Cars That Say Sarasota

By staff September 1, 2002

Years ago, John T. Malloy made a big deal-and a lot of money-by proclaiming that you "are what you wear." His statistically derived conclusion resulted in those best-selling "Dress For Success" books.

But back then, a man in a suit was successful; a man in bib coveralls was a lout who probably didn't floss. Today, the man in coveralls has cows grazing on $20-an-acre greenbelt land worth millions and the man in the suit wants to sell you Amway products. And that guy in shorts and Birkenstocks? He bailed out of Enron just in time and bought a condo on Siesta Key. Clothes, you see, no longer suffice as societal separators. John T. Malloy is as gone as Joe DiMaggio.

In the present casual dress climate, and especially along Florida's west coast, clothing doesn't reveal the real you nearly as well as your vehicle.

Yes, your vehicle.

Your choice of vehicle defines you to those in the know-like me. I've spent more than a dozen years now test driving and reviewing almost every vehicle sold in the United States. I've drawn conclusions, and with just a little bit of information about you, I can tell you the car that best defines you and your Sarasota lifestyle.

Remember: You are not just buying a car. A minivan. A sport utility. A truck. You are buying a frame for your mobile persona. Those who see you pass may not hold up cards reading "10" or "6.5" at stoplights, but they are nonetheless judging you based on your chariot. Oh, yes.

The choices are many. The decision is yours. Find yourself in our guide, and you'll have nothing to Saab about with your next vehicle.

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You think it's easy driving down I-75 from somewhere in Michigan? You think tropical-shirt-wearing tourists spending their dollars on St. Armands didn't pull into rest stops, exit their vehicles and grab their lower backs every hour? You think it was all Cracker Barrels and Residence Inns?

Wrong. For many tourists, getting to our paradise means going through hell. Blame a bad vehicle. And next time, buy the Cadillac Deville DTS.

Few cars try as hard to please. I mean, just look at this technological wonder. It has every gizmo GM's Detroit dreamers could imagine. And many of those gizmos are aimed at comfort, that all-important factor for the long journey South.

Begin with the one feature our back-grabber will like best. The Deville DTS has programmable front seats that can massage your back every 10 minutes! At preset regular intervals, you feel the seat start to move up and down your spine. Sure, it's alarming at first, having a seat play touchy-feely with your lower back. But then you settle in and enjoy.

Naturally, the seats can recline and are heated, just in case it's snowy as one departs Michigan. They are full leather, adjust 12 ways, and move out of the way on entry or exit, returning to a preset position as the key is inserted. The rear bench seat is large enough for a spring breakers' party.

Speed is set by cruise control, the headlights magically come on at dusk, the windshield wipers spring to life if a drop of water hits the glass, and a NightVision system will "sees" that moose in the middle of I-75 long before the Xenon headlights pick it up. The moose is displayed in a black-and-white image projected onto the windshield in front of our driver.

When our snowbirds put the car in reverse (not to return to Michigan, but just to back up), a rear bumper-mounted ultrasonic system will measure the distance to any object behind the car and beep at just about the exact moment they strike or run over that object.

The Northstar drivetrain, with a 300-horsepower V8 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, is a world-class combination. But just in case there is trouble of any kind, the Deville DTS has the OnStar system, so a touch of a button brings a real human on the other end of a communications connection, willing to give directions, make reservations or read e-mail.

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If you're new to Florida and want to enjoy motoring in the sun, there's a convertible you'll be drawn to. What the Chevrolet Suburban is to Texas and to President George W. Bush, the Chrysler Sebring is to Florida.

An introduction to the Sebring most likely comes as a rental experience. The things are everywhere on Florida rental lots, extremely popular in Central Florida. DaimlerChrysler should put in a bid to make the Sebring the official car of Disney World, but chances are Disney would want too much upfront money.

Whatever, your first glimpse of a Sebring will most likely be of one with occupants. Those occupants, two adults and two children, will be beet-red from sunburn and sporting black Mickey Mouse ears. They came to Florida, by God, to experience Disney World and get some sun, and they're doing both-overdoing both, actually, as they'll discover back at the Kissimmee motel room. Damn the 45SPF. Full sun ahead.

