COAL: 1989 Dodge Omni – My First (And Last) Brand-New Car

front quarter

[Not my car, but the right year and color. CC’s Tom Klockau found this one at a car show and wrote about it here.]

It’s July, 1989. I’m about to turn 25, and I have never owned anything but old heaps. I’ve decided it is time for me to buy my very first brand-new car. Problem was, I only had $1000 for a down payment. The photo up there tells you what I wound up buying, obviously – but as always, there’s a story…

With only a grand in my pocket and the desire for a brand-new car, I’m looking at the low end of things. There are some interesting choices, for sure, but even by the late 80s, low-end Asian cars are decidedly cheap and tinny. Here are some of the choices, along with their MSRP:

  • Chevrolet (nee GEO) Metro: $5995
  • Ford Festiva: $5699
  • Honda Civic: $6385
  • Hyundai Excel: $5499
  • Mazda 323: $6299
  • Plymouth (nee Mitsubishi) Colt: $6678
  • Subaru Justy: $5866
  • Toyota Tercel: $6328

[Source: Michigan Secretary of State website]

… and I drove them all. Each and every one felt like tin cans, with pokey 1.5-liter engines and tiny tires, some as small as 12 inch. Most of them shaved a few nickels off the price by installing 4-speed, non-overdrive transmissions, making for harsh travel at highway speeds. I was seriously underwhelmed by all except the Toyota and the Honda, both of which came with serious dealer markups.

At that point in my life, I was very much pro-American and pro-union, so I felt it was best to see what American manufacturers had to offer. General Motors was out of the game, offering only their version of the Suzuki Swift. Ford offered the Escort Pony for $6964. It felt crappier than any of the Asian-branded cars. And then there was the Dodge Omni America (aka Plymouth Horizon America), with an MSRP of $6595.

On paper, the Omni/Horizon was a clear winner. It came with 14″ tires and a fuel-injected 2.2 liter engine. I test-drove it, and it was indeed faster than the rest of the pack. In every aspect, it seemed like a better car, so I made my choice. The local Dodge dealer had a handful of stripped-out models on the lot, and with rebates and taxes and fees, it was going to cost about $7500 out the door. The deal was struck.

Then I called my insurance agent and things fell apart. Because I was under 25, full coverage insurance was going to cost more than the loan payment!Β  No way I could make that work on my meager income. My heart sank. Then my agent proceeded to tell me that if I would just wait until my birthday, the insurance would reduce by 50%!

I called the salesman and told him I had to push the sale back to August 9th. He was mad; I could hear in his voice that he wanted that sale in July to make his numbers.

Regardless, I showed up on my birthday with my (minimal) cash in hand. The salesman gave me the good news that Chrysler had added an additional $1500 rebate, making the out-the-door price just a smidgen over $6000! I felt like I hit a jackpot, and the deal was done.

interior

My first new car! No, it didn’t have any features, like a radio, a/c, or power steering, but it was all mine and it was brand new!

I drove the snot out of that car for 3 years, putting almost 60,000 miles on it. Because it had more power and taller gearing than the rest of the pack, it got great mileage, exceeding 40mpg regularly on road trips. The only failure was some long-forgotten emissions part, replaced under warranty. I worked hard, scrimped and saved, and paid my 4-year loan off in three years.

But by then, the car wasn’t doing so well. It needed tires. It needed brakes. Rattles, squeaks, and clunks had developed. I thought I might trade it in on something else. When I went shopping, I quickly learned how fast a Dodge Omni America could depreciate. Dealers offered me $600 in trade. Ouch.

A friend was in need of a car, and happily offered me $1000 for it. I took it and never looked back. It soured me on new-car depreciation for the rest of my life, and I’ve never bought another.

I put $750 in the bank, and went out and bought the finest heap $250 could buy. Tune in for that story next week.