Friday, November 30, 2012

In Eminem's Footsteps - Chrysler 200

With early holiday lights reflecting off the front hood as we oozed down West Erie, I couldn't help calling up an Eminem track on the iPhone, for a Made in Detroit moment. Only I chose We Made You instead of Lose Yourself, because that hook by Charmagne Tripp is irresistible. And it was Chicago.

The Chrysler 200 is a refreshing of the Michael Scott Chrysler Sebring, the notorious punching bag of the automotive press. In its swan-song iteration, the FIAT folks joined with Chrysler to infuse a little—anything—into its driving experience, while freshening the look and bestowing it with its new numerical moniker.

I've never driven a Sebring, so I don't know how low the bar was prior to the 200's debut. But after going through my 10-month new car journey, I did drive a few cars that could be considered competition to the 200. And frankly, the 200 stood up much better than I had expected.

Looks-wise, they really tidied up the exterior of the Sebring in creating the 200. Gone are the ridiculous striations that used to run the length of the front hood. And the Jaguaresque taillight treatment looks great. There's no hiding the Sebring's roofline, however, which helps make for an out-of-proportion rear-end common to lots of front drive cars. I didn't check the wheel size, but they looked like 16's with a lot of black sidewall around them. Maybe it's just big tires.

Kudos to Chrysler on the interior treatment. Black leather with light stitching, piano black accents, and chrome do a good job at creating an upscale interior. The trim level seemed aimed at an older demographic, what with the lack of bluetooth connectivity and a USB port. I was grateful for the auxiliary jack on the face of the radio. My research shows that better audio systems are available options. Four of us rode quite comfortably on an hour-long journey to Lou Malnati's for our favorite deep dish experience yet. And two of us continued the fun with a late night sprint to explore the steamy nightlife on North Halstead. That much fun just isn't in the rulebook. Lucky I threw the rulebook out years ago.

Did you know that the only people in Chicago who eat deep dish are tourists?

Above all else, the 200 is a very smooth and comfortable cruiser. Seats are great. It's quiet as hell. And those big sidewalls minimize thumps and lumps on streets and highways. It's surprisingly powerful, too. The 283HP Pentastar V-6 provides serious thrust. That's 13 more HP than our beloved Buick Regal GS. The trouble is, there is too much power for the front end to handle. Rather than enjoying the forward boost, you spend your time wrestling the steering wheel in order to keep a straight line. Torque steer on blue ice. Fuel economy in the late twenties/early thirties is another cost of the Pentastar. There are lots of turbo fours out there that do considerably better while providing similar power.

Upon returning to the east coast, I did a 20-30 hour round trip stint in my 2006 Lincoln Zephyr (MKZ). Ouch my ass still hurts. While seat ventilation provided some relief, the Linc's seats are like a park bench. Ride is not as quiet and smooth as the 200. Hopping into our 2012 Buick Regal Turbo felt more like coming home. The 200 simply can't touch the Regal's refinement and performance.

Chrysler took its lumps with the Sebring and turned it into something absolutely drivable for a daily commuter and highway cruiser. For those who want comfort, power, and a dreamy highway ride, all for a bargain price, it's worth a look—especially if you're shopping late in 2013, when they will want to unload their inventory of 200's. But if sporting intentions are on your mind, you might want to wait for the 2014, which will be a ground-up joint with FIAT—or look at the competition from GM (Cruze, Malibu, Verano, Regal), Volkswagen (Passat), and Kia (Optima).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

3-2-1 IGNITION! The Chevy Spark

Enterprise gave me a choice this time: Spark or Corolla. I pictured the most probable outcome of renting a Corolla: numbness; heart stops from boredom after the first quarter mile; the cold smear of conductive jelly on my chest; full reset of my everything from the defibrillator shock. I won't go into the hot paramedic part. What IS it about uniforms? But my little mental sojourn brought me back to the intent of this part of the Rentalist: bargain basement cars. I mean, if I can endure two FIAT 500s (FIRST | SECOND), why not the Spark? Ego be damned.

