1989 Mercury Sable GS
Engine: 3.0 liter V-6; 140 hp, 160 lb-ft
Transmission: 4 speed automatic, column shift
This was my mom’s old car, not mine, so so I can’t really say I owned it but I still consider the old thing my first car. Mom traded “up” for a Plymouth minivan, so I became the only driver and I took the car from 50,000 miles as a 16-year-old until 110,000 miles, when I was 19, at which point it most certainly had one foot in the grave and it was probably entirely my fault.
These pictures are not of my Sable. They’re of another one, but it’s the same color. The one pictured is has edgy paint, whereas my Sable had immaculate paint because I constantly washed and waxed the thing, complete with the occasional clay bar treatment. I know, I know, it’s just a Sable, but it was my Sable and I wanted it looking nice.
I know it’s weird to think about today, but in 1989 the Sable was a pretty wild and modern looking thing, nearly a concept car for the street. See that piece of clear molding between the headlights? Yep, it lights up. The headlights went all the way across, baby. As modern as that was, the Sable still retained a relic of earlier automotive days with cornering lamps, which were lights that came on with the turn signals to help better light up the corner. Overall the car had a very polished look, with sweeping lines, which was a big deviation from the chiseled look of so many 80s cars and was an early harbinger of the 1990s “lozenge” look, when cars started to look increasingly like jelly beans. Very modern stuff.
As you might expect, the Sable drove like a dog. It was underpowered, it understeered to a ridiculous degree, rolled way over in corners, and buried its nose and threw its ass way into the air during hard braking, which was terrifying. On top of that, this being 1989, there was no ABS, no traction control, no airbags, and no stability control. Basically the Sable forced me to learn how to drive correctly, or else die a fiery death. For instance, my first drive in snow was in the Sable. I came to the first corner, a 90 degree turn, and not knowing that snow is really slippery and speed is not your friend in snow, I turned the wheel like I normally would and the car dutifully plowed straight into a cornfield. No harm done, and lesson learned. Later that year, in the summer, I learned a very similar lesson on a freeway ramp, also no harm done and pants only barely soiled. My lesson on proper braking came on a very twisty back road, when I was traveling way too fast, and I crested a hill which made the car very light, noticed a mailman stopped ahead, and with no room to go around I jammed the brakes, leaving two giant black stripes while the tires howled their way all the way to his bumper. Thankfully I had slowed sufficiently to make the crash nothing more than a love tap, and again, thank god, no harm done. Yes, the mailman yelled at me and yes I deserved it. Lesson: don’t lock up your brakes.
So yeah, I cut my teeth on this car. Probably a good thing its performance limits were so crappy, especially with a 16 year old driver. I actually really miss the old girl, imperfect as she was. It was a car with a big bench seat and a big back seat, which were used for all the usual teenage things. I pulled apart the dash to install the obligatory 90s cd player stereo, and install crappier-than-stock speakers in the doors and rear deck. My dad helped me drill the underside of the front bumper and install a pair of very cool fog lights, which, trust me, only really cool cars had at the time and of course made me really cool. Again, teenage things. The Sable was the car that launched me into car culture, as humble a beginning as it was. The car got under my skin, and after I had experienced driving, I was hooked for life.
1996 BMW 328i
1992 Mercedes-Benz 400SE
Engine: 4.2 liter V-8, 275 hp
Transmission: automatic 4-speed
My BMW 328i had reached 145,000 miles and it was aging, badly. I had a few rounds of body work done on the car, mostly from being hit while it was parked. But then a roommate backed his truck into it, complete with the trailer hitch, which speared my back bumper and truly screwed things up. I think that was the last straw. It was time to say goodbye.
I don’t honestly remember what I was thinking when I bought the big white Mercedes-Benz 400SE. Certainly I didn’t want another black car. Black cars can work in some places, but in Utah, dust and dirt makes cars filthy even if you don’t drive them, even if they’re in your garage. It’s maddening. So I went with white.
I guess everyone wants a flashy and impressive looking car at least once. The Mercedes 400SE (later rebadged as the S400) is that kind of car. To this day, no S-class Benz has ever looked more imposing or more stately than the 1990s models. They were huge, over engineered hunks of German steel, and even today you can see them in movies hauling heads of state or mob bigwigs. So naturally, as a 25-year-old, I had to have one. And this one had big, 19″ chrome AMG-ish wheels that looked almost like the real thing. Clearly I had arrived, except that the car was already 13 years old.
The best thing about the Benz was the details. The windows were double-pane, so they wouldn’t fog up and they made the cabin extra quiet. When in reverse, two little corner markers would rise up from the back end, like tiny radio antennas, to show me where the car’s giant ass was sitting. But my favorite feature was a heater that would continue to warm the interior, when parked, for about a half hour during the winter. I could park, trudge through snow, go into a store, poke around for a while, and return to a toasty warm car. It was glorious.
The 4.2 liter V-8 wasn’t exactly a fuel sipper, but it was rather powerful. And the ride was as you’d expect it to be: smoooooth. (Of course it could have been smoother without those silly 19″ wheels.) On the highway this car could just glide. And it was a real autobahn stormer; sustained high speeds were effortless. When it was time to round a corner, well, that wasn’t the car’s strong suit, but I never expected it to be. I honestly don’t remember ever hustling the car on a back road. It wasn’t that kind of beast. It existed solely to pamper.
