Saturday, August 25, 2007

Shifting Gears

It may sound like a line from a heartfelt '80s Survivor song, but the search was finally over. After three and a half months of test-driving, researching, dickering, comparing, memorizing stats from my Consumer Reports guides to 2007 model cars and figuring out potential monthly payments and their impact on my ability to guy groceries…I bought a new car on my lunch hour. And took delivery the next day.

A moment’s pause to digress. Buying a new car was the furthest thing from my mind at the beginning of the year. I loved my Subaru Forester. Four years old, it was a valiant, uncomplaining, absolute workhorse of an SUV that handled like a dream and, with its all-wheel drive, gave me bushels of false courage in treacherous weather. And in Wisconsin, there is plenty of that. Over the course of 125,000 miles, it had weathered countless blizzards, hauled thousands of pounds of horse feed, transported bikes, skis, snowboards, pets, luggage, computers, teenagers, groceries, school bags…and once covered a hundred miles in eighty-two minutes when my daughter was hospitalized in an emergency halfway across the state. It was literally my dream car—stoic, solid, utterly dependable, and built like a tank. My first totally “brand new” car, I had put every mile on it but the first eleven from the dealer, and prided myself on the little “nerd notebook” I kept in the glove compartment, detailing every regularly scheduled oil change and tire rotation. I’d even gotten the timing belts replaced when I was supposed to…though to this day I’m still not sure what a timing belt is. I looked forward to a long and happy stretch of driving it years longer until the wheels finally fell off.

Then the price of gas went to $3.50 a gallon, and there was a sudden paradigm shift in my thinking. Both old horses had gone to that great pasture in the sky (no more runs to the feed mill for a couple of hundred pounds of geezer horse chow), the last kid got both a car and a driver’s license to get himself around, and rising fuel prices were pushing the cost of driving my beloved tank to $700 a month. Since my paycheck wasn’t tied to the price of gas, something had to give.

My son came home from school to a New World Order later that day. “Honey, we’re going test driving right now!” And so the road to owning a subcompact began with a drive to a local dealership in the rain.

Many Ford, Chevy and Honda visits later, I finally settled on a Honda Sport Fit. It’s cute. It’s blue. It’s very, very tiny. And with the combination of those three qualities, it reminds me of Ellen Degeneres’ quirky fish “Dory” in Finding Nemo. I may have to buy fish scale decals for the sides…or maybe shells and seaweed. It sounds like something that runs—though in its defense quite reliably—on two “C” batteries. A wind-up key stuck to the back wouldn’t look at all out of place. I keep losing it between larger cars in the parking lot at Pick n Save…and everywhere else. My sons walked out to the garage to check out my new car the night that I brought it home, and their first question was, “where did the front go?” With a total length of only thirteen feet, probably the same place as the back.

My days of driving like I own the road are over. I will never again break away from a stop sign faster than the vehicle next to me…unless it’s a horse and buggy. I will never settle back into my seat on the interstate, singing Born to Run, thinking “hey, I wish I was back on the Autobahn!” I know my place in the food chain of vehicular traffic—it’s now down in the leaf litter of the forest floor, cautious and furtive like scurrying millipedes and mice in a National Geographic nature film, dodging the unconcerned footsteps of the larger animals towering over and plodding through. The drive home from the dealer was an exercise in caution as I tested out my new ride. In the fifty mile drive home, I never broke sixty miles an hour, and never got out of the slow lane on the four-lane highway.

Four weeks and twenty one hundred miles later, I’m considerably more at ease behind the wheel of this dainty machine. Unafraid to use the cruise control and drive with my thumbs, and accustomed to just how much lead time I need to allow when I’m merging on to the highway. A bit more confident about my maneuverability. Not yet to the point of rashness, but when I ducked around a big SUV at a concert recently without having to think twice, I felt smugly like a minnow darting nimbly around a whale shark.

I still tend to keep the speed down from what it used to be, and keep a closer eye on the bigger cars and trucks around me than I ever felt the need to do before. But every time I pull into a service station and find that “fill ’er up” means buying eight gallons of gas or less…I feel like doing a victory jig.

No comments: