Tom Halter COAL Series: Odds and Ends

If you’ve made it this far in my COAL series, you’ve made it through six months of posts covering 20+ cars and two motorcycles. And yet, there were many more cars that weren’t worthy of a full 800 words, and kind of fell between the cracks. So here, in the interest of “no car left behind,” I will give proper treatment to these cars.

2001 Nissan Altima GLE

Remember that horrible 1998 Plymouth Neon I inherited with my wife Kristen? What exactly happened to it, anyways? Regular readers could be excused for thinking I replaced her Neon with her 2003 Honda Accord that was in the next COAL, but there was actually a car between these two: A 2001 Nissan Altima GLE that I traded in the Neon on.

Oh, and remember how I take photos of pretty much every car I see? The Altima somehow managed to escape my lens, despite spending two years with me. This was well into the digital photography era, so it’s not like was being stingy with the film. So this will be the rare car where I have to use representative images.

 

 

I honestly don’t know why we picked a Nissan. My previous experience with my 96 Maxima was adequate, but not endearing. We may have seen an ad for a really cheap lease deal: I don’t really remember.

This car was not sophisticated or fast, but as a second car it didn’t really need to be. The GLE was the only version of the Altima available with leather seats. It was a pretty rare option, and it made the interior look a lot fancier than the standard mouse fur interior.

Our Altima was comfortable and quiet, and generally not a bad car. A decade and a half on, I still have relatives that go on about how comfortable the seats were in that car.

2012 Lexus RX 350

After our insanely awesome 2009 Acura MDX, we decided that for our next vehicle that we no longer needed a three row crossover, and would rather have something a bit smaller and easier to handle and park. Truth be told, neither Kristen nor myself are big car people – we’ve always preferred small cars. The only reason we got the earlier large crossover SUVs was out of necessity of having two children and all the associated stuff.

Yes, I can already sense the obligatory comments about how your family of six got by with just a VW Beetle when you were growing up.  Sorry, but I’m not that kind of person.

The RX is eminently popular with soccer Moms everywhere, but to me the car had some significant flaws. For starters, the interior, while nice, was nowhere up to the standards of a luxury car. If you enlarge the picture above, you can see that there are mismatched plastic textures, and hard plastics all over the place. For a luxury car, Lexus was surprising stingy with the amount of wood trim on the dash (none). It also had one of the worst infotainment system I’ve ever used (OK, second worst: Mercedes Benz COMMAND is the worst). The system was slow and sluggish, and the mouse control is no substitute for a proper touch screen.

The HID headlights were also among the worst I had ever experienced: They were basically two flashlights on the front of the car. My wife complained about poor visibility at night: I had to leave the driving lights on all the time just to have enough illumination. The wood-rimmed steering wheel looked and felt nice, but it was slippery and unheated, which in the winter made it very cold.

Speaking of winter, a decent heater is something you pretty much take for granted on any modern car. However, the heater on the RX was reminiscent of what one might experience on a Volkswagen Beetle – basically equivalent to someone exhaling on your feet. It took forever for the engine to warm up, and even when it did, the amount of heat coming out the ducts was tepid, at best. The heater in my IS 250 was similarly flawed, so maybe it is a Toyota/Lexus thing.

For a car aimed at women, there was surprisingly little storage space. There was no sunglasses holder in the overhead console, a feature that is pretty much ubiquitous. The compartment under the armrest was tiny, and the shifter occupied all the space in the center console, leaving no space for any cubbies. But the biggest sin is that massive center console had no openings underneath for a woman to place their purse.

This car was Kristen’s choice: since she was the primary driver, I let her pick out the car. To me, it seems that Lexus is trading a little too hard on their brand name and image, and not enough on the product itself. You can do this only for so long before people wise up (just ask Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler, and other luxury brands that have fallen from glory).

2015 Lincoln MKC

Lincoln Land

Eagle-eyed commenters have already spotted this car in my 2002 Audi TT COAL (man, I can’t put anything past you guys). As our kids continue to get older and ride with us less (eventually driving their own cars), we continued to downsize our “family” vehicle. We decided to move from the mid-sized Lexus RX 350 to a compact SUV. While there are many great options in this space, with the Ford X-Plan pricing I have available to me at Cardinal Health, the price on the MKC was hard to beat.

The MKC, along with the 2014 MKZ and the 1970 Mark III allowed to briefly complete the Lincoln hat trick: Having a Lincoln in each of my three garages, as pictured in the hero shot at the top of the article. However, like a solar eclipse, this confluence of vehicles would be short-lived.

The MKC was for the most part the upgrade from the RX 350 that I hoped it would be: Ample storage space, despite the smaller dimensions. This is in part due to the replacement of the shifter with a the pushbutton transmission, which freed up a surprising amount of center console space. The MKC also sports a heater that works, and excellent lighting (inside and out). The color changing LED ambient lighting inside is a particularly neat trick.

Unfortunately, the MKC is an example of an otherwise great car brought down by a single critical flaw. In this case, that flaw is a punishing ride with poorly controlled lateral motions. Any uneven surface sends the car (and the occupants heads) rolling to the left and right. The MKC comes with the Lincoln Ride Control, with three settings: Comfort, Normal, and Sport. Switching the setting only seems to alter the dampening, while doing nothing about the punishingly firm spring rates. Comfort has the least amount of damping, which makes the head bobbing rolling effect worse. Sport mode has the most damping, reduces (but not eliminates) the jarring lateral motions. Since it doesn’t seem to otherwise negatively affect ride quality, we leave the ride control set to “Sport” all the time.

The basics principles of automotive suspension have been understood for over a century. Yet it still blows my mind that so many modern cars have poor ride, handling, or both. To me, this is basic block and tackle execution, kind of like a proper heater. I am surprised at how many car makers continue to get the basics wrong.

Related Reading

Curbside Classic: 1999 Nissan Altima – Call It A Product Of The Lost Decade – Brendan Saur

Curbside Classic: 2000 Lexus RX 300; The First True CUV – There, My Son, Is The Future Of The Car – PN