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April 18, 2009

The Life Cycle Stage and the Automobile

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Sorry folks, I'm writing about cars again. That's because I have them on my mind. And the reason is, I just bought a new one.

Yes, as I wrote a few days ago, my wife bought herself a new car too. We agreed that we'll each do our own car-buying with personal funds, not as a joint purchase. Her beloved 2002 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer (with every whistle plus toots beyond measure) was getting too expensive to keep up. The economy being what it is, dealers -- especially those for domestic makes -- are especially anxious to get inventory off their lots. And there are tax incentives and so forth. So she got a good deal.

Her car-shopping triggered my action based on thoughts that had been simmering for the past year (when my Chrysler 300 was paid off). I enjoyed the Chrysler in many ways, but found that its constricted visibility was adversely affecting my driving. Plus, the car had less than 4,000 miles left on its power train warranty and needed a set of new tires and a windshield replacement. It was time for it to go. (I wrote about the Chrysler 300 and automobile styling here.)

All of which set me to musing about cars, generations and life-cycle stages, a subject I touched on here with respect to sports cars. Lacking research data, all I can do is describe my thoughts and motivations and let you use them as a yardstick for your own situation.

First, generational effects. Based on no data whatsoever, it's my impression that 20, 30 and 40-somethings aren't nearly as deep into car fandom as was my generation and other males born post-Model T through the Baby Boom that ended in the mid 1960s. Later generations were distracted by computer games and other technology-based focuses of attention. (Though many did become automobile devotees.)

Even in my generation there were those who regarded cars as tools or appliances, not sex objects, objects that might attract other kinds of sex objects, status symbols and all the other pop-psychology hypothesizing that's been floating around since the days of Henry Ford. People like that are the target market for Consumer Reports, which, in the mid-1950s, favored cars that I preferred not to be seen in.

So we're all different with respect to attitudes about cars. My own situation has been one of frustration. Given a large discretionary income to play with, I probably would have traded one hot and sexy car for a newer, hotter, sexier one every year or two. No, I don't mean Ferraris or other supercars. My choices might have been the Austin-Healy sports car, the first-year Oldsmobile Toronado front-drive sedan, early Datsun 240Zs, the 1957 Corvette -- stuff like that. Alas, I never made the kind of money to follow that path. Instead, when I felt it was time to buy a new car, I got the sportiest one I could afford and what I bought usually came up far short of my desires.

Looking back, I figure that I owned perhaps two cars that came pretty close to being my first choice at the time. One was the 1971 Porsche 914 and the other was the 2005 Chrysler 300. Examples are pictured below. They are similar to what I had, though colors and trim details differ.

Porsche 914

Chysler 300

I said "pretty close," which in reality means that if I had had more money, I would have purchased something better than the bottom-of-the-line versions of the 914 and 300 that I did get. As a matter of fact, rather than the 914 I would have preferred a Datsun 240Z. Sigh. Being a car freak is tough duty.

Now that I'm retired, I have even less financial wiggle room so I call my car-buying shots very carefully. Whereas I once might have bought a sporty, good-handling little Volkswagen GTI for $24,000, I instead decided to buy a Toyota RAV4 for a similar price.

Toyota RAV4 - 2009

The RAV4 I bought was (what else?) the bottom-of-the-line version with a four cylinder motor and four-wheel drive. No powered driver seat. No moon roof. No six-stacker CD player. No keyless ignition system and other fancy stuff such as a V-6 engine. But I really don't want such goodies (except the V-6 and the powered seat, perhaps -- the non-powered seat's controls are awful).

Another thing. Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the thought of buying any SUV, including a crossover such as the RAV. SUVs were more primitive in those days, being more closely related to trucks: zippy sedans or coupes for me. But now they don't bother me. My wife had a Ford Explorer. It's a truck-based SUV with all the related rough edges in terms of handling. But it alerted me to the pleasures of having lots of carrying capacity and the high driver's position that allowed me to look over most traffic rather than being unable to see over any of it.

The RAV styling is nothing special, however. If were Toyota, I would have come up with a more distinctive grille and front end treatment. The rest of the lower body is a bit too soft looking in my judgment; a sharp crease to define the shoulder better is called for.

The RAV has decent carrying capacity, handles surprisingly well, is peppy enough for most driving situations and -- best of all -- has excellent forward and side visibility, something sorely lacking in the slit-windowed 300. Finally there's (knock on wood) the reliability Toyotas reputedly offer; I strongly hope that it will be cheap to maintain -- something that I didn't give a lot of consideration to previously.

This isn't to say that I no longer like the idea of sporty, well-designed cars. If I had the money, I'd seriously consider buying one to complement the transportation tool that I did buy.

But the life cycle is real; it's time to get practical. I don't really need a flashy car to impress people and stroke my ego (though those are still appealing ideas).

Also real are the basics of economics; you have to do the best you can with available resources. Which, on re-reading this, I see is what I've essentially been doing all of my car-buying career.



posted by Donald at April 18, 2009



Posted by: cjm on April 18, 2009 1:38 PM

I just bought a new one... my wife bought herself a new car too.

My own situation has been one of frustration... Alas, I never made the kind of money to follow that path... I got the sportiest one I could afford and what I bought usually came up far short of my desires... I figure that I owned perhaps two cars that came pretty close to being my first choice at the time.

