Ask any veteran Realtor how to size up the demographics of a neighborhood, and he'll tell you to check out the cars parked outside the homes. Hey, sometimes cliches work. If you see a bunch of minivans, it's probably Soccerville. Old Volvos and Priuses: the haunts of liberal tree-huggers. Versas and Fits: affordable for gen-Ys, but make sure you sleep with earplugs.
Taking a lesson from our long-running "Big Wheels" feature, and in the spirit of pre-judging, Baltimore auto writer Martha Thomas decided to celebrate the new model year by combing Charm City and its suburbs in search of a few three-way matches: a car, a driver, and a neighborhood. No match is perfect, but she got to test-drive some pretty cool 'hoods even as she tested the cars.
So here's our take on the best cars for Baltimore—depending, of course, on which Baltimore you're talkin' about, hon.
Price as tested: $46,895
The Neighborhood: The Hill, once the location of a garrison of federal blue-coats assigned to keep an eye on Baltimore's Southern sympathizers, now has a different target in its sights: Yuppies and urban pioneers who pay top dollar for its rehabbed rowhomes with their water views and rooftop decks—most recently, Jenna Bush and her new hubbie—and for the hip night scene. So the Jags and Bimmers squeezed into every other parking space don't lie.
The Driver: For Benny Citino, the BMW 128i is the perfect weekend car: "It's got everything you need. You could spend $50,000 or $60,000 on a low-end Porsche or get one of these." The seat hugs his 6'4" frame nicely, the controls are in easy reach, the Cashmere Silver Metallic exterior and Black Boston Leather interior are sophisticated and urban. And for Citino, a sales rep for the behemoth Capital Building Supply, the $46,000 sticker price won't break the bank.
There's also enough room in the back for the weekends he spends with his two children, who live in Crownsville.
Citino usually drives Nissan Altimas supplied by his company. His job, he says, "is mostly to entertain. I drive around a lot with big guys." He arranges golf outings, trips to ball games, and dinners at old-world steak houses. All this to convince builders to buy the drywall, metal studs, and ceiling tiles Citino's company represents.
He bunks in a five-level renovated Federal Hill house with a roof deck, a billiard room, and a roommate, who's an old friend. And he's got family nearby: Citino's brother, Nick, and his cousin, Beau, own the Federal Hill Lounge, across from Cross Street Market, a place where many of the Ohio State grad's fellow Buckeyes hang out. "Federal Hill is a lot more upscale than say, Canton or Fells Point," says Citino. "People here are a little more sophisticated." Take that, Canton.
Citino bought a 5-series Bimmer when the latest iteration was first released in 2005. He was one of the few owners of the series who liked the iDrive technology, which attempted to incorporate every single control into one place, activated by voice commands. But he had a growing family at the time, and it wasn't the right car for a dad, he says.
The new 1-series, priced about $20K lower than the $60K-plus 535i (the car we tested was a tricked-out convertible, the most expensive version in the series), is probably a better choice for a divorced guy with responsibilities.
"When do you have to return it?" he asked soon after seeing the car for the first time. "Atlantic City is only two and a half hours away." He is most impressed that the ragtop can be raised or lowered at 25 mph. "Most convertibles, you have to slow down to five, and that's dangerous if you're on the highway and it starts to rain."
Price as tested: $23,920
The Neighborhood: With William Fell's land purchase in 1726, Fells Point predates the city itself, but its allure hasn't changed—a colorful old seaport with a cobblestone personality. But stereotyping Fells Pointers by their cars is tougher than describing its ambiance.
You can probably deduce that most of the large SUVs are owned by visitors to the neighborhood. Newer residents, on the affluent side, favor Mini Coopers and Honda Elements, upscale Volkswagens, and the occasional BMW. The place is also crawling with vans and trucks owned by contractors.
But what about the parking? "It's not as bad as people think," says Jason Sullivan, executive director of the Fells Point Development Corporation.
The Driver: Nicole Rea's car—a 1999 Ford Explorer Sport—sat in her parents' driveway in Virginia for five years while she lived in New York's West Village. During that time, Rea, who worked as an events manager for NASDAQ, got used to walking everywhere. It's a habit she's retained now that she lives in Fells Point, walking to nearby Whole Foods, to local restaurants, and to the movies in Harbor East. And like a New Yorker, she relies on public transportation to get to work, boarding the Marc train every morning for her new job in Washington D.C. as an event planner for an engineering association.
