A new year, a new car

Today, Alex and I picked up our new car. And it’s new, not a previously-enjoyed vehicle. It’s a 2016 Honda CR-V. Yes, it’s an SUV, the very thing I often rail against. It’s not even our first. (More on both of those in a bit.) It was not a decision taken lightly, I assure you.

It’s a bit of a weird feeling having such an expensive new toy, even though it is still (kind of) the Christmas season. It’s also weird trying to talk myself out of going for drives, as all I really want to do is get in the car and drive around. Given that I spend most of my travel time in busses and trains, feeling the urge to drive is definitely a change for me.

It’s a good change. And a bit overdue.

Since the end of 2009, when we returned to Canada from Costa Rica, we’ve been driving a 2006 VW Jetta TDI as our primary family vehicle. It was a purchase we started before we’d even stepped foot back home, knowing that we needed a car to exist within Calgary. (Yes, it’s possible to do everything by transit, I can’t deny that. But ask anyone who’s tried that with young children, and they’ll give you a look that is generally only seen in George Romero films.)

Even discounting the emissions issues with VW diesels that erupted in 2015 (and our car technically wasn’t on the list, though I suspect after all this, we have the same engine as the newer models), we had issues with the Jetta. The single biggest issue was its size: it’s small. Or to be more specific, too small.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like big cars. I never have. And in this city, we have a plethora of oversized vehicles driven by people with undersized brains. So my personal dislike of large cars is compounded by the perception that “if you drive an SUV, you’re a moron”. Needless to say, I resisted the push for an SUV for many, many years.

Which is hypocritical of me. We have owned an SUV before. When we lived in Costa Rica, we needed a car. (Calgary is difficult without a car; Costa Rica was borderline impossible without a vehicle.) And due to the road conditions (which are pretty iffy when you get out of the city), we opted for a 4×4 (all of us who went down initially did the same): a small, red Suzuki Vitara. And though I hate to admit it, that was a great little car. In many ways, I really wish we could have brought that one home with us (the costs associated with that were so prohibitive to erase all thought).

I went “green” when I came back, and I wanted something that would sip fuel. (Yes, I do realise in hindsight that I buggered the math with emissions.) Hence, the diesel vehicle. Which at the beginning, made sense. But as the years wore on, and the kids got bigger, things didn’t seem quite so clear.

Then, on 30 October 2013, things changed.

We’d gone for dinner at our favourite Vietnamese Restaurant, Pho Huong Viet, and were returning home. I was driving. There was one car in front of us, waiting to turn onto 17th Ave SW. I was scanning east and west, to see how long it might take for us to get onto the road, which at that hour was still quite busy.

Out of the corner of my left eye, I caught a flash. Turning, I found it wasn’t an emergency vehicle, it was a car moving far too quickly for the road (a posted limit of 50 km/h). The car’s lights suddenly appeared in the far lanes, swerving around a pair of cars, the lights owner naturally following. The car fishtailed around the cars, sliding back into the eastbound lanes, barreling towards us at a speed I could only believe to be around 100 km/h. The car fishtailed again, likely an overcorrection, and it started to head back into the westbound lanes. In the span of only 4-5 seconds, the car had appeared in my field of vision, slid through it, and drove nearly head-on into a late model Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The car, an older Dodge Neon, spun wildly, bounding up on the north shoulder of the road. The Grand Cherokee, spun about 270 degrees, and roughly faced us. I was the only one in the car who witnessed the accident. Alex and the kids only saw the aftermath. Alex called 911 immediately. The police and fire department — both barely a few hundred metres down the road — were on the scene in moments.

The Neon was barely recognizable, having its front end mangled. The shock had managed to ripple through the car, distorting the rear end. Four people had been in the car; three of them died on the scene. The fourth, the driver, survived. So far as I know, he’s rotting in jail for a very, very long time. (I nearly testified at the trial, before the defense realised that a trial was stupid, and went with the guilty plea.) There is still a cross and flowers tied to the fence next to the point where the Neon came to rest.

The Grand Cherokee nearly looked like it could drive away. The front end still looked like a Cherokee, though a bit banged up. The airbags had all gone off, and I imagine the engine was likely dead. But we could see the car’s occupants — mostly older women — and they all looked alert and uninjured.

