Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Long and Winding Road to a New Car - Part 4

I had made appointments to test drive the Nissan cube and Kia Soul back-to-back for Saturday afternoon. This time we test drove the cube first, then the Soul.

Our test drives were a bit longer this time (over 30 minutes for each vehicle), and we tried to focus our interrogation on some of the finer details of driving the vehicle in everyday situations. We made sure each vehicle encountered slower traffic situations as well as highway driving. We tried backing the vehicle out of parking stalls to check the type of blind spots we'd encounter. We also discussed the pros/cons of the interior features for each car.

The second test drive exposed some interesting additional information about each vehicle...

Inside, Looking Out

The Soul's C-bars (i.e. the rear corner vertical supports between the rear window and the side rear windows) introduces a seriously wide blind-spot. This is partially due to the fact that the rear window is not as wide in order to accommodate the nifty vertical tail-light configuration. When backing out towards the right, there was a spot where I could not see the traffic lane whatsoever. And the small rear cargo-area side windows are too small to see anything through them from the driver's point of view. Although the side mirrors are big, and I had them properly adjusted (to reduce blind-spots, you should have the mirrors set such that you can't see the side of the car, but rather more of the lane next to the car), I had to bob my head around from looking through the rear window to trying to see the traffic lane in the mirror. Needless to say, it was a bit unnerving not knowing whether I was backing into something or someone.

Those of you who own a cube already know this... the wrap around rear window is a facade. There is still a significant C-bar on the passenger side. It's not nearly as obstructive as the Soul, but it's more than I thought it would be. When checking over the shoulder, I could see a lot more out of the wide rear window, and could see through the rear passenger side cargo-area window.

We both felt the cube's sun visors are too big and flimsy. They were a bit difficult to flip down because you sit so far away from the windshield. They seemed useless when swung over to cover the side window because they don't actually cover the full width of the window with the portion of the window right next to you fully exposed. This is where Nissan needed to think of something a little more innovative and useful. As it stands, they're nothing more than a couple of useless cardboard flaps on hinges. Thank goodness I had my Serengeti sunglasses.

The Sound of Speed

When we hit highway speeds with the Soul, we noticed that the car was quite loud (despite the Kia sales rep telling us that the Soul was quieter than the Nissan cube's CVT at higher speeds). When we stomped on the pedal at 40km/h to speed up to 70km/h, the Soul would kick down a gear and would actually be quite noisy and whiney. We then noticed the "O/D OFF" light was on. Oh! An overdrive mode. So we turned on overdrive and found the car to be less noisy, but it loses that burst of acceleration. My commute in Calgary transitions a few times from 50-60km/h zones to 70-90km/h zones, so I'd have to be manually switching between O/D on/off modes a few times.

The cube's CVT transmission, despite the sales reps from Toyota and Kia mentioning that the Nissan CVT was noisy during acceleration and highway speeds, was actually not so noisy. When traveling at 100km/h, it felt as though we were traveling slower than that... The engine wasn't noisy and it didn't seem like it was labouring. Acceleration from 100km/h upwards was responsive and impressive for a 1.8-litre engine. However, we did notice some noticeable wind noise coming from the top corners of the windshield area at highway speeds... but I guess one should expect that from a box on wheels. Turning up the stereo seemed to resolve (hide) the problem.

Front and Center

We both thought the Soul's center dashboard area and center console between the front seats were nicer and more functional than the cube's. The cubby hole with a lid above the stereo was a definite plus, and the 2 open tray areas on the center console seemed more useful than the cube's open tray configuration.

Note to Kia: The button to open the lid on the cubby hole above the stereo is difficult to use, and probably more difficult in the winter when wearing gloves or mitts.

However, the cube's big cup holder opening at the back end of the center console is a definite plus and can be reached by the passengers in the rear seat. That's right... the poor sod who got the short straw and has to sit in the middle in the rear seat can have his own cup holder, too -- everyone in the Nissan cube gets a cup holder!

We found the cube's deep glovebox seemed more functional with 3 compartments, and it was easy to reach all the contents. The soul had a deep glovebox as well with 2 compartments, but it was difficult to see and reach contents farther back in the deep part of the glovebox. The glovebox door also hit my knees when I opened it.

Creatures of Comfort

The Soul offered headrests that could be raised higher than the cube's headrests, especially on the rear seats (I think the cube only offered 2 headrest positions on the rear seats). The Soul also had a headrest for the center rear seating position (albeit a little smaller and it couldn't be raised as high than the other headrests), while the cube doesn't offer a headrest for the center rear seat.

The rear seats on the Kia had less leg room than the cube. And when sitting in the center rear seat of the Kia, it was hard to find a spot to place the feet... if placed right in front, it was awkward because your toes were against the rear part of the center console. Placing your toes on either side of the center console ended up putting your toes against the front seat tracks, again awkward. The center rear seat is certainly for young'ins.

We definitely found the seats in the cube more comfortable than the Soul. The soft upholstery definitely gave it a nicer comfy feel, almost like a sofa. Ahhhh... fully reclining rear seats on the cube, with lots of leg room. On road trips, people are going to be yelling "back seat" instead of "shotgun".

On the Kia Soul, the driver's seat right-hand fold-up armrest obstructed my attempts to lock in the seat belt. I always had to lift the armrest to clip in the seatbelt. I didn't encounter this problem on the Nissan cube.

Bringing Up the Rear

Both the Soul and the cube offer very similar rear cargo space (when the rear bench seat on the cube is set all the way back), and offer similar cargo space when the rear seats are folded down.

The cube, however, offers the added ability to slide the rear bench forward to provide more rear cargo space, yet still offer the ability for people to sit in the seats. We tried moving the rear seat all the way forward, and as long as the front seats were not all the way back, it appears adults could still sit in the back seats, albeit a little cramped so it wouldn't be ideal on the long haul.

One big peeve that I have about most critics/reviewers statements regarding the cube's cargo space was their complaint about not having a flat cargo floor when the rear bench seats are folded down. If they actually read all the material, they would have known that adding the Cargo Area Organizer accessory, which includes a lockable compartment, would provide a flat cargo floor.

Although the cargo area organizer and flat cargo floor are standard on the Kia, they can't be removed without leaving the spare tire exposed and the space somewhat gawdy-looking and unusable. Nissan provides the option of adding that compartment accessory, and it can be easily removed if you need the extra height.

