Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Power, Quality, Luxury, and Value

This week I drove a 2010 Audi A6 3.0T Premium Plus, which I briefly alluded to in my last post about the 2011 BMW 535i that I was so impressed with. My statement was that the Audi A6 felt like a step down from the Bimmer…. Until I drove the A6.

I dropped of the BMW and got into the Audi A6 that eCarOne gave me this week. I got into the car and it felt very roomy, well appointed, and luxurious but it felt like something was missing. The Bimmer gave me that feeling of being wrapped in luxury and the A6 did not… at least not at first. I started the car, found a comfortable driving position, adjusted the air and mirrors and headed out for my week long ownership experience. After revving up and getting on the highway with ease, blending into traffic and finding the left lane to open it up all the thoughts about a step down went away. This car felt very strong, competent, and every bit as responsive as the Bimmer. And why wouldn't it... with 300+ HP and 310+ ft/lb of torque, it's output is nearly identical with that of BMW's twin turbo V6 engine.

The power delivery was even smoother than I anticipated, and I can credit the supercharged V6 for that. Since a supercharger works directly off the crankshaft, it is making boost all the time and so you don’t get that abrupt thrust that you get with a turbo. Although these days most turbo cars have twin turbo technology that uses a smaller turbo that makes boost earlier and a larger one that kicks in later so you don’t get that “all or nothing” punch that was inherent to older turbo technology.

Back to the A6…. The engine is very smooth in power delivery and the transmission takes you through the rev range with ease. The brakes are excellent, though not as robust as those in the Bimmer but they get the job done and done well. As for driving dynamics, this car was not equipped with the sport suspension so the ride was controlled but not as sporty as what it would have been with the sport package option. On the other hand, this car is smooth and requires very little effort to drive… to some that is very positive. To me, I prefer a sporty feel. Next time, I’ll see if eCarOne has an A6 with a sport package and then I can more properly talk about Audi handling.

What are my dislikes? Well, the cabin was not as quite as I would have liked. But then again, this is all relative… compared to the BMW 5-series, the Audi is louder. But compared to my wife’s 2010 Honda CR-V, the Audi is quite as a coffin! But in all seriousness, this is perhaps the only complaint that I had. The soft suspension is not a complaint at all…. It’s a matter of personal preference. On the upside, this Audi had 18,000 miles on the odometer and not one single rattle, squeak, shimmy, or whisper from the cabin. Although the mileage is low, this is more than I could say for most German sedans I’ve driven… even ones with lower mileage. Case in point, I once owned a 1999 Audi A4 with 65,000 miles and a 1999 Mercedes E320 with 14,000 miles and you know where I’m going with this. Yes, the Audi was still rattle-free at five times the mileage of the Benz which had squeaks, rattles, and shakes I could not identify. I have to take my hat off to Audi for continuing to make a solid cabin.

Now, let’s talk about price point and where the Audi sits on the pricing spectrum. This Audi is priced by eCarOne at $40,950 which is roughly $25,000 below its price 18,000 miles ago! Essentially, I could get this A6 for the family and pick up a used TT for the weekend before I reach the new car price tag! It leaves me wondering why anyone would purchase a new car when you get a very slightly used one that is still covered by the full factory warranty and save a ton of money in the process. If you want to extend the existing factory warranty to another 4 years and another 50,000 miles, I’m sure eCarOne can set that up and you’re still way below the new car price. I know that based on my credit, I could walk into eCarOne today, get this car, get the warranty and get it all financed at less than 2% for five years! You don’t believe me? Go see for yourself.

Thanks for reading and happy driving.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Ultimate Driving Machine

Last week I had a 2011 BMW 535i from eCarOne.  I'm not sure where to start because I'm trying to be objective but it's difficult because I currently own a BMW and have owned seven others in the past.  So, as you can see, I am a little biased towards the brand.

This particular 535i from eCarOne hits home with me because it shares the same twin turbo V6 engine with one of the best cars that I have ever owned; a 2007 335i Coupe that I happen to have purchased from eCarOne... go figure!  I sold that car a few years ago as my family grew and now I wish the 535i was around when I sold the 3 because that would have been the perfect sedan to own.

