My Saturn Vue freaks out most people who ride in it for the first time, because whenever I brake to a full stop, the engine turns off. And not because it’s a GM product; rather, it’s supposed to do that.
It’s a hybrid, and part of its green operation is to eliminate fuel wasted when idling. But to someone who’s not used to it, it feels like the car is stalling.
The time to worry is when it doesn’t shut off at full stops. That’s a sign that its complicated electrical system is acting up. Another one is the bright red battery indicator that lights up on the dashboard — like it did on the way to work this morning.
According to the owner’s manual, when this light comes on, I should “be sure to turn off accessories such as the radio and climate control system.” Sorry, but in July in Raleigh, climate control isn’t an accessory, it’s a necessity. <— Foreshadowing
The next helpful suggestion was, “Have your vehicle serviced right away.” But that’s not feasible either, when one is sitting in stop-and-go traffic on I-40, not really thinking about indicator lights because he’s too busy trying to figure out what it is that feels slightly different every time the Vue comes to a stop in today’s traffic. [Hint: See opening paragraph.]
So I did the one thing I knew how to do, and ignored the light. I got to the office, parked, went to work, and forgot about it. When I left this afternoon, the temperature inside the car was more than 100 degrees, so I cranked up my “accessory” even more than I’d had it blowing this morning and further ignored the battery light — until its wayward brother, the check engine light, came on.
By then, I was about five miles from the children’s museum where Christopher and Matthew have day camp this week, with about 10 minutes to spare before the late pick-up fee kicked in. I’d cut that distance in half when the AC vents started blowing warm air at me.
Undaunted, I turned off the radio. The battery indicator light flickered at me.
Muttering under my breath, I turned off the AC, but kept the fan on. The car jolted.
I turned off all air and groped in my computer bag for something to fan myself with. A mousepad would have to do.
I made the last mile and was turning into a parking space outside the museum when the dashboard lit up, power steering went away and I felt the car coasting to a stop.
Telling myself that hadn’t happened, I turned off the ignition and walked in to get the boys. Looking over my shoulder, I complimented myself on having done a good job parking the car in spite of its having (shhhh!) stalled.
Nope, there was no way it had actually stalled, I told myself. We had plans to meet some friends for dinner, Kim was out of town and couldn’t pick us up, the jumper cables were in her car, and I didn’t have my AAA card on me. Surely the universe would have pity on my lack of preparedness….
The boys were belted in and enjoying their afternoon snacks, and the car was starting to feel stuffy before I summoned the nerve to try starting it again. They didn’t even notice the first attempt, despite the typical, droning, whirring noise and weird little clicks that follow it.
You know the sounds I’m talking about. They’re universal, which is a good thing, because there’s no adequate way to describe them. But they’re tightly choreographed with the pyrotechnic display of dashboard lights that add insult to injury, letting you know that they’ve squeezed just enough juice out of the dead battery to wink at you, but that you ain’t getting any more than that.
Yeah. Those sounds.
The boys noticed them on the second and third attempts, but just in case it wasn’t obvious, I turned and said as calmly as I could, “The car won’t start, guys.”
“Did you put gas in, Dad?”
“Yes, but it’s not that, anyway. It’s a problem with the electrical system.”
“Does the ‘lectrical system need gas?”
“No, it needs a working battery.”
“Does the battery need gas?”
“Gas isn’t the problem, I promise you. Let’s go back in where it’s air-conditioned, and I’ll call somebody.”
Who that somebody would be, I wasn’t sure. After GM closed Saturn, we’d received a letter from a Chevy dealer who would honor our warranty, which was nice. But as the universe could undoubtedly tell you in a lesson on preparedness, most warranties expire a month before a big maintenance project hits.
We’d been smart, and asked for a warranty that would last for the term of our auto loan. And just last week, we celebrated having made the final payment on the Vue….
I didn’t want to rely on a dealer who’d never heard of me, especially one who could charge me whatever they wanted for a make they don’t carry under a warranty that’s expired. So I decided on AAA. Only I didn’t have the card in my wallet.
Jumping it would have been easy — if only I’d had a cable. Maybe one of the camp counselors could help. I looked around the room at the five teen-aged girls and began to feel like one myself as I sheepishly asked, “Umm, does anyone have jumper cables?” They looked at me as if I weren’t speaking English.
I called Kim at her out-of-town jobsite and asked her for the AAA membership number. Once I got through to them, they told me there’s an average 50-minute wait time. I asked the counselors if we could stay in the air-conditioned camp annex until the wrecker arrived. Do you know how humiliating it is to a 44-year-old man to have a teen-aged girl offer to stay and make sure everything’s okay?
I managed to talk her into leaving, bought the boys a couple more snacks, and waited it out in relative comfort when compared to other AAA waits. Stranded at a museum in the middle of a busy downtown — the horror!
The AAA guy arrived and charged the battery in a matter of seconds, and we were on our way — albeit too late for our dinner plans. The boys were disappointed about not seeing their friends, but they understood. I offered to get them dinner to go, with one provision — it had to be a place with a drive-up window, so I wouldn’t have to turn off the car before we got home.
They agreed on McDonald’s, and we were almost there when power steering failed.
“I’m gonna have to turn off the AC, boys,” I warned, “because I think the battery is having problems again.”
“Oh, great!” Matthew wailed. “We’re gonna get stuck here!”
“Stuck? We’re in the middle of Capital Boulevard, surrounded by cars. If it stalls, we’ll be okay.”
“Should we stop and get more gas?”
Random indicator lights began flashing at me as we stopped at a red light. ABS. Traction Control. Airbags. They almost seemed to be blinking in sequence.
We managed to get to the McDonald’s drive-thru lane when something started beeping at me. It sounded like the “fasten seatbelts” alarm.
“Hey, boys, change in plans — I’ll make you dinner at home.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid if we wait in this line, the car will stall again. It seems to be okay as long as we keep moving.”
We were three stoplights from our neighborhood. Time to kill the accessories….
Light 1 was red. The car shuddered. I turned off the AC.
Light 2 was green, but we had to wait to make a left turn. The car jolted. I turned off the blinker and the vents. I started to lower the electric windