Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why I bought a new car

Last week I drove a brand new 2007 Subaru Forester off the dealer’s lot. All week I’ve agonized over this decision. The issue comes down to not so much can I afford it financially but mentally. Since reaching driver age, I’ve vehemently eschewed buying a new car. For most of the past 28 years of my driving life I’ve either not had a car, or had a very well used one. The most I’ve ever paid was about $4,500, for a five-year-old, 1986 Nissan pickup 4WD with 85,000 miles on it. Eleven years and 150,000 miles later, it went into “storage” next to my house. Like a friend of mine says, it sure doesn’t owe me anything, and it still runs. Oh I put some money into it though, new clutch, re-built transmission, new locking hubs, and a bunch of miscellaneous repairs. But talk about economy! Before that I owned a 1978 Datsun I bought for $300 in 1989 and sold three years later for $200. My first car was a 1962 VW van I bought for ~$2000 in 1984- during my hippy era while going to college at Humboldt State. Sounds like a lot for such an old VW, but it was a classic and collector’s item. A very rare European cargo model with modified rear-gear differentials for hauling loads, swing-out side doors on both sides, and bumper to bumper cherry. In my entire life I have only seen two others similar. Today, it would be worth close to 10 grand. That one I’d probably still be driving, had it not mysteriously disappeared one night while parked in the front of my hotel in Mazatlan. The Hotel even had a night watchman. He said he fell asleep. I literally lived in my Van. Spent at least one college year parking in front of friends houses, using their shower, compensating with beer, and goodies. Little Miss Sunshine would be pale in comparison to the story I could write about that episode of my life.

Two years ago, my dad and his wife bought a new car, and no longer needed their 1983 Subaru GL 4wd with 156,000 miles. They said I could have it, and they paid shipping from Seattle to Anchorage, kind of like a belated graduation present. Only-child advantage, I suppose. I received the car in October as winter in Alaska fast approached for its 6-7 month grip. I wonder when people say they “love” an inanimate object such as their car. Love or whatever, this little Subaru was like an Anchorage commuters dream car. It stuck to icy roads like glue. I had a hard time forcefully trying to lose control of it while driving like a testosterone-crazed adolescent in an empty icy covered parking lot. I fell in love with Subarus. After a little over two years and about 50,000 miles of regular oil changes, a repaired rear wheel bearing, a repaired heater fan, a rebuilt oil pump, replaced clogged fuel filters, new set of rims and studded tires, new front brakes and a new muffler, I decided to take it to the AAA1 Subaru repair shop (who by now knew me very well) for a tune up one Monday morning. Simple right? They called me up at the end of the day with the bad news. Three of the plugs were completely crossed threaded, and they said it needed new heads. They also mentioned that it was leaking oil from every sealed crevice – they had actually warned me of this a few months earlier. Basically I was looking at maybe a couple of grand for getting this car, worth maybe a few hundred, back in business. Sensible people would decide to ditch the car and get another one. Stubborn and frugal people, like myself, would dump a rebuilt engine and while their at it replace the clutch and maybe regrind the flywheel. They would take care of the brake lines, master cylinder, differentials, transfer case and transmission later, maybe, when they finally break too. I commute 100 miles round trip, mass transit is not an option for me. Even a share van isn’t an option because I still have to drive to the pick up point-although I could probably get a ride if someone close to me wanted to wake up at 5:AM every working morning. I called Enterprise and rented a truck, because they didn’t have a car, for the rest of the week. I pretty much had my mind on another Subaru, I was addicted, and felt so comfortable and confident driving the snow storms and icy roads-very important for this California boy. And, while I was thinking about it, wouldn’t it be nice to have air bags, anti-lock brakes, and maybe even a nice stereo I could actually hear? Over 200 Moose (about average) have been hit along my commute this winter-wouldn’t it be nice to have something a bit beefier, just in case? But a full-size pickup would kill me in gas costs, I figured about $350 to $400 a month, and they kind of suck on icy highways and roads. Just not a good thing to commute in. Then I thought about Toyotas, Camry or Corolla. Great on gas, economical, front-wheel drive. How about a hybrid? Too new, not proven yet in the far north. I sure like those AWD Subarus though, and they are by far the single most popular passenger car around here. Everyone I’ve talked to “loves” their Outback or Forester.