I think BMW got it right when they said "ultimate driving machine" because this 535i certainly is that and more.  Why is this car so perfect and what makes it that way?

I wish I could point out one thing or talk about it like I talked about the Ferrari F430 or the Maserati Coupe GT, but I can't.  My feeling is that the car as a whole just works.  It's a sedan that does not feel like a sedan once you start driving it.  The driving position is perfect, the steering wheel is thick, the engine is ultra-responsive, the brakes are phenomenal, and the cabin is whisper quiet.  As an added bonus, this car in particular had the night vision, so that was a cool experience.  I live in a suburban area, so it was fun to go out at night and see if I can spot squirrels and rabbits on the back roads using the night vision.  Yes, it's childish but fun nonetheless.

How did BMW do it?  How is it that driving this car makes you feel like you're driving a perfect machine and not sacrificing anything?

What are the negatives?  I've heard media complaints about the i-dirve system and its complications, the thought that this 5-series is disconnected from the driver, the idea that it's heavy and sluggish.  Well, none of those complaints even crossed my mind in the time I drove it... and I drove it daily more than several times a day.  In fact, I loved this car so much that I was looking for reasons to drive.  My wife loved that I was running errands I was supposed to run weeks ago, so earning brownie points was another positive of having this machine in the garage!

Prior to having this 535i, I had a 2010 Mercedes E350 which was a beautiful car.  I could compare the two but I'm not going it.  I'm only referring to the Benz in order to tell you that getting out of the Benz and into the Bimmer was a seamless transition and in fact, I would have to say the Bimmer was a bit quieter than the Benz and that was a big surprise for me.  Conversley, I got out of the Bimmer and into a 2011 Audi A6.  This definitely felt like a step down... until I drove the A6... more on that in another post.

I currently own a 7-series that my wife absolutely hates.  And before you make any assumptions, she drives a Honda CR-V.  She hates the 7 because in her opinion it's not worth the money... her opinion.  In fact, she has hated every BMW I've owned.  Why, because in her mind no car is worth that much money.  She has never had anything good to say about any Bimmer I've owned... yes, even my beautiful Space Gray Metallic 335i Coupe with Coral Red leather and black walnut wood trim.... even that car did not impress her.  Her blanket statement is always about how the interior lacks refinement and the car rides too harsh.  Why am I talking about this?  Because for the first time in her life, my wife paid a compliment to BMW... two compliments.

When she first saw the interior of this 535i, her first words were... "this car is much nicer than any other BMW I've seen... I like the wood trim."

Then, during the time I had it, she was "forced" to drive it home because we were at a water park with the kids and our little boy needed to get to bed.  I waited with the older kids and rather than have them ride in their wet swim suits in the Bimmer, I asked my wife to drive it home and leave the CR-V for me.  She drove it for a short 15 minute ride from the park to our house.  The next morning over breakfast, she initiated the following comment....

"You know what?  I only drove that BMW for a short distance but I gotta tell ya... it's really nice to drive."  Knowing my wife and her hatred for German cars in general, that statement says a lot about this car.

If you're in the market for a mid-size sports sedan, then I strongly urge you to take a look at this car.

As always, happy driving.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Show me the CarFax...

I went to college at SMU, which is also known as southern millionaire's university. Although my father was by no means a millionaire, he worked hard to pay for my school and I was fortunate enough to own a new Acura Integra. For me that was more than I could imagine owning as a 19 year old… until I went to SMU and took a look around at all the Bimmers, Porsches, and Audis. It was a humbling experience and in many ways affected the way I looked at things for a long time to follow. Needless to say, I no longer wanted to drive my new Acura for much longer and as soon as I graduated I bought a Porsche…. on a $30,000 a year salary. So, it was used; very used. My first Porsche was a 1987 944 Turbo with 80,000 miles for the cool price of $7500. At that time, the market was about $15,000 for that car but of course I got a great deal. It was great till I flew to Miami, picked it up, drove it back to Dallas and found out the title was counterfeit and the car had been rebuilt. Where was CarFax at the time? Well, today we have not only CarFax but others like Autocheck and the all trusted internet. But is that a good thing? Let's see…

This week I had a chance to drive a 2010 Mercedes E350 with only 14,000 miles on the odometer. This particular car had to be one of the most beautiful E-classes I have seen; with a stunning gray over congac leather and panoramic roof and fully loaded with almost every factory option. So, what's my point? This car had a "bad" CarFax report and is listed by eCarOne at roughly 10% below its book value. So, what do you do with something like this? Do you walk away regardless of the discount? Do you have a pre purchase inspection done and take advantage of the price reduction? It's a tough decision and I hope to be able to shed some light here based on my past experience of purchasing and owning over 30 cars… that's right; 30 cars in a little less than 20 years of driving.

