Tollway Therapy

Texas Tollway 130

$200. That’s how much I pay in tolls in an average month. $200. That’s how much I would pay per hour for a therapist with my insurance. We’ll come back to these figures later.

There was a time in my life when driving made me extremely angry. Whether it was the slow-pokes in the left lane or the stop-signs-don’t-apply-to-me people, everything everyone did made me throw up my hands and scream. Drivers shouldn’t do that unless you have Lane Keep Assist or a Tesla. My driving motto at the time was I hate you and I hate the way you drive. It got to the point where I didn’t want to drive at all. I tried listening to classical music. I tried to make excuses for other drivers. None of it worked.

Anger became the norm, and I just lived with it.

2017-08-15 14.17.36-2

Then, the other day, I realized that my anger and hatred of other drivers had dulled considerably. Not gone away, mind you, just dulled. Suddenly I couldn’t remember the last time I got really angry in traffic. I started to rack my brain to figure out what had changed. How long ago was my last rage-fueled steering wheel slapping incident?

The answer? Two and a half years ago, right before we moved into the new house. You see, the new house changed my route to work. Instead of driving down surface streets, I now take 45 and MoPac (which is part toll as well). Once I leave my neighborhood, I don’t hit another stoplight until Gateway Plaza on the other side of the city from where I live.

All of this means there is relatively low traffic on a majority of my route. Sure, there are still people who want to go 55 in the fast lane of a 75 zone, but there are plenty of empty lanes on the tollways and it’s easy to get around them.

I didn’t realize how great I had it until last week when I had to go out of my way to gas up my car because Austinites thought the world was coming to an end. The detour required me to drive surface streets back to my house and deal with slow drivers, possibly drunk drivers, buses, construction, last-minute lane changers, stop lights, confusing four-way stops, bicyclists who just don’t give a damn, and so on and so on.

All of the anger came back. All of it.

Over the last couple of years, the topic of reducing our reliance on toll roads has come up as a way to save some money. After last week’s experience, I think it’s pretty clear it’s a wash.

Either I spend $200 a month on tolls, or I spend $200 an hour on therapy.

It’s a no-brainer.

Wherein I Choose a Car?

As mentioned in Wherein I Go Car Shopping, I’ve been in the market for a new car after three years of driving a wonderfully capable but not overly fun Nissan Rogue. I ended the previous post with the intention of driving a couple more cars before making a decision. I got halfway through that plan before I crowned a winner, and that car is…

The 2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0t. Probably.

2018 Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0t

At an MSRP of $33k, the Sonata was outside my budget, and honestly what got me to the dealership was the Hyundai Sport 2.0t at a much more reasonable $27k. Throughout my search, I kept running into the same problem, which is best expressed in a familiar diagram:

Fast Full-Featured Affordable

The Nissan Maxima is fast and affordable, but only at lower trims, which are sparse on features like Forward Collision Warning, Adaptive Cruise Control, and Lane-keep Assist. If you want those, expect to pay around 42k. Meanwhile, the Mazda6 is loaded with features, is affordable at 27k, but maxes out with a four-cylinder 184-hp engine.

The Sonata is the ultimate compromise between affordability, speed, and features. It doesn’t have a V6, but the 2.0L 4cyl Turbo engine puts out 245 horsepower. The MSRP is within haggling distance of a sensible $30k, and the feature list is unmatched (in my search, anyway).

2018 Hyunda Sonata Butt Shot

Here are some of the things you get in the Limited 2.0t:

  • Forward Collision Warning with Emergency Braking
  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Lane Departure Warning with Lane-keep Assist
  • Blind Spot Monitoring
  • Keyless entry, push-button start, remote start (via iPhone app)
  • Backup camera
  • Electronic parking break with Auto Hold (no more holding the brake at red lights)
  • An overeager trunk that opens by itself for some reason
  • Sunroof
  • Auto-dimming rearview mirror with garage door openers
  • Heated and cooled seats
  • Dual climate controls

The features in bold are the ones I cared about most, especially the Forward Collision Warning and Blind Spot Monitoring. I’m not sure why you would build a car without a rearview camera anymore, and I’m not turning a physical key like some kind of neanderthal. Okay, I would if I had to, but I wouldn’t be happy about it, man.

Unlike the 2018 Toyota Camry, I find the Sonata’s center stack to be well-organized and engaging.

