Both my wife and I brought sporty little coupes to our marriage, and we enjoyed the young-and-free two-door image almost as much as we enjoyed owning two paid-for cars. So when our first son came, we lived with contorting ourselves in order to get his car seat in and out of the back. But when we started talking about having another baby, we knew that one of us would have to leave the coupe life behind: There wouldn’t be room enough for two car seats and my 13-year-old stepson! It was time for us to buy a family car.
I can’t remember how we decided who would give up their coupe. If it was by coin toss, I called it wrong because I found myself test-driving cars. My Beretta had rolled past 150,000 miles and was pretty used up anyway–or at least, that’s what I told myself so I could feel better about it.
The obvious choice for our growing family was a minivan, but that would have been too beige, too bourgeois, for my fiercely nonconformist family. I test-drove a couple SUVs–they hadn’t yet replaced minivans as the suburban soccer family’s choice–but I didn’t enjoy their rough handling and poor gas mileage. Scratching minivans and SUVs off the list left few options. I wasn’t wowed when I test-drove a 1996 Mercury Sable wagon, but it offered the space we needed. A little, rear-facing seat even folded out of the cargo floor in case my stepson needed a respite from his siblings. And wagons had been out of favor for so long, I thought owning one might seem retro. “This won’t be so bad,” I told myself as I signed the loan papers.
It wasn’t all bad. Say what you will about the styling of this generation of Sable and Taurus, but I sort of liked it, and thought the wagon was its best expression. And I thought the swoopy dashboard was pretty neat, although there were some nasty gaps and the materials reeked of cheap. I also thought the front-seat side bolsters were spaced way too far apart–I must have been thinner than this car’s target buyer.
Its three-liter Vulcan V6 engine put out lots of power, or at least it felt that way after so many years of driving economy cars. It cruised comfortably on the highway, which we enjoyed when we drove it 20 hours to San Antonio to visit my wife’s family one Thanksgiving. It wasn’t a sporty handler; the car leaned and the tires roared when you threw it into a corner, but at least it didn’t wallow under normal handling. It was remarkably composed in the snow–a prized trait in Indiana. And I loved how I could carry darn near anything in its cavernous way-back.
But it was a lemon. First the head gasket blew, lightening my wallet by $1,200. Six months later, a freeze plug blew. The lowly freeze plug is designed to pop out when too much pressure builds in the cooling system so the engine block doesn’t crack. The idea is that it’s cheaper to replace a six-dollar freeze plug than an entire engine: Good thinking, but unfortunately the one that popped could be reached only by dropping the engine out of the car, which cost $1,300 in labor. As I wrote the check, my mechanic warned me, “These Sables, once they get cooling system problems, they never seem to get rid of them. You’ll keep dumping money into repairs. I’d get rid of this car if I were you.”
I did, right away. My wife, whose old Corolla had rolled for 175,000 trouble-free miles, urged, “Just buy a Toyota. You won’t regret it.” I kept hoping to find a Camry wagon, but had no luck. Dealer lots were lousy with used Sienna minivans, though.
Steeling myself for the inevitable, I decided that if I was going to drive such an ignoble vehicle it was going to be the finest one available. My 1998 Sienna had almost every option – power windows and locks, leather, sunroof, first- and second-row captain’s chairs, alloy wheels, dual sliding side doors (not powered) and a premium sound system. This minivan was more comfortable than my living room! Of course, I paid for all that comfort: The Sienna was–by a huge margin–the most expensive vehicle I’ve ever owned.
And I hated it. Oh, it was comfortable, all right, and as reliable as death and taxes. But this was the most personality-challenged car I’ve ever owned. No matter how hard you stomped on the gas, acceleration was leisurely. The steering was Novocaine-numb. It wallowed around corners, and felt floaty on the highway. The only excitement behind the wheel came in the snow or rain, where it struggled to keep traction and sometimes was frightening to drive. And while it got decent gas mileage among minivans, I hated how often I had to fill up this seven-passenger vehicle that I drove alone 90 percent of the time.
Along the way, my wife traded her Corolla on a new Toyota Matrix. Then she decided she wanted a new Prius. It wasn’t the brightest move I’ve ever made, because by then we were clearly headed for divorce; but I sold the Sienna, bought her the Prius and took her little red Matrix. I wasn’t thrilled to be driving around in a car that always reminded me of my soon-to-be-ex-wife, but I was very happy to finally drive a little economy car again. Its story is next.
