July 8, 2008

First Impressions Of Some Serious Cars

Filed under: Uncategorized — numist @ 8:15 pm

This weekend, I got a feel for 6 cars I’ve never driven before, and I figured I’d do some reviews, since this is the internet. Here are a half-dozen first impressions. In order of driving:

2006 Nissan 350Z

This was the only “muscle car” I drove, and I call it a muscle car only because it made an overwhelmingly pleasing sound when you let it rev, not because it made any concessions in handling. The drivability of the car is superb, giving the impression that it was purpose-built for one thing only — driving. a lot.

The gauges include such things as oil pressure and electrical system voltage, things you usually only see on trucks and race-built vehicles, but are indispensable when debugging a problem on the road. The V6 sips gas (compared to the I4 S2000 it gets 1mpg less according to the EPA), but puts out an impressive amount of power (on paper the NA engine sends 300 bhp to the ground through the rear wheels). The frame is noticeably stiff (with stock strut tower bars front and rear), and the suspension is flat, stable, and responsive. Bumps were comfortable, but it never felt like it was isolating you from the road.

When the sales fellow riding shotgun (this car was at carmax, an excellent dealer that I would recommend to anyone) mentioned that I could walk out the door with one for $0 down, it took the stern voice of my girlfriend to talk me out of it. As much as I love this car, I’d rather not sleep in it every night.

2006 Toyota Matrix

While we were at carmax, Cindy found this gem and wanted to try it out for her own considerations when she graduates in December. Since it was an MT, I took the wheel while we filled it with 4 people and did a road test. After the Z-car, this car is much less powerful and consuming, but it’s target market is the hauling driver. The interior was cavernous, fitting everyone with room to spare, and the rear hatch was very useful, with a hard flat floor for hauling all manner of goods. The separate glass door (nonexistent on the new models) was also very useful.

The I4 engine sits in an enormous engine compartment, meaning that this car would be excellent for someone inclined to do their own work, or who wants to save money on labour when they take it in, and the I4 is best described as “the little engine that could”. Going through the gears the engine never felt incompetent, even when neutered by the tall 5th gear at roadway speeds. Acceleration was reassuring, and the vehicle never felt unstable, surprisingly nimble and flat considering its height. The suspension was simple, but well-tuned, and the ride was never uncomfortable. The seats were not bolstered, but would be comfortable for a journey of any length. Most importantly though, the driving controls were never loose, sloppy, or underresponsive. The car drove well.

It had a number of creature comforts that I haven’t seen in other cars as well, most notably was the built-in 115VAC inverter, with a (2-prong, augh) outlet on the dash. The outlet is 3-prong in the current models, but everything else has changed as well, a sad story for another day.

Overall, the Matrix was an very good drive, and a definite win for anyone who needs to move people and stuff around.

2008 Mazda RX-8

Before this weekend, the first and second fastest cars I’d driven were a Caterham Seven and a Mazda RX-7 Twin Turbo with a bunch of mods. Having loved the Wankel the first time around, I had high hopes for the RX-8, especially given that Top Gear indicated that it can get around a track as fast as the 350Z, which I thoroughly enjoyed driving as well. Unfortunately, the RX-8 suffers from it’s mixed breeding as both a sedan and a coupe.

The Wankel is no less brilliant than before, and in NA form, the power curve is long, flat, and immensely pleasing. The smoothness is unparalleled, and the redline is outstandingly high. Unfortunately, the RX-8 as a whole was not as good as it’s power plant. First was the interior space. We drove with 4 people in the car, and the riders in the rear had very little space. This isn’t a problem for me, but what did bother me was that the only place to put my head was out the moonroof. I have the same problem with the recent-model Honda Accords, and it seems to be due to the extra space required under the seats when you have the power seat option, so I’m willing to concede that I could have had headroom, but on this drive I didn’t, and it was awful. The rear-view mirror was positioned lower on the windshield than in other cars, blocking my view and it had some switches or some sort of garbage underneath it that made it 1.5x taller, further making looking ahead in a corner impossible at my height. The acceleration was excellent, but the handling was not nearly as satisfying as the Z.

