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Driving cars, lots of cars

Driving cars, lots of cars

I spent the last Thursday and Friday driving cars from all the major manufacturers on both a road route and at Laguna Seca as part of the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days. Every car-journalist association holds a similar event where manufacturers trot out a selection of new cars for journalists to try. The one I attended was held in Monterey, California. I lost track of how many cars I drove over the two-day period, but some highlights were the Volkswagen Touareg, the Audi A3, the Lexus GS450H, the Nissan Versa, the BMW 330i, the BMW M3, the Toyota FJ Cruiser, and the Dodge Caliber.

The Touareg is a comfortable and reasonably powerful beast, and I've been convinced of its off-road chops after it won last year's DARPA Grand Challenge. On twisty mountain roads, it wallowed a lot in the turns, even with its suspension set to Sport. But that's not unexpected for a car of this size. I saw the Touareg being driven very fast by another journalist with more serious driving skills, keeping up with me while I was driving the BMW M3, proving that this VW SUV can be pushed hard if you know how to do it. The interior of the Touareg had been customized; when my driving partner cranked the stereo, the bass was particularly noticeable. We opened the back to find a massive subwoofer and amp install, a rig that rattled around a lot when I pushed the car around tight turns.

The Audi A3 came with a DSG transmission. DSG stands for Direct Shift Gearbox, and it's brilliant. This transmission uses two clutches and a computer to shift for you, so it's a manual transmission that acts automatically. In Sport setting, the driver can shift manually without pushing a clutch pedal. We talk about the DSG in our preview of the Volkswagen GTI as well. I like this transmission; selecting gears feels very precise, as you would expect with a manual. However, we had a GTI on the track, and its DSG was shot after a whole lot of laps, suggesting some delicacy. I heard that the DSG acts up when it gets hot, so it might have been an environmental problem. As more cars with DSGs come out, I'll be looking for reports on how well they hold up.

The Lexus GS450H was very interesting. It's the first big sport luxury car with a hybrid system. It felt powerful, and its comfort level was undeniable. In fact, the hybrid system is perfect for luxury cars because of the reduced and sometimes nonexistent engine noise. The car has a 3.5-liter V-6 engine complemented by an electric motor, delivering a combined 339 horsepower. On the other end of the scale, the Nissan Versa makes for a comfortably and decently appointed economy car. The Versa is supposed to come in at well less than $15,000, but it seemed to have a button for Bluetooth phone integration on the steering wheel. It was wobbly in the turns and limited in what its automatic transmission wanted to do, but it worked fine for a commute.

The BMWs were, of course, loads of fun. Surprisingly, the six-speed manual in the BMW 330i didn't feel all that sporty. It felt solid and sure, but there was a certain softness putting it into gear. The mechanical feeling of each shift seemed dampened out of existence. The BMW M3 kept that mechanical feeling, letting me know I was driving a car. Besides BMW's superb engineering, the M3 didn't have much in the way of technology. Its dashboard was very plain, but most people who buy an M3 would rather grab the gearshift than an iDrive knob.

The Toyota FJ Cruiser felt very commanding and sturdy. It would be fun to take off-road, although its road handling was fine. This isn't a car you really want to push around corners. Figuring out how to open the rear half-doors takes a few tries. The weirdest drive was the Dodge Caliber. I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of bulk, although this isn't a huge car. Its shifter is in the middle of the center stack, which looks and feels a bit odd. The car has a continuously variable transmission, which possibly contributes to its less-than-impressive power. It doesn't exactly jump off the line. I'll be publishing more thorough write-ups of some of these cars and many others in the next weeks.