I spent a few days in the Florida sunshine this week, behind the wheel of a most basic 2023 Corolla LE. It's a design that's been with us for a few years now, a sedan shape so common that it’s totally unnoticeable. Unfortunately, driving it was an experience I don't care to repeat.
In its current guise since 2016, the ninth-gen Chevrolet Malibu is no spring chicken; the rumor is an all-new model will arrive in 2025. And after three days and some 700 miles behind the wheel of a 2023 example, your author has a few observations and a strong overall opinion on the very last domestic midsize sedan in production. Let’s hop in and journey east, through the Appalachian Plateau.
It’s a new week, and I’m back with another German car Rental Review for your enjoyment! Today’s rental is one of two American market entrants into the premium compact five-door liftback segment, and not a car one expects to find in an Enterprise lot. Presenting a 2020 Audi A5 Sportback, two years and 50,000 rental miles later.
As a fan of the midsize luxury sedan class, it’s sad to see how many manufacturers have given up on the segment. The German trio still has their stalwarts, but Japan gave up in 2020 (RIP Lexus GS), the only American still in the ring is the Cadillac CT5, and its outlier status is accompanied by newcomer Genesis with the G80.
It’s a dying class, which is why your author was especially pleased to spend the Memorial Day weekend with a longstanding headliner of the German luxury sedan genre: A 2021 BMW 5-Series.
When your author’s 2019 Golf SportWagen (to be revealed soon) went into the shop for warranty work after just two weeks of ownership, the dealer provided a service loaner for a couple days (or four). And it was a brand new Passat, but one company PR would never release into the hands of any journalist: the most basic version.
Let’s see if the spacious S sedan is an Ace of Base.
Before we go any further, I just want to point out one thing — I hate the BMW X3. I loathe even the idea of it. I grew up on the E30 3 Series and the E23 7 Series, both of which were in my father’s driveway well before most people in Suburbia knew what the hell a “Bimmer” even was. I find the concept of an Ultimate Driving CUV to be a blight on the brand itself, a disgrace of the highest order.
The last generation of the X3 was total trash. It was a rough-riding, fuel-guzzling exercise in badge whoring. Its sole purpose was to impress other moms in the school pick-up line. There was nothing the previous X3 could do that literally any other entry in the small CUV sector couldn’t do better. I’m including the Kia Soul in that comment, by the way.
So when I saw a 2018 BMW X3 on the Emerald Aisle at MIA, I was excited to rent it. Not because I thought I would enjoy it, but because I thought it would give me the chance to write a hateful screed about another automotive abortion from Spartanburg. Alas, it was not to be. Because the new X3 is likely the best car BMW makes today.
Sometimes one just has to appreciate the complete absurdity of a vehicle. The never-ending available horsepower in the current pony car wars, for example. The over-the-top quilted interior of the limited-run Bentley Continental GT3-R. And then we have the 2018 Nissan Armada, which is completely and totally ridiculous in its own right.
It’s substantially bigger than anybody could ever possibly need it to be. It’s superfluously more expensive than any Nissan has a right to be (come at me, GT-R fanbois). The engine is more forceful than you’ll ever require it to be.
But I kinda like it anyway. At least, I think I do.
“It’s a Jeep thing; you wouldn’t understand.” That phrase might be a breathtaking bit of cultural appropriation at a level that shocks even your aging and decidedly hidebound author, but it’s not wrong.
Consider, if you will, the vehicle pictured above. It’s the old “Wrangler JK” — a vehicle which has had a decade-plus run as talisman, touchstone, profit center, and Jurassic-DNA-in-mosquito-frozen-in-amber for Chrysler in no fewer than three corporate iterations. From the moment you touch the rough plastic of the pushbutton exterior doorhandle, it’s absurdly plain that everything on this vehicle was designed from the outset to cut costs, only to have more costs cut as the years go on. Not that the bones of the thing aren’t fit for purpose — they are — but my God has there been a Great Cheapening going on in Wrangler-land over the past few years.
“Listen, dummy,” you’re no doubt saying, “of course this is going to be cheaped-out. It’s the final form of the model, kept in production until recently for the rental fleets, the skinflints, and the people who are both allergic to change and unable to get themselves to a dealership during an entire year’s worth of new-for-2018 Wrangler publicity. What did you expect? A ‘Golden Eagle’ luxury model?” Well yes, I did expect that, and they did in fact make some, but that’s not the problem here. Nor is it the fact that Jeep ran the old model for an extra year. That was a groundbreaking practice in 1996 when Ford did it to hedge its bets with the jellybean ’97 F-150, but it’s become fairly common in the two decades since then. Birds do it, bees do it, Malibus do it. (A bit of trivia for you: Ford had planned to do that as well with the 1986 Taurus, by keeping the aero Fox LTD in production at the Atlanta plant, but as the zero hour approached they decided to go all-in on the new car. What a disaster that would have been.)
