Nissan promises “innovation for all,” but at $10,990 for a brand new car, complete with a factory warranty and the intoxicating smell of fresh plastic, vinyl, and what looks like rat fur, it’s hard to imagine the Versa being packed with a whole lot of innovation.
For $10,990 you get a 1.6L 109hp 4-banger, 5-speed manual, your choice of blue, gray, silver, black, or white paint, a black cloth interior, a CD player with only two speakers, rear drum brakes, torsion beam suspension, ABS, electronic brake force distribution, power steering, air conditioning, manual seats, tilt steering, and… a clock.
You can get a tachometer, cruise control, power windows, keyless entry, power locks, and other comforts we come to expect from a 2012 model year car, but that shoots the price up to $14,560. At that point, you’re only putting lipstick on a pig, slapping options on to a car that’s awful to drive, awful to look at, and awful to be in.
And once you add destination fees, your bargain-priced $10,990 Versa is a pinch under $12,000.
In addition to being cheaply made and crude to drive, the 2012 Versa is a rather ungainly looking thing. The top of the hood appears to be ten feet high while the 15-inch tires are lost in a wheel well large enough to swallow a train. If Harley Earl’s mantra for attractive styling was “longer, lower, wider,” the 2012 Versa is narrow, tall, and stubby.
I’m inclined to believe that the Versa was inspired by the late 1990s Chevy Metro sedan, an odd looking pod that itself took inspiration from an American classic:
I loved the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe as a child, but the foot-powered toddler’s toy was nothing to aspire to. Still, that didn’t stop General Motors (specifically, Suzuki) and Nissan from copying its awkward proportions and applying them to cars intended for grown-ups.
With economy cars, there’s only so much one can expect, hampered by market-mandated price points and basic functional requirements. Building an automobile that covers a larger footprint requires more weight, more materials, and results in a higher price tag.
Because of this, cheap cars have gotten taller, compensating for their short wheelbases by increasing height and placing passengers in an dinner chair-like seating position similar to vans and SUVs. This has the effect of increasing usable leg room without having to increase the amount of space between the front and rear seats. Instead of stretching out and relaxing, like you would in the back of a limousine, you sit like a sea gull perched on a stoop.
The old Versa was nothing to brag about either, but at least its French-influenced styling stood out in a sea of soul-sucking blandness:
And despite all of this, styling isn’t the new Versa’s biggest problem.
“Highs: Spacious back seat, low starting price.
Lows: Too many to list—call for details.”
“Nissan says it cut about 150 pounds by reducing the number of parts by nearly 20 percent. Perhaps it left out a few too many critical components. The gap between the front wheel and fender makes the Versa look like it’s on stilts, and it handles like it, too. Its stick on the skidpad is a scant 0.76 g, and enthusiastic drivers will quickly succumb to waves of body roll and understeer that have the front tires howling at normal cornering speeds. On the highway, the Versa is nervous and subject to directional changes determined as often by the wind as by the driver.
Things are worse inside, too. The new interior is constructed entirely of concrete-hard plastics, with the only soft materials being the carpet, the seats, and the headliner. As evidenced by the amount of road noise, the doors seem to have zero insulation. As your author climbed inside, the cord to his radar detector—a tool which proved unnecessary—fell against the door skin. The resulting ping sounded like someone had dropped an empty soda can. Eager to drown out the road noise and horrific engine note, we cranked up the tunes on the optional nav-equipped head unit, only to find an astonishing amount of distortion from the speakers at half volume. As a whole, the only positive from the Versa sedan is its enormous back seat, which offers tremendous legroom. But good luck finding anybody to sit there more than once. “
The previous-generation Versa had some zippiness to it, a little heart and soul buried underneath its vast expanses of shitty plastic. Unfortunately, the latest iteration feels like it was pulled out of an econocar design book from the 1980s, a time when manufacturers scrambled to build cheap, small autos in the face of high fuel prices and tough global competition, with typically poor results.
And just when we thought things were getting better, with build quality soaring in the 1990s and 2000s for major manufacturers across almost all makes and models, here comes the Versa, a lifeless, regressive mobility device that prompts a new owner to ask himself how his life went wrong.
The Versa’s only saving grace could be its reliability, but if the last Versa is any indication, don’t expect the new one to be free of defects and annoyances. Don’t expect to see 40mpg either — the Hyundai Accent has it beat.
If a car is going to cheap, it ought to be cheerful. GM seems to have figured it out with the new Sonic, as well as Mazda with the 2 and Ford with the Fiesta. What’s Nissan’s problem?
If you have around $10,000 or so to spend on a low-cost family car, here’s a few worthwhile alternatives plucked from a quick search on Autotrader:
2010 Hyundai Accent – $10,995 – 20,000 mi
Cheap but fun to toss around.
2009 Kia Rio LX – $10,626 – 29,000 mi
Not particularly refined but light on its feet and easy to fling around corners.
2010 Nissan Sentra – $11,500 – 33,540 mi Much more substantial than the Versa with better ride and handling.
2008 Scion xD – $11,500 – 34,000 mi It’s a strange looking box, but it’s dependable and spacious with high resale value.
2005 Mercury Grand Marquis – $11,500 – 14,000 mi A big, plush car from a dead brand that made cars for people who were nearly dead themselves. Cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, superbly comfortable, easy to service.
2006 Mazda 3 Hatchback – $11,500 – 37,000 mi Basically a Miata with room for people and cargo.
2008 Suzuki SX4 – $11,500 – 33,000 mi
All wheel drive!