That Sable wagon was the hot ticket in the 80s. The daycare parking lot was full of them. She who must be obeyed demanded that Chrysler minivan for us though.
I suppose the statute of limitations have run out so here goes…..In my previous life I was the Chief Engineer at a Coast Guard small boat station. A crew of 13 people of various paygrades worked under me. Our job was to ensure the fleet of small boats were maintained so they were ready for sea at any time. While not wrenching on the boats, my mechanics served as boat engineers on these boats while in the performance of CG underway missions. The age group of the engineering crew was diverse, from 19 to mid thirties…..
One day it was announced that all station members were to recieve a credit card, one to be used while away from the station on temporary additonal duty (TAD) orders, such as training schools or support missions away from the parent station. The old method for collecting travel pay was done by submitting a typed claim form with receipts. This was a rather extensive and laborious process that took about a month or so for one to collect a check for those travel expenses incurred. The individual credit card, however, was going to streamline that process! I had my suspicions this was not a good idea, especially since every member maintained possession of the card at all times. I kind of thought to myself that at the least, these cards should be locked up in the main station, but, hey, who was I to say anything? 🙂
One day after coming into work, settling down to another day of the usual daily routine, shuffling a boat maintenance report here or there, one of the senior boatswain mates walks into my office to deliver the news. I’ll not forget the bemused look on his face….
One of my boys had gone to the local Ford dealer in his hometown area and bought a used Ford Taurus station wagen, not unlike it’s Mercury sibling shown here. With his government issued travel credit card. Actually, I believe he went to the dealer on 2 separate occasions as he probably exceeded the daily allowed limit on his first visit. And that is why to this day, I will always look at these wagens in a different light then most folks do. And chuckle inside for that memory of a few years back! 🙂
Great story. Hey, the guy did use the card on something related to travel…
Ah yes, the joy of car seats in 2 door cars. If it makes you feel better, a bigger 2 door would not have been any better. I occasionally wrestled 2 car seats into the back of a 2 door 1984 Olds 98 Regency. It was still a bitch – one foot in on the back seat floor, the other outside on the ground, squat down in front of the back seat and belt the car seat down. Then go around to the other side and repeat.
I tried the big sedan for awhile when we were still at 2 kids – hey, hadn’t our parents used big sedans as family cars? After a trip to Texas and back, I was converted and started shopping for vans. Screw minivans, though, it would be a Club Wagon for me. Go big or go home. 🙂
I have a neighbor who had a Taurus wagon for quite awhile, and had been really happy with it. I would be very happy with one now, but with kids and their friends and ball games, etc, I wanted all the room I could get.
A couple of years ago, I was considering an older used Sienna. It seems that these Siennas may have been the best “old used minivans” on the market. The Hondas and Chryslers chewed up trannys, the Windstars chewed up everything, and the others were mostly too small. Used Siennas are really expensive, however. I stumbled on a Chrysler for the right price, and came to really like it.
I considered a full-sized Ford van for a while, but let’s just say that in my story above I significantly underplayed how much my wife insisted I buy a Toyota. Keeping the peace and all that.
In 2011 I rented a Sienna for a family trip and it was 5 times the vehicle, as a driver, that my 98 was. It was still a minivan, but it had good pickup and much more precise handling.
My dad owned nothing but two-door cars while I was growing up. However, a ’71 Impala is a far cry from an ’89 Beretta as a family hauler.
Coupes actually used to outsell sedans in many car lines. The drop off in coupe sales is probably related some to the universal adoption of mandatory child seat laws. When my daughter was born in 1984 I had an ’80 Firebird. Not for long. Not only was the child seat just about impossible to fit in the back, a moderate-sized stroller would not fit in the trunk — and strollers then were significantly less bulky than they are now.
I’m currently renting a Peugeot 5008 while holidaying in the UK. It’s a great vehicle, drives really nicely, good equipment levels, seats 7. Works really well for us right now, but once you flip up the seats in the boot you have zero space for luggage. That’s the disadvantage of having a car-shaped family vehicle. For that reason only, I couldn’t live with it full time. My 20 year old town ace seats 8, plus still has a big trunk. And if I lay the seats flat, I can get a full-size sheet of plasterboard in the back. Luckily I enjoy the “leisurely” performance from the 2 litre diesel.
