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The Scourge of Scandanavia

November 18, 2011
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN (saranacbo@ , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

I've got good news, and I've got bad news.

The good news is I just got a new car.

The bad news is I just got a new car.

To clarify things a bit: Strictly speaking, the car is not new, and I didn't just get it since I bought it in June.

It's a '98 Volvo, but in my world a '98 is new, since it's the newest car I've ever owned.

Likewise, if I bought it five months ago, why would I think I "just" bought it? Well, though I had it, I couldn't deal with getting it registered till a few week's ago.

Why's that, you ask?

Simple avoidance, that's why. Let's get real: When you buy a used car, you buy a passel of trouble as well.

Even if there's nothing apparently wrong with the vehicle, two nagging questions always present themselves. One is, What's going to go wrong?

This gives rise to another question that, even if unstated, always lurks in the background of the used car buyer's mind like Raincoat Harry in the back of the park at midnight. The question is, if all's right with this jalopy, why did the previous owner get rid of it?

In the case of the Volvo, I knew the answer to Question 2. I bought the car from my friend (at least I hope he's my friend), Whispering Tom Dudones, who told me he sold it because he didn't need a third vehicle.

At first, second and third glance the car seemed perfect. It'd spent its entire life in Texas, so the body was as close to mint as it gets. It came with four Hakkapeliitta snow tires on some kind of groovy rims, all of which are worth more than the car itself. The engine ran fine and neither burned nor leaked oil. The brakes had been recently replaced; the muffler was solid and sound; even the radio and CD player were tip-top.

So I had nothing to worry about, right? Wrong!

First, my family's favorite tradition is worrying; it's also my tribe's primary obligation.

Second, it's a used car. No matter how good everything looks or how well it runs, something has to go wrong.

And third, it's a Volvo. Volvos have great reps for being safe, steady and rugged. They also have enough weird doo-dads and whatchamacallits that all sorts of oddball things can go wrong at all sorts of oddball times. And beyond that, almost everything on a Volvo that needs to be replaced can be replaced only with Volvo parts, sometimes only at a Volvo dealership, which is the equivalent of burning barrels of hundred dollar bills.

And thus my hesitancy in having the thing registered and actually putting it on the road.

Taking the big step

Finally, though, I shlepped through the motions. First I went to the IB Hunt Agency and got my insurance. Then I went to DMV, filled out the forms and got my registration and plates. Next I went to get it inspected.

The garage said they could get to it later; all I had to was come back in a few hours and it'd all be taken care of. It sounded too good to be true and it was.

When I came back, the mechanic gave me a sad look, shook his head a few times and said he was sorry.

"Sorry?" I asked. "For what?"

"I can't inspect your car," he said.

"Can't inspect it?" I repeated dumbly. "Why not?"

"The 'Check Engine' light is on," he said.

"So what's that mean?" I asked.

"It's something to do with your transmission."

"My transmission?" I all but yelled. "Lord God Almighty, what's wrong with the transmission?"

"Probably nothing," he said. "But there's a sensor in it that's sending out some kind of signal."

"So why can't you check it out?"

"I don't have the tool to open the transmission case and check the sensor."

"So what can I do?" I asked, feeling faintly nauseous.

He shrugged.

"Only thing you can do," he said, "which is take it to a dealer."

"And where's the nearest one?" I asked, feeling really nauseous.


I nodded numbly, thanked him, and staggered out, the weight, if not of the world then at least of Sweden, on my shoulders.

and slipping

When I started the car, I stopped myself in mid-thought.

Hey, I thought to myself, "What am I doing? It's just a car; things could be a lot worse."

And as soon as I put the car in drive, they were: I pushed the accelerator and there was a delay. The RPM's on the tachometer raced, but the car moved at barely a snail's pace. It was a sign of that most dreaded vehicular malfunction - a slipping transmission.

I had another car whose transmission started to slip, and no more than a week later it burned out completely.

Have a Volvo transmission rebuilt? Sure, it's no big deal, really. Relatively simple to do and can't cost more than a first-class suite on the Queen Elizabeth.

I took the car home and left it there for a few days before I found the courage to take it to another mechanic. I told him about the transmission slipping; did not tell him about my suicidal tendencies, and left, steeling myself for the bad news.

A couple of days later he called.

"Guess what?" he said.

"Do I have to?" I said, reaching for my bottle of Pepto.

"No, not really," he said. "I'll tell you. Your transmission's fine."

"But why was it slipping?" I asked.

"Actually, it wasn't slipping."

"It wasn't?" I repeated.

"No. You just had the transmission in winter driving mode."

"I did?" I said. "How'd I do that? I never changed anything, at least not that I know of."

"Yeah, well," he said, "there are three buttons on your console that have to do with driving modes. The winter mode was pushed in."

"What's the winter mode?" I asked.

"It puts your transmission in a higher gear so you've got better traction. It's like taking off in third gear, so it only seems like it's slipping."

"I understand," I said, and suddenly all was right with the world

Of course I didn't understand a single thing he said. But so what? If the transmission wasn't slipping, I didn't care why it wasn't.

Face it: I cared more about the transmission slipping than I did about I, myself, slipping.

And why not? After all, I've got a great health plan - the Volvo has none.



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