Being asked “what car should I buy?” occurs on a weekly basis for me, but I’d rather field that question every day than listen to the recieved wisdom of a magazine racer just once more in my life. The most recent inquiry came from my Uncle Maurice, a kind and generous man who provided my brother and me with a near bottomless supply of Swiss Army knives when we were children.
Maurice owns the second worst car I’ve ever driven, a 2005 Buick Century. The Century is a relic of the bad years of GM when everybody was utterly indifferent to making a a quality vehicle. This example may be the best Buick Century ever; Maurice’s father-in-law was the previous owner and kept it in immaculate condition. Unfortunately, it drives like a stereotypical Buick, and the 3.1L V6 is somehow underpowered and horribly thirsty. Maurice recently emailed me, saying that he want to replace the Century with an American sedan that has a peerless ride, spacious rear seating and an easy ingress/egress for my Aunt. Naturally, I refereed him to Sajeev, who suggested a nearly-new Town Car Signature L. Needless to say, I cannot wait to head down to Florida this year and waft down the streets of Miami, while the bass-heavy music of Rick Ross rattles the Kleenex boxes and adjustable-back baseball hats mounted on the parcel shelf.
Which brings me to the worst vehicle I’ve ever driven; a 2011 Nissan Sentra. The Sentra belonged to Zipcar, a car sharing service that I have a membership with (paid for myself, not comped, if any integrity-minders want to know). I was stuck without a car recently and had to make a doctor’s appointment. With construction on the main areterial road, the already infrequent bus service would be even slower, and I didn’t feel like being crammed in with the other rides in that state. I fired up my Zipcar membership and got the cheapest car that was located within walking distance. At $9 per hour, it was a no brainer compared to the $13.50 per hour Mini Cooper they also had.
I’d used the Mini before, when it was winter time, the roads were freshly salted, and I didn’t want to drive my pristine, rust-free Miata. The Mini was an absolute hoot to drive, despite being low on power, and the lessons I learned at Tim O’Neil’s rally school could be put to work. The Sentra, on the other hand, was an utterly dismal drive.
With 21,000 miles on it, the Sentra didn’t feel rough or abused. It just wasn’t a good car. Any life that the QR20DE 2.0L4-cylinder had was immediately sapped by the poky CVT gearbox. The CVT, to its credit, didn’t display the typical “motorboat” behavior, and was good at keeping the revs suitably low around town – but that’s about it. Turns taken at moderate speed exhibited massive body roll, and the comically high driving position made me feel like I was sitting on a piece of playground apparatus.
At $18,878 plus $1,300 for the optional CVT gearbox, the Sentra is hardly the cheapest compact out there, not the most generously equipped. The $20,178 sticker also included $135 for the “Blueberry” paint, which was actually an attractive shade of Navy. There are so many good choices in all segments of the used car market that’s it’s pretty hard to buy a bad car, unless you really look hard. This is one of those instances. If you want something fun to drive, there’s the Ford Focus and the Mazda3. If you want something Korean that looks upscale, the Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra are there for you, while the Kia Rio does a great imitation of a SEAT Ibiza from 5 years ago. All-wheel drive? The Subaru Impreza. Basic transportation? The Honda Civic, Volkswagen Jetta and Toyota Corolla are all vying for your money. Even Alex Dykes would recommend the Versa, the cheapest new car on sale today, over the Sentra.
Yes, I know these cars have their flaws, like exploding automatic gearboxes on the Focus. My point is that the quality differential between modern cars has largely disappeared to the point where differences in product are incremental and quality is largely equal (at the expense of character, which is a whole other discussion). But every now and then, you find something that is unreservedly at the back of the pack, hopelessly out of date and a reminder that while modern cars may be considered dull and uniform, they have come so far in just a few short years.
And on that note, I leave you with a classic bit from Louis C.K. that explains it better than I ever could.