Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 24: “Not Again!”


The “final” edition of Notes from the Road had a tone of finality to it that was, let’s be honest, unlikely to hold up.  It wasn’t long at all before the addition of a new chapter and then yet another chapter after that one. There have actually been even more changes since those last wishful entries, and as a result, a fair bit of catching up to do.  Time for a walk down (recent history) memory lane!

On the Mini front, I am happy to report that not too much has changed.  Mrs. Complaints Inc has decided that the Mini Countryman must be pried from her cold dead hands, so the only change here is a swap for a better bundle and “keeper” color so she can drive it into the ground.  The 2015 is essentially unchanged from the 2014 and still a great little car.  Extremely versatile and surprisingly rewarding to drive as long as you don’t expect it to be a classic Cooper S…

Home

 

Ok with that out of the way we can move on to Mr. Complaints Inc and once again wonder how it is there hasn’t been a divorce yet!  The catalyst this time was what has become known as The Big Move!  Moving West was definitely a big deal.  California is stupidly expensive and Silicon Valley pays about 50% less than it would need to in order to keep you even in terms of housing.  Having your housing costs double, while at the same time switching from a nice house to a microscopic apartment, sucks on a level that is hard to describe.  And so it was that, moving West, the GTR had to go.  It was just too much money to have tied up in a car and I didn’t feel comfortable keeping it in an apartment garage (or driving it to work every day).  This was a real dilemma as there really wasn’t much left I hadn’t tried!  Of course one positive point of Cali is that you no longer have to worry about snow…

2014 BMW M235i

Astute readers probably remember the love affair I had with this car after test driving it.  It was a real shock how great this thing was.  Randy Probst, in my opinion, did not exaggerate when he called it the most rewarding BMW to drive since the 1M.  It really is that good which, these days, makes it a bit of a shocking bargain from BMW even at the $50k they charge for it.  Sure it is a bit downmarket all around since it is the entry level platform, but it is superlative where it counts; driver ergonomics, responsiveness through the rev range, brake feel, suspension travel and even the automatic transmission.  Hell, even the EPS isn’t completely evil (certainly much better than Audi)

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But back to that transmission.  The ZF8, for me, cures any dual clutch envy and I actually preferred it to DCT.  WHAT?! You must be some sort of MORON! (the masses cried)  See the thing with DCT is it is great in theory.  It’s an “actual manual”, so on forums you can pretend you didn’t really buy an automatic.  But the thing is, it actually is a manual. Albeit a really complex one.  With two clutches.  What I’ve found in every dual clutch is that the experience can be uneven.  It is a bit like turbo.  When it’s all working great (ie – computer clutches just right for the occasion) its wonderful.  Just like when you’re in boost on a turbo.  When it doesn’t? (ie – when you do a rolling stop and then need to start moving again rapidly to get into traffic?) You can die.  Compounding this is the fact that all of these new cars are also turbo.  The combination of turbo lag and trans lag can be a nightmare.  With a traditional torque converter auto, you have none of that.  The downside had always been the performance drain and slower shifts, but the ZF8 is quicker than a manual. Outside of a track, where the ms advantages of dual clutch would really add up, the ZF8 is the better trans.  And almost certainly more bullet proof.

The one downside to the M235i is what we touched on.  The cabin is functional, but is bog standard BMW entry level.  The car I picked up (gently pre-owned with only 2k mi, same as the GTR I was “trading” in on it), had literally every option checked.  Yes, this was a $50k original MSRP 2 series.  The original owner went nuts, then realized he was nuts, then unloaded it because the payment was too high.  It was nice for me because I would never check every box on a BMW.  One thing though is that even every box checked doesn’t upgrade the basic cabin design and materials.  Which means, being blunt, a Honda Civic can give the cabin a run for its money.  Luckily, BMW is happy to charge you even more money to fix it!

I opted for basically the entire set of ///Performance catalog carbon fiber and alcantara bits.  Nearly $1500 in add-on dress up, but the results were impressive.  It made a huge difference and in a tragic bit of irony, yields a result that looks better than the new M2!  While raiding the catalog, I figured might as well go (literally) for broke and throw on this beauty…

2015-04-16 11.39.07

I could devote entire entries to how incredible this thing sounded.  Suffice it to say that the RS5’s sonic reign was short lived!  The M235i with the ///Performance exhaust is transformed.  It doesn’t even make sense how good it sounds.  And it isn’t the bullshit symposer either.  I’m talking outside the car.  Absolutely amazing.

