Ask Jack: Are You Going to San Francisco?
I will forever remember San Francisco as the only city in America where a woman tried to pick me up. While I am sure that the average TTAC reader is a handsome, impeccably progressive feminist ally who is frequently the subject of overtures from empowered womyn, I’m a hideously ugly creature who walks with a pronounced limp and cannot help but maintain an expression of perpetual annoyance. Therefore, 99 percent of the time I have to actively, if not aggressively, sell myself to any potential paramours.
Except, that is, for that one night when I was drunkenly stumbling down some broad boulevard in downtown SF, feeling very sorry for myself, and an attractive woman in her early thirties, dressed for some sort of banking or C-suite work, walked right up to me and said, “Do you know where the nearest Bank of America is?” Even in my inebriated state I could see that it was three hundred feet behind her, and I said as much. “Gosh, thanks!” she chirped. “So… lovely night, huh? What are you doing this evening?”
“Madam,” I replied with all the 18th-century dignity I could muster, straightening my posture and inhaling deeply behind the lapels of my Brioni coat, “I am attempting to forget a woman from Tennessee.” And I trudged past her. Only the next morning did I realize that perhaps she had already known the whereabouts of the bank before asking. Oh well. Ever since then, however, I have assumed that the relatively low number of even remotely conventional men in that particular city drives women to make desperate choices.
Which brings me to today’s San Francisco treat of a question.
I’ve been living in western Massachusetts for the last four years working for the second largest manufacturer of firearms in the U.S. I miss California and I’m sick of the corporate life. The closest thing I have to a brother is offering me an affordable place to stay and a job as a plumber in San Francisco. We can debate the wisdom of this but I’m taking the opportunity to work with my best friend doing an insane job in my favorite city making a lot of money.
This is where we get to you. I have a 2012 Outback that I am making payments on. I’m planning to sell it and use whatever money I have left over to buy a car in California or at least make a down payment. Unlike a lot of the Ask Jack questioners, I don’t have BMW or Porsche money. The question is, what to get? San Francisco is not kind to vehicles. I have a strong urge to get either a used Mini Cooper, VW GTI, Focus ST or Accord coupe. I have contradicting needs here. I want something small and reasonably sporty but at the same time it needs to be able to handle the roads of SF, which resemble WWI no man’s land, and hideous traffic. Also, it is almost a guarantee that it is going to get dented, scratched and broken into.
Sir, let me first congratulate you on dropping out of the rat race. Being a plumber might not be anybody’s idea of a glamour profession but it is a job where one accomplishes actual goals by performing tangible work. Plus, unlike with virtually any “B2B” product in the known world, emergency plumbing work typically carries with it a certain freedom from negotiation. Nobody argues the rate when their house is awash. The only thing keeping me from entering a manual trade is the fact that my joints probably wouldn’t survive a life of honest labor.
Now for the car. As you’ve already ascertained, smaller is better in San Francisco, if only for purposes of parking near places like City Lights (which was where I was headed on the fateful night described above) or at any of the hipper restaurants. If you were completely serious about it, you would get a Smart or a Toyota/Scion IQ, both of which can access a few of the 10-foot spaces that exist in the various urban residential districts around the city.
You’re also dead right about the roads. The last car I drove around SF for any length of time was a McLaren 675LT and, no matter how hard I tried to steer an untroubled path between pavement obstacles, the whole carbon-fiber structure of the thing would periodically shudder like a struck gong. If the old song by Journey regarding the “city by the bay” was based on factual events it would have a stanza about potholes.
So you have to pick a cheap small car that can handle the road. So forget about a Mini or a GTI. Those are remarkably fussy cars that tend to retain an unfortunate amount of resale value near the end of their useful lives. You’d be stuck paying an independent specialist big bucks to work on the thing. Neither car will be truly cheap to run over time. The Focus ST I’m going to eliminate because it has big wheels, low-profile tires, and converted-econobox suspension. It is in no way suited to the Bay Area lifestyle. That leaves just the Accord coupe, but although my fondness for that particular vehicle has been exhaustively documented, I will admit the old ones are overpriced and the newer ones are oversized. I don’t recommend it for this job.
Having eliminated all of your not-so-dreamy choices, I’m going to come up with a kind of left-field choice. To begin with, I’m always a fan of buying used cars that have experienced greater than usual depreciation — especially when that depreciation is a result of bigotry or low information in the marketplace. So let’s think of a relatively small car that has depreciated heavily, can be pleasant to drive, and which was engineered for difficult conditions. Are you ready? It is…
a stick-shift, turbocharged…
That’s right! As I never tire of reminding TTAC’s readers, the Cruze is really just a Daewoo. And if you go to Asia you will see that Daewoo engineers for urban conditions that are remarkably similar to that of San Francisco. The Cruze is a remarkably durable, hard-wearing vehicle that gets no respect in the secondhand market. I’m seeing 2012-3 models with under 50k miles going for eight or nine grand. The equivalent GTIs are half again as expensive or worse — for cars that will likely require more repair, be more expensive to insure, and are certain to incur higher costs when you do repair them.
The only problem is that the Cruze isn’t really that small of a car, and it doesn’t have the hatchback form factor that makes parking such a breeze. But look at it this way: if you buy a Chevy, you won’t get too emotional about touch-parking the thing. Friend, as Hamlet once said, look to’t. The Cruze is just the ticket for your new life as plumber to the Silicon Valley superstars. And while the ladies might not get too excited about the badge, take it from me: if there’s any place in the country where you can meet a girl without a nice car, it’s the place to which you are headed.
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As someone who did that move from MA to SF about 3.5 years ago here is are a few points to ponder: 1. you will stick out like a sore thumb here in a small Chevy. This place is awash with furrin' cars. Only larger trucks and SUVs are American-badged and I like it that way! 2. roads do suck here. They're not as bad as Boston used to be but they're still surprisingly crappy considering the weather conditions this place has 3. people that say don't buy stick because of hills are just no good at driving stick. I drive through SF in a '72 Beetle with no power steering or brakes and do just fine. In fact, it's a nearly ideal car for this city - small, old and with massive bumpers 4. drivers are generally better than in MA. Of course, there are still bad drivers anywhere but the percentage here is generally smaller. Plus vehicles are smaller and more expensive leading to people actually watching the road instead of their cell phone. And they're really afraid of cops here on top of it all 5. When you say you're coming here to make "big money" think again. I believe it was in the last couple of months that it was declared by the city that income of $105K or less per family is considered poverty level. Everything is mad expensive except booze for some reason. It's cheaper than in MA. Go figure Overall, this is a fun town with bad roads, decent drivers and very high cost of living. If you can swing that I think you'll have a great time here!
Cruze owner chiming in. Solid choice, my '12 Eco has survived 113,000 miles of the worst roads the Midwest has to offer and is still solid. Two caveats: 1. Don't get an Eco. It's more of a highway cruiser, has taller gearing and a yawning gap between first and second that would make SF streets less pleasant. Also, they are half an inch lowered from the regular Cruze. 2. Probably not an LTZ either, the 17" wheels would take away some of the compliance that you want. An LT with 16" wheels would be fine, and you won't worry too much about leaving it on the street. Even better, swap out the rims for 16" steel wheels. Sonic would be a great choice too. Probably easier to park.