Monday, October 6, 2008

 

Our first car

Guys like to talk about cars. Ever so often when travelling and meeting colleagues abroad, I would get asked what car I drive, and then the conversation shifted to quality of life and how great living in city where public transport actually works would be. For more than twenty years, the network of buses, trams and the underground served us well and still does.

“So you don't drive?” would often be the next question. I do drive, and have accumulated thousands of kilometres on the road on business and holiday trips, with more than 70 car rentals over the years. I also signed up for car sharing a few years ago and enjoyed the convenience of having access to a wide range of vehicles within walking distance from my home.

In 1993 I rented my first car in Vienna for the relocation from the dorm to my apartment. Moving the few belongings back then took multiple trips, and we spent all day moving boxes.

Most of my initial driving experience, oddly enough, was on the left side of the road. While consolidating our European Web hosting infrastructure in North Harbour, I travelled to the UK frequently. The first time I was scared to death, but driving on the left side turned out to be less challenging than I had expected, with the notable exception of multilane roundabouts which I still find tricky. Only once on a business trip to Mulhaddart near Dublin I got onto the wrong side of the road after exiting a petrol station. Fortunately traffic was low and I realized the mistake and changed lanes when I saw a car approaching on “my” lane.

Driving in Australia in 1998 added another challenge: Driving on the left side of the road was easy, I had enough practice with that, but Australian cars also have the controls for wipers and indicators exchanged. I don't want to know how many times I switched the wipers on when making a turn, on a perfectly sunny day.

Did I mention guys care about cars? In August 1999, when the weather forecast for the UK left little hope for clear sight of the total solar eclipse, our friend and hobby astronomer Gurbir Singh decided to abandon the camping ground in the UK and instead take a flight to Austria. Now we had a reason to get serious about eclipse watching! We agreed to meet in Pinkafeld, I bought a tele lens for my camera and a tripod, made reservations at the high school dorm, and ordered a car from Hertz.

Fortunately their reservation system didn't check for availability. When I arrived at the counter a slightly grouchy clerk told me they had to pick up the car from another location first but they would have a car for me shortly. The side effect was that we got a free upgrade. Gurbir liked the car too and acknowledged that working at IBM seemed to pay off if we could afford the latest Volvo model. I think that he was mildly shocked when I mentioned we had rented and didn't actually own a car.

We had a great day in Pinkafeld, finding a good watching spot, (not) learning to juggle, waiting for the wonder of nature. The eclipse was fascinating; everything seemed so calm and peaceful, even the birds turned silent.

On our tour through the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, in 2002 something was wrong with our car's theft control, and the car would often refuse to start immediately and require a few tries. No big deal, only once when we were waiting in a long line to board a ferry and the car wouldn't start it was slightly embarrassing. Towards the end of our trip, our vehicle was clamped by the police on Neringa for stopping briefly next to the tourist office(!) Too bad I forgot to take a picture of my first and last clamping so far.

It was on our honeymoon trip to Mauritius in 2005 where we got the smallest car ever, which was fine for day trips without luggage and quite convenient on the narrow roads. We also learned the art of bargaining with car rental staff there. On the first rental, we paid the quoted price minus a “special discount”. The next day, we claimed our customer loyalty bonus and got another discount. On the third rental we appealed to the renter's slogan “We try harder” for an even better deal. The savings weren't substantial, but the bargaining was fun. Of course, for less than the cost of the car alone we could have hired a taxi driver to take us around all day long, but we preferred touring the island on our own.

Fast forward to 2008.

This morning I picked up our new car from the dealer. Our first car. From our renting experiences we pretty much knew what we wanted, a large van, removable extra seats, and reasonable fuel efficiency. We had rented a Seat Alhambra last summer for our trip to Vorarlberg and had been pleased with the vehicle. Our choice fell to the comparable Volkswagen Sharan in the BlueMotion version, which has improved fuel efficiency—6 l/100 km, or 39.2 mpg (US)—and reduced emissions.



What happened to the couple that happily lived for many years without owning a car? Getting suitable cars had become increasingly difficult, especially around public holidays. Car sizes vary, and ordering a full-size wagon doesn't guarantee you can easily accommodate all passengers and luggage; we once even had to uninvite a friend who was planning to hitch a ride with us. More than once the clerk at the rental company was trying to please me with an upgrade to a luxury car and was disappointed when I only cared about the size of the trunk. No matter how nice a Mercedes E class may be (and it has a fairly big trunk), when it comes to fitting two child seats, two strollers and a few suitcases, there's nothing like a van.

Also we will soon move to a residential area with more distant grocery stores, less frequent public transport connections, and no car sharing station nearby. While I plan to use public transport often still, the car will be convenient for occasional tours to the shopping mall, picking up construction material and furniture, and the like.

So next time someone asks me the question, I will have a different answer.

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Comments:
Congratulations.

'Course now you get all of the other fun we don't talk about with owning a car: maintenance, dents, insurance.

When we replaced our car last year (2008 Lexus Rx400h for 2002 Acura (Honda) MDX) we spent close to a year debating whether or not we really needed a new car or if we could make do with rentals from Hertz or car sharing through Zipcar.

We drive so little it seemed silly to buy a car (and pay for garaging it, US$400/month) but almost all of the driving we do is > 300km which rules out Zipcars (which are not generally good for us anyway since they prohibit carrying dogs). Hertz rentals are an option but they charge a premium for city rentals and you never know what you're going to get (and a penalty for cleaning up after said fluffy dogs).

So we ended up buying (and an SUV though a hybrid one since we found that the dogs don't fit into the bag seats of most mid-size US sedans).

Enjoy the car. I suggest after about a month pick a spot and give it its first ding (maybe it's just an NYC thing but I just assume that even a car in excellent condition is going to have lots of dings in the fenders and the bumpers…the bumpers will be used frequently).

I assume you'll send all of us your new address once you've settled in? I don't think I'll be able to help with the move unfortunately.
 
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