I WAS scouting around for a car, one that yielded value for money, which is just a nice way of saying a cheap one. I'm no fortunate son, to quote John Fogerty's famous song. The car my son was driving to school was a Mitsubishi Lancer EL that had seen better days. Every so often, it would break down, which took its toll not on my son but on me. I'd end up having to bring the damn thing to the repair shop, which fleeced me as much of time as of money.
Moreover, the anxiety of wondering if that broken-down chariot would always hold up and deliver my son home safely in the witching hour-the natural habitat of teenagers-made the prospect of keeping it longer suck.
Besides, I needed one for myself too. Three years ago, a friend of mine sold me a 2000 Honda CR-V for a song. It drives like a dream but combusts like a nightmare. It devours gas. On the occasions I drive alone, I feel horrendously guilty, which helps temper my curses when a bus or jeepney or FX cuts into my path. I figure a contraption that ferries a couple of dozen people at a time and in those sweatshop conditions has a better claim to the road than I.
But like I said, I myself needed a car that would be fairly talyer-free over the next few years and that wouldn't cost me a fortune in gas. I spoke with Vernon, Top Gear's top honcho, and he said there were a couple under P600,000 and which were a gas-miser's idea of heaven. Those two were the Kia Picanto and the Toyota Vios. The Picanto ran on a 1,000cc engine and the Vios on 1,300cc and 1,500cc powerplants.
The Picanto, of course, boasts a reasonable ability to navigate non-city roads. But I kept remembering something a friend of mine told me back in the 1970s. He had bought a budget car then. I don't recall the name now but I think it had the word "mini" in it. The thing lived up to its "mini" billing, my friend said. He drove it up north with some friends, and each time a bus overtook them, the thing trembled violently from the draft like a frail boat tossed in fretful waters. Being young and invulnerable, they all yelled wildly each time that happened, like the passengers of a roller coaster having a hell of a time. I figured I was no longer young and invulnerable, and hell might prove too literal an experience, or destination. So I chose the Toyota Vios.
I had researched the Vios a bit on the Internet beforehand and was pleased to know that Toyota had finally gotten round to improving the looks of its blue-collar roadrunners. I'm not finicky about design but I'm not unmindful of it either. I leave princely designs to princes but demand some tasteful rendering for myself. And the Vios, for its price, looks pretty tastefully rendered. It certainly looks a lot slicker than the old Toyota cars, particularly the boxy ones, which gave whole new meanings to the term "running coffin".
The Vios looks like it was meant to cut through wind. Toyota supplied me with a Vios J M/T to try out. The "J" is the cheapest Vios. There's a more expensive 1.3-liter model, which is the Vios E M/T. But it costs P74,000 more, and as far as I could see, its only major advantage is that it has power windows and power side mirrors. Life has not spoiled me enough to greatly mind rolling my windows up or down when I need to, or want to part with P74,000 for an incremental gain. (Repeated bouts with gout though have ravaged my body, including my hands, enough for me to greatly mind going back to manual or pawis-steering.) Besides, I recall that getting the power windows of my CR-V repaired cost me an arm and a leg. No, the "J" was just fine by me.
Toyota supplied me with a red Vios to test-drive. Red apparently was their best-selling color. Normally, I do not like to advertise my existence with strong colors-the only time I wore a red shirt was on a Chinese New Year upon a friend's earnest urgings that it would bring good luck-and I personally would have preferred a darker shade of red, like burgundy, not least because of its associations with that heavenly brew. A Vios painted psychedelic could not have shouted for more attention.
My experience with the Vios proved largely pleasurable. The one annoyance I had was with the safety feature they installed in it to make it carjack-proof. Before I drove it the first time, the (very nice) girls from Toyota who turned the car over to me explained that to start the car, you had to press on the clutch before switching the engine on. They showed me how.
I took the car for a spin around the block and found the clutch a little too deep. Before I could turn the block, I released the clutch too fast and the engine died. I did as instructed, putting my foot on the clutch and switching the engine on. Nothing happened. Astonished, I tried it again. Still, nothing. My astonishment turned to dismay and my dismay into anxiety as several vehicles collected behind me and began honking loudly. I repeated the process several more times, but still the damn thing refused to start. It was as if the battery had gone completely dead.