Indecisions in Decisions

When reviewing all this information in hindsight, it's a little more obvious which direction we should have headed. But when we had finished the last of the second test drives, we were experiencing information overload, emotional fatigue, and hunger (it was 5:05 PM, and our stomachs were starting to growl)... and we still couldn't decide which car to buy.

We were sitting in our car at the side of the road a couple of blocks from the Kia dealership after we had just finished negotiating a price on the possible purchase of a Kia Soul, but we didn't have a solid price from the Nissan dealership because we didn't discuss pricing after our second cube test drive. We needed a negotiated price from Nissan before we could make a decision, so we headed straight to the Nissan dealership.

We sat down with the sales rep and discussed a price on a cube SL with the Technology Package, Cargo Area Organizer, and the installation of aftermarket heated front seats. The heated seats was one feature that I've grown to really appreciate in my current daily driver in the winter, especially when you have to scrape the windows for 15 minutes on an icy cold winter's day. And it was one feature that was standard in the Kia Soul.

We batted a price around with the sales rep, but held firm at a somewhat low-ball price. Then we heard the words, "Will you purchase it today if I can get you that price?"

I'm sure I heard my jaw or my wife's jaw hit the floor as we looked at each other, "Could we please have a few minutes in private to discuss this?"

Ya, I know it seems like a typical sales tactic, but there was a good deal on the table, and it was the last Saturday of the month. I actually wasn't prepared to make a purchase until later in the week or until the following weekend. Everything was in order to make a purchase, and nothing was holding us back... except for our inability to decide which vehicle we really wanted.

The quick discussion between my wife and I had re-iterated the significant pros of each vehicle. Then the lack of a sunroof on the cube was brought up. This feature was low on my wife's priority list, but it was a feature high on my list of wanted items. The deal on the table was a good one and this whole ordeal and frustration could be done in one quick swoop... I could live without the sunroof.

The Final Showdown

We told the sales rep we would make the deal today if he could get us that price. Of course, we had our doubts about getting that price. The sales rep returned shortly to our cubicle with the sales manager in tow. Wow, usually there's a couple of rounds with the sales rep hopping off to the sales manager with slightly different negotiated prices before we'd see the sales manager, and often never seeing the sales manager at all as we would walk away from the whole deal.

It turned out that a cube SL with the Technology Package in the colour we liked had arrived on their lot the night before... protective coverings still on and the PDI not completed yet. The sales manager had an opportunity to do a quick turnaround on a car they had purchased for their inventory, thus saving themselves a little overhead/debt.

As expected, the sales manager presented us with a price much higher than our original offer. We held firm to an ideal price that was higher than our original offer, but one that we'd be very happy with. He then commented (paraphrased), "I have to talk to my boss about it, but if I could get you that price, would we have a deal done today?"

Hmmm... this one's a new one for me. I've never had the sales manager need to go to his boss on a negotiation before. And we had negotiated on a Nissan Altima Hybrid at this very dealership not too long ago and we never had that third level of negotiation then, either. This is getting interesting.

While the sales manager and his boss were in their discussion, the sales rep took us outside to the back of the lot to see the car (and to kill some time while they talked it out). You couldn't miss the Ocean Surf cube sitting at the end of the row of Nissan cars. But that wasn't the car... Our car, or hopefully soon-to-be our car, was the one buried a couple of rows deep... the metallic glimmers of burgundy emerging from the rich browns under the sun from the Espresso Bean cube SL.

After checking it out thoroughly, we went back inside to meet up with the sales manager again. He immediately commented that he had his sunglasses in hand and had called his wife to say he's on his way home... "You have yourself a deal!"

I don't think I've ever felt so much weight and frustration lifted when being notified that I'm about to spend over $20,000. But it was a big relief that this whole process was actually almost over... a process that initially started over 1.5 years ago... a process that is finally coming to a very satisfying end, as difficult and frustrating as it has been.

So after all the test drives, comparisons, changes in direction, more test drives, etc., we ended up with the Nissan cube... a vehicle that wasn't even targeted towards our demographic, yet seems to be the most practical choice at this point in our family's life.

By the way, the day that this last installment was published on my blog was the day we picked up our funky box on wheels.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Long and Winding Road to a New Car - Part 3

At this point, my wife and I are starting to feel like we're making progress in this vehicle decision process, or so we thought.

We narrowed down our selection to four vehicles that fit within, or close to, our requirements: Kia Soul 4u, Nissan cube, Nissan Versa, and Toyota Matrix XR. And after taking all four vehicles for a test drive, we thought we'd be able to pick the one to purchase, but that wasn't the case. We were able to eliminate two of the four with ease, and were left with two vehicles that we really liked, but we couldn't figure out which one we liked the most.

Eliminated with Honour

Nissan Versa Hatchback 1.8 SL
This is a very nice, solid vehicle to drive with a very smooth ride, partly due to Nissan's CVT transmission. With plenty of leg room and headroom in the front and rear, it was a very comfortable vehicle to sit in whether you were the driver or a passenger in any seat. The nicely appointed interior gave it a sense of quality and comfort that was not so evident in other cars in its class. However, it's brother, the Nissan cube, is built on the Versa platform with a few extras... more leg and headroom, more cargo space, and a couple of extra safety features -- Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and Traction Control System (TCS). In our case, the Nissan cube basically trumped the Versa.

Toyota Matrix XR
This was a nice sporty vehicle to drive with solid handling and good acceleration -- something you would expect from a Toyota and a 2.4-litre engine. But that was the problem... the engine size and performance aspects became negative attributes to our goal and requirements for a vehicle with better fuel economy. And the price of this model pushed it beyond our limits. If Toyota offered the 1.8-litre model with an option to upgrade to a premium stereo and add the folding front passenger seat, I think this one would have had a better chance. I know, I know... the Pontiac Vibe 1.8-litre model has such packages, but if you recall one of our requirements... We won't support manufacturers who begged for money.

The Final Contenders

That leaves us with two vehicles to choose from... the Kia Soul 4u and the Nissan cube 1.8 SL.

It's kind of fitting that these two vehicles are left standing to dual it out in our little battle royale. Both vehicles are the first entries into the Canadian realm of entry-level small boxy utility vehicles aimed at a younger generation. But, based on conversations with other people and some car sales people, it appears that people in my generation may be embracing them a little more than the intended market. "Your generation?" you ask? For those of you who don't know me, my wife and I are 40+... a fair number of annual steps from the 20-somethings the cube and Soul were initially targeted at.

