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Went test driving some cars on Saturday at the local Carmax. I think I could spend a whole day there looking at cars. My main goal was to narrow down what I want. My criteria was for it to be a manual, reasonably fast and fun to drive while still having most or more amenities than I have in the Mo. My list of cars to look at included the following:

2004 BM4 545i
2003 BMW 540i
2004 BMW 330i
2004 Infiniti G35 Sedan
2003 Audi A6 2.7 Biturbo
2004 Audi S4 Sedan or Wagon

The Subaru WRX STI and Charger SRT8 were vetoed by the wife (even though they are coming out with a limited ver STI sans wing and plus some goodies).

Now they didn’t have everything I was looking for or at least not all in manual. Here is the breakdown (test drives at the bottom if you want to skip to them):

Infiniti G35:
Only sedan they had on the lot was a green automatic with black interior. I was able to sit in it and listen to the engine. Not bad looking and the price was good (Carmax in general has high prices I’ve found). I was not impressed with the interior and overall it looked alright but nothing impressive. The 2007 G35 I’m sure will make a big improvement.

Audi A6:
No 2.7’s on the lot so the closest they had was a 2005 3.2 auto. Sat in it and was impressed with the nice interior and roominess. The trunk was huge; all in all a nice looking vehicle. I will definitely need to test a 03 or 04 2.7 manual. They are also very nicely priced, even CPO.

Audi S4:
None on the lot. The S4 Avant is one of my top of list if I can get it for a good price. Not many manuals out there and not many S4 avants in general I think Audi makes the best looking wagons, sorry Jaak the Magnum still looks good too!

BMW 540i
Not bad looking although I much prefer the 2004 and up styling myself; roomy inside and pleasing interior but not as nice as the A6.

BMW 330i
This and the 545 where the ones I was really interested in driving other than an S4. Of course the two I wanted to look at were on the showroom floor. I was able to sit in the 330i in the showroom and it was alright. This one had the performance package which ups the HP by 10 and has a few bits inside like an Alcantra covered steering wheel and silver hex trim. I thought I’d like the steering wheel but this one had started to fuzz or peel up already and the trim wasn’t all that nice looking in person. The other thing I noticed is it’s a fairly small car inside. Not real small but smaller than the G35. After looking at the 330i I wound up testing a 330ci since it was the closest thing we could find to the 330i in the showroom. After the saleslady got the car out of the protected lot (think she stalled it 3 times) I finally got behind the wheel. This was a convertible so the first thing I noticed was a little rattling and cowl shake. Not sure the HP on a 330ci but it felt fairly quick. Perhaps it’s also the manual that provides some of the illusion but it was fun to drive. The test loop had some normal 2-3 lane roads with lights, single lane road and some highway. The main thing that impressed me with the 330ci was the handling and power. The steering was tight, the engine sounded good and pulled well to redline. I was also surprised how well it felt over bumps. My SE seems to take bumps a lot harder than the 330ci. The last part of merging on and off the highway has two good ramp loops and I was able to pull fairly hard through them and I detected no body roll. One funny thing was that for as much as Carmax touts its great inspection policy I had the left front turn signal light pop out on the drive back. It was hanging by a wire! Overall not a bad car.

BMW 545i
Saved the best for last; just let me say I love this car! :2: IMO it looks great and feels great. I’m not sure of everything it had but it did have the sport package and probably premium package. It was black with Auburn leather interior which looked really nice. One thing that impressed me is how roomy it was, the back seat had a lot of space and the trunk was fair sized if not as big as the A6. One of the first things I noticed is that Carmax had it listed as a manual and it was an SMG. While technically I guess that is a manual, if it shifts for me it’s an automatic so at first I was a little disappointed. I had never driven an SMG before so I figured I’d give it a fair shake. First off the saleslady drives it out of the showroom and meanwhile I’m playing with the gadgets, checking the glovebox and so forth. One thing that surprised me is the wood trim was basically just better looking plastic than in my wife’s Subaru Outback. Perhaps it’s my naivety but I thought it would be real wood. Other than that the interior looks wonderful, the plastics were of high quality. I’m a bit of a gadget geek so I really wanted to play with the iDrive. I’m still a little up in the air about it; seem like a good concept but maybe not the best implementation. I tried to turn the stereo off but couldn’t figure out how, couldn’t find the volume either so I had to wait until I was in the driver’s seat to use the steering wheel mounted audio controls. I’m sure after you use it a bit it becomes like second nature but something like turning the stereo off should be intuitive

On to the test-drive:
After I got behind the wheel and started driving I noticed just how solid feeling everything felt, from the metal paddle shifters to the steering wheel to closing the door. The word that came to mind repeatedly was “Solid”. The steering was firm and the ride was very comfortable. I really expected some firm bumps from the road to be transmitted to my spine but there were none and it was by no means cushy. As I made my way to the single lane/slightly curvy portion of the test loop I played with the SMG a bit. I found it to be fairly responsive and nothing like the tiptronic autos I’ve driven. Downshifts were crisp and it would blip the throttle to try and match revs. There was some pause in the up shifts at times but probably no more than you would get in a manual. Those then disappeared once I found the Sport button next to the shifter. The saleslady said it was for poor weather conditions when my wife asked about it and I thought “yeah right”. I found that I liked shifting from the stick better than the paddles for some reason. Onto the curvy bits; I opened it up some (was pretty sure the saleslady would have pitched a fit if II completely stomped on it). Damn that V8 sounded sweet and pulled hard. I’m sure that it’s just that I am not used to fast cars but I couldn’t imagine needing anymore power than that. Jaak’s Magnum must be a lot of fun to drive since it’s faster and an M5 of Vette must just be insane. Power delivery was instant and linear, not sure where the peak torque was since I kept my eyes on the road but it felt lower than the 4k or so on the Mo. After the single lane I merged onto the highway with a semi-circle onramp and kept it at about 40-50 and it was like I was on a straight road, no roll, no tire squeal, no movement in my seat. I felt like I could have punched it and still had control. Merged onto the highway at about 75 and slowed it down a bit; very smooth on the highway as I expected; very little wind or road noise. Heading to the off ramp I dropped it down a couple of gears and accelerated through the almost full circle ramp with same effect as the onramp. Finally back at Carmax and I hopped in back to let the saleslady drive it into the lot all the time thinking I really want this car. Wife finally looks at me and says “This one you can get, look it’s even got sun shades for the kids!” It’s also priced 10k higher than I want to spend so I’ll have to wait a bit. All in all I was very impressed, I’d still prefer a manual but I think I could get by with the SMG. It would probably beat having to teach my wife to drive a stick on an expensive car.

Only thing else to test I san A6 2.7 manual and an S4. I’m a little worried now that an S4 might not have enough back seat room but it should be comparable to my wife’s Outback plus it’s a wagon so lots of room in the back.

Funniest or at least most ironic part of the day. Wife says “while we are here lets look at mini-vans.” I knew she would probably get a car before me unless I could find one I liked close to the trade-in value of the Mo (I have an 03 SE AWD loaded except for cold weather pack and the of course Carmax appraised it at over 2k under trade in value) but I was pushing for something like the Saturn Outlook, Buick Enclave or Pacifica for her. Well she gets into a loaded 2005 Toyota Sienna with the touch screen nav and backup camera. Long story short I’m looking for used mini-vans now :(
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