have scared buyers off.  The car languished around the dealer lot, getting a lot of looks but apparently not many serious inquiries, for a long while.  At some point, they took the graphic off.  I finally test-drove it on Saturday, August 25—just a quick loop around town.  It drove like a heavy-but-low-CG, ultra-quiet, aerodynamically optimized engineering marvel, essentially as I expected.  Most critically, however, the dog could fit in the back under the sloping rear glass hatch.  From a practical standpoint, I now knew the Volt could carry our whole family.

Post-test-drive, I went home and sat down in front of Google Maps.  It was 12 miles one-way from home to preschool.  There seemed little doubt that the Volt could easily make the round trip on electrons alone.  I went for another test-drive on Saturday, September 8, this time with the wife and kids.  While impressed with the car itself, my lovely significant other maintained a bit of skepticism.  After only a short test-drive, how could we be certain that the Volt (which would demand a significant monthly payment due to the high sticker price) would essentially zero out our gasoline expenditures by operating in electric-only mode for the vast majority of driving time?  After all, if it could not do that, then it was certainly not worth the premium we would pay over a more traditional vehicle.

The answer to that very question came in a call from the dealer that afternoon.  Take it home for three days, they said.  Use it for some weekend driving and some work-week driving.  Bring it back on Tuesday and tell us what you think.

We did just that—and the Volt knocked it out of the park for those three days.  Sunday morning, we (myself, wife, kids, and dog) took it up to Cloudcroft, NM, which involves a climb of 4,172 feet up a mountainside over 16.3 miles of road.  Set to “Mountain” Mode, the car burned almost exactly 1 gallon of gas on the way up while maintaining an 8-mile electric-only reserve.  On the way back down, with the “gear selector” in “L” mode, maximizing regenerative braking, the car actually recharged about 20% of its total battery capacity (showing 16 miles of electric range at the bottom of the mountain), and thus was able to carry us all the way home on electrons alone.  On Monday, the car easily handled preschool duty without burning a drop of gasoline and with plenty of electric range left over.  Even better, recharging on a typical 120V household outlet, it would completely top off its battery in the five hours between the morning and afternoon runs—meaning there would be essentially zero chance of using any gasoline during our usual routine, and no need for the expensive, optional 240V charger.   In those three days, the Volt sold itself.  After dropping it off back at the dealer on Tuesday, we brought it home for good about 96 hours later.


To suddenly dual-wield colloquialisms, I’ll be straight up with you right off the bat—the Volt is not “fun to drive” in the traditional sense.   That is, it doesn’t smoke tires with egregious acceleration, doesn’t peel your face off your skull in corners, doesn’t offer amazing sight lines or tactile feedback, and doesn’t make a glorious, primeval noise.  It is, however, fun to drive in a wholly different manner—it involves the driver by visually presenting numerous data points toward achieving one singular goal: maximizing electric range.  Every decision one makes at the helm of this car has a direct effect on that most critical metric of performance.

When driving the Porsche, I find myself rev-matching and late-braking when approaching corners, then mashing the gas on exit and winding the flat six up to redline.  I revel in the noise, the gearbox, the steering, the weight transfer—that’s what a 911 is for.  In the Volt, the focus is entirely different.  The driver’s primary raison d’etre becomes twofold.  First, think ahead of the car.  Second, remain smooth with all inputs.  Do so, and there is an immediate, quantifiable reward: greater electric range.  Cruise at 75 and the battery charge depletes wholesale instead of retail, so you back it off and cruise at 65 instead.  Brake late and/or accelerate quickly and again, the battery meter shows rapid discharge.  Again, you adjust your driving style.  Going uphill?  Toggle “Mountain Mode” ON ahead of time to retain battery energy and fire up the gas-burning 1.4L inline four.  Going back downhill, or approaching a traffic light?  Shift into “L” mode to store all that now-unneeded kinetic energy in the 16-kWh battery.  Keep the windows closed at speed for better aerodynamics, and leave the climate control in “Fan only” or “Eco” mode as opposed to “Comfort.”  There’s nearly always something the driver can do to effect electric mileage, and that makes the car fun to drive in its own, completely unique, way.  Lastly, if the driver isn’t interested in maximizing range, the instantaneous torque from the electric motor provides very competitive acceleration, should a right foot command it.

Even after the battery’s energy is depleted, the car remains a nice place to be.  The sound of the gasoline engine is distant and muted, and the transition from electric to gas power is seamless.  The leather seats are fantastic—I think I read an auto journalist somewhere saying he wished GM would put these seats in the Corvette (a car which has long been maligned for subpar seats).  The LCD screens are responsive and easy to navigate—the Volt’s infotainment system has just the right mixture of real buttons and virtual buttons.  The 30GB hard drive will house enough music for all four people in the car.  If someone wants to add their own songs, it’s simple: plug something into the USB slot or pop in a CD, then hit “REC”—and it’s done.  The disc player will even play DVDs on the center screen.  And every last shred of media sounds fantastic through the Bose speakers.


