By on May 11, 2018


Lou writes:

Hi, Sajeev:

Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve bounced between leasing/buying cars in my two-car family. Because of a severe case of always wanting what I don’t have (thankfully, this only happens with cars and bicycles), I’ve owned quite a few cars over this time period. Sometimes I think I want to own long-term and take pride in my ride of choice (2006 Mazda 6 wagon, for example), and other times I get fed up with issues, such as a $4,000 transmission replacement bill for said wagon, and I then decide I want the security and added features of a newer ride (just finished a three-year lease of a 2015 Outback 2.5 Limited).

So, with my car shopping neurosis briefly explained, what type of car should I be looking for, and what type of preventative maintenance should I undertake, if I decide to buy and keep? I don’t necessarily mean a specific make and model. What I mean is, since I do make quite a few short trips of about a mile throughout the day (I live and work in the same town), and the car barely has a chance to warm up in the morning, is there a specific engine specification I should look for? Whether the car was purchased or leased, I’ve always taken it easy in the bitter cold, and I’d even drive a bit out of my way to get the car closer to operating temperature before reaching my school.

Also, before the B&B tells me to ride my bicycle or walk, I’m a K-5 Principal with other duties that can take me away from my school at any moment, so I don’t want to ride my bike around town when I have to see the Superintendent, or when I visit the high school to conduct bullying investigations. I also pick up my kids’ friends in the morning, and their parents reciprocate as well, so any car I have for the foreseeable future will have to perform many short trips.

Many thanks, and keep up the good work!

Sajeev answers:

Please pardon my instant connection to that guy from The Simpsons, as I truly appreciate your candor and detail!  I reckon it makes you quite the excellent principal. But you didn’t mention your mechanical skills/interest: are you a pro, or not the shade tree mechanic type? Or a work in progress like yours truly?

The answer depends on your skills: perhaps leasing is best to address the”shopping neurosis” without getting screwed by a crippling repair bill. And a missed meeting with the Superintendent?

No matter, let’s address your questions:

What type of car should I be looking for? After the last person (IRL, not here) ignored my sound advice, I know human nature in purchase decisions is anything but easy to advise for most (not all), and there’s a financing plan to make the passion fit your budget. The Best and Brightest can speculate, but I ask that you avoid European machines with their specialized technicians/repair techniques and expensive parts. Or just lease whatever you want.

Screw it, I think you need a 2011 Lincoln Town Car. Because why not Panther Love?

What type of preventative maintenance should I undertake? Assuming you are buying new from the get-go, this is mostly a matter of RTFM. Also, switch to synthetic oil (if not already mandatory) and do regular transmission servicing. The latter depends on fluid condition, your unique driving conditions, and if there’s a dipstick to check: if you aren’t so lucky, I’m guessing any vehicle you choose for your specific commute could benefit from changing it every 75,000-ish miles.

Also, join a message board for your new ride to learn its quirks and trouble spots. Combined with a factory shop manual (if you DIY) or a trusty repair shop, that’s how you stay ahead of the curve after the warranty expires.

Specific engine specification I should look for? Sadly, I lost my crystal ball years ago. I doubt anyone outside of an OEM engineering facility predicted the problems with Toyota/VW oil sludging, Chrysler Pentastar head cracking, etc, nor is such information (readily?) available at the time of purchase. All you can do is buy, keep service records handy and do what’s needed to ensure a goodwill replacement if you-know-what hits the fan.

Your thoughts, Best and Brightest?

[Image: Shutterstock user Zachary Hoover]

Send your queries to [email protected]m. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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53 Comments on “Piston Slap: Keeping the Principal In the Right Car?...”

  • avatar

    Assuming you have off-street parking at your residence, you sound like a good candidate for leasing something that plugs in.

    • 0 avatar

      And I would think that the principal of a school could commandeer a parking spot at his school that allowed for 110V charging via extension cord while at his home school.

  • avatar

    Outlander PHEV.

    Electric for your short trips, gas for your long trips, 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty for your piece of mind if you decide to keep it long term.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The Principal did not mention their geographic location. Just how far north are they? Is the car kept in a garage. If in the ‘snowbelt’ and no garage, then recommend an engine block heater. Minimizes the chance of engine damage during start-up and short trips.

