Behind the Wheel: 1996 Chevrolet S-10

The Keithmobile-C in 2003Continuing the series of Behind the Wheel reviews of cars I’ve owned, we now move on to the predecessor of my current car… which was actually a truck. Specifically, a 1996 Chevrolet S-10 LS Extended Cab 2-wheel drive pickup truck.

This truck was a lot of “firsts” for me:

  • My first non-throw-away car (all my previous cars had been mid-80s K-cars that cost around $1,000)
  • My first car where I had to take out a real car loan
  • My first manual transmission
  • My first new(-ish) car (bought it in 1998)
  • And, of course, my first truck!

I was in college/university (living on-campus in the dorms) when I bought this truck, and having a pickup truck is great when you’re a college student and need to move in & out of the dorms each year. Although it also means that other people might come to you asking to help them move as well!

Still, this was a very good truck for me – very practical, reliable, and with a manual transmission and a small 4 cylinder engine it was also very fuel efficient (good when you’re a poor college student with little gas money!). It also helped that at the time gasoline prices were ridiculously low (remember when gas was $0.89/gallon?).

This particular S-10 was an extended cab, with a small 3rd door behind the driver’s door, and a little fold-out jump seat behind the passenger seat. This extra space was very handy for when you didn’t want to put stuff in the bed of the truck (e.g., in the rain or snow), though it was of little use for actually carrying a 3rd passenger – that little fold-out seat was not at all comfortable unless you were a little kid.

The engine in this S-10 (a Vortec 2200 LN2) was also really great – although not particularly powerful (just 118 hp). Still, when coupled with the relatively light truck body and manual transmission it had no problem moving this truck around. In fact, this truck was surprisingly nimble, all things considered.

The S-10 was also a very fun truck to drive – there wasn’t much horsepower, but it did have plenty of torque (140 lb-ft, specifically) which made it easy to… have fun in ways that my 20-something self found quite satisfying. I did always wish I had gotten 4-wheel drive, though – especially in winter. But the upside was that I learned a lot about how to drive carefully in the snow – despite the 2-wheel drive and no weight over the drive wheels, I never got stuck.

The steering was quite good, especially for a pickup truck – it wasn’t going to win any awards, but it was precise and had a good feel.

The interior of this S-10 was rather spartan by today’s standards, but for the time it was actually quite nice. The S-10 used Chevy’s then-standard instrument cluster and controls, but they were all well-laid out and easily reachable and useable without taking your eyes off the road.

truck's instrument cluster

This particular S-10 didn’t have much in the way of options – no air conditioning, manual wind-up windows, and cloth seats – but again, at the time this was fairly standard for pickup trucks. (It did have a combo radio + tape player, though!)

All in all, this was a tough little truck – hardworking, reliable, and economical – that served me well through all the years I had it. I realize I am looking at this truck squarely through the lenses of the nostalgia goggles, but I really did like this truck quite a lot – I took care of it, and it took care of me.

Behind the Wheel: 2011 Kia Soul

amanda's new kia soul 3Long-time readers will remember that I’ve reviewed the Kia Soul before – but that was the 2010 model. About a year after I wrote that review, my wife bought the 2011 model, and Kia had made enough changes to it to warrant reviewing it again. Plus, I’ve had much more time to get to know the Soul, so I can give a bit more of an informed view on its strengths… and weaknesses.

First and foremost, my biggest complaint with the 2010 Soul was the shine-shatteringly stiff ride – mercifully, this has been improved in the 2011 Soul. It is still a fairly stiff ride, but it’s no longer likely to shake the fillings out of your teeth.

The 2011 Soul retains the fuel-sipping 2.0L engine and easily manages 28-30MPG with both city and highway driving. It’s also incredibly nimble – this is a great city car that’s easy to maneuver in tight quarters and parks or makes sharp turns with ease. The engine is small and quite buzzy at times, but it suffices to get the car moving quickly – though it often needs to downshift to make that happen (the transmission itself likes to stay in higher gears; presumably for fuel efficiency). And once you’re going, the 4-wheel disk brakes do a great job of stopping you in a hurry – indeed, I almost think the brakes on this car are overkill for such a lightweight vehicle.

All models of the Soul are front-wheel drive only, which further cements them as “tall wagons” and not “crossover SUVs.” The Soul does have a traction control system though, which is actually quite useful since it is very easy to get the narrow front wheels to slip when accelerating if the roads are even just a little bit slick.

Forward visibility in the Soul is great – you sit up high enough to see right down the front hood and can easily tell where your front bumper is – but rear visibility suffers terribly due to the very thick rear pillars (and relatively small rear hatch window).

Interior room in the Soul is good (considering its size), but nothing to write home about.

