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Which Would You Buy?
The Awful-Driving Looker vs.
the Great-Driving Box

November 30, 2012 by Matt

De Tomaso Mangusta Gray Grey Silver Gunmetal

B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R SER Red

Let’s try something a bit more abstract this time.

Our first car—let’s call it “Car 1″—is a stone-cold stunner. The kind of car that stops traffic. Has presence. Dominates conversation at car shows. Gives your neck a perpetual crick from turning around to gaze at it as you walk away.

But Car 1 is dog to drive. Flaccid engine, cramped cabin, leaden controls with all the charm and feedback of a farm tractor’s. Terrible visibility and a sadist’s ergonomics.

Car 2 reverses those attributes. Visually, it’s utterly anonymous. Blends in during the morning commute. Embarrasses your teenage daughter to be driven in. Looks as if it had been styled in five minutes using a straightedge and a t-square.

But Car 2 is a wonderful drive. Has an engine that begs for more. An alert, playful chassis. Alive, talkative steering feedback. A shifter descended from Olympus in a shaft of light. A flawless seating position, airy cabin and faultless ergonomics.

Critically, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that other factors like purchase price, running costs, ease of repair and reliability are roughly equivalent between the two cars. Let’s distill this exercise down to the kernel of looks vs. driving pleasure. You may choose only one. Which would you drive?

In the real world, among other considerations, we car enthusiasts select a car based on our assessment, at that time, of which represents the best blend of those two qualities according to our personal tastes. We may prioritize one over the other, or even prefer different positions at different times in our lives. There are very, very few cars that exist completely at one pole of the spectrum; the overwhelming majority strive for a blend of both according to their manufacturer’s ethos and their price point. So it’s rare that our car choices make us really reflect on our own priorities with respect to how we view our automotive interests.

So, let’s have it then: What’s more important to you in a car? The look, or the feel?

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

7 Comments on Which Would You Buy?
The Awful-Driving Looker vs.
the Great-Driving Box

Which Would You Buy?
E34 BMW 525i Turbo vs. E34 BMW M5

November 14, 2012 by Matt

BMW E34 M5 Gray Grey M-Pars M-Parallel Wheels Rims

Pedigree versus performance. “Character” against raw power. The factory-sanctioned package or the DIY approach.

Let’s wade into a bit of an intramural debate here, but one whose principles hold true for many different car types and families. The subject is the ’89-’95 BMW 5-Series, known by its internal model code E34. The two flavors of the E34 pitted against each other are the range-topping ’89-’93 US-spec M5 and the entry-level ’91-’95 525i. The M5 is powered by a flame-spitting 311-hp 3.6l straight-6, whereas the 525 leaves the factory with a more sedate, miserly 189-hp 2.5l engine. The basic chassis is identical between the two cars, the M5’s driveline and suspension beefed up accordingly to handle the extra power, but nothing that can’t be bolted onto its lesser relative. An E34 M5 in a good state of tune will run you a bit north of $10K, and a clean 5-speed 525 is a comparative bargain at $2-3 grand.

So no contest, right? Does the M5 win the “desirability war” hands-down? Well, frankly, yes—unless you equip the 525’s engine with an equalizer: A turbocharger.

BMW E34 Turbo Engine Motor 525i M50 Jon Kensy Purple

It does take some effort, as no ready-made bolt-on kit exists to fit a turbo to BMW’s M50 engine in the E34 chassis. Other than the hurdle of having to DIY most of the project, it’s almost like the 525 was designed from the outset to accommodate forced induction. The M50 engine’s cylinder head, completely stock, flows well enough to support over 700 hp, and the bottom end is sufficiently stout to handle 400+ without internal mods. The ’91-’92 525’s ZF 5-speed transmission is bulletproof, as is the rest of the driveline, and the engine bay is more than spacious enough for the extra bits and bobs required. Total cost, not counting the initial purchase price? Easily over $5K to do it correctly, but still well below the “floor” asking price of an unmolested M5.

BMW E34 M5 Engine Motor S38 S38B36

Can the M5 match the speed of a properly turbo’d 525? In a word, no. When fitted to the M5, BMW’s S38 engine was nearing the end of its life, and its development potential is limited, not to say ridiculously expensive given the engine’s rarity and finicky nature. Just to rebuild the engine will cost very near the purchase price of the car, whereas a 525’s M50 engine can be found all day every day for $500 in a junkyard, a boon if your DIY turbo efforts accidentally grenade one.

So if not speed, what does the M5 offer above and beyond the 525? Character. Pedigree. Its big, rip-snorting naturally-aspirated inline-6 is essentially a mildly detuned race engine, and loves to be spun hard and wound out (making a lovely noise as it does so). Not only that, but the engine’s integration with the chassis from the factory is nothing short of perfect—BMW made sure every component from the steering to the shifter to the suspension and throttle response worked harmoniously together to create an impression of a total car more than the sum of its parts. Those enthusiasts who’ve driven an M5 say it’s an irreplaceable experience.

Which to choose, then? The project or the factory package? More power with less personality, or fewer ponies and more character? A truly tough decision.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

14 Comments on Which Would You Buy?
E34 BMW 525i Turbo vs. E34 BMW M5

Which Would You Buy?
Lotus Elise vs. Caterham 7

March 1, 2012 by Matt

Lotus Elise Federal Gray Grey Silver Gunmetal

Call this “The Battle of the Track Toys.”

Both the Lotus Elise and Caterham 7 prioritize light weight and simplicity as a means to performance over raw power and grip. Both cars are British in origin. And both feature off-the-shelf 4-cylinder engines sourced from other manufacturers, the Lotus’s from Toyota and the 7’s procured from Ford.

