Month: April 2014

Buyer’s Remorse

One thing I have discovered in this last month, while I was frittering away my time not writing, is how my Facebook friends react to my writing. If I write about the Atari 2600, I’ll maybe get one or two hits on my blog, and maybe a comment on how they remembered that from their childhood. If I write about Mario, Zelda, and other Nintendo games, I might get a high five or two. If I write about Linux, the only feedback I get is chirping crickets.

If I write about cars… suddenly, everybody has something to say.

Maybe I should write more about cars. It would definitely fit the “wandering” part of The Wandering Nerd. And even non-nerds love cars… or love to hate them.

Over the last month, I’ve definitely had a love-hate relationship with George, the 2003 Ford Escape I bought at a fleet auction back in February.

(Who is definitely an Autobot, not a Decepticon. Decepticons have way more style.)

The first thing that happened to the truck was that the check engine light came on a few days after I started driving it. It turned out to be the EGR valve, or rather, a wire came loose on one of the sensors attached to the EGR valve. It was an easy fix, but still cost me $60 at the local mechanic’s.

The check engine light turned off after that, but soon came on again. I took it to the mechanic again, and he plugged in his little computer, which told him that one of the sensors in the catalytic converter had “reduced efficiency.” He told me that it was probably nothing and that I shouldn’t worry about it. So I didn’t worry about it. And then a few weeks later, while driving my extremely sick wife to the hospital, the truck broke down. Thank goodness I was still in range of the cellphone tower or we might have been stuck there for quite a while. But thanks to friends and to AAA, we got my wife to the hospital and George back to the garage, where it was discovered that the catalytic converter system was completely clogged up with 11 years’ worth of exhaust particles, dust, and other crap.

In retrospect, I should have expected that. The Escape was used as a patrol car by my company’s Fire & Security department, driven anywhere from 50 to 100 miles a day for short trips at low speeds, with long amounts of time spent idling the engine. Under normal circumstances, cats can last the lifetime of your car, but these were hardly normal circumstances. On the other hand, since that little SUV seldom went above 45 mph (the maximum speed limit here in the national park where I work) and had all of its scheduled preventative maintenance, the engine is still in excellent shape. So you win some, you lose some.

But I digress. When I picked George up a few days later, the mechanic told me that he gutted the system, so now the exhaust is flowing freely. The car would destroy the environment approximately five times faster than before, but at least it was drivable. And he said that since the blockage was removed, the engine would be more responsive and I would get better gas mileage. He was right about that though. My in-town MPG was 19 before, now it’s about 22. And on the highways, if I stick to the speed limit, George is good for almost 30 MPG. I’ve confirmed this with an UltraGauge. I will need to get a new catalytic converter if I ever move to a county or state that requires smog inspections… or then again, I could just sell George here in the park and buy a new car when it’s time to move on.

I will admit that during George’s convalescence, I’ve been looking hard into buying a new car… now. I kept thinking “this SUV is going to be more trouble than it’s worth; I’d better just cut my losses and trade it in on something a bit more stylish and reliable.” I kept trolling the local Craigslist listings to see who was selling something I would like to change to. I thought first maybe a small car with good gas mileage, like the Tercels and Civics my ecologically-conscious parents used to own.

(Pictured: my dad’s dream car, circa 1982.)

The 1982 Toyota Tercel we owned was pretty dang awesome. Just look at that vibrant shade of yellow; 30 years and 300,000 miles did little to dint its sheen. This car got 40 miles per gallon easy, 10 years before the Geo Metro and 20 years before the Prius. And you could put an awful lot of cargo in that hatchback, especially if you put the rear seats down. It had no radio, no AC, no power anything, it had a top speed of 40 mph, and the driver’s door had to be opened from the inside, but this Tercel was awesome and damn near bulletproof… until the transmission went and my dad thought it best to sell it for scrap. Truly, my fantasies of getting an old Tercel for dirt cheap were dashed by the fact that if I had one of these cars, I’d probably have even more problems with it than I currently have with the Ford Escape. Not to mention that it would be a sitting duck on the highway, where 75 mph is considered the “minimum speed limit.”

And the Tercel’s modern-day equivalent, the Toyota Yaris, is nowhere near as solid a car. I rented one once, and it felt extremely plasticky. The seats were cheap and uncomfortable. The cargo area could hold maybe two shopping bags and the spare tire. The passenger area was so small, I almost felt like I was larger than the car. It felt a bit like driving a Power Wheels car, except you would be insane to drive a Power Wheels on the freeway. Which I was doing, much to my chagrin, in Los Angeles, at rush hour, on a holiday weekend. While it was capable of matching the speeds of the cars around it, it was not a very stable car at 80 mph, and a single gust of wind could move it out of a traffic lane. Which it did, right into the wheel well of a huge Dodge pickup, which was trying to change lanes at the same time I was skidding out of mine:


Yeah, that truck’s wheel well came up to the Yaris’ door handle. If I hadn’t regained control of the vehicle in time, I would have died. The Yaris was severely dented, and the truck got barely a scratch, but the truck’s driver had the gall to sue the rental car company’s insurance agent for $1800 because “his baby” got “totaled.” Meanwhile, I had to drive 100 miles back to my parents’ house in a wrecked car, having panic attacks the entire way. And that was in 2009. I severely doubt the Yaris has gotten much better. I also doubt that the other cars in its class (Mazda 2, Ford Fiesta, Chevy Spark, the Smart Car, etc.) are any safer or fun to drive. What good is awesome fuel economy if you’re dead?

So maybe a subcompact econo-box wasn’t in my future, especially in Northern Arizona, where everybody drives a huge truck. But what about something larger than a Yaris, yet smaller than a SUV? Maybe something from a manufacturer with a track record for safety? Maybe… a Volvo?


I have always loved station wagons. Comfortable ride like a passenger car, but with lots of cargo space. I remember many an hour spent in the back of my family’s Toyota Corona station wagon as a kid, watching the world recede from me from the back window. And the best maker of station wagons these days? Volvo, a company with a record for safe, reliable, well-engineered vehicles. The fact that they’re one of the only car companies still making station wagons into the 21st century is besides the point. So today, I looked on Craigslist and saw a 2001 Volvo V70 on sale for $4500. I was almost about to call my bank, until I read the description and realized that while it was a good car that still ran, I wouldn’t be getting too much of an upgrade over the Ford Escape. It had a similar amount of miles on it, it had similar gas mileage (22/27 on the Volvo vs. 19/25 on the Escape), and it had much less cargo space. The only things I would be getting that the Escape didn’t have would be leather seats and a rumble seat in the back sized for two children. Big whoop. And since Volvo in those days was owned by Ford, I’d essentially be driving a Ford anyway.

So, I’m sticking with George for now. It might not get the gas mileage of a subcompact but it’s way more versatile. I can transport 5 adults in relative comfort along with all their luggage. Since it has a short wheelbase with the weight of the car well-centered thereon, it handles more like a car than a big, lumbering station wagon. And when you put the rear seats down, you can haul as much cargo as a small pickup truck. Or, you can put a full-sized mattress in the back and enjoy the fun of camping without the pine cones, rocks and critters which inevitably end up invading your tents and sleeping bags. So, it’s not the car I would have chosen for myself… but I am glad I have him. And I’m going to keep driving him until he dies, or until the smog test police come my way.