Scott Sturgis’ Driver’s Seat: Breakdowns, purchases yield several helpful lessons

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Breakdowns happen.

Most of the time we’re cruising along the highway and they’ve happened to someone else. With close to 250 million cars on the road, according to Experian, even if only 1 percent of cars broke down a year that would be 2.5 million breakdowns.

So far this year, Sturgis drivers make that 2,500,002: One breakdown I’d been expecting for months, but the other you’d never think would happen.

Often, breakdowns lead to a new car purchase. One of ours led to a car not getting purchased.

Old unreliable: Sturgis Kid 1.0 was driving the aging, dented, due-for-inspection 2004 Mazda MPV back home from a night in Washington, D.C. That morning, she reported the overdrive light had come on, but it seemed that she could bring it home gently in third gear without too much trouble. Then the light went off and all seemed fine.

Two hours later came word the van had given up the ghost at the tolls just before the exit for home, about 35 miles away. She was in a safe spot, so Sturgis Kid 4.0 and I headed to meet her and the tow truck.

Upon our arrival, daughter mentioned a cap the tow truck driver had handed her. He told her he found it in the engine compartment.

“Radiator cap blew? That’s weird,” I thought.

She brought the cap to me. It wasn't the radiator cap. It was the oil filler cap — with part of the engine still attached.

Sturgis daughter was mortified that the engine had blown on her watch, and was certain she did something to kill our van.

I just laughed. “165,000 miles? 10 years? Three teenage drivers? A check engine light on more often that not in the six years I owned it? Good riddance, I say.”

Car shopping: Though I took the death of the vehicle in stride, shopping for a new car – not so much. A whole lot of time goes into this process.

Little did I know just how much time.

Upon visiting the dealership where we bought the MPV used (Note: No Pittsburgh-area dealers are being harmed in the making of this column, as I live outside Philadelphia) I was drawn to something unusual: a 2012 Nissan Cube. It seemed like a fun car with some room, and a good match for our Kia Soul. The kids are big, and a van may not really be a necessity anymore.

Storm clouds: After a test drive and getting clearance from our mechanic, I planned to swing by home to show the family, then go make a deal. But as I crossed the first highway out of the mechanic’s shop, I felt a bit of a shudder.

“No, it has to be my imagination,” I said.

I tried to ignore it and pressed onward. After about a quarter-mile, I felt it again.

Going up the first hill, the Cube started to really cough and sputter.

I had to pull over and endure the impatience of Philadelphians trying to get home from work. I barely made it up the first hill, then coasted down the next hill, trying to figure out my best back road path back to the dealership.

I made it across town, but on the downhill going out of town, the Cube stalled out completely. What I thought might have been a fuel pump problem (it was worse on the uphill) seemed now to be a computer error, or a demon.

In any case, the threatening sky soon turned into a downpour, as I waited by the side of the road for the tow truck to arrive. I finally grew impatient and frustrated, and got a ride from the good Samaritan whose house I’d broken down in front of. This two-hour trip to the dealership and mechanic had now consumed six hours of my day.

Needless to say, I did not buy the Cube.

Some lessons: But I did learn a couple things.

1. When you’re buying a used car, the longer the test ride, the better. I've always had cars overnight or for at least 50 miles when buying used. This would have been the first time in several purchases that I broke this rule. I could have been very, very sorry.

I've traded cars overnight with private owners and left my car on dealership lots. If the seller balks at doing this for you, run.

2. Use that time to have the car checked over by a mechanic. Obviously, not every problem will be found, but at the very least you’ll have a sense of whether the vehicle’s components match the mileage. I might even consider paying for a full computer scan from now on.

3. Be sure to research the car you’re buying. I compare reliability reports between Consumer Reports, “The Car Book” annual report by Consumer Federation of America’s Jack Gillis, my mechanic, and even Google searches.

4. If you’re a car dealer – especially a large new-car dealer, like the Cube dealer was – and someone breaks down in your car while test driving, do not assume it is the buyer’s fault. And if it’s pouring down rain and all the salesmen are sitting inside bored, send one of them to pick the driver up. Don’t make a customer wait for a tow.

5. If you’re the dealer and ever want to win that buyer’s business, you should say exactly what you found wrong when the customer calls a few days later. And send a $50 gas card and a box of chocolates. “Absolutely nothing” doesn’t fly.

A happy ending?: I finally did settle on a new vehicle, but I’m not going to jinx it by reporting what it is and how wonderful it performs after just one month. There are many trips yet to come. Stay tuned.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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