(This article might contain strong language and might contain jokes that some people might find objectionable.)
(TL;DR notes: Beloved BMW got old, Tom McParland helped, got Audi, ran from Irma.)
I have been driving for 10 hours since we left Orlando. It was pitch black outside, the illumination limited to the bright glow of LED headlamps as I rolled along a 2 lane highway in the hills of Alabama. Sunroof wide open, drive mode on “dynamic”, the little 4 cylinder engine growled as it powers through the twisty roads at 80 mph while I struggled not to pass out on the way to our destination.
This is a story of an old car, Tom McParland, a new car, and a bitch called Irma.
Chapter 1: Goodbye
It was a beauty. Titanium silver. Black leather. Sport package. The 18 inch wheels filled out the wheel arches. The iDrive controller, new and novel, sat in between the front seats. Under the hood sat a naturally aspirated straight 6, the last of its kind, churning out 255 horsepower. I eased it out of the dealer lot and took my new baby down the road.
That was 11 years and 113 thousand miles ago.
I think a commercial once compared a car to a family pet. In my case it certainly came close. I am proud to say I took good care of my baby. It ate nothing but the finest premium fuels and oil. It got checked by the vet on schedule. It got bathed once a week, and got some shiny new shoes. In return, it was reliable and faithful, taking me anywhere in need to go in speed and style.
I was not a perfect owner though. It had surgery done to its face because I tapped it into a pickup once. It got a scar on its right flank because I left it outside my watering hole and some asshole dragged a key on its side. The cup holders broke.
But just like any pet, my boy needed more and more care as it ages. It got its snout (radiator) worked on and its hips (rear control arms) replaced. The check engine light came on and stayed on because of breathing problems (O2 sensor), and its tear ducts (washer fluid pump) ran dry. The vet’s estimates were too high to justify any more work, and finally two weeks ago, the restraint system started malfunctioning, its red warning light lit up and stayed on every time I took it out for walks. The old boy was alive, but tired and worn out.
Chapter 2: Tom
Replacing this car was never going to be easy. I loved my old boy, even in its old age, and I wanted to find one that would run and handle just like it. So being a long time reader of Jalopnik I called up Tom McParland, writer of columns and finder of cars, for some advice.
I wanted a car that would be:
- Rear- or All-wheel drive with sharp handling.
- Steering that feels solid and not too light (hard to find in the age of electric motor assisted steering).
- Fit two zaftig adult males comfortably.
- Storage space enough for light groceries or a weekend away from home
- Fast enough for fun but not fast enough to kill me.
- Most importantly it should be small enough to fit in the small 1 car garage at home.
Tom and I chatted back and forth for several days, and he gave me a list of cars that he thought I would be happy with. He was very intuitive about my needs (of course the survey he sent me helped). He asked me to measure the space in the garage and figured that I would probably be happiest with something German and sporty. He suggested an Audi S3 or a Porsche Boxster alongside various BMWs and I threw one Lexus into the shortlist for good measure.
After test driving everything on the list, the Audi S3 seemed to be the best choice despite my admittedly irrational bias against VAG products (no, Porsche does not count as a VAG product in my head, and I will post my test drive impressions on each of them later).
Looking for a good S3 was not easy. My local dealer had one low mileage example, but it was not optioned with anything I wanted. But the car gods must have smiled on me because Tom found one in northeast Florida, 4 hours away from my house. It was the right color, it had the right options, it only got 7500 miles and it was priced so well that Tom had to check everything to see if there is any hidden bullshit (Accident? Salvage? Dead body in the trunk?)
While Tom and I were working with the dealer towards an agreement, a bitch named Irma was fast approaching Florida flooding islands and generally ruining everyone’s day. It was almost certain that evacuation was imminent, and here a dilemma presented itself:
- If I do not close the deal, I can leave a deposit and wait until the storm is over, but the storm might destroy both this car and my old car and I will have no car.
- If I close the deal fast, I would have to either take the new car with me as we evacuate, adding major mileage on an almost new Audi.