"I don't like the thought of having to drive in order to support my lifestyle," she says, explaining why she and her fiancé, an orthopedic resident at the University of Maryland hospital, are proud to call themselves true urbanites, and live in a 100-year-old rowhouse.
If Rea were to drive a car around town, she says, the Volvo C30 would be pretty tempting—except that the tester we had for the day was a standard shift. "I just never got around to learning to drive a stick," says the 29-year-old. I gave Rea a lesson in the Safeway parking lot near the Can Company, and she was a quick study. But like many women, she's more concerned with the vehicle's amenities than its acceleration and cornering. After our drive, she explored the C30's features with an almost obsessive enthusiasm, consulting the owner's manual for information on MP3 hook-ups and the USB port she found inside the center console. Rea appreciated a lot of the Volvo's details: the directional designations on the rearview mirrors ("I always like to know if I'm going north or south"), the blast of the horn ("I hate little-car horn sounds"). But mostly, she's impressed by the size and shape of the car. "I always thought Volvos were kind of boring."
In many ways, Rea is the person Volvo is targeting with this entry-level hatchback. The C30, with its sloping, wide back dominated by a large window with rounded corners, is reminiscent of a much earlier design. To me, it looks like the compact Watergate-era Volvo 1800 ES, long gone from the roads by the time Rea was born. It may remind others of a slightly less squat—and far more hip—AMC Pacer. Who better to draw into the brand than a young woman with a good job and a social conscience?
Rea doesn't mind a coupe, as she doesn't have kids, though she is thinking about getting a dog. "I could put it in the back," she says. There's also plenty of space for gym stuff and shopping bags. There's even a nook in front of the gear shift to slide a purse into, though not the kind of suitcase-scaled handbag favored by the Sex and the City set.
The C30 doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles: no back-up warning system, no GPS. The seats are adjusted manually. "All I care about is, can I put a CD in it?" says Rea. And of course, there's Volvo's reputation. "I would just assume it's safe," she notes.
She's right of course: The Volvo has stability traction control, airbags everywhere, and the whiplash protection system in the driver's and passenger's seats. Cars in Baltimore provide safety of another, physical sort: "I don't feel quite as safe on the streets here as I did in Manhattan," Rea says. Sometimes being surrounded by 3,000 pounds of steel helps.
Price as tested: $57,515
The Neighborhood: Guilford is the place you drive through with doubting out-of-towners to set their Wire/Homicide-addled minds at ease. "Yes," you can say, pointing to the gracious stone and stucco turn-of-the-century homes and the neighborhood's lush Sherwood Gardens. "There's more to our town than the high rises, low rises, and drive-by shootings. Hey, and John Waters lives in Guilford!"
The Driver: Horace Usry isn't scheduled for a midlife crisis anytime soon. Those who paid attention to the meltdown of Ferris Baker Watts may know that Usry, who was director of Institutional Sales, bailed in February 2007, some time before the company was bought by RBC Dain Rauscher last spring.
These days, he's exploring investment opportunities in home health care and extended-stay hotels, and enjoying working from his home in Guilford. Usry laughed when I told him I'd chosen both him and the car based on my image of men who buy performance cars at a certain stage in life. Though there are no more crises on the horizon, he fits the Guilford model in other ways: He has a daughter at private school, a big house, a golden retriever, and a charming and accomplished wife. But he seems uninterested in the toys other mid-lifers might indulge in. He doesn't even remember which Mercedes is parked in his driveway. "It's an E-something," he says. "I'm not really a car guy."
That said, Usry will admit that he likes to go fast. Recently, he had to call his lawyer after he was nailed for driving well over the speed limit in Richmond. "I was on a stretch of road and there wasn't another car in sight, so I figured I'd make up for lost time," he says. "I saw the cop and I didn't even wait for him to put on the lights, I just pulled right over."
The Audi S5, at a fraction of the price of, say, a new Lamborghini Gallardo, is one of those drives in which 80 miles per hour seems the perfect cruising speed. Our test car has a six-speed standard gear box and a 354 horsepower V8. An all-wheel-drive, the S5 holds the road, but as 60 percent goes to the rear, there's a bit more of the rear-wheel drive feel often favored by enthusiasts.
Usry drove the Audi past a couple of friends teeing off at number 10 on the Elkridge golf course. He honked the horn and waved. "All I saw was one guy taking a mulligan, but I don't think he knew it was me."