Yet should the vacationing family move to Florida, they'll fondly remember sunburn in a Sebring and become likely buyers. Anyone wanting a reasonably priced, four-passenger convertible car has little choice. The Sebring is comfortable, economical, relatively safe, and has room for four adults. Most four-passenger convertibles are cramped.

The newest Sebrings appear to avoid quality problems that plagued earlier models and their predecessor, the Lebaron. That one was a disaster, quickly becoming leaky and squeaky. The new Sebring doesn't display undue cowl shake (the tendency of a convertible to flex on uneven pavement, since a roof is lost as a body brace). And in my tests, the Sebrings have been watertight with the top securely in place.

A dedicated single might opt for a Mazda Miata instead of a Sebring, but anyone with more than one friend will buy a Sebring. Those with sufficient funds will opt for something even better-the Mercedes-Benz four-passenger convertible.

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The Gold Rush heydays of displacing alligators in the Everglades may be over, but the new Florida land rush has been good to you, especially with the rise of luxury condominiums and mega-homes. But even if your high-rises testify to your success, you need to show that you've arrived with your choice of car. What kind of developer would drive a Ford Escort, a Toyota Corolla, a Chevy Impala? Please. You're a breed apart. Showcase your enterprising, adventurous nature with the Yukon sport utility.

Only a few years ago, I hated this vehicle. It was truck-like, which meant it brutalized anyone unlucky enough to be inside while traveling over all but the smoothest pavement. Then General Motors finally got around to civilizing its truck fleet, and the Yukon benefited from improvements made to the Silverado series. Benefited? The Yukon became a luxury vehicle.

It's big, it's powerful and it will leave deep ruts in the worst muck. You're a match for any Explorer, will better any Durango, and can drive American while sneering at Sequoias, Pathfinders and especially Range Rovers. Next year comes a long-needed Range Rover revolution. But that's next year. Yukon has a terrific sport utility today.

Inside, the top Yukon has leather of a quality normally found only in luxury sedans. The ride is neither stiff, like too many trucks, nor mushy, like too many luxury cars. The seating position is high-commanding, in fact. Steering and braking are made easy by power assist. And in any accident, the heft of the Yukon assures you'll come out on top.

The only drawback is fuel inefficiency. It comes with the size. Maybe you should buy a few shares of Chevron. Hey, there's always money to be made.

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You could buy a "Bond, James Bond" Aston Martin. You could buy a Jaguar XK8. You could buy a "I'm-in-a-mid-life-crisis" Corvette. But you're not Bond, you're not ready for Just For Men Dark Brown, and you would prefer not to advertise to the world that you're reliving an adolescent speed fantasy.

We have just the piece of vehicular body armor for you. The Porsche Boxster S.

There are more powerful Porsches, to be sure. But the Boxster S is all the car anyone will ever need unless he is going for a doctorate at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. (Why do I use the masculine pronoun here? Because Porsche has the highest percentage of male buyers on earth. A Porsche is overwhelmingly-more than 90 percent-a male purchase.)

First there was the Boxster, a splendidly designed retro two-seater that conjured up visions of James Dean's Porsche Spyder cruising down a lonely California highway, Sept. 30, 1955. With the Boxster, you almost became James Dean. Almost.

But the base Boxster was as underpowered by today's standards as that Spyder of Dean's. The Porsche Spyder, speedy for its day, did 0-to-60 in about 8.4 seconds. Today, a lot of sedans are quicker. The Boxster needed a boost. Thus we have the Boxster S, which you could say stands for sport or speed. Take your pick.

I can you tell from experience that if I'm driving a Jaguar, other Jaguar drivers who pass me will look away. They refuse to recognize that we both bought and are driving the same expensive car. It's like two women at the ball wearing the same exclusive designer gown. Omigod.

Not Porsche drivers.

Porsche drivers have arrived. They know it. You know it. They have joined the fraternity of Ima Gotta Mine. And they will recognize you, fellow frat brother, with an enthusiastic wave. Not since the days of the early VW Beetles have drivers saluted each other this way. Testing a Porsche is a joy. Other Porsche drivers assume I'm a doctor, lawyer or Merrill Lynch advisor, and they greet me as one of them. I'm always reluctant to tell them I test drive cars for a living. It's such a letdown. If I just had my own TV show, maybe then.

