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A growing family fleet

For a few days in early June, my wife and I technically owned five cars.

I drive this 2013 Volkswagen Passat. It is a terrific car — comfortable, powerful, well-handling, built like a bank vault. I get the impression all mid-sized sedans are as good these days. Just as we perfected the sedan, automakers are discontinuing them to make room in their factories for more SUVs. As a dedicated car owner and driver, I’m displeased. But that’s a rant for a different post.

My car reflecting a sunset
Canon PowerShot S95, 2019

My wife drives this funky and fun 2017 Kia Soul. I wish it were a tighter handler, and I wish its seats were more comfortable on long trips. But its small size makes it easy to maneuver, and it’s good on gas.

Kia at 40mm
Olympus OM-2n, 40mm f/2 Zuiko Auto-S, Kodak T-Max 400, Rodinal 1+50, 2020

You might recall that we bought one of our sons a 2005 Ford Escape last year to help him launch into independent adulthood. I didn’t mention it at the time, but he’s had an incredibly rough last ten years. Some of it was his doing and some of it wasn’t, but if I told you all he’s been through you would be amazed that he’s still alive.

Escape
Nikon F50, 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor, Kodak Max 400 @EI 200, 2021

Early this year someone rear ended the Escape hard enough to give our son a serious concussion. It also totaled this SUV, which is a crying shame because it was really terrific to drive. Even though he got a fair price for the Escape from the other driver’s insurance, his concussion affected his ability to work and soon he ate through all of that money just paying bills.

He plans to sue for lost wages, but that takes time and he’s in a pickle now. Even though his concussion was improving and on more and more days he was able to work, he had no way to get there. He was falling further and further into a financial hole. So we went looking for another used car for him. We soon found this 2002 Mercury Mountaineer, which set us back $2700.

2002 Mercury Mountaineer
Yashica-D, Kodak Gold 200, 2022

This well-equipped SUV drove ponderously, but it made up for it by having a near-luxury interior that included a third-row seat. It had only 150,000 miles on it, low for its age. I checked all of the things I know to check on a used car, and drove it, and it seemed solid.

The next day I drove it up to the BMV to transfer the title. On the way back, I had to put my foot to the floor to accelerate quickly on a short Interstate on-ramp. Something went BOOM! — and then it ran roughly and lacked power.

Sidebar: When you own old cars, you need an OBD II code reader. Just because a check-engine light is on doesn’t mean whatever’s wrong is worth fixing. I drove my old Toyota Matrix for at least 60,000 miles with a problem with the variable-valve timing system. It was going to cost twice what the car was worth to fix it. The car ran fine. When check-engine light lit for that problem, I just attached my code reader and turned the light off.

My code reader is this little dongle you attach to the OBD II port under your dashboard. It syncs over Bluetooth to an app on your phone that scans the car and shows you all of the codes in play.

When I connected it to the Mountaineer, it threw 17 separate codes. Lesson learned: bring the code reader whenever you evaluate a used car. Sure, the seller can use a code reader to turn off the codes. But you have to know that is a thing and own a code reader to be able to do it.

Most of the Mountaineer’s codes were for minor things easily and inexpensively fixed. Two were concerning: two cylinders were misfiring. That probably was worth fixing, were it not for two more codes: failure of two transmission bands. I feared the worst.

I limped the Mountaineer over to my mechanic. He’s helped me eke out long lives from several over-the-hill cars I’ve owned. He drove it, and checked the codes, and poked around a little under the hood. Then he called me. “Jimmy,” he began — and he only calls me Jimmy when it’s bad news — “It’s not good. Replacing those bands isn’t too awful bad, but 90 percent of the time when I do that, I find serious transmission damage that you can fix only with a new transmission. These Mountaineers are especially prone to that. [He’s right. I looked it up.] That’s a $4,000 bill. If I did the band work, we’re looking at north of a grand, which you’d have to pay only for me to find that the transmission is junk. This old car just isn’t worth it. It’s really time for you to move on here.”

Play the sad trombones.

When I picked up the Mountaineer, my mechanic said, “I’ve got this 2007 Honda CR-V here. I’ve been tinkering with it as I’ve had time, fixing everything that needed fixed. That wasn’t much, because these cars are incredibly reliable. I own one and my wife owns one. I almost never see CR-Vs come through here, and when I do it’s invariably something minor. This one’s a little beat up, and it has 225,000 miles on it. But it’ll go another 100,000 miles easy. I’d sell it to you if you’re interested.”

Apple iPhone 12 mini, 2022

Margaret and I drove it, and it drove and handled like a car with 200,000 fewer miles on it. We worked out a deal for $4100 and I brought it home.

At about the same time, our son ran into more setbacks. His choices ten years ago put him in a deep hole, and the climb out has been long and full of earned and, increasingly, unearned consequences. An unearned consequence landed on him a few weeks ago, and him needing a car is on hold for now.

Our daughter was driving this 2010 Ford Focus.

