Thursday, December 19, 2013

1999 BMW 328i

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 2.8 L I6
Transmission 5-Speed Manual
Power 193 hp @ 5300 rpm
Torque 206 ft-lbs @ 3500 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 18/26
Curb Weight 3197 lbs
Base Price When New $33,970
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $5,099

At first glance, the E46 BMW 3-series is just another compact sedan.  But make no mistake: this car is in a class of its own.

It’s clear from the styling that this car is sporty.  A low roof-line, long hood, and purposeful curves give the car a profile that suggests speed.  The entry level 3-ers (318i, 323i, and 325i) may not live up to their image, but the 328i, equipped with a 193 hp straight-6, is indeed fast.  There is ample torque from low RPM in the first three gears, and once you get the revs above 3500 in any gear, there’s enough to press you firmly against the backrest.

Inside, the atmosphere is one of warmth and comfort.  The soft leather and shiny wood trim provide the ambiance of a cozy living room.  Standard equipment includes automatic climate control, memory power seats, one-touch windows all around, a fuel economy gauge in the main cluster, and steering wheel audio controls—small conveniences that become hard to live without once you've become accustomed to them.  Options include a sport package that upgrades the already nimble suspension, and a premium Harmon Kardon stereo that is specifically tuned to fill the car with crisp, bright sound.  Unlike most new cars, your available options are not limited by selecting a manual transmission.  And you’ll certainly want to go for the stick shift if you want to properly appreciate the incredible driving experience this car can provide.

Driving a 328i is an adventure in intimate human-machine bonding.  The steering is feather-light, but unlike other cars with this much power-assist, it remains communicative.  The suspension is supple, but you will be shocked to discover that through it, you can still feel the texture of the road and the grip of each wheel.  The engine is unceasingly compliant; you will never encounter unexpected throttle lag or over-revving.  As a consequence of this elaborate dialogue between car and driver, the 328i is easily mastered and with little effort becomes an extension of your own body.

I wish I could offer even one small gripe about this car, but the truth is, it's perfect.  The 328i just gets everything right.  My only complaint is that I don't own one.

  • Peppy straight-6 engine
  • A plethora of minor convenience features add up to make a major difference
  • Luxury-car refinement
  • Standard 5-speed does not restrict other options
  • Attractive styling calls attention to the sportiness

  • Double the price of entry-level compacts
  • Expensive parts and labor precipitate a steep cost of ownership

The Bottom Line:  This car may cost twice as much as a Corolla or Civic, but it's worth every penny.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2006 Toyota Camry LE

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 2.4 L I4
Transmission 5-Speed Manual
Power 154 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque 160 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 21/30
Curb Weight 3108 lbs
Base Price When New $20,165
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $6,981

It’s easy to see why the Toyota Camry spent so many years as the best-selling mid-size sedan in America.  Every aspect of the Camry’s design incorporates elements from its up-market competitors.  The presence of features like steering wheel audio controls, one-touch windows, and speed-proportional power steering distinguish it from similarly-priced models.  Comfort is one area in particular that sets the Camry apart.  The seats are markedly ergonomic, and the ride is more cushioned than one would expect from anything less than a luxury car.  Toyota’s meticulous engineers have created a suspension that offers great ride comfort with little accompanying compromise in handling.  The interior is well-insulated from road and wind noise, which is still audible, but muffled.

While certainly not on a par with a BMW or Audi, the Camry’s driving experience leaves little to be desired. Steering is precise and direct.  The power assist provides just the right weight.  This, combined with the poised handling, gives me the confidence to push the car a bit closer to the limit than I would normally be comfortable doing in a large family car.  The Camry I drove was equipped with the standard 5-speed manual transmission. Its clutch has a particularly long travel, which is great for smooth shifting.  With the available 5-speed automatic, this car would lose most of its edge in the realm of driver engagement.  In my opinion, that's not worth sacrificing for the one additional highway mpg you gain by opting for a slushbox.

