COAL Briquette: 2000 and 2016 Subaru Outbacks • The Tail Wagon the Dog


[I’m looking after a spouse suddenly sick amidst the severe heat and wildfire smoke that moved in today, so this week’s post is a shorty; the intended feature-length piece is deferred to next week.]

A few months ago, I hinted at hoots involved with the replacement for mother’s 1992 LeBaron; now the time has come.

It was 2001, dad had been dead for about a year, and the LeBaron was getting a little on the old side for mother. Still plenty of life left in it, but stuff was beginning to want attention more often. I agreed to help her find a new car—I was some kind of masochist, maybe, and/or I had a roaring case of Stockholm syndrome , and/or maybe it just hadn’t yet occurred to me that others’ expectations don’t necessarily become obligations just because they’re shouted or taken for granted.

She’d been happy with the LeBaron, so first we went to a Chrysler dealer. She pointed at a car and said “Yuck, what is that thing?” The newly-launched PT Cruiser. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those; it’s hideous!”, she huffed. She tried out a Cirrus instead and felt she—all of about five feet (152 cm) tall—couldn’t see rearward on account of the high deck. Back on the lot, I edged us back toward the PT Cruiser. The closer I got, the more mother disparaged it.

“Well, I’d like to try it out”, I said to the salesman. “Mother, would you like to come along?” Grudgingly she sat in the passenger seat as I adjusted the steering wheel and mirrors. The dealership’s driveway wasn’t more than half a block behind us when she said “Hey, the visibility’s really great in this thing: I can see all the way around with the back window being at the back of the car like that!” We swapped places, she tried it, she liked it, and Chrysler were still pricing them as though the PT referred to Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute”), so no PT Cruiser for mother.

Next stop was good ol’ Deane Buick, who’d added a Saab franchise when GM assimilated that maker. The Buick sedans gave her the same can’t-see-rearward feeling as the Cirrus, so those were out. There were plenty of late-model Saab 900s on the lot, and we tried one of those. She liked the rearward visibility, but found both sides of the turbo lag disconcerting—too slow, then too fast—and I had serious doubts, probably valid, about the day-in/day-out dependability. So nothing from Deane Buick-Saab.

All of a sudden, an idea struck me. I drove us to a Subaru dealership and pointed mother at a ’98 or ’99 Legacy wagon. “Are you nuts? I don’t have little kids; what would I need a station wagon for?” Instead of taking the bait, I remarked approvingly about the amber rear turn signals. A saleslady approached, said “They are nice lights” (I’ll take ‘awesome pickup lines’ for eight hundred, Alex!) and asked how she could help us. I indicated mother and said we were shopping for a car for her, and wondered if we might test-drive this green wagon. “I don’t want to test drive it”, mother said. “I don’t want a station wagon.”

(All together now!) “Well, I’d like to try it out”, I said to the saleslady. “Mother, would you like to come along?” Once again, the frothing and fulminating from the passenger seat. Once again, not more than half a block from the dealership she started marvelling at the excellent sightlines. I pulled over, we swapped seats, she tried it, she liked it even better than the PT Cruiser, but she still didn’t want a station wagon. It would make her look silly, she said. She’d think about it, she said.

We drove home in the LeBaron. All the way, she was fretting about how ridiculous she’d look driving a station wagon. I’m still not sure whom she felt would care what kind of car she drove. Certainly not the ladies who lunch; she wasn’t one of them. And we’re talking about a woman who turned up her nose at the Red Hat Ladies: “Ugh, no; they like to have fun” (no foolin’; direct quote!). By and by, she came round to the idea that maybe easy sightlines might be more important than unspecified random other people’s nonexistent opinions. But maybe a new car this time, she thought, rather than a used one.

Well, alright, we’re making some progress and homing in; let’s see where this leads us. At another Subaru store I found a nearly-new 2000 Outback, with very low miles and lots of warranty, at a significantly lower price than the practically identical ’01 models. We went looking and driving, and she liked it almost just fine, except she wasn’t quite ready (“Are you sure people won’t laugh at me for driving a station wagon?”). So we thanked the salesman for his time and left the lot.

Back at home, we checked with AAA, I think it was, about their car-buying service. Pointed them at the ad, and they quoted an out-the-door price for that particular car. We felt it was only fair to give the salesman a chance, rather than have him show the car and then go buy it elsewise, so we went back to the dealer and found him. I’m usually no damn good at negotiations, but this time I had the advantage of it being a deal (or not) involving the purchase of somebody else’s car with somebody else’s money. “This is the car we’d like to buy, and we’d like for you to get the commission on the sale of this car,” I said, “but we’re not doing a drawn-out negotiation, so you’ve got one chance to quote your lowest out-the-door price or we’ll go buy it through AAA”.

