Posted by: joevanderfluit | March 29, 2015

The Fun Stuff: The Joe Review

While I’ve been aware of it for some time, my job has finally provided a concrete proof to myself: I am decidedly not right in the head. I must endure, day after day and week after week, perfectly normal, successful, well-adjusted people walk in and spend rather large sums of money on cars that are the absolute very last thing I’d ever spend my money on, even if a burly Russian fellow had an equally burly gun to my head. That’s not to say our wares are bad in any way. Definitely not. They are perfectly fine for the people who buy them. People who want a reliable, comfortable, relaxing, and somewhat anonymous motoring experience. Now, thanks to a personality test questionnaire thingy I took in one of my U of L courses (I can’t remember which. Kinesiology 10-something maybe?) I have a problem with empathy. I scored 2 of 20 in that section. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise why I simply cannot fathom why anyone would spend so much money on something that gives such a milquetoast emotional experience.

“But wait there a second,” I hear you say. “Didn’t you have a Chrysler Concorde? And a Cadillac El Dorado?” To which I would reply yes. I cannot and will not deny I drove both of those front-wheel-drive numb whales of things. And I liked them for what they were. The Caddy was essentially two leather Laz-Y-Boys with a V8 in the front and it was the best highway cruiser in the world and the canvas Landau top gave it some serious 1970’s Blaxploitation street cred. The Chrysler was, I will contend to the day I die, an elegantly attractive piece of work that was actually fairly sprightly and lightweight for a pseudo-premium full-ish size sedan that could hold, like, seven bodies in the trunk. Not that I ever tried. The point is, both at least stirred my soul probably more than they should have. I just came to realize that small, lightweight, raw, noisy, quick little cars stirred my soul the way an industrial blender stirs high fructose corn syrup and yellow #5.

And wouldn’t you know it, my strange affliction rubbed off on people, so they got fun little rocketabouts recently. Things which are not necessarily “fast” by any objective measure; but fun by every subjective measure. Things which exist to make smiles happen. Luckily for me, they (foolishly) tossed me their keys so I could put on my journalist hat and give them a bit of a review (that counts for absolutely nothing for 99% of the motoring public).

First Up, The Benchmark: 2004 Mazda MX-5 Miata (optional 6-Speed manual)

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Vital statistics: Engine: 1.8L inline-four, 142 brake horsepower (when new), 125 ft-lb peak torque, front-mid engine, rear wheel drive, curb weight 2440 lbs, 50/50% front/rear weight distribution.

Yes, this is my car and as such has a heavy bias working for it. It is not fast but feels like it. It is not “comfortable” in the traditional sense. Ergonomically, it is a sublime driver’s car but a miserable car car. Aside from my legs which are too long for the car it fits me like a glove. The steering wheel sits the perfect distance from me, and with my arm resting neutrally on the centre console the shift knob is in the middle of my hand. Perfect. Every control is within maybe 15 cm of one of my hands. That said, it gets hot in the summer, and the seats are just awful, I’ll admit it. And the lack of cruise control added to the too-longness of my legs means my ankles burn with the fury of a thousand suns after a few hours’ highway cruise. After which I am deaf because of the noise from everywhere. BUT! It does everything right that I want it to. It feels like everything is connected mechanically to the things they control; because they are. The interior has aged remarkably well – but it must be known that a few of my tastes (women’s clothing, BMWs, bootcut jeans) are firmly frozen in 2003. The muffler I put on and the holes I drilled in the air box make it growl like an annoyed wolverine, and the massively beefy bar that connects both sides of the front suspension keeps the front end planted while the rear is free to do fun things like slide. It is my companion. It works with me and I work with it and I have a ton of fun. As I said, it isn’t particularly fast and I have to put in effort to keep any sort of pace going. That effort is what people as messed up as me crave. I can’t have a car I just point. I must drive it.