Also in this price range with reasonably low miles are the Toyota Corolla, Pontiac G6, Mercury Milan, Ford Focus, Hyundai Tucson, Dodge Magnum, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Saturn Astra. Not all of these are attractive or interesting, but they’ll save you from new-car depreciation and the sadness that comes standard with Versa ownership.
Earlier in 2011, I took the train to Chicago for the sole purpose of eating an Italian beef sandwich (or two). The trip was so spur-of-the-moment that I neglected to bring anything but my phone, digital camera, and wallet.
The five-hour train ride through rural Illinois was quite dull, especially without music, since I had neglected to bring my ear buds. Playing Bejeweled for five hours was only able to satiate so much boredom. I needed my dose of Electric Light Orchestra.
After stepping out of Union Station and looking up at the Sears Tower, I wandered around the corner to a Walgreens hoping to find something to enjoy the 8GB of music stored on my phone while I wandered around the city on foot.
Walgreens isn’t the greatest place to buy electronics. They sell batteries, blank CDs, and other odds and ends, but there’s no way of testing or playing with anything, and they tend to carry a lot of weird, off-brand junk.
Between two pairs of buds they had on the shelves, one $9.99 and one $14.99, I had to assume that the more expensive one might be tolerable, so I bought a pair of Sony MDR-E828LPs. Its not exactly a memorable model name, keeping with Sony tradition.
My LG Optimus phone produces unimpressive audio, sufficient for calls but only passable for music. Because of this, when I’m out walking the dog, I usually bring both my iPod and my phone. Despite the limitation of the LG Optimus, these Sonys produced reasonably full audio with impressive bass for a very low price.
Highs and mids are passable, reasonably full without being tinny, but lacking in openness and range. Sensitivity is high, allowing your MP3 player or cell phone to produce sufficiently loud audio without having to turn it way up, which results in less distortion.
I arrived in Chicago at 10am and didn’t get home to St Louis until 10pm, giving these buds a 12-hour workout, plenty of time to break the drivers in.
A couple months later I flew to Thailand where I spent a month, bringing my Grado SR40s but reverting to these Sonys for their portability, sensitivity, and ambient sound insulation. It was nice to wander around Bangkok and Phuket with some familiar tunes from home, and they were quite usable on the 20-hour flight.
Unlike most cheap ear buds, the wire insulation is thick and durable. You can usually pull them out of your bag or pocket without too much fumbling or unraveling. The rubberized insulation has a tendency to straighten itself out and resists creases and bends that contribute to frustrating tangles.
Unfortunately, at just 3.3 feet (40 inches by my measurements), the cord is quite short. I’m 5’10” (and shrinking) with a long torso and short legs, and if I wear deep-pocket basketball shorts while walking the dog, my phone or iPod dangles down to my knees, which sometimes causes the cord to pop out of the headphone jack. With jeans or pants the listening device sits higher, so there’s plenty of slack.
The same feature that allows these to insulate outside noises and produce so much bass is what also makes them a bit uncomfortable after a couple hours, requiring frequent adjustment and reseating. The enclosure, instead of being circular, has an oval shape.
The extended, protruding part of the enclosure (pictured above) allows for more bass reverberation, making them sound more substantial. The design works, but if the buds aren’t perfectly seated in your ear, they can become a bit uncomfortable until they are readjusted.
For $15, I figured I’d be throwing them away after getting home. Instead, I’ve taken them across the globe and continue to use them every evening. They sound excellent with my iPad and Thinkpad, nowhere near the level of higher-end units, but they sound like they could pass for $45-$50.
If you’re a frequent traveler like I am, get these. Amazon has them for $9.85. Stuff them in your luggage just in case or hand them out as gifts.
My 2001 Cadillac Seville’s a-pillar has some unsightly cigarette burns in it left by the previous owner. It is, thankfully, the only evidence that anyone smoked in it, and the odor has miraculously disappeared.
I considered recovering the pillar with fabric myself, but PickNPull just received a 2000 Seville, so I drove into the city and checked it out.
You can tell a lot from what the last owner of a car leaves behind. In this case, this person was a dedicated Jehovah’s Witness.
He or she apparently liked things that sounded black.
It was definitely a “she.” I don’t know how anyone can wear a bright pink hat that says “Super Bitch” without feeling embarrassed.
Unfortunately, the interior was tan/cream, not the gray I needed.
I did, however, get to see a mini-parade of classic Volvos on my way home:
The anonymously named Volvo PV544 was produced from 1958-1966, achieving a global production total of 440,000 units. In its later years, the PV544 was powered by Volvo’s straight-4 B18 engine, an OHV motor capable of a 7000-rpm redline. It was, in its later years, built in Halifax, Canada, the first Volvo built outside of Sweden. The Halifax plant was closed in 1998.
I tried to get a better photo, but couldn’t, so here’s a nicer one:
The P1800 is a standout, not only for being beautiful, but for being a beautiful Volvo. With its reputation for building conservative, safe, and efficient automobiles, the P1800 is the exception to everything Volvo. Until the arrival of the C70 in 1997, the 1961-1973 P1800 was the last genuinely beautiful Volvo made.
With Minis growing in size, price, and complexity, Fiat could have conveyed itself as more focused, fun, and approachable than its British competitor. The 500, as an automobile and a piece of engineering, sits near the top of a growing microcar segment that’s eager to distance itself from miserable appliances like the Toyota Echo.
Unfortunately, as a marketing exercise, it’s a wreck.
