Behind the Wheel: 2010 Volkswagen Beetle

The venerable old Keithmobile-D was in the shop recently for some long-overdue repairs, which means I needed to rent a car for a few days. This time, the rental agency set me up with a brand-spankin’ new black 2010 Volkswagen New Beetle – and of course, as I do with any car I get the chance to drive, I had to write up a review of it.

The New Beetle is a surprisingly small car, considering the fact that it doesn’t really look very small from the outside. But once you’re inside, you realize that only very small children or people with very, very, very thin legs would be able to sit in the back. And the trunk is… well, honestly it’s not that bad, but it’s not very big, and it has a very small opening for getting stuff into it.

So the New Beetle is a small car – but that’s OK! Because sometimes you want a small car. And as far as small cars go, it was actually quite comfortable – the little Beetle soaked up the bumps in the roads quite well (this last winter was very hard on the roads around here, so there were plenty of bumps to soak up!). The ride was quite comfortable, and I although I didn’t make any super long drives in this car, I did make some extended ones, and at no point was I squirming in my seat – so the New Beetle should be quite pleasant on a long drive.

The New Beetle also comes with a 2.5 liter engine which puts out a very reasonable 150 HP – nothing spectacular about those numbers, although 150 HP in a small car is nothing to sneeze at, and the New Beetle does zip around when you really mash your foot down.

And speaking of mashing your foot down, you will find yourself doing this quite a bit, as the throttle is not exactly what I’d call “responsive,” especially at low speeds. It feels quite “mushy” at first, and at stoplights you’ll find yourself pushing harder and harder, because the car just isn’t going anywhere, and then suddenly, vrooooooom! You’ll be off in a rush. It’s almost like the car has only 2 modes – creeping speed, and full-bore. (It may also be that with more time I would have gotten more used to the throttle and been able to modulate it better, but over the course of a week – 7 days – I couldn’t, but your mileage may vary on this one.)

The transmission on the New Beetle, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Since the model I was testing was a rental, of course it had an automatic transmission. But, as is common these days, it was a “triptonic” automatic – meaning you could shift (sequentially) through the gears by flipping the lever one way or the other. I like these sorts of transmissions as a good compromise between a boring automatic and the more fun manual.

However, one thing that I can’t understand is why the transmission on the New Beetle has six (yes, SIX) gears. Perhaps this is some new trend in cars these days – I have heard of some cars with 7 gears! – but honestly I just don’t understand it. Having a 5th gear made sense – it was a good highway gear – but 6 gears is just a little bit of overkill I think, especially in an ordinary car like the New Beetle.

With 6 gears, I found the transmission working very hard to shift very rapidly through the gears every time I pulled away from a stoplight. The time the car spent in first gear was probably less than a half a second, and likewise for second gear. Given this, why bother having the gears at all?

I suppose you could make the case for more gears = better fuel economy (since the car can choose a gear ratio that better matches the speed/engine RPM), but if fuel economy is your goal, why not just go with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) and cut out the need for gears altogether?

The other downside of having 6 gears is that when you use the “triptonic” feature of the transmission to do the gear shifting yourself, you have to do a lot more work! Maybe it’s just me, but I think 6 gears is probably one too many for this car. If I had to choose, I’d stick with the 5 speed manual in this car.

Another interesting (but possibly pointless) feature of the transmission in this car was it’s “Sport” mode. Right after “D” on the transmission lever was a “S,” which a quick double-check with the manual confirmed is “Sport” mode. Essentially, “Sport” mode just shifts later – or to put it another way, it stays in (numerically) lower gears longer than the normal “Drive” mode does. This is a clever feature, but honestly a bit pointless when the transmission already has a manual sequential “triptonic” mode!

Another potentially annoying feature of this car is it’s steering. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the steering on the road is quite good and very responsive – easy to drive would be how I’d describe it – but when it comes to parking, things get a little weird. Given that this is a small car, you’d expect it to be able to turn on a dime – and it does indeed have a pretty good turning radius. However… you have to turn the steering wheel quite a bit in order to get that good turning radius. Which makes it a bit useless – tight turning cars are only useful in city driving and parking lots if you don’t have to spend 5 minutes spinning the steering wheel one way and then the other. So, a black mark against the Beetle there.

Finally, it is worth noting that as a small car the New Beetle feels kind of… cheap in some ways. The interior is nice enough, but the dashboard is one gigantic expanse of flat black plastic. And the dimpled plastic on the steering wheel seems like it would give you a good grip, but after a while it just feels awful.

And although I may have said earlier that the New Beetle would give you a comfortable ride on a long trip, what it won’t give you is a quiet ride. Engine noise is quite pronounced and very noticeable, especially when accelerating, and at highways speeds the combination of engine and road noise is almost unbearable. Thank goodness the stock stereo in this car has an AUX jack for your iPod, because you’ll want to keep music playing all the time to drown out the noise, noise, NOISE!

