Commentary: An Evolution in Thinking About the Automobile

There is one disadvantage in being an automotive writer.

I get it. I am supposed to be the all-knowing person inside the automotive industry. I am supposed to know every damn product sold in North America. That is until you realize there are a few dozen brands selling in about a dozen market segments and sub-segments with varying degrees of performance, space, equipment and price points.

There are many questions asked my way from readers, friends and anyone on the street. One was visited first in this piece I wrote in August of 2006. If you read it, you probably think that my credentials as a writer in this field should be taken away.

Since then, I had an evolution of thinking. I am now exposed to as many of the three-dozen brands sold in North America as possible. The task now is to examine what is available in the mainstream and explore the outer limits of the market on occasion. When something exceptional comes in, it has to be given a level playing field when it shares space with ordinary products.

With this exposure to many different vehicles than before, I figured I would dust off that old question from seven years ago and figure out the answer.

Therefore…"Randy, what is a good car?"

2013 Mazda CX-5 6

First of all, there is no such thing as a singular "good" car. As segmented and diverse as the market yields, you will find a plethora of vehicles that are considered “good.” Maybe it is time to refocus on what feels "right." By "right," it means what works in the best scenario towards daily life.

Consider the word "right" in this context. The story of Goldilocks is a reference I use – albeit campy. Understand that the human intruder tries to find what is "right" for her – finding the right balance of taste and comfort. In automotive terms, the word "balance" comes into play to find the right combination of comfort, performance, capability and capacity.

The evolution in thinking about automobiles only sharpened these ideals towards a higher, but more comfortable level. That level is not necessarily shared with everyone, but it certainly helps to measure a vehicle’s enjoyment factor to see if it is indeed "right."

Over the course of seven years, what has sparked this evolving ideal of the "right" automobile?

2013 Cadillac XTS Platinum 2

AGE: Next year, I will turn 50 years old. Some say that vehicular tastes may change at that age, but I would hope it is not something revolutionary. These days, 50 is just a number of years. It is the energy and attitude towards life, health and society is what makes a person. I do feel young for my age, since there is a curve in terms of experience that I wished happened earlier in my life. Perhaps that may be in a way keeping me young – at heart.

However, my own aging process lent to some changes in vehicle perceptions. I prefer something more mature than youthful. By "mature," I mean a no-nonsense, well-made piece of reliable and durable machinery. It must have room for adults – I mean adults around my age and around my size. It would have to have more conveniences that require less effort that can be relied on over-and-over again.

Technology plays a huge role here. Adaptive cruise control is a great feature since a vehicle can slow down when it senses the car in front of it is slower than the set speed. Bluetooth allows more freedom to carry on a conversation from the phone through the vehicle’s audio system. It meets the law, but it enables a new distraction. If controlled, it would be useful in ensuring better productivity on the road.

This factor has been huge lately in terms of the kind of vehicles I review than following the trends of my fellow writers and publications. Sedans and crossover/SUVs show a purpose for families and individuals alike. These vehicles denote a stage in a person’s life in terms of profession and status. You see vehicles that are for people who are settled in and established their lives. On some level, it describes my view on vehicles at this stage in my life.

Is there deviation? Of course there is! There is nothing that prevents me from enjoying a sports car made for a person 20 years my junior. Or, perhaps review something that fits a person who is the complete opposite as my own personality and identity. It seems fair to at least experience those arenas in the context of this work.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport 8

CROSSOVER/SUVS VS. CARS: I noted last year that about half of the vehicles fully reviewed in V&R were crossovers and SUVs. On some level, they serve a purpose as people carriers and life haulers. For its larger shell, many different segments and configurations are offered amongst these vehicles that the head would spin trying to factor out which type of crossover or SUV is right.

Through a sampling of various kinds of crossovers and SUV, I concluded that I would prefer one with two rows of seating rather than three. The more upright seating position works well with my body for better control and comfort. Good crossover/SUVs enable great outward vision, including mirror and a back-up camera, along with easily accessible controls. Second row seating should also be amenable for full-sized adults with more than enough leg, head and hip room for both short and long drives.

Cargo space is important, but not to the extent of having too much or too little space to carry luggage for a week away from home or a nice haul from a day's shopping. There are a few caveats in terms of the rear space, such as security covers, cubbies for delicate items and cargo nets to keep stuff from slamming into the liftgate. These are things that we take for granted, but never consider the actual value of having such additions available when they are needed.

The key to a good crossover/SUV is a competent four/all-wheel drive system. Preferably, I would want one with the option to lock the transfer case for optimal traction. I live in Minnesota and would rather have all wheels working when roads are unplowed or ice is present on the roadway. The most grip I can get on the road, the more confident I feel when the necessity of getting somewhere is in play.

Though I prefer a good four/all-wheel drive system, I also pay attention to the tires shod on the vehicle. It is not enough to have the power sent to all four wheels, but what keeps the vehicle on the road through varying surfaces in essential. Tires must have the ability to grip through unfavorable conditions – ice included. If it means having a separate set of winter tires to complement the standard rubber, it might as well be the best investment made on a vehicle – even a crossover/SUV.

