Automobile Magazine's annual All-Stars test inevitably features a few predictable outcomes. For instance, I fully expected the Chevy Corvette ZR1 to rip my face off, and indeed I am now faceless. And I wasn't even driving it at the time. I was in the Jaguar XF, following executive editor Joe DeMatio, who floored the throttle and nearly triggered the Jag's air bags with the concussive boom of the ZR1's exhaust.
But that, as I said, was expected. Ditto the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which was completely unremarkable except for the fact that it gets 40 mpg, which is itself remarkable. Also, the BMW M3 was about as close to universally popular as a car can get. I could've told you all that without leaving the house.
The joy of this endeavor, then, lies in the surprises. And fortunately there were plenty of those, too. Consider the case of the Dodge Challenger R/T.
I wasn't excited to drive the Challenger at all. The Challenger, to me, seemed like nothing more than a cynical attempt to squeeze a few more sales out of Chrysler's LX platform. I've driven the Dodge Charger, and this is a two-door Charger, right? Why should I care?
Well, between the loss of two doors and the addition of a six-speed manual transmission, some kind of freaky alchemy took place, I tell you. I fired up the 376-horse Hemi, the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove" came on the radio, and within half a mile I was Wooderson from Dazed and Confused, asking rhetorical questions about high school girls and wondering where to find the next keg party. My sideburns started growing like a Chia Pet doused with Miracle-Gro.
This car isn't about finesse, because it's pretty obvious that it wouldn't keep up with a BMW 128i on any back road. This car is all about the Rice Krispies exhaust note, the six-speed pistol-grip shifter, and the way it lights up the tires through third gear in the rain. I love it. It's not a sports car, and neither is it very practical. The Challenger is whimsical, and it makes me nostalgic for an era that I don't even remember. The high point of my day was probably when I ripped a donut in the Challenger, slewing sideways while I blasted "Space Cowboy" on the stereo. Eventually, I pulled into a parking spot, but I didn't get out of the car until the song ended.
My next surprise came from the Pontiac G8's stereo, which was so bad that it prompted me to pull over and pen the following tirade in my notebook:
"Here are some audio components that have more power than the G8's door speakers: Hearing aids. Audio greeting cards. Teddy Ruxpin. A Speak & Spell. Two cans connected with string. Two cans connected with nothing . . . The last time a speaker sounded this tinny and artificial, it was producing the voice of Alexander Graham Bell saying 'Mr. Watson, come here!' This might fly in Australia, but not in the U.S.A. Here, stereos have names like Shaker 1000 and Monsoon. That's right, we need to appropriate the names of natural disasters to describe the power of our stereos. If the G8's stereo were named for a weather phenomenon, it'd be called Partly Cloudy. Or maybe Steady Drizzle. Actually, scratch that: steady drizzle might make a pleasant noise . . . This stereo has so little bass, it makes Barry White sound like Bindi Irwin. Bindi Irwin being chased by dingoes."
Then I fiddled with the settings and realized that someone had put the G8's stereo into baby-asleep-in-the-back-seat mode, i.e., the fader cranked all the way to the front. I adjusted the fader, discovered that the Blaupunkt's sound quality was actually fine, and capped my page of vitriol with a subdued, "Oops - never mind."
On the topic of the G8, actually, the surprising thing about it is the sheer normalcy of its all-around competence. Here's a General Motors sedan that starts at less than thirty grand and has a well-sorted rear-wheel-drive chassis and a good-looking interior that's screwed together well. The exterior looks nice, too, and there's an available detuned Corvette engine and two six-speed transmissions. The problem for the G8 is that it comes after the GTO, so we're already used to the idea of an Australian Pontiac. And it's easy to say, "Well, the GTO was a pretty good car except for its bland styling, and the G8 corrects that. So they just did what was expected." But if the G8 had preceded the GTO, we'd be raving about it instead of politely lauding its appeal.
The proliferation of dual-clutch transmissions this year prompted another revelation that never occurred to me back when the VW/Audi DSG was the only game in town. Namely, that the success of such a gearbox depends less on its technical execution than on the personality of the car in which it's installed. When VW first introduced DSG, I liked it so much that I figured I'd enjoy it in any car. But, although a dual-clutch transmission is perfect for an upscale hot-hatch Volkswagen R32, and I can't imagine the technologically avant-garde Nissan GT-R with anything else, I was turned off by the dual-clutch transmissions in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo MR and the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with those gearboxes - both whipped off instant upshifts and flawless, rev-matched downshifts - but because they don't seem to suit their host vehicles. Driving a dual-clutch Evo or 911 is like inviting a legendarily debased friend on a trip to Vegas and learning that he's stopped carousing and become the director of a charity called Worthy Causes That You Really Can't Make Fun Of. You can't fault the guy, but his newfound maturity is secretly disappointing.
Also disappointing were the 911's seats. After the five-hour drive back to Ann Arbor, my notebook included the following observation: "I'm not Andre the Giant, but at about six feet and 180 pounds, I am too wide for the seats. The 911's optional "comfort" seats look like they were molded for Mary-Kate Olsen. What gives? Germans are a hearty, schnitzel-eating people. They're deluding their beefy, beer-loving Hun selves by building seats sized for tapeworm-infested woodland fairies."
Narrow bolsters notwithstanding, I'm not complaining about the chance to rack up a few hundred miles on a 911, but I'll admit it wasn't my first choice for the long trip back. I wanted the Challenger. Alas, at 8 a.m. its space in the hotel parking lot was vacant, some early riser already rockin' down the highway. I shouldn't have been surprised.