Slow car fast or fast car slow, what’s the big deal?

“It’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow,” they always say. As long as I’ve been into cars, which is, oh, 35 years now, I’ve heard that statement. For the record I also agree with it.

But why? Because the fun of driving isn’t found as much in going fast as it is revving out an engine over and over while you row through the gears. When you’re revving, you always get the sensation of speed. It’s a win-win.

Revving is the key. Internal combustion engines, which mankind was fortunate to have developed before more pedestrian forms of propulsion, have the charming properties of making more noise and more power as they rev, or increase revolutions. Nowadays revving is commonplace, but if you consider automotive history without it, for example if we had perfected batteries first, cars would still have been be a wonder, but perhaps less of an emotional one. You see, an internal combustion engine has sound. The sound of a revving gasoline engine is an angry wail or roar that screams its pleasure until it threatens to tear itself apart, that’s when we shift and begin it over again, all while increasing vehicle speed, and giving us a sense of ever-increasing thrill.

The magic isn’t in the overall acceleration, because while it can be very thrilling by itself, the fun’s spoiled by speed limits that become a big party pooper. On a freeway acceleration ramp, where a car might increase its speed from a mere crawl to a decent clip, say 70 MPH, a slow car may need to shift two, three, or more times, and each time revving to redline, to quickly reach such a speed. Yet a fast car, with more power and higher gearing, might only require one shift to reach speed, a process which is over sooner and abruptly ruined by speed limits. You get to hear and feel that powerful engine scream its way to redline once. That’s it. In fact, it might never happen again during the entire drive. And if you do channel the id of the slower car and rev out the powerful engine through several gears, you might find yourself headed to jail rather than to traffic school.

There are exceptions of course, and we should discuss them. The biggest one involves racetracks, where the rule goes straight out the window. On a racetrack there are no speed limits and therefore both slow and fast cars, as far as revving is concerned, are equal in that measure; you can gleefully accelerate as you wish. But the fast car also offers greater g-forces than the slow car — the sensation of speed you get when flying forward at an increasing rate and you’re pushed back into your seat — and therefore can be even more fun.

Another exception is aggressive cornering or carving. So far we’ve only examined straight line acceleration, and unless you live on the plains or in mountain valleys, corners do happen.  Cornering is mostly about personal taste as far as fun goes. Some like to take corners very fast but with solid grip, while others like to have a little less grip and slip around somewhat, all of which involves variables of speed and adhesion that can be infinitely adjusted. Both fast and slow cars can therefore be equally fun in corners and so, on a curvy road, fast cars really can be of equal fun. Of course, all this breaks down if a fast car has such high levels of grip that it becomes boring to drive anywhere near the speed limit, or if a slow car is too slow to reach enjoyable speeds in the corners regardless of speed limit. Again, these involve variables which can be infinitely adjusted.

The last exception deals with electrification. It’s likely that all the cars we drive will be electrified and the internal combustion engine will be dead. This will make the planet less susceptible to global warming (if you believe such things) and the air less smoggy (which everyone believes), both of which are good things. Our energy will also be cheaper because we’ll be using it more efficiently, which also is good. Good, good, good. Yet the thrill of revving will be lost and when the internal combustion engine dies and I will mourn it.

The fun won’t die completely, of course. Most of our cars in America are already automatically shifted, so the change to single gear cars won’t be so different, and it probably will be better. Electric cars now accelerate quite quickly, although they can’t repeat the acceleration trick more than a few times or you might not get home after wowing your friends. But batteries will get better and electric motors will too, and one day the mind blowing electric acceleration will be all-day repeatable.

There’s also airplanes to look to. Airliner jet engines, while fuel driven, spool up and hold redline during takeoff and the plane accelerates like it’s being pulled forward at the end of a great silver cable, all without shifting gears. I’ve said all my life, even after countless flights, that takeoff never ceases to thrill me. Airliner acceleration isn’t unlike electric acceleration in a car, when you think about it. Constant (not increasing) acceleration, no gear shifting, and a powerful force pushing you back into the seat all combine to create fun, just not the sort you get with an internal combustion car.

All things considered, when looking to the future, will driving a slow electric car be more fun than driving a fast electric car? I would say no. The rule applies only to internal combustion cars that rev through gears. Without gearing it’s not more fun to go slow because in electric cars g-forces generate all the fun, not sound or revs or the sensations they generate. With electric cars, being fast is the only fun.