Let’s keep it simple—as mentioned, we closed at $43,500 for the car alone.  The tax credit maxes out at $7,500 (we checked and we’re eligible for every last dime of that; every filer’s eligibility varies, of course).  Our GM Card Rebate was pretty easy to get—anyone can sign up for that credit card and the rewards add up fairly quickly.  So $43,500 less $8,500; quick math, and that’s thirty-five grand.  For that, we got leather, nav, Bose, two LCD screens, a 30GB HDD, USB connectivity, backup camera/sensors, and Bluetooth.

The internal-combustion-only competition to the Volt could be any number of things, but the bottom line is that about the least amount of money one could pay for a new, similarly equipped non-sedan vehicle (dog can’t go in a trunk) with leather is about $25k—and there are only a very few vehicles that fit in that category.  The Subaru Impreza 5-door and the VW Jetta Sportwagen are two that I considered.

In the case of the Impreza and the Jetta, though, every time you stop at a stoplight, you’re still burning fuel (non-US Imprezas have auto-stop-start, but US ones do not).  Every time you pull into a drive-through, you’re still burning fuel.  Idling on a hot or cold day to make use of the climate controls?  Still burning fuel.  And even when all three of these cars are leaned out on the highway, burning dino-juice, the Volt is still the best—40 mpg to the 31 or 35 of the competitors.

So even though there’s a ten-grand (at most) difference up front between the Volt and its competition, that number shrinks over time with fuel savings.  And when you realize that the Volt is one car with two powertrains (including a $10k battery) and all of the mechanical whizbangery needed to tie them together in seamless operation, it suddenly seems like a screaming deal—you’re not paying much more than the average new-vehicle price for a vehicle that is certainly far more than average.


You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m enjoying the Volt, and you are correct.  I think it’s not only good value, but a shining example of American engineering excellence and a showpiece for what GM can do.  Regrets?  Well, I wish I’d gotten a little more for the Murano, but at the same time I realize that I would almost certainly have had trouble selling it myself in this locale.  I’m a little torn about the warranty, but the Volt is so complex and so unlike anything else I have ever owned that I cannot be convinced it was a bad idea.  One part of me wishes I’d jumped on the 36-month lease program that is honestly an even more incredible, screaming deal (the lease winds up essentially being $0/month when you figure the fuel savings)—but putting the boys and the dog in a car that’s subject to a leasing agreement is a risky proposition at best, I think.

Really what I wanted was the rarity, exclusivity, and performance of the Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi; the interior space, interior quality, and fuel efficiency of the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI; and the reliability, simplicity, and all-season usefulness of the Subaru Impreza Sport Limited.  The Volt and its warranty allowed me to get all the best of those things in one vehicle.

Obviously, this isn’t a car for everyone.  If you have three or more kids, or more than one large dog, it won’t work.  If you need to tow things, it won’t work.  If you’ve got a supremely long commute and/or can’t plug in at work, then you might be better off with a diesel of some kind.  But for my two-child, one-dog family, living in a house on-base with no electric bill, I think it’s perfect.

Do one thing—drive this car.  Do so over a period of a few days, if they’ll let you.  Judge it purely on its merits as a means of transportation.  I think you will find it makes a mighty compelling case for itself as a real-life car of the future.

Tesla vs. Detroit, a.k.a. Apples vs. Oranges

Adam Hartung, contributor to Forbes magazine, recently made a splash by writing this article, entitled “Why Tesla is Beating GM, Ford, and Toyota — Electric Cars.”  He contends that Tesla’s product is in fact so superior, it will vault Tesla into a leading role in the automobile business, just as Amazon is now a retail leader, Craigslist now a classified ad leader, etc.  I disagreed and responded in the comments section, but I’m not sure if my comment will see the light of day, so I thought I’d present it here as well:

Adam, here’s the root problem with your comparisons to the net-savvy start-ups that the established brick-and-mortars laughed at: Craigslist, Amazon, Apple, etc., all offer services that just about everyone can use.  Anyone who can walk to a library can use Craigslist or Amazon.  Anyone with a job can (pay a premium to) buy and use an Apple product.

However, to use a Tesla product, your earnings had best be well into the six-figure range.  And you’d best live in an urban area.  Make that an urban area in the American southwest, close to Tesla HQ for service and where winter won’t increase your range anxiety.

What I think Bob Lutz is getting at in his reply to you is that Ford, GM, and Chrysler offer affordable, reliable, usable transportation for everyone.  The average new car sale price is just below $31k.  No manufacturer can (yet) do electric, reliable, and usable for the masses from New York to Portland to Fargo to Seattle to San Diego to Dallas to Miami at $31k.

