(TL;DR notes: I tested a bunch of cars, i wrote about them)
(Also note: the pictures in this piece are just pretty pics from the manufacturer. I did not take pictures on test drive day though i should have. Sorry.)
It was a sunny day in South Florida. Hot, a bit humid, but the asphalt was dry and ready. It was a great day to test drive 5 cars in one afternoon.
Not too long ago, I asked for Tom McParland’s help looking for a car to replace my beloved but aging BMW E90. Based on my personal preferences and other practical requirements, I asked him to recommend a car based on the following criteria:
- It has to be a CAR, not a crossover, not a truck, and not an SUV.
- It has to be compact, because my garage is small.
- It has to have enough space for 2 big passengers and some luggage.
- It has to be rear wheel drive or all wheel drive (Except my very first car, every other car I have owned were rear wheel drive. I am not opposed to AWD, but FWD is a non-starter to me).
- It has to handle well, with adequate power and nicely weighted steering.
- It has to be decently optioned, preferably something with Apple Carplay or navigation.
After feeding the information through his petro head brain, Tom came back with several suggestions, as well as listings at local dealers so I can go and test the rides myself. I added a Lexus IS because my friend has connections at the local dealer, and so here is the final shortlist:
- Audi S3
- BMW 335/340
- BMW M235i
- BMW Z4
- Lexus IS200t
Porsche Boxster(I drove a Boxster years ago, it was fantastic and fun to drive, but the only ones Tom could find are very far away and the local dealer has nothing, so I skipped it for test day. If I tested it that day, it would have been ranked just under the winner. The only obstacles were practicality and maintenance costs)
In honor of the old school Car and Driver comparison tests, I am going to review and rank these cars from worst to best. Naturally these are subjective, based on my needs and my preferences, so your mileage will vary.
5. BMW M235i (hypothetical - Pinch hitter BMW 230i convertible): Absent
Con: The pinch hitter was a bit boring.
So Tom sent me a listing for a M235i from a local BMW dealer. I went to check it out. Loved the looks, but I didn’t have time to test it on that day (on the way to an appointment nearby). I was never going to take that exact car anyway, because it has higher miles and the inside smelled like an ashtray, so I figure no big deal, I am sure it will still be sitting there in a week...
When I went back to test the Z4 and the 4 (more on that later), the car has already been sold. No big deal, the dealer is one of the biggest in the area, I am sure there is one sitting around either used or new...
The dealer has absolutely nothing. No new M240i. No used M235i. Nada, zilch, zero. What they DID have was a white 230 convertible. No M sport package. I gave it a go anyway. It was perfectly adequate for a BMW, but nothing exciting. The electric assisted steering was still too light like my friend’s 328, but if I liked that I wouldn’t have needed Tom’s help. So the M235 ended up being disqualified for this test because it was unavailable.
4. Lexus IS200t: Cushy
Pro: Comfortable, Lots and lots of toys, Toyota reliability
Con: Slightly sluggish, muddy handling
The Lexus was comfortable. If you are looking for a cushy ride, that would be the best car of the lot. It has lots and lots of toys (it was the only car here with ventilated seats) and the seats are giant recliners you can take naps in. It is a Toyota, so I know it will probably outlast me if maintained properly.
The problem is while the Lexus looks aggressive, the drive was anything but. The turbo engine tried to keep up, but the automatic was a bit sluggish and the steering was a bit vague and not particularly confident. It was not a bad car, it was very practical, but compared to the rest it wasn’t my cup of tea.
3. BMW Z4: Old School
Pro: Looks awesome, trick hardtop, old school roadster
Con: Old School roadster, a little cramped, future reliability
I tested a Z4 from a CPO lot at a local BMW dealer. It looks beautiful with the glossy black paint. Sitting in it you are well aware you are driving an old school roadster, the hood stretches miles ahead, and you sink deep into the car, your ass inches above the ground. This one has the Navigation/Tech package and it has 20 something thousand miles on it, so it is not too bad for a 3 year old car.
The driving experience was purely old school. I felt like I was sitting directly on the rear axle (that’s because I was just in front of it), the straight 6 growled as a BMW engine should, no piped in noises here. With the windows down (and stayed down, the regulator might have been broken) it was a joy to just push through in high speed. Everything felt mechanical (instead of electronic) and heavy, and this was the only car I tested that had old school hydraulic power steering. Unfortunately, the trunk was tiny (even with top up), the car was a bit cramped for me and the husband (two big dudes), and I was concerned about reliability issues if the window regulator couldn’t last more than 30 thousand miles. It would make a great Sunday driver, but not a daily driver.
2. BMW 435i M Sport: The Ex Boyfriend
Pro: Looks and feels fundamentally the same as my old car. It’s like getting together with an ex.
Con: Looks and feels fundamentally the same as my old car. It’s like getting together with an ex.
From the Z4, I jumped into the 435i. Tom sent me a listing for a 335i M Sport, but it was located on a different lot, and the difference between the 3 and the 4 were door counts. Plus I was not opposed to getting a coupe instead of a 4 door. So off I went.
Everything about this car was instantly familiar, but just different enough to feel new, like an ex boyfriend you haven’t seen for years returned to your neighborhood looking a bit more buff and wearing nicer clothes. The iDrive controls were familiar, the steering (with the M sport package) much tighter than the regular setup, the slight understeer and sharp responses were instantly familiar and comforting. The seat was comfortable and supportive, and I could work the controls and toys blindfolded.
Ultimately I passed on the 4 because I had a BMW for 11 years and I am interested in new experiences. If I did not like the winner of this test, the 435 would have been my new car.
1. Audi S3: Perfect
Pro: handles like a champ, fancy technology, good looks
Con: Slightly small, odd equipment choices
confess that I was always a bit weary of VAG products. The company has been
making some of the most beautiful mass market cars since the days of the
original Audi TT and the A6 from the same era. I was going to get an A6 back in 2001, but the brand’s issues with reliability stopped me cold. I knew it got much better now, but jokes about VAG reliability are as regular as jokes about Ferrari fires.
So when Tom told me to try out the S3 (because in his words it is “probably the closest driving experience you will get to your E90 in a modern car”), I was a bit skeptical. However, there was one that was barely used available at my local Audi shop that was literally just traded in, so I decided to give it a shot.
Like every Audi since the 90s (except the Q7), the S3 is really good looking and well proportioned. Inside, the car I tested did not have any options, but the fit and finish were superb and the seats are comfortable. The driving quality is really nice, the steering nicely weighted and the steering is sharp without being twitchy on bumpy roads. Toss it into a curvy back road near the dealer in dynamic mode was an exercise in fun. The car I ended up buying came with the navigation and technology package, so I got Apple CarPlay for my phone, a giant screen for the dashboard with information directly in front of me, and a thousand ways to connect digital media (it even has a CD player in the glovebox).
That said, the car is not without its drawbacks, but they are small and easy to live with. The lack of seat memory means I have to readjust every time a valet (or my husband) drives it. The interior is pretty plasticky, but most of the surfaces are soft touch and there are no glossy and hard surfaces. I am not a tall dude, but the back seat is not particularly roomy for normal humans when I set my seat in a comfortable position. The automatic engine shut off is a bit annoying, but I can switch that off.
Thanks for reading, and again thank you Tom McParland for his advice.