I had done a bit of car shopping earlier in the year, because I knew the time to upgrade was coming. I drove Foresters and Outbacks. Although only costing about a grand more, the Outbacks were nicer in looks and ride, but I felt so much more comfortable in the Forester. I liked the seating position, and the view of the road. I have always driven manuals, and hated automatics. I thought automatics were stupid. You have no control over the car and they are terrible on icy roads (you pretty much have to take them out of drive and into neutral if you expect to have any control in a slide. Easier to clutch. I quickly discovered that modern technology has pretty much erased most of the downsides of automatics. Albeit more costly, they are less trouble in the long run than a clutch. Still though, they aren’t manuals, which I just like. There are very few used Subarus with manuals out there. Although I looked at two used manuals, there were many more choices of automatics. Several months ago, I drove one manual Forester I really liked. It even had a tape deck- ideal for me, I still have hundreds of cassettes. It was priced Ok, had 74,000 miles on it. I couldn’t bring myself though to spend the $11,000. I could replace just about everything in the 1983, engine, brake lines, etc, and buy a killer sound system for that amount. Ridiculous amount of money. So I passed. I honestly thought I had at least a couple more years in the 1983. Most people say I should get at least 250,000 miles out of it. So yeah, two more years. Then I’ll replace the engine.

Last Saturday, after renting a Dodge Dakota for 5 days at about $60/day, I made a moderate down payment, and financed the balance brand new Forester; controlled by more computer chips and fuzzy logic than anything that I’ve ever owned before. What the $%*& was I thinking? Financially I could do it- I penciled it all out, took a close look at my cost of living, factored in a raise I was getting the following month. I even worked up anecdotal spreadsheet and graphed the depreciation of various Subarus based on the mileage, year, and advertised price in the paper so I knew what I was losing. What I am struggling with most, is the mental affordability. A NEW car? Geez Thomas, who are you? Am I the idiot I thought everyone else is?

At, their speal on buying a new car somewhat helped, but still kind of a weak argument. Then I thought for every used car on the market, some dumbass bought a new one. Folks who can only afford, or who are smart enough to only buy used cars depend on people like me. Someone has to get that car out of the dealer lot onto the streets. There’s people out there that need people like me. Next thought process was that all my life I’ve driven used cars. For the last five years of driving 100 miles a day, on enough occasions I was uncertain of arriving at my destination. I even bought a cell phone when I started commuting. Not to yak all the way between home and work, but to call the tow truck or 911 when I am upside down buried in a pile of snow, or, on the edge of the right lane with a left-side flat, or just plain broke down.

Maybe its my middle-aged mind that after dealing with so much uncertainty, and getting gray commuting the highway and city of Los Anchorage with all the wack-job rude me-first drivers, I needed safety, and assurance. I needed a peace of mind, and a decent stereo system I could actually hear. What I needed was a ride, and dammit, not only do I deserve a nice ride, I can afford it but with some impact on my retirement plan. It is a financial set back.

No matter how you look at the economics, buying a new car is a money loser. Buying any car is usually a money loser. It is the cost of doing business. What a comfortable, safe, smooth, peaceful commute this new Forester is providing me. I am still undecided on whether this luxury is really worth the money. I really like the 36,000 mile bumper to bumper, and 60,000 mile drive train warranty, although not the best out there (I could buy more warranty), and if something does go wrong, I’m still out a ride. Almost pervertedly, I like the fact that I am the first owner. There is no doubt in my mind, that if I only drove 10 miles a day to work, I would have bought second hand, not paid more than 8 to 10 grand, and probably would have bought something that can haul some wood, and tow a boat. Even though I don’t have a boat, yet. If I lived in California and drove 100 miles round trip to work, I definitely would have bought a used Toyota or Honda sedan; likely a hybrid. But I live and drive 100 miles round trip per day, about 70 of that highway, the rest city, where winter is 6-7 months long, 1,000 pound-plus Ungulates regularly get in the way, and generally the company, the other drivers, they suck. Could I have accomplished that by buying used? I think definitely yes, and so I probably spent a few grand more than I had to – that is about 2-3 years of food and beverages for the two of us, or about 6 months to a year cost of living during retirement.

If only I had more time to shop, and a bit more confidence and trust in previous owners, and my own ability to discern a lemon from a wonder-that’s what really cost me. I doubt I’ll ever buy another new car. At least I hope I don’t, I like having money too much for buying the essentials and the sooner I can afford independence the better. And I hate the new car smell- smells like cancer to me. But really, I like myself a bit more knowing I am frugal and wise. In the grand scheme of things, its not a big deal, I shouldn’t be so embarrassed to tell my friends I bought new, and I shouldn’t worry how it will affect my financial future. Ten years from now, I’ll either still have the Forester thinking it was the best car I ever owned, or I will have sold it while still in its prime (just after warranty), get about half my money back and move on, towing my boat to the launch in Prince William Sound.