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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.