While Japanese cars still commanded a premium in 1989, though not as much as in 1984, there were a few Asian cars that were not really on anyone’s radar. They were not bad cars, and since many were sold through the dealer channels of the Big Three, one could negotiate a really good deal.
With the Sentra now down for the count due to a required and costly transmission repair, I was tasked with finding a replacement – a task that I took on eagerly. Since Mom and Dad had just purchased a new Civic LX a few months prior, I knew where we stood on price.
I considered neither American cars nor the novel Volkswagen Fox wagon. The usual suspects meant a base model with a 4-speed manual and no power steering, and the Tercel was just too homely. My options were limited.
First up was the Ford Festiva LX, a re-badged Kia Pride built in South Korea using the tooling of the old Mazda 121. My expectations were low, but I was pleasantly surprised. It had a 5-speed manual, alloy wheels, tachometer, upgraded interior, AM/FM stereo and a few other niceties. Acceleration was better than the Sentra, with very little noise to boot. But that styling – it looked like a phone booth on wheels. I just couldn’t do it.
Next up was the Daihatsu Charade. A long-time Japanese manufacturer of small vehicles, Daihatsu commenced U.S. sales the year before. I went in looking to try out a mid-level CLS, but the salesman steered me over to one of the leftover ’88 top-line CSXs. During the test drive, he continuously talked about how much more tight these were compared to the ’89s, but everything seemed loose, with squeaks and rattles accompanying the wheezing from the three-cylinder engine. I declined the offer to test one of the ’89s. I was done, and so was Daihatsu in the U.S. by 1993. Charade has to go down in history as one of the more interesting choices of names for an automobile. I had a friend in college with the base model, and one day she drove a (small) group of us to lunch. As we approached a stop sign, I yelled, “Stop this Charade NOW!” No one laughed, sadly.
Notice how I’m taking a more measured approach than the last time I looked for a car?
I then looked at the
Mitsubishi Mirage Plymouth Colt E, which was redesigned for 1989, with Honda Civic-aping kammback styling and the wrap-around rear-window look that was then in vogue. It was a significant improvement over its vaguely egg-shaped predecessor. The “E” was the first step up from the base model, and it checked all the necessary boxes with 5-speed manual, power steering, stereo, and a cargo cover – a nice hard plastic one that raises and lowers with the hatch, not one of those cheap vinyl covers that’s fixed in place or retracts like a cheap window shade. Outside, the E added side moldings, wheel trim rings, and a reflector that bridged the expanse of space between the tail lamps.
The short test drive was positively enlightening. The fuel-injected engine was silky smooth, the shifter light and precise, and the low-effort clutch grabbed at just the right point. I expressed my interest to the salesman, but told him that it was actually my father purchasing the car, so I would have to come back on Saturday. He then handed me his card and wrote down the selling price, which was significantly below the sticker.
After sharing my adventures with Dad, he asked me why I hadn’t tested the Hyundai Excel? I told him that it was because I had read nothing good about the car, from quality to drive-ability. “You can’t just go by what you read,” he said. “You have to go down there and see for yourself.” So down there I went. Honestly, I wanted to like this mid-level GL. I was always a fan of Giugiaro’s design, especially in 3-door form. Compared to the sparse Colt, this car had all of the creature comforts plus a power moonroof. The test drive, unfortunately, confirmed everything I’d read: Slow and noisy, with a vague shifter. No amount of features was going to sell me on this car.
When my father and I went back to the dealer where I tested the Colt, we were informed that they…uh…sold that car, but had an identical car that they’d sell us for about $2,000 more. Buh bye.
Dad then asked if I had looked at the Geo Metro. “Ummmm, no. I must have…ummmm…overlooked that one.” While the Festiva and Charade were relative unknowns, the
Suzuki Cultus Chevrolet Sprint Geo Metro was the butt of a lot of jokes and the “Get To Know Geo” advertising campaign was grating. Since I was not the one buying the car, we took a drive in a red LSi 3-door, and I was determined to explore its limits. The only things I remember were the air conditioner constantly cutting out at full throttle, where you spend most of your time, and Dad being convinced we were up on two wheels at one point. A tall body, poor handling and small wheels can give one that impression.