Minivans- the automotive equivalent of granny panties. Ugh.
Call me old-school, but I’d rather have a good, used Lexus LS460L as my “family” vehicle.
Nearly Camry reliable and plenty of room for kid seats in the back, and that wonderful Lexus V8. Great family car.
Jim, your description of the Sienna perfectly describes my feelings for my 2nd Corolla, my 2006. While the ’89 was a hoot to drive, the ’06 is about as exciting as listening to Muzak in the dentist chair. Oh, it’s as reliable as the sun, just soul numbing to drive.
I seem to remember reading somewhere on TTAC that starting in the mid 90s, Toyota deliberately engineered all of the objectionable and offensive traits out of their vehicles. However, they never designed IN fun and exciting traits, so Toyota’s have become bland transportation pods over the last 15 years or so – as I found out when I bought my ’06 Corolla 7 years ago.
And BTW, I’m sorry for your divorce.
Thanks. The divorce was best for all of us.
My mother was right: marry a virgin. Stepchildren are just other people’s bastards. Mine is 54 years old, still crazy, still a bitch.
(I had owned a Pervia around then. Actually very good car but stupid for just two people. MPG was about the same as a Mustang V8.)
@dastanley: I totally agree with you. When new car shopping several months ago, I test drove a 2012 Camry SE just for the heck of it (my previous car was a Toyota Highlander). It drove like a golf cart. On the inside it felt like I was in a cheap, hard plastic death chamber. The faux suede/leatherette seats didn’t do it for me either. Needless to say, I didn’t purchase a new Toyota.
I do have much love for those last 2 generations of midsize Taurus/Sable. Ubiquitous as bellybuttons, fairly reliable, carry 4 people and their luggage in comfort. Just an American family car not trying to be anything its not.
I think often of buying one just to have something quiet and comfortable to drive for a very low price.
Agreed. Oh, if mine had only not had its problems. I’d’ve driven it into the ground. It wasn’t a fabulous car, just honest and straightforward and I liked that about it.
Yeah, it seems the first run of the Taurus/Sables had lots of teething issues.
Fortunately, mine seems to be humming along quite well; at almost sixteen years old it still puts a smile on my face, and not just because I upgraded the audio.
You’re right about their prowess in the snow. I love passing all the 4×4 or awd Suvs on the highway during inclement weather; the look on the drivers faces is priceless.
I can’t ever recall riding in a Sable/Taurus wagon of any generation, though I’ve ridden in numerous sedan versions. I do agree with you that the ’96-’99 wagons looked better than the sedans. There was always something intriguing about their shape.
I have ridden in first-gen Siennas and hated them. They were such awkward vehicles, even for minivans. I recall the radio being near floor level; requiring the driver to lean down to change the station.
I definitely agree about the Sienna. We used my friend’s 1st gen Sienna for a 2 week trip to Vancouver Island from Oklahoma. It was great for the passengers, as any minivan would be. But loaded down with 4 college age guys and all their gear to camp for 2 weeks, driving it was an absolute terror on the highway. The slightest curves on the interstate would have you white knuckled as the van felt like it would flip or slide with the steering wheel at anything other than dead ahead.
I’ll stick with my wagons for schlepping gear and the dogs anyday…
Remember the infamous Firestone tire nonsense on the the Explorers? Well, folks, there we have it again. A group of large young people have loadrd a mini-van (note use of “mini”) to the rafters, then proceeded to flog it up and down the Rocky Mountains, most likely pedal to the metal. The real testament to the quality of this vehicle is that it survived.
You don’t use a VW Bug to haul gravel and you don’t use a minivan to haul loads over their rated load capacities. That’s why your van handled so badly. You in fact took a safety risk I would not take.
There’s quite a few incorrect assumptions in your post. If youd read my post, you’ll see there was absolutely no “pedal to the metal” driving, it was driven incredibly gingerly the whole time. Assuming someone was driving irresponsibly just because they were young is beyond cliche. The passengers were 3 future attorneys and one law enforcement offficer. None of us were in any hurry to die or get into toruble, or break someone elses van. The tire pressure was checked before we left, etc. While I don’t know the specific load capacity of a Sienna now, any van worth anything should be able to handle 750 lbs of people and probably around the same the same in cargo. It didn’t sag, and it wasn’t “loaded to the rafters”.
