Tuesday, July 31, 2012

COLUMN: Car Trouble

It's no secret that I love my car. By now, I think I've written 2 or 3 columns touting its awesomeness. But this week? I kinda feel like the kid at the end of "Old Yeller." It might be about time to put the old girl down.

When I first heard that Volkswagen was redesigning the Beetle, I was in. It took almost a year on the waiting list, but I ended up with one of the first five New Beetles in the QC. It was cool, speedy, and a massive head-turner.

A decade later, times have changed. I'm now told that I drive a "chick car." (I suppose the in-dash flower vase doesn't help.) And my chick car's get-up-and-go got up and went. At 150,000 miles, she still gets the job done, but not without a few complaints. Top it all off with the awesome body modification my front grill received courtesy of one unlucky raccoon, and she's just not quite the head-turner of yore.

I first knew something was up last week on my way to work. One might think my first tip-off would have been the high temp warning light that was coming on, but it had been doing that on and off for the past year, and the guys at my regular garage told me I likely had a faulty sensor. No, the real tipoff was when black smoke started rolling out from under the hood. That couldn't be good.

Instead of driving it to work, I wheeled it straight to my favorite garage. I swear I heard the mechanics groan as I pulled in. See, your average engineer, when designing a car, usually tends to leave a little room up front for, y'know, the engine and stuff. Not the Germans. To them, the engine appears to have been an afterthought. The New Beetle has a cool design but an engine block about the size of a glove box. As a result, it's NOT an easy car to work on.

Still, they dutifully took a look and let me know it was a doozy of an oil leak. That was the GOOD news. The bad news was that it required a dealership fix.

I hate hate hate taking my car back to the dealership. There hasn't been a time that I've taken my car to the dealer garage without them finding additional "critical safety issues" with the car.

I like my car, but truth be told, I have absolutely no idea how it runs. For all I know or care, the engine could be comprised of an elite team of magical hamsters. When it comes to the inner workings of cars, I am completely ignorant. That ignorance opens the doors for me to get seriously taken advantage of. A mechanic could open the hood, poke around for 10 seconds, and tell me that the dilithium crystal in the flux capacitor needs a new horcrux, and I'd be forced to just nod and let them "fix" it. Not that I don't trust my dealership, but one thing I've learned about owning a neat little German car is that neat little German replacement parts do NOT come cheap.

I now have a new appreciation for the phrase "don't blow a gasket," because I now know when you DO, it costs around $300. Clearly, Beetle gaskets must be hand-crafted by a guy named Dieter from Dusseldorf and flown in at great expense.

And remember that high temp warning light my mechanic said was probably faulty? Well, either that, OR maybe it was because there was a huge hole in one of my hoses and the car was completely out of coolant. Not that it would have mattered, because the water pump didn't work anyways. And if gaskets are made by Dieter, water pumps must be made of solid gold and hand-forged from the very fires of Mount Doom itself, because one of THOSE puppies added 1200 bucks to the mix. And hey, while the water pump's out, I'd better get a new timing belt.

Oh, and while they had the car up? They noticed a loose tie rod, and that's a -- you guessed it -- critical safety issue. I still don't know what a tie rod IS -- did Darth Vader fly one in Star Wars? -- but I do know it's very integral to the car running in a straight-ish, NON-suicidal manner.

By the time it was done, my estimate was in the neighborhood of $2600 -- a nice downpayment on a new car. But I wasn't gonna find one overnight, and I sure wouldn't get any trade-in for the Wonder Beetle as long as said wonderment was being provided by a thick plume of black smoke. So after some soul-searching and credit-limit-checking, I just shelled out a fortune to once again save my baby.

At least the dealership was nice enough -- after I batted my eyes, begged, pleaded, and threatened to drop into a fetal ball -- to give me a loaner for the estimated 8-14 day fix.

That's why I've spent the last week driving around a 2012 VW CC Turbo. Yowza. I'd forgotten what it was like to be in a car where the gas pedal throws you back into the seat -- which, by the way, is leather and heated. And while I might not know how anything under the hood works, I can testify that the nav system, hands-free phone, iPod dock, dual air, and satellite radio all work just fine. And if the mighty fine folks at Volkswagen want to thank me for the free advertising with one of those bad boys, I wouldn't say no. (Of course, I'd probably be fired, but my onboard GPS could direct me to the unemployment office in both luxury and style.)

Do any of you anthropomorphize your cars? Because when the time came to give that sucker back to the dealership, I envisioned it like a sad puppy crying that it's new owner was returning it to the pound, all so I could get my stupid old crummy Bee...

That was when a weird thing happened. I saw my car in the lot. My banged-up, ragged, decade-old, grill-less Beetle. And suddenly it wasn't the CC Turbo that was the wee puppy. It was my baby, and it was wagging its imaginary tail. Getting back in that car was like getting a part of me back. I knew every creak and groan. I basked in its lousy acceleration. I don't care how rough my car is, it's still MY car -- and if I can nurse some more miles out of it, so be it.

So if anyone asks me if I'm getting a new car -- the answer's yes. Piece by piece. Just ask Dieter.

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