Friday, February 11, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Waiting for Supercar

by Peggy Robin

I just drove my car home from its 15,000 mile maintenance appointment. The car is a 2008 Hyundai Accent that we got early in 2007, so we’ve had it now for close to four years. Do the math and you’ll see that we put less than 4,000 miles per year on the car. We're not big on driving.

The thing is, we own two cars. The other one is a Toyota Camry that we bought at the end of 2005. It has a mere 6,500 miles on it, which works out to about 1,300 miles per year. Yes, you read that right. So now you are thinking, “Why do these people even need two cars?” And the answer is, we don’t … and we know it. The only thing stopping us from getting rid of one car and keeping the other is that we can’t agree on which one should go and which should stay.

My husband Bill favors the Camry. It’s got a much better safety rating than the Hyundai and it has a more solid feel to it. He likes driving it better than the Hyundai, which he thinks feels tinny and insubstantial. But then he practically never drives. He takes public transportation a lot. I tend to do most of the driving that has to be done for errands and short trips. And I have conceived an admittedly irrational dislike of the Camry. I’m not sure I can justify it. It’s mainly based on a single design flaw: The side mirrors do not fold in. I’m not sure why a car manufactured after this feature had become standard on so many other models would have fixed mirrors, but that’s the way it is. I don’t think I would have even agreed to drive the car off the lot on that first day had I realized that the mirrors were like that.

I guess my reaction stems from all those times in my years of car ownership when my car’s side mirror was smacked while it was innocently parked, minding its own business. The streets in Cleveland Park are narrow with cars parked on both sides, but still cars often fly by, and so the risk to the unfolded side mirror never goes away. Only once have I had a driver stop and tell me that he broke my mirror. (That was a city trash truck driver, and although he helpfully left me with a sheet of instructions for filing a claim against the city, and I went through every step as specified, including getting three estimates for repair, it still took about eighteen months to collect the payment for the damage.)

My other complaint against the Camry is exactly what my husband likes about it: It’s big and solid. I concede it's a safer car than the Hyundai, but what I really want in a city car is compactness, to make it more maneuverable and easier to squeeze into a tight space. So I’m against keeping the Camry as our sole car, just as he’s against keeping the Hyundai. So we’ve agreed to get rid of both and find one car that we would suit all our needs and preferences.  If there is such a thing.

That’s where you come in. We’ve started looking around at new cars and we seem to be stumped. Is there a car that has:
  • a 5 star crash-test rating, according to either NHTSA or the IIHS
  • a nice, compact body for ease of parking and maneuverability on our narrow streets 
  • a great energy efficiency rating, since we would like to be green consumers. And now here’s the final and perhaps insurmountable hitch: 
  • a sales price of under $30,000? 
We’re inclined to go for a one of the electric hybrid, but some of the cars in that category are above the price limit, while others (most notably, the Prius) have not yet managed to make the 5-star category in crash-worthiness.

We’ve ruled out the Nissan Leaf, because it’s entirely electric and so can’t be used to drive to Boston in a single day. (This isn’t something we need to do often, but it’s something we’d like to be able to do, if the need suddenly arose.)

The best cars from the safety standpoint are Audis and BMWs, but they are all considerably above our price point. And even if they were cheaper, I suspect I’d still say they’re too big.

Then there’s the Ford Fusion. It’s a hybrid; it has 5-star crash test ratings in 3 out of 5 categories; it looks solid but is still relatively compact; and it’s got a pricetag for the fully-equipped model just under $30,000. Why would this not be the perfect car for us? Maybe because I harbor an irrational, undying grudge against the Ford Motor Company. It dates back to 1973 when, just a couple of years out of high school, I bought my first car with my own hard-earned money. It was a 2-year-old 1971 Ford Maverick. I had it checked out by a mechanic before I paid for the whole thing in cash. I’m not sure how it escaped the mechanic's notice that this car was a worthless assemblage of metal, but for the next year or so that I owned the thing, it practically lived in the shop. There was some problem in the electrical system that no one could pin down. I replaced the alternator, the battery, various cables and wires. Nothing helped.

