Friday, November 18, 2005

Commuting to Work

I drive about an hour and fifteen minutes one way to work, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Now, I know there are some of you out there driving longer distances, and doing it every day besides. But I'm a person who has always made it a point to live within walking distance of work, or at least within bicycling distance. Driving for long periods other than for pleasure driving on vacations is not my idea of a good time. I end up exhausted by the end of the day, and on the drive home tend to zone out, something that doesn't seem like a good idea in heavy traffic.

I took the job because it was too good an opportunity not to take. I'd been looking for a full-time teaching position for a while, and this was a one-year contract as a sabbatical replacement. That turned into another one-year contract to replace someone else. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it'll turn into something permanent enough to warrant moving closer to the college. Even without that, the experience looks good on my resume when looking for similar positions elsewhere.

When I first took the job, our two cars were a Renault Encore, and a GMC Jimmy. Both had the quality I like most in a car, they were paid off. :-) But neither one was in any shape for regular long distance driving, and the last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the side of the road either on my way to work or my way home.

So we went car shopping.

I hate car shopping. There are far too many choices out there, and everyone wants you to buy theirs immediately, and negotiating is expected. Luckily, we had a couple of criteria to narrow down the choices: first, the car had to be comfortable for me, and second, it had to be good on gas mileage.

Comfort was important, since I was going to be in the car for long periods of time. Unfortunately, I discovered that most of what the automobile industry considers comfortable (such as lumbar support) was hideously uncomfortable for me. I actually had to start looking for cars that got bad comfort ratings online in order to find seats that I could stand.

Gas mileage was important, not only because we're environmentally conscious, but because I'd be filling up the tank quite a bit. At the time we hadn't known that gas prices would rise quite so high, but fuel cost was still an issue. We looked at the Honda Civic fact, we took it for about an hour's test drive to see how comfortable it was, and to see what the gas mileage really ended up being. Comfort-wise it wasn't bad...a bit too much support for my tastes, but adjustable enough to be okay. Mileage-wise, we averaged 45 miles per gallon for the hour, which was pretty darn good. The price tag on it was a bit steep, though, about $22K at the time.

That was more than we could comfortably pay cash for, even assuming the cash discount we could negotiate. We'd been debt-free (e.g. no mortgage, no car payments, no credit card balance, no loans) for some years, and had no interest in getting into car payments. So we went looking for cheaper alternatives. We test drove a lot of cars, and almost without exception they failed the comfort requirement. I'm not sure who does research on what sorts of comfort gizmos drivers need, but they clearly aren't using anyone like me as a subject.

We finally ended up at a Saturn dealership. We tried there for two main reasons: first, I'd seen that the Saturn Ion was rated low on comfort in an online review, and we'd heard several independent stories about people driving their Saturns past 200,000 miles. I would be putting quite a few miles on the car, and wanted one that would last. We test drove a new Saturn Ion, and finally found a seat that was comfortable for me, by virtue of not having any of the fancy ergonomic adjustments. We also liked the engineering of the car, the electric power steering was very nice (on a trip with the new car, we actually drove about 500 miles with an almost flat tire without realizing it, because the power steering compensated for it), and the dent and rust resistant side panels were also a good idea.

Unfortunately, the new Ion was also a bit out of our price range. I needed cruise control, since if I'm in charge of the speed constantly I usually end up quite a bit above the speed limit. I'd be driving enough that speeding tickets were not something I wanted to risk. To get cruise control we needed to get an extra package on the Ion, which put the price out of our comfort zone. Luckily, we found a used Ion on the same lot that had the package I wanted, and only had about 10,000 miles on it (it had been used by a rental agency).

Here's another trick to car buying...if you are buying a used car, look for cars that do not hold their value. That means you'll get the used car for a lot less than you might otherwise. For some reason Saturns don't hold their value well in the used car business, so we got about a $5K discount in exchange for 10,000 miles.

We've had the Saturn for about a year and a half now, and I've put another 30,000 miles on it. We haven't had any real problems with it. There was a glitch with the blinker which ended up being a capacitor that needed replaced, but other than that it's been a great traveling car. We've even used it for some long distance vacations instead of renting a car, and it's performed wonderfully for us.

As a side benefit, when we bought the car we noticed it came with all these child safety features. We weren't too excited about that, since we didn't have children and weren't planning on children anytime soon. Well, two months later we discovered we were going to have our first child the next summer.

Everything does tend to work out for the best.

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