My experience with the Taurus/Contour turned out well in the end, but I still couldn’t quite trust the Contour when all was said and done. After owning the Contour for about two years, I was ready to trade it in and be done with the whole thing. Maybe now was the time to return to Honda, or get a second Toyota after the good experience with the Camry.
It was around this time (roughly mid-1998) that a national-brand used car “superstore” opened a location near our house, and the large selection and no-haggle prices both appealed to me (savvy readers can probably figure out the specific dealership name). Other than my first car, all my other cars were purchased new, but I figured that a low-mileage used vehicle could serve our needs equally well. (And also be a bit cheaper than a new vehicle, since I was probably going to lose some money flipping the Contour before its lease was up).
I was definitely impressed by this superstore’s operations and selection. Unlike past car transactions, I didn’t feel like I was being pressured into buying anything, nor did I feel like I was about to be cheated out of a large sum of money. We looked at a number of vehicles – I test-drove a very nice 1996 Camry LE four-door that still had the original window sticker in the glove box. I was also very interested in a 1995 or 1996 Avalon XLE sedan (don’t quite remember which year) that was pearl white (some will remember when that paint color was popular). This particular Avalon had a bench seat and column shifter as a throwback to mid-80s (and before) American cars. I thought very seriously about buying this car as I liked the combination of Toyota reliability and American car aesthetics. I noticed, however, that the paint on the hood and fenders was subtly different than the rest of the car. There were no collisions listed in the car’s history, but I was a bit concerned that the front end of the car was repainted at some point, so I decided against it.
Once passing by the Toyotas, I went to the Honda section and looked at several Accords in the same body style that I’d skipped buying in several previous car transactions. I was a bit less sensitive to having the newest body style, particularly if it came with a lower price tag. The first Accord I looked at was a V-6 model. At that time, the V-6 Accord (1995-1997) required a different front clip with additional overhang ahead of the front wheels to accommodate the wider transverse engine, giving those models an odd anteater look (although the difference was subtle to the casual observer). This particular car also came with a built-in car phone from Honda that took up the DIN space under the cassette stereo. Laughably obsolete now, but this was the latest technology in 1996. The other Accord I examined was a 1996 4-cylinder 5-speed EX sedan in green, my wife’s favorite color (Eucalyptus Green Pearl, in the parlance of the sales brochure that showed this car as the example for the EX sedan). This one was more to my liking, as it had all the EX options (more powerful 145 hp 4-cylinder engine, alloy wheels, sunroof, uprated stereo with CD changer, ABS brakes, and a driver’s seat that had power adjustable height but oddly manual fore-and-aft adjustment). This car was very similar to the EX coupes that my parents had purchased in 1994 (one for my mom and one for my brother) and that I found to be very enjoyable to drive.
This EX sedan was priced reasonably well, had relatively low miles (under 30k if I recall correctly), and still had several months of factory warranty remaining. The used car superstore was ready to buy my Contour at a price that was acceptable (once I figured out that the offers to buy cars were no-haggle just like the sales prices of the used vehicles). The salesman couldn’t quite figure out why I wanted to trade in a car newer than the one I was buying. I didn’t take the time to explain the whole courtesy buyback saga that had left a bad taste in my mouth about the Contour, so he just shrugged and figured “it’s his money.”
I bought the car (no leasing for these used cars) and was initially happy with it. Although it was larger than my 1991 Accord and felt more like a mid-size car than a compact, it was responsive and fun to drive, especially with the manual transmission that was precise and easy to shift. The uprated engine in the EX (lesser 4-cylinder Accords made do with a 130 hp engine) was greatly appreciated, especially in DC traffic. The instrument panel had clear analog gauges and easy-to-access high-mounted HVAC controls – the dashboard was somewhat higher than my old ’91 Accord so there was less of a feeling of airiness than the older car, though.
I also really liked the dealer-installed integrated CD changer in the trunk – the main cassette head unit controlled the CD changer, which was much more slick than the FM-radio remote units I’d been buying for other cars. Nowadays, the idea of having to open the trunk to switch out music on a long trip seems hopelessly quaint. It’s especially outdated if there’s only one CD magazine and you have to switch out CDs – the more sophisticated mid-90s car owner had multiple magazines, but I didn’t have the money or the patience to search out the magazines compatible with the Honda changer. The car was very solid to take on long trips (as long as you had enough music in the CD changer, that is). This was around the time that Maryland introduced special license plates supporting the Chesapeake Bay, and the colors of the plate matched very nicely with the car’s green color (and clashed with the brick red exterior of my house at the time, as you see below).
It was a step backward in one way, though. I’d quickly gotten used to having a remote keyless entry system for my cars as both the Contour and the Camry had them, so it seemed suddenly ancient to have to use a key to open the doors. The Internet came to the rescue, though, with a low-cost OEM Honda keyless entry system/alarm system that was very reasonably priced. I believe this was my first attempt at locating and buying accessories online, as we’d only joined the internet revolution at home a couple of years previously (at 56k modem speeds, of course). As it was nearing Thanksgiving of 1998 and we were planning to be visiting family in Ohio anyway, I made arrangements with the Honda dealer my parents used to install the system (also at a reasonable price). With the addition of the obligatory front end mask, my Accord was finally ready to roll.
The honeymoon didn’t last long, though. The car’s mechanicals were very reliable, so the expiration of the factory warranty during my ownership period was no big deal. As with the 1994 Civic we owned, the factory green paint was fairly fragile and seemed to pick up nicks and dings pretty readily, which I didn’t really like. Also, by the time I purchased this one used, Honda had refined the next-generation Accord, and I was already liking the latest generation Camry. The Accord that seemed so up-to-date in 1994 when my mom bought hers was not nearly so slick four years later.
Looking back over the cars I have described so far, it seems that I have a pretty predictable pattern: decide to buy a new car, spend lots of time figuring out what to buy, negotiating (often poorly) for the sale, getting the car, deciding I didn’t like it, and repeating the process. The Accord was no different. Another vehicle came along that I very much wanted to own, one that was as far away from these sophisticated midsize sedans as one could get. More on that next week…