As I mentioned Friday, I spent Saturday afternoon driving cars in my favorite fundraiser, Bergstrom Automotive’s Drive for the Cure.
Because I didn’t get to Bergstrom until relatively late, I didn’t match my personal record of last year, nine cars. I drove six. I didn’t get to drive a BMW, or the Fiat 500, or an Audi, or any of the Minis, or this year’s winner of the Answer in Search of a Question Award, the Nissan Murano convertible, an SUV convertible, or convertible SUV. Bergstrom cannot be blamed for hosting a popular event, so I need to resolve to do this on Friday next year, the earlier the better.
Every time I drive a new car, I am reminded again of two things, starting with how capable even the most base model of car is today. I am also reminded of the axiom “just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” which seems to apply to such models of complexity as keyless ignitions and ventilation and audio controls that require several nights of owner manual study to comprehend. The latter is difficult to do while one is driving out of the car dealership driveway, so the fact that fender-benders don’t seem to occur during the Drive for a Cure is a minor miracle.
I was also pleasantly surprised to experience expansion in driver’s side legroom. I have always assumed that reduced legroom is the price one pays for either front-wheel drive or air bags, under the assumption that car engineers want the air bag to hit the driver square in the face. (Neither our Subaru Outback nor our Honda Odyssey has enough legroom for a 6-foot-4 driver with a 34-inch inseam, which requires the aforementioned driver to drive with his knees excessively spread out. That makes the driver pine for the days of his 1975 Chevrolet Caprice and its seemingly unlimited legroom.)
The six cars I drove ranged in price and complexity from a Volkswagen Jetta SE to a Hyundai Genesis 4.6 sedan. The Jetta was plainest of the six, and yet it was more than adequately equipped, as practically all cars are today. (The Jetta lacked a sunroof. The horror.) Cars of the past could be optioned as plain-Jane as possible (for instance, a 1984 GMC S-15, owned by a former employer, lacked not only power brakes, but a parking brake light), or with everything then available. But somewhere in the 1980s, some automaker (I’m guessing from Japan) figured out that standardizing equipment reduced variability in equipment, which could improve build quality, and that moving features from the option list to the standard list (for instance, power windows and door locks, cruise control and tilt steering) means the automaker can charge more.
The most amusing moment may have been when I was driving a Volvo C30 T5 (like the Jetta equipped with a five-cylinder engine, though the C30’s is turbocharged, hence the “T5″) while the radio played Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Volvos are made in the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow, so to be driving a Swedish car while an ode to my Viking ancestors was the soundtrack was whatever the opposite of irony is.
The Volvo is an example of a car infrequently found in this country, a “shooting brake,” or two-door station wagon. Had I one less child (or more likely no children), I would enjoy owning a C30 and its combination of performance (which would be even more fun with its available six-speed manual transmission, but Bergstrom no longer supplies sticks for this event, probably due to the cost of replacing a clutch shredded by an inexperienced test-driver) and just-in-case storage space. Unfortunately, its two rear seats are one fewer seat than I need, plus the rear seat is likely to produce complaints from its passengers, even its young passengers (“Quit breathing my air!”).
Somewhat related to the C30 in terms of performance, or at least potential performance, was the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback, the compromise between sedan and station wagon. The Lancer can be purchased with a turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive; this Lancer was not, which didn’t prevent an earlier driver from getting the attention of the Grand Chute police.
The vehicle that fits in the Drives Better Than It Looks category was the Lexus RX350 SUV. It was very luxurious, and I assume it is quite capable in its all-wheel-drive iteration. I fail to understand, however, why designers see its sloped rear end as attractive. It screams to me Not As Much Space As You Think.
The nicest car I drove was the Genesis, which harkens back to the good old days of rear-drive V-8 sedans, which is just what you’d expect from … a South Korean automaker. I drove the Genesis coupe last year and gave it my Most Likely to Cost You Your License Award, for its fun formula of lots of power in a small package. (Similar to the car my wife would call her favorite, her 1992 Pontiac Sunbird coupe with a V-6 and five-speed and the second worst torque steer of any car I’ve ever driven. It also was a challenge for the tall driver to get into and out of, and it was cramped, but it was a most excellent driving experience assuming you launched with both hands on the steering wheel.)
Similar to the BMW 540i six-speed I drove the first year of Bergstrom’s BMW Drive for the Cure, the Genesis sedan presents speed in a smooth, comfortable package. (My two speeding tickets were not in a Chevy Beretta GT, or a Ford Escort GT, but in the aforementioned Caprice, perhaps because of the size of the radar signature from its enormous size.) The Genesis had not just heated seats, but cooled seats as well, for those times when the air conditioning can’t work fast enough, or there’s too much glare from the sunroof, I guess. The Genesis also has a 528-watt 17-speaker sound system. (That’s what I read; I didn’t look for the speakers.) For those who wonder, there are radio stations in the U.S. that don’t put out 528 watts of power.
The Genesis almost lost points for a knob that looked as complicated as the first iteration of the BMW iDrive, BMW’s effort to duplicate the computer mouse experience that generated considerable complaint among its car magazine reviewers. And yet, as far as what I was using it for (tuning the radio), it actually worked well. The instrument panel also was better in terms of not requiring advanced education to understand it unlike the aforementioned RX350.
Consumer Reports gives the Genesis sedan its Recommended rating, but claims buyers don’t need to spend the extra $10,300 for the V-8, since the base V-6 will generate 333 horsepower when the 2012 models come out. But like storage space, you can always choose to not use the V-8’s 378 horsepower (or, for another $2,000, the 5.0 R-Spec’s 429 horsepower), but you can’t choose to use horsepower you don’t have. Hyundai has made amazing strides the past several years, with its 10-year 100,000-mile warranty and now roadside assistance for five years. And now they make a car that, other than the Cadillac CTS-V and Chrysler 300 with the Hemi V-8 (both with rear-drive V-8s), you cannot buy from an American carmaker.
Bergstrom deserves enormous praise for sponsoring this event, particularly after BMW ended its sponsorship several years ago. In fact, I don’t know why any dealership wouldn’t do an event like this, given the goodwill and traffic generated. I haven’t seen this year’s numbers, but last year’s Drive for the Cure reportedly raised more than $40,000 for breast cancer research at $1 per mile test-driven. Amazing what free enterprise can do, isn’t it?