I was 36 years old. I had a wife, two kids and a mortgage, not to mention a 120-mile daily commute. I needed to take a new approach to my car purchases. What I was doing was definitely not working…it was time to balance practicality and romanticism in car buying. As much as I wanted to be the guy with the old school Curbside Classic American iron as a daily driver, I no longer had the time, money or mechanical skills to live this dream.
My good friend and mentor Dominic gently convinced me of this and slowly persuaded me that it was time to let go of some of the hard and fast rules and prejudices I had developed in terms of my preferences when buying cars, namely: 1) Only buy American 2) All four cylinder cars are weak and underpowered 3) Avoid front wheel drive 4) Spending more than $3,000 to purchase a car is a mistake 5) With the exception of the Lexus LS 400, Acura Legend, and Acura NSX, all Japanese cars are unsafe penalty boxes. He then took me car shopping. I thought for sure this would mean a Sentra, Corolla, Civic, Neon, or Escort. I actually ended up being happy with what awaited me, a 2005 Honda Accord LX in Graphite Pearl.
The Accord was a certified pre-owned car with 44,000 miles. I was very impressed with the high quality interior. While not ostentatious, it was functional and quite comfortable. I especially liked the electroluminescent gauges which were very classy, but they did take some getting used to. Since the dashboard was always lit up, I had to remember to turn on the headlights at night! The only thing really missing was an auxiliary jack for my MP3 player.
It had the VTEC DOHC 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine with 160 hp. Handling was very good, and acceleration was not bad. However, I do remember manually downshifting a few times to improve performance which the owner’s manual said was OK to do. Remember I was coming from V8-equipped cars. When I wasn’t manually shifting, shifts with the five-speed automatic were so smooth as to be virtually undetectable. At 34 MPG, gas mileage was better than anything I’d ever owned before.
Overall, it seemed very solid and well built. One thing that was refreshing in light of my past few experiences was the fact that the car needed nothing except for oil changes and new tires. Absolutely nothing went wrong with the car. I was never in fear of it stranding me. The last time I had a car this reliable was my old Acclaim, except that the Honda was much more fun because it was peppier, more comfortable, and got better gas mileage. I also owned this car during the last few months of my Grandma’s life so it helped to not have to worry about the car failing me when I needed to get to the hospital. Because our only other car, the Caprice wagon, was ailing and no longer reliable, we ended up taking the Accord everywhere, subjecting it to frequent and heavy use where it served faithfully and reliably.
The only reason we replaced it is because frankly, we used it way too much, putting almost 40,000 miles on it a year. Another year of driving would put it over 100,000 miles . After going through some harrowing times with my last few COALs, I was a little wary of pushing my luck, especially since this was my first Honda. I do remember checking the online forums to see how reliable Accords of this generation were after 100,000 miles. At the time, they were still fairly new so there were not too many with higher mileage, like mine. Because of my inexperience with Hondas, we traded it in for next week’s COAL. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I could have easily kept it, and it would probably still be running and trouble-free today. I still miss this very refined and balanced car.
Since my wife was still driving my old Caprice wagon, it had become obvious that retiring that venerable platform was inevitable. A solution soon emerged as my in laws were upgrading their vehicles, so my wife took over their 2002 Subaru Forester and our Caprice wagon passed into history. This marked the first time in 7 years that we did not have a B-body on duty. The Forester was a well equipped S model with the Cold Weather Package, which meant heated front seats, side mirrors, and limited slip differential.
Under the hood was a 2.5 liter four-cylinder with 165 hp. I found the engine quite brawny, with very strong acceleration. At 23 MPG, gas mileage was not much better than the Caprice wagon it replaced. In addition, it had a relatively small gas tank, which limited its cruising range.
The interior, while not as comfortable as my Accord’s, was quite robust, able to withstand anything two small children could dish out. We also liked the heated front seats, a feature my Accord did not have. The frameless windows were also interesting.
While not as commodious as the Caprice wagon it was replacing, we found the cargo area spacious and versatile. There was also a power outlet in the rear cargo area. It was pretty cool, because it was the perfect place to plug in our air pump to pump up the kids’ bicycle tires, footballs and basketballs.
The two things I most appreciated about the Forester were its 7.5 inches of ground clearance and AWD capability. Indeed, we used it during many a snowstorm, and it never left us stuck, even in weather that immobilized our other cars.
In terms of maintenance and repairs, it needed the most attention at 90,000 miles. Maintenance items included the timing belt, spark plugs, transmission fluid and engine coolant. A word about the last item. These engines had a reputation for eating head gaskets if the coolant was not changed regularly and a special Subaru coolant additive added at the prescribed intervals. Many sources I have read indicated that head gasket failure was inevitable due to poor design. Thankfully, this never happened to us in the 145,000 miles that we owned it. Repair items included wheel bearings and oil leaks.
The most memorable thing that happened was when Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey in 2012. The day the storm was predicted to make landfall, I moved the car from where it was parked under an older oak tree to a space close to, but not underneath, a tall pine tree. That night, the storm arrived with a vengeance! There were sheets of torrential rain, high winds–and within ten minutes of the storm’s arrival, the loss of electrical power.
Twenty minutes later, we heard the beeping of the Subaru’s factory alarm system. We stared in shock and horror at the surreal sight outside of our window. We saw the eerie glow of the Subaru’s flashing parking lights underneath the branches and leaves of the pine tree that had fallen on top of the Forester! I immediately apologized to my wife, since I had decided to park the car in that spot–thinking that it would be out of the way of any falling trees! I immediately told her that she could have my car (next week’s COAL).
The next morning, we went outside to face the music. The photos above are exactly what we saw the first thing that morning. It did not look good. While I could not see any broken glass, it looked like the main portion of the pine tree had come cashing down on the roof of the car. We could not see the extent of the damage because it was obscured by tree branches and leaves.
New Jersey was in a state of emergency. We were without power for close to a week, gas was being rationed, trees were down everywhere, and many people were left homeless. Because of this situation, it took a few days to get anyone to remove the tree from our car. When the day finally came, we waited with bated breath as the layers of leaves, branches and the tree trunk were removed. When the last of the tree was removed, we were shocked and speechless when we saw the worst of the damage to our Subaru: a small dent in the roof and a few scratches on the roof rack. It was quite miraculous. The car was fine. We were driving it within minutes of its extraction from underneath the tree. I’m still amazed to this day!
The car served us faithfully for almost six years. I believe it stranded us only once, when the battery connections were frayed and needed replacement. When it hit the 144,000-mile mark, it needed about $2,000 worth of work. Two oxygen sensors, brake rotors and pads all around, exhaust system replacement and CV boots. Also, the second (expensive) timing belt change interval was looming just around the corner, and I was still afraid of the engine’s reputation for head gasket failure at higher mileage. In November 2014, we made the decision that it was time to move on.
These two cars were game changers. They were our first Japanese cars. They also ushered in an era of amazing vehicle reliability–a trend continued by our current vehicles, which you will read about next week.