Replacing the Volvo

It followed a Ford Escort and a Toyota Camry, but it couldn't keep up.


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My 2000 Volvo wagon has 130,000 miles on it and has begun making some strange noises. I probably should replace it. But with what? It’s a hard question, not just because it’s a major expenditure but also because a car says a lot about its owner, whether the owner likes it or not.

My first car was a Ford Escort, bought because it was cheap and the dealership was nearby. It was red and kind of jolly. Or so I thought, until one day my father came to visit and told me it felt like driving around in a tin can. This had a chilling effect, since my 3-month-old was strapped into the back seat.

Our next car was a Toyota Camry. It was a gray with rough tweed-ish seats and no frills, but it was no tin can. It had the heft and reliability of a Mercedes. It never broke down; it got great mileage; it stopped on a dime. Why did I ever give it up? I think a lot of people feel this way about cars in their past. Like favorite sweaters, one wonders what happened to them. I think the reason I parted with the Camry was because it was closing in on 200,000 miles and someone told me that was enough. In retrospect, I should never have listened. The car, like that lamp oil in the story of Hanukkah, might have continued magically on, had I only believed in it enough.

I traded in the Camry for the Volvo wagon. It seemed like the right decision at the time. I was deeply entrenched in a suburban lifestyle with pretensions to enlightened politics and environmentalism. We had two kids and a dog. Isn’t the Volvo expressly designed for two kids and a dog? But the kids are now out of the house and the dog is dead.

I have to say that the Volvo has been a disappointment. People approach and ask: “How do you like your Volvo?” I say: “It’s OK,” and I see their faces drop. I’m supposed to love my Volvo. But the car is not lovable. Everything about it is dull and vaguely irritating. It drives well, but not really well. It doesn’t have serious problems, but it has little ones: dash board warnings that go on unaccountably, headlights that burn out regularly, really crappy cup holders. It’s built too low to the ground for our gravel driveway, and the bumper is too protuberant, always ramming into sidewalks and curbs. It has a built-in service light that appears every few months and can’t be turned off, except by the Volvo people who, in the process, find a half dozen not-cheap things that need fixing. The automatic lever for the back window has been broken for two years because it would cost a fortune to fix (oddly, no one ever wanted to use the back window until it broke).

Although the woman who sold us our Volvo is one of the most pleasant and accommodating people imaginable, the service side of the operation is less delightful. My Volvo dealership is busy, and despite a very nice coffee machine, I don’t enjoy waiting interminable stretches to be charged $500 for fixing something I suspect should have been caught during the last tune-up. After my last few service visits, something new went wrong when I brought the car home, suggesting that to fix one aspect of the machine is to trigger a Rube Goldberg series of mechanical failures. Finally, and most annoyingly, a few days after service, someone generally calls and tries to bully me into saying the service was excellent.

“It was OK,” I say.

“But was it excellent?” they press.

“Well, I suppose it was fine.”


Sometimes, I give in, especially if the caller tells me his job is on the line. But sometimes I dig in my heels: “I’m afraid I can’t go so far as to say the service was excellent. ‘Excellent’ means above and beyond the expected standard. I did not, sadly, receive that sort of service from you, especially since you are badgering me on the phone right now.”

I should add that I don’t like the name “Volvo.” I know I’m not supposed to say this, but it sounds like a part of the female anatomy that shouldn’t be bandied about in social conversation. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought the same thing.

I’d have more affection for my Volvo if it had the stylishness that it once had. Twenty years ago, when I was driving my Ford Escort, the Volvo had a cool, modernist look that I admired. But as so often happens with an original design, it went unnoticed by management and was jettisoned in favor of something more pedestrian. My current Volvo looks like a hearse which, quite frankly, I prefer to the more recent models, which look like every other car on the road. I’ve considered buying one of the old-fashioned, stylish Volvos, but they don’t have airbags, and I’ve been conditioned to think that driving a car without airbags is like walking into the middle of Baghdad without a head covering.

I’ve been complaining about my Volvo for years, so with a chance to replace it, what should I get? A BMW? The coveted car of my 20s, it would seem regressive. A Suburu? My husband has one and can never find it in the parking lot. A Mercedes? Too mean. A Lexus? Too Republican. A Saab? I’d worry the owner of the dealership would run off to become a glassblower or something. A second-hand Jaguar? Definitely, if I never had to drive anywhere. A Porsche? Unaffordable, even second-hand, besides being an upscale midlife-crisis car. A Mini-Cooper? A downscale midlife-crisis car. A Mazda? Foolish. A Honda? Dowdy. An American car? Hmmmmm, no. As for any sort of SUV, I refuse on ecological and esthetic principle — a small suburban woman driving such a thing looks freakish.

Which brings me back to the Toyota. It’s tempting. I continue to like the way the car looks. It has decent ratings, despite the 2007 dip for Toyota in Consumer Reports. It’s not out of the ballpark in price. But my memory of my old Camry stops me. That memory is so pure and untrammeled that I don’t want to risk sullying it. If you can’t go home again, you can’t return to the car of yesteryear either. So I’ll probably just get another Volvo. • 15 January 2008



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.