There are a few downsides you'll have to live with if you decide to make your garage home to a Camry.  The best way I can describe the 4-cylinder engine is "adequate".  It's not going to knock your socks off, but it gets the job done.  Additionally, the styling is far from striking.  Seen on its own, the Camry is pleasant to look at, but it doesn't stand out from the crowd.  This model has become so common that you can't drive a mile in most towns without seeing at least twenty of them.  It is the quintessential mundane family car, in the eyes of the public.  But somehow I find myself drawn to its unassuming image.  Maybe I just like the idea that no one will ever suspect how much fun I'm having.


  • Dare I say it?  This economical mid-size is actually enjoyable to drive!
  • Your left leg gets some exercise while you transport your family in comfort
  • Excellent gas mileage
  • Reliable (It's a Toyota.  Enough said.)
  • Copious legroom and trunk space make it super-practical


  • The 4-cylinder isn't very powerful
  • This isn't a car you can brag to your friends about

The Bottom Line:  It's an affordable mid-size that takes design notes from much pricier models.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2004 Volkswagen Jetta TDi Sedan

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 1.9 L I4 Diesel
Transmission 5-Speed Manual
Power 100 hp @ 4000 rpm
Torque 177 ft-lbs @ 1800 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 32/42
Curb Weight 3003 lbs
Base Price When New $20,480
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $6,756

My friend Laurie recently lent me her 2004 biodiesel-powered Jetta for the afternoon.  This was the first diesel vehicle I had ever driven, but I had an idea of what to expect—lots of low end torque, a narrow power band, and a loud rumbling engine.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Volkswagen has done a good job of tuning the engine to keep it more user-friendly for drivers used to gasoline engines.  The small turbocharger helps spread out the power band without introducing any lag, and the engine is reasonably quiet and consistent in volume throughout the rev range.

I thoroughly enjoyed driving this car.  The steering is sharp and the body stays completely level in sharp turns, likely due to the low center of gravity and tight suspension.  The engine’s overall power (100 hp, 177 lb-ft of torque) isn't overwhelming, but the 5-speed manual transmission and wide power band make it easy to accelerate quickly when needed.

Exterior styling is one of the Jetta’s low points.  The design is an evolution of the “folded paper” look of the original 1979 model.  Volkswagen seems to think that slightly rounding the creases is an acceptable way to modernize the Jetta.  Unfortunately, it still just looks like a boring metal box.  The interior is a stark contrast to the exterior.  Soft black plastic with silver accents covers most surfaces.  The smooth curves of the dashboard and center console are the best evidence that this car was actually designed in the 21st century.  It only gets better when the headlights are switched on, as everything is bathed in an orange glow.

The best part of owning a diesel vehicle is the fuel economy.  You really can’t go wrong with the Jetta’s EPA ratings of 32/42 mpg, which put it on a par with much smaller and weaker gasoline-powered cars.  After 3 hours of city driving, the fuel gauge needle had barely moved a millimeter.

For Laurie, the ability to run the Jetta on biodiesel is the major selling point of the car.  She doesn't like to support middle-eastern countries that harbor terrorists by buying their exported oil.  “I don’t want to give my money to the terrorists”, she says.  That may be the best reason to buy a diesel car today.

I think the Jetta can also appeal to those who just want a reliable car that will save them money at the pump, but the purchase price could be a problem.  In the US, Volkswagen has always sold the Jetta TDi at a much higher price point than the gasoline model, and used examples have held their value well due to the high quality.  Perhaps once diesels begin to catch on in this country prices will become more reasonable.

  • Well-tuned engine makes the transition from gasoline easier
  • Great handling
  • Fuel economy puts subcompacts to shame
  • Modern interior
  • Bland exterior styling
  • Pricey

The Bottom Line:  Independence from foreign oil and zero emissions make it a great choice for a socially conscious driver.

Friday, December 13, 2013

1997 Plymouth Grand Voyager SE Extended Wheelbase

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 2.4 L I4
Transmission 4-Speed Automatic
Power 150 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque 167 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 16/23
Curb Weight 3790 lbs
Base Price When New $21,335
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $1,721

I drove this van for a year as a campus shuttle at my Alma Mater, Colorado College. It was horrendous in every way, yet I became inexplicably attached to it. There were surely reasons enough to hate it.  Here are a few big ones:

  • The power: 150 hp just isn't enough for a vehicle this heavy. It was sluggish and unresponsive.
  • The comfort: The suspension was too bouncy half the time, and too stiff the other half.  I could never understand how this was even possible. The interior had a purely utilitarian design that constantly reminded me I was at work, and not cruising the town just for kicks.
  • The steering: The wheel would turn about 15 degrees in either direction with no response whatsoever. The steering feel reminded me of those playgrounds with a ship's helm that isn't connected to anything. On cambered roads you would have to hold the wheel at about 45 degrees off center to keep the van in a straight line.