It obviously appears that my wife and I have come to the logical realization that this is the type of vehicle that suits our needs and lifestyle at this time in our lives. Perhaps it's the need to offset the serious luxury sport sedan in our repertoire of vehicles with a second vehicle that's smaller, more economic, has flexible cargo space, and sports a fun & funky attitude (obviously some sort of mutual mid-life crisis that my wife and I share). The marketing people at Nissan and Kia may want to re-evaluate their target markets for these vehicles... it may be broader than they first thought, or perhaps split at either end of the spectrum.

After the test drives, my wife and I reviewed the specs/features, read automotive reviews/blogs by experts and consumers, and had our little discussions about the cube and the Soul. But we still couldn't come to a conclusion... neither of us could pick one car over the other. For me, it might have been my attempt to remain objective because I had been so involved with the Nissan Hypercube contest that I didn't want to be biased towards the cube. For my wife, it might have been her attempt to remain unbiased since she had some distaste towards the Nissan Hypercube contest, and still thought the cube was ugly.

This was creating a stalemate, and the only results from this was frustration.

Battle of the Boxes

I asked my wife to create a list of likes and dislikes/concerns for each car, and I created my own list. Perhaps this would help us identify which car we like more. Here's what the lists looked like after we combined them:

Kia Soul 4u


  • Warranty
  • Sunroof
  • Slightly larger more powerful engine --> slightly better acceleration
  • Heated seats
  • 4-disc brakes --> better braking
  • Slightly stiffer ride
  • Better center console arrangement (higher gearshift, iPod jack placement, storage trays)
  • Exterior styling (my wife really liked the Soul's, and I found it acceptable)


  • Concerns about quality/reputation
  • No cup holders available in rear seats (just bottled water holders)

Nissan cube 1.8 SL


  • Size/Space
  • CVT transmission, which translates into smoother drive (no shifting)
  • Rear bench seat can recline as well as move forward/back to offer bigger cargo space options
  • Intelligent Key. Passive keyless entry (you just need to have the key with you and be in the vicinity of the door to unlock the door) and push-button start ignition (you just need the key inside the car to start the car)
  • Comfortable seating and upholstery
  • Lots of cup holders, including rear seat center pull-down armrest with 2 cup holders
  • Nicer instrument cluster & steering wheel


  • Comprehensive portion of warranty is less than Kia's (but powertrain, emission control, and corrosion is the same)
  • Brakes: 2 front disc, 2 rear drum -- concerns about braking
  • No heated seats (but they can be added by the dealer as an aftermarket installation -- for a price)

It was clear from the lists above that the battle between these two boxes was in a dead heat. This wasn't getting us any closer to a resolution, but we definitely knew what we liked and didn't like about each car.

A Little Grain of Salt Goes a Long Way

Although our comparison list didn't seem to get us anywhere, we did discover a couple of items that required a closer look. The more powerful engine of the Kia Soul seemed to provide better acceleration. And we didn't have any actual values for the braking distance of either car -- all we knew was that the Soul had 4-disc brakes (which usually translates into better braking), and the cube had 2 front disc, 2 rear drum.

We acquired some details from ConsumerReports.org indicating that the cube's braking distance was 14-feet farther than the Soul. That's quite the difference, and certainly could be a result of disc/drum versus 4-disc brakes. But several reviews indicated that the cube braking was above average for its class, and one reviewer went as far as saying that the cube's handling and braking may be best in it's class. A bit contradictory to the ConsumerReports numbers.

With a little more digging on the Internet, I found some results from Edmunds.com... Interestingly enough, it posts the braking distance for both the cube and the Soul to be much shorter than the ConsumerReports numbers. It also posts the braking distance for the cube to be 4-feet shorter than the Soul's. If I average the values between the two sources, it puts the cube at only 5-feet farther than the Soul, which is not really that significant of a difference to be a concern.

The little extra digging also showed that the Soul's actual 0-100km/h time was only 0.2 to 0.8 seconds faster than the cube depending on the source. I thought it might be more of a difference given the peppier feeling of the Soul's 2.0-litre engine. However, this may be where Nissan's CVT transmission gives a helping hand. Since the CVT transmission does not change gears, its acceleration is continuous. When the automatic transmission on the Soul changes gears, it is actually decelerating between gears because the wheels are not receiving power from the engine for that half-second or so. I thought this was quite the brilliant analysis, and I gave myself a pat on the back for thinking of it. I do have my moments of brilliance -- please take note of the date and time as it may not happen again for another decade or two.

This additional evaluation helped us to reduce some of the skewed values that, on first look, pointed us towards one car, but after introducing multiple sources, pointed us to a better truth of the values. In short, don't trust a single source... take it with a grain a salt and evaluate multiple sources. You'll also find that reviewing postings from average everyday consumers on blogs and forums may give you some good insight into things that you, yourself, find important... things that the typical automotive reviewer/expert may not evaluate nor include in their articles.

We Need a Compass

At this point, we still don't have an idea which car either of us is leaning towards. We have to give some credit to Nissan and Kia for putting together two competing products that are truly competitive and difficult to choose between.

My wife and I decided to add some weighted values to our comparison list, noting that some things were more important to us than others, and hoping this would give a clear direction.

Weighted Comparison

Kia Soul 4u

  • 2 - Sunroof
    I've had a sunroof in my commuter vehicle for over 20 years. I really like being able to have it open in the summer instead of consuming additional fuel to operate the A/C, which can consume an additional 5% - 10% to operate. It's also nice to have a tilt open mode so it can be slightly open when it's raining.
  • 2 - Heated seats
    I've gotten used to having these in the winter on my current commuter. It really takes the chill out of the bones after scraping ice off the windows for 15 minutes.
  • 3 - Warranty
    The fact that Kia is offering a better warranty does mean something -- either their product is a bit better, or they're willing to go out on a limb to entice you to buy their product. Either way, that extra comprehensive warranty means they'll pay for it if it does break/fail.
  • 1 - Slightly stiffer ride
    It could be the 18" wheels with lower profile tires, but it does give the ride a bit of a sportier feel.
  • 2 - 4-disc brakes
    Although re-evaluation of the values from multiple sources indicates that braking distances are not too far from each other, we still felt that 4-disc brakes are a more solid braking solution.
  • 1 - Center console position/layout
    Placement of storage trays, iPod/power jacks was nicer, and the fact that the gearshift was higher made it an easier more natural reach.
  • 1 - Exterior styling
    My wife liked the Soul's styling, and I found it acceptable, which means it gets the point because my like for the cube and my wife's distaste for it cancels out any points for the cube's styling.
  • Total for Soul: 12 points

Note that the stronger engine was removed from the Kia when we put this new weighted list together because we felt the difference in the actual acceleration values were no longer important compared to how it "felt".

