By on October 27, 2010

TTAC Commentator Seminole95 writes:

Dear TTAC, I enjoy this page every day. Thanks for your great work. I especially enjoy the business news and analysis. I will be shopping for a new car in the next year or so and would like a car with low NVH. Do you know of a publication that tests cars for this extensively? I have been unable to find one on the web.

I am looking for a low NVH car with a stick. I am guessing the Lexus IS 250 might work but I haven’t driven one yet. I like to listen to podcasts and music in isolation from the daily grind of a commute but still want to enjoy the pleasure of controlling the car via a stick shift. I am a long time Honda buyer but don’t think I’ll buy another for this very reason. I drove a 09 Accord V6 stick Coupe the other week. Nice looking car and sweet power train but man was it loud. Thanks a lot.

Sajeev Answers:

Not that you’re doing it intentionally, but the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” comes to mind. NVH is a matter of personal taste and scientific analysis.  No matter how many decibels are measured by a machine, you could beg to differ.  Humans (obviously) come to different conclusions than machines.  More to the point, we bicker amongst ourselves because our tastes (and eardrums?) are subjectively different.

Nobody in their right mind thinks a Corolla is as NVH-perfect as a Lexus LS460, but you made the mistake of driving basic transportation (Accord) against its upscale (Acura) sibling. Luxury cars usually earn the title for a reason, so compare cars in the same class. Just don’t expect NVH calculations to bear fruit: it’s in the “ear of the beholder.”

I thought I was clever for coming up with that phrase all by myself, until I googled it.  Thanks a lot for raining on my parade, Dr. Pranab Saha. And while the good doctor’s twenty-something years in the NVH biz isn’t fully utilized in the snippet-link above, it’s safe to say that others agree with my belief. If self-shifting NVH is your primary measuring “stick”, I suspect the Acura TL or Lexus IS250 manuals are your best choices.  Test drive ‘em both.

Bonus!  A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Sometimes NVH problems are cured via the automotive aftermarket. Strategically placed Dynamat, Fat Mat or any other kind of “mat” out there is good for door panels (inner and outer skins), quarter panels, pillars and even the roof. Especially the roof, it’s often the most neglected body part.

Case in point: last weekend I installed Fat Mat’s foil-backed insulation + hood mat on the roof of my brother’s 1991 Mustang notchback. Not that I wanted to, but the headliner-to-roof insulation crumbled in my hands after removing the 19-year-old headliner assembly. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. The difference is stunning: the Mustang’s roof makes a firm thud while Lexus’ products make a tinny bang with the same effort.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this Fox coupe has the quietest thunderstorm cabin short of a CL-Mercedes. And all it took was 5-7lbs of product, an afternoon’s work, and about $100.

Moral of the story?  Buy whatever you like, make it perfect later.

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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31 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Ear of The Beholder...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    By all means if you don’t really care about 14 mile and 0-60 (like you don’t actually race for god’s sake) install sound deadening.  Many hot rodding magazines were advocating this with their readers who don’t drag race and would rather just drive the damn car and not have it “wear them out” with the concert of noise on the INSIDE.  From what I’ve heard Hondas and Acuras are desperately in need of this treatment compared to the competition.

    • 0 avatar

      Not worth the effort, in my experience. I spent many dollars and many hours installing Dynamat, Dynapad, and/or Dynaliner throughout my ’03 Civic Si. The car was obnoxiously loud, far too loud to listen to NPR or take a quick call (gasp) while on the highway. The biggest problem was a low, droning road noise. I covered nearly the entire floor, doors, and rear wheel-well area. I also worked around the sunroof the best I could. The car is noticeably quieter at all speeds and under all driving conditions, but the difference is modest. Now I notice wind noise much more, which does not cancel out the radio so much, but still irritates me after 30+ minutes of highway driving. Plus I’ve added about 150 lbs to what was a fairly lean hatchback.
      Lesson learned: if you want a quiet car, buy a quiet car.

