Saturday, July 30, 2011

Year of the Cutlass

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.

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