Gas prices (and the fear thereof) have the car companies racing to provide diminutive offerings to the American public. GM has produced the Spark offshore for some time now, so it was a logical choice for them to bring Spark to the U.S. One of my developer buddies is from the Caribbean and is quite familiar with the product. I remember seeing lots of them when in Bermuda and Mexico. 38 mpg (combined) is good enough reason for many to look seriously at the Spark.

From the outside, the Spark's oddness is a bit jarring. The front end is stubby. The back end is... not there. The wheels are small. The greenhouse is tall. On our first excursion, the same dev completely overlooked the back passenger door, missing its hidden handle and thinking it was a 2-door. So much for "quite familiar". Yet in all its cartoonishness, it works, visually. In fact, compared to many offerings in this class, it has a surprising number of upmarket design cues, unlike the Mazda 2 and Yaris, which reek of base model blues.

The inside yields even more surprises. The Spark is available with a LOT of equipment for this class. OnStar, 10 airbags, height-adjustable driver seat, XM radio on a MyLink touchscreen interface, power everything, USB and AUX inputs. And it's all in a fun package with tastefully playful design, lots of bins and holders, and intuitive controls. The three of us were able to get pretty comfortable in it on our daily drive to work, Target runs, and some carousing with paramedics.

The MyLink proved easy to use for audio, settings, pairing, and other functions. I recognized a lot of functionality (though served up in a different interface) from my Regal Turbo. The only major qualm I had was that I couldn't engage a voice interface. So each call required use of the touch screen and therefore significant eyes-off-the-road time.

Among the other economy cars I've rented recently, the Spark was by far my favorite.

So how did it drive? 84 horsepower can only do so much. And laden with 500 pounds of adults, it does even less. But the point here is it got it done, and it did so with good comfort and enough amenities to make up for its performance shortcomings. Though tall, it doesn't feel tippy. Though anemic, it eventually gets up to speed. And once you're there it cruises along making blender sounds (sufficiently muted in cabin) while sipping slowly from a tank that took about $30 to fill. And parallel parking the Spark is pure joy. Could you ask for more in this class?

Among the other economy cars I've rented recently, the Spark was by far my favorite. The looks grow on you, it had the right equipment, and it's easy on gas. By comparison, the Mazda 2 was a better driving car, at the cost of fuel economy. My particular 2 fell short in two categories for long haul driving: no cruise control and not enough seat adjustability. And the Mazda's price for entry is a couple thousand steeper (base Spark starts at $12,500). The FIAT, well... previous blogs tell that story. You buy a FIAT for style. And nothing else. That leaves the Yaris, which clearly takes the prize for Best-Microwave-Imitating-a-Car. 

I turned the Spark back in at Enterprise, only to hear it was immediately rented to my developer boys for a weekend of fun. That was days ago and I haven't heard from them. Let me know if you see a red Spark on the side of the road somewhere in Illinois, probably close to a volunteer ambulance.

Enthusiasts would agree with my other developer, who summed up the engine sound and ego equation by saying "it purees one's dignity". But Spark isn't an enthusiasts car. It's a pragmatists car. And from that perspective, Spark ignites. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Curve Control: Hyundai Elantra

"Polarizing" is the word that comes to mind when I think of Hyundai design. They're way too curvy for my taste. This is a brand replete with deep grooves, undulations, peaks, valleys, and divots to spare. When compared to sister company Kia, well, there is no comparison. Kia design rules (with the exception of the upcoming Quoris luxury sedan—WHAT HAPPENED?).

Still, I was pleased to take the keys to a black Elantra on my latest rental excursion, if only to satisfy my curiosity. South Korea has been making great gains in the market because of these two brands. But have they been a part of the sea change that's sweeping the economy class (as exhibited in cars like the new Ford Focus)?

From the outside, they really tried hard. But a bit more restraint would have helped with curve control here. The contour lines on the body sides are too sharp. And the front fascia lacks personality. Still, it makes a statement that nothing from Honda, Toyota, or Nissan can make. And many people dig the swoops that have become the Hyundai signature.

