Saturday, October 22, 2011

One-Car Family

So after all of our budgeting and planning and researching and agonizing, we finally bought a new car last weekend. We've been discussing this plan since last Christmas/New Year's. You could literally gestate and deliver a human child in less time than it took us to make this happen. But we've been gearing up for a while and had started to pick up steam just before my car sealed the deal for us. We're choosing to think that my car laid on her sword and killed her own battery to keep us from driving home on dangerous tires, forcing us to take the leap toward a new car.

I've been driving my beautiful black Toyota 4Runner (affectionately known as Maleficent) for eleven years, nearly exactly. Jon got his beloved white Volvo S70 (aka Pearl) only a few months before he met me, eight years ago. Both of our cars were - and still are - very safe vehicles, but are nonetheless lacking the modern safety features of today's cars. Things like Electronic Stability Control, side airbags, and improved roof strength make many of today's cars considerably safer than '97 and '98 models we drove. Both cars were very well-maintained and will continue running admirably for another 100,000+ miles with proper care and maintenance but we knew that things would inevitably wear and break and we didn't want to have to worry about where we might be stranded when that happened (e.g., in Livermore, with a baby...).

My trusty vessel, Maleficent.
Jon's Pearl
Last holiday season, Jon suggested that we begin thinking about replacing our cars. I agreed, it was getting to be that time. And then he suggested that we turn two old cars into one new car and become - gasp - a one-car family. We discussed and it made a lot of sense. My commute is under two miles a day. I could, and really should, even ride a bike to work. Jon works from home. He rarely needs a car, unless he has some errands to run, which we'd generally know about and be able to work out in advance. He could always drop me off and pick me up when necessary, and in a pinch, a car would be less than two miles away. So we decided to go for it. We just had to figure out what to buy, how to afford it, and the logistics of getting rid of two cars.

We talked about our needs and desires and boiled it down to a few things. We like having a bit of room for when we need it but don't want to drive much more car than we really use, day-to-day. It didn't make sense for us to drive something with tons of cargo space, or seven seats for our future additional kids' friends and relatively rare extra passengers. We really only need to be able to pack gear for the occasional road trip. We decided a small SUV would be a reasonable choice. Plus, I like being up high. I loved driving a stick shift and wasn't ready to give that up, so a manual transmission was one of my main requirements. We also decided that if we were looking for the safest car, it might as well be white. There are varying statistics and opinions about accident rates for different colored cars, but it stands to reason that white ones are more visible - certainly at dusk and dawn. So we set about looking for a super-safe, small SUV in white, with a manual transmission.

We started our research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, by looking at their vehicle ratings. In the 2011 Small SUV category, I was surprised to see the Kia Sportage recommended as a top safety pick, with the Honda CR-V nowhere in sight. I've been admiring the recently redesigned Honda CR-V for a few years now. Quite honestly, I had been suspecting that it might be my next car. It was certainly the model I was most interested in, out of everything I saw on the road. In reading the IIHS ratings, I was shocked to learn that the CR-V scored too poorly on their roof strength evaluations to be recommended as a top safety pick.

According to the IIHS, federal regulations require vehicles to withstand a force 1.5 times the total weight of the car before reaching 5 inches of crush. This is called the strength-to-weight ratio. Many roofs can withstand greater force than the recommended minimum, but the specific information hasn't been available to consumers. The IIHS started performing their own roof strength tests in 2009 and has included this element in vehicle ratings since 2010. 

video of IIHS' roof strength test
To receive the IIHS's "Acceptable" rating, vehicles must have a strength-to-weight ratio of 3.25. A "Marginal" rating value is 2.5, anything below that gets a "Poor" rating. Beginning in 2010, in order to earn their "Good" rating and qualify as a "Top Safety Pick," a vehicle must have a strength-to-weight ratio of 4 or more. I think roof strength is an especially important element in SUV safety; 25 percent of deaths in car/minivan crashes involve rollovers but that number jumps to 59 percent in SUVs. From the IIHS, "a strength-to-weight ratio of 4.0 has an estimated 50 percent reduction in the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollover crashes compared with the minimum level of 1.5." 

