The O Pine
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© 2001 Brian F. Schreurs
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© 2001 Brian F. Schreurs
© 2001 Brian F. Schreurs
I have six cars, and nothing to drive. The pride of my collection is a pair of old Mopars: a 1940 Chrysler Royal coupe and a 1970 Dodge Charger, both in the restoration process. I also have an old Dodge truck for hauling things. My daily driver is a Jaguar, and my wife's is a Porsche. We also have an old Camaro that we use when one of the daily drivers is being repaired.
I haven't laid a finger on my Charger in over a year, except for emergency maintenance items, and I've gotten almost nowhere with the Chrysler. Working on the Jaguar's suspension and brakes for 10 months certainly didn't help things any, but still we were okay. I had the old Camaro to drive, and the Porsche was running well enough for Kara, my wife.
The car situation started to come unglued after vacation. That's when the transmission in the Camaro let go, leaving me to drive my old Dodge farm truck to work, at all of 8 mpg. But even this was merely frustrating; I thought I would soon have everything back to normal.
The last straw came when the Dodge's radiator sprung a leak, and I barely limped it home. Now, out of six cars, I only had one that worked, and Kara was driving it. I borrowed a Suburban from my dad (oooh, 15 mpg!) and Kara and I agreed that it was time for the farm truck to go; we needed a newer, more reliable truck. So the search began.
I met with my good friend Josh for a track day with his supercharged Mustang GT. On the way out there, I noticed the Dulles CarMax and, remembering good experiences from visiting a different location three years ago, decided to pay them a visit. Josh and I met with a salesman who escorted us through the lot. I was still trying to decide what was the right sort of truck for what I haul around -- I figured a smallish truck with a longbed would do, but of course I wasn't totally averse to getting a big manly monster truck. They had a good selection, if somewhat pricey. The Dodge Ram 1500 was priced beyond my means so I didn't have to worry about trying to explain to Kara why I needed one. Out of the trucks I could afford, I took the greatest interest in the Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger. The Chevrolet S-10 was also a similar truck, but I'm not too keen on buying another GM vehicle for a while.
I can see the mail bag already. Who do you think you are, dissing Chevrolet like that! followed by pages of statistical evidence proving that I'm a moron. Send it in if it makes you feel good to do so, but I do not make this decision lightly. My experience with GM goes like this: 1985 Chevrolet Suburban with a suicidal TH700R4 transmission and paint that apparently was bonded to the sheetmetal with sticky-note glue; 1980 Cadillac Eldorado that was the biggest POS I've ever had the privilege of driving; 1993 Pontiac Bonneville that was actually a very good car, and almost redeems GM if it weren't for the fact that it appears to be a statistical anomaly; 1990 Pontiac Grand Am that gave us trouble from the day we bought it to the day we sold it; 1998 Pontiac Firebird Formula that was faster than a greased cat on ice but had a manual transmission bent on self-destruction; and a 1986 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z that was slower than the Bonneville and painted as badly as the Suburban. So tell me why GM deserves another chance, unless they care to provide me a demo car at no charge?
Back at CarMax... I really wanted a 5-speed truck, since I'm tired of servicing and repairing automatic transmissions. In addition to lower maintenance costs, a manual also delivers better performance and fuel economy, so it's a no-brainer. Also, they frequently cost less to buy. Unfortunately, CarMax only had automatics, so I told the salesman that I wasn't going to buy any of his trucks, but that I'd like to test-drive a couple anyway, just to get a feel for them. He said sure! CarMax tends to be a pretty laid-back place; I like it.
I drove the Dakota first, and was amazed at what 25 years of technology had done to a pickup truck (my Dodge is a 1974 model). The thing drove just like a sedan. It was really pleasant. Josh sat in the back seat and reported that it wasn't too bad; no worse than being stuffed into the back of a muscle car anyway. With the V6, it accelerated briskly enough, though I would have liked to try the 5.2L V8 as well. That Dakota was a great truck.
Next up was a Ranger. To keep parity, I made sure to drive a V6 Ranger. By comparison it was very disappointing. The truck was smaller, yet it was more sluggish. The back seats faced sideways and would have been more cramped with two people. And it rode like a truck -- the feeling of 25 years' worth of technology vanished after less than a mile in the Ranger. With Ranger and Dakota prices very similar, I could find no reason at all to buy the Ranger.
But since neither had a manual transmission, I wasn't making a final decision right away. On the way home, I found a Dodge dealer with a manual-trans Dakota on the lot. They were closed so I planned to return in the next few days.