I got out of the car and asked some istambays around to help me push it to the side of the road. The spectacle of a new car being pushed is an amusing one, and I could see the amused stares of the drivers of the other vehicles and the passersby being liberally thrown my way. I could almost read the thought balloons hovering over their heads, which had to do either with me being a fresh graduate of SM's driving schools or with me being stuck with a lemon.
By repeating the process several times, I finally managed to revive the engine and drove the car back to my place. Elijah Sue Marcial of Toyota explained again that to start you really have to push the clutch in. That, in fact, was still an understatement. You have to ram the clutch pedal to the floor and keep it there while you switch on. To this day, I have not mastered the art, and get annoyed when I'm in a hurry and I have to switch the engine on several times while stomping on the clutch-enough to bore a hole through the floor.
I'm two minds about that feature today. On one hand, I figure, surely the School of Carjackers is fairly up to date and its curriculum features the latest tricks in spiriting away new cars? I mean, how long do you think it will take before your unfriendly neighborhood car thief gets wind of that trick? It's not as if they're trying to crack the encryption of Blu-ray. So you're stuck with a not very minor inconvenience without gaining a very major convenience in exchange for it.
I now hope that same school does not include Top Gear in its syllabus since I have just revealed to them the Vios' darkest secret. I could be deathly wrong. Who knows? Maybe Top Gear tops its list of required reading.
On the other hand, when my nocturnal wanderings force me at times to park the Vios in some dark spot because that is the only parking space left, I do feel some comfort in the thought its prospective purloiner will be cursing heaven before he is through. I take comfort in the idea that he will be leaving in a huff, demanding to know how any car owner could be so inconsiderate or inhospitable.
Other than that, I loved the car. I drove it to Baguio not long after I got it, and was pleasantly surprised to find out it was no dullard at all-it was fairly swift-footed. Age, of course, has given me a greater sense of realism, enough to know you can't pit a 1.3-liter against more robust engines and you should settle for biting their dust. Indeed, age has given me a better sense of proportion, enough to wonder why you should want to frazzle your nerves trying to overtake everyone only to get a few meters ahead of them, especially on our clogged highways. There's no champagne popping and girls gushing at the finish line. For all you know, there could be a steep hospital bill there.
But despite these self-recognitions, or admonitions, I did get to push the Vios a bit, discovering as soon as I got past the toll in Balintawak before dawn that the thing had power in its lean frame. It was solid at 100kph; you never felt at any time it was getting out of hand. I didn't bother pushing it beyond that, my assignment for Top Gear not including insurance.
It was another story climbing up Kennon. There, the Vios truly showed its frailer 1.3-liter constitution, overcoming the long and winding road with considerable effort. Despite the fairly light traffic (Lent this year did not send the usual Manila crowd scrambling up the mountain), I managed only first and second gear for the most part.
But here's the truly good news. Before I left, I filled the near-empty tank of gas, which set me back by P1,750. With that, I drove up to Baguio and drove around the place for the next three days. Baguio, of course, isn't very big, and I didn't bother traipsing to nearby places.
And though the summer capital didn't pull in the usual Attila's horde this Lent, it did pose heavy traffic in some parts, no small thanks to GMA and her retinue who probably accounted for half of the sudden migration, which discouraged moving about frenetically during the day. That notwithstanding, I figure I did my fair share of scouring the place over in those three days (and nights). Then I drove back to Manila. I didn't have to gas up again until I reached Balintawak.
That's not a bad deal in these fuel-starved times. That clinched the deal for me. The Vios I subsequently got was a silver one-the "J" series features only red, silver and blue-since I figured that not only did it not call undue attention to me but it went well with my long silver hair. Of course, most everyone I know says my hair isn't silver-it's white, and dirty white at that. But we're all entitled to delude ourselves once in a while.
The only thing that keeps me from being a completely happy camper is that the silver Vios 1.3 J also seems to be standard issue of the PNP. I see those patrol cars everywhere, particularly at night. I don't know that it's a very flattering thought that you have the same taste as Sonny Razon. But he probably has to be commended for choosing the cheapest car to equip his crew.
I don't mind at all that I drive the same car as my not very friendly neighborhood mamang pulis. I'm not a snob there. What I do mind, or fear, is that, if that is the case, the Vios' darkest secret should now be well-known to those who mean to dispossess their owners of them.
Infer from that what you will. But please do not attribute to me the theory that Manila's Finest are to be found among the finest lecturers of the School of Carjackers.