Ode to the Mean-Green-Machine
In the beater Accord I’d tank up once a week to take me to work for 4 days. I needed another tank if my days “off” required me to travel to Santa Fe or Albuquerque for one of my little side jobs or assorted missions for the D-tribe.
Now the folks at the gas station smile when they see me coming. That’s because it is taking me a minimum of 3 fill-ups to make it just through the commuting week. And she guzzles the mid-grade, not the cheep stuff.
As my checkbook is shrinking, my black mood is growing.
About a month into this expensive relationship, my wife caught me composing an email to the dealer, asking what they might have on the lot that would get better mileage and be as close as possible to a straight trade. My spouse, who didn’t leave me over my fascination with a certain drug rep, flatly stated she’d leave me if I got rid of the car. “I know you love that car,” she stated, no compromise in her voice.
So I stuck with my frequent gas station visits, hypnotized by the speed with which the gas gauge plummeted. Until Tuesday. That was when the dam broke. When one too many straws were put on the camel’s back.
I was invited to hawk some books at a medical conference in Albuquerque. I had to leave home at 4:30am to get to the city-center location in time to beat rush hour. I had a bad night’s sleep too. It turned into a miserable day all the way around. The speakers were….awful. The participants totally uninterested in the subjects. They were only there for a day off of their usual jobs and to get free Continuing Education Credits needed for their licenses. They belong to one of my least favorite branches of the medical community, and I refuse to say more than that.
By the time I was driving home I was sooooooo stressed I couldn’t even turn my head from side-to-side because my neck muscles were totally locked up, concrete, granite, steel.
I had a dinner date with two colleagues in Santa Fe, and would have actually called and bailed on them except I’d had yet another technology failure. The screen of my cell phone exploded. Yep, looks like a 60’s acid trip. Wild tie-died colors in a shatter pattern. This is actually the second time it has happened. The first time I was convinced Rio had somehow broken it and really grilled the poor kid, who protested his innocence. Oops. Well, parenthood is more of an art than a science. Bottom line, the phone works, but I can’t look up any numbers. If you ain’t on speed dial, I won’t be calling you.
Stressed and depressed and in Santa Fe early for my dinner date, I swing by my car dealership to complain about how much gas the mean-green-machine guzzles. I can’t turn around without filling up. Other than the Harley Davidson, what the best mileage machine on the lot? In talking switch-or-trade-with-low-dollars I’m livid to learn my green machine has been in an accident, greatly reducing its trade value. The sales guy at this same dealership where I bought it not two months ago had told me that it had a clean car-fax report. I guess my fault for not asking to see it.
As I’ve bought seven cars for various family members from this outfit over the years, and am now I’m really pissed, they want to make nice. They loan me a very old diesel VW Jetta to try out for 24 hours. It is dark in color, always bad in New Mexico; and has an uninspired interior. But it is powerful, handles well, and is fun to drive. I haven’t had a “stick” for a couple of decades but somehow my muscles have retained memory. I drive it 75 miles home and the gas gauge dose not budge.
When I get home I find that 8 out of 10 owners of this car would rather have bamboo shoots pushed under their fingernails than buy another one. The consensus is: great car when it is not in the repair shop; which is most of the time. How did we survive without the internet?
Wednesday morning I take it back and pick up the mean-green-machine. The VW clocked a mileage of 49.6 miles per gallon. Holy crap, even with diesel being almost 50 cents more per gallon than the mid grade the PT Cruiser needs, I could still save a couple of grand per year in gas alone. But I live in too much stress to deal with a car that needs lots of shop time.
I drive back to work in my gas guzzler, my stupid food looking for the clutch every time I slow down. I can’t believe my body has re-programmed itself for standard transmission after only two 1-hour drives.
Friday dawns cold and wintery. WTF? I thought it was Spring? Mean-green needs an oil change and she has one of those nagging yellow engine lights that I try to ignore. I’ve also got a funny little interment wine. When I called to schedule service, the folks that sold me the car pass me to the competition: the Dodge Dealer.