The salesman said “Well, let’s see where we’re at! How much are you looking to spend on a car today?” Oh, sorry, was I speaking Swahili without realising it? “Thank you for your time”. We went home, mother called AAA back and made the arrangements, and a couple days later the car was hers.

She had to get used to the massively-overgated shifter (those were an obnoxious trend at the time), and to having a lot more features and gadgets and seat adjustability than she’d ever before had, but she quickly became downright evangelistic: fantastic sightlines! Great big sideview mirrors! Neat folding stowaway cupholders! Loading and unloading stuff is so much easier than with a trunk! Why on earth hadn’t she started driving station wagons years ago?!

So she liked her new car. Very fine. By and by she left Denver and moved back to the Washington DC vicinity where she grew up. One day she had a little oopsie: she tapped a parked trash truck, she said, which sounded like a parallel-parking incident perhaps involving a bent licence plate or maybe bit of a paint scuff on one bumper or the other. She was spitting mad at the [unseemly adjectives were here -DS] cop who’d had the nerve to write her a careless-driving ticket.

More details I got, more apparent it grew that her word “tapped” was loaded well beyond its rated weight. For openers, her car had to be towed to the Subaru dealership for repairs; that sounded to me as though her tap-its were rather in need of adjustment. About a week later, she called me in a huff. The dealer was lying to her, she said; they were claiming they had to order in the parts to fix the car, she said, which had to be a lie because they’re a Subaru garage and her car is a Subaru and so obviously they would have the parts.

I told her I’d call the dealer’s service department and see if I could figure out what was going on. I identified myself to the service manager and said “I am really very sorry you drew my mother as a customer. I don’t wish that on anybody, and there is nothing you can say about her that will offend me. If you’ll tell me what’s up with her car, I’ll try to get her off your case about it.” I could hear the poor guy’s blood pressure and cortisol and adrenaline levels returning to normal. “Well, we don’t stock timing sprockets”, he said, “and pretty much nobody else does, either, because they just about never fail. But one of them’s shattered on your mother’s car, and there’s a pretty long list of other parts, too”.

Turns out I tapped a parked trash truck in the mother tongue translates to English as I did nearly ten thousand dollars’ damage to the car by hitting a parked trash truck hard enough to end the front bumper, hood, one headlamp, the A/C condenser, radiator, radiator fan, front and rear engine mounts, front timing belt sprocket, a goodly list of other parts, and require some involved straightening work before the new engine mounts would line up to be installed. That NHTSA permission letter of hers probably spared the car being totalled; if she’d not had the airbags disabled, they’d’ve surely gone off and taken the economic viability of a repair with them. Whee!

Eventually the cam sprocket came in, the car got unbent and reassembled, she got it back—the new headlamp, despite being an OE item and not a cruddy aftermarket piece, was even more poorly focused than the original, and impossible to aim correctly—and she drove it for a bunch more years. In 2016 she decided it was time for a new car. This time she knew exactly what she wanted: another Outback. I advised her on worthy options, but regrettably, Subaru of America were being a bunch of greedbags: the upgraded (HID) headlamps could be had only on top-trim 6-cylinder cars. She didn’t want or need a 6-cylinder engine. Had she gone buying the car in Canada, she could’ve had the HIDs on a 4-cylinder car, no problem, which makes it all the more infuriating: same cars, built on the same line in the same factory to identical regulations and almost identical specs (km/h versus MPH speedometer, Transport Canada rather than DOT certification plate, bilingual airbag warning and unleaded-fuel labels…trivial little differences like that). This was pure greed, nothing else. Oh well; halogen headlamps. Better than the ones on the 2000 model. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

She likes the ’16 model, but it, too, had its tapped-a-trash-truck moment. This time it was a mishap in a car park: she reversed without looking carefully, fast enough that a car approaching from her left hit not her bumper, not her quarter panel, but her left rear door. She was livid that the insurance company blamed her and raised her rates. “It wasn’t my fault, it couldn’t have been!” she said. “My car has a warning thingy that beeps if there’s another car coming while you’re backing up, and it didn’t beep, so it was the other guy’s fault!”. Oy vey. At least this time I didn’t have to serve as a mediator with the repair shop. The car got fixed, and she’s still driving it. I’ve never actually seen this car, and I reckon that suits me just about fine.