Reader Davefromcalgary discusses what it’s like to buy the car that everybody asks for, but nobody ever seems to actually purchase: the manual variant of a mainstream sedan.
As the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014, my trusty 2002 Oldsmobile Alero with 296,000 kms (or roughly 184,000 miles) on the clock, took what would turn out to be its last cross country trip. Returning to Calgary on a day where the average air temperature across 1350 kms (840 miles) averaged about -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit), the hydraulic clutch system gradually ceased to function. I managed to get it home, but the third gear synchro soon failed, and the first gear synchro progressively became louder until I finally delivered my trusty Olds to the local Pick n’ Pull.
In the summer of 2012, I had to have that very same hydraulic system serviced at a local shop in Calgary. It is my understanding that prolonged exposure to extreme cold was a known problem for that system, and that previous to this service, which required replacement of the slave cylinder, it had been cold proofed. This same procedure was unfortunately not carried out this time around.
At this point, my Alero was pretty much worth scrap value, having a bad transmission, typical Alero rust, and a rebuilt title. So I made the decision to buy something reasonably new. Up to that point, only one out of the six vehicles I had owned had come into my possession with less than 150,000 kms, or just under 100,000 miles. I generally wrench on my own, up to complex engine or transmission repairs, so I decided to treat myself with a vehicle that hopefully would require only regular maintenance for a while.
As I have mentioned to the likes of CoreyDL, bball40dtw and 28-cars-later, I had a pretty strict set of non-negotiables that my new car had to adhere to; the rest would sort itself out.
My “must have” list is short, but boy does it narrow the field in a hurry.
• Dual Exhaust – Pretty much everyone whom I spoke to about my pending decision told me this is a stupid non-negotiable. However, every vehicle I have ever owned has left my care with dual exhaust, whether it had it prior or not. I simply cannot bear the lopsided look of a lonely single exhaust poking out one side of the car. Furthermore, if I ended up buying or leasing new or on warranty, I know this kind of aftermarket modification wouldn’t fly. Finally, it is really hard to get an aftermarket system that looks like it belongs there, doesn’t ruin the look, and doesn’t introduce annoying tones or resonance.
• V6 or Turbo 4 power – the majority of my past vehicles have been the base engine. While it can be fun to zing a car to redline and enjoy every bit of the tach, I also think it is nice to have effortless power to merge and cruise when you want it. This is the main reason why the Mazda6 never entered consideration. I know the SkyActiv 2.5 is a good engine for what it is, but I was really looking for 240+ hp.
• 6 speed manual – Self-explanatory. However, I also wanted something with a nice ratio spread. It always boggles my mind when the top gear in a decently powerful manual transmission car screams along at highway speeds. I guess the passing power is there, but I can downshift, thanks.
• Convenient audio integration – I pretty much spend all day streaming radio from all over North America on my iPhone using the Tune-In Radio app. At the very least an aux-in jack was required, for cars around the 2008 range.
• HVAC must have the floor/defrost split. My mom’s Audi A4 and my dad’s LSS and LeSabre don’t have this setting, and in winter I consider it absolutely non-negotiable.
Some other important questions, such as driven wheels and body style came down as follows:
• Driven wheels was a consideration, but not a decision maker. Sadly, the majority of cars for sale are FWD, and I really wasn’t interested in slip and grip transverse AWD.
• Body style was pretty much destined to be a sedan or coupe. Hatchbacks and CUVs were not really in the running, due to a quirk of mine that really dislikes not having a separate, lockable trunk area. Stuff in the rear of a hatch is accessible via the main doors and I really can’t stand that. (Sorry, Forester XT, GTI, and Legacy GT Wagon.) For Pch101, sadly no small to midsize trucks were on my list. The Tacoma and Frontier simply do not interest me now, and never have, as my primary vehicle anyways. I would definitely consider a Tacoma X-Runner as a secondary vehicle.
So, at this point my two front runners were an 05-09 Legacy GT Sedan, or a 2008+ Accord Coupe V6. I always loved what I call the “hawk-eye” Legacy, as the 2.5 Turbo is a treat, and the Subaru AWD would have been a great companion for my many winter highway trips. However, the only way to have 6 forward gears and Subaru’s best standard audio was the rare as hen’s teeth Spec-B, which basically proved impossible to find for a reasonable price, and anywhere near to my location. As well, 05lgt and others cast some doubt upon the robustness of the rear suspension and diff of five to ten year old Legacy GTs.
My parents visited in mid-January for an event, and it was suddenly and clearly illuminated that coupes suck for bringing friends along. Combining this with how sick I was of having to do gymnastics just to get out of a tight parking spot, this pretty much eliminated the Accord, despite how sweet the pull of that 3.5L V6 is. I will state categorically that had the Accord sedan been available with the V6/6MT combination, I would have bought it.
A 2009 Lexus IS250 briefly entered the competition, and I even took it for a test drive. My reading of owner’s reviews assured me that with a good set of winter rubber, the Lexus’s excellent RWD driving dynamics would prove quite a treat when the white stuff flew. Sadly, the 2.5 V6 could hardly be described as effortless, though I cast no aspersions on the vehicles smoothness or comfort.
