Thursday, April 09, 2009

The New Car

I wasn't planning to get a new car for another 4 or 5 years; I like to buy new cars, with the features I want, drive them for 10 years or more (doing all the services), and then sell them to someone and buy another new one. I find this reasonable, and not wasteful; and ten years gives you time to save up the price of the next one. The last car I bought was a loaded 2002 Passat, a wonderful, comfortable, easy-riding road car with a huge trunk.

Now that I've retired, I don't need a commute car any more. And my Passat, while still enjoyable, eats more gasoline when I'm tooling around town than it did when I was commuting 17 miles each way on the freeway. Still, I wouldn't have chosen to replace it; and in fact, we didn't replace it. We replaced my husband's 2002 Mercedes C-230.

In 2002 my husband needed to replace his commute car, even though he hates shopping for cars. (I'm actually the car buff.) He test drove several cars, including a Passat, and didn't really like any of them; and then he drove the Mercedes. It was love at first sight; it was small, nimble, tight handling, and he could get it with a 6-CD changer in the glove compartment, so he could listen to Haydn symphonies on the way to work. The trunk was smallish; but he forgave that.

About 6 months ago, the Mercedes started breaking down; commuting to Livermore (90 miles a day) has put 140,000 miles on it. Mercedes repairs are really expensive, and over the last 6 months we actually paid out more than half the bluebook value in repairs. A couple of weeks ago the water pump went out, for another four-figure bill; and he said, that's it. We're getting a new car.

Our long term car plan was that, in retirement, instead of having "his car" and "her car", we'd have "the town car" (small, nimble, high mileage) and "the road car" (lots of storage space for backpacking equipment, and able to take rough back roads). His backpacking car has been the Passat because of its huge trunk, but he can't take it on the really bad roads; it's just a sedan. Once we decided to buy, we agreed it was time to get "the town car," and he would take the Passat for his commute car; it only has 65,000 miles on it, and should last several more years. I went to Consumer Reports and got a list of the top-mileage cars. This boiled down to two major choices: some kind of hybrid, or a MINI Cooper.

MINI Cooper, I thought. That's a cool little car, and it gets amazing mileage. I decided I had to test drive a MINI; and I fell in love. That car is just fun to drive, even more than the Passat. I dutifully test drove a Prius, and a Camry hybrid; but I'm sorry to say that Toyota has changed since they made the 1981 Tercel that I drove happily until 1992. The seat position in the Prius had my back aching before the test drive was over; I have to be able to sit straighter than that when I drive. And the Camry - well, the seat was comfortable, but it was like driving a big marshmallow. You can wiggle the steering wheel almost a quarter of the way around, and the car's nose barely budges. I'm used to German cars; I can't stand loose steering. So I dragged Jim out to the MINI dealer, and he liked it too; and we bought one. I think I'm twenty years past having a "mid-life crisis" - but I sure enjoy driving that car!


  1. If the Cooper Mini is anything like the old Austin America I owned back in the early 1970's, woe to the owner!

    That car was about the size these new Coopers are. The controls and road feel were very tight, but they hadn't thought out the business end of the vehicle before marketing it. The engine and transmission "shared" the same fluid (oil), and the straight automatic shift lever was so tense that the car jerked whenever you changed from neutral to drive or back to reverse. Very quickly, the transmission started to fail, and the engine didn't fare well in the cold Midwest climate (we were living in Iowa at the time). It had a manual choke (rather unusual in American cars, even then), but it made no difference: The battery routinely wore down and went dead. We only had it for a little over one year before we broke down and bought a nearly new VW Bus, which performed yeomanly for another 15 years before we traded it in.

    VW's repair expenses for all those cars it has designed after about 1975 have been insane. It was said that if you had to "buy" all the parts to a new Passat, it would cost you something like $75,000--and that didn't include the labor to put it all together!

    We have just purchased our third "new" VW bug, the one designed by that Spaniard. I won't enumerate its pros and cons, except to say that we've been more than satisfied by its performance, as well as its very civilized room and handling. It's a real winner.

  2. I remember those 1970-vintage English cars, they were pretty awful. I vaguely remember a joke that English cars were made by doddering little old ladies in villages. This is one reason most of those manufacturers are now dead, and cars manufactured in England are now under marques like Toyota and Nissan.

    The resemblance between your ill-fated Austin America and my MINI Cooper is superficial - the MINI Cooper is a BMW brand. Also, the MINI is recommended by Consumer Reports (yes, I do check that); I doubt seriously that a car with the issues you mention would ever get a check mark from CR.

    We may have just been lucky, but we've had the Passat for 7 years now, and nothing untoward has gone wrong, and the running repairs haven't been exorbitant. I was annoyed when the glove compartment lock failed (only car I've ever had that happen on) and VW charged me $70 for an entire new glove compartment door; but that was unusual.

    I considered a VW Beetle, but the MINI gets better mileage. I would seriously have considered the new clean-diesel Jetta, except that a scan of my neighborhood gas stations showed that I would have had to drive to 46th Street to get diesel. I refuse to buy a car I can't fill up in the neighborhood.

  3. My wife has decided her next car will be a mini. She likes the look and the milage is great. Everything we have heard and read says it is a good car.

  4. I think she'll like it, Stephen - it's amazingly fun to drive! The interior fit and finish is nice too. And the gas mileage - in my standard driving pattern in the Passat, I used to get 215-250 miles on a tank; I'm now well over 300 miles on the first tank of gas and am at about a quarter of a tank.

  5. You're right. As a Prius owner, I would put seat comfort on the "con" side of the "pros and cons" sheet.