The Mercedes included all the electrical gremlins I’ve come to expect from a German car. Every once in a while, for no reason at all, it would go into limp mode, which would cut engine power by 2/3 and wouldn’t shift into top gear. I had to pull over, restart the car a few times, and the problem would go away. Idiot lights became just part of my everyday life. And for some reason, the 90s Mercedes interpretation of “traction control” meant “shut off the drivetrain” at the first sign of wheel slippage. For this reason I once became stuck on a level roadway, in rush hour traffic, with my foot in the gas and my wheels stopped. The honking was merciless, and probably deserved.
One time it failed emissions, not because it was smoky, but because the shop couldn’t get the traction control to play nice with the test equipment. I took it to the dealer (!) to fix the problem. Oh, they managed to get it to pass, but not until after a $3,500 repair. They even removed the entire dash and pulled apart the wood trim to replace a single electrical switch, which I didn’t ask them to do and had nothing to do with emissions. Since that day, I require printed quotes from car shops, and they have to get written permission from me if the repair will deviate from the quote by even a dollar.
After a while, I just couldn’t afford to keep repairing the car, so I traded it in for another BMW 3-series. My time with an old S-class Mercedes was wonderful in so many ways, and I really do miss it. This is one that I wish hadn’t gotten away, but as a younger man with a very limited income, I had no other choice.
2006 Ford F-150
Engine: 5.4 liter V-8, 300 hp, 365 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 5-speed
A pickup truck? Seriously. Yes sir, there once was a time when a joined the mudflap crowd and this Ford F-150 was the start of it. See the trailer? Yep, that was mine. It was a 19 footer and weighed in at about 4,500 pounds loaded with water and all my shit. The truck, too, was about the same length, if you include the trailer’s tongue, and it towed the thing mighty fine. And that was with a four wheeler in the bed.
The F-150 started life as a work-only truck intended for the many truckly duties that my growing ecommerce company required. Namely, not much. But it was 2008 and with construction dead, there was a glut of unemployed white work trucks on the market and we basically stole the thing from someone who was desperate to be rid of it. You’d never get a deal like that on a truck today, but their loss was our gain.
The F-150 was originally a joint ownership arrangement between my business partner and me. Either of us could drive it whenever we needed, but the truck needed to stay at work. You know, it being a work truck and all. So it dutifully sat in the parking lot of our little warehouse night after night, out in the open, in a less-than-desirable part of town. Apparently it proved to be too much temptation for some passer-by one night, and he took it upon himself to grab a gas can and a drill and help himself to the contents of the poor truck’s fuel tank. Or part of it, at least. Probably he took as much as the gas can could hold, then was nice enough to allow the remainder to spill out into the parking lot, permanently staining the asphalt.
After that, and with a fresh $800 gas tank installed, the truck started coming home from work, usually to my house. This is when it started to become “my truck. ” It was really mine when we bought a similar one for my business partner and I was off and running as a full blown truck owner. I kept the logo on the door, which I’ve blacked out in the pictures because, aww, you wouldn’t care which company it was anyway.
With all the new bed space and towing capacity I woke up one day and needed a travel trailer. Then I needed four wheelers. And so on and so on until I was honestly living the middle-american white person’s dream. It eventually turned out that I didn’t really love that life, but it was a fun to walk the walk and talk the talk of the sort of person who has a big truck and a trailer and four wheelers. I learned all sorts of new skills, like how to back a trailer and how to not fuck up your truck while towing and how to drive up ramps on a four wheeler into the bed. I learned not to drop the tailgate onto a trailer’s tongue and dent it, and how to tie things down properly. I also learned that crew cab rear seats are just for fun and not for people, that trucks are simply the shittiest driving vehicles on the planet (aside from Jeeps) and that that doesn’t really matter, and I learned that while dirt roads are just peachy, trucks are not off road vehicles. They also park like shit, brake like shit, back up like shit, and yet somehow manage to be surprisingly fun to drive.
This F-150 had the long 8′ bed, which made life interesting. My wife would not drive it, mainly because of the parking and backing situation (which made her cry once), but also because she felt like a line-dancing, tobacco chewing hick just sitting in the thing and that would not do. I also installed a leveling kit, which lifted up the front end and made the truck ride parallel to the road, which made it look cooler, and I put on 285 tires because, hey, this is Utah, the land of the lifted full-size truck.
In the end I idiotically decided that, strong as it was, the F-150 was just not quite strong enough so I obviously needed something even stronger and traded up to a 3/4 diesel bastard of a machine that got appalling gas mileage and could tow a house behind it. So out with my lovely F-150 and in with the F-250, which I never really liked as much.
2004 BMW 325i
2008 Nissan 350Z
Engine: 3.5 liter V-6, 306 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed
I purchased the 350Z because I was bored with my BMW 325i and I wanted a sports car. The 325i was just so polished and polite that it became too boring. I bought the car used from Larry H Miller Dodge in Provo, Utah. It had about 30,000 miles.
I apparently didn’t do enough research ahead of time, because I didn’t realize that this one was somewhat modified from stock: it had aftermarket intakes and tasteful but louder exhaust. The changes made an already rowdy car into a snorting, roaring, angry brute. Driving it was visceral. I once gave a girl a ride who “loved Z cars.” She was talkative and excited, even chipper, until I went through three full gears on a freeway ramp, with that angry, violent engine roaring its head off to 7500 RPM, over and over. It must have scared her because she went quiet after that. But that’s a Z. It’s not polite. It’s not nice. There may be faster cars, but no cars are meaner.
