FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE THINKING ABOUT BUYING a new car but aren’t quite ready to take the plunge, we hereby offer a list of reasons to happily negotiate forty-eight short months of indebtedness to your friendly local banker. A drum roll if you please, Mr. Percussion Leader:
■You meant to buy a car last year but forgot.
■You don’t bother reading the subtitles in the Joe Isuzucommercials.
■They might not make any new cars next year.
■You can finally tell your old car what you really think of it.
■You think it’s important to make a strong personal statementabout consumer confidence during the recession.
Okay, there are several legitimate reasons to buy a new car this year, particularly a foreign car. While domestic automakers largely made do in 1987 with updated versions of existing models, more than a dozen entirely new cars are being introduced by foreign manufacturers. BMW, for instance, is revamping virtually its entire line. Nissan and Mitsubishi are producing their first American vans, while Mazda and Honda have introduced brand-new station wagons. Toyota, Volvo, and Renault are other manufacturers with models making debuts in 1987. Things have even picked up in England, whose automakers didn’t sell enough cars in the U.S. five years ago to cause a decent traffic jam. Not only has Jaguar brought out a cabriolet version of its XJ-S sports car. but Rover has unveiled a tony luxury sedan, the Sterling 825SL.
1987, though, is also a year to ring out the old. It marks the end of the line for (he venerable-and venerated-Jaguar XJ6, which will be replaced by a new body style in 1988 after a nearly twenty-year run as perhaps the most perfectly proportioned sedan on the road. What makes it so hard to say goodbye to the Jaguar is that it’s still as elegant as, say, Kim Dawson, “All the cars on the highway look basically the same to me. But this one is different,” she said recently while touring around Dallas in a gray Jag. “The lines are very long and lean and sleek-very fashionable. This is a stunning-looking automobile.”
Although she and the Jaguar made a heavenly match, Dawson wasn’t thrilled when we asked her to lest drive a spanking-new $37,000 automobile for this report. “I get nervous driving new cars,” she explained. “It takes me a month before I even turn on the radio.” Dawson didn’t learn to drive until she was in her mid-twenties, and the only comment she makes about her driving that sounds remotely like bragging is, “I’ve never had a serious accident.” Despite her misgivings before driving the Jag, Dawson seemed remarkably at home within minutes after snuggling into the cushy leather seat and easing the car into gear. “Easing” is the correct word, for Dawson is what might charitably be called a sedate driver. She unleashed the 176-horsepower engine only once-on the entrance ramp to crowded Central Expressway. “Golly,” she said, impressed, “it goes fast in a hurry.”
Dawson had nothing but praise for the Jaguar and declared it the perfect car for long trips. Her own car, though, is a Cadillac Cim-arron. “1 like a smaller car,” she said. “I can almost parallel park a smaller car.” What would she drive in the best of all possible worlds? “I wouldn’t drive at all,” she said. “I’d be chauffeured.”
EVERYBODY’S GOT HIS OWN METHOD OF SELECTING A NEW car. Some people test drive all the candidates, pore over the automotive magazines, and compare technical specifications before making a decision. Others walk into a showroom and say, “That looks good. I’ll take the green one.” In an effort to please most of the people most of the time, we split the difference between those extremes. We took some of the most exciting 1987 models and put them through their paces in real-life conditions ranging from rush hour on Central Expressway to rain in Highland Park. And we got them back to the dealerships without a single dent.
Considering that the first automobiles were two-seaters, it seems logical to begin with these latter-day shrines to impracticali-ty. People who consider cars primarily as transportation don’t drive two-seaters. Neither do people who are concerned about space and insurance rates. The people you see in two-seaters are debonair, rakish, and intelligent enough to understand that owning a fast, stylish automobile is a fundamental prerequisite for true happiness. I, for instance, drive a two-seater. So does Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
That blood-red Ferrari 308 often parked next to the old Texas School Book Depository is Price’s everyday transportation. He bought it eight months ago after a run of fine automobiles that included several Mercedes-Benzes, a Jaguar XJ6, a Rolls-Royce, and a canary-yellow 1955 Chevy. Impressing him, clearly, wasn’t going to be easy. So why was he recently seen driving around Richardson with an infectious grin on his face, murmuring, “It wouldn’t take much to fall in love”?
