Unbelievable excitement ensues as two Seattleites prepare for a baby!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Driving with Chris: Cadillac, Mini, and Mercedes

The 400-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V

One of the small but satisfying perks of my job is to borrow, thrash, and then return various expensive and shiny vehicles.

Some (such as the Audi S4 convertible, Pontiac GTO, and BMW 645Ci) are more exciting than others (Kia Spectra5, Suzuki Grand Vitara), but all are interesting in their own way.

This week, I'll discuss the last three cars to pass through my greedy little fingers - the Cadillac CTS-V, the Mini Cooper S convertible, and the Mercedes-Benz E350.

The CTS-V is Cadillac's hot-rod compact - think the ill-fated Cadillac Cimarron with better build quality and a Saturn V rocket bolted onto the roof. With a stiff chassis, suspension tuning tested by Germany's legendary Nurburgring circuit, a six-speed manual transmission, and a 400-horsepower small-block LS6 engine borrowed from Chevy's Corvette, the CTS-V is a world-class performer. Even with the traction control on, I found it difficult to avoid smoking the tires at every opportunity - perhaps because I wasn't trying all particularly hard to avoid it. The car handled very well, and had enough torque to give the car right now throttle response. What's amazing for a GM product, the seats were both supportive and comfortable - although Leigh didn't think so, as she tried to haul her pregnant frame out of the car.

So what could be wrong with a European-tuned sports sedan with a rumbling high-horsepower V-8? Unfortunately, a few niggling annoyances mean that GM isn't ready to take on the BMW M-series cars or the AMG Mercedes offerings just yet. GM's oft-lamented 1-4 skip shift, in which under all but full-throttle situations the gearshift directs the driver from first to fourth gear, makes the car seem almost mulish in its unwillingness to follow the driver's lead. Frustration almost invariably ensued when the car tried to force me into fourth - a gear in which I most assuredly did not want to be.

The ergonomics, while better than most GM cars, were still a weak point in comparison with this car's competition. The operation of the center console computer system, with its integrated navigation and audio controls, is as opaque as any system I have yet used. Trying to enter a new destination creates a level of frustration equaled only by that incurred by the recalcitrant shifter. Fie upon you, GM! Fie!

Niggling details like that are all that is necessary to take such a great package - an all-American buttoned-down four-door with a grin-widening, fly the flags small-block V-8 - and make it into a slight disappointment.

The Mini Cooper S convertible could hardly have been more different from the Cadillac. From a serious, overpowered four-door to a cartoonish, tinny convertible, the adjustment was rather drastic.

Once that adjustment was made, however, the Mini was fairly endearing. The engine was short on ultimate horsepower, but after zinging the four-cylinder into the upper registers of the tachometer, it was sufficient to move the little Mini fairly rapidly. The degree of attitude adjustment possible with a convertible on a beautiful Seattle summer day is also rather remarkable. The Mini provides a reasonable approximation of a road-going Formula Vee car - all eagnerness and reflexes, no muscle - and what could be more entertaining than that?

The Mini is without doubt a fun car; but the open-top version doesn't make a lot of sense as anything other than a weekend toy or a fair-weather commuter. The interior, though attractive and novel at first blush, becomes a bit garish upon close examination and is put together with a poor grade of plastic that will likely warp and fade with age. The back seats are suitable only for quadruple amputees; the trunk would have difficulty accommodating anything more voluminous than, say, two briefcases stacked on top of each other. What's more, with the top up, it's noisy, not particularly fun, and - a cardinal sin for this car - heinously ugly.

My friend Rod and I also learned another lesson about the Mini - when two males drive around in a convertible Mini, certain assumptions are made about both their proclivities and the nature of their relationship. We put hip-hop on the radio in a feeble attempt to counteract the effect, but the skeptical glances thrown our way as we drove through Seattle let us know that we were doing more harm than good.

In moving from the Mini to the Mercedes-Benz E350 , we made a shift from a wide, irreverent grin, to a cool, measuring stare - from an eager, bouncing puppy to an emotionless, detached hit man.

Aside from the price (more than $50,000), there are few downsides to the E350 - it is not as quick as the CTS, not as nimble as the Mini, not as overtly sporting as a BMW 5-series, but it is roomy, effortlessly smooth, aggressively quick when called upon, and sumptuously comfortable.

While it's not a sports car, tromping on the throttle elicits smooth shifts from the seven-speed automatic and muted aggression from the E350's 272-horsepower V-6 as the midsize sedan effortlessly leaps up to extra-legal speeds. The interior is just as nice - driver and passengers are swaddled in premium leather, and the instrumentation is easy to read.

It's my pleasure to note, however, that despite the E350's muscle, our Honda Accord V-6 (240 horsepower!) is only a tenth of a second or two slower to 60 mph.


Blogger mrclm said...

I can give you some great feedback on the Kia Spectra5 if you want it. That's what we got for our rental after you dropped us off. I've put it through some good stuff (off-road dirt path high speed racing through the forest at 5200 ft. outside of Port Angelis, WA). The one we picked up had 1200 miles on it, so it's new. Our is a hatchback auto black with few options (no cruise control!!)

Big Chris
Because I said so blog

9:34 PM

Blogger mrclm said...

Oh yeah, and if you are 6'3 and approaching 300lbs, riding in the back seat of the Benz E350 is quite comfortable. Getting into the back seat is pretty easy too. Getting out requires some work however.

9:40 PM

Blogger Chris Hafner said...

Ah, the Kia Spectra5 - it's not truly in its element until the tail is being hung out at 90 mph on a narrow, sinuous gravel road, with gravel pinging off the undercarriage and the four-cylinder zinging off the rev limiter.


Not that I'd know, of course.

11:26 PM

Blogger Chris Hafner said...

While attempting to respond, I inadvertently deleted a post by "Booby Brown" decrying the fact that I did not include a Daewoo Leganza in my car reviews. Many apologies, Mr. Brown - please feel free to re-post your comments.

It's a pertinent complaint, "Booby." Many apologies, both for zapping your post and for passing over the sadly overlooked Daewoo - truly one of the great cars of our age.

"Booby" also had a few additional comments about the emasculating properties of the Mini Cooper S convertible - and the message it sends to local single women. I wholeheartedly second his (now-deleted) message.

Given the fact that, under another name, this is the same guy who pulled a handbrake turn in a Hyundai Elantra at about 40 mph with me in the car, I can safely say that Booby's "chutzpah" is beyond reproach.

11:35 PM


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