With the news of Jim’s exciting new car purchase, the thought occurred to me that I had never followed up on my March 2014 article. In September of last year, I purchased my third-ever car and I have been driving the hell out of it ever since. Spoiler alert: I didn’t buy this Alfa, although its silver paint job is appropriate as it was a close runner-up. It took some diligent planning before I got to the car I ended up buying and which I do love, but my heart almost derailed everything.
Planning a car purchase is a lot easier when you have the luxury of time. I had loan of this glamorous chariot, a 1995 Suzuki Swift Cino hatch belonging to my father. It was very interesting driving something so much smaller and older than I was used to, and I quickly got used to having to rev it as I was turning the key in the ignition so that it would actually start. It really needed a tune-up.
As you can see in this picture, I was pretty thorough in creating a “long list” of potential vehicles. I’m a huge fan of lists, clearly.
Of course, I wasn’t always going to go through this process. Upon arriving back in Australia, I was adamant that I would purchase a BA or BF series Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo, the turbo version of my previous car, and own it for a short period of time. It had to be an automatic this time, though; despite my love of stick shifts, depressing a clutch repeatedly in heavy traffic is a killer to my knees.
I actually found a BA XR6 Turbo on Brisbane’s Moorooka Magic Mile. It was under $AUD10k – right in my price range – and had, from memory, around 93,000 miles on the odometer. When I arrived to check it out, though, the price on the window was over $12k! I asked the dealership employee and even showed him the ad on Carsales.com.au, and he hemmed and hawed and tried to tell me that after stamp duty and other purchase fees, the price would be that anyway. I told him that was a load of crap and walked out. It was at this point I realised maybe I should re-evaluate what I want, and scrap that plan to buy a placeholder car: what I was going to buy had to be something I’d want to keep for a while.
I also wanted to stick to a new, strict budget: $10k or less. That eliminated a lot of the cars I discussed in my previous article. Hunting on the online classifieds also eliminated a lot of cars that proved to be too rare or too far away. Bye-bye Alfa Romeo 147 GTA! So long, Saab 9-3 Aero and Peugeot 407 wagon and Volvo S40 T5! Nice cars, all, but although I had the luxury of time, I didn’t want to spend an eternity hunting. I also scratched a bunch of other cars for other reasons, and along the way the wonderful Nissan Stagea got cut; I just was too reluctant to purchase a private import.
Other cars came up for consideration that I hadn’t thought of before. There was the 2003-09 Nissan Maxima, in Australia a rebadged Nissan Teana. Although it had the sweet VQ35DE engine, that wasn’t the main reason it was on my list. Rather, I loved its beautiful interior. Still, these are pretty soft to drive and they had, depending on the year, a four-speed automatic or a CVT. No thanks. Eliminated.
The Epsilon-platform Holden Vectra CDXi 3.2 V6 crossed my mind a few times because there are so many cheap ones out there. I was no stranger to European Opels, but apparently neither are mechanics. Germans may build solid cars but they don’t always build reliable ones: see Catera, Cadillac.
The Citroen C4 VTS was a curious, left-field choice, but it had two few doors and only a manual transmission. What a looker, though!
Finally, after weeks of listing and researching, I had whittled down my list to a final five. It was the home stretch.
I’d test-driven the Hyundai Grandeur (Azera) a year or so prior, and was impressed by its smooth ride, long equipment list, spacious interior, electroluminescent gauges and plenty of power. But the interior and dynamics were a bit too conservative for me, and this is coming from someone whose taste skews towards large, luxurious sedans.
Two cars in my top five, though, I didn’t get to test drive because I fell in love with the car I ended up buying. These two runners-up were the Volkswagen Passat 2.0T and the Subaru Liberty (Legacy) GT. The Passat offered surprisingly good performance, a great interior and excellent fuel economy, but was hard to find. The Liberty had plenty of performance and great handling, but Subaru interiors rarely impress.
After all this planning and research, I only test drove two cars in 2014. One of them was the Alfa Romeo 159. The V6 AWD Q4 was prohibitively expensive, so there were only two 159 variants in my price range: the JTS, with a 2.2 four (185hp, 230ft-lbs), and the JTD with a 2.4 five-cylinder diesel (200hp, 300ft-lbs). The JTS was only available with a manual transmission, while the JTD came with a six-speed automatic. Given my insistence on an automatic, you may be surprised to learn I only bothered to test drive the JTS.
Why is that? Well, the JTD had been criticized in numerous reviews for an ill-suited transmission. I was also reluctant to go diesel; while I appreciate the fuel economy and low-end torque, and while many today are exceedingly refined, I just still haven’t warmed to them.
The JTS 2.2, though, was an impressive test drive. Of course, the exterior and interior were just as breathtaking in person. I usually dislike black leather interiors, but the 159 had gorgeous sculpted seats and plenty of metal trim on the dash to brighten things up. You could also get a gorgeous saddle leather interior which looked phenomenal in a red 159.
I was also quite pleased with its road manners. It had decent acceleration for a four-cylinder in a 3284 lb body and the manual transmission shifted smoothly. Most surprisingly, the car felt extraordinarily quiet and solid; almost vault-like. In my last article, several of you Curbsiders implored me to purchase this sultry Italian. I’ll admit, I was extremely tempted. I’m a pragmatic man, which seems at odds with the average Alfa Romeo buyer, but the brand’s reliability has improved over the years. Still, I couldn’t ignore two glaring factors. Firstly, I was certain the 159 would cost more to repair and service than a Japanese or Aussie car. Secondly, I had specifically been looking for an automatic. It was hard trying to shake the idea of finding and buying a 159 (the one I test drove was out of my price range), but then I found an absolute bargain of a car just an hour south of me. Next time, you’ll hear the story of the car I ended up buying.