The Volt gets close.  The only problem with proud papa Lutz’s Volt—the problem that caused a five-week production hiatus earlier this year— is that it retails (per for $39,145 minimum, which doesn’t make sense to the average consumer in the market for a small sedan.  Realize that a) the buyer has to be eligible for the tax credit—they may not be able to get all $7500 of it—and b) the buyer’s up-front cost is still $39,145, so that’s the number that drives the financing decisions.  Believe me, I’ve been trying to finagle a way to get a Volt for myself because I love the idea of actively controlling how much I spend on gas, but the cost/benefit just doesn’t add up in my case.

If price is a problem for the Volt, then it’s going to be a bigger problem for the Model S.  The base price of the least-expensive Model S is $58,570.  If the Volt has trouble making a case for itself at $39k, how well can the Model S be expected to do once all of the well-heeled, “green” early adopters in LA, Phoenix, and Vegas are satiated?

A Model S is not a car that anyone NEEDS.  The big automakers are the pros at what they do because they can crank out millions of Cruzes, Fusions, Camrys, Civics, F-150s, and Silverados—cars that the average buyer needs—at prices the average buyer can afford.   When Tesla Motors does that, I’ll be first in line.  And I expect that line to be a lengthy one.


Everyone should have a good “airborne in a car” story.  This is mine.

It was the spring of 2003, and I was enjoying life as a college senior with a few months left of irresponsibility before the real world set in.  As an added bonus, good ol’ Dad had let me sell his 1998 Toyota Corolla CE 5-speed to assist with the purchase of my very own 2003 Acura RSX Type S.  Thanks, Pop.

Anyway, school wasn’t too far from home, and one weekend I made the trek back to hang out with my best bud (and later best man, who would later call me out in front of the entire wedding reception, including Dad, about an accidental off-roading incident in the Corolla back in high school—but that’s another story).  We were out tearing around in the new ride without a care in the world.  Mom had wanted us to grab a few things for dinner, so one of our stops was gonna be the SuperFresh.

Now, the standard route to the SuperFresh involved some pretty heavily-trafficked roads, especially on the weekends at midday.  However, as there usually is in eastern PA, there was a back way.  I was quite familiar with this back way—I knew, for example, that it was newly repaved, and included one of those slight-incline-into-a-sudden-drops that bring your stomach up into your eyeballs even when negotiated at speeds well below the legal limit.  Check it out on Google Earth at 40° 4’40.59″N, 75°40’13.44″W.

I hadn’t been this way before in the Acura, because I hadn’t been very many places at all in the Acura, having only owned her for a couple months.  I wasn’t quite in tune with how much faster she was than your average Corolla.  I do, however, remember quite clearly telling my bud to hold the two bottles of Sprite Remix in the cupholder down—right before I downshifted into third and pressed the gas to the floor.  I think the fastest I’d ever crested that rise before was about forty-five…not sure, but I’m thinking we were goin’ about sixty-five or seventy on this attempt.

It occurred to me as the road fell away that it did so more quickly and with greater authority than it ever had before.  Time slowed, and I turned my head to look at my cohort.  I noted the leaves and branches that were passing by outside the window behind him, and mused that they were a marked departure from the usual trunks and roots one normally sees when operating a motor vehicle within its accustomed environment.  Anyway, my associate was staring right back at me, and we in unison hollered, “OH, SH*T!”

A higher power smiled on us that day, and the front-engine, front-drive Acura leaned forward so that as we re-entered the atmosphere, she touched down on all fours simultaneously, still on the down-slope of the hill.  A guy in an Explorer going the other way gaped at us with eyes the size of dinner plates as we shot past.

The next good place to stop was the SuperFresh parking lot, and we parked out on the far reaches so we could give Acura a good looking over after the adrenalin shakes wore off.  Clean.  Flawless.  Nothing but a couple scrapes on the underbody plastic.  My buddy howled, “AGAIN!”

We didn’t go again, and I’ve grown up a bit since then.  Still, there are many days when I wish that I still had that car…and that Honda/Acura still had an ounce of excitement in their lineup.

Driven – The 2012 Subaru Impreza Sport 2.0

Lately, the family car has been showing its age a bit.  Our beloved 2004 Nissan Murano SL AWD has just enough niggling issues that the wife and I have been considering getting something to replace it.  It’s never fun to start making car payments again, so we’re definitely slow-rolling the shopping process.  But this past weekend I had some business to conduct in El Paso, so I booked a test-drive of one of our prime candidates: the new Subie Impreza 5-door.

I first beheld the 2012 Impreza at the Detroit Auto Show this past January.  The numbers stand out on their own: 36 mpg highway, all-wheel-drive standard, starting at $17.5k for the sedan, $18k for the five-door.  What is NOT immediately apparent, however, is how much room there is inside this car.  In fact, while at the auto show I distinctly remember sitting inside it and thinking that we would have no problem fitting our boys and dog inside.  However, much more recently, I saw one parked out in the wild and second-guessed myself.  From the outside, there does not appear to be much room behind the second row at all, and I wondered if I’d somehow been deceived at the show.  Solution: I brought the dog, Memphis, along to the test drive in order to settle the matter once and for all.