All of this may soon become moot because autonomous cars will complete the automotive march to full appliancehood. Yet I’ll be soaking up the fun offered by my underpowered internal combustion cars until the very last possible day.

1974 BMW 2002 Handling Improvements: New Springs, Wheels, Tires

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I’ve manned my wrenches and gotten my hands (and the rest of me) very dirty and made some much needed changes to the new-to-me 1974 BMW 2002. Note to self, if you wear clothes while working on a car, any clothes at all, they will be destroyed. Completely. They’re doomed to be shop clothes forever. I have to go shopping.

The 2002 as delivered to me had handling that was, in a word, shit. Utter garbage. Much of the blame must go to the skinny and old 13″ tires, which were badly cracked, and which were manufactured by some off brand company that I can’t find even with an internet search. These tires howled in protest at every possible opportunity, even in the least demanding of turns. The traction was almost laughably bad, but the humor was turned to terror by the ancient OEM springs, which made the car wallow sickeningly when on the edge. Control was essentially nonexistent. It was all so bad that I actually had a sinking feeling that everyone was wrong about the 2002, that these were actually terrible cars and that I had made a huge mistake.

No to be let down by any car, I decided to begin fixing things right away. First up, new wheels and tires. Those horrifying rubber bastards just had to go. Second, tighten things up with stiffer and lower springs, which would reduce the ugly body roll and control issues and significantly lower the center of gravity. (Stiffer sway bars will perfect the transformation, stay tuned.)

For this build I don’t want the car to look too modified, and certainly not “slammed,” especially from the outside. It needs to appear largely OEM to casual observers. So I went with a set of Eibach springs which are designed for a sporty look without being an aggressive suspension drop. My car came down about 1.5″. Doesn’t sound like much, but for a car’s suspension, it’s significant. Installation is reported online to be a breeze, somewhere around 45 minutes per wheel. It took me four days. So there’s that. It was a massive pain in the ass. The car already had newish Bilstein HD shocks that still looked pretty good, so I replaced only the springs.

For wheels and tires, I ordered an absolutely gorgeous refinished set of vintage BBS RS wheels in 15″. They’ve got polished, almost chrome-looking aluminum lips and a classic silver basketweave center. Not cheap, but oh so worth it. Since I’ll be covering and storing the 2002 during the winter months, there was little danger in fitting the car with aggressive summer rubber. I went with Dunlop Direzza tires in 195/50-15 size.

So, results. After driving the car for a few days, today I finally decided to legitimately lean on the new setup through some twists, at a speed that previously would have sent the car straight into the bushes, and I was extremely pleased with the results. The only way to easily describe the transformation is to call it Miata-like. Gone are the fear-inducing handling demons, and in their place is a very well sorted sporting automobile. The Dunlops hang on with authority, in fact there’s a lot of traction still to be explored.

While body roll is reduced and more controllable, it’s now the most glaring shortcoming with the handling. In short, there’s just way too much lean. To get things under control I’ve ordered a set of Ireland Engineering sway bars, both front and rear, along with new ball joints and new bushings all around. When that work is completed, handling should be spot-on and ready for autocross, not that it’s the point of this build but it’ll be fun to try.

Adopting Electric Cars, 2016 – It’s Not Yet For Me, But It Soon Will Be

Let’s talk automotive electrification. Right now it’s August of 2016 and fully electric cars are just starting to get good. People are buying them and we’re seeing them on the road fairly regularly. Each night, these buyers actually plug their cars into their walls, which is crazy, rather than filling up at a gas station like the rest of us. Clearly things are changing.

I’ve been pretty up front about these cars. Electric motors, no matter how fast they are, are kind of boring, kind of, well, quiet. They’re quiet in a few ways: quiet in operation, yes, but also quiet in appearance and quiet in demeanor. They’re perhaps a little too perfect, a little too smooth. There’s simply nothing rowdy or all that fun about an electric car.

This sentiment has led my friends to assume that I’ll remain a luddite forever and I’ll never consider adding an electric car to my garage. This is not true. For a daily driver, an electric car is fine and I’ll willingly add one to my stable but that time has not yet come. Electrified cars are close to being good enough to buy. I fully believe that they’ll soon meet my requirements but they just kind of suck right now. Here’s my requirement for buying an electric car. When this happens, and it will, I will buy one.