Arbitrary Review Score: 114 billion/10

 

The Contender: 2006 Mazda MX-5 (optional 6-speed manual)

_SAM9212

Vital statistics: Engine: 2.0L inline-four, 167 brake horsepower (when new), 140 ft-lb peak torque, front-mid engine, rear wheel drive, curb weight 2447 lbs, 52/48% front/rear weight distribution.

My Miata is a second-generation model, known as the NB to Mazda internally and to the Miataphile. The original one with the pop-up lights is the NA, the current one the NC. Mechanically, the NA and NB are essentially the same yet the NB is the relatively unloved bastard child of the three. It gained a bit of weight over the NA to appease silly things like “safety standards” and didn’t gain any power while losing both the popup headlights (unforgivable!) and a smidge of interior space (thigh room in particular shrinking from “not much” to “none”). The NC is a clean-sheet redesign and is both a) noticeably quicker than an NB and b) a better, more livable car. It has niceties like steering wheel mounted audio controls, cruise control, A/C, and far, far less top-down wind buffeting than my car. So yes; it is a better car. But a better Miata? I’m not so sure. For one, the dual-exit stock muffler is ludicrously oversized. That little 2-litre should sing but it’s choked in the name of something that car shouldn’t be striving toward: serious, grown-uppedness and dual-exhaust machismo posturing. That said, $200 will fix that with a 7-pound single-tip “muffler” so it barely warrants a complaint.  Interior materials feel drastically cheapened though. Plastic surfaces are much flatter and harder than those in the earlier generation; not that it takes away from the driving dynamics in any meaningful way. And the car certainly feels like it scoots. 167 horsepower is plenty for something that is easily still the lightest available sports car that isn’t a Lotus. So really, it is a perfectly worthy successor in the Miata line.

Arbitrary Review Score: x/0: A number as impossible as this thing only gaining 7 pounds over the NB. Witchcraft!

 

Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ: The Toyobaru Twins (6-speed manual; automatic available but is sacrilege)

01-2013-scion-fr-s-2d

Vital statistics: Engine: 2.0L flat-four, 200 brake horsepower, 158 ft-lb peak torque, front-mid engine, rear wheel drive, curb weight 2758 pounds, 53/47% front/rear weight distribution.

As difficult as I now find it to imagine, Toyota actually built a sports car for two decades. And it was a legitimate, surprisingly dangerous little beast. For three model generations, they let loose the MR-2. Oh-so-imaginatively named for mid-engine rear-drive 2-seater, it brought the truest of all sports car layouts to the masses. And brought with it the sphincter-puckering joy of snap-oversteer to the masses. Go into a corner too fast? You let off the gas, maybe dab the brakes, right? NOPE, says Mister Two and enjoy your backwards off-road safari adventure. That engine nestled down in the middle of the car, behind the seats, meant perfect balance and serious handling chops; but carried the penalty of extreme sensitivity to weight transfer. After a few years of sales figures somewhere between the carpet and the floor of the last MR-2 – more expensive than the Miata but with less space even with two trunks – Toyota killed it off in 2005, and with it any semblance of true sportiness left in the company. Until 2012, when shockingly enough they used their influence as a stockholder of the company that owns Subaru to make Subaru build a sports car to be sold as a Toyota (in Europe and Asia), a Scion (in North America), and a Subaru.

