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.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Audi A4 Wagon (Diesel)

Audi A4 WagonEarlier this year I found myself over in Florence, Italy, with family and I needed to rent a car to go for a day trip. Although I normally don’t splurge on rental cars, in this case we decided to go for a “luxury” rental – both as a slight treat to ourselves, and because we didn’t want to be crammed into an itty-bitty little car.

So, what should pull up in front of the rental place but a 2014 Audi A4 wagon… with a diesel engine, no less!

Right off the bat this car surprised me – the diesel was excellent – smooth and quiet, to the point where at first I didn’t realize it was a diesel! Highway driving was easy, but uninspiring. Plenty of power on tap from the diesel engine, but it isn’t overwhelming – or exciting. That said, it’s got more than enough “oomph” for near effortless passing at speed. City driving was also surprisingly nimble, though in Italy – and especially in the narrow streets of Florence – the A4 was almost too big.

The interior was a very comfortable place to be – and it carried 4 adults on a long road trip up to the Chianti region with no fuss at all. I can definitely understand why people like this sort of car as a daily driver – it’s comfortable, the in-dash navigation is great, and it has plenty of room inside.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly what you’d call a “driver’s car.” Although there was plenty of power from the diesel, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of it, either. Everything about how it drives was smooth, gentle, and reassuring – not in the least bit exciting.

All in all, not a bad car by any means, and one I’d happily drive again as a rental, but not one I’d want to own.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Kia Soul

Keith spends a day behind the wheel of the all-new 2010 Kia Soul.
Ahhh, the 2010 Kia Soul… yeah, that car, the one with the funny commercial featuring rapping hamsters (or are they gerbils?)

I got a chance to drive this odd-looking little car recently, and much to my surprise, I actually liked it – a lot!

I was a bit worried when I first saw the Kia Soul, because I had conflicted feelings about these little cube-cars that have started to become popular lately. I worried that it would be woefully underpowered, have lousy gas mileage, and be top-heavy and completely uninteresting to drive.

Fortunately for me, the Soul turned out to have none of these problems.

The Soul has a fuel-sipping little 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, which pushes out a surprising 142 HP. (For comparison, my own car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander, has a larger 2.4L 4-cylinder engine which puts out… 140 HP.) Because of this, the Soul is zippy enough to be enjoyable to drive – which I think is important, especially in small cars.

Surprisingly, although the Soul looks like it would be kind of top-heavy, it actually holds quite well through the curves. The steering on the Soul is very crisp and responsive, and you don’t feel nervous hitting a curve at some speed (although obviously not too much speed!).

On the inside, the Soul continued to impress me. The Soul has the kind of driving position I just love – elevated a bit, with good forward visibility and a comfy chair that you sit straight up in (no “leaning all the way back while driving” positions here!). The seats are at hip-level, so you just slide right in – you don’t have to fall down into the seats (like you do in some cars), and you don’t have to climb up into the seats (as you do in some big SUVs).

There is also a lot of neat techno-stuff on the inside of the Soul – the radio is cleverly laid out, and very nice – it has both a regular auxiliary input for any MP3 player, plus you can plug in your iPod and control it using the radio’s own controls (although you do need a special cable for that). You can even control your iPod using the controls on the steering wheel – which is really nice (and a safety bonus – you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to skip songs!).

The steering wheel controls, by the way, were some of the best I’ve seen yet. Unlike a lot of other cars, the controls are easy to operate just by feel alone – the buttons and switches all have unique shapes, so you can tell what button you are pressing just by feeling it. Too few car manufacturers take this aspect of steering wheel mounted controls into consideration, and you end up with controls you have to look at first before you use them – and if you have to look down from the road to see what you’re going to push, then what’s the point of having them on the steering wheel in the first place?

It almost seems like the Kia Soul is the “Goldilocks” of cars – not to big, not too small, not too sluggish but not over powered, clever but not overdone – in other words, “just right.”

However, there is one rather… jarring downside to this car, if you’ll excuse the pun – the suspension. The suspension on this car is very, very stiff. Going over bumps and such was almost painful. We’re talking “almost jolt you out of your seat” bad. Now, I know the suspension is probably stiff to help give the Soul good handling in the corners and prevent it from feeling top-heavy, but honestly I would almost prefer a little bit of top-heaving feelings just so I don’t shatter my spine every time I hit a pothole.

With that one black mark against it, the Kia Soul is otherwise a very nice car which I greatly enjoyed driving. I think it’s a very practical and economical car, without being boring, which is a rare thing these days. If the suspension wasn’t so tooth-rattling, I’d almost give it perfect marks. But even so, I still think it is a really good car. If you don’t mind a rough ride, and are in the market for something small, fun, practical and economical, I’d highly recommend the new Kia Soul.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Dodge Charger

Keith finally gets his wish and spends some time behind the wheel of a 2010 Dodge Charger!
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days behind the wheel of a car I really wanted to drive – a 2010 Dodge Charger. Yes, that’s right – I wanted to drive what is essentially a muscle car.

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time (just 3 days) with this car, so I didn’t get a chance to really put it through its paces. However, I did get to drive it along a lot of various roads, ranging from straight & boring (but high-speed – 70 MPH speed limit, yippie!) interstate highways to twisty (and properly banked!) secondary state highways that followed the Mississippi river.

The Dodge Charger is a surprisingly big car – as soon as you get behind the wheel you really feel how big the car is, and you sense its muscle car heritage. However, even though it feels big, the Charger isn’t terribly large on the outside, and in fact it is quite easy to handle, both at high speed and low speed (e.g., parking).

The interior of the Charger was actually very comfortable – it was easy for me to find a comfortable driving position, which is often a challenge for me in cars, since I’m so used to the higher-up seating position in SUV’s and trucks. I had 3 other people with me as well when I was driving the Charger, and the back seats had plenty of room for 2 full-sized adults.

Unfortunately I forgot to check which engine our rented Charger had – it would have been either the 2.7L 178 HP V6, or the bigger 3.5L 250 HP V6. Given that it was a rental, I’m going to guess we had the smaller engine, but don’t let those numbers fool you – the Charger isn’t a terribly heavy car, so it gets up and goes quite well. And it’s rear-wheel drive as well (yay!) so you can have some good-old fashioned tail-spinning fun.

All-in-all the Charger was a pleasure to drive, with plenty of power and smooth steering. The automatic transmission, while simple, was fine – I never felt like it was “hunting” for the right gear, nor were the gear shifts really noticeable. I’m sure this car would be quite a ball with a manual transmission, but (sadly) of course you’d never find a manual transmission on a rental car.

The Charger did have a couple of things that bugged me, however. As is apparently typical of all American cars these days, the Charger comes with automatic headlights (I guess because we’re too stupid to remember to turn them on when it gets dark?) and doors that lock automatically once you get moving – and can’t be unlocked (at least from the rear seats) unless you shift into Park. This last one in particular is really annoying – if you’re dropping anyone off, and they are sitting in the back seat, you MUST shift into Park before they can get out of the car!

Also, watch out if you go into the trunk on the Charger – I hit my head more than once on the very low latch on the trunk. And I can attest – it HURTS.

Other than those few problems, the Charger was a fine car and I quite enjoyed driving it. If I ever felt the desire to own a muscle car, I would definitely consider the Dodge Charger as an option. Hey, if it’s good enough for the police, why not for me?