  1. I have a four cylinder Mazda6 that can easily reach Las Vegas, NV from Salt Lake City, UT on one tank of gas. It’s a 420 mile trip, but there’s more to it than just range. On I-15, Utah has 80 MPH speed limits most of the way and I want to go this fast in an electric car and still make it to Las Vegas. My Mazda can do it. A current Tesla may have a 250 mile range but it doesn’t have that range at 80 MPH, and even if it did, it’s still well short of 420 miles. When electric cars have a 450 mile range at 80 MPH, this condition is met. 
  2. When I get to Las Vegas in my gas powered Mazda6, I only need to find a gas station to get my entire range back. Filling up with gas takes about five minutes and I’m good to go. Now, I’m actually fine with recharges being slower than gas fill ups as long as I can charge the car once I’m parked at my destination, which is usually a hotel. It’s not worth it to me to convert to electric if I can’t have a recharged car waiting for me when it’s time to leave. This means I’ll need a recharging station at my parking spot, and it needs to be easy to get such a parking spot. When electric recharging stations are readily available in parking spots, this condition is met.
  3. I don’t just travel to Las Vegas. I go all over, and usually I travel by car because I love to drive. And when I’m traveling, I typically avoid freeways because they’re absolutely, unquestionably the worst possible way to get around because you don’t see anything or meet anyone except fellow city people jumping between metropolitan areas. Also freeways are straight and mind numbingly boring and you don’t see anything. Traveling by freeway is like taking a plane, only slower. You don’t travel, you arrive. But taking back road creates the true American road trip. When I want to actually take a road trip, I’ll have to leave my electric car behind and drive something else because I won’t be able to recharge away from the interstates. When recharging is commonly available in small towns, this condition is met.

Today, it’s hip to have an electric car. It’s like having the newest phone in your pocket; electric cars attract the techie crowd, not the car crowd. But having a hip electric car for style’s sake isn’t worth it to me unless it can realistically compete with a gas powered car. Today they can’t, and it’s that simple. If, like most of my friends, I stayed only in my home city, electrified cars are ready today. But for me they’re not.

30 years ago, cordless power tools were in their infancy. They were truly crap, especially compared to their corded counterparts, but everyone could see where things were going. Today, cordless power tools are great. They’ve taken over nearly everything but the most demanding of tasks. It’s mind blowing that today we have cordless cars. Boring as electrification is, and it really is, it’s undoubtedly the future and I won’t fight it, not with a daily driver. But they’re not ready for prime time, at least not for me, and not for a lot of the driving public. Meet these conditions and I’m on board, no question.

Now, with autonomous cars, well, that’s a topic for another day …

Spark Plugs: Male Spark Plug, Female Wire, What Gives?

I’m sure that every half-capable home auto mechanic on the planet already knows this, but if you’re a total spark plug amateur like I was this afternoon, this might save you some time.

Sometimes your spark plug wires have female plug connectors, and sometimes they’re male. Same goes for spark plugs. I bought plugs this morning and they had female ends, and so did my wires, like this:

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I thought I had purchased the wrong plugs so I headed back to the auto parts store. Turns out — ta-da! — the ends of spark plugs are removable; you just unscrew the female ends to reveal the male connector. I felt dumb but I’m glad I know.
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I had to use a pair of pliers to break the ends free, but they came right off. Anyway, if you’re having this problem, now you know.

1974 BMW 2002 – Welcoming a Classic to The Stable, and Beginning a Wrenching Journey

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Today I’m introducing a newcomer to my spread of cars, this very pretty 1974 BMW 2002. I bought the car sight-unseen, like a crazy person, from a consignment dealership in southern California. All I had to go on was about 25 photos and the dealer’s word.

The 2002 market has a pretty good variety of cars, from push-it-off-a-cliff to showroom new. You can spend $5,000 USD on a rough one that runs, all the way to the mid-50s for a basically perfect outlier. Mine was $20k, which is rather high for a 2002 but not altogether out of the ordinary. From the dealer I learned that the car had been restored in 2012, and it was sporting an all-new interior, new paint, good engine, the all-important manual transmission, and was completely rust free. The previous owner apparently wanted a factory original car and so it was when it showed up, at first glance anyway.

