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Test Drives 2002
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Mercury Marauder (2003)

Mercury Marauder, image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Based on the Mercury Grand Marquis, this is a BIG car. It comes in Ford's favourite colour: Black. It is a big four door, slush box luxo barge, with attituuuude. It is comfortable inside, pretty typical Mercury fixings, big comfy leather seats, no luxury wood trim though. This car is intended to be more of a performance barge. There is a significant rasp to the exhaust note as the car starts. It very soon becomes apparent, from any seat that the suspension is quite firm for such a large car. From the drivers seat this is exhibited in relatively taught steering and comparatively flat cornering. From the passenger seat the thrum of the road is much more apparent. The engine has significant get up and go, but this car weighs a lot, and so the acceleration ends up being just adequate. Mash the pedal to the floor and the big girl takes a few moments to lift her skirts then sets off with a growly exhaust note following. The slush box is a bit primitive. It seems to be a 3 or 4 speed box that never quite knows what it should be doing, there is a lot of power here and a better means of handling it might make the car a better, sportier car. But Where Is The Manual? The brakes work well to haul the show to a stop. The steering is light. There is good feedback of what is happening at the tyres (which is generally a lot). Single finger steering is possible. I guess this would make a really good highway car for long distance trips, though you might get a bit sick of the firm suspension. The tyres try hard to be good. The alloy wheels look reasonable from the outside, but this is a big car, and all that weight being thrown side to side really works the tyres hard. You can feel the tyres loose grip, they slide smoothly but you don't want to be doing that too much. The front pushing in corners limits Banzai attacks. Oh, the trunk is cavernous.

In conclusion, this is an odd bird, or pirate, it is clearly an attempt to bring younger buyers to the Mercury brand. It sort of misses though. The luxo barge feel is still there, the suspension could do with more refinement and if they really want to make a sports sedan of it, where is the manual gearbox?

Some Details

4.6L V8 302bhp/318ftlb engine
4 speed Auto with overdrive
4195lbs (1906kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $35,000
Driven: Oct 26th 2002
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Ford Thunderbird (2002)

Ford Thunderbird, image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Lois has wanted to check one of these little babies out for a couple of years, it just so happened that the dealer had one on the lot that was available as a tester. It was still in its protective wrap, making it look externally a little skuzzy, but we were on the inside looking out. The day was pretty cold, so along with the fact that from the dealers the hard top is fitted, we were not able to try the soft top. This may be important to you. I am fairly tall, but I don't often get in a full size car and have my head brushing the head liner. Other than that the accommodations in the car are fine and well sized for someone of my size, and Lois definitely had no problems. The car starts quietly and never attempts to scare you or those around with an aggressive engine note. This is another slush box equipped car, though this is a world apart from the Marauders box; this one feels like a 5 speed box and slickly changes ratios. Gear changing didn't upset us too much, though I never have got used to the unpredictable nature of the changes these cars make at larger throttle openings in tight corners; the loads seem to confuse them. The T-bird is a pretty car, though not excessively luxurious given its price tag (or are we just getting old and thinking these things are getting expensive?). There is plenty of plastic around you in either the passenger or driver seat. The passenger seat could do with more electric adjustments, and definitely a height, or depth, adjustment. On the road the car steers lightly to the touch, tracks round corners predictably, but has a disconcerting chassis wobble when going over manhole covers. I think this is called cowl wobble in certain other models (to be tested below!) and is quite out of place here. Maybe with more miles on the suspension it would smooth out and be more compliant over these edges and not transmit quite as much shock to the chassis. Luggage accommodations are a laugh. The trunk is tiny, and mostly taken up with the boot used to cover the convertible top and the stand for the hard top. I suppose once these are removed there may be space for the groceries, but only if you spill them in there.