Usry's main complaint about the Audi is the gas mileage: "People are driving Suburbans into lakes these days and reporting them stolen," he says. "You can't get rid of those gas-guzzlers." The Audi's fuel consumption, at 14 mpg in the city, is about the same as a Suburban or Tahoe.
If he were in the market for a new car, Usry says, he'd look to electric: "I don't want to pay $5,000 a year for gas."
Price as tested: $18,579
The Neighborhood: Its proximity to the Maryland Institute College of Art, The Charles Theater, and Everyman Theater has been fueling the transformation of abundant available real estate in Station North, including both loft space and rowhouses crying out for rehab. And after we get over the real estate bump, that's likely to continue, thanks to the vibrancy of the neighborhood, which received the first designation as an Arts and Entertainment district by the State of Maryland in 2001.
But until it becomes the next Federal Hill, you won't see many expensive cars parked on the street. Younger residents are more likely to drive hand-me-down Hondas and Chevettes, while plenty of Station North newbies favor sleek, single-speed bikes they can carry to their upstairs apartments and lofts.
The Driver: If real estate weren't taking a break from the boom years, Station North would still be creeping northward, straining to fuse with Charles Village, creating one big, happy, creative neighborhood of avant-garde theater companies, artists' lofts, yoga studios, and vegan restaurants.
Wait, did we say vegan? Skai Davis, proprietress of the five-year-old Yabba Pot restaurant, is a pioneer in all ways, urban and culinary. Her home is technically in Fairmount Park in west Baltimore, where she lives with her partner True and four—oh, wait, now five—children. But she's a significant part of this neighborhood's persona, providing a colorful outpost for those who eschew animal parts, but who nevertheless crave barbecued chick-un and lasagna (made here with soy "cheese"). She pushes raw food even as she dishes from a steaming table of comfort: brown rice,
Why is the Scion xB a perfect vehicle for this nurturer-slash-businesswoman? (Truth be told, as of August, a family trip will require a seven-seater, but how was I to know number five was on its way when I planned these neighborhood matches?)
Davis is a fan of the boxy little car, which to some resembles a miniature delivery truck. "It's a really fun car," she says. Practical too: "It looks small from the outside, but there's plenty of room inside." Her 11-year-old daughter Yemaya also loved the xB. Like many a kid that age, she immediately found the iPod jack. She even admired the row of gauges placed in the center of the dash.
Toyota's Scion brand, launched in 2004, was originally designed for a youthful market, a way to draw in hip Gen-Xers (or Yers, or are we all the way to Z by now?) into the Toyota family for later Camry, Prius, or even Lexus purchases. But surprise! Its utility was quickly recognized by a much larger audience, most notably seniors, who liked the car's low carriage, easy loading, and easy-to-read dials.
The latest xB is a foot longer and its edges have been softened somewhat, but the real news is its improved engine. The 2.4 liter, inline-4 powers the car with 158 horses, compared to the first generation's 1.5 liter with 108 horsepower. The new version also has much better suspension. I actually remember a Toyota executive wincing back in 2005 when I mentioned taking a long road trip in an xB.
This vehicle is a genre buster, an entry-level vehicle with all the must-have creature comforts (air conditioner, cruise control, iPod hook-up) and none of the nonsense (though you can personalize your Scion with features like a navigation system, video screens mounted behind the front-seat headrests, even illuminated cupholders).
The new version has a generous back seat and nice finishes. The rear seats fold flat for easy loading, and a restaurateur could efficiently load a dozen or more crates of produce without a problem.
Mid-summer, Davis was looking to trade in her Land Rover Discovery for something for seven passengers, and unfortunately, the Scion doesn't have a third row. If there's a customer left in this crazy economy who would use a Suburban the way it should be used, she's it. All those artists will just have to deal with her family's carbon footprint.
Price as tested: $17,560
The Neighborhood: Hampden's quirkiness is partly about its late 19th-century factory-town rowhouses, but also about the creativity displayed in colorful rehabs and riffs on traditional spaces. It's also about blue collar, salt-of-the-earth folks living next door to artists and musicians. The main drag, 36th Street, known as The Avenue, proffers everything from designer handbags to books on meditation to dollar stores. So like any neighborhood balancing old and new, you'll see just as many circa 1980's Monte Carlos as Yarises.