The obvious question here is, would you have gotten closer to your ideal purchase had you forgone the "new" business and were willing to buy something 5-10 years old? Or were your dream cars the type that didn't sink in price as quickly as most? (Or, alternatively, did they tend to fall apart within five years?)

Another strategy is to rent your ideal car for a few days a year. I mean, you don't buy a hotel room in Maui, do you?

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 18, 2009 3:48 PM

cjm -- That's a cryptic comment and I'll assume you're asking which flavor 914 I had. Mine was a four-cylinder job with comparatively narrow tires and a painted -- not vinyl covered -- roll bar. The bumper aeas were mostly painted body-color, if I remember correctly.

Reg -- Yes, I've heard the advice to buy a three-year-old Lexus or whatever. But I'm not entirely economically rational. Besides, two of three used cars I bought (admittedly the first two) were troublesome. I get comfort from knowing everything that happened to the vehicle from date of purchase. C'est moi.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 18, 2009 4:47 PM

I rented a RAV when I was in the US last week and found it to be a pretty good choice. Plenty of room for the wife and I and our three children, plenty of room for a week's worth of baggage, very comfortable compared with US-made SUVs I have rented there previously. As you say, the life cycle is real, and this is a reasonable ride someone at my stage.

Posted by: robert61 on April 18, 2009 4:47 PM

I think cars were a new technology (or at least newer) for your generation. New is sexy (in the general sense--women are rarely attracted to Internet-heads).

Growing up in NYC, I had little interest in cars. I was, however, acutely sensitive to the class implications of one's home address :)

Posted by: SFG on April 18, 2009 5:07 PM

People who are old enough to remember the large-sized, large-engined, non-pollution controlled Detroit Iron cars of the 1960's may be more enthusiastic about cars than those of us who've grown up with downsized, 4-cylinder, frequently imported cars.

Posted by: Peter on April 18, 2009 6:54 PM

Later generations were distracted by computer games and other technology-based focuses of attention. --∂onald

People who are old enough to remember... may be more enthusiastic about cars than those of us who've grown up with downsized, 4-cylinder, frequently imported cars. --Peter

The best analysis of 1990s-era car design I've heard came from the pubescent farm-bred nephew of a friend. He said modern cars (this was before the PT Cruiser, New Beetle, MiniCooper, HHR, etc) all looked like potatoes.

Of course they did-- the only way to squeeze out more mileage was aerodynamically, and thus designs all converged at the potato pole.

But Peter, the "downsized, 4-cylinder, frequently imported" models of the '60s had their own fervid fan bases, albeit smaller and weirder than Detroit's.

The old Beetle and "Volkswagen Station Wagon" (what we called a "bus") were iconic, as were the Karmann Ghia, Mercedes and BMW. Fiats and Renaults were still available. The truly dedicated had their Citroëns and Porsches and Triumphs and MGs. And a few of us had a thing for Saabs-- quite endearing creatures before they were turned into pricy Chevys.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 19, 2009 12:39 AM

What the world needs is a Land Rover Discovery II, with the 3.9 litre V8 engine, but equipped with a fold-down metal roof and a little more legroom in the front.

Posted by: dearieme on April 19, 2009 6:16 AM

the high driver's position that allowed me to look over most traffic rather than being unable to see over any of it

Of course, it's SUVs that make it impossible for car drivers to see in traffic. A car driver can't see over, around, or through an SUV.

I hate SUVs. I used to f*ck with them sometimes. A few years ago I saw an SUV driver try to move into a right lane to take an exit, and I kept my car at his right flank, making him miss it. Laughed in his red angy face too.

I wonder how many car drivers were killed and maimed by an SUV when they otherwise would have been OK in a car-car collision.

On the other hand, our Saudi friends thank you.

Posted by: PA on April 19, 2009 8:55 AM

I definitely feel your wife's pain. My 1997 Explorer is just about done. Expensive to keep up, and thoroughly untrustworthy (twice in the past year I've had to have it towed home from where it broke down). I'm waiting to see what happens with that Cash for Clunkers idea.

Posted by: JP on April 19, 2009 12:06 PM

If the EPA is to be believed, the RAV4, even with the V6 Mr Pittenger didn't buy, burns less gas than my Infiniti sedan.

I'm sure this strikes fear into their hearts in Riyadh.

Posted by: CGHill on April 19, 2009 12:57 PM

We bought RAV4 this January and just love it. I went from a Yaris to an SUV because my Yaris was totaled after a tiny accident... It didn't take much to destroy it. Safety won over gas mileage :)
There is a video manual for RAV4 on under Automotive - 11 video chapters total, covering everything from accessing the tire to cruise control and radio operation. Very helpful for previewing the RAV, or figuring something out.
I have nothing but good things to say about this car. My first SUV ever!

Posted by: Laura on April 19, 2009 3:11 PM

Another thought - I'd be really mad if I'd only owned a car for 7 years before it was too expensive to keep on the road. It's barely paid off, and already you have to buy a new one! I'm disgruntled enough that my 97 is basically dead (and with only 140K miles on it). No more Fords, ever!

On the other hand, my wife's 93 Honda Civic is still going strong...

Posted by: JP on April 19, 2009 7:39 PM

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