So...turns out, the answer to my question from last Sunday—"Volkswagen or Hyundai?"—is, of all things, "Mercedes-Benz."
Once Steve Rosenblum reformulated my priorities for me, the choice didn't take too long to make. The "Baby Benz"—which I bought used for about the same money as the new cars I was looking at—is thoroughly engineered for crashworthiness and has about every safety feature known to Man: all-wheel drive, traction control, ABS brakes, airbags out the wazoo, brights that can be seen from space, and so on. Seemed like the perfect car to share with Zander as he learns to drive. (He'll be more careful of it than he'd be of a beat-up elderly Ford, too.)
If it's a good choice for him, though, it's an unusual choice for me. It's as if I were buying a new camera and decided on a 1Ds and an all-in-one zoom lens the size of a Yule log.
In the course of my shopping odyssey I did find the perfect toy car for Mike. I liked the VW GTI a lot, and it had a decided practical side for an only car, but as a toy it paled in comparison to the Chevy Cobalt SS, a car that's been discontinued and is almost gone from dealer lots. The Cobalt SS is no frills, looks like an econobox, and drives like a race car. It has a superb, highly flexible 260 horsepower turbo four in a 2,926-lb. body (vs. the GTI's 200 hp and a hundred and eight more pounds of curb weight), a road-gripping suspension that can't be flummoxed by pavement nasties, and an outstanding short-throw shifter with a very positive action. Just a delight to drive—very much the car equivalent of the perfect Mike camera. Then consider its excellent Recaro-style front seats and jazz on the satellite radio, and I was in my automotive heaven.
By the numbers, the Cobalt SS is faster than the 1993 BMW M3 (a 6-cylinder, RWD car) and the 1989 V8 Corvette—and that's only because it can't get its power to the pavement. To that end, it has "launch control," an anti-burnout mode also found on Corvettes—you floor the throttle and the launch control limits the revs to 5000. Then you pop the clutch and feel the muscles in your neck. There's a lot more to a car than just straight-line acceleration, of course. The Cobalt SS is the current unofficial record-holder among front-wheel-drive cars for a lap around the Nürburgring.
It's almost painful to forgo the chance to buy a Cobalt SS new. But I can only afford one car at a time, and it would have been well into stupid territory to buy it as a dual driver to share with my 17-year-old new driver son. Also, my insurance agent offered the opinion that "insuring a 17-year-old for a Cobalt SS would have been through the roof." So the choice came down to: Cobalt SS for me and the 11-year-old Ford ZX2 for Zander, or a safer, more crashworthy car for both of us to share.
The Benz is a completely different driving experience, and one that is not at all unpleasant. It "wants" to be driven in a slightly brisk but essentially decorous and stately manner. You can feel the road nicely, but the suspension flows like oil. It's the very first car with an automatic transmission I've ever owned. I find driving automatics difficult and somewhat disconcerting—unnatural, really—and it's going to take some getting used to. But I'm sure I shall.
Its styling is lovely save for the slightly extroverted taillights, and the plethora of luxury features in its cockpit are delightfully over-the-top, with every luxury touch I could have dreamed up and then some. Lights everywhere, auto- and power-everything, dual climate zones, all for the earnest pampering and cossetting and cocooning of the lucky driver. I feel like quite the serious, privileged fellow proceeding magisterially down the boulevard. (As my friend Art wrote to me, "So, when did we grow up?")
I'm told it's "not as luxurious" as bigger Benzes or the serious models from the upscale Rising Sun marques, and that's an astonishing notion to me. It's by far the most luxurious car I've ever owned. Zander actually really likes it, too. If he gets "typed" for life to this style of car, he could certainly do worse.
I must add that the Mercedes people really have the sales experience down pat. Although you naturally have to disappoint all the salespeople you deal with during a car search except the last, I've met some nice folks all the way through my car-shopping journey—notably Adam Rolfson at Hall VW (whose website bringbackbrettfavre.com went viral in a way TOP has never approached), Chef Newhouse at Wilde Honda, and Mark Kelm at Boucher Chevrolet (really sorry I couldn't buy a car from you, Mark!)—but my experience at Mercedes of Elmbrook was noticeably a cut above. I met Levi Goines at the Milwaukee Auto Show, and he convinced me to come by the dealership even though I assured him repeatedly that there was no way I was ever going to buy a Mercedes anything. Shows how much I know. Levi fits my idea of the perfect car salesman: friendly, informative, helpful, and not pushy. If you're looking for a Mercedes in Southeastern Wisconsin or even from Chicago, please tell him I sent you.
My Old Faithful Ford is no more, bless her shining chrome heart. She's off to wholesale. A Pentax K-1000 of cars—built in November, 1998, in Mexico, and sold new to me in Chicago as a '99 model. It went a hundred thousand miles with nothing more serious than a loose tie rod—a cheap fix—providing fun, entertainment and staunch service all along the way. Great car. I'll miss it, and I'll think of it every time I hear Neil Young sing "Long May You Run*." The Benz actually has some formidable shoes to fill.
*Which was written about a car, despite its being pressed into service lately as an all-purpose musical-elder-statesman anthem.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Marc Lawrence: "Mister Johnston, that is no 'baby Benz,' good man. Meet our dear little fellow, known as 'Scruffy' (yeah, I name my cars, wanna fight about it? :) ):
He is both shopping trolley and dog-car. Okay, my requirements may have been just a tad different from yours, even putting aside that the 'baby' was not available to you. Nice choice, Mike (though I'd also have been empathetic with the Golf). So, what's his/her name? (I name my cameras too, and they're a crowd. It's only a problem amongst company.)"
Featured Comment by Grant Peterson: "Last July 12th at 1:00 a.m., a 23-year old kid—drunk, high, asleep at the wheel, or texting—veered off the road in front of our house, cut a ten-inch maple trunk clean in half, obliterated an iron post, and landed in our living room, all spun-around backwards. He must have been going 70 mph (as estimated by the cops), and by the time I got out of bed to see what was the matter, he'd taken off running down the street (later we found out he holed up in his girlfriend's house, about half a mile away).
"My p/s digital wasn't working, so I shot my Voigtlander Bessa L with 25/4 and a flash, aimed at the near pitch darkness, and got these photos. The car, a Mercedes, came through it remarkably well, and its driver, even better.
"Ultimately the guy was caught, he wrote a truly heroic letter of apology that may be the best letter of a apology ever written, and his dad's insurance paid for the house-fix, including eight five-inch cement-filled iron pipes that'll stop the next Mercedes that tries the same trick.
"I can't afford a Mercedes, but if I could, I sure would. Main thing: Good car choice!"