Loretta was the first of my friends to tell me I need a new car. But then, she’d also been my navigator on a trip to the San Diego Comic-Con during which my car’s thermostat malfunctioned and we had to manage by turning the heater on full blast driving through Los Angeles in the middle of summer, and pulling over repeatedly to wait and let my engine cool down.
The fact is, I had my Toyota Tercel for a long time and I took great pride in the fact that it still ran reliably, and that I could manage, with imagination and determination, to get it to function for myriad functions it wasn’t intended for, from camping on remote dirt roads to transporting myself and 4 children, 2 in car seats, to the beach and back. Take that you SUV and minivan apologists! Who cares about comfort when you can get great gas mileage and park anywhere!
However, there were some signs of wear and tear that would have motivated other people to change cars. A window panel had been loose ever since someone had smashed into the side of my then-parked car in 1993, and eventually it just rattled off and disappeared. The driver seat belt had begun to fray, and to save it, I’d sewn some canvas over it. The driver seat had also started to get holes from sun exposure, and I hid it with a seat cover that’s now so old it’s got holes of its own. Going up steep hills, I have to shift the automatic transmission into a lower gear if I’d like to putter along at more than 20 miles an hour. And even quiet, non-assuming Neil, whose by no means bulky or large, feels squished in the back seat. When I wanted to take 2 big friends to San Francisco, for simple human decency on such a long drive, I had to make one of them drive and sit in the back myself. Our regular mechanic recently refused to continue servicing the car, so I had to take it to the local dealership. Out of pity, most of the time the dealership’s been fixing the easy problems for free or next to nothing, or advising me that some problems (like a turn signal indicator switch that makes a horrible grinding noise) would likely be too costly to be worthwhile on a car that old.
But the one thing that did get me seriously believing I needed a new car sooner rather than later was Peter’s car accident. It was all too obvious, looking at his crushed Golf, that its safety features had saved his life, or at least prevented serious injury. My Tercel is so old it didn’t come with air bags, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it lacked the safety cage design that sacrifices the rest of the car to keep its passengers safe. I still wouldn’t dare insist on a new car, especially when we’d just had to buy one, but I have noticed that I haven’t been taking the kids as far afield as I used to.
But when my ultra-frugal friend Michael stopped over and he (who’s agonizing about whether to use a financial windfall to buy a TV) laughed that I was still driving my 1990 Tercel, even Peter, who respects my “but it runs good!” mantra against a new car, started pushing for one. He pressed the point again on Sunday, as I drove us into Almaden Quicksilver Park, and my Tercel struggled up the hill and started to emit a smoky smell.
“If you could get a new car now, what would you get?” he asked me. I didn’t hesitate in answering that I wanted a Toyota hybrid sedan. He told me that was too expensive, but to think about what I could get that I might want for about $15,000. Since we’d only recently bought him a new car, I knew what kind of car that was. If I couldn’t get a hybrid, I could still get a compact sedan with good gas milage, and, after all these years, I was firmly sold on the reliability and endurance of a Toyota. In short, I would happily settle for a car exactly like my Tercel, but with all those new features that are now standard, such as air bags, air conditioning, and fold down back seats, and four doors instead of two. I casually looked on line to find out which model that was, but I still couldn’t imagine getting a new car within the next 2 years. Hey, I just got a new stereo with satellite radio installed last Spring!
Yesterday, as we were returning home from a shopping trip at the mall, I happened to mention that the model that fit my specifications was a Toyota Corolla. Peter suggested we stop in at our local Toyota dealership to look at one, and find out how much it would actually cost. I agreed, and 2 hours later, I had a new car:
I thought I’d be more shocked and regretful about being such a spendthrift, but really I’m just thrilled to have a car with air bags and enough room for my 10-year-old to be comfortable sitting in the back seat. Peter’s equally delighted, since it’s road trip quality, which means he doesn’t have to always do the driving, as he’s had to do for the past 10 years. And even though it’s bigger and heavier than my Tercel, I do believe it actually gets better gas milage, probably due to better engine technology.
It will be strange to no longer have my Tercel, and I will miss its trustworthiness. But perhaps it had been telling me, in its own quiet way, all these years, that it’s ready to retire.