Surprisingly, the answer is much more simple than most make it out to be. A car's value is negatively affected by a bad history report much like a person's credit is negatively affected by a previous late payment or collection. Does this mean that car is junk or the person is a deadbeat? Absolutely not. It simply means that there is something in the past that needs further investigation. In the case of this particular Mercedes, the previous owner had an accident that required replacing one of the rear quarter panels. Given that this car had an original MSRP north of $64,000 it makes sense that any accident would have involved an insurance claim and thus would be present on the history report. So, what does this mean? Nothing… it means you would treat it like any other car… you simply have a competent mechanic perform a pre purchase inspection and go from there. To me, so long as the car is cosmetically and mechanically in line with it's age, that is all that counts. Does the car accelerate, handle, and brake like it should? Is it similar to other cars of the same make, year and model? If all is is true, then I thank the dealer for the nice discount and I take it. If not, then it's no different than any other car… I walk and look for a better example.

The problem today is that we have a bit of information overload and this just means we need to spend a bit more time analyzing this information and deciding what's important and what's irrelevant. Would I buy a car with a previous flood history? No, because a flood destroys so much more than you can see. But would I buy a car that had some sheet metal replaced? Why not?

The point of my post is to point out that a blemish on a history report means nothing until you further investigate it and fully understand the why and how of the report. And of course, it goes without saying that buying a car from a reputable dealer like eCarOne is probably more valuable than any history report. This sounds like propaganda but it is actually an economically supported statement. How? A history report on any car has a potential value up to the car's market value. For example, the value of the CarFax on this MB is potentially $50,000 today because that is the market value of this car today. On the other hand, for a reputable dealer to lose his good reputation the COST would be way more than what he could stand to gain in profit on one or two cars.  Thus, buying a car from a reputable dealer is in most cases the best protection you can get.

Good luck and happy test driving.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Maserati Coupe… is it a $30k Ferrari?

Last week I had a chance to drive a 2008 very low mileage Ferrari F430 Spyder for a full afternoon and evening. Needless to say, I was grinning from ear to ear the entire time. I picked the car up from eCarOne and drove it home to show my 2-year-old boy who already knows most of the cars on the road. The smile on his face was priceless as he kept pointing and saying RARI RARI. I too enjoyed the car very much. There is nothing to dislike… the engine, transmission, exhaust, excellent seats, looks, you name it. It’s a truly magical experience but unfortunately I would need to be a magician to afford it. Hence, what options do I have if I loved the feel of driving a Ferrari and the attention of owning one?

Well, there is Porsche, Jag, Mercedes, Audi… many respectable names out there but with all due respect, none of them give you the pure experience of driving an Italian sports car. However, there is one that I did not mention… Maserati. Huh, they still make those? Isn’t that a Fiat? The answers are yes, and no, respectively.