The 350Z was a toy. There was zero practicality. In addition to my truck, it was basically a daily driver. I thought it would all work out, but after a while the 350Z became too much for daily use. Its suspension hammered my spine every day; its engine shouted in my ears every day; it was wonderful, but in the end, it was too much. A very elated college student ended up receiving it as a graduation present from his father, and my Z was gone forever.
In retrospect, I sort of miss my 350Z. If I could go back in time, I’d be excited to drive it again, but I’d never want it back for good. Well, okay, maybe I’d want it back as a once-a-month toy. That I could handle and enjoy.
2012 Nissan Xterra Pro-4X
Engine: 4.0 liter V-6, 265 hp
2008 Ford F-250 Diesel
Engine: 6.4 liter twin-turbodiesel V-8, 350 hp, 650 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 5-speed
Any heavy-duty diesel truck basically exists for towing. If it’s being used for anything besides towing, it’s out of its element. That’s what I learned from my F-250.
And oh, how this truck could tow. I pulled off the road, on an uphill 6% grade, with a loaded trailer behind me, and when I started driving again the truck simply accelerated like there was no trailer at all. Corners with a trailer? No problem. Hard corners with a trailer? Downhill? Not advisable, but completely stable anyway. A stupid-huge truck with a big diesel engine makes you unstoppable.
That was the point of my F-250, and it 100% delivered. Ford, Chevy, Dodge, whatever. To me they’re pretty much the same. Big Diesel = Sherman tank. And this particular truck didn’t have carpet; the floor was rubber. The seats were shitty vinyl,and they were bench seats of course. It was a big, giant, ugly, utilitarian thing without an ounce of luxury or class. And I was kind of fine with that.
For a sports car guy, the F-250 was a rather strange beast. And of course I hustled it on back roads, just for kicks. In case you’re wondering, yes, it seriously understeers, and no, you won’t know when the tires are about to slip. In fact, the steering communicates precisely 0% of what’s going on with the chassis. Turbo lag was UGLY and I never knew when the power would come, which made back road blasts … educational. But its incredible load capacity meant there was very little body roll in corners. So there was that.
After a while I decided to lift the truck, but only a little. So I had a leveling kit installed, along with the larger rear blocks from an F-350, which lifted the whole rig about two inches. (Ford dealers often have rear blocks from 1-ton trucks sitting around. Just ask. I got mine for free.) Then I put on 285 tires which made me feel tough, then removed the side steps, and then I had a kind of tough truck.
Trouble was, I wasn’t towing with it very much. In fact, I I found I was rarely towing with it, when I actually thought about it. Realistically, this truck almost solely existed to take my ass to work every day, along with the weight of its engine, an eight foot bed, a big back seat, those huge tires, and its own hulking mass. It was a silly tonnage of equipment operating just to haul a jackass like me.
I’m not the Prius-driving, carbon-footprint-conscious environmental-type, to be sure. But at a certain point of inefficiency — 11 MPG, on average, to carry one person — it becomes irresponsible. For me, this Ford reached that point. So I traded in this loud, clattering, giant beast of a truck for a 40 MPG Mazda3 (see below), and I never looked back. I don’t miss my F-250 at all.
Well, except when I’m towing with my Nissan Xterra. Then I miss it just a teeny little bit.
2006 Porsche Boxster (987)
Engine: 2.7 liter flat-6, 237 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed
At the edge of traction on the racetrack, with tires howling, exhaust screaming, and the guy at a flag station whipping around to see what was coming, I knew without a doubt that the Boxster was the most perfect car I had ever driven in my life, and it still is. Car magazines swoon over mid-engine cars for a good reason, the balance and handling is mind boggling. No, really. It’s that good. A week earlier I had been on the same racetrack in a track-prepped Mustang GT and it was ridiculous how much easier the unmodified Boxster was to drive fast. Its limits are just stupid high.
I bought the Boxster to replace my motorcycles. After about 30,000 miles of incident-free, wonderful and beautiful riding I decided one day to stop the insanity and quit riding while I was ahead. I love motorcycles so I wanted the closest thing on four wheels to a motorcycle, and the Porsche Boxster seemed to be the right choice, since it was fast, could handle, and it had no roof. So I sold my bikes, six of them, and rolled this pewter beauty into the garage in their place.
Something you need to know about Porsches is that they ruin you for life. You’ll never again be happy with something else. Believe me, I tried. (I replaced this Boxster with a Miata and I traded it for another Porsche in less than six months.) My advice? Just buy a Porsche and let it ruin you. You’ll be glad you did.
The Boxster was my first convertible, and I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. Turns out, I love convertibles and I basically require that one be in my garage to this day. Like a motorcycle, convertibles are a visceral experience. You smell, hear, and see everything with the top down, and I forced myself to always drive with the top down. If the weather didn’t allow it, I wouldn’t drive it. My minimum temperature was 40 degrees, five degrees below my minimum on a motorcycle, because in a car you can always crank the heat and turn on the heated seats. Below that, if I was on a road trip, I would capitulate and raise the top. But I didn’t like it.
Here’s a top-down tip for extended drives: wear earplugs. Convertibles are loud, especially at speed. No earplugs: hard miles. Earplugs: easy miles. With earplugs all the cares of the world just fade away and you’re taken to a happy place of quiet bliss where you can just watch the world drift by. You can still hear everything with plugs in anyway, but it’s all just quieter.
