Colborne's $2,000 Used Car Challenge, Part 2--The Loaner '92 Corolla
Like so many of the trials and tribulations inflicted upon my family by the accursed Malibu of Malebolge, it could not have died at a more inconvenient time. Though I'm a firm believer in hoping for the best and planning for the worst, there simply was no possible financial plan available to us that would allow us to buy two cars of reasonable quality only a year after the birth of our son. So we planned around a fairly reasonable hope--drive the Malibu into 2010, save up some money in the meantime, then get rid of the Malibu before it leaves somebody stranded at the side of the road.
It wasn't the most ill-conceived plan in the world, but it was pretty close.
In hindsight, planning on reaching over 150,000 miles in a car that barely made it over 75,000 was rather naive, if not willfully ignorant. That said, this isn't the first time I've had to get creative with my transportation options, and I doubt it'll be the last. Consequently, though there wasn't much financial planning involved in dealing with a post-Malibu world, I already had a basic contingency plan in mind just in case, one based on prior experience and relying on just a bit of luck. The first step of the plan was to secure a loaner from a well-meaning family member, assuming one was available.
Luckily for us, one was.
The significant other's father had a 1992 Toyota Corolla LX lying around that he purchased for her younger sister for her graduation. The Corolla originally belonged to an older woman who passed away a while back. She never had a chance to drive it much--it only had 32,000 miles when we picked it up. Unfortunately, it had many of the problems that you would expect from a car that was driven less than 2,000 miles a year. The shocks were worn from years of underuse. The steering pulled hard to the right due to a failing cam bolt. The engine was significantly weaker first thing in the morning, suggesting possible compression-related issues. Heck, the windshield wipers were still the original OEM blades! A deal was quickly struck: We'd pay for a repair or two that he would've completed for her sister sooner or later and, in return, we'd have a second car that the significant other could use to get to work and school. Under the circumstances, we weren't about to turn it down.
The engine was a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which was mated to a three-speed automatic. Unfortunately, when you mate a three-speed transmission to an underpowered four-cylinder engine, you have to make a choice: Do you gear it for acceleration and let it rev high at freeway speeds, or do you gear it for quiet, comfortable freeway speed cruising and sacrifice low-speed acceleration? With this car, it was clear that Toyota chose the latter option. The automatic was quick to upshift and very reluctant to downshift; meanwhile, first gear was exceptionally tall. The result was a car that took much longer to get from 0-30 than it did to get from 30-60, which made on-ramps an interesting exercise in hope and lane changes. Interestingly, uphill performance was fairly decent, suggesting some strong mid-range torque out of the small engine, which helped make up for the complete absence of low-end torque at the bottom of the power band. Fuel economy was decent, with the Corolla regularly securing roughly 35 miles per gallon in regular highway driving.
Inside the car, it was very clear that this was a Toyota. Even after 17 years, the doors still closed with a reassuringly solid *thunk*, which was devoid of all the rattling that I had come accustomed to from American vehicles of the same period. The interior vinyl wasn't even remotely warped, which showed that the car had been garaged for most of its life. The spacing between the various vinyl and plastic components inside the car were as narrow and even as they undoubtedly were when the car was made. If you ever wondered why people stopped buying American and started buying Japanese, this is why: With this car, Toyota made a basic, boring, slow, boxy sedan that just happened to be incredibly durable. I had a Lumina of similar vintage that had only 50,000 miles when I picked it up and had also been garaged for most of its life--the plastic surrounding the power window buttons was falling off, the doors rattled when I closed them. The Corolla had none of these maladies, and, by the looks of things, it will continue to avoid them for several years to come.
It's the little things.
Speaking of little things, take a look at those taillights. Notice anything strange about them? You should. They're red. Now, why would a Japanese car have red taillights? If you remember your automotive history, you already know the answer. Toyota manufactured this generation of Corolla at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. plant in Fremont, Calif. Though this particular Corolla was manufactured in Japan, Toyota and GM were engaged in a joint venture that resulted in the Geo Prizm, a Geo-badged Corolla clone, and American-style red taillights.
Like so many of the things Toyota has done over the past few decades, NUMMI was an incredibly intelligent idea. Toyota wanted a manufacturing facility in the United States in order to stave off any possible protectionist policies regarding import-sourced automobiles, as well as to serve as a currency hedge if the dollar ever weakened or if the yen gained strength. GM, meanwhile, wanted to find out what Toyota's manufacturing secrets were, with the aim of adopting Toyota's quality control and manufacturing techniques to the rest of its plants. In exchange for access to this information, GM was willing to provide Toyota with an abandoned factory and enough capital to reactivate it to Toyota's specifications. Toyota, meanwhile, lost nothing of value; GM's management style and labor contracts were far too rigid to allow the necessary flexibility required to run a factory using Toyota's lean just-in-time techniques. In short, Toyota traded information that its passive, complacent competitor could never hope to use for a nearly free factory and political immunity.
Not bad, Toyota. Not bad at all.
Back to the subject at hand; the trouble with loaners is that, sooner or later, you have to give them back. That brings us to Part 3...