There's nothing to complain about with the Boxster S. The seats fit your bottom like a hand in a driving glove, the controls are all at hand, andit doesn't overwhelm with gizmos or heavy-duty clutches and two-handed gear shifters. It's just a joy to be behind the wheel, anywhere, anytime. And when the weather is nice, drop the ragtop. Find a tree-canopied road. Feel the wind caress your face, listen to the harmony of the exhaust note, take in the stroboscopic light show as you pass beneath arching branches.

If there is a better time on four wheels than time spent in a Porsche, I've yet to discover it.

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Lucky mom. You have so many alluring minivans to choose from. And they can be loaded with features to make your time behind the wheel so much easier as you chauffeur little ones from sports field to ballet to piano lessons, all in pursuit of an Exceptional Achiever Award for them. Someday, they'll appreciate all you did for them. Someday.

Among appreciated conveniences, many minivans today offer a power passenger sliding door. It can be operated from the driver's seat, or via a remote control, or from a button near the door itself. Convenient, huh?

But hold on a minute. There are good power doors and bad power doors. You need to know how to distinguish between the extremes.

Power doors need to reverse direction of travel should they come into contact with anything-fingers, heads, Barbie, the dog. All manufacturers now have doors and windows that reverse automatically while closing should they contact anything. (You can test this if you dare by putting your own hand in the path of a closing window or door.)

Power sliding doors, however, present a secondary problem. To open and close, they must move out from the minivan, as well as backward or forward. As they move out, they leave a gap between the moving door and the body of the van. It is entirely possible for an over-eager child to slide off a rear bucket seat into that gap! Ooooooo.

Now, if the door bumps an exiting child while the door is going forward to close, it will reverse. They all do. But it becomes clear that the power door needs to be able to reverse and halt travel while moving in either direction. Not all do that.

My own tests of these doors were alarming. Objects pinned by the Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Montana included a 24-inch tall crash dummy, a baseball bat, a crowbar, and a tree branch. These doors would reverse on contact with a helium-filled balloon while moving forward, but not even my full strength could reverse them once they began moving backward.

The danger seems clear. And your minivan choice has been narrowed a bit.

The Chrysler minivans offer safe power passenger sliding doors and a power-operated rear liftgate, unique to the Chrysler vans at this time. It will reverse in either direction on even the slightest contact with an object. Imagine the convenience of this power door in a rainy grocery parking lot. The Chrysler minis are America's best-selling vans, and they are more than adequate.

But if safety and convenience top your list, then you want to buy the leader among minivans-the Honda Odyssey. The Odyssey tops virtually every list as the best minivan made. I wouldn't disagree. It has all the expected features and trumps other minivans with a unique flip-and- fold-away third row seat.

Since minivans are family haulers, pile on as many safety features as are available. You want anti-lock brakes, traction control or all-wheel drive, side air bags or head curtains. If it's offered, buy it. An average driver will be in an accident once every 10 years. How well that driver and the precious occupants fare will be determined in no small part by the safety of the vehicle involved. Reward manufacturers who make safety a priority.

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If John T. Malloy had written "Drive for Success," chances are trucks wouldn't have rated a chapter. Yesterday's trucks didn't deserve one. They were dreadful work vehicles, with banged-up pickup beds stained with manure and seats with springs protruding from the pounding passengers were given. Bib coveralls with four wheels.

It's a different story today. It's possible to spend $55,000 on a Lincoln Blackwood pickup truck that offers an interior worthy of any luxury sedan. Cadillac has a truck. Cadillac?

But to make a statement, there are two trucks worth your consideration: the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Harley-Davidson Ford F-150. Oh, boy, are they fun.

Let's begin with the Lightning, the easy choice if performance is important. The Lightning is the sole Muscle Truck being offered today. Under its hood is a supercharged V8 that rockets this full-size pickup from 0-to-60 in sports car time. There are very, very few vehicles of any kind that can keep pace with a Lightning. And it's a truck!

The Lightning is the product of a Ford division called SVT, Special Vehicle Team. These creative folks take regular Ford products-a Mustang, Focus, F-150-and modify them for all-out performance considerations. They rework everything-engine, brakes, suspension-to assure a balanced performance vehicle.

