Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I so want to love this car


Sorry for the dearth of posts lately - I have been insanely busy and may post about that later. I've just done something people lined up around the block to see! And it took a lot of my time.

What I want to talk about now, though, is my Mini Cooper.

I posted about buying this car a little while ago and was really excited about it. I waited for months for it to be built just the way my wife and I wanted it - green with white stripes and roof, 16" wheels, sunroof, upgraded stereo, all the tech options, and a manual transmission. My first stick shift since I was in college! I try to buy a stick every time I buy a car and somehow it never works out (we actually ordered our PT with a stick but they put an automatic in it by mistake), so I was really looking forward to getting the Mini - our first new car in 9 years, and a real driver's car.

So why can't I like it?

I loved our PT right from the start, although I admit that was a special case - the first new car I ever bought outright. But it also just "felt right", in that intangible way that some cars do. It was never fast, and never all that impressive to look at (though it was cute), but it just had a friendly vibe and felt like it was trying really hard to be liked. And I did like it, a lot. It was fun to drive and really useful and comfortable for me, which is almost impossible for any car with a guy of my height and lankiness.

The new Mini Cooper is superficially similar to the PT as a small cute car, but it's got all the details wrong - stuff you'd never notice on a test drive. For example, why do I have to click the "off" switch twice to really turn the car off? For that matter, why do I need to keep the key in my pocket - until I want to lock or unlock the doors from outside, that is? (This is a "convenience" feature that actually ends up being less convenient in practice.) Why does it keep randomly forgetting all my radio station presets? Why isn't there a CD player? Why doesn't it remember the driving mode I last left it in? Why is there a cheap piece of plastic above the side window bumping my head all the time instead of a standard swing-out front visor? Why don't the auto headlights ever turn off? Etc. etc.

And why is the interior so dour? You can get a "color line" that adds an accent color to the basic black, but I don't remember an option on the base Cooper for changing the entire interior color to something a little less like your own personal hearse. (Our base PT interior was a very light grey.) Mini black is really black, like your soul - not the charcoal many other car makers use.

Even my beloved manual transmission is giving me fits - the Cooper comes with a 6-speed, with reverse on the left, and it's extremely easy to put it in R by mistake when you were aiming for 1st. What moron designed this? The first day I took it out (and several times since), I slammed it into reverse by mistake and almost "front-ended" the guy behind me. How has every Mini on the road not been recalled for this? In a 5-speed, reverse is literally impossible to engage by mistake. Many other 6-speeds have reverse on the right side, which also makes it basically impossible to engage unless you mean to.

I admit that the car's not without its charms, but they're things that pretty much any car could do. Put it in "sport" mode (the only mode any self-respecting driver should ever use, and the mode I wish the car would default to), pop the sunroof and windows, and on an open road it can definitely be a thrilling experience to dart around in this little pocket rocket. But this isn't unique to the Mini - I could say the same about a Hyundai Veloster.

I guess the car's also just not really my style. Somehow the PT won me over (and quickly) despite this, but I've always been a big American sporty car kind of guy. My first car was a 1984 Firebird (though it was more bark than bite), and two of my next three were 1980 Camaros (purely coincidental, I assure you). The final choice this time was between the Mini and a 2014 Mustang, although my real desire is a Dodge Challenger. But, well, the base Challenger is crap and the upgraded models quickly reach the pricing stratosphere. My wife and I went with the Mini because it was a) pretty cheap with a lot of cool features, and b) easy to park in Manhattan. I won't say I regret that, because the current Mustang's lacking a lot of the Mini's tech features and the Challenger's still just too expensive (and big for Manhattan). But next time I will probably get something else.

I guess I should be happy that we have a short term lease.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An ode to my 4-cylinder Iron Duke Pontiac Firebird


It's a little known fact that just after Pontiac retired the screaming chicken in 1982, they replaced it with the only upgrade they could: a 4 cylinder engine ripped straight out of the Chevrolet Citation. Yep, for the introduction to the third-gen F-body, Pontiac's base model "muscle car" now came with an engine designed for maximum fuel economy rather than power. I owned one of these. I loved it. It was my first car.

The motor was an "Iron Duke", a 2.5 liter lawnmower engine that was really a 301 V-8 chopped in half. It developed 90 horsepower.

