Falling Out of Love With Your Car
By Kevin Miller
People who drive appliance-type cars solely to get from point A to point B may not get this, but some of us have a lot of emotion and passion wrapped up in our choice of vehicles. Since I have been old enough to buy nice cars, I’ve been a Saab driver. A combination of my Swedish heritage, and the cars’ highly-engineered systems have always attracted me to them.
That being said, in 2004 I was looking for a car to replace my nine year old 900 hatch. Having gotten married and started planning for a family, a four-door car made sense. With my family planning to relocate to Eastern Washington, which would necessitate regular drives through snowy mountain passes, I wanted a vehicle with all-wheel drive, which Saab didn’t offer at the time. Appreciating sporty performance and handling, the ever-popular SUV wasn’t on my shopping list, but I still wanted utility. When I read in late 2003 of the 2004 Volvo V70R, I thought it sounded perfect. With 300 HP from a turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual transmission delivering power to all four wheels, and a lower, electronically controlled suspension system, I felt the V70R offered the perfect blend of sport and utility, while staying true to my Swedish car-loving roots. Besides that, I thought it looked hot; very sporty and capable, but at the same time restrained in the same way as so many other Scandinavian products are.
After a few test drives and a lot of deliberation, I ordered my 2004 V70R from my local Volvo dealer in Portland, Oregon in January, 2004 (as I was relocating and changing careers, I didn’t feel I had time to take advantage of Volvo’s Overseas Delivery Program, so I custom-ordered my car to be built to my specifications). As the R-series cars were new and rare, I paid nearly full price for my Titanium Gray Metallic V70R, with Nordkap Blue leather interior, integrated child booster seats, and Premium, Touring, and Climate packages. During the four months I waited for the car’s arrival, I visited a popular Volvo owners forum where people who had already taken delivery of their Rs were chatting about them and posting photos. I downloaded photos for my computer’s wallpaper and looked at the brochure nearly every day. Yes, I lusted after my ordered V70R.
Knowing that I tend to keep cars for a long time, paying close to sticker for a car I’m intending to keep for ten years doesn’t bother me… I’ve got plenty of time to amortize the cost of the vehicle. The car was built exactly to my specifications, and four long months later my wife and I picked it up on a sunny spring afternoon. My beloved 900 was picked up by its buyer the same day.
The V70R was a stunning performer compared to the Saab it replaced, as well as in comparison to the 2001 Saab 9-5 it joined in our driveway. While it suffers from a huge turning radius (an engineering consideration due to its large Brembo brakes, which themselves necessitated wider wheels that occupy more space than smaller ones in the V70’s wheel arches), its throaty sound and powerful kick in the pants more than made up for that. The 4C suspension, with its distinct Comfort, Sport, and Advanced settings worked well enough, though it was never perfect in my opinion. For 2005, Volvo integrated a faster processor which helped the suspension work better, but it was a part of a faster CANBUS. In other words, something that was not able to retrofit to my 2004 car.
Of course, the 300 HP rating of the turbocharged motor is subjective, and depends on perfect climate conditions, high octane fuel, and a peculiar alignment of planets. It develops highest HP with around 95 octane by US calculations… but such high performance fuel isn’t readily available in the US. I’ve mixed a tank of 101 octane and 92 octane to boost the R’s performance, but it’s expensive and doesn’t last long.
Fast forward a year, and it was time to put an infant seat into the R when our daughter was born. I was surprised how the shape of the R’s deeply bolstered front seats took up so much knee room in the back, so that the child seat wouldn’t fit in what was supposed to be a family-friendly vehicle without seriously compromising front seat legroom. Things only got worse when she graduated to a larger convertible carseat. Too, the rear doors have a narrow opening angle and don’t open into the roofline like our Saab’s rear doors, so it is more difficult to load the kids and get them buckled than it is most other vehicles.
As the months rolled by and the miles gradually accumulated, the fancy electronic suspension seemed to become worse at coping with road impurities, providing feedback out of sync with bumps and broken pavement, serving to accentuate the road’s imperfections while failing to offer assistance with actual roadholding. All of the imperfections transmitted into the cabin have come to make themselves known as rattles in the interior: the glove box, center console, dashboard, rear passenger door, cargo floor and cargo door all have distinct rattles. Our now-9 year old Saab has far fewer rattles than does our newer V70R.
All of the above issues serve to show that the proverbial bloom is off the rose. As mentioned above, in my household we tend to keep cars for quite along time. The ’95 Saab 900 that the V70R replaced was 9 years old with 157,000 miles on it when I replaced it. Our 2001 9-5 sedan was purchased new and is now almost 9 years old, with just 80k miles on it; that car continues to be rewarding to drive, practical to operate, and comfortable for our entire family. The newer V70R, though, with 60k miles on it and still under extended warranty, is done in my mind. It feels dated and impractical, and feels like it’s falling apart. Because of the rattly interior, ponderous handling, and the huge turning radius, my wife hates driving the R. And I can’t say that I blame her.
What to do, then? We purposely purchase new cars of supposedly-high quality on purpose, intending to use them well and for a long time. Resale value is of little importance because we keep the cars for nearly a decade. But now, just over halfway through that theoretical decade of ownership, I’ve fallen out of love and I’m ready to move on.
So it is soon time to replace our 9-5 based on how long we’ve owned it, but the newer V70R feels like the car that needs replacing. Mrs. M and I have a long-term vehicle strategy that includes one fuel-efficient car for running around town, and one car that is more spaceious, with AWD for longer trips and winter activities. The upcoming Saab 9-5 wagon would fit the bill for the larger car; while something like a VW Golf TDI or Mazda3 hatch would be perfect for the smaller car. Unfortunately, I’d buy the new 9-5 today and unload the V70R, but that car is at least a year away in the US, if not more. I hate to be without the hauling capacity of a wagon by buying our downsized car now, but it is under consideration.
The thing is: I wish the V70R was working the way its engineers envisioned it working. If the suspension actually responded to road inputs like it’s supposed to, it would be just fine. If the brakes bit at first application instead of going through a spongy zone first, I’d love it. And if the car didn’t have eleventy-six rattles inside, I’d be in heaven.
As it is, I don’t know what to do. Soldier on with the paid-off car I don’t like driving? Or sell it while it still has a bit of value left, and get something else? And should that something else be new, or used?
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