Saturday, November 26, 2011
Ugly, cheap, reliable
It gets me places
To date I've spend $800 in repairs on the car. Adding in the $1,400 I paid for it puts me at $2200 for seventeen months of ownership, or about $129 a month. For comparison, that's less money than my cable TV or electric bill.
I still haven't addressed the manifold gasket, which will cost me around $900. So far it hasn't been a problem. I check the oil and antifreeze levels every time I buy gas. If I were burning antifreeze, I'd either have a milky white film in my oil or see white smoke coming out of my exhaust. So far neither symptom has shown up, so I'll continue driving it and postpone the repair as long as possible.
Friday, November 11, 2011
To me, the Porsche Boxster should rank as one of the best sports cars of all time. It's not iconic like the 911, or as beautiful as a Ferrari 275 GTB. It doesn't offer the performance of a supercar. In fact, it won't put up the performance numbers of some sedans like the BMW M5 or Cadillac CTS-V.
But with styling based on the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, razor sharp handling, and some semblance of practicality, it may be one of the best all around sports cars ever. Early models currently sell for around $10-12,000, so it's also very affordable. Short of a Mazda Miata, I can't think of anything that provides good, cheap fun and everyday usability.
Top down on warm fall days, across a countryside of two lane roads framed with autumn colors, through the musty smells of woodsmoke and dry leaves, and the accompanying sonorous wail of the Boxster's flat six engine, it would be a treat for the senses.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
If you're a gear-head shopping for a used car in the $15,000 range, it's hard to ignore the Mazda RX8. This is especially true if you are a dad who wants a sports coupe, but need a back seat for two kids. Granted it's not as pretty as an Audi TT or as iconic as a Porsche 911, but unlike those cars, you can actually inhabit the backseat without removing your legs.
And like the TT and 911, the RX8 is a legitimate track monster. Weighing about 3,000 lbs, it has nearly perfect weight distribution. It carves apexes like a Ginsu knife and its handling is sharper than Ricky Gervais' tongue. Normally that kind of handling would rattle your fillings over the tar strips and pot holes that pervade a normal commute in the rust belt, but the Mazda's suspense is also compliant and forgiving to a fault.
Practical commuter and track star, it's the perfect blend... almost.
There is one flaw with the RX8, and like Ricky Gervais' whit, you either love it or hate it. Unlike all other cars on the planet, which are powered by a piston engine, the Mazda's powerplant is a Wankel rotary. This engine has its advantages. It's small and lightweight, displacing only 1.3 liters. It's silky smooth, with only two moving parts that rotate around a crankshaft instead of bouncing up and down. But it's also thirsty, going through a gallon of gas in an average of 19 miles and burning a quart of oil every 1,000. No wonder "Car & Driver" summed it up as the perfect coupe in search of an engine.
I like the RX8, just as I liked the RX7. I like the idea of the Wankel rotary engine and am pleased to see Mazda attempting to keep it alive. But I like them at arms length. To me, the RX8 has a lot in common with Ricky Gervais--it would be a lot of fun hanging out with him for a couple of hours, but I don't think I could share an office.
Monday, October 10, 2011
When you think of 1960s British cars with American V8 engines, what comes to mind? The AC Cobra? Sunbeam Tiger? The Morgan Plus 8 with its GM sourced power?
How about a GT with Italian styling and one of the best car names ever?
The Jensen Interceptor was a limited run grand tourer produced by Jensen Motors from 1966-76. Powered by Chrysler's 383 and 440 cubic inch engines, it offered style and performance comparable to an Aston Martin DBS or Jaguar E-Type. But while Aston Martin and Jaguar still make cars today, Jensen died out 35 years ago due to the perfect storm of rising gas prices and poor build quality.
Recently there have been several efforts to revive the marque and refurbish the Interceptor with updated power plants and amenities. You can also find a good, clean coupes in the $10-20,000 range or about twice that for the convertible version. And because of the MOPAR drive train, a lot of parts are fairly easy to find.
To me, the Jensen Interceptor is one of the few European cars you could legitamately turn into a Pro-Street hot rod. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to buy one and update it with the Hemi engine and transmission from a Chrysler 300C or Dodge Charger R/T. Done right, the results would be spectacular.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
The 3.1 liter V6 in the Oldsmobile has a reputation for trouble with the intake manifold gaskets. It's either a poor design, poor quality gasket, or a problem with the antifreeze they used--possibly all three. But the 3.1 and other engines in this family, made between 1995 and 2005, are prone to this problem which causes antifreeze to start leaking into the intake and into the combustion chambers. Left long enough, and the engine will eventually seize or destroy itself.
