25 August 2007

Talmadge has some 'spaining to do

This afternoon, we officially bid adieu to what for the past three years we've called our PMT. A dark blue 2004 Honda Element. It served us well, faithfully and without a hint of mechanical trouble.

But the logistics of the vehicle were beginning to become a burden. The way the rear doors opened, for instance. The rear backseat, and its 'stadium seating' -- nice if you like to see the highway ahead from an elevated view. Not so nice if you're taller than Gary Coleman.

We began seeking out a more 'conventional' small SUV. Last night we test-drove the Toyota RAV4. A solid, well-built, time-tested and undisputedly reliable vehicle. Then we tried out its main 'competition', the Honda CR-V. While it had more room upfront than the '04 we test-drove before ending up with the Element, the 2007-08 CR-Vs just felt too spartan. They were solid, as Hondas typically are, however they were just ... spartan.

We were swooning over the RAV4, and would've taken one were it not for complacent arrogance oozing from the whole Toyota network. Now the woman who waited on us and showed us the RAV4 was wonderful and atypically low-key .... for Toyota, that's saying a lot. The cars are wonderful, but the sales games, the F&I hurdle ... just the whole Toyota dealer gauntlet one must run is daunting. The woman introduced us to her manager -- nice as he was, my "smarm detector" meter was pegging. Truth was, the RAVs were out of our reach, and my gut was telling me there was no freakin' way they would budge from sticker. Even for the '07s. And I wasn't up to the games.

So, with the RAV4 out of price range, and the CR-V underwhelming, what did that leave us?

With a fringe benefit from my wife's employer, that's what. Getting a car at invoice plus 2%. No haggle. I liked the idea myself, especially after we test-drove their 'small SUV.'

The SUV we drove .... and bought .... and now have in our driveway?

A 2008 Ford Escape XLT.

Consumer Reports rates its predicted reliability as a 'red semicircle' (above average) in the latest "Auto Issue." Which is the only reason I would even look in Ford's direction, otherwise.

And in addition to the 'special price', there was a choice of a $1,000 rebate or a special rate of 4.9% through Ford Credit. These days, car loan rates are not as generous, another hurdle we'd have faced with Toyota's Psychological Gaming Console. Running the numbers both ways (rebate v. APR) revealed we'd be better off ditching the rebate in favor of the lower financing. After pulling our bureaus, the folks at J.C. Lewis Ford said we were "Tier 1." Holy cripes, that shadow from my Chapter 7 in 1998 really is disappearing!! Busting my ass to live down that collateral damage from the divorce has paid off.

What I liked most about the dealership was that it was remarkably free of games. I clearly stated what we needed, and with a minimal of give-and-take they gave us what we wanted. And I got to do my best J. Arthur Rank on the gong inside the showroom; J.C. Lewis has a little gimmick where a new car owner strikes the gong, and all the staff within earshot break out in applause. Seraphim and I almost got in an argument about who was gonna bang the gong and get it on. She wanted me to do it. I wanted her to have the honor. She won. I hit the gong.

I almost felt like Jamie Farr. And why weren't there any teenage girls sucking on popsicles in the showroom?

The Escape has nearly everything we both wanted in such a vehicle. Plenty of room - up front, backseat and in the rear. Little things, such as an onboard compass. Outside temperature display (something from our earlier Toyotas I missed). A 'rear glass release' one can activate from the key fob -- something which got Seraphim swooning. A 6-CD changer. Sirius satellite radio, with complimentary 6-month subscription (we enjoyed listening to Nina Blackwood on the '80s channel on the way back home tonight). The radio display also has RDS capability, where it can display text that some radio stations piggyback onto their signal. For example, our 'oldies' station appeared to encode song titles on its RDS.

Like all the SUVs we tested out, it has an MP3 input jack -- highly mandatory for a set of wheels, if you ask me. The Ford kickin' sound system doesn't have quite the gonads of the 260-watt Element stereo, but seems to holds its own.

The 153 HP 4-cylinder engine is responsive to accelerative stimuli. I like how the instrument panel is laid out ... although it's gonna take some time getting used to the audio/clock display being atop the dash, separate from the audio controls. Very distinctive.

Ditto for the headlight switch. Japanese models always have 'em on the left-hand stem, integrated with the turn signals. Ford, in true old-school fashion, has the controls on the dashboard on the left of the steering column. Parking brake is activated by a small foot pedal and is released by a pull lever under the left dash (near the headlight control). Very retro, reminding me of Dad's old '71 Torino.

Only drawback thus far is the gas mileage. We were seeking out something a little less thirsty than the Element -- the Honda CR-V won the fuel economy race, tires down. Alas, it looks like we've made a lateral move in that column. It seems to be 20-city/25-highway ... right where the Element was.

We liked it, the deal was right, so we purchased. And this means Talmadge Gleck has a Ford in his driveway. Something I would never have imagined as recently as a month ago.

Am I suddenly a Ford convert? Far from it. What we're doing is -- and not without a little leeriness -- taking a huge gamble. Betting that this Detroit car will make us forget about the unpleasant shitboxes I drove once upon a time.

It seemed like I hated Ford .... although thinking deeper on the topic, what I didn't like about it was the flimsy feel of my old '87 Mercury Topaz, and even worse was the dealer network. Ford's dealer system did NOT stand behind their products in the '80s and early '90s.

This SUV will be maintained just as faithfully as I've done our previous Hondas and Toyotas (and Nissan before that). Probably even more anally, to tell you the truth.

The wager is that I'll be able to drive a domestic make 50,000 miles without a single mechanical malfunction. Will that happen? Nobody can say for sure now, not with barely 50 miles on the odometer.

Part of me is elated. The Escape is one sharp-looking little SUV. But the other part of me feels like this is going to be 1988 all over again, and dumping one woman for another. Mesmerized by the siren call of a pretty car with lots of bells and whistles ... and kicking a less-exciting, yet dependable car to the curb.

Which brings me to this question: Am I the only one who assigns human qualities to a vehicle? Getting that sinking feeling that I'm betraying a companion by trading it in and leaving them behind at a car dealership?

I don't know. I hope I'm wrong. I hope I'll eat lots of crow. In the meanwhile, we're gonna enjoy our new ride.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Blue Oval" Gleck


nettiemac said...

First off, CONGRATS!!!! Your good info is helping me when I make my decision. I can't go new right now, but I can go nicely used, and the Escape is what I've been leaning toward.

I've actually had pretty decent luck with my Fords -- the Escort and the Taurus. So far, the track record has been rather nice. May the Escape perform just as well for you!

Talmadge G. said...

Keep in mind that if you get a used Escape, the '08 model is a redesign (the engine, however, is the same).

We tested out a used '06 at the Rincon dealership, just to see how the 4-cyl engine behaved (they only had new V6 models). The '06 was a bit tight up front, and I have reason to believe an '07 would be similar.

Used Escapes seem to have a decent showing in Consumer Reports. And if you can snag a pre-owned RAV4 or CR-V, you won't go wrong either.

Good luck. If you need any CR data, say the word - I have the issues here.