Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Finding My Car Identity

Since that movie option means I'll have some money coming in next year, I've decided that I can afford to buy a new car, and I've started the preliminary research about that. My problem is that I'm not entirely sure what I want. Or else I know what I want, but am not sure what is really best. In some cases, I'm getting conflicting input about what is best. I'm also conflicted by the fact that I don't really want a new car. I love my current car. It has exactly what I want in it, no more and no less. But it is old, ten years and more than 100,000 miles. I'm sure it could last a lot longer. The trouble is, I don't really trust it anymore. It's at the age that when things go wrong, they tend to go really wrong and without much warning, and that's happened to me twice so far this year, not counting the tire shredding, which has little to do with the age of the car. With me being alone, with as much cross-country driving as I do when I'm in book promo mode and with this being my only means of transportation, it's not a great idea for me to have a car that might leave me stranded on the side of the road somewhere. I do have friends I could call in a crisis, but my friends have lives, and I don't think it's a good idea to base my car decisions on whether a friend would be around to come to the rescue when my car breaks down somewhere and leaves me stranded on the side of the road.

Oddly enough, the shredded tire seems to be the thing that's wigged me out the most and made me be reluctant to drive much, even though that's the easiest thing to fix and has nothing to do with how much life is left in the car. You'd think the smoke coming out from under the hood in the middle of a traffic jam would have been scarier. The tire has made me totally paranoid, though, and it doesn't help that a lot of the roads around here are bad enough that they kind of make the car feel like it did when the tire first started to go. Even if I check all the tires before I leave the house, I spend the whole trip feeling like my tires are about to go. I could resolve that issue by just buying all new tires for peace of mind, but why put that kind of money into a car I really need to be trading in? As poor/cheap as I am, if I had new tires I'd probably try to keep this car another year or two, and then I'd end up stranded on the side of the road for some other reason.

Since I am poor/cheap and want the cheapest reasonably safe and reliable car that you don't have to put quarters in to make go, one of my friends, who I shall call Mr. Consumer Reports, has said I'd be better off getting a "newer" car instead of a new one. You take the biggest depreciation hit the moment you drive the car off the lot, so why not let some other sap take that hit? You can get a good certified used car, one of those rental or lease returns, that's only a year or so old and that has low mileage, and that decreases your cost of ownership. That sounds good, except the one time I've had a used car, it was evil. When I got it, it was only a couple of years old and in mint condition, and it broke down on alternate Wednesdays while I owned it and left me stranded too many times to count. I only had it three years, and by the time I pretty much pushed it to a dealership to trade it in, I'd replaced just about everything in it twice. It especially liked to eat alternators, fuel pumps and clutches. I don't know if it was a lemon or if the previous owner horribly abused it, but I'm suspicious of cars that have been driven by someone other than me. My current car has been the most reliable I've had, and it was literally wrapped in plastic when I bought it. I don't know if that's meaningful or true cause/effect, and I guess all those certified programs now mean I'd be less likely to get an abused car, but I'm not seeing a huge difference in price. Because most cars like that are rental/lease cars, they're more tricked out, with lots of features I don't necessarily want, so they're more expensive in the first place. The used cars with lots of features are about the same price as the brand-new cars equipped only with what I want. On the other hand, having a car that's already been used some does diminish the new car paranoia, where I spend the first six or so months of owning a car in sheer terror that I'm going to wreck it or have it damaged in some way.

My other dilemma is the manual vs. automatic transmission issue. I've been driving a stick shift since I got my first car when I was in college, and I love it. I feel very uncomfortable driving automatics now. I'm sure I'd get used to it after a while, but I like feeling more in control. Also, with a smaller car, you get more acceleration power when you really need it with a stick. If I need to get into traffic fast, I can drop into third and floor it, and you can't really do that with an automatic. However, if I keep this new car as long as I did my current one, I'll be well into middle age before I trade it in, and I have very bad knees. It's possible that there will be more times in the not-so-distant future that stomping the clutch might be painful. I don't do a lot of creeping-along-in-rush-hour city driving that makes the manual a real pain, though. I guess the dilemma is that I really prefer a manual, but I feel like I should get an automatic.

Then there's the fact that we're currently on the model year cusp. I could probably get a great deal on the 07s, but then I'd be taking the dregs of what's on the lot rather than getting what I want. In some cases, the 08s aren't even available yet.

Really, I'd prefer to just wave a magic wand and take ten years off my current car so I could keep it. Saturn doesn't even make anything remotely like it anymore. I have an SL, and the Ion, from what I've heard, wasn't all that great. Now they don't even have that. For 08, the equivalent car is a relabeled Opel. It's not even a Saturn. Saturn seems to have totally lost their brand identity. I am such a Saturn kind of person, at least, the way they used to be. Now that they've abandoned me, I have to figure out what else fits me, and that's a strangely disturbing psychological process to go through. If I were a car, what would I be? How do I see myself? How much of that is what I think I should want vs. what I really want? I've never really invested too much of my ego in what I drive, but it's still a big enough purchase that it deserves some thought. So, anyone have any recommendations or warnings about small/cheap cars?

1 comment:

Janet said...

Hi, Shanna! Personally, I LOVE my Saturn Ion--got it brand new about 2 years ago. My husband has a Saturn, too; they both seem to be VERY reliable, with no problems. And I don't know how they are in other places, but where we are, the service department is AWESOME--very trustworthy and dependable. (We've rarely used them for anything but routine oil changes, tho!) Didn't know they weren't making Ions any more. I agree--this is a BIG purchase, and worth your time to find what's right for you. Blessings to you! Janet