So, the Boxster. How does it drive? Well, it’s excellent in every possible performance category except perhaps luggage space and interior noise. Brakes are strong, immediate, and easy to modulate. It has incredible grip, nearly neutral handling, and progressive traction loss at speed. The body stays flat both when braking and when cornering. Acceleration from the base Boxster flax six was, for a sports car, adequate but it never feels slow. Besides, the exhaust sounds monstrous and glorious all at once so revving and accelerating is pure exhilaration. And there is nothing like that Porsche flat six sound. Subaru’s boxer engines aren’t even playing the same sport, much less playing in Porsche’s league. No way. Add to all this two generous trunks, one fore and one aft, that make road trips a breeze. You can even have his and hers, if necessary.
I can’t speak positively enough about the Boxster. If you’re considering one, buy the damn thing. If you’re considering a Miata, drive a Boxster before making your decision.
In the end, the IMS bearing gremlins (affecting Boxsters, Caymans and Carreras from 2000-2008 and requiring an engine replacement if it fails) frightened me out of the car. Porsches are known for reliability, but I wouldn’t consider a car built during those years. Many people feel differently and drive the cars anyway and some people pony up the cash to mostly-fix the problem with an improved IMS bearing and shaft. For me, I always felt like a failure was sneaking up on me and I decided to sell the car. I was devastated to see it go and I miss it dearly. When I drove away after selling it, I looked back probably half a dozen times. I replaced it with a Miata which just wasn’t the same, and good as it was, a Miata ain’t no Porsche. Today I have a 2012 Carrera and I’m learning to love it as much as I loved my Boxster. Cheers to that car for being so damned perfect.
2012 Mazda3 5-Door
Engine: 2.0 liter SKYACTIV-G inline-4, 155 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed
When I bid good riddance to my giant Ford F-250 diesel, its garage slot became occupied by this car, a 2012 Mazda3 hatchback. Where the truck was terribly inefficient, this car was decidedly efficient. It managed a real-world 38 MPG on the highway as long as I stayed at 65 MPH.
The Mazda3 was a big change from the BMWs and sports cars I had owned previously. Instead of being a euro sports sedan, it was a Japanese economy car. That comes with significantly diminished panache, but I’d read good things about the Mazda3 so I decided to take a chance on the car. The Mazda3 was reviewed to be a pretty sporty little car, even fun to drive, so I picked up a brand new hatchback model with a manual transmission.
I knew from the start that the Mazda would be a slow car, and it was slow, especially since I’d selected the 2.0 liter SKYACTIV engine which made only 155 horsepower. But to me the engine wasn’t the point of the car. The point was handling.
And handle it did. Let’s start with this: the Mazda3 steered as well as my E36 BMW 3-Series (yes, one with the sport package). Not too bad for an econobox. Steering was simply point-and-shoot, and the car turned in nicely and only wanted to push when it reached its limit. The tires were of the low-resistance variety, but they held on well for what they were, and when they did start to slip, they lost traction very progressively. My only gripe was the high-ish seating position, in rather chair-like seats, that gave me the impression that I was riding on top of the car rather than inside it. It was unnerving at first and took some time to get used to.
Several times I considered modifying the car to make it even more suitable for the racetrack. I wanted larger wheels shod with sticky low-profile summer tires. I also wanted to replace the rear anti-roll bar with a firmer one, and install significantly stiffer suspension. But the Mazda3 lived in the garage next to my Porsche Boxster, so I already had a sports car with fantastic on-track manners. So in the interest of keeping my daily driver more livable, and not risk destroying its value, I left it unmodified.
The downfall of my Mazda3 was caused not by the car’s ability to drive — it drove excellently — but only because it was a little car and a relatively cheap one. After a while I couldn’t stand a compact car any longer, especially as a daily driver. I wanted something bigger and more luxurious, but as close as possible to the Mazda3. So I traded it in for a beautiful new Mazda6, which was an all-new model at the time. It was a car that retained nearly all of the Mazda3’s strengths while suffering from few of its weaknesses. I ended up very happy with my choice.
2014 Mazda6 Grand Touring
Engine: 2.5 liter SKYACTIV-G inline-4, 184 hp
Transmission: automatic 6-speed (*sigh*)
Behold the Mazda6, far and away the best non-sports car I’ve ever owned. I traded in my Mazda3 for it after only one year, and I’m so glad I did.
It’s got one helluva resume. Let’s start with steering. While its electric steering doesn’t have quite the perfection of my Mazda3’s hydraulic system, wheel effort loads up nicely, and I never have to wonder what the tires are doing. There’s no dead spot on-center, and the car reacts to inputs right now. Steering assist is a little too boosted for my taste, but it’s an easy flaw to forgive.
The brakes are a lot like the steering. Nearly perfect, that is. They stop hard and they’re incredibly easy to modulate. There’s absolutely no numbness in the pedal.
Handling follows suit. The Mazda6 is a big car, there’s no getting around it, but for a car its size and with its primary mission, you can seriously hustle this machine. There’s a lot more understeer dialed in than I’d like, but it’s not more than I’d expect. Full tilt, the front does want to push out, but the car will rotate with proper input. Thankfully the stability control doesn’t nanny too much, and you can switch it off completely.