No, my beef with this coupon-clipper old-shape 2018 Jeep is as follows: It ain’t cheap.
Has it really been five years since I rented and tested the previous Nissan Maxima? Well, as Natalie Merchant once said about children, “At your age / in a string of days / the year is gone.” That less-than-maximum Max was, in my opinion anyway, the worst Maxima ever.
Is there anybody out there who expected anything more than mediocrity from the current Maxima, despite the in-your-face styling, despite that hugely evocative Super Bowl ad? I doubt it. The five-year gap between my last go-round with a big Nissan sedan shrinks to insignificance when compared to the three-decade gap that separates today and the introduction of the first (and last) first-rate automobile to bear this particular nameplate.
Here’s the good news: The new one’s better than the old one, and the one before that. It counts as a pleasant surprise in a business which is increasingly bereft of such consolations. All you need to appreciate this car is the proper perspective, which we’ll triangulate based on two historical points: the first-generation Datsun 810 “Maxima”, and the Renault Laguna.
It seems like lately I’ve developed a habit of reviewing vehicles on the verge of being replaced by a brand new generation. And by habit, I mean one review. But it seemed fitting when the local Enterprise location handed me keys to a “Full Size” and it turned out to be the soon-to-depart, current-generation Nissan Altima.
With a new Altima already unveiled, promising more/better/faster everything, is there anything to miss about the outgoing model? After a week living with one, I can definitely say there might be.
It’s a truism, but it’s true nonetheless: Every brand has a core product, and this is doubly true for automakers. The core product for BMW is the 3/4/whatever-Series of once-compact cars. If you buy a 3 Series BMW, it requires no explanation. Audi’s core product is currently in the process of Schrodinger-vibrating between A3 and A4; those are the cars that make the most sense in Ingolstadt’s lineup.
The core product at Mercedes-Benz, at least for those of us who don’t own G-wagens, is the S-Class sedan (in America) and the E-Class sedan (in Europe). They are the descendants of the almighty Seventies-era 240D and 450SEL that built the Benz brand around the globe. The values associated with that brand don’t translate very well to smaller cars. The 190E did a pretty good job in my opinion, but both it and its successors have long been the victims of color-magazine after-the-fact snark the minute the next model showed up.
The 2017 C300 that I rented in Las Vegas for a quick trip to Ventura, CA and back is, theoretically, the modern equivalent of the 190E 2.3, right down to the miserly specification and the characterless inline-four moaning under the hood. After several hundred miles behind its Benz-generic wheel, however, I’m thinking that Mercedes-Benz has finally succeeded in connecting its smallest Systeme Panhard sedan to a greater and more resonant tradition.
If the 60 Minutes-driven fall of Audi in America was a perfect example of media activism gone wild, the brand’s Millennial resurrection was surely a perfect combination of cynical engineering and masterful marketing.
Yes, there was some genuine innovation present in the form of the aluminum-framed A8 — but it was the decidedly prosaic A4 that led the charge back to desirability. Essentially an early release of the G.O.A.T. with less room, more profit, and a variety of “Cool Shades” that looked stunning in the showroom but persisted only indifferently under the assault of the Southern sun, the A4 was a showroom success simply because it offered a credible alternative to the default-choice E36 BMW 325i. The fact that the BMW was a thoroughbred rocketship while the A4 was a slightly scaled-up Volkswagen Fox mattered not at all. By 1995, the Roundel had become more than a bit passe among the cool kids.
Fast forward 20-plus years and four generations. The A4 is neither cool nor hot nowadays. Rather, it’s the sensible-shoes sedan for people who are too proud to buy the Golf-derived A3 and too poor to buy the increasingly strident A6. It’s also a pretty good value. A front-wheel-drive, 190-horsepower “Ultra” model starts at just $36,500, while the 252-horse Quattro Premium is a tick north of forty grand. Hertz would love to sell you a used 2017 A4 2.0T Quattro Premium at a $15,000 discount. Should you bite on that? And what if you found out that the person who rented it before you bought it took it to a racetrack? Would that bother you?
To be honest, I would have rather had anything else on the lot, and I do mean anything. However, when I arrived at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, National Car Rental was a bit short on cars on the ol’ Emerald Aisle. There was a line of people about ten deep waiting for cars to be brought up from the overflow lot, and I had a meeting to get to. So I did what anybody else (who rents 40 cars and spends about $10,000 annually with National) would do — I walked over to the “upgrade” area, hopped into the least expensive “luxury” car available, and drove it to the exit booth.