Nissan cube 1.8 SL

  • 3 - Size/Space
    More Leg room and headroom than the Soul is a big plus.
  • 3 - Intelligent Key
    This was a big hit for my wife. I don't think she realizes how many times she mentioned it to me. The fact that you can keep the key in your purse or pocket and unlock a door or start the car can be so handy. It can also be a safety factor... if you're in a parking lot and someone's following/chasing you, you don't need to try to find and fumble with your keys.
  • 2 - Rear bench seat (slide fwd/back and reclining)
    The reclining rear seat provides additional headroom for really tall people, and an opportunity for a rear passenger to sit back, relax, and fall asleep. The cargo space can be increased in size without folding the seat down by merely sliding the rear seat forward, making the cargo space more flexible.
  • 2 - CVT transmission - smoother ride
    This will definitely be more noticeable and nicer to have during stop-n-go rush hour traffic -- smooth driving, no gear shifts.
  • 2 - Nice dashboard and steering wheel
    As corny as the moon-earth symbolism that Nissan incorporated into the design, it does look nice, it's easy to read, and suits the funky interior space. My wife felt the layout and feel of the controls on the steering wheel were much better.
  • 1 - Cup holders
    One review indicated there were "about a dozen" cup/bottle holders. You start losing track after about 6. Regardless of how many actually exist throughout the car, the rear seats have a pull-down armrest with 2 cup holders, plus 1 large cup holder at the back-end of the center console that someone in the rear seat could use. The Soul only has a bottled-water holder in each passenger door -- no place for that Slurpee, you gotta hold it for the duration of the ride (here, hold this while I put my seatbelt on).
  • 2 - Quality/reputation
    I've been a Nissan/Infiniti owner for over 21 years now. I know the quality of their cars and what to expect regarding maintenance and types of repairs. Kia, on the other hand... we have concerns and uncertainty about there products when they reach over 7 years of age.
  • Total for cube: 15 points

What Now?

Although the weighted list indicated that we're leaning a little towards the Nissan cube, we still were not convinced. For all the cars we've purchased in the past, both prior and during our marriage, it was always a clear-cut choice. There was always that deep-down feeling that it was the right car.

But that's not the case this time. We feel the same way for both the cube and the Soul; either car could be the one, and it was getting both of us really really frustrated.

So my wife and I decided we should take the Nissan cube and the Kia Soul for a second test drive...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Long and Winding Road to a New Car - Part 2

My wife and I have never had a problem selecting and purchasing a new car... until this past year. It's normally been a fairly quick and painless process in the past to determine the right type and class of vehicle, and select the car to finally purchase. Excluding the car enthusiast vehicle I had owned for about 4.5 years (a 1989 Nissan S-Cargo), which was actually a 3rd car in our driveway, we've always kept each new vehicle for over 10 years, so we've never really "settled" on a car... they've always fit our needs and our lifestyles for a long time.

So what's different this time around that's giving us such a problem? I had mentioned it briefly in part 1... My wife and I got caught up around the idea of going greener with a hybrid vehicle. We were willing to pay the premium of going green, and we had the finances to do it. But at the same time, we also seemed to be willing to settle on not having certain features and functionality that the Ford Taurus wagon had provided us for over 11 years, and could/would probably still need. We were essentially blinded by (green) science (a little reference to a Thomas Dolby tune), which could easily have turned into something we would have regretted.

Early this summer, we unexpectedly had to replace the shingles on our roof; an expense that was not in our budget this year, and an expense that dipped deeply into the finances we had set aside for a new hybrid car. This forced us to put our car purchase on hold (again) so we could re-evaluate our finances once all our repairs and renovations were complete. And now that our repairs and renovations are complete, we've had a chance to re-evaluate our finances and vehicle plans for the next 4 years.

Unfortunately, we can't afford a hybrid vehicle this year, but could afford one next year. But we've already been holding off on purchasing a car for over a year, and we're really tired of dealing with the uncertainty of "that Ford", especially through the winter. We also discovered that the year 2013 is apparently the year where the auto industry will finally have a huge selection of hybrids, EV's, and possibly other alternatives... that's only 3-4 years away (actual year or model year... who knows with the auto industry). My current daily driver, a 2003 Infiniti G35 sedan, will be approaching 10 years of age in 2013. Well, that seems to be a couple of things that click together nicely... We can re-evaluate our interest in purchasing a hybrid, EV, or whatever around the year 2013.

So what do we purchase now to replace "that Ford"?

This time, my wife and I had to sit down and figure out some specific requirements to help us determine the type and class of vehicle we need for the next several years (hopefully 10+ years), which we can afford now. Here's what we came up with...

Our New Vehicle Requirements

  1. Good Fuel Economy.
    Although hybrid technology is out of the picture for us right now, we can still be a little greener with the right engine selection. My current daily commuter (Infiniti G35) is a 3.5-litre sport sedan, so it guzzles a fair bit of gasoline in rush hour traffic. When I owned a Nissan NX2000, the 2.0-litre engine had really good fuel economy (when driven conservatively, of course). So we tried to restrict our initial selection to vehicles with an engine between 1.8-litres and 2.2-litres. If our selection is too limited, we can then consider including between 1.5-litres and 2.5-litres.

  2. Smaller Vehicle.
    Although we're not replacing the G35, it makes sense to turn that into our 2nd vehicle - used occasionally and for road trips - and the new car would become my daily commuter. This requirement kind of works in tandem with the good fuel economy since the smaller engines are used in smaller cars. But the smaller size also makes it much better for parking and daily commutes in rush hour.