Based on that event, very nearly bought an SUV the following weekend. The only thing that stopped us was our financial analyst at the bank, who told us (wisely!) that it was an “emotional purchase”. She strongly urged us to reconsider, until our Jetta became a burden.

That happened the first time we went camping with the girls. The car was so full, they had things shoved under their feet. We’d officially maxed out the Jetta’s capacity. We had to buy a roof rack and a roof bag to carry the extra things. The extra volume on the roof sucked away every advantage of a diesel engine.

We revisited the decision to buy a larger car. Which meant pulling out the spreadsheet I’d originally made back in 2013 to determine which car made sense. I’m a numbers guy. I like numbers because they can be added and subtracted and compared, unlike an emotional attachment, which can be a real twerp to deal with. And when you add in numbers from the IIHS, JD Power, Consumer Reports, Transport Canada, and so forth, you can end up with a pretty powerful matrix of options. And, most importantly, undercut the ridiculous marketing that goes into selling cars.

Have I mentioned that I spend several years working on the digital marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA?

That’s how we came to look at the Honda CR-V. And while we did look at the pre-loved ones, in the end I wanted a warranty, and none of the questions of what the previous owner had done to it. (Our Jetta’s clutch plate exploded six months after we bought it. Nothing like a $2,000 repair to really make you hate used cars.) It wasn’t the best warranty in the biz — and yes, that was also a factor in the calculations — but it was certainly good enough for our needs.

But even before we stepped into one, Alex found the one she wanted, on the dealer’s website. She wanted it because it was brown. (I deal with numbers, Alex deals with aesthetics. I argue that they’re equally important.)

So on 28 December, we went over to the local Honda dealer to have a look-see at an actual CR-V. The one in the showroom didn’t put us off one bit, and if anything, answered a lot of the nagging questions about options, size, and in-person appearance. We were soon met by the salesman, who immediately twigged my “newbie” alarm. After a couple of decades of working with high-pressure sales people (on both sides of the fence), this poor guy stood out as a junior member of the sales team. That said, he had a decent personality, and didn’t piss me off. So went for a drive.

The second biggest issue I have with the Jetta is that it’s not really designed for life in Canada. I’m always turning off the traction control, because I see it as a liability when you’re in snow. (It’s a manual. Why on Earth someone set up a manual car to have such a poor traction control baffles me.) When we took the CR-V onto the road, it had been snowing for twelve hours. There was 4-6 inches of fresh snow, the roads were white and slippery. I gunned it rounding onto Sarcee Trail, just to see what the car could do. I could about hear it laughing at the mostly-frozen slush as it tore onto the covered road. Alex took over after I pulled off, and took it onto some slippery, nasty surfaces.

The car sold itself. Between the features (our requirements: heated front seats, and all-wheel drive, though the car came with much, much more) and the performance, there was little else that we needed to know.

Then the sales guy made the classic “the sale is done” move, and tried to get us to start signing papers. It bothered me because we hadn’t actually said “yes” to anything. We’d asked about trade-in value on the Jetta (I knew it was going to suck; we were offered a mere $1,500), and somehow that had translated into a sales process. That wasn’t to say that we weren’t interested, but the shifting of gears (yes, pun intended) didn’t sit with me.

As it happened, we had an appointment to meet, and couldn’t handle paperwork at the time, anyway. We would return later that afternoon, at which point, we went into more detail. And then pulled the proverbial trigger. And braced for the inevitable increase of several thousand dollars on an already-expensive vehicle.

That’s not to suggest we have buyer’s remorse. We don’t.

I research things when I look to spend more than $100 on something. Unless there’s a clear reason to go with one option, I like to know what the pros and cons are. So we walked into this one well-informed. We’re also two-income family, so it’s not a financial burden (our other cars are both paid off, and we don’t carry credit balances), so those numbers spoke just as loudly as the ones that said the car was safe.

Today, Alex and I walked over to the dealership, the plate from our Jetta in-hand, to pick up the CR-V. It’s “Kona Coffee”-coloured (aka “brown”), with chrome bits in various places. So when one of the kids (I can’t remember which) suggested that we call the new car “Chewbacca”, it seemed very appropriate. They hadn’t seen the car until we picked them up in this afternoon, and have been pretty excited about it ever since. Which is good, because Monkey didn’t do well with the news that we were going to sell Jedi (yes, that’s the name for the Jetta) — it’s the car our kids know best.

The real question now is: where do we go next with it? I’m itching for a road trip…

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