Props to the sales staff at Garcia Automotive Group; without so much as a blink, my sales guy threw open the rear hatch and told me to bring on the seventy-plus-pound female yellow Labrador.  Memphis loves cars and was thrilled when I picked her up (didn’t want her claws scratching the bumper) and plunked her into the little Subie.

With the hatch closed, quarters were certainly cozier than in the Murano—while facing forward, Memphis’ head seemed somehow more able and apt to venture over the rear seatbacks into the rear passenger area than in the Nissan.  But she certainly had plenty of room to turn around, or sit and look out the rear window, or just lie down and nap.  In fact, she enjoyed the Subie so much that after I got her out, she tugged at the leash, wanting to jump back in.  So if you have a medium-sized dog and think you’re stuck with SUVs, I urge you to try the crop of small, fuel-efficient five-door hatchbacks (Impreza, Focus, Mazda3) coming out these days.

With the dog secured back in the Nissan, we struck out for the test drive.  First impression: the car feels planted and incredibly stable.  The center of gravity feels like it’s down around the driver’s hips.  Maybe it’s a result of stepping out of the Murano and into the Impreza, but I gotta agree with Ezra Dyer—handling-wise, the Subie is a winner.  Scratch that.  Handling-wise, the Subie is a champion.

Which is good, because the 148-horse, 145-lb-ft flat four is, well, not.  This car is not burdened with excessive power.  I was concerned enough about the limits of the engine’s capability that I made sure to get some freeway on-ramp experience during my time behind the wheel.  At one point I wanted to speed up and merge ahead of an oncoming minivan.  The Lineartronic CVT to grabbed a lower ratio for me as I stomped the go pedal, but even when operating at the top of its power curve, the Subie’s engine is hardly awe-inspiring.  Still, there was enough power beat the minivan and safely enter the flow of traffic.  Plan ahead if you need some speed.

Once established and cruising at highway pace, though, the Subie’s best qualities stand out.  You feel the low-CG/planted phenomenon at all times.  The visibility is excellent in all directions.  The CVT gives you a nice, high ratio that results in the tach needle hovering right around the big “2” and almost no powertrain noise.  The driver’s seat is perfectly formed, supportive, and comfortable.  All of these things—the stability, the visibility, the quiet, the comfort—combine to give the driver a great sense of security and serenity.  This car is downright refreshing to drive at a typical commuter’s level of intensity.

Another thing to enjoy about the Impreza is its simplicity.  The lack of touchscreens, menu paths, big red “start” buttons, and please-steal-my-car transmitter key fobs are blessings from above.  If you were wondering how Subaru can offer this car at such a good price, it’s because they’re not forcing all that useless nonsense down customers’ throats.  Oh, and the e-brake is a lever, not a button.  That was directed at you, Porsche 991.

So what’s not to like?  As long as you realize that this is a small and economical family car, I have trouble finding any faults.  Yeah, it’s got a CVT, and only 148hp…boo hoo.  No one, not even me, is taking their Impreza to a racetrack.  Some say they don’t like the noises the CVT makes, but I honestly didn’t notice a thing except how quiet it was at cruise.  Mazda marketers would have you believe that the Skyactiv Mazda3 5-door is faster or racier or more fun, and maybe it is, but the Impreza packs AWD, makes about the same power, and only weighs about a hundred extra ell-bees.  Same arguments apply to the Ford Focus 5-door, which despite being even lighter (2,907 versus 2,969) and a bit more powerful (160hp versus 155) than the Mazda, seems to get a bit of a yawn from the enthusiast camp.  As far as I’m concerned, the torque going to the rear axle in the Subie more than compensates for the extra poundage and the few missing horses.  The only downside I can see with the Subie is more a matter of personal choice.  In order to get the more upscale-looking, less hot-in-the-southwest-sun, light-colored leather interior, I have to step all the way up to the Limited model (which deletes the 5-speed manual option), and my exterior color becomes no longer a matter of choice, but a coin flip: black or white.

Overall, it is my opinion that Subaru hit it out of the park with this new Impreza and deserves to be rewarded for their efforts.  Good-looking, simple and comfortable, great gas mileage, tasteful and spacious inside, and all-weather capable.  I think I’ll probably find myself contributing to Fuji Heavy Industries’ coffers fairly soon.

A Stunning Value Proposition: the 981 Boxster

In 1997, Porsche gave the world the Boxster.  If you squint through the prism of the past just right, it was the first completely new car from the company in 19 years, dating back to the introduction of the 928 in 1978.  The Boxster reinvigorated the brand and launched the company into 15 years (and still counting) of absolutely astronomical success.


