Waning philosophic on Japanese vs. German sporty cars – a personal perspective

Yesterday evening, I went and took a test drive in the G37S. The experience was not at all what I expected. I’ll explain in just a moment, but first let me provide some background, because without knowing something about that, you have no way to know how to assess what I have to say.

I’m a middle-aged professional type who has always enjoyed a quick, sporty car, although I’ve never owned a serious sports car. My present car is a 2000 Audi S4 (2.7T). I have a love/hate relationship with it. Before I bought it, I had owned exclusively Japanese cars going back to the early ‘80s. Way back then, I drove a Mazda GLC (prelude to the 323), and in ’83, I bought a Supra, then in ‘90 a Mitsubishi Eclipse (okay, Plymouth Laser), and then in ’95, the Maxima.

Those Japanese cars were all highly reliable, and truth be told, I spent less on maintenance and repairs for all of those put together, over nearly two decades, than the upkeep on the Audi S4 has cost me since it went out of warranty about three years ago. It now has a little over 80,000 miles, and I’ve had to replace the ABS module, various front suspension components, the front drive shaft boots, both pre-cat O2 sensors, the rear brake rotors twice (even though I almost never drive it at all aggressively), and most recently, one of the two ignition “power output stages”. The power output stage is really just a bank of three transistors that provide switched ground paths for the primary windings of the ignition coils, under the control of the ECU. It mounts directly on top of the air box, and can literally be changed in five minutes, but the dealership charges a full hour of labor and $300 for the original Bosch part, of which there are two. You can buy a replacement part made by a different manufacturer for less than half of that. The discrepancy you see with this part, between what you pay at the dealership and what it costs if you do a little homework and either DIY or use an independent shop, is typical for the various things that have broken on this car. I also had the timing belt replaced at about 75,000 miles rather than wait to 105,000 as recommended in the owner’s manual, because the estimate for having the repair done should the belt break and the valves smack the piston faces, was upwards of $5,000. The ’95 Maxima that I sold to a friend, has a chain-driven cam, and I cannot help but ask why Audi chooses to use a toothed belt instead of a chain. Suffice to say that this has been a very expensive car to own, and while this has been an ongoing source of frustration, my only other complaints with this car are nitpicks such as the poor ergonomic arrangement of the rest for your left foot, with respect to the distance of the pedals, particularly the clutch pedal. I have to keep my left knee bent quite a bit at all times, which becomes very uncomfortable after a while, and I have noticed that this is characteristic of all Audis, with no exception that I am aware of.

Based on everything that I had read about the Infiniti G cars, I had very high expectations for the G37S. As I sat in the car on the showroom floor, I was not disappointed. The interior of that car is exceptional, and I dare say, has a more luxury feel than most of the newer BMWs, which, to me at least, have taken on a cheap feel in recent years. I also sat in several of the newer Audis a couple of weeks ago, including the new S5. In my opinion, the interior of the Audis has also declined from what they were at the beginning of this decade. I just don’t see the point of all those thin pieces of aluminum. I’ve hated that on every car where I’ve seen it, including the Acura cars. On every car that I’ve seen that has this, if you tap lightly on the aluminum, you can feel that it is attached loosely, and I know darned well that if it doesn’t rattle on the day you drive the car off the lot, it is only a question of time before it does.

The only thing that I noticed about the interior of the G37S, that bothered me, was the diagonal grab bar on the door interior, which interfered with operation of the window buttons, and which defeats the point of even having an armrest. To be honest, that would probably have kept me from buying this car even if the test drive had left me drooling. That same abomination, by the way, would keep me from buying the IS350 or the IS-F, so for me, the controversial looks of the IS-F are moot.

