Monday, May 18, 2009


Dispatch from Suburbia

(Readers with pronounced visceral objections to suburbia might want to skip this post.)

This weekend we went to the first minor-league game of the year, which is always a glorious and welcome event. As regular readers know, I consider minor league games one of life's great pleasures. For eight bucks a seat, we were about eight rows from the field, closer to home plate than to third base. (By contrast, the New York Yankees attempted to sell comparable seats for $5,000 each this year. I'll admit some schadenfreude when that plan crashed and burned.) The home team was victorious, the hot dogs cheap, the fries crispy, the weather glorious, and the parking easy. One of TB's classmates was there, too, so TB and his friend spent most of the game clowning around with each other, which is as it should be.

Actual exchange between The Wife and me, about halfway through the game:

TW: That pitcher has really long legs!


DD: I think you and I watch the game differently.

Inspired by the example, TB and I spent the next morning playing catch in the backyard. Catching a baseball is about the only athletic skill I actually possess, so I gloried in my unaccustomed competence as I taught him which part of the mitt to use, and how to block a grounder with his body. We both had fun, him in the learning and me in the sense of passing something along. My grandpa played semi-pro ball in his youth, and I remember him trying valiantly to teach me to pitch. It didn't work, but I enjoyed the attempt, and I think that's about where TB and I are now. There's something comforting in that.

Sunday afternoon was devoted to car shopping. TW's car is eight years old and showing its age, and we have some travel coming, so it was finally time. (We both subscribe to the “buy it new and drive it into the ground” school.) I'd been doing some background research for about the last six months – 'nerd' plus 'internet' plus 'well-honed procastination skills' equals six months, apparently -- but this time we bit the bullet and actually went to a dealer.

The first part of our decisionmaking process went like this:

DD: Chryslers and Chevys suck, so they're out.

TW: I don't like Fords.

So, off to Honda we went. I mention this just to shed some light on the whole 'bailout' thing. None of the big three was even in the running. Until they are, I just see the bailouts as throwing good money after bad. “We must save them, or the Sebring will be no more!” I see the situation, but I don't see the problem.

Apparently, it's very much a buyer's market for cars right now. I've never been terribly adept at dealing with salespeople in the past, but this time they were falling all over themselves to make the sale. Simply 'looking vaguely uncomfortable' became a successful negotiating tactic. Just tell them you're off to another dealer to comparison-shop, and watch the price drop. I'd never seen anything like it.

For TB and TG, of course, cars in a showroom are basically jungle gyms. They immediately gravitated to the gargantuan SUV, taking turns pretending to drive while TW and I pantomimed being run over. Somehow there's nothing funnier to a four-year-old girl than sitting behind the wheel of an SUV the size of my grad school apartment, watching Mommy and Daddy silently scream in terror before flopping on the hood. I hope she doesn't recall the scene in some future therapy session.

Returning home, TB went to work on his diorama of the South Pole, complete with styrofoam glaciers and two-tone clay penguins.

Thus concludes this week's dispatch from suburbia. Tomorrow, we return to our regularly scheduled ironic detachment.

Your car company choice process sounds similar to ours: immediately discard any thought of buying a US-brand car, start with VW or Honda as default.

[And ditto on the 'drive it into the ground' except that my 10 year-old Golf, at 200K miles, shows essentially no signs of wear yet. Other than tyres and brakes, the only thing that has needed attention is that both front electric window supports went in the same week - a known design flaw, apparently, but not one that figured into my buying process!]
I know they're not for everyone, but my Prius has treated me better than any other car I've ever had. I've driven Dodges, Chevrolets, Fords, and Nissans, and the Toyota Prius straight up outclasses them all as far as performance, mileage (obviously), and upkeep.
For measuring the life of a car, I've adapted the same unit of measure as my brother: a one way trip to the moon or 250,000 miles. The Prius is well on its way. The Nissan topped 200,000. The Ford and Chevy in my past weren't even close. Having grown up in a Rust Belt city, I'm ambivalent about the bailout. The products are crap and the herd should be culled but I know blue collar folks who are in dire straits due to white collar decisions (let's make an even bigger SUV cash cow: the Ford Valdez!) I would have bought a Big 3 vehicle if I thought it would last longer than the payments.
Recommendation: Check out purchasing your car through COSTCO, AAA or some other fleet buying option. We have gotten a number of Toyotas (you can get any brand of car). You go through an actual dealership and generally speaking the entire deal has been closed in an hour or so. No discussion about price; and it is so hassle free you wonder why more people do not choose this route.
It kills me that I end up buying a foreign-made car, but every time I try, I can't find a well-made economical compact or mid-size vehicle made in the U.S. of A. Perhaps Saturn came the closest, but they are being axed by GM, after the parent company starved Saturn for R&D cash.