The dealer made sure to point out that the RX-8 is a refined car. It is more comfortable than the Z, something you’d want to drive cross-country with, and by that, he’s right: it is less immediate, less responsive, more insulated — all things I do not want in my car. The road feel was very insulated, and the ride left me a little sad. In the car’s defence, we were going to drive the special edition version, but couldn’t as it had a dead battery (which is worrying in itself).

2006 Mazda Mazdaspeed 6

The dealer probably detected a bit of disappointment in the RX-8, so he provided us with a Mazdaspeed 6 (an extremely rare car) for testing. This is a true 4-door car, running the same powerplant as the Mazdaspeed 3 (although tuned to make 20-or-so more hp), mated to an AWD drivetrain. It was built to compete in the market with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru WRX STi, and it was a very competent car. Aside from the clutch pedal (the clutches in the Mazdaspeed 6 and the RX-8 both felt worse than even the cheapest car I tested this weekend, the Toyota Matrix), which was firm for the first half and then weak for the last half of travel (MADDENING), the Mazdaspeed 6 was an excellent car.

The second most satisfying thing this weekend was pulling up behind a Ford Mustang GT on a two-land road, stopping at a stop sign, and then blasting off and passing the Mustang in the oncoming passing lane within a hundred feet or so, before flinging the 6 into the first of a series of corners, all four wheels screaming for grip. By the time we exited the disappointingly short series of curves, the Mustang was 3/4 of a mile behind us. Despite the clutch sabotaging my every shift, the pedals were exactly where they were supposed to be, and the car responded tenaciously.

Even though the Mazdaspeed 6 was made only for a short time, most of the non-AWD-specific parts come from the Mazdaspeed 3 or from the normal 6, meaning that it won’t be obscene to repair when you break it. As far as I know the car has never been rally-proven (like the STi and Evo), but I’m not sure that’s wholly relevant. For a slightly slower car, slightly less money, and just as much fun, this car was excellent. If only I could get over that stupid clutch travel.

2005 Honda S2000

I drive a Honda Del Sol currently with an engine swap and a few minor modifications, and it is a lot of fun to chuck into a corner. What prompted this whole string of test drives was to see how life changes as you get more power (or at least better power-to-weight) and gentrification. The S2000 is the natural descendent of the Del Sol and the Prelude, so I expected it to be much the same to drive. In a way, it is; in many others, it is not. To clarify:

The S2000 was built with driving in mind, and a lot of comforts you’d expect on a car are not present, like a tilt-steering column. Since I’m somewhat tall, this precluded me from seeing my gauges. Luckily, the interior geometry is very similar to the Del Sol, so there was ample room with the roof on, and visibility was passable, with the notable B-pillar blind spot dominating shoulder checks. All of the controls are simple, minimized, and convenient to the driver. In fact, the only thing that is somewhat convenient to the passenger is the radio — the climate controls are connected to the gauge cluster and are inches from your right hand when driving. This made driving very convenient. I never once had to look away from the road while driving. The car was just as much fun (more?) to throw into a corner at reckless speeds as it’s predecessors, with that small-car go-kart feel that’s so loveable about the old Civics and Del Sols.

The S2000 produces an unbelievable amount of power from it’s I4 engine — it’s loads of fun — but at a certain cost. I already mentioned that the car gets 1 mpg better mileage than a Nissan 350Z and the reason for this is evident when you settle into top gear and cruise on the freeway. Looking down at the tach for the first time, I noticed that at 60 mph in 6th gear, the engine was turning 3,000 rpm. The speed at which the engine turns is 150% faster than the 350Z at equivalent speed, so the extra 150% number of cylinders that the Z has is offset by the speed the S2000 turns. Honda has made 5th and 6th taller in their new S2000s (gears 1 – 4 were stepped down as well, making them very much rally-spaced), but they also made the throttle drive-by-wire, something that worries me given my experiences in Volkswagens.

