Once I bought a brand-new car for cash. Well, not a wad of actual bills; I wrote a big check. It was a bittersweet moment, since the money came from my mom’s estate, but I figured she and Dad would have been happy that I used the money to buy a decent car.
I had bought a new car once before, right after I finished grad school. A daffodil-yellow Chevette, it was small and cute, and I couldn’t wait to drive it to my new job at the Bettendorf library. Only problem was, the day after I drove it home, it failed to start.
That was just the beginning. Even when I bought more cars, used cars that I thought would last a while, I had bad luck. Just ask the guys at the Tandem by the river. They felt so sorry for me, they began to hint around that they’d be happy to check out any other used car I might be considering.
I wanted a new one, a 2001 RAV4. It was the car of my dreams. Some other lucky person at Loras parked her RAV in the faculty lot every day, and I would walk up to it, just to see how it would feel if that Toyota were mine. Alas, I had to walk on to my own rust bucket, get in and turn the key, hoping it would carry me home without killing another transmission.
I looked at other cars. I wanted to be a smart shopper, now that I was able, in theory, to purchase anything on the lot. I tried a Subaru, but all they had were manuals, so I couldn’t get an idea of how it felt to drive one. I tried a Prius, an early model, but gas wasn’t that expensive, and the display on the dashboard was too UFO for me.
Sport utility vehicles were easy to make fun of back then. What a waste, I would think. How do they park those things? No matter that I’d learned to drive in a block-long Buick Invicta station wagon that I could turn on a dime when I was sixteen, and parallel park it downtown. It made me feel like the queen of the road. (My dad gave it to me because it was a tank, and he believed I couldn’t get hurt in it.)
I’d had an eye-opening experience the winter of 2000, riding to a meeting with a friend. She had approximately five hundred times as much money as me, and she drove some kind of luxury job with four-wheel drive and tires that were probably replaced with the seasons. Taking a street I had slid down just days before, my heart in my throat, she gaily kept up our conversation as she whipped her car around. Oh, I thought. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The rich are different from you and me. They drive fearlessly in February.
So I was primed for a small SUV. I wanted something small enough to do a U-turn on Wood Street, something that rode high enough so I could see the road ahead of me without sitting on six pillows. Something I could drive down University even before the valiant snowplow crews had a chance to clear the way.
The RAV4 had undergone a major transformation that year, evolving from the sporty looking roadster in the Loras parking lot to a much sleeker, prettier carriage. Click and Clack (the Car Talk guys) even recommended it to a man wanting advice for his wife. After dutifully naming some other possibilities, Ray said, “Personally, I’d get the RAV4. We’ve been testing one for almost a year now, and it’s been absolutely perfect.” Tom added, “She may instantly fall in love with the RAV4.” Perfection – what’s not to love?
I ordered it in antique gold, with side mirrors that heated at the touch of a button and a totally unnecessary spoiler on the back. (It proved useful when I lost my car in the Target parking lot, something I do with annoying frequency.)
The instruction booklet said to drive it under 55 for the first month or so. I intended to do that, but my then-fiancé decided to attend a week of workshops in Cape Cod, and I had to agree we could stuff a lot of luggage into my new car. On our way, we parked it outside a restaurant and, when we came back, the person with the clicker somehow activated the Help-I’m-Being-Stolen emergency horn honker. After frantically trying many useless maneuvers, it mysteriously stopped honking, and we slunk away, lights off, heads down.
Last summer, Bob decided it was time to trade in his ‘97 Subaru for a new one. I went along to look, but he already knew what he wanted. It’s a very nice car, that sky blue Impreza, especially since it came with the one luxury feature I was dying for but figured we’d have to do without. Like magic, it turned out to have heated seats, not only for the driver but the passenger, a glory to experience when the snow is flying and it’s ten below.
Bob corrects me when I call it “your car,” but the thing is, I’m still driving that RAV4, fifteen years after steering it off the lot with a big smile on my face. It still runs great, despite the demolition derbies I’ve subjected it to. The heated mirrors work, and I continue to ride up high, a blessing when you’re only five-two. I still take it to Tandem for oil changes and minor repairs. I don’t think the guys there wince when they see me coming anymore.