While Maserati was very prominent in the 60s and 70s, it went away by the late 80s and was all but dead until it was revived in the late 90s by Ferrari. In 2002, Maseratis were reintroduced in the United States once again. So why am I talking about Maserati? Well, all Maseratis today sold in the US are powered by either a 4.2L or a 4.7L Ferrari derived engine and most are mated to a Ferrari derived F1 transmission. It just so happens that eCarOne had a 2003 Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa with an F1 transmission, so this was the perfect opportunity for me to drive it and see how it felt vs. the Ferrari F430 I drove earlier.
Now, this is where I need to disclose that I am not going to compare a $30,000 Maserati touring coupe to a $175,000 Ferrari supercar, but I will say that if you are interested in the passion of driving an Italian machine and a six figure price tag is a little out of your comfort zone, then I urge you to drive a Maserati and see for yourself. I think eCarOne usually carries 3 or 4 so it shouldn’t be difficult to drive one.
I picked the Coupe up from eCarOne on Friday around noon and dropped off my 7-series. If there was a moment of disappointment, it would be the first minute I got in and turned on the audio system, but who wants to listen to music when you have that V8 & exhaust.
I got on the highway right away and opened it up. The car pulled very strongly and although the shifts were not lightning fast (like the F430), they were still quick and sharp... no complaints. The ride was softer than my 7-series with H&R springs but was very compliant and controlled. It took a little time to get used to the feel but once I did, I was completely comfortable with the car and felt right at home with it. I found that turning off the radio and listening to the beautiful exhaust was much more satisfying so for the last 48 hours my soundtrack has been the V8 revving from 4k to 7k!

Once I got off the highway and cruised into town, I immediately started noticing people giving me looks at traffic lights… and I live in a city where Porsche Panameras and AMG Mercedes are more common than Accords and Camrys. I think I was getting more looks because people were curious of what this car was…. I did not get these looks of curiosity in the F430. The only other time I got stop and stare looks was in a GT-R that I picked up from eCarOne a few months ago. I guess the Maser being yellow probably had something to do with it. I got back to my office, parked it, and a few minutes later one of my salespeople walks by my office and says nice car!

Even though it was not mine, getting all these compliments felt good. Took it home later and the look on my boy's face was priceless... and he's two years old! Took him for a ride and he did not want to get out... he just kept saying Rati Rati. And by the way, his toddler seat was securely anchored with the LATCH system which was a nice surprise. Took it to my local coffee shop early Saturday morning, and upon parking it, immediately a couple of guys start asking me questions... is it new? No, it's used I say. What year is it, '09 '10? No, it's an '03... wow, they say. Again, not my car but it's nice to hear compliments. Later it felt that the tires were a little low. Took it to a local car wash / service center and got the air pressure adjusted. Then the car wash guys asks would you like a hand wash? Hey, I get my Bimmer washed there almost weekly and he never asked to hand wash the Bimmer! Go figure.

Are there things that worry me? Sure. Maintenance is a little higher than usual but not out of the ordinary. Repairs can be very costly but buying it from a reputable dealer and staying on top of maintenance should address this issue. Other than the audio system not being exactly what I would have (and that’s an easy fix), I truly enjoyed this car. If I had the money, I would get the Ferrari… but even then I wouldn’t have the comfortable back seat with a LATCH system for my kiddo. For the money, this is truly one of the best bargains out there. At $30k, I can get an ’03 nicely optioned Coupe. At $45k I can get an ’05 or ’06 Gransport, which is the Coupe that is more tuned (sort of like the M3 of the 3-series). I couldn’t even touch a low mileage Porsche 911 for under $50k so the Maserati is even more of a bargain once you start comparing it. And I can’t honestly make the following statement for most cars…. And that is…
The more I drove this car, the more I wanted to drive it. I'm sold.

Good luck and happy test driving.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hello world!

So, how did I become the Test Drive Blogger?  A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with my very good friend and founder of eCarOne and as usual we were talking cars.  Although I am not in the car business, I have loved cars since I could talk. We usually toss ideas around and this time I think we came up with something that could be very useful for many perspective buyers out there.  Currently, there are many websites that offer new and used car reviews but none to knowledge offer these reviews based on actual ownership experience.  As a perspective buyer, your only option of researching a particular make or model is to scour the internet and perhaps visit car-specific forums that discuss the ownership experience.

We thought that since I love cars and I go through them more frequently than most people go through shoes, it may be a good idea for us to capitalize on my tendency to get board with whatever car I own.  As such, I will be taking a car from eCarOne each week and using it as my daily driver.  After my week is over, I will post my impression… not an objective test drive but rather a commentary of what it’s actually like to own the car for a full week.  Some of my posts will be informative, some advisory, some purely commentary and of course some you may find useless.

In any case, I will do my best to bring a fresh perspective with each post and as we build a database of various cars, I believe we can start to really have fun.  I hope you enjoy reading and I welcome any questions and comments going forward.  Thank you and happy driving.