All that said though, I honestly can’t say I like the Kia Soul. The steering wheel is just a little bit too small for my taste, and the steering can be a bit twitchy on the highway. The steering wheel itself has the awkward large spokes so common to cars that have radio & cruise controls on the steering wheel itself. At low RPMs there’s hardly any power in the engine, and though the transmission will downshift to get you into the power band, it doesn’t sound like it likes being there. Although a very nimble car (especially at lower speeds in the city), it just isn’t that much fun to drive most of the time.

All in all, the Kia Soul is a very good commuter car that’s versatile enough to carry people and stuff around without costing an arm and a leg in gas money. A practical car that does what you need, but isn’t that exciting to drive.

Behind the Wheel: 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander

the amazing keithmobile-DTo keep this “Behind the Wheel” series going I thought I’d mix things up a bit and give some thoughts on cars I’ve actually owned, as opposed to ones I’ve just driven for short periods of time.

We’ll begin this little mini-series with my current car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS AWD (which I affectionately call “The Keithmobile-D”).

To start with, the Mitsubishi Outlander is… a kind of a weird little car/SUV/thing – and I’m not just talking about its odd front nose & hood bulge. The Outlander is a strange mix of stylish “tall station wagon” city SUV and hard-working and reasonably capable “utility vehicle.”

wet mitsubishi logoThen again, I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, since Mitsubishi itself is kind of an oddball car company, with precious few models compared to some of the bigger car companies – especially here in the US, and especially nowadays when they basically only have 3 models – the Lancer, the Outlander, and the Mirage. But Mitsubishi has always had to live under the shadow of the bigger companies – Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and especially Subaru.

But let’s rewind back to 2003: Mitsubishi has always had a kind of competition with Subaru, what with the whole EVO vs. WRX thing. For a while there this almost seemed like it would carry over into other models, too – with the Outlander poised to compete with the Subaru Outback (right down to the similar-sounding name). Though in my opinion, the Outlander seemed more like the Forrester at the time, since it is a bit of a taller wagon/SUV shape than the decidedly station-wagon-shaped Outback.

The Outlander is kind of a weird mashup of parts from Mitsubishi’s stable of previous vehicles – the chassis is derived from that of the Lancer, but the engine is the same as the one from the Eclipse & Galant. Specifically, it chugs along thanks to a 2.4L 4-cylinder  Mitsubishi “Sirius” 4G64 direct-injection engine, which produces a somewhat underwhelming 140 HP (at 5,000 RPM) but a respectable 157 lbs-ft of torque at just 2,500 RPM. That said, the Outlander weighs just a hair under 3,500 lbs, which is a bit hefty for a car of its size, and which means it’s certainly not the fastest thing on the road – but it’s not the slowest thing, either.

It does have 4-wheel independent suspension, and it handles the bumps quite well – much better, in fact, than some more modern cars. Driving on some old cobblestone streets in New York City can be downright painful in modern cars with their stiff suspensions, but the Outlander just soaks up the bumps without much fuss or bother.

rear tail light 2Despite the somewhat soft suspension, it does handle quite well with relatively little body roll (thanks to ample anti-roll and anti-sway bars). Although the steering suffers from the usual horrible Mitsubishi turning radius, it is well balanced with plenty of feedback – there’s no problem at all just diving right into some tight corners. In fact, the Outlander is really quite fun in the corners, despite technically being an SUV. It also helps that it’s not a terribly tall vehicle, either.

Despite only having a 4-speed automatic transmission (manuals were made, but not available in the US until later model years) it does have a semi-manual mode so you can (kind of) row through the gears on your own.

One downside to the Outlander is its brakes – they are rather lame, especially by modern standards. At the time, anti-lock brakes were an option, and the 2003 models were only available with front discs and rear drums – it wasn’t until the slightly revised 2004 model that they got 4-wheel disc brakes.

With 8.3 inches of ground clearance the Outlander does reasonably well off-road (compared to other car-based SUVs), although it really is more of a “soft-roader” than an “off-roader.” Plus, though it has AWD (full-time via a center viscous coupling unit with a 50/50 front/rear split) the front & rear differentials themselves are fully open, so it isn’t meant for true hardcore off-roading.

One thing the Outlander does have going for it is utility – it is a very useful car. Unlike some other small SUVs it seats a full 5 people without any trouble and yet still has plenty of room in the back for stuff. Fold down the seats and the Outlander can carry an impressive amount of stuff. Also unlike a lot of modern small car-based SUVs, the Outlander can still tow – although not very much, thanks to its lackluster brakes.

It also has one of the best instrument clusters I’ve seen in recent years – easy to read in both full sun and at night, regardless of whether you have the headlights (and thus, the backlights for the gauges) turned on or not.

keithmobile instrument cluster at night

All in all the Outlander is a well-designed, well-thought-out little SUV, which I think could have done quite well. Sadly, however, very few people bought the Outlander, and in subsequent years Mitsubishi enlarged it, making it into a bigger, heavier, more expensive people-mover SUV. (The current model Outlanders come with 3 rows of seats, for example, along with  lower ground clearance, and a price nearly twice what they were originally.) Mitsubishi used to have a larger SUV, called the “Endeavor,” which fit in the next segment above the Outlander, but it looks like that’s been removed and the Outlander was pushed up into its spot – leaving no small SUV to take its place.