2018 Hyundai Sonata Inside

It’s got everything you need, like an unobtrusive navigation / entertainment area, simple environmental controls, and these cool little piano keys that give your fingers a break from tapping screens all day. It’s got a couple of 12V plugs at the bottom that you could easily drop a double Anker power supply into and end up with 5 USB charging ports.

Anecdote: During the test drive, I sat back in the driver’s seat with hands off the wheel and foot off the pedals and watched as the Sonata drove itself around a curved section of I-35. It’s not a self-driving Tesla, but it was still pretty surreal.

I’ve still got a couple months before I can go pick up this surprisingly awesome Hyundai Sonata, which means I get to keep fielding calls and texts from the 10 dealerships I’ve visited over the last couple months. It’s interesting how different the salespeople have been, from the bro-douches to the My boyfriend drives this BMW to my favorite: the hands-off, no pressure, let me know if you have any questions salesperson.

I met two of them, so if you’re in the market for a new car, go see Jamison at Round Rock Mazda and Rick at Round Rock Hyundai.

Speaking of calls and texts, here’s one I got yesterday.

Round Rock Nissan Text

Round Rock Nissan, keeping it classy.

Wherein I Go Car Shopping

As a Science Fiction author, the car I drive is paramount to my personal brand, as a recent Kline Group survey showed that 88% of readers choose books based on the kind of cars the author drives. If you think you’re getting into the Amazon Top 100 in a Nissan Versa, I’ve got bad news for you. If you want to play in the big leagues, you need a flashy car that screams “I get by.”

So, armed with an expiring lease, a tight budget, and a penchant for haggling, I set out to find the perfect car for me. Besides terrible salespeople, here’s what I found out there.

(Presented in the order I tested them.)

2017 BMW 330i

2017_BMW_330i

Since my latest novel Por Vida has a whopping 8 reviews on Amazon, I decided I would treat myself to a really nice car. Having never driven a BMW, I headed over to McNeil and 183 to test drive the 330i.

Long story short: this was perhaps the most boring car I’ve ever driven, and I’ve been in a Saturn. It accelerated just fine, but the interior felt like a smoke-filled office straight out of Mad Men. That’s the best description I can come up for it.

I’m not a 50-something CEO of a trendy new Austin startup; I don’t belong in a BMW.

2017 Audi A4

2017_Audi_A4

As my daddy used to tell me, “Son, I’ll never truly be proud of you until you buy an overpriced luxury sedan.” That led me to Audi North Austin in search of the 252hp A4 in my signature gray. The car pictured above retailed for about $42k, and they were willing to lease it to me at a price of about $42k. What a deal!

What I Liked:

  • Drives like a dream. Ultra smooth handling. Far superior to anything else I’ve had my hands on.
  • Looks good
  • AWD for those frequent Austin snow days
  • Rear-view camera

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Bare-bones inside for $42k
  • No blind spot monitoring, no forward collision warning… nothing to save me from the perils of driving Loop 360

Ultimately, it was the cost of this bad boy and the lack of any features that sent me running.

2017 Dodge Charger RT

2017_Dodge_Charger_RT

When I arrived at Covert Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram at 8107 Research Blvd, Austin, TX 78758, I was greeted by a salesman whose nametag read Worst Salesperson Ever. Here’s what the exchange was like:

Me: Hi, I’d like to test drive a Dodge Charger and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

WSE: Okay. If I make you a good deal, are you gonna buy today?

Me: No, probably not. I’d like to test drive them first.

WSE: Wait here.

A few minutes later, WSE came back with Junior Sales Employee #291092 and said JSE would be helping me going forward unless I wanted to buy.

Undeterred, JSE and I set out in this beautiful blue 370hp Charger RT and we zip-zoomed up and down 183 for a little while. Throughout the entire drive, I wondered how this car was going to look parked outside of my frat house. I also wondered how I was even allowed to drive it without wearing two polos and having both collars popped.

I can see the appeal of this car’s power, but the College Douche-Bro vibe was just too strong with this one. It may have even smelled a little like Axe body spray inside.

2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2017_Jeep_Grand_Cherokee

For a brief moment, I considered getting another SUV, but with a bigger engine than my Nissan Rogue. Enter the Grand Cherokee, a kinda mean-looking SUV with a decent base 245hp.

Now exit the Grand Cherokee because there’s really nothing special to see inside. It drives well, has a good amount of power, but the interior is not particularly interesting. It’s an SUV. Not much to get excited about here.