I found that a replacement radiator for my Dodge farm truck was a lousy 200 bucks; chicken feed for a radiator. This got the ol' cogs going for Kara and I. We talked for a long time, crunched pages of numbers, and concluded that the real problem was not that the Dodge was unreliable -- it was that the Jaguar and Porsche were unreliable, forcing us to use the Dodge as a commuter vehicle, which it certainly was never intended for. In fact, parts for the Dodge were ridiculously cheap, insurance was ridiculously cheap, and even at 8 mpg it only burned a couple tanks of gas a month when we used the thing for heavy errands, as it was intended. On the other hand, the Jag and Porsche were expensive to maintain and insure, had loans on them, and got less than 20 mpg. If we sold them, then we wouldn't need the Camaro anymore either, for further maintenance and insurance savings. In fact, if we replaced the three cars with two cars that got 30 mpg or better, the fuel savings alone would just about make up one of the car payments. To say nothing of insurance and maintenance -- we could actually end up ahead!
So with great reluctance we agreed that the proper course of action was to keep the Dodge farm truck, and sell the Jaguar, Porsche, and Camaro.
Kara and I agreed to each buy a late-model used car in the $6,000 to $8,000 range, 1994 or newer. Since we both needed a car, we agreed to buy whichever came up first. We had different buying criteria, though. For my part, I wanted a convertible (I've never had one!), rear wheel drive, manual transmission, and some spirit. It didn't take long to realize that the only car meeting that description was the Mazda Miata. Kara wanted a small coupe or sedan, wasn't too sure about the manual transmission idea, but had to have a sunroof and some pep. The Saturn SC2 and SL2 seemed to fit the bill pretty well for Kara, so we paid a visit to Saturn of Manassas.
What we really wanted to drive was a Saturn SC2 with a manual. They didn't have that; so I patiently explained to the sales guy that I wanted to test drive an SC2 with automatic to get a feel for the car, then drive an SL2 with the manual to get a feel for the transmission, and I'd sort of "assemble" an impression from that and go from there.
So he gave us a 1996 Saturn SC2 with automatic. We did not leave with a favorable impression. The interior felt cheap, cheaper than the price indicated. The engine was more bark than bite, even allowing for the sluggish automatic transmission. And it's really sort of funny looking. In fact, Kara liked the looks of the SL2 better.
We then took out a 1999 Saturn SL2 which we couldn't afford, but that was okay since we were really just test-driving the transmission, not the whole car. The manual transmission helped the engine tremendously, bringing it from annoying to tolerable. But we couldn't get over the feeling of being in a cheap car, and frankly I wasn't all that enthusiastic to be looking at a General Motors car anyway.
As we were going to leave, a green Chrysler Sebring convertible caught Kara's eye. This surprised me as she'd never been much of a convertible lover, but she liked it so we took it out for a drive. As one might expect going from a Saturn to a Chrysler, it was everything the Saturn wasn't: comfortable, solidly built, fun to drive, reasonably powerful. This particular example was out of our price range but we thought we'd keep an eye out for another.
Now the salesman wanted to do business but he was confused about what kind of car we wanted. We'd driven three totally different cars with widely varying prices. We, too, were no longer sure what we wanted -- the Chrysler was nice, but could we afford one? -- so the salesman pushed us toward one car, and we pushed back, so he pushed us toward another, and we pushed back... basically, neither of us wanted to buy any car until we could do some more research. The salesman became concerned that we wouldn't be able to do business unless we made up our minds, so he brought in his sales manager to help us sort out our feelings about the cars and do business. I told him that we weren't going to do business at this time, and that we needed to do more research first. It finally dawned on them that they weren't going to do business that day, so we finally got to go home, wipe the slime off, and gargle orange juice to get the bad taste out of our mouths. I didn't think I'd be back to Saturn of Manassas anytime soon.
Kara really liked the Sebring, and we found that if we extended her budget to $10,000, we might be able to find one. I called a dealer that had one in our price range; that one was sold, but they had two others. So we paid a visit to Linton Motorsport.
Of the two cars, one was a Sebring JX that had a V6 as optional equipment. Though we were glad to see the V6 (a must in a car as big as that), the other JX options left the car feeling kind of cheap by comparison. So we took a test drive in their 1997 Chrysler Sebring JXi. Kara again greatly enjoyed the car, but she wasn't too happy with the white paint and the matching white wheels. We politely passed on that car, and explained to the people at Linton what we wanted. They were very understanding and helpful; they wanted to make sure we got a car that we wanted, not just one they wanted to sell us. They never tried any pressure tactics and they kept their word. Kara and I both liked Linton Motorsport. They're good people.
