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.

16 thoughts on “Wanted: A Car that Sparks Joy

  1. Golf, from experience, I would buy it again
    Mazda, my eye goes to it, good looking car, have not driven it.

  2. What happened to your plan to test a Subaru like mine?

  3. I am always eying the Fiats and Mini Cooper hatchbacks enviously but don’t know much about them. Non-Beetle Volkswagons used to have a reputation for unreliability — is that still the case? Years ago I bought a used Honda with all its oil change records in perfect condition and with 120,000 miles and had it for 10 years (until I moved coasts) and never had a problem. It was a stick shift. They must still sell them in SF. Automatic transmissions are no fun.

  4. However I agree with you. I relate car shopping with going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled!! 😬

  5. Good morning. I love this essay and can relate. I’m driving my new Subaru Forester which has all sorts of fancy-ass features none of which I understand. I’m not even sure of how to turn the heat on. It happens by my pushing somethings and turning others but without any clarity on my part. I drove a manual for 18 years and loved it but it turned out to be irritating for my left hip so I said good bye. Leah likes the FIT but I can see why you want something new. I drove a Mazda for a long time and really liked that car. Happy Hunting. It’s a big purchase.

  6. I thought all the traveling on public transport would get you to make a decision! Please, please borrow my car to get to the next test drive!!

  7. Totally get it. I’ve been driving a Fit for 11 years. It was the first manual car I owned and I had the same misgivings then about giving up the stick. But my brother who is a car whisperer assured me it was the better way to go. No regrets on that issue. I too am in the car market (although still have my Fit) and am seriously looking at the 2018 Honda HR-V. I think it is built on the same base as a Fit (or something like that) but has higher visibility and a bit more cargo space. Check it out.

  8. Seems like people really like to weigh in on the subject of cars! I’ve gotten several emails/texts in addition to the unusual number of comments, for which I thank you all. I’ve probably considered and eliminated, for one reason or another, all but the cars mentioned in my blog post — either because they’re too big or too small, or else my new bible, Car and Driver magazine, deems it noisy or slow, or it costs more than I want to spend. I’ve realized that cars are a very personal, idiosyncratic purchase, and also that I’m dragging it out longer than I need to because I happen to have the time right now, and I’m actually enjoying the search. Forgot to mention I also test-drove a Kia Soul — it gets kudos from the pros but its boxy appearance is a taste I haven’t acquired, and, even though it was just a week or so ago, I can’t even remember how it drove. At this point, it’s all becoming a blur! But a decision will be forthcoming soon.

  9. Hi Cate – Re VW’s rep for unreliability, I’d heard the same, but the Golf is a stalwart on Car and Driver’s Ten Best list. Meanwhile, VW is giving 6-year/72,000 mile warrantees, twice that of other car makers, so I guess they’re trying to counter the bad rep. Or maybe win back trust after the recent emissions scandal. Fiats and Mini Coopers are adorable, but they’re just too small for my needs. I also seem to have a car full of stuff everywhere I go — plants, cleaning supplies, paint cans…I use my car as a kind of storage unit!

  10. You didn’t seem unreservedly in love with yours, so I let it go. But perhaps I have the wrong impression? Also, Car and Driver used a very unkind word about the Impreza’s manual transmission.

  11. I am very happy with my Subaru. MANUAL of course! They were one of the only dealerships that didn’t try to sway me to purchase an automatic.

Got something to say? Please say it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s