The 2002 is from an era when you could still work on your car, a time when you could open the hood after a problem and look for actual things to fix. Today you look at a giant plastic engine cover that conceals everything.

I’m by no means a mechanic. I understand engine and automotive basics, like where to put in the gas and that the engine has pistons buried deep inside that provide the magical go-juice. Really, I’m a complete car novice but I’m eager to learn all that I can. The BMW 2002 provides me with an opportunity to not only learn about cars, but get my hands dirty on my own car. I made a resolution to not use my mechanic as a crutch, to instead do all the work myself. Clearly I’m in over my head.

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To give myself things to do, I came up with a list of items I’d like to customize on the car. All of these changes are reversible should I want to return to stock. From the get go the plan was to do a very, very light restomod on the BMW. Here’s the list:

  1. Lower the suspension about 1″. This isn’t an aggressive change, just one that will mildly alter the stance and make the car more attractive. It’ll look normal to anyone not intimately familiar with the 2002 cars.
  2. Change the muffler. I didn’t want something loud, just something that would make the car a bit rowdier, just a little more fun.
  3. Get new wheels and tires. The factory-ish wheels already on the car are 13″ and there are almost no decent tires left in that size. 14″ helps out a lot, but 15″ is when you get into decent rubber. To my eyes, 15″ is a little big on a 2002 (this car is truly tiny) but the wheels should fit.

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But — and isn’t there always a but? — I started to go through the car and check everything out for real. It was and still is a slow process since I know next to nothing about cars, but some glaring problems have became readily apparent since the car arrived on Friday. Turns out the car isn’t quite as flawless as I had wanted. The previous owner did spend $27k to restore the car in 2012 — I have the receipt — but it’s not perfect.

The spider webs covering every exterior surface was the first sign of trouble. Clearly the car has received a loving repaint but afterward it probably sat outside for a long time. That has made the paint hazy. I’m going to learn to polish automotive paint and fix that problem myself. After I’m done the paint should really pop.

More concerning is the misfiring engine. It’s a subtle misfire but it’s there and it’s very annoying. Carburetor jetting? Maybe. Trouble with the ignition coil or Pertronix distributor? Possible. Blocked fuel line? Also possible. There are a lot of possibilities. Yesterday the misfire decided to hit a real high note and shut down the engine complete. In an intersection. On a scorching day. Obviously I was not pleased and I must find a solution. I replaced the spark plugs and that seemed to help, but I checked the plugs today and cylinder #2 was showing a wet black plug. Shit. I could have a problem with the rings, which means engine rebuild. That, by extension, means that I might have to learn the nitty-gritty about engines way, way sooner than I had expected. I seriously hope I didn’t buy someone else’s problem.

The interior has indeed been redone recently but it’s not quite what I expected. The seats have been re-upholstered but they’re not leather, they’re vinyl, a cheap, soft and easily damaged vinyl. The dashboard isn’t showing any cracks or damage, but that’s because it’s hiding behind a cheap plastic cover, which conceals the almost  certainly horrific original dashboard below. Now I want to completely restore the original dashboard and reupholster the seats with proper leather. The steering wheel is probably original, but it’s cracked and I’d like to replace it with something much nicer. Thankfully, the air conditioner works, but I’ve never used it.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on my mood, the 2002 is starting to look less and less like a fun original canvas to start from and is instead beginning to take the form of a project car, or more accurately, a restoration, which isn’t at all what I had in mind. But the car is mine now and I intend to create a properly sorted machine come hell or high water. Along the way I’ll learn a lot and document everything I do. I’ll go from a wide-eyed beginner to something not quite so wide-eyed. In the end I’ll have a beautiful and well-running 2002.

Porsche 911 – A Spirited Drive Through the Mountains

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It seemed only natural, a week after mercilessly forcing the old Mercedes 560SL to tear through the mountains, to do it all again, this time with the Porsche 911 Carrera.  In other words, I planned to use the right tool for the job.

I’ve had a tumultuous experience with the Carrera. At first I still only had eyes for my old Boxster, and the Carrera just didn’t live up to The One That Got Away. But I modded the exhaust and the shifter, and I’ve started taking a page from the convertible book (and by extension the motorcycle book) and I’ve been forcing myself to roll down the windows, which for some reason really brings jams the experience of driving right into every one of my senses.

