Buying Decade-nce: The Unfrozen Caveman of Car Buyers

I am the unfrozen cave man of car buyers. Every decade or so, a machine shaman whispers the magic words in my ear — You’re gonna need a new engine — and I leave my cave, shaking my fist at the great ball of fire in the sky, and go looking for one, always packaged in a new steed.

This habit has several interesting side effects. There are crazed leaps in technology when you only go car shopping once a decade or so. In 2001, I turned down a $1,500 option to add a hard wired Motorola Razr to my BMW X5; in 2016, Bluetooth, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay were standard on my base 2016 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible.

Another is that I’ve just purchased my fourth car, despite being well into my fifth decade driving.

1984 Ford Mustang: 86-horsepower 2.3-liter I4 engine and four-speed manual transmission. Best. Car. Ever. (The Mustang was actually my second choice. I wanted a Pontiac Fiero, but when I showed up for the second meeting in my Army uniform, the salesman said, “We don’t sell to soldiers,” and that was that.) Drove it for eight years and 85,000 miles. It was parked for three years when the Army sent me to Japan. Drove it all over the country: Georgia, Indiana, Arizona, New York … first with cameras or a date in the front seat, then with a wife, and finally two car seats in the back, That is until my mechanic told me the engine block was cracked and I needed a new one.

So I bought a …

1992 Jeep Cherokee: 190-horsepower 4.0-liter I6 with 225 lb-ft of torque and five-speed manual transmission. Best. Truck. Ever. Three car seats in the back now, and the way back filled with fly rods and cameras. Drove the kids to preschool and elementary in New England, middle school in Virginia, and then high school in Texas. Fished for trout all over New England and Virginia, bonefish in the Florida Keys, and bass in Texas, until my mechanic told me the engine block was cracked and I needed a new engine.

So I bought a …

2001 BMW X5 3.0i: 3.0 liters, 225 horsepower, 214 lb-ft of torque, five-speed manual transmission. Best. Car. Ever. Drove the kids to high school and college. Road tripped to the Keys to fish for bonefish and Galveston to fish for reds. Learned you can cruise Texas roads at a high rate of speed, until my mechanic told me the rings were shot and I needed a new engine.

So I bought a …

2016 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible: 2.0-liter turbo I4 with 275 horsepower, 295 foot-pounds of torque, and a six-speed manual transmission. Best. Car. Ever. Daughter checked out the vestigial back seat and said, “There’s really no room for kids.” My response: “What’s your point?” The Camaro’s 2.0T makes 50 more horses and 81 more lb-ft of torque than the X5’s 3.0-liter I6 in a vehicle that weighs more than 1,000 pounds less. Not only is the Camaro a rocket compared to the already fast BMW, I’m getting 26.6 miles per gallon around town compared to 18.3 in the X5. People stop in parking lots and on roads to watch the roof go up and down.

One of the interesting aspects about only wandering out to buy a car every decade is that long-term trends are more apparent. Heading out to buy the first three cars was a sure recipe for sticker-shock. My first thought in 2001 when the Cherokee died was to buy another one. Unfortunately for that plan, the Great SUV Boom had started while I wasn’t paying attention, and Jeeps had basically doubled in price. Ironically, the SUV boom helped me get the car I’d been dreaming about — the BMW X5 — which kind of combined my first two vehicles. It drove like a sports sedan, but hauled stuff like, well, an SUV. It’s hard to remember now, but BMW’s first U.S. “truck” was seen as a risk, and the Bavarians had therefore priced it aggressively back then. The X5 I bought was cheaper than the 330i sitting next to it on the lot, and only a few dollars more than the Grand Cherokee I was about to buy.

This time was different. One example: BMW offered Bluetooth as an upgrade, but they wanted double what I’d paid for the entire new Sony stereo I’d put in the X5. X5s were no longer cheap by any stretch, no longer come with a stick, and I didn’t want a third SUV in a row. I looked at the 228i convertible, but frankly I like the Camaro and its tonneau better even before you notice it’s half the price.

I’ll admit I was concerned about going from a BMW to a Chevy. I think I would have found the Mustang or the Jeep difficult to love if I’d owned the BMW first. But while I was in my cave, Moore’s Law came to the auto industry.

Moore’s Law famously says that computer power doubles every two years. Less well known is that it also says the inverse; the cost of a given level of power falls by 50 percent every two years.

The BMW was largely an old-school mechanical car: a naturally aspirated engine, hydraulic steering, etc. The Camaro is basically a drop-top Cadillac ATS. The turbo engine is electronic everything, as is the steering. In Sport Mode, the steering has that same hands-on-the-asphalt feel I so loved in the BMW. The engine is bipolar in the best sense: below 3,000 rpm, it’s smooth and will turn in 34+ mpg on the highway. Above 3,000 rpm, the turbo howls, all that torque kicks you in the butt, and away we go. 

So it’s me and the Camaro for the next decade or so, give or take, until that dreadful day a machine shaman whispers the magic words in my ear — You’re gonna need a new engine — and I leave my cave once more.

Christopher J Feola’s experience has always been at the intersection of information and technology. He has been granted two patents for data architecture, was the founding director of The Media Center at American Press Institute, and taught at the graduate level at Columbia and Indiana universities, among others. He has worked at seven papers in 18 states and five countries on a couple of continents, including a two-year stint covering Asia as a foreign correspondent for Stars & Stripes, and has more than 4,000 published articles and 6,000 published photos to his credit.

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