  3. Useful Cargo Space.
    We're getting rid of a wagon, and we frequently still carry bigger stuff. We will still have garden supplies and home renovation supplies to carry over the next several years, so that requirement is not going to disappear for a while. This requirement focuses our selection on hatchback (or the new hatchbox) style of vehicles. I'm hoping the term hatchbox will catch on since I've heard that the Nissan cube is registered as an SUV, which depicts a non-economical pricey image.

  4. Lots of Headroom (front and rear seats).
    My wife is almost 5'11", my son is over 6'1" (and still growing), and my son's friends are taller. If my son (and his friends) can't sit comfortably and safely in the back seat, it's a show stopper.

  5. 5-Door hatchback/wagon.
    We definitely want 4 passenger doors - tall people getting in/out of a 2-door is not practical and the rear seats will be occupied by people (short and tall) more often than not. A sedan-style small vehicle definitely won't provide the useful cargo space we require, so that pushes the requirement into a hatchback/wagon-style of vehicle.

  6. Good Audio System with iPod or Auxiliary Input.
    I gotta have my music, and it's all on my iPod. I also do some hobby music production, so I definitely want to be able to test my productions on a decent car audio system.

  7. Purchase Price Less Than $25,000.
    This is the maximum price our budget will allow this year. Nothing else to say.

  8. Good/Interesting Styling (subjective and negotiable).
    My wife and I have different tastes in vehicle styles, which was quite evident when I had purchased the Nissan S-Cargo as a little hobby car for myself, and was also evident when I was engaged in the Nissan Hypercube contest to try to win a Nissan cube. She made it quite clear to me that she didn't like the styling of the S-Cargo nor the cube. But I also know my wife is very pragmatic, so the correct combination of features and price could (possibly) persuade her to compromise on the style.

  9. We Won't Support Manufacturers Who Begged for Money.
    My wife and I feel strongly about not giving our money to the manufactures who flew down to meet the government on private jets and stepped out onto the tarmac with a tin cup in their hand, essentially asking Joe Public to pay for their stupidity.

Our Short List (in order of test drive)

Nissan Versa
We had actually taken the Versa for a test drive when we first took the Nissan Altima for a test drive last year. Both of us were astounded by the headroom in the front and rear seats, and my wife loved the smooth drive that the CVT transmission offered. It has a decent styling -- one that my wife really likes and one that I can live with. It's also available in a nice blue that both of us really like. The interior finishes and upholstery are also very nice for a vehicle in this class. When we re-evaluated our finances and criteria this last time, this one was definitely the standard to compare to in my wife's book (after all, I was hooked on the cube, right?!).

Kia Soul
When we started selecting vehicles to review with the new criteria, I mentioned the Kia Soul to my wife. She basically denounced Kia on the spot. I, on the other hand, kept an open mind and forced her to review it on-line one Saturday afternoon. Within an hour, we were headed out to test drive a Kia Soul. Both of us were quite impressed with the Soul. It's a very solid car, good handling (for that class of course), and has many features that you wouldn't normally see in this class and price range. The headroom, legroom, and cargo space is definitely plentiful in this little sporty box. Although Kia's warranty is better than Toyota, Nissan, and many others, we still have that little birdie nagging in the back of our heads concerned about the condition of the vehicle after 5 years... but that's still 2 additional years of comprehensive warranty coverage compared to Nissan.

Nissan cube
As we left the Kia dealership, I told my wife to humor me as we should go to the nearby Nissan dealership and test drive a cube for comparison. Hesitantly, she agreed, and before you could bat an eyelash, we were at a Nissan dealership checking out a cube. If you recall from part 1, I mentioned that the cube did not appeal to my wife... but I failed to mention that she really had had enough of that cube contest and all my cube talk. Yet, she set aside all that distaste and agreed to look at a Nissan cube.

Would you believe that she was really impressed with the cube?! She loves the smoothness of the CVT transmission, the same thing she fell in love with on the Versa. And there's even more headroom in the cube than the Soul. She also loves the reclining rear seats, and especially likes the intelligent key push button ignition and passive keyless entry. Suddenly, the cube is a serious contender... but my wife still thinks it's ugly.

Y'know, I remember telling my wife all about the Nissan cube a few months ago... all the nifty features... the headroom... the cargo space... I guess that contest had some far-reaching side affects.

Additional Consideration

Toyota Matrix
Although the Matrix is available with a 1.8-litre engine, that model does not come with a premium audio system. Also, the one feature that caught our eye -- the front passenger seat folds down so you can carry something really long in the car -- is not available in the 1.8-litre model. We'd have to move to the low-end 2.4-litre model with the 6-speaker audio (but not premium audio). With the current $750 rebate, we'd be just barely squeaking into our price limit, and we'd be looking at upgrading the audio with an aftermarket solution sometime next year. With Toyota quality & reputation, enough headroom front and rear, interesting & useful cargo space configuration, sporty demeanor, and decent fuel economy for the 2.4-litre engine size, this one is worth consideration.

Our test drive of a Matrix XR was basically what we were expecting... a solid sporty drive that one would expect from a Toyota. One thing that my wife and I found annoying was the stepped gearshift... this was the same annoyance we found about the Toyota Camry. Also, unlike the Versa, Soul, and cube, we didn't experience any "wow" factor from this vehicle.

The Rejected & Ignored (alphabetical order)

Chevrolet, Dodge, GM, Pontiac, Saturn, etc.
These were quite easy to ignore/reject. To re-iterate our last requirement... We won't support manufacturers who begged for money.

Ford Focus 5-door
Essentially, Ford is the only North American manufacture we'd consider purchasing a vehicle because they didn't swindle Joe Public out of tons of money during the recession. Unfortunately, due to our years of continuously bad experience with Ford "quality" and "service", we won't be buying a Ford for a very long time. Besides that, for some reason, Ford is no longer offering the 5-door Focus at a time where people are looking for smaller yet utilitarian vehicles like hatchbacks/hatchboxes and small crossovers. Unless, of course, they're hoping people will go buy their Ford-filled Mazda 3 instead.

Honda Fit
At 1.5-litres, the engine on this little puppy is a little too small, and similarly, the front end of this thing is quite small. Despite its acclamations for roominess, it's a little on the small side for the SUV/Truck-laden near-highway-speeds roadways of Calgary. Basically, we don't want to get run over by a Hummer that has mistaken this car for a speed bump.