Kara liked the green on the Sebring at Saturn of Manassas, so we went back to that car for a second look. This time around I noticed touch-up paint on the rear bumper, so I gave the car a more thorough inspection. Hmm-- the gas cap cover wasn't aligned right, the badge on the front of the car was cracked straight through, the air dam was split, two tires were brand-new, and the other two showed bad wear patterns. This was pretty damning stuff on a four-year-old car. It was rough. We walked briskly away, never to return.
At a railroad crossing, the borrowed Suburban dropped dead. It just stopped running. With the help of some burly men with scary tattoos, I moved the truck to safety. Now Kara and I had only one running vehicle between the two of us: her Porsche.
Kara stayed home to let the air conditioner repair man do his job, so I took her car to work. On the way in, driving her Porsche, the radiator sprung a leak. I couldn't believe it -- our last car! Considering the cost of a Porsche engine, I was reluctant to try to limp it anywhere, so I left it in my office parking lot, with vultures circling overhead.
Meanwhile, I had no transportation. I had located a Miata at a local dealership, but previously thought it was too expensive. Faced with the prospect of a rental car, the price suddenly looked a lot better. I convinced a co-worker to give me a ride to Brown's Alexandria Mazda. There, I met Chris Spoon and we took the 1996 Mazda MX-5 Miata out for a ride. It was everything I imagined a Miata to be: small, cozy, nimble, fun, and slightly underpowered. Having a drop-top was great! I always thought I'd like a convertible, and after that test-drive I was sure of it. Even the power wasn't too bad once I got used to the idea of letting the engine wind out. The shifter is absolutely perfect, and the car practically feels like an extension of the driver. Plus, 30 mpg on the highway was exactly what the wallet ordered. The price was still too high, but I set to working on that with Chris when we got back to the dealer.
It was looking to be a pretty uneventful deal, really: we came together on a price and we negotiated a fair loan agreement (I had previously consulted with USAA about what kind of loan they'd give me, so I had a baseline to work from). But when the car went in for a mechanical inspection, they said it needed a throttle body and a valve cover gasket. Fine; not my problem, I figured, but they made it my problem when they raised the price of the car accordingly. Now, I know that a throttle body is not a cheap piece of hardware, but a deal's a deal and anyway the car was already pushing the limit of my budget. When they refused to budge on the raised price, I walked out.
Just where I was walking to, I didn't know, since I was stuck in Alexandria with no car and no phone. But walk I did, and pondered how to get back to my office as I left. Just as the door was slapping my heels, Chris came up with the bright idea to talk to his manager. Great, that old line... but what the heck.
Chris came back with a new and improved offer that looked suspiciously identical to the one I had originally agreed to, so I took it for $10,000. Finally, after six hours, I drove off the lot with my new-to-me 1996 Miata. Happy happy joy joy!
Josh and I removed and replaced the Dodge farm truck radiator -- all $200 of it -- in less than two hours, once again reminding me that as long as I keep it to the duties it was bought for, the Dodge is a perfectly good and cheap truck and doesn't need to be traded on anything newer.
I also arranged to have the Porsche towed to Intersport, on the advice of some friends and against the advice of others. While I was towing things, I had the Suburban towed to a mechanic after trying several times to fix it where it sat.
I got the estimate back from Intersport in Tysons Corner, regarding the radiator in the Porsche. They wanted $1,555 to replace the radiator! Then they had the balls to list off another $600 worth of work estimates that I hadn't asked them to check. Then they weren't able to explain where the radiator was leaking from, how it got that way, or what alternatives there might be to replacement. I told them to expect a tow truck.
A friend in Arlington, who had warned me to not take my car to Intersport, agreed to take it in and store it until I could fix the radiator myself. I paid Intersport $90 for their so-called "estimate" that told me lots of things I didn't ask for but couldn't answer the few basic questions I had.
Once again trusting the advice of friends, I removed the radiator myself and took it to Looper Service Center in Rockville. They reported back that the radiator had seven damaged rods. They were able to fix three of them but the fourth proved impossible, so instead they replaced the core. This was $700, less than half what Intersport wanted, and they didn't try to charge me for the three rods they repaired. Though they didn't know what caused the damage, I suspected it was the gravel I found trapped between the radiator and A/C condenser.
While I was driving all the way to Rockville to get the radiator, I arranged for AAA to pick up the Camaro in Olney and bring it home.
