Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hello, New Shiny Thing

I bought a new car. I didn't want to buy a new car.

My old car, a trusty 2001 Saturn sedan, had needed a single $300 repair every year, like clockwork. I replaced the radiator in August ($306 parts+labor), but then in December it developed a coolant leak. The mechanic said, "They don't make specific parts for Saturns any more. Just buy an intake manifold off eBay, bring it in and we'll install it for you." They helpfully included an eBay item number. Nothing dramatic, just some guy with a stash of discontinued Saturn parts. (Saturn was doomed in 2009.)

As the kids say, "lol whut."

goodbye, Car

There are many life circumstances where the most reasonable thing to do would be to accept the situation: buy your car parts off eBay (or junkyards, if you have one nearby, though they're disappearing), incurring unknown delays in the repair, or maybe doing it yourself. I am not in any of those circumstances, so it was time for a new car. Since, between us, we had a '93 Toyota Corolla and an '01 Defunct Car Company Inc., we had talked about car replacement, without much success. We have a lot of other stuff going on, and didn't want to bother with the time and expense of car shopping beyond Internet research. Setting aside my suspicions about the Saturn's suddenly-changed reliability, once I fixed it, we'd have two perfectly serviceable cars.

Right after I fixed the intake manifold, the Saturn started idling high, with a rhythm like an out-of-balance washing machine, and the Service Engine Soon light came on. So much for that: I bought a new car.

It turns out you can't sell a car with the Service Engine Soon light on. Nor should you buy one, really, so that's not surprising. You shouldn't buy a cheap car that might need a $1000 repair. In the vain hope it might be something simple, I brought it to a mechanic to check the error code, which turned out to be several error codes:
  • Random/Multiple Cylinder Misfire Detected
  • Idle Control System RPM Higher Than Expected
  • Sec. AIR Injection System Malfunction
I've only ever heard of Check Engine Soon having to do with the exhaust or emissions system, so imagine my surprise to learn about Random/Multiple Cylinder Misfire Detected. It also surprised the mechanic, who said "What the hell, man?" and started poking around. He found the spark plugs covered in oil, and cleaned them out, but then the engine ran worse.

R.I.P., the car known simply as "Car," donated to charity after 9 years of faithful service.

Back to the new car.

The way our life is structured, we need two cars:
  1. A fuel-efficient car for the endless trips to Pacifica (27 miles one-way).
  2. A car we can load with 2 adults, 3 kids, and camping gear.
Those could be the same car, except that the laws of physics prevent it. We decided to get #1 first, a Mazda 3. (If you sacrifice 15mpg, you can get the Mazda Speed 3, which compares favorably to sporty cars 2-3 times the price. I didn't get that one.) It's a cute mid-size hatchback with good handling and a decent enough engine. It's not yet quite as much fun to drive as the Saturn, but I think that's true of anything that meets our requirements: we've set the bar higher, and the Saturn didn't actually meet those requirements either.

The new car's name, taken from how I talk about it, is "Shiny Car." (J told Anna, in a loving "this is something I know about my Chris!" tone, that I "always call things just what they are.")

hello, Shiny Car

The thing that's hard to get over about the Mazda is how incredibly nice it is. While I did spring for the Grand Touring package on the theory that I hope to have the car for a decade, I am shocked to find these things in a low-end car:
  • Sunroof/moonroof.
  • Blind-spot proximity sensors.
  • USB port with MP3 player (e.g. iPod) integration.
  • Music integration over Bluetooth.
  • 120V A/C plug.
  • Built-in mic+speaker for hands-free cell phone calls over Bluetooth.
  • Built-in GPS navigation.
  • Touch-screen controls for all of this.
  • Keyless operation: everything is push-button and works with the key fob in your pocket.
When I got the 2001 Saturn I was excited to get power locks and windows, so this is an unimagined brave new world.

It turns out that this stuff is all commodity now. Wired explains, in a slideshow about what Mercedes had to come up with to make sure their luxury car is nicer than my Mazda:
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been the pinnacle of high-tech luxury for going on three decades. But the democratization of technology means that the S-Class' breakthrough feature a decade ago is now available on the lowliest of Korean econoboxes. Mercedes needs to up its game to keep pace with its cross-town rivals, so the all-new S-Class - due out sometime next year - will drive itself in traffic, bend its light beams around oncoming cars, prevent you from taking out a cow and have pyrotechnically deployed seat belts.
We're living in the future.

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