Impatto, the Michigan ad agency hired by Fiat, [Not Impatto, see correction below] has linked what ought to be a fresh and accessible new car with Jennifer Lopez, a polarizing has-been struggling to regain relevance. With Lopez occupying more camera time than the 500, she appears to snuff out the little Fiat, bringing the audience’s focus to her parachute shorts.
A vehicle as well-packaged, creative, and cleverly designed as the 500 deserves much better.
When the Mazda Miata arrived on American shores in 1989, it was a breath of fresh air at a time when manufacturers shunned convertibles, treated quality with indifference, and scarcely delivered on fun. The 500 has the potential to be the same glimmer of hope for this generation’s driving enthusiasts, to influence an industry obsessed with adding weight, ugliness, and complexity to automobiles.
The Miata’s round, petite body was a refreshing departure from the predictable, refrigerator-inspired vehicles of the 1980s, just like the diminutive proportions of the 500 are a rapid departure from the fat, nebulous, crossover-inspired styling that’s taken the industry by storm.
We’re in a dumpy period of automotive design, and we may look back on this era with disdain the same way we look at fat, ugly cars from the 1970s. Fiat has a chance to reemphasize the importance of automotive styling, especially as Toyota, Honda, and BMW chase each other into a fog of derivative nothingness so hopelessly dull that they verge on being torturous and offensive.
[I’m calling you out Honda Crosstour, and you as well BMW 5-series GT.]
Two decades after the 1989 introduction of the Miata, the world’s favorite roadster is still being produced, breaking Guinness records for sales volume.
Where will be the Fiat 500 be in 2032? Hopefully not in the 50-cent bin at Big Lots, where J-Lo’s recordings have piled up.
If Fiat has any intention of being more than a flash in the pan in America, it has to focus on lasting appeal and distance itself from washed up pop stars.
I’m on Craigslist looking for a cheap pickup truck. Using my Cadillac Seville and Saab 900 for warehouse duties has placed unfortunate stress on their aging suspensions, especially the complex electronically-controlled ride in the Seville STS.
Sellers want us to believe their Ford LTD with suspicious bleach odors is a Pebble Beach Concours candidate, and bargain hunters want sellers to believe that the car they’re making an offer on is a heap (why make an offer if it’s so terrible?).
Such is the transactional nature of Craigslist. It’s nothing personal. You won’t see or hear from these characters ever again.
Creative sellers tend to embellish their rolling biohazards with colorful language. Here’s a few examples:
1991 Ford Ranger: “Drives great! Good engine, shifts good, runs down the road strong. All gears work except forward.”
All gears except forward? So that leaves what, reverse, park, and neutral? By “shifts good” are they referring to the mechanical movement of the shift lever from Park to Reverse?
A common dealer’s description in “Wheel Deals,” published in Spokane WA: “GOOD ROAD CAR” What would be a bad road car? A canoe?
Late-model Mitsubishi Eclipse: “I don’t have the title don’t ask. CASH ONLY.” SOUNDS LEGIT! Oh, and you’re in North St Louis? Perfect!
1998 Dodge Stratus with a damaged rear quarter and two damaged doors: “Has a dent”
Should buff right out.
1995 Chevy G20 van:
Nothing odd about the ad itself. I appreciate that it’s been pre-camouflaged for undercover surveillance purposes.
1993 Chevy Silverado, 350 V8: “Gets 30 mpg” Downhill? Off a cliff?
1997 Ford Taurus Wagon: “Rare”
Rare for a reason. They’re uglier than gingivitis.
Sellers who can’t spell the makes and models of their cars, even though the proper spelling is right there on the trunk lid:
– It’s Camry, not “Canary” – It’s Infiniti not “Infinity” – It’s Cutlass not “Cutlist” – It’s BMW not “MBW,” unless there was a Daimler-Benz/BMW merger I didn’t hear about. – It’s Maxima not “Maximum,” though I have to admit, driving a Maximum sounds pretty awesome.
The only thing spelled consistently correctly on Craigslist is “iPad,” which hookers will accept as payment.
– “Good for demolition derby or family commuter.” — How about both! – Riced out, beat to shit Eclipses and Civics with ads that say “adult owned” or “highway miles.” – “Runs great, last started 15 years ago” — A declaration of the present based on the Clinton era? No thanks.
I sold my Seville to my friend Ian while I was in Thailand, and not long after I returned to the states he offered to sell it back to me. He then found himself in need of a car, so we headed up to Motorwerks in Chicago and Xamis Ford/Lincoln in Lincoln IL.
Our journey began on 9/11/2011. We loaded our luggage into my Cadillac and left town at 3:30pm.
Clear skies ruined by a view of East St Louis.
Enjoying magazines on my iPad. This was my first time traveling without a proper laptop, bringing only my 32GB iPad ($300 from Cowboom.com) and my Bluetooth keyboard ($25 from Amazon). The plan was to only be out of town for a day or two, so my large and durable Thinkpad stayed at home.
I -hate- traveling through Illinois. Thankfully, the iPad’s battery had plenty of juice (I did bring a charger) and I was able to stay connected with my LG Optimus V’s wifi connection. We stopped at this Dairy Queen for a snack. Have you noticed how DQs are disappearing from competitive markets?
Lots of classic cars on the roads today.
A striking red Impala.
I mapped out our hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn just north of Schaumburg IL.
There’s something reassuring about a sign that specifically says “suburbs.” You have the comfort of knowing that you’re far from the congestion and crime of the city, settling into a quiet and comfortable part of town with ample parking. Unlike St Louis’s suburbs, there’s plenty to eat outside of Chicago’s urban core.
The room was about fifty bucks through Priceline. We checked in and headed to Portillo’s for takeout.