Then there’s the comfort. The largeness of the car becomes a blessing on long trips, and its interior is attractive, quiet, and pleasant. Here is a car that can take you 600 miles in a day, at triple digit speeds if you wish, yet it manages to be fun on a back road. 38 MPG is easily attainable if I keep my speed and throttle in check.
In short, I love the Mazda6. It will be a tough car to say goodbye to.
Sure, it has shortcomings. First of all, it’s slow. Not Subaru Outback slow (thank god), but its 184 hp feels adequate at best. The exhaust note is mildly throaty but the engine itself sounds like a 2-stroke weed whacker when wound up; there’s nothing exciting about its soundtrack. It’s also front wheel drive which is, well, boring, but par for the course for midsize sedans. The transmission is automatic, unfortunately. It does have shift paddles and while the shifts are pretty quick, cog changes don’t come quite fast enough to really be fun. They’re simply sporty-ish.
But you know what? I don’t care. The Mazda6’s strengths are so strong that I don’t think about its weaknesses. I’ve owned a lot of cars that I liked, but didn’t love. That’s not the case with the Mazda6. It’s a car that’s easy to love while remaining easy to live with.
UPDATE 11/2017: I cheated on the Mazda6 with a dark, beautiful, younger Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and as as it happens so often with me, I traded in the Mazda and bid it farewell. It really was an it’s-not-you-it’s-me situation: The Mazda never let go of my heart, but my Teutonic obsession eventually pushed Japan out my life completely, which it always was destined to do. As of this writing I have only one non-German car out of eight, my American Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (while Jeep, of course, is owned by the Italians). The Mazda6 was, and will remain, an excellent car. It was guilty of no fault and I’m sure somewhere in my psyche there remains a shred of remorse for expelling such a blameless vehicle, but I’m yet to encounter it.
2014 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 2-Door
Engine: 3.6 liter Pentastar V-6, 285 hp
Transmission: automatic 5-speed
So here we are, face to face with the mighty Jepé (say YEP-ay). Jepé is a bright red 2014 Jeep Wrangler 2-door; he is nothing if not fun, and he is my friend. I had never before in my life owned a car that wasn’t black, white, or some kind of gray between the two. But Jepé is different. He is special. He is RED.
You see, I purchased Jepé to be fun and to look fun and sporty to everyone.
2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Engine: 2.0 liter inline-4, 167 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed
I traded in my Porsche Boxster for this Miata, which was brand new. I must have even been the first one to test drive it. The odometer showed six miles when I drove it off the dealer lot.
The Boxster went out the door because of Porsche’s little “issue” with IMS (intermediate shaft) failures within their flax-six boxer engines, which affected my poor car. So away it went, and in its place entered this car, a tiny little Japanese car with itsy-bitsy amounts of horsepower, but with a huge racing heritage. I was excited to finally be a Miata owner.
Unfortunately the honeymoon only lasted six months. After that, I left the humble Miata for another flax-six Porsche, a flashy Carrera, a car with more than double the horsepower and even more racing heritage.
The Miata was a very good car. It’s the absolute most tossable car I’ve ever driven by far, and that’s saying something. It was stupid-easy to find its limits, and find them I did, over and over. And those limits were possible at stupid-low speeds, which means you could drive it aggressively and you might not even risk a speeding ticket.
But here’s the thing: you can go from almost any car and fall madly in love with a Miata, but you simply cannot replace a Porsche Boxster with a Miata and find any fulfillment. The Miata would leans over in corners to a worrying degree, and that tiny engine just can’t replace a Porsche’s no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise. Once you’ve gone over to Porsche you’ve screwed yourself for life.
The final kicker was, amazingly, luggage space. Porsche won’t win any awards for trunk space, but the Miata’s trunk is almost laughable. That’s no trouble day to day, but if you attempt a road trip, you’re stuck only with what you need to survive. Extra shoes? Yeah right. Are those golf clubs? Get out of town. I completed a couple serious road trips with the Miata, but with two people, storage was a serious problem.
So I bid farewell to my still-new Miata and traded it in for a used Carrera and I’ve never, ever regretted my decision.
2007 Mercury Grand Marquis
Okay, so buying the Mercury Grand Marquis was a bad idea. I’ll admit that. For some reason I waxed romantic about the rustic and throwback underpinnings of the car, what with its body on frame construction and prehistoric solid axle and suspension. I figured the Grand Marquis, which is just a Ford Crown Victoria with half-assed “luxury” styling cues, was the end of an era, a living dinosaur that needed saving, and I could help save it.
The Mercury looked like a massive car, and it was even bigger in person, especially compared to modern mid sizers like an Accord or my Mazda6. Yet when you get inside there’s comically little legroom for the rear seat, and the fronts aren’t as roomy as you’d expect either. I expected something more like a limo than a Corolla, yet from inside you might not know the difference if judged by legroom. Apparently Ford … er, Mercury … decided to trade all that potential interior space for trunk space — you might just be able to stow a Vespa in there. The space was also liberally allocated to the hood area. The little V-8 up front had ample breathing room and plenty of space left over for, oh, probably a toolbox and maybe a small bag.
When I’d drive the thing, the characteristic whirring noise under acceleration would make me giggle a little to myself. “Wow, it sounds just like a New York City taxicab!” And it did sound like one, but the novelty wore off. In fact, I started to loathe the car within two weeks. The body would leeeeeean into corners, and not in a fun way. It did it in a scary way. I expected a quiet car, and it might have been quiet in San Diego, but in Utah with the air conditioner blowing, even on low, the cabin was filled with an irritating amount of fan noise. Plus the interior was ugly, the fabric seats were shitty, it did nothing at all well on-road, and didn’t even perform in an interestingly nostalgic or vintage way.
