When I first started to review cars for the Toronto Star my editor told me to test drive everything, from the cheapest tin can, to the most over engineered luxury barge built for the Queen.
That’s why I might drive a $9,000 Nissan Micra one week and a $220,000 Audi R8 the next.
The intent is never to compare wildly different cars. But over time you learn what is important in a vehicle. These are the things that might be missed in a typical test drive at a dealership. Are the seats comfortable on a long drive? How’s the visibility? Can the seat be adjusted so that you aren’t staring through the steering wheel at the road ahead. Perhaps the tech is too complicated and it takes three steps to change a radio station. Cars are a big investment. Maybe you won’t love your car, but it shouldn’t annoy you.
Over the holidays I tested a BMW M850i xDrive Gran Coupe, a Mazda CX 5D and a Volkswagen Golf GTI. The price difference between this group was about $70,000.
First impressions can be pretty reliable. I notice the quality of steering, breaking, handling right away. The $135,800 BMW M850i does a fine sweep of these categories. My first note was that it tracked like a four-man bobsleigh. It was tight, responsive, sharp and agile. It didn’t feel like a big luxury car built to cart around ambassadors.
With a turbo 8-cylinder engine, 523 horsepower and all-wheel drive it is fire breathing speedster. It brings up the lament-there is nowhere to drive a vehicle like this that wouldn’t end in a stunt driving charge. To that reality we now add concern for the environment. Big engine, big car, big gas consumption. The M850 averaged 12.6 L/100 km during a week’s test driving, reasonable for a big car with loads of power.
From the outside, there are many design flourishes that could discombobulate the silhouette of the car, but it hangs together in a lyrical and sporty way.
The interior was beautiful and quiet, and the technology deeply layered. An array of “Assistants” help park the car, warn of danger, and organize your life. Sometimes these things are so intrusive or difficult to use they are an annoyance. Not so in the 850. With just one press of a button on the steering wheel, adaptive cruise controls brakes, accelerates, and assists in steering for a smoother performance than most drivers could achieve.
I didn’t like the seating position. It couldn’t be adjusted to eliminate a pretty big blind spot caused by the A pillar of the windshield and the side mirrors.
So, it was interesting when the BMW M850i was switched for the Mazda CX-5. My first thoughts, here’s an uncomplicated vehicle that’s not too precious, and offers the sort of visibility that people love in SUV’s. That’s not saying you can see far down the road, because invariably you are stuck behind a pickup truck. But you can see the immediate area around the vehicle when turning, parking and so on.
This CX-5D interested me because it’s a diesel. I like diesels, but this one is an oddity. The fuel consumption is rated at 9.8 L/100km city and 7.4 L/100km on the highway, nothing too stunning there. It also produces 168 hp with 290 lb.-ft. of torque. The gas engine version of the CX-5 at the entry level produces 187 hp. For the diesel engine you will pay an extra $5,000, and not achieve much better fuel consumption than the gas powered CX-5 lineup.
So, the CX-5D was a well-made competent vehicle to drive. Next up was the Volkswagen GTI- within a few short minutes-I thought, yes this is what a FUN car is like to drive.
The GTI is a ramped-up version of the VW Golf. Honestly, most people would be happy with the unadorned Golf, a hatchback that is solid, sharp to drive and a flexible hauler. The basic Golf starts around $22,000, the GTI starts at $30,000, and the top sportster Golf R begins at $42,000. With each increase in price you get more horsepower, added tech and other embellishments.
I tested the special Rabbit edition with throw-back plaid seats, 8-speed automatic and 228 horsepower. It is ultra-fun on a curvy road, and well-mannered in the city. The conservative styling is a constant with the Golf, but also part of its appeal for many. There’s enough horsepower in the GTI for thrills, but not enough to encourage stupid behaviour. Visibility is excellent, and the interior finish is refined.
I have a bias for VW, and have owned them all my life. The GTI is the cheapest car in this group and meets the needs of most drivers but with flair. Needs versus desire, choices we face constantly.