2013 Honda Accord Touring 6

REGULAR OL' CARS: While this evolution in thinking was sparked by the number of crossover/SUVs that came through for review, there is nothing like a good ol’ sedan. They still do the job in transporting life where it needs to go – work, social life, other work…etc.

Perhaps the first attraction to a car is fuel economy. The lesser weight helps to gain back a few more miles on the fuel tank, which should help the pocketbook in the long run. It would also help if the car accommodates adults my size – both front and back. I expect the same whether it is a compact or a flagship model.

Cars should never been seen as mere basic transportation. There has to be something special about that car. Is there a feature that stands out making the car more useful than the next? How exceptional is the driveline – now focused on the engine/transmission combination rather than the final drive wheels? Could I live with less cargo space, but have enough for luggage or a nice haul from a day’s shopping?

In all, I would like a good ol' car to keep me engaged on the road. Having a lower center of gravity might not be enough to meet that standard. Acting like it owns the road exceeds it, however. That is the kind of car I want in my parking space.

2013 Lexus GS 350 AWD 9

GETTING SPECIFIC: Regardless of the kind of vehicle I drive, I do look for things that ensure more competent and comfortable driving. Through the experience of these vehicles, certain elements stand out above all – inside and out.

When discussing interiors, you notice how I scrutinize the driver's seat. I look for bolstering and lumbar support – two key elements for comfort and control. Bolstering keeps bodies locked into the seat, when going through curves and ensures a driver’s attention to the road. When was the last time you had to drive a curvy road and find yourself on the edge of the seat? Sliding in a seat is unsafe, to begin with. Lumbar support helps balance out any issues with your lower back, especially when it is sensitive to seat design. A rule of thumb I use is this: Even if the seat is big enough for me, it better be supportive and comfortable for competent driving. That also benefits people smaller than I, as well.

Also, I found that I discuss audio systems and technology more than I used to seven years ago. It is because we have so much available at our fingertips that it might seem a bit daunting to someone who just wants to drive. Phone usage through a Bluetooth connection has been mentioned already. Active safety and driver’s aids play a strong part, but only to a certain extent. Land Departure Warnings are helpful, but can be obtrusive – specifically audible warnings that are indeed annoying. Perhaps it takes some time to get used to.

Plus, I like my music full these days. Not necessarily loud, but balanced so the bass signal does not hum the rear speakers. Thanks to satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity to a smart phone, I can enjoy some music along the way that will not be make a long journey boring. I also want options – USB connections as secondary to Bluetooth for music playback from a smartphone, for example. In markets where radio station selection is more adventurous and of high quality – Chicago, for example – the option of HD Radio and streaming music application playback are luxuries worth exploring.

2013 Infiniti JX35 16

I will admit being a satellite navigation fan. I cannot imagine a vehicle without one. Maps are passé, but necessary if there is not an app for the right one. Add a telematics service to the navigation package and you have an even better way to find your way somewhere. The more ways to make driving easier without distraction are wins in my book.

Perhaps the biggest key in examining vehicles these days has been a huge emphasis on the driving dynamics package. I believe that we are no longer satisfied with having a good ride or competent handling and nothing more. Some of us want a true feel for the road – at least, I do. A good vehicle has to have a strong balance between a ride that absorbs road imperfections – bumps, gaps on the road, shallow potholes and indifferent tarmac – and its feedback into the cabin. Quiet rides are OK, but there are occasions when I want to hear the health of an engine through its exhaust system. I want to know if an engine can still rev through the gears without the pain of wear, even with a five digit odometer reading on the instrument panel.

Handling is also a point worth scrutinizing. Minimal lean and roll is acceptable, but there has to be a way where a vehicle can meet the curve flatter than the next. Whether I am chucking a car through a twisty road or carrying passengers deftly over it, a vehicle must not be conducive to people sensitive to motion illness. Confidence trumps all when it comes to a vehicle’s behavior from panic stopping to driving in a heavy downpour.

Lastly, a vehicle has to be a quality-built product. This is not about soft touch instrument panels and fine upholstery. Since I have a high sensitivity to even the faintest wind noise or unusual sounds within a vehicle, one should not have to feel or hear anything detracting from it. Compromises on the assembly line are unacceptable. Indifference in vehicle design is also a distraction. If one has to live with it for five years, it has to be one where the door opens and closes perfectly every time and the radio works to tune upon every start-up. The little things matter when it comes to building a vehicle – and they do add up.

2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport 4

CONSIDERING IT ALL: Putting icing on a cake makes it more attractive. It draws you to that confection for it to be consumed.

In a vehicle, the icing is where all of the special things about it come into play. There may be a design feature that draws you in every time you approach it. Perhaps it is the way the steering wheel feels before you turn the car on. Maybe it is the way you turn on the audio system, flip through the channels and make a phone call.

Rather, a vehicle could have that one intangible that is neither seen nor felt when you take it down the road.

I learned over these years that one standard set of competencies cannot be measured on every vehicle. Each individual vehicle has to be taken upon its own merit. Some stand out for what they do best. Others stand out purely because they put a smile on my face, despite my best effort to be objective/subjective in evaluation.

What is a good car these days? I will let you be the judge once you peruse through the reviews and articles on this site.

All photos by Randy Stern

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