On the inside, the curves continue, but more successfully executed. After driving the Focus back to back with Elantra, it was nice to be able to make some immediate comparisons. I did find the Hyundai's control logic much more intuitive. I particularly like the concentric climate control knobs that make it very easy to adjust fan and temperature without looking. Same goes for the big audio knob. I've come to expect two things from Enterprise: 1) dirt; 2) broken stuff. And the Elantra continued the tradition with a faulty USB connection and spots on seats in spades (so, again, no iPhone charging). And a note on the Blue gauge lighting—hard to focus on at night.

The cabin is roomy, but remember, I've been in a couple of FIAT's lately. Still, my developers and me were all able to get comfortable and were satisfied with the number of bins, cupholders, and other bits that make the short ride to the factory pleasant.

While Hyundai has certainly advanced aesthetics, ergonomics, and comfort with Elantra, possibly besting Japan's best efforts, the driving experience is yesteryear. The four banger is punchy and noisy. It has plenty of torque, but reminds you of that fact with an unflattering note from the other side of the firewall. The ride is a little soft, erring on the side of cush. Braking performs as you would expect and fuel economy is excellent.

But after driving the Focus, the difference is apparent. Focus wants to be driven. It teases you with an angry engine note and rewards you with a firm, controlled ride. The Elantra gives you a more comfortable, better-trimmed interior with superior ergonomics, at the cost of a tepid driving experience.

The competition is getting stiffer. Consumer expectations in this class are growing (almost unreasonably). The Americans and Japanese are coming out with replacement models at breakneck speed. But I don't think Hyundai is worried. They've made quantum leaps in quality improvements since they came on the U.S. scene back in the eighties. This Elantra is a nice car. One can only imagine what they have on the drawing board.

Monday, October 8, 2012

It Went By in a Blur

My Sunday arrival in Chicago left me with limited off-airport rental choices. The local Enterprises were all closed, so I was forced into a $60 one-day rental of a Ford Focus SE at Avis. Avis, apparently, is French for "more than twice as much as Enterprise".

Still, this Focus was newer than most of my recent rentals at E. Only 8k on the odometer and it was spotless. I've learned the price you pay for the Enterprise discount is a propensity toward filth and broken equipment. At least around here, that seems to be the case.

And I realize this is a big leap from my base model excursions of the past few weeks. I'm sure Avis considers the Focus a "standard" size (not economy, not compact). But I never question a free upgrade. And it's not killing me to go a little upmarket and upsize - as long as I'm getting good fuel economy. Focus returns on that promise at 36 highway.

I'm a big fan of the globalization of Ford products, and the fact that us Americans can now enjoy the better Fords that have delighted Europeans for years. The new designs are headed in the right direction. The Focus is clean and sleek on the outside. I do find that the sub-Fusion models, however, still need more presence in the front fascia. The slit grille and giant, black air ducts say economy car to me, while Fusion-on-up models are going all Aston Martin on us.

Inside, the Focus reflects no pretenses that it isn't an economy car. It's all functional and cold. Black plastic. Faux matte metalwork. Low-rent door panels. Don't expect to be coddled. Overall, it's attractive and logical with a techy look heavy on convolutions. The angled audio controls are big and cheap looking. And both the gauge cluster and radio have submenus which hide functions that most cars expose - like the ability to disable traction control. This one had no USB connection, but there was an auxiliary input. Too bad it was so hard to find (in the glove box and not visible when the box door is open).

Once on the road, these quibbles seem minor. Because the Focus is... umm... focused. I've heard the hype about the driving experience and now I understand. The engine stays a little angry - in a good way. The 2.0 liter four cylinder has a surprisingly good engine note that provides a nice rumble in the background, not unlike the VW GLI. Power is easily accessed above 4,000 RPM though downshifts are a bit reluctant. Stomp the gas at a green light and don't be surprised by some tire chirp. The ride is firm and European, but the seats keep you comfortably in place. Steering feedback is good and cornering is flat and willing. The driver side view mirror adds a lot of wind noise, but I did find that the cabin was pretty well insulated from other outside noise. You don't expect Lexus hush at this level.

