Here are some notes from test drives I did during the holidays. Enjoy, or scorn.
Test drive #1: An all-black, and with what looked like a fine blue metallic, Scion FR-S/6-speed auto w/paddle shifters. First, let me say thank you Toyota for NOT festooning the FR-S with all sorts of skirts, slats, spoilers or using ridiculous overwrought design elements to play homage to the 90’s Fast n’ Furious boy-racer street machines. Nope, instead they very wisely built what I think is a modern classic – a nicely proportioned body with purposeful flowing lines. I especially liked the scalloped lines along the front fender that runs along the top of the door. Even better, it is a design that really does not look like anything else past, or present. Overall appearance, inside and out, outstanding = A+. Behind the wheel, you immediately notice that this car sits very low. The steering ratio is tight and has nice feel and balance. The brakes work well and also provide nice feel. As for engine power – I say it is perfect. The engine provides good torque during tip-in and pulls strongly to redline without sounding strained. While some would argue it needs another fifty horsepower, I say the current power output matches the car’s fun-to-drive, toss-able chassis. Demerits – get rid of the paddle shifters, they’re worthless. Not to say they don’t operate correctly, but their function is better served with the right hand and auto shifter handle on the console. In summary, in a few years when these things start hitting the used car market, the argument to buy a Civic and soup it up is going to be snuffed out. In other words, Honda, you need to build a competitor quick or your street cred is going to go down the crapper.
Test drive #2: Scion IQ. In my opinion, the best looking micro-car on the planet. Kudos to the team that was able to make it look so good with so little body-panel real estate to work with. Too bad that good design taste did not extend to the interior. The “eyebrow” over the gauge cluster looked like a “jazz-it-up” attempt, and the height of the center stack looked like there was a mix up in numbers between the designers and manufacturing – the result the top of the center stack oddly sits about half-inch taller than the top of the dash leaving a weird-looking gap. Other than these two misses the rest of the interior is good, except for the driver’s seat. During the test drive it felt like I was sitting on a bar stool with a rounded-off top, that over time, with enough road vibrations, you could find your butt vibrated over to sitting on the center console -- needless to say, in a word – awful. The last miss: A shifter handle knob that was loose and did not have an easy way to tighten it up, which these little things are a shame because the little IQ is fun to drive. It has surprisingly good power. I expected riding lawnmower acceleration, and to find [pedal] bike riders tailgating and passing me. But, instead, it is a zippy little car that is light on its feet. Fun fact: Park it in a parking lot parking space, turn the wheel all the way to the left/right, put it in drive and it will circle within two and half parking spaces and you will end up right back exactly where you started. Amazing! Pick up the pace and allow it to circle a few times and you find yourself dizzier than a kid running around, swinging on a pole. In summary for the IQ, put some FR-S seats in this thing and I would not have any issue with using it for a daily runabout.
Test drive #3. A black VW Turbo Beetle with an auto. Some may think this car’s big multi-spoke wheels make it look like more Porsche-like. I have mixed feeling with that idea. Yea, maybe, but I would prefer to go the full retro and swap the turbo wheels for a set of the “hub cap” wheels. I liked everything inside except for the rear seat. The seat is very upright and has no rake adjustment. If you want to punish someone, throw them back there for a cross-country tour – they’ll be screaming in agony before you hit the first state line. Driving the turbo ‘Dub was fun – the steering is quick, the ride is composed and it is pretty quick -- quicker than you’d think. Step on it, and you’re snapping shifts off at a good clip. Of all the cars we test drove, it was one of my son’s favorites. I thought it was a little tippy feeling, but had to admit I was surprised at how good the new Bug is.
Test drive #4. A white VW GTI auto. I like the looks of these little boxes – practicality with an attitude, is what I say. The black grill with the red outline looked great. The plaid seats inside, I could live with; my son thought it looked dorky. This car to me was everything the turbo Dub was and more. My son wasn’t as impressed and would have opted for the Beetle. What can I say, kids.
Test drive #5. A white WRX hatch with a 6-speed manual. This was the second time I have driven a newer WRX. And each time I come back with the same comparison. This car feels like a 5-liter late-80’s Mustang, but with AWD. The thin doors, and the feel of the shifter and steering – it’s uncanny. And for some reason, even the power delivery. I can’t explain it. Someone else please go drive one and tell me I’m not crazy. This “feel” is odd for this car though. For all its import street cred, it does not feel high-tech to the senses – at all! No wonder many muscle car guys like/own one of these.
Test drive #6: A black, bass-ass, 392 SRT Challenger with a 6-speed auto. Standing behind it at startup sounded like two little firecrackers went off inside the exhaust tips, and the throbbing exhaust note that follows is simply intoxicating. Inside the bruiser is remarkable quiet, until you drop the hammer. The guttural sounds that fill the interior are more intimidating than those made by an adult lion or grizzly bear. As for acceleration, I have not been pressed into the seat like that since a ride, years ago, in a 502 big-block equipped Malibu. If I owned one of these cars, three things would happen. 1. Single-digit fuel economy. 2. The navigation system would be programed for the nearest drag strip and Woodward Avenue. 3. I would be late for work, every day – either because I took the long way, or because I was pulled over again. This car is what people remember the 60’s muscle cars as being like, except they’re wrong. This car is better in every way. (Note: The Challenger felt much smaller than during my first test drive a couple years ago.)
Test drive #7. A black Hyundai Veloster, non-turbo auto. If you want an economy car that looks sporty, this one is for you. My son thought its ride and steering felt good, I thought it felt artificial. For me it was the second Hyundai I’ve driven recently that did not impress me, at all.
Test drive #8. The biggest surprise and the best ride of the day -- a magma red, Nissan 370Z with paddles. To be honest, this has been a take-it-or-leave-it car for me. I always thought the styling was interesting, but not great, and the reviews I’ve read never had me wanting to test drive one. But this car, in the magma red and with the sport package was stunning. Whoever the designer was who picked this color should be promoted; it looks fabulous on this car. As for the dynamics, this car is spot-on. It has a nice buttoned-down ride and a rather tame in power delivery, until you hammer it. Then it feels like the whole car is one solid piece of metal in the form of a rocket. You don’t feel any rearing back, no pause, and the rear-end stays planted. Just stay on it and click off shifts in machine gun fashion. This is how high-tech is done! Guys who like sport bikes would have to love driving this car. And if I could have purchased the car, I would have – in a second. I left it wondering why this car does sell in droves, it is that good.
Test drive #9. A used (17K miles) Mazda Miata with a 6-speed. My first time ever driving a Miata! This one had some mechanical issues – the front end tire thump, and squeaky clutch cable. Overall, it felt sort of like the WRX, but obviously with much less power. I could quickly feel how people become very passionate about them – it felt like slipping on an old pair of jeans, or like you’ve driven the car before. It instantly feels comfortable, and once you’re rowing through the gears you feel like you’ve stolen a classic car out of someone’s garage. Very cool! I get Miatas now.