Blame it on the Ferrari Testarossa. Its space-age styling is striking enough to stop traffic, and its 12-cylinder engine is powerful enough to stop the stoutest hearts. But what struck Price when he started his test drive was how much more livable it was than his 308. “With a sports car, you expect some discomfort, some sacrifices. Not with this car,” he said. “The handling is typical Ferrari. The power is what you’d expect. But the comfort is amazing. That’s the final touch. There’s nothing left [to want]-except the absence of the $125,000 price tag.”
Ah, yes, that $110,000 to $125,000 (depending on where you buy it) price tag. Considering that you can buy a few houses-or a fleet of Yugos or an armada of bass boats-for the price of a single Testarossa, the Ferrari seems a bit extravagant. Of course, the Testarossa’s the only one of the above capable of doing 177 mph, should the need arise. Price admitted that he was going to have to make do with his 156~mph 308. “If I could afford the Testarossa, I’d have one. I don’t even have to give it a second thought,” he said. “This is the kind of car that will make you dream.”
One of the few cars able to more or less keep pace with the Ferrari is the Porsche 928S 4. which can do 165 mph and which can be bought with an automatic transmission. That pretty much sums up the Porsche-too fast to be just a luxury car, too luxurious to be just a sports car. This may be the most comfortable, drivable exotic car on the market. For the record, the 928S 4 is billed as a 2-plus-2 rather than a two-seater, and Porsche claims there is adequate space for two adults in the back on short trips. Yeah, and the tooth fairy just married Santa Claus.
It’s a long step down in price-and performance-to the $19,000 Nissan 300ZX. The main armament in the Z’s arsenal is its impressive V-6 engine, which throbs with 160 horsepower in non-turbo form. Mash the accelerator, and the car flies. But it doesn’t fare as well back on the ground, rolling noticeably during brisk cornering and generally behaving like a much larger car. But considering the array of creature comforts-tilt steering wheel, seven seat controls, T-tops-the Z is ideal for the driver who wants some sports car performance mixed with luxury car feel.
The first few times you slide behind the wheel of a Mazda RX-7, you find yourself looking around for a green flag. The driving position is nearly perfect, and the $16,000 Sport Package model imitates a race car quite nicely, thank you. Exactly how responsive is it? Well, merely thinking about switching lanes causes the car to dan to the left. The twin-rotary engine won’t give you whiplash, but it winds happily to the 7,000-rpm redline. On the other hand, the interior is a bit gimmicky, amenities don’t include items such as power windows, and the seats are a tad cramped.
Storage capacity isn’t the top-or even the twentieth-selling point of the mid-engined Toyota MR2. In an emergency, you might be able to carry one passenger and a Big Mac, but that’s pretty much the limit. More caveats: the interior is made on the cheap side and the ride’s a bit rough. The good news is that the MR2 is a gas to drive. It’s incredibly nimble, the gearbox is a dream, the four-valves-per-cylinder engine revs like crazy, and the car virtually demands to be thrown around with wild abandon. At $13,000 (sans AC and stereo), the MR2 provides more bang for the buck than any other sports car on the market.
Last and least-$7,100 for the cheapest model-is the Suzuki Samurai. Okay, so it’s not exactly a sports car; it’s a four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle. And okay, so it’s not exactly a two-seater; it has two front seats and a bench in the back, and you can carry a family of four as long as you put your children up for adoption when they’re four feet tall. What the Samurai is, is lots of fun at a bargain-basement price. It’s fast enough for the highway, and it will go just about anywhere else. Still, you may be a trifle disconcerted by the teeth-rattling ride.
Price-no-object winner: are you kidding? Anybody who wouldn’t jump in the Ferrari and disappear before you can say “Testarossa” shouldn’t even consider owning a sports car.
Price-conscious winner: the Mazda RX-7 is a bargain, and it’s as practical a two-seater as you’re likely to find.