However, I digress… in truth, the Volkwagen New Beetle is a nice little car, if you don’t expect too much from it. If you like it’s looks (and really, isn’t that half the draw of the New Beetle for most people anyway?) you probably won’t be disappointed.

But I wouldn’t want one.

Behind the Wheel: 2009 Pontiac Vibe

I recently had reason to take a trip back to Massachusetts, and to make the trip I rented a car (as I often do). For this trip, I ended up with a 2009 Pontiac Vibe – which, at least mechanically, is the same as a Toyota Matrix.

I had actually considered buying a Matrix some time ago – in fact, when I was looking for a car it was a toss-up between the Matrix and the Mitsubishi Outlander. (Obviously, the Outlander won for me.) However, I’d always been interested in this little car, so when the rental agent brought it around, I was pretty excited.

The four hour drive back to Massachusetts, combined with a weekend spent driving all around the state (both highway and city driving) gave me plenty of time to get to know the little Vibe – and I have to say, I was very impressed!

First things first – the car I rented was, I believe, the 2.4L model – although to be honest I can’t confirm this. But this little car was so darned… fast that I have a hard time believing I was driving the 1.8L model. Several times while driving it I squealed the front tires (it was, alas, only a front-wheel drive model) inadvertently – something I was quite surprised by, since I’m used to driving an AWD vehicle, and it’s virtually impossible to squeal the tires when you have AWD.

And this little car was fast. Seriously fast. It just wanted to go… which was a little troublesome at times, as the car would happily go well above the speed limit just about anywhere – yet the ride was so smooth and quiet that you didn’t notice the speed until you looked down at the speedometer.

Speaking of which, the instrument cluster on this car is probably one of its biggest downsides – it’s quite dark, hidden as it is behind a big hood in the dash. It’s difficult to see during the day if (like me) you drive with your lights on, as the dash relies heavily on backlighting to be visible, and when you turn on the lights, the backlighting gets dimmer. (There is an adjustment for this of course, but then you must adjust it for both day visibility, and again at night for night visibility.)

The interior of the car is actually quite nice – there’s plenty of storage for the little things you need around you when taking a trip. The stereo is, I assume, different in the Pontiac Vibe vs. the Toyota Matrix – I believe the Vibe gets the “standard” GM radio/CD player. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad – in fact it’s quite nice, with a line-in port for your iPod or other portable music device, and the CD player even understands CD-text (so it can show track names, if you’ve burned a CD with the CD-text option turned on).

For the four hour drive to and from Massachusetts, the Vibe’s seats were very comfortable – I daresay they are even more comfortable than my own Outlander’s seats. The rear seats are… well, they’re rear seats in a small car, enough said.

One other downside of the Vibe/Matrix is the rear C-pillars – they are VERY thick, and block rear visibility quite a bit. This is not uncommon in small hatchbacks like this, but it is still rather annoying if you’re used to better rear visibility.

All-in-all, the Vibe is a very capable car, very peppy (though high-revving) in its performance, and an all-around well engineered little car that I quite liked. If anything, it’s a little too peppy – I’d get the AWD version if I had the choice, to put that power through to the ground a little bit better. (The 2.4L engine makes 258 HP, which is a lot of horsepower for such a lightweight car.) Of all the cars I’ve tested in my “Behind the Wheel” series, I think the Vibe is my favorite thus far.

Behind the Wheel: 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer

I rented a 2007 Chevy Trailblazer to drive Amanda’s parents around in as we did a big tour of New England in the fall, so I had plenty of time to get aquainted with this vehicle – on both highways and tight city streets.

And I can say, unoquivically, that it sucks.

Having said that, I can’t help but notice… this behemoth of an SUV is everywhere. We stayed at a hotel in Waltham, MA – and the two nights we were there, there were not one, but two other Trailblazers – ironically, they were all the same color!!

The unusual popularity of this SUV confuses me. When I say it sucks, I mean it sucks – and for several very good reasons:

  • The steering is loose and disconnected,
  • There is far too little rear legroom for such a large vehicle,
  • Acceleration comes on in “surges” instead of smoothly,
  • Very tipsy (although to be fair, you’d have to expect this),
  • Confusing/difficult control stalk (especially the cruise control),
  • No limited slip differential makes for limited off-road capability,
  • Surprisingly little ground clearance for such a big SUV,
  • Jittery steering at highway speed.

Let me elaborate:

The Steering: I know it’s a big SUV, and perhaps I’m spoiled, but it is somewhat frightening in such a big vehicle to be unable to get much feedback from the steering. Half the time it’s like driving in a video game – there’s little to no feedback, making it difficult to steer with confidence.

