The Nine-Year Itch

September 22, 2011
The other day, my friend John calls me with a car question. He's got a 2002 Saab 9-5 wagon. "When you step on the gas," he says, "it makes this really bad noise, which is the same thing it did last time before the turbo died." He describes the malady in greater detail and I listen intently, considering all the possible causes of the problem, before offering my expert diagnosis: Get a new car. Man, for the sake of all that's holy, just get a new car. I know new cars are expensive, but nothing is more expensive than a nine-year-old European car. If Elin Nordegren really wanted to ruin Tiger Woods, her divorce lawyer would've stipulated that she henceforth be driven in a fleet of 2002 Mercedes-Benz S600s. No! Take the yacht! Take the mansions! Anything but that!
Cards And Dice
The nine-year-old European car looks compelling on the surface. You see something like an Audi A8, lithe and aluminum, for $12,000 and think, "How could I go wrong? This was a $70,000 car when it was new. Even if I have to put some money into it, it'll still cost less than a new Chevy Malibu." That is the fantasy. The reality is that every time a mechanic cracks the hood, you'll somehow have a bill for at least $1000. As my old independent BMW mechanic candidly put it, "It's the same skill set whether you're working on a BMW or a Ford, but with the BMW you just get paid a lot more."
Say you buy the nine-year-old car of your dreams for $15,000. You end up putting $2000 per year into it, and after five years you sell it for $6000. You've now spent $19,000 to drive this miserable, anxiety-creating trouble bucket. Meanwhile, the person who bought a new car for $25,000 has spent $2000 on brakes and service (if that), and the car is worth $10,000 after five years. Net expense: $17,000, sans headaches. You can play with the math on depreciation, insurance, and repairs, but the bottom line is that your fancy nine-year-old bargain could ultimately cost you more than a brand-new vehicle of more modest pretensions. And for what?
Not for prestige. Driving a new BMW 7-series says, "I've arrived." Driving a 2002 745i says, "I've arrived at a tent in my mom's backyard, where I live because it costs so much to keep this car on the road." People admire new cars and they admire thirty-year-old cars, but the nine-year-old car exists in a drab netherworld, neither new enough to confer status nor old enough to imply connoisseurship. The Ferrari 360 is a beautiful car, but the valets will know that it's worth about the same as a nice new Corvette.
Well, who cares what the valets think? That's an excellent point. And I do believe that you should buy a car to satisfy nobody but yourself -- if the Pontiac Aztek is what ignites your bliss, then have at it, you big freak. The problem is that cars improve so quickly that your mundane new car is often functionally superior to an eight-year-old super-duper luxury machine. By the time I bought my 1998 BMW M3, its 240 hp was surpassed by a Honda Accord V-6. Today's M3 is tomorrow's Buick, my friends. And it's not just horsepower -- fuel economy, safety, interior quality, and in-car electronics march ever forward. A guy driving a 2011 Ford Fiesta might have satellite radio, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity. Meanwhile, if the guy in a 2002 Bentley Arnage wants in-car entertainment, his options are a six-disc CD changer or an escort service.
To recap, nobody thinks your nine-year-old car is pimpin'. And even if it's got a big V-8, it might have about the same power as a new four-cylinder Hyundai Sonata turbo. But that's not the worst part. The worst part, and I speak from experience, is the reliability. Or the utter and complete lack thereof.
My brother-in-law bought a seemingly cherry 2001 BMW 530i and eventually came to distrust it so much that he started renting cars whenever he had to drive farther than ten miles. My 1991 Saab 9000 Turbo was about nine years old when it began covering more miles on flatbeds than it did under its own power. I know a guy who has a Land Rover Discovery that he claims is reliable, but when I asked if it had blown the head gasket, he replied, "Of course." If that's your answer to that question, then you have the proper expectations for Discovery ownership.
This is a well-known maxim, but it bears repeating: a $70,000 car may depreciate to eighteen grand, but it's still a $70,000 car whenever anything breaks. To name but one example, my Saab's leather shift knob became frayed, so I ordered a new one from the dealership. The dealer quoted me $165 -- borderline criminal but worth it for a leather knob that would probably last for the remaining life of the car. I went to the dealer to pick it up, and to my surprise, the parts guy arrived at the counter with a rubber shift knob.
A rubber shift knob for $165? Was this the work of the famed rubbersmiths of Boergflappen, a hand-hewn piece crafted from virgin stock carefully chiseled from the secluded Arctic rubber mines of Gnorkflug, predistressed by the calloused hand of Stig Blomqvist himself? No. It was a piece of crap with nasty flash lines and a shift pattern glued on top. I told him to keep it. If I'm paying $165 for a piece of rubber, it better be a Catwoman costume containing Michelle Pfeiffer. Also, the year should be 1992.
If that's what Saab is asking for a shift knob, imagine the bill when the air suspension craps out on your 100,000-mile Mercedes-Benz S-class. To paraphrase the late, great Notorious B.I.G.: mo' problems, mo' money.
So beware, all ye who scan the classifieds in search of the perfect union of panache and value. Sure, the 2003 Audi RS6 had 450 hp, only 1436 of them were sold in the States, and you can find them now for less than twenty grand. But buying one is a horrible idea. Isn't it?


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