Creampuff and I had a good ride during our time together. We understood one another in ways that only a 1997 Toyota Avalon and her owner can. For 16 years and 430,000 miles we roamed the Bay Area and beyond. Through thick and thin, through new timing belts and cracked radiators and leaking head gaskets, we never gave up on each other. Well, except for a few unfortunate highway breakdowns in late 2010 and early 2011.
But when Creampuff finally passed away last month, her engine battered by old age, her cylinders riddled with tiny shavings of metal from god-knows-where, I realized the two of us had been living in a sort of automotive time warp. While she now sits on some scrap heap outside Fresno, I'm left to wander through an automotive landscape completely redone by jaw-dropping innovations I'd had no idea even existed.
Thanks to onboard diagnostics and navigation systems that you can converse with, along with software that allows your car to actually parallel-park itself while you sit there like a dummy with your hands in the air, the automobile showroom of 2013 now looks to me like another planet.
In some ways, my head's still stuck in 1997, because until recently I was relating to the contemporary roadway through an ever-aging filter of late-nineties technology. While I was having my rear brakes replaced in late 1998, onboard GPS-based navigation was starting to appear in new vehicles. As the new century dawned and I was getting my first of several timing-belt replacements with 89,787 on the odometer, those fancy high-intensity discharge headlights were beginning to light up our nighttime lanes.
And in April of 2006, when my rack-and-pinion assembly was being replaced to the tune of $561, more and more cars were coming out with ECS.
Creampuff and I, of course, had never heard of ECS.
"Your Avalon didn't have electronic-stability control,'' Bill Visnic sadly informed me the other day. He's senior editor with Edmunds.com and was happy to share with me all the other cool innovations Creampuff never got to enjoy in her 16-year life span. "I'd say ESC is the single most significant technological advancement in the time frame you had your car. It keeps you on the road. It's this sort of magic-carpet safety technology that most new-car buyers now take for granted. And it's really important in foul weather, because it makes it nearly impossible to skid off the road.''
Great. Now I felt horrible for putting myself and my passengers at risk of going off the road just because of my blind loyalty to a silver-spruce-toned Avalon XL sedan that, at least according to a 1997 review "plows straight ahead when pressed to its limits.''
Visnic proceeded to run down a litany of high-tech advancements that had come along while I'd been driving Creampuff down that 430,000-mile path to her eventual demise. He said I'd missed the advent of direct fuel injection, which he called a "win-win technology'' for its improved efficiency and power and which of course made me feel "stupid-stupid" for all that money I'd wasted gassing up Creampuff. He talked about those "infotainment systems'' in today's cars that are voice-controlled, and I was green with envy because even though I talked quite a bit to Creampuff, she never actually did anything in response.
When Visnic was done describing cutting-edge technology that allows for "Lane Keeping Assist,'' which essentially pulls you back after you've veered out of your lane, I then had to listen to Chris Hohnbaum, an automobile technology expert with AAA, bring me up to speed on traction control systems. By the time he was done waxing poetic about the wonders of "all-wheel drive'' and how this innovation "provides better handling and better response time with a lot better traction,'' I was ready to scream.
But instead, I thought about all the great times Creampuff and I had had together, how I'd nursed her back to health whenever she was broken in those early years, and how later on I'd lovingly eased her through her final months, weeks and days until she finally gave up and refused to start. And I had to smile.
Because even though she'd driven me crazy at times, she always did manage to get me where I needed to go. And where I need to go now is out there to find my direct-fuel-injected, electronic-stability controlled, GPS-equipped, sweet-talking, road-hugging Creampuff II.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc
The Life and Death of Creampuff
Born: (day I bought her): January 23, 1997
Died: November 10, 2012
Place of birth (where I bought her): Hayward, CA
Place of death: Garage bay No. 3 at my mechanic Ernie's in Pleasanton, CA (don't know Ernie's last name)
Cause of death: Old age
Age at death: 430,000 miles
Where she celebrated her 100,000-mile birthday: halfway down the crooked part of Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA
Timing belt replacements: 2
How much gasoline she drank in her life: 19,545 gallons
Survived by: Patrick May