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A Battle Between Saints And Liars

- Even Paul Kimmage admitted to experimentation with drugs back in his racing days. In light of that, doesn’t Team Sky’s notion of a ‘Doping Pledge’ have a frightfully totalitarian vibe? When you look at the world as a battle between saints and liars, the first thing lost is the very notion of humanity.

Team Sky Lie Detector

- Recently I’ve found myself car obsessed, a common affliction in road cycling circles. While I’ve long avoided it, it’s almost as if it’s the logical endpoint of how we cyclists spend our time. How often do we train with half-held breath, hoping hope and praying prayers that the car coming up from behind won’t steamroll us? We are cyclists and our fixations number three: Wanderlust, trying to go fast as we roam, and trying to not get killed in the process. Clipping out at the end of the day doesn’t turn these fixations off. And, gradually, the car obsession finds its way into the cyclist’s life. Both activities share the same themes: The call of the road, the quest for speed, and our all-too-loose grip on our own safety.

Wagon lustRoad racing and its surrounding dreams contribute to another weakness: Euro-lust. Our PRO heroes clobber themselves on the ancient farmroads of Europe, so in countless semi-conscious ways we affect what we perceive to be Euro tendencies. For some, it’s wine instead of beer. For others, it’s small plates instead of large. And, in context of car obsession, it means wagons instead of SUVs.

This fall I became dead-set on purchasing a wagon. My criteria are fairly clear: It must be AWD, deal expertly with snow and ice and crappy roads, fit three kids in the back with reasonable comfort, have decent cargo space (i.e. I can remove my front wheel and slide a bike in), all while giving me a pleasant Euro buzz sitting in it.

Four brands seemed to meet these requirements: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.

AUDI. No wagon’s reputation can match the allroad (no capital a, that’s not a typo) when it comes to handling bad roads and sorry weather. It’s had a cultish following for a decade and Audi released a new version for 2013. So much is right with the car. For starters, unlike Audi’s luscious A6, A7, and A8 sedans, the price isn’t ghastly. Of all the wagons I evaluated, it offers the highest MPGs. And I reveled in Audi’s emphasis on the stickiness of its Quattro AWD on snow-strewn roads.

Audi backseatBut then I made two mistakes: (1) I read Dan Neil’s acid review of the allroad. His amusing deconstruction of the very marketing that resonated with me left me in a bad mental place before to my first test drive. (2) I took a test drive. By being built on the A4 platform, the allroad suffers from irredeemable teeny-weeniness. The backseat could pass for a two-man submarine. The cargo space could barely hold $100 in groceries, much less a bike. Clearly, the allroad is targeted at couples who lack kids, a kitchen pantry, and hobbies bigger than racquetball.

BMW. No Euro car company has more passionately embraced the American appetite for the SUV than BMW. What do I mean by that? In visiting its website, it shows no wagons available for 2013. Gone, at least for now, is the beautiful 5-series X-Drive wagon, or as the British prefer, the ‘Estate’ model made so famous in this legendary Top Gear clip. Outside of the familiar sedans and coupes, all you see on BMW’s site is X-series SUVs served up in four different flavors. Dig deep for anything about wagons and all you’ll find is one dinky press release stuffed deep in the bowels of the site about a 3-class wagon that’ll maybe come out maybe on an undetermined date in the future maybe.

Older Volvo, looking PROVOLVO. The XC70 Turbo nicely bridges qualities of the allroad and the Mercedes E350. Unlike the allroad, it has massive space throughout. Its cargo area is the biggest of the bunch. It also has the highest ground clearance at 8.3′, a smidge more than the allroad’s 7.1′ and the E350′s worrisome 4.1′.

For all of the utilitarian virtue of the Volvo, though, some small details aroused irrationally large concerns in me. For starters, as a company Volvo appears to be in chronic corporate disarray as a company. Its 1999 sale to Ford besmirched its Eurolust factor, then the brand shredded its Euroness altogether with its scorching-burning-infernal fire sale during the 2009 economic crisis to China’s Geely Automobile. Make no mistake: I love China. I am a lifelong retailer of Chinese goods and I spend countless hours astride Chinese-made bicycle things that are built with peerless quality. But that’s my whole point: This is one purchase I’d like steeped in the Old World, not the New one where I spend most of my time.