Focus
Argus A-Four, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2018

It had been Margaret’s car, but when we bought the Kia we sold the Focus to our daughter for a nominal sum. She was just starting her adult life and needed a car. She named the car Fred, and she proceeded to ride Fred hard and put him away wet. I took him for a drive and found him to be very, very tired, with 196,000 miles on him. I hoped we could squeeze another year out of him.

I drove Fred to my mechanic, who found the front brakes to be beyond shot, the front sway bar links to be worn out, and the motor mounts to be cracked through. He said that otherwise the car is in okay shape. He didn’t recommend replacing the motor mounts as this would cost us a lot in labor for little gain other than a reduction in noise and vibration. But he could do the brakes and the sway bar links for a reasonable price, and if we did that we ought to be fine. I said yes. The car’s tires were near the end of their useful lives, so I had Discount Tire put on the least-expensive tires they offered that would fit.

We decided that the CR-V will go to our daughter. We’ll be the First Parental Bank and Trust — she’ll buy the car from us on a zero-interest two-year term. We are taking Fred in trade. She’s already named the CR-V Henry.

We’ll pull Fred into the garage and leave him there until our son is ready. Then we’ll give that car to him. We hope he’ll be steady and able to replace Fred when the time comes.

Meanwhile, I sold the Mountaineer to a junk yard for $420.

That’s five cars. The reason I say I technically owned five is because I haven’t yet transferred Fred’s title to me. But the deal is made and it’s just a matter of me going to the BMV.

It’s been quite an adventure buying all of these cars. I’ve learned some important lessons the hard way. But we feel good about being able to help our kids through the rough-and-tumble years of gaining their full independence.

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20 thoughts on “A growing family fleet

  1. It’s funny how they can accumulate. I had a bad feeling when I saw the Mountaineer come up, but I sure thought it would last longer than a day or two. I guess there’s a reason people call the Ford version the Exploder.

    I am still an American car guy at heart but will confess that I have not invested any of my money in a used one for quite a few years. Old Hondas and Toyotas cost more for a reason.

    • It turns out that the transmissions in this generation of Explorer/Mountaineer were problematic. That’s the other lesson learned: research a car for common problems before buying.

      I’ve owned a Chevy, a couple of Fords, three Toyotas, and now a VW. The car that gave me the single most expensive repair was one of the Toyotas when its transmission failed. One of the Fords blew a head gasket which was financially painful, too. Strangely, my VW has so far been the most reliable automobile I’ve ever owned. It just crossed over 100k over the weekend though, so we shall see.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Have only owned one American car since 1973, and it was practically given to me, a 90’s era Saturn (in 2004), and I was in a time of need. It was about as dependable as my 1975 Toyota in the day, so at least American car manufacturers had gotten that far. Your Mountaineer story reminds me of everything I need to know about how far the American car manufacturers have gotten.

    My short 4 years of living in the Indianapolis area was quite an eye-opener for me. Couldn’t believe the amount of American car drivers and “apologists”. I used to tell my staff that in Chicago and Milwaukee, the defense of the American car industry was “not a thing”, you heard since the early 90’s; your grandparents were already driving Honda by the mid-80’s. My father, who fought the Japanese in hand-to-hand combat on Guadacanal, was mildly upset when I brought home a new Toyota in ’77, until he saw how dependible it was against his GM. When he retired (he had company cars), I bought him a pals old Toyota wagon that was rusting out all over, until he could save for his own car, and he took great joy in watching it fire-up in 10 degree below weather while his neighbors Detroit crap-wagons wouldn’t even turn over. Needless to say his last car in his life was a Toyota Corolla.

    There are times in my life where your Mountaineer story would have sent me into bankruptcy. You can’t imagine how many places I’ve lived in my life, and the businesses I’ve started, based on the additional money I had by not being in servancy to the American car industry. I’ve read a lot of stories on here about people talking about their dependable American cars, but I always think “BS”. I always think people gloss over repairs as:, “…well, you know, just the usual.” They can’t believe it when I show them the actual paperwork on cars I got well over 200,000 miles on, with nothing but “wear parts”” tune ups, breaks, tires, wiper blades, battery. American car owners seem to think that starters, alternators, water pumps, and some transmission work, is “the normal”.

    Toyota isn’t what it once was, but neither is Subaru, that used to be problematic, and his now what Toyota once was. As I left Indianapolis to move back to the Chicago/Milwaukee corridor, my parting shot was my landlord telling me her expensive GM SUV now needed over 7,000 bucks of engine work, somewhere in between warrenty and 100,000 miles so they wouldn’t honor it (a story I heard, BTW, repeated from $60,000 American pick-up truck buyers). She said “..that’s it for me, next is a Lexus”.

    Sorry for the rant, but I really have lived a life far better than I would have, with far more opportunities I could try, than if I had been buying and repairing American cars my whole existence.

    • Buying that Mountaineer was a colossal and financially painful mistake. I was a patsy.

      I do struggle however with the immediate link to how unreliable American cars are. I’ve owned a Chevy, a couple of Fords, three Toyotas, and a VW. The car that gave me the single most expensive repair by far was one of the Toyotas when its transmission crapped out. All in, including a rental car for the week or so the Toyota was in the shop, that cost me $3500. (And then a few months later I was in an accident that totaled the car, but that’s another sad story.)

