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SPECIAL REPORT: DREAM MACHINES

With These Wheels, Your Wardrobe Will Be Complete

Our critic's closet of dreams would hold a Mercedes E-class, an outdoorsy Jeep Wrangler and a Porsche Boxster.

October 29, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Chats between automobile buyer and automotive writer are mostly a matter of insider trading. Or misdirected pleas for divine guidance.

"I'm thinking of buying a new car. What would you suggest?"

Frankly, the best car for you is the one you'll be happiest driving for the next 40 payments.

"Well, what do you drive?"

Sir. Or madam. I also have a wife. But telling you all about her isn't going to help your search for a wife. Or husband. But I know a really good yenta who works for Goudy Honda.

"Met her. Runs Civics for Singles."

All-righty, then. Here's the living truth.

As all individuals are creatures of multiple partialities, foibles and fetishes, red wine or white, I have never thought one vehicle to be car enough. We don't go through life with a single button-down shirt and spare tie. There is happiness and satisfaction in pluralism; three cats, a couple of watches, four favorite restaurants and collections of Dixieland CDs. We even woo bon amis by the batch, depending on our mood, season or social event.

So why not a wardrobe of cars?

Here, in no particular priority, keyed entirely to task before price or preeminence, are my dreamboats:

*

You are among the fortunate who can read the silence of a desert mountaintop, and whatever God's purpose for the wilderness. Where your boots, your rifle, your overnight campsite, that red-tailed hawk you wish was yours make the only sounds until the next county. Which is Lassen.

Drink from a canteen. Smoke a Juan Clemente Club Selection. Spit. Wipe away heat with a red bandanna. Know that you can explore anywhere, rescue stranded souls and play cowboy on a mount tougher than a horse.

For such times, only a Jeep Wrangler. Not a Grand Cherokee or Explorer or Expedition. Sissies. But a tough, pugnacious, GI-loving Wrangler that doesn't flinch when scraped and getting dirty. With a V-6 and rollover bar, spotlights and a rack for that Winchester. And it is the least expensive, most honest boot for the buck.

There will always be weekend conversations ending with a suggestion about taking another fun couple with you. Or Mom and Dad. To the Pantages or Pinot Bistro.

That means four broad doors and a soft, clean leather interior because mother's clothes are always fresh from Village Cleaners. There must be interior silence for light conversation or Vivaldi on KKGO-FM. Here's the snooty bit: Mothers do not like to see their offspring hand a Chevy Prizm to a parking valet. They wince easily. So do parking valets.

So I'd bite my bridge and buy a Mercedes E-Class. Sure, it costs twice as much as a Pontiac Grand Prix. But it will last three times as long. And only the cognoscenti will be able to tell your $45,000 E-Class from a $74,000 S-Class. Besides, owning a Mercedes is a great excuse for buying a Rolex, which will really impress father.

It goes without saying that no Mercedes should be exposed to the dings and furrows of outrageous life in the fast and increasingly foolish lanes. Coupes work but not all the time, especially if you need three passengers to earn a carpool parking slot in the company garage.

Best to invest in a mainstream second sedan as a daily driver, and no need to look beyond a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Sure, like denim shirts, everybody's got one. But for the basic grunt work of getting to Denny's, Blockbuster Video, Ralph's and Village Cleaners, and in full comfort without boring yourself to sleep, there's none better than one of these bestsellers. Which--duh--is why they are such bestsellers.

Accord and Camry are also bulletproof motoring. Don't be surprised, at the end of four years and 75,000 miles, if your only running costs have been for brakes, tires, a pair of batteries and a dozen trips to Jiffy Lube.

Dogs go to beauty parlors. Hobbyists haul plywood for model train layouts. We carry flats of peonies from the nursery, rubber boats for repair and dead dishwashers to the dump. Ergo, you'll need a light truck, and a Nissan Frontier does it all.

But don't trust me. J.D. Power & Associates named the Frontier best compact pickup for this year. OK, trust me. I've owned a Nissan truck for 12 years.

*

We are Californians. That means driving something frivolous and sensual and an expression of personal freedom. It must speak of oneness with the elements, and if it's a little beyond our means, well, c'est la vie en Californie. Translation: Buy a convertible.

A Mitsubishi Eclipse is too small and mischievous. A Mustang GT convertible is confrontational, positively antisocial. But a Volvo C70 offers healthy performance without being an assassin and carries the right meld of elegance and reserve.

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