Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Ode to a 2008 Toyota

New in 2007. Check out Coors Field in the background.

I bought a new car yesterday.  I didn’t plan on it, but I walked away with a 2014 Prius C Two, with 12 miles on the odometer. I’d originally planned on getting my old car fixed so it would pass emissions, because the wiring was messed up after my 2009 wreck. But when the service center quoted me a high price for the repair, I went to another dealer’s trade-in counter and waded through three hours of paperwork.

This is all very bittersweet, because I loved my last car. It was a 2008 Yaris, the base model with almost no options, just a little three-door hatchback with a tiny engine. But the car meant a lot to me for whatever odd reason, and I spent a lot of time cooped up in its little cockpit.  It symbolized a few different eras of my life, and was one of my last strong ties to my life in Denver.

I bought the car in 2007, a month before getting married, and the weekend before I started my new job at MX Logic.  We had one car, the Subaru, and Sarah worked right across the street, so the original plan was for me to drive down to the Denver Tech Center every day in the Outback. But she always had off-site meetings, trips to the airport, doctor appointments, and other things that would require a car.  So the plan was to buy the cheapest new car we could as a backup, and we looked at the lowest-end Toyotas and Hondas before ending up test-driving the Yaris, and deciding to go with that.  Sarah had financed the Subaru, so I financed this car.  And then I started driving the Toyota to work every day, and although in finance it was already my car, it became “my” car.

I worked way the hell south, just past the county line, near Parker, which took about a half hour to drive in.  The Yaris had a line-in aux jack, still somewhat of a novelty in those days, so I could listen to my iPod on the commute to work, and maybe catch the latest Rockies gossip on 850 KOA on the drive home.  This was when Rocktober was starting up, the big push towards the postseason and the World Series, and I was hooked, listening to any pre-game, post-game trash talk I could catch on the airwaves.  Fall turned to winter; the car’s little electric heater kept me warm, and the ABS brakes became a godsend on the icy pavement.  Even though the car didn’t have all of the luxury items, I felt comfortable in the tiny bubble of an interior, driving to and from work every day.

My job was oddly solitary. As a tech writer, I was thrown into a QA group for lack of a better home, and they were tightly-knit, always running in emergency mode, so I didn’t make many friends or lunch buddies. Instead, I’d get in my car and drive to one of the nearby fast food places, and eat in the car while listening to AM sports radio or a podcast. This was before my weight loss, so I’d go to Taco Bell or Sonic or McDonald’s, and sit in the Yaris with the little heater running and some music on the player, eating my fries and maybe scribbling in a notebook or reading a novel. Even after spending an hour or more in the car round trip, I took some strange solace in spending another hour in there with my fast food.

Within six months, Sarah’s job fell apart, and we set our sights on Los Angeles.  I quit my job, and while she worked, I drove ahead to LA to scout for apartments and haul out a small load of essential things we could have while our house was in transit with the movers.  The solo drive halfway across the country took some work, because that tiny engine really struggled going over the Rockies.  But I had my new TomTom GPS on the dash, my tunes in that AUX jack, and six cup holders, no waiting.  The car got covered in salt and dirt, after crossing the snowy mountains and then the desert, spending a night in Las Vegas, and then hitting the streets of Culver City as I apartment hunted.  I drove all over the City of Angels looking for a place for us to live, and then picked up Sarah at LAX so we could sign the papers at our new home in Playa Del Rey and then go back to Denver to pack.  I left the Yaris there at the new apartment, filled with dishes and housewares, to wait a few weeks until we’d come back.

We spent about six months in LA in 2008, me without work (other than some part-time consulting) and Sarah with a job she hated, always traveling up to SF and elsewhere.  I drove around LA a lot and really loved it, the strange little areas like El Segundo and Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey and Culver City.  I had a few friends there, and I seemed to have a lot of doctor’s appointments, too.  But LA is very much a car city, and that melded me to the Yaris.  Gas prices shot way up, and I wrote (but never published) a book on saving gas, which involved installing a ScanTron II in the car and messing around with all sorts of experiments to drive up my MPGs.  And for whatever reason, I washed that car an ungodly amount of times in LA.

The LA experiment ended, and we both got jobs up north.  This involved a few solo drives from LA to SF and back, during the moving and job interview process, and I have a lot of memories of cruising through the central valley, listening to comedy podcasts in the middle of the night during that long haul. We moved to an apartment in South San Francisco, so Sarah could commute to the city, and I could drive down to San Jose every day.  This drive was hell.  It was about 40 miles each way, which took me at least an hour every day.  This really Stockholm Syndromed my love for the Yaris, as I spent all of my time in that damn car, shuffling up and down the peninsula.  Gas was at an all time high, well above $4.50 a gallon, but I’d get close to 40 MPG on the highway.  I can still close my eyes and envision every exit and every turn between SSF and San Jose on the 101, so firmly burned into my brain from that commute.