Now I have a choice--spend another $1000 and fix the problem or start looking for a replacement.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
"What would you buy for $15,000?" she asked.
I hoped it was a rhetorical question. Car nuts like me are a cross between serial monogamists and high functioning heroin addicts, and like an addict I became tormented by her question. Not because I was scared of falling off the wagon and replacing my Oldsmobile, but because I didn't have an immediate answer to the question.
The problem is, there are lots of choices for $15K. On the practical side, any number of late model sedans are available with low miles and a factory warranty. But for the same money, you can also buy any choice of high end luxury sedans from eight or ten years ago. Cars like the Mercedes S Class, Lexus LS, Jaguar XK, or one of my other favorites, the E38 BMW 7 Series.
The E38 is by no means cheap to own. It costs more to run than a Honda Civic. It guzzles fuel and is as maintenance intensive as a Desperate Housewife. But for the same price as said Honda, you can buy a flagship luxury sedan that sold for almost six figures when new. One that has heated, massaging seats, dual climate control, sat nav, and more features than you could want. Owning one would be like dating Teri Hatcher--sure there could be problems... but it's Teri Hatcher.
Compared to the later 7 Series with its Bangle-butt and flame surfaces, the E38 has a clean, almost timeless style to it. And unlike the Mercedes, Lexus, or just about any other full sized luxury sled, it is a driver's car. I like it as much, if not more, than the Jaguar XKR. But while the Jag only fires the synapses on the right side of my brain, the BMW appeals to my left brain as well.
Besides the great styling and performance, it offers the practicality of a large car and its almost indestructible. For those times when it needs maintenance, there is a large online community to offer advice and a number of independent repair shops in town, both of which could help take the sting out the bills. Plus, you can buy one for much less than $15K. In fact, if you're careful, you could almost buy two.
As I write this post, there are several well cared for examples, near where I live, for less than $10K. Unfortunately, they all have very high mileage and are for sale at the kinds of "fly by night" places run out of a trailer on a vacant lot.
But there is a 2001 740i at a nearby Ford dealership that would be very tempting...
Saturday, July 30, 2011
I've driven my 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass for over one year. It was originally intended to be a stopgap car. I would drive it until my wife and I saved up some money to buy a new car for her, and then I'd drive our 1999 Nissan Pathfinder.
But the Cutlass turned out to be a decent car. It's not pretty, with it's metallic tan paint, dents and missing trim. But it had only 76K miles when I started driving it last year and has proven to be dead reliable. It's gone another 12K miles and NOTHING has gone wrong on it. Once a week I fill it with gas, and I've changed the oil twice. That's it. In turn it's served me faithfully on my commute to work, weekend errands and transporting kids to ballet, basketball, and swim practice, all while getting around 24 MPG.
There are only two things that have given me trouble. First, driver's door handle doesn't always open from the inside, requiring me to roll down the window and open it from outside. This has been a minor problem, and one that has only truly been embarrassing once. In January I had a job interview in a building with valet parking. The interview lasted until 5:00, so when the parking attendant pulled up, a crowd of people witnessed him trapped in my car.
The second problem was the air conditioner. This summer, when the temperature hit the century mark, the a/c blew cool air, but not cold enough to cool off the car when it sat in the hot sun. Knowing air conditioner repairs can be either a $100 or $1000 fix, I thought I might have to replace the Cutlass. But the fix turned out to be cheaper than $100--much cheaper. The knob for the airflow had broken, so it wouldn't set to the max a/c setting. Channeling my inner McGyver, I used a pair of pliers and some tape to fix the problem.
Besides being cheap to own, there are intangible benefits as well. The Olds provides piece of mind. I don't think twice about parking it downtown, on the street or in a parking garage. I don't worry about it being dented or scratched. And I don't mind squeezing into that space at the mall partially encroached by a shiny new Escalade or some other behemoth. When relatives come to town, including ones who drive like escaped convicts, I don't think twice about handing them the keys.
The car is a rolling punchline and it reminds me not to take things so seriously. People ask me if my grandfather knows I borrowed his car or if I use a fake id to get an AARP discount. I've also been tempted to take it to an expensive restaurant with valet parking, just so I could tip the parking attendant extra to put it in a prominent spot next to a Maserati or Porsche and make sure nothing happens to it.
