The first car I owned wasn’t very exciting – it was a 1988 Ford Aerostar that I bought from the guy down the street for $250. The paint was peeling, it was missing a seat, the air conditioning had to be re-charged every 6 months and the transmission overheated four times on my way from California to Texas. When I completed my educational sentence, I treated myself to a lightly used 1997 Eagle Vision TSi. In 2000, I was probably the youngest person to ever lease a Chrysler LHS. A few years down the road, I married into a GMC Envoy (that’s my excuse and I’m stickin’ to it.) In 2006, flush with cash from investments and a perfectly timed real estate sale, I decided it was time for a “grown-up car”.
Being the anal retentive over-analyzer I am, the process of what car to buy had to begin with charts and figures. Sure, the options on-board varied widely and included the Honda Civic Hybrid, Lexis IS350, VW Passat 3.6 4Motion sedan and wagon, BMW 330, Mercedes-Benz C350, Audi S4 Avant, Acura TL, Chrysler 300c and Volvo S60R and V70R. All pertinent information from EuroNCAP crash test results to transmission options, legroom, 0-60 times, and anti-whiplash data was entered into my mile-long spreadsheet, clearly highlighting the top contenders: the IS350, Audi A4, Acura TL, Passat and Vovlo’s R models. The Civic was a nod to the practical solo-carpool stickers in California at the time, but as it turned out, my better half would rather have been attacked by cannibals.
My first stop was the Audi dealer. Unable to get the time of day from a sales person, let alone a test drive, the luscious S4 was crossed off the list early. The Acura TL failed the “luxury doo-dads test” when we discovered the passenger seat, while powered, had an extremely limited range of motion. Of course, it also lacked AWD which was a feature we really wanted, and I didn’t like the clutch feel.
My financially frugal side demanded the “budget” Volkswagen Passat get higher billing than the IS350 or the Volvo R, but there was just one problem keeping me from owning the people’s mid-size wagon – Volkswagen dealers. Because I was motivated by the Passat’s lower price tag, I lugged my spouse to every VW dealer in the San Francisco Bay area. Sadly, as can often happen in the business world, the best products fail to sell because of crappy sales people. The first dealer didn’t think we were serious about buying a VW because we pulled up in a 4 year old Volvo. The second dealer didn’t have any sales people available because they were all having a BBQ in the back and couldn’t be bothered. The third VW dealer drove us around in the Passat rather than let us behind the wheel. The fourth VW dealer kindly let us drive the car but slapped my wrists when I floored it from a stop (on a quiet country road, with zero traffic and just after he told us how fast the Passat 3.6 was.) The fifth dealer put the hard sell on as soon as we walked in the door. Needless to say I was in the dog house for even mentioning a sixth dealer.
The IS350 was a longshot. It was the only RWD vehicle to make it on the list (the AWD version was not available at the time) and by far the smallest. The IS was on the list for two reasons: acres of wood trim and a reputation for bullet-proof reliability. Indeed, the IS350 was fast, smooth and miles ahead of the 2006 Mercedes and BMW products in terms of interior refinement. There was just one problem: you’d have to literally be legless to sit in the back seat. With the driver’s seat adjusted for my 6-foot frame, there was literally half an inch between the seat back and the rear seat cushion. Despite the attentive and low pressure sales, we had to cross the IS off our list. In contrast to the VW dealers, we received a nice thank you card in the mail from the Lexus dealer. Nice touch.
This left only two vehicles on the list: the S60R and the V70R. This was a make-or-break moment for our local Volvo dealer and fortunately they came out a winner. In my mind there was no question. A 300HP AWD wagon with a 6-speed manual gearbox was the ultimate
dad wagon. OK, so I still don’t have kids, but the formula still applies. Who could ask for more? It was love at first sight, from the vertical rear window to the quirky exhaust note of the 5-cylinder turbocharged engine. Again, my better half was far from amused. The clincher on the mommy-mobile sale? Overseas delivery.
On June 25 , 2006 we hopped on a plane bound for Gothenburg, Sweden to pick up our V70R. For those not familiar with the process, here’s how it works. You buy the car through a local dealer, you sign the contract and pick some preliminary dates. When Volvo has accepted the order, they schedule the production window and you can then book your flights. (Volvo pays for two round-trip tickets on SAS from anywhere in the US.) About one month from your pickup date, you’re expected to either pay cash for the car or start your financing payments (loan or lease). Eventually you hop on a plane, fly to Sweden and are picked up at the airport by a Volvo limo which takes you to the hotel where Volvo has paid for one night’s stay. The next day you get a factory tour and the ability to spend yet more money on Volvo accessories which the factory will install for you. Eventually, you’re out on your own (unless you purchased a package holiday from Volvo) free to make a bee-line straight to Germany to play on the Autobahn. Our search was over.
It is important to remember that Volvo’s R models hit 300 turbocharged horses and 300lb-ft of flat torque curve in 2004, years before BMW and Audi’s new 3.0L twin turbos came on the scene. Once back in America, the V70R was as unreliable as any European vehicle needing to visit the dealer for a warrantied repair every few months. Still, there’s something about a fast wagon that continued to enchant me. Perhaps it was blowing the doors off a stock Mustang GT, or beating that E46 M3 at the stoplight races every time. In a station wagon. Of course, driving your European souvenir around town wasn’t half bad either.The reality of course is that the dealer continued to be the best brand advocate possible, always apologizing for any issues we had and going out of their way to get the car in for immediate service and provide the courtesy car of my choice whenever it was in for service.
After 90,000 miles and four years it was time to part with my Swedish babe for the same reason Derek and Brendan parted with theirs: a house. Four years later, we sold our pride and joy to a happy man from Minnesota for $19,500. I’d like to say that our “Fast Brick” lives on inside our new home, but I’d be lying. I loved my V70R dearly, but at the end of the day, the house was more important and I have this feeling I’ll love my next European delivery just as much. Will my next Euro crush hail from the land of ABBA? I can’t be sure. What I am sure of however, is that my dealership experiences have colored my shopping future.