July 12, 2012

Confession #45: I drive an old car, and that's perfectly fine

(Zac Estrada photo – Click for more photos of cars in Cuba)
The average age of the cars on the road today is 11 years old. In theory, the average car in this country could enter the sixth grade. The notion that Americans buy and sell a car every three years is completely gone. It could be the economy and continuously tight credit situations forcing people to keep their cars longer. Or it could be that cars from that era are just too good to give up.

Think about the time period these cars fall into. The late '90/early '00s time period produced some seriously good machines, a few of which haven't really been bettered by their successors. I'm starting to understand all of those people who've only owned Golf Mk2s or E39 BMWs because they say they were never beaten. Or my grandfather, great automotive philosopher he was, who searched for a car he liked better than a VW Beetle and never found one. Let's ignore that, OK?

My car is 14 years old. It looks like hell, partly the fault of my own neglect. It's developed a new problem of late that makes me think twice about making left turns in the risk of losing all of my power steering fluid. But there are no xenon lights to go out and cost me $500 a side. It's not going to cost $400 to replace the parking sensors if someone backs into me. And while it will cost me $189 to get a new key, that's far better than the lofty price tag of one of those electronic keys fitted to many cars by the middle of the 2000s. It's so simple, relative to new cars, that I'd consider working on it myself. If I had a practical bone in my body, that is.

My car, shortly after its biannual bath
I've driven newer 9-3s, BMW E46s and E90s, newer C-Classes and a Lexus IS250. They're nice cars, all of them. But there are a few things they can't do better than my aged 900. There are no hatches for me to easily throw a bike in. All of them, especially the IS, are tough to see out of. And they all feel kind of disconnected from the road, including the BMWs. My car communicates information through torque steer, but at least it's laugh-inducing.

Sure, there are faults with some of the tech in 11-year-old cars. If you've turned on the navigation system in a similarly aged Range Rover, you'll be reminded that we used to accept graphics that look like Etch-A-Sketch drawings. Keyless Go was fun when it first came out on Mercedes cars this time last decade – when it worked, that is.

In Europe, the increasing car age has certain groups worried about things like safety and emissions. In the UK, the average age of a car is more than 7 years old, no doubt significantly lower than it would be had it not been for the scrappage schemes of a few years ago. And the scrappage, or Cash for Clunkers in the States, basically resulted in fewer cheap used cars and more people buying new Hyundais and Kias. How is that helping the environment? It isn't. And as much as the auto industry wants you to buy a new car, ask yourself if this new car is actually any better than your 11-year-old one.