Aw, crap, it’s a girls’ car! I can’t drive this.

I have an odd relationship with cars. I grew up in an automobile-addicted house. My dad worked for Ford, loved to build model cars, and loved to work on real cars just as much. My brother followed very much in my dad’s footsteps, building model cars, working on his own cars, and eventually going to work automotive companies like Roush Racing and Cosworth.

In some ways, I followed their lead. I built model cars, but never really passed the beginner stage. I collected die-cast cars for a while, and followed the addiction to NASCAR, which I really enjoyed. I followed along to the car shows and loved checking out the fancy sports cars, the odd concept cars, and the usual things boys think are cool. But as I went through my teens I began to care less and less about cars. I still liked NASCAR, and like any teen I loved the idea of driving. And while I loved the feeling of doing a job myself, I really didn’t care for spending entire weekends with the car in the garage. Regular maintenance was enough for me — I had no desire to customize anything.

Initially, driving was the biggest thrill for me. It didn’t help that I spent a few years riding around with older brother while he pushed cars to the limit, living out his race car driver fantasies. But when I actually got behind the wheel several close calls and stupid mistakes taught me that hod-rodding really isn’t the smartest thing to do. Blowing out the transmission on my dad’s truck probably sealed the deal. He was understandably furious, and I was wondering if the thrill of driving fast and screeching tires was worth the possible outcome.

Now I’m a lot older, I’m on my own, and I pay for my own choices. I’ve found that my attitude towards cars has changed a lot. I still love to drive, and I like driving fun cars, but I’m a lot more practical. Having to take care of my own car has really made me think about the whole proposition. Frankly, I’d rather ride the bus. But it’s rather difficult to survive solely on the bus. Two years ago we bought a new Jetta to replace my beginning to fade Ranger, and now as potential jobs off the bus line loom in the horizon, we’re thinking about a second car.

With all of this history, buying a car is a weird proposition. Thanks to my dad’s job, I have immense loyalty to Ford. Not only have I been raised loving Fords all my life, but I can get a tremendous deal on a Ford through my dad. It’s a double-whammy that makes it difficult to buy a car anywhere else. Of course I did it two years ago, opting for the Jetta mainly out of the wow-factor.

We wanted a small sedan, and the choice came down to the Ford Focus, the Mazda Protege (since Mazda is owned by Ford, I can get a deal on those, too), and the VW Jetta. The Focus was blah. It was weak on standard features, it wasn’t very fun to drive, and the volume knob on the radio was irritating. The knob clicked as you turned it, but each notch of adjustment was too loud or too soft. I couldn’t turn the radio down enough to talk over it without shutting it off. As stupid as that sounds, it made me really dislike the Focus.

The Protege had a few better standard features, but overall the car didn’t stand out to me. It drove OK and it felt OK, but it just seemed like another car. I felt like I’d lose it in the parking lot. The best thing the Protege had going was the price, and the fact that they threw in a moon roof.

The Jetta was something else altogether. VW’s are certainly more expensive, but you get what you pay for. The standard features were ten times better than any other car (assuming you get the GLS, not the GL — which doesn’t even have a freakin’ armrest!). It had more safety features than we knew you could get, and it had all sorts of little features that made things really nice. The cup holder could actually hold different size cups and you didn’t have to lunge for your open can of pop when you went around a corner. When you popped the hood a little handle came out so you didn’t have to fish for the hood release. If you had to change a flat tire it came with a full size spare. The middle seat in the back had both a headrest and a shoulder harness seat belt. It came with heated seats. And best of all, it was fun to drive.

The combination of style, fun, and intuitive features made me feel like I was getting my money’s worth on a VW, so I did. Two years later as we’re car shopping again, I’m leery of spending as much money as I did before, but I’m noticing the lack of little features that make a car that much nicer.

This time I’m doing a little more research, and it’s really making me think twice. Last time I never really considered the depreciation of new cars, and it’s really making me think about late-model used cars. Of course with the discount I can get at Ford, it makes the new models tempting. But then as I explore the options I want, I have to pay a bit more. We’re looking at Ford Escapes right now, the small SUV — thinking ahead to having kids and needing to haul stuff that won’t fit in the Jetta’s trunk (the 18 inch trunk opening is a major limiting factor – two weeks ago we bought a fridge for a friend and had to wedge it into the front seat). Of course the basic model doesn’t come with ABS brakes, or even a 40/60 split bench in the back. Which means if you’ve got three people and you’re hauling something large, you’d have trouble putting the seat down and giving your friend a place to sit. It’s really stupid engineering — or a marketing scam to force us into a more expensive trim package. And living in Minnesota, we want ABS. So we’re up to the middle trim package, and the deal I was getting isn’t looking so good anymore.

To further complicate things, Mazda makes a replica of the Escape, which they call the Tribute (what kind of a stupid name is that?). While these two models are basically identical, there are some differences in the body style, the ride, and what kind of incentives you can get. Of course my wife likes the feel of the Mazda better, but I feel the same way about the Tribute as I did about the Protege. It’s so-so, lacking the style that even the Escape manages to exude.

But either way, the prices are a bit much for now, and it all depends on me getting a job off the bus line, which isn’t looking too likely right now. What really rattles me about the whole car shopping mess is when I start researching Consumer Reports. Based on reliability, Fords suck. Though that’s no slam on Ford alone. All the American manufacturer’s, and most European as well, don’t compare to the Asian cars. In problems per vehicle, the Asian cars do much better over time. That’s why you see mid-1980s Toyotas all over the place, why the Fords and Chevy’s have already been abandoned. Of course I don’t have a lot of personal experience to speak from. My seven year old Ranger was doing just fine. I did have a Mustang in high school, which was about the same age and started to have more and more problems. Of course my neighbor had a similar aged Escort, which hummed along just fine. But I didn’t know anybody with imports, so I can’t really compare.

But as I think about buying a second car, maybe not this year, but definitely down the road, I’ll probably be buying something slightly used and running it into the ground. When it finally comes time to part with it, I’d like to think fondly of the car, not of how many times it let me down. Are Asian imports really that much better? Consumer Reports things so. 75 percent of Toyota’s vehicles were given Consumer Reports Good Buy rating, while Ford had one or two vehicles in its whole line-up. I’m still loyal to my Fords, but what do you say in the face of that kind of evidence? Say it ain’t so, Ford, say it ain’t so.

So I find myself torn between my loyalty to Ford and my desire for a car that’s going to last. What are the Asian car companies doing differently, and why can’t Ford do the same? Why do I get such a good feeling when sitting in a Ford, and why can’t I feel the same thing in a Honda?

Why am I babbling on like this? I don’t know. You probably don’t care, but when you’re unemployed you have a lot of time to think. Cars are a big purchase, and I probably fret more than I should over them. Of course for now I’m just waiting for a job, hoping to ride the bus again and not have to play the car game for another few years.

Like football, I think cars are deeply ingrained in the American pscyhe. I think I want a car that says something about me, either the funky, elite style of a VW Jetta, or the down-home, family friendly strength of a Ford. I have no association with Mazda or Honda or Subaru, so I don’t want them. Maybe I’ll just wait for the hybrids to expand and I’ll get one of them, going for the environmental satisfaction over the deep-rooted brand associations. Oh the pitfalls of a consumer.

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