All told, this is an excellent car. Not for everyone, but it was lots of fun to drive.

2007 Lotus Elise

I’ve had my eyes on the Elise for a long time now, because everything I’ve seen and read indicates that it’s a purpose-built racing car for the road. And they’re absolutely right. Starting the Elise and letting it idle before taking off for the test drive, it sounded hyper-tuned and uncomfortable. Short shifting while it warmed up and it already felt extremely fast, its manual rack and pinion giving perfect road feedback, and it’s tight suspension ensuring extreme responsiveness without being jolty or jarring. Once the engine warmed up and my sales fellow gave me the thumbs-up, we turned to go onto the freeway and went from rolling to 60 in under 5 seconds, and exited the cloverleaf in excess of, um, the speed limit. Blasting onto the busy July-4th-weekend freeway in a bright yellow car that’s three and a half feet tall with the roof off was such a free feeling, we darted about for a while before settling down to exit and hit the surface streets some more. The car has remarkably few blind spots (just the enormous B-pillar), and large mirrors that, once hand-adjusted, gave a full view of the road. The center mirror was less useless than expected, and the car felt like a well-controlled explosion whenever any pedal was pressed. Every pedal was perfect, their positioning was perfect, and it never shifted badly. It is a race car for the road.

But what of it’s defects. It’s a lie to say that the Elise is the perfect car. While standing still and giving all the buttons and things a shakedown, it’s obvious that the Elise is British. The gear shift is directly connected to the transmission, but feels inexact when you’re not driving. The plastic piece that encloses the shift gates wobbles and shakes every time you move the shift knob. The doors feel like they’re 6 inches tall, opening them still presents a wall of frame to climb over when you get into or out of the car — it’s nearly impossible to do with any sort of dignity. Luckily, the moving parts are all Japanese; the engine and drivetrain is Toyota-built, with in-house modifications so the redline is beyond the scope of the tachometer.

With the roof off, it’s a fantastic car, and gets the best mileage of all the cars I drove this weekend barring the Toyota Matrix and my own Del Sol, while being impossibly more fun to drive. With the roof on (either the soft top or the optional hard top), there’s very little visibility to the sides for a tall driver, and it strikes me as a frightening car to drive whenever the weather is imperfect.

That said, I’m not sure if there’s an Elise in the world that gets driven daily, even when the weather turns foul, because it’s the ideal weekend car. Driving this car for any reason other than driving feels like a crime. The tires are made out of rubber cement, the steering is more accurate than a cruise missile, and the engine is made of angry banshees.


  • Mazda is the only mass-market automaker that makes more than one car that is actually fun to drive, unfortunately they can’t figure out pedal feel, especially the clutch. Ben bought a Mazda 3 over the weekend and it’s a surprisingly good car for the price. I really think Mazda has the potential to do very well.
  • Honda makes an incredibly potent go-kart class car, but doesn’t have more than one model of new car that’s fun to drive anymore.
  • Toyota makes a lot of practical cars that are quite good to drive, but they don’t target people who see driving as more than a means to an end anywhere in their lineup. The loss of the MR2, Celica, and Supra leaves a gap that still goes unfilled despite the new youth-targeting Scion brand.
  • Lotus is going to give me high blood pressure. And kill me. I want an Elise, but not as my primary car.
  • Get me a 350Z. The Z-car was made for the driver, and it shows; it feels fantastic. It is a purpose built road car, not a race or comfort car, and it shows.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make this a semi-regular thing, since there are some other cars I’d like to try (Infiniti G35/G37, Lexus IS-F, …), and I’m going to try to bring a camera. For this post, you’ll have to use your imagination.


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