At another Plymouth dealer, Dad took a test drive and understood why I chose the Colt. “Oh, yeah. This is nice.” Back at the desk, the sales staff wanted to play the game, and actually came within $100 of Dad’s price after about an hour. Dad never liked the game and didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of giving in, especially since there were plenty of Dodge and Plymouth dealers* around. After we walked out, the salesman came out to our car. “Are you really going to leave over $100?” “Yes.”
At Dodge, there was a white Colt E with some cheap aftermarket wheel covers. After presenting our price to the salesman, he countered with $50 more. Dad turned to me and said, “So, do you want a car?” It doesn’t get much easier than that, and a short time later we were driving home in
our his new car. I just couldn’t bring myself to ditch those wheel covers, though.
I liked the Colt, but gone were the tachometer, remote trunk/fuel fill door release, rear wiper, remote for the driver’s side mirror, and passenger side mirror. The “variable intermittent wipers” now consisted of me turning the wipers on and off at my own preferred interval. The Sentra’s nifty collapsible A-pillar antenna was replaced by a fixed mast on the passenger side front fender. Finally, the tires were puny P155/80 R13s.
There were some niceties, however. Back then, Mitsubishi made their own high-end stereo receivers. So, the sound from the four-speaker AM/FM stereo was fantastic. In addition, there was a deep console between the front seats that, when you flipped up a trick divider, turned into 2 very sizable cup holders.
From a quality standpoint, I would place the Colt between the domestics and Honda/Toyota. Since the car was fuel injected, I called the salesman to ask about the rough idle. He said that the Colt wasn’t fuel injected. Why did I bother? I had it checked out by the service department, and they, of course, found nothing wrong. I could also feel a distinct grinding under hard braking. After taking it back to the service department and waiting five hours, the service manager took it for a drive, handed me the keys, and said, “All brakes squeal sometimes.” Arrrrghhh! I couldn’t argue because I had to get to work.
This, I learned, was the biggest problem with purchasing a captive import. When I did need to bring it to the service department, I was competing with dozens and dozens of broken-down Dodges. I’m sure the introduction of Ultradrive around this time didn’t help matters much. When the alternator failed, and I was told that they would not be able to work on the car until the next day, I requested a loaner. “We don’t give loaners.” Also, the technicians didn’t have a lot of experience with Colts, and parts were rarely in inventory.
Contrast the above with Mitsubishi. According to the manual, the antenna needed to be removed before taking the car into the car wash. I couldn’t turn it with my hand. I grabbed a pair of pliers and turned and turned but it wouldn’t come off. Yeah, I was turning the base, not the mast, and was now getting no reception on the stereo. Just for fun, I called the service department at our nearest Mitsubishi dealer. “Sure, bring it down, and we’ll fix it under warranty.” Once I admitted it was a Colt and not a Mirage, he said he was sorry but the warranty was through Dodge, and they would have to charge for the work. The service adviser at Dodge just handed me the $150 estimate and waited for my OK. Oh, how I hated that dour, little service adviser.
Other issues with the car were trim pieces falling off, a shift book that prematurely wore out, and brake lights that stayed on and melted the tail lights. That last one got me pulled over one night while coming home from a club. Noting my age, dress, and it being the middle of the night, he asked me where I was coming from and if I’d had anything to drink. I mentioned that I’d only had one drink, but failed to include that it was about the size of a Big Gulp. I’m not so sure how I would have fared in a breathalyzer test, but he just let me off with a warning to get the lights fixed. Since the car was out of warranty by this time, Dad fixed the tail lamps with a soldering iron. I wish I could do stuff like that.
Aside from these issues, it was a great car that I drove all through the rest of the five-and-a-half years it took me to get my bachelor’s due to constantly switching majors. I ultimately settled on history with secondary teacher certification (this being the era of great teacher movies like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds), but student teaching taught me that this career wasn’t the best fit. I spent a good part of the following year traveling, and then my mother informed me that the free ride was over, and they’d have to start charging me rent. Strangely, I was right back where I was when I was 16 – $3,000 in the bank and no car. I wasn’t going to buy another beater, so I effectively had three choices:
- Pay the damn rent and continue driving her car (and running her errands).
- Buy a new or newer car. However, with my menial job, I then wouldn’t be able to afford to move out.
- Move someplace where I wouldn’t need a car.
Well, what would you do if your mother asked you?