Monday, May 09, 2005

(I Like) Fast Cars (Within Reason)

by Tom Bozzo

Saturday was Consumerism Day for me up in the Twin Cities (*). Apart from an errand I ran to the veritable Crystal Cathedral of the retail economy — something I only did the day before Mother's Day because it has both an Apple Store and a LEGO store under one roof — I stopped by Motorwerks BMW in Bloomington and took the new 2006 (E90) 330i for a spin. The postmodernity of the Motorwerks car-selling experience will rate a post of its own at some point.

Let me dispel any fears you might have had about what might have been done to the 3'er and say that the example I drove, with the stock tires, six-speed automatic, and none of the widely unloved technological gewgaws that occasionally raise the ire of the automotive press, was awesomely awesome. (**) Basically, it felt just like the 330Ci, except that it generally went faster because I wasn't trying to shift the gears myself.

I'm reminded of the one thing I can remember from Real Men Don't Eat Quiche apart from the title, and maybe the book's one funny suggestion: real men drive cars with automatics (i.e., they are capable of shifting their own gears, but are comfortable enough to leave it to a machine).

When I got my first car, three years after the publication of Quiche, that could be profoundly stupid as buying advice. My 1985 car had a 1.5-liter four making all of 69 horsepower, SAE net; and with the 3-speed automatic, which I test drove but did not order, it could easily get dusted by an Old Beetle. With the automatic and the a/c running, you might as well have gotten out and walked. (Economy cars have improved so dramatically over the last 20 years it isn't funny.) With the 5-speed, it could be flogged into a semblance of fun, at least within the range of legal speed. For you young'uns out there, that topped out at 55 mph back then. The one automatic I have owned, in a 195-hp Honda, seemed to have been geared expressly to frustrate the engine's tuning.

But I have to raise the white flag with the latest many-geared automatics: drivers who can outshift the damn things should consider a career in race-car driving. Though serious race cars no longer require their drivers to work the clutch.

The test drive also convinced me that the horsepower wars are completely out of hand. Somewhere on a car-oriented bulletin board, right now, someone is criticising the new BMW 3-liter for making "only" 255 hp. You can, after all, get a 255-hp Honda Accord. Power outputs that were the province of exotic sports cars when I started driving are available at mass-market prices as far down as the Bitchin' Camaro market segment, and something just short of exotic car buckage now buys race car power — in a big, comfy sedan if you'd like.

This is just the Free Market at Work up to a point. There's also most definitely such thing as too little power, not just in older economy cars (though my old car's 69 hp only needed to drag around about 2000 pounds of car, thanks to the absence of what modern sensibilities would consider to be safety), especially when one is trying to knife one's way through the Cities' increasingly miserable freeway traffic. Note to Subaru Outback intenders: spring for the turbo or the six.

However, absurd extremes beyond which a truce must be called have been transgressed. For one thing, more power-to-weight than the 330i's is nearly useless on the road. Nothing will stop a 600-hp supercar from losing a stoplight drag race with an econobox when the former's owner is busy yammering into a cell phone at the change of the light. Actually tapping into 600 hp in anything other than a straight line invites communion with hockey players who wrapped their 911 Turbos around trees back in the days before electronic stability control, and regular appearances in traffic court otherwise.

Anyway, if you've read this far, you may have figured out that I've problematized my present car situation to the point at which I've sold myself on something. Alas, helpful anonymous commenter, I have near-luxury fever and whatever I'm driving next winter probably won't be an Accord. The question is whether giving the color choice to Suzanne, with the accompanying risk that the car won't be silver, and getting the automatic (the present car's 5-speed being a barrier to sharing), will be enough.


(*) In the off chance anyone was wondering what happened to the posting schedule over the long weekend, that's where I was, for my mother-in-law's birthday.

(**) Even in its elemental form, there are a couple of control innovations that have made their way down the line to the E90 (e.g., the turn signals don't work as you'd expect, unless you have a recent 5-series), and the trendy stop/start button thing is not the easiest way to start and stop a car. But quibbles on those fronts hardly dampen the overall experience.
Go for it - you deserve it!
Thanks, Mom. Though I probably could use more of a devil's advocate right now...
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