      Believe it or not, my VW (the car I drive now) has been THE most reliable one I’ve ever owned. It just crossed the 100k mark so who knows what’s ahead, but up to this point that car has been utterly trouble free. NONE of my other cars can claim that. Frankly I expect the regular, minor issues that my American cars gave me. I did not at all expect that from my Toyotas, but I got it nevertheless.

  3. Greg Clawson says:

    Jim, I can commiserate with you on the issue of kids and vehicles.

    We have helped ours kids out with vehicles, help with bills etc, it is still cheaper and less stressful than having them live at home, and being their personal Uber.

    I have owned American, Japanese, and German cars in my life and all have been trouble-free. The key is regular maintenance, not just the quick lube or dealership oil change type. Most of the time the ones performing this are not the best mechanics or even competent. Get a service manual at AutoZone and get to know your vehicles, and save alot of money.

    • I’ve always had a good independent mechanic to partner with me on keeping my cars in good nick. I’m not much for doing the work myself, beyond simple things that don’t involve getting underneath the car. I do use a quick oil change place for oil changes but that’s about it!

  4. Jim, you’ve had quite a collection of cars in your life. I’m glad your Passat has worked for you. My wife’s 2009 VW GTI has not been robust. Our most fun car is the 1981 BMW 320i, bought new in Houston and purring along on its original engine, transmission, and other components. It even has its freon R12 AC system.

    • Everyone I’ve talked to who’s had a car on the recent Golf platforms has not enjoyed the experience. Sounds like you’ve had a great experience with the BMW!

    • tbm3fan says:

      My mother had a 1980 320i and I agree it was a great car and way better than the Audi 100LS before it.

  5. tbm3fan says:

    Just 5 cars in a fleet and so many headaches. Well don’t try 10 cars in a fleet and only two are Japanese, although that would be very misleading, along with the fact that I just have a way with cars through my life.

    • There’s a part of me that would like to be the guy with a 1 bedroom house and a 20 car garage. But then I think of all the maintenance and I say naaaaaah.

  6. Hi there. The ex-engineering chiming in to say that the more complex something is the greater the chance something will go wrong and whatever does become more expensive to repair due to that complexity. Or “KISS”: Keep It Simple Stupid. It doesn’t help that vehicles are built to make companies profits rather than provide a good product, or that American production has been junk for a long, long time.
    And yes my Xterra’s check engine light is on. Sensor failure that costs more to fix than it’s worth. I wait until my brain tells me something is wrong before I get out the tools; even at my age it’s more reliable than a computer.
    Hey, at least I’m down to three vehicles and three trailers. Kind of a record low for me.

    • Funny you should mention the CEL, as the CEL on the CR-V came on last week and it was P0420, pointing at the catalytic converter. Mechanic said that it’s just worn out and is no longer catalyzing, but isn’t clogged, so he turned the light off and said keep on trucking. Got a text from my daughter an hour ago saying the light is back on and it’s P0420 again. (I gave her a code reader and taught her how to use it!) I told her to try to turn it off, but if the car won’t allow it, don’t worry about it and welcome to owning an old car.

      • tbm3fan says:

        OLO, there was my first CEL in my 91 Mazda 626 two weeks ago. Too early for a standard code reader so you have to improvise and read flashing lights on the dash. For me code 17 which means O2 sensor not updating in a Mazda. No problem as I have two OEM spares in the garage. Got the thing out, replaced, disconnected the battery, code resets itself, and now all is fine. The car is due for it’s every other year smog check so one cannot have a code when going in as it is an automatic fail if seen. The thing about the Mazda is that the CEL is not constant as in newer cars.

  7. DougD says:

    Well I hope your son fully recovers from his concussion. Car crashes are no joke, I still have a sore neck sometimes from getting rear ended almost 40 years ago.

    And too many cheap cars! Arrrrghhh the frustration, although overall you didn’t do too badly. I’m surprised you were able to find a decent vehicle for $4,100. You can hardly find anything usable for that price around here, particularly if it’s Honda or Toyota.

    And why oh why do people not maintain their cars, and hasten their demise? Then they have to buy ANOTHER car that they can hardly afford (or someone else has to). Of course I’m the opposite way and maintain too much, then wind up fixing things just before I get rid of the car. It’s an expensive business no matter how you do it.

    • It’s been a surprisingly long journey with his concussion. I’m a little worried that it won’t resolve fully.

      I do not get people who do not maintain their cars. It’s not hard to change the oil on time, and make sure fluids are topped off, and follow the maintenance schedule. Also, listen for new noises, smell for burning or petroleum smells, and look for things like tire wear or puddles under the car.

    • My inde. mechanic here in town usually deals with a pretty low end clientele (I suppose I’m one of them!) Whenever I visit his shop, I’m always amazed how many entire engines he replaces. They cost $ thousands, and are often going into dirty, grungy, ill-kept hulks. How does one ruin a modern engine? I must live in a different world.

      • There’s a place here that advertises engine replacements on late-night TV. Their hook is that an engine is cheaper than a whole new car!

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