Hampden is also the most likely place to spot something quirky: a 1960's Buick, a pickup truck painted with fanciful flowers, a doll-head-encrusted art car.
The Driver: At first, Eva Khoury is nervous about getting behind the wheel of the smart fortwo. It doesn't seem like a car at first: It's the size of a pedi-cab and is shaped like one of those plastic vehicles built around shopping carts meant to distract kids from grabbing for the Lucky Charms at the supermarket.
But once inside, Khoury finds it agreeable. "It's got plenty of room," she observes, "I mean, the doors are close, but it seems about the same size as a Mini Cooper." The tiny (3-cylinder, 70 horsepower) engine is behind us, so all the room up front is for legs. She likes the simplicity of the controls, the small shelves and bins designed for a cell phone, a wallet, and not much else. The tachometer and analogue clock sprout from the dash like a cartoon Martian's googly eyes.
After a short spin, she's fallen for this unusual little orange-red vehicle. "It's a driving experience," she says. "People are looking at us and smiling. It would brighten your day to go out for a drive."
The smart (yes, lower case is correct) seems to fit Khoury's sensibilities, as a longtime bike activist, environmentalist, and owner of Earth Alley, a store devoted to unique, often funky gifts with ethical origins. Her Hampden shop has messenger and evening bags made out of bicycle inner tubes and truck tires, jewelry fashioned from recycled aluminum, and notepads and greeting cards made from elephant dung (with part of the proceeds donated to save Asian elephants).
The smart is small enough to park just about anywhere in Hampden, and its length means you can pull in perpendicular between two parallel-parked cars—though we didn't risk that.I, for one, don't have much faith in Baltimore parking attendants' sense of humor. But the city is the place for the smart. In spite of its much-touted safety cage, it feels light on the highway, and though it can go as fast as 90 miles per hour, you probably wouldn't want to.
The smart fortwo, which we drove in its cabriolet form, is still so new that many people we encountered had never seen it. Some wanted to know if it was electric, others asked what the gas mileage was. The answer is a disappointing EPA rating of 33/41—about the same as the Honda Civic I had in college. But you don't feel too bad at the pump: the 8.7-gallon tank is a lot cheaper to fill up than just about any vehicle out there.
Khoury's own car, a Subaru Outback, which she shares with her husband, Rick Packie, is, to her way of thinking, a gas guzzler at under 25-30 mpg. She and Packie share a car out of consideration for the environment, says Khoury, "but it's really difficult, especially in a city like Baltimore where the public transportation isn't very good."
She moved here in early 2007 from Seattle as Baltimore City's first Bike Coordinator, a position established at the Department of Transportation to carry out former Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan for a bike-friendly city. She helped to get the bike lanes marked, and is particularly proud of the circular racks—where bikes can be locked—that make use of defunct parking meter poles. Khoury eventually left civil service to focus on her store.
Might a smart be the equivalent of one less car? Well, maybe one smaller car, Khoury believes. "People are doing their research," she says. "As gas moves beyond $4 a gallon, there is definitely more awareness about these cars."
Price as tested: $38,705
The Neighborhood: The earliest homes in Hunting Ridge were built in the 1920's, and there is a variety of architectural styles here, from Tudor to arts-and-crafts to mid-century ranchers. They're occupied by a number of VIPs, including frequent rivals Sheila Dixon and state delegate Jill P. Carter, as well as fellow state delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam.
To protect itself from the creep of places like nearby Edmondson Village, Hunting Ridge fought for Historic Designation by the city in 2003 and won. But one of the proponents recalls, "I've never seen people who usually got along so well turn so venomous."
It's a family neighborhood, so family cars are the norm: minivans and crossovers combined with a commuter car.
The Driver: Marc Randrianarivelo glances over his shoulder at his kids as he drives the Dodge Caravan SXT around a bend in his Hunting Ridge neighborhood.
"I can't believe they're being so quiet. Usually they're fighting." Nicolas and Nadine, the younger of his three children, are wearing headphones and staring up at the DVD monitor, which is screening the animated feature movie Cars. It's the first time they've seen a movie screen while riding in a car, and they're mesmerized.
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Nathan is up front in the passenger seat. He's too young to drive, but his father has already begun to prepare him, and occasionally lets him start up the engine. While his siblings have been figuring out the entertainment system and playing with the automatic folding third-row seats—which slide into a well at the push of a button—Nathan has been studying the owner's manual to figure out the navigation system and other unfamiliar features in the minivan.
