Keep it, trade it or sell it?

Our amazing 2014 Audi Q5 the morning of March 8, 2022

When our 2014 Audi Q5 passed 75,000 miles, (it has now surpassed 100,000), I began to get nervous.  On the one hand, the warranty was gone, so repair costs would fall on us. On the other hand, this had been one of the best cars we ever owned.  We purchased it in 2014, buying into the whole “clean, efficient, diesel” theme being hyped by Audi and Volkswagen.  Later our Q5 would get caught up in VW’s “diesel-gate” scandal; it minimally affected us or the car’s performance, other than about a year when letters with checks and apologies from Volkswagen, who owns Audi, filled our mailbox.

The Q5 happily pulled my other vehicles around. Here it is on a trip to a Lotus meet in Colorado.

The car performed admirably, to say the least. Its relatively low horsepower (240 HP) was offset by over 425-foot lbs. of torque. As Jay Leno once said, “Horsepower sells cars, but torque wins races.” Besides being spunky off the line, pulling a trailer loaded with my 4-passenger Polaris RZR, spares, tools, four adults and gear up Highway 17 from Phoenix into the higher elevations was a walk in the park for the Audi.  I used to laugh as we easily passed large, roaring and belching pickup trucks, gasping due to the long, steady climb.  On top of that, it was exceptionally efficient.   Filling the tank, we loved seeing the “miles remaining” indicator show 585 or more miles.  Sure, the Audi had an extra-large tank, but the number would not change for the first hour or so after we left the gas station, and only then would it gradually begin coming down. Audi claimed 32 MPG and our experience was it may have been better than that.  The 8-speed automatic transmission was tuned for efficiency and it delivered.  Nevertheless, no matter how much we love a car; there is a time to let it go.  How do we recognize that time? Should we keep it, trade it in or sell it?  When we got close to 90,000 miles I knew we were living on borrowed time and a year later I was proven right.

Fears about costly repairs on higher mileage German cars were pooh-poohed by several car expert buddies. They would nod sagely and say something like; “Diesel cars easily go 275,000 miles or more. Hell, at 100,000 it’s just getting broke in.” Still, I worried. We’ve had experience with several new cars over the years.  In most cases, we viewed their passing the 50,000 mile warranty period as the time to begin thinking about letting them go.  Many people take an opposite approach, thinking something like:  “Now that the $313.40 monthly car payment is gone, we’ll set that money aside in a special account for car repairs.  In the long run, we’ll be better off.”  I think that only works in theory.

Here is how it playing out for the Audi.  Our first, out-of-warranty service was for $849, at 53,350 miles.  Up until then, all warranty work was either included or part of the “pre-paid” warranty option. In 2018 our costs were $720 for brake pads and an oil/filter change.  In 2019 we spent $1,540.13 for its 75K mileage service and new tires.  In 2020 the car cost just $698 for its 95K service.

In 2021, things started to go south.  First, it was brake pads at $567.28, then a water pump leak for $1,209.18.  This was followed by a need to replace the front bushings (upper and lower) a cost of over $4,000 if done by Audi.  However, a local alignment and suspension specialist shop (Network Alignment) had done good work on my other cars.  Cheaper than Audi, it still cost us $2,969.59 using original Audi parts.

And then, just as we’re getting the car ready to transfer to my nephew, Audi decides it needs $8,881.91 in additional work.  $2,639.01 to replace the engine mounts, $3,723.11 to fix a newly developed coolant leak, $384.64 for a rear wiper blade (are you kidding me?), and 4 new tires for $1,739.

Kelly Blue Book indicated the trade-in value at about $13,500.  With the $3K already spent on the front bushings and another $2K for motor mounts I’ve got $5K into it and I’ve yet to address the coolant issue (potentially $3K but not urgent – it’s easy to add coolant and the leak is slow).  Plus it will need tires, another $1500 unless I buy some cheapies.  So, it could run over $8,000 and possibly more.

Bottom line, I’ll never again recommend the “keep and repair it” approach, especially once you’ve exceeded the warranty by 15-20,000 miles.  Perhaps, if you’re mechanically inclined and can do your own repairs, it might make sense.  However, given the complexities of newer cars, I suspect that direction is fraught with pitfalls as well. I’m curious as to what others think about this and your experience. Let me know in the comments section below.

Follow-on to In Praise of Talent

Occasionally feedback on my newsletters and resulting conversations are more informative and meaningful than the original piece.  The “In Praise of Talent” newsletter seems to be one of those. Here is some of the feedback, a day or so after publication of the newsletter with its special nod to photographers. First, I got the following email from my friend, Paul R. Hagan, who spent his career as a professional writer:

Paul wrote: “Enjoyed your article. You must have a great laptop!”