Further complicating any affection for Volvo is the XC70′s kludgy instrumentation and electronics. The best analogy is comparing Microsoft to Apple, where Volvo’s instrumentation as a whole (from speedometer all the way to the GPS) seems like Windows XP in comparison to the Audi’s ultra-intuitive MMI and the beautiful Mercedes COMAND system.

2013 Mercedes E350 MERCEDES-BENZ. The glory of contemplating the E350 4-Matic wagon is the certainty about what comes under the hood. Its engine is a freaky purring beast born from generations of Teutonic engineering OCD. As a pure piece of machinery, the Audi and Volvo options can’t touch it. Idling in the parking lot made me feel armed and dangerous. While hurtling down the interstate, I was swept away by the sweet, silent violence of it all. It’s as if I’ve been riding on Open 4 CDs and 105 downtube shifters my whole life and switched to a set of Zipps and 11 speed Dura Ace Di2.

The E350 had ample room in the front, the back, and in the cargo area. (The cargo area is so big, in fact, you can flip up two rearward-facing jumpseats, much to my kids’ delight.) The instrumentation was the most intuitive. The ergonomics of the seats brought back warm childhood memories of Grandpa’s couch. The unearthly suspension and shushed sound made my test drive that much more dreamy.

Yet lavishness is both the virtue and the downfall of the E350. While in all measurable respects it is the best of the bunch, it’s also the most costly. Complicating things further is my conflicted relationship with the Mercedes-Benz brand. If you suffer from liberal guilt — and given that unlike Europe, bike racing in America is a rich kid sport, so I’m guessing you’ve felt it too — the thought of owning a Mercedes probably makes your skin crawl a bit. Like IWC, the Four Seasons, and Le Creuset, to name a few, it’s a brand that represents the tight-rope walk between paying gobs for extraordinary quality and the icky, ostentatious payment for social status.

Conclusion #1. If you go on your own wagon-shopping journey, go forth with a high level of skepticism about the dimensional data provided by the manufacturers. With back seats in the up position, Audi purports to have 26 percent more cargo space than Mercedes. One look at each will prove this comparison to be ridiculous. Perhaps each company is defining terms differently. But this one data point confirmed the need to see, to test drive, and to bring your own tape measure.

Jacked up for the cobblesConclusion #2. Outside of price, the most concerning data point is ground clearance. When winter detonates and the roads go dastardly with ice and snow, I’m uncertain about the provided by the extra 3′ to 4′ of ground clearance offered by Audi and Volvo over the Mercedes. Does ground clearance really matter? Like opinions of which AWD system is the best, there are plenty of views about this and I’m stumped.

Conclusion #3. In searching all of humanity in pursuit of the perfect wagon, it seems that one car ranks above the others. It has superb AWD, it will prevent backseat fratricide, it can nicely accommodate a bike, it has reasonable ground clearance, lovely instrumentation, and has an asshole factor of nil. It’s the Audi A6 allroad. Since it’s built on a much roomier platform, it addresses the deal-killing smallness of the new allroad. Sadly, it’s only available in Europe. Not only does the company refuse to import it in an effort to safeguard A4 allroad sales and Q-series SUV sales, but unlike Mercedes, Porsche, Volvo, and BMW, it refuses to permit European delivery of the car. It’s a tragedy and ensures I won’t buy an Audi.

So which car will I choose? I don’t know. However, being this deep in car obsession led to one unexpected consequence, which was my late discovery of a film from 2011 that is easily the second-best documentary I’ve ever seen about a sporting hero. (La Course en Tête still ranks here as the most mind-blowing film in the history of pictures.) It’s called ‘Senna’ and you can rent it on iTunes for $4.99. It’s one part educational, two parts beautiful, and three parts heartbreaking. Definitely find the time to watch it.