And here are quite a few more little ones:

  • The headlights were so dim you could barely tell they were on, and the high beams were only marginally brighter.
  • The interior perpetually reeked of alcohol and vomit.
  • We referred to the heater as "the owl", because of the sound it made while it was running.
  • The dashboard lights would intermittently shut off for minutes at a time.
  • The right turn signal blinked at double speed.

There was one final flaw that cemented this car’s membership in the lemon club:  its clunky transmission.  I always found the story behind it to be quite entertaining.  Many years ago one of the drivers was a man who had lost an arm, so a knob had been installed on the steering wheel to assist with turning.  Once while he was driving, the knob fell off and, unable to control the vehicle, the man drove it over a curb leaving it high-centered on the transmission. The repair was botched, and ever since then the van would lurch violently with every gear change.

And yet, despite the van's numerous defects, I grew to love it. I began to appreciate the driving characteristics, and found the quirks and faults more endearing than frustrating. More than anything, I loved the time I spent driving it.  I remember being constantly entertained by the antics of drunk passengers.  I loved the thrill of driving in winter blizzards at night.  My coworkers and I would challenge each other to brake smoothly on the icy roads without engaging the ABS.  Occasionally we would get huge tips from passengers, even though it was a free service.  Some of our passengers would board the van dressed in bizarre costumes for themed parties.

Perhaps then, my attachment is more to that time in my life than to the van itself, but that worn-out old Plymouth Voyager will always hold a place in my heart.


  • It was the beating heart of Colorado College’s nightlife.


  • A multitude of issues made it difficult, uncomfortable, and borderline dangerous to drive.

The Bottom Line:  It was complete and utter rubbish...but I loved it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

1998 Ford Contour Sport

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 2.5 L V6
Transmission 4-Speed Automatic
Power 170 hp @ 6250 rpm
Torque 165 ft-lbs @ 4250 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 21/30
Curb Weight 3030 lbs
Base Price When New $16,055
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $1,976

When you think of a mid-90's American compact, "sporty" probably isn't the first word that comes to mind.  Which is why this modest little sedan took the nation by surprise when it arrived on U.S. shores in 1994.  The secret to the Contour's superior driving characteristics lies in its European origins.

Sold by Ford Europe since 1992 as the Mondeo, it was imported to replace the outgoing Tempo, eliminating the need to design an entirely new model.  The car was initially built to compete in a much larger market, against similar offerings from Volkswagen, Skoda, Opel, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Renault, Fiat, and countless other European marques.  This necessitated a higher level of refinement than what is typically seen from American cars in this segment.  The result is a compact that provides stability, responsiveness, and ride comfort miles ahead of its American competition.

First offered in 1996, the SE Sport package transforms the already nimble Contour into a true performance variant.  It adds a 2.5 L DuraTec V6 that puts out 170 hp, as well as a small spoiler and several other bits of unique trim.

Take this machine onto a twisty road, and its European heritage shines through.  The fully-independent suspension gives a nice balance of handling and ride comfort.  Steering is sharp and precise with lots of confidence-inspiring feedback.  It feels stable in the bends, right up to its skid pad rating of 0.80 g.  Rough roads are vanquished by the well-tuned shocks, though medium to large bumps can still feel jarring.  Adding to the car's comfort is the quietness of the cabin—even at speed there is minimal acoustic intrusion from the wind and asphalt.  The engine can get loud at high revs, but it's hard to complain when it sounds so good!

