August 22, 2008



The check engine light was on. I started the car up yesterday evening after another fun-filled night at my job, it did its usual (and mysterious) cold-weather clunk clunk clunk when I started it, which is a little bizarre since it is in the 70s last night. And the check engine light glowed orange, the color of the devil's eyes.

Today, Emily called places to see about On Board Diagnostics checks from auto places. See, cars made after 1997 have this uniform plug under the dash somewhere so auto people can plug a computer device thingy into it and then read the codes to see what ails your automobile. This is needed because anything between the gas cap not being screwed on all the way to massive engine problems can fire that light. I know this because I've done this on cars, and I've had it done on my car before from an Auto Zone in Carbondale for free. When I had it done in Carbondale, the guy came out to my car with this device that looked vaguely like a first-generation cell phones that needed a messenger bag to carry it. He knelt under my dash, plugged it in, the machine then spit out this little print out that said there was something wrong with my gas pedal position (I still don't know what that meant), and viola I was on my way. Process takes less than five minutes.

The first few places we called didn't do the ODB testing, because, as I can only assume, they are luddites. The only Auto Zone around here is downtown Madison, near the capitol, and we didn't want to go there, mostly because we weren't sure if that place even had a parking lot (most places near the capitol don't). So, we found out that a Tires Plus close to us does that kind of testing. So we drive there, I address the counter, explain my need to the man in the red polo about how I would like for him to spare 1 to 5 minutes of his time to give me a read out for my check engine light.

The man in the red polo says, "Engine diagnostics costs $89.99."

I says, "90 dollars to just do the plug in under the dash?"

"Yes," says the man in the red polo, without a hint of malice, irony or embarassment.

I turn to Emily and give her this combo look of "What do you think?" because, hey, we could be facing catastrophic car issues and also "Can you believe this shit?" because this is high-grade brazen overcharging designed to fuck over little old ladies and other people scared witless by the evil glowing eye of the check engine light. She tells the guy, sternly, no way, and we leave.

Our gas was low, so we fill up. I find out that our gas cap was on their a little loose for some reason. I really cranked the gas cap over, and as we are driving through our parking lot, we hit a speed bump, and viola! check engine light disappears.

We pull into our parking spot, turn off the car, and turn it back on, ready for that mysterious cold weather clunk clunk clunk...nothing. Light is still off too.

As far as I'm concerned, this problem's fixed. Boo-yah.

But, this is just a smoldering forest fire, one breeze in the right direction, or a few weeks without rain, and poof, we're engulfed. So we need a new car...rather a new to us car. Our 1997 Grand Am has endured 140,000 miles, one wreck (while my mom owned it, she got blasted on the interstate when someone lost control of their car...the person bounded off the concrete barrier then back into my mom...she was okay by the way), 3 Minnesota winters and 3 years in Minnesota taking nicks, dents and scrapes from the most inconsiderate fucking parkers on the planet. Now the paint is starting to peel a little where it was hit, both doors are fucked up, the passenger window won't roll down (because it won't go back up)...even though it has newer tires, newer brakes, a brand fucking new intake manifold gasket & heater core, and everything else this damn thing needed over the past few's time this car is traded in, sent to that great big car retirement home in the sky...or behind a chain link fence overgrown with vines, like all junkyards.

And, the way I figure, the trade in value of the Grand Am is, maybe, 900 dollars and that's a really optimistic figure...and note that this is 400 dollars less than what I paid to have the car fixed before just moving to Madison. I really think I might be better off eating the car, like in the Harry Crews novel.

But, anyway, anybody out there have some sage like car buying advice? Particular brands/makes/models to avoid? And I dont' care about anything petty like hillbilly concerns of Ford versus Chevy, or concerns about buying American...I just want a car that will be newer than mine, have less miles than mine, not break as much, and be affordable. Oh, and I suppose I'd have to fit into this car, too. A Chevy Festiva just won't cut it.

viva el mustache


Ande said...

Try or one of those other online car buying sites. You might find someone near you selling a reasonably priced car. If not, you might be able to shop around and at least see what people in your area charge for stuff. Make sure to use the Kelly Blue Book site, too.

DeWolf said...

Avoid Volkswagon: those cars are overpriced, they break down ofter, and they're expensive to maintain. At least two models consistently appear on the Consumer Reports 10 most unreliable cars of the year list.

Honda and Toyota are a little pricey, but they'll run forever (so long as you keep up with the maintenance schedule). If you go with a GM car, make sure you opt for a bigger engine (at least a 3.1L); GM's never had luck with small engines--case in point, the Grand MA's Quad 4. The nice thing about Chevy (with at least a 3.1L V6) is that the engine requires little maintenance (aside from oil changes) in order to last a long time.

My mom's 12-year-old Lumina has never had engine trouble, nor has it required major engine work.

Nathan Melcher said...

Wow, DeWolf has got you covered on actual vehicles. As for buying...

I picked up a vehicle in 2002 from a fella on - relatively painless procedure.

If you're going to a dealer don't fall for that "initial this scrap of paper so I can let my boss know you're serious" thing or settle for a high interest rate if you finance (call me optimistic, but anything over 8.5% is too high). Also, if you're going to pay cash instead of finance, don't tell them until you write the check. If you tell them it's a cash deal up front they'll never show you their rock bottom price. Work with them on the price, talk financing, then after you have the price you want, write the check at signing. Watch them stiffen as you do and smile at how much money you're not spending.

Jorge said...

I'm behind Dan's reasoning on the bigger engine GMs (plus, they make louder vroom vroom noises, which is important to me). Anyway, I know you said not to get into the foreign vs domestic car debate, but let me point this out: foreign cars means foreign parts means you better be investing in the foreign currency market to afford those parts. Plus, labor on a foreign car is usually more. That's one of my main reasons for not ever buying a foreign car.
As for suggestions, I, personally, recommend a GM because, I believe, they have more cars with interchangeable parts, which means cheaper parts due to more of them out there.
Other than that, my personal specific recommendation is a Buick. Three of the five cars I've owned have been Buicks. Two of those three are still in my driveway back home and running like champions. (And believe me, I run my cars hard.)
And Alex's buying advice is golden.
Oh, and like Ande said, check private sellers and KBB. Also, think about selling your car privately rather than trading it in. You'll get more money for it.

Anonymous said...

For domestic brands, avoid any Chrysler product from about 1993 on. They tend to eat transmissions, especially after the Mercedes years. I would have to concur with a Buick as a low maintenance choice. The 3800 V6 especially as it has been around as long as Mr. Otto created/perfected the IC engine. Recent Fords I cannot really make a recommendation one way or another. Some are as reliable as a nail, while some will break if you look at them wrong. Sadly, I would have to agree with the VW assessment. Beautiful in and out, but when they break, they break big time. For foreign cars, look into a late model Camry (the V6 model will really scoot) or a Mazda 6 would be a good choice.

The Drewid