An ode to the family car
To mark the occasion of buying a new family car, I thought I'd show some appreciation for the cars that hold our lives together.
If there’s one question I dread being asked more than any other - more than “are your flies undone?” and “didn’t I tell you I have the clap?” - it’s “what car do you drive?”. The moment people learn that you’re a car enthusiast, it’s the first thing that comes to their mind as they anticipate that your answer will be something evocative and exciting. Using tactical sarcasm to numb the sense of embarrassment, my answer is usually “a very rare Italian car called a ‘Piece’a Shitta’”. And then, once the subsequent polite giggle has relaxed their expectation, I give them the truthful answer: a Mk4 Vauxhall Astra Estate - powered by diesel.
On the plus side, at least ours has colour-coded bumpers!
The Vauxhall Astra has always been the epitome of ordinary. It's a car for people who look upon those who seek joy with intense distain, having been deprived of it so much themselves as children. It is a car for people who want a workhorse with not an ounce of appeal about it. It is a car for people who forget that the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf exist. And when we bought it 13 years ago, we were those people!
Identical to our old Mk2 Astra - except our's was a D-reg (1986). Being a mid-80's diesel, it made Krakatoa seem like a whisper.
The decision to buy was influenced primarily by the fact that we had previous form with Astras. It was a Mk2 Astra Estate diesel that brought me home from hospital after being born. When I was 7, my father replaced it with a Mk3 Astra Estate - this time living on the wild side by having a 1.6 petrol! And after 6 years with that car, it was time to find a replacement. Sticking with Astras, but more unfortunately, going back to diesel.
Same year as our Mk3 (1993), except our's was silver, and in infinitely better condition than this.
In the 6 years we’d spent away from diesel however, we’d been treated to the joys of petroleum. There’s a good reason why the first three letters of the word diesel spell “die” - because your soul has to be dead in order for you to drive one! For the first year of owning the Mk4 Astra, the racket of the diesel gave my mother migraines. Not to mention that we’ve never really done the miles to justify a diesel. While it was only 3 years old when we purchased it back in 2007, the odometer read 88,000 miles! As of today, the car has only covered 141,000 miles. I know journalists who drive more than twice the distance that we have driven this car in a single year!
The question as to why we’ve kept it for so long has frequently been a subject of great wonderment for me. Despite being fitted with the Isuzu engine - which we were told on good authority was bulletproof - and despite going to every length to properly maintain it, it’s had more mechanical faults than all of the previous 6 cars my father’s owned combined. As of right now, every time you turn the key - which you always have to do from the outside due to another fault - the engine rattles into life, bringing the sound of another issue with it.
It doesn’t help that, for personal reasons, we’re depending on it so much more now than we ever have done. For all the insults I’ve thrown at it over the years, for all the times I’ve wanted to take a sledgehammer to it for letting us down again and again, it’s now like I can actually hear it speaking to me, saying “I’m sorry. I know you need me more than ever - but I’m just too old, too tired, and have too many injuries to keep up”. We haven’t been able to procrastinate it any longer: we’ve had to replace it.
The journey to replacing it has been quite a process that has taken an awful lot of time. An estate car is no longer suitable for our needs, which rules out another Astra. Not to mention that the technological direction of the automotive industry - primarily because of punitive legislature - inspires a great amount of anxiety regarding reliability. Only now, thanks to the complexity that’s intrinsic to that aforementioned technology, repairing any faults incur eye-watering bills - a fact which brings into question just how ill-defined the concept of “progress” really is. After all, back when my father bought his first car - a Ford Anglia 105E - all of his neighbours would work on their cars when they went wrong.
This has been part of the reason why it has taken us so long to buy a replacement for our ageing Astra: because memories of simpler times are a glowing source of anxiety. Being the resident car boffin, the responsibility to quell that anxiety was placed in my hands, as I was tasked with the job of finding a new car. The parameters I was given resulted in me concluding that the car my father wants doesn’t actually exist. We’ve had to compromise on a few points, but the basic outline remained constant: it had to be reliable, cheap to insure and maintain, powered by petrol, and be spacious and easy to get into.
We looked into the popular SUV market, concluding that there was nothing of use that any of them could do that couldn’t be done better by a good old MPV. And so, the car we purchased just last week is...a Vauxhall Zafira Tourer 1.4 Turbo!
Made prior to the company’s acquisition by PSA, the Zafira Tourer we went for is a late 2016 facelifted model with not all that many miles on the clock. To drive, it is brilliant. The 1.4L turbocharged engine pulls the 1.7 tonne bulk nicely, and the whole car isolates you from the outside world by being supremely quiet and comfortable. It is a car that I get out of more relaxed than when I got into it, and for an everyday workhorse, that is a very appealing quality indeed.
A criticism given by many Zafira Tourer owners is in regard to fuel economy, with many quoting sub-30mpg. So far however, I’ve driven the car 115 miles - with only 10 of those miles being on the motorway - and I’ve managed to average 38.5mpg. If you’re wondering how that’s possible, it’s worth mentioning that I tend to change gear at around 1,500rpm. I’ll leave that one with you.
The trouble is, now we have the car that can tend to our every need - and the needs of the people who depend on us - where does that leave our old Astra? The answer to this, you may think, is a simple one. After all, it’s been a troublesome car to say the very least; it’s a wonder it hasn’t reached the scrapyard claw years ago. But given how many memories we have with this car, and given how many memories it’s helped us create, the thought of scrapping it is akin to taking a beloved labrador to the vets and hearing those dreaded words, “it’s the kindest thing to do”.
Strange, isn’t it? Here we have a car that genuinely has no appeal at all, that has left us stranded in the middle of the night hundreds of miles from home - and yet the thought of any harm coming to it provokes the same kind of emotions in me as the death of a loved one. For a family car isn’t just a car that is owned by a family - it’s a family car because it’s a member of the family. And that is how an ordinary car acquires a soul.
Thankfully, we will not be sending it to the scrapyard. Instead, my father has insured it for him to use for his own needs when I’m out in the Zafira. But while the Zafira may be the better car by far - especially for our family’s needs - it feels merely like an appliance, as I suspect it will for some time. The Astra however is that one friend you can’t help but throw your arms around every time you see them. And for that, to conclude this ramble that’s gone on for far too long, I want to list a short but rather unique set of thanks to our Vauxhall Astra.
Thank you for being our main workhorse for the past 13 years.
Thank you for facilitating my transition from passenger seat to driver’s seat.
Thank you for helping me scare my grandparents after Mum had forgotten to tell them I was allowed to move you down our driveway when I was 12.
Thank you for not getting stuck in over a foot of snow, and for climbing up icy hills during the toughest winter we’ve experienced.
Thank you for being the only hospitable place in searingly hot summers.
Thank you for carrying as much luggage as you could up and down the motorway, roughly 22 times during your life.
Thank you for helping me explore every corner of the British Isles, when you were able.
Thank you for pulling us up some incredibly steep hills in Wales - even when you weren’t very well.
Thank you for not blasting my face off with your airbag when I accidentally punched a hole in your steering wheel upon thinking your horn was there (I’ve never gotten used to it being on the spoke).
Thank you for making me a better driver as a result of your own recalcitrant nature.
Thank you for carrying the more generously proportioned members of the family time and time again - even though you made it known that you were struggling.
Thank you for bringing me home after life-changing surgery.
Thank you for helping me help others.
Thank you. For everything.
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