Price for the original Boxster was $39,950.  For that sum, the buyer got an all-new water-cooled 2.5-liter flat six making 201hp and 181 lb-ft, mated to a five-speed manual transmission.  The car weighed in at 2,822 pounds, svelte for a ragtop with the rigidity required to back up its sporting pretensions.  “Sexy” was the term almost universally utilized to describe its look.  It raked in awards almost immediately: one of C&D’s 10Best for 1997, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year, Motorweek’s Driver’s Choice for Best Sports Car, Autocar’s Best Roadster in the World—these were just a few.

The Boxster only got better with age, and many say that it was the strong sales numbers put up by the Boxster that kept Porsche financially strong enough to continue to operate independently and free from the threat of takeover, especially in the dot-com financial boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Lest we go on too long praising the Boxster, suffice it to say that the car is utterly brilliant, has by this point won over even its most strident detractors, and has firmly entrenched itself in the annals of Porsche history.

But let’s get back to the beginning.  Let’s get back to that $39,950.  For that sum, you got the sexy shape, the Porsche badge, the signature flat-six howl.  But you also got (thanks to Porsche taking tips from Toyota on parts sharing) the nose, headlights, and the doors from the forthcoming 911 Carrera (996).  Some might say this was a steal, but some might have preferred the metal from the outgoing 993.  You got a plastic rear window which tended to scratch easily.  You got an intake vent on each side, but actually the vent on the right was an exhaust.  The interior quality was less than stunning, and there was no glovebox.

I test-drove a used first-gen Boxster in fall/winter 2002, and while it was amazing to feel the car pivot around my hip bone as I dialed in steering lock, in the end I settled on a new Acura RSX Type S.  The cockpit ambiance and overall interior quality of the RSX absolutely crushed those of the Porsche.  Between that fact, the fear of high maintenance costs (we whisper here of the dreaded rear main seal failure), and the fact that the ’03 Type S made almost exactly the same peak horsepower number as the Boxster, I had to go with the Acura.  Clearly, astounding driving dynamics, great looks, and Porsche badge aside, the very first iteration of the Boxster left a few things to be desired.  Especially for $39,950.

Now, let us play a numbers game.  If we take our year-1997 $39,950 and convert it to 2012 dollars with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator, we get $57,097.88.  The base price here and now, today, for the brilliant new Boxster 981 is $49,500.   In 1997 dollars, that $49.5k amounts to a mere $34,633.95.  Put another way, if you were to carry your 2012 $49,500 back to 1997, its value would dwindle so much that the salesman at your Porsche dealer would have to steer you to the trade-ins.  But stay in 2012 with that money and you get an absolutely stunning new car.  Point: the new 981 is actually cheaper than the new 986 was.  And it is a vastly better product in every worthwhile measure.

The 981 is a truly special thing to look at, with regard to both the design and the spec sheet.  Motive force to the tune of 265hp/206lb-ft is provided by a 2.7L flat six.  Curb weight is a mere 2,888 pounds, a scant 66 more than that of its 15-year-old ancestor.  This all means you’ll scoot from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and top out at 164mph.  The interior is a work of art, incorporating the rising center console that is the new standard across the Porsche range, and overall quite honestly putting the 20th-century slabs of plastic in the 986 completely and utterly to shame.  Both of the intake vents are now actually intake vents, and the doors are bespoke—no more hand-me-downs from big brother 911.  Finally, if you don’t think every single other automaker is scrambling to somehow copy and incorporate the “subtle mechanical rear decklid spoiler that slashes into the taillights” design touch, you just don’t know how this business works.

Trust me, this is gonna be like when Audi put LEDs on the R8.


This description already adds up to an extremely desirable car that doesn’t need to lean on its badge and heritage to warrant sales, and yet we have hardly scratched the surface.

With the extra dough left over from our CPI-adjusted $39.5k, we can make our new Boxster even more awesome.  Throw on the twin-clutch PDK automatic tranny and the Sport Chrono option, and you’ve got a launch mode that shaves three tenths off the 0-60 time.  But that’s not all PDK is good for—aside from spectacularly fast power-on upshifts and perfect throttle-blip downshifts, it’ll also shift itself into neutral during lazy off-brake decelerations, allowing fuel-miserly coasting.  Additionally, both the PDK and the standard six-speed manual include automatic stop-start functions that will certainly save a great deal of fuel expense, especially when the commute features heavy traffic and/or stoplights.


Only after tacking on the above-mentioned PDK & Sport Chrono, plus the ‘Convenience Package’ (wind deflector, 2-zone A/C, seat heaters), does the 981’s window sticker manage to draw even with the equivalent inflation-adjusted price of its ancestor, the 1997 Boxster 986.  Without doubt, this is an astounding car–an open-top, mid-engined, 2.7L flat-six twin-clutch beauty of a Porsche–that is within the reach of lots of working professionals.  In fact, I’m trying to figure out how I can own one and still bring the kids along.  I’m thinking a tow hitch and parasail with a dual harness.  Done and done.