Maybe next time be a little less judgmental in your posts if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and making assumption after assumption, Canucknucklehead.
I guess our own experiences shape us and experiences may vary. The Taurus/Sable were just always trouble in my opinion. Did not own one but the wife owned several for a while. She ran a car lot before we married and experience had taught her to avoid buying them at the auction..
Sometimes we can borrow from the experiences of others. I have pretty much avoided them even after learning to accept front wheel drive.
I have an uncle that has owned several Tauruses, a 1990, 1994,1997 and a 2002. He put LOTS of miles on them. The 1990 had well over 250k on it when it went away about ten years ago, and was still going then. The 1994 was bought ten years ago for $700. After I think a new radiator and a tune up, he drove it back and forth from Ypsilanti to Washington, DC for most of a year for his job with the National Guard, and also to North Carolina and back. The car had close to 180k on it when he got it. He only sold it the next year because he just didn’t need it after that. I wouldn’t have minded having that one. He still has the 2002, it has quite a few miles on it. He bought a Ford Flex a couple of years ago, but my aunt will not drive it, so she drives the Taurus.
My mom has her 2005 Sable, so far no problems and no chance of her giving it up any time soon.
These cars do have their charms. If I had need of a car that size, I wouldn’t mind having one.
The term freeze plug is a misnomer, they are actually core plugs. They are not to protect the block from cracking when it freezes they are for removing the sand that forms the coolant passages when the block is cast. Occasionally they do end up popping out before the block cracks but certainly not always. It sounds like who ever did them only knew to follow the procedure in the book not how to do it the quick way, or they charged you for doing it by the book and did it the quick way. You can pull the Vulcan 3.0 out the top and leave the transmission in place. Makes it a 3 or 4 hour job plus the 5 minutes to replace the plug.
There was one thing my friend and I vowed we’d never own…..a station wagon. She did go on to own a 90 Plymouth Mini Van. I ended up with a ’98 GMC Mid Size Conversion. Her mini van is gone (she owned if for over 18 years I believe), lord knows how many miles were racked up on it. I still have the GMC, it only has just over 100K and it’s become my husband’s daily driver. It’s been down south, up north, shuttle bus for football and baseball team members, moved us to this house, been loaded up with lumber and a plethora of other items over the years. And because of it’s small 6 cyl., it’s decent on gas. It’s showing it’s age, running board brackets are falling off, paint and clear coats wearing, stains on the rugs, but it’s one of two out of 9 cars we own that’s reliable. Ya gotta love the mini vans!
As for the Sable wagon, it was nice looking. Far cry from the boats of the 70’s and 80’s. We thought about getting one for my husband to drive to and from work, but it never came to fruition. Probably because my son, the mechanic, shot it down or something. I always thought it was a nice looking wagon.
1998 and 100k? It’s gotten pretty light duty then!
How funny, there have been two Tauruses (Taurii?) in my life, and both were polar differences. The first was a ’96 SHO that my parents bought as a 3-month-old executive demo from the Ford dealer. Turned out it was a former exec demo for the – at the time – CEO of Ford. That car was utterly amazing, and changed everything I thought about the looks of that generation Taurus/Sable. It’s funny because every time I rode in a “regular” Taurus I agree with you – the interior and everything about them reeked of cheap. The SHO was a polar difference, it was a fantastic car.
Second one was a ’92 Taurus GL I had for a couple years after getting married and having kid 3 arrive. It had the mighty Vulcan and try as I might to kill that car, it never died. In fact I still kick myself a little for not keeping it as it would still be an excellent “backup car” to have around.
Regarding the Sienna, the current generation is totally different. We rented one this summer and I was downright surprised by the performance of it on a 8 hour road trip. I’d never own one, but they’re not terrible. Even a little fast.
Jim, how did you overlook the perfect solution here?
Toyota Previa! Mid-engined, all-wheel-drive, supercharged, manual transmission available, beige blandmobile mayhem!!
I know, right?
It’s OK, I liked the ovoid era Taurus/Sable too… eff the haterz.
Weird note about this generation of Toyota Sienna – when I was doing body work and windshields for pre-owned lots, I swear every single family that brought one of these in for work, bought one or traded one in was Indian (South-Central Asian kind). I have no idea why, and it wasn’t just a few different families… it was more like 25-30 over the course of a few years. Even now when I see them, they seem to have Indian drivers more often than not. Very strange phenomenon…