About eight times a year, I have a weekend where I do many things with many different people, and I either ride in or drive cars other than my own. This past weekend, starting on Thursday, was one of those times. On Thursday I was invited to a fundraising buffet dinner for Charlie Crist, the independent senate candidate for Florida (running against Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek). I went with a friend of mine who teaches at the local community college, and some of his colleagues – one of whom drove us in his 2004 (ish) Audi A4 Cabriolet – red over tan.
On Friday, I spent most of the day with a friend from out-of-town, who was borrowing her dad’s 2005 Mercedes SLK32 AMG and later on, her stepmom’s brand new 2011 BMW 135i M-Sport Coupe. I got a chance to drive the BMW that evening, to the airport and to dinner.
And again, yesterday, I spent part of the day looking at new cars for my brother, who has been considering either a new Volkswagen or a new Honda. We were at the VW dealer in Brandon, talking about and driving the Jetta, in both Limited (base) 2.5 and Wolfsburg 2.0T versions. While there I sat in several of the current Volkswagen models, all of which I had different reactions to.
And halfway through drafting of this post today, I stopped by a friend’s house for dinner – and he just leased a new Volkswagen CC R-Sport, stick shift. Naturally, I whipped around the block in that too, to top off the weekend.
Starting with the Audi. The first thing I remarked on was the great smell of the leather. I’m not sure if the difference between smelly leather and neutral leather interiors is real leather vs. fake, the smell of the interior plastics, or the quality of the leather. In any case, I’ve been in a lot of cars lately, with real leather, that don’t smell as good as this Audi did. Second – I know that myriad buttons on a dashboard can be counterproductive to adjusting the radio or HVAC system, but the way they are backlit (in red) on the A4 is simply gorgeous – like a star constellation in the evening sky. Along with soft red ambient lighting, the effect was romantic and calming.
I also liked – the well-damped suspension, the weighty steering wheel, and the smoother feel of the 1.8 liter turbo engine in Audi iteration vs. the version in my Passat. Maybe the Audi just includes more sound insulation between the engine compartment and the passengers.
My thoughts on the SLK: not a fan of the look, and the cabin is particularly small. But it does move when asked, and you can’t fault the original folding hardtop convertible.
On to the Bimmer. This car is made for a stick shift, but my friend (stepmom of my best friend) decided that BMW’s double-clutch 7-speed transmission could shift faster and get better mileage than a standard could, so she chose the auto. I will cringe when I write this – but it was actually quite exciting to drive. No weird gear changes, no lapses in power – it just came rushing at me – all 300 horsepower. And of course – the suspension is beautiful, it corners flawlessly – all in all I would say the only BMW I’ve driven recently that I would consider buying. The interior was all black, even the headliner! It’s a touch small, but for two people, perfectly fine. Quality seems good…my only complaint would probably be some of the plastics on the dash (near the HVAC controls and on the steering column), and a lack of a rear center armrest. Otherwise, a capable, well-made car that can jet its driver around complaint-free, and without the guilt of driving a larger, less efficient vehicle.
And on to the Volkswagens (plus a used 2009 Mercedes C300 sitting on the VW lot).
The Jettas were nicer and slicker than I would have expected. I’ve always liked the current generation Jetta, despite those who say it looks too generic. I typically care more about how a car looks and feels on the inside than its sheetmetal – and the current Jetta has a great interior. Solid plastics, good fake leather upholstery, and nice chrome and brushed metal touches that give it an upmarket feel. Plus they redesigned the gauges with a white color theme, so they looks crystal clear and pretty.
The Wolfsburg Edition Jetta, with a turbocharged 2.0 liter engine, was zippy. Very zippy. And felt solid. Definitely a car I could be happy with. The 2.5 non-turbo, base model Jetta is less-so, but still pretty zippy. For being $20k for the base and $24 for the Wolfsburg, they definitely seem like a good value, considering other cars in that price range and their driving dynamics and interiors.
Speaking of driving and interiors – the CC R-Sport I drove is really a beautiful piece of machinery. My friend leased a stick shift, so it’s a big sedan with a turbocharged engine. It is also zippy – but feels smoother and more locomotive-like than the Jettas did. Easy shifting, easy steering, easy everything really. And that cabin. What can I say? The doors close with a great thunk, the dash lights up so beautifully, and the leather is two-tone beige and black and is soft and utterly comfortable. I could have spent the whole night driving that car! I feel a toss-up between the 135i and the CC…
Last, I wanted to touch on my feelings about the C300 I sat in. Didn’t get to drive it, so my comments are only about the interior. Let’s just say – shame on Mercedes. I hate to say it, because I’ve always loved Mercedes and probably always will…but the C300 just doesn’t cut it like the C280s of the past did. The doors do shut nicely, which I think Mercedes made sure to do because the last iteration of the C felt so tinny. Otherwise, the interior is nothing special. The wood trim is pathetic – feels like plastic. The build quality and mechanics of the interior are sad. The glovebox doesn’t close perfectly, the cover for the radio screen is chintzy, and a lot of the buttons feel cheap. Even the door handles on the inside of the doors were underwhelming. And some of the dash panels didn’t fit flush, so there was a weird gap between them on the passenger side. For being a car that starts at $33k, I find this as evidence that either buyers are too indifferent to care about how the interior feels – as long as they’re driving a Mercedes – or that Mercedes thinks it can sell cars that leave you feeling no better than a Maxima or a Honda Accord for quite a bit more dough. Or it could be both. I’ve written before about how I think marques and labels are a stronger selling point than actual qualitative and quantitative superiority, when it comes to ‘premium brands.’ Maybe one day I will change that trend – and restore Mercedes’ famed rock-solid build quality. Or maybe a new brand will build cars like that.
Oh, and I forgot! I also sat in the VW minivan, the Routan, for a few minutes yesterday. All I will say is – what a mistake. A mistake for Volkswagen to rebadge a Chrysler minivan that has far too many pathetic pieces of beige plastic on the interior to ever qualify as German. You will never catch me driving a minivan to begin with, but I’d rather just be honest and drive the real piece of crap, the Town and Country, instead of pretending to have something engineered in Europe. ICK.
I had a great time driving all these cars this weekend (and just sitting in some). Always good to know what sorts of wonderful things are out there and how they can make you feel. Driving the same car day after day can be boring and monotonous, and being stuck in a car that makes you feel as if you’ve been cheated out of money is even worse.