My car lease is up in December. My Audi A4 2.0T Quattro has been the most exciting car I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving. I drive about 12,000 miles per year almost all of it in-city, heavy traffic, nasty, evil, Los Angeles driving. The Audi shines in the moments of instant need, where a slot opens up for the briefest of seconds and only a turbo charged piece of German rocketry will get through. I could write many an ode to my Audi, but its time is almost up. And the one thing it is not good for is triathlon. Thus, I have embarked on a quest to find the right car for my conflicting needs.
Given my new lifestyle, need for speed, and liberal guilt, here are my requirements for the new chariot:
- Capacity – ideally I’d like to fit a tri bike inside the vehicle to use it as a transition area.
- Sportyness – I don’t train hard to ride slow, I want speed on demand.
- Fuel efficiency – Presently I drop $50 every four days getting 20 mpg. That sucks.
- ≤ $30,000 – This is my car budget. Plain and simple. Obviously lease factor effects this monthly payment.
Like the wolf, chicken, and grain puzzle each of these criteria negates the other. Larger capacity vehicles (like SUVs) tend to get crappy gas mileage. Sports cars with decent fit and finish tend to exceed $30K and aren’t fuel efficient. Many fuel efficient sports cars cannot fit a tri bike inside, even with the front wheel removed.
In the interest of anecdotal information I solicited advice from the LA Tri Club. This list tends to skew towards people with similar tastes, but bigger budgets. I got responses from people suggesting the Lexus hybrids, Volvo turbo wagons, several SUVs, and even a Mercedes Benz roadster with a roof rack. However, the number one recommended car for triathlon was the Honda Element. Overwhelmingly people were able to fit at least two bikes inside without removing the front tire, could even put a trailer hitch on the rear to carry more bikes, the fold-down rear was perfect sitting height for tailgating, and the entire inside could be hosed down for cleaning. It was designed for the surfer (or serial killer) lifestyle – carrying overlong items covered in dirt, flip-up rear seats, highly adaptable, and kind of funky.
I have two problems with the Honda Element. It’s fugly and it’s a Honda. The Element at best looks like a Star Wars Clone Soldier helmet. (Though the winner in that category is by far the 2009 Scion Xb in white.) I’m not opposed to Imperial Forces Design, I just don’t want to drive one of its soldier’s heads. The Element looks like a U-Haul truck with a groovy paint job. A cardboard packing box with a human pilot. Truthfully, the looks would be forgivable if the thing was fun to drive. My wife drives a Honda Fit, which means I drive a Honda Fit on our road trips. The car is fine, it’s a perfectly functional vehicle. But that’s all it is. Honda makes lawnmowers and the cars drive a lot like a ride-on mower. Flooring the gas, even with V-TEC technology, winds up the engine to redline just to pass people going 70 on the freeway. Forget about comfortably cruising at 80mph+. The Element gets 25 mpg, pathetic for all of Honda’s proclamation of fuel efficiency. (Hey, Honda, maybe you could get a bump in fuel economy if the front of the car wasn’t a flat wall facing the wind.) Honda also knows nothing of fit and finish, and the interior has much to be desired. The A/C system is terrible, the gauges and instrumentation is chintzy, and the seats are less than spectacular. Combine the looks with the engine and you’ve got the vehicular equivalent of a snail. Sure, you can carry your home on your back but that’s because you’re not going anywhere fast.
A surprising number of members said they could fit their bikes flat in a Prius, which cannot be beat for fuel efficiency. My father-in-law drives a Prius, and they are ubiquitous on Los Angeles roads. They’re surprisingly quick on the acceleration from 0-30, and as Al Gore’s son proved, they can actually go 100 mph. And yet… I’m not trying to beat other cars off the red light changing to green (though I have…), I’m trying to pass cars by going from 60 to 90 on the freeway. The Audi does this in a heartbeat – zero heartbeats in your passenger if you do it right – and the Prius will never do that. The computer display is a treat for data geeks, but it’s a shiny light to distract from the lack of passing ability on the road. “Here, have a TV while you wait to get to your destination. And a backup camera to see what German car you’re blocking from passing.”
I had originally thought a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV-4 would be acceptable vehicles, but my survey yielded an interesting result: Many women loved their CR-V and RAV-4’s and could fit their bikes inside easily while many men could not. Women’s bike frames tend to be 4″ smaller than men’s (48″ vs 52″) and this seems to be a critical difference when it comes to the interior capacity. There it is, ladies, an extra 4″ does make a difference. The Toyota RAV-4 V6 is worth looking at as it gets the same mileage as the 4 cylinder while delivering much more horsepower and if I am willing to remove the front tire it could work out well.
Other recommendations included getting a minivan (umm, no), some of the new crossover vehicles like the Mazda 6 and 7 series, and a handful of wagons. In most cases people had to remove the front tire of the bike to get it inside, which was what I wanted to avoid. If I have to remove the front tire, that’s time spent in transition and defeats the purpose of using the car as a practice transition area. All the other recommendations moved me towards a locking roof rack system. Because I dislike SUVs so much, I didn’t want to need a stepladder to get my bike off the roof. This moved me back into compact sports car or sports wagon territory.
A friend of mine works for Nissan and can get me very good pricing on their cars. I’m thrilled they moved the design elements of the Infinity G35 series down to the previously hideous Altima, and there’s rumor of a few hybrid Altimas floating around in the inventory. I’ll see my options in another month. I dislike their SUVs because of their huge size, though the Rogue has merit. Can’t fit a full bike inside, even though it’s a bigger vehicle than I am comfortable driving. So once again I’m back to roof racks.
As I began to embrace the idea of a roof rack, the interior capacity became less of an issue. Until….
The MINI Cooper Clubman. The MINI Clubman looks perfect – especially with roof rails. Bicycling magazine did a full page love letter to the car a few months ago, though it appears that to store the bike inside the car I’ll still have to remove the front tire. The Clubman starts at $20K, gets up to 35 mpg on the highway, and should have plenty of zip where it counts. I think the S edition is out of my price range, and I just heard from a friend that MINI sold out of their entire 2008 inventory months ago, but it’s worth calling the local dealership to find out. The owners of Triathlon Zombies own a MINI with a roof rack and love it, which bodes well. For regular bike rides I can do the front tire removal and store the bike inside, but I may move towards a roof rack if I want to do a road trip with wife and dogs. Having rented a MINI in the past they have a great interior fit and finish, the compactness of the car is truly awesome, and it’s like driving a ridiculously fast skateboard.
I have two months to make my decision. The short list thus far is: MINI Cooper Clubman, Honda Element (I ought to test drive it), Toyota RAV-4 V6, Toyota Prius, and Audi A3. (Audi may try and lure me to stay in the family, and since they redesigned the A4 they could have some older A3s taking up inventory.)
Oh, and if anyone wants to get me a BMW X6, I’d be very, very grateful.
I welcome any suggestions!