So, at this point, within my maximum of CAD 35,000 or so, the Verano Turbo and Jetta GLI were the only two vehicles left on the list. I test drove both, and found the VW 2.0T/6MT combination subjectively superior to the GM combo. It seemed more responsive across the rev range, in fact feeling as strong at it’s peak as the GM, despite advertising 45 less horsepower. However, the Verano T had better feature content at the price, and the Jetta has single exhaust. Dual tips on one side doesn’t count. I was willing to settle for the slightly smaller Verano. As well, a combination of my general GM bias, and my family’s experience with VW products really swayed me over to the old man brand. All that was left was to book a test drive and see if I actually liked driving the damn thing.
This proved harder than you might suspect. My chosen dealer didn’t have one (not surprising, being that they are western Canada’s volume leader in pickups) and the closest one they had access to was in Edmonton, 3 hours away. However, they did show a 2013 Verano T 6MT locally, but it wasn’t available to them. So, I took matters into my own hands and tracked the vehicle down myself and went to the dealer to whom it belonged. I booked an appointment for a Tuesday evening.
When I showed up, it was a black on black Verano T, fully loaded including nav and the 10 split spoke premium rims. The young salesman, who had given me a pretty thorough walk through in the well-lit service drive through, tossed me the keys, and told me to be back by close. I immediately paired up my iPhone, (remarkably easy) and pulled out on to AB- Hwy 2, heading south towards the outskirts of town so I could evaluate the car’s highway ride, and headlights. I was immediately able to ascertain that the car was indeed effortless to accelerate to highway speeds, enhanced by the fact that the Verano is a very quiet car! Buick advertises their quiet tuning, and, while my reference is a clapped out Alero, it became pretty obvious that this was a very solid feeling automobile.
Any and all reviews I had read of the Verano T praised its power and smooth quiet ride, but universally panned its 6MT as clunky, vague, and a blight on an otherwise well put together car. Now, maybe I have never driven a good MT, or perhaps my standards are a lot lower, but I found the car easy to drive. I had no trouble finding gears, and the clutch action felt fine, though the friction point is pretty high in the pedal travel. I will say that one of the things that sold me on the car was just how familiar it felt to drive. The gear ratios, to me, are well matched to the engines output and I had no trouble operating the mechanism. I was also extremely pleased to find that at 110 kph, the little turbo mill has yet to breach 2000 rpm in 6th gear. This led me to believe that the car would be an effortless highway cruiser.
I used the voice command to dial my dad. We had a quick chat, and his opinion was that the sound quality was slightly better than the Bluetooth headset I usually use, which satisfied that curiosity. I found the infotainment system easy to use. I was able to stream music with little trouble, and the system was even able to display song information in Ukrainian.
The Bose sound system was actually better than the Bose system in my 04 Mazda 6, but was typically underwhelming. I don’t know why, but Bose in cars just doesn’t work. I preferred the “Monsoon” systems in my previous GM vehicles, for sound. Bear in mind though, I am not what you would consider an audiophile; I just know what I like a stereo to sound like. That being said, the connectivity was straightforward, and while it does feature a touch screen, the majority of features can be controlled by the large array of buttons and the large, central push-to-select rotary dial. The HVAC system, though being an auto climate control system, features rotary knobs and toggle switches, and is extremely user friendly. All in all, I would give the Verano top marks for its control interfaces.
I found it reasonably easy to find a driving position that suited me. A colleague of mine who is 6’4” rented a Verano and said he couldn’t get comfortable behind the wheel, but at a stocky 5’6” I was able to get comfortable. The 6’2” salesman sat behind me, and he fit, so I figured I would generally be able to haul my friends around. Though the Verano is sort of short in length, and awkwardly tall, the beltline stays low enough that shoulder check visibility isn’t hampered. This was a serious concern, but taking the car onto Calgary’s expressways assured me that it was easy enough to navigate through traffic. I would like to give special props to the blind spot monitoring system in the side view mirrors, and the cross traffic alert in the backup camera, but also decry the auto dimming rearview mirror with no option to disable the function.
At the end of my 90 minute test drive, I was comfortable that this was the car for me. I still have a list as long as my arm of things that irk me about the car. Basically, the Verano was the car that annoyed me the least while fulfilling my must haves. At this point, I had two dealerships vying for my business. The dealership that had the car, and my chosen dealership. I paid $40 to www.carcostcanada.com, a website which spit out the vehicle’s dealer invoice price. At this point, I dealt over email, and was promised in writing a 2014 Verano T, factory ordered, at invoice +4% profit and my choice of lease incentives, either the current ones or the ones available on delivery. I took that email to my preferred dealership, and we ran the credit check and I gave them a deposit to secure the order. This was at the end of January, and I took delivery of the car on April 5 2014.
As of this writing, I have owned the car for 1.5 months. Part 2 will discuss how the car functions in day-to-day situations.