  • avatar

    Sounds like Seminole95’s big problem is with the N, and not the V and H. Otherwise, he could have gone with a 3-series. My problem is with the V and the H. That’s one of the things that turned me off to the MINI back in ’04 when I bought the Accord. I’d had a ’93 Saturn for 11 years that was loaded with V & H (and N). When the tack approached 4k, the thing would start complaining like a bastard. Conversely, my father’s old ’95 Volvo 940, very underpowered, never complained no matter how hard you pushed it. The Honda, a ’99, is not as smooth as that old Volvo, but it is nice. Anyway, good luck Seminole! Sajeev’s advice on this sounds good to me.

  • avatar

    I’m probably missing something, particularly as I’ve never owned a luxury car, but wouldn’t heavy sound deadening and a manual transmission run counter to each other?  I’ve always mainly shifted by ear. Maybe I just never learned a better way.

  • avatar

    Consumer Reports will tell you about the level of noise in the car, as well as the type of noise (wind: high frequency; road or tire, somewhere lower; suspension: intermittent).  I’m finding noise to be more of an irritant than I used to, and am paying some attention to these rankings now.
    By their metric, you’re probably looking at the IS250, followed by the A4 and 3-Series.  It’s possible a stick-shift Regal might work, but they’re not common, and I don’t know if the Regal is as quiet as the LaCrosse.  Another pair of possibilities might be Sonata (can you get this with a stick?) and Fusion.  If money is an issue, consider the Versa, Fiesta or Corolla.
    Another point is that sedans are almost always quieter than hatchbacks and wagons, and that a good amount of dynamat can do wonders. Finally, you can get active noise cancellation systems, and some marques have them as standard (Buick, Lexus–I think). I’ve used ANC systems in offices that hang off a datacentre and they work very well.
    Hondas are relatively loud, even at the Acura level.  You’ll find no comfort at the big H.

  • avatar

    Might as well check out the Mercedes C300.  Call the dealer first because odds are very high they won’t have a single stick shift to test.

  • avatar

    Foam earplugs are inexpensive deadeners of noise.

  • avatar

    In addition to selling sound deadening products, this site has general tips for installing sound deadening (e.g., it’s not necessary to coat an entire panel with vibration damper):

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a good site. I had another one saved in my bookmarks, but it’s gone. It had some of the same info, but a bunch of model specific info too.
      I put about $200 of sound deadener into my 2000 GMC Sierra. Me and a friend of mine did it over a warm winter day. Worked great, then I had to replace the totally crappy stock tires. They were Firestones, and one small nail in a tire destroyed it, and one of the other ones had a belt coming apart, so I dumped them for some really nice Michellin tires that were great in every way, except for noise. My $200 worth of material and a lot of work instantly became worthless, as the drone at anything over 40MPH was louder than any noise the deadener got rid of. I traded that truck in with 48K on it in 2003, it still has the same tires on it, and it’s got almost 80K on it now. I see it all the time, and the owner says they are getting louder and louder and will be happy to see them finally go..

  • avatar

    The other thing – I have limited experience with vehicles (I’ve only driven a ’93 Escort, a Saab 9-5 and 9-3SS, and a Mercury Mystique extensively), but tires seem to play a HUGE role, too. The 16″ Pirellis on my 9-5 soaked up tar strips but were loud as hell; the 17×7.5 Dunlop SP Sports I replaced them with are damn near silent in comparison, but kick you in the ass if you hit a pavement seam (which I like). With the Pirellis the rest of the car was inaudible; with the SP Sports I can hear the engine at 2krpm, and some wind noise. No doubt the 9-5 is significantly louder than any of the ones you’ve tested, though.
    The 9-3SS seems to be pretty damn quiet, though. And the newer (though uglified) ’09 I drove was the same, though its raspy four didn’t help. So they didn’t decontent out the sound deadening along with the IP…
    If you’re willing to slum it in a car with GM parts (horrors!), the 9-3SS with the V6 are pretty quiet, quick, you can get ’em with a stick pretty easily, and they’re super cheap right now. Reliability issues with the NG 9-3s are pretty well ironed-out at this point, too.
    FWIW, my 9-5 is around 65dba, slow response. Windows open it’s 77. Rear windows only open at 60mph and there’s some kind of INSANE BASS FEEDBACK and it goes up to about 115 – it’s great to scare the bejesus out of passengers who tend to scream (silently) until you put the windows back up. My research says you shouldn’t have that kind of SPL for more than 30 seconds, though…

  • avatar

    I hear the new Golfs are amazingly quite.