Portillo’s makes the best Italian beef in town, with Luke’s near Union Station a close second. I always order mine wet/dipped with sweet peppers.
A clean and tidy room.
My amazing sandwich.
I watched the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s mechanic steals his Saab and Kramer attempts to drive to Michigan to sell bottles and cans for a profit.
Ian and his brother were buying a 2000 SL500 online, so we headed down the road to Motorwerks to see it in person. It was tucked away somewhere on their massive lot, so we went back to the hotel.
I woke up at 5AM and went looking for the gym. Hotel gyms are always kind of gross.
This pool is hardly large enough to swim in. A sign posted on the wall said that for $10 you could get a key to the much nicer facility across the street. Lame.
Saw this parked outside the hotel.
We went back to Motorwerks and met up with our friendly salesman, Rick.
They have a Saab franchise among several other brands. This was my first in-person look at the 9-4x.
We took a look at the SL. It was spotless, rather unexpected for Chicago, with only 46,000 miles.
The undercarriage was free of rust.
Ian and Rick went for a test drive while I perused the large showroom.
This 2011 Saab 9-3 convertible came with a 20% discount. Unfortunately, if/when Saab goes out of business, 2010 and 2011 models may not have warranty coverage since GM no longer owns the brand.
Large service bay.
Ian noticed a 2003 CL55, an AMG muscle coupe with 500hp.
It had a vibration at 60mph and a motor that sounded uncomfortably “clattery.”
It was cursed with a set of garish chrome wheels that were slightly wider than the tires, giving it a stretched look that ghetto-fabulous “VIP” enthusiasts prefer. It’s a look that says “I spent my welfare money on wheels, so this was all the rubber I could afford.” I know it’s a style, but it’s stupid and unsafe, just like the idiots who do such things to their cars.
[Not the actual car, but close enough.]
The rear glass curves into the C-pillar for an airy, expensive look.
It photographs well but feels cheap with hard surfaces, rough textures, and wood trim that’s a bit bendy and wobbly. Nothing about the interior lives up to its original price of $125,000.
Poor Rick was crammed into the back seat.
In addition to the SL500, Ian was looking for a cash car, so we looked all over Motorwerks’ property to find something in the under-$10,000 range. Unfortunately, rust had a way of ruining everything.
We saw a green Infiniti QX4 that looked nice on paper but the running boards were rotting away and the wheels were bubbling from corrosion.
I ran across this gem.
Up close, it looks like it’s had a hard life.
The interior, fortunately, was okay.
We drove over to their not-so-busy Saab store to check their computers for anything that may have recently been traded in. Everything we saw was terribly rusted.
We returned to the main lot and removed the hard top to demonstrate that all of the motors and mechanisms still worked. Removing the hard top is fairly simple. Four prongs electronically pop up and the top is removed by hand.
It came with a Mercedes top stand, but it was flimsy and insecure. We decided to walk the top over to the grass.
The cloth top was in excellent shape and opened effortlessly.
All the vinyl windows were in tact without creases.
This interior is much, MUCH nicer than the one in the CL55.
The car will be in his brother’s name, so he’ll have to come to Chicago later on to sign the papers.
We headed to Giordano’s for pizza.
At Arlington Acura there was a nice looking QX4. Unfortunately, it had a little bit of rust, but much less rust than the green QX4 we looked at earlier. The interior is in excellent shape.
This sad looking Seville was parked in the corner. It wasn’t low on coolant so it probably wasn’t abandoned due to head gaskets.
Every used car we saw in Chicago was ruined by rust. That concluded our time in the city, so we headed back on I-55 to St Louis.
Ian remembered a Lincoln dealer in Lincoln, Illinois that had a 2004 Town Car Signature for sale with an asking price of only $5999, so we exited the interstate and stopped by to take a glance. We didn’t expect them to be open this late in the evening. It was a dated looking dealership, similar to the stores I remembered visiting as a child in the 1980s, likely built in the 60s or 70s and renovated a couple times since then.
I’m just guessing though. Despite its age, it Xamis Lincoln/Mercury/Ford was clean and well-organized, and the quality of service is far more important than how fancy the architecture is.
Everything was in nice shape. We met a salesman named Ed who was friendly and honest. He even contacted the previous owner (who owned it from 19,000 to 128,000 miles) and allowed us to chat with him about the car’s history.
The engine bay and interior were a little dirty, but nothing that couldn’t be cleaned.
He had us make a U-turn “over by the grain elevator” [you don’t hear that in the city] where we switched drivers.
Immediately, I was impressed. The new rack and pinion steering that Crown Vics and Town Cars adopted in 2003 eliminated a lot of the mush and numbness, offering good communication in an otherwise very isolated car.
I couldn’t find anything negative to say about it at all. The body and undercarriage were rust-free and the paint was in excellent condition. All the mechanicals felt well-sorted.
We sat down in Ed’s office and offered $5000. He countered with $5670. We asked for lower but his manager didn’t budge, so we thanked him for his time and left.
Later that evening, as we were heading back to St Louis, Ian called Ed and accepted his price of $5670. Compared to the beat-to-hell $10,000 Town Car that we looked at a week earlier in St Louis, this was a steal.
They delivered the car to Chesterfield, Missouri for free (300 miles round trip!) with fresh transmission fluid. After a $70 wash and cleanup by AutoSpa in Wildwood MO, it turned out beautifully. The interior looks and smells like new.
