Monday, May 18, 2009

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory Still Holds

The Mazda RX-8 was launched in the early 00s, and at the time, I really thought it was close to the perfect car. It was a rear-wheel drive sports coupe, looked really good, and was relatively practical; in fact there was an ad campaign for it saying that if you tried hard, you could actually justify it to your spouse as a family car.

I liked it so much at the time that I made myself a promise. Obviously I couldn't even come close to affording the RX-8, but others bought them, and of course new cars depreciate rapidly - especially expensive sportscars from non-prestigious brands. I told myself that when I was 25 - which seemed like a long way away - I would buy one. Even if it was used. Even if I would have to pay it off until I was 30.

I turned 25 a little less than two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the RX-8 has a serious flaw. Its engine is unusual, a completely different engineering solution to regular piston motors. It's called a rotary engine, or a Wankel after the German who invented it. I won't go into detail, but basically it is smaller and lighter than a piston engine, but produces more power. The downside is that because of some inherent problems with Wankel's design, it's not terribly reliable. Reports from RX-8 owners suggest that the engine tends to break down catastrophically after 100,000km, even with careful maintenance. If the RX-8 had come with a regular engine, such as Mazda's 2.3-liter turbo from the MPS line of cars, it would be perfect; but it doesn't. An RX-8 that has done around 30,000km costs about twelve thousand Euro in Estonia today; not completely outside the realms of my budget, but not the sort of money I'd feel comfortable spending on an inherently unreliable machine, despite the fact that I don't drive that much. (My current car has done around 25,000km in two and a half years, and the bulk of that has been on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway.)

However, I would still like to keep the promise to myself. And it appears that the Estonian Volkswagen dealer got an unusually large shipment of the new Sciroccos. Now, I like the Scirocco: it looks good, and it's based on the VW Golf GTI, which is considered one of the most fun cars this side of something fundamentally impractical. (People who write for car magazines have repeatedly stated that on real-world roads, a Golf GTI will certainly be able to keep up with a Ferrari.) In Estonia, today, VW will sell you a Scirocco with all the equipment you need for less than 20,000 Euro. For a car in this class, that's bloody cheap, and VWs keep their value quite well as used cars, and hey, my mortgage interest rate dropped like a brick in April, didn't it?

I was in Tallinn this Friday on other business anyway, so I went to the main VW dealership and test-drove the Scirocco. The one they had was the top-end model, with the turbocharged engine and DSG gearbox - the best automatic gearbox in the world right now, by general consensus of people who know about these things.

My first reaction was that I was right to aim for the cheapest model, with the less powerful 1.4 twin-charged engine (which is still powerful enough to force me to contribute to Estonia's ailing budget), and manual gearbox. I've had the argument with Mingus, who dismisses the common argument of manuals giving better control, because with an automatic you always have both hands on the steering wheel - and that's safer. Honestly, I can't refute it, and the DSG was really awesome. I simply enjoy driving a stick shift more.

But honestly, even while I drove the Scirocco down the back roads of Tabasalu, I couldn't feel it. I wasn't experiencing that wonder, that sense of do want that I would need to justify the purchase. I spent over eight thousand kroons on my little aluminium HP laptop, which was more than the competition, and I didn't strictly need it - but the satisfaction from owning something genuinely awesome was worth it.

It's the same thing, every time I drive a new car. It's great, sure, but it's not mind-boggling; it's not an order of magnitude better than whatever I am driving myself at the time. I had the same experience with a Suzuki Grand Vitara, back when I had a 1988 Honda Accord; the Suzuki was quiet and comfortable, but dog-slow in comparison. Modern cars are just too heavy to take advantage of the power, and neither do they have the ability to filter out the imperfections of our roads - certainly they don't provide the difference to match the price increase compared to a ten-year-old car. Yes, a new one will be more reliable - but, if you choose your ride carefully, a used one will not be more expensive to run than the maintenance costs of something that still has to be serviced at the dealership to keep the warranty.

It's odd that, for such a gearhead, I am having such trouble getting properly excited about something as nice as the new Scirocco.

PS. The guy I talked to at the dealership was a real pleasure. Friendly, active and competent. I feel like an asshole for deciding against the Scirocco, so if you're looking for a new car these days and have been disappointed with the customer service levels at most dealerships, go to Saksa Auto Pluss in Tartu (corner of Aardla and Ringtee) and ask for Allan Ainson. And I think there are some really good discounts on most VW models these days.


Giustino said...

A belated birthday to you, Flasher.

Giustino said...

make that a belated HAPPY birthday.


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