I wish I had more than a day with Focus. 24 hours isn't enough to evaluate fuel economy, tote the developers around, and jam its trunk full of groceries. But the time we did have together, I enjoyed. It's smart looking. It wants to be driven. It's well equipped for the price and comfortable enough for long trips. Way to go, Ford.

I handed the keys back to Avis this morning, apologizing for the unbelievable amount of bird shit resulting from my parking choice at the hotel. $60 a day is absurd, so the Enterprise van picked me up from Avis and took me to my next victim - at $144 for four days (compact). And surprise, surprise. An upgrade to a Focus competitor. Stand by...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Batting 1000. (Me, not the FIAT).

It wasn't by choice this time, since it was the only economy offering Enterprise had for me. But after my last encounter with the 500 just a week or so ago, a high school friend told me how much she loved hers. So I didn't mind giving the piccolo FIAT another try.

This time, my friends in green and black pulled out a lower-level model than the one I rented previously. This meant my short-term relationship would be devoid of heated leather seats, a moonroof, Bluetooth, a USB port, and a handful of other features. The USB was immediately missed—since my iPhone was nearly dead after a miserable day of travel, and I needed to navigate to my hotel. But it was a far more low-tech feature lacking on this 500 that I missed the most: No little convex portion of the driver sideview mirror. The 500 has an enormous blind spot over the driver's left shoulder. It's criminal that this cheap little mirror isn't standard equipment on all trim levels.

Coincidentally, this silver 500 had the same mileage on it as the first one: 26,000. And sadly, the rental experience became a game of "What's Broken on This One?". Just like the first one, driver arm rest? Morto. Separation of badge lamination on the hatch (see photo)? Male. And keyfob functionality? Mezzo mezzo (the trunk release worked half the time). I discovered new territory of brokenness in the passenger seat release, which is in a convenient location at the top outboard corner of the seatback. When this release is broken, however, the funky ergonomics mean that you have to lean into the car and move the seat via TWO inboard controls (both forward/backward and recline levers face the console side of the seat). My developers rolled with the punches but egress was a royal pain in the culo. The rear headrests were frozen in position, as well, which meant the rear passenger had to sit with his head pitched downward on every ride.

To expand on my previous ergonomic/conventions rant, there are three prominently positioned controls on a body-colored expanse between the radio and climate controls: sport shift mode, hazard lights, and rear defrost. While all are illuminated when the headlights are on, NONE illuminate when engaged. Instead, tiny icons for each light up 18 inches away on the way-too-busy gauge cluster. Che cazzo! What jolly red plastic hazard button DOESN'T flash when engaged?

On a provision run to Target, we found that the back seats don't really fold down. They merely tip forward at about a 70-degree angle, providing no meaningful additional cargo capacity. Perhaps if the front passengers weren't tall, this wouldn't be the case. Then again you don't buy the 500 for its payload volume.

The ride was the same. The small footprint and short wheelbase give the 500 a bouncy buggy feel. The engine is noisy, compared to the competition, but it has enough pep to get out of its own way. And it's comical to see how much parking space you DON'T use in the 500. One of my developers commented that it leaves plenty of room for tailgating. This would be true if you didn't need another car in which to bring the grill, cooler, chairs, and foam "We're #1" fingers.

People do beat on rentals. But having experienced the same failures on two successive FIATs, I have real durability concerns with this brand. It's adorable. It zips you around town in an entertaining if not completely comfortable way. But long term? I'm not so sure.

If I'm faced with the same choices next time, Enterprise will have to cough up an upgrade. There will be no chance for strike three.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Continuing my excursion into the world of everything entry level, my friends at Enterprise put the keys of a sparkly blue Toyota Yaris in my hand. 2 keys, to be precise. An all-metal one, and a black-tipped one. No keyfob remote. Oldskool key-in-hole door locks. Felt like 1990.

From a design standpoint, I can honeszz... zzzz.... honestly say thazzz... zzzzz... zzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

The all-grey interior is an homage to thzzz... zzzzzzzzzzzzzz... plastic with zzzzz... The fish wears a bow tie? I should fly to the tree house when my teeth are done falling out.