    For a vehicle that befits the status of their professional role in the community and meets the stated requirements, and would easily handle the short trips and what appears to a minimal amount of mileage driven per year, why not a very nice, low mileage Panther platform Lincoln or a 3800 Buick?

    Then use the savings derived from not buying/leasing something new, to splurge on the 2nd vehicle in the household?

    Failing that, as per the above post, go electric.

    • 0 avatar

      Indeed. Why not, our Lord of Eternal Torque?

      • 0 avatar

        Principal, not janitor

        • 0 avatar

          My high school principal had a beat 15 year old mustang not sure that matters much. On the same level I have a relative who was a VP at a large financial institution and drove a 12 year old cavalier with mis matched fenders (cheap accident repair) he just preferred to spend money on other toys and his kids.

          • 0 avatar

            BTW “Skinner’s Car” in the pic above looks like a Hyundai or KIA sedan. I’m thinking RIO which would truly befit a miserable ba$tard like him.

          • 0 avatar

            I think Skinner drove a Hyundai. I seem the recall Chalmers drove a Honda and Jimbo stole the “H” which distressed Chalmers. Skinner offered his “H” from his Hyundai but it was not good enough.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            Yeah, it’s a ’06-09 Rio sedan. Bonus points to the storyboard artist for drawing a real car instead of a generic 2-box with wheels.


  • avatar

    Sajeev – not on topic but assuming you’re still in the mood for V.V., I nominate the Mazda 3 hatch (gen 3). The sedan and 6 are not bad but really don’t do it for me, but I had a visual experience with a hatch in traffic earlier. Really it’s only flaw other than wrong wheel drive is the too pronounced steel to glass angle on the rear doors to the fifth door. I mean this style is just awful on well, everything today, but not as offensive on this hatch to my eyes. Truly, I find the overall aesthetic elegant in hatch form. She flows, as it were.

    • 0 avatar

      And although it is “wrong wheel drive” (eye roll just because back in the pre traction control days FWD saved my @$$ getting out of snowdrifts) the proportions are very RWD which I think is one of the better visual aspects of current Mazda design.

      My receptionist has a current gen Mazda 3 hatch in that slightly jewel tone red and I catch myself staring at it in the parking lot.

    • 0 avatar

      That is a nice one. I need to stop restoring my hoopties and get back to a VV, so I will soon. Ish.

  • avatar

    Why not a hybrid that can go a few miles on battery? Won’t have to warm the engine up at all or get it full of condensation.

  • avatar

    Yeah, have to agree with the first couple of responses. More or less the perfect example of someone who could use an electric, or plug-in hybrid vehicle. Pure electric if you never use that vehicle for long trips, hybrid if it’ll venture far and wide on weekends.

  • avatar

    I’ll be the next to suggest electric; probably something like a Volt would fit you best because it’s still usable on long-distance trips and it makes you look like you’re in touch with the people instead of some lofty bureaucrat like the superintendent.

  • avatar

    Ditto on the EV or hybrid suggestion. I’m a perfect candidate for a Bolt/Volt/etc myself since my commute is only a few miles, one I could do even with a shorter range EV like a Leaf.

    It’s just hard to make the jump when I have visions of V8s dancing in my head.

    • 0 avatar

      Worry not, son, for ye shall enjoy ELECTRIC TORQUE.

      If the principal is paid like, well, a school employee, then he should take heart because used first-gen Volts are a screamin’ deal, and dead-reliable besides. Or he can lease a new one…much nicer, and the deals are out there if you use the internet.

  • avatar


    Since you’re obviously not putting on too many miles and don’t mind frequent changes… lease again.

    Is Chevy still offering stupid cheap leases on Cruzes?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Is there room in this town for both of you, or must one be destroyed so that the other may live?

      • 0 avatar

        I’m just mildly amused.

        The only time I was every SHOCKED here on TTAC was when there was an article about big station wagons and I ran into the grandson of my Dad’s old boss. I used to mow his granddad’s lawn and the kid lived in the house next door.

        We reminisced about giant old GM B-bodies. I come by my automotive obsessions honest.

    • 0 avatar

      There can be only one principal. Clearly, a death race is called for to settle this.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, Dan, OP here. I’m not a frequent poster, but I’ve read TTAC since you were still teaching (I think I was in my 6th year or so in administration). I’m guessing we’re around the same age (42).