When I first drove this car, I wanted oh so desperately to love it. I really did. Here was a sporty little coupe that the world needed and deserved. I didn’t want to listen to all the naysayers who said it needed more power. They just didn’t “get it”. That’s how I wanted it to be. But alas, there is flaw. Not in the design or engineering or construction, but in philosophy. It is too serious. The Miata has always been about carefree fun. It looks the part and acts the part. It doesn’t pretend to be musclebound and aggressive because that would be silly because it isn’t. But the Toyobaru didn’t get that memo. It is fantastically easy to make the back end slide around. That is what it seems like the design was meant to be: something to gleefully throw sideways at every possible opportunity. It is just so easy to do, and I love that about it. But then, the rest of the car is a bit of a mess. The ride is very stiff and composed. It doesn’t roll a bit in corners like the Miatas do. But that means when you’re not playing Tokyo Drift around a roundabout (at less than the posted limit!) it feels like a serious, frowny adult race car. And it tries to look the part, a jumble of what would be attractive curves ruined by flexy, alpha-male-bro sharp creases and angry-eye lights and gaping maw grilles. It comes across as meant for someone who wants a Miata but isn’t secure enough to roll with the perceived feminine image. The seats are quite nice but the rest of the ergonomics are crap. The shifter is too far forward and there’s nothing to rest your right elbow on. And the exhaust is a tragedy. Subaru flat-fours sound fan-freaking-tastic when allowed to breathe. A well-sorted Subie sounds like it runs on a blend of hate and hellfire. The FR-S/BRZ can sound like that but ships with a gargantuan muffler that both kills that delicious malicious sound and is absurdly overweight. As is the rest of the car. I’ve seen what hail does to the aluminum panels of these cars. They should weigh about 3 Kleenex; not 2800 pounds. That’s still light by modern standards but unless the floor is a quarter-ton iron ingot it just makes no sense. All Miatas are built daintily, to move and flex with the little power they’ve got. The FR-S/BRZ have decent power, but it feels like the car was built for much more. My car very rarely feels underpowered; the FR-S does. It isn’t lively; it’s just stone-faced serious. Which in something this joyfully easy to SUUUUUUUUUPER DORIFTOOOOOOOOOO is a crime.

Arbitrary Review Score: Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III. Was meant to be the chosen one; ended up burning in a pool of lava by Miata-Wan Kenobi’s hand.

 

2013 FIAT 500 Abarth: And Now for Something Completely Different (5-speed manual)

abarth

Vital statistics: Engine: 1.4L turbocharged inline-four, 160 brake horsepower, 170 ft-lb peak torque, front engine, front wheel drive, curb weight 2512 pounds, 64/36% front/rear weight distribution.

This, this does not fit the mould. The other three cars I’ve included here are low-slung, rear-drive sportsters. The FIAT 500 Abarth is a tall-ish, nose heavy, wrong-wheel-drive rollerskate. And if you dismiss it for that, you are fool. This thing is pure joy condensed into corporeal form. It exists solely to be a source of smiles, because that’s all it can be for. I certainly wouldn’t want to attack a track with it. Its driving position feels too high and upright for me (mind I’m used to my bottom scraping the ground) and it feels every bit as nose-heavy as it is. But this little Italian firebrand punches you square in the face with a meaty fist of lovable character. It is a diminutive, stylish city car with entirely too much power shoved under that tiny hood. In the process of making too much power, that little 1.4 turbo makes the best thing about this car: the sound. Oh-ho-ho-ho the music that comes from the pipes. I can speak from experience when I say that this goofy little thing sounds like the unholy spawn of a Ferrari F430 and a Lamborghini Aventador minus the bass. Seriously. It sounds like half a Ferrari V8 or a third of a Lambo V12. It is addictive, intoxicating, and makes me giggle with idiotic glee every time I stand behind one. This car is the wheeled equivalent of The Lego Movie. Stern folk will scoff at it and give gold statues to each other while circle-jerking over something far too serious. Meanwhile, the rest of us are having way too much fun shouting “SPACESHIP!” to care. The Abarth is a tasty little seed plucked before it germinates into the pretentious and overcomplex Ferrari it would have grown up to be. It is the best kind of childish, exuberant glee. It is a message to the world that you don’t care about lap times or clipping every apex. You want to be jostled about with a big dumb grin on your face and noise in your ears as you rocket through otherwise dull city streets. It is how motoring should be. It doesn’t need to be boring. You’re moving at breakneck speed powered by explosions! Whoever made the Abarth happen understands that. They understand me and my affliction.

But it’s still wrong-wheel-drive.

Arbitrary Review Score: Grammy for Best Musical Performance; 9 out of 10 Italian engineers arguing about who put-a the power to the wrong-a wheels, ah? What’s a matter you?! The Cinquecento Nuovo sound-a bellissimo, why you gotta drive the wrong-a wheels?!

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