The sky was a bright blue above the alley. My MX-5 otherwise in shadow between the office tower and parking garages sat neatly against the left hand curb, top down; as I again waited for my wife to finish up at the office. I had no reason to believe today would be any different than the past 2 months; Jen would come out of the door with a look of exhaustion that would disappear when she saw me. She always made an effort to be happy to see me, but after 9 weeks of walking to a bus, and getting motion sick on the ride, and work all day only to have to endure my version of driving on the way home; when I knew all she wanted was the splendid isolation and freedom that comes with owning your own car.
Everyone has lost a best friend, someone close to them that’s always been there through life’s biggest moments for as long as you can remember. So it was when my wife Jens’ 2001 New Beetle died last Easter weekend. I say died purposely, because that’s how it felt. A loss out weighed only by the death of a friend, or a pet. That car had been a constant companion for 14 years. The only life changing event Jen’s Beetle, affectionately known as Jen’s UFO, missed was our Las Vegas wedding. After 14 years of always being there; now suddenly it was gone.
How does one move on from such a loss? How do you move on from the memories, both good and bad? First; apparently, you cry...A lot.
For Jen the first three days after her Beetle broke, while trying to make logical and financial decisions that could last years, had to look past the sadness and through the tears to make the decision to spend the money to fix her old car or buy a new one. These are hard choices to make under the best circumstances, only made harder now by the stress of unexpected loss.
Most people assumed Jen would go right back to the closest VW dealer and buy a new Beetle, but like Jen the Beetle had aged, matured and as she wasn’t the same person, it wasn’t the same car. “They squished it.” She had said of the new roof line. In VW’s attempt to make a new retro styled car appeal more to a masculine demographic, they pushed Jen out of it. Besides they weren’t offering any quirky colors for it. So the search was on for my wife to find a new BFF, and this seemed daunting because the slate initially appeared perfectly clean.
We both knew this was going to be a long process, and having lived with Jen for almost 18 years we have been on more than one excursion to find a purse, an outfit, or shoes that started and ended at the same store with many stores in between. First we needed to make sure that we wouldn’t end up just buying the newest non-squished New Beetle we could find after months of searching. In the 14 years she had her UFO the only non-maintenance complaints Jen had offered was the radio, which I upgraded, and the cup holder. In the first iteration of the New Beetle the cup holders were side-by-side under the radio stack at the leading edge of the center console. They were useless for American sized beverages until you used the option to swing/slide them to the right where one holder became useful, and banged the passenger in the knee.
We discussed the option of replacing her Beetle with a 2010 (the cup holders were moved in 2005) for about 9-10 thousand dollars, but her general feeling was she’d be more comfortable with a warranty, than a 4-5 year old car without one. A sound logical decision.
We’ve been to at least a dozen motorsports events, and probably 50 car shows. Jen doesn’t have an auto enthusiast’s encyclopedic memory of years and, options, but she knows what she likes and what she doesn’t like. We’ve been to every kind of car show; the anemic new car auto shows of San Jose California and Indianapolis to the glitz and glamour that is the Chicago Auto Show. We’ve seen the best that America had to offer from the 40’s to the 70’s at Good Guys shows. We’ve even been to “Stance” shows sponsored by Fatlace, Offset Kings, and Import Alliance. Car shows in Monte Ray, and Alameda California, and more Indy Cars and Coffee events than I can remember. Jen knows and loves cars. She has at least sat in everything from a Mazda 2 to a Lexus CT so I knew Jen could make a good decision on her own; we just needed to form the search parameters into a logical sequence.
Buying a car, I feel, is a bit like buying a smart phone. You first need to decide what features you have to have, and that eliminates the ones you don’t’ want. Then you can compare what’s left to find the one that is closest to your list. If your list ends up with more than one you look for the X factor that puts one above the rest. So I asked Jen “What features does your next car need?”
After a moment’s thought she replied. “Four doors, hatchback, more power, modern electronic gear, flappy paddle gear box, and AWD if possible.” This narrowed the field considerably. Basically the list became; a Golf, Mini, Subaru or a crossover.
“What do you not want?”
“Station wagon and no sunroof.”
