Car stories

My grandfather picked me up this morning and we went car shopping. I test-drove five cars in total.

Toyota Camry Solara:
The Solara, available as a coupe and a convertible, was the first car we tested. I was looking at the coupe version, which is essentially in my price range. The exterior of the car has the most rounded, swooping lines of anything we saw today. Like every car on the list, it has split-folding rear seats and a four-cylinder engine. Driving it was nice, smooth, but not remarkable. It had some of the same feel that I got with the Toyota Matrix, which I test-drove back in Westport a week or two ago, where the accelerator response is initially sluggish, then shoots out from under me. This may be because I am used to driving a Volvo with very tightly sprung pedals. The visibility was poor, but not substantially better or worse than any other coupe I tested. The Honda salesman said that coupes generally have worse visibility, and I believe him. I will be doing a lot of lane-changing with mirrors. Incidentally, the Solara had a velvet-type cloth interior, the sort that seems most likely to get stained, but there is a leather option. The steering was perhaps somewhat lose.

Toyota Scion tC:
Scion is Toyota’s new youth-targeted brand. It started in 2005, and currently only offers a total of 3 cars. The other two are four-door squashed station-wagons, but the tC is the “touring Coupe”. It has the same 160HP engine as the Camry and likely shares a lot of the mechanics. I prefer the tC’s styling to just about any other car I’ve seen, though the $440,000, 205MPH Porsche Carrera GT we saw at the Porsche dealership also looked nice. The amazing thing, though, about the tC, beyond the BMW-style headlights and such, is that it’s actually a hatchback. The long, sloping rear window lifts up, and the back seats fold completely flat, leaving more usable storage area than a larger sedan. The tC had similar handling to the Solara, but slightly sportier. Although it is styled like a sports car, it is in fact a “touring” model, supposedly meaning tuned for long drives. The Solara and tC both felt great for highway driving. Although the tC is 16″ shorter than the Solara, it has virtually the same wheelbase.

Honda Civic Coupe:
The Civic Coupe might reasonably be considered a competitor to the tC, in terms of size. The steering and driving felt tighter than either of the Toyotas. The acceleration stuck out to me the most, on both the Civic and the Accord. Although both cars, as we had them configured, were underpowered compared to the Toyotas, they behaved at least as well at low accelerations. It was only when I pushed them, like trying to accelerate up a steep hill, that I understood why that horsepower might be handy. The Civic had a surprisingly sporty feel, and the styling, while conservative, was not bad. The interior materials were perhaps not quite as high quality as the Toyotas, but the difference was small.

Honda Accord Coupe:
The Accord is probably the biggest car we tested. It is at least as long as the Solara, and the rear end appeared to be significantly higher. I have been impressed with the Accord’s styling, which looks extremely geometric, composed of a few simple curves. As with the Solara, though, I can’t decide whether I really like the way it looks up close. The driving experience was very similar to the Civic, as is the interior. The only difference is more rear seat room and somewhat more trunk space. In all the coupes we tested, I was surprised at how narrow the trunk opening is. Although the seats all fold down, the area connecting the trunk and passenger compartments is nowhere near as big as the trunk’s cross-section. I suppose it must be the intrusion of the wheel wells, but it’s still frustrating to me.

Mini Cooper:

The Mini, now again something of an icon, is hard to buy. It’s not quite as hard to buy as a Toyota Prius, for which the base models are no longer sold, but there’s still a waiting list. I tested one out anyway, the base model with a paltry-sounding ~110 HP. The Mini is described as a hatchback and a sports car, both of which are sort-of accurate. With the rear seats up, the storage area is about big enough for a load of groceries, but not groceries from Costco. With the rear seats down there’s a pretty substantial amount of room, though still not huge. The exterior of the car has styling that is so distinctive it’s difficult to discuss. You’ve seen it, so I don’t need to. The styling question is: is this car a fad, with styling that will look about as cool as snap-bracelets in a couple of years, or is this look going to last?

The interior of the Mini has the best materials and designs of any car we tested, by a long ways. It’s the only one of these cars that looks like artists and sculptors were called upon to tweak the cockpit to perfection. Their choices, like a huge, clock-like center speedometer, are occasionally silly, but always deliberate. The car’s handling is kind of odd. It has a definite sports-car solidity to the controls, and the wheel is so stiff that if you turn it it will stick where you left it. At high speeds it is fun to drive, and even this base model has plenty of “pep”. The problem is at low speeds, where the handling is so sensitive that maneuvering in a parking lot was actually scary to me. The Mini was the only car today with a Continuously Variable Transmission, i.e. a gearless automatic, and it seemed to accelerate just fine. It isn’t perfect, but it’s at least as good as all the other transmissions.

Tomorrow: lunch with relatives.

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