  • avatar

    The Mark VIII is pretty good at NVH, provided the various insualators and isolators haven’t failed.

    Generally speaking, people like engine noise, don’t like tire noise. If the tire noise of the car bothers you, make the engine louder with an aftermarket exhaust. Or boy quieter tires. Tire rack has noise comparisons for tires.

    In any car with too uch noise, pay particular attention to holes in the firewall, door seals, and isolating the trunk from the passnger compartment.


  • avatar

    The new BMW 5 series, with one of the turbo motors, is very quiet, except for some road roar. But if you are willing to get tires different than those ghastly runflats, I would expect at least some of that will be remedied. If used is an option, the previous generation 5, in 4wd trim, were the last non Ms with normal, quieter, nicer, cheaper, more comfortable, all around better tires. And reasonably quiet as well.
    All the other manual cars seem to be much smaller. The IS is even smaller than a bmw 3, while the A4 is no bigger. I’ve never even been in an IS, but every Lexus I have been in, has been quiet, although none have had manuals.
    In general, bigger engines, or turbos, allow the engine to loaf along at lower rpm for any given speed, quieting the engine part of noise. While aerodynamics, high belt lines and steep windshield rakes help with wind noise at highways peed. Tires, weight, general cabin insulation and careful construction help with road roar. Bimmers tend to be good on the first two, but their ultimate driving machine mantra, in combination with their runflat addiction, hurts the latter. They are definitely the go to guys as far as manual availability across the model spectrum is concerned, though.
    Why is Caddy’s Euro fighting CTS not available with a stick? Even in Coupe form. I’m assuming the V isn’t exactly designed with quietness as the foremost goal :)

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    I have an Acura RL. Nice car, but the road noise is excessive.

    No manual transmission is available. Paddle shifters are standard but it’s only a 5-speed automatic, more proof Honda/Acura’s engineering mojo is dead and buried.

    • 0 avatar

      When I test drove an RL, I didn’t find noise to be an issue. Total volume seemed appropriate to the class, and didn’t seem any louder than an E320 or an S80, but it wasn’t as quiet as an ES300 or Amanti. I think road noise is just more objectionable for most people than other things like exhaust or induction roar.

  • avatar

    Check out the Acura TSX.  I had similar requirements when I was in the market and also considered a new 3-series, A4, or Saab 9-3.  For me, it ultimately came down to BMW vs. Acura, and the Acura won out.  It has the awesome Honda 6-speed gearbox and a lot more perceived get up and go than the 328.  It also has all the technology goodies (nav with traffic, bluetooth, backup camera, XM, etc.) and a negotiated price tag of just over $28k compared to about $42k for a similarly equipped BMW (again, after negotiation).  Honda is trying to clear out the 2010s before the refreshed 2011s hit the dealer lots, so there are deals to be had.

  • avatar

    I would think that a Camry would be very quiet, even with a stick.
    My 325i is very quiet, especially when I replace my 17″ summer tires with 16″ all-seasons in the fall. I wonder if a 5-series would be even quieter.
    Lexus IS250 is NOT quiet. Neither is Acura TL. Certainly not even close to a 3er.

    • 0 avatar

      Not really, every Camry I have been in is loud.  However, the Lexus Camry/Avalon (ES3xx) is very quiet.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you both for proving my point. (i.e. the title of this Piston Slap)

    • 0 avatar

      Although the platform is the same, there is significant parts and sound deadening differences between the Camry/ES3xx.  The Lexus ES3xx is tomb quiet compared to the platform mate Camry.  I have never been in a Avalon, though I would guess that it is right in middle noise-wise.  Toyota spends the extra $ to get that quietness in Lexus cars because that is what buyers expect.
      Everything in life seems to always distill down to “You get what you pay for.”  Noise elimination gets expensive, especially after you eliminate the obvious suspects.  Not only in equipment and process cost, but in weight which translates to higher fuel consumption and increased CAFE influence.

  • avatar

    Mustang V6 or GT with 6-speed manual.   Ford makes quiet cars (and trucks, but unfortunately their trucks no longer come with sticks).

