Your Turn: How Car Ownership Ruins (and Renews) Our Love of Cars


Photo by Matthew Stern

Car ownership can be a blessing and/or a curse. It can be rewarding while taxing your wallet and your patience. In this edition of "Your Turn," Orange County, California-based author, blogger…and my brother…Matthew Stern gives you his take on the real value of automobile ownership.

As a Victory & Reseda reader, you're clearly someone who loves cars — with the possible exception of whatever is sitting in your driveway.

Nothing kills our enjoyment of cars like owning one. The initial thrill of car buying fades, along with that "new car smell," as we face the reality of car payments, insurance, and gas prices. The real mood killer is when we get that first parking lot ding or repair bill. For every car I've owned in 35 years of driving, there were times when sitting in the driver seat was as pleasant as sitting in a dentist chair.

Why do we lose our love for cars when we obtain the object of our desire? It's because the reality of car ownership takes away from the fun of driving. This begins with the car we choose to buy.

You'll Never Own Your Dream Car
Picture your dream car. Is it a Lamborghini? A Range Rover? A 1966 Corvette? Whatever it is, it has two major problems: It's too expensive and too impractical.

Don't buy a car you can't afford. I've seen people turn their dream car in at the bank because paying for it became a nightmare. It's heartbreaking to watch.

What's worse is wasting your money on a car that doesn't fit your needs. When I was single, my dream car was a Mazda Miata. But I also had a dream of getting married, and a two-seat sports car would be useless for someone starting a family. Reality trumped fantasy, so before my wife and I got married, I bought a 1991 Toyota Camry DX. Call the Camry the ultimate "beige car" (although ours was blue), but it fit our growing family's needs for 11 years.

Whatever car you buy is a compromise between what you need and what you want, and what you need comes first. This may mean getting a 4-cylinder engine instead of a V-6 for better gas mileage, foregoing the high-performance tires that wear out quickly and cost too much to replace, or skipping the navigation/entertainment system with the expensive monthly subscription. You'll wind up with a car that won’t quicken your pulse, but it won't raise your blood pressure either.

You’ll Never Have Fun Driving It
Car manufacturers show ads of their vehicles whizzing through test tracks and curving mountain roads. When was the last time you had a drive like that?

You’ll spend most of your driving time crawling on the freeway at 5 miles per hour as you commute to your cubicle. Your greatest driving challenge will be navigating around distracted parents lecturing their kids as they drop them off at school or getting stuck behind a 1990s Buick Roadmaster with a driver who is no hurry to get to a destination or pick a lane.

Since you skipped the expensive navigation/entertainment system, your only driving companion is FM radio with an obnoxious DJ who plays a steady rotation of Adele and Nicki Minaj and tells jokes that make you glad your kids aren’t in the car. Sure, you can plug in your iPod, until you realize that you’ve already heard those songs too many times.

This is why the best part of your drive is when you finally get out of the car.

You'll Never Stop Paying for It
Unless you're getting out of the car at a repair shop, which is where the real hell of car ownership takes place. The visits can be less hellish if you go there for routine maintenance. Skip those visits, and you'll wind up making the more hellish visits for major repairs. But regardless of the degree of hellishness, you will have to go sooner or later, and you’ll have to go more often the longer you own your car.

No matter how well you take care of your vehicle, it will get old and have more things go wrong with it. When our Camry crossed the 100,000-mile threshold, an increasing number of repairs needed to be done to it (all out of warranty, of course). It had a leaky wheel boot and transaxle problems, all of them with big repair bills. Finally, you are confronted with a kitchen table discussion as difficult as deciding to put your mother in a nursing home: should we replace the car? This only replaces the cost of maintaining your old vehicle with the cost of buying a new one. Thus, the great Circle of Spending continues.

How to Make Car Ownership Tolerable
If car ownership is a water torture of never-ending expenses and uninspiring motoring, why even own a car? Certainly, we like the convenience and freedom of being able to go wherever we want whenever we want. Since I need to have a car, I chose owning over leasing so I don’t have the additional stresses of overage and damage charges.

But the real value of car ownership comes from the memories we make in our vehicles. I don't remember anything about the performance or handling of our Camry (because, after all, it was a Camry). I still remember driving my wife to our honeymoon in it and the times we took our children home from the hospital after they were born.

My current car is a 2005 Hyundai Elantra GLS five-door hatchback, another vehicle not known for its inspired styling and road manners. However, it has a large enough trunk to carry the equipment for my son's Little League team, and its rear design allows enough room for a sticker for my daughter's high school newspaper. You won't see those qualities in any review, but those little things make that car special.

The real value of car ownership comes from the places we go, the people we take with us, and the memories we create. These make the compromises, unpleasant commutes, and endless expenses worthwhile.

Matthew Stern is the author of two books: Offline and Doria. He lives in Orange County, California.

If you have a story to tell about your vehicle or any automotive experience you want to share on V&R, contact me and we'll discuss your story to be put onto here!

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