Everyone, whether they are a "car person" or not, remembers their first car very clearly. Like we talked about on the podcast, there are a lot of very obvious reasons for this: A car is freedom, getting a driver's license is a big life moment, first cars are often a person's first significant investment, on and on the list goes. But I'd like to take some time to talk about my second car, a car that I think I might not have really appreciated, though it both earned and deserved it.
As we talked about in Episode 1, my first car was a Saturn SC1. I don't think I mentioned how that car gave up the ghost in the cast, but the Saturn met a somewhat inglorious end. At the start of my senior year of high school, my car - which I had owned for less than a year and a half - started making a scraping clunk when I turned to the right. Not thinking all that much of it, I took it in to the local shop, and when they called back, they said that they had pretty bad news: the car was barely safe to drive. Before I owned it, the Saturn was owned and driven by a family friend who was a tenured college professor at a local Technical College. His job is only important to mention because it's the reason why he had a reserved parking space, where he parked that car every single school day from the summer of 1993, when he bought it brand-new from the Saturn dealership, to the day he sold it to me in 2004. This meant that the same side of the car was always windward for every single rainstorm and snowstorm and it just so happened to also face east, ensuring that the same side of the car was always in the sun. As a result, the drivers-side engine mounts were almost completely gone - weathered away - and the engine was starting to move around in the engine bay as I drove along.
Of course, engine mounts can be fixed. But as with a lot of older cars, the issue became cost vs. value. The car had 180,000 miles on it. Did it really make sense to sink several hundred dollars into repairs, especially since I had bought it for only $500? No. It didn't. The car had to go. That's not a decision I made myself, but a decision my parents made to go along with their decision that if I promised them I would go to college and get a degree, they would buy my second car for me. That's a fabulous deal, of course, and I took it gladly. At this time, I wasn't really all that interested in cars. The people I saw in high school who were "in to" cars weren't people I wanted to be around, nor were the people I saw in Auto Shop class. Yes, I still played racing games, I still liked exotic cars, but that's just lionizing the rich. Everybody does that. As a result, when my parents asked me what cars I liked, I didn't really have an answer. My dad drove a Ford Escape at the time, and I didn't want that. My mom drove a Toyota Camry and I didn't want that either. My oldest brother was driving a Ford Escort ZX2, which was kind of cool, but I had decided that I was far too adult to get another manual transmission car. My older brother (the middle child) had bought an Elantra Hatchback the year before, and my dad really liked that car, primarily because of the warranty. So off we went to buy a Hyundai.
I do remember that we also looked at a host of used cars before we went to Hyundai, but the one that sticks in my mind the most was the Oldsmobile Alero. A little piece of trivia is that in 2005, it was actually illegal to own a car dealership in the state of Wisconsin without having at least two fully loaded, low mileage Aleros on your lot. This law was repealed in 2007. I mean damn, they were on every lot, with all the toys: V6 engine, cruise control, combo sun/moon roof, six CD changer, full leather, heated seats, power everything, keyless entry, the full suite, and yet they were always cheap. I have a sneaking suspicion that car was shit. Anyways.
The local Hyundai dealer had just taken delivery of the perfect, and I mean completely perfect Elantra. It was an Electric Red GLS hatchback (the base model), but with an automatic, cruise control, a tape player, the "Protection Package" (plastic trim on the corners and doors), and a crack in the windshield. They hadn't even set it out on the lot yet because they needed to replace the windshield. My dad, in what I still think is a very shrewd maneuver, told the sales woman that we would buy the car that day, and pay for them to replace the windshield, if they deducted the cost of the repair from the MSRP and moved just a touch further towards the price we wanted to pay. I remember exactly what she said: "Oh no. We would never do that. We don't need to deal on these cars, you won't find another one anywhere around here." So without saying a word, my dad just walked out of the building. We got in the car, and drove to the other local Hyundai dealership, 10 miles away. The guy there told us they had just received three new Elantras and would happily deal on them. We bought a Sterling Silver Hyundai Elantra GLS hatchback with an automatic, cruise control, the Protection Package, and a CD player from that dealership the next day. RIP Arrow Hyundai. Also, Hyundai, if you're somehow reading this, bring back Electric Red, that was a totally awesome color.
And just like that, I was a high school kid with a brand-new car. Don't get it twisted, this car did not help me get laid, oh no. The 2005 Elantra is not a sexy car. Nor did it make me seem like more of a man as it's fairly effeminate. Oh, right, digital media, I can include pictures (kbb.com):
This is my car almost exactly: the GLS has steelies with hubcaps and it also doesn't have the little lip spoiler, but everything else is exactly the same. It's not an ugly car, and it isn't pretty either, it looks fine. The only time a girl said anything to me about my car, she said it looked like it was pregnant. 11 years later I still have no idea what to make of that comment. But, you know what? I didn't give a shit. I could take 5 people in my car! I could fit a saxophone in the trunk without putting down the rear seats! I didn't have to shift gears! I had keyless entry oh my GOD such luxuries you've never had. I loved this car more than my first, because it was better. Or, at least, that's what I thought was going on.
I ended up owning the Elantra for 12 years, so I'm going to do some skipping around. The car actually never went to college with me. I was mostly transported by Tristan, a guy I think you all know. As a result, the car only had about 10,000 miles on it when I finished my undergrad. Well, 10,000 miles and a hole in the exhaust. My mom got rear-ended, the Camry got totaled, and so she drove the Elantra hard for two months in the last real Wisconsin winter we had, after which it sat for the next 4 months until I came home for the summer. Heck, this car was so untouched that it took 8 years for the driver's side rear brake caliper piston, a part that was eventually found to have a factory defect, to fail. I sold the car with just over 60,000 miles on it.