But the bottom line is this: After one year, I saved $4,800 in car payments. Or to put it another way, this year the Cutlass paid for a new washer and dryer, a new refrigerator, and a family vacation to Florida. And instead of a stopgap car, it has turned into practical longer term solution.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Here are some of my favorites:
Ford Aspire: Clearly a car for people who aspire to own something better.
Suzuki Esteem: The only drivers are ones who lack self esteem.
AMC Gremlin: I'm guessing hobgoblin, gargoyle, and leprechaun were taken? Were the AMC executives dropping acid?
Dodge Dart Swinger: Another name from the early 1970s. I'm sure Ralph Furley from Three's Company had one.
Ford Probe: Intended to be a Mustang replacement, the Probe was actually a decent car with a bad name. Imagine explaining to your insurance company that you were rear ended by a Probe.
Isuzu Hombre: I thought the Hombre was the guy who did those Isuzu commercials years ago, but it was a Jeep type vehicle. They might as well have called it the Isuzu Dude.
Chevy Citation: Nova deserves an honorable mention because it means "no go" in Spanish, and Celebrity was infamous, but Citation is bad in any language. GM should have received a citation for building these cars.
Oldsmobile Achieva: Not sure what it achieved, but it was an under-Achieva that helped lead Oldsmobile to its demise.
Geo Metro: Driving one was kind of like taking the Metro or other public transportation. Cheap plastic interior, noisy, incessant droning from a three-cylinder engine. Suzuki called their version the Swift, which it might have been compared to the Metro because it had an extra cylinder. But Swift was relative. The only way this car was swift is if your other mode of transportation was walking.
Daihatsu Charade: Easily my favorite, hands down. The only way it could be better is if they called it the Daihatsu Masquerade or Punchline. Daihatsu lasted about four years in the US, which is no wonder because they were merely acting out a charade as a car company.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
But then Mustang owners wouldn't park their cars on the lawn. They'd farm it like a NASCAR driver on the infield at Daytona.
Cool. There's a reason why Memphis Raines' unicorn was a modified 1967 Shelby GT500 named Eleanor. Even James Bond drove one in "Diamonds Are Forever". But to me, the coolest one was the 1968 Highland Park Green example Steve McQueen drove in "Bullitt".
The original Bullitt Mustang was a basic, stripped down street machine with Torq-Thrust wheels. It prowled the streets of San Francisco with a 390 cubic inch V8 soundtrack. There were two cars built for the movie. One was supposedly destroyed during filming and the other is hidden away somewhere by a reclusive owner who makes JD Salinger look like Donald Trump.
In 2001 and again in 2008/2009, Ford produced a limited edition Bullitt Mustang to commemorate the movie. The new Bullitt Mustangs share the stripped down look of the original. They aren't the fastest or the best handling, or even the most collectible version. They don't have the 390 cubic inch engine or the legendary 5.0, but they are by far my favorite.
But no matter what version, the Mustang is cool. It has that It factor. Like a pair of Ray-Bans, jeans or Classic Rock there is an honest, American quality to them. Unlike some of the more expensive and pretentious GT cars, you don't have to put on airs to own one. You just drive it.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
Car nut that I am, there are tons of other cars I'd rather own. Now that spring is here and the weather makes it difficult to be indoors, I wish I owned a convertible--something with four seats like a BMW, Ford Mustang, or Saab would be nice.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
It's funny how the mind of a car nut works. My wife and I saw "The Lincoln Lawyer" recently, which starred Matthew McConaughey. We both liked the movie, which features tight storytelling, authentic characters, and excellent cinematography.
But I loved the old school 1980s Lincoln.
I know, it's a Town Car. God's waiting room riding on four wheels. It's the kind of car you're buried in, and in fact, many of these cars were turned into hearses. As I look at the car with it's angular body, Landau roof, and acres of chrome, I picture it piloted by a septuagenarian sporting plaid pants with white shoes and a Brylcreemed comb-over.
Abe Vigoda, your car is ready...