SO YOU OWN FOURTEEN OIL WELLS, AND EACH OF THEM is producing forty-two barrels a day. Or you don’t own any oil wells, and you invested all the money you didn’t sink into dry holes into IBM at $22 a share, Or Ed McMahon just called to say you’ve just won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Or whatever. The point is that you’ve got the money, honey, and you don’t care who knows it. And thus did God create luxury cars. Determining Dallas’s most popular luxury car is as easy as examining the parking lot at the renowned Routh Street Cafe. Owner/chef/car buff Stephan Pyles lists BMW as the second-most popular car, Jaguar third, “all the rest” fourth, and Rolls-Royce fifth. First, by a large margin, is Mercedes-Benz. “It’s definitely a status symbol,” he said.
The Mercedes with the most clout is the top-of-the-line 560SEL, the luxo-cruiser that Pyles recently test drove around Dallas. He was impressed with the power of the 238-horsepower engine, the size of the interior, the comfort of the leather seats, the thoroughness of the Teutonic attention to detail. “It’s a great car to ride in. It drives very smoothly at 70-as well it should for $60,000,” he said after jumping on the highway. “It’s a little like driving a tank-a comfortable tank with all the amenities.”
Pyles is an automobile enthusiast who learned to drive at the age of ten. “Besides the restaurants, the two most important things to me are my home and my car,” he said. “I want a nice, soft bed and a good car.” When he decided to step up from a Toyota two years ago, he considered a Mercedes but eventually chose a smaller, more agile BMW 325e. Much as he liked certain aspects of the 560SEL, he said the Mercedes wasn’t for him. “I like sports cars,” he explained. “This is too comfortable for me.”
The Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro and the Volvo 760 GLE Turbo are flip sides of the same coin. Both sell in the same price range-the Audi for $32,000, the Volvo for $28,000. Both feature cavernous, accommodating interiors. (It’s hard to drive with your elbow out the window in either of them unless you’ve got an arm the length of most people’s thigh bone.) Both are equipped with turbocharged engines. And both perform astonishingly well considering their size and elegance.
The Audi is the car for technoid gadget-freaks. The instrument cluster would seem at home in a small jet, and the climate control mechanism looks as if it could blow up the world if you hit the wrong combination of buttons. Despite its size, the Audi has the feel of a smaller car. To the good is the responsive handling. To the bad is the almost harsh ride.
The Volvo is sprung more softly. In fact, it has something ap-proaching the highway feel of an American luxury car circa 1972. On the other hand, it gets up and goes-and stops-very quickly indeed. The interior isn’t exactly homey, but you wouldn’t mind living in it for a few hours. Particularly worthy of comment are the leather seats.
Dropping down to $21,000 brings you to the price range of the Peugeot STI V6 and the Acura Legend. Besides prices, the two share similar engines-a 145-horsepower V-6 in the Peugeot and a 151-horsepower V-6 in the Honda-built Acura. Other than that, the cars embody the differences between the Gallic and Japanese approaches to luxury cars.
The Peugeot is very much an Old World car. The seats are almost immorally comfortable; Peugeot could do all right in the furniture business with them. The body styling dates back several years, and while it’s trim and tasteful, it’s almost anti-contemporary. Although it’s an agile-enough car, the Peugeot does best as a highway cruiser-smooth and quiet.
The Acura Legend is very much a car of the mid-Eighties. The exterior, though bland, is clearly modern, and the interior is chock-full of all sorts of up-to-date touches. Honda’s legendary attention to detail is evident throughout the Legend-a hydraul-ically assisted hood, pop-up coat hangers, pre-drilled holes for child-safety seats. Road feel is pleasantly soft, but the car can motor quickly indeed if that’s your heart’s desire.
Price-no-object and price-conscious winners: too close to call between the Audi and the Volvo, Actually, there are no dogs in this litter. But ain’t they-well, plain?