As it always does with a Porsche, it happened mid-corner. It was one of those 20 MPH ones, a non-blind left, which I took at some speed far exceeding the recommended rate. I suddenly realized, oh yeah, these cars! Porsches corner really, really flat and they have amazing grip, and if you don’t do something dumb like snap your foot off the gas mid-corner, or god forbid brake in the corner, they become shining little chariots of joy, confidence, and sublimity. With the mountain air rushing through the little cabin and the engine howling with excitement out back, the Carrera actually became my Boxster in my mind for the first time.

Porsche’s dirty little secret, which they seem less and less to care about these days, is that all Boxsters and Caymans drive almost exactly like the Carreras. Sure they’re mid-engined and they’re “slower,” but the brand consistency is remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that it makes it really tough to justify a Carrera when you can have the same experience for a lot less. It also means that Boxster and Cayman customers who trade up to a Carrera, the Porsche, don’t really come away with more than they already had. That was my issue and frankly I didn’t expect it. I mean, the 911 is the car! The one we all want!

I think that in my mind I had decided that my new Carrera was so amazing and so frighteningly fast that I let it intimidate me a little, which I’m embarrassed to say but it’s true. With the Boxster I’d just wring its neck and hammer it on back roads because, you know, this is just a slow Porsche and it’s a friendly, approachable little beast. But the Carrera, that thing is seriously fast and it’s a 911 so, hey man, don’t mess it up. As a result I’d never just said fuck it and hammered the Carrera on a back road and so I didn’t know what kind of car was really sitting in my garage. Well, today I found out and it was amazing. And yes, I’m a car guy and I have sinned. Today was my repentance day.

Not only are Porsches fast cars but they also manage to be fun cars, and with that Carrera sitting under me and a nearly empty mountain road before me, I had the time of my life. I suspect that sports car drivers are as insane as me and occasionally laugh maniacally between corners, and that was definitely happening today. You don’t need me to explain all the ins and outs of how the Carrera drives at speed; you have the car magazines for that. Yes, they’re basically perfect. But you should know that a property sorted car like the Carrera is very fulfilling and fun to drive. It’s not a serious car, just look at its face! It’s a thing built for fun. That it also happens to be otherworldly fast track car is, I’m convinced, just coincidental.

My favorite mountain drive is about 120 miles one way, so it’s a decently long haul. It follows a small mountain road out of Salt Lake City and near the city it’s a crowded drive and there are bicyclists everywhere so you have to be careful. (Endangering other people is absolutely not okay and I won’t be a part of that; even if bicyclists are annoying they have the same right to be there as I do.) But as it gets further and further from the city the traffic lightens, the bicyclists disappear, and traffic thins out big time. As things get better and better, the drive gives you a sense of constantly increasing excitement all the way to my turn around spot, where things slowly cool down and give you a change to relax and come home refreshed, even with the traffic and bicyclists and all that.

When I’m really moving, out away from everyone else, and the road tightens up and a good corner rushes up to me, my brain can think only about driving. Nothing else matters, and nothing else gets the chance because I’m so laser focused on driving, looking into the corners, and seeing what’s up ahead. Instead of my head filling with stressful information, only the most relevant information gets through and paradoxically my head quiets down. That’s how you know you’re driving well, and this is true on the racetrack as well, because you’re not even actively thinking. You’re not worrying. You’re not stressed. You’re only driving, and those moments are what keeps me coming back to these mountains and to my deserts, out away from people and away from the world.

Mercedes R107 (560SL) – A Spirited Drive (!) Through the Mountains

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I think it happened on the first switchback or two, when I was following a motorcycle and a Corvette in my Mercedes 560SL at perhaps beyond the posted speed limit, when the drive became more aggressive than the one I had intended. For starters, I was keeping up with the somewhat aggressively driven vehicles ahead of me. What’s more, I was a little irritated because I might have passed them if given the chance. This is not at all what today was supposed to be like.

The 560SL is a smooth car. A comfortable car. Since the day I bought it I’ve said the car just slooooooows everything down. Evenings unfold lazily. Time stretches out. The 560SL has been my chariot of relaxation, a floaty cloud upon which my cares just fall away behind. An hour behind the wheel is plenty for me to re-center and chill out. For that reason I’ve never hurried the car along. In fact, I’ve always taken things easy on the old thing, out of fear that demanding a task so far removed from its core competency that it might upset the car too much, or worse, break it. from a standstill the car always starts in second gear; I’ve clicked it down to first gear maybe three times. Never seemed right, you know?

