Driving a sport utility vehicle, to me, seemed the ultimate American excess. The worst drivers in suburbia drove big, gas-guzzling SUVs, usually filled with misbehaving kids, and showing few graces on the road. In the winter, SUVs in the ditch brought me delight, for some sick reason. All the people who drove them, it seemed, didn’t need them. I took pride, a bit too much pride, in driving a small, fuel-economy car, and slipping and sliding right past the behemoths in the ditch.
I loved my little car. It, like its predecessors, never met a gallon of gas it couldn’t use for at least 35 miles, in good or bad traffic. It was low to the ground, tires and routine maintenance were low-priced, and I never found a parking space too small for it. The payment on it was right, and as long as I didn’t beat it to death, it would be fine. Usually, however, I did beat it up a bit, and when one of the three models of it I owned had a problem, it had a problem of epic cash dollars, for me. It also had a nasty habit of chewing up tires, which never seemed to last more than 20,000 miles.
In winters past, when I drove on the snow-covered roads at 4 a.m., my little car slid a bit, but valiantly chugged up and down Holmes and Wayne County roads. This past winter, mild as it was, I figured this would not be an issue, driving an hour early in the morning down a highway and then winding state routes just like before. I was wrong.
My little car seemed so light this past winter. I would find myself arriving at work, after a white-knuckle ride, afraid to open the door, as if I’d fall out of the car, still in the same hunched-over position, stiff. The car didn’t hold well on the road in rain, snow and especially, wind. The highway was filled with construction trucks and semis early in the morning, and the state route south was nothing but huge garbage and dump trucks. I was a flea on their backs, and struggled.
All winter, I held my breath. One day, we had an early dismissal because of the snowfall, and I knew I’d never make it out of the hilly town where I teach. Fortunately, a friend, in an SUV, lived close enough to come and pick me up. Her husband drove me back the next morning, cleaned off my little car, which seemed to be shivering in the corner of the parking lot, and got me safely back to clear roads.
Driving home in city rush-hour traffic, in the elements, I would be wiped out when I pulled in the drive. The grind of a long day of high school students seemed easier than some of my hour-long commutes. My car had some minor dings and cracks, and was in desperate need of three new tires (one just gave out and didn’t make it through the school year).
I had to make a decision: wait until the car was paid off in two more years, or trade it in and see what I could get, take on more debt, lower my fuel economy, and in general, step way out of my financial comfort zone. I decided, against all that I’d stood for years ago, to look at buying a small all-wheel-drive SUV.
Starting in spring, I visited my car dealer, and began to look at number crunching. I’d done the same in December, and he urged me to come back in April or May, when there would be better sales on the model in question. This second visit, I was very close to signing the papers, but held back.
“Don’t make major decisions at the beginning or end of the school year,” my sister once cautioned me. “You’ll mostly regret them, because your mind is not sharp or focused on the decision at hand. Wait a few days or weeks. All of my poor choices were made when my brain was fried.”
My sister’s wise words haunted me, as did the financial burden an all-wheel-drive vehicle would cost. Always the person who asks 50 people, just to find out who agrees with me, I posted on Facebook my dilemma, between three models. The supporters of each were passionate. One friend continually sent me YouTube video links to watch about the engine quality and drive train of an SUV he deemed the most worthy. Another friend told me that same model, which she owned, was not what I should even consider.
Everyone in my family drives a Ford. What if I showed up at my parents’ farm driving an import? Could I live with driving an import? Part of me knew what I’d been taught all of my life: buy American, buy union.
All the while, I hid my search from my family. I would argue and reason with my parents and my sister about how strenuous the drive was. “Robin, I worry about you every time it snows, don’t think I don’t care,” my mom said one night. “Well, take your worry and multiply it times a hundred, think about it every day of fall and winter, and let it run through your body, pounding with stress, and then you’ll get to my level, Mom,” I snapped, and walked away. I was worried about worrying, and that only led to well, more worrying over safety, finances, gas prices, insurance, and on and on.
The question smart readers and my smart friends asked was, “Why don’t you buy a good used vehicle? New cars depreciate as soon as you leave the lot, and you can get a good late-model used SUV to last for years.” Ah, see, that would be true for everyone I know, but me. Why? Because I have a lemonometer that only lets me pick crappy used cars. Trust me. “Get someone to help you!” would be the rallying cry. Yes, but I’ve had relatives, mechanics and friends help me. I’ve had cars inspected, top to bottom, and each time, I am stuck with a machine that inevitably needs hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of work about five minutes after I leave the dealer. I bought new 12 years ago - I buy an extended warranty, ride ‘em hard, and get my money’s worth. I’m not a new car snob; I just haven’t ever picked a good used car. Ever. Did I mention never ever?
I knew, however, I could not buy that SUV before school let out, even if it would admirably hold all of the important “junk” I was dragging home. Every now and then, I’d joke about the SUV, and my sister and parents found no humor. They are smart enough to know when I’m testing the waters. “No matter what you say, you know you’re going to buy it,” my sister taunted. What a party pooper.
Driving, I’d crunch numbers. Sitting in church (of all places), I’d crunch numbers, trying to fall asleep, I’d crunch numbers. I did more crunching than a plague of locusts, it seemed. And still I was stumped.
One weekend late in the school year, I spent about 10 hours online looking at deals in Northeast Ohio, from big and small-name dealers. I pondered what my Millersburg-based dealer could do for me, even though it’s 90 minutes from where I work and 35 from my home. I ran numbers, did spec checks on what dealers offered, and each time, my local dealer came out on the plus side. I checked the cost of tires, oil changes, routine maintenance, and my car came out at a lower price. However, I called the sales manager back one day driving home, and told him I’d have to wait. “Robin, you know we’ll always be here for you,” he said in his booming voice.
Ten days later, I decided to buy a car. I didn’t feel the extreme anxiety, knew the crunched and crushed numbers still kept me in the black, even in worst-case scenarios, and the final selling point was the reduction in my insurance premium. The 2012 model I considered was not part of the revamped 2013 design, and because it was an established model, I got a lower premium than my 2010 car, according to my long-suffering insurance agency.
The day I bought the car, my father was taken to the ER. I’d told my sister not an hour before, and sitting with Dad and Mom, she snickered, “Do you have something you want to tell them?” I shot her a nasty glance and said, “Do you want them both on heart monitors?” Mom found out the next day, and gave me her best patented guilt look. “I don’t want to discuss it. Not a peep,” I retorted. “At least my insurance went down,” I offered. “Big whoopee,” was her response. “Big whoopee” is her key phrase for “I am not, nor will I ever be, in favor of whatever decision you have just made.”
Driving her home one night from the hospital, I said, “Mom, you know I have to make my own decisions. Nobody else can make me feel bad without my permission, and I’m not giving it to you, or Carol, or Dad, or anyone.” She paused for a moment and said, “Good.”
Signing the paperwork, looking at the total price before trades and rebates, I almost started to hyperventilate. “This is too elaborate for me! Too expensive! Too much fluff!” I thought to myself. My hand shook as I scribbled my name.
The Escape now has 1,200 miles on it. I haven’t sat that high in a vehicle in well, ever. Bumps that used to scrape and snare my small car are nothing, and I even kind of like the sunroof, as do our cats at home, who sleep on it at night. The gas mileage took a lot of getting used to, and I still am not sure what all the engine is doing at times, but I trust it.
Yesterday, we saw the 2013 Escape, which is sleek, with a higher MPG, and totally redesigned. I paused for a moment, and smiled, thinking of all I went through in my mind to get the model I just purchased two weeks ago. I had no regrets.
Published: June 21, 2012