However – and this is one of the few good points of this SUV – this thing has an excelent turning radius. For this reason, it is surprisingly easy to park.

Rear Legroom: one of the reasons we rented this thing was because we were going on a long trip with 4 people – we wanted rear legroom, plus room for luggage. Surprisingly, most rental places actually charged less for an SUV as opposed to a full-sized car, so we opted for the SUV, thinking that it must have more room – it’s bigger, right?

Well, wrong. The rear legroom in this thing is awful. Even with the front passenger seat all the way forward, there is surprisingly little room back there for the legs of rear passengers. Although there was plenty of room for luggage, it seems to me like a little bit more room could’ve been sacrificed to the passengers. (Perhaps this is why Chevy came out with an “extended” Trailblazer model?)

Surging Acceleration: It’s only got a straight 6 engine, but there’s a fair amount of “oomph” there. The only problem is that it comes on in big “surges” rather than smoothly across the entire rev range. The touchy gas pedal makes city driving – especially accelerating gently from a stop – somewhat challenging.

Tipsy: Well, what large SUV isn’t tipsy? But still, when you combine the surgy acceleration with the disconnected steering and a top-heavy SUV, that’s a recipie for disaster.

Control Stalk: Now, I know Chevy likes to put every single control function on this one stalk, but perhaps some concessions could be made? I eventually figured out the cruise control, but I was on the verge of reading the manual to make sure I had it right.

No Limited Slip Differential: Now perhaps some models DO come with a limited slip diff; I don’t know for sure. But the model we had didn’t. And although we never needed it (being confined to on-road driving pretty much the entire trip), it does kind of seem silly to have a big SUV with a fancy control nob for switching between 2 wheel drive, 4 wheel drive (automatic), 4 wheel drive (high), and 4 wheel drive (low) – but then neglect to have a limited slip diff.

The upscale SS models have an AWD system – I think Chevy should’ve just made that standard for all models across the range.

And don’t get me started on that control nob – I’m still not quite sure what the difference between 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive (automatic) really is – or why you’d want to switch between them, ever. (If you know, feel free to chime up in the comments.)

Not Much Ground Clearance: The Trailblazer has 7.8 inches of ground clearance. My little Outlander has 8.3 inches. Which one is billed as more of an off-road vehicle?

Jittery steering at speed: Let’s face it, when you’re in a huge vehicle like this, especially an American-made vehicle, you sort of expect it to handle the big highways with ease – just “floating” along, crusing easily and steering with one finger (errr, I mean, both hands firmly on the wheel!). But, with the Trailblazer’s disconnected steering, instead you get a rather “jittery” feeling at speed that doesn’t inspire much confidence. In fact, it can be nerve-wracking at times – especially in a crosswind.

So there you have it – damning evidence of the suckiness of the Trailblazer, collected in over a solid week of driving.

So… why do I still see so many of these things on the road? I just don’t get it…

Driving = Freedom

Getting in the car, putting on some tunes, and just driving… nothing else makes me feel so “free.”

Now, this might be something that’s restricted to those of us that grew up in areas where there was no such thing as “public transit” and the only bus you could catch was the one that took you to school (if you were lucky). So if you’re a city person, or if you grew up with public transit, then this may not make much sense to you.

But when you go for a drive – just to drive, just to get out of the house, just to get somewhere – anywhere – that’s different from where you are – to get away from what’s bothering you – it all just melts away. All your troubles are literally left behind you, and your mind is clear and the freedom of the open road beckons to you – all you have to do is drive

To me, that’s freedom. That’s why I love driving.

Where’s the Stick Shift Gone?

It’s time to revisit a popular topic around here – the old “manual vs. automatic” argument.

If you follow – well, actually, let’s just be honest here and say “obsess” – over cars, you might have noticed a trend in regards to what transmissions are available on new cars these days. And that trend is that traditional, “proper” manual transmissions are increasingly rare – especially in bigger, sportier cars. (Think: BMW, Audi, etc.)

(Just to be clear, I’m not going to talk about “luxury” cars here – those have almost always been exclusively automatic, and with good reason, so let’s just cut them out of the discussion for now, OK?)

What seems to be replacing our beloved manual transmission these days is something that the folks on Top Gear call a “flappy-paddle gearbox.” You’ve probably seen them in car ads by now – those little, well, “flappy” paddles on the steering wheel (or the steering column, if the car is badly designed) that change gears for you. Once only exclusively found on super-expensive “supercars,” you can now find them on things like the Mitsubishi Lancer (or the new Outlander – alas!).

I have mixed feelings about these sorts of transmissions – not the least of which is because the presence of the paddles says absolutely nothing about what type of transmission is really “under the hood.” And that seems kind of… gimmicky to me.

