I like cars. I study them parked, driving and stopped in front of me in traffic, like some people check out a person’s body walking ahead of them. There are all shapes and sizes, and a choice few cause me to look again, as I’m fascinated by smart design.
At 18, when I was ready to buy my first car, I looked for the lines, ride, and overall feel that spoke to me in my price range. The winner was a preowned tomato red 4-speed Fiat 128 — simple, boxy and Italian. I played Fleetwood Mac Rumors on my drives, and the much loved cassette became mangled and started skipping during The Chain instead of Oh Daddy, my least favorite.
It was during one of these drives that I rear ended someone, and life with my Fiat was history. Everyone was ok, but it was totaled and I was heading off to college, carless. After a year or two away at school, I was itching for a car again. A high school friend who also drove a red Fiat 128 took me to breakfast in his one day. I fell in love all over again, reminding him, “If you ever want to sell…”.
Be careful what you wish for. I was back in a Fiat 128 in no time, this time brick red, and if you squinted, you could swear it was a BMW 2002, my dream car. With a Fred Flintstone’s propel-it-yourself charm, the Fiat drove and stalled and roll started around Athens, and I parked on hills every chance I could. I found an affordable shade tree mechanic who could Scotch tape it together as things failed, and worked my way down the list to repair the wheel that squeaked the loudest. Rain-X was on hand in the back seat until I could spring for new wipers. Of course it rained more than usual.
More repairs later and after a nasty stall out in Augusta during the height of Master’s traffic, I was through. Next, I bought a new blue Civic DX, Honda’s design equivalent of the AMC Gremlin. This ride came with a car payment, for which my dad graciously cosigned. I drove away from the lot in tears, my head wrapped around the heavy debt, but the car did its part and drove as promised. It wasn’t pretty with its sawed off rear end, but the DX ran smooth as silk, what you’d expect Honda to deliver. But I wasn’t exactly smitten. Where was the grit, the spunk, the smart design, that something you need in a car? After a while I grew tired of having a car payment and sold it, sliding into a used Honda wagon next.
Another blue car, the wagon carried me into my late 20s. I remember loading up friends in it to head out for fun after work and on weekends. I also remember loading up Depends and Ensure cans in the hatchback to deliver to my dad’s apartment after he got sick. The car was paid for and got me to point b, but I wouldn’t say it was compelling to drive. I felt old in it too, and not in a good way.
After my dad died and left me some money, I wanted to use some of it for a purchase to both honor him and do something impractical but fun. I couldn’t locate or afford a 3-speed ’69 white Mustang convertible like he used to drive, but I did find a solid used silver Mazda Miata — Japanese again, so reliable. Riding carefree with the top down reminded me of the fun times our family had in the Mustang. My husband and I took great trips in the Miata, driving to Miami once for a wedding, with luggage and two sets of golf clubs crammed in and on the back of the car. It vibrated and flapped around on the highway, but was a sleek and fun enough ride that scratched the itch of wanting a convertible. I’m pretty sure my dad was smiling down approvingly, too.
Sadly, I had to say goodbye to this zero drama two seater when I had my son, and sold it to a freshman heading off to UGA. I lovingly washed and waxed it to sell, and it looked better than ever, a shiny reminder of the happy-go-lucky life I would soon shed. The buyer drove up with his dad, did a test drive and was sold. He handed me a check and drove away, and that was that.
The grownup car I bought next was a welcome beauty and another requisite stick shift in my long line of manual transmissions. A black Passat with bone leather seats, it was a sexy sedan, like a diplomat might drive. It thankfully didn’t scream new mommy mobile, but two car seats plus baby gear fit just fine in back. The car had a few ticks to fix, but drove like a dream, purring as only Volkswagons can — it’s all that farfegnugen they build in! Then life changed again, and I was rear ended. Thankfully my babies were at home with their nanny, but the car was pronounced totaled.
On another car search, I learned my husband had always liked Saabs. We went to an Atlanta car lot to look at a 9-5 since Consumer Reports gave it a promising thumbs up adding it their “Best Used Cars” category. I went with the 2000 silver Saab 9-5 wagon, manual transmission of course. Its hatchback allowed my babies to see and hear me loading and unloading groceries, something my sedan couldn’t. During trips home from the store with my Passat, my sons used to swivel their heads wondering where the hell their mother went, breaking into tears when all the head turning didn’t make me appear. The Saab wagon’s seat folded down, too, for hauling things.
Six months later, my husband traded his two seater Nissan 300ZX and bought a Saab 9-5 Aero sedan. His Saab came with a high output turbo giving it an appreciable get up and go — a 2.3 liter engine like mine, but with an impressive 230 hp over the wagon’s respectable 170 hp. The sleek Swedish wagon took our family of four on car trips in and outside the city, but after a year or two, we faced some hefty costs. Yet in between multiple towings and repairs, it generally kept us rolling.
Fast forward 16 years and our two Saabs have countless mechanic visits chronicled in two 1.5” thick file folders. We’ve replaced throttle bodies, thermostats, o-rings and even head gaskets. A relentless coolant leak had us buying thermostats, radiators and water hoses until someone discovered the dice unit was the culprit. State Farm contacted us to say their underwriters were growing concerned, wondering why the 16+ towings in seven years? Soon after, my Saab made it into Consumer Reports again, this time joining the “Used Cars to Avoid” list.
The Aero was by far the better car, but even with all their troubles, we held onto our Saabs and added a third car to our fleet, a preowned grey Audi sport utility, our first ever automatic. Exhaustive research and test drives told us the 2012 Q5 had few issues, and so we bought it. It’s got bells and whistles galore, a gorgeous design and interior, fun to drive German engineering and is the go to car for seeing clients and driving long distances. However, a year and a half into owning it and with barely 100K miles, the car can’t quench its thirst for oil, and needs $5K piston rings. We are told neglecting to repair the piston rings won’t damage the car, but means we need to add a quart of oil every 300 or so miles of city driving. So that is how we roll.
My carport pad has fresh oil splotches from the Saab wagon’s leak and we’ve stockpiled bottles of OW-40 European car formula, for when the Audi gets thirsty. As I write this, both Saabs are in the shop. My wagon was towed yesterday when the steering froze up, so my dog and I Ubered home. The Aero turned up a throttle body code, so we’re waiting to hear.
While my love/hate relationship with European cars has cost me, I still love their design and ride. We keep reminding ourselves, perhaps to feel better about our choices, that these repairs “are better than a car payment.” With two mortgages, two kids, college looming and pet care costs, I haven’t taken the time to disprove this rationalization, but if I tallied it up, we’d no doubt be eating our words.
After my Uber ride home yesterday, I scanned Carmax’s website and looked at a used Toyota Highlander. I’ve driven a friend’s before, it never fails her and with three rows, it can hold lots of people and things. I’m wondering if I could visit Europe more often with the cash I’d save from choosing Japanese cars over European? I’m beginning to think I’m overdue for an easy ride.