Gearing Down, Trading Up pt5

Last time I talked about some of the things you want to look for when you’re shopping for a used car. There’s a lot more I have to share about this adventure that might help you the next time you’re buying a car, and I’ll get to that next time.

But this is not just a story about smart shopping. It’s also a romance–and a good romance needs a narrative. So, here’s the next part, as a kind of nonfiction short story:

I’ve always loved driving, and in the early years I always had a car that was fun to drive. I loved my POS VW Bug, which I picked up for $100 on a mechanic’s repo and half-rebuilt by hand. I loved the ’87 Firebird which I drove up and down the California coast and central valley more times than I can count.

But ten years ago, when I was sinking every spare penny I had into a movie, I had to buy a car, and I needed a car that would give me no trouble for years. I wound up with a perfectly reliable, perfectly decent brand new Saturn SL1, which treated me great for ten years.

But another driver pushed the car under the rear end of a pickup truck, and it was probably a good thing. By the time the insurance check came through, my memories of really driving were just that–memories.

It was time for a fun car. A proper sports car.

For a long time I lingered on the BMW Z3 and Z4–test driving them became such a pleasure, I almost didn’t want the search to end. The Z3 was more budget friendly, so my focus narrowed, and I came within a couple inches of buying one. But before I put a firm offer, I popped down to a collision shop to have a talk with the tuning specialist.

Thing is, they stopped making the Z3 in 2002, so everything I was looking at was getting kind of long in the tooth, and I knew already that it was the kind of car I’d want to hang on to, and rebuild, and keep for a couple decades. So I needed to know what I was in for.

The mechanic’s first words were “Please tell me you haven’t bought it yet.” My stomach just about dropped through my toes. “Not yet,” I said. “Why? Everything I’m finding says they’re one of the most reliable cars out there.”

“Oh, they are,” he said, “But you see…the thing is…they stopped making parts for them.”

“So you can’t get a new engine, that’s fine,” I said. “How much does a rebuild cost?”

He said “I did one last year for $3k.” I shrugged. It was a bit steep, but it’s a German car, and that was right in line with what I was expecting. But then he finished his thought. “Last month, I had one in here. Parts on it were upwards of $8k.”

Right there, the BMW dream died. Turns out they didn’t use a standard drive train in the Z3. All the parts were custom to that car. And there weren’t enough for any third-parties to manufacture them. The Z3 is a classic now, every bit as much as a Lotus Elan or a 1960s Ferrari. To my way of thinking, then, it’s not a car you can drive–it’s the kind of car you put in a garage for 50 weeks a year, and only take out for the summer vacation.

I was really bummed. Not quite crushed, but close. On the way home I stopped by a lot where I saw the other car I really wanted–a 2002 Trans Am (which they also don’t make anymore, but the parts are all still used on other cars, so it’s not yet a museum piece). I’d avoided this car, because I wanted it more than was good for me–it’s hard to be objective when you’re driving something rare and deeply coveted. But I said “to hell with it,” and took it for a spin. At 90mph on the freeway in the bottom of sixth, under 2,000 RPMs, it felt just like I remembered my old Firebird, but better. Glorious and nostalgic, all at once. And painful, like having coffee with an old girlfriend who you’re still fond of. Sure, I could afford it, but not responsibly. And, frankly, after all the Japanese and European cars I’d driven, the GM build quality was a let-down. Inside it looked like an old VW–even in good condition, the seams showed. BMWs and Mazdas are very well put together–GM cars never have been, preferring to make up for in power and grunt what they lack in finesse. I didn’t used to care–turns out now I do. An American muscle car, no matter how fun, just wasn’t going to cut it.

In the six weeks I was looking, I’d done them all–the Mini (lovely, but SO pricey), the Golf GTI (like a mouse on steroids–fun, but not a car I could own), the Z4 (nirvanna, but too popular to find a good deal), the Z3 (a proper roadster), the Toyota MR2 Spyder (like the Z3, a beautiful discontinued near-classic), the Civic SI and CRZs (overpowered shoe boxes with bad gear ratios. They’re really trying hard to be proper cars, but don’t quite make it), and the Gen 1 Mazda Miata (not enough elbow room, and all of them had too high mileage, but still a great car), and the Z28/Tras Am line (vaguely, but painfully, disappointing). Seemed like every car on my list, for one reason or another, just wasn’t a smart buy. I wondered if I should hold on to the crumpled (but drivable) Saturn for another six months and save some more cash for something new.