And so the journey has come to an end.  We’ve come full circle and I realized that, the day I test drove the M235i, I probably should have just bought it.  The End…….

Kidding!

The M235i is a fantastic car, and for anyone not obscenely spoiled, and slightly mentally imbalanced, is all the car they’d ever need.  But remember… The M2 exists.  This means that there is a market for lunatics like me (us?)  As great as the M235i is, there is always that slight air of “not quite there” to it.  It’s the “almost ///”.  There is a stigma to that which, while not fair, always eats at you (unless you can build immunity to it, which as you’ve guessed I could not).  For some (most?) the S (or even S-Line) or the Mxxxi (or even M-Perf kit) render the RS and M unnecessary.  But for (however many buyers there are) that buy the RS and M, the difference is in the small details that add up.  And the exclusivity that comes with being “the real one”.  So… Was the M235i muscled out by the M2?  Or maybe big (bigger than ever… huge really) brother M4?  In all honesty, I feel my love affair with BMW may have ended.  And to be fair, it is not purely their fault. Some of it is “progress”.  Car’s keep getting bigger, and more disconnected, as they inch towards being fully autonomous rolling living rooms.  I think for me, the two primary problems are the size (I like small, intimate, cabins with great ergonomics in a drivers car) and definitely the steering feel.  Steering is huge for me.  Even moreso than the transmission.  If the steering isn’t ideal I start to feel like it might as well be a commodity ride, or maybe even autonomous for that matter!  The M4 fared pretty well in a test drive, but not 80 grand well. Especially not combined with the “baby 6 series” feel of the overall package.  So my plan was to stick with the M235i, despite (once gain) the lack of a real emotional connection to it, since it is a great car to commute with and park anywhere.  That plan was going well until….

2007 Porsche 911 Turbo

It finally happened.  For me, this is like Everest Base Camp or Kilimanjaro is to a dedicated climber.  The fulfillment of a childhood dream.  I first saw the 911 Turbo in the 80s and fell in love with the ugly, bug eyed, demon.  Something about its bold “function over form” and “physics be damned!” attitude really appealed to my 15 year old self.  Sure Ferraris (and Lambos, and Panteras and Lotii and…) were sexier, but the fact that the 911 could hang and even best any of them?  That was Rocky Balboa type shit right there.

So over the years, as these pages have shown, I’ve had the true fortune of owning two different 996 era C2s, and I loved both of them dearly.  But my heart always really pined for the Turbo.  Why I never just bought one with all of the money I’ve set on fire here is a bit of a mystery.  It’s probably part impatience, part ADD, and a bit of mental illness.  The new car entry point for the 911 Turbo is just so damn high, and climbs higher annually, that it just doesn’t click as a sane thing to do.  In the aftermarket, they don’t depreciate all that deeply.  They reach bottom, then stabilize.  Over time (a long time) they even tick up.  A time or two I did attempt to get into a 996 Turbo, but there were no great examples around that I felt comfortable pulling the trigger on.  Where my budget sits, you’re looking at a 7-9 year old example generally on its 2nd or 3rd owner.  Finding a really good sample is tough.  Finding one locally becomes even tougher.  Then there was the fact that if I were going to do the Turbo, I really wanted it to be a true keeper and I was just never quite convinced that the 996 could be “the one”.  I love the 996 and suffer none of the anti-996 bias so common among the haters, it’s just that the 997 is like a better version.  To me, the 997 represents the end of the “old school era”.  It has enough of a foot in the present to be a modern, usable, car.  It’s downright effortless compared to the 80s cars.  It has modern safety equipment and engineering which makes it effortlessly fast, reasonably fuel efficient, and easy to maintain with a decent mix of creature comforts.  But it also has one foot solidly in the past.  The steering is classic 911.  As is the cabin; both in terms of size and ergonomics.  With the 991 the 911 is now bigger, sports EPS, and has taken too big (in my opinion) of a step towards being a GT car.  So for me, the 997 is “the one”.

Unfortunately values have reflected this.  Nine years on, the 997.1 Turbo, last of the mighty Mezger engine turbos, has finally reached about 50% of its original value and has started to stabilize.  When one came up locally, with all of my “must have options”, I had to check it out.  Well… “Check it out” I did!

She’s a two owner, 33k mile, California car carrying the last few years of a looong extended warranty.  Porsche serviced since inception, and never having passed through an auction, she’s a really great example.  The exterior is flawless with the exception of a small ding right on the curvature of the front bumper.  No paint impact, just a tiny crease.  Unfortunately, the plastic fascia makes it way more trouble than it’s worth to remove, but luckily it is unnoticeable from any but the exact wrong angle.  Some day I will get it addressed during the inevitable rock chip respray.