The Lightning is their most pleasant offering. It comes with an automatic transmission and is very easy to drive slowly, unlike some other performance models. But press the accelerator and you'll hear a rising whine as the supercharger forces more compressed air-fuel into the engine. In about seven seconds, you're well beyond any legal speed on any highway with posted limits in America.

The Ford F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in America. Period. Has been for 12 years now. And the Lightning is the ultimate Ford F-150.

But after driving the Harley-Davidson Ford F-150 special edition, my affection has shifted. The Harley truck-only in black and festooned with Harley details large and small-doesn't have the performance emphasis of the Lightning. It emphasizes comfort and uniqueness. It's a luxury truck, in fact, that coddles the few who can afford it and find it appealing. Yet it has the same utility as any truck.

No truck I've tested has had the "curb appeal" of the Harley-Davidson model. It drew admiring comments everywhere it stopped. And it seems to have inspired the pricier Lincoln Blackwood. You want to turn heads? Take the Harley and save $20,000.


A successful life has its rewards. Feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments is all well and good, but it's okay to let the world in on your story. You can do that with the one vehicle brand that stands tallest among successful people-Mercedes-Benz.

Now, there are numerous truly impressive luxury cars. Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln, Jaguar, BMW, Audi. All excellent. There is not a one, however, that conveys the instant status of a Mercedes-Benz.

Malloy might understand that a Mercedes-Benz-white, black or silver-is the navy-blue suit of cars, albeit the finest navy blue suit money can buy. It will wear well on you no matter the destination of your journeys.

But which Mercedes-Benz model? There are many, including a new small C-series coupe selling for under $30,000. Still, let's move you to where you belong, the head of the class. You want an S-series.

You are not into open-air motoring. You bring friends along on many occasions, so a two-door model is inappropriate. You say "no, thank you" to sport utility and station wagon models. You want a car the valet always parks in the first row. You want a rock-solid Mercedes-Benz S sedan. The best: the Mercedes-Benz S600.

It simply has everything in its favor: comfort, safety, performance, handling. Consider safety first:

The S600 has dual front air bags, side air bags, a windowbag head protection system that runs the length of the interior on both sides, anti-lock brakes, traction control, an electronic stability system that prevents skidding, and a unique feature called Teleaid. If the car is in an accident, an onboard computer system knows instantly and sends an SOS to a Mercedes call center. Using the Global Positioning System, the call center knows exactly where you are-even deep into your country home area.

At the computer call center, information about you is immediately available. The operator will attempt to call you through the car's hands-free Nokia phone system. If you do not respond, emergency vehicles are ordered to your accident scene.

You, of course, will always know where you are and how to get anywhere, thanks to a sophisticated on-board navigation system. The system understands your voice commands, so you don't have to press buttons while driving. Give it an address and it will guide you there. You can also voice-command the Bose audio system.

Mercedes is first to offer an automated cruise control system that varies car speed based on proximity to the car ahead. By itself, cruise control is wonderful, but what if the car ahead slows slightly? With all other cars, you must touch your brakes, disabling cruise control, then resume cruising speed when possible. In the S600, radar from the front of the car is used to measure the distance to the car ahead and a computer adjusts your vehicle speed as needed.

All of this has combined to make these Mercedes' models the top choice of many auto writers. Several years ago, I wrote what I called the auto writer's prayer in connection with a test review of an M-B car: "Dear Lord, if I'm ever in an accident, let me be driving a Mercedes-Benz." That simple sentence has resulted in a lot of e-mails saying someone bought a Mercedes model because of it.

I've also become convinced that Mercedes-Benz will some day offer a car that a blind person can drive. M-B's radar systems, on-board computers, navigation system and voice commands will come together so that anyone can get behind the wheel, command a destination, and the car will travel there.

Such aids will also allow a driver to sleep, watch television, use a computer, read a book, all while en route to a vacation destination. Unnerving to think about, perhaps, but it will become possible. And you can bet that when it is possible, Mercedes-Benz will offer it first.

Being first comes with being the best. And that's Mercedes-Benz.

Robert Bowden has been an auto editor for the St. Petersburg Times and The Tampa Tribune. He has been test driving vehicles continuously since 1989 and has driven well over 1,000 vehicles. Since 1995, he has produced The Car Place on the Internet, a popular Web site named a Forbes magazine "Best of the Web" this spring.

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