"Bulletproof" and "reliable" tend to be used as synonyms and they both do sort of describe a car that doesn't break. A bulletproof car, though, is not necessarily reliable.

Now, think of some one bulletproof. You can imagine a tomboy with her hair perpetually pulled tight in a pony tail, wearing cargo pants long after she left the service, never taking any shit from anybody, always on guard for some perceived slight. She might be the kind of person you can get drunk with, but not the kind of person you can get philosophical with. Imagine this lady wrongs someone. The wronged person and several of their friends take the bulletproof lady out to the desert, in the night, alone. They shoot her and leave her for dead.

That woman ^ up there, is the Jeep Cherokee XJ. The Toyota Corolla would never have been out in the dessert, in the night, alone, getting shot in the first damn place. The Toyota Corolla stayed home and did the laundry.

The Cherokee XJ doesn't stay dead though. She comes back. She dresses her wounds with her own ripped clothes, walks through the wasteland to the nearest house, smashes in the window, and takes what she needs. Walking out the back door there's a Lexus key fob and a faded AMC key hung by the back door.

The crew who left her for dead have gone their separate ways and one of them is just pulling into his driveway at four in the morning. Stepping out of his car he notices he has several missed calls from one of his associates. He starts to dial his voice mail, but pauses when a pair of square AMC Jeep YJ head lights pull into his driveway. It's an unfamiliar set of lights. The dead girl steps out of the stolen jeep holding a pistol.

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Do you know why? No, not the revenge. That was inevitable. Why she steals the YJ. She definitely could have gotten her revenge in the Lexus, but the YJ, like the XJ, is bulletproof.

Reliable is not Bulletproof

The Toyota Corolla is reliable. It's the archetypal reliable car. The Toyota Corolla gets to work on time, picks the kids up, buys groceries, does chores, and when her abusive husband is hauled off to jail for smashing the manatee lamp they brought home from Seaworld over her head: the Toyota Corolla bails him out of the slammer. The Corolla endures.

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However, imagine how absurd it would be see a Corolla in a line of lifted mud-trucks and partially disassembled jeeps slowly ambling in the forest. The Corolla can grit it's teeth and endure a lot, but that's a specific kind of strength.

A Toyota Corolla endures, but it doesn't bounce back. If a pickup truck is rear ended in a devastating accident: everything can be replaced at the junk yard. Optionally: it can be painted. It a Corolla is rear ended: everything can be held together with bungee straps.

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A Toyota Corolla takes care of her five handicapped children without help from her abusive husband, without proper medical assistance, without classes from the deaf school so she can understand the two deaf ones, without complaining for ten years. Then she loses it and tries to drown them in the bath tub. Smoke is pouring out of her tailpipe, and folks are saying, "Mebbe if her husband had used synthetic, none of this would have happened. That man, well. I never thought they ought to get together. I said that. Should have found a man that could afford Royal Purple. Then them poor kids would still have a family," but it's too late.

When your 2002 Corolla begins to smoke, here's the solution. Change the oil, spray some Seafoam or water while revving the engine, drive the car around at redline until the smoke thins out a bit, and put it on Craigslist. Then go practice your poker face in the mirror. Practice deadpanning things like, "Oh, no problems I drive her to work every day," and just in case, "Well that's funny. She's never done that before."

The Illusion of Reliability

Judging something without emotion is pretty close to impossible. People wrenching on their broken cars will judge them freely, audibly, profanely, emotionally. Bulletproof cars seem reliable, because they can always be put right.

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This is how people often change shock absorbers on the Cherokee XJ:

  1. Jack the car up.
  2. Unbolt the shock absorber.
  3. It literally falls out.
  4. Put a new one in.

This is how people often change struts on a Toyota Corolla:

  1. Watch a YouTube video.
  2. Nope.
  3. Call mechanic for a price.
  4. Well. It's not really that bumpy and it doesn't swerve too much.

In a way, this really does make the XJ reliable. Because a "bulletproof" car is easy to fix, more things tend to get fixed. Check out this old guy and his Town Car:

There's an interesting line where the guy explains that his car, "never broke down on him." The guy in the video is driving a car where all filters, belts, fluids, suspension components, pumps, and plugs have been replaced; the engine and transmission have been rebuilt multiple times. He's describing a car with a lot of maintenance, but bragging that it doesn't break down.

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Recently I was riding with my brother when his XJ caught on fire. After 180,000 miles and a three year break from the labor of running: the car was spraying its power steering fluid into the engine bay. Short term fix was tape over the leak, and the long term fix was relatively easy. It was definitely a problem when the XJ caught fire, but it was also an adventure.

The XJ might show up to work late, because she's been drinking, and yes that's unprofessional, and yes that's inconvenient at the time, and yes she'll probably be fired for it one day, but ten years from now will you remember all the boring Nissans that showed up to do their day job? The Corolla will agree with you that Steve should have returned your Playstation by now, but the XJ will stake out his house with you and help you sneak in to grab it while he's out to pick up Chinese food. The Corolla won't judge you for stealing it, but the XJ will insist on lending Steve her Playstation games, because she thinks it's hilarious that Steve won't admit having "lost" it.

You might have to bail the XJ out of jail every now and then, but as the years pass those problems turn into memories.