  • avatar

    as stated, NVH is SO subjective. my Mazda5 is kind of buzzy around town (in a good way) but gets so quiet on the hwy that the only thing I really hear is the wind around the roof rack.
    tire choice is very important also. the stock toyos were very loud on a certain road, but the continental extremecontacts I just got are much quieter.
    but, I can’t drive w/ the windows down on the hwy; as with so many other newer cars, the thumping buffeting noise hurts my inner ear.

  • avatar

    Speaking from experience the Chrysler LX cars are surprisingly good at loafing down immense stretches of highway. My Xmas drive to see the folks is 12 hours one way, and I’ve noticed that I am far more refreshed upon arrival since I acquired my Dodge Magnum. You can also achieve some shockingly good MPG numbers if you set the cruise 5 over the speed limit and go easy on the ramps.

  • avatar

    I purchased a used IS250 RWD about 6 months ago… so far, it’s been a really great car. Maintenance has been fairly low and is fun to drive. For the horsepower, it has decent get up and go, has a comfortable ride (with some sportyness to it), great fit and finish, and has a quiet cabin. I ended up getting the automatic, and while it’s not as fun as a manual, it’s decent, especially after it learns you. It doesn’t manually shift fast until after a few thousand miles.

    If looking for a used IS250, go for an 07 or newer. There’s nothing major that has been changed since it was released, but I believe the 07 fixes a few things than from the 06, like being able to disable the traction/stability modes, and a few fine tunings.

  • avatar

    I have the ’08 IS 250 manual.  It’s very quiet  (certainly quieter than any Honda) and has been dead stone relaible (unlike the 3 series it replaced).  It’s been back to the dealer exactly zero times for anything other than scheduled maintenance and replacement of the tire that my partner blew out on the FDR.  Even that experience impressed me…he hit a pothole so hard that it shredded the RF tire, yet the alignment remained perfect.  Call me crazy, but that strikes me as very well made. 

  • avatar

    I bought my Radio Shack sound meter about 20 years ago to calibrate my sound surround system, but it’s been fun testing sound readings in some of the cars I’ve been in.

    Quietest car I’ve measured at 100km/h has been the LS430 at 59dBA, and various cars trailing from there…
    02 ES300 (62dBA), 98 Camry (64dBA), 02 Sebring (65dBA), 90 Camry (68dBA), 01 Sable/89 Galant/01 Rio (69dBA), and a bunch of truly awful cars over 70dBA. My rice cooker Galant with 3 inch exhaust was as loud at idle (59dBA) as the LS430 on the highway. Say no to rice.

    Most of my readings show that for every increase by 20km/h, dB increases by around 3-5dBA. The LS430 increases by about 1dB at each speed, thus the value of significant sound proofing.

    The Accord coupe is probably close to around 65dBA on the highway at 100km/h, but that’s only one measure of noise. It’s whether the manufacturer did a good job with managing noise during acceleration. That seems to be what separates the luxury brands from the mainstream brands.

    The Chevy Cruze was noted by Consumer Guide as being the quietest subcompact on the market, so a stick shift of that may be a good bet.

    • 0 avatar

      I 2nd the Lexus LS4xx.  Forget the stick, buy a dead silent car and use it as your refuge during your commute.  Buy a Miata with a fart can exhaust and a manual to drive on the weekend.
      Before I switched jobs from a 120 mi round-trip commute to working from home, I was searching for a dead silent car.  I had decided that having the quiet and ability to forget my commute were more important that speed or involvement.  My plan was to find a deal on a Lexus LS4xx with mid-high miles and drive it to death, just fixing the vital parts along the way and letting the gadgets die natural deaths.

  • avatar
    Seminole 95

    Thanks to everyone for the posts. I look forward to this column and it is pretty cool to see mine answered.

  • avatar

    What about a 2010 VW Jetta TDI?  I recently got one and am frankly impressed with the interior quietness, and also disappointed with the engine loudness.  The turbo, diesel particulate filter, catalytic converter, and muffler really chop the exhaust note off at the knees, but it still has plenty of power and gets outstanding fuel economy.  I also listen to podcasts, streaming radio, etc and the car works great for that.  Just personally wishing that I could hear the engine a little more when I put the hammer down.

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