It was just shit. Ford, you should have killed these things decades ago. Good for you for finally getting around to it. Crown Victorias, Grand Marquis, Continentals, Town Cars, all of ’em are junk. Don’t take the bait. Search your soul if you’re a car-type person looking for something interesting and admit to yourself that you don’t really want one and move on.
Here’s the thing. A vintage Mercedes, for instance, was in its day among the best driving cars on the road. It may be dated and inferior by modern standards, but an old Mercedes still drives like like the quality machine it always was. Old American giganto-sleds, like the Grand Marquis and all its shameful brethren and predecessors from the big three, were always the worst cars on the road and driven today they’re even worse. They were never as quiet or as smooth as you remember. They were just bad.
After a few months my wife’s grandparents’ 1980s Cadillac, which had been on life support for literally a decade and which belonged at the bottom of the ocean, fully and finally died and I was more than happy to offer up the Grand Marquis to them, and at only a small fraction of what I had just paid for it. Good for me, and good for them. They got a big, reliable car with only 60,000 miles, with working heat and air conditioning and which could safely drive on the freeway, which was a big step up, all at a fire sale price, and I got rid of the absolute worst car I have ever driven, much less owned. It was a win-win. Good fucking riddance.
2012 Porsche 911 Carrera (997.2)
Engine: 3.6 liter flat-6, 321 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed
Owned: 2014 – Current
It’s a Porsche 911! This is the car, finally! This is the car that adorned my bedroom walls as a kid, a car that my grandmother can recognize, even without her glasses!
But it’s just not … sigh … my Boxster. It’s a car that I’ve adored my whole life and deeply wanted to love, but in reality, when I finally bought one, I only deeply like.
Let’s back up, because I could give you the wrong impression. This Porsche 911 is a fantastic car. It’s fast. It’s agile. Its steering is telepathic, its grip is amazing, and under full throttle it releases an unearthly howl that would give goosebumps to the most jaded hipster and the most proper librarian. And this is just the base model. That’s right, it’s not an ‘S’ or a ‘GTS’ or a turbo or any of that. The base model is the one that never gets reviewed by any magazine, ever. And it’s even a base-base model, one without any options at all, not even the super-slick double clutch transmission (which I didn’t want). This might be the rarest modern 911 on the road.
I bought this car from Strong Porsche in Salt Lake city, a real Porsche dealership. It was only two years old and had traveled just 11,000 miles. I traded-in my very new Mazda MX-5 Miata for it. (Because, honestly, as great as the Miata is, I’d been ruined by Porsche already and I was doomed to go crawling back. You have been warned.)
But the 911 is a polite car. It’s a smooth little velvet carpet, one with nary an imperfection and only the most charming of flaws, and there are few. And that’s the problem. When subdued, with windows up, it’s as friendly as a Camry. The cabin is quiet and comfortable, even pleasant. I often forget what car I’m driving, sometimes for days.
That is until I mash the gas and unleash the unholy wail of that magical engine, and the violence of it all snaps me out of my slumber. You see, the Porsche 911 is only what I make of it. When I drive it, it enters my world, not the other way around. And that makes it perfectly, wonderfully, just okay.
Even so, I’ll probably keep this car for a long time. It’s an icon, an accomplishment, and a blast to drive hard. It’s not a perfect car, but it’s a car I love to like.
I’m an asshole, I know, to speak negatively of a car that almost anyone would desperately love to take off my hands. And that’s fair. But I’ve learned that even a dream car, when reduced from a flashy poster to my actual garage, might not end up being the perfect car for me after all.
UPDATE: In April and May of 2016, I decided to attempt to remedy the Porsche’s shortcomings with a few tasteful modifications. It has made all the difference.
I took out the mufflers and had a local muffler shop weld in pipes that essentially made the exhaust a partial straight pipe, thereby amplifying the exhaust sound and doing it in basically the same way that Porsche does it with their $5,000 factory sport exhaust system. Now the car barks when I blip the throttle, rumbles a little when I start it, and howls when the throttle is wide open. Perfect! What a difference. To top it off, I removed the ugly factory oval exhaust tips that Porsche uses to punish people who buy base Carreras, and replaced them with dual chrome quad-tip outlets. It’s a subtle change, but it makes the car look surprisingly aggressive.
Secondly, I took apart my whole interior console and installed a factory Porsche short shift kit, which shortened shift throws about 25-30%. The shifter went from pedestrian to downright race-ready. It’s amazing how much little changes can affect the character of the car.
I might one day decide to upgrade the exhaust one step further and remove the small pre-muffler present on these types of Carreras, giving the exhaust even more sound. We’ll see. But in the meantime, the Porsche’s politeness has turned a little more visceral and raw, and that’s a great combination.
Update, July 2016: After living with the modifications for a couple months, I take back every negative thing I said about the car. The car is now a proper sports car (or grand tourer if you’re a dick about the terminology). It sounds and drives like it should. Note to Porsche: please consider a driver’s version of the 911. You know, one for people who don’t see their Carreras as luxury cars, but as sports cars. These cars should be louder, brasher, harsher and angrier versions of the cream puff 911s you’re churning out now. But since Porsche won’t do such a thing because apparently that’s not what Porsche buyers want, please know that every 911 is still a real sports car just beneath the skin and it takes very little modification to morph the car into one that gearheads like you and me want and deserve.
