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Road trips and memories of a poor car

My car outside the office (June 10, 2012).

My car outside the office (June 10, 2012). Credit: Vincent Balestriere

I have taken many a road trip before, mostly in my college days: San Diego to Bakersfield to see graduate schools, NYC to Hershey Park for a day vacation, NY to Maine through a nor’easter to visit a friend departing for Turkey.

Hell, I dated a girl who lived in Gettysburg for half a year -- that was nearly a 500-mile round-trip. All of those trips were special in their own ways, but there was always something lacking. In California, I had to drive a rental Dodge Caliber. Hershey was too short. Maine was dangerous and lonely (my only company at 4 a.m. was a can of Monster). Gettysburg holds bittersweet memories.

So I was left with a revelation: despite all the car fanatics I grew up around, I’ve never had a truly memorable road trip in my car.

It’s not a car that’s inherently exciting or enjoyable, especially in the eyes of a teenager.

Let’s just say I never had much luck picking up girls in the Malibu. That aside, road trips are more about the trip than the destination. And solo trips, as I’ve explained, are lonely and make for sad stories. I’m considering ridding myself of the “grandpamobile” by summer’s end, so I wanted to make at least one more memory.

Imagine my excitement when a friend’s search for a diesel Golf finally came to an end. In Rhode Island. He’s been like a brother to me for the past 10 years, and he needed a driver to go to New England. We decided to leave Staten Island (where we both live) around 6 a.m. on a Friday.

When I got to his home, I parked out front and called him. Straight to voice mail, twice. His phone had no service. By the time we finally got going it was 7 a.m. --- later than we wanted, but still early enough to make it home in time for dinner.

The Malibu, with its mushy steering and cushy suspension, is by no means a driver’s car. The hills of New England had certainly seen more capable modes of transport. A horse and buggy, maybe. One-hundred-seventy miles is a pretty long drive for most people. But I did drive to Gettysburg twice a month, so distance is relative.

Admittedly a beautiful summer day helps miles disappear, as did the soft suspension of my lumbering sedan. Around 8 a.m., we approached the George Washington Bridge. At rush hour, under construction. It’s tough to think of a traffic situation where one might be more annoyed, assuming the absence of children. I lost count of the times cabbies with little regard for property nearly sideswiped us. But the long wait did give us the chance to talk. Some of it was about women or the state of the world (though those subjects are not always mutually exclusive), but most of it was about the memories we’ve made together in the past 10 years.

To non-enthusiasts we were crazy, driving around at 1 a.m., just for fun. Maybe we are crazy, at least a little bit. It’s fair to say that handing me, then 18, the keys to an Evo IX was not the most responsible course of action. Hell, you would objectively say he was nuts to even consider it -- but he trusted me and taught me. Yes, I was scared; I had barely had my license a year, and drove a car that could barely get out of its own way.

Suddenly I was in charge of something with twice the power and razor-sharp handling. Five years later, that car is gone. The money and power got a bit out of hand, but we still have fond memories, many of which are unprintable. Those experiences kept us together as car guys, and brought us to that traffic jam on the GWB half a decade later, en route to get another car. This time he was not focused on power and speed, but sensibility -- I mean, he’d have to be.

We were driving to Rhode Island for a damn diesel. After the jam, we had 140 miles of open road ahead of us, ignoring a few slowdowns around Stamford. We arrived at the dealership around 11:15 in the grandpa car.

Paperwork was signed, and the keys to the Golf TDI we had traveled for were handed over. We wasted no time and got to work fixing a few niggling issues: the clip to close the center armrest was installed, and the rear headrests (missing at time of sale) were replaced with used eBay models. New taillights were waiting for us at his home in Staten Island, so we left the dealership, satisfied with the purchase. I mean, it’s hard to hate a car that has a sunroof.

The next stop was the “lovely” town of Meridan, Conn., to pick up a new set of wheels from a local VW group. Three Volkswagens pulled into the parking lot, and three skinny white guys with long hair stepped out of the vehicles. Somehow that always seems to be the case with the VW crowd. We exchanged our Golf’s stock wheels for a set of Jetta Wolfsburg Edition wheels.

Frankly, they looked perfect on the Golf. So we left, trouble-free. Until we reached the steeper portions of Connecticut. The Malibu, with its brash V6 had no problem on the rising roads. The Golf, however ... I got a phone call when the terrain flattened out.

“I’m going to have to take it easy, man. I had my foot down going up those hills, but my RPMs were going backward. Something’s up,” he said. It was a power issue -- we feared the turbo might be toast, and without a turbocharger, diesels have little power.

The car made it back to the island, but started throwing engine codes -- EGR valve, among others. After a little work, he discovered that the tubing connecting the intake manifold to the turbo was off, so the turbo was getting unfiltered air. It couldn’t spin properly, and made no power. That was reconnected, and the EGR valve was cleaned with the force of five Pine-Sol ladies.

I drove it for about 40 miles after all that was fixed. I could barely believe the car was 10 years old and had traveled 150,000 miles -- it felt newer, more composed, and well, just plain better than my car. It put a smile on my face when I threw it around corners and accelerated out of them. I enjoyed cruising down the boulevard at night with the sunroof down and my buddy in the passenger seat. It was just like old times, without all the pantomime and negative attention the Evo brought. Sure, the Golf will never throw me into my seat during a three-second sprint to 60 mph like the Evo could.

The Malibu couldn’t do that either, but at least it was hilarious around corners (for a big, soft sedan, at least). But it was always scary to push, and most of the laughter I got from it was ironic (after a while, you can’t help but laugh at your bad luck, right? I’ve lost count of the repairs). The Malibu is two years newer than the Golf and has less than half the mileage. My friend paid $6,000 for the TDI, which is about $1,000 less than what my car would retail for. Except he’s got a better handling car and easily hits 40 mpg. The Malibu struggles to beat 30 mpg on its best days on the Southern State Parkway.

What I’m left with is a stark realization: my next car needs to be a Golf TDI. That will be the last memory from the Malibu -- I can tell the story of its life, once it’s gone.

But, despite glaring facts -- it’s slow, ugly, and as cool as "Leave It to Beaver" --- I’ll always love the thing. It’s my first car, it’ll always have sentimental value. You can’t measure the value of heartbreak in dollars, so the tears I shed over family and women in the driver’s seat don’t matter to car dealers. They only matter to me and those who have shared the memories, like the car does. Every car represents a piece of your life, whether it’s a nondescript silver sedan during your “broke” years or a shiny new Cadillac in your driveway in your golden years. Whether you love them or hate them, you’ll always have stories to tell about them no matter what they are. That is what makes cars so special.

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