“I won’t be paying any extra for this,” I explained to the booth attendant, “because a Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is not an upgrade.”
Three days and a couple hundred miles later, I realize how prescient I’d been at the time. I would have rather had a Chevrolet Impala, a Dodge Charger, or even a Nissan Altima over the Hungarian Baby Benz. Here’s why.
I don’t think I heard the term “MVP” used in software development until six or seven years ago. It doesn’t mean “Most Valuable Player,” nor does it mean either of the two rude but hilarious things from the “roasting” episode of Arliss, neither of which would be appropriate for a family website like TTAC. Rather, it means “Minimum Viable Product.”
The purpose of an MVP is to get your software out there in public usage so you can both obtain user feedback for future development and earn enough money to fund that future development. Google is well known for doing this: its original search page was the very definition of MVP compared to the monstrous multi-purpose interface that it is today.
You can make the argument that some non-software products out there are also MVPs. The toothbrush and toothpaste you get at a Holiday Inn Express when you’ve forgotten your own Black Series electric? That’s definitely a minimum viable product. When most young people furnish their first dorm room or apartment, they are definitely looking for their own MVP. When you’re traveling for business and they call closing time at the bar, you’re going to take a very open-minded view of what constitutes that minimum viable product for the evening.
What about cars? What’s the MVP of the modern automobile? Contrary to what some of the B&B believe, it’s not a 200,000-mile Corolla or Volvo. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you gotta be rich to own a cheap car. Let’s look instead at what the minimum viable product might be for someone with very limited mechanical knowledge. Someone with no tools, no covered parking, no garage in which to service, no high-school buddy who now owns an import repair shop. In other words, a reliable vehicle with low cost of entry, low cost of operation, and a high likelihood of starting and running at all times.
What would that look like? What would it cost?
Twenty years and five months ago, I took delivery of my first Land Rover. It was a five-speed ’97 Discovery SD, black with tan interior, leased for $451 per month, driven to the absolute limit of its 15,000-mile-year contract provision as I criss-crossed the Midwest pursuing the bitter end of my ur-career as a professional BMX racer and cycling journalist.
Those early US-market Discos were infamous for giving trouble but mine was almost flawless despite enduring more than its fair share of dirt road and winter-recovery stupidity. My father was so impressed by the truck that he promptly snagged a ’99 Range Rover, which proved to be the nightmare embodiment of British quality stereotypes. His experience did not put me off. I replaced the Discovery with a Freelander then traded it in 18 months later for the ultimate final Disco, a 2003 4.6-liter seven-seater in a fetching shade of green frost.
Where am I going with this, other than into the gauze-covered abyss of nostalgia? Just here: I want you to understand that I have genuine affection for, and not inconsiderable experience with, proper Land Rovers and Range Rovers. I was an unabashed fan of the brand for a very long time. I don’t use Land Rover or its products as the punchline for a cheap auto-journo joke and I don’t mindlessly repeat stereotypes about the quality or performance of products from the formerly British firm. I approach every new product from Land Rover with the same sense of fondness that some people reserve for reunions with distant but dearly missed family.
So when I tell you that the Range Rover Evoque is an exercise in sloppily-executed cynicism that makes the Cadillac Cimarron look like the 1995 Lexus ES300 by comparison, I hope you’ll understand that it hurts me to tell you that. Want to hear why? Click the jump and join me on a less-than-solid Tennessee excursion that ends with me returning a rental car just a few hours after picking it up.
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- ToolGuy "Mr. President, no government agency, no think tank, and no polling firm knows more about the automobile customer than us. We talk to customers every day. As retail automotive dealerships, we are agnostic as to what we sell. Our business is to provide customers with vehicles that meet the needs of their budgets and lifestyles.”• How many lies can you fit into one paragraph?
- Spamvw Three on the tree, even Generation X would have a hard time stealing one of those.
- ToolGuy This trend of cyan wheels needs to end NOW.
- Kwik_Shift Interesting nugget(s) of EV follies. https://x.com/WallStreetApes/status/1729212326237327708?s=20
- SaulTigh I've said it before and I'll say it again...if you really cared about the environment you'd be encouraging everyone to drive a standard hybrid. Mature and reliable technology that uses less resources yet can still be conveniently driven cross country and use existing infrastructure.These young people have no concept of how far we've come. Cars were dirty, stinking things when I was a kid. They've never been cleaner. You hardly ever see a car smoking out the tail pipe or smell it running rich these days, even the most clapped out 20 year old POS. Hybrids are even cleaner.