In conclusion, a pretty car with a hefty price tag. It needs a stick - badly. We may have to test drive this again on a sunny, warm day

Some Details

3.9L V8 252bhp/267ftlb engine
5 speed Auto with overdrive
3863lbs (1755kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $39,000
Driven: Oct 26th 2002
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Ford Mustang GT Convertible (2002)

Ford Thunderbird, image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Call us biased, but we have a 1996 Mustang so this test drive was really just to check what has changed and give us a baseline for what to expect with a new car, and how it compares with the other tests cars we drove. The first thing that we noticed was that the seats are not quite as comfy as those in the older Mustang, nor the other cars we test drove, but then my head does not hit the liner either. There are now two cup holders. The odometer is a digital item (do they make silicon chips with plastic parts? Ford will work out how, no doubt.) which should increase the mileage on your Mustang as it will record travel accurately. The engine sounds much the same, maybe a bit more muted, but that V-8 burble is definitely still there. A big plastic cowl spoils the view out front, a working scoop would be better - we'll wait for the Mach-1! On the road the 2002 Mustang is potent. While the Marauder has much the same engine, but carries 800lbs of additional weight, and the T-Bird has a smaller 4L motor that makes slightly less bhp, the Mustang's lower weight allows this engine to rip. It may never hassle a Camaro, but it is fun to goose the engine and get slammed back into the seats. This engine is meant to make about 40 ponies more than the 1996 model, I guess you need to run it in to find those ponies. This engine didn't seem to rev quiet as freely as that in the older car, but that may just be a run-in thing, too. The traction control is there to protect the overzealous from themselves, though I didn't have the opportunity to fully test it. Another change that was meant to be on the 2002 GT's was the independent rear suspension: I think this car had it. It went over lumps and holes in the road with less wallow than the 96, and also better that the T-Bird. The Mustang makes a good long range car, we have driven ours from here (New Jersey) to Arizona and back in a 10 day period, and this tester would be equally at easy in such a trial.

In Conclusion, this is a very respectable, cheap -given the competition- and a fun car to drive.

Some Details

4.6L V8 260bhp/302ftlb engine
5 speed manual
3477lbs (1580kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $29,000
Driven: Oct 26th 2002
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Cadillac CTS (2003)

Cadillac CTS, image courtesy of Cadillac

The new Cadillac CTS is, I think, intended as a younger persons entry into the Cadillac range. It is a smaller, sportier car, with a very reasonable price all things considered. We got to drive 2 models, one with the Luxury option, and a second with the Sports Luxury options. The differences between these were mostly in the form of suspension and wheel changes. Though the Sports package also provides the Stabilitrak system that is on several GM cars, we were not able to throw the car around enough to find out when it kicks in. Lois managed to squeal the tyres in enthusiastic cornering, and it didn't seem to kick in with that. The sales rep in the back seat was a delicate shade of green.

The cars both steered in a very predictable manner, the sports package stiffening up the whole plot nicely, and made the steering very precise. The ride with the sports package was acceptable, the roads in this part of NJ are a bit rough, but the car didn't buck or groan over them. It was a good solid feeling drive. The engine reved nicely (for something with just 2 miles on it when we started), it reved out easily to 5000rpm and accelerated with gusto. The transmission was automatic on these models, they didn't have stick models on the lot. The 5 speed was Ok, shifting smoothly. I would still like to try the stick, it should transform this car into a real hooligan sport tourer.

The internal toys are excellent. There is a little wood trim, giving a sense of quality and the plastic buttons are not too incongruous. The steering wheel is littered with buttons, it seems some of them are programmable. The sound system volume control was a knurled wheel that worked very effectively. The seat had many adjustment controls and memory, but getting out of the car was an experience - the seat reverted to some rearward setting as the door opened, moving uncommanded.

On odd item was the colour choices. Most of the range is varying shades of metallic gray, except for a nice blue and a reddish brown. That reddish brown is a special order and costs nearly $800 more. It's a shame that this red is limited and also limits the internal colours.

In conclusion, a nice package but getting the stick might limit options or price concessions (if it has to be ordered direct from the factory).

Some Details

3.2L V6 220bhp/220ftlb engine
5 speed auto
3568lbs (1620kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $38,500
Driven: Nov 9th 2002
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Nissan Altima 3.5 (2002)

Nissan Altima 3.5 SE, image courtesy of Nissan

This ended up being a very short test drive, the sales rep not willing to allow us to put miles on the car (Holy-moly, this is a Nissan, not a Ferrari!), so driving observations are a bit frugal. The Altima 3.5 SE is an attempt by Nissan to create a bit of a performance sleeper; packing 245bhp in a relatively light car they have something of a rocket here. Inside, the car is spacious, acceptably appointed - you can get a leather package to coddle your portly butt, and generally inoffensive. There is tons of head room, and the back seat is remarkably roomy. The car has a good size trunk (boot), and a 60/40 split on the rear seats for those extra long (but quite thin) packages.

