The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

28 February 2008

A trifle less serenity

After five years of coaxing Zoom-Zoom out of a willing but underpowered Mazda, I found the switch to a more placid sedan a bit off-putting at first; when a car doesn't break a sweat, so to speak, you start wondering if maybe it's a bit lazier than you'd hoped.

The answer, in Gwendolyn's case, is no. As received in the summer of '06, she was fast enough, if not overwhelmingly so, and the 350 lb of extra weight, compared to her predecessor, didn't seem to put her at a disadvantage. Still, the Mazda handled a bit more crisply, despite a slightly more jittery ride.

Things wear out, though, and last fall I spent medium bucks for Dunlop high-performance tires, mostly because they'd worked so well on the Mazda. The SP Sport A2 Plus was apparently being phased out, so I bought the newer SP Sport Signatures; they were gratifyingly grippy, but the ride was rocky, and after a couple of rebalancings and such we arrived at the heart of the matter: the old dampers just didn't damp all that well anymore.

A set of fresh factory struts, installed by fresh factory-trained techs, would run close to two thousand dollars. This struck me as excessive, and eventually I addressed myself to Monroe, which sells zillions of aftermarket shocks, and who, I discovered, had come up with the struts for the contemporary Nissan Altima, suggesting to me that they might have some idea about how to hold up the corners of other Nissan products. Of their three lines, only the topmost, the Sensa-Trac, is offered for the Maxima and its Infiniti sister; it's nearly as pricey as the factory strut, but can be installed by mere mortals.

The first few days were alarming: "My God," I said in my best David Byrne voice, "what have I done?" Every imperfection in the road — and if you've ever driven in Oklahoma, you know to expect one about every three inches or so — seemed to be coming up through Gwendolyn's leather-covered steering wheel.

But then it dawned on me: when she'd first arrived, I'd thought her steering was a trifle numb. Now I'm getting actual road feel. The interaction of the Dunlops (which are V-rated and presumably have stiffer sidewalls than their H-rated brandmates) and the new struts (which, at the very least, recover faster than the old ones) has sharpened her responses considerably, with perhaps a slight sacrifice in ride. The tires tend to nibble around the bumps, the sort of thing that makes you wonder if maybe the front end is shot; yet she tracks perfectly straight, even on horrid examples of highway like I-35 through the near-northeast part of town, even on those ghastly mornings when it's been raining and the temperature is stuck at 29 or so. And there's less body roll: taking the 44 East-to-35 South ramp at my usual 60 mph no longer shoves me toward the door.

No, she's still not a sports car. But I no longer have any justification for coveting the pricier Touring version: it probably doesn't get around any better, and for some reason (bigger wheels?) its turning circle is four or five feet wider.

Posted at 7:46 PM to Driver's Seat