Ah, That New Car Smell

A post script to the last few weeks' of columns…

I began searching for a new car about a month before I decided to get rid of the MINI Cooper.

The original plan was to keep my old MINI at least for another year — to sell or trade in my 2005 in 2015 and get a perfect 10 years out of the automobile. Then no one could argue that I didn't need — no, deserve — a new car.

I even told the guy at Markel MINI my plan, and he nodded, saying, “Yes, it is possible.” But I knew better. There was a tickle in the back of my mind that the next mechanical shoe to drop with my MINI would cost me $10,000.

So I began looking online for the replacement and was woefully disappointed.

We’ve entered an era in car design where people seem satisfied with the most mundane-looking vehicles. The ever-popular Hondas, for example, may be one of most reliable cars in the world, but they look like they were designed by a child who was just handed a piece of chalk and was told to draw a car like his daddy drives.

Speaking of popular cars, Hyundais somehow have become the most common car on the road. Seems like every other car that pulls up alongside me in traffic is a Hyundai, and to their credit, the car maker has stepped up its game with a line of inexpensive, futuristic-looking sedans.

The problem, of course, is that they’re still Hyundais. There was a time not so long ago when “Hyundai” was a synonym for “Yugo,” which was a synonym for “piece of shit.”

I say the above knowing full well that half the people in my office drive Hyundais and couldn’t be happier with them. After all, as Jeff Bridges says in the commercials, they come with “America’s Best Warranty.”

After my nightmare with my MINI, there is no way I’ll ever own a car outside of its warranty period again. Today’s cost to repair any car makes warranties a must, and car dealers know this. They know you’re either going to lease your car (I still can’t figure out how that’s a deal for anyone) or buy and trade it in four years later. Either way, most people will be making car payments their entire lives. 

So, Hondas and Hyundais were out. Toyotas also have become boring, except for the Miata, which, while being a convertible, isn’t designed for someone my size. I’d all but given up on buying another convertible, as the only ones that appealed to me cost as much as a small house.

What about a Ford Mustang convertible? Because of their low price, Mustangs have become the first choice for the budget-minded muscle-car enthusiast, which means there are a million of them on the road -- i.e., bellybutton cars.  From the beginning I considered doing the patriotic thing and buying an American-made car, but GM, Chevy and Ford proudly make generic cars to appeal to generic buyers.

When I bought my first European-made car — a ’95 VW Cabrio — my brother, who works on Porsches for a living, said I’d never be able to drive anything but a Euro car again, that they spoil you with smart design both inside and out. But if my MINI experience taught me anything, it’s that I can’t afford another European car, at least not one that I liked. Sure, you can get into a BMW or Benz for a reasonable price, but their low-end models are so vanilla you might as well be driving an American-made car... or a Honda.

Finally after hours of tapping throughout he ‘net, I came across the Subaru BRZ, a fun little “sports coupe.” It had a number of things going for it: 1) It met the obscurity requirement -- I’d never seen one on the road; 2) It was a two-door — I’m not hauling anyone around except my wife; 3) It looked cool (to me anyway); it reminded me of my pal Dave’s old Toyota Supra; and 4) It was reasonably priced.

Turns out the Subaru BRZ is the exact same car as the Scion FR-2. Subaru and Toyota (who owns the Scion brand) worked jointly to design and build the car. Each put out its own version of basically the same model. Since the pricing also was virtually the same, which brand should I buy?

Just like the argument against the Hyundai, it came down to the most superficial of reasons. Scion is Toyota’s “Youth line,” a brand designed to appeal to “Generation Y.” In fact, Scion's TV commercials feature an edgy young couple walking away from their car as explosions go off in the background. It just didn’t feel right.

Subaru, on the other hand, has become synonymous with small, dependable, four-wheel-drive vehicles. One of my fondest memories as a kid was driving in my brother’s Subaru Brat, a weird two-door car/truck hybrid, like a miniature version of the El Camino, complete with life-threatening lawn-chair-like seats mounted in the tailgate. Sometimes fun trumps safety.

If I had to choose between the Generation Y brand and a brand from my youth, there was no competition.

Long story short: I test drove one BRZ at one dealership (to make sure I'd fit inside it) and bought one at another. Unlike MINI’s one-dealership monopoly, there are at least four Subaru dealerships in the metro area. Price haggling lasted as long as it took the sales guy to show me how much he’d give for my MINI.

So now I’m driving around in a white Subaru BRZ, and I love it. It’s a stick, which makes it that much more fun to drive, though I still haven’t mastered working the clutch in flip-flops.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 01:32 pm
on Thursday, May 08th, 2014

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