Mom’s Subaru is going in for its 7,500 mile service and I’m at Dodge. The two are about 50 yards apart. Rio is restless, so despite the cold, the fierce wind, and the occasions blasts of snow, we brave the various car lots to kill time.
Where upon we find a Rio-sized car. A Cooper Mini. Now I’ve seen full-sized men driving these diminutive cars before and had wondered by what trick of physics this could be possible. It was unlocked so we had a seat in it. You can actually put the seat back far enough my long legs can’t reach the brake. It has a funky retro interior much like my mean machine.
A sales guy braves the storm to come talk to us. He’s very low-key. We tell him we’re just killing time waiting on the service department. Making conversation he asks how long we’ve had the PT and how do we like it. I tell him I love it, but the gas mileage is killing me and that I’m really pissed off about how the neighboring dealership has treated me. I’m thinking that next time I need a new dealership. His response surprises me. “Hey, if you’ve bought that many cars from them with good experiences, don’t jump ship. One bad experience out of seven is a fluke.” He sets Rio up with a giant yellow helium balloon. He doesn’t even give me his card.
So we are back and forth, Rio and I. Between the two dealerships. Between warm waiting rooms and the freezing grey pseudo-blizzard that is brewing. And the little Cooper is on my mind. Surely something just slightly larger than a bread box must get great gas mileage….
On the way back through the show room, the sales guy who came to talk to us is with a car-buying customer, so I casually ask another salesman what kind of mileage the little Coopers get. “Low to mid 20’s.” I’m shocked. “It’s a rocket,” says the kid. No thanks. I’m sick of gas guzzling turbos. He then nods towards the lot, “if you need gas mileage, take a look at the Caliber. She’ll get you 30 on the highway, easy.”
Now I’ve never heard of the Caliber. This one is dark metallic red with black trim. Exactly like my Presto meter, as a matter of fact. Its mother was a family sedan, its father an SUV. It has elements of both. It is an aerodynamic tear drop with an aggressive grill. It has a hint of fenders, like some sort of vestige evolutionary remnant that over generations of not being needed has receded from function to decoration. She sits a bit higher off the ground than a car, but not as high as a truck. The windows look smallish. Lots of metal to wrap around you and not too much glass.
Later, I will find out that my assessment of the Caliber’s lineage was correct. It is a new category of car called a CUV or Crossover Utility Vehicle; a mix of SUV and Car.
It is used. And locked. And it is cold. We go back across the street to the dealer where Debbie and my mother are. As it turns out, they’ve just finished Mom’s car. Meanwhile, having just checked, we know that they haven’t even started on mine.
So we do the only sensible thing. We go to lunch. Piping hot French Onion Soup at the little French Pastry Shoppe at La Fonda just off the Plaza. The day has totally gone to hell. Large goose-feather flakes are falling outside the half-steamed over windows.
I excuse myself from the table, step into the lobby and call the Dodge dealership, and ask for the low key sales man that advised me not to jump ship. I’m jumping.
Hey, go take a look at my PT in your garage and figure out what it would be worth as a trade in on that Caliber. Don’t write anything up yet, I don’t even know if I’d like the Caliber. I’ve never driven one, but that’ll change in about two hours.
I go back into the family and let them know where my mind is at. A lively discussion ensues. Rio cries. My mother “ends” the conversation by stating “this is Wil’s decision, and the rest of us should keep out of it.” Where upon for the rest of the day no one, including her, stays out of my business.
We had other errands to run. All I want to do is drive the damn thing, but I put that on the back burner. Family first. As we leave La Fonda, Debbie says, “Screw this. The suspense is killing me. Let’s do the errands later and go drive that car.”
So all the way back across town and down to the Auto Park we go. We had just started the test drive when my cell phone rings. Babe, would you get that please? Deb answers then hands the damn phone to me, who is driving a new stick shift, turning at an intersection, and in a town that tars-and-feathers folks for driving while talking on cell phones.
It is the service department….. “Ummmm….there’s some problems with the PT we need to talk to you about before going ahead with the repairs…” You know what? I’m actually test driving a car from your lot. Don’t do anything until I get back, 15 or 20 minutes tops.
