COAL: 1996 Mercury Sable GS Wagon and 1998 Toyota Sienna XLE–Dreaded Family Cars

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.