This was a Lincoln purchased at a Lincoln dealer in the town of Lincoln in the state of Illinois whose motto is “the Land of Lincoln.” Like my encounter with a Seville Road when I went to buy my Cadillac Seville in Pennsylvania, this seemed like fate… or an awesome coincidence. Just days after buying this Town Car, Ford officially ended production of the Panther platform (Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis/Town Car) in St Thomas Ontario, a quiet end to thirty years of dependable service. [The last Crown Victoria was, interestingly, sold and shipped to a guy in Saudi Arabia.]
The Mercedes deal at Motorwerks is still in negotiation.
I’ll do a thorough review of the Town Car later on.
Back in August I went car shopping for my mom. She was interested in a new three-row SUV to replace her Lexus GX470, so I went window shopping on her behalf with my friend Ian. We took a glance at Cadillac and BMW and took the Mercedes GL and Infiniti QX for a test drive. We came away quite impressed with the build quality and expensive materials used in the Infiniti, and it drove like a much smaller, livelier vehicle.
My mom leaned toward the Mercedes GL450 for its styling and appearance, at least as depicted in the brochures I gave her, but I urged her to go see the new Infiniti QX56 in person. As strange looking as it was, it drove and felt like something much more substantial and luxurious than its relatively competitive sticker price.
Additionally, my friend James, an engineer at Nissan who I met through NICOClub, offered us a generous Infiniti VPP discount coupon that took seven thousand dollars off the sticker price, eliminating any negotiation or haggling.
On September 14, 2011, she called me and asked me to meet up with her at Bommarito Infiniti. A week earlier, I e-mailed Bob Maher, our salesman at Bommarito, and told him she had decided to keep her Lexus for a few more years. Then unexpectedly, the night of 9/13 at around midnight, she called and told me she wanted to see what was out there and asked me to meet up with her in the afternoon.
It was a gloomy, rainy Wednesday, generally terrible weather for buying or selling automobiles. I picked her up in my Seville and drove her to Bommarito Infiniti on Manchester Road. We took a white QX56 for a drive and Mom was immediately impressed, commenting that it “drove like a car.”
She called my stepdad to have him take it for a drive and share his opinion — he favored it as well, especially the birds-eye-view camera system and the generous living room-inspired interior. [He arrived at the dealer in his impressively clean 2004 Lexus LX470 with 320,000 miles on the clock.]
Mom’s GX470 was still at the Lexus dealer for service, completed weeks earlier but never picked up because of her travel obligations. She intended to keep it for a few more years, especially after having the timing belt and water pump serviced, but said that after being without it for so long, she didn’t miss it.
And that’s the problem with so many Lexus products. A handful will make an impact, like the LS sedan, the first generation SC, and the current F-series performance cars, but the rest tend to be filler, tucked into well-defined marketing segments without any inspiration.
Even my mother, an automotive layperson, acknowledges this problem.
As questionable [that’s me being exceedingly polite] as the Infiniti’s styling may be, it’s still a joy to drive and an absolute pleasure to be in. Her agenda that day was supposed to be restricted to window shopping and kicking tires, but there was no reason to visit the Mercedes dealer or go anywhere else. For her, the Infiniti was the one.
That’s what happens when a driver emotionally connects with a vehicle, it cultivates (or breaks) brand loyalty and transcends test numbers in magazines or specifications in brochures. All the black and red dots in Consumer Reports mean nothing when it comes time to drive, look at, and feel a car.
Perhaps, then, the average Camry driver isn’t a boring, soulless person as I often tease. It’s possible that he or she hasn’t been exposed to the automotive greatness that’s out there, the motoring joy that’s waiting to be experienced. Like art, like food, like music, like everything in life, it takes time and effort to make a connoisseur out of a mass market regular.
In the words of my friend Gary, “Life is too short for boring cars.” Preach on, Mr. Hebding.
Back to the QX…
My parents decided to keep their ’06 Lexus GX as an extra beater car, something for house guests to drive around. This made it difficult for Bommarito to make a profit on the deal since a trade was out of the equation and the VPP voucher set pricing well below invoice.
They decided to finance it and purchased the optional dent coverage and maintenance package, so at least the dealer made a few coins.
They took delivery of a gray AWD QX56 with black leather, 22-inch wheels, door and bumper sills, a roof rack, and rear seat entertainment. The sticker was $68000 but thanks to the VPP discount from James they took it home for $61000, a massive discount.
Bob introduced my mom to some of its most important functions and paired her iPhone to the head unit.
The truck has grown on me, but the look hasn’t and probably never will.
Bommarito’s clean but small service bay.
It’s hard to tell from a blurry camera phone photo, but the stitching is impressive.
My role as an advisor was complete, so I headed home while mom and her husband finished up the deal. I drove over to her house later that night to take a closer look at the new truck.
It barely fits into the garage, a modern home built in the 1990s. I’m still having trouble accepting its weird face.
Her Lexus was short enough to park behind the freezer. The QX had to be parked at an angle to get around it. My aunt’s Subaru Impreza will be moved to this space instead.
To inaugurate her purchase, she’s driving the Infiniti to Minnesota. A road trip is an excellent way to bond with a new vehicle, learning its quirks and discovering new features. [She was surprised when I told her about the heated steering wheel.]
Big thanks to my friend James Sisson at Nissan for the discount, Bob Maher at Bommarito Infiniti for the sales experience, and the engineers in Japan for creating this Godzilla on wheels.
In its latest round of ads, Nissan is calling out its Japanese competitors for having supply issues. Those supply issues were caused by a natural disaster that severely affected Honda’s production volume, with Honda sales down a quarter compared to last August.