My expectations of the driving qualities of the G37S were so confident, that I would almost have bought the car, given the right deal of course, without even driving it. Part of the reason why I was confident was because I drove the Maxima for five years, and the engine in the G37S is an evolution of that engine, which I found to be very satisfying. But my recollection of the Maxima was that the engine was very smooth, never giving any indication of harshness, and having strong pull throughout the operating range. The engine in the G37S wasn’t the same at all. Even at idle, there was a rough feel about, both in sound and in sensed vibration, which were both very apparent and unpleasant. At least the sensation did not get much worse as the revs increased, but that is the only good thing that I can say about it. It felt very sluggish throughout the range, not at all like the Maxima that I remembered, and only really seemed to have any real grunt way up at the top. As I thought about it afterwards, it was apparent to me that I should have expected this. The peak power figure for the G37 engine is deceptive, as it is with every engine tuned with emphasis on the peak power, in lieu of power at lower rpm (which most people characterize as a matter of “torque”). Looking at the specs in the back pages of the glossy brochure that the nice salesman insisted that I take, the power peak occurs at a lofty 7,000 rpm, with the torque peak occurring at 5,200 rpm. That suggests a very narrow, peaky power band, and if the brochure had included a dynamometer chart, I am certain that it would have revealed exactly that. Add to this the fact that this car is quite a bit heavier, than my ’95 Maxima was, and the full picture comes into view. Over much of the engine’s operating range, the power-to-weight ratio of this car seems inferior, by a noticeable margin, to that of my ’95 Maxima. If I had dynamometer charts for both cars handy, I believe that they would bear this out. Beyond that, I believe that the G37S would fair poorly when similarly compared to my ’90 Plymouth Laser, which had Mitsubishi’s I-4 turbocharged engine. That engine didn’t have phenomenal peak power, but the car was light, and the emphasis in the engine tuning was for a broad power band. The engine in the G37S reminded me of the engine that Acura first tried to use in the TL, which I test drove before I bought the S4, and which I did not like at all.

This experience has given me a much better appreciation for the engine in my ’00 S4. But the engine isn’t the only aspect of the G37S that I found not to my liking. The steering had a very peculiar feel. It gave no feedback to speak of, and each time that I slowed down at the approach to a turn, there was a transition where it subsequently felt very loose and imprecise, and even with an apparent change in the ratio, which I found very annoying, and which does not strike me as something that I would get used to over time. The suspension was also stiffer than I would have liked, and while this was partly because the model that I drove was the sport version, which has a stiffer suspension, the sales people at the dealership said that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between it and the Journey version without the Sport package. It is much the reverse with the S4. My S4, according to Consumer Reports, has a harsh and stiff suspension, but it is not nearly as harsh as the suspension of the G37S, and the steering of my S4 provides a very real quality of handling that is simply missing on the G37S. I just don’t understand the point of having that sort of jittery suspension when the steering doesn’t feel right.

I am perplexed at the magazines that dubbed the G35 a better sport sedan than the BMW 335. I’ve driven the BMW 3-series on a few occasions in recent years, and the experience that I had in the G37S, was nothing at all like the BMW. I wonder if it is possible that the G37S is inferior in certain respects to the G35 which preceded it. I never drove the previous G35, so I cannot say, but I will be curious to see what the magazine reviewers have to say on this question.

I do not, however, extrapolate this experience and apply it to Japanese sports cars in general. I expect that the upcoming IS-F will not disappoint many of the people who are not put off by its looks. I expect that it will be a very rewarding driving experience. I also expect that the GT-R will not disappoint anyone who prefers its looks and its interior design, to that of the Corvette. Of course, how many people will find it more desirable than a Corvette Z06, is the big unknown with the GT-R. My hunch is that not many will, but that’s just my hunch.

The interior design of my ’00 S4 has a very rugged, solid feel to it, and is attractive to boot. I don’t like the interiors of even the new Audis as well. It is a blast to drive, whether going down to the corner store, or for the occasional spin in the nearby foothills. I would estimate that I have been spending between $800 and $1000 each year on maintenance, averaged over the past three or four years. That seems like a lot to me, but I could do that for another five years, at which point the car will be more than a dozen years old, and it would add up to only a small fraction of what a new car will cost me. Because I’ve kept such good care of the car, it looks nearly new inside and out, and so far as I can tell, it runs the same as it did the day that I drove it home. This is very good I think, because I just do not see any new car that I would not rule out buying for one very good reason or another. I would have considered the new S5, sometime in the spring perhaps, were it not for all that cheap aluminum on the dash, and were it not for the fact that I have the same problem with being able to straighten out my left leg. That annoyance was the main reason that I even started thinking about buying a new car in the first place, so I’m certainly not going to buy another car that has that same issue. Not that Audi cares about me. If Audi cared about me as a customer, they would have included my car in the special warranty extension for the ABS module, from which my car was excluded because of the model year and/or the mileage, I’ve forgotten which.

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