Last week I recounted the catastrophic transmission failure of my 1999 Chrysler Town & Country minivan. When I got the bad news (from both the mechanic and from the finance committee at home) that my latest Chrysler ownership experience would be wrapped up very shortly, I was preparing to do what I had done so many times before (and which has made for such a varied COAL series) – go looking for something interesting. But this time I ran into some resistance.
Marianne has been very a) patient, b) long-suffering, c) indifferent, d) all of the above about my car cravings during the course of our 32-year marriage. They had settled into a pattern where they came infrequently enough (and affected her life relatively little) that she normally busied herself with other things while I went on [another] Great Car Hunt. This time, things were different. “I am tired of your cheap old cars that cost us too much money. I want a new car.”
Ouch. There were the words I had avoided hearing for a long time. Really, I cannot say that I blame her. She had been the primary driver of the Club Wagon for over 11 years, and had been the primary driver of the Honda Fit for the previous 5. She was ready for something new, and by “new” she meant new to everyone, not just us.
When we had hit this spot five years earlier, I had just settled a large case and had extra coinage jingling in my pocket. This time, I had one in college, two in Catholic high school, and a law practice that was starting to show some signs of fatigue. In the form it had hit in the late 1990’s, ours had been set up and staffed as a three-lawyer office. When Larry, our senior partner retired, that left two of us to row a boat designed for three. Try as we might, the two of us had some difficulty finding someone to come in to join us. My revenue was holding but my expenses were getting out of hand. Hindsight says I should have bailed and found somewhere else to do what I do, but there are a lot of things we all might do differently if we could see then what we see now.
This is another way of saying that I was less interested than normal in taking on a big payment, and frankly, wasn’t all that invested in the decision (for the first time in like forever). I suggested that Marianne go out and look at some things and let me know when she had it narrowed down to some realistic possibilities and then we could go look together. One evening I came home and she said “Come with me to look at the Kia I drove today.”
These were words I never expected to hear. When I heard “Kia” I thought of the crappy little Sephia or the thoroughly outclassed 5,000 pound Sedona minivan of several years earlier. Weren’t Kias cheap cars for people with bad credit? But she had not looked at anything like one of those Kias in my mind’s eye – she drove a Sorento. “A Kia? Really?” “OK, Fine” was my unenthusiastic response. We drove to the dealer and the salesman got the keys to the Sorento Marianne had driven earlier. I found myself quite surprised, in that the car was very nicely done and felt reasonably nice to drive. OK, except for the 4 cylinder/automatic part. The Honda Fit had done much to move me out of “I’m never, ever buying a 4 cylinder/automatic” land, but it was still not something I was excited about. The Sorento came with a V6 but those also came equipped with a sticker that was very not-Kia in my mind.
We returned after the test drive and I got out of the Sorento. I found myself standing next to another car’s window sticker. “Wait – what?” It was a new Sedona minivan. I had totally forgotten that they were still making these. But what really caught my attention was the sticker. For the cost of a 4 cylinder, 2 seat Sorento, I could buy a V6, 3 row, dual a/c Sedona. I had been lamenting losing our college-kid-pack-mule vehicle, but suddenly I realized that sometimes it is actually possible to satisfy everyone. “Can we drive this?” I asked the salesman? Moments later we were back out on the road. That V6 made all the difference for me, and both of us decided that this might be a good plan.
I recall balking for a moment, while I thought about another Chrysler. A van as lovely as my dearly departed T&C but getting it brand new had some appeal. “Maybe they will deal to get me close to the price of the Kia” was my thought. But Kia’s 10 yr/100k mile powertrain warranty (and 5 year 60k mile everything else warranty) convinced me to take a chance, especially since Chrysler had replaced the old iron 3.3/3.8 of which I was such a fan. The new 3.6 “Pentastar” V6 was in maybe its second year, and I knew that Chrysler’s recent history with new engine designs was, um, let’s go with “uneven”. Two things have happened since that decision was made – The Chrysler 3.6 V6 has turned out to be a great engine, one of their best. But that hasn’t made me do any second-guessing because the Kia’s powertrain is equally impressive, and the long Kia warranty has not come into play with any frequency at all.
