Saturday, August 04, 2007

Car dreams

I like cars. In part, it's probably the influence of my sister and brother-in-law, who have amassed a small collection of cars (the ones they drive regularly, plus an MG Midget, a restored Toyata Land Cruiser, and a soon-to-be-restored round-shouldered 1956 truck).

Their two young sons started down the car-collection road early. By the time he was 2, the 8-year-old could identify practically every make and model on the road...from a distance...and by the headlights alone at night. Yup, he's a car prodigy. He has hundreds of Matchbox cars, and his younger brother, now 4, isn't far behind.

I'm more of a wanna-be car lover. I learned to drive on my mother's 1966 VW bug, a great little car. After she'd had it a few years, she put some daisy decals on it (hey, it was the '60s!) and eventually let me paint it with flowers and vines.

When I was in high school, I wanted (but never got) one of those rounded 1960s Volvo sedans as my first car. In college, I lusted after an MGB-GT (the one with the hatch...I do have a practical streak). Instead, my first car was a 1972 Subaru FF-1 wagon, the first front-wheel-drive vehicle from Japan. It was a nasty gold color (my grandmother once described it as "shit brindle"), certainly not the most attractive vehicle I've ever owned, but eminently practical. I used it to haul bags of grain for my horse, and to move all my college-era belongings from one apartment to another. It was not the most reliable vehicle I've ever owned...but that's another story.

After that, I owned a string of cheap, (mostly) small cars...a Datsun (210?) hatchback that rode like a duck in choppy water, a couple of Mazda GLC hatchbacks (the first one got totaled, so I bought another), and a 1987 Nissan Stanza that was so underpowered it could hardly get out of it's own way, followed by a used Madza 626 with the same problem (you'd think I'd learn!). Now I drive a 2001 VW Golf 1.8 turbo, an antidote to all those years of anemic autos.

I'm considering getting a Mini Cooper S...which, come to think of it, looks a bit like an MGB-GT. (The more things change, as the saying goes, the more they stay the same.)

I guess you could consider this my mid-life crisis car...not that I'm having a mid-life crisis, mind you. But now that I'm in my mid-50s, I figure it's probably my last chance to own a really fun, peppy little know, while I can still get in and out of it without requiring assistance.

So lately I've been looking at car stats and reading reviews in Consumer Reports and elsewhere...which is what prompted this post. The immediate impetus: reading a fun review of the Scion XB, a homely little vehicle I have no desire to drive, in this morning's SF Chronicle.

Now you probably don't think of car reviews when you think of great writing, but this review by Dan Neil of the LA Times is masterfully written and highly entertaining. Here are the two opening paragraphs (once you get started, I'm sure you'll want to read the rest):
I suppose others have a more highly refined sense of aesthetics, but I just can't get behind the debate over the old vs. new Scion xB, the funky five-seat space wagon sold by Toyota's Gen Y-oriented brand. Aren't they both ugly?

Really. If you're serving, say, warthog for dinner - juicy, succulent, fall-off-the-tusk warthog - do you fret the relative pulchritude of warthog A compared to warthog xB? So it hardly matters if the redesigned car is more or less visually appealing than the original (model years 2004 to 2006). They both make babies cry. (Click here to continue reading....)

I'm not the only one who thinks Neil is a good writer. In 2004, he received a Pulitzer Prize for his "his one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles, blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations." If you love cars, or even if you don't, check it out.

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