Sunday, May 8, 2005

cars: 4x4 x zero

We want to replace our 1998 Suburu Outback Sport. The new car needs
  • 4-wheel drive for snow
  • handle well in snow
  • hatchback for dogs
  • environmentally responsible, i.e. high MPG, low CO2 and emissions. (For all three, go to the EPA's www.fueleconomy.gov)
  • compact for city driving
  • be an improvement on the Subaru.
Price is pretty immaterial (lucky bastard :-) , so we're happy to pay for winter package, super-ultra premium sound, navigation system, leather interior, and any and all options that don't reduce MPG.

You would think there would be dozens of cars that fit the bill. You'd be wrong.

Car makers want to sell an SUV for this. Well, I'm not interested. By making the car 20% higher, the handling gets worse, the weight increases about 20% and the aerodynamics are messed up, so MPG goes down. Besides, in general an SUV is just a fat ugly car for mean people. Despite all the macho ads showing SUV's tearing up virgin wilderness, they're no better in snow than a 4WD car. Real skiers drive a Subaru, a 4WD truck, or an old Audi.

What's left is several niche cars.

Toyota Matrix: not really a snow car, the 4WD version seems an afterthought.
Volkswagen Golf R32 is too small, and is more a hot-rod with 4WD than a snow car.

We drove the Volvo V50. It's pretty luxurious and quiet, but it doesn't drive nearly as well as the Subaru, and it looks and feels like a long station wagon. Heck, if we wanted a station wagon, there are all the BMW 'x' and Mercedes 4MATIC station wagons to try. Also the MPG of the 4WD version is lousy (19/27, 8.5 tons CO2, 6-7 EPA air pollution score) because it's only available with turbo.

That leaves the Subaru Outback Sport. But as in 1998, Subaru treats their compact car as their cheap car: no leather, no premium sound, no Vehicle Dynamics Control, no OnStar, no winter package, plus they leave it buzzy and cheap. You can get a much nicer version of the same platform, the Forester, but that's an ugly near-SUV. You can also get better features by getting a WRX Turbo, but again it's worse MPG.

However, there is another version of the Subaru, the Saab 9-2X. The non-Turbo version has an OK 23/29 MPG, 7.5 tons CO2, 6 EPA air pollution score.

GM got slammed for this forced marriage of Sweden and Japan, but the badge engineering actually works for us: take a great platform and make a higher-quality model. The big question mark is whether this model will be discontinued given GM and Saab's troubles. I've only seen two on the street.

The Audi A3 Sportwagon has just started shipping. It looks much nicer in the flesh than the ugly corporate nose suggests, the trick DSG transmission is excellent, and the German car companies seem happy to sell you a premium version of their smallest car. But the quattro model is not available?! This is Audi, the four-wheel drive innovators whose original "quattro" supercar 25 years ago changed the automotive landscape forever! Furthermore, the rumor is the quattro S3 will only ship with the monster 3.2 liter motor, i.e. poor MPG.

Note how the better options only come with a bigger engine, thus worse MPG and handling. I don't understand why the two are tied together. You don't need more than ~150 horsepower in a sensibly-sized car in the USA. My genitals won't be any larger with a more powerful engine under the hood, so what's the point?

The most environmentally responsible approach is to hold on to our current car (23/30 MPG, 7.5 tons CO2, no air pollution score).

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