This was the period of time in which American-built cars were in the basement when it came to ratings for frequency of repair. After a long endless trouble and at a cost of hundreds of dollars, I finally managed to get the car working reasonably well, meaning that it would start more times than not when you turned the ignition. At that point I was moving to California and so I sold the car at a very low price to a good friend of mine. After which the car immediately starting acting up again, for which she couldn't help but blame me. Fortunately for both of us, this whole sorry situation came to an abrupt end when a delivery truck happened to plow into the car when it was parked on the street, totaling it. She was thrilled, since the Blue Book value of the car was well over its actual value, in terms of the way it ran (or didn’t). I was thrilled for her. 

Anyway, after the Ford Maverick was towed off to the scrapheap where it belonged almost from the start,  I swore a solemn and eternal oath never to buy a Ford again. Now here it is, almost 40 years later. Ford has changed, I know. The company's products earn lots of praise. The Ford Fusion in particular seems to be an intelligently designed and well manufactured vehicle. It would seem to be what we’re both looking for. The question is: Am I ready to forgive and forget? Is 40 years long enough? I suspect, knowing myself as I do, if I were to buy one, that the first time there’s any minor thing wrong with it, I would kick myself around the block for breaking the vow. It would be the ghost of the vengeful Maverick coming back in the form of a Fusion. How irrational is that? Very. But then I’m somebody who conceived a hatred for a perfectly sweet and dependable Camry for the simple reason that its side mirrors stick out.

So what’s the alternative? Is there some other type of car we’ve missed hearing about? Yes, I know, we missed the Auto Show that was just in town. Darn it!  But we don’t want to wait a full year for the next one to come around. So here’s what I’m asking: Be part of my focus group. (And no, I don’t mean the Ford Focus!) Let me have your best suggestions. You could stop me from driving myself crazy!

By all means use the comments section below to advise me.


  1. Save yourself $30,000 and just keep both cars. Seems like a waste of money (or nice donation to a car company) to sell both cars just to consolidate down to one.

  2. Never say never. Buy the Ford.

  3. Have you looked at the Fit?

  4. This is absurd, if you drive so little don't buy a new car.

  5. Yes, the Fit seems great. It may be on the small side for us if it's our only car, but then we could use Zip Car for those few times when we need something bigger. We'll also look into the Ford Fusion. I just wonder about my own ability to do an about-face once I've decided against something. As to the two comments that we should stick with the status quo: It's a waste of money to keep up insurance on two cars, keep up the registration on both, and keep up the oil changes, tire checks and other things that still need to be done, no matter how little mileage goes on the cars. If we were to sell both cars in excellent condition with very low mileage, we might come close to breaking even on the price of one new car. So it's not such a crazy idea -- especially if we get a hybrid car. Since we do mostly short trips around DC, we will end up spending practically nothing on gas. One new idea is the Chevy Volt, which just got named "Car of the Year" for 2011 and got this rave review from car columnist Warren Brown in the Washington Post: . However, the car is much pricier than a Honda Fit. But the tax credits do bring that down a bit. We definitely want to look into that option. This may take us longer to explore than we'd thought. Keep the ideas coming!

  6. How about a Subaru Imprezza Outback Sport?

  7. Yes, very impressive. I was never a big fan of Subarus before but this model does meet most of my criteria, especially on the safety ratings. Will definitely check this out, and thanks for the suggestion!

  8. My son bought an Impreza last year and he loves it! He's a big snowboarder, so for him having enough space for all his snowboarding equipment plus 4-wheel drive were close to the top of his list. But, so was safety, because higher safety rating equals lower car insurance rates, and he wanted to keep his car insurance rates as low as a 24 year old guy can. He also loves the great gas mileage he gets with it. BTW, he bought his Impreza at Stohlman and said he liked dealing with the dudes there.