We had looked at cars two years prior when we had first moved to Indy. None of those had sparked enough interest to budge her from the Beetle, so I ended up with my dream car in a 1999 MX-5. So we needed to refresh our memory of what she did and didn’t like about those cars to see if any needed another test drive.
The Spark I remembered she thought an insect-like joke of a car so I didn’t go there. “What about the Sonic?”
“It’s quirky sure, but if I wanted a car inspired by a motorcycle, I’d buy a motorcycle.”
“The Cruze? I remember you liked that, and they have one with some power.”
“It felt big compared to the Beetle, but the seats were nice.” So we needed to add small and bolstered seats to the list.
“You didn’t like the Ford’s I remember.”
“I like how they looked on the outside, and the Fiesta came in a funky green, but I couldn’t see very well out the back, and the center console was too much plastic and covered in buttons.” So we added visibility, and the ‘Technology’ needed to be aesthetically pleasing as it was ergonomic.
“What about the Golf? It had all your criteria, even AWD if you step up to the R.”
“Back then the Golf was too much money and not different enough from the Beetle to make the commitment.”
We had gone to the Indianapolis Auto Show and CAS (Chicago Auto Show) this spring, before the Beetle had expired and only two cars had seemed to impress her enough and met her criteria that we thought they were viable; Mini Countryman and the Golf R, so we put them at the top of the list with others in their genre.
Golf/R, Mazda 3, Mini Cooper Countryman S (JCW) and quirky for quirkiness’s sake Nissan Juke (Nismo/R)
When Jen took a look at the list; the field narrowed more. Mazda? Too plane. Nissan? The Juke might be too quirky, and reviews of how the CVT ruined it, nixed it on the list. The Mini was quirky and to Jens eye; appealing. The Golf? The GTI was definitely an option, while the AWD of the R sounded great the 292 horse power sounded intimidating. Jen could recall one of our early car conversations was about a Cadillac I was impressed with that had a 0-60 time of 5 seconds. Back then 5 seconds was F A S T ! Anything faster was supercar stupid fast. So 4.5 seconds in a Golf to her sounded like the car might be more capable than her talent level.
This basically narrowed the list to two cars each with two options variants. What she needed was test drives.
Our first test drive was the Mini Countryman. I’ll give the Mini this; it’s funky in a cartoonish way. To me everything might be a little too round, a bit to inflated looking. The local dealer didn’t have a JWC version, but realistically speaking its options wouldn’t really show themselves in a normal test drive to a significant extent over a Cooper S anyway. This test drive was more about how it felt on the road, how was the visibility?
Jen liked the Mini. She REALLY liked the Mini. As a passenger the only comment I could offer was the seats seamed too big. They were bolstered but they didn’t hug you. They seemed made for someone twice my size and I would have to slide my rear over a few inches to even get to the bolstering. Turning the opposite way I would have to slide twice as far to get to the other bolster. Jen did especially like the BMW service package offered by Mini, so it remained an option if she didn’t like the VW.
Next up was the GTI. There were a few problems here. The dealership, while huge locally, had a reputation that garnered it a “Evil Empire” nickname. Secondly we went for our test the weekend before the big Passat/Jetta sale and lots were light on Golfs of any form. They had her drive a mid-level previously owned GTI from 2014. The “Extras” the dealer was using to convince her to buy there revolved around washing your car at service appointments and free shuttle rides.
Jen took the knowledge gained home, and did more homework. She made different option builds online, looking for features she wanted, colors available, and cost. She learned very quickly her builds were the most expensive builds, and therefore not at dealers in great quantity. She also discovered the way manufacturers bundle options made it difficult to get exactly what you wanted without buying something you didn’t want. Most specifically most Mini, and GTI’s have a sunroof, and navigation bundled with their performance options. When we moved to California we did it using a thing called a road atlas. When we moved back to the Midwest we used a smartphone. She didn’t want the sunroof, because she never used her old one and didn’t want a navigation package she wasn’t going to use either.
While assessing her build options Jen built a VW Golf R and chuckled at the 2 option packages. What we came to call ‘Everything’ and ‘A bit more”. It still seemed like too much power, and maybe too much money.
Jen’s beloved Beetle had been gone scarcely a week and we had narrowed the field down to just 2 cars. This project was taking every waking moment of our time and choosing options and deciding car or crossover where pretty much all that was left.
