Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Mini Cooper

File:MINI (MkII Hatchback) (front), Kuala Lumpur.jpg

Like the Miata, the BMW version of the MINI Cooper suffers from an identity crisis.  It seems as if it is mostly driven by women over 50 or old men of small stature who fancy tweed driver's caps and think of themselves as middle aged.  They would drive Porsches if they could afford them.  They eat bran for breakfast to manage their cholesterol and keep themselves regular, dawdle along in the right lane, and are in no particular hurry unless they are speeding home to catch a rerun of NCIS on basic cable.

These facts explain why the majority of MINI's for sale are automatics.  But even so equipped, it is a delight.  $15,000 will buy you a good used MINI Cooper that's only a few years old and has less than 50K miles.  That same amount of cash will also buy a higher mileage turbocharged Cooper S or a very clean 2002-2006 model with the supercharged engine.

The MINI Cooper is one of the few cars that can be endlessly customized.  Between the long list of factory options and dealer accessories, almost no two are exactly alike.  There is also a long line of aftermarket suppliers that can turn any MINI from mild to wild.  And it has a racing pedigree stretching back almost fifty years to the Monte Carlo Rally.

Compared to the original Austin Mini in last week's post, the BMW MINI suffers from Acromegaly syndrome.  But as a modern compact car with premium content, it is a distinctively styled standout and a cure for the Common Corolla.                    

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Old Mini in Ybor City

A few weeks ago I was in Tampa and took a swing through Ybor City with my family.  I was searching for a good Cuban sandwich and a couple of pounds of the local coffee.

Ybor City was founded in the late 1880s by Cuban, Italian, and Spanish immigrants.  Up until about World War II it was home to some of the largest cigar factories in the U.S.  After World War II, like many urban areas, it went through a period of decline and abandonment.  

In the last twenty years Ybor City has seen a rebirth, becoming a home to artists, bars, nightclubs, and little shops.  There are also several good coffee companies that make a variation of the Havana dark roast.  And if you like cigars, you can still find places that hand roll Cuban seed tobacco in the time honored fashion.  

Today Ybor City has an eclectic vibe that is equal parts beatnik, goth, and Spanish/Cuban.  It's Tampa's French Quarter but with it's own unique eccentric flavor.  Almost as if to punctuate that point, I stumbled upon this classic Mini outside a cafe.  An old VW Beetle or 1950's Yank Tank might seem a more obvious choice, but the Mini perfectly sums up the offbeat vibe of the community.    

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Old and Reliable

Last year my wife and I traded my 1997 Olds Cutlass on a 2009 Chevy Traverse.   Hardly Sophie's Choice, we decided to keep our 1999 Nissan Pathfinder which I have been driving ever since.  The Pathfinder has been dead reliable for the ten years we've owned it.  Nothing has gone wrong on it, the only money spent has been on gas and maintenance.   

But time has a way of catching up to all things.  Maggie, our cocker-mix pound puppy is now 13 and partially deaf and blind.  I'm in my 40's and can't stay out all night and still function the next day.  Both Maggie and I require regular check ups and more upkeep.  And the Pathfinder, which is going on 14 years old, is beginning to require more upkeep as well. 

The Pathfinder's maintenance needs are minor--flush the coolant, change the belts and hoses, change the transmission and differential fluid.  I'll also eventually need new tires and brakes.  And there are other little nagging problems--the CD player no longer works; the power antenna is broken; the driver seat is worn thin in places.  Nothing that can't be fixed. 

As transportation, its ideally suited for my needs.  I don't worry about parking it outside.  It's great for cub scout camping, trips to the hardware store, or hauling things like bags of mulch, used lawnmower oil, old paint cans, and other things that could spill or stain the carpet.  I don't think twice about using the Pathfinder for anything, everything.  I just get in it and go.  I know it will work.  I know it will be there,  ready to go every time I drive it. 

That last sentence sums up what most people want out of a car.  It's the reason why the Toyota Camry is the #1 car in America, why Alfa Romero left our shores, and it caused British Leyland to dissolve by the light of its dim Lucas electrics, in its own pile of rust and leaking fluids.  But I'm not most people, and that's the problem.  

When it comes to cars, I'm at best a high functioning addict or serial monogamist.  I'm constantly trolling  Craigslist, eBay, or other classifies for cars. My head contains a short list of cars I'd like to own, which is always changing and evolving.  Could I keep the Pathfinder and buy a used Alfa Romero or, Porsche 924/928/944?  Or if I sold the Pathfinder, could I rely on a Mercedes 190 Cosworth or E55 AMG, BMW M3/M5, or Jaguar XJR as everyday transportation?  Do I take the safe route and buy a new or late model Infiniti, VW GTI, or Mazda 3?   

Sometimes freedom is too many choices.  Or at least as Mr. Spock once said, "Having is not as pleasing as wanting."  Right now the penchant to dream is far stronger than the lure of something new and shiny.  But maybe that's because I haven' t found the shiny thing that will sate that penchant yet. 

In the meantime, I did the only sensible thing I could do:  I took the Pathfinder to the hardware store to buy paint for my latest home improvement project...  and then took it to get washed.           

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

$15,000 Question Chevy Impala SS

File:2012 Chevrolet Impala -- NHTSA.jpg

Suppose I told you that for $15,000 you could have a 300 horsepower sedan complete with leather and all the trimmings.  This form of motivation comes from either a small block V8 or a smooth 24 valve V6, packaged with a large trunk and room for five.  Best of all, you can find one used with a factory certified warranty.  Too good to be true?

The answer depends on your disposition towards the Chevrolet Impala, that big bodied mainstay of fleet vehicles.  Cleanly styled, it won't be confused with a Lexus or Mercedes, though from a distance it does look like it might be cousins with the 2006-2008 Honda Accord.  It certainly isn't Quasimodo-ish like the Porsche Panamera.   And unlike the Panamera, you would not want to take it on the Nurburgring, unless you were using it as a tow vehicle for your Caterham 7.  

The Impala is a throwback, a wayback machine to transport you to a time when full sized sedans ruled Interstates of America and families drove to the Gulf of Mexico on vacation.  It is an ideal road trip car, and with 300 horses on tap, a deceptively quick one.