Randrianarivelo drives a 1998 Ford Windstar. He likes the extra space for random kids who want to come over and hang out after games, and of course it's nice to be able to fling a bag of soccer balls into the back without thinking about it.
Randrianarivelo also plays in a band, Ody Gasy, whose name translates to Malagasy Cure. Malagasy refers to both the language and the people of Randrianarivelo's native Madagascar, the island nation and former French colony off the coast of East Africa, and the band's music is mostly influenced by that country. He says he spends a lot of time hauling the seats out of the Windstar to make room for instruments and sound equipment before gigs.
Besides, as the quintessential soccer Dad, what else would he drive? Randrianarivelo was on the traveling team for his high school. He was captain of the Madagascar team for the National Bank-sponsored Embassy Cup series in Washington, D.C. in the 1980's. Each of Randrianarivelo's three kids plays on a team, and during the sport's three seasons, he attends, on average, six games a week, either as a fan or a coach.
It turns out the Caravan, with bells and whistles unheard of a decade ago, is the perfect vehicle for Randrianarivelo: By the time we've finished our drive, he's reluctant to give it up. He loves the way it drives, but mostly he loves the kid-friendliness, including the second row seats, which can be swiveled to face a small table on a post that snaps into a brace on the floor.
The family has two 10-year-old cars: a Toyota Camry, which his wife, Hanta Ralay, drives to the train station each day as part of her commute to D.C., and the Windstar, which Marc drives. He works as a chemist with the Army Corps of Engineers, and says it takes about 10 minutes to get to the Federal office building downtown.
Marc is grateful for his short commute: It gives him that much more time for soccer. He's currently playing with the D.C. Malagasy team and traveled to Montreal in July for the 2008 Rencontre Sportive of Madagascar.
Price as tested: $44,055
The Neighborhood: Nestled in this North Baltimore County town is My Lady's Manor, 10,000 acres bequeathed by Charles Calvert to his fourth wife. It's horse country, with manor houses set well off the road, surrounded by caretakers cottages, barns, and miles of fences.
You'll find mud-splattered Land Rovers and farm trucks, as well as Jags and Mercedes for trips to the grocery store. Morning reading for many is the breeding column in the Daily Racing Form, and a celebrity sighting is any descendent of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, or Patrick Smithwick, son of the famous jockey Paddy and author of Racing my Father: Growing up with a Riding Legend.
The Driver: When Kim Eastburn first moved out to Monkton in 1993, her neighbors teased her with comparisons to the character played by Eva Gabor on the 1960's television show Green Acres. But when I tried to talk her into donning an evening gown to be photographed with the Buick Enclave, she demurred, favoring a good pair of jeans. Neither would she go the Wellies-and-Barbour-jacket route, however. In Monkton, it's not cool to pretend you're horsey if you're not.
Sure, the Enclave is probably not the right vehicle for a horse farm. But, then, not everyone in Monkton is horsey. Though large enough to carry seven passengers (eight if you get the optional second row bench seat) and tow 4,500 pounds, it's just too damned pretty to drive up into the pasture or over a stream bed, much less load up with feed or tack. Built on a 119-inch wheelbase and sibling to both the GMC Acadia and the Saturn Outlook, the Enclave is somewhat like that displaced socialite from TV: startlingly elegant while capable of roughing it. It's even got blue eyes. No kidding.
Eastburn's personal car is a Jaguar 1996 XJ6, and now that her son, who just graduated from St. Paul's School, has a car of his own, she doesn't have much use for a seven-passenger vehicle.
An interior designer, Eastburn rarely transports clients, but does occasionally cart around samples of fabric or wallpaper.
The Enclave is in the category known as "crossover"—a term used to mollify consumers on one end who don't like the image of the minivan and on the other
Eastburn, like many Americans, has a pre-conception of the Buick driver. "It's someone older who wants an American car." The Enclave gives her pause: "They are obviously addressing a new demographic: women who are the schleppers in life, who carry around kids and groceries. But they've also worked in luxury and style," she says.
There are wood-grain accents throughout the interior, and outside, plenty of shiny chrome embellishments. The double sunroof is a big plus, filling the interior with light, even on a dull autumn day.