I replied: “Paul, Thank you for the brilliant, succinct and hilarious feedback. You truly are a great writer. I was lucky to meet you when I was young. Learning through you some of the skills necessary for putting words together in just the right way was an inspiration. Being close enough to you to see how much work it was, the time and amount of effort required and what it took out of you to do it helped me understand what it meant to be a professional writer.”

And then I added this postscript: “As you can tell, I rarely bother with the hard work of getting 1,000 words down to 100, much less 9.”

Not all great writing is making things as short as possible, part of the art and special skill of copywriters like my friends Paul Hagen and Arthur Einstein, Arthur of “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” fame. Like me, my good friend Rich Marin puts only a minimal amount of effort into reducing his written output or length of his prose. Rich expressed his thoughts about my newsletter and added some significant perspective of his own in his blog post this morning, which you can see here.

My good friend David Barnett came over yesterday morning and we chatted in my workshop over cups of espresso. We discussed the newsletter and I found myself telling David I believed there was a certain level of achievement or mastery of something one had to attain before you truly began to appreciate the way it is practiced by those who make a profession of it. As we talked, I came up with four areas where I felt my experience and skills had been refined enough to genuinely appreciate how much better the pros are: photography, motorcycle riding, driving a car fast on a track and writing. During our discussion, a fifth came to mind.  But first, these four:

  • Photography: This will be quick as you’ve just read the newsletter before this, which outlines my observations of those who have perfected these skills. I’ve spent hours with pro photographers and talented amateurs and easily see the delta between what I do and their work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a bad photographer, in fact, I’d rank myself as much better than most. But compared to them? Not really.
  • Motorcycle Riding: Over the years I’ve taken countless riding courses and tested my skills in amateur races on big name race tracks. My off road skills have been exercised in chasing the Dakar Rally and countless rides in and around Arizona, Utah, Mexico and Colorado. Finally, I performed and competed with a precision motorcycle riding team.  Without gloating or exaggeration, I believe my riding skills are better than 95% of the people riding motorcycles on the streets today. This is what allows me to see and appreciate the skills of those who ride for a living. I don’t care how good you think you are on a motorcycle, until you’ve ridden with those who ride many hours every single day of the year and their livelihood depends on this particular set of skills, you have no idea the width and depth of the gap between your skills and theirs.  I’ve been honored to ride with a host of professional riders over the years, including motorcycle cops, World Superbike and MotoGP competitors, flat-track racers and trials riders and many who teach motorcycle skills for a living.  And like my photography efforts, I know the difference.
  • Auto Racing: Although it’s been many years since I’ve tracked a car, I do know what is involved. I worked at it, read books, practiced and took lessons from very good instructors. However, it typically took less than half a lap for me to appreciate how much better my instructors were at driving my car than I was.  My most recent experience was riding with McLaren’s top test driver in a new McLaren 720S. Even on city streets and scratching ever so slightly the surface of the car’s full capabilities, his mastery of the vehicle was astounding.
  • Writing: Ha! Visitors to my home can’t miss stacks of magazines everywhere. I love those who practice this particular craft. For over 25 years I’ve nibbled around the edges and managed to get a fair amount of my work published. But I know that “real” writers hang out at places like the New Yorker, the WSJ, Washington Post or the Atlantic. Maggie is a skilled technical writer and I’ve learned the process required to be very good at that. Malcolm Gladwell gifted me with late night phone calls over a period of several weeks when he was working on one of his books and later he spoke at some conferences I’d organized. Again, the masters at this or any other pursuit, make it look easy. It genuinely is not.

The fifth area that occurred to me while speaking with David Barnett was the ability to successfully work on cars.  My friends Brett Engel, Wayne Viall, Jim Unsworth and of course, David Barnett come to mind.  Outside of the immensely competent and carefully vetted professionals who contributed to the rebuild of my Lotus Elan like Brian Duffy and Brian Buckland, these four men with day jobs did the greatest amount of work and impressed me so very much.  These four have core similarities:  First, absolute confidence in their ability to figure anything out, repair it or make it better. Second, they are always calm. They never panicked, threw up their hands and wailed, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?”  Lastly, they exuded pure joy as they worked. They were in the zone, doing something they were exceptionally skilled at doing, with friends who recognized and appreciated their talent.  For those of us around the edges of this process, it was a joy to bring them tools, run to the auto parts store, watch them figure things out and scream, clap and yell with them at winning battles along the way, like when the engine first fired to life after re-assembly.

Some of the best times of my life have been in the presence of these special people, those who have mastered one small corner of the world and play in it with such effortless joy.