But I'm here to tell you that that thing was fun. Don't let anyone tell you different. Mine was a 5 speed stick (it was actually a late-year '84, so after they'd added the extra gear), and I am being completely serious when I say that in the first two gears, that thing would press you back in your seat. It had a beast of a clutch - I remember stalling out 12 times in a row the first time I tried to get over the 2 degree hill out of the parking lot at my job at K-Mart. But once I got used to it, I was able to throw that car around like it was the business end of a whip. It was a very different experience than a V8 Trans Am, but just as much fun.

It felt light and sporty - think more Mini Cooper than modern-day Camaro (its closest current brethren). One of my most vivid memories with it is going airborne (by mistake) somewhere on I-80 between Chicago and New York at about 3AM one night. I nearly bought it that night, as just beyond my landing point was a sharp turn to the right. I barely made it, fishtailing a bit just inches away from the median as I let the car coast to a safer speed, but the lightness of the car let the handling kick in when I needed it.

The car fit me perfectly. To this day - nearly 30 years later - I still measure every car I test against the comfort and ergonomics of my '84 Firebird. The seating, pedal, and shifter positions were all just right for my 6'4" frame, and I can't say that about many other cars I've ever tried, of any size or type. My hand naturally rested on the stick; my feet naturally rested on the pedals. Visibility was great. It was the least tiring, most relaxing, most comfortable car I've ever driven. And I'm not just saying that through rose colored glasses - I thought so at the time too. Why do you think I bought it??

This shot brings back some interior memories.

I did have one pretty major mishap, rear-ending a poor elderly fellow in his (wait for it!) Chevrolet Citation while attempting to race one of my friends in his 4 cylinder Mustang. Kind of a hilarious thing all around when you think about it. I hit the guy from behind going about 30mph but surprisingly, he had no damage at all. The Firebird's front bumper was long and soft, though my car did end up with a spiderweb of paint cracks, as well as pop-up headlights that would no longer pop up because the bumper had been pushed back into them. I ended up shaving the plastic down so the lights would clear it again.

Sadly, my car had one of those problems no mechanic can figure out until you've sunk all your money into it. It made a ringing sound going over bumps - after $500 spent on new suspension to cure its "bottoming out" problem, the noise was finally identified as metal shavings in the differentials. (Remember when hatchbacks had differentials??) With no more money to fix anything else, I had no choice but to sell the car. I don't even remember what I got for it. I was too broken up about it to care. There was nothing else I could do.

Sometime next month, my new Mini Cooper should arrive. It probably would surprise most people if I told them I expect it to be the most like my Firebird of any car I've owned since. That'd be one of the highest compliments I could pay it.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

My upcoming F56 Mini Cooper HT


The wife and I went ahead and did it - finally ordered a Mini Cooper only 7 years after first saying we would. Hey, we were just waiting for the new model year! (For an entire generation.)

The pic above is (hopefully) literally it. It's a JustaCooper in British Racing Green, white bonnet stripes, those same 16" wheels, sunroof. On the inside we've got the upgraded bluetooth, Harman Kardon stereo, and visual connected + or whatever it's called. Manual transmission, woohoo! First stick since my Nissan Sentra in college. We tried to order our PT with a stick in 2005 and they gave us an auto by mistake.

A little worried about the fog lights - which we forgot to order - but this is how the Mini web site shows the car without them. I'm hoping they just stick a reflector in there or something so it doesn't look stupid. Some cars just have a black hole where the lights would go.

I test drove the only F56 they had on the lot and loved it. The new base Cooper engine is unbelievable. I had no idea it was even a 3 cylinder until I got home and read it. It smokes our PT, of course, which is my basis for comparison. Ridiculously comfortable car too, and felt really well built. I even fit in the back seat!

I can't wait to get it. Apparently BMW's been having some production problems with these (hopefully resolved now) so there's a big backlog of cars and ours is delayed along with everyone else's. I'll be lucky to get it by July. Hope our other cars don't blow up before then.

Friday, April 25, 2014

New York International Auto Show 2014


Sometimes I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm a car guy. My current circle of technorati friends (being mostly transplanted Manhattanites, though I AM A NATIVE, dammit) frowns upon such traditionally male-dominated and perceived sexist pursuits. But my wife likes cars almost as much as I do, and we go to the NY Auto Show every couple of years. The last time I seem to have written about it was in 2007 - and it's really interesting to re-read that post now! This year, after one of our current cars nearly burned down with me in it last week, we're actually in the market for something new. I was eager to check out all the models I'd been thinking about.

Under serious consideration were the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger, Mini Cooper, and Mazda 3. Dark horses included the Chevy Camaro, Hyundai Veloster, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Subaru WRX, and Honda CRZ,

Yes, I realize that not all of those cars are even in the same class. What I'm looking for is just cheap fun, with maybe a little practicality thrown in. I don't really care how I get it.

