Behind the Wheel: 2010 Chevrolet Malibu

I recently had an opportunity to spend a good amount of time behind the wheel of a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu while driving from Miami down to Key West.

Unfortunately, although I certainly didn’t hate the Malibu, I didn’t exactly like it either. Like so many American cars of the last, oh, 5-10 years or so, it felt like it was trying really hard to feel more upscale than it really was.

A few things I didn’t like were:

  • The very low ceiling (not helped by the fact that our car had a sunroof)
  • The annoying automatic headlights (and what ever happened to all Chevy vehicles having daytime running lights?)
  • The annoying automatic door locks… which passengers could not unlock until you put the transmission into “Park”
  • The steering wheel control buttons that you had to look at to see what they do (you can’t tell by feel)
  • The 3-spoke steering wheel (each of the spokes was just too big to hold on to when cruising, probably because of the need to fit in all the radio & cruise controls)

Some things I did like were:

  • The radio (I do like that Chevy’s have one of the few CD players that actually read CD-Text for song titles – why don’t more cars do this?)
  • The engine (peppy without being hard to control, and definitely nice considering it’s just a 4-cylinder, albeit a 2.4L one, putting out 169 HP)
  • The paddle shifters (completely unnecessary, but still kind of nice to have)

All-in-all, the Malibu was an OK car, but nothing special. If it was a little bit less expensive (running somewhere between $21K-$27K) I would say it’s a good deal for the money. But as is, it’s just… meh.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Chrysler Town & Country

Recently I had a chance to spend some extended time (nearly 2 weeks) driving around the desert southwest (Nevada, Arizona, Utah) in a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country (with the Touring package).

Now, I’m not normally very fond of minivans personally, but I can appreciate them for what they are – very practical vehicles. And in this case, a minivan was exactly what we needed.

We had 4 people, two of whom had just flown in from Australia, so they had all of their luggage for a 6-week stay in the US with them. So we needed a car that could fit all of that luggage, as well as seat all 4 of us comfortably for the very long drives between various national parks we’d be visiting.

So, it was with all that in mind that I rented a minivan, and the 2010 Chrysler Town & Country is what we ended up with.

Now, on paper it seems like this should be a very respectable vehicle – but, as is so often the case, reality turned out to be somewhat different.

Now, in the sense of giving us plenty of room for luggage and people, the Town & Country did not disappoint. We easily fit 4 huge suitcases in the back (the 3rd row seats fold flat into the floor, a very neat trick) along with 2 big carry-on bags and various other stuff we picked up along the way (e.g., a huge pack of bottled water to keep us all hydrated in the dry desert). There was also plenty of space for the 4 of us, and we each got captain-style chairs which were very comfortable.

However, the driving experience was less than I expected – and I didn’t expect too much, given that this is a minivan, after all.

For one thing, the engine seemed to be a very bad match for such a heavy vehicle (4,507 pounds). While it was a 3.8L V6, it only put out 197 hp and it only reached that maximum horsepower at a very high 5200 RPM.

The transmission was also a source of frustration the whole trip – it was a very nice 6-speed automatic, but the V6 engine has such a narrow power band that even on the mostly flat roads we drove on, it was constantly switching gears, just to keep us moving at a constant speed.

And although the engine delivered impressive power, it did so when we least needed it – for example, at very low speeds. It was very easy to “surge” forward when pulling away from a stop, but on the highway when you needed to pass a slow-moving trailer (as you often do on the long single-lane state highways out there) you really had to mash your foot down into the floor.

And speaking of the long drives we had to make – although the passengers were very comfortable, as a driver I found it a bit annoying that all you have is the little captain’s chair-style armrests. You can’t even really lean your arm on the window – the van is so wide that the door is just too far away from where you are sitting in the driver’s chair.

All-in-all, although the Town & Country had the space we needed, it was not in any way a pleasure to drive. It really seems to have been designed to appeal to people who don’t like driving, rather than people who do. So, I guess if that’s you, then you’ll be happy with this minivan.

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…