On April 10th I asked Oppo which car should my wife buy? Countryman JWC or Golf R? There were a few optional “Third choice recommends” that were appreciated but shot down. (Most notably the Subaru: while I was for WRX STi all day; beyond lack of automatic transmition option, Jen has always viewed it as a racer boy car.) Most replies leaned toward the R. Over the next weekend Jen’s exhaustive research led her to lean towards a GTI Autobahn with sport package/DCC. This seemed to be the happy middle “just right” she was looking for…Then she started to look for actual cars to test drive. There were some GTI’s around but not with her option choices, then she found an R up in Muncie (50 miles away). It was black, and if she got an R she’d want the traditional Lapiz blue, but color wouldn’t change a test drive and she would regret never trying one. We made an appointment for the next week and as I had been picking her up downtown every day I picked her up and we drove to Muncie. Those of you unfamiliar with Indiana; Muncie is effectively a small town in the middle of a cornfield, more pickup country than hot hatch territory. Regardless it was a warm day and the ride in the MX-5 was as good as they get even if the roads were mostly straight, and flat.
As is typical of most every car dealer that I’ve been to the salesman always seemed more comfortable talking to me even though the car was obviously for my wife. This guy an S2000 owner chatted me up about the Mazda for a minute, and when he did start to talk to Jen about the R he quickly learned she knew more about it than he did. She asked if it only came with summer tires. He didn’t know. She asked if Android auto would work in it or if an Android phone would connect at all? He didn’t know. She asked about the auxiliary input? He knew it had one but not where it was at. She found it herself.
We took it for a ride anyway. A smile I usually only see when the best desserts arrive at the table crossed my wife’s face when upon pushing the start button the car came burbling to life. Jen drove it… reservedly. To say Jen drove it reservedly might be an understatement. Jen was aware of the sound augmenting “Soundaktor” but as the Beetle had been plagued with road noise first, radio second, and the engine note lost in the back ground. In the R the engine noise came first, and it sounded aggressive. After meandering around on back roads we approached a 4 lane divided highway, and by way of encouragement I offered “If you are going to test the power?” She cut me off and said she knew. Jen didn’t quite drop the hammer but she defiantly goosed the accelerator and let out an excited yelp and got the smile G-forces and acceleration never fails to make on a car enthusiasts face. She both enjoyed it and was intimidated by it. She still hadn’t decided if this was ‘The’ car, and it wasn’t blue after all, so we thanked the salesman and drove to dinner to talk about cars.
Maybe it was the feedback I’d gotten on Oppo, or the advice I’d gotten directly from Patrick and Matt, but the search started leaning towards the VW’s and away from the Mini. I also had a coworker who had a Countryman S whom seemed to loved it, so I asked her about it. I asked her how she liked it, and she said “I love it.” And then she paused to think. “I used to love it.” Hmm I thought and asked what had changed her mind. “It’s fun in its own way, it handles snow very well.” She paused again. “I guess the novelty wore off before the payments did. There are definitely things I would change.” She had said. I thought of Patrick’s advice and asked if the interior seemed out dated. Her eyes got big and she said. “Yes. That’s it exactly. And I would like more power.” She smiled. I asked if she would recommend one to her friends. “No. Or repeat my purchase.”
After that it was all VW. Either the Golf GTI Autobahn with Sport package/DCC or go all the way for an R. Then Jen discovered something interesting. While ‘building’ her cars online the “find your car” option wasn’t finding cars. She’d try a different zip code; nothing. Chicago; nope. Columbus Ohio; nada. Jen was picking the zip codes of every major city in an ever growing circle. With some luck she got a hit. Cincinnati? 2 R’s en route. One red, one white one with DCC one without. We had been down to one car for a month. Jen was getting desperate and flustered. I was ironically the calm one, but Jen had let me take my time finding the right MX-5; so it was my chance to pay her back. Besides; I wasn’t the one getting motion sick on a bus, twisting my ankle crossing potholed streets, or getting splashed by asshats in the rain. So she called the dealer to see when they would deliver. “Wednesday.” Was the answer. So we planned to drive down Saturday, and if she could deal with an alternate color either Arrest me Red, or iPhone White we would have her car.
