Car bleg

I’ve mentioned it a few times in various comments around the blogosphere, so I figure I should mention it here, too. When I visited my parents for Thanksgiving, I started having some issues with the transmission in my car. Specifically, the clutch would start slipping when I was climbing hills, or needed to put a little more power to the wheels. This is generally a Bad Thing, but it’s especially bad when driving on the interstate.

Now, I had been having an occasional little bit of trouble with it when starting out uphill from a stop. There was one intersection in particular that was commonly an issue. The clutch fluid levels always checked out, there were no loose connections that I could find, and it was an intermittent and inconsistent issue (even at that one intersection). Thanksgiving was the first time it became prominent. So, when I got to my parents’ house, I asked Dad – a former mechanic and now a (retired) engineer – to help me track down the issue and figure out what would need to be done to fix it (later that weekend, since it was dark already).

Thanksgiving day, after dinner, my parents told me we would be going shopping for a new car the next day. Moreover, they said that they would pay for the car, on the condition that I would pay them back as I can. It seems they hadn’t been happy with my car for a while, and had been worrying that it would die on one of these 100-mile-each-way trips and leave me stranded somewhere I don’t have cellphone service. That scenario was, in fact, one I had worried about as well, since my car was a 17 year old Corolla with over 220,000 miles on it. So, the next day we went car shopping. On Black Friday, no less.

The general goal was for a small, 4-door car that would get decent mileage. Pretty much anything else was left up for grabs, since we were a little pressed for time (I had to go back home Saturday).

We were amazingly lucky. We started at the same dealership that Dad got his truck from, because they had been reasonable, and they had been good with follow-ups (maintenance, etc.). The very first car we saw in the price range we were looking in (which was much higher than I expected, btw), was this.

That’s a 2008 Saturn Astra XE, with only 40,000 miles on it. It was on sale that day for $2000 below book value, and about $4000 below the dealership’s normal asking price. After a short test drive, and a little discussion over whether Mom would get a new car and I would get her old one (she didn’t see anything she liked, so she didn’t), we left to grab lunch and check out some other car lots. During lunch, I used my phone’s browser to look up ratings, reviews, etc., on the Astra. With generally good reviews, a good impression during the test drive, and not seeing anything even close to comparable in age, miles, and price anywhere else, we decided to get it. I got a whole $400 for my old car, which they took for scrap value.

It’s the base model, but it still has a lot of nice little features. It’s the first car I’ve ever owned with power windows and door locks, and remote entry. I can even roll down all the windows at once with the remote, which will be nice in the summer. The rear seats fold down and the rear deck cover comes off easily to expand the cargo area. Combined with the rear hatch instead of a trunk lid, this gives me much more cargo capacity than my old car had. The wipers have an “automatic” setting that uses a sensor to control the speed. Plus, if the wipers are on when you put it in reverse, it turns on the rear wiper. It has OnStar, which I don’t plan to bother with. The computer shows mpg, miles remaining, trip time, etc., but also will show when to change the oil, when the wiper fluid is low, when certain bulbs are out, and some other things.

Like many things, there are a couple of minor shortcomings, too. The Astra was a “captive import”, so it shows the usual European disdain for drink holders – there’s only one that’s accessible from the front seats, and that is placed far enough back in the center console that it’s actually behind the seat back, so it’s a little bit awkward to reach. Despite being a 2008 model, when they imported it, Saturn didn’t bother to enable the auxiliary input for the U.S. radio. The wiring for it is there, and connected to the radio’s wiring harness, it just doesn’t work. The best guess on the forums (yes, there are forums, both for Saturns, and for Astras in general), is that the hardware inside the U.S. radio isn’t connected. To connect my XM radio and iPod, I had to buy an FM modulator and European antenna adapters.

But, overall it’s a very good car, especially for the money. I think I ended up with the best deal I could hope for.

With the exception of my grandfather’s old Ford Ranger, which I inherited but kept for less than a year, this is the first automatic transmission vehicle I have ever owned. I’ve actually been grateful for this over the last couple of weeks, since driving a manual transmission with gout in my left foot would have been an exercise in pain – enough so that it might have been dangerous.

Just as a side note: I did not expect my parents to do this. The most I even considered to be a possibility was that they would buy Mom a new car and I would get her old one. Even after they told me, I expected we would be looking in the $2k – $4k range. Instead, it was about $10,000. This is not a gift, it’s a loan that I have to pay back as I can, because they knew I could not manage a regular car payment right now. They gave me help buying a car, not a car. But they wanted me to have a good, reliable car that I’ll be able to keep for a long time without worrying, so they stretched themselves a little to do it. I am extraordinarily grateful to them. I didn’t earn it, I didn’t “deserve” it, but they did it anyway.

Anyway, that’s the story of my new (to me) car.


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