We returned to the dealership and I had another warm and fuzzy conversation with WSE:

WSE: So what’d you think?

Me: They’re nice, but they’re probably not for me. I’ll let you know.

WSE: I’m never going to hear from you again, am I?

I shook my head and left.

2017 Nissan Maxima

2017_Nissan_Maxima

I’ve driven a Nissan ever since the 1995 Chevy Blazer family SUV turned off in the middle of I-35 while I was doing 70mph. Two Altimas, an Altima Coupe, and recently the Nissan Rogue. You’d think that with that kind of history, the good folks at Round Rock Nissan might want to cut me a little break.

Think again, sucker!

By the time I got back to looking at the Maxima, I’d given up my dream of that Audi, so I was looking for a more reasonably priced vehicle. A helpful salesman from RR Nissan emailed me to let me know they had a 2017 Maxima SR for only $33,900. Yikes! Sign me up!

I hurried to RR Nissan and put the Maxima through its paces. After driving a bunch of other cars with actual gears, the Maxima’s CVT engine really started to stand out… in a bad way. Yeah, there’s lots of power here, but it feels muddled / hidden behind the CVT. Inside, the interior is like a cockpit, which is funny because the car feels like a boat. Steering at idle speeds is a workout. Bringing this beast to a quick stop sent shudders through the frame and scared the nice lady who was helping me out.

Still, for $34, I was willing to haggle.

Me: Alright, let’s talk numbers.

Her: Okay, so this car is $41k MSRP.

Me: And what’s my price?

Her: $41k.

So I won’t be getting a Maxima. Minus the black wheels, I really like the styling on this car. It feels familiar too. Just wish they’d been willing to work with me a little more. Or at all.

Useless Trivia: Nissan is the preferred brand of the Perion Synthetics corporation.

2017 Mazda 6

2017 Mazda 6

Every review I read of the Mazda 6 started with the qualifier Sure, it has a shitty engine, BUT… And they were right! 184hp 4-cyl with no turbo. It’s about what you expect.

BUT… step inside this monument to feature-glut and you’ll see just how much $27k can buy you. Rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, comfortable seats, a heads-up display, a cockpit-like feel, and so on, and so on. For the money, I have not seen a more feature-complete vehicle. It handles well too, but not perfectly, as if it is still trying to prove that it can be sporty.

I would have bought this on the spot… if it weren’t for that engine. It. just. needs. more. horsies.

Right now, this guy is #1 on my potential buy list. It’s going to come down to what’s more important: a roaring engine or safety features that will help keep me alive.

2018 Toyota Camry

2018 Toyota Camry

The timing is all wrong on the V6 Toyota Camry (RR Toyota won’t have them until Feb), but since the dealership was on my way home, I decided to go test drive the 4cyl version and see what the interior was like.

Long story short again: I can see why so many people buy these. The ride is smooth and sturdy. The 4cyl engine does fine for what it is. It’s just that… well… it’s a little dull. The center console was sparse, as if the car didn’t do much beyond Park, Drive, and Reverse.

The 2018 redesign looks good from the outside, but inside you’ll find one size fits all. Maybe a stronger engine could have swayed me, but we’ll never know.

2017 Buick Regal

2017 Buick Regal

Oh, my poor, poor baby Regal. You are stuck in two worlds. One is modern, with steady handling, confident acceleration, and a plush interior. The other is a last-century Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Those touches may keep the GM diehards coming back, but for new generations of drivers, they’re relics of a past age. And sadly, it doesn’t matter how great your car is… people aren’t going to buy it if it feels like their grandfather’s car.

Fully-loaded, the Regal Premium II comes in at $36k. While it’s always nice to do something in your grandfather’s memory, there has to be something better than buying this car.

The Regal above lacks the safety features (blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning) I so desperately want in a new car. When I brought that up to the salesman, he said, “Well, no, but it has a really good crash rating.”

Great.

All that said, this car (~4k less without the safety features), is sitting at #2 on my list. You can see why I’m getting worried.

Pending

I’m exhausting cars left and right, but I still have a couple I’m going to test drive before making a decision. They include:

  • 2018 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T
  • 2018 Honda Accord EX-L V6
  • Whatever you recommend

If you can help me out with a suggestion, leave a comment below. If you’ve taken umbrage with my personal opinions of these cars, please tell me a little about your childhood, preferably in the form of a haiku.