I managed to get the radiator installed and brought the Porsche home. So for the first time in three weeks, all my cars were actually at my own house again. Now the only problems remaining were that two of them still didn't run, and I'd bought one car without selling any.
I took the Porsche to Warrenton Highline and told them I wanted to trade it on a Sebring. They gave the car a once-over, took my information, and said they'd call back in a couple of days with an offer. I'm still waiting.
Some guy from Fredericksburg came up and bought the Camaro. He had to haul it off on a flatbed, since the transmission still didn't work, but that was understood ahead of time. He paid cash, always nice, and seemed interested in maybe buying some of my other spare parts as well. I'm glad that car is gone while at the same time I miss it. The Camaro had a brutal honesty you seldom find in cars. "I'm a big lumbering muscle car," it said, and if you didn't like that, tough.
The deal got kind of freaky later, though, when the buyer kept e-mailing me for a week about the faults he "found" on the car after bringing it home. Considering that I drove it 100 miles a day for a year, accumulating 20,000 miles, it seems hard to believe that the car is "undriveable" other than the acknowledged transmission problem. This particularly caught me by surprise because he had assured me he was installing his own engine and transmission, so the condition of the present hardware wasn't all that important.
I found a nice green Sebring convertible at a dealership in Charlottesville, and it was even in our price range! I called to verify that the car was still there. It was, so Kara and I went down to Airport Motors, an hour away, to check it out.
Instant frustration. The car had clearly seen a body shop -- one of the taillights was horribly out of alignment. They had a second Sebring convertible, metallic black, that appeared to be in great shape but was newer and out of our price range. We tried to sell the Porsche to them, but apparently their buyer was off at some auction so no dice. They gave it a thorough inspection and told us they'd describe it to the buyer; they'd call back the next day with a quote.
They didn't call, of course, which is disappointing because they seemed like a nice place. Meanwhile, we broadened our search to include the Dodge Avenger and Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34 (prior to the 2000 models, when they got ugly again).
This was a day of prowling. We first went through Warrenton, the nearest sign of civilization for us, but found cause to stop only once, at a red Dodge Avenger. Since it was a foregone conclusion that red was unacceptable, this stop at Hughes Motorcars was just to familiarize ourselves with the model. We liked the people we talked to at Hughes, as they tended to shut up and listen to what we wanted rather than rattling on about how we needed whatever car they happened to have collecting dust. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the Avenger, which had clearly been tagged in the front-right fender, and poorly repaired, with the fender out of alignment and the headlight housing not quite right.
Out of places in Warrenton, we went to Manassas, which has the largest concentration of used car dealers in our area. We went top down, passed through a lot of lots, didn't see much of what we wanted. We found a black Avenger with a sunroof -- perfect! -- but it, too, had been hit in the front and the patchwork that followed was painfully obvious.
Where do all these clobbered cars come from? It's not that I hold anything against a car that's been in an accident. A CarFax report revealed that my Miata had been hit, but the repair was executed flawlessly; you could not tell that it had been in an altercation. That's what I've come to expect from body shops -- the car comes back as good as new. Maybe this is a reflection on the quality of the shops authorized by USAA to do repairs, because my Miata was insured through them, as are all my own cars. Maybe all these other cars were insured by a sucky carrier like GEICO (Get Everyone Insured, Clean 'em Out) and then dumped. Whatever, these cars are so badly repaired that I can't imagine even a novice looking at this handiwork and saying "Well, there's a job well done!" And who buys these things? These cars need to be sent back to wherever they came from and repaired properly.
We finally did find a nice, clean car at Manassas Motors. It was a 1996 Chrysler Sebring LXi coupe with a sunroof and a V6. Perfect. Problems? Well, it was purple. Puhr-pull. With grey body accents. And, the nimrod general manager, who had been using it as a "demo" car (demonstrating it to his family, I'd guess), was a smoker and left cigarette ashes all over the interior.
Hello smokers. Many of us non-smokers don't care whether you smoke. They're your lungs; poison them if you like. But don't forget that we don't share your enthusiasm for your hobby, and if you're in the business of selling cars, well, you're going to have a hard time selling ash-filled, soot-smelling cars to non-smokers. We can smell it, we're not making that up just to annoy you, and you'd be able to smell it too if you weren't snorting the stuff all the time. Thank you.
The salesman I met, who shall remain nameless for my own protection in case I decide to have him whacked, caught us just as we were about to leave. We told him we liked the Sebring except for the color and the smoke. He didn't have another, he said, but he did have a Monte Carlo, but it was on a different lot.