Driving it, though, was a mixed affair. We only got around a couple of miles each so any observations are highly suspect, additionally, my observations differ from my wife's. She was of the opinion that it drove quite nicely, that it had plenty of power and handled well. I felt that it was remarkably twitchy, and given that its 240bhp could propel it to 100mph+ speeds quite swiftly that neither the steering nor the suspension seemed to have the control needed for real bozo driving. The model we drove had a slush box that seemed to shift smoothly and predictably. We would like to have tried a manual box, but though the Nissan web site lists this as an option, the dealer suggested they are extremely rare. Oh, well.

In conclusion: The dealer experience was not great, the car test was too short to do the car justice, therefore we will make efforts to look at another dealership.

Aside: We were also shown the new Maxima, a higher spec car with more appointments. The main issue for me was that there was less head room and the steering wheel rested on my legs at its highest position - not something that is real safe.

Some Details

3.5L V6 245bhp/246ftlb engine
5 speed manual/4 speed auto
3039lbs (1.380kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $27,000
Driven: Nov 24th 2002
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Honda Civic Si (2003)

Honda Civic Si, image courtesy of Honda Mtr. Co.

There was another Civic way back that we had, it left its mark, and this new Civic Si bears the same initials. The Civic Si is the classic hot hatchback; it is small, nimble, well endowed with ponies and highly practical. The principle issue I have with this Honda is that there are no options (excluding the colour it comes in). Inside, it is a well built, but basic, car. The seats are seats. There are limited adjustments that can be made. There is an odd hole under the Radio/CD that I guess in some markets mounts additional equipment, but here is just a hole willed with a blank plastic thing. The car comes with a sun roof that worked just fine - its not an option, it just comes with a sun roof.

The car is peppy. We selected to drive the 5 speed manual (the only transmission option), it revs well and has a lot of grunt off the bottom. The clutch is stunningly light, actually a little difficult to get used to after driving the behemoths we have. We didn't have much of a chance to throw the car around, with the dealer sat in back, lots of slow saturday shoppers and not many bends anyway. The gear shift is short and posative, even with the shifter seeming to stick right out of the front facia. What we did see of the car in corners was good though. It was tight, it was perhaps a little too firm over the bumps, but nothing undue.

All in all, it was a nice car. It's lack of options, and the lack of seat movements being the major detractors. It's slick looking in Blue, but they need a Red colour option.

Some Details

2.0L 4cyl 160bhp/132ftlb engine
5 speed manual
2744lbs (1,247kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $19,000
Driven: Apr 19th 2003
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(BMW) Mini Cooper S (2003)

Mini Cooper S

These are sweet looking cars. There are so many colour options it is dazzling, the car you buy could be relatively unique. And the options don't stop with the outside; there are zillions of bits inside that can be optioned. But this test isn't just about the option list, it's about finding if the car drives in a manner we like. It wasn't until I recapped the specifications I realised that the car we drove, the Mini Cooper S was actually supercharged. Knowing this says a bunch about how the car drives. It's a bit weak off the bottom, doesn't rev well initially, then takes off. And I mean TAKES OFF!! This thing screams. You can mess with the close ratio gearbox to your hearts content, once boiling the engine seems able to handle several gear options. Even 6th at 40 mph wasn't too terribly rough.

The brakes on this little rocket sled are very powerful, they come in quickly and seem to have bunches of feel. The handling (after many years with a V-8 Mustang) is responsive, near instantaneous. Turn the wheel and the nose goes searching for your new line. NOW! However, on bumpy roads at higher speeds, there was a definite vagueness, maybe the lack of weight in the nose has something to do with this. Otherwise this car handled in an exemplary manner, very taught, very compliant, stiff maybe, but not hard or harsh.

There are some nice touches around the car: the seats have adjustments; the heating has a temperature setting; there is seat heating (Jee, that's useful in an Arizona summer! But then this is New Jersey, 10 days beyond a 5 inch fall of snow that occurred in April.) There is luggage space in the back, some, but the rear seats also fold down to give much more room.

All in all, this was a fun car with definite appeal, a ton of goodies and some real performance. A Hoot!

Some Details

Supercharged 1.6L 4cyl 163bhp/155ftlb engine
6 speed manual
2678lbs (1,217kg) curb weight
Price of test car: $25,000
Driven: Apr 19th 2003
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© Copyright A. Maclean 2002 -
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