On the road is where you really ge... zz.. zzzzzzzzz... (No recollection of ensuing Ambien-fueled pancake feast.)

Sorry. I've never been able to get excited about anything Toyota has ever done. That includes Lexus. A way-too-broad array of mild appliances with awesome resale value. Designs that wash over the senses like Paxil over neuroreceptors. The Yaris is an entry level shot of novocaine into the medulla. Never engaging, yet never offensive.

The running joke at Motor Trend is that the most they can say about Yaris is, "It's a car!"

Open the door and you transition from a featureless exterior to a cabin reminiscent of a security buggy at the mall. A sea of grey plastic awaits, including a large expanse of it in front of the Cub Cadet injection-molded steering wheel. The gauge cluster, you see, is in the center of the dash. This is not an element of style. It's just a cheap way to produce left- and right-hand-drive vehicles without having to change much. It takes some getting used to. Imagine looking 14" to the right to see if your turn signal is still on.

Driving the Yaris at night was amusing. That gaping black void in front of the steering wheel is disconcerting. Absolute darkness from the defrost vents to your feet. I kept expecting a raccoon to leap out of that abyss and into my face. The center stack is a tragic result of a cost-cutting stroll down Toyota's spare parts aisle. The gauge cluster is backlit white. The radio is backlit orange. HVAC controls are backlit green. Tribute to Ireland? I don't think so.

I do feel I owe an apology to both Mazda and FIAT for calling their base models "basic transportation". This Yaris truly lowers that bar, in comparison. Mine did have A/C and a stereo with iPod interface, but the overall feeling is that you're in a do-it-yourself stripper. And the lack of fashion is oppressive.

I'll retract my claws now and admit that the Yaris did its simple job extraordinarily well. It comfortably toted my developers and me around town and on the highway. It had reasonable power, surprisingly good handling with minimal body roll, and everything worked flawlessly. And this is what you buy a Toyota for: Absolute utility without a hint of style.

I don't own a single pair of sweatpants - for the same reason I wouldn't own a Yaris. But for those who don't care about aesthetics and want a basic car that they don't have to think about, Yaris just might be the one... furry... icicle barge... zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Non Va Bene

Enterprise offered the best weekly rental price in my economy car search for this week in Chicago. They offered me an interesting choice between a FIAT 500 and an Impala. Because nothing shouts "economy" like a cop car.

The 500 is a tiny retromobile designed after the classic Cinquecento. It's also the most poorly-marketed vehicle I can think of. Jenny-(filmed 3,000 miles)-from-the-Block and Charlie Sheen are epic fails in pegging the demo for this car. Adam Levine and Kristen Stewart? Closer. FIAT's one stroke of marketing genius was promoting it at events hosted by the gay professional network, dot429. Bullseye.

With 26,000 miles on the OD, this 500 was worse for wear. Broken passenger door release, arm rest, and trunk release, and faulty Bluetooth pairing. I was shocked to see that the lamination on the FIAT emblem on the trunk was already separating from the metal. Rental abuse? Maybe. But I smell quality issues. And Enterprise—this car was filthy inside and out. What's UP with that?

One quickly learns why American/German/Japanese/South Korean functionality and conventions have risen to the top, when stepping into a car from somewhere else. The Italian 500 is an exercise in ergonomic frustration. The center of the gauge cluster is a hideous orange LCD with a blizzard of read outs in different letter and graphic styles. The tach and speedo are configured in two concentric arcs which create a cool design but are not easy to read. HVAC and radio controls are a mess. And I had to Google how to lock and unlock the bloody doors. It was well equipped however, with climate control, heated seats, power moonroof, a nice Bose audio system, and Bluetooth (if only it worked).

Front seats were comfortable and you could roast a chicken with the seat heat. But the steering wheel doesn't tilt low enough, which required me to jack the seat up high. As a result, I repeatedly bumped my head against the door jamb when looking out the window. Seat height adjustment uses a ratcheting lever with obscenely short throws. It felt like 10 pulls raised the seat an inch. Outward visibility is poor for blind spots, but there is a wide angle sideview mirror to help with that. Three full size guys fit in the 500, but just barely. it was okay for the 10 minute ride to work. But I wouldn't want to do any long range cruising with more than driver plus 1.

