To new car or not to new car – that is the question

Several days ago my car, a 1996 Saturn – 11 years old with 101000 miles, started exhibiting funny symptoms on the way home from work. First, the battery light came on and then the speedometer started fluctating widly from 60 MPH, the speed at which I was driving, to 0 MPH and then back up to 60 MPH. It seemed especially bad when I turned on the air conditioner so I left the AC off and proceeded to drive home with a semi-functioning speedometer. It got hot in the car so I rolled down the windows and noticed that they went down but went very slowly. I then discovered that when I used the turn signal the radio made wierd noises – obviously something was seriously wrong with the electrical system of the car. I finally made it home, called the Saturn dealer, and made an appointment to take my car in the next day at noon (I had a meeting at 10:00 a.m. that I couldn’t miss).

The next morning Nancy was on high alert in case the car died on the way to the office and I needed an emergency bailout. As I stared up the Bangerter highway, the symptoms were worse than during the previous night. I came up to a traffic light on 45th south and Bangerter Highway and the engine just shut off. The car was dead – kaput. There I was, stuck on the Bangerter Highway with the light about to turn green and cars coming up behind me at 50 MPH. Fortunately, I was in the right hand lane and was also on a bit of a downhill slope so I was able to get out of the car and push it off to the right side of the road. I called Nancy on her cell phone and asked her to come pick me up and take me to the office because I simply couldn’t miss my 10:00 meeting. I then called Saturn and asked if they could send a tow truck to take the car to the dealership. They gave me the number of a tow company and I called and gave them the location and told them the keys would be in the glove compartment. Nancy arrived in time to whisk me away to my meeting.

After the meeting was over I called Saturn and was relieved to learn that they had the car safe and sound and were working on it. It turned out that the alternator had failed. With a new alternator in place the car fired right up. There have been several other problems with the car such as the clutch wearing thin, steering problems with the front end, and a possible oil leak, so I decided to leave it overnight at Saturn. The promised to investigate further and determine if additional repairs were needed. I hitched a ride home from the office with my boss who always leaves a few hours early. Because I got home so early Nancy and I decided to go check out some new cars. If the dealer came back with a several thousand dollar repair estimate, we would have to make a decision about whether to sink money into the Saturn or bite the bullet and buy a new car. We really can’t afford a new car but we also can’t ignore the fact that the Saturn is nearing the end of its useful life.

I’ve been researching new cars off and on over the past year or so and have determined that the two most popular foreign sedans, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, would best meet my needs. They have the best gas mileage, the best long term satisfaction, the best long term resale values, and the best long term maintenance profiles. First we set off to Toyota to test drive the Camry. I liked the V6 Camry – a nice smooth ride and good gas mileage (not as good as the 4 cylinder but the best for a V6 in its class). I also liked all the bells and whistles such as leather seats and the cool Bluetooth interface to cell phones so that you can talk on the phone through the car’s audio system hands free (a feature that works very well on my boss’ BMW). We then went to the Honda dealership and drove the equivalent version of the Honda Accord. The Accord seemed much more workmanlike and had a stiffer ride than the Camry (the salesman stated that the Honda’s suspension was more “sporty” than the Camry). The Accord is also significantly cheaper.

After 15 minutes of test drives in each car (with 30 minutes afterwards to extricate ourselves from the vultures at the dealership) we proceeded to head home and fret about whether or not we should buy a new car. Sitting in the brand new car, playing with all the bells and whistles, experiencing the comfy ride – compared to driving my old beat up Saturn for another 5 years it made things easy from an emotional standpoint: buy the new car and junk the Saturn. Looking at our budget, researching interest rates, figuring out monthly payments – compared to having no payment for the last 6 years it made things easy from a financial standpoint: skip the car and continue to drive the Saturn. I waffled back and forth all night thinking “let’s buy the car”, “let’s wait”, “no, let’s buy the car”, “no, lets wait”.

In the end, the Saturn dealer called back and stated that they didn’t think the clutch or the front end steering needed to be replaced just yet and that the car was ready to pick up. That clinched the deal for me and I hustled back over to the dealer and picked up my trusty old steed before my emotions won out over my pocketbook. I’ve now resigned myself to driving the old Saturn for several more years – or at least until the next major breakdown. The problem is that every time I see a new Camry zipping down the road I get a wistful feeling and have to keep convincing myself that the Saturn will last a few more years, that we can’t afford a new car, that it’s a want and not a need, etc. Don’t be surprised to see me driving good old faithful for a few more years – the financial concerns are winning for the moment. Don’t be surprised to see me driving a new Camry either because Mr. Hyde will eventually win out over Dr. Jekyll in the end.


  1. I feel ya, man. And I have to say, I really respect you for being disciplined enough to stick with your trusty old Saturn. You know Bun and me, the minute we let a toe point toward the dealership, it’s only a matter of time until we’ve rationalized our way into a new car.

    You never said what was wrong with it–something electrical?

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