Thursday, April 3, 2014

Germany on Five Bucks a Day (or so ...)

A Tale of Three Teutons and One Garage

Dear German Big 3:  After decades of gypping the entry-level market on horsepower, I notice you’re selling compelling little cars with real motors for Camaro money.  So I shopped you.  I drove you.  I decided some decisions.

A bunch of thought bubbles popped up over my head in this exercise, and the biggest one was: Are these things really good values in their own right, or just up-badged smoke & mirrors?  In a new land of 40k Buicks and 60k Cadillacs, I think it's a fair question.  

Here's what my left brain and right brain came up with.

Dear Mercedes: The CLA coupe stole my heart.  I ignored the door count, doubted the likelihood of the production product remotely resembling your stunning concept car, and waited for launch.  At the dealership I was surprised to see you pretty much delivered on the show car promise.  Except when you look at this car from the front, where the CLA is rocking a top-heavy funny-car-shell-over-subcompact-car look, this is gorgeous, and any awkwardness up front is forgiven by that really nice butt.  The interior is beautiful too, save for that big honking fixed Tom-Tom screen you stuck on the dash.  Why you do that?

The car is a sharp handler, and really hits most of the three-pointed-star cues on fit and finish.  The package looks like it cost twice as much.

Here’s why I didn’t buy your car:  This car handles like a Volkswagen GTI and rides like one, which is to say, brilliant and on the choppy side.  But you can get a better-equipped, if much uglier Golf GTI for 5k less, and you can fit adults comfortably in the back seat of a GTI.  Those of us in the Great White North still wonder what you were thinking, putting summer tires on all the 18” wheel options when front-wheel-drive with all-season tires is such an OK way to get through a polar vortex.  Those of us living anywhere but Germany also wonder why you’re confident enough in our roadways to send us off from the dealership with nothing but run-flat tires and a can of tire goo.  You guys should come over here sometime and see what passes for “pavement” between New York and St. Louis.  Well-intentioned but annoying engine start/stop tech doles out no warm fuzzies, either.

Dear BMW: The 228i is the essence of your brand.  Ate up with motor, 200 pounds lighter than the I-6, 50-50 weight distribution ... available with a clutch pedal.  It’s the pick at this price range, so long as you’re willing to forego foo foo like leather, Xenons, etc.  I’m not dinging you for summer tires since you stayed true to your rear-wheel-drive performance heritage here.  Anybody living north of the Mason-Dixon will certainly price a good set of snow tires in the acquisition scenario for this kind of car.

Here’s why I didn’t buy your car: SWMBO says we have enough coupes.  And besides that. you too have chosen The Really Annoying One-MPG-Saving Run Flat, Start/Stop SetupTM.   But that’s pretty much it.  I suppose I should include the 320i in this comparison, but at this price point you nicked the horsepower a bunch and you’re charging extra for a folding back seat.  Harumph.

Dear Audi:   Your concept A3 didn’t catch my attention.  It is the same shiny suppository that all Audis are.  And I’m afraid your initial advertising campaign hasn’t attracted my attention, either, steaming hot as Ricky Gervais is.  Hipster Launch Party?  Well, that’s tonight, and I’m not going.  (And neither are the hipsters, I’ll wager.  Your leaked party PDF suggests the people you invited aren’t off the clock at Whole Foods until sometime around the After Party.  You did plan an After Party, right?).  I did look at the spec sheet for the new A3, only to double-check the price.  Really?  All that for that?  Now that caught my attention.

So anyway, Here’s why I bought your car: Because I am a calculated risk taker.  I’m taking the risk that your terrible reliability record just has to be resolved after a decade or so of experience with this basic engine/tranny combo.  Mercedes, BMW, and even Volvo have had their bad years too, right?  My Calculated Risk-O-Meter was bang-on with the thumping GM muscle cars I still happily own after 16 years, despite all the black circles they suffered from the granola-munching Subaru Huggers at Consumer Reports way back when.  You better not let me down. 

I also bought your car because there is not a thing about the 2015  A3 2.0 quattro that insults my meager intelligence.  It’s got AWD, Xenons, a sunroof, and leather that is always missing at this price point.  I am average height, and I can sit behind myself with the driver seat adjusted to my driving position, meaning my DNA-cursed progeny will get along back there just fine.  It’s a tidy little car that really is equipped with everything most new car buyers want, and at a very reasonable price.  It is possibly the perfect little car for those of us who live in bad weather for half the year and still want a car that exceeds the performance envelope of some E36 M3s.

Oh.  And did I mention this car has a spare tire and jack?  And in the U.S., anyway, no annoying engine start/stop feature?  I’ll contemplate that minor MPG difference some Saturday night after a blowout when I’m motoring along an Alabama highway on my spare and not hitching a ride in a pickup truck with the very friendly Bodine brothers.

But the drive sealed this deal.  From the first bank vault door thunk to the post-drive walkaway glance, this car reiterates Gilligan’s Maxim: Ginger gets your attention, but Mary Ann is The One.  The A3 rides properly stately around town, manages transient response with aplomb at speeds that will scare even wannabe street racers, and it even thinks it’s a big Merc on the highway, effortlessly motoring on and on with that arrow-straight, resolute, hefty Teutonic sense of blunt predestination.  The dual-clutch tranny presents compromises compared the real versions of the manual and automatic transmissions it is supposed to combine, but adapting to this new world order isn’t that difficult.  (Hint: Puttering around town, leave it in “D”, but click over to “S” if you ever want so much as a swell of acceleration: the reluctant and violent downshift in “D” will leave you looking like a D-bag in traffic).

This is the little German non-GTI to buy nowadays, if you dare buy one.  Because somehow it goes for less than a VW CC, Buick Regal, and any number of similar smart-money-approved automotive choices, and the sum of its everything is just plain sweet.

Rest assured I will comment here if this car starts throwing sensor tantrums, emits any kind of rattle, falls completely apart, or anything in between.  No matter the price, modern car buyers are very demanding when they think they’ve bought the perfect car, see.

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