If Mitsubishi had stuck with the same body size, and added a stick shift & a turbocharged engine as an option (both of which were available in other markets worldwide, just not in the US), I think the Outlander would’ve been a hit. But since they didn’t, we’re left with just a few examples of what could have been.

Still, if you’re in the market for a small, fun, useful SUV and don’t want to pay a lot, a used Outlander from 2003-2006 might be worth looking at. If it’s in good shape and has been taken care of, an Outlander is a great alternative to one of its Subaru contemporaries – and probably at a lower price. I know I’m biased, but I’ve been very happy with my Outlander – I bought mine new in 2003, and as of this writing it just ticked over 190,000 miles with no sign of slowing down.

Here’s to that SUV with the funny looking nose from Mitsubishi!

Behind the Wheel: 2013 Mini Cooper Convertible

Mini Cooper ConvertableLast year while on my way to visit family in Australia I found myself with a 1-day layover in Los Angeles (due to some flight delays). Rather than spend the day cooped up in an airport hotel, my wife and I decided to do a little exploring – so we rented a car for the day, and the car we ended up with (that my wife picked out, actually) was a Mini Cooper convertible.

We didn’t have a lot of time to really play with this car, but I did end up driving it both in city traffic and up into the hills around the city, and I have to say – I understand why people like this car.

One thing that I did notice was the harsh suspension – every bump made the car seem to rattle and was felt right up your spine. I suppose this isn’t that surprising, given how low the car is and how tight the suspension has to be, but it was still rather distracting at times.

But, the cornering, oh my goodness, the cornering! I’ve heard the expression “corners like it’s on rails,” but this car really drove home what that means.

Steering, however, although easy, was not particularly great, though I’m hard pressed to explain why. It might have been just a little bit too lose, requiring just a little bit too much steering input to make a turn than I personally felt was necessary. Or maybe it was that the steering wheel felt slightly too large for such a small car.

Like most rentals, this was an automatic – which is a shame – but overall the performance was spirited and fun, though not quite knock-your-socks-off amazing.

Though the Mini is certainly a small car, it’s not quite as small as you might think. I wouldn’t want to try and cram 4 people into one, but it’s not at all tight for just 2 people.

All in all, the Mini is a fun little car, good for having a bit of fun in the corners while still nimble enough to navigate tight city streets like a pro, and has a fair amount of space for stuff (considering its size). I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at it if I had the chance to drive one again!

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Fiat 500L (Diesel)

Earlier this year while I was in Italy on vacation with some of the Australian side of the family, we rented a car to travel up to Lake Como in northern Italy. Unsurprisingly, the car we ended up with was a Fiat – but in this case, it was the new 4-door version, the 500L.

Fiat 500L

I’d driven a Fiat 500 before, but the 500L was something new. I was actually glad to see it – I knew from experience that fitting 4 adults into the 2-door 500 would not have been a pleasant experience, especially for the long drive we had ahead of us.

italy route map - milan to lake comoThis particular 500L was also a diesel, and a stick shift on top of that – unlike the Audi A4 I’d driven previously in this trip – so driving it out of the city of Milan and up the narrow, twisty, winding roads around Lake Como was… an interesting experience!

But truthfully, the 500L was quite easy to drive – the steering was nimble, the brakes were solid, and the overall handling was very surefooted. The diesel took a bit of getting used to, however. Unlike a small gasoline engine, the diesel in this Fiat didn’t need to be revved up – it had plenty of power down low in the rev range.  In fact, the diesel really didn’t like being at any sort of high RPMs at all – which meant I had to spent a lot of time shifting, especially up the twisty, hilly roads around Lake Como.

The 500L fit all four adults reasonably well, as well as our bags, so it is a quite practical little car. Visibility was good, the steering was nimble, and of course the diesel means it’s quite fuel efficient.

Up around the Lake Como region are some very, VERY twisty roads, which would have been quite fun to tackle – though with 4 people in the car and traffic coming in the opposite direction, I didn’t actually get much opportunity for fun. Still, the 500L was nimble and took the corners well, and at no point was I worried about the car’s capabilities. Although at times I did find myself wishing that it was a little bit smaller – although the 500L is by no means a big car, some of those roads were still a very tight fit.

All in all the Fiat 500L is a small, practical little car, that can be fun, but takes some getting used to if you’re not accustomed to how diesel engines develop their power. For myself, I’d have preferred a gas engine, but when you rent you kind of have to take what you get – and of course in Europe diesel is much more common than here in the US.

So, if you’ve always wanted to have fun in a little Fiat 500, but wanted to be able to carry more than 2 people, the 500L is certainly not a bad choice.