In 2009, on Good Friday, I was driving in stop-and-go traffic in the rain on 237, and at about 35 miles an hour, I glanced in my blind spot to change lanes.  When I looked back up, the car in front of me was at a dead stop, and it was too late for me to do anything but lock the brakes.  My car hit a truck, at an angle, the nose diving just under his bumper.  The airbags did not deploy and I hit the steering wheel hard enough to not know what happened for the next minute or so.  The car wouldn’t start, and when I got out, the front end was fucked.  I got a truck to push the car off the road, and after an hour or so, got flat-bedded to a body shop.  I did not know the fate of the car for a weekend, and became insanely depressed over the outcome.  It was a coin toss as to whether or not the car would be totaled, and I felt so close to the vehicle, I was really sad to let go of it. They came back and said they’d repair the damage, and within a few weeks, I had the car back, good as new.  (Or so I thought.)  It took a while, but I got my old friend back, looking as good as new, with a new paint job and Toyota-certified sheet metal and plastic pieces bolted onto the front end.  I was very happy to have her back, and it made that insufferable commute to San Jose almost bearable, at least until that novelty wore off.

I kept driving the car, and by 2010, I’d started working from home, which meant no more commuting.  I still used the car for trips to the store or to run errands or whatever else, but went from driving a hundred miles a day to maybe 50 miles a week, sometimes less.  But every time I drove the little car, it was like a home away from home.  I’d listen to Rockies games on my iPhone, and imagine I was back on I-25, listening to the AM radio broadcast back in Colorado.  I’d drive past a line of palm trees in Berkeley and remember driving past the same kind of foliage on Sepulveda or near LAX.  And sometimes I’d have to make the trip in to Palo Alto and remember the daily ordeal of doing the same run up and down the peninsula.  The car would make me homesick for homes I used to have, and became this strange nostalgia well for the recent past.  Just the feel of its controls, the look of its dashboard, would remind me of these places and times in a deep and painful yet nostalgic way.

That wreck came back to haunt me.  There was wiring damage to the car, which would cause the check engine light to go off.  I’d tried at two different dealerships to get this straightened out, with no luck except advice to get the wiring completely torn apart.  You don’t have to emissions test a new car in California, but after so many years, you’re no longer exempt, and it requires a test.  And this year, I did, and could not pass.  When I went to the dealer again to try to get this straightened out, I was told the car would need a $500 diagnostic, and probably $2000 or $3000 of labor to unfuck the wiring issues.  The blue book value of the car is probably $5000 to $7000.  So, I reluctantly traded it in.  I looked at maybe getting another Yaris, but the Prius C is the same platform, but a hybrid, and it was only a few thousand dollars more.  I did the paperwork, handed over the keys, and now I’m in a new car.

I had to clean out the old car before I left it with the dealer, and it was profoundly sad.  The trunk was full of cleaning products and junk from Auto Zone that I’d purchased in a proud new car frenzy, various polishes and waxes, some still from Denver. There was my Colorado snow brush, which doesn’t get much use anymore.  And the glove box contained receipts and paperwork down to the original window sticker from when it came off the lot in 2007.  I put everything in plastic bags, and sat in the car one last time and said goodbye.  It probably saved my life, or at least saved me from much worse injury, when it crushed apart in that stupid wreck.  And it was a big part of my life for the last six and a half years.  It looked so sad, cleaned out and empty, sitting next to all of the new Priuses, waiting to get wheeled back to service and repaired and prepped for the auction house.  I really do miss it.

The new car is nice.  It has more auto-everything stuff and a complicated computer I will never figure out, plus the new car smell, the better gas mileage, and a bluetooth setup to connect to my phone and all that jazz.  It’s a little roomier, but physically feels similar to the old Yaris, a similar ride and turning radius.  Some of the parts inside of it are the same, the same font on the same electronic mirror control; the identical pieces to the inside hatch cover and back seat headrests.  I don’t know what the soul of the car will be like, if cars do have soul.  Every car has its mojo, or doesn’t, and this one has a different one than the Yaris did.  I’m sure in time it will become as familiar.  But it’ll take time.

I know it sounds stupid to mourn the passing of a $14,000 pile of nuts and bolts and plastic.  But, I do.  I’m hoping that when I go back to the dealership next week to drop off some paperwork, I don’t see it there, because I’ve already spent enough time thinking about this and need to move on.  It’s just a damn car, but it was my car. It was a constant in my life for a long time, and I’ll miss it.