With Thursday came a call from Cincinnati. Good news; the cars made it as promised. The bad news; the red one sold and the white one was now reserved for a customer in California. The frustration was obvious on my wife’s brow from the overwhelming feeling of being back at square one. Her next build said one was going to our local dealer so she called. Jen was having trouble getting straight answers from the Death Star of dealerships so she didn’t know where to look. That’s when I decided I should help. I did what is most difficult for me to do. I picked up my phone, found our next closest VW dealership, and called a complete stranger on the phone and admitted ignorance. (Authors note: The ability of talking on the phone… to strangers…and admitting ignorance may be my worst skill sets behind spelling and grammar.)
“Hello this is Justin how can I help?” It was late in the business day and it sounded like Justin was the only person at the dealer, as any other time I’d call a dealership I got a receptionist. I told Justin the truth; my wife was looking for specific cars with specific options and not having any luck. I told him about the Autobahn and the R and wondered aloud if we should order one rather than continue looking.
Justin explained politely that the first 500 R’s went on pre-order and sold out in 11 hours back in January. Justin went on to explain that the rest of the American allotments were either personal orders, or trickling in to high volume dealerships, or as rewards for making goals. He apologized for not having one to sell us, or trade to another dealer for the one we wanted. The situation with the Golf GTI Autobahn was similar, high demand and few allotments. All Justin could really recommend was to keep looking online, and if we found one, he could try to get a dealer trade for us.
“What about ordering from the factory?” I asked. Sure they could do that, but it would be for a 2016 and that wouldn’t deliver until the fall. So while the call had garnered more information none of it was executable. We still had to wait. I took the information that the specific GTI was as hard to get as the R and decided we needed to know which Jen wanted. A loaded GTI wasn’t a huge price difference, but was an R worth that difference? (I asked Matt Hardigree this question and I failed to save his quote so I’ll paraphrase my recollection.) If go out and buy a brand new Camaro; and while driving down the street you see a brand new Camaro SS. Do you say ‘Hey nice car’ or do you say “Dam that guy; I wish I had…’
I think both my wife and I fall into the latter category. So like Patrick’s words of caution about the Mini, we put Matt’s observation in the mix as well, though it was starting to feel likely that first found was going to be ‘The One’ regardless. Weeks seemed to be flying buy as I became accustom to the routine of go to work north of the city, drive downtown to pick up Jen and then the endless runs for errands. The trunk of the MX-5 being so small a trip to Target takes 2 trips where normally we’d go to Target, Walgreens, Wholefoods for specialty items, and a regular grocery all in one sweep. This was now 3 or 4 days of shopping. Our life had become work, shop, go for a walk, eat, look online for a car, sleep repeat.
Then; when Jen was ready to give in and order a 2016, she found one. A 2015 Golf R Lapiz Blue DCC/Navigation being delivered to…Downtown Indianapolis. No date specified. “That’s where the guy that helped me out with the information works. I have his name written in my notes. Give him a call and see what’s up with it.” I said to my very anxiously excited wife.
So for me the next day was like any other sitting in my MX-5, waiting in the alley, goofing around on Twitter and taking random photos of the buildings around me until Jen came out. The long day apparent on her cheeks just before they broke into a smile. I opened the trunk and put her belongings in and our day to day chitchat started as usual. While buckling in Jen was telling me she left a message for Justin, but hadn’t heard back from him yet; when her phone rang. I put the car back in neutral and reapplied the hand brake by the time she answered. “Hello, this is Jennifer.” I listened as best you can when you can only hear one side of a conversation. “It is? Great! Do you know when?...Well is it reserved for anyone? Will you take a credit card? I don’t want this one to get away.” Justin must have thought this was his lucky day. So did we.
Two months to the day after Jens beloved 2001 Beetle had died the car she decided could possibly replace it now had her name on it. Some minor details remained but the hard part was done. Jens work wasn’t finished because there were details like window tinting, and paint protection to look into. We didn’t know it at the time, but Jen’s Golf R was still on the assembly line and 1 month and 5 days away from our driveway. We didn’t care, because the lifting of uncertainty was enough to wash the last of the grief and loss away. We could go on with our summer knowing that tomorrow would be a better day.