February 6, 2004

Zoom Zoom

Ben and I went testdriving yesterday in San Jose and I had a lot of fun. I drove, in order, a Lexus IS300, Acura TL, Ben's Infiniti G35coupe, a BMW 325ci and a 330 sedan. Here's what I thought of each:

  • Lexus IS300 - Not having much experience with a RWD car, I was wondering if I could tell the difference. Maybe it was in my head, but it felt more solid during acceleration. It was certainly peppy, but the brakes felt a little lacking. I didn't think so at the time, but in comparison to other cars, in hindsight I should have expected more. The interior was nicely done, the suede on the trim and seats a nice touch and looked great, but the gear shift knob was this horrible little round pinball-type-thing that felt terrible in my hand. The throw distance was also too long for my tastes. I also didn't care for the gauge cluster, very avant garde, but very distracting. When Ben asked the dealer what sets the car apart from the cars in its class, he rattled off about the Lexus tradition and reputation, which well earned, told me nothing about why I should buy this particular car. Overall, it was a good start.
  • Acura TL - I was eagerly awaiting some hands-on time with the new TL since I know someone who bought one and another who is seriously considering it. I'd heard it had the greatest interior around in that class which made up for the fact that it was FWD and only came in a sedan. The dealer spent a good 10 minutes pointing out all the features to us as he walked around the car on the lot. It was a nice touch, even if it was the typical sales pitch. When time came to drive, I had a hell of a time getting adjusted to the clutch. It was very touchy and much higher than I would have liked. If I tapped it with my foot, it would weakly depress about an inch before giving me any resistance whatsoever. Limp-wristed is the phrase that comes to mind. In addition, the throttle was touchy as well, very binary. You either had power or you didn't. Put these two together and you can imagine a bunny rabbit hopping down the road in a $35k car. Even as I was struggling to get that under control, I was struggling to keep the car going where I pointed it. The lurching from the touchy throttle caused the car to exhibit some pretty heinous torque-steer. Ben thought, from the back seat, that he was in a carnival ride. I was very impressed by the nav system, which is touch-screen, voice activated, and changable while you drive. The dealer had a very thick accent and I imagined scenes of Ozzy Ozbourne screaming obscenities at the nav system in his BMW, but the Acura system handled it without a pause. The voice of the system itself was pleasant as well, not forced or stilted and the screen was very large. I think if I was seriously interested, I'd have to try the automatic, which pains me, but the clutch/throttle combination, coupled with the torque-steer, was enough to put me off driving it. Wonderful interior, terrible drive.
  • Ben's G35c - Fresh off the Acura, Ben let me drive his car to the BMW dealer in MtnView. I was a bit timid after having such a terrible time with the TL, but the G35 fit me like a glove. I had the handle of the clutch in no time flat and the throttle was perfectly even (which probably helped me figure out the clutch). Acceleration onto Lawrence Expwy was wonderful, I was in heaven, with no hint of the torque-steer which plagued by last drive. I was so comfortable with the car after even 5 minutes that I felt like I was driving my own. In comparison to the TL or the BMW, the G35 has a less luxurious interior dominated by a plastic center console. Everything except that console is high quality and feels fit and polished, but I just can't get over the husky center console that stands out like a sore thumb on a wonderful car. The drive is also a bit more raw than the others. You enjoy hearing the engine, the stick throw is short and takes some effort, which I like. Overall, I would argue that the driving experience is second to none, but the interior pulls down the overall experience, removing just a bit of the luxury from this class of car. This car isn't for driving clients to the country club, it's about enjoying yourself as the driver.
  • BMW 325ci - The 325 I drove was a few years old and had about 50k miles on it. The dealer thinks it was a 2001 (why wasn't he sure?). I liked the feel of the car, but I never really enjoyed driving it. Maybe it was the increasing early rush-hour traffic on 237, maybe it was that I was finally driving a BMW (a childhood dream of mine), maybe it was that it was very different from the others I'd driven that day. I kept finding myself glancing at the tach and seeing I was at 5500 or 6500 rpm. The engine didn't sound like I was doing that. For some, I'm sure that's great. For me, I wanted to hear it. To me, the engine just sounded thin, not at all what I was expecting. The stick was very loose and almost too easy to move from gear to gear. The dealer said that was intentional, but I'm not so sure. As I said above, I like to have to do some work when using the stick, helps me feel like I'm actually connected to the car rather than just pushing some buttons and pointing it. Perhaps it's just something that now I know about, I can get past. We took the 325 back in and the dealer showed me the feature where if you are slowing down to low rpms, the car doesn't stall, even with none of the pedals pressed. It just coasts like an automatic. Very cool.
  • BMW 330i sedan - I'm pretty sure this sedan had the sports package, so it was similar to a driving the coupe (where that package is standard). The battery on this one was dead (attributed, by the dealer, to a downturn in the economy) so we had to jump it. While that was straightened out, I spent some time on the interior. The first thing that jumped out at me was that it was nicer than the '01. More polished, more solid. Maybe I didn't spend enough time looking at it before I started driving, maybe that's what happens to BMWs after 50k miles. Maybe it was that new car smell. Either way, I liked it. Once they started the car, Ben and I immediately noticed the sound of the engine: this time it was what we expected from the ultimate driving machine. The dealer couldn't say if it was just the bigger 3.0L engine or some changes in the exhaust, but we heard a definite difference from the first note. Driving this car was also much more exhilirating. I kept it mostly in the 3-4k rpm range, it just felt much more natural than the 325. I could get it up to 80 w/out a second thought and without feeling like I was lacking control. It was smooth all the way with a very even power band. It had a lot of get-up-and-go and I never found myself driving at too high rpms. I asked the dealer about the nav system (neither car we drove had one) and he told me that very few customers want nav on the 3-series. This shocked me. People pay $40k+ for this car and they don't want nav? That says to me that people break the bank to buy one of these (for status, I assume) then eat mac&cheese to afford it. I couldn't imagine. When we finally pulled into the lot, I tried to test the no-stall feature but didn't have enough momentum entering the driveway and stalled it. Then, of course, I couldn't get it restarted -- the battery was dead! Damn that economy! I hope this isn't telling of what the service on a BMW is like.

Overall, I'd say I liked the G35c and the 330 the best, head and shoulders above the others. The G35 was a better driving experience, the 330 was just a bit below but much higher on the luxury and comfort side. I've just always wanted a BMW. If I was really interested, I'd have a really tough decision in front of me. Good thing my hobby is home theater and not cars :)

Posted by pinkerton at February 6, 2004 2:49 PM