Protection plan worked

December 7, 1994

We have a Hyundai. Yes, Hyundai. Although it sounds like the cry of a person undergoing the Heimlich maneuver, it is actually a car. For six years and 122,000 miles, our South Korean automobile has been a faithful mode of transportation.

Lately, however, it has been running out of steam or squirrels or whatever makes it run, and a joke I once heard has become all too real: Why does a Hyundai have a rear window defroster? To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing it.

When asked what kind of car we have, my wife and I have never been able to just say, “a Hyundai,” and leave it at that. We always follow with an explanation of how trustworthy it has been, while acknowledging that it shouldn’t be so, being a Hyundai. We become defense attorneys, acutely aware that, over the years, our client has garnered a reputation only slightly more respectable than Manson.

The Hyundai started to fall apart shortly after our final car payment a year ago last August. At that point, someone at the bank activated a mechanism in the vehicle via remote control, triggering the car’s collapse. But the real problems started long ago, way back in the fall of 1988, the day we decided to buy a new car.

It was so much a decision as it was a shot in the dark. Our method of referencing and comparing was to shield our eyes from the sun, squint across the street from the Hyundai lot to a neighboring dealership, and say, “Nahhh.”

We were there for two reasons: The Hyundai was cheap, and we had to unload a Renault Fuego that had a track record as successful as the Titanic.

Approached by a salesman whose name I have forgotten so I’ll just call him Snake, we moronically announced our intentions. “Duhh, we wanna buy a car. Today if possible. We’re really desperate. We’ve never done this before. And boy, do we need to unload our heap of scrap metal. Do you do trade-ins?”

We walked the lot, and settled on a maroon Excel that boasted air conditioning, a tape deck, intermittent wipers, and a neat little drawer under the passenger seat. It being an ’88 model, and it being late ’88, Snake was willing to chop the price by a couple thousand dollars. What a guy!

We even got suckered into buying truly unnecessary protection plans.

“For only an extra $20 a month, you’ll receive unlimited rearview mirror coverage, unless you smack it with your forehead.”

“Gee, really? Where do we sign?”

What started out to be a stupid purchase turned out to be a good deal, if you overlook the 64 percent interest rate on our loan. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve gotten more than 120,000 miles out of it. It’s been all over New England several times, and has even made it to Graceland. Nowadays, though, we’re lucky to make it to Portland. Ever since our final loan payment was made, the Hyundai has turned into a Bermuda Triangle on wheels.

The generator died a few months ago. The tape deck has been reduced to radio-only status. The muffler has been replaced once, the muffler pipes two or three times. One is cracked now, and the sounds emanating from under the hood are reminiscent of a Sopwith Camel (the World War I British biplane flown by Snoopy). The exhaust manifold cracked and had to be replaced.

Engaging the air conditioner drains so much power from the Hyundai that it creates the same effect as yanking on the emergency brake. If Diane and I wanted to commit suicide, we could roll up the windows, turn on the heater, and suck on the noxious fumes. Even though new rear shocks were recently installed, driving over twigs is still a good way to check for loose fillings.

The car creaks and groans as if it suffers from arthritis, and makes even more noise when it’s moving. The temptation to roll up the windows to eliminate the sound of wind is great, even when they are already rolled up.

The main problem is the car’s refusal to ascend hills with a grade greater than 5 degrees. If forced to go uphill – hell, if it’s nudged over a speed bump – the Hyundai’s engine will chug and heave like, uhh…like someone receiving the Heimlich maneuver.

We do not bad-mouth the Hyundai while in it, especially when far away from home or a service station. Superstition dictates that if the car were to hear our grievances, it would wreak vengeance upon us in the worst way, including, but not limited to, running out of gas on a full tank or melting its own brake pads while on the turnpike.

So now we are in the process of buying a new car. We’re going about it much more wisely than before. Consumer Reports has become our Bible. If a car isn’t high on the ratings, we don’t bother looking at it. We’ll test drive at night and during the day. Instead of being deferential to the dealer, we firmly state our terms and, if he doesn’t find them reasonable, we walk.

At the time of writing, we have narrowed our selections down to a Saturn and a Toyota Corolla, two cars with excellent track records. By the time this goes to print, I hope we will have purchased one of them. Winter is fast approaching, and the Hyundai can only be improved by attaching a team of huskies to the front bumper.

We have found that the average trade-in value of the Hyundai is lower than our monthly mortgage payment, and we have a fairly small house. I’m not surprised, as the Hyundai consistently falls in the bottom of every Consumer Reports car ratings category except “Laughability Factor,” although I do feel it should be worth a little more. After all, the rearview mirror is in perfect condition.

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