Sensible Wheels

When it comes to cars, most people who know me would call me a practical person. I want a vehicle that is not only fun to drive but one I can rely on year after year to get me safely down the road without repeated breakdowns. So, after checking some of the best bets from “Consumer Reports,” I usually wind up with a Honda or Toyota. Over the past twenty years, I’ve owned three Toyotas and four Hondas, and they’ve all been outstanding, mechanically-sound cars. Some of the American-made cars I’ve had — the Chevy Vega, Dodge minivan, Ford Taurus — all turned out to be trash, breaking down every month with overheating problems, starting issues, and brake troubles.

My first car was a 1969 Dodge Dart with a slant-six engine. I bought it in 1975 for $1200 when I was 22 years old. For the most part, it was fairly reliable; then, like most cars, it needed a tuneup regularly, brakes, and a fresh battery. That car survived for about four years, up to my junior year in college, when all hell broke loose. The torsion bar needed welding, the steering was getting worse, and rust was eating away at the body like piranha. In fact, the last straw for me was the day I drove my Dart into the Kmart garage for an oil change, and several mechanics who were standing beneath the car, up on the hoist, were pointing and laughing. They had apparently never seen a car frame so thoroughly rusted underneath that there was nothing left to weld to — almost no solid metal. I wound up selling my one and only car for parts: $125. That was painful, considering I didn’t have enough money for any other wheels.

But car engineering and design have improved immensely since those days. Sure, we’ve all owned our share of $50 junkers — mechanical marvels with the gas tank in the trunk, oil burners belching blue smoke, sputtering wonders with rusty sheet-metal fenders flapping in the breeze. Those were all learning experiences that, at the time, we were quite proud of. Cars seem to hold up so much longer today. It’s fairly common to drive many vehicles past the 200,000-mile mark. The 11-year-old Pontiac Vibe that I currently drive, a great car, has close to 130,000 miles and runs with gusto, no signs of body rust. In fact, my 25-year-old son wants to take it over when I’m done with it.

Nobody likes car problems or breakdowns. They usually happen when you’re far from home. But thanks to such great leaps in manufacturing and engineering, those problems are a much rarer occurrence. Of course, the down side is those auto parts are incredibly expensive today. With all the electric sensors and vehicle-emissions paraphernalia under the hood, a simple auto repair may require a bank loan or put a small dent in your life savings. But I still prefer today’s infrequent repairs to yesterday’s steady stream of mechanical breakdowns.

The days of “planned obsolescence,” thanks partly to the pit-bull persistence of Ralph Nader, are happily behind us. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be the proud owner of a gleaming muscle car like a ’57 Chevy or a Pontiac GTO, racing down the interstate at breakneck speeds, daring the state cops to pull me over. On the other hand, maybe I should just be practical and buy some sensible wheels. I think I’ll sleep on it.