Evo X Mr Touring & Audi B8 S4 — Comparison

A few days back I caught up with a good friend of mine who’s owned a Mitsubishi Evo MR Touring since he bought it new two years ago.  While catching up and running some errands, we simultaneously gave the car a pretty thorough wringing out on the tumbleweed-swept B-roads on the outskirts of Las Cruces, NM.

Coincidentally, I was just a few days ago discussing respectable-looking, respectable-performing sedans with another friend.  His daily driver is on its last legs, and he’s looking for something not too expensive, not too boring, and not too impractical—he’s got a Boxster for the weekends.  Our discussion brought us to a 2010 Winding Road magazine comparison test pitting the Evo MR Touring against the B8 Audi S4.

I once drove the S4 as well, back in late 2010 after the loss of my beloved RS6 tossed me unhappily into the “without a performance car” pool.  I found the car barely used at a very small racing shop-slash-dealership in Anaheim, CA, where the owner himself was kind enough to offer me a test drive.  The experience was indelible, and I still recall vividly the sensations of driving what was at the time Audi’s newest, hottest sporting sedan.  There are only two reasons I do not own that S4 now—it was too new/hot for my budget, and honestly, I really wanted a 911 anyway.

But if you’re looking to spend more or less $40k and want front engine, four seats, and a trunk, plus daily-drivability, long-haul capability, and admirable all-weather on- and off-track performance, the S4 and MR Touring should be atop your list.  Let’s break ‘em down.

Disclaimers: the Evo I drove sits on Eibach Pro-Kit springs which drop it a little more than two inches, and is sporting Conti ExtremeContact DWS tires on the gorgeous BBS wheels instead of the stock Nittos.  Even after two years of ownership, it still showed less than 20k on the odometer (and everywhere else).   The S4 was bone stock with mileage in the low teens.

First, the Mitsubishi.  I always thought the interior feel of the Evo would turn me off to it.  But from the driver’s seat, the MR Touring looks far better than any photo had told me I could expect.  Sure, there’s an economy-car bit here and there if you look closely—the interior door handles are one example—but the overall fit and finish, inside and out, are easily on par for a $40k-new ride.  The look of the TC-SST transmission lever is especially stunning—one can tell that the Mitsu engineers were particularly proud of their work there and wanted the driver interface to match the competence of the invisible bits under the hood.  The paddles on the steering wheel are well-sculpted and properly weighted, as well.  The driver information graphics are very cool, presenting just the right data in just the right places with just the right amount of emphasis.  While there’s plenty of plastic visible, it’s all pebbled and textured in a way that keeps it looking inviting.  The Recaro seats are leather-wrapped, heated, grippy, comfortable…but they also limit blind-spot checking a bit with their wide-top one-piece design.

On the outside, the menacing stance brought on by the Eibach Pro-Kit helps the car out in a big way, working in concert with the classy, subtle trunk-lip spoiler to bring down the visual height of the car a bit (the Evo X always seemed very tall to me, especially compared to its predecessors) and minimize the fender-well gaps.  But even without the Pro-Kit, the MR Touring would still look great—the narrowed-eyes look of the front fascia planes smoothly into the side profile creases, which flow perfectly with the angular nature of the menacing BBS rolling stock.

Speaking of the BBS wheels, they wrap themselves nicely around red-painted Brembo calipers.  The brakes are vented discs and slow the car with serious authority, and the way I’ve seen Evos shredding tracks, I can’t imagine fade is a problem.

On the aural side, the Evo’s four-banger disappoints a bit.  If you were buying a car only for the pure joy of sitting in your driveway and revving it, the Evo would not be a good purchase.  On the positive side, the subtle sound of the spooling turbo never fails to send a thrilling crackle across your cerebral cortex, especially as you reapply the power on corner exit.

The MR Touring’s TC-SST twin-clutch auto is excellent, always shifting quickly and in the right place.  In fact—and this perhaps had something to do with being unfamiliar with how exactly the car works—I found myself clicking a paddle a split second before or after the transmission had already decided to do so itself, resulting in double upshifts.  It’s better to just let the car do its own thing.  I will say that with one additional ratio available in the transmission, the Evo would be even more usable as a tourer—the interior is a bit noisy at 80-mph cruise in top gear, with the engine making 3500 rpm.

The steering is light and lively in the driver’s hands.  It draws attention to how quickly the car responds to inputs.  It doesn’t grant a sense of authority by being weighty, but inspires trust by allowing the driver to feel like he can be oh-so precise with minimal effort, even midcorner.

When driven hard, the Evo exhibits a twinge of understeer for the briefest of moments…and then the computers step in and send power rearward.  The resulting neutrality of the car as you tear through a corner at seemingly impossible speed makes it hugely confidence-inspiring and incredibly easy to drive fast.  Just leave your foot on the gas and let the car sort itself out.  You won’t be complaining about the Recaros’ visibility issues anymore—you’ll be happy to have them holding you in place.

A nationwide search on at time of writing nets only three 2010-2011 MR Touring-spec Evos with asking prices ranging from $30,595 to $36,000, so this is a somewhat unusual car that you’re not likely to see every day on your commute.  A point for exclusivity there.

