Thursday, May 5, 2016
A lot of cars have passed through my hands in the many years this blog has been alive. Sports cars, family sedans, crossovers, pickups, you name it. However, the subject of this entry represents a first: the subcompact. In this category, which rose to prominence after America's first brush with $5/gallon gas sent its citizens scurrying for more efficient vehicles, sits the Nissan Versa. As a car that lays claim to the lowest new-car MSRP in the country, the Versa screams a good deal to anyone who wants a brand new set of wheels and not a lot of cash to spend. But just because something is the cheapest, is it really the better deal?
First, this Nissan Versa, redesigned in 2012 with a mild refresh for 2016, anchors the Nissan lineup at the entry point. Thus, it has to do battle with other subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Chevy Sonic. Approaching the Versa, Nissan's design language is apparent, if overly done. With its mini-Altima-like appearance, the body is amusing in the sense that it looks one size larger than the wheels, almost as if it's on stilts. My mid-level SV came with a looks-tacked-on spoiler on the trunklid and 15" steel wheels wrapped in high profile rubber. With one of the longer wheelbases in the segment leads a few of the Versa's selling points: a cavernous interior and trunk. I had room enough in the front seat but it was difficult to get comfortable. Try as I might, I could never get my seat positioned where I could comfortably sit behind the wheel. This was exacerbated by the hard plastics that usually signifies cheapness. Pretty much every interior piece, save the carpet, seats and headliner was hewn from the industrial grade stuff that aggravates your skin when touched. I could never imagine taking this car on trip more than hour and if a 300 mile trip had to be done, frequent pit stops to stretch would be in order. The driver's gauges are legible with bright back-lit LED lighting and the dashboard controls are easy to reach and manipulate.
Get in the backseat, however and there is legroom for days. Three people can sit there comfortably without rubbing shoulders too much, even if the front seat occupants are over 6ft tall. That said though, I don't believe they'd be sitting there more than once. Aside from the plasticky interior, The Versa feels tinny and hollow in construction. The doors are light and have little heft to them, plus, when underway, the cabin is very noisy. It's as if in its bid to create the cheapest new car, Nissan decided that sound-deadening material would be too expensive. For the price, this would be tolerable except for one thing: the drivetrain. A 1.6L four cylinder powers the front wheels through Nissan's Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission). Producing 109hp and 107lb-ft of torque, don't expect to get anywhere in a hurry, or quietly for that matter. Despite the Versa weighing somewhere in the region of 2400lbs, getting up to highway speeds takes patience...and ear protection. Gunning the throttle makes the CVT peg the engine to 4800 rpm and it'll stay there until the vehicle hits your desired speed. It sounds thrashy and the droning wears on after awhile. A 30 mile highway stint had me pulling my curly hair in agony wanting to get out.
While the front struts/torsion beam suspension gave a compliant, almost big-car-like ride, you can forget about the Versa being any fun to drive. What's that saying, it's fun to drive a slow car fast? Not in this case. The otherwise soft suspension gets totally upset when the Versa is driven with gusto. In hard turns, the car leans waaaay over, the tires scrubbing away and squealing at early understeer. The steering is lifeless, overboosted and numb. Quick left-right actions gave the feeling of disjointedness. Flick the steering to the right and you can count one Mississippi before the front wheels react. On the highway, the Versa is at the mercy of winds (and anything larger than itself passing in the next lane), making it difficult to keep it tracking straight. At 75mph, the engine does settle down a bit but that only makes every other noise more apparent. Road and wind noise all find their way in and good luck using the stereo to drown it out. Turning the radio above the mid level makes the sound distorted, no matter what medium I was playing. Bluetooth is standard but there was always a disconnect between the volume of the radio and the calling feature. On the highway, the volume was turned all the way up just to hear the other person speaking and I repeatedly found myself shouting to be heard by the caller. Between the radio's cheapness, the loud interior and laughable steering, I think the Versa is better suited to urban settings.
Which is a shame because, like other cars in this segment, the littlest Nissan actually gets pretty good gas mileage. Equipped as mine was with the CVT, the EPA rates the Versa at 31 city/40 highway and my average hovered around 34mpg during my time. In that area, the CVT pays dividends by using an almost infinite set of ratios to achieve the best fuel economy. If you can't tolerate its weird but fruitless simulation of a automatic transmission and the moaning it succumbs the engine to, you can spring for a 5 speed manual or an ancient 4 speed automatic. Which, unless your desperate, you might not want to since you'll have to go to the bottom of the barrel where the plebian base S model resides (manual roll up windows anyone?). Sure, at an as-tested price of $16,595 (including $835 destination) the 2016 Nissan Versa SV may seem like a good buy but this where "shopping around" comes in. I say this because there are other competent cars occupying the segment for about the same wad of cash. The aforementioned Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta for example, drive better, have higher quality interiors and boast similar EPA figures. The Korean twins Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio boast more standard equipment for the price and have better warranties.