Not willing to risk waiting months to find another, I decided to close the deal. Tom confirmed there were no dead bodies in the trunk, we finalized the price with the dealer, I grabbed my paperwork, hopped into my old boy and pray it would make the 300 mile journey to the dealer in one piece.
I arrived at the dealer in 4 hours, my boy made it with maybe a gallon of fuel to spare. My new car was ready, washed and detailed, a full tank of premium in his belly. I cleared out the items left behind: some pens, an old CD case, cable for my phone and I said goodbye to a loyal old friend. A couple hours of paperwork later, I left the dealer in my new boy and went to stay the night at a local hotel.
Chapter 3: RUN!!
The next morning I woke up to an urgent call from the husband, who asked me to find water as there was none to be had around home. By then hurricane evacuation pandemonium has set in, there were lines around the block at gas stations, there was barely any water left in stores, and roads heading north were starting to get clogged. I dashed home in due haste with two cases of water I could find and started prepping the house for the storm, closing storm shutters, moving the grill into the house, and packing everything we could reasonably carry into our cars. After convincing myself that the house was reasonably secure, we set off towards Orlando for our first stop.
The drive from South Florida to Orlando usually takes about 3 hours, give or take a rest stop break. This time, it took us more than 6 hours as we crawled on the highway along with just about every car in Miami. Whenever the traffic was light, the Audi was more than eager to unleash its 292 horses all over the road while I learn more about the car’s character on the fly (grabby brakes, surprisingly good fuel economy, slightly touchy throttle, and astonishingly easy to drive fast). By the time we inched into Orlando, we were both exhausted and went to bed right away.
The next morning we set off bright and early northwards. I set up the Audi’s navigation (with Google Earth overlay!) towards Birmingham, Alabama and started our journey with relatively quiet morning traffic. The drive was reasonably smooth, punctuated by parking-lot-style traffic jams at the Florida-Georgia border as evacuees started branching off in different directions. My husband grew up around the area, so we got off the interstate and moved onto country roads to avoid the gridlock. There in the gentle hills of South Georgia and the more mountainous terrain of central Alabama, the twists and turns of small rural highways allowed the Audi’s excellent handling to shine through as we hustled through tiny villages and small towns. (Fun fact: a village in deep south inevitably contains a Dollar General, a gas station and a church.) It exhibited very limited body roll, and significantly less understeer than my E90, mostly thanks to Quattro. The ride was firm, but not unduly harsh, and the dual clutch transmission was very responsive although a bit abrupt in dynamic mode. In comfort mode the shifts were more relaxed as it behaved like a normal automatic, and more suitable for city driving.
After 11 hours, we made it to Birmingham in the middle of the night. Over the next several days we ate too much food, visited family, and explored the city while Irma beat up Florida like a birthday pinata. Lucky for us, our home was intact, so we made our way south just in time for our power to turn back on, stopping at Disney first because why not.
Chapter 4: 2000 miles
By the time I pulled into my driveway last Friday, I have added 2000 miles to the Audi S3. I was exhausted, the yard (front and back) was a giant mess, trees and shrubs were blown down but thankfully there was no damage to the house itself. Bug corpses litter the massive chrome grill, bags and bags of laundry occupied the surprisingly roomy trunk, and the car told me it needed an oil change.
It has been 11 years since I bought a new car. While my old boy was fantastic to drive all the way till the bitter end, I find myself very happy with this little Audi. Despite all the jokes about VAG reliability, it made the entire trip with absolutely no problems. The fit and finish is tight, and there are plenty of tech features on the car that would have been unimaginable back in 2006, from toys like the virtual cockpit, to safety features like blind spot warning lights, to the little finger writing sensor on my MMI controller. (MMI turned out to be the easiest part, but then I was a iDrive user) It can probably use some new wheels because the base S3 wheels are a bit blah, but overall I love how it looks.
I still miss my old boy, but the new boy might just be the right choice to help me get over it.
End note: I would like to thank Tom McParland for his help. If it wasn’t for him I might have been stranded in the middle of South Georgia with a broken BMW running away from the hurricane. He made testing and finding what I want painless and I got a very good deal with this car. If you ever find yourself in need of a car of your dreams, give him a call.