Friday, July 31, 2009

What would Darth Vader Drive?

My seven year old son is into Star Wars in a big way. Last week he got a new Darth Vader action figure, which I noticed is sporting a silver chain around his neck. I don’t remember the Dark Lord of the Sith wearing a chain before, but I may have missed it because it’s actually a pretty tasteful, contrasting silver. Times change. I guess anyone who wears a cape these days needs some bling. Who knows, maybe Superman will be sporting a Mr. T starter set and a gold tooth in his next outing.

That leads to my question and the topic of this blog--what would Darth Vader drive? I’m sure it would be black. Something sinister like a Dodge Challenger or Cadillac Escalade. Would he put 20 inch rims on it? Pimp it out with a 1200 watt stereo and a set of flat screen TVs? Would he roll old school with a black ’69 Charger or Camaro? Or would a luxury sled like a boat tailed ’72 Buick Rivera work? Knowing the Death Star had tons of hangar space, he’d probably have all of the above and own something like a Nissan GT-R, Aston Martin DBS or Maserati GT on the high end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Get Smart

To be honest, I never “got” the Smart car. I dismissed it as a cute, compact, efficient but highly impractical runabout. For less money you can buy a Toyota Yaris hatchback, which is about the same size but holds four people.

Last weekend my kids and I stumbled on the Kansas City Smart Car Club picnic at a local park. After talking with one of the owners, I realized I’d missed the point. Owning a Smart car isn’t just about practicality. It’s about driving something different, fun and interesting. In this way, Smart owners are no different than people who buy Mini Coopers, Miatas and VW Bugs. They know they could drive something cheaper and more practical, but life is short.

I get it now.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

Cash for Clunkers didn’t start out as a bad idea. It took Congress to make it one. Originally intended to provide an incentive for replacing old, less efficient cars with newer, cleaner, more efficient ones, the program now reeks of bacon and is no different than any other pork laden half-measure enacted by Congress over the years.

Known as C.A.R.S., for Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save, the program provides vouchers towards the purchase of a new vehicle. To get the money, you have to trade in a car that gets less than 18 miles per gallon and is between eight and 24 years old. You also have to buy a new vehicle. Used vehicles, including program or certified ones are excluded.

My family owns both a car and SUV. Both vehicles are old enough for the program but get better mileage than the 18 mpg required for the vouchers. This problem is typical for most cars and small SUVs made in the last twenty-five years. The only way to really qualify is to own a large truck or SUV. If the program encouraged people to trade out of a large truck or SUV and into a smaller one, it would make sense. But it doesn’t. To get the voucher, all people have to do is trade their large truck or SUV for a new, similar vehicle that gets 1-2 more mpg. This is an irresponsible waste of taxpayer money. With last year’s high gas prices fading from memory, it encourages people to buy large SUVs, artificially driving up demand and encouraging GM and Chrysler to continue building the same vehicles that landed them in bankruptcy court.

There is another solution. Consumers can donate their clunkers to charity and buy used vehicles. More and more charities are turning to car donations as a way to raise money and the donations are tax deductible. Used vehicles no longer carry the stigma they once did and can be purchased from any individual or dealer, including former new car dealers struggling in the wake of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. Finally, consumers would save more money with this approach than with Cash for Clunkers and there are no restrictions. It provides a way to recycle and save without the clumsy, half-baked government approach.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In Praise of the Beater

Henry David Thoreau wrote about the futility of acquiring material wealth. If he were alive today, his argument would apply to cars as well. Thoreau would be appalled with our car culture, shunning it for public transportation. But if he had to drive, I’m sure he would own a beater.

A beater is the car equivalent of a horse at a glue factory. Its value fluctuates depending on how much gas is in the tank. Usually people who drive beaters are a flat tire away from permanent bus ridership. But not always. Sometimes a person drives a beater because they like the car too much to part with it. Or a person may view car payments with the same disdain Thoreau had for paying taxes. Aspiring race car drivers or people restoring a car drive beaters so they can spend money on their other car. Celebrities sometimes drive beaters to blend in anonymously. Sometimes the person driving the car in front of you, with a bumper sticker that says “My other car is a Porsche,” really does own a Porsche.

Most of the cars I owned were beaters. My hand-me-down Olds Cutlass and the VW Thing qualify. I also had a Buick Century which was an especially good beater; one I took for granted until I sold it. The Buick was roomy, comfortable, the air conditioning worked and it got great gas mileage. It wore peeling paint, a GM factory option at the time, and no hubcaps. When I drove it, traffic parted for me like I was Moses at the Red Sea.

