Five Cylinders All Mine!

Northland VW in Cincinnati, Greta’s previous owner

Six years ago, my late father’s venerable Ford Taurus, dubbed “The Wintermobile” ran afoul of a common Ford ailment. It stripped a spark plug and sucked it into the engine. After an expensive and aborted attempt to replace the motor (which my brother eventually succeeded doing), I punted and bought another car. As this was the first time gas had hit $4/gallon, I went cheap and lightweight, buying a 2005 Dodge Neon.


It wasn’t a bad little car, easy on gas. But at the same time, it had a balky transmission and loose motor mounts. At 105,000 miles, it was pretty clear Mercedes had no freaking clue how to build an American car as the Neon began rattling and blowing minor parts. After blowing two sensors in a month (including a camshaft sensor I’d had replaced last year), I decided it was time for The Princess to either take Grandma to the grocery store or finish its life with the punishing duty of pizza delivery car. So about five minutes after my mechanic called to say the car was done (and remind me the water pump was on its last legs), a ad popped up on the Weather Channel site. One of the cars was a 2011 Jetta with 30,000 miles and the right price. I clicked on it, looked it over, and shot the dealer an email saying I wanted to look at it.

They called me by 6:30. I was at the VW dealership by 6:45. By 8:30, I owned the car, and The Princess was ready to be towed to auction. (The cheapest car on the lot was a 2005 Toyota Corolla that, despite the high miles, looked pretty clean. This dealer does not screw around.)

This was fast. But then the car was certified, so essentially, I benefited from VW’s sign and drive. That was not my first experience buying a car through the dealer. That honor went to a local dealer I’ll dub Irish Bastard Motors, or “IBM.” (Sorry, Big Blue.) IBM tried to sell me a 1988 Dodge Spirit that listed CV joints among the items that still needed repaired. My sales rep wanted to send me to buy the car as-is. I said I’d drive it off the lot as soon as they fixed the CV joints. The repair job would have been three times my car payment. They balked. I made them sell me a Camry. A month later, they told me the car was in an accident. I said that’s great, the transmission went out. By then, I learned you don’t buy a car, even a Toyota, with over 100,000 miles on it from a dealer. Strangely, one of IBM’s main dealerships is a BMW store.

A few years later, I went to IBM’s main competitor and bought a 98 Chevy Cavalier. They kept me at the dealership for six hours after promising me I would not miss work that day. I would not have minded getting screwed on the financing had they bothered to use lube.

So I vowed never to do business with either of those dealerships again. The Princess came from Hyundai dealer with a better rep. It helped that I walked in with a down payment, had pointed out the car I wanted, and made a counter-offer that suggested I wanted to save a buck, but without the delusion that I could get the car 25% under wholesale. I’ve seen too many people go in spoiling for a fight and come out without a car (or driving the 88 Yugo when they were going for a brand new Audi.)

Car buying has changed much since I bought that first car 21 years ago. The hard sell is a good way to chase customers off the lot, especially since the more daring auto buyer can go online and just order the car for delivery. Car Fax reports are almost mandatory now if a dealer hopes to move a car off the lot. When I bought the Cavalier, I demanded a Car Fax report several times before going home and ponying up $20 for one. Now?

“Would you like to see the Car Fax report?”

I’d already read it online.

They quoted me a payment based on VW’s best interest rate (short of 0%.) That was the one panic moment I had. Had my credit recovered from the layoff three years earlier? “Um… Can we go longer if you get some bad news?” I got some bad news. They couldn’t give the original interest rate, so my payment was $5 more than originally quoted. On the upside, Nita and I have matching car payments. When I mentioned that her bank couldn’t get her as good a rate as VW, the finance guy actually high-fived me. (Um… My wife reads this, doesn’t she? Er… Prank caller! Prank caller!)

So, the car? As the caption above reads, she’s been dubbed “Greta.” Yes, I know that rhymes with “Jetta,” but that wasn’t why I picked the name. Greta is a German name, and this is my first German car. Essentially, a Volkswagen is an Audi is a Porsche, which have all owned each other at various times since the 1930’s. Dr. Porsche was that rare German engineer who, while adhering to the German obsession with precision car-building, had this odd idea that cars eventually breakdown, and that it might be nice if a mechanic could fix the car by yanking out a part and putting in its replacement. Gee, that sounds like…

American cars. Japanese cars. Korean cars. Yes, GM and Chrysler still need to learn Statistic Process Control (Huh? That’s the thing that makes Japanese cars put more miles on them than the average Apollo command module.). However, I’ve known people who keep their more expensive German machines over 100,000 miles only to discover that it’s easier to replace the space shuttle than to find out what broke on their Beamer or their Benz. Yes, kids, we Americans like to drive cars a really long time. Why? Even the cheap ones are expensive.

But Greta handles like an Audi Quattro (I’ve been able to drive a couple over the years. Sweet cars.) She also has more room than any car I’ve owned except the Wintermobile. And speaking of Audi, Greta sports a five cylinder engine, which gives me V6 power with 4-cylinder mileage. But I know what you’re asking. What about the most important part of the car?

How’s the sound system?

I took Nita and AJ out for a spin last night. (They all want to drive Greta. AJ informed me he’s taking it to Western New York this fall. Hmm…) AJ cranked the sound system up and was able to adjust the sound to his liking quickly. (I had to reset it this morning.) Nita felt the music. Oh, yes. We will be blasting Zeppelin this summer.

A lot.

What about The Princess? Do I miss it?

Not really. It handled sloppy and was a bit underpowered. She did her job, but in the end, she was a needy car that looked sporty but drove like a Pinto. I’m glad I had it when I did, but I really don’t miss it.

Besides, I can plug my iPod into Greta. And isn’t that the only reason to buy a car?