The Audi, contrary to what the market position might have you believe, is not so exclusive.  Another nationwide search on with the price cap at $45k, and you get 48 2010-2011 Audi S4s.  Cut out the manual gearboxes for equivalency and you’re down to 31 (all of the MR Touring Evos are twin-clutch auto TC-SSTs).  Except for two low outliers, the Audis all fall in the $40-45k range, so a used S4 commands a $10k premium over a similarly used Evo.

Is it worth it?

The Audi exudes a straightforward German seriousness of design and purpose.  The colors are black over black leather with white alcantara inserts, so putting on the seatbelt is akin to buttoning up a Teutonic metal tuxedo.  There’s a weight to everything—the doors, the steering, the knobs—indicating that harnessing all of the performance this car has to offer is a task not to be taken lightly.

The engine is a distant thrum-hum.  The S4 abandoned its 4.2L V8 with the B7-to-B8 redesign, and the heavenly signature burble of that beastly powerplant is gone.  The 3.0L supercharged V6 that replaces it is a wonder of technological achievement and has been put to use across the spectrum of VW brands, but it’s no more aurally arresting than the Evo’s 4-cylinder, except that it sounds more distant and refined, and therefore more expensive.

The Audi’s interior is quieter overall and the dash and console are a class up from the Evo.  Again, this is not because the Evo is lacking per se.  But not a single piece of non-conformist cost-cutting trim meets the driver’s eye, and that no doubt explains another big chunk of the ten extra grand you’ll shell out for the Audi.

The twin-clutch automatic transmission dubbed “S-tronic” in the S4 is almost unfathomably fast.  Mash the go pedal and watch the tach needle wind up (remember, there isn’t much of an aural clue as to how hard the engine is working).  As the needle reaches its’ height, there’s a near-imperceptible “clik!” (it leaves out the last “c” for brevity) and before your brain can comprehend it, the car is in the next gear.  The sensation is completely addictive.  You’ll find yourself at extralegal speeds very quickly and very often as a result of the incurable and insatiable desire to experience it over and over.

It’s almost okay, though, because the brakes are just as ridiculous as the power.  I had never before personally felt a braking action literally pull the skin forward off of my face with negative-acceleration-G until the day I drove the S4.  It was such an exercise in ruthless decelerative economy, I can liken it to nothing but the Death Star’s tractor beam.  Basing my analysis purely on the tactile sensation, the brakes in the Audi seem to be far and away better than those in the Evo.

Regrettably I didn’t get to corner the S4 hard enough to determine how or how well it handles.  Again, this S4 was a dealer’s car, not a friend’s.  Maybe someday.  In April.  At Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, NV.  With the Audi Club of Southern California.  Maybe.  A guy can dream.

So again, is the Audi worth the extra dough?  Hate to straddle the fence here, but it’s hard to say.  You could crack open the magazine tests and point out that the Evo does this or that objectively better, or the S4 does that or this objectively better.  To my eye, the Audi looks a little more grown up, a little more mature, a little less boy-racer.  But the Evo is such a screaming deal for a no-kidding sporting sedan that it’s impossible to ignore, even if the old money at the country club might not smile at the sight of you cruising up to the valet stand.  Both of these cars command respect on the road and the track.  Both will happily do grocery runs with baby seats in the back.  Both will load up the lateral G, smoke their tires, and make their rotors glow with heat.  Both can be trusted in inclement weather.  So, really, I can’t tell you which of these is best for you.  All I can tell you is I’d be a little jealous of you if you owned either one.

Your Next Car Will Most Assuredly NOT Drive Itself

In the February 2012 issue of Wired, Tom Vanderbilt authored an article titled “Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here.”  The front cover of the magazine featured a robotic arm grasping a 5-speed shift knob with the surrounding type proclaiming in all caps, “YOUR NEXT CAR WILL DRIVE ITSELF.”  Mr. Vanderbilt followed up his headlining article three weeks later with another related one, posted to the Wired website and titled “Five Reasons the Robo-Car Haters Are Wrong.”

Not wanting to dive into this fray without preparing, I Googled Mr. Vanderbilt and was delighted to find that he had also authored the book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).  Traffic had received a round of recommendations in the car mags when it was first published, but I had since forgotten about it.  Hungry for knowledge, I tracked the book down, bought a copy, and devoured it at my first opportunity.

Traffic has nothing to do with robotic vehicles, but very much to do with the dangers of leaving your home in a motorized metal cocoon and merging with the flow of crazies, nearly all of them distracted, unprofessional, and unfamiliar with their cars’ limits, but equally convinced they are every one of them “above average” in the performance of the duties necessary to drive from point A to point B.

I highly recommend the book—just reading it will make you a better and safer driver.  However, Mr. Vanderbilt is wrong to claim in his Wired article that the autonomous car is “here,” and Wired is wrong to leap to the conclusion that all of their readers’ next cars will be self-driving.