The 2007-2011 Honda CR-V gets an IIHS strenght-to-weight ratio of just 2.8. It withstood 9,700 pounds of force to it's 3,469 pounds of weight. Only the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute scored lower in the "Marginal" group, at 2.55. I thought it was especially interesting that only the 2005-10 Kia Sportage and 2005-09 Hyundai Tucson received the worst score - a "Poor" at 2.43 - but then the '11 Sportage and '10-'11 Tucson jumped all the way up to "Good" with a rating of 4.43. They were third in the Small SUV category, behind the Subaru Forester (at 4.64) and Volkswagen Tiguan (at 5.82).

I don't know that I would have even looked at a Kia Sportage if it hadn't been on the IIHS 2011 Top Safety Pick list, but I checked it out immediately and was highly intrigued. The Sportage was totally redesigned for it's third-generation 2011 model under Kia's Chief Design Officer, Peter Schreyer. You may not know his name but you've certainly seen his work - most notably, the 1998 Audi TT and the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle. As CDO at Kia, one of Schreyer's most important contributions has been the design of a recognizable "face" for the brand, which seems to have been integrated into all of the current year models. Called the "Tiger Nose," I think it's particularly hot on the Sportage. Also hot? The low, low starting price for the base model, which came in a manual transmission. It jumped to the top of our list.

The 2011/12 Kia Sportage. Check out that "Tiger Nose" (left)
We went on our first test-driving expedition early this year. We wanted to drive a Sportage and a CR-V so we could figure out which paths to keep exploring. Kia was our first stop so we could accurately judge the car and the experience without comparing to anything but our own cars. The dealer didn't have a manual transmission base model to drive, but we were happy to take the automatic for a spin. We were actually both surprised by how impressed we were and came away pretty smitten. 

We drove straight to the Honda dealer across town. We were fully expecting a Honda to be way nicer than a Kia and were excited to see what that looked like, if we were so impressed with the Sportage. Perhaps our expectations were too high but we were disappointed as soon as the dealer opened the door to the CR-V. The starting price was a few thousand dollars higher than the Kia but the interior felt cheap and spartan by comparison. Plus, the CR-V isn't available with a manual transmission. Factor in the low roof strength-to-weight ratio, and I decided pretty quickly that this wasn't the car for me. I was also annoyed that the dealer only let us drive it on the freeway in the on/off-ramp lane and then gave us the hard sell for like, thirty minutes. He even brought in a "closer" type. They both seemed surprised when we mentioned that the car wasn't an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and that was pretty important to us. We were only just beginning our research and this guy wanted to sell us a car we didn't want, that very day. He reminded us an awful lot of Ol' Gil Gunderson - "You want a car with a radio, right? You kids like music, right?" ...

Aw, c'mon, do it for Ol' Gil!
So after our first foray, we were pretty keen on the Sportage as our first choice. We even went as far as to hunt one down to rent for a weekend. We picked it up at the Burbank Airport Avis and drove it around for a few days. We tested out the LATCH system and installed Alice's carseat, and drove it over the Grapevine and back to see how it handled the steep grade and how it felt on the road. We only had a few complaints but they were major enough to give us pause. The passenger seat was ridiculously low (which we since determined must have been a problem with that particular car), and the aggressive exterior styling majorly compromised visibility in the rear blind spots. Ultimately, we decided that the pros outweighed any cons, and that we'd be able to live with any shortcomings. 

We started crunching our numbers and keeping an eye out for a white, base model Sportage with a manual transmission. We also investigated different certified pre-owned cars but after we weeded out everything we weren't interested in, it seemed like we'd be paying as much for a used car as we would for one of the new models we were interested in. So we decided to aim for that and invest in a couple of years where we wouldn't have to worry about mileage-related repairs. That was kind of the point here anyway, along with the updated safety features.

Anyway, it became evident that not only were there no white, base model Sportages around, there were hardly ANY base models with manual transmissions available. In any color, anywhere. We finally tracked down a black one in San Juan Capistrano and went down to check it out. We were happy with the stick shift but realized that if we were serious about buying this car, we'd have to order the specific configuration we were looking for. They quoted us a 3-4 month wait but we weren't ready to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, while we were trying to figure out what to do with our cars and get our budget in order, Kia released the 2012 model year. With no manual transmission. So it was back to the drawing board.