We agreed to go over, and predictably he had us drive the Sebring, which just reminded us that it smelled funny. The Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34 that he had, though, was really nice. It was in good condition and ran well. Its only failing was the 101,000 miles, a bit high considering that we plan to put 100,000 to 150,000 miles on the car. We really wanted to stop at 70,000 max.
"Well you know," he opined, "it's not really how many miles it has so much as it is how they got there."
"But we don't know how they got there."
"What's 30,000 miles anyway?"
"Over a year's worth of driving."
"I have another car, a BMW 318ti, that's just a little over your budget."
"How much over?"
Considering that an extra $8,000 was double the price of the cars we were looking at, I had to wonder whether he had ever bought a car for himself. We politely asked him to kiss off and take us back to our car, which of course he didn't, saying that there might be something at the incoming lot, where they inprocess recent trades.
Well, there was a 1996 Chrysler Sebring JXi convertible, flaunting a "Columbia University" sticker. So... the car was either a former college student car, or a former college student's parent's car. The D.C. inspection sticker settled that question, and there was no way I was buying a former D.C. car, especially one owned by a college student. The interior was stained and ripped, the paint was covered in scratches from bumper to bumper. It was rough and priced like it was mint.
"We don't want this car. We're done," I told him.
"What's wrong with this one?" he asked.
"Well, it's covered in scratches."
"Well goddammit, it's five years old! What do you expect!"
"I don't have to buy your problems."
"Scratches aren't problems!"
"My Miata is five years old and is almost perfect," to say nothing of the 17-year-old Porsche. "We're done."
He insisted on driving the convertible back to the first lot, so I relaxed to the gentle thump-thump of the totally worn, D.C.-stricken suspension as we went.
After Manassas Motors, we didn't have the energy to deal with any more traditional used car dealers. We headed to Dulles CarMax. There, we bypassed the sales drones and just walked the lot like a steel and plastic sculpture garden. Finding a car that is both nice and less than $10,000 is a real chore; almost nothing fits that criteria. We increased our range to $12,000 and still came up with a mighty short list. Cars, basically, are getting expensive.
One vehicle we stared at for a long time was a 1996 Jeep Cherokee with the 4.0L engine. We both like Cherokees, but the 20 mpg is brutal. We tried and tried and tried to rationalize a daily-driver Jeep that got 20 mpg, but it just doesn't make sense. We have the Dodge for hauling, and it's cheaper to keep the Dodge than it is to drive a 20 mpg truck to work everyday. Use more gas than a sports car in a vehicle about as fun as a minivan? No thanks. People who use trucks as daily drivers are nuts.
Kara has always loved Saabs, but we couldn't find one even close to our price range. And though they had an Avenger, it was red. We left without even talking to anyone.
We found another Sebring coupe in Alexandria, but this time I called ahead and specifically asked about any body damage. They said no, it looks fine. So Kara and I drove an hour to Alexandria, to visit Heritage Auto Plaza and check out their 1997 Chrysler Sebring LX. At first glance the car did look very clean, with the only problem being cigarette burns in the driver's seat. Uh? Who the heck stubs out their ciggies on the seat?
They assured us they could fix the holes, so we test-drove the car anyway. It seemed to drive okay, but the engine was noisier than other cars we'd driven with the same 2.5L V6 in it. We stopped in a neighborhood to give it a more thorough inspection and noticed a rubber burning smell. Very strange. Then, as we walked around the car, we saw that the driver-front fender was ever so slightly a different shade than the rest of the car! Another poorly-repaired piece of crap! AAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!
This pushed us over the edge. We marched next door into the new-car Chrysler Plymouth dealer after swearing for years that we'd never do another new car -- and took a 2001 Plymouth Neon out for a drive. They didn't have one with a standard, so we had to make do with the annoying automatic transmission.
All you people buying small cars with four-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions. Your lives will be much improved if you just take the time to learn how to drive a standard. Your car will be much better to drive. Four-cylinder engines do not produce enough torque to properly deal with an automatic. It only takes about two weeks of practice to be halfway decent with a manual. You can do it. Stop stealing from yourself and invest in yourself instead.
Anyway. The Neon actually felt pretty good! Of course it was constantly shifting gears, being saddled with a stinky automatic after all, but other than that it had some scoot to it, and handled well. It also looked decent, and was available with a sunroof, and had lots of cargo space. Overall, a good car. We didn't want this one, being a stinky automatic, so we walked next door to see what the Chevrolet guys had.
Their equivalent to the Neon is the 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier. The fuel economy and horsepower numbers were similar, slightly more expensive, but considerably uglier. We couldn't get past the weird looks so we left without a test drive.