      Funny you mention to continue leasing…..I leased a GMC Terrain SLE with convenience pack for 230 a month out the door, 24 months, only 1st payment due….it’s comfortable and gets the job done until something else catches my eye in the near future.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll be 41 in June (which makes both of us just a shade younger than J. Baruth.) My daughter will be starting a 4 year old program in the fall and I’m slated to have a son in early August. (This makes me feel old and young simultaneously.)

        I did 10 years in the classroom, 2 years at a Central Office level (essentially Instructional Coaching), and wrapping up my 6th year in admin.

        • 0 avatar

          I’m the third principal. Finishing year 15 in admin……I’m old, please no death races…

        • 0 avatar

          I’m the third principal. Finishing year 15 in admin……I’m old, please no death races…I drive a 15 Silverado 4X4……. the joke around here is “In England they drive on the left, In Newfoundland we drive on what’s left.” Yeah, and gas is 1.41 a litre.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d look for stupid cheap off-lease Cruzes and buy a low mileage example. Our 2010 model Chevy (an Equinox) has one warranted repair (with dealer tow, too) and that’s it. More recalls than repairs.

      Getting bit by a transmission replace is definitely not the norm these days.

  • avatar

    My first thought, was “go electric,”

    But with the need to haul a few people, it occurred to me that not long ago, there were some great deals to be had on the V6, AWD, Chrysler 300.. I wonder if that’s still the case..

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    If your car doesn’t even have time to warm up, no ICE will like that.

    Go electric. They also warm the cabin more quickly than ICE can do. You could try buying used first, to get a feel for the experience, then buy something new later. But watch out for depreciation.

  • avatar

    no idea what said budget is, if on the low side a used leaf , if you can charge it where you park it, if on the high side a bolt or such, I think if you do not want the hassles just lease one and return when your lease is up.

  • avatar

    As someone who has a PHEV (C-Max Energi) that is used for a whole lot of 1- and 2-mile trips, let me join the chorus praising electrics. They are perfectly happy making all of those short trips, and avoiding that many cold starts prevents a lot of pollution. (Something like 95+% of all non-CO2 pollution from ICE vehicles comes from cold starts.)

    Just like others said, get a PHEV if you will need this car for long trips, or a BEV if you have another car in the family suitable for long trips. Right now my favorite affordable-ish PHEVs are the Volt and the Pacifica Hybrid, and my favorite BEVs are the Bolt and the soon-to-be-here Ioniq EV.

    • 0 avatar

      Well since he sounds like he may want to this one to be a keeper I don’t know if the Pacifica is a great choice as it hasn’t been proven to have long term durability and reliability. If it is a lease then that is another story.

  • avatar

    sounds like a 3-row C/SUV candidate?

    Buy GM-Ford-ChryJeeodge/Toyota-Honda-Subaru-maybe Koreans? (parts availability + most issues are well-known + your mechanic probably will have dealt with your issue before)

    Lease most everything else (expensive parts, sometimes tough to access innards, electronics gremlins, )

    And learn how to DIY drain/replace your transmission fluid.

    I got a MityVac vacuum thanks to TTAC. Works grrrreat!

  • avatar

    This guy sounds like he steams a good ham, although it seems odd that at this time of year the aurora borealis is only visible in his kitchen.

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      Fully quoted because it is the best non-Simpson family member scene in the entire series:

      Well, Seymour, I made it, despite your directions.

      Ah. Superintendent Chalmers. Welcome. – I hope you’re prepared for an unforgettable luncheon.


      Oh, ye gods! My roast is ruined. But what if I were to purchase fast food and disguise it as my own cooking? Delightfully devilish, Seymour.

      Interlude song-
      Ah- Skinner with his crazy explanations The superintendent’s gonna need his medication When he hears Skinner’s lame exaggerations There’ll be trouble in town tonight
      -song ends


      Superintendent, I was just- uh, just stretching my calves on the windowsill. Isometric exercise. Care to join me?

      Why is there smoke coming out of your oven, Seymour?

      Uh- Oh. That isn’t smoke. It’s steam. Steam from the steamed clams we’re having. Mmm. Steamed clams. Whew.
      Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouthwatering hamburgers.

      I thought we were having steamed clams.

      D’oh, no. I said steamed hams. That’s what I call hamburgers.

      You call hamburgers steamed hams?