But then, I realized that there was one car I hadn’t tried. One car that fit the spec sheet. One more car I needed to give a good solid chance: the Gen 2 Miata MX-5. According to Edmunds, the 1999 redesign had added more elbow room, a touch more power, and better fuel economy. By this time, I’d read enough on them to know exactly what I’d want if I got one–and if the newer cockpit worked as advertised.

I took another week, and test drove the hell out of the line. It was as advertised–it fit like a glove. It drove like an MG or a Lotus in top condition, but it didn’t rattle. It would work–I just needed to find one that had the right mileage, in the right condition, for the right price.

A few days later, a new listing popped up on Craigslist for a 2001 MX-5 way the hell out in Roseville. The seller had a kid on the way, and needed to buy something with a back seat–he was also moving to Virginia, and didn’t want to drive a car across country that he’d have to sell in six months anyway. It had the aftermarket mods I’d want to put on a Miata already installed, and it didn’t even have 90k miles on it yet. I took she-who-must-not-be-named out to Roseville to take a gander.

She wasn’t all that excited about it—the Gen 1 Miatas she’d driven had been noisier than she liked, in poorer repair than she wanted, and fell into that awful category of “almost-but-not-quite.”

That changed when we got to Roseville. The car was in exceptionally good condition, and it had some aftermarket mods (like the larger, vented discs) that hadn’t been listed in the ad. And then, we took it on the road.

In the car-shopping odyssey, I’d had a lot of great test drives, plenty of reasons to smile, plenty of reasons to cheer, and plenty of reasons to feel optimistic. But getting this car out on the road, pushing it hard, unwinding it all the way, I found myself laughing out loud. It hit the sweet spot–the right interior room, the right handling, the right power-to-weight ratio, a gorgeous rear limited-slip diff, excellent road-feel, perfect balance, and at exactly the price I would have offered. And in the passenger seat, my partner in crime was laughing right along with me.

And when we switched places, and she drove, it got better. This is a car that plugs you into the road, and she–who is very hard to please–was blown away.

The car checked out mechanically, and a few hours later we wound up driving it home. I’ve been driving it for a couple months now, and I expected it to get…well, ordinary. When you buy something new, and you get used to it, it becomes a normal part of life. This car, though, isn’t like that.

This car gets better every time I take it on the road. I drive with the top down, all the time, unless it’s raining–and when it starts raining on the drive, I can pull the top up in about two seconds on the go. The aftermarket cold air intake roars like a pissed-off cheetah when I bury my foot. The interior ergonomics are wonderful, and except when I’m pushing it up a mountain, I get a solid 30mpg out of the thing. But even that doesn’t really explain it.

You see, every time I go out to run to the store, or to drive to an appointment, or any of the hundreds of mundane things you do every day in a car, it brightens my day. For the last decade my Saturn was a solid little sedan, but I avoided driving as much as possible, because it was a bother. Now, I’m looking for excuses to hit the road.

When I was eight years old, the most fun I ever had were the summer days when my Dad brought his MG roadster out of the garage and said to me “Let’s go driving.” He would toss the thing around corners, play with what felt like the edge of death, and we’d spend long days or evenings talking about driving techniques, or the latest cool scifi movie, or the new books I was writing, or the latest author he discovered. At the time, I thought I’d never be able to own a car that cool.

Now I do. And every time I go out for a drive, I’m eight years old again, with a smile on my face and the world open in front of me. And if the road throws a few curves in my way, well that’s just fine–I can gear down, open up, and push the laws of physics to one side, and drive.

This little car has me over the moon–and I’m in love with driving all over again. I hear tell there are over a million miles of road just in the United States. If I take time to eat and sleep once in a while, that’s enough road to keep me busy for another twenty years.

I think I can handle that.

Next time, I’ll talk about the financial stuff you need to know to get the car you want from a dealership, without getting screwed. Right now, though, I think I’ll go stargazing the Pacific Coast Highway.

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