A new car for Georgina

Posted on December 21st, 2003 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

For those of you who follow these things, my fiancée Georgina has decided to part with her Lexus LS400. We covered the buying of the car in AutoSpeed (starts at Georgina’s New Car – Part 1) and in the 2½ years since the purchase, she has been very happy with most aspects of it. If you haven’t driven one (and reading web discussion group comments about how it is a boring car, I know that many people haven’t!) you’ve missed a superb 4-litre DOHC V8, wonderfully communicative and progressive traditional rear-wheel drive handling (although in the wet it is noticeably tail-happy), and an amazingly high build quality and equipment level.

And the reason for the sale? Well, Georgina is returning to full-time study and the loan repayments on the Lexus are prohibitive for someone without an income. So the Lexus had to go, and a replacement had to be sourced. The new car needed to cost less than AUD$6000, and I wanted something that would be safe in a crash – as I have said before, the country roads around here are very demanding and we have seen many accidents in the three years that we’ve lived here, some of them fatal.

So, safe and cheap. But then things got difficult. I’d have been quite happy to see her in a two-four-something series Volvo – a 244 or even a sportier 242GT. But Georgina had completely different ideas – and wouldn’t be seen dead in an “old square” Volvo. Hmmm. So what about a Peugeot then? Having driven AutoSpeed’s press test Peugeots – including the 406 and 206 models – she thought that sounded good, until I showed here a pic of a 504 (“yuk!”) and then a 405 (“no, too old and boring” – and yes I know that the 405 is younger than the 504…).

It then started to occur to me that we might have a problem. Six thousand dollars isn’t very much to spend, and since I didn’t want her in an Australian car (pre airbags, their crashability is really quite doubtful, especially when compared with a Euro prestige car) and since an important part of impact safety is to have a largish car, the equation of a big Euro prestige and just $6000 didn’t add up very well. Especially since now the car apparently had to look good as well….

But we went out shopping, browsing the car yards that we knew from previous kerbside crawling were likely to have a good range of cars within budget. One yard in particular was a likely contender – we’d previously seen in it everything from a Honda Beat grey market import to a BMW 750iL! And this time they had an auto Volvo 740 Turbo wagon for $7999.

When I worked as a car detailer at a crash repair shop, I’d driven a 740 Turbo and – compared with the coarse 850 series – I’d thought it pretty good. This particular one had 180,000 kilometres on it and was externally in good condition. However, it’d apparently had a family of five kids living in it, and its interior was a little rough – some cracked and battered trim being evident.

Still, it was large, safe, and with a turbo under the bonnet, could be the source of a bit of tweaking fun. We took it for a drive and it wasn’t too bad; slow off the line and with a loud engine drone at some revs (was that caused by the extra interior volume of the wagon?). There was also more vibration than I remembered, but overall, it was pretty good.

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But there was another car in the yard that also interested us. It was a 1985 BMW 735i – the very last of the first generation 7 series – and was listed at $6999. The paint was excellent – it looked as if it had been resprayed – and the black leather interior, although dry and a bit white in parts, had no tears. But then we ran into a bit of a problem. The yard owner wasn’t very keen for us to drive it – he couldn’t get his head around the fact that a woman wanted to buy cars like the Volvo and this BMW.

After all, he had a very suitable girl’s car just over here – a Toyota RAV 4…

Some exchanges of words later, we were able to take the BMW for an around-the-block drive – to find that the climate control didn’t work properly, the electric driver’s seat had some major problems and the trip computer was dead. But even with 206,000 kays on the clock, the mechanicals felt good.

But this was just one yard – what was on offer at others? We made noises of mild interest re the BMW and then left to find some more contenders. The yard’s owner – I am sure he thought we were just out joydriving – gritted his teeth as he farewelled us.

We expected to find lots of other suitable cars but the outcome was a lot less satisfactory. The Mercedes models were too dear, or you had to go back so far that they didn’t even have inertial reel seatbelts and high-back seats… Other BMWs we saw were over budget, or in the case of another 735i that we looked at for private sale, was in rough condition. And rough condition for the same sort of money that we’d seen the 735i for in that yard…

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So we went back for a second, longer look. This time, when Georgina showed the man $6000 in cash (credit card advances are a wonderful thing!), he took us more seriously. We drove the car extensively, finding that it blew a bit of smoke when lifting off at very high revs (valve stem oil seals?) and was running very rich. But other than that, we didn’t discover any more bad surprises.

I suggested to Georgina that she should attempt to buy the car without warranty and to make sure that she pointed out the defects, and she negotiated the price down to $5450. A little while later, she drove it home.

Under five and a half grand for a high-stepping thoroughbred with sunroof, electric everything and ABS. Hell, used car prices these days are cheap!

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