First, let me rattle off the “Five Reasons” I would be wrong, were I a “Hater.”  Vanderbilt presents these by listing each of the haters’ arguments, and then refuting each one.  Hater Point #1: Autonomous vehicles will be inherently more unsafe than humans.  #2: People like driving.  #3: The infrastructure for autonomous cars does not exist.  #4: Autonomous cars won’t survive the litigious environment in the United States.  #5: When you ride in an autonomous car, you ride with Big Brother.

My reasoning has nothing to do with any of these.  After reading Traffic, one knows that these five arguments are factually and statistically invalid.  #1: Over 90% of vehicle accidents are caused by human error.  Remove humans from the driving process, and the majority of crashes simply do not happen.  #2: People by and large, do not like driving.  If they did, they wouldn’t be staring at their smartphones and/or paying through the nose for distracting in-car technology to in an attempt to mentally remove themselves from the road-going experience.  #3: Infrastructure is not a problem.  Autonomous cars make use of the existing transportation network—that is what makes them so attractive as a transportation alternative.  #4: The “litigious environment” argument is an admittedly strong one.  As Vanderbilt concedes in his Wired article, the automakers’ legal departments are at this point actually forcing conservatism on their engineers—they do not want to deal with the legal backlash that would most certainly accompany the sudden unleashing of massive amounts of automation onto an uneducated user market.  But lawyers cannot stop the economic laws of supply and demand—they can, at best, only slow them down.  Autonomous cars will be a part of our lives, sooner or later.  #5: Given the amount of government paperwork involved with owning and driving a vehicle, plus the existence of GPS navigation systems, satellite radio, and the cell/smartphone in their pockets, drivers were in bed with Big Bro long before autonomous cars came along.

My argument is not against automation, but against the assertion that my next car will be autonomous and/or that the age of full automotive automation has indeed arrived.  I’m quite certain it will not and has not.  Why?  Two reasons: cost and user competence.

First off, at no point in either of his articles does Vanderbilt discuss what this high level of automation costs.  His examples of automated cars include the VW Junior, the Audi TT Pikes Peak, a BMW that drove itself on the autobahn from Munich to Ingolstadt (presumably so BMW could show Audi that they can do automation, too), and Google’s autonomous Prius.  He also brings up the Mercedes S-Class as an example of a current production car that is not autonomous, but features an extremely high level of automation.  Other than the S-Class of course (a steal starting at $91,850), I am unable to find any published information on what creating these autonomous cars cost the manufacturers, let alone what their sticker price would be if they were sold to the public.

The average sale price of a new car in the US is right around thirty thousand dollars at present.  Unless the autonomous car marketed for the masses was able to exist in that arena, it would not be a sales success in the numbers necessary to significantly ease metropolitan traffic or prevent human-error accidents.  Why not?  For a somewhat similar example, we turn to the Chevrolet Volt.

The Chevy Volt can theoretically achieve infinite miles per gallon, so it offers a huge advantage over a normal small car (as an autonomous car does).  Instead of saving time (as an autonomous car would), it saves money.  Here’s the Volt’s problem: it stickers at over $40k, instead of less than $20k as its platform-mate the Cruze, shackled with an oh-so-20th-century standard internal combustion engine and transmission, does.  The Cruze is selling well, whereas Volt production was recently suspended because dealers are having such trouble selling off existing inventory that they are avoiding purchasing Volts from the factory.

My point here is that despite offering a massive advantage over a similar car, as say an autonomous Google Prius would, the Volt is a sales failure because consumers are not willing to pay the large premium that the massive advantage demands.  I’m sure if autonomous cars were inexpensive to create, information about their cost would be easy to obtain.  If the average person could afford an autonomous car, we’d have heard about it by now.

The second reason my next car will not be autonomous is that people are bad enough drivers as it is, let alone after a computer has been doing the driving for them for the last six months.  Then, as they’re leaving the office after a long day at work (or worse, as they’re leaving the bar after a few cocktails on a rainy night) their flux capacitor won’t boot up correctly and they’ll get a “PC Load Letter” error message.  The car will revert to manual mode.  Desperate to get home, they take the wheel themselves.  They’ve never turned the steering wheel before, don’t know where the turn signal buttons/stalks are, and aren’t familiar with the feel and feedback from the gas and brake pedals.  Their seat doesn’t place them in an optimal eye position.  Their mirrors aren’t adjusted.  And it’s been six months since their brain fired the “driving” synapses.  Now, they are a greater hazard to everyone else on the road than they ever were before autonomous cars existed.  As much as I adore embracing new technology, I refuse to be that person—I don’t harbor any illusions about my ability to drive well in an unfamiliar car after a long layoff, and neither should anyone else.

Thus, until autonomous cars are a) cost-competitive and b) flawless, never requiring manual input, my next car (and yours as well, I hope) will NOT drive itself.