1987 Mercedes-Benz 560SL
Engine: 5.6 liter V-8, 227 hp, 287 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 4-speed
Although my Mercedes-Benz 560SL (R107) is the oldest car I’ve owned and by far the cheapest car I’ve owned, it gathers more attention than any of my cars ever have, including the Porsches. That came as a surprise to me, but nearly every time I’m out, someone compliments the car. Younger people in their teens and 20s especially seem to think it’s some kind of classic, and I guess it kind of is, even though these R107s were made by the boatload and nobody who remembers the 1980s sees them as anything but yuppie-mobiles. But kids don’t know any of that. They only see a beautiful old convertible, one with a huge silver three-pointed star on on on the grille, and they love it. For the record, so do I.
I bought the car from the very nice people at Werner’s Mercedes & BMW in Salt Lake City, a small shop that mostly does repairs but also sells a few used cars on the side. The car was on consignment for a steal, and I took it away before anyone else could claim it. I mean, it’s red! And beautiful! I had to have it. I always wanted an older car, and since the R107 didn’t change much externally during its entire run from 1972 to 1988, I got a (somewhat) newer car with near-classic styling from the early 1970s. A real win-win.
My 1992 Mercedes 400SE notwithstanding, the 560SL is the smoothest, floatiest car I’ve owned. Its tires have huge sidewalls and its suspension is plush and forgiving. In corners it leans like crazy but I don’t care; the SLs aren’t sports cars and never were. They’re tourers and they carry out their job very well. Also of note, the wind noise and buffeting when the top is down is the quietest of any convertible I’ve owned, and not by a little bit. In the 560SL, you ride in a little cocoon of quiet and smooth air, and the world just glides by, perhaps a as slowly and beautifully as it ever does in one’s lifetime. When you’re driving this car, life is good.
1974 BMW 2002
Engine: 1,990 cc inline-4, 101 hp (stock)
Transmission: manual 4-speed
Let’s put things into perspective. My silver 2012 Carrera makes more power in just two of its cylinders than the 1974 BMW 2002 makes, and that’s on a good day. There’s nothing fast about this car. But damn, it feels sporty anyway and that makes it just about perfect.
I’ve already written about the 2002 and the scope of the work that needed to be done to it. Sure, it’s been unreliable. Even extremely unreliable. But it’s a little unfair to blame the car. Its previous owner or his/her mechanic was kind of misguided about well, everything. I’ve basically spent the past year undoing a bunch of the half-assed “solutions” foisted upon this car which were screwing things up. Then there was the whole CV halfshaft falling off thing, and that one was my fault (no LocTite, oops). So really, the car itself is great. Especially now that I’ve got most of the gremlins exorcised. (There’s still an overheating problem, and I think the thermostat is to blame.)
Now that the 2002 just runs, I get to finally enjoy it. In the first place, it’s beautiful. Never mind that magnets don’t stick to every square inch of the body. It’s clean, attractive and dare I say it, in damned good shape. Now that I’ve got fuel reliably arriving at the carburetor, it revs strongly all the way to redline and sounds good doing it. It even pulls away from traffic, which it absolutely couldn’t do before. All the suspension work that caused me to cuss and fume and sometimes privately weep really paid off and it corners like a sports car now. The transmission still sucks and it’ll probably suck forever and I have to baby it 100% of the time, but I consider it one of the charming aspects of the car. For that reason and many others, including all the hours of blood, sweat, and tears, nobody gets to drive it but me. It’s mine.
The 2002 is by far the most fun car I’ve ever owned, no exceptions. And it’s rewarding to drive because it won’t just drive itself. The steering is heavy, the brakes are heavy, the clutch is heavy. Driving it is work. There’s no way in hell I could ever touch a smartphone while I’m driving it, and I like that too. The car is real, and when I drive it I enter its world and I must adjust to it. It has no patience for carelessness or sloppiness. I have to be attentive and in tune the whole time, and if I am, I get a fantastic performing motorcar. It’s driving bliss.
1997 Mercedes-Benz S 500
Engine: 5.0 liter V-8, 315 hp, 354 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 5-speed
Oops, I did it again. In the entry for the Mercedes 400SE above, I wrote “My time with an old S-class Mercedes was wonderful in so many ways, and I really do miss it. This is one that I wish hadn’t gotten away, but as a younger man with a very limited income, I had no other choice.” That white Benz has haunted me ever since I parted with it, so to make things right I’ve finally bought a another W140 S-Class.
This new blue Benz (and it actually is an extremely dark blue) might truly be the nicest surviving W140 S500 that’s hit the market all year. I bought it sight-unseen from a dealership in St. Louis and I had hoped for a decent car, but what I was presented with was an exceptionally clean and well kept automobile throughout. It’s so nice, in fact, that I’m more apprehensive about driving it than any of my other cars. It’s irreplaceable.
Don’t mistake this to mean that the car is valuable. It’s not. These old S-Class cars are nearly valueless, mainly because they’re big-body V8s and nobody drives those anymore. They’re large in the extreme, inefficient in the extreme, and for the time it was built, powerful in the extreme — this car can hit 155 MPH. It may not have much monetary value, but it’s valuable to me and that’s what counts. I’ve loved these cars since they began being built, and while other S-Class generations are excellent cars, to me the W140 is the S-Class.