So the little Caliber is great. It is comfortable, tight-handling, turns on a dime, zippy without being monstrously powerful. It is a bare-bones feature-free car. She’s a 07 with less than 20K miles. Power nothing. The mirrors need to be adjusted by manually rolling down the window and poking at them with your fingers. The dash-board is covered with blank fillers where the buttons for all the accessories this car doesn’t have would go.
I love it.
My old Accord was this way. Nothing fancy. Nothing to break down.
Deb is riding shot-gun. Mom, Rio, and the sales guy are in the back. I drive across a median and into a outlet mall’s parking lot. I want to check the turning radius; one of the Achilles’ heels of the PT Cruiser which can’t do a U-Turn to save its’ life.
I do a hard-over left and the nimble little Caliber spins like a merry-go-round. I go around about six times in a tight circle. Rio is delighted, “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
We head for the interstate and wrap her up to 80, which I’m sensing is pretty close to top speed for her tiny little 4-cylinder engine. She’s not quiet, but the engine noises seem happy. I crack the window to simulate pipe smoking. The aerodynamics are good. It is not too noisy. It has air conditioning, an AM/FM radio, and a single-slot CD player. No cruise control is the only real bummer.
We exit the interstate to a side road, down shifting smoothly to reduce our speed. Oddly, I have a huge temperature gauge, but no tachometer. I short cut across a bumpy road-side parking lot. The suspension is tight.
Debbie turns to me. “I like it.”
The bomb drops when we get back to the dealership and find the new-to-us-low-mileage PT Cruiser has over a thousand dollars of repairs needed. There is a cracked fuel line, something wrong with some sort of throttle controller, the plugs are shot, the brake discs are glazed, and most seriously, the mystery intermittent whine is comes from what-ever-it-is that holds the front left wheel on the car. They don’t even have the parts. Is it safe to drive? The mechanic and the service manager exchange a looooooooooong look; neither wanting to speak first.
Bottom line, the front wheel could collapse at anytime. The brakes could wait a while, as can the plugs. The throttle thingamajig might crap out, but would only cause the car NOT to start. Once the car is running, no problem. Hmmmmm…that must be why on some days it turns over more times than others….
On the bright side, doing all of this should improve my gas mileage and if we do all this we’ll have a great little gas guzzler that I’m already starting to hate.
Let’s talk, I tell the sales guy.
Then starts the back-and-forth odyssey that I really hate. I do like the Caliber. I’ve now got a bad vibe all-the way around about my PT. Amongst other things that I worry about are the PT’s tires. They are those large, funky, thin things. The receipt from Big-O was in the glove box, and I found it the day I brought the car home. $680. Holy crap.
Caliber has normal sized tires, is four years newer, and has half the miles.
But I couldn’t afford the PT in the first place. Now this. And if I want to keep the PT, I need to come up with some big bucks there too. Life bites.
It is a long day. My mood is poor. I’ve been suffering from achy joints from the tips of my fingers to my shoulder the last few weeks. Today my throat hurts too, and my neck still hasn’t recovered.
I play hard ball. They want the biz, of course. In the end I have to finance at a percentage rate that makes me shudder. But, on the bright side my car payments will only be a few dollars more than my cell phone bill and the gas savings will cancel it out. I won’t really gain in cash flow but at least I won’t need so much Maalox at the gas station.
Hours later it was done. The family had abandoned me once the decision was made. I did all the reams of paper work solo while they went to Hobby Lobby then Albertsons. I pull all my possessions out of the PT and pile them into the back of the Caliber. Too cold, windy, and snowy to organize the car now.
I rendezvous with the family at the grocery store. Rio opts to ride home with me. It is getting dark so Deb pilots Mom’s car for her.
It is starting to get dark. The snow is falling harder. I notice that the cup holders glow fire-fly blue. Cool. The little Caliber is tight and warm.
As we headed out of town, Rio gazes out his window, “you know what Daddy? This is one sweet ride.”