Hyundai Accent Hatchback
The hatchback model is only available as a 3-door, making entry to the back seats more than tedious for my tall family. The smaller 1.6-litre is also not desirable.

Mazda 3 Sport
To get into the model with the stereo system we'd want, we have to move to a 2.5-litre engine. But the real reason why it's being rejected is due to the fact that there's too much Ford in a Mazda, and there's been service bulletins posted about the Mazda 3 related to electrical issues. We don't want to repeat history with the new car.

Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback
The engine size is outside our initial requirements, sitting at 2.4-litres. Plus, adding the only available package to get the audio system pushes the price beyond our limit. If there was more headroom in the back for taller people, it might have made it as an additional consideration.

Subaru Impreza 2.5i 5-door
The engine size is well beyond our requirements at 2.5-litres, and consequently, the fuel economy is one of the worst out of this class of vehicles. Also, the trim level that includes the premium audio pushes the price beyond our limit.

Suzuki SX4
For a vehicle that looks bigger than most of the others in this class, it sure lacks rear seat/headroom space. The city fuel economy for this 2.0-litre engine is quite poor at 9.2 L/100km... a rating that's typically seen with the 2.4-litre engine vehicles in this class.

VW Golf City
This one was a bit disappointing... a 2.0-litre engine that's underpowered since its horsepower is low enough that it could have been a 1.8-litre, yet the city fuel economy is bad enough to be a 2.4-litre. That's one confused engine. It also has the smallest cargo area (both seats up and seats down) than the other vehicles in its class. On top of that, we know a few people who've had significant mechanical problems with their new VW within the first couple of years of ownership. And if that wasn't bad enough, those people had service issues to get those repairs done. We certainly don't have enough confidence in this brand, nor their service, to warrant serious consideration.

In part 3, I'll discuss the pros and cons between the cars we've selected for serious purchase consideration. I'm not sure what else will be included in part 3 as this article has caught up with our actual selection process. The end is near, and perhaps so is an actual purchase.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Long and Winding Road to a New Car - Part 1

Back in June 2008, my wife and I found ourselves test driving a new Toyota Camry hybrid and a new Nissan Altima hybrid. I remember feeling a bit reluctant about the whole ordeal and wondering how we ended up behind the steering wheel of these hybrid vehicles.

My wife and I had been discussing getting rid of our darn 1997 Ford Taurus wagon. Both of us have sour feelings towards that car because we had spent almost 3 years trying to track down an electrical problem that would intermittently, but frequently, drain the battery overnight. Ford mechanics couldn't find the problem after being at the shop several times over the course of a couple of years. It wasn't until we took the car to a Midas shop, where the mechanics knew what they were doing, that we were able to track down the vicinity of the problem. Midas told us that they didn't have the equipment to track it down within that system, so we had to take it back to Ford. Needless to say, the Ford mechanics finally found the problem (thanks to Midas), but they told us the part is no longer available.

Cripes! The car was barely 11 years old and Ford doesn't have the part for their own vehicle?! Heck, the car had less than 75,000 kms on the odometer and we look after our cars very well, yet the darn thing was having electrical aneurisms?! For you Twitter users out there, file this under #Ford #fail.

So I had ventured to a Pick-Your-Part and yanked the module out of another Ford Taurus. Interestingly enough, that particular module was already yanked out of many of the Ford Taurus cars in the yard, so I had to go through several before finding one still intact. Of course, there wasn't an easy way to tell if that module was flakey or not, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Despite not having any electrical problems with the Taurus since the module was replaced a few months prior, we had very little confidence in this used ill-gotten-booty, and started up the conversation of simply replacing the car. With both of our cars having fairly big engines (3.8-litre and 3.5-litre), we thought it would be a good idea to be a little more environmentally conscientious, and that's when we got on the hybrid vehicle kick. Hybrids have been around for several years already. The Toyota Prius was already 2nd generation, and the North American car manufacturers had jumped into the hybrid waters.

After a little research, we discovered that the North American hybrids didn't really offer much fuel economy, Nissan was using Toyota's hybrid technology until they develop their own solution, and Honda's hybrid offering was a flop. But yet, my wife and I decided to test drive a couple of hybrids... maybe with some hope that these would fit our environmental checklist for the next while, or maybe to confirm that this idea should be put on hold for a while.

We were quite impressed at how well these technologies worked together in the hybrid cars we test drove. And we found it very interesting that it seemed Nissan's implementation of Toyota's technology was noticeably better... more power, better acceleration, smoother shifting, and the Toyota significantly hesitated when trying to start off quickly from a standstill, which was a bit unnerving when trying to negotiate a left turn between oncoming cars. My wife really liked the idea of being able to drive quietly on battery power through a few blocks in the neighbourhood before the gas engine was needed.

We actually found ourselves negotiating a price on the Nissan Altima hybrid after our test drive in June 2008, but walked away from the deal feeling that they weren't budging enough on the price. In hindsight, I think we may have been caught up with the thought of being greener with a hybrid vehicle but weren't entirely convinced the hybrid selection was quite on the mark for our actual needs. We certainly weren't saving any money by going with a greener car... the $5,000 (or so) premium on a hybrid over it's non-hybrid model equates to several tankfuls over several years before we'd make that money back.

Winter had now rolled in and that electrical plague on the Ford showed up again... intermittent dead battery. My wife and I struck up the conversation of getting rid of that beastly car again and buying a new car, but thought it would be best to hang in until spring since the Christmas credit card bills had yet to arrive. However, I noticed the symptoms of the dead battery plague to be a little different... after boosting the beast and driving it around a bit, it didn't hold any charge. Could it be a dead-dead battery? This battery was barely a year old. To the shop I went, and, sure enough, the battery wouldn't hold a charge. I had put the new battery in and didn't have any problems the rest of the winter, so conversations about replacing the car had sort of subsided.

It was now March 2009, and spring was starting to rear its pretty little head... and so were conversations of replacing "that Ford". Yes, we were still referring to it as "that Ford" with a little distaste in pronunciation. But wait! As March marched on, I received an email from Nissan inviting me to participate in a special Canada-only creative contest to try to win 1 of 50 Nissan cubes. It wasn't merely one car being given away, but fifty cars. Wow! I can be creative, sometimes, and this could be fun.

