Gearing Down, Trading Up pt 1

Driving. In all the world, it’s one of the finest things.

I don’t mean driving in traffic, I mean driving. Heading out onto the open road, or attacking a mountain and forcing its roads to unwind for you. Feeling the physics, pushing to improve the precision. I treat driving like some people treat horseback riding: a passion that, whenever I can afford to, I practice and perfect.

Two years ago, my uber-boring Saturn had an unfortunate encounter with a truck while in the hands of another driver, resulting in a face that looked like a schoolyard bully had decided to show it what-for. Insurance was fine, claim filed, claim check eventually came in, and I resigned myself to eventually buying a new car.

This was not an experience I was looking forward to. For starters, since I was both a full-time salesman and part-time greasemonkey in a past life, car salesmen tend not to like me when I start sticking my fingers in the tailpipe, fondling the brake disks, climbing underneath the vehicle, checking CV booties, and doing other obscure things that look vaguely pornographic. And they really tend not to like it when they realize I’ve found out the wholesale price they bought the car for, and I know how much they’re paying in taxes to keep it on the lot, and I’m not afraid to walk away if they’re not willing to deal.

The practical upshot is I spend more time car shopping than most folks–but I also usually wind up with cars that aren’t headaches. It’s a good tradeoff for me. Nonetheless, if I believed in hell, I would nominate car-shopping for the eleventh circle (useless labor)–and in this case, useless labor I couldn’t afford to avoid: the insurance company had sent me a check for more than the car was worth.

And it’s worth it, right? Getting a good car?

Well, yeah, but this particular journey was a fraught one with a number of interesting little adventures–starting with the test drives. One of the early cars I took for a test drive was the Honda CRZ, which basically a Civic that’s trying to impress its buddies in gym class.

Hondas are a uniquely frustrating experience–they have lovely engines, and are gloriously reliable most of the time. The CRZ I drove had the six speed manual gearbox (though the gear ratios are a bit of a joke), an obscene amount of elbow room inside, and plenty of get-up-and-go.

The trouble is, it’s a Honda. Sure, they’re cute, they’re even endearing–but not in the kind of way you want a car to be endearing. As you cruise around in one, you get the distinct impression that you’re driving a motorized roller skate. That’s because the stock Honda suspension on the Civic, Accord, and Fit lines is designed for “ride comfort” (this is a fancy term meaning “the center of gravity is too high and the shocks are too spongy for the driver to properly feel the road), while their soundproofing is inadequate even on the newer models, so you always get tire and wheel-bearing whine coming up to you from all four wheels.

Then there’s the clutch. Honda clutches of years gone by always seemed to behave like a yappy Jack Russel terrier–bouncing, oversprung, overeager, and hard on the knees. It’s not a racing clutch–the things aren’t rated for that kind of torque, and they certainly don’t have the kind of precision you’d expect out of a hard-driving clutch designed for an expert. But it’s not really a comfortable street clutch either. And then there’s the engagement curve–to disengage the transmission, you have to go all the way down to the floor, but to re-engage, you have to come all the way off. With pedal travel measuring in at upwards of six inches, this makes shifting slow and sloppy without making it easy or fun–the worst of both worlds. Of course, the CRZ is the sporty model of the Civic, so naturally these trademark pains in the ass are magnified in an attempt to make you think it’s on purpose–kind of like a preteen falling against a window, breaking his elbow, and then saying “Ah hah! I meant to do that! See how cool I am?”

In a vehicle that has a sticker price upwards of twenty thousand? There’s really no good excuse for this kind of behavior.

Now, I’ve driven some Hondas that aren’t like this–the Element drives like it should for the kind of car it is (a TARDIS-like cargo-hauler built for comfort), and a Civic that’s been lowered and re-sprung drives like a proper economy sedan. I hear that the S2000 is even…well…a good car. But generally speaking, Hondas feel like the kind of machine that really, desperately want to grow up some day to be a real car. It’s the automotive version of Pinocchio–except there’s no Blue Fairy to grant their wish. And with the glorious engines that Honda makes, it’s a crying shame too.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the only car I slipped behind the wheel of in the last few weeks–and as the journey unfolded, we gradually settled on our short-list of requirements, and found some true gems…which I’ll tell you about next time.

Click here for Part 2, in which I find a true gem, and discuss how to make sure you’re looking in the right place

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3 Comments

  1. Car salesmen tend not to like me when I start sticking my fingers in the tailpipe, fondling the brake disks, climbing underneath the vehicle, checking CV booties, and doing other obscure things that look vaguely pornographic. And they really tend not to like it when they realize I’ve found out the wholesale price they bought the car for, and I know how much they’re paying in taxes to keep it on the lot, and I’m not afraid to walk away if they’re not willing to deal.

    I would love it if you would write a post/series of posts on how to buy a car. I’m a terrible negotiator and a worse mechanic, so a basic guide to both aspects of car shopping would be really useful.

  2. JD —

    Yes, I will definitely cover some of this stuff in the posts which follow in this series, fear not!
    -Dan

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