There are a few drawbacks that keep the Contour from earning an unequivocal recommendation.  While the exterior styling has stood the test of time well, the interior is a different story.  Almost every surface is upholstered in soft grey fabric, which is pleasant to touch, but the lack of contrast makes the overall appearance a bit dull.  The brakes are responsive, linear, and adequately powerful, though it's disappointing to see rear drums on a car that is branded as a sport model.  Lastly, fuel economy is dismal.  At 21 mpg city, 30 highway (EPA figures), it lags far behind newer vehicles with similar power and weight.  And in the real world where drivers use their air conditioning, defrosters, and electric accessories liberally, 19/26 will be more typical.

Most importantly, though, this car is a blast to drive. The combination of power, responsiveness, and comfort is unparalleled for a vehicle in this class. If you are looking for a cheap, sporty ride that is also practical enough to be a family hauler or daily commuter, the Ford Contour Sport should be at the top of your list.


  • Spirited acceleration
  • Communicative steering
  • Competent handling
  • Smooth, quiet ride
  • Looks great on the outside


  • Looks not-so-great on the inside
  • Poor fuel economy

The Bottom Line: Cheap, sporty, and practical—what more could you want?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2003 Toyota Corolla LE

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 1.8 L I4
Transmission 4-Speed Automatic
Power 130 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque 125 ft-lbs @ 4200 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 25/34
Curb Weight 2590 lbs
Base Price When New $14,680
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $5,184

If you are looking for a cheap car with few frills and no refinement, the E120 Toyota Corolla may be your cup of tea. It isn't mine.

This compact sedan seems to have the pretensions of being an upscale car: Sleek modern styling and a cabin plastered with faux wood trim and plush fabrics. But the illusion dissipates the moment you turn the key in the ignition. The engine starts with a quiet clatter. As the car accelerates, the quiet clatter becomes a much louder clatter. Acceleration is underwhelming until about 4000 rpm where the torque finally kicks in. This is slightly unfortunate because by 3500 rpm your eardrums will have already shattered.

The accelerator pedal is another issue. It takes a noticeable amount of effort to start it moving along its unusually short travel, but offers little resistance once "unstuck" (For the physicists among my readers: there is a clear difference between its static and dynamic friction). Because of this, speed regulation is a bit of a chore. In fact, so is steering. Control is direct and precise, but this comes at the expense of weight. There is a bit of power assist, but not as much as most people are accustomed to in modern cars.

When it comes time to slow down, your foot will go halfway to the floor before you feel anything at all. After that the brakes respond quite smoothly, but there is no excuse for such a massive control dead-zone.

Despite the problems, there are some compelling reasons you might want this car. First, it is incredibly cheap. When you purchase an E120 Corolla, you are getting a car that looks decent inside and out for very little money.  Additionally, it handles competently, and has acceptable acceleration and braking for a car in its class.  The build quality is excellent, and I can guarantee it will rarely need repairs if you treat it right.  On my example the only thing that ever went wrong is a hubcap that fell off.   To top it off, the gas mileage is amazing at 32 city, 38 highway (my own figures).  On the other hand, this is not an exciting car, and doesn't feel unique in any way.   You may also be turned off by the ride, which is noisy and bumpy at any speed.  This is undoubtedly influenced by the presence of torsion beam rear suspension, which reveals the Corolla’s true identity as a low-budget ride.  I would recommend this car to anyone who doesn't mind the lack of refinement and wants a small practical car that will probably last forever.


  • Handles well
  • Cheap to own 


  • "Sticky" accelerator pedal
  • Rough engine
  • Rough ride

The Bottom Line:  Decent family sedan on a budget

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

1988 Chevrolet Cavalier Wagon

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 2.0 L I4
Transmission 3-Speed Automatic
Power 90 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque 108 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 22/29
Curb Weight 2414 lbs
Base Price When New $8,860
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $1,633

“Robert” was a 1988 Cavalier wagon that my family acquired when I was 3 years old.  According to my parents, I gave him that name myself.  It figures then that I have always felt a strong connection to this car.  We were born in the same year, and we grew up together.  Robert was a part of many of the formative experiences of my life.  My family drove Robert across the country from East to West when we moved to Oregon from Virginia, and I experienced my first foray into a foreign country (Canada) from his back seat.
When I got my driver’s license at 19, I finally had the chance to drive the car that had meant so much to me during my childhood.  By then, Robert was beginning to show his age.  But I saw him through rose-colored glasses.  Instead of being frustrated by the slow response of the pedals, I loved how it made the car accelerate and brake so smoothly.  You just couldn’t rush the car to do anything, which made for a laid-back driving experience.  The steering was loose and off-center, but I appreciated how light the wheel felt in my hands.