It is worth noting that paddle shifters originally came from the world of high-speed racing – when you’re going 300 MPH and the next driver is 3 inches from your bumper, taking your hand off the wheel to shift can be… problematic. When you’re shifting gears while trying to find a parking space at your local shopping mall it’s… less so. (I’ve heard that paddle shifters, although arguably cool and good for racing on a track, are less than optimal for “around-town” type driving – and can in fact be quite infuriating in those instances!)

To further muddle things, paddle shifters might be connected to a normal automatic gearbox, and might function the same way as the “manu-matic” or “sport-tronic” transmissions that were so popular for a time. The only difference is that instead of shifting the gear lever into a little “gate” and pushing it up or down to change gears, you do it instead with the little paddles on the steering wheel.

On the other hand, those paddle shifters might be connected to a very crazy thing sometimes called a “clutchless manual transmission.” This is almost exactly what it sounds like – a manual transmission that just doesn’t have a clutch… or, well, a clutch pedal, anyway. Internally there is (usually) still a real clutch, which is controlled by the car’s computer, but otherwise it functions just like a normal manual transmission (in theory, anyway).

As you’d expect, these fancy transmissions are (generally) only found on very expensive cars. They may very well be “the way of the future, ” but I don’t think they’re here yet, and I don’t think they will be for some time. These sorts of systems are quite complex, which of course is just a fancy way of saying they have lots of ways to break down. And aside from fact that the car’s computer is capable of shifting gears much faster and very much more consistently, there’s really no advantage to it. I mean, if you’re going to have all that mechanical, technical, and electronic hoo-ha, why not just… get an automatic? Or, better still, just get a traditional manual?

Perhaps it’s because many cars with these sorts of systems are – well, let’s be honest, quite expensive, or at least more “status symbol” than “mode of transportation.” Rather than being for practical purposes, these fancy new transmissions are really just there for show, or at least so that the 60-year old retired CEO or whatever who’s driving the car (with the arthritic leg) can still drive like an idiot (and talk on his – or her, to be fair – cell phone, no doubt) in a $100,000+ car without having to dilly-dally with all the bother of actually controlling the gear change in the car. Because that would be too much like… “driving.” But I digress.

Automatic transmissions are getting much better these days – but until there is a deep, fundamental change in the method that automatic transmissions use to change gear ratios for the car’s drive train, they are still going to have the same fundamental drawbacks (more or less) – sluggish gear changes, less efficiency, and greater costs. Obviously, some automatic transmissions will be better than others on any of these things, but they’ll all suffer them, to a greater or lesser degree.

There is one bright ray of hope, however! With gasoline prices going up like they are, smaller cars – especially fuel-efficient 4-cylinder cars – are becoming quite popular again. And there’s no doubt about it – a manual transmission allows you to make the best use of a smaller, weaker engine. So there’s some good news. Of course, on the other hand, for ultimate fuel efficiency, car makers are turning more and more to something called CVT – that’s Continously Variable Transmission, in case you were wondering. This is actually a really exciting technology – no more gears, just a continous, practically “infinite” range of drive ratios, automatically selectable without any disconnection of the car’s drive train. (The Wikipedia article I’ve linked to is particularly instructive.)

The downside, of course, is that current technology limits the amount of power (torque, in particular) that can be sent through a CVT – making it generally only acceptable for smaller, lower-power cars. And lots of people find the lack of “lurch” – as in when the gears change (automatic or manual) – disconcerning, so some manufacturers actually take steps to make the car still “lurch” preceptively at intervals. Weird, I know. But of course as in all things, technology will improve – so maybe in the future we’ll all be driving cars with CVTs? (Assuming we’re not driving “flying” cars… I’m waiting for that day, but I won’t hold my breath.)

So what’s a tripedalist to do? Well, I think it is safe to say that the stick shift will never completely dissapear – after all, there will always be a place for a simple, efficient, manual transmission in cars of many different types (sports cars, small cars, and certain types of big trucks). But things like “flappy paddle” shifters are more likely to show up – and to be the only available option – on more and more cars. So the best thing we can do is vote with our wallets – if you like driving a stick shift (and why wouldn’t you?), buy a stick shift, even if it’s not quite the car you’d like. (Or use your own discretion – after all, you’re the one driving it!)

If you’re one of those people who’s not lamenting the gradual dissapearance of the stick shift in today’s cars, well, I guess you can break out the cake and celebrate. If a car to you is just a “thing” to get you from point A to point B, where there’s a lot of traffic in between (or long stretches of open highway with no curves/stops), all I can say is… enjoy your automatic.

As for me – I’ll be driving stick, and I’ll be quite happy with it, thank you very much! Long live the stick shift!