Safe Behind the Wheel
To prove that I'd made it from coast to coast, I shot a picture of the Lexus by the Atlantic Ocean. Then I headed west again, this time on a more southerly route that would lead me through Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City. As the days passed, I found that a comfortable range for me, as a solo driver, was 500 miles. But with a little pushing I could do 650 miles in a day. And my longest day (out of necessity) was from Columbia, Missouri, to Denver, a distance of 728 miles. Even so, stopping for 15 minutes every two hours was essential to keeping me alert behind the wheel.
My only close call on the entire trip came in Worcester, Massachusetts. I was in the middle of the city, stopped at a red light. A horrible screech of tires signaled what was about to happen: An inattentive driver rear-ended the car beside me. It was purely the luck of the draw that I was in the right lane and could drive away unscathed.
In the final day of the cross-country drive, I found myself wondering whether the journey would have been a lot more comfortable in a brand-new car. The answer is obviously yes. But that's not to say this 16-year-old car was uncomfortable or even just lacking some crucial bit of hardware.
I loved the superior visibility of an older car, which is free of the thick A-pillar and high beltline of more recently minted models. The Lexus cruised quietly and efficiently at highway speeds, and strong crosswinds didn't knock it off course. It even climbed well in the high oxygen-starved passes of the Rockies, with smooth downshifts providing adequate power. The only annoyances were the old seats, the lack of storage space around the driver and having to feed my CDs into a cartridge in the trunk.
One major difference between this old car and any modern counterpart was the suspension. The struts were tired and the suspension setup is outdated. Most of the time, I didn't notice these shortcomings. But if I got it on rough pavement, or put it into a sharp corner, the difference became apparent.
Sixteen days after I left, I pulled up in front of my house in the Los Angeles area. All told, the Debt-Free Car had logged 6,834 miles, bringing it up to a hefty total of 145,786 miles on the odometer. The 18-gallon gas tank allowed a cruising range of as much as 433 miles between gas stations, and the fuel efficiency over this distance was 27.4 mpg on 87 octane. The Lexus used about 250 gallons of gas, so we spent $940 on fuel at an average of $3.75 per gallon.
This lengthy road trip showed me how much utility and comfort there is in a high-mileage car, even one for which we paid only $3,480. Unlike its newer counterparts, however, this car required a little more preparation for its journey, along with some contingency planning and a careful eye to evolving maintenance issues. Still, if money is tight, the compromises are well worth it. In my case, the whole experience has left me wondering how much farther this car can go and how much money people can save by driving older cars.