A few days after our initial drive, we went to a dealer closer to home. It was a familiar building – the former Jerry Alderman Ford at 5500 N. Keystone Avenue that had 1) provided a test drive in a new 1985 Mustang GT, 2) cheaply fixed my Marquis, 3) tried to screw me on my Crown Vic water pump and 4) sold us our Club Wagon was now under different ownership and was a Kia store. It was also the last remaining dealer on a three mile stretch of North Keystone Avenue that had been car dealer row during my epic 1985 search for my first new car.
It was September of 2011 but 2012 models were now available. Marianne liked the gray paint. Perfect. I had bought two new cars in my life up to then: one had been black, one had been white, and now I was going to average them. But it’s not like there were any color choices that really called my name. More good news was that there were rebates. The Sedona was a slow seller so they were offering one rebate to everyone and a second, equal rebate, to owners of a “competitive minivan”. I still owned one of those. All I needed was a current registration. Nobody said the “competitive minivan” had to be drivable, which was a good thing, and kind of like getting a $1000 trade-in allowance on a 200k+ mile immobile minivan that I was going to give away. I love moments of happy serendipity like that.
As for the new van, I just had one requirement: No power doors. I had spent enough times on forums for Honda Odysseys and Chrysler minivans to know that power doors were problematic on any minivan that got any age at all on it. If neither Chrysler (the minivan king) nor Honda (the quality king) could get them right, I surely did not expect Kia to do so. But this turned out to be a problem. Because virtually every Sedona in Indianapolis was equipped with a package that included the power doors. The salesman offered to get one from another location or dealer, but Marianne balked. “If I’m getting a new car, I want one that is really new and not one with a bunch of miles on it already.” Over the next day or so, our man kept at it, and finally got her to agree to one across town. Then that fell through and he had to go “a little farther”.
A couple of days later, the guy called and said that he had one. “A little farther” turned out to be “almost to the Illinois border”. I perceived some ambiguity in that statement and asked a lawyer question: “Which Illinois border?” After a long pause, the sales guy softly said “Wisconsin”. Indiana to Wisconsin is a lot farther than across town, and was going to result in a new car with two or three hundred miles before it reached our driveway. “You heard her, she’s going to throw a fit” was my warning to the sales guy. Several telephone conversations later, and now with the sales manager, I was offered either 1) the $2,500 power door package for $1000, or 2) $500 off the “almost to the Illinois border” van. We chose B, and soon we had our new(ish) minivan. The bargainer in me was thrilled, because between rebates and discounts, we got this one for a tick under $20K, right about what we had paid for a year-old high-trim Ford Club Wagon over fifteen years earlier. Something tells me that I will not be so fortunate the next time I go shopping for a new car.
At the start, my feelings were mixed. My T&C had been a base-level model, but it had some nice little luxury touches included as standard. In order to get a Kia without power doors, I was forced into a model without one. single. option. I missed things like the dual-zone (for front passengers) HVAC system and the power flipper windows in the “way back”. Our flipper windows are manual and opened from the rear seat or through the hatch, which means they have been used perhaps twice. Our new car also had lots of little blank plugs in place of switches to remind us of what a bargain the car had been.
But neither was it the kind of stripper I had known from my youth. Like the 4-year-old 1974 Dodge Charger that my mentor Howard found for his kids to drive. A stripper in those days had no air, no radio and used rubber matts in place of carpeting. It had manual steering, a “three on the tree” manual transmission and rear side windows that did not roll down. This stripper Sedona came with power windows, a power drivers seat, remote power locks, a stereo with a CD player and Bluetooth in addition to the front and rear air conditioning. This new stripper was equipped much nicer than what most of my family was driving into the early 1980’s, so it was far from an automotive hair shirt.
Marianne happy with the new van from the start. She liked sitting higher than she had sat in the little Fit, and it was easier to get into and out of. But mostly, she was happy to be in a new car. As is shown with her at the wheel during a trip we took to southern Indiana for a family wedding not long after we took delivery of the van.
A positive change from my old T&C was that this thing was SO much faster. Actually, the entire powertrain has proved to be one of my favorites of all time. There is plenty of power, so if I pull out in fast traffic or need to get ahead of a car to get out of my lane that is ending, the Sedona has my back because that thing will really scoot when I bury the accelerator pedal. Also, the 6 speed automatic shifts so unobtrusively that I usually have no idea what gear it is in most of the time. Nor do I care. A couple of later occasions to rent a Grand Caravan of that era have also proved to me that I like my Kia better because it lacks the irritating transmission shifting and not-stiff structure of the Daimler-era Chrysler design.
