Lifestyle

Hot Cars That Leave Me Cold


Why three darlings of the automotive world don't do it for me

If you read Automotive News on a weekly basis you are a car dealer, an advertiser, in the carmaking biz, or a pathetic automotive journalist like me who studies the mind-numbing tables in the back of this dusty rag, looking for trends that explain what's happening in the industry.

I bring up Automotive News not as a recommended read (unless you have a sleeping disorder), but because a recent issue featured a letter from a General Motors (GM) dealer who accused us auto scribblers of "sabotaging" the U.S. car industry. Let me get this straight: I have the power to destroy the Big Three? Hmmm, I wonder what else I can do with my keyboard? Make gorgeous women love me just by typing them nice missives? Shazam!

O.K., based on my newfound superpowers of persuasion I'm about to do something amazing. I'm going to tell you honestly about three cars that are darlings of the automotive press, the Porsche Cayman, the Scion tC, and the Mini Cooper, and explain why I think thousands of buyers are smitten by them—and why they leave me cold. And in turn, I expect sales to plummet. After all, if we auto opinion makers can single-handedly crush America's mightiest industry, how hard could it be to smite a few measly models?

Porsche Cayman: Great Car, Wrong Price

It's easy to see why legions of buyers love the Cayman—it's gorgeous. It has a bit of the inverted bathtub beauty of the old Porsche 550, and it's way slicker-looking than the Boxster. And personally I love the Boxster. It's just about at the apex of my list of all-time favorite sports cars because everything works in perfect harmony on that car—the power-to-weight ratio, the aural joy from the engine from idle to all-out redline….

But my Boxster reveries don't carry over to its hardtop cousin, the Cayman. The latter is supposed to be more pragmatic, since a car with a lid is more functional, and buyers averse to the noise or wind-buffeting nature of the ragtop Boxster should find the Cayman mellower. But that misses the whole point of the Boxster, a car that's a little raw—even at a slow pace it feels fast, and on the track at 90 mph it delivers a pure-speed thrill a Ferrari can't offer below 150 mph.

The next thought would be that the Cayman is fast, which it is, but not for the dough. When you pay $49,400 for the base Cayman you get a car that's slower to 60 mph than a Nissan 350Z, which retails for about $20,000 less. And Nissan's (NSANY) sportster, unlike the Porsche, has decent leg- and headroom.

O.K., but some people won't care about the stats if the trade-off is a less steroidal, "Boxster-lite" experience, right? Well that's wrong, too, since the Cayman isn't all that quiet inside. That's in part because Porsche (PSHG) wants to charge you extra for a six-speed manual gearbox that would lower engine noise at cruising speed, and six gears are standard on the Z—and on a host of other sports cars that cost less. Add in the fact that peak torque doesn't arrive until you're above 4,000 rpm, and you're going to hear that Porsche engine a lot.

My opinion: If you want a Porsche sports car, feel the sun and wind and get the Boxster—if you can't afford a new one, shop around for a used 911.

Mini Cooper S: Cute Wears Out

When the Mini came out I was smitten. For a time I even wanted this car. And there's good reason to want one: The Mini handles like almost nothing else because its wheelbase is so short. Any car this tiny can turn on a dime, but Mini's corporate owner, BMW (BMWG), honed and refined the ride to be exceptionally sporty.

However, sporty has its downsides, even if you're into that sort of thing. The same short wheelbase that makes the Mini such a hoot on corners can make the car a chore during highway travel. The Mini will tramline (the sensation of getting caught in groove, especially on bridges), and the car sits quite low, so hitting potholes squarely can be terrifying.

Moreover, if you do the math on what you get, the Mini is expensive. The base Volkswagen Rabbit ($15,600) is bigger, with a much more useful backseat and hatch compartment. It's also very enjoyable to drive, lacking some of the go-kart feel of the Mini but making up for it by being less jarring to the molars. And I should hasten to add that the much quicker VW GTI is still cost-competitive with the Cooper S, at $22,800.

Then again, my entire opinion might well change when the forthcoming Mini Clubman, a slightly more rationally sized, not-so-mini, Mini debuts later this spring. (We auto scribes do sometimes backpedal, even though we are all-powerful.)

Scion tC: Brilliant Marketing, But No Substance

You have to hand it to Toyota Motor (TM). When the soon-to-be world's largest automaker launched Scion a half-decade ago everyone, including me, was skeptical. How could generic Toyota, as good as they are with quality, nail down the whims of the Gen Y/millennials? Yet somehow Scions are exactly the cars that 16-year-olds to twentysomethings want. My nephew who is 16 saw the new xB when we were out for a spin the other day, and he nearly climbed out of the (moving) car to have a look. The odd thing is these cars are more flash than substance. The xA and xB are grossly underpowered. The styling of the cabins seems oafish, not slick (especially for a generation expecting nothing less ingenious than the iPod).

And here we have the $17,000 tC, a "sports" car that doesn't handle with any élan, isn't very fast, is fry-your-eardrums loud at wide-open-throttle or during steady state-highway travel, and is also cramped, with inferior leg-, head-, and cargo room when compared to more cleverly packaged cars like the aforementioned Rabbit. Oh, the Rabbit also gets superior power (177 hp vs. 160 hp), and peak torque arrives earlier so you're not slaughtering the motor to get up to speed. Does the Toyota-derived Scion at least get superior fuel economy? Nope—20 mpg city/27 mpg highway vs. 22/29 mpg for the Rabbit.

There you have it: Three cars everyone loves that I don't. Expect sales to tank instantly.

By the way, that dealer whining in Automotive News is still ticked at me because I didn't name any domestic rivals to the Porsche, Mini, and Scion. So I'll tease that here: Coming soon, the domestic label I never, ever thought would live up to its marketing hype has finally arrived. And when I write about that, expect sales to skyrocket.


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