Friday, June 13, 2008

Totally Shifting to Practical

All in all the Firebird was a good car, but all good things must come to an end. In the winter of 1998/1999 my water pump went. The parking arrangements were not near a building, and one of the bolts was corroded into the block permanently. I had to buy a battery operated dremmel and cut the head off the bolt. The car was out of commission for 3 weeks. During the debacle it sat still and probably appeared unattended. Someone broke in and stole the spoiler off the back. Some of my rust repairs were incomplete through the winter. It was neither pretty nor powerful.

The following spring I was driving home from work and I thought I saw a kestrel in a tree to the left of the road. Having done my masters research on that species of bird, I was distracted for a few seconds. Unfortunately, in the intervening seconds the gray Ford Taurus in front of me decided to stop for a left hand turn. I did my best to stop. I would have swerved but by a freak chance there was a man pouring gas into his truck to the right, and oncoming traffic to the left. I had nowhere to go.

The impact was probably around 10 mph or maybe a little more. I was stunned by my own stupidity, but otherwise no one was hurt. No glass was broken. The Taurus had just a tiny scratch on the bumper... Not so with the Firebird. The bumper was crooked, and pushed back. The left fender was slightly bent. The hood was untouched and the car still drove fine, but the left headlamp no longer poped up. Repair would be mandatory to pass inspection. Then the insurance numbers came back. The front of the engine compartment was slightly bent. The cost of repair was over the value of the vehicle. It was a total.

After deductible, I had 2 grand. I was working in a sign shop making $12 an hour. I had to keep the payments down. I was paying off school loans and credit cards. My financial situation didn't leave room for lots of savings or tolerance for unpredictable large repairs. A low milage or new car seemed like a good idea if I could keep the payments under $200. I test drove a Hyundai Accent. It was an automatic, and I think my Schwinn Tornado had a bigger motor. The thought of drivng that car made me want to puke. I also specifically wanted a manual. I had learned to drive stick on the GMC 3500 utility truck at the shop, and in my dad's 1990 Miata. Though I could drive a stick, I knew I'd never really get good at it unless I owned one.

Why drive a manual? Why get really good? I of course rationalized it with "better gas milage," "Better able to take the keys from a friend if they are drunk," and "better able to handle any vehicle that I might need to use when I finally got a job doing biological field work." But inside, I also knew that I felt slightly inadequate around people who did know how to drive a stick. Also, I remembered the experience of being unable to test drive the Capri myself. If I ever was going to have a sports car later in life, driving a stick was obviously mandatory.

Luckily, I found a good deal. I found a new manual Mazda Protege that was a left over from the previous model year. Furthermore, it was an ES model which meant it had a CD player, moon roof and the 1.8L engine not the 1.6L. It also had a shifter that felt a lot like a long version of my dad's Miata. If there is one thing I've decided I like, it's the Mazda shifters. As of today, I've driven or test driven manual transmissions on a GMC 3500, Toyota Tacoma, Toyota Corrola, Mazda Miata, Mazda Protege, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, and a Lotus Elise. The best shifter was the short throw in the Miata, the Protege and the Lotus tie for second, followed closely by the 3. The trucks follow on as passable. The Corrola was clunky but usable, but the (brand new!) Impreza was just down right annoying and difficult.

The Protege was "sand" colored (fancy beige) and totally boring for looks, but it weighed in at a just over 3000 pounds. It actually had similar power to weight and acceleration to the heavier V6 automatic Firebird. Of course the cornering wasn't as good, but with the manual, it was at least as fun to drive...

Next, A Voluntary Vehicle...

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