One surprise feature of the Sedona was a redux of the “refresh” position seating of our Honda Fit. That had been one of Marianne’s favorite features in the Fit and we now had it in a much better travel car. That feature has been used. A lot.
We still have the Sedona. By now, it has taken us to multiple states, has loaded and unloaded multiple kids at college, has hauled multiple family members and friends and has all-around done everything it was supposed to do. It has provided a kind of flexibility that I have really loved – it is comfortable for two of us, but it can also take five more passengers when we need the capacity. It can also do 95% of the jobs most would use a pickup truck for – like the time we took advantage of a big sale on bags of mulch. We hauled 50 bags home with no difficulty, and with nary a complaint from the van.
We have had a few recalls – a redesigned fuel rail on the engine, redesigned weather strips on the front doors, some rustproofing of the lower control arms and an air bag module controller (that resulted in an extended test drive of a newer Sedona). Tires lasted to 60k, brakes lasted to 80k and just before the ten-year warranty expired a CV joint began clacking on accelerating turns.
That last one turned into a bit of an ordeal. I learned that certain cars seem to allow their axles to be taken apart from the front wheel hubs only with the greatest of difficulty. The car was at the dealer for several days and I ended up with new axles and hubs on both sides. I am glad I didn’t have to pay for that one. Then again, it took ten years for the problem to occur.
Non-warranty repairs have included a battery, an outside rear door handle that broke and a thermostat replacement. As good as our Honda Fit has been, this Kia has surpassed it through 11 years and 95,xxx miles, which is something I never expected. Oh – and one rear door power lock actuator has failed. I knew that would happen – this car automatically cycles the locks every time the car goes into or out of gear. I have not found a way to disable this thing that some consider a feature. Marianne is not keen on paying to fix the lock (which we can work manually through the open driver’s door) since there are just two of us in the house now and nobody routinely using the rear seats.
Update – make that two outside door handles. Economists talk about the law of unintended consequences – which means that when a decision gets made, it affects things downstream in ways that nobody thought about. When I went to all of that effort to avoid power doors, it never occurred to me that this would turn those rear door handles into the next weak link. The job to replace them is not terribly pleasant, and our low-level LX trim (which came with painted handles instead of chrome ones) means that I have to either paint them (MAACO did the first for about $75, which was probably cheaper than I could have done it by the time I bought everything I needed to do it at home) or do enough disassembly and reassembly of old and new parts to mate new guts to my existing gray handle.
Something else I never expected was how much I would come to enjoy driving this van. I have written about that at some length before, and now in early 2023 the feeling remains. I am in a place I never expected to be – the owner of two 10+ year old vehicles near or over 100k miles, each of which remains satisfying to own and drive. Which is a good thing since new cars have become so hard to come by (for anything other than “stick ’em up” prices).
I vividly remember how much I enjoyed driving big cars from the 1960’s during the following couple of decades as the American manufacturers fought their way through the learning curves for emissions and fuel economy mandates. While the newer cars may have been cleaner and more efficient, the older ones had been designed purely for running and driving. I am now experiencing this again as modern CAFE requirements have forced manufacturers into transmissions with gobs of gears and aggressively early upshifts, or small displacement turbos and such for some modicum of performance. My Sedona feels, in comparison, like my ’68 Chrysler Newport in a world of ’85 Crown Victorias that are both more expensive and less pleasant to drive. My car has a drivetrain as easygoing as an old hound dog – that can turn into a greyhound when I stomp on the go pedal. And because the Sedona has lived a gentler life than the Fit, it is still in beautiful condition both inside and out.
I know that I will have to replace it some time. Actually, if I were to get a new car, should I trade this one and keep the BeaterFit? Or dump the BeaterFit and keep this one? There is a teeny corner of my brain that says a high-mile Honda is a better proposition than a high-mile Kia. But then again, the Kia has caused less trouble over the first 100k miles than the Honda did, and the running gear (and most everything else) looks and operates just like it did when new. I really don’t know. But that doesn’t matter because I am not getting rid of anything for the time being. I know that there will eventually come a time when I am ready to dump this Sedona and walk away. But that time has not yet arrived.
This installment brings this series up to date as far as what currently populates the JPC garage, but this is not the end of this COAL series. There are still four more vehicles which have come (and gone) from my lifetime and which are due their fifteen minutes of fame. So let’s do this again next week.