A true car aficionado never stops shopping for his or her next vehicle. (And by "aficionado," I mean "pathetic car nut," or, synonymously, "myself.") There is a definite pathology: We may have a perfectly good car in the driveway, but we're constantly on the hunt for the next one. The process is driven by a combination of engineering acumen, aspirational consumerism, and (at least in my case) outright idiocy.
Wise shoppers approach a car choice like a marriage – they look for the right combination of qualities, make a commitment and enjoy a long and fruitful relationship. Then there are drivers like me. These are the ones with the roving eye and a misguided belief that their lives would be better if only they had exactly the right vehicle – one with the perfect specifications for the things they want to do, whether it's taking a trip across Europe, attracting a mate, or hauling lumber.
Like most car buffs, I love nothing better than choosing a machine for a mission. For a while, I became obsessed with the idea of driving a radical off-road route called the Rubicon Trail, and spent months researching the perfect vehicle for the trip (a Jeep with modified suspension, low-pressure tires and a roll cage). Then there was my ski-car phase, where I tried to talk my wife into an all-wheel drive Volvo with heated seats and, of course, the minivan years, when I spent countless hours measuring seating areas and cargo compartments to find a van that could carry our kids and let us stash our bicycles inside.
A few years ago, I actually spent time researching Winnebagos (I wanted to go across North America with my wife and visit all the glider flying sites I've missed). I learned a lot about zone heating, kitchen pop-outs and pusher-diesel drivetrains, but realized that the Winnebago wasn't for us. It would cost as much as a small house, we had nowhere to keep it, and who wants to end up parked in a Walmart lot with a bunch of retirees in double-knit leisure suits?
But the vehicle-hunting bug never went away. I kept researching. A Prius would be great for long trips, thanks to its amazing fuel economy. A Subaru WRX would be an excellent wintertime sports car. And a Porsche Cayenne or Toyota Venza CUV with all-wheel-drive would be ideal for hauling a glider trailer.
The right car was an ever-shifting target, yet I was sure that I could hit the mark. Then came a moment of epiphany.
We had to take our son back to university after the summer break. There were two car choices for the trip: my Lotus (a two-seat sports car with a trunk barely adequate for hauling a bucket of fried chicken), and our Honda Accord (an 11-year-old sedan). I groaned. Our son had crates of dishes, stacks of books, a hockey bag, a computer, a PlayStation, three duffels packed with clothing, several garbage bags stuffed with duvets and pillows, a rice cooker, and a 32-inch television. Trying to fit all this (plus the three of us) into our Honda was not an appealing prospect. "We should have bought that Venza," I told my wife.
"It's all going to fit," she replied.
She was right (well, sort of). We did get everything into the car, but only by piling much of it on top of our son in the back seat – his head and upper torso emerged from a sloping mountain of bags, computer cables and hockey sticks. I suddenly longed for an SUV, but our son assured us he'd be fine. (The drive was less than 100 km.) A few hours later, we were heading home, mission accomplished, car emptied. Our Honda was suddenly fine again. There was plenty of room for the two of us and more than enough trunk space for the groceries we planned to buy. A thought popped into my head, as if someone was speaking to me in that Voice of God style you hear in movies: I had all the car I needed.
Our old Accord is no thrill ride. But it's utterly reliable, it's paid for and it's perfect for most of the things we do. It will only seat five, but how often do we travel with more? It doesn't have all-wheel drive, but how often do I need to climb that steep icy hill outside that ski chalet in the Eastern Townships? I can't put a sheet of plywood in the trunk, but I do have a roof rack – and I can borrow my friend John's Ford F-150 when I need it.
My automotive epiphany made me think of my father, who always told me that there is no such thing as the perfect car, and that the most useful vehicle is a reliable one that's paid for and sitting in your driveway.
"Think about what you do with your car most," he said. "And get a car that will do the job. Nothing more." I came to think of this as the 95 Per Cent Rule. Your choice of car should be based on the things you do 95 per cent of the time, not occasional needs.
Except for a pair of Borgward sports coupes he owned as a young man, my father never spent much money on cars. He had Mercury Comets, Falcon wagons and Opel Kadetts. But he took us across North America and Europe in them, and used them to haul home everything from groceries to lumber.
Our Accord is a car my dad would have recommended – it's big enough for our family, it's reliable, and it didn't cost much (we bought it used from my mother-in-law's estate). Once in a while, I wish the Accord could be bigger, that it could tow a glider trailer, or that we could sleep in it.
But then I think of that weekend trip with our son, the 95 Per Cent Rule and the wise words of my father. I have all the car I need.
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