It was 2009 and my young family and I had been living in Calgary for four years. My wife Darlene was increasingly expressing her dislike for our high-mile 1999 Pontiac Montana, which, in her estimation, handled the Alberta snow poorly (in truth, this was mostly due to the cheapo MotoMaster tires it wore). She wanted our family vehicle to be a seven-seater 4×4, a type of vehicle that was out of our price range which was about five thousand bucks. As the principal driver, she really didn’t want a gargantuan full-sizer, nor could we afford the operating costs. What were our options? An Explorer maybe? I suggested an all-wheel-drive Chevy Astro. “It’s just looks like a box!” she said (and repeated shortly after when I approvingly pointed at a new Ford Flex).
Some work time Internet shopping resulted in a 2001 Suzuki XL7 catching my eye; a seven-seater 4×4 with 98,000 kilometers. The dealer was asking $9800, which was impossibly high for us, not to mention overpriced. Nevertheless, I knew this was the vehicle Darlene wanted, even not having showed her. Over the next few days, I found myself occasionally viewing the vehicle online, looking at the ancient-looking switch gear and floor-mounted transfer case lever, admiring the simplicity of it. So, this is what the old Samurai had evolved into.
Later, at work, I viewed that Suzuki online. Again, I looked at the price.
It was now $4900.
I blinked a few times and looked again. This was indeed the same vehicle I had been watching. I dialed the number on my BlackBerry Curve. The sales manager picked up on the other end.
“Hello, I’m calling about that Suzuki XL7. Do you still have it?”
“Let me check . . . yes, we still have it.”
“And it’s on for 4900 dollars?”
“This was actually a mistake. Somebody typed the price in wrong. Um . . . we’re willing to honor the price, though . . . “
“Great, can I make a deposit with my credit card?”
“No, we’ll want you to come and see it first. You’ll want to see the hail damage, etcetera.”
Hail damage, huh. The dealership was a fifteen-minute drive away. After garnering a promise not to sell before I arrived, I grabbed my things from my office and left for the dealership.
As I pulled into the dealership parking lot I saw the indifferent-looking sales manager standing by the office door, hands in his pockets. After a brief introduction he led me to a plum-colored Suzuki, which showed no signs of hail damage (nice try, I thought). The narrow interior was in perfect condition. The only noticeable visible issue with the vehicle was tires that clearly needed replacing. Apparently, he explained, an employee had meant to mark the car down to $9400 from $9900, but had mistakenly reversed the 4 and 9, resulting in $4900. Considering my meager finances, this was like striking gold, and I was thankful that the dealership didn’t simply refuse to sell it to me at this price. Without a test-drive, we went back to the office and made the transaction.
After returning and attaching my new license plate, I turned the key to start the car. The starter caused the engine to turn over three times with a loud, high-pitched, metallic sound before whooshing to life with the sound of a large fan. All good. I reflexively checked to see if the AC worked by listening for the clicking sound and holding my hand by the vent. It worked. Great. I put the car in gear and drove off as it started snowing. Snow? That’s fine, Darlene has a 4×4 now! As I drove down the highway, I looked for a cruise control lever or button. There was no cruise control. That’s okay. I admired the smooth handling and the feeling of build quality that seemed absent from the Montana I had been driving (and the Corsica before that).
“It’s sooo cute!” was Darlene’s reaction to seeing the vehicle when I got it home. We immediately went for a drive. Since the roads were now covered with snow, I wrestled the floor lever into 4H mode. A quick drive down our snowy suburban road made it clear that the tires needed replacing ASAP. I replaced them the next week with a set of all-season Goodyear Allegras from Canadian Tire, which lasted 80,000 kilometers and handled the snow with aplomb.
Darlene soon would deeply connect with this vehicle that we affectionately dubbed “Suzi”. “It seems to drive itself!” she would remark. “It seems to know where I’m going.” “It’s so easy to drive in the snow!” She sat up high, with large windows providing wonderful visibility in all directions. She looked forward to driving Suzi and often smiled when she entered the vehicle. She would turn and admire it after parking, a time-tested sign of car/owner love. This bond was rewarding and satisfying for me to see.
On one occasion that I’ll never understand, the shift interlock solenoid became stuck when Darlene was driving alone, causing the car to be stuck in park, in traffic. With incredible intuition, she reached into the glove compartment, took a screwdriver, deftly removed the shift handle, and manually activated the solenoid, which allowed the car to be shifted into gear. How could she possibly know the car this well? I subsequently removed the solenoid so hitting the brake was no longer required to shift from Park. I rather liked this new feature.
Over five years and many commutes and family trips, Suzi would be driven one hundred thousand kilometers with the only repairs required being the replacement of the front sway bar bushings and a front CV axle. However, it was showing its age with some worrisome engine noises (I worried about a timing chain issue) and rust was developing over the windshield and on the door bottoms. We decided it was time to say goodbye to Suzi.
Selling her was a surprisingly difficult for me to do, emotionally. It felt like putting down a beloved pet. Even in the ad picture, the old bug-eyed headlights seemed to stare at me sadly. In a show of shameless sentimentality, I verbally said goodbye to her and thanked her for her service. With misty eyes, I gently patted her steering wheel as I dropped her off at the home of the buyer who was obviously going to attempt to flip her for a profit. Fine.
The vehicles Darlene has owned since then, while technically better, faster, smoother, and shinier, have never quite held the same appeal for her. These include a Tiguan and an Escape Titanium; both undoubtedly fine vehicles that she likes. What was it about the Suzuki that meant so much to her? Aside from the obvious merits of the vehicle, perhaps connecting with a vehicle is like listening to your favorite music from the past. It’s not the just technical perfection of the music that we find meaningful; it’s the memories of our experiences during this time. A good family vehicle can enhance and enrich family memories while reliability problems, poor comfort, and a lousy driving experience can taint them. Automotive design, like music, is a form of art. Suzi helped enrich our family years, as a piece of art should.