The 500 was fine for bopping around town. But an hour-long ride down I-90 from the burbs to Bandera on North Michigan Avenue showed off a noisy, busy ride. The 500 felt top-heavy and a little hard to keep on a straight path. Power was just okay. Sport mode allowed shifts at higher revs, but kept the revs high for a 2 count after taking my foot off the gas. I wonder what that does to fuel economy.

Having driven the 500 within two weeks of the Mazda 2, the Mazda is the hands-down winner. What the 2 lacks in visual panache, it makes up for in drivability, without any of the toy-like behavior of the FIAT. The Mazda drives like a much bigger car. The 500 drives like what it is - a statement. Just not a compelling one.

This is the first time Enterprise has delivered a car in such poor shape to me. And I made it known to them. I'm on my way to swap the 500 for a Yaris. The Y is for Yawn, but I'm confident all the doors will work.

This 500 is one cute Italian outfit that I won't be wearing again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2 Much or 2 Little?

One of my besties, Kelly, came to visit me in Chicago, where I am neck-deep in producing mobile apps. Upon arrival, she was convinced she'd pick the "wrong" car as she perused Enterprise's selections, and was prepared to be lambasted by me upon arrival at the hotel.

She arrived in a black Mazda 2 (so glad for black) — the diminutive, entry-level offering from the Zoom-Zoom division. I wasn't mad at all. Mazda is doing great things. Their Skyactiv technology is bringing performance and efficiency to the streets. And the upcoming 6 is a STUNNA! But a 2? A base model? It's been a while since I've sampled what I consider basic transportation. Would I suffer and die in the absence of 8-way leather seats, OnStar, and a turbocharger?

This 2 had the basics covered. Power windows, mirrors, and locks. A/C. A CD player with an MP3 jack. Stability control. And not much else. Control layout is logical and intuitive. The look inside is attractive, bordering on fun, without getting cute.

Within the first five minutes behind the wheel, I realized the 2 was a hoot. Even when burdened with four adults, the 2's 100hp mill had enough power to keep us from getting nervous on onramps. The ride is firm and assured, most likely as a result of the wheels being pushed to the far corners. Steering gave good feedback as the 2 cruised effortlessly and comfortably on the varied pavement of the land of Lincoln. Solo jaunts were much more fun. The 2 loves to be whipped around, responding instantly to inputs like it's waiting for them. Granted, not at light speed. But it does what it's asked to very well. And parking the tiny 2 is easier than finding pastrami at Eisenberg's—er—cholesterol at Gino's.
2 CUBED: An Enterprise Encounter  
Me: The low coolant light came on in my Mazda 2.  
Enterprise Agent: Sorry 'bout that. I can switch you into a Nissan Cube. 
Me: Please tell me you have some coolant. 
You've gotta love a rental company that obliges potential hits to the ego. 10 minutes later, I was back in the 2 after a coolant top-off.
Four of us were able to get quite comfy in the 2. Though it's a very small car, we never felt cramped. A six foot IOS developer sat behind this driver of the same height and was reasonably comfortable, though he did say he felt like we were spooning. A slight splay of his knees was required. The two sub-six-foot folks on the starboard side fared much better.

If I were to venture into the "just enough" market, I know I could live with a 2. The rental didn't have cruise control and lumbar support. Without these, long highway cruises could get tedious. On another note, fuel economy in the 30's isn't great for a car of this size - especially since so many larger cars return numbers in the 40's. But I read some new engines are on the way that will bring better fuel economy and some more zoom.

So I didn't die. To the contrary, the 2 proved entertaining. Basic transportation has come a long way. And while I don't have much to compare the 2 against, I'm sure I'll have an opportunity to do so soon. I used to rent cars better than the ones I owned. Now, I'm all about cheap. Give me fuel economy or nothing! (Then I go home to my 8-way leather, OnStar, and turbocharger).