A Road Trip Down Memory Lane
Let me start this post by strolling down memory lane and fondly reminiscing over the cars of my life. I will briefly mention the cars my parents owned as well but they were very “cars as appliance” type individuals. I will only mention cars that I actually drove, and not the cars my parents owned that I did not drive. While I love cars, I wouldn’t describe myself as a typical car enthusiast. While the definition is broad enough, and I certainly check many of the boxes, I consider myself more of a car purist. While there’s no denying the technological advancements that have taken place in the automotive engineering, cars frequently lack character. Moreover, automotive journalists frequently don’t own cars anymore and are shuttled from one press car to another, never allowing them to develop a truly meaningful relationship with the vehicle. Their impressions of cars demand that auto makers not take unnecessary risks and conform to a conservative designs and implementation. This is to say nothing of the SUV/CUV revolution, driven by the American car consumer (the worst), which is ruining the development and investment in other vehicle platforms. I admit that modern cars are safer, more fuel efficient, and more loaded with technology than ever before, but at what cost?
1992 Toyota Corolla
The sixth generation Corolla, known as the Corolla E90 debuted in 1988. The engine options were all flavors of their 1.6L four-banger, the HP ranged from 95-115 and while I don’t recall exactly which model trim we had, I do remember the acceleration being gutless. This car was truly an appliance for getting from A to B but it was certainly reliable and we got it for cheap.
This car eventually met its demise at 191k miles as the automatic transmission started slipping and would dangerously drop into neutral from drive. I learned to drive in this car but was never really attached, it lacked spirit and needed a steep downhill to get real speed.
1998 Toyota Sienna
The 1998 Toyota Sienna was my parents’ car and the first one they bought new. They took meticulous car of it and with one engine rebuild (at around 200k), the car is still running! This car is 22 years old and has been converted to a work truck by my dad. I only drove the car on occasion but I remember it being surprisingly peppy. The 3.0L V6 made pretty decent power but the van is obviously massive and handled like it.
1996 Nissan Maxima
My parents bought me this beauty of a car after the Corolla gave out. They got a great deal from a family friend and the car came well maintained, and with 110k miles on the clock, practically brand new. This fourth-gen Maxima came with the 2L VQ20DE V6 engine made about 150 HP with 140 lb-ft at optimal RPMs but certainly felt more substantial than any car I had driven before. I know, it’s not the 3L VQ30DE V6 but beggars can’t be choosers.
Unfortunately, I did the car a grave injustice when I totalled it on prom night of my senior year. I was following a Lexus RX to our pre-prom destination. We arrived at an angled intersection with a stop sign, coming down from a hill. Naturally, he stopped at the intersection and I began to slowdown in anticipation of the stop sign. When I saw the car in front of me ease off their brakes and depart, I assumed they were making the turn so I turned my head to the left to look for oncoming traffic. BAM. I rear-ended the car in front of me as I was slowing to a stop. I understand that this was entirely my fault, I should not have looked for oncoming traffic until after I had come to a dead stop, but in my defense, I didn’t expect the driver in front of me to begin turning, then suddenly stop mid way. It’s not like they hadn’t moved at all, they were practically in the middle of the lane already. Excuses aside, I still kick myself to do this day over this bone-headed mistake and loss.
1993 Honda Accord
After I totalled the Maxima, I wasn’t allowed a car for a while. That was fine since I was about to go to University and would be living on-campus anyways. As my freshman year drew closer to an end, I joined a group called “College Works Painting” or something like that. I’m still not sure if they were legit or not but the idea was that you would go out canvassing in the spring across a town, soliciting business for painting jobs. You would learn how to make estimates, what the scope of the work was, how to do the sanding, scraping, priming, painting, and then when you had the jobs lined up, you would hire a crew and complete them over the summer. This job required a car as my “territory” was in eastern MA and my school was in western MA. For a month or two, I would need to drive back home every weekend to solicit sales, before going to back to school for class the following week. This necessitated a car and I got a 1993 Honda Accord with about 180k on the clock. Honestly, I was grateful just to have a car again but to get an Accord was truly a treat. Sure, the 2.0L F20A I4 engine was not as exciting as the Maxima, but it was still a really fun car to drive. At this point, I’ve only ever driven automatics. I had a few lessons with friends on their manual transmissions but I was not considered good or even passable at this point. I would not experience the joys of manual transmission until much later in my life.