Tired but determined, we again visited Dulles CarMax. One car that caught our attention was a Civic hatchback, but the low horsepower (106 hp) had us concerned. We again left without speaking to anyone.
On the way home, we stopped by our local Plymouth dealer and checked out the cars on the lot. As it turned out, they had one that was nearly perfect! Steel blue, sunroof, manual transmission. No CD player though, which was disappointing. Neither Kara nor I much care to drive five hours to her dad's house without a CD player. Still, we thought we might come back for a test drive and see how it feels, next time they were open.
Unfortunately, we later ran the numbers on the $15,000 Plymouths and they just weren't affordable. No matter how badly we wanted it, the numbers weren't adding up for us. Instead, we decided to go back and test drive the Civic, since the acceleration numbers and cargo capacity were similar to the Neon, and the fuel economy was even better.
Back to Dulles CarMax yet again, only this time we called ahead and made an appointment with a sales guy. He pulled the 1999 Honda Civic DX hatchback off the lot so that no one else could grab it while we were on the way. He was waiting for us with the car when we arrived.
The little black hatch was zippy-looking, and the hatch was convenient. The engine appeared to be easy to service, a far cry from the near-impossible V6 in the Sebring convertible. It was a manual transmission, an absolute must on a car this small. And we knew this car was popular with the sport-compact scene, so Kara and I were both looking forward to the drive.
I drove the car first and was startled by the amount of power there wasn't. Clearly there was a lot of horsepower not on tap, and the engine sang as we crawled through the gears. Letting the engine wind out resulted in fast-sounding noises, partially drowned out by the sound of a '78 Buick screaming by. Not to suggest that the car is a slug; no, this car is a slug with a limp.
Just goes to show how worthless 0-60 times are as a measure of real-world performance. In road tests, it was a tenth of a second quicker to 60 than the Neon. But the auto-trans Neon we drove previously was clearly faster. Heck, a bowling ball in a sand trap would be faster. I did more research later and found the Neon was nearly a full second faster in the quarter mile, with a higher trap speed by 5 mph. Quarter-mile tests are the only numbers that matter, and this comparison showed why.
But it's not going to be my car; it's going to be Kara's. She took her turn and reported to the sales guy that the car was "a little slow." We declined to buy the car. After another survey of the CarMax lot, we again left emptyhanded.
Over lunch, Kara asked, "Why do people buy cars that slow?"
"Some people don't care about sportiness," I ventured.
"I'm not talking about that," she huffed, "I'm talking about not getting killed!"
With the Neon the clear winner in our comparison, I set to the ardurous task of finding a used Dodge or Plymouth Neon with a manual transmission and a sunroof, preferably with a CD player, and not painted red. This would have been easy if we had the full spectrum of Neons to choose from, but Kara only liked the new ones, which limited us to 2000 or 2001. I searched through dozens of advertisements with little luck, but I did notice that a Dodge dealer in Fredericksburg had a fairly large selection of Neons. They didn't have a 2000 Neon stick shift, but they did have a couple of 2001 models. One even had a sunroof. I told him we'd already priced out Neons and couldn't afford a new one. He replied, with only a hint of salivation, that there was a $2,000 rebate on Neons that would probably push it into the price range I wanted.
He ran the numbers, and though it didn't come out exactly right, it was pretty close. With Plymouths generally cheaper than Dodges, Kara and I headed to the local Plymouth dealer, armed with this cash-back information. At Joe Jacoby Chrysler, we hooked up with sales jock Matt Gaeta. After showing us some features on the car, we test-drove the very same steel blue 2001 Plymouth Neon LX that we'd only looked at before.
I found a nice country road and gave it as much of a run as I thought was reasonable for a car with only seven miles on the clock. It handled well and shifted well. It was no Miata, but it was worlds away from the Civic! Quarter-mile times are better on a Neon than they are on a Sebring or Avenger, and it did feel pretty zippy once I got an idea of where the power band was. I could see why these cars remain popular in SCCA racing.
Kara gave it a whirl next, and had an easier time driving the Neon than she's ever had with my Miata, or with the Civic for that matter. The transmission seemed to suit her well, and the power band was right where she likes to use it.
Our biggest disappointment was that the car didn't have a CD player, but they told us that the stereo is wired for a four-disc changer that they need only plug in if we wanted it. A little on the expensive side, though; about $500. Maybe other dealers would be interested in doing it for less.