And yet, as I watched the Lincoln roll through the streets to the sound of Bobby "Blue" Bland, I couldn't help but think it was cool.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Davis was one of the first writers to blend facts and statistics about cars with prose. For him, an article was not just about acceleration times and braking distances, but a story about how the car felt to drive. A car story should be an adventure with a spectacular setting like the one below:
Davis not only wrote car adventures, he lived them. He was friends with countless racing drivers, attended and threw lavish parties, hunted avidly, and loved dogs. Larger than life, he seemed almost boastful. At first his writing annoyed me. I wasn't sure if he was compensating for something or just full of himself. Perhaps both. In 1955 he flipped an MG at a race just outside Sacramento and went through 18 months of rehabilitation hell. Instead cowering from the near death experience, Davis found it liberating. As he said later,“I suddenly understood with great clarity that nothing in life — except death itself — was ever going to kill me. No meeting could ever go that badly. No client would ever be that angry. No business error would ever bring me as close to the brink as I had already been.”
It was then I realized Davis was simply grabbing life by both horns in a way most of us only dream of. Like Hemingway or Twain he was vividly weaving his life experiences into prose. And like Twain, he could be self effacing as well. In 1989 a subscriber to Automobile wrote a letter informing Davis that people were laughing at him behind his back. Davis responded in typical fashion by writing an editorial piece, making light of his disfigurement, and ending with:
To thine own self be true. In a world of vanilla, Davis was hot fudge. He will be missed.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Besides the usual charms, this version of the XJ6 has something rare for a Jaguar--reliability. The drivetrains are bulletproof and the electrical systems were exorcised of all the typical British electric demons.
What's more, these cars are going on 16 years old and are relatively cheap to own--you can pick up a good example for around $7,500. Additionally, they are starting to develop some collector interest. They are the last of the XJ series made before Jaguar introduced its V8 engine and also the last cars that were partially influenced by the company's founder, Sir William Lyons.
I've always had a soft spot for Jaguar sedans, particularly the XJ6. If I ever stumble across one of these in good condition, I'd be hard pressed to pass it up.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
$2400 will buy a lot. A cruise or trip to Disney World. A really nice home theater system. Season tickets for your favorite sports team. A new fridge or washer/dryer tandem. It's also almost twice what I paid for the car originally.
While I'd much rather drive something else, it's hard not to like a car that saves you money.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Chrysler, Ford and GM have come a long way in a short time. The quality of the look and feel of their new cars is amazing. Chrysler's new interiors are stunning as are Ford's. GM is finally building cars I'm interested in, including the new Chevrolet Cruze and Buick Regal.
When it comes to imports, Hyundai and Kia are lapping the field on Toyota and Honda. The Korean automakers have always provide a good value at a low price. Now they're turning out stunning designs and workmanship. The new Kia Optima looks better than a Jaguar XF--and I never thought I'd say that. And the Hyundai Elantra looks like it came from the future. I sat in a Mercedes C300 and then the Elantra. Both cars are about the same size, and line up nicely on paper, but you can buy two loaded Elantras for the price of one C300. What's more, the Elantra actually had a nicer interior with its mix of materials, design and colors. Even if they were the same price, I'd still pick the Elantra.
My latest obsession is a Mini Countryman. It's the first Mini you can get four normal sized people in without a shoehorn and some butter. At $27-30K, I thought it was price, but it's everything I want in a car. Unique styling, room for four, all wheel drive, good gas mileage, and loads of fun. I'm sure this obsession will pass eventually--people who genuinely obsess about cars are like serial monogamists or high functioning addicts. And if they have means, they will collect cars like Charlie Sheen collects women and grams of coke. But for those of us with limited means, who have to make due with one car in the garage, the Countryman would be hard to beat.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
I was reminded of this fact recently while browsing car ads online and realized there are a number of 1997-2000 Porsche Boxsters for sale below $10,000. Ironically, one of my favorite affordable Porsches, the 944, is appreciating towards that amount. So today you can have your pick--Boxster or 944 for the same money.
I know I'd take the Boxster. As much as I love the 944 for its mix of performance, handling, practicality and reliability, the Boxster includes all those traits and has Porsche's iconic flat-6 engine mounted mid-ship.
But it's not just Porsches that experience the phenomenon of depreciation. Just about any car hits its low value when it reaches 10-15 years old. In the 1970s, you could pick up a V12 Ferrari or Jaguar E-Type for the cost of a new Ford Pinto. In the 1980s and early 1990s, muscle cars and 1960s Corvettes were cheap. Now all of these cars are approaching the price of a three bedroom house, or far more in some cases.
Today you can find all kinds of bargains as well. The Porsche 928 and BMW 8 series are in the same price range as the Boxster, as are the Jaguar XJ and XK8. Or if you like American iron, you can pick up a C4 or C5 Corvette, Mustang Cobra, or Camaro Z28 for the same money.