The Accord stayed with me throughout college and really served me well. With minimal maintenance, the car ran great until after I graduated. At that point, the car developed a coolant leak that would drain the coolant faster than I could replace it. I never found the source of the leak but it got to a point where I had to put coolant in any time I wanted to drive the car. Definitely an untenable situation. The car was still registered under my father’s name and owning a car in Boston/Brookline was a pain in the ass anyways. He donated the car to charity and for the first time in a long time, I was without wheels.
2002 Honda Civic
In 2015, I moved out of the greater boston area but still worked in the Longwood Medical Area. At first, I took the commuter rail and green line and continued commuting to work. However, I shortly thereafter got a new job which was on the second shift and would require me to drive in to work. I leapt at the opportunity to buy a car. I only had about $3000-4000 to spend on a vehicle but I already knew what I wanted. I was going to buy a Honda Civic, manual transmission, and so I did.
I paid $3300 for this car, it came with 101k miles on the clock and admittedly was in need of some love. I immediately did an oil change and a full inspection and found out that the water pump and timing belt would need to be replaced. Factory recommends doing it at 100k and the previous owner had not done it yet. I dished out the cash for that, and also some more to get the AC fixed (I couldn’t test it because I bought it in the winter). Driving the car home from the dealer was probably the scariest experience of my life. I understood how manual transmission worked and I had experience operating them in parking lots, but this was my first real-life usage and I was nervous. I was hyper aware since the movements and inputs were very foreign to me. I was able to get home with no issues and the first thing I did was go to a parking lot and practice for 3 hours. Over the next 3 months, I slowly improved my mastery of the manual transmission, or at least this one.
The car remained running and comfortable for another 15,000 miles, no problem. With regular oil changes, I encountered no problems until a small leak developed at the top of the windshield, where it meets the roof. The part of the roof life that secured the windshield was rusting through. As a result, the windshield was not firm and water would leak into the cabin. Once again, I dished out to get this fixed and the windshield replaced. At this point, I also splurged on some new wheels and tires which really improved the car’s fun factor. Another 10k miles passed with no issues, then suddenly, the car throws a CEL. I read the codes and discover there is a misfiring cylinder and some V-TEC related code which I had encountered before (usually resolves with an oil top off). I bought new spark plugs and ignition coils and swapped them in. Less than a week later, a negligent driver came into my lane and scraped the full length of the car.
I ended up getting $3400 out of the insurance settlement and was able to salvage the wheels and tires before donating the car to charity. At this point, I had already bought my wife a car so I was not without wheels but I was certainly missing my baby.
2016 Ford Fiesta
I bought this car for my wife when she was pregnant with Dara. This was around Feburary, 2018, and I made a huge blunder when researching this car. When I research cars for fun, there are usual a few criteria that I consider mandatory. Among those, are the manual transmission. My wife doesn’t drive stick, it terrifies her and our lessons have yielded a mixed bag of results. When I embarked on this vehicle search, all the reviews I read were for the manual transmission version of these cars. From that perspective, the 2016 Ford Fiesta is all you could ask for. Cheap, economical, fuel-friendly, light-weight, hatchback for practicality, everything. Unfortunately, the automatic transmission, a janky dry-clutch DCT was embattled and undergoing class action litigation. Ford essentially designed this transmission, knew there were issues, then proceeded to deploy them to their Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus fleets for YEARS. In fact, an entire generation of Ford Fiestas and Ford Focuses are plagued with various transmission related issues. Anyways, this is the car I bought. We paid $8000 for it and it came with 39k on the clock. It was such a great deal that I did not stop to consider why. Another fun fact, we bought this car from Hertz used car sales. It’s essentially where Hertz goes to retire their fleet. It was the first time I had bought from a car rental company but the experience was good and the deal was even better. Plus, I know they at least did their regularly scheduled maintenance.