We decided to go for it. We were tired of looking at abused clunkers and dealing with jerks. We were at a friendly dealership, looking at a nice car that we could barely afford but would last us a long time. Matt didn't play any games on price, we quickly hit an agreement for just a hair under $14,000, and Kara brought her first new car home! The whole transaction only took a couple hours, a far cry from my experience with the Miata. Lesson learned: buy cars from football players.
For six weeks I received hardly an inquiry on the Porsche. Then, strangely, I was bombarded with mail and phone calls. Many were local but some were out of the area! Some were looking for cars in better shape than ours; others were looking to steal the car from us ($3,000? I don't think so...). After sifting through the mail, sorting the browsers from the buyers, I had a short list of two locals and one fellow from Texas who were genuinely interested in the car.
One of the locals came out for a test drive and I happily let him have at it. His brother was along, and I chatted with his brother while he was out for a drive. We discussed the car's faults and strengths, including the climate control system, which has always worked flawlessly since we bought the car.
When the buyer came back, he said, "I like the car. It seems to drive very well. What's wrong with the air conditioner?"
A moment of adjusting showed the cold facts: the air conditioner had died. More to the point, the fans that blow cold air into the car had died; there was no fan control at all, for either heat or A/C. Unbelievable. On the day of a test-drive. I had flashbacks to when we bought the Porsche:
"How come the seat controls don't work?" we asked the previous owner.
"What do you mean the seat controls don't work?!" she replied, stunned.
This car doesn't like to be sold.
I fiddled with the fuses and jiggled some wires, but ultimately it was obvious that someone was going to have to check the car with a circuit tester. After dropping $900 on a radiator, I had no money for such diagnostiscs, and I told the buyer so. We went back and forth for a little while, ultimately arriving at a price that wasn't entirely to my satisfaction but saved me from trying to resolve the circuit problem. After delivering the Porsche, I continued south and sold my set of Corvette ZR-1 wheels to a fellow who needed a backup set. That made up the difference in price. Hopefully the Jaguar will behave during its test-drives, because I'm running out of stuff to sell.
So, how did we do? Obviously, a used Miata and a new Neon are going to be much more reliable than the Camaro, Jaguar, and Porsche they replaced. They'll also be cheaper to maintain. Those benefits are hard to quantify. But what I can quantify is car payments, insurance, and gasoline.
The old monthly expenses, with Camaro, Jaguar, and Porsche, included $310 for car payments, $137 for insurance, and $302 for fuel, for a total non-maintenance car expenditure of $749 per month. The new monthly expenses, with Miata and Neon, include $500 for car payments, $87 for insurance, and $139 for fuel, for a total of $726 per month. Hence, our month-to-month budget will be largely unchanged -- but the nasty surprises, like that thousand-dollar Porsche radiator, will be much less frequent.
Now we just have to wait for someone to buy the Jaguar.
While I was driving home along Route 29, a small truck being driven by a teenage driver switched lanes. Normally an unremarkable event, except this time, I was next to her. I tried to get out of the way but in so doing I hit a construction sign and drove into a ditch.
To her great credit, she actually stopped to see whether I was dead. This turned out to be lucky for her because a witness also stopped, so she would have been in some kind of trouble for taking off. A secret service guy stopped to see if I was okay, and an EMT stopped to check my vital signs. She reported that my pulse rate was a bit on the high side but otherwise I seemed to be okay.
The Miata, however, was not okay. The Miata was hurt bad. The tow truck brought my car home and we left it parked outside, waiting to hear from the insurance companies.
My insurance company, USAA, said they'd cover me if I had problems with the teen's company, and they sent an appraiser of their own. Fortunately, K&K Insurance proved friendly, helpful, and prompt. They declared the Miata a total loss and the car search was on... again.
I lifted the ban on GM vehicles briefly to test-drive a 1985 Chevrolet Corvette. I went away with very mixed feelings about Corvettes. On the one hand, the view out over the hood is awesome, the car is cozy, and it runs like a scalded cat. On the other hand, the digital gauges are just ridiculous and the 4+3 manual transmission is seriously clunky. Maybe the revised dashboard (1990) and proper 6-speed (1989) would make it a better car, but the early C4s were a strange mix of the superb and the inadequate. This was not the Miata's replacement.