      Yes. It’s a regional dialect.

      Uh-huh. Uh, what region?

      Uh, upstate New York.

      Really. Well, I’m from Utica, and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “steamed hams.”

      Oh, not in Utica. No. It’s an Albany expression.

      I see. You know, these hamburgers are quite similar to the ones they have at Krusty Burger.

      Oh, no. Patented Skinner burgers. Old family recipe.

      For steamed hams.


      Yes. And you call them steamed hams despite the fact that they are obviously grilled.

      Ye- You know, the- One thing I should- – Excuse me for one second. –

      Of course.

      Well, that was wonderful. A good time was had by all. I’m pooped.

      Yes. I should be- Good Lord! What is happening in there?

      Aurora borealis.

      Uh- Aurora borealis at this time of year at this time of day in this part of the country localized entirely within your kitchen? –


      May I see it?


      Seymour! The house is on fire!

      No, Mother. It’s just the northern lights.

      Well, Seymour, you are an odd fellow but I must say you steam a good ham.

  • avatar

    If you put that few of miles on a car leasing usually isn’t a good idea unless you plan on buying it out at the end of the lease. Otherwise you are just lining the pockets of the dealer/mfg/lease company.

    I second that this may be one of the few cases where a plug-in Hybrid is a good choice. I’d recommend looking for a Ford Energi, either a left over 17 C-Max or a Fusion. Right now around here there is a dealer that has said screw it and has them deeply discounted to clear them off the lot, maybe a dealer near you has bee spooked too.

    The beauty of many plug-in hybrids is that you can set it to have the cabin nice and toasty while leaving a fully charged battery. The reduction in range that plug-ins see in cold weather is mainly due to the energy required to heat the vehicle.

  • avatar

    I think you have 2 really good options:

    1) Buy a used electric car. Those things have been ravaged by depreciation, and most still have years on their battery warranty.

    2) Lease a plug in hybrid car. I ping pong between seeing hybrids as hopelessly compromised and great alternatives. I think leasing one is the way to go if you go this direction and there are many to choose from.

  • avatar

    Honda Fit
    Haul people and stuff!

  • avatar

    Toyota Yaris. Port-injected 4-cylinder with a timing chain. 4-speed automatic transmission. An ignition key that you can get copied at your local hardware store for $4.99. The last good cockroach car – no direct injection, umpteen-speed tranny or CVT to give you problems prematurely.

    • 0 avatar

      +1, redmondjp. Most trims of the current Elantra also are port-injected/conventional (6-speed) automatic, though I wouldn’t put one up against a Yaris in a longevity contest.

  • avatar

    OP Here, B&B:

    Thanks for the suggestions, and kudos to Sajeev for the Simpsons reference. In my line of work, I think about Skinner far too often (especially when I look out my window and think about his ‘Nam flashbacks); he’s always good for a laugh.

    My thoughts aren’t too far off from the suggestions mentioned so far. In a year or so, I’ll have access to a garage when my family and I move to a house we own, but are currently renting out (long story). So, I have thought about an electric or a plug-in hybrid. The thing is, I’m 6’3,” so a car like the Leaf (either generation) is a non-starter, as I don’t fit. Perhaps a Kia Niro? We’ll see what happens. I just leased a GMC Terrain for cheap for 24 months, so I’ll have plenty of time to see how the market sorts itself out with regards to hybrids, plug-ins, and electrics.

    • 0 avatar

      Darn, I was going to say you could buy a 60k mile used Leaf for absolute peanuts and use it solely for driving to work for free while you spend the rest of your budget on something cool, but if you don’t fit then that’s that!

  • avatar

    The Prius I owned was really great about a quick warm up (it pumped the hot antifreeze into a container when the engine was shut off to keep it hot for the next start), so a used Prius or Prius V might be just the thing for you, or one of the other hybrids, I assume they all probably have a similar technology. Even though you only mention short trips, I’m ruling out a pure electric since if it is your only car, you may want a vacation trip capability down the road.

    • 0 avatar

      No most hybrids don’t have the super thermos to harvest the shut down heat like the earlier Prius, that lost it in 2010. Note the primary purpose of the coolant heat storage tank was to reduce start up emissions, with the secondary benefit of quicker heat for the passenger compartment.

  • avatar

    Buy a pickup….. Resistance is futile!

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