November 16, 2012 by Ando
As you sink deeper into the crevasse of adulthood, there are certain milestones you encounter that remind you your youth is rapidly fading away. Events that make you realize you can never go back to those carefree days and the joy of youthful indiscretion when people forgave your foibles with a shrug and a “He’s young.” Days when you find yourself in a conversation with a younger version of what you thought you still were and you have no idea what they are talking about. And then finally that moment when you swallow hard and admit to yourself it’s over and you might as well start buying your shoes at Costco. Youth is done. Stick a fork in it.
For me that day has come and gone. I bought a minivan.
For the past seven years our primary vehicle has been a white 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Not the pinnacle of stylish automobiles, but also not something your grandmother is likely to drive either. Not that we used it for driving over anything more imposing than the occasional parking lot curb, but it was a 4×4 SUV and it was stylish for its era. It was extremely popular. Take a look when you’re out driving later and you can probably count 10 of them without even trying. Mostly reliable, comfortable to drive and ride, a good blend of form and function. But mostly, you still felt reasonably fashionable, even with a carload of kids and groceries behind the tinted windows.
A few months ago the Jeep started having issues beyond the normal routine maintenance all vehicles require. It had begun to make a high-pitched whirring noise. It seemed like I was always having to put coolant in it. It started dying at random times. A lot of cars stall and die when approaching advanced age, but usually while idling. Alarmingly, the Jeep would die while in motion. Not at very high speeds, very rarely ever above first gear. But still, a vehicle that suddenly stops moving is not such a great thing. Out of financial and locomotive necessity, we put up with it for a while. The last straw came when Jen and I were returning home late from a movie on a rainy night and the ol’ girl quit on us at just about every stop light. Including at a blind corner. I was just bracing for impact as I cranked the key and pumped the accelerator, praying approaching cars would see our hazard lights. We managed to limp off the road into a Safeway parking lot and called a friend to come get us.
The next morning we took it to the shop. They did what they could, and it did run a little better, but they couldn’t fix the problem completely and suggested the engine computer may need to be replaced. Engine computer. That sounds expensive. And as a throw in, they told us that whirring sound was coming from the transmission and we’d have to take it to a specialist. Anytime you’re mechanic sends you to a specialist, you might as well just get a second job right then. Then to add to the fun, a few weeks after this wonderful diagnosis, Jen was cruising along when the temperature gauge red lined and a geyser of steam worthy of Old Faithful itself started to pour out from under the hood. I knew we had a slow coolant leak for a while, but the slow leak had now become a gaping hole in the radiator.
After getting the radiator fixed on the cheap thanks to a friend of mine, I finally made the appointment with the transmission shop, knowing we were going to get nothing but bad news. My fears were confirmed when their diagnosis found that the transmission would need to be rebuilt ($1200-$1500) or replaced ($3000+), the water pump is going out ($450), and the computer still needed to be replaced ($350-$500). Add to that the over $1000 we spent on brakes and tires earlier this year and we’re looking at not that far off in repair costs as we paid for the car eight years ago. Not exactly the return on investment we’re looking for.
So we made the decision to not fix the Jeep and move on. Something about dropping thousands of dollars into a 17-year-old car just doesn’t sit right. It’s too bad, because everything else about the car was in great shape. But, it was time. The next question, then, was what type of new car to get.
With two growing kids, a dog, and all the gear that comes with them, the logical choice was some sort of van or SUV. While our Jeep was in the shop we borrowed my in-laws old Ford Contour sedan. Though it was small even by sedan standards, it made it painfully clear to us that a sedan of any size, save one of those old 1970’s boat models, was just not going to cut it. In our hearts we probably would’ve liked an SUV. In our heads–and our wallets–we knew we were destined to be minivan people.
On a slow night at work I started scanning Craigslist just to get an idea of what your standard soccer mom mobile goes for and was shocked at some of the price tags. Pretty much anything under 100,000 miles and you’re looking at 15K at minimum, more likely in the 20K range. Yikes.
But the key to Craigslist is to keep looking. Stuff moves through there pretty quick. I finally spotted a red 2006 Chrysler Town & Country Touring edition with only 29000 miles for $11,000. Unheard of for this model at that age. There’s gotta be a catch, right? Well, there was.
I contacted the owner, an amiable Israeli fellow who has spent the past four years travelling the world. The car belonged to his 85-year-old grandfather, which explained the low miles…and also the huge dent in the passenger side sliding door. Other than that, which was a big deal, the van was in very good condition, with nothing more than any other minor dings and scratches you’d expect to find on a six-year-old car. The interior, leather, was in perfect condition, the automatic doors all worked (even the smashed one), and the onboard 6-disc DVD system with bluetooth headphones had never even been used. The van had most, if not all, the bells and whistles.
Most importantly, it would fit our family just about perfect. So, swallowing our pride and our youth, we bought it. Without even really having to negotiate too much, we knocked it down to $10,200, due to the repairs we’d have to make to the door. Even figuring in those costs, we still got an exceptional deal for a vehicles with those features and that kind of mileage. What can you say? God is good.
I have to admit, that I actually really like it. I’ve dubbed it the Red Menace No, it ain’t a chick magnet, but I’ve already got the chick. What it is is convenient, safe, and practical. With any luck, it’ll be our family car for many years to come and we’ll have a lot of good times in it, driving to vacations, little league and basketball games, the beach, anywhere else the Red Menace wants to take us. At some point in your life you just have to realize there is a lot of life to be lived even when you buy your shoes at Costco and drive a minivan.