A true suburbanite looks for vinyl seats to better repel juice box spills and mud-soaked soccer uniforms.
Ahhh . . . minor league ball . . . even when we lived in Dayton, we attended way more Columbus Clippers games than Cincinnatti Reds games (and that was under the Big Red Machine heyday). For the price of one Reds ticket, we could get a family of five parked, ticketed, fed and watered . . .
Most amusing.

I'd be worried about the kids heading straight to the Urban Assault Vehicle. They will probably need therapy if you never own one and they (or gasoline) cease to exist by the time they could afford to buy one.

What bugs me about the Big 3 is just how far behind they are. The Prius got to the US around 2000 after several years in Japan, and the Honda Insight about the same time (after a later start in Japan). They were sold at a loss to build market share and get in-field testing. US manufacturers only put hybrid SUVs on the market. US hybrid Sedans are just now showing up.
I still cannot believe that there is not a hybrid minivan.
I might contend that your out-of-hand dismissal of the big 3 was summary and not entirely fact-based. Honda/Toyota have built reputations for quality that both carry a cost premium and most likely outpace reality. american small cars have improved in recent years. chevy cobalt is a perfectly good, ford fusion is also a good car. outside of the access of toyota/honda, hyundai has also started making very good cars. perception is reality when it comes to branding and consumption.
Great post.

Leaves us with the big question: What did you actually buy??

Surprisingly enough, I ended up buying a Hyundai. Love it, has a great warranty, and was well-priced.
When my husband's car died suddenly (on the road home from Christmas, with a three-month-old baby and loads of presents in back), we got a Hyundai Elantra. I can drive that from Blacksburg to Browns Mills, NJ on one tank of gas. That said, I owned a 1996 Ford Escort station wagon, moved it and my household of the time down to TX, up to MS, then back up to VA and put at least 120k miles on it before deciding I wanted a new car. It was 10 and a half years old. It was a great car except when getting up to speed, but it had a tiny engine so I worked with it. In 2007, I traded it for a brand-new Mazda5 (Touring). I love it. I tested a few others but this one fit me, physically. We love it and it gets good mileage for what it is; on trips I get 30 mpg and around town it's around 28 mpg (dips slightly when I have to run the heater or A/C every day).
Psychprof: I'm not surprised at all. My 2003 Hyundai is holding up very nicely (total repairs so far: one set of brakes), and it was astonishingly cheap for what I got. Fun to drive, too.
We were in a similar car-buying situation last November. The only American-made cars we've had that have been reliable are Saturns. My husband is on his second buy-almost-new-and-drive-into-the-ground Saturn. Since we heard Saturns were probably going to be axed, we looked at other options and ended up with a Honda Fit, which we LOVE! On road trips we get between 40-41 mpg and in the city it is in the 30s. Good luck!
In 2004, I bought a 6 year old Ford Crown Victoria. V8 engine, cloth seats, large back seat. Decked out. It had 145,000 miles on it. Good buy-$6,000. It was a repo at a credit union.

It now has 220,000 miles. I have religiously kept maintenance up on it at a local reputable automotive shop. The car still runs well. Lots of power and luxury inside. 20 miles per gallon in town. I've had to fix motor mounts, catalytic converter, new brakes, and new radiator. So five years later, I still love it.

It has my grandchild's child safety seat in back now. Four adults can still get in it with the baby seat. I too will run it in the ground which means getting scheduled maintenance. I have driven the Cobalt as a rental car when the radiator was being fixed on the CV. I liked the Cobalt. I don't know what car I will get next, but I don't think the CV will die for a few years.
Also, Dodge might be a brand to look at now; my roommate is checking them out to replace his old Jeep since many, many dealerships in TN are closing and offering rock-bottom prices.
Problem with the Prius (not the concept, the car) is the sustainability issue.

Life cycle cost (vs. the Corolla, or better yet, the Yaris) is going to suck. Even at $4.00/gal, assuming away the subsidies, assuming away battery degradation and disposal, the Prius doesn't "break even" for many years if ever.

Back before we started adding ethanol to our gasoline (yes, 10% ethanol decreases mpg by 7-12%), I owned a Chevrolet Sprint that got 45 mpg with gusts up to 60. One trip I took from Altus Oklahoma to Fort Worth Texas in 1987 I logged 63 actual mpg.

Of course, looking at a map, you can see the trip was all "downhill!"

Of course- the car was a deathtrap. But my wife did some guardrail surfing once (took an exit too late) and totalled the car. She + 3 kids in carseats = 0 fatalities though. The side of the car opened up like a sardine can.

IIRC it was a 3 cylinder 800 cc carbureted engine?
The internet is wonderful . . . the car was a 3 cylinder 1.0 liter that claimed 47/32 mpg.

My actual mpg was noticeably better than that.

I think we paid ~$5900 for it brand spankin new witha radio and air conditioner (standard tranny of course).
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