Beyond that, the two cars differ in notable ways. The Elise, while a bit less hardcore than the Caterham, is far more attractively styled, its rival not having undergone any significant sheetmetal revisions in 40+ years. The Lotus’s independent rear suspension is more modern than the 7’s ancient De Dion setup. And the Elise offers its occupants an actual roof and glass windows, among other amenities, and so could function at least adequately as a daily driver.

Caterham 7 Lotus Silver Grey Gray

For its part, as elemental as the Lotus is, if it’s a thoroughly visceral connection with the road you’re after, the Caterham is in a class by itself. At two-thirds of the Elise’s already light 2,000 lb weight, the 7 takes the Lotus’s formula to its logical end (no coincidence that the 7 started life in the ’50s as the Lotus 7, designed by company founder Colin Chapman). It delivers a tactile driving experience like few other cars can. Not only that, but for we shadetree mechanics, the fact that the Caterham comes it kit form conjures up scenes of garage-dominating, construction-related bliss. For some, that aspect of the 7 might generate trepidatious emotions, but for me in particular, the idea of building an all-conquering track car myself sounds like a little slice of heaven.

So perhaps the real question is: How “extreme” do you want your track toy to be? Do you want it “dialed up to 11,” a DIY project with few eventual concessions to everyday practicality? Or would you like to be able to use your weekend weapon on more than just sunny days, even if that takes a bit of the edge off?

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

1 Comment on Which Would You Buy?
Lotus Elise vs. Caterham 7

Which Would You Buy?
BMW 8 Series vs. 1JZ Lexus SC300

February 3, 2012 by Matt

BMW E31 8-series 850i 850Ci Black M-pars M-parallel

The age-old automotive question. This or that? Which one is faster? Cheaper? Better-looking? More efficient? Do this one’s subjective qualities outweigh that one’s objective attributes? Behold, the first post in a new series pitting somewhat superficially mismatched cars against one another in an effort to illuminate the finer points of each.

Today we stack up a pair of high-end luxury coupes with sporting pretensions: The ’90-’99 BMW 8 Series, or E31 (pictured at top), and the ’91-’00 Lexus SC300, or JZZ30 (shown below). In both cases, we’re going to consider the most enthusiast-oriented configuration available for the car in question.

Lexus SC300 SC400 Silver Gray Grey SC

Let’s assume a manual transmission for both vehicles. With the E31, a 6-speed was only available in the US coupled to BMW’s 5-liter V12 engine, the 295 hp M70, and that only for the first few years of its production run. So it’s a rare and desirable bird. The SC300 is a bit easier to find equipped with Toyota’s W58 5-speed, but as with its German counterpart, the stickshift variant is easily the most sought-after.

In addition, to level the playing field a bit, we’re going to stipulate the Lexus has undergone an engine swap, exchanging its US-spec, naturally-aspirated, 221 hp 2JZ-GE engine for a Japanese-market-only, twin turbo, 278 hp 1JZ-GTE. The 1JZ was fitted from the factory to the Japanese version of the SC300, known as the Soarer, and mated with an uprated R154 5-speed manual. The swap is as easy as lengthening the wiring harness and bolting everything in—all the mounting points are present to accept the Japanese engine without otherwise modifying the big Lexus GT. And all the requisite bits are surprisingly easy to source from a number of automotive importers.

So, which would you spend your hard-earned money on, given the choice?

Here are some more factors to take into consideration:

  • Weight. This is a problem for the BMW. The range-topping, V12-powered 850i/850Ci breaks the scales at around 4,300 lbs, courtesy of its size, huge engine, dual batteries and all the luxury crammed under the sheetmetal. The Lexus, by contrast, comes in at around 3,500 lbs—no lightweight, but nothing to write home about.
  • Handling. The E31 pioneered BMW’s new multilink rear suspension and was one of the first cars equipped with electronic stability control. The SC300’s underpinnings were shared with the vaunted Mark 4 Supra and featured double wishbones at all 4 corners, in addition to an available Torsen limited-slip differential. They remain capable, sure-footed cars, but while the E31 may its automaker’s classic steering excellence, its weight and bulk dampen the fun.
  • Looks. The Lexus is attractive, and I would even go so far as to call it one of the most stylish cars to emerge from Japan, but c’mon. Nothing says “sex on wheels” quite as effectively as a massive, sleek 8 Series, with its Ferrari-like tapered nose, flared wheel arches and pillar-less side windows.
  • Cachet. Chalk another one up for the BMW. When introduced, the E31 was the ultimate “money no object” BMW, with prices in the $80K-100K range. Again, the Lexus exudes quality, but the BMW is on another plane entirely.
  • Power. Here’s where the Lexus’s 1JZ engine comes into its own. Utterly bulletproof and much more modern internally than the BMW’s big SOHC V12, the little Lexus 2.5l is capable of delivering literally as much power as you’re willing to spend for. The stock figure of 278 hp is universally considered to be underrated, and a wide array of aftermarket single turbo conversion kits are available to optimize both output and drivability.
  • Price. Values are surprisingly similar. Big German luxury liners tend to depreciate like crazy (no one wants to deal with their complexity or the price of parts and service), while Japanese cars in general hold their value a bit better. That said, in the case of the E31 and JZZ30, the price for a 6-speed 850i or 1JZ-swapped SC300 falls in $7K-$10K range. So the cost of entry is very roughly the same.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

10 Comments on Which Would You Buy?
BMW 8 Series vs. 1JZ Lexus SC300