We set aside the discussions of buying a new car as I ventured down the road to try to win a Nissan cube. My wife, however, had no interest in my participation in the contest, and consequently, no interest in the Nissan cube. We had checked it out at a local car show, and the car really didn't appeal to her. But, hey, if I won a cube, she wasn't going to complain about (virtually) free stuff. After all, I was the one spending my free time chasing the elusive prize, and she was happy I was preoccupied with something other than TV and video games.

Nissan's Hypercube contest dragged through a few months, and on June 23, 2009, the 50 winners were announced. Alas, I was not selected to be one of the 50 Nissan cube ambassadors. The next day, my wife told me it was time to get serious and quit screwing around... time to shop for a new car.

That weekend, we took the new 3rd generation Prius for a whirl. Very impressive... They seemed to have dealt with the lag encountered when trying to start quickly from a start. There still was a little lag, but not nearly as bad as when we test drove the Camry hybrid. The Nissan Altima hybrid still seemed to be better, but it was manageable and no longer unnerving on the Prius. The interior materials were much nicer... more inline with what a $30k+ car should be like. And the styling was more refined. This certainly was something we could seriously consider, and it was certainly something that put it well ahead of the Nissan Altima hybrid, especially with the new lower fuel consumption figures.

We had also stepped into a Honda dealership to look at the new Insight, as Honda was now winding up their new hybrid offerings. One of our high priority requirements on our vehicle feature checklist is headroom... My wife is almost 5'11", and my son has surpassed 6'1", and some of my son's friends are taller. When my wife had checked out the back seat of the Insight, she banged her head on the door opening while getting in, and I chuckled as she sat hunched in the back seat with her chin in her chest because the back of her head was against the roof and rear glass.

Being a mere 5'8", I've never had any issues with headroom in vehicles... until the Honda Insight. Even with the knowledge that my wife had just banged her head while getting into the back seat of the Insight, I ended up banging my head while getting into the back seat of the Insight. I honestly couldn't believe that. I also couldn't believe that I had to scrunch down a bit while sitting in the back seat so my head wouldn't hit the ceiling. Seriously. What was up with that extremely poor design consideration?! I'm barely an average height guy, and I couldn't sit in the back seat. Once again, Honda's hybrid offering was on the well-travelled road to failure. Twitter users, please file under #Honda #fail.

But, as lady luck would have its say, we had to delay any car purchases throughout the entire summer to deal with some unexpected costly household repairs on top of the interior home renovations we had planned. As fall now approaches, and we re-evaluate our financial situation, the topic of buying a new car has surfaced once again, especially with the fear of "that Ford" having a nervous breakdown during the colder months (which is when the electrical plague seemed to act up).

In Part 2, I'll talk about how my wife and I decide to get down to brass tax so we can actually get through buying this long-awaited elusive new car. I'll also describe our requirements for a new vehicle, the vehicles that fit those requirements, and why those vehicles did or did not make our short list for serious purchase consideration.

This should be fun and exciting... Will we actually make a car purchase this time? If so, what car do we finally chose?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Am I a Contest Muse (or Something)?

If you've been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you'd know by now that I didn't win a Nissan cube. But that's not what this post is about. As bizarre as this may sound, I'm wondering if I am a contest muse... Perhaps not in its literal sense that I am an inspiration for other contestants, but through a sharing or collaboration of creative work in the contest, this creative connection had brought some destined luck to those willing to who were willing to creatively collaborate.

This past Monday, a second additional Nissan cube winner, Natasha Thirsk (aka: Catlow), was announced. There's nothing particularly odd about her winning a cube; she's creative, unique, personable, and participates in 2-way social media conversations. And she was, after all, on my personal top-50 list of contestants to win a Nissan cube (not to say that my top-50 list was the definitive list, but my list certainly weighed Twitter and social media participation a little more strongly into the equation).

What's a little bizarre with the announcement of Natasha's win was the fact that she was the 4th person out of 5 people in the Nissan Hypercube contest that I had collaborated with during the contest and/or will be collaborating with after the contest ended on June 23. Now 3-out-of-5, I thought, could have been a bit of a coincidence and it didn't trigger any warning bells in my head. But 4-out-of-5?! Ding, ding, ding, ding!

But it was also the sequence of events that coincided with this last cube winner announcement that made it a bit uncanny. Of course, I need to start at the beginning (not the beginning of the Hypercube contest, but the first contestant collaboration)...

Mark Stevenson (aka: SandbarMark) had approached me way back on April 19 about his full-sized wooden cube car idea. He politely asked me if I would be willing to design a Pimp Your Ride spoof logo for the Cube Your Ride video that he was going to produce to chronicle the making and driving of his wooden cube.

Cube Your Ride logo

I thought it was a cool idea and designed the Cube Your Ride logo for him that you see above. Unfortunately, Mark ran into some problems with his big-little project and ran short on time, but had just enough time to get his raw footage together for his contest canvas, but without any of the Cube Your Ride production he was hoping for. Needless to say, his efforts and participation in the contest was enough to fetch him a brand new Nissan cube! Congrats Mark!

At the end of April, Paul Marozzo (aka: Piablo) made a call out on Twitter looking for someone to tweak the levels on one of his CubeXperience songs. I answered the call and got the levels on the song to match the rest of his songs, removed the clipping, and gave it a little more punch. In June, just a few days prior to the big Hypercube winner announcement event, Paul asked me if I'd be willing to do some final audio mastering on the track, The Floors, which was going to be played at the Toronto event. I'm a nice guy, so I said, "No problem", and got the audio mastering done in plenty of time before the event. Paul told me the song sounded great in the club and he loved how I gave the synth sounds a little more oomph. Needless to say, Paul's fabulous CubeXperience music was definitely good enough to fetch him a brand new Nissan cube! Congrats Paul!

I was now looking for new musical material that I could use to show off some of my music post-production skills because I couldn't use any of my existing production work in the contest (I won't get into why I couldn't use my existing production work for the contest).

That's when I came across Natasha Thirsk's contest canvas. I listened to the music on her canvas and on MySpace, and thought it would be great stuff to remix. I approached Natasha about the remix idea for the contest, and she initially agreed to do it. However, the next day, she had to back out because she realized she had another commitment and wouldn't be able to commit to the remix at this time. Hey, that was cool - I understand commitments and being busy - there were no hard feelings about this. I just needed to keep looking. Now this doesn't seem to have anything to do with my proclamation of being a contest muse, but it does have relevance later in the story, so take note of this.

