Just because a car does not have a soul of its own does not mean that you can’t tell when the people behind the car are mailing it in/working just for their paycheck/trying fruitlessly to keep up with Honda and Toyota. Some cars are true to their mission statement down to the very last bolt, the very smallest spot weld. Some cars are so true to their identity that their very name (…Jeep…) comes to describe the entire class of vehicle, so honest in their presentation that they transcend time. And some cars are the 1998 Nissan Sentra Coupe- oh, excuse me, I mean 200SX. Sigh.
I originally intended to have separate entries for both of these vehicles, but I owned them for such short periods of time that I’m mashing them together into this here COAL. I guess let’s call this one a CsOAL. Also, these two vehicles were covered very recently here, so I’ll be brief. Okay, let’s get down to it. First up, The Cherokee.
At Northern Michigan University, first year students were not allowed to have a car, so when I got a place off-campus a vehicle was needed for me to get around. Not having enough money to get one on my own, I was loaned my brother’s 1991 navy blue Jeep Cherokee Laredo for an undetermined period of time. Crashing it on I-75 near Saginaw at around 11PM decided the end of my ownership of that car, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Look, the XJ Cherokee is an icon. It is the real deal, as capable as you could possibly want, and if it’s not up to your lofty standards, well, that’s why God invented the aftermarket. I am really not sure how much I can add to what’s already been said about this vehicle but let’s see what I got.
It was rough and tough, all square lines and flat planes, and I wonder now if it wasn’t the exact opposite of my Hyundai Accent with its jelly beans shape and cheerful face. It didn’t so much handle as it did amble, its tires might as well have been communicating to you from beyond the grave via psychic broadcasting her message on AM radio in a tunnel. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it did not compare well to the relative immediacy of my Hyundai. Its vagueness extended past its handling characteristics, too. My friend at college drove a slightly newer Cherokee, maybe a ’94, and his key would unlock and start mine, a process that did not work in reverse. It was fun, though, driving a car that had some character.
Since it was with me only briefly, we did not have much of a bond. My wife says that she didn’t really care for it much when we started dating. I can see why, now. Not only was it the opposite of the Hyundai in terms of styling and purpose, it was also as unromantic as the blunt way I asked her out. I guess it worked at the time, but when the Hyundai rejoined me back up north it was absolutely the right car for the job.
*sigh* I crashed it. The Cherokee was equipped with Jeep’s Selec-Trac 4WD system. This meant that in addition to high- and low-range 4WD, there was an option for full-time AWD as well. This made the 4.0 thirsty, so thirsty. What a shock that was, only 14-16 mpg compared to the Hyundai’s 30 around town. Because of this, I was afraid to use the AWD more than a handful of times when the snow started falling in December. I thought that perhaps I could save some gas that way, but I’ve since learned that it made little or no difference at all since the damage was already done by simply having the weight of the system on the car to begin with.
Then, perhaps a week before Christmas, I began my journey home. The snow slowly gave way to what I thought was rain as I traveled south. With the cruise control on and the Jeep in RWD, I was making decent time and mistakenly hoping to save a gallon or two of gas by forsaking the AWD. Then I came up on a semi truck. I signaled to follow the cars ahead of me around the truck and the back end swung the Jeep sideways down the slick highway. I sawed at the wheel, trying to be as relaxed as possible, but guys, even just writing this my pulse has quickened.
Anyway, the cars around me disappeared and we swung left and right down I-75. Finally gaining a modicum of stability, the Jeep took a final, smooth arch to the right side, making contact with the concrete barrier along the side. I sat still, shaking for several moments before getting out into the rain to check the damage. The corner was caved in, but the headlight was still on and the tire had plenty of clearance for turning. It made it home and died in my driveway, a sad sight to see as the joyful red Hyundai and I left once again for college.
Okay, now that I’ve covered my Jeep Cherokee, let’s look at another car that was with me for only four months: the 1998 Nissan Sentra Coupe- oh, uh, excuse me, 200SX SE. Well, I had the Hyundai a second time for about eight months following my destruction of the Jeep. Then I started my third year of college in Japan for a semester of study abroad at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. After I came back for the winter semester, I was once again without a car, and once again, a sibling’s car was offered up. In this case, it was my sister’s.
Look at that shade of green. I’m glad it was that color. If it was not that color, I’m pretty sure that there would be nothing memorable about that thing at all.
I don’t remember it being a particularly fast car, nor was it especially spirited on the Upper Peninsula’s curvier roads. It accelerated with a twang, like a moonshiner showing off on his banjo to a guitarist at his riverside home in really rural Georgia. Weird enough on its own, but in a Japanese car? Well, whatever, at least there was something interesting about it. The rest of it was utterly uninspired, perhaps a symptom of Nissan’s suffering during the second half of Japan’s Lost Decade.
They tried to dress it up a bit, but it just came across as a dorky kid wearing his favorite athlete’s jersey. Cheesy flat, body-color grille and a spoiler, with white-face gauges inside were simply not enough to help it compete with a contemporary Civic, or even one of the hot Neons Chrysler was making. It had fog lamps, and I remember that because it also had no ABS. I locked up the brakes on our way to school one day and steered it into a snow bank on the side of the road, bringing the littlest Nissan to a halt and covering one of the fog lamps in snow. It also had a sunroof, but I only had it in wintertime in Upper Michigan. It stayed shut.
So, eight months of motoring divided pretty evenly between two cars, a pair of cars as different as can be. I miss the Jeep, and if I had a chance, I would love to drive another XJ. Being from Toledo, I suppose I have a bit of a soft spot for them, but even so. Those Cherokees are icons. The Sentra- I mean, 200SX? It was so ill-suited to us and our lifestyle that the next car we bought usually steps in for it in my memories.
NOTE: Images from kakau.com (Jeep) and google image search (Nissan).