Nissan did a pretty good job in building the Nissan Versa at a (very cheap) price. However, while other automakers have sought to make their subcompacts more desirable by making them more comfortable and refined, the Versa didn't get the message. Against the competitive set, recommending the Versa is difficult based solely on price. Unless you're dead set on biting into Nissan's low hanging fruit, there are much better ways to spend $17,000.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
As you all know, I'm a huge car fanatic. It doesn't take much to get me started yapping about cars when someone asks, "What you think about *insert brand/make here*?" Also, as you may have found out (you didn't know? Catch up here) I've been without a car for a weeks now due to the negligence of distracted driver. My plan was to keep my personal car for a few more years before getting a car I really wanted but due to these circumstances, I've had to alter my plans a bit and go for a somewhat temporary stand-in. But what to buy?
My price cap was $10k and for that, my main focus (other than practicality and performance) was reliability. This car has to hold up for at least two years (more or less) to the rigors of my travels and beast-of-burden gigs while being relatively easy to work on myself. The 6 was virtually pain free for the DIY guy I am as most oil/fluid changes and tuneups were, though a bit arduous, mostly trouble free. I wasn't looking at SUVs/crossovers as most in my price range weren't my kind (I'm a wagon/hatchback lover). Sedans weren't frowned upon though they weren't my first choice either and even though I could've gotten another Mazda 6 (familiarity is a helluva thing) I figured I'd shake things up a bit. I found myself glued to websites such as cars.com, cargurus.com and Truecar and overtime, I narrowed my search down to two vehicles, the Ford Focus and Mazda3.
Let's look at the Focus. From 2012, Ford's compact runabout has been thoroughly redesigned and now is a virtual clone of it's Euro version. The styling is a hit and after reviewing one a few years ago, the fun to drive nature catapulted it to one of my favorites. The infotainment system may be a bit infuriating (read: MyFord Touch) but over time, I could get used to it. The hatchback was definitely the better looking version versus the sedan which just has a frumpy look. The only point of concern was Ford's new 6 speed, dual clutch auto. Initial response to this was lukewarm when the Focus debuted and since my purchase would be first-second year (before Ford's mid-cycle refresh of 2015) I wasn't sure I'd be up to dealing with its quirks and potential bugs. Searches turned up quite a few and there was one potential that I seriously considered. However, there were a few items the dealer was not willing to compromise on. Without going into detail, let's just say some items you expect to be common sense when a car is reconditioned for sale were not important enough for the dealer to do. As a result, that deal fell through. Other things such as cars being for sale online but mysteriously being sold hours later when I showed up for a test drive (a dealer trick I later learned) dried up my enthusiasm.
The other potential, the Mazda3 was also an early contender. Say what you want about Mazda's goofy design language from 2009-2013 but underneath all those lines was a solid vehicle. I've always extolled the virtues of Mazda vehicles for their almost singular focus on driving excitement while never losing sight of other important aspects such as efficiency, practicality and ease of ownership. While the fire breathing Mazdaspeed3 did tempt me, I decided to cool it and get something less toasty. A few Mazdas nearby were either high in mileage or weren't priced competitively. A few early propositions, just like the Focuses (Focii?), somehow disappeared from the lots despite being confirmed present by the various dealers. Towards the end of my search I started factoring in ease of maintenance and revised the list a bit. One night while doing a search, this off-the-wall option popped up.
I couldn't believe it.
2004 Lexus IS 300 Sportcross
This has to be a joke. Can't be real. Not only was the first generation IS 300 a hallmark in Lexus history, being the first legitimate Lexus product sent to do battle with the BMW 3 Series in the early 2000s, it was also a car that I had really, REALLY wanted to drive. Despite not being turbocharged, the IS300 packed the 2J-GZE 3.0L inline six of the vaunted Toyota Surpa sports car. This legendary motor was bulletproof in its durability and longevity and, with the addition of Toyota's VVTI valve timing gear, was even better. But all that despite all that, what really captured my attention was that this particular car, is a rarity, being one of only 3,000 Sportcross models sold in the U.S. A quick check of Autocheck and CarFax brought up no issues and confirmed this being a one-owner car, pretty much stamp on the originality of those low miles. Here, I thought, was my chance to actually test Toyota's vaunted reliability claims and some fun while doing so. First off though, I had to see the vehicle in person.
The following Saturday, after testing yet another overpriced Ford Focus, I went down to the small dealership to see the Lexus. Normally I pause at visiting small dealerships, but I figured, if this car is the real deal I at least had to verify it. According to one website, the Lexus had been on the lot for around 6 months, the price falling to its current number, a good indicator that the dealer really wanted it off the lot. Walking through the tightly packed lot (I swear the little parking lot behind my office is twice as big) I spotted the black wagon sitting next to a late model Altima and an also-rare Chevy Malibu SS sedan. Pictures didn't do it justice. While time has had its way with it, the wagon still sports a surprisingly athletic stance. The body showed no physical damage, a few small micro dents here and there but nothing outwardly visible as prior damage. Opening up the interior really tells he age of the first gen IS300. The dash looked worn and the plastic trim separating the upper and lower portions were heavily weathered with small scratches. sprinkled around. The plastic trim surrounding the 5 speed automatic transmission's gear leaver was even more weathered and the characteristic ball on top of the lever was missing (apparently these shiny balls are prime pieces). The leather on the steering wheel had portions peeled away but the seats were in surprisingly good condition despite the leather being polished to a smooth finish. Overall the interior was, despite its age, in very good condition. Even the Lexus brand first aid kit was still velcroed to its position in the cargo area, seemingly untouched. Early 2000s designs stood out: a cigarette lighter sat prominently in front of the gear shift lever, the small diameter 3 spoke steering wheel emphasized tastes of the time, the A pillars were thin and visibility was excellent front and rear. Compared to the GMC Terrain I had stepped out of minutes before, I had basically taken a trip back into time.