Going in a totally different direction, I then found a 1994 Cadillac Seville STS to try. This may seem like a total departure, but the Northstar V8 delivers 295 horsepower, enough ponies to make up for a lot of other failings. They'd need to; the Seville was front-wheel-drive, automatic, and made by GM, three big strikes against it. Though there's nothing you can do about an automatic transmission, the FWD was totally unobtrusive. There was no torque steer. I simply could not tell that it was a front-driver. Absolutely amazing! And it cornered quite well too. It didn't corner as well as a Miata, of course, but it did accelerate faster than one. Not too shabby for a honking four-door. Overall, the Seville is an excellent car. I enjoyed driving it. But servicing the transverse V8 appeared to be nearly impossible, and that meant the car would be expensive to maintain -- it'd have to go to a mechanic. This may not necessarily be a dealbreaker, but it's something I have to think about.
After considering and eliminating another couple dozen cars, I thought back to my younger days when I was hot for a Jeep Wrangler. I wanted one so bad that I collected factory sales literature and bought books about them. But they were out of a college student's reach; I got a Bonneville instead. Now I had a chance to rectify that failure!
I hurried back to Dulles CarMax where they always seem to have a selection of Wranglers on hand. Though my interest was really with the more rugged 1995 models, the newer ones have the same drivetrain so I figured they'd be pretty representative, if a bit softer. I took a 2000 Jeep Wrangler with the 4.0L inline six and a five-speed manual for a run.
I think I must have been hit on the head with a calculus book in college, because Wranglers are not good transportation. They're bouncy, they're slow, they can't corner, visibility is poor, the shifter is clunky, and fuel economy is horrifying. Sure, this is all pretty obvious -- it is a truck after all -- but it's hard to imagine just how bad it is until you spend some time trying to push the thing around. The Jeep was, without any doubt at all, completely off the list.
I briefly contemplated a Dakota again but quickly came to my senses.
On a lark, I investigated a 1960 Cadillac Coupe deVille. My reasoning was simple: the car could be had for cash, repairing it would be a snap, and it was way cool. The owner told me on the phone that it was a good driver, though it needed some bodywork. This proved to be stretching the case a bit; on the test drive I found myself cruising in a car with sloppy steering, weak brakes, a transmission that didn't like to downshift, and holes in the exhaust. Even allowing for 40-year-old technology, this car was not a good driver for anyone who planned to live long enough to reach his destination.
It did look cool, though.
Getting serious again, Kara and I drove to High Performance Motors to explore the world of retired cop cars. I have never cared for the look of the 1991 and newer Chevrolet Caprice (other than the Impala SS variant) so we looked at those only briefly and moved on. But the Fords don't look too bad, so we took a 1996 Ford Crown Victoria for a test drive.
It's a big car, and it feels like a big car. Everything about it reminds the driver that it's a big car. But that's not all wrong. Big cars can haul lots of stuff like dogs and vacation luggage. The 4.6L V8 accelerates the big Vic briskly, though no one's neck is in any great danger of being snapped. It handles better than it seems like it should and the rear-wheel-drive lends a predictable and stable ride even under harsh conditions. Overall, I liked it better than I thought I would, though I had to wonder whether a non-police version might be more appealing.
The staff at High Performance Motors are friendly, helpful, and not the slightest bit pushy. It almost felt like they didn't care whether I bought a car. Quite refreshing after many of the clowns we've visited. I like these guys.
I ran across an advertisement for a 1995 Cadillac Seville STS being sold by a private seller. Its price was below market, so I gave him a ring to find out why.
Turned out the car had some nicks and dents in the paint, and somewhat high mileage -- 113,000 -- but mostly he had just bought an Acura TL and needed to move the Seville. His dad was the first owner, so he had quite a few records, including even the window sticker!
I met him for a test drive, and gave the car a good flogging. It sure moved pretty well for a large sedan (the Northstar was rated at a nice even 300 hp in 1995), and it handled well too. Just as with the prior STS, there was not a good reason to dislike the car. Painted metallic green, this one looked a lot better than the previous car, and the nicks and dents proved to be minor. It seemed to be a very good buy.
My office recently moved to within a few miles of Kara's, so fuel economy was no longer a tantamount concern (we'd be carpooling in the Neon anyway). 300 horsepower is plenty of fun no matter which wheels are delivering it, and it was actually nice to have a comfortable, roomy car. Also, I had previously learned that the STS was every bit as fast as the Impala SS, a car I had long lusted after. But the clincher was the knowledge of what other vehicles were available in the same price range -- compared to those cars, it was a no-brainer.
The seller told me to think about it and get back to him, which I did in about 30 seconds. I made an offer, he hemmed and hawed, but accepted. I made arrangements with my bank -- he got a cashier's check, I got a title; two happy guys, one with a problem solved and the other with a new Cadillac for $7500.
Yes, that's right, the Cadillac cost less than the Miata. Strange world.