At this point, I needed to find someone willing to collaborate on a remix of some sort because the contest canvases and voting would close in about 2 weeks, so I posted a public tweet to the #thehypcube tweeple calling for collaboration.

Eric Lafontaine (aka: strych9) was the first to step up to accept the collaboration idea with his 3 Dimensional Rock rockabilly style song. Unfortunately, we both felt there wasn't enough time to produce a full remix with proper percussion (the song only contained guitar tracks and vocals), so we opted to just produce a different mix with the song and add a few additional elements that Eric had quickly put together for me to use. I'm not sure if the remix had any influence on the judges' decision, but Eric's energetic video and rockabilly riffs certainly left enough of an impression to fetch him a brand new Nissan cube! Congrats Eric!

Scott Jamison (aka: HeartsAndClefs) was another contestant that answered the call to collaborate on a remix. Scott let me pick the song to remix, and I picked Three Years. The original source tracks has a lot of crackle-pop sounds caused by some loose connections during recording. But I undertook the challenge and really cleaned up the audio. I turned one short little whistle segment at the beginning of the song into some background music for a good portion of the track, and really gave the whole song the depth and emotion that was not as prevalent in the original recordings (although I could hear it trying to break out). Scott commented that I turned the song into something that he imagined the song would sound, but he couldn't make it happen that way. Those type of comments really make this type of work very rewarding. Thanks Scott.

Scott and I placed the remixed song on both of our canvases to cross-promote our work. Unfortunately, his strong song writing skills, excellent guitar playing skills, likable personality that'll put a smile on your face, and his amazing ability to play impromptu songs over on-line tweetups did not fetch him a brand new cube. Sorry Scott, I really feel your hurt on this one.

A few days after all of the winners were announced and the dust started to settle, I touched based with Natasha again. We discussed the possibility of working on a small collaboration project. Only days after we started to lay the groundwork down to get things in motion for a potential project, I find out that her original slightly quirky guitar-shaped swimming pool music and authentic energetic personality was belatedly awesome enough to fetch her a brand new Nissan cube! Congrats Natasha!

This last little sequence of events of moving forward on a possible project with Natasha and her belated cube prize awarded via a late announcement had really made me stop and go "Hmmmm". Coincidence?! Perhaps. But 4-out-of-5 creative collaborations that turn into a prize-winning cube is a little more than coincidence, don'cha think?! ;)

And to Nissan or Capital C (or Angie), if you're reading this, don't deny the prophecies of this collaborative contest muse... don't mess with the cube forces around us... If you're going to belatedly award another cube, you should award it to Scott Jamison (aka: HeartsAndClefs). A track record of 100% on my résumé as a muse would look much better than 80%.

Being in this contest has had some interesting long-term benefits... Paul and I have plans to collaborate on a few music productions (potentially more if it works out). Scott and I have tentative plans to work together on one of his songs. And I may also have the opportunity to work with Natasha on a little project. I think I'm going to be busy for a little while. But if you have some music production work you'd like to work on together, don't hesitate to ask.

But one thing is for sure... As a muse, I never had a chance at winning a cube. ;)

BTW, please spread the word... Muse for Hire. Payment in creativity, monetary amounts would be nice.

Below is a playlist of the original and collaborative music productions mentioned in this posting above. Please enjoy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Prairie Producers Collaborate in Creative Contest

When I did a callout on Twitter looking for any hypercubists who were musicians and interested in collaborating on doing a mix of one of their songs, Hearts and Clefs had also stepped up.

Hearts and Clefs is from Saskatchewan, and I'm from Alberta, so it was a grand ol' time for a couple of prairie guys to work on a collaboration like this.

When it came to choosing a song for the project, Hearts and Clefs gave me the opportunity to pick any song from his web sites. I selected Three Years... a nice little song that tugs at the heart-strings a bit with a nice guitar, some bass, a little sax, and some interesting vocals/lyrics... A nice little selection of source tracks to work with.

The original recordings, however, had some obtrusive pops throughout (possibly from a bad cable/jack during recording). But that didn't deter me! Using filters, EQ's, compression, etc., I was able to eliminate most of those pops. I couldn't remove some of them from the main vocals, so I added an effect to the vocals such that the dull pops sounded like they were part of the effect.

The additional mixing and mastering to the song really brought out some of the interesting parts of the song, and gave it a little more emotional tug. I hope you enjoy the new mix.

Visit my contest canvas to compare the original Three Years song (written and performed by Hearts and Clefs) with the new mix, Three Years (Qubic's Lonely Mix), produced by me, Qubic. And while you're there, please cast a vote for me.

Also visit Hearts and Clefs contest canvas to experience his creative work, and cast a vote for him, too, while you're there.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

East Meets West for Creative Contest Collaboration

I did a callout on Twitter to all hypercubists looking for any musicians in the hypercube contest interested in collaborating on a remix of sorts of one of their songs. I figured this would be a great way for a couple of us to show our creative abilities and have some fun doing it.

Strych9 stepped up right away for this little creative challenge. Strych9 is from Montreal, and I'm from Calgary, so this was an opportunity to add a little cross-Canada creative to this cross-Canada contest.

The two of us immediately got to work on a new mix for his fabulous and fun rockabilly style cube song called 3 Dimensional Rock.

I asked Strych9 to produce some additional guitar segments and vocals for the new mix, and he quickly produced some very useful pieces for the mix. With additional feedback from Strych9 to guide me in keeping his original intent for the song, it was now up to me to rework the mix and apply additional mixing and mastering techniques to make his music shine.

When it comes to music production, there's a creative side and there's a technical side (I'm sure there's other sides, but just go with me on this one). My expertise lies more on the technical side and trying to bring the creative and technical together to produce the right results. My technical production work allows musicians to focus on the creative stuff, and leave the techy stuff to people like me.

3 Dimensional Rock

Watch the 3 Dimensional Rock original music video by Strych9. And while you're there, please cast a vote in his direction.

Listen to 3 Dimensional Rock (Qubic Tesseract Mix), mixed and mastered by me (Qubic). And while you're there, please cast a vote in my direction.

I recommend that you first listen to the original version by Strych9, then listen to the mix I produced so you can hear how post-production mixing and mastering can enhance the musician's music and make it more enjoyable.