YOU LIVE A CERTIFIABLY YUPPIFIED LIFE AS AN ATTOR-ney or middle manager or university student. You’re content with your work, but in your heart of hearts, you know that life is more than the daily grind and the occasional foreign flick. So you decide you’ll indulge yourself by buying a new car, one that’s something more than a sports car but less than a luxury car. You can call it a peppy preppy.
The leader of this pack is unquestionably the baby Bimmer, the BMW 325. (Exhibit A is the SMU parking lot.) Although the car comes in a four-door configuration, we let Texas Rangers jack-of-all-trades Geno Petralli loose in the sportier two-door version for a spin near Arlington Stadium. Petralli normally drives an Audi 5000S. and he normally drives it tranquilly. While slowly making his way through the five-speed gearbox, he confided, “As far as my wife’s concerned, we’re already over the speed limit.” But the Simmer’s got a way of getting the blood circulating. The roomy but simple interior has the feeling of a car that ought to be driven quickly, and the perfectly positioned steering wheel begs to be twisted. Pretty soon, Petralli was tooling down Highway 360 at 80. Next, it was onto a makeshift test track, where he checked out the Bimmer’s anti-lock braking. ’That’s incredible,” he said, wide-eyed, after a few panic stops. By the time he began lapping con brio on a deserted oval, the racing juices were flowing. “This thing handles great.” he said. “If I were going to commit a crime, this would be great for a getaway.”
At $22,500, the BMW is the most expensive car in this class. The others-the Saab 900, Honda Accord LXi, Volkswagen Jet-ta GLI. Isuzu Impulse Turbo, and Alfa Romeo Milano-all run close to $15,000. But the similarity ends there.
The most popular is probably the Accord, which combines its economical heritage with top-of-the-line trimmings. It comes with power moonroof, central locking, and so on, but the interior has the look of a less expensive car. The LXi, equipped with the fuel-injected version of the 2-liter engine found in other Accords, performs energetically, but the handling never makes you pine for a racecourse. The car’s worst vice is that it does nothing extraordinarily. Its greatest virtue is that it does so many things well,
The most eye-catching car in this category is the Impulse. This, indisputably, is the car Fernando Lamas would drive. The elegant body dates back to 1979, and Isuzu has had the rare intelligence to leave well enough alone since then. Inside, the instrument cluster features a staggering variety of multicolored lights, push buttons, switches, rotating balls, and slides. With the long, sloping hood, the car seems bigger than it is when you start driving. The car handles pleasantly but not quite nimbly, but the turbo provides a welcome kick in the pants.
The most practical car is the Saab 900. It has the most solid feel. When you’re driving, partly because you seem to be sitting high enough to command the road, the Saab envelops you with a sense of safety and well-being. The car is roomy in front-great seats, by the way-and can comfortably fit two adults in the back. Handling is closer to a Peterbilt than a Lamborghini, but then so’s the price. The major markdown is the appearance of the Saab, which has the kind of looks that only a mother could love.
The spunkiest car of the bunch is the VW Jetta GLI. The interior is tastefully done, and the dashboard contains easy-to-read gauges and easy-to-reach controls. The seemingly elevated driving position imparts a feeling of safety. Cornering isn’t as precise as you’d expect in a sports car, but it’s almost as much fun. Even when the Jetta is bouncing around-and it will-you know exactly what it will do next. The back seat provides ample space for two adults, and the trunk seems almost large enough to carry a motorcycle.
The most impressive-though as yet least popular-car is probably the Milano, which Alfa introduced last year to almost unanimous acclaim. Although the jury is still out on dependability, the car is clearly a burner. Beneath its unassuming-and downright quirky-four-door body beats a 154-horse-power V-6 engine that will do 130 mph. Handling is squarely in the Alfa tradition, which is to say graceful but with quite a bit of body roll during brisk cornering. The in-terior is pleasant and well integrated, and the steering wheel telescopes in and out. Don’t plan to keep adults in the back seats on crosscountry trips.
Price-no-object winner: the Bimmer is clearly the class of the field-sporty yet comfortable, good-looking yet reliable.
Price-conscious winner: there are no losers in the field, but the nod goes to the Milano. The car is a steal at the price.