Mechanically, the car was sound (or so I thought, more on this later). The engine started right up and idled quietly and I could hear no untoward noises or indications of repairs needed. However, after idling for roughly 10 minutes one thing was apparent: the AC was not working, hot air spewing out the vents, Hmm, a major issue this being Florida and all, but a minor one the dealer was happy to sort out. A few of the things besides the AC not working: the radio antenna was broken (an expensive OEM repair I found out later), the radiator had a leak (also revealed later and repaired by the dealer), the brake rotors were warped, the clip that held the hood prop in place was broken and the 6 disc CD player didn't work (the cassette player, surprisingly, did). Oh, and apparently the dealer only had 1 key available. Hmm, almost a deal breaker but not enough to sway me. Test driving the car revealed the structure to be taut and rigid, no squeaks and rattles permeating the cabin and the transmission shifting comfortably and precisely. Sure, the 5 speed isn't as responsive as modern 6 and 8 speeds but at least it didn't fall all over itself and was one of the better transmissions of the day. It offered a manual shift function with buttons located on the front and rear steering wheel spokes. A "PWR" button sat next to the gearshift lever, a sort of Sport button that when pressed, switched the transmission's programming to change gears at higher rpms. The inline six engine still sounded turbine-smooth and balanced as any BMW six-pot. The ride was certainly firm, a tad firmer in fact than my departed Mazda but straight-line stability was even better. With the front wheels here unloaded of the engine's output, steering was sharper and more immediate. Plus, being hydraulically actuated (instead of the electro-steering of today), the wheel was rife with information, the texture and irregularities of the road feeding their way from the front tires to the driver's hands.
Back at the dealer, I analyzed the car again. The cargo space appeared to be roomy enough to haul all my gear for gigs and be comfortable enough for the long daily commutes I have. Plus, this being essentially a Toyota, with regular maintenance I'd be assured a relatively trouble-free ownership. Seeing this as an opportunity, I put down on the car and within a few days, it was mine. During the short week or two of ownership, several items need to be .
1) Doing any used car purchase, please, PLEASE have a certified mechanic do a thorough check on ANY car you're seriously interested in. I neglected this very important part of the purchase and I paid for it with a missed day of work and tow truck drive to a mechanic to have the radiator replaced (dealer warranty).
2) Newer cars are complicated and aren't as DIY friendly as older ones. Hence, I'd like to do as much DIY maintenance as I can and save some money. The 2J-GZE motor is a well known engine and, despite Lexus branding, parts are plentiful and affordable. Plus there's a solid knowledge base in the online IS community ready and willing to help with various information regarding maintenance, upkeep and possible upgrades (don't worry, I aim to keep the car stock where it counts). Oil changes may be a bit difficult (the oil filter is situated in a hard to reach area, meaning spills could be inevitable), spark plug changes will be a fight (just as they were in the Mazda) and this being a timing belt as opposed to a timing chain (look out 90k miles!) but at least this is stuff that's not outside my mechanical ability. I just need a garage to do it all in (heh).
3) As my brother has said, it's the little things that add up and it is certainly the truth here. While not everything has to be fixed up front, I've found little odd things that could be either fixed or upgraded overtime. One example is the interior lighting that, after owning the Mazda for the better part of 6 years along with stints in the Ram and Terrain, looks very austere and dim. Even at it's brightest setting, the interior still appears dark and the dome/map lights cast very poor lighting. An LED conversion will cure this and is currently in the works.
4) I'm a bit torn regarding the current stock radio. While the CD player isn't working and I'm about to put the cassette player to good use with an AUX cassette to play music from my phone (I at least have a dedicated 12V charger besides the cigarette lighter, praise Jah!) I'd like to upgrade it in some way. Having navigation isn't really an essential (that's what my phone is for) so that lowers the price point considerably and, of course, I'd be doing the installation myself.
Writing this marks a month since I've been driving around in the Lexus and I've gotta say, it's been fun. Some negatives? The inline six drinks premium gas and, while a strong motor, good gas mileage isn't its forte. It's going to take some getting used to seeing 18 mpg rather than the 24 mpg I'd regularly get in the Mazda. And the cabin is definitely a more, er, intimate space than the relatively spacious 6. But again, this serves as a test of Toyota's reliability and ownership experience I'll have with this rare car. Sure it might not have a manual transmission, but at least it's a hatchback and one I'm looking forward to many good memories with. Sorry tuners, no turbos or coilovers or beer-can exhaust systems here. This 2004 Lexus IS300 Sportcross is going to remain mostly stock.