I bought a car this past December. While I had been mostly concerned about finding something reliable, I admit the car’s extensive bells and whistles came as a welcome bonus. Over the past eight months, however, they have turned me into a spoiled, though very comfortable, brat.
Back in 2011, I had bought a rapidly decaying ’99 Honda Civic for next to nothing. Though it looked like something a drifter might grudgingly call home, I thought highly of that car. It ran well, for the most part. I just had to be careful not to park it too close to the road, as passing wreckers kept trying to tow it away.
The car wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t proud to be driving it. But it was a crucial element in my master plan to get out of the cycle of endless car payments that had dogged us for so many years. The plan was simple:
Step 1: Buy a cheap old car.
Step 2: Sock away the equivalent of a car payment every month for four years.
Step 3: Buy a newer car for cash in 2015, using the money we had saved.
It would have been a foolproof plan, had it not depended on the optimistic — and, some would say, naïve — assumption that the car would make it four years.
Things went pretty well at first. I saved up $4,000 in a year. But then the twist ties and chewing gum holding the car together started to give out. From that point on, the cost of keeping the thing running and in one piece impeded any further savings.
In early December, when I paid to replace yet another rusted-out part-of-many-dollars, I began to question whether it was worth it to keep pouring money into the sad old thing.
I didn’t have to question it for long. One cold morning the engine, instead of turning over, made a sound like an anguished rhinoceros stuck in a mud hole.
I looked in the owner’s manual under “rhinoceros, anguished,” and found this: “1. Get thee to a service center. 2. Expect the worst.”
The mechanic called me later that day to say a few things, starting with “teeth stripped” and “engine seized” and finishing with “my deepest condolences.”
The Civic was dead.
Two days later, I put $4,000 down on a 2009 RAV4 and drove it off the lot, sad to have taken on a car payment but giddy about all the included options: sunroof, Bluetooth, airbags everywhere, power everything, pollen control venting, heated seats (which I have discovered are the greatest Vermont winter coping mechanism since the electric blanket), and two cup holders per rider because, well, hydration is important.
Drivers of 2014 cars — which now come standard with back-up cameras, on-board GPS systems and, on the LX models, time travel capabilities — won’t be impressed. But when you’ve moved up from a car like my Honda, where the only extra was a tree-shaped air freshener, you appreciate every little thing.
For a while.
And that’s the problem. Recently, for instance, the auxiliary button on the RAV4’s stereo suddenly stopped working, meaning I can no longer play music or podcasts from my cell phone through the car’s speakers. This enraged me. For days I drove around muttering, “Look at me. I am driving a RAV4 — Limited, no less. Do I look like the kind of person who should have to listen to iTunes directly from her phone? I think not.”
What have I become? In the Civic, I’d have to thump the dashboard three times to get the speakers to work at all, and I was grateful if they didn’t cut out when I hit a pothole. But now that my expectations have been raised, so has my potential for dissatisfaction.
While I love the RAV4, I have to remember it’s just a car, a means to get from Point A to Point B (albeit with less of the “will it or won’t it?” excitement I used to feel behind the wheel of the Civic).
The Civic was a lesson in humility. I learned to appreciate even the simplest pleasures, such as the joy of occasionally driving into town without any parts dragging on the pavement.
There’s no question that the RAV4 is a better car. But I’d be just as happy, possibly happier, with one that required me to pull an actual lever when I needed more legroom. So, in the spirit of becoming more grounded and less superficial, I vow that my next car won’t have any of those tempting but unnecessary options.
Except for the heated seats.
Call me spoiled if you want, but seriously, those things are the bomb.