Okay, completely hypothetical question for you, detached completely from any real situation: Let's say you have to buy a new car, because your old one is older than the latest batch of 'tween stars** and a new set of struts would cost approximately twice what the car is worth, and your son is about to get his driver's license and you're pretty sure the old buggy would not hold up under the added strain. And let's say you knew this day was coming, and you'd been saving up a down payment for an embarrassingly long time, and reading a lot of car magazines. And you went down to the Auto Show when it hit Milwaukee (say you live near Milwaukee) to see just which cars you could actually shoehorn your fat ass into and out of without cracking bones in either your spine or your knees or risking making a ludicrous spectacle of yourself at a high curb.
So you're ready to go. But, being a good shopper but rather astonishingly poor at making actual decisions, you're kind of going around and around.
So let's say it's basically come down to two choices. On the one hand, there's the Volkswagen GTI, which is what you really want, because it's a hot little car but not ridiculously hot, and not ostentatious, which (if it was) wouldn't suit the rest of your lifestyle, since, let's say, the rest of your lifestyle is kinda frumpy and downmarket. And it's tallish so it's easy to get into and out of. And there are a bazillion aftermarket parts available, which includes multiple choices for back seat covers, so you could keep Lulu's claws off the upholstery.
But on the other hand there's the Hyundai Sonata, which comes with a stick shift, and has a decently spirited engine. This makes it unlike the frigging Mazda 6 and Honda Accord and Ford Fusion, all of which are built to accommodate six-cylinder engines but only come with a manual transmission on the four-cylinder versions, and, although there is a certain symmetry to one's personage in a car that is too overweight for its powerplant, the effect of all these cars is a certain anemia. So anyway the Hyundai weighs just that little bit less and has just those few extra horsepower that it seems adequate as opposed to anemic.
In fact the Hyundai is the hard-boiled practical choice in just about every way. It has a longer warranty. XM radio is not an extra (we're saying you listen to jazz, in a market where the last commercial jazz station bit the dust two years ago). And it is a whopping six grand cheaper, which all by itself is an awful lot of money to your hypothetical self. In fact you're kind of balking at the fact that the only GTI at the local dealer has fancy wheels you don't even like that tack an additional $750 on to the price of the car. You're just enough of a skinflint that it bothers you to spend $750 on something you don't really want. Oh, okay, easily enough of a skinflint.
But the GTI is just so sweet. Rides like butter, sweet shifter, nice torquey engine (I probably forgot to mention you tend to prefer good torque to high-revving fours like the one in the Civic Si, since it makes ordinary driving in traffic more entertaining). You don't care for the dopey plaid seats or the red stitching on the steering wheel, but in terms of mechanicals it's basically exactly what you want—and you're essentially the type of person who only cares about mechanicals. (Although the incredibly crappy interior of the Chevy Cobalt SS outweighs its wonderfully capable drivetrain. Even you have your limits.)
And did I mention that you're 53 years old but have only bought three cars in your entire lifetime? That Bill Clinton was President when you bought your last one? So that whatever you buy, it's likely to be with you for a very long time, and, when you think about it, spending twenty grand and still not getting what you really want seems like a false economy, in a way?
Finally, say that of the only two real "car guys" you know (hello Art, hello Paul), one loves Volkswagens with a passion, and the other hates Volkswagens with a passion, making objective judgments a bit hard to come by locally.
So anyway, what would you do, in this purely hypothetical situation? The practical choice, or the indulgent option?
And as for me, it's back to car reviews, as I sink ever deeper into the tarpit of shopping paralysis.
*A week or so ago, a reader took me to task for not writing about photography enough. Which, of course, made me want to write a whole week's worth of off-topic posts. I resisted that temptation; regular readers will recall, however, that on some Sundays I write off-topic posts under the heading "Open Mike."
**Apropos 'tween stars, I have to note, if you happened to see "Saturday Night Live" last night, that being just tall enough to look Tina Fey right in the boobs is an enticing thought even for an middle-aged guy. Maybe especially for a middle-aged guy.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
ADDENDUM: I got a not-quite-appropriate comment I didn't post from a reader who is unemployed (which I highly sympathize with—as I've said before, been there, done that, and I realize it can range from an inconvenience to a very serious personal and family crisis). He suggested I should invest in the "local" (i.e., U.S.) economy. The Volkswagen GTI is built in Wolfsburg, Germany, but the 2011 Hyundai Sonata is built in Montgomery, Alabama—where Hyundai employs some 2,700 people. Only the transmission is made in South Korea.
Of the other cars I've looked at, the ones from the solidly all-American nameplate, Ford, namely the Fusion/Milan twins, are built in Mexico—as was my current Ford, a 1998 Escort ZX2.
The Subaru I test-drove is built in Indiana (I pass the plant when I drive to Indianapolis to visit relatives), the Honda Accord in Ohio, and the Mazda 6 in Michigan.
I'm mainly interested in cars with manual transmissions, just because that's what I'm accustomed to and enjoy, so that's been my first exclusion criterion for cars to look at. Manual transmissions are very scarce here in the Midwest, where they are very unpopular—my Ford dealer checked, and there is not a single manual-transmission Mercury Milan for sale in the entire state of Wisconsin. Hyundai expects to sell only 2% of its 2011 Sonatas with stick shifts. (Presumably this will affect resale value, too. On the other hand, it's a theft deterrent.) Anyway one of the upcoming "American" cars that is expected to be available with a stick is the 2011 Buick Regal. The first ones sold here will be built in Russelsheim, Germany (the car is sold as an Opel in Europe and as a Vauxhall in the U.K.), with production transitioning to Oshawa, Canada in calendar 2011. The same car will be built in China for the Chinese market.
So is it more patriotic to buy a Mexican Ford or a Hyundai made in Alabama? I can't answer that. The point is simply that things are not always what they seem when it comes to "buying local." —MJ