You lost your job at the bank. The BMW 3-series you couldn’t afford to begin with was repossessed and your adjustable rate mortgage drove you to foreclosure.
You moved into your mom’s basement to cut costs and the only means you have of going to interviews is dropping her off at work in the morning so you can borrow her Plymouth Voyager, the same one that carried you band camp in high school. Even your juice box stains are still there.
Like most Americans, you neglected to save money while you were employed, blowing your wad on conveyor belt sushi and fancy neckties, leaving you with few options for transportation. Your only choice, then, is to take the bus to the ghetto and visit one of those seedy “buy-here pay-here” lots. You know, the ones that get beater cars from wholesale auctions for $500 and dump them them on poor saps for $4000.
Never been to a BHPH dealer? Allow me to explain — I regretfully worked for one years ago.
The business scheme is simple:
Make a profit on the down payment alone, charging $1000 down for a car you paid $500 for
Issue a loan to the buyer for twice the value of the car. Call it a “purchase contract” to get around financial regulations.
Repossess the car if they can’t make the payment.
Clean up the car and resell it again.
Because a profit was already made on the initial down payment and any subsequent payments, there is no need to sue the deadbeat customer for costs or even report the repossession on their already trashed credit. Just find another sucker and repeat.
A car purchased for $500 could theoretically earn as much as ten grand. It’s legal usury! Brilliant!
Of the mid-90s Luminas, Escorts, Accords, Tauruses, and Explorers that find their way on to these lots, I came up with an ideal choice, the Geo Prizm.
Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and… Toyota
Do you remember the Prizm? It was a Toyota Corolla, but not quite, made in Fremont, California in a joint GM/Toyota plant called NUMMI. The sheetmetal, wheels, tires, glass, and radio came from General Motors, but the powertrain and interior were 100% Toyota.
For less money, and without upsetting your annoying blue collar pro-union neighbor, you could enjoy the reliability of a Japanese car with the pride of a Chevrolet badge. Sounds like a win for everyone, right?
Through the NUMMI partnership, GM intended to learn from Toyota’s manufacturing processes, and Toyota sought low-risk access to the US market.
From the Harvard Business Reviewblog: For Toyota, this was its first major manufacturing investment in the United States. What better way to learn about the peculiarities of the US automotive market than from GM? Toyota learned how to adapt its famed Toyota Production System to work with US suppliers, US government regulations, and, most importantly, the UAW. After just two years in school with GM, Toyota invested in its first wholly-owned plant in the USA; this new plant in Kentucky eventually became Toyota’s largest outside of Japan.
General Motors, for its part, also sought to learn from the venture. But its task was more challenging. GM indeed sought to glean tips from Toyota’s magic. But the way the joint venture was run kept this learning to a minimum. GM placed a dozen or so managers at the plant; Toyota was in charge of operating the plant and filling other managerial positions. The learning-by-doing of Toyota managers turned out to be the more useful way to learn.
The NUMMI plant initiated production with the Chevy Nova in 1984, a rebadged Toyota Sprinter built on Toyota’s AE82 platform, which was in turn an uplevel version of the Corolla.
I had the privilege (sarcasm) of owning one of these a decade ago and found it to be insanely dependable in my abusive teenage hands and inexplicably quiet and comfortable on the highway. My crude and tinny 1988 Nissan Sentra, by contrast, made 55mph cruising feel like 200mph behind the seat of a wooden canoe.
GM continued its Japanese partnerships by opening the CAMI plant on Ontario as a joint venture with Suzuki. There, Suzuki and GM produced the Geo Tracker, Geo Metro, Suzuki Sidekick, Suzuki Vitara, Suzuki XL7, Chevy Equinox, Pontiac Torrent, and GMC Terrain. [Suzuki sold its 49% share of the plant in 2009.]
The Chevy/Geo Spectrum, meanwhile, was a rebadged Isuzu Gemini designed by Giugiaro in Italy and sold globally by General motors.
“Getting To Know Geo”
From 1989-1998, all of GM’s Asian-partnership vehicles were sold under the Geo brand. Instead of creating its own subcompacts to compete with the onslaught of Japanese competition, General Motors simply built/rebadged and sold its own versions of Japanese-engineered cars.
GM’s intent was to retain customers who were flocking to imports in droves while learning how Japan designed, engineered, and produced automobiles. Unfortunately, buyers of Geos were fully aware of the Japanese hardware powering their dependable little cars, and when it came to to replace their Prizms, Spectrums, and Metros, they headed over to Toyota, Suzuki, and to a lesser degree Isuzu dealers for a replacement.
The Geo Lineup:
Geo Tracker (Suzuki Sidekick)
Geo Storm (Isuzu Impulse)
Chevy/Geo Spectrum (Isuzu I-Mark/Gemini)
Geo Metro (Suzuki Swift)
By 1998, all Geos were sold as Chevrolets and the Geo brand was discontinued. [And no one cared.]
Now, let’s talk about the Prizm.
If you’re living at home and struggling to find work, there’s nothing better out there than the Chevy/Geo Prizm. I know, the Metro gets 50mpg and costs next to nothing to insure, but all the hypermiling assholes out there are hoarding them in response to $3-$4 fuel prices. Forget about the Metro. It’s a 3-cylinder shitbox for people who are penny wise and pound foolish.
The Prizm will do 35mpg on the highway if you keep the speed at 60, and it’s actually kind of safe. I wouldn’t enroll it in a demolition derby, but compared to the diminutive Metro, the ‘luxurious’ Prizm is a Cadillac Fleetwood. You could even order one with cruise control, power windows, power mirrors, a Delco premium radio, and leather. Leather! In a f***ing Geo!
