Wanted: A Car that Sparks Joy

FOR THE PAST FEW WEEKS, I’ve been engaged in an activity that has me questioning my own mind. In recent years, at least, I’ve thought of myself as a fairly decisive person, a person who knows what she wants and how to go about getting it. Even major decisions, like buying a house, have not given me as much trouble as this latest pursuit: car-shopping. I’ve become a ditherer.

About a month ago, I said goodbye to my vehicular partner of 11 years, my trusty runabout, a 2008 Honda Fit with a manual transmission. It served me well on trips around town and from Brooklyn to and from my properties in Philadelphia, on Long Island and upstate New York. It hauled compost and mulch, yard waste, furniture, groceries, cargo loads beyond its apparent size.

Battered though its body was from years of New York City parking incidents and minor fender-benders, at 120,000 miles its engine and other moving parts showed no signs of dying any time soon. Sure, I replaced bits and pieces over the years — it was hardly maintenance-free — but every time I brought it in to John and Alex under the BQE, they’d assure me, “Oh, you’ll get 160,000 miles out of this car!” And I’d sigh and say, “Really? That’ll be years from now! I was hoping to get a new car before then.” They seemed disappointed.

I wanted a new car, one whose fenders were not attached with rusty screws. I was tired of owning a beater, and downright embarrassed when an event called for valet parking.

So a month ago, I put an ad on craigslist and soon found a young woman who was delighted with the Fit, Bernie Sanders bumper sticker and all.

I patted the Fit’s steering wheel and dashboard, thanked it for its service and immediately turned my attention to the new-car market. I wanted — ahem, thought I wanted — the following:

  • a manual transmission, the only kind of car I’ve ever owned
  • a car no longer than the Fit’s 160-inch exterior length, for NYC parking purposes
  • a cooler-looking car than the new Fit’s uninspiring design
  • a quiet car (the Fit was not, particularly)
  • a comfortable car (ditto)
  • good cargo space and easy loading
  • good gas mileage, but that goes without saying nowadays
  • something in the $20,000 range (wishful thinking)
  • a new car, not pre-owned, since I will probably also keep my next vehicle for a decade

So that brings us to a compact hatchback with a stick shift, and there’s the rub. It is unbelievably hard to find manual transmissions these days! I think I’ve figured out why this is so: younger people don’t know how to drive them (except my own kids, who didn’t have the option of learning on any other kind), and car makers have figured out how to make automatics equally fuel-efficient, so that advantage is gone. Also, the whiz-bang safety features with which new cars are loaded don’t all work with manuals, apparently. And forget about color choices — if you insist on a stick, you have to take what you can get.

My search for a stick shift has taken me, via public transit, all over the tri-state area. I’ve test-driven eight cars over the past three weeks. Four were Volkswagen Golfs, which required me to get over what I knew would be my dad’s disapproval, were he still alive. I did this by remembering the excellent quality of the German products I’ve purchased over the years, from Miele vacuums and Bosch dishwashers to Wusthof knives and Reiker shoes.

One VW, a base-trim Golf S in Staten Island, was even an automatic. I was trying to be open-minded, but I found it un-engaging. Driving an automatic is just steering and braking; my left foot and right hand were bored.

In Rensselaer, N.Y., I test drove a silk-blue Golf manual with an ivory interior (rode like butter). In Bayside, Queens, I tried a Golf SE — more luxurious, with a bigger engine, but I didn’t want to pay extra for a headache-inducing sunroof — and an even more macho GTI, because the dealer wanted me to. The GTI was very vroom vroom, with plaid seats and fancy hubcaps — so not me.

Then I fixated for a while on the Toyota Corolla hatchback, new this year, after reading an article in a car magazine. I drove a midnight blue XSE in Kinderhook, N.Y., and a silver SE in Jersey City, but found them too loud, with not-great visibility out the “raked” rear windshield. And I had trouble with the aggressive-looking front grill, like the face of a toy shark.

I even went back to Bay Ridge Honda to give the new Fit a go. It’s a completely different animal now, with a spruce interior and all the bells and whistles, at a great price (under $18,000). I enjoyed driving it, and the car publications all give it top ratings. So…? They’ve changed the design for the worse, I think, with what one critic called a ‘jellybean body.’ But the main thing is, I want something different for a change. I think.

I’ve read hundreds of trade and consumer reviews, solicited opinions (all over the place) from friends and relatives, and tried to visualize how the various cars would look in my Long Island driveway, against the weathered stockade fence. I’ve tried to picture how I would look getting out of the conservative VW Golf (like an old lady?) or the sporty Corolla (like a ridiculous old lady?)

I’ve questioned my original parameters. Do I really need that much cargo space? (I can always hire somebody to deliver mulch.) Is near-silence that important? (Yes, it is.) Can I live with an extra foot of car length? (Other people seem to.) And must it really be a manual? (Most def.)

I haven’t paid that much attention to the new safety and entertainment technology. Back-up cameras are old hat already, I suppose, but now there’s a blind spot warning and lane assist and any number of other intimidating features. We’re well on our way to the self-driving car, while I persist in clinging to habit, making car-shopping harder than it needs to be by insisting on a manual.

Well, I’m learning a lot. Maybe someday I’ll even understand what torque is. But I haven’t pulled the trigger on a car.

I have an appointment to test-drive a Mazda3 hatch next week.