Stories Told

Family cars

My wife and I brought sporty little coupes to our marriage, hers a bright red 1989 Toyota Corolla and mine a maroon 1989 Chevy Beretta. We enjoyed the young and free two-door image almost as much as we enjoyed owning two paid-for cars! So when our first son came we lived with twisting and contorting ourselves to get his car seat in and out of the back. But when we started talking about having another baby, we knew that one of us would have to leave the coupe life behind. There wouldn’t be room for two car seats and my 13-year-old stepson!

I can’t remember how we decided who would give up their coupe. If it was by coin toss, then I called it wrong, because I found myself test-driving cars. My Beretta had rolled past 150,000 miles and was pretty used up anyway, or at least that’s what I told myself so I could feel better about it.

Not the one I owned, but it was this color

The obvious choice for our growing family was a minivan, but I couldn’t bring myself to even test-drive one. It would have been too beige, too bourgeois, for my fiercely independent and somewhat heterodox family. I test-drove a couple SUVs, as they hadn’t yet replaced minivans as the conformist family’s choice, but didn’t enjoy their rough handling and poor gas mileage. Scratching minivans and SUVs off the list left few options. I wasn’t wowed when I test-drove a 1996 Mercury Sable wagon, but it offered the space we needed. A little rear-facing seat even folded out of the cargo floor, in case my stepson needed respite from his siblings. And wagons had been out of favor for so long that I thought owning one might seem retro. “This won’t be so bad,” I told myself as I signed the loan papers.

It wasn’t all bad. Its V6 engine put out lots of power, or at least it felt that way after so many years driving an economy car. It cruised comfortably on the highway, which we enjoyed when we drove it 20 hours to San Antonio one Thanksgiving to visit my wife’s family. It was remarkably composed in the snow, a prized trait in Indiana. And I loved how I could carry darn near anything in it.

But it was a lemon. First, the head gasket blew, lightening my wallet by $1,200. Six months later, a freeze plug blew. The lowly freeze plug is designed to pop out when too much pressure builds in the cooling system so the engine block doesn’t crack. The idea is that it’s cheaper to replace a six-dollar freeze plug than an entire engine. Good thinking, but unfortunately the one that popped on my engine could only be reached by dropping the engine out of the car, which cost $1,300 in labor. As I wrote the check, my mechanic warned me, “These Sables, once they get cooling system problems, they never seem to get rid of them. You’ll keep dumping money into repairs. I’d get rid of this car if I were you.”

And so I did, right away. My wife, whose old Corolla had rolled for 175,000 trouble-free miles, urged, “Just buy a Toyota. You won’t regret it.” Toyota offered no wagons at the time; the best Toyota for my family was their minivan. I decided that if I was going to drive around in such an ignoble vehicle, it was going to be the finest one available. My 1998 Sienna had every option – power everything, leather, sunroof, first- and second-row captain’s chairs, alloy wheels, dual sliding side doors, and a premium sound system. This minivan was more comfortable than my living room! I paid for all that comfort – the Sienna was the most expensive vehicle I’ve ever owned, and not by a little bit.

My minivan on a trip to the Tennessee mountains

And I hated it. Oh, it was comfortable, all right. And it was as reliable as death and taxes. But this was the most personality-challenged car I’ve ever owned. It was a crashing bore to drive. No matter how hard you stomped on the gas, it accelerated at the same leisurely pace. The steering was Novocain numb. It wallowed around corners and felt floaty on the highway. The only excitement behind the wheel came in the snow or rain; it struggled to keep traction and was sometimes frightening to drive. And while I’m sure it got decent gas mileage among minivans, I hated how often I had to fill up this seven-passenger vehicle that I drove alone (and thus did not need) 90 percent of the time.

Along the way, my stepson grew up and left home, and my wife traded her Corolla on a new Toyota Matrix. And then she decided she wanted a new Prius. It probably wasn’t the brightest move I’ve ever made, because by then we were clearly headed for divorce, but I sold the Sienna, bought her the Prius, and took her little red Matrix. I hate red cars, and I wasn’t thrilled to be driving around in a car that always reminded me of my soon-to-be-ex-wife, but I was very happy to finally drive a little economy car again. That Matrix really grew on me. I liked it so much by the time I wrecked it last year that I replaced it with another one.

And all is right in my automotive world again.

And so ends my series about cars. Did you miss the stories about the Karmann-Ghia, the Chevy van, or the Renault?

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7 thoughts on “Family cars

  1. We went thru the same thing Jim, started out sporty and ended up with a Dodge Caravan worst vehicle I ever owned, then ended up with a Corolla and a Nissan Xterra which I love.

    Actually I have never been much of a car guy I just needed to get around, but with all the snow we have been getting downstate this year my Xterra has been invaluable to me.

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