Thursday, July 16, 2009
Beaver Dam, WI

When we started fulltiming in the bus-house two years ago we decided to tow my old 1999 Chevy Blazer (our toad) and hoped we'd get a year or two out of the old boy. It's over 10 years old now, has 150,000 miles on the odometer, and has been towed about 18,000 additional miles. It's been reliable and has only stranded us once, in Little Rock last fall. But time has taken a toll, as it does with everything. We made the decision over the past few months that replacing the toad would be the big summer project this year.

But the process of deciding what to buy was a long and winding path. First, our requirement that the vehicle be deemed "towable" (all four wheels on the ground) by the manufacturer, without any modification, was the first narrowing of the possible choices. As long as the manufacturer says it's OK to tow the car the warranty remains in effect -- something that's important to us. The list of vehicles in this category is not a long one.

At first we thought a small SUV was the way to go. Having 4 wheel drive and higher clearance might come in handy when exploring the back country of the USA. It would be a minimal change from what we've had with the old Blazer. We looked at a Jeep Liberty and a Ford Escape.

But on the down-side, even small SUVs have lousy fuel efficiency. We were getting about 18mpg with the old toad and something like a Jeep Liberty is only slightly better... maybe low 20's?... if you drive like your aunt Tilly. The latest crop of small SUV's are also taller than the old toad, which means it'd be harder to get bikes on and off the roof rack. And space-wise, most of these small SUV's are really quite small inside.

Then we reviewed how we've actually used the old toad. We have two solid years of experience to learn from. Not once in those two years did we use, or need, 4 wheel drive. And there was only one time, near Quartzsite in Arizona, that it was probably good that we had the higher clearance of the Blazer. But even then we felt that the next time we'd probably rent 4-wheelers, "quads" as some people call them, and have a real off-roading experience. So high-clearance and 4 wheel drive really aren't as important to us as we first thought.

We once thought we'd like to have a couple kayaks. But dragging kayaks around, having to deal with them every day, paying for fuel to lug them around, putting them on the car, taking them off the car, storing and locking them up at our camp... dealing with all this when we'd actually be using them less than 1% of the time... it just doesn't seem like the benefit of having them is worth the cost in bother and hassle. Besides, in most good kayaking locales there are people in the business of renting kayaks. Here's a real-life example: when exploring the Okefenokee Swamp we rented a small motorboat for a few hours for something like $30 bucks or so. How can you beat that? No gas hassles, no repair hassles, no loading or unloading, etc. etc. Therefore we've decided we really don't need a vehicle that can carry boats.

How about the bikes? Biking is one thing we do everywhere. I love biking -- it feels natural to me... it's liberating. We often ride improved trails that follow the paths of old railroad grades, and have a blast every time we've done it. While we don't lug kayaks around, we do have our bikes. Making it even easier to store and transport the bikes would be nice. The roof mounted rack system on the old toad has worked well but it's been a bit of a hassle too. A bike rack system that's lower to the ground would be a plus.

If we don't really need 4 wheel drive and high clearance, there are quite a few other vehicles that could be considered. And high fuel prices a year ago made us wonder if we shouldn't find something with better fuel efficiency. Hmmm.

So we expanded the search and started checking out small cars. Personally, I've always liked the feel of small cars with manual transmissions. They're just fun to drive. And I was surprised how refined this category has become. They're quiet, have good road feel, are quick in corners, and because they're light, even a small motor feels strong.

Ultimately we settled on a Ford Focus. There were a few others we also liked but, for me, the factor that nudged the Ford to the top of the list was the fact that it's made in the USA by a U.S. company. I know, I know, how silly can I be? Why would I buy a car that some may feel is inferior to those famous foreign brands? Somehow I just felt it was small positive thing I could do to help this country out in stressful and troubled economic times.

The little Focus will become "toad2" in my writings. It's an efficient thing, getting around 35mpg in all around general driving so far -- a factor that will ease some of the pain of rising fuel prices. At about 1,300 fewer pounds than the old toad, we may see some small increase in mileage on the bus-house too.

It'll take some scrambling the next few weeks to get it ready to tow. We need to add a "base plate" (the piece on the car the tow-bar connects to), wiring to connect the turn signals and brake lights on the motorhome to the car's rear lights, and a brake system "breakaway" (the switch that activates the brake system in the car in the unlikely event it breaks away from the motorhome)... all necessary to make toad2 ready for towing. I'm also adding a rear hitch receiver that will be needed for a new rear-mounted bike rack.

That's my story about toad2.



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