That being said, I’ve not personally encountered any transmission issues. Sure, it shudders a bit when starting from a stop and can feel jerky at slow speeds but otherwise, it’s totally fine. The car is also so small it can fit anywhere and corners surprisingly well. The chassis is incredibly stiff and you do get beatup more than you’d probably like. The cabin is plastic heaven and rattles a lot. The interior is just an eyesore in general and we still cannot get the Ford Sync system to work.
2018 Volkswagen Golf
Last but not least, we get my current car, the 2018 Golf S. This was my first introduction to a German car and I was pleasantly surprised. I test drove a few different cars before deciding on this one and I think what really sold it for me was the combination of handsome but not overstated exterior (normal sized grill is a huge plus), smooth pulling engine, the manual transmission feel, and the understated and simple interior. Android Auto was a cool feature that I did not care about at first but have since come to love. I also didn’t care for the rear-view camera but that was mandated and I actually do find it helpful. I opted for the lowest trim level to avoid all the intrusive driver assist features like blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, and collision intervention. It’s really become an arms race where automakers are making more and more technology to assist the driver and keep them safe, while also introducing touch screens and other technologies to distract drivers. Honestly, just get rid of all the distractions and we wouldn’t need those stupid safety features. You should be monitoring your own blind spot and if you don’t, then you will learn a very hard lesson.
So what tasteful modifications have I made to this car? Well for starters, the shifter felt incredibly light and cheap. I replaced it with a Black Forest Industries shift knob, significantly improving the feel of the shifter.
I then pulled out the clutch delay valve, a small plastic insert in the slave cylinder of the clutch which delays the clutch fluid and subsequently, the clutch action. This is an attempt to smooth out the engagement and reduce shock to the drive train and was invented to help non-manual transmission drivers not ruin their cars. It is a stupid invention since anyone purchasing a manual transmission will know how to properly drive one. The only thing this did was make the clutch engagement point vague and make it impossible to engage quickly on a hill since the CDV would not let the clutch grab quickly enough so you were always stuck slipping it for way too long or stalling. This was removed and I then got a tint all around.
Lastly, I got an APR Stage 1 tune to bump the power output from 170 HP -> 234 HP and from 185 lb-ft -> 273 lb-ft. The end result is that the car is now a total sleeper and quicker than most GTIs. Of course, my stock summer tires are garbage and I spend a lot of time activating the traction control. It’s just too much power for the stock wheels so that will likely be my next upgrade. Along with this ugprade, I installed a pedal spacer to lift the gas pedal vertically to bring it closer to the brake pedal height. Most people would see this as a stupid upgrade but I consider myself a very technical driver and employ techniques like heel-toe downshifting when appropriate. This technique was impossible with the stock pedal configuration but this little machined piece was installed with a single screw and really made heel-toe downshifts possible.
A few thoughts on the mk7 golf. The car is incredibly refined and has a very quiet and comfortable ride. The large windshield and visibility throughout are huge pluses as many cars favor tiny greenhouses and small windows in the name of fashionable design. The engine pulls great but I really miss natural aspiration. The power builds linearly from 2k to 5k RPMs before the turbo poops out and the power dies, short of redline. I miss having the power band be between 4k-6k so you could drive the car normally, then downshift to go nuts. There really isn’t a need to downshift in the golf since you are getting max torque so early. The 5-speed transmission is also missing a gear and the gear spacing is just terrible. First, second, and third, are all so far apart, it becomes difficult to shift quickly since you have to wait for the revs to drop substantially before re-engaging the clutch. Otherwise, the car has treated me well and I’ve really enjoyed it. Precise steering, peppy engine, luxe feel, and a $19,000 purchase price (brand new) have kept me satiated but I’m starting to realize it was never my dream to have a nice car. I haven’t gotten bored of this car but my natural curiosity and desire to explore and experience different cars has got me back to researching cars despite having no plans to buy for the next several years. This post is long enough so I will continue with my short-list (long) of “dream” cars in part 2.