The Prizm LSi came with Toyota’s super dependable 115hp 1.8L 7AFE. It isn’t quite the same as the 189hp Toyota 1.8L used in the Lotus Elise, but it surprisingly sounds much alike. LSi also received wider tires, a stabilizer bar, and a four-speed auto with four gears instead of three. You could option out a Geo Prizm like a Lexus ES250. All of that would have set you back $15000, a lot of money for the mid 90s, but you could drive it for 300,000 miles if you wanted it to, passing it down to your kids, grandkids, or a homeless person.
And remember, the Toyota Corolla optioned the same way would have cost just under $17000. In the economy class, there’s no such thing as prestige. Whether you drive a Neon, Protege, Cavalier, Prizm, or Corolla, your neighbors will think you’re cheap, poor, or operating a meth lab.
Today, a Prizm will run you $1000-$2000. The one I’m reviewing was purchased by my cousin for $2200 with 137,000 miles, an LSI with power mirrors, manual windows, a Delco AM/FM radio, a 1.8L engine, and a 4-speed automatic. If you aren’t getting the five speed manual then you MUST get the four-speed automatic. It adds 3-4 mpg on the highway and responds quickly to throttle inputs.
The guy he brought it from was a Russian mechanic. We went to his house in a dark, wooded area late one night and his plain-looking decor reeked of Soviet-era misery. He was probably a contract killer back in the motherland. Needless to say, we didn’t do a whole lot of negotiating. Russians do make excellent mechanics though, as the car had been nicely maintained and well kept.
You get the impression, thanks in part to its feather-light 2400lb curb weight (only 300lbs more than a Miata) and impressively responsive 4-speed automatic, that the 115hp Prizm has 160hp on tap. The well-aged loosey goosey suspension also introduces a lot of rocking and diving, so the whole car leans back like a boat, throwing you back in your seat and giving your unemployment-collecting ass the impression that you’re in a much more powerful car.
115 neglected and abused horses live here.
At idle, it shakes like a wet dog, shuddering and buzzing throughout the cabin, and on takeoff the Prizm makes no attempt at masking the sound of the engine. You hear everything, and thankfully, the Toyota 7AFE sounds surprisingly racy. The sound is somewhat deep for a cheap four-banger — nothing I’d open up with an exhaust system, but as long as it’s going to make a bunch of noise, it may as well be slightly entertaining, which it is.
Around town, the Prizm is the kind of fun, a lightweight toy you can throw hard around corners (tires squealing in agony of course) without caring what happens to it. On the highway, it’s another matter entirely.
I took it to Texas once, making it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
It lacked cruise control and it was impossible to find a comfortable position to rest in the passenger seat. Trying to nap in a Geo Prizm is like being tortured at Guantanamo Bay. There’s nowhere to place your arms due to the low roof. I’d wake up every five minutes because the car would crash over bumps and potholes (my friend drove).
The factory AM/FM radio and factory speakers were blown and sounded like four cheap, old, clock radios rather than four speakers. Fed up, I put my Kindle on the dashboard and used it to play music because it sounded better than the Delco system that came with the car.
Setting aside those complaints, there’s more space in the Prizm than you might think. The back seat folds down to accommodate cargo, and you’ll find 12 cubic feet of space, comparable to a 1996 Camry which holds just over 14 cubic feet.
The interior is plain looking, though the teardrop center stack is a nice touch, and the upper door panels have a padded vinyl area that makes for a nice place to rest your elbow or hang your arm.
The map pocket has plenty of space for maps or… fast food receipts.
This is what the average interior of an old Geo looks like — a rolling storage unit that pays tribute to the owner’s disappointing personal and professional life. Rear seat passengers get a reasonable amount of space, on par with some midsize cars.
Front seats offer wide, firm support. It’s not exactly Lexus-like in here, but the upholstery is durable and well made.
It came with a basic Delco AM/FM radio. I plucked this Delco tape deck out of a junkyard for $10. Just a month after getting it, the tape mechanism died. It does actually sound nicer than the previous radio, with equalizer presets and a larger display. I got tired of the blown factory speakers and installed two pairs of cheap but cheerful Pioneers from Wal-Mart. Would you believe me if I told you it actually sounds decent now?
The cupholder is useless, however. Cans will slip right through. Larger cups block the radio controls.
You don’t even get a tachometer — just a temp gauge (which is absent from too many cars these days), a speedo, an odometer, and a fuel gauge as well as a handful of warning lights. It’s clear and easy to read, which is all anyone can ask of a 15 year old economy car. The dashboard itself is padded and somewhat soft, precisely installed with thin panel gaps and NOT ONE SQUEAK OR RATTLE. You can feel the quality through and through.
It even has a tilt steering wheel. All the switchgear are solid, chunky, and precise, vastly superior to what GM was putting in Cadillacs in the early to mid 1990s.
In case you’re fooled into believing your Geo Prizm is just a Camry with a lower sticker price, here’s a manually retracted whip antenna to remind you of the poor choices you made in life.
I convinced my cousin to slap a Ron Paul sticker on the trunklid.
The missing wheel covers are a trademark of economy cruising. You’re so busy saving money on fuel and not paying for health insurance that you can’t be bothered to spend $20 on new caps.
[Above: 1996 Toyota Camry]
If you stand 20-30 feet away and squint after doing a few shots of tequila, you might think that this lowly Geo is a mid 90s Toyota Camry, a car regarded by the press as looking and feeling like a discounted Lexus. The Prizm actually looks more like a Camry than Toyota’s own Corolla.