So today I’ve got the tires  squealing on a tight right-hander and I’m wishing the seats had a little more lateral bolstering. Obviously I’ve gone completely insane. Little things start to occur to me, like how the very considerable body roll stops rolling and firms up just as it should, or how shocked I am that this beast has no understeer and stays deliciously neutral through the corners. You know, wonderful things. German things.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that the R107 Benzes are in fact sports cars posing as wallowing grand tourers. These are decidedly not sports cars. Here we have a decidedly overweight car — a 30 year old car — riding on minivan tires, with a massive 5.6 liter V8 sitting way out front making very little noise and not much power, being asked to corner aggressively and carry speed from one bend to the next. Traction is unimpressive. The lazy four speed gearbox is geared stupidly high and doesn’t want to downshift. The steering is good enough but doesn’t really approach “communicative,” not to mention very lazy reactions of the chassis. But again, this is not a sports car.

Still, try to tell that to the guy in the Corvette up ahead. Again he hammers it but this old car with the star on the grille just won’t fall back. I did the same thing to a sport biker who flew by with pipes wailing. Sure buddy, you’re fast in the straights but when the road tightens up this damn red car comes right back. It was great fun.

I probably won’t do this ever again. It was rather perverse to begin with, hustling this car on a mountain road. I’ll go back to the lazy and relaxing side of the 560SL, the job that the car was built for and the one it does better than any car I’ve ever driven, new or old. Still, it’s fun to know that there’s more than a little German sportiness to the old car hiding beneath that floaty ride and elegant bodywork. It’ll give me just a little extra to love when I look back after parking it.

Mercedes-Benz R107 (560SL) Road Trip – Will It Make It?

Mercedes R107 / 560SLSalt Lake City, UT to Durango, CO

The time has finally come for the new (to me) 1987 Mercedes 560SL to prove its worth, and it’ll do it with a 780 mile road trip! I’ll be heading from Salt Lake City to Durango, CO, just a little jaunt, something to let the car stretch its legs and hopefully get me there without trouble.

No doubt, the car is old. But it’s only got 70,000 miles from new which is practically a baby in R107 years. These cars are routinely selling with 200,000 miles on the clock. Certainly if the cars can get that many miles, this one can handle a little springtime run though the desert to a neighboring state. Right?

Well, we’ll see. This will be a top-down trip and skies are forecast to be clear and the air should be mostly in the 70s with mountain passes in the upper-60s. No problem. I’m curious about gas mileage — the car is heavy and it’s got a 5.6 liter V8 under the hood. A lot of questions remain to be answered. I’ll know a lot more by tonight.

[UPDATE] It made it. In fact, while the drive was wonderful and pleasant and all that, as far as reliability is concerned the trip was very anticlimactic. The car drove wherever I asked and there was no drama. Excellent experience.

A Rather Long List of Cars I Have Owned

1989 Mercury Sable GS

Engine: 3.0 liter V-6; 140 hp, 160 lb-ft
Transmission: 4 speed automatic, column shift

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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

Image1412-25-2008 house at Karalee Wy in Sandy

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

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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

Engine:
Transmission:

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2008 Nissan 350Z

Engine: 3.5 liter V-6, 306 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed

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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
Transmission: automatic

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2008 Ford F-250 Diesel

Engine: 6.4 liter twin-turbodiesel V-8, 350 hp, 650 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 5-speed

f250camping at the track

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

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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

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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*)

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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
[current]

Engine: 3.6 liter Pentastar V-6, 285 hp
Transmission: automatic 5-speed

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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

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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)
[current]

Engine: 3.6 liter flat-6, 321 hp
Transmission: manual 6-speed

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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
[current]

Engine: 5.6 liter V-8, 227 hp, 287 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 4-speed

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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
[current]

Engine: 1,990 cc inline-4, 101 hp (stock)
Transmission: manual 4-speed

1997 Mercedes-Benz S 500
[current]

Engine: 5.0 liter V-8, 315 hp, 354 lb-ft
Transmission: automatic 5-speed

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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
[current]

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.