The $183,000 Question

Why wait for midlife to buy a midlife-crisis car?

I USED TO WONDER why my old landlady, vastly obese, would cram herself into an incongruously teensy Miata to tool around Portland's West Hills. Now that I'm 47, I understand. It's not that I'm fat, and no midlife crisis yet makes me yearn for a red hot rod. In fact, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-sponsored study reports that the vaunted midlife crisis is a quackold farts don't freak out at higher rates than our less-decrepit juniors.

But we do decay. A bundle of nerves as angry as an Al Qaeda cell recently erupted in my foot, and despite a successful surgical strike to remove it, there are no more fun runs in my future. And so, as my carcass gradually grows, like my old landlady, less mobilereflecting the wisdom of the disabled wheelchair wag who dubbed the rest of us "the temporarily able-bodied"I find myself craving a comfy, zippy locomotion machine to compensate. It's like that issue of Marvel Comics wherein the Fantastic Four somehow lost all their superpowers, and their leader, Mr. Fantastic, fashioned gizmos to give them a faint approximation of their former soaring gifts. It's not the same as being an intact superhero, but you have to admire the ingenious engineering.

I CONSIDERED MY zippy mobile options. The new Mini Cooper caught my eye, a rising star car so maneuverable (especially the sporty Mini S) that it serves the same function in this week's flick The Italian Job that the BMW does for Bond. I drove clear to Fife for a test drive at the nearest dealership. "Do you have an appointment, sir?" said the woman at the desk. The car is such a celebrity, you have to call ahead. I'd made the mistake of trying to drive a car more important than I am.

So I went back to Seattle to seek other candidates. I sat in a Mercedes SL-500, with the nifty hardtop that retracts at the touch of a button. It seemed a bit bulkyit takes too much hardware to make a hardtop retract. Also, its aesthetics, while sophisticated, weren't up my alley. The SL is too ritzy to look good on me, a guy who was grungy back when grungy wasn't cool.

I was struggling to decide between two less haughty alternatives, the Toyota MR2 Spyder and the Mazda Miata, both modest, circa-$24,000 convertibles (the Miata prettier, the mid-engine Spyder lighter and reputedly faster), when the paper got a call out of the blue from a Porsche representative. "Would you like to test drive a Porsche 911 GT2?" Hmm, how much is it? "$183,000." Cost of a test drive: $0. It appeared at my house the next day, and the sleek key was dropped in my palm.

STEPPING DOWN INTO the body-embracing seat of the GT2way down: it rides just a few inches above the groundis to step up into the realm of dreams. If Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise were a car, it might resemble this. Its top speed is irrelevant to a sane person not on the Autobahn: 195 mph. What is relevant is its surprising practicality for a DINK like me with no golden retrievers or objects larger than a grocery bag to lug around. Rounding the hillsides of Seattle, I found the GT2 as sensible as a vegetarian diet. Lots of sports cars practically whimper when forced to observe posted speed limits; the GT2 feels just fine as a low-velocity projectile. It would actually work as a commuter car (if one could park it in a miniature replica of Fort Knox).

There were only two disconcerting things about driving it: Two unprosperous-looking guys on Beacon Hill glowered at me; and elsewhere, people grinned and waved, including pretty girls. Suddenly I got the whole Warren-and-Jack cruising thing. "Why didn't I drive a Porsche when I was single?" I wailed to my wife. "Why didn't I wave at guys in Porsches?" she wailed back.

I first detected the GT2's superpowers when I got onto I-5 and discovered the unutterable acceleration it was capable of in second gear. I didn't dare glance at my watch, but I do believe the specs when they say it can go from zero to 62 in about four seconds. The GT2 makes the regular Porsche 911 look like my old landlady: It jettisons over 200 pounds of stuff, such as all-wheel drive (it's rear-wheel), the spare tire, metal brake discs (they're ceramic), and the PSM system used in less hell-bent-for-leather Porsches to keep wheels from spinning out of control when one loses contact with the road (kind of like ABS, only during acceleration instead of braking). Huge but not vulgar intake scoops channel air into the 456-horsepower engine. When the turbos spin up to speed and the fuel mixture is under greater than atmospheric pressure, the sensation is very like hitting hyperspace mode with Han Solo at the wheel. This rookie howled like a Wookie.

But the cockpit of a GT2 is no place to cut loose. One can't command 456 horses without the bridle of responsibility. A British newspaper reports that a celebrated surgeon took his last spin in his GT2 before selling it, hit a tree, and died. I wasn't eager to make headlines during my weeklong GT2 loaner period. ("Seattle Weekly Scribe Perishes, Punches New Tunnel Through Experience Music Project!")

MINDFUL OF MY inexperience, I talked a neighbor with racing trophies into driving me through the back roads of Snohomish County, whose every curve he knows cold. (He also knows of the cops' radar guns itching to get a bead on you as you round an ineffably lovely curve on Ben Howard Road.) It's a good thing the GT2 dashboard features an acoustic warning signal to tell you when you've exceeded the limit you've set for yourself. "Adjust your speed if necessary," the manual dryly advises; in the original German, it probably reads, Kaptschlagen ist verb�!.

We stopped off at the home of an acquaintance, a motorhead buddy of Jay Leno's. "Well, it's not an off-road vehicle," said the motorhead. (Except when it hits a bump in the road, I thought to myself.) "Look at those Testarossa-esque louvers in the back!" He thrust his hand into the air scoop on the side: "Yup, you can get all the way up to your armpits in that." Peering at the immense engine, my neighbor and the motorhead noted its beautiful inscrutability and the understated loveliness of the body's lines, so unlike the lookit-me voluptuousness that mars so many midlife-crisis cars. Yes, the GT2 has muscle definition, like a Marvel Comics herobut we're talking Spider-Man, not the Incredible Hulk. The muscles are subtly sculpted; they do not shout, "I refuse to think about the state of my prostate!"

Neighbor and Leno pal surveyed the car in bliss and summed up its design: "So unruffled."

ALAS, I WAS FORCED both to return the GT2 and to abandon all hope of owning one. Besides the price, I'm forbidden by the stiff clutch, which hurts my ailing left foot. I'm going to have to look into something with the latest in foot-free clutches (such as "paddle shifters," steering-wheel buttons one operates by finger, not toe): the Spyder, perhaps, or the Audi TT.

But I may have split up the long-term relationship between my neighbor and his sensible old Saab. Upon consulting with his automotive life adviser about his incandescent memories of Ben Howard Road, he says he just may trade in his Saab on a next-generation 2004 Porsche GT3. Once you've flown like Neo in The Matrix, you simply can't bear to come back to Earth.

tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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