Inside things are just about as good.  The car was optioned with a lot of leather including headliner, key and steering wheel surround and Bose audio surround.  That said, it still isn’t enough.  The center console is a disgracefully bad showing from Porsche, VW quality really (forget Audi), and doesn’t age well.  This one has some scuffs that drive me crazy but weren’t enough to be show stoppers.  That said, at some point I may need to replace it.

2016-02-26 16.38.33

Other than that, the only other interior flaws are some scuffs on the ebrake handle (prior owner must have worn rings) and a scrape on the driver side rear seatback (likely a mishap from hauling some cargo back there).  So all in all, excellent shape for having traveled 33,000 miles, across three owners and nearly a decade!  Especially considering the surprisingly mediocre materials quality Porsche used on these cars!

So what is it like to drive this monster?  Let’s get to the objective good and bad.  After all, only fantasies are perfect.  Reality is always mixed!  The good is well established.  The steering is phenomenal.  Superior to any car I’ve owned in terms of feel, feedback and responsiveness.  Same goes for the driving position and driver ergonomics, as well as the seats in terms of both supportiveness and comfort.  Rounding out the good are the brakes and suspension.  The brakes are absolutely amazing in terms of grip, lack of fade, and stopping power.  Far better than the M235i and better even than the GTR.  The suspension also strikes a perfect balance of handling and comfort with no body roll at all.  Sport mode stiffens things up via the electronic damping control, but isn’t really necessary.  That said, sport mode still does pretty well on the street.  On perhaps more the neutral side is the actual performance.  Don’t get me wrong… The 997 Turbo is fast.  In real world performance it equals the stock 09 GTR which makes it faster than most cars on the road.  The thing is, power delivery is slightly laggy (even with the VTG turbos) and it is held back a bit by the tiptronic despite the tip actually being quicker than the manual (more on this later).  This can all be considered good though.  Tooling around town it is as docile as anything (similar to the GTR) and if you lean on it, it becomes a land rocker (similar to the GTR).  It just never feels as explosively quick as the GTR (even though on paper it is).

OK, so then what is bad?  Well first, the tiptronic. It actually is quite good.  It’s a 5 speed, so maybe short a gear, but it is perfectly matched to the engine and keeps the car in boost all the time.  It’s also very smart and adaptive.  The thing is, it is probably too smart and adaptive.  It also is obsessed with starting in 2nd gear.  Starting in 2nd is fine 99% of the time.  But 1% of the time, it’s really horrible.  That said, you can drive the thing in manual mode. At that point, the only downside becomes the thumb switches which aren’t nearly as usable as paddle shifters (albeit they do get the job done).  In manual mode, especially with sport mode on, the 997 Turbo suddenly feels every bit as quick as the GTR.  Very nice indeed.  I haven’t tried the Sport Chrono yet, so nothing to report in terms of launch mode.  maybe in the future.

The other downsides all involve sound.  One, is lack thereof.  This is a famous issue, but the exhaust note on the 997 Turbo is nonexistent.  The turbo sounds amazing.  Hearing it spool up is intoxicating and, to my ear, more satisfying than the GTR.  You can watch the LCD boost gauge to see how PSI translates to sound as well.  Very nice.  But the absence of exhaust note remains a bummer.

The other sound related issue is cabin noise.  It must be said that rattles, buzzes, and vibrations are something of a 911 “feature”.  That said, it’s still very disappointing and hurts the experience in a $140k car (yes it’s used, but these problems do start early and are insanely common).  I feel as though I’ll be chasing rattles forever.  The biggest of them I am hoping to squash soon; some sort of vibration/RPM related buzzing somewhere in the center console.

So all in all, the fulfillment of a dream is a bit of a mixed bag.  This is a good life lesson as it is nearly always the rule.  That said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  The emotional connection to the 911 (for me) is strong.  Every time I look at it, I remember those childhood posters and smile.  Plus, it is quasi practical (at least it has a rear seat), is pretty low key (911 has become a fairly common shape to see), is nice and small and easy to park, and is rocketship quick regardless of how it sometimes feels.  Plus, it’s a Porsche which, for the converted, means a connection to a legacy dating back across nearly 100 years of excellence.

And so on that note, the final final entry comes to a close!  Yeah yeah, I know! Until next time, happy driving!

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