(I guess obviously I'm just not done writing about the subject.)
We weren't planning on any new cars for another couple years yet. Our Saturn is a couple years old and so far (mercifully) trouble-free (well, there was a $1,500 warranty repair to the four-wheel-drive system a year ago), and I had thought the Buick would survive for another couple years of long-distance highway duty. It only had 129,000 miles on it. We hadn't budgeted for a new car, and while we could technically afford it this was not something we wanted to happen just now.
But this transmission repair would have made for $8,000 in repair bills for the Buick in four years, and I have strong suspicions that, at the very least, another wheel bearing was on its way out--another $500 or so. I know a Riviera is no Chevy Cobalt: it's a complicated car and, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, it can have problems in places the Cobalt ain't even got places. But these issues of the last four years haven't been with the auto-level air ride, or the driver's seat & mirror memory, or the heated seat (though god knows those breakages are coming); no, they've been brake jobs--three in four years--and air conditioning compressors and power window motors and wheel bearings--stuff in virtually every modern car. And so suddenly my faith in the Buick was gone, my sense that it would not deposit me in the middle of a desolate stretch of rainy Indiana night evaporated like chastity on prom night. We weighed things back and forth. Certainly, we could not buy a functional, roadworthy car--one whose history was known to us--for the $2,000 it would take to make this one functional again. But how long would that $2G keep us happy? Judging from the car's history, not long. And that $2G alone would make nine months of payments on a new car (with gas savings figured in), the wheel bearing another month and a half.
I think the final nail in the coffin was a look at those gas savings in this era when I'm needing to drive my 500 mile commute more and more. The Buick was averaging about 18 mpg overall, 22 on the highway and something over 10 in town; a fuel-efficient car could make half of its monthly payment in gas savings alone.
And so it was car shopping time (as opposed to car-shopping-with-no-intent-whatsoever-to-actually-purchase time, a subtle but meaningful distinction). As the perennial car shopper, I had a short list of cars I was pining after, but the heading of inexpensive-and-fuel-efficient was not one of my dream categories. Still, I had looked a bit at the star players in the field. About one thing I was decided: until something changes, I am done with American cars. Of my 25 cars, the Japanese variants have been markedly less troublesome than the American (roughly) half of the list. As I have stated before, I have a thing especially for Toyota, having owned six or seven of them with only a single repair worth mentioning. My Hondas have been great as well, though I've owned fewer of them, and Consumer Reports says they historically do not quite as well as Toyota over the long haul (though still leagues better than any American brand, which as a group do about as well as the Germans except for Volkswagen, which stands alone for the worst long-term reliability).
So I decided that any new car purchase would be restricted to Honda or Toyota, and if used, to Toyota only. And the search was on. We quickly learned that searching for a used Civic or Corolla was a bit of an exercise in futility, as used ones were fetching very close to new prices--a testament to their longevity and durability. Given how quickly I put miles on a car, I figured that a 50 or 60 thousand mile head start was not ideal unless one saved enough money to make repairs less traumatic down the road. And so I narrowed my search to a Toyota Corolla or the new Honda Civic, and the coolness of the Civic coupe (I'm partial to coupes, having no kids and all) made me also look at Toyota's only compact coupe, the Scion TC (the Celica is no more). So that's what the cage match came down to: Honda Civic coupe versus Scion TC.
And it came out pretty close to a wash. They're almost identical in size, have similar performance, and are both nicely appointed. The Civic is a newer and more innovative design, but I have a little partiality toward Toyota. But by the narrowest of margins I simply liked the Civic better. The Scion was cheaper by nearly $2G (under $1,500, though, if you bought the optional side curtain airbags which were standard on the Civic), but it got worse mileage by a pretty good margin--24/29 versus 30/38 on the Civic. All things factored in, the Civic worked out to be about $15 a month cheaper to own and operate and that, plus the super-friendly dealer who had given me a zillion test-drives over the years, sealed the deal.
I shan't bore with the details of the car, which can be quickly scrutinized at the Honda website. In the end I'm very glad that circumstances led me to look at smaller and more fuel-efficient things than I was otherwise drooling over, as I would have overlooked a fantastically engineered piece of machinery. It's quite roomy up front and very solid and drives like a sports car; it's very well appointed, and the interior seems distinctly above its price point; and it manages nearly 40 mpg to boot.
I'm amazed, actually!