Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The 1994 film “Reality Bites” helped make “Audi 5000” synonymous with a pretentious farewell, but it was also the last time I could afford that top-of-the-line car, even used.

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked about cars.

If it were possible — and it’s probably better that it’s not — I might indulge my unfortunate taste for luxury by buying an Audi A8L. By “unfortunate” I mean “unaffordable.” And by “might” I mean that I like the idea of the car, but I suspect there’s a lot about it I actually wouldn’t enjoy much. The MMI Navigation Plus panel sounds overwhelming, for instance, with its two 3-D displays and handwriting recognition, and I wonder if the wood in the interiors is really to my taste.

I even wonder if the exterior has become too glitzy for my tastes. Something I’ve always praised about Audis was their designers’ abilities to tread the line between flashiness and subtlety, which is reflected in the line’s simultaneous ubiquity and anonymity: Audis are common in Eastern Massachusetts, but the automaker sold only 101,629 vehicles in the United States last year, from the smallest TT or A3 to the biggest Q7 and, well, A8L. Ford sold 1.9 million. Even Hyundai sold 540,000, and Hyundai and Audi both set sales records.

Another problem is the car’s insistence on premium gas and gas mileage that might induce guilt in me every time I drive it — in this year’s model, 17 in the city and 27 on the highway. So what I’ve been saying is that with that pending lottery win, I’d have to buy a Prius to balance out the crimes against the environment.

Actually, that’s not what I’ve been saying. What I’ve been saying is that I would have to get a Prius to drive while the Audi was in the shop.

Audis spend a lot of time in the shop, in my experience, although I’ve always bought used cars and have usually been forced into cheaper-than-ideal repairs — which doesn’t mean much in Audis, which seem to have been built in such a clever way that the smallest fix requires a complete dismantling (and day’s worth of labor). “I can change that light bulb for you,” a mechanic might say, “but I’ll have to take out the engine to get to it. And we might as well replace the transmission while we’re in there. It’s gonna go soon, and we should get to it before it destroys the sunroof. They’re connected.”

Tragically, cars’ troubles are connected in another way nearly unique to modern technology. In computers, for instance, a logic chip, battery or hard disk can fail without ruining the part next to it or reliant on it. In a car, when the timing belt goes, so does the engine. If your tire blows out, your alignment goes. And that just leads to other troubles.

At the last and I think best garage I used before ditching my car, the Cambridgeport Good New Garage famous for its connection with NPR’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a mechanic simply advised me to stop buying Audis.

Why do I? Because I got hooked in 1993, when I could get a used Audi 5000 CS Turbo — synonymous with a pretentious farewell in the 1994 film “Reality Bites,” although it appeared as a pop culture kiss-off as early as 1989 — for $4,500, which is still only $6,842 in today’s dollars. Because I slid into its leather seats and looked up at its sunroof and thought, “This is a sweet car for little money.” Because the value of the car plunged as soon as the original buyer drove it off the lot.

Because the 5000 was reputed to suffer a little problem with unintended acceleration, thanks to a later discredited 60 Minutes report.

Thirteen years later, when I needed a car and bought my third Audi, I couldn’t afford the top of the line. Even a lowly used A4 cost me $8,000, which is $8,718 in today’s dollars.

I ride the T now. The exteriors are anything but flashy, and there’s no wood in the interior.

And renting a Prius by the hour from Zipcar has become my luxury.