I finally got around to buying a second car to supplement my much beloved 15-year-old Honda Accord 5-speed manual. That car is still going strong and reliably and will probably outlast my new purchase: a beautiful 2006 BMW 325i in Monaco Blue. Feast your eyes!
What I noticed was that although both Japanese and German engineering are world-renowned, they focus on very different things. This is sure to be obvious to car geeks, but it was a completely new revelation to me. Japanese cars focus on reliability and simplicity of platform and design (there’s a reason Toyota is so efficient) whereas German cars focus on new technologies. The feel of the drive of these two camps is also completely different. While I’m sure the IS was finely constructed and of high quality, I didn’t find the car responsive or connected to the road at all, even with a manual transmission. The Acura TSX in manual was more fun, but still not quite there except at high revs, and the TL was simply too big a car for me personally. Neither one was more exciting in automatic than a regular Accord. The pseudo-manual transmissions in all of these cars were incredibly mushy and responded only after a long lag. In the end, the most enjoyable cars to drive were the new GTI (with that incredible DSG) and the 325i. I actually preferred the DSG over manual in the GTI, and in the end I decided I could live with an automatic transmission in the 325i. (The DSG is also in the A3, but to experience real excitement, you need the GTI!)
In the end, it simply depends on what you’re looking for in a car. I know many (if not most) people who, at the $30K and up level, are looking for a comfy ride. I realized that I happen to be one of those who hasn’t yet matured enough or otherwise gotten to the stage of being willing to sacrifice luxury for the driving experience (and what an experience it is). If you are looking for luxury, it’s worth checking out the German/European cars: they pay attention to detail in a way that Japanese cars still can’t match. However, the tradeoff is usually in long-term reliability.
After much hemming and hawing, and for a slew of reasons I won’t go into here, I elected to buy the 325i out of all of those choices (sure, the 330 would have been great, but not at $6K for an extra 40 horses.) I decided on a base-model 325i with black leatherette with only automatic transmission as the only option. My basic reasoning was that BMWs are notorious for their long-term costs, and even with 4-years/50K miles of bumper-to-bumper warranty and all regular maintenance included, I didn’t want extra technology and features to end up costing me more in the long run. Besides, I didn’t think they added that much to the driving experience itself. (Instead of navi, I’ve decided to rely on Google GLM on my cell phone, which I recently successfully hacked to add many extra features.)
I couldn’t tell enough of a difference between black leatherette (BMW speak for vinyl) and leather, and having a dog made the decision pretty easy. Plus, personally I never enjoyed the leather smell or the idea that I’d knocked off a few animals just so I could sit on them in my car. (Note: for anyone contemplating tan leather vs. leatherette, it’s worth going to your local dealer to see how the tan ‘ette holds up over time. It showed considerably more wear than the black on the ones I saw.)
I’ve now owned my new car for less than a week but feel a smile sneaking up on me every time I drive it. Yes, I even look for excuses to go places just to drive the car. I wonder if it’s the nearly perfect 50:50 weight split on top of everything else that makes it so easy and comfortable to manoeuvre. Inside, you feel like you’re in a sealed capsule, and though I hate to say it, there’s probably a reason BMW drivers have a reputation for being jerks on the road. For better or worse, you feel like you can handle or do anything in it. At one of the test drives, a dealer took us on a wild ride to show how the X3 could perform like a sportscar too, in large part because of the 50:50 weight distribution. Very impressive, ’til I realized the car averaged, at best, 16 miles to the gallon.
BMW has nailed the concept of first-degree price discrimination, a.k.a. basically charging money for any little thing that’s included in most other cars at its level (such as fold-down rear seats, power seats, multi-CD player, etc.) Nevertheless, new technology is definitely there.
I am still in the process of figuring out all the options that are included (even on the base model), but here’s a fun little table of a few so far, including their plusses and minuses:
|Technology||Hey, cool factor||D’oh!|
|Run-flat tires||No spare needed, they run for 150 miles at 50mph||They can’t be repaired. Even if you just get a nail in them. ~$350 each to replace.|
|Rain-sensing windshield wipers||Wipers adjust speed depending on how hard it’s raining||Waiting for the day the electronics go on the fritz (notorious in BMWs) and roll down all the windows instead, as someone who called into Car Talk one day complained (though this was on his truck, not a BMW)|
|Auto-recycle of air||The car will sense pollutants and automatically switch to recycled air rather than vent from the outside||Same as above when the electronics fail…|
|No dipstick: digital readout of oil level/condition||The car will tell you when you need an oil change based on oil conditions and levels (not just mileage)||Gotcha! You have to go to a BMW dealer to get your oil changes. Thank god they’re included for 50K miles.|
More to come as they’re discovered…
I realize that with this car there’s a chance I’ll either swear off all German cars and switch back to Japanese, but I also decided that if I didn’t try something different now, I’d end up driving Japanese the rest of my life without ever knowing what, if anything, I was missing.
A note on the run-flat tires: I either made a wise decision or got suckered into wasting money on a tire and wheel warranty that Autonation offers which will fully pay for the cost of repairing or replacing (in this case, only the latter, since the tires are irreparable) any tire or wheel for 5 years with no deductible. Note that this is only available at the time of purchase of the car, and, I guess, from an AutoNation dealer. There’s a lifetime limit of $4000 on this service, but I suspect it might be worth it given my personal luck with tires and nails. The service cost $475, and the finance guy threw in roadside assistance, so I think we ended up getting a 48% discount. If anyone has experience with this service, I’d love to hear about it.
There’s also an option to extend the warranty and maintenance service for 2-years or 50K additional miles that can be purchase before your initial warranty and manintenance expire. For various reasons, right now I’m considering using GEICO’s Mechanical Breakdown Insurance (MBI) instead. I confirmed with BMW USA that the 2-year extended warranty that BMW offers is for mechanical breakdown only and is not nearly as comprehensive as the initial 4-year bumper to bumper one. Though I’ll have to compare the exclusions side by side, they sound pretty similar. GEICO’s MBI is $6 per month versus an MSRP of $2249 for BMW’s. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has experience with GEICO’s MBI, even if it’s not on a BMW.
…though I have to admit the 5- and M-series have even better looks. I’m just not sure I’ll ever be ready to drop $55K+ on a car. But who knows, maybe I’ll be able to get a good deal like I did on this car.
With any luck, we’ll be keeping a Japanese and German/European car in our arsenal from now on: one reliable, one fun to drive. One can dream that perhaps there’s a Porsche in my future…