My dad had been suggesting we consider the Subaru Forester since we started talking about a new car. We'd looked at the Forester but the photos on the Subaru website are kind of terrible and not super appealing. But then Jon saw one on a walk through our neighborhood and said it looked much better in real life. Once the Kia was out of the picture, we decided to give the Forester a shot and finally found time to drive one late in the summer. And we liked it better than we'd expected to. We actually liked it a whole lot. 

Unfortunately, we found ourselves in a similar situation as with Kia, where we couldn't seem to locate any existing white Foresters with a manual transmission. The dealer told us that we could order one with a lead time of 6-8 weeks and that the 2012 year model had been delayed by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But again, we weren't quite ready to pull the trigger so we went home and continued trying to figure out how to go about selling our cars, and turning the sales into a down payment that would get our monthly payments where we wanted. The budgeting wouldn't have been so difficult if we didn't also have to put a new roof on our house next summer, per city ordinance.

In the meantime, Jon listed his car on Craig's List, got creeped out by a weirdo with absolutely no trail on the whole wide internet, and then reassessed how much time and energy he was able to invest into selling privately. We stalled some more and then things started falling into place. We drove to Livermore, Maleficent refused to leave and we left her there. Two days later, Jon was checking inventory at Subaru dealers all over the state. He found a car for sale in Livermore that fit the bill in every way but color but at this point, we were willing to consider dark gray. But he got really excited when he found the perfect combination at a dealer in Ventura, only an hour away. After much deliberating, emailing, number crunching, and weeping, we decided to accept my dad's help in selling my car in Livermore, see what the dealer would offer to trade in Jon's car, and just take the plunge. We gave the dealer a deposit to hold the car until we could get out there on the weekend and started to become cautiously optimistic.

Well, the car was perfect. Exactly what we wanted, with a few extra features AND a really great deal on the price. We traded keys with the dealer and took the car for a drive while he looked over Jon's car to determine the trade-in value. When we got back, he solemnly told us what he thought Jon's was worth. I tried not to leap in the air for joy and hoped that I was  able to duck my head and hide my grin fast enough to pass it off as a reaction to Alice eating crackers. Jon then engaged the dealer in a very serious negotiation for a very modestly priced accessory while I tried not to laugh. But he got the accessory, and we got a better trade in price than we were hoping for after CarMax's quote of $600 (ouch). So we signed on many dotted lines and ninety minutes later, as promised, we waved goodbye to Pearl and drove our new car off the lot. WOOOOOO-HOOOOOO!!!!

Looking over the engine 
I promise that handshake connected and resolved.
By the way, if you live in the LA area and are in the market for a Subaru, we had a really great experience with the guy we worked with at Barber Subaru in Ventura. Let me know, and I'll pass his name along. He even took a photo for us! 
the happy family with our newest member
We were giddy and starving, so headed to the nearest dining establishment we could find. After we fortified ourselves with Habit burgers, we headed to the beach (since we were just right there) and walked out on the pier and down a nice trail that stretched along the beach. Alice hadn't slept since 6am that morning though and didn't seem to feel the need to start then, so we called it a day and headed home in our smooth and quiet new ride.

lunch and a long walk on a long pier.
We left Pearl parked here.
Jon was sad about saying goodbye to his car, especially when he thought about how that's how we drove Alice home from the hospital. When he was cleaning it out and sprucing it up for the last time, he found a note that my sister had tucked under the windshield while we were still in the hospital with Alice, telling us to have fun bringing our little baby home. But Jon loves this new car as much as he loved Pearl when he first brought her home. He particularly loves the peace of mind that a new car brings, and loves that we've downsized to be a one-car family. We both love the giant, glorious sun roof, the iPod/Bluetooth connectivity, and that we have our very first new car (for either of us). Oh, and that lovely, new-car smell. Or, as my dad likes to say, the most expensive smell in the world. Now we just need to find a suitable name...
The stroller fits! Hooray!!

And that's the WHOLE story of how we got a new car. I'm just glad it's over. Well, almost over. If you live in the Bay Area and are in the market for a black 4Runner, let me know and I'll give you the digits!!


  1. Congrats on the new car! It's very pretty. We liked the Kia too when we were shopping last year but ended up going with the Hyundai Santa Fe which we really like. But any new car is pretty exciting!

  2. New cars are exciting, but I thought the shopping process was much less fun this time than back when I was 16 and 20! I guess that's what happens when you get old and practical and cheap! =)


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