Though it isn't her kind of vehicle, Eastburn is nearly won over. The drive is tight and the steering responsive. "It's luxurious," she says. Ultimately, however, Eastburn says, "I just can't get past the fact that there are so many seats." She doesn't see herself as a bus driver.
Price as tested: $46,895
The Neighborhood: Cockeysville is known to many as simply a stretch of the York Road corridor, sweeping past big box stores and strip malls. But just off the beaten path are quiet neighborhoods and subdivisions, new housing developments with multimillion dollar homes, and the occasional undisturbed meadow.
Many Cockeysvillians still seem to consider themselves country folk, so you'll see plenty of SUVs, Suburbans, Tahoes, and pickup trucks. And of course, if you need a car, York Road's strip zoning offers lots of places to pick up a new ride—from Saturns to Lamborghinis.
The Driver: Chris Garliss must think the Ford pickup design folks in Detroit are stalking him to anticipate his every need. When his first child was born, the extended-cab version with the half-door came out. As the kids (three in all) got older, he says, "I told my wife it would be great if we could get four doors and a full-size cab." Voila. Next came the DVD player for the long drives to the family's vacations on Deep Creek Lake.
And these days, Garliss, now 45, appreciates the latest feature in Ford's massive F250: a small stepladder that folds down from the tailgate, with a rigid post he can use for balance when climbing up.
Initially, Garliss had turned up his nose at the F250 4X4 Crew Cab Lariat we offered for a test-drive: It's more truck than most people need, and he does just fine in his F150 getting to the many jobsites his luxury residence construction company, Highpoint Homebuilders, has scattered around the area. But after driving the diesel-powered F250 for a few miles along the winding roads of Greenspring Valley, Garliss is into it. "I could go out and buy one of these things right now," he says.
For a guy whose vehicle of choice is a three-ton pickup truck, Garliss has surprisingly refined aesthetic sensibilities. He points out all the things that make Ford—in his mind—superior to its competitors: "It's like when you see a fine piece of antique furniture. It's good quality: You may not know why, but it is." And the rear bed extender is also more user-friendly than the one in the F250 he used to have before he switched to his current F150—folding, gate-like out of the way.
But Garliss has another, unlikely historical passion that demands the use of a truck. He
Price as tested: $80,977
Technically, part of Towson, this neighborhood was once the country getaway for some of Baltimore's most prominent families. Now a 10-minute drive from downtown, it's a mix of old estates reached by winding drives, rambling Victorians surrounded by mature trees and gardens, and prosaic '60s and '70s single-families, priced to reflect the community's prestige.
Ruxton is not ostentatious, and there's a Yankee thriftiness built into the Episcopalian mentality. You're just as likely to find a Mercedes 500 SEL or diesel wagon, circa early 1990s as you are a 2009 G-Class SUV. Plenty of Volvo wagons and the occasional Prius.
Ruxton is a neighborhood comfortable with the Lexus LS460L. The vehicle, with its hefty pricetag, can easily hold its own alongside a Mercedes S-Class and at the same time feel camaraderie with its Toyota cousins. Some of her neighbors own Lexus vehicles, says Margie Powell. "It's a more subtle sign of being able to buy a high-end car than the standard Mercedes or BMWs."
L'Hirondelle Club Road, which circles up the hill past the L'Hirondelle Club, and requires drivers to pull over and wave on passersby, has houses valued in the multiple millions alongside one-story 1970s pre-fabs with sliding glass doors. As Powell creeps up the hill behind the wheel of the Lexus, she can name each owner, noting tangled corporate or family resumés, and describe home renovations over the years.
As executive director of the Maryland House & Garden Pilgrimage, Powell pays attention to these things. The annual tour, the oldest in Maryland, gives pilgrims an opportunity to ogle some 50 or 60 houses all over the state. But this happens to be Powell's neighborhood, one she prizes for its lack of ostentation despite the wealth here.
In the meantime, Powell is enchanted by the LS460L, a heavy sedan with a smooth and quiet ride. It's the kind of vehicle she'd love to drive to a Pilgrimage event: The navigation system could be programmed to lead her from one tucked-away spot to the next, and the roomy back seat—possessed of leg room more suited to limousines or London cabs—would allow her to chauffeur friends or board members in luxury. Backseat passengers can adjust the temperature, control the sound system, and cool their seats with puffs of air through the upholstery. There's even an air purifier—which would be nice during the high-pollen weeks of the Spring Pilgrimage.
