Greg Dennis talks about cars: From Bug to C-Max

We all remember that first car.
Mine was a 1970 VW Bug, bought at Weybridge Garage in 1974. The yellow paint was fading, and it already had 90,000 miles and several pounds of Vermont rust on it.
But it was a Bug for sale at a time when Bugs were so cool as to seem nearly a legal mandate for a young man in his early 20s.
I cringe now at how naïve I was. I didn’t know you were expected to negotiate, so I paid the asking price of $1,000 — $4,700 in today’s money — and drove off with a vehicle that would transport me to wonderful new places over the next three years, while also vexing me with a litany of repair problems.
That car, and the ones that followed over the years, have been on my mind since I acquired a new car this winter. It’s a Ford C-Max, a nice new hybrid.
And I thank my lucky stars it’s not a VW Bug.
I’d had no experience with auto repair until I bought the Bug. But like so many others, I fell under the spell of the book “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.”
I took to gapping my own spark plugs, adjusting the timing, and other mechanical adventures.
Fortunately there was a friendly, squint-eyed mechanic named Dick who had a shop on Court Street. He corrected my many errors and didn’t charge much for his time — a kindness for a cub reporter living on a salary of $100 a week.
I was deeply into that Bug, rigging up repairs for the rotting heater boxes and other deficiencies. By contrast today, I’ve barely looked under the hood of the C-Max.
Think back through the vehicles you’ve owned. Each one recalls a time in your life. A convertible whose top-down days defined your twenties. A big SUV with low gas mileage that nearly ran your bank account into the ground. The Corolla you had when you brought your first child home from hospital.
I trace my own car lineage from that VW Bug to a Datsun 510 wagon with a cracked engine block, through a late-’70s Honda Civic, a GM Holden during a year in Australia, a VW Rabbit, a couple of Honda Accords, a Jetta sedan, a Camry, a disastrously uncomfortable Subaru Outback and then a used Audi A4.
Boy, we leave a lot of automotive junk behind us over the years.
But the Audi A4: That thing could fly in style.
In the Audi I passed people I had no business passing. So much so that one angry guy followed me all the way up to Bristol so he could confront me — as I stopped for a peaceful evening of fly fishing on the New Haven — and tell me what an idiot I’d been to pass him on a hill back in Middlebury.
Sun roof, good sound system, leather seats, all-wheel drive and several buttons whose utility was a mystery to me. You name it, the Audi had it all. For climbing App Gap to get first tracks at Mad River, there was no better car on the road.
Until the day it decided that it liked sitting in my snow-covered driveway a whole lot better than being on the road. The inevitable bad news was that it needed $4,000 worth of repairs, for a car that might be worth $7,000 on a good day.
I sold it to friend for $2,000, with complete disclosure about its disabilities. No bad caveat emptor karma for me. They made the repairs and at last report, they love driving it.
The C-Max enticed me for several reasons.
Much as I loved the Audi, it wasn’t exactly the greenest car on the road. I lived in fear that I’d go to a meeting about how to stop climate change, and someone would see me drive up in my 20-mpg wagon.
I needed a car to help me walk my talk and do a bit to take a load off the planet.
I’ve admired how Ford came back from the dead without aid from the government. Though Ford continues to pump out inefficient pickup trucks, the company has gone greener with its cars.
I also liked the idea of being able to support union members by getting a vehicle that’s built mostly in the U.S. with UAW labor (as opposed to domestically made Japanese cars, which are made in non-union plants where workers labor for less money).
Plus the C-Max promised a better driving experience compared to the wonderfully efficient Prius and its numb road feel. I loved the C-Max’s button-operated hatchback and other gizmos that carmakers pack into new cars.
On the minus side, I must report that the much-maligned Ford Sync system — which is supposed to seamlessly incorporate iPhone, GPS, CD player and temperature control into one package — is much maligned for good reason. Despite Ford’s repeated efforts to improve the Sync system, it’s still an unreliable mess.
But I love how the engine stops running when I’m at a stoplight. I love getting 40 mpg and seeing if I can goose it up to 45 mpg now that the snow tires are off. And I love the fantasy, in three years when the lease expires, of being able to convert over to an affordable plug-in hybrid that gets more than 100 mpg.
But you won’t see me blasting by to pass you on a hill.
I’ll be the old guy toddling along at 25 mpg, trying to keep the hybrid in electric mode, a big green smile on my face.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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