Robert soon became a symbol of my independence.  My parents let me drive him wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, as long as I told them where I was going.  Driving Robert to work during the first summer after college only strengthened our bond.  Every moment we spent together taught me new lessons in car control.  I found the limits of his lateral grip and braking force (which didn’t take much effort to reach).  I practiced braking so smoothly that I couldn’t feel the car rock back as I came to a halt.  I learned to parallel park and back into parking spaces—Robert was the perfect car for this because of his big square windows and thin pillars.

When he finally died of a clogged exhaust system last year, I was sad to see him go.  But he left me with a valuable gift—a passion for driving that has stuck with me my whole life.

  • Cheap to insure
  • Great visibility
  • Love is blind

  • Unresponsive throttle and brake
  • Numb, loose steering
  • Only one working speaker
  • Windshield wipers turned on when using the turn signals
  • Loud but weak engine

The Bottom Line:  It was the cornerstone of my passion for driving.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2007 Toyota Prius Touring

The Really Important Stuff
Engine 1.5 L I4 + 500 V Electric Motor
Transmission Automatic CVT
Power 110 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque 82 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Fuel Economy City/Highway 60/51
Curb Weight 2903 lbs
Base Price When New $23,070
Market Value (Excellent Condition, 100K miles) $10,520

I started my Driver’s Education class in the summer of 2007, and after a couple hours of class work, my instructor put me behind the wheel of a brand new Prius.  This example was designed specifically for driving instruction, since it had a second brake pedal for the passenger and “Student Driver” decals along the sides.  My initial snail-pace cruise around the parking lot was, at that moment, the most fun I had ever had in my life.  I relished the feeling of being in total control (save for the occasional stomp on the passenger-brake by my instructor when we got too close to a curb).

The experience of driving a modern hybrid was a bit disconcerting for me as a novice driver.  Most of the traditionally mechanical controls were electronic in the Prius.  The parking brake, gear selector, and starter were all buttons on the dashboard.  Speed was indicated by a digital display, and the tachometer was absent entirely.  Acceleration was silent (until the gas engine started), and the brake pedal provided no feedback.  Driving the Prius felt more like operating a computer than controlling a vehicle.

The Prius had a back-up camera to make up for its poor rearward visibility, but since this was a luxury most cars didn't have, the instructor kept a towel draped over the screen, requiring me to turn around and look out the split rear window to reverse.  It was only after driving my Mom’s Corolla that I finally got accustomed to what it felt like to drive a "real" car.

This car was not one that I would ever choose to drive of my own free will, but it provided a door into a world that I would soon fall in love with, and so I have developed a respect for it (with mild reservations).


  • Smooth ride and control response.
  • Epic gas mileage.


  • The split rear window could be a deal-breaker due to the severely compromised visibility.
  • It's a computer that could be mistaken for a car to the untrained eye.
  • Drive-by-wire controls mean zero feedback.
  • The amazing fuel economy will probably never make up for the premium you will pay for an overpriced hybrid.

The Bottom Line: Buy it if you absolutely must have the best fuel economy, or want to present an eco-friendly image.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A New Blog For Car Lovers Everywhere

This blog is for you.  That's right, you, sitting there at your computer.  You're here because you are passionate about cars.  You live for the thrill of the open road.  You derive vicarious pleasure from reading about the experiences of other drivers.  You follow the automotive industry's every move.  And even when you aren't in the market for a new (or pre-loved) automobile, you keep your eye out for that special vehicle that just might change your life.  Yes, I made this blog for you, because I am one of you.

My Mission

My goal is to write a review or essay about every car I drive.  I have a backlog of old writing, but I've still got a lot of catching up to do.

  1. The author is incredibly biased toward manual transmissions over automatics.  Sorry folks, but slushboxes just aren't going to get as much coverage here as their clutch-endowed counterparts.
  2. The author has strong revisionist tendencies.  He firmly believes that blog posts, like fine wine, should get better with age.  Prepare for the occasional surprise when re-reading old entries.