Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Butch Fun Cars

For the past couple months, I’ve been thinking that it’s time to get a new car.  My current one (a Plymouth Neon) will be 9 years old in early August.  A few months older than that, actually, since I bought a demo model with 6500 miles on it at the time.

(Yes, Plymouth Neon, not Dodge Neon.  The hood has the Plymouth star emblem on it, not the Dodge ram.  Identical car, just made in a different factory.)

My green Neon — named “Pranth”; my previous car was a white Hyundai Excel GL which I named “Danth” (SCA and Pern fans should get the joke) — has served me well for the past 117,000 miles, some 14,000 miles per year.  It’s never been broken into (knock on wood), it’s never been in a serious accident (but it has the still-dented fender from when I hit something unknown on the freeway — not a car — 6 months after I got it, and the hanging rear bumper where I was rear-ended about two years after I got the car), and it’s only broken down on me once (last year with a water pump which went out while I was getting a blowjob while driving down the freeway, ahem, never mind).

In looking at my next car, I’m thinking about just what I want out of a car.  I want a “butch, fun car”.  I characterize that as a non-sports-car convertible: something to have fun driving in which looks appropriate for a leatherman, and which is large enough to carry home stuff bought at Lowe’s or IKEA.  (A VW Beetle convertible fails on two of those.  So does a ’Vette, to me.)  The classic example of this is the Jeep Wrangler (with a hardtop; no “clouded-up plastic windows and rip me open with a knife” soft tops, please!).

(Note that there are two things which some people would call “butch fun cars” which I don’t want: I don’t want a pickup and I don’t want a big SUV.)

So I go out looking at what is out there in this class.  Defining the class itself is hard.  Is it a “convertible”?  Is it an “SUV”?  Is it a “sports car”?  Is it a “pickup truck”?  My best term for the class I’m looking for is “(semi)convertible small SUV” (or a “semi-con” as opposed to a “non-con”, a regular, non-convertible SUV).  That at least makes it easier to look for similar things on car company web sites.

What I’ve found is that there’s almost nothing out there to buy in this class, although there used to be!  Jeep makes the Wrangler (in several flavors; I would probably want Renegade Sahara or Rubicon), and these can be found all over Seattle.  Land Rover introduced the Freelander in 2003 with the SE3 variant, which is an SUV with a removable back end; I have seen precisely one driving around Seattle since I found out about the vehicle.  Suzuki used to make the Samurai, a Wrangler look alike, but discontinued it years ago.  Toyota’s Rav4 used to be a semi-con, but it’s now a hardbody SUV.  Chevrolet used to make the Tracker in this class, built on the Suzuki Vitara, but that became a non-con only in 2004.  Isuzu discontinued the Amigo a decade ago, brought it back as the Rodeo Sport, and discontinued it a couple years ago.  Chevrolet also makes the SSR, a convertible pickup.  (But it’s a pickup, it looks even more fucked up than the PT Cruiser, and it starts at a whopping $42,000!)

So my choices are Jeep Wrangler or Land Rover Freelander SE3.  (Or last year’s Tracker, which I can still buy new 3 hours away in Portland, according to the Chevy web site.  The SSR isn’t a viable option, not at that price point.)  Nobody else produces something in this class.  Nobody.

Over the holidays, I went to Palm Springs, and I rented a Dodge Dakota for the week.  (It was the cheapest thing I could get at LAX, $100 less for the week than even a Ford Focus, believe it or not!)  After about five days of driving it, of getting in and out of it, I found that my knees started to hurt from the stepping up and down due to the vehicle’s height.  (I hurt them years ago playing volleyball, and then never took the long time to let them fully heal due to my performance dancing.  They don’t bother me much these days, but now and then they kick up.)  If anything yanked tall pickups and big SUVs out of the running for me for sure, that was it — I can’t (won’t) drive a vehicle that will cause me pain.

So what I want to do is rent these vehicles for a week to really test them out — find out how I will deal with them physically, and see what will really annoy me about the way they drive or their interior features.  But you can’t do that.  The dealerships won’t rent the vehicles, just test drive them for an hour.  The only major rental company which says online that they have Wranglers in their fleet is Dollar, but they won’t rent them to you in Seattle, and their phone people say “Are you sure we have those?”  (Some companies may have them in select markets.  Wranglers are apparently common rentals in the Caribbean, for example, not that such helps me here.)  Avis had the gall to tell me that they don’t have them because there’s no demand for them; gee, maybe no one asks for them because you don’t have any for them to rent!  I love the things that customer support and sales people make up to be able to not say “I don’t know why.”)  Land Rover, not even being based in the United States, is just about as easy (read: impossible) to rent, it seems.  I’ve found that Enterprise in Seattle has some Freelanders (but not SE3s), which should deal with most of my rental desires, leaving only “How is it without the top on?” to be determined by test drives.  Maybe I can find a recent model Jeep for rent via the yellow pages from a used car dealer, but I have no real expectation of that.

The overall frustration here brings up a more major point about our society: how do we make decisions to buy things?  We’re encouraged to (and really only allowed to) have limited information to make decisions with.  In many cases, a TV is a TV is a TV: so long as you like the look and can see that the remote isn’t too confusing, if it’s the right size, then it’s fine.  But when you’re talking about a $25,000 car you’ll be dealing with for several years — or to take it the next step up, I spent maybe three hours total in my house before offering to buy it for $250,000 — it seems like we should want to be really damn sure that we are going to be happy with what we buy.  Instead, we have to swallow and live with anything bad about what we buy that we didn’t notice before hand.  That’s a bitter, horse-sized pill.

Updated on January 18, 2011

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