Auto Anxiety

I’ve never had a healthy relationship with my car. I spend most of my time behind the wheel in a co-dependant partnership where I’m constantly trying to understand why my car is acting grumpy and what I may have done to make it mad.

Bad cars have burned me in the past. This has scarred me and caused me to distrust anything on four wheels. My first car was a freebie that my dad found, a 1987 Hyundai Excel. By the second year I owned it, the engine had been rebuilt twice and, among the many Hyundai adventures I had, on my very first solo drive in it the clutch went out.

I traded the Hyundai for a 1979 Audi Fox. I was in college and the Audi looked cooler. Plus it had a big trunk to hold all of my art projects. Unfortunately it also had an engine-cooling fan that had been rewired so that it no longer kicked on by itself. It had been given a switch that I needed to hit to start the fan and keep the car from overheating. This was fine and all, except the fact that the electrical system had been incredibly messed up by this episode of mechanical genius and if I happened to leave the car with the radio dial in the on position or the cooling fan not switched off (despite the fact that the car was off and nothing appeared to be running) I would kill the battery and need to find myself a jumpstart. I learned pretty quickly to park on a downhill and how exactly to push a car, run alongside, jump in, and pop start it without running myself over.

From the Audi I moved up to a 1987 Subaru Justy. The only car to never let me down. This car was awesome and I would still be driving it today if it hadn’t started to spontaneously lose important parts, like the steering stabilizer, while doing 65 on the highway.

We junked the poor Justy (I’ll never forgive myself) and I bought a heap of crap from the Kia dealership. A used 2000 Kia Sportage which not only needed to have the transfer case replaced twice and the 4-wheel drive replaced once, but I actually broke the driver’s side air bag one early morning in Hartford by honking my horn at the FedEx guy who was about to back into my car. I should have let him hit me.

Because I come from the one step forward and two steps back school of car-buying, I traded the Kia for my current bad relationship – a 1997 Isuzu Rodeo. Just like anyone in an abusive relationship, I really do love my car. It just doesn’t love me back in the same way. The first month I owned the Isuzu was a nightmare of stranding incidents and rides with nice tow truck drivers. This was all related to a bad starter wire which, unfortunately, took a long freakin time to uncover. The dealership was very nice about all of this and I didn’t have to pay for any of the repairs, or even the long tow from Hartford to Ellington one cold morning.

I had several lovely months of stress-free driving and then a few months ago, the check engine light came on. I usually don’t hold any faith in the check engine light knowing that it is set to light up at certain intervals to get you to take your car in for service. I ignored it until my car started to run badly and then finally I took it in to the shop. I received a diagnosis of a bad EGR valve, which is apparently expensive, so the nice repair guy cleaned some things and changed some others and got the car to the point that it ran smoothly but told me to save my money becasue I most likely wouldn’t pass emissions if I didn’t change my EGR valve. That’s fine, considering that the Connecticut emissions testing system was such a mess that I hadn’t received a notice for testing in over four years. I could possibly be on my next car before I got a notice to take the Isuzu in for testing. Ha! Fates, you mock me. What did I get in the mail last month but a notice for emissions testing for my Isuzu.

Just about the time I got the notice in the mail, my car began doing something strange. The check engine light would occasionally go out. Then suddenly it would come back on. I began a careful study of when and where it happened as well as the time of day and weather conditions. I needed to discover the pattern. When the gas tank was low, the light would come on. After I filled up, it would go off. Riding home from work in the rain, it would come on. Some cold mornings when I would head out to work, the light would be off. It wasn’t entirely consistent and it was driving me crazy. So crazy, in fact, that I began to hear noises. Small whistling noises when I would take off from a stop. I was obsessed with figuring out this new sound. What made it happen? Where was it coming from? Was it a precursor to a larger problem? Was it the sound of my engine mounting bolts slowly falling out or was it just wind in the roof rack?

I was studying the check engine light pattern and the whistling noise one night driving home in traffic when a new annoyance popped up. As I would coast to a stop with my foot on the clutch, the 4-wheel drive indicator light would flicker on. As I would let out the clutch to take off, the light would go out. Back and forth, the light would flicker on, then flicker off. I checked to see that it was in 2-wheel drive, put it in 4, then back in 2, still the light flickered. Then one morning driving out to Stafford, the check engine light suddenly flashed on immediately followed by the 4-wheel drive indicator light, which came on and stayed on. It’s been on for a week now. Luke has assured me that it is truly not in 4-wheel drive, but still I’m worried.

I drive my car the 20 miles to and from work every day holding my breath and hoping that nothing falls off or blows up. I’m just waiting for my transmission to fall out of the car or a big cloud of smoke to come from under the hood. Add to that the stress of my impending emissions test – I can’t handle this anxiety! I just want a car I can drive. I don’t really care what it looks like. I want it to be decent on gas, have a working gas gauge, to have heat and a/c, and no major mechanical problems! Is that too much to ask? Why can’t there be a subway connecting Andover and Hartford? That would make my life so much easier.



  1. Oh I hear ya. All I want is to be able to get in my car and drive and not think “Ummm … what was that?” or “Is that smell MY car??”

    Well, you know my car luck 🙂


  2. I recommend reviewing the latest automobile issue of Consumer Reports magazine. It has a wonderful rating system of almost all makes and models going back several years. I picked a used 2003 Toyota Corolla based on the highest reliability and other ratings – it rocks, minimal maintenance and affordable for me. Of course, routine preventive maintenance (oil changes, trans flush, differential etc.) is a must with any vehicle. I also recommend this buyer beware news feed regarding car dealer scams. I was blown away to see how shady car salesmen can be. Good luck to everyone.


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