There’s nothing striking or interesting about the jellybean styling of this car, but it’s agreeable and normal looking enough to blend in with traffic and keep you from looking like too much of a pauper, which is all anyone can ask of a beater car.
And unlike those smug hypermilers in Metro hatchbacks, you won’t look like a high school dropout with a stash of weed under the front seat. Unfortunately, in this economy, you’ll still be slinging wieners alongside them at Hot Dog On A Stick, where you’ll be forced to work until you can find a use for your $40,000 Fine Arts degree.
Ride: 5.5/10 — Long suspension travel soaks up undulations, but a lack of insulation and refinement sends potholes up your spine. At 161,000 miles, this car is well worn. That there is any ride quality left at all is impressive.
Powertrain: 7/10 — Loud but efficient, super dependable. A transmission that’s surprisingly responsive. It does 0-60 in 10 seconds but feels quicker.
Braking: 7.5/10 — Decent thanks to the car’s light weight. Likely prone to fade, but responsive around town with a nice bite.
Steering/Handling: 5.5/10 — Wallows and bobs around but light weight keeps it from being too ponderous. The Mazda Protege and Dodge Neon feel sharper and more precise. Steering is overboosted and artificial. It’s easy to toss around but a far cry from lively.
Audio/Accessories: 7/10 — Can be packed to the gills with leather, cruise, and power everything.
Interior: 7/10 — Plain but functional with high quality switchgear and door/dashboard materials that exceed the norm for its class. It’s surprisingly quiet at 70mph with wind noise levels that could be described as better than acceptable. Tire and road noise are omnipresent, however.
You won’t believe me, but the carpeting in this Geo is thicker and deeper than the rat fur they use in the base model Lexus LS460. [I told you you wouldn’t believe me.]
Compared to the Dodge Neon, Chevy Cavalier, and Ford Escort, the Geo Prizm feels like a more expensive car, and there’s space that approaches midsize territory.
Comfort: 4.5/10 — A reasonable front seat. Back seat passengers don’t get much of a view but there’s reasonable leg room for people of average height (5’9”). Head room is limited. Trying to take a nap in the passenger seat on a long trip is a pain thanks to its low roof, which means you can’t stretch out even with the seat leaned back.
Styling: 6/10 — It’s agreeable and anonymous, which means people won’t look at you driving around in your Geo. I’d say that’s a good thing.
Quality/Reliability: 10/10 — You can’t break this thing. From 137,000 to 161,000 miles it’s only needed brake pads, tires, a starter, and a battery. It has a very slow power steering leak that needs to be topped off once a year. There are no oil or transmission leaks whatsoever. AC blows cold. Heat works well. Never runs hot or overheats in 105-degree summers.
Overall: 10/10 — What? 10/10 for a 15 year old shitbox? That’s right. If you’re trying to save money or need something to inconspicuously transport drugs, the Prizm will reward you with loyalty that makes your labrador look like a communist. Buy it, beat on it, and get on with life.
1.8L 7AFE Toyota I4
Power: 115 bhp
Torque: 117 lb-ft
3- or 4-speed automatic, 5-speed manual
0-60 mph: 10-12 sec
Quarter mile: Eventually.
Wheelbase: 97 in
Length: 173 in
Width: 66.3 in
Height: 53.3 in
Curb Weight: 2359 lbs
Towing Capacity: LOL
Between 26/30 city/highway and 27/34 city/highway depending on which transmission and engine.
Expect 26-29mpg in real world commuting.
It isn’t unusual to reposition luxury items as durable goods during times of economic distress, but who buys a 911 because it has space for manure and groceries? Note the lack of footage depicting racing, scenic drives up the coast, or power sliding with plumes of white smoke. Note the absence of professional drivers in in closed courses.
The mundane has displaced the aspirational.
In the “Everyday” campaign, Porsche’s iconic brand achieves an uncomfortable level of humility and humanity, risking its lofty status as unobtanium for the lucky few. Perhaps this is Porsche’s way of disconnecting the brand from the self-absorbed Bluetoothing yuppies who define the average Boxster or Panamera owner, or maybe Porsche is backing away from the trendy botox soccer moms who cruise around in Cayennes with latte-filled cupholders.
Motoring enthusiasts tend to shy away from such characters, tucked away in their insolent chariots, but I’m compelled to concede that their trend-setting purchases lend an air of aspirational achievement to everything from pants to purses to automobiles.
They are, for better or worse, the envy of lower and middle classes, the chic and stylish who latch on to trends that eventually trickle their way down. Likewise, Porsche’s brand image is the envy of the auto industry.
“Everyday” appeals to that audience, depicting 35-50 year old accomplished professionals doing grocery runs, dropping off children, or commuting. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of fantasy and imagination — it doesn’t elevate the cars above the monotonous routines of American life, blending them in rather than offering a form of escape.
The appeal of a high-end sports car is its inherent impracticality and its strict focus on performance, a way for the driver to convey to Capri Sun-slinging slobs in minivans that he’s successful enough to buy a completely unnecessary car, that he didn’t have to settle or compromise to make someone else happy, that he has the means to achieve total satisfaction without having to settle.
If you have a new 911 in your three-, four-, or five-car garage, you make a clear assertion, intentional or not, that you have the means to own a sports car, a delightfully wasteful and impractical toy that you exclusively enjoy. That’s the nature of aspirational marketing, and after working tirelessly for decades to achieve that coveted status, Porsche has chosen to set it aside in favor of messages more suited for Honda and Toyota.