The reason that 2007 post is interesting is the parallels to the 2014 show. For example, I wrote in 2007 that I was excited about the then-new Dodge Challenger. Well, here I am 7 years later:


I love the Challenger. Despite the photo at the top, it's my favorite of all the retro muscle cars, and I have always wanted one, since they were introduced. It's just the right size for me, it has just the right mix of new and old, it has good visibility, and it feels like a real car, not like a series of compromises. I mean you can get actual people in the back seat if you want. You can see out the windows. You can fit luggage or big boxes in the trunk.

This is how muscle cars really used to be in the 60's and 70's. They weren't just fast, wildly impractical cars that people used to take down to the track on weekends. I mean people really drove these things - they were actual cars, not just things to argue about 0-60 times over.

The big problem with the Challenger is the price. I can't really afford one with the options I'd want, and the base models look like rental cars. My second choice is the Mustang, which are cheaper to begin with and really not bad looking in their base config, but I'm not sure how I feel about buying a car right before a new model is introduced. Those 2015's do look nice, though...

I did try a 2014 Camaro - I've owned two Camaros in the past, after all - but goddammit it I cannot for the life of me figure out how anyone manages to drive one of these new ones. First of all, they are tremendously uncomfortable. Really small interior. Second, the windows feel like looking through a keyhole. They're tiny. I would actually be scared for my life driving one of these things on a New York highway.

I liked the interior of the Mazda 3, even if it was a little generic, but I've always been bothered by the new exterior and I think I finally figured out why:

(Not my photo.)

From the front, it looks like a big, serious car. But move just a few feet back, and it's a tiny little hatchback. It's like a mullet - all business in front, party in the back. From certain angles it's cute, from other angles it's badass, from still others it's a conservative little econobox. Nothing's consistent about the look. The front end is just cartoonishly oversized, like a caricature - now that I see it, I can't unsee it. I do like the car overall and it'd be in my top two if my wife had signed on. But she's not a fan, and given how I feel about the sheetmetal, she didn't have to try that hard to convince me to move on.

I also wrote in 2007 about how much I loved the 2008 Mini Cooper S. Well, guess what? I love the 2014 too.

The Mini is amazingly comfortable for a big guy like me. I mentioned this in 2007 as well. And its interior is unique - you either love it or hate it, but I love it. I like things that are functional but a little different, and the Mini's dash layout proves that there's plenty of room for personality without sacrificing form. It's not just different for the sake of it; it actually works, and looks neat. And it's aged really well - the all-new 2014 Mini interior doesn't look a whole lot different from what I remember from 2003 or 2007 (the speedo is centered behind the wheel now, obviously).

(Not my photo.)

The Mini's also better suited to my commute to Manhattan than a car like the Challenger or Mustang. Much as I love big American muscle cars, practicality matters too. The Mini would be easier to parallel park and I probably wouldn't feel too bad about leaving it out in the open where it's subject to bird poop. My town is just overrun with bird poop!

My dark horses were all quickly ruled out, mostly because I literally could not fit into any of them. This amazes me - it's 2014, why are mainstream cars that are all much bigger than the Mini too small for a 6'4" guy to fit in? I hit my head on the roof of both Hyundais, for example, and there was no way to lower the seat. I could barely even get into the Camaro. The WRX I didn't really even try once I realized it's a $40,000 car. Who pays that?? I'd much rather have a Challenger SRT/8 if I had that kind of money.

One thing I'll say about auto shows in general is that the older I get, the less I understand all this crowding around expensive cars you will never, ever afford, and that often won't ever even be produced. People go batshit crazy over the latest concept car that they'll never see again, or some Italian sports car that's completely unattainable. Why? There are people that go to auto shows only for this. Then there are people like me, who use the auto show like a big giant car dealer - a shopping tool. You can easily spot us - we're the ones sitting in the Scion XB's and Mazda 3's and Ford Fusions. You know, practical stuff that we might actually buy. We sort of smile and nod as we hold the doors open for each other, knowing we're kind of an odd breed at auto shows like this, where most people automatically make a beeline for the most expensive car at the show, even if it costs more than they'll make in their lifetime.

We're off to the Mini dealer this weekend.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I'm the proud owner of two Fender Jazzmasters, a Gretsch G5422DC, and a Fender Twin Reverb amp - all musical equipment far better than my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to go to outer space.

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