Compared to my old 400SE, this is a lot more car. It’s in better shape first of all, but it’s also a long wheelbase model (rear seat legroom is incredible) and it has a larger 5.0 liter V-8 with considerably more power than the 4.2 liter in the 400SE. I had large chrome wheels on the old white car, but I’ll be keeping the factory wheels and tires on this one, mainly because more sidewall = better ride. For that reason, this car is much quieter and far smoother than the previous car.
If you haven’t ever driven a real luxury behemoth like the S500, it’s hard to describe just how quiet the car is underway. Inside, there’s almost no wind noise, very little tire noise, and with the dual-pane glass, cars and trucks passing by are eerily quiet. It’s impressive and I love it.
Also unlike the 400SE, this car won’t be subjected to daily driving duties. It’ll be a once-in-a-while car, something to drive on sunny afternoons, and never in winter. Hopefully I’ll keep it to 2,000 miles per year or less. That way the car will stay feeling fresh and nearly new for years to come.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E 300
Engine: 2.0 liter I-4 turbo, 241 hp, 273 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 9-speed
Now this is a beautiful car. And I believe it will remain beautiful, even as it ages. I had been eyeing the Mercedes E Class for years as a potential successor to my Mazda6, but I wanted to wait until it was restyled to match Mercedes’s latest styling language. The restyle didn’t disappoint.
This version is fitted with the luxury package, which adds some extra chrome bits and exchanges the typical faux-sporty grille for a much statelier one and is adorned with a proper hood ornament, as god intended. It’s also smoother and has higher profile tires to add to the smoothness and bring more quietness to the cabin. Inside it’s a vault, dead quiet and impossibly solid. The E Class isn’t a sports sedan, folks. Leave that business to Audi and (less so lately) BMW. This one in particular has no sporting pretenses and I like it that way. It’s a luxury car and it announces it loud and clear to both passengers and onlookers.
I bought the car used from Carmax (yeah, I know). It was shipped from North Carolina because this was the right one and I had to have it. (You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find luxury package E Classes in Utah.) The car had 10,000 miles and had been driven for about a year before it came to me. It looked almost completely new except for some wicked tree sap which I removed with a clay bar and some elbow grease. Top that off with some wax and it’s one shiny devil.
The car is deep blue, similar to the color on my S 500 but a different hue, which looks sharp and gets a surprising number of compliments. Like the S Class, it looks nearly black at night but shimmers much more during the day. Inside it’s cream, brown, and genuine walnut. The seats are MB-Tex, Mercedes’s excellent vinyl, a dead ringer for leather and far more long-lasting and durable. Just check out MB-Tex seats vs. leather on early 1980s Benzes and witness the difference. They last.
Like my 1997 S 500, the E 300 is so smooth and so coddling that driving dynamics almost don’t matter at all. When pushed, the car does as it’s asked and has excellent grip, good braking, and sufficient acceleration to leave traffic behind. But none of that is the point. I drive this Mercedes slow, as I do with my other two Benzes, because all three have the ability to slow life down and make the driver relax and enjoy the ride. It’s pure Mercedes magic, and it’s as present in this 2017 as it is in my 1997 S 500 and in my 1987 560 SL. And that is seriously impressive.
1984 Porsche Carrera 3.2
Engine: 3.2 liter flat-6, 207 hp, 185 lb-ft
Transmission: manual 5-speed
I said I’d never do this. Nope, I already had my Carrera. You know, the newer pretty silver one with the powerful engine and the buttery shifter and the silky smooth dynamics. That one. That polite, quiet, restrained car that I mildly trash talked earlier in this list. I believe I compared it with a Toyota Camry, and not entirely unfairly.
When want to take a drive I have choices. One of those choices is the newer Carrera. But usually that 300+ horsepower beast gets upstaged by the rickety, indisputably slow BMW 2002, a car with only a third the power, a punishing ride, and manual steering. Oh, and very significant reliability issues. But I choose it anyway. Why? Because it’s fun. Because I have to wrangle it. Because I have to drive it correctly, and it’s rewarding when I do.
What to do? Get all the Porsche charms and panache with all the idiosyncrasies, inconveniences, and challenges of the 2002 in a single car: a real 911. In this case an air-cooled Carrera 3.2. Manual steering, check. Labyrinthine and temperamental gearbox, check. Complete lack of driving aids like ABS, stability control, and traction control, check. Sprinkle in appropriately medieval creature comforts and ride quality and a whole bunch of cabin noise, and it’s a winner. Big time.
I won the car in an online auction at BringATrailer.com. I didn’t expect to win. Hell, I didn’t even expect to be competitive, but I placed a bid just for fun. But then no one went higher. As the auction timer ticked to zero, I stared blankly at my computer screen for a few moments, my sinuses clearing and my pupils dilating. “Holy shit.” I had just bought myself an old Porsche.
The car is beautiful. There is only one set of wheels on earth that I will accept in black instead of silver, and that is the Fuchs Porsche wheels from the 1980s. They just look right, and I’ll never switch them out. Aside from the black wheels, the car is deep black and so is the interior. The only bright pieces on the whole car are the wheel outer rings and the two round headlights, and I like that just fine, thank you.
So we’ll see how the new Porsche works out. I’m betting that I’ll never drive the silver car and I’ll end up selling it. It’s depreciating while the 1984 is gaining value. For now, I love driving it. The 911 challenges me every moment, and I love it.