The downside is as the Romans said, "caveat emptor"--buyer beware. All of these cars are at least ten years old and have close to 100,000 miles on them. They may have been lovingly cared for like someone's pet or abused like a Taliban donkey. And you won't know which without taking it to a good mechanic and spending several hundred dollars on a thorough inspection.
We also don't know if these cars will ever appreciate in value, becoming valuable collectors items. Certainly they have the potential, but for now, they should just be cared for and enjoyed.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
For a while, I entertained myself with the notion that the Cutlass is so uncool, that it's cool. Sort of like the Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan driven by John Travolta's character in "Get Shorty". He thought of his car as "the Cadillac of minivans" but at the time Cadillac wasn't very cool either. It was as if GM were trying to convince Armani clad BMW drivers that powder blue leisure suits and accordions were fashionable, and they were using Lawrence Welk to do it.
To it's credit, the Cutlass does everything fairly well. It's got a quiet, smooth ride. The stereo and A/C and cruise control all work. It routinely gets 22-25 miles per gallon of gas and again, it's been very reliable. On paper, the fictional Honda Accord I'm using as a benchmark for the Beater Challenge would be hard pressed to do any better.
The real world however, does not just exist on paper. There are subjective ratings for how well a car does all the things it's supposed to. And if we were to assign grades to both cars, the Honda would be an A student, while the Cutlass would get solid Cs. It's crude where the Honda is refined. It's controls are clunky, where the Honda's feel like they were assembled by a Swiss watchmaker.
But there are advantages to crude, simplistic engineering when it comes to maintenance and repairs. The Cutlass is much easier to work on. To replace something like a water pump or alternator on a Honda, you have to practically remove one of the front wheels and go in through the side of the car. On the Cutlass, they're both near the top of the engine, in plain sight and held on by three bolts. On a new car this is no advantage. But on a older car that's closing in on 90K miles, it's huge. Cost of maintenance becomes a great equalizer. And when a car starts routinely gouging you with $1500 repair bills it makes sense to trade it in.
I'm not at the point where it's time to trade the Cutlass in or look for something else. The only things wrong with it are some minor body damage, a sticky lock on the driver's door, and now possibly a waterpump that's starting to leak. None of these things are terminal.
But I have developed a wandering eye and have started browsing car ads again. Car nuts like me are like serial monogamists, always looking for something else. Last week I stumbled across a maroon 1995 Jaguar XJ6. It was in good condition and only $3500. But a $3500 Jag quickly becomes a $10,000 Jag once the repair bills start adding up.
What I need is another car besides the Cutlass. A toy I could tinker with. Maybe an old convertible to make top down runs with the kids to get ice cream. Or weekend road trips. Or perhaps an old V12 grand tourer like a Jaguar XJS or BMW 850. Or an old Alfa or MG or another Porsche. Perhaps a Corvette or mid-80s Camaro IROC. The possibilities are endless when you're not making regular car payments.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
About 25 years ago, Suzuki introduces the Samurai to the American market. Known internationally as the Jimny and produced since 1968, it was a small alternative to the larger Land Rover 90, Toyota FJ40, and Jeep Wrangler. Unfortunately it quickly earned a reputation in the US Market for being prone to tipping over. Consumer Reports gave it an unsafe rating, causing the company to scramble to fix the damage to its reputation. Suzuki widened the track of the Samurai and later replaced it with the Sidekick, its slightly more civilized successor.
In spite of this stigma the original Samurai, and to a lesser extent, the Sidekick, developed a reputation for being simple, rugged, virtually unstoppable vehicles. A fact that was highlighted in the Top Gear: Bolivia Special when an unmodified Samurai completed all of the challenges, including blazing a path through the rain forest and climbing the Andes mountains.
Over the years, I’ve driven a number of Samurais and Sidekicks and have always found them to be honest, capable vehicles that will go anywhere. The only downside to their charm is their antiquated suspensions which cause them to ride like an oxcart filled with rocks. A trip of any significant length on paved roads is like sitting atop a piece of plywood strapped to the top of a vibrating bed from a motel that charges by the hour. And going off-road is like having your back and legs pummeled by a welterweight boxer.
But I like the Samurai and the Sidekick. I wish Suzuki still made a cheap, simple four-wheel drive vehicle. Then I realized, they do.
It’s called the Suzuki SX4.