Dirk Knemeyer

We are the choices that we make

I’ve spent the last more than two years without an automobile. That was a choice based on a few things, each holding approximately equal weight:

* Unnecessary. When I lived in Boston (and initially dropped my car) I was working out of the home and within walking distance to the grocery store, post office, restaurants and other necessary destinations, plus had access to Fran’s car when necessary. Now in San Jose we live literally right behind the CalTrain station, which can take me to most of the towns between San Jose and San Francisco, albeit with limited mobility once I get to those places.

* Inconvenient. When I lived in Boston (and initially made this change) there was not free, convenient parking.

* Irresponsible. As someone who is concerned about the environment and the future of our planet and species, I have long viewed any unnecessary ownership and use of a car as being irresponsible.

* Expensive. Even in the best case, between car payment and insurance and gas, it costs at least $500 a month to drive around these days. That’s money I could put to better use elsewhere.

But lately, as my life has been getting more complex and the near future will require me to function more as an actual CEO as opposed to humbly running our services company, it became evermore apparent that I would need to have full-time access to a car in order to do that.

Me. A car. The last time I had a car was by lease: a black Honda Accord that I left behind in July of 2004.

To be sure, I’ve considered a car between now and then. As we were moving to California I considered an old (late 1970s), used (obviously) Mercedes Benz. My grandmother used to drive one from this era and somehow the retro nature of that choice seemed to both fit my personality and serve as a good option for the environment: recycling the old instead of creating the new. But I didn’t end up getting one. More recently I chose a motorcycle as a smart alternative form of transportation, allowing me to travel around the Bay area without much cost to the environment or my pocketbook. But after a harrowing experience losing control into oncoming traffic, suddenly the two wheeled route didn’t seem so smart anymore. So that led to the present decision to get a car.

I had a few criteria in mind as I started out looking:

* Wanted something that got good gas mileage and was environmentally friendly. That most likely meant a hybrid.

* Wanted something that was as maintenance free as possible. That most likely meant leasing a new car.

* Wanted something that was very large and comfortable for the driver. I’m 6’4″ tall and over 16 stone. That meant smaller and more gas efficient (non-hybrid) cars like the Honda Civic were probably out.

* Wanted to spend under $400 per month without putting tootoo much down up front.

So I started out looking at Toyotas (I used to own a Camry and really liked it): the Prius and the Highlander Hybrid. The Highlander was particularly intriguing because of its large size and the fact I’ve always wanted to sit high above the highway and see more yet that has never been a possibility, owing to me disdain for SUVs thanks to their environmentally unfriendly nature. Surprisingly, the Prius was almost $400 a month as a base model and much more than that for just the basic comfort features. Along with the fact you can’t get a moonroof (which I really like) and that I only plan to drive a meager 5000 miles or so per year, the Prius suddenly didn’t seem like a good option. The Highlander Hybrid was actually hundreds of dollars more per month than my budget so that become a non-option as well.

That took me back to my old reliable, the Honda Accord. My previous lease on an Accord was a merre $330 a month for a new, loaded automobile. So I knew I could get an Accord within my price point and have a nice, large, comfortable vehicle. The gas mileage isn’t fantastic (~25 MPG combined) but not bad either. But at that point I got the idea of looking for a convertible. We’re in California. The weather is appropriate for having your top down for well over 300 days each year. That might be a fun option, and my only chance to own a convertible in the next 20-30 years (assuming having a child sometime in the next ~5 years). So I looked at the Toyota Solara (say that 10 times fast), but its lease prices were pretty expensive. And I went back on Craig’s List to check out 1970s era Mercedes convertibles again, although those would likely require heavy maintenance. And somewhere along the way I bumped into the following:

Lease Special: 2006 BMW Z4 Roadster. $3,100 down, $329 per month.

I almost fell out of my chair. A BMW for $329 per month? How is that possible? The Z4, one of the sexiest cars around? I was intrigued, to say the least. So we went over to the BMW dealership. And I took a test drive.

And I was completely blown away.

Now, granted, I’ve never driven anything more sporty than a Toyota Celica or Chevy Beretta, and most of my driving has been in tried-and-true Camrys, Accords and Civics. But, OMG, driving this BMW was like nothing I had ever experienced. Love at first ride.

So I looked a little deeper: comparable gas mileage to the Accord. BMW covers any and all maintenance including oil changes (other than tire repair), saving me even more money. Getting the Z4 loaded – not quite to the gills, but close – would bring me in around $410 per month including all taxes, fees, etc. It was plenty big enough for me. It was comfortable. It was insanely fun to drive.

The only barrier left is my aversion to luxury brands. Sure, I was looking at old Mercedes’: but that was more a retro thing and tied to the fact my grandmother drove one and it represented something meaningful from my childhood and a connection to her. Fact is, I’m not a car guy. I don’t lust after luxury brands, I don’t feel an ego boost from luxury brands. If anything, I would be embarrassed driving a luxury brand because suddenly I am the insecure person who needs an expensive car in order to feel good about themself. I’m more the type to drive an everyman kind of brand and wear that as a badge of honor. And yet, this super fun and comfortable car that would really fit into my lifestyle now – not to mention is reallyreally small making parking a breeze – has just fallen into my lap. Financially, with the possible exception of an Accord, it just makes the most bottom line sense. And that is completely apart from the comfort, fun and – yes – brand.

So it is, perhaps improbably, that I am soon to become the proud owner of a BMW. A Montego Blue Z4 3.0i to be exact, with a beige top and beige leather seats. Premium sport package. For under $420 a month. (The lease specials are nationwide and last thru August 31 if you want to get in on the fun as well!)

Part of me is really, really excited: I never expected to own a car like this, and stumbling into it opens up all of the possibilities that come with considering new horizons. But a bigger part of me feels like a sell-out, trading my Prius sensibilities for the debauchery of the wild side.

All of this comes back to the title of my post: I’ve always been of the opinion that we are the choices that we make – as opposed to the things we say or think. That action reflects motivation, values and preferences. So my decision to drive a BMW Z4 compels me to look back at myself and question what exactly I am, and try to reconcile the Prius of my thoughts and words with the BMW roadster soon to sit in my garage. And perhaps another part of this is thinking about the future: as I am in other ways shifting myself to play the role of CEO, how will this auto fit into the picture? What am I ultimately conforming into, and will it (or to what degree) change the essential parts of me that currently and historically provide my center?

Important questions, all.

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