For years I was a happy Mazda Miata owner. Though I bought it when I lived in California (total days with top down: 300) I kept loving it even when I moved to Seattle (total days with top down: 20). But the little things added up: the rear-wheel drive slipped in the rain, the interior was loud, having a manual for stop-and-go commuting is painful, etc. It finally became too much when the sum of the small fixes on a 10-year-old car became too much. So about two years ago, I bought a new car. Or rather, a used car: a 1999 VW Passat. I just needed something that would be a comfortable ride, could seat more than two people (or one person and one cat carrier), and would get me to work.
Well, the 1999 VW Passat was (charitably) not the world's most reliable car. After a decade of near-trouble free operation of the Miata, the Passat spent as much time in the shop as it did out of the shop. The air conditioning had a leak. The electronics on the transmission failed. One of the power door locks failed. The light behind the dashboard failed. It leaked oil. It was a nightmare.
Thus began the process of hunting a new car. Armed with a prioritized list of desires (with reliability near the top), I began the research. If reliability is at the top of your desires, Consumer Reports will tell you that you're looking at a bunch of Japanese car makers. But I had other desires too: a certain degree of sportiness and a certain degree of luxury. Oh, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. The only feature in the VW I like is those stupid rain-sensing windshield wipers. Don't ask why. For my wife it was heated seats. For me it's rain-sensing wipers.
Armed with a list, I spent a day driving cars. Lexus. Toyota. Acura. Mini. Mazda.
My takeaway: Lexus IS is a luxury car -- it didn't have enough road-feel for me and I felt about 65 when I was driving it. The Toyotas felt like Lexus with fewer appointments; worse, the Prius just made me feel sanctimonious and I hated the whole "now remember to put it into B mode" thing. Yes, yes, it was a fine car and I'm sure it's wonderful for the environment or something. But not for me.
The Acura TSX actually had some good road feel and a lot of nice luxuries and a great reliability record, but no rain-sensing wipers. The Mini was more of a lark since the nearest dealership is in Tacoma, but by god that car was more fun to drive than any other car I've driven. Ever. And it gets awesome gas mileage.
And finally Mazda. I wanted to drive a Miata -- to remember the days when I enjoyed driving. And so I did. And boy, the 2007 Miata is a step above the 1995 Miata in key ways (like the traction control). But it still had the limitations of the Miata. Sure, it was more fun to drive than anything except the Mini. But it's a 2-seater, its interior is loud, and when I'm driving it my eyes are just at the same level as the hubcaps on a Muni bus. I don't care what the crash-test results say: when you glance out of your side window you want to see another driver's eyes, not his mud flaps.
Then my wife got me into a Mazda3. I was against it originally, but she was a good salesperson: she kept her mouth shut and let me come to the conclusion she'd already come to -- that the 3 had the features and performance I'd want. It was nearly as much fun to drive as the Miata, and more than the Acura. It handled well. It was reasonably quiet. Maybe a little underpowered. Maybe not quite as well-appointed as the Acura. Or as reliable as the Lexus. But it was one of the three cars that made me smile when I drove it.
So this weekend, I'm off to buy a new car.