I grew up with Need for Speed. Every kid my age did. My sister and I put more hours into that series than any other in our collection save maybe the Harry Potter PC games (we have eclectic tastes). The one that stood out in my mind the most, though, was the original Underground game. I never put any thought into the actual vehicles available and chose cars based on those sweet sweet blue stats bars. So I grew up getting familiar with the Dodge Neon, Peugeot 206, NB Miata, and Nissan Sentra on a visual level, but nothing deeper than that.
Enter the mid-2000s. My mom sits me down and tells me that I am required to get my temporary license as soon as I am eligible because I am required to get my license on my 16th birthday. I am required to buy my own car and I am required to get my own insurance for it. And these tasks are necessary because her car was so unreliable that I would need to drive her to and from work and do the shopping while her own car (Jaguar S-Type R) was inevitably in the shop. At the time of this conversation, it was at the dealership after having been towed because it wouldn’t start.
My own car. I hadn’t put any thought at all into what I might want beyond the fact that I would be getting a car and had been saving up. And here’s how I chose my first car: I wanted that one car from Need for Speed Underground. You know, the one with the tail lights that go all the way across the back.
So I fired up underground.exe and checked. Mitsubishi Eclipse. I began searching.
I knew that it needed to be a manual. It wouldn’t be green or purple. I found out pretty quickly that I only wanted the facelift version, so 1997-1999. Those were pretty much my only requirements. I didn’t know at the time that there were trim levels that didn’t have a turbo, nor did I know about the AWD model, but after three months of searching I found one that I wanted. My mom was rather unhappy with this delay because it meant that we were forced into four people sharing my dad’s Integra R and my sister’s badass manual Volvo 240. The Jag had needed a new transmission. Again.
eBay Motors. Wouldn’t recommend it. But I found one that I liked. A red 1997 GS-T Spyder. It didn’t have great paint but otherwise needed nothing according to the listing. I placed a bid and won. And that was when I discovered that the car was at a dealership in Florida. So I went to the bank, withdrew most of my savings to pay for the car and the trip back, and then bought one-way plane tickets from Indianapolis to Sarasota for my mom and me (Indianapolis was cheaper than flying out of Cincinnati). I was still 15 at the time and only had a temporary license, so the second plane ticket was a necessary expense.
We woke up at 2AM, had my dad drive us the two hours to Indianapolis, got on a plane at 6AM, and were in Sarasota by 9:30. My mom whips out a disposable camera that she had secretly bought to capture my reactions to driving my first car, and snapped a picture while we waited for the dealership to pick us up in a black Focus SVT. We were checking out the car by 10:30.
I started going down my checklist in my head. The top is in great shape. It runs and idles well. AC works. Cruise control works. No CEL or other warning lights. The clutch caught right at the floor, but that’s a common complaint with these cars. The underside looked like it had just rolled out of the factory, so I knew that I must have it. My mom was less enthused, however. The body was in much worse shape than the pictures showed, with several new large dents and very little remaining clearcoat. She “stepped inside” to “have a nice conversation” with the guy running the dealership.
And at this point I should clarify that term. These guys had a dealership license and were able to provide their own financing and temporary tags, but the “dealership” was their house and they just had a driveway full of shitty and mostly riced out cars. And apparently I was lucky to have purchased the car when I did because the sellers had already installed underglow and had just received the body kit that they had purchased for the car. If I were to leave without purchasing the car, the stock bumpers would be scrapped and replaced with the most ill-fitting aftermarket bumpers that money can buy. After having stood up to the likes of my mother (a task that few have ever achieved) they decided to make up for the undisclosed damage by offering to include said body kit with the car. I firmly and almost violently declined.
I hand over the cash, they print a temp tag and sign the title, and we’re on our way. Yes, there was a test drive, but it was comprised entirely of my mom screaming that I wasn’t allowed to put the top down anymore because her hair was destroyed. After some candid photos, we hit the road with the top up and headed North.
I drove the car into the night, trying to both get a feel for my new purchase and to get as far as I could before we had to stop for the night. Being used to my dad’s Honda, I was very impressed with the torque from this 4G63. It felt infinitely faster than the Integra, so I was happy. I had test driven only one other Eclipse by that point and this one was definitely slower, but that one was far from stock and the difference between the two was not surprising. I thought that things were going swimmingly, but by the time we stopped in northern Georgia the CEL was solidly illuminated and we had averaged 19mpg across the few tanks of gas that we had used. I pulled out what remained of my cash and bought a hotel in the Middle of Nowhere, Georgia.
In the morning, the car was reluctant to start and was a little rough idling in the parking lot. Being 450 miles from home didn’t leave us many options, though, so we pressed on. The second day of driving was consumed entirely by complaints from my mother about how horrifically uncomfortable the seats were. The 19mpg trend continued despite my sticking to the speed limit (I still didn’t have my license, remember?). And despite all of the above, I was quickly falling in love with the car. Sure, it needed work, both to correct the body and to correct these unknown mechanical issues, but come on. How bad could it be?
Coming up in Part 2, everything is broken. And expensive.