"It purrs like a big cat," says Powell. And the steering wheel responds to the lightest touch on this windy road.
The calling card for this $80,000-plus sedan is its self-parking feature (advanced park assist), gadgetry that Powell has little use for. There's not much parallel parking on Ruxton's narrow back roads, and our attempt in the parking lot of the L'Hirondelle (founded in 1872 as a rowing club), landed us up a slight embankment. It's a feature that recognizes curbs and bumpers, I guess, better than hedgerows and hydrangeas. I found that the Lexus is fussy: You have to get it into a precise position before it will deign to pull into a spot. And it doesn't like inclines at all.
At first, Powell wasn't crazy about the color of our cranberry test car—like most American consumers, she favors silver or black. But after some thought, she reasoned that the color might be helpful in parking garages: "At my age, I'm always losing my car. And the burgundy would stand out."
Price as tested: $22,795
This Great Society city, the brainchild of shopping mall developer James Rouse, opened in 1967. The idea was for a cluster of villages, sprung from Howard County farmland to create self-contained communities for people of all races and income levels. It was meant to bring people together in centralized spaces, thus avoiding the decentralizaton of suburban subdivisions.
Cruising around the parking lots of Columbia's apartment complexes and villages, you get the impression that it is here that live the folks who are doing a good job saving for retirement: modest and well cared-for Honda and Nissan sedans, minivans, and small SUVs and crossovers. Commuting is a way of life for plenty of these Howard County residents, so fuel efficiency is a priority.
I'm not sure if I ever saw Cabell Greenwood's profile on Match.com. But surfing the site a few years ago gave me the impression of Columbia as the land of divorced men in their 40s with kids. It makes sense for these guys in transition. It's a community of myriad "villages" of condos and apartment complexes in which a guy can carry out his designated portion of a joint custody agreement, and it's accessible to work—not to mention dating opportunities—in D.C. or Baltimore.
The Nissan Rogue struck me as just the right car for this stage of life. It's in the small SUV category, so it's sporty and fun. But the Rogue isn't loaded with amenities like its high-class—and somewhat feminine—sibling, the Infiniti EX, so it's a bit more rugged, and affordable, an essential consideration for guys with, ahem, financial obligations. And it's got the interior space of a good-sized wagon without screaming "family car!"
Greenwood works for Internet Testing Systems as vice president of business development, and commutes to Baltimore from the village of Wilde Lake in Columbia, where he rents a townhouse. Greenwood likes the stability of his neighborhood: "Some people think the architectural covenants are an infringement on creativity. Others are happy we don't have neighbors painting their houses pink or keeping junkyards in their backyards."
The Greenwood family car was a mini-van, but now Cabell drives a Mazda 6, a four-door sedan with plenty of leg room for his tall children (Matthew 18, Erin 15). "It's a little bit sporty, but I've reached the point in life where I don't need 300 horsepower to shoot down the road," he says. Besides, that's what his Ducati ST3 touring motorcycle is for. A few years ago, he loaded up a saddle bag and drove out west.
Greenwood saw the Rogue at the D.C. Auto Show and admired the vehicle. "It's got a young look and feel," he says. "It's smaller than a regular SUV, but it doesn't look like a wagon." And the $22,000 pricetag, he says, "seems reasonable." Inside, the Rogue is pretty stripped-down, Greenwood observes: "For my lifestyle, I would want a few more features."
His favorite feature on the Mazda—radio controls on the steering wheel—are absent here, though there are switches for the cruise control. He doesn't have to push the seat all the way back to accommodate his long legs, a rarity in a car, he says. But the visibility isn't great. The C-pillars, between the back windows and the hatch, are too thick, and the rear window too small.
The Rogue's demographic, Greenwood guesses, is a 30-something male, maybe with small children. "It's a smooth ride, and a competent SUV," he says. "It would be a good car for someone who lives in the city and doesn't want to park a big vehicle." He also concedes that it would be great "for a single guy who doesn't want hefty car payments—though now that gas is so expensive, people are probably staying away from SUVs, even the small ones."
Nevertheless, Greenwood guesses that his daughter, Erin, will love the Rogue. "She'll like that it's cool and sporty," he says. "She'll like the color." (Nissan calls this "Venom Red.") Sure enough, a few days later we take Erin for a spin. Her verdict? "Maybe not for my Dad, but I love it."