A few years ago, the Buick began ringing up large repair bills. I decided I’d had enough and bought a brand new Hyundai Sonata. The Sonata was a great car. I liked the styling, which was criticized for looking like a funky Korean Jaguar, and liked rowing the Porsche licensed Tiptronic gearbox. Compared to the Buick, the Sonata was a joy to drive and in two years of ownership, nothing ever went wrong.

After a while, driving a new car began to wear on me. At work, I parked on the street downtown and mysterious scuffs would appear. My kids spilled milk and Teddy Grahams in the backseat. I realized I was leading a life of quiet desperation and car payments, so I put the Sonata up for sale and began looking for another beater.

I looked at Hondas and Toyotas, but the ones in my price range were shot to hell or looked like rejects from “The Fast and the Furious”. I looked at GM cars, but couldn’t bring myself to own another wobbly land yacht. One day I stumbled across a ten year-old Infiniti I30 with less than a hundred thousand miles on it. I remembered it was the same basic car as the Nissan Maxima but better looking. Curious to why it was in my price range, I called the owner who informed me it had slight hail damage. Two hours later, I brought it home.

The Infiniti is too nice to be described as a beater. Everything works and I wouldn’t hesitate to drive it on a two thousand mile road trip. It’s more rewarding to drive than the Sonata and has leather seats and a sunroof. I don’t mind parking on the streets or in the sun. I don’t cringe anymore when I hear, “Uh oh, Daddy! I spilled!”. And even though it’s black, I don’t feel the insatiable need to keep it washed. But it does clean up well and I’m not ashamed to take my wife out in public in it.

For me the Infiniti is the best of both worlds. Thoreau would not approve. But he might appreciate it, if he knew it saved me from the quiet desperation of car payments.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The New GM

GM reemerged from bankruptcy yesterday and it was the biggest story since Michael Jackson’s funeral. All of the media outlets are talking about the new GM. GM is leaner and meaner! GM is reinventing itself! GM is the New Coke!

But what about GM really changed? They still have the same management, the same brands and the same cars. The company is like your irresponsible sibling that runs up card debt, takes out a second mortgage, goes to a credit counselor, and then continues with his or her free spending ways.

GM is in the same position British Leyland was thirty years ago. Only GM makes cars that run. Like British Leyland they will continue to get government handouts, and if they continue with the same corporate culture, making the same cars, they will be back in bankruptcy court within five years.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Revenge of the Metro

In the July edition of Car & Driver, the editors compared the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids to a 1998 Geo Metro. Guess which got the best mileage?

Okay, it was a trick question—the Metro tied the Prius in Car & Driver’s test. I’ll admit I’m fascinated by hybrid technology, but I think people drive hybrids to make a statement. The Prius is a status symbol, just like a Porsche or a Hummer.

If you really want to save the environment, buy a Metro or a diesel that runs on veggie oil. Then spend the $20K you saved over the Prius on new windows and a geo-thermal heat pump for your house.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Of Friends and Road Trips

Last week I took a road trip to an old friend’s wedding. It was four hours across Missouri to St. Charles, but twenty years down memory lane. I have driven I-70 close to a hundred times in at least a dozen different cars. Most of the trips, all of the early ones, were made with my group of friends in college. Trips home for the holidays in my drafty, heater-less VW Thing. Driving all night in a dilapidated Cutlass to Florida for Spring Break. Top down, summer night runs to St. Louis in my LeBaron convertible to watch the Cardinals at old Busch Stadium or raid White Castle.

A road trip in a car that offers the speed and weather protection of a Conestoga wagon is a good test of friendship. When the sun dipped behind the clouds, taking ambient heat with it, we envied the Donner Party. Fortunately our friendships survived those days. Over time, my cars evolved, to a Toyota with roll up windows and a working heater, the aforementioned LeBaron, and currently a well worn Infiniti I30.

Change along the highway evolves in a lower gear than life. You aren’t aware of the change until you happen back on the past. Then the contrast between what is, and what was, becomes largely immediate. It’s like running into a grown up Lloyd from “Say Anything,” finding out he never married Diane, and gave up kickboxing for a career in IT.

Like my version of Lloyd, my friends have changed. Steve is now a research professor at a major children’s hospital. His wife Keri, is a fitness educator and personal trainer. Brian, my long suffering roommate and partner in crime, runs a pool cleaning business. And J.B. who was getting married, does play-by-play broadcasting for a local college.

It was never clear to me if these friendships were shaped by the road trips or the road trips were shaped by the friendships. Probably both. If I still owned the Thing, I doubt anyone would take me up on another January road trip. But I’m grateful for the experience and thankful to have my good friends to share it with. Everyone was happy to reminisce about the Thing, laughing at the sheer, stupid absurdity from the comfort of a warm July evening.