A month or two after I got the car, my high school girlfriend almost puked in it after a bad seafood dinner. This car moved every important earthly possession of mine to Nebraska and back - two times - when I was doing my Masters. Those little black protection strips? Those are in precisely the wrong place to ever deflect a single fucking door ding. I replaced the CD player in this car like a year after I bought it. How the hell did it take so long for Line In ports to become standard? I performed my greatest Save to date in this car, when that rear brake caliper fully locked at freeway speeds. I didn't even brush the concrete barrier. This car was also party to my second greatest Save, when the car went into a violent spin after hitting a surprise a dry patch of asphalt at an indicated 90, while I was struggling to make it up a slight rise during a snowstorm. Didn't even ditch it.
But here's the thing about the Elantra: I don't think I actually loved the car. Why? It was too fine at everything. It looked fine. It got fine gas mileage. It had fine room. It rode fine. The color was fine. The interior was fine. If you jammed on it, the acceleration was fine. With some bigger rims, the handling was fine. The road noise was on the loud end of fine. The two best features of this car were the speakers (shockingly good, Hyundai doesn't get enough credit for their good sound systems), and the ventilation. Both the heat and AC were fantastic! If not the best I've ever experienced, then a very emphatic 1B. But you can't fall in love with AC. A car won't stir your soul based only on the quality of its speakers. Yes, they're a nice add-on, but much like a nice set of lips, you only truly notice the lack, not the presence.
Because of that fact, because I never loved this car, I definitely resented it towards the end. It was an emotional burden. I had been wanting to trade it in on something new for three or four years by the time I finally got situated enough to take on a new car payment without issue, and that felt like an eternity. I wanted to love my car again, I wanted to feel that joy every time I was behind the wheel. I wanted to be reminded why driving is so special, such a privilege. I wanted to hate my car again, to be annoyed by a manual transmission in traffic. To not be able to fit things in the trunk and have to reconfigure the whole inside just to fit some stupid thing in there. I was desperate to feel anything about my car again, any kind of thing that wasn't just...fine. I wanted to hear people say things about my car again. Aside from the "Your car looks pregnant" thing, the only other comment I ever heard about my car the entire time I owned it was "Oh, I thought you drove a Saab." A LOT of people thought I drove a Saab once I put some larger wheels on it. Like, you know Saab, but not Hyundai? Okay. With certain people I didn't even bother to refute it. What was the point, I had nothing to defend with the Elantra, nothing even to accuse it of, other than being...not bad. And that is absolutely the most damning kind of faint praise.
When I finally traded in the Elantra, it was for a car that I really, really wanted. I wanted this car so bad, for so long, that the local Hyundai dealership started stocking the specific model regularly based on the number of times I asked to test drive it, a fact I learned after I finally bought the car. Every time I got close, every time I got a new job prospect, or even when it seemed like I could make myself a career out of a job, it fell through. I honestly never thought I'd be able to get the car I truly wanted, because the model I liked was one with very limited production runs. We'll go into our new cars in a later podcast episode (TEASER ALERT TEASER ALERT).
My wife and I...hmm, no, my fiancee (now wife) and I went into the dealership one night, not even expecting them to be open. I feel I needed to look at the car I wanted, before going to look at a similar car at the other local Hyundai dealer the next day. To my surprise they were open, and I ended up buying a new car that night, leaving some time around midnight. Driving the Elantra home, I was suddenly hit with the realization that after the drive to the dealership tomorrow, I would never ever see this car again. It wasn't panic, it wasn't buyers remorse, I knew this was a good decision, I knew the new car I picked was the right choice, I had absolute confidence in my worthiness of and my ability to pay for this new vehicle. It's just...well, I had long before that night stolen a sentiment from Richard Hammond and begun to call my Elantra The Place I Keep My Airbags, but I suddenly realized that maybe I had been a little too hard on the car. Maybe I had expected too much from it, asked it to be what it never was intended to be. The 2005 Hyundai Elantra was absolutely just a place to keep your airbags, but what the hell is so wrong with that? Millions of people around the world buy vehicles like that every single year: Camrys, Accords, and every single van, SUV, and crossover ever sold. "Places" like that are the most popular car in the world, and it's not close. Most people don't even seem to notice. There is nothing inherently "Wrong" with a vehicle being Just A Car, and in fact I'd like to officially coin that abbreviation/low-rent acronym right here and now, in honor of my 2005 Hyundai Elantra, the king of the JACs.
I don't really miss my second car, and I don't know that I ever well. But I do feel bad for thinking so negatively about it for so many years. It served well, and it served long, and it never really complained about any of it. I owned the Elantra for 12 years, from 17 to 29 years old. It moved me across the country, it went with me on countless night drives, it got me to and from work and school without ever breaking down on the commute. The only thing you couldn't fit in the back was full sheets of plywood, insulation or drywall. It transported me. It kept me safe. It kept me warm and or cool as the situation required, and it kept me entertained on road trips. It did it all, and it did it all just fine. When you get right down to it, I mean when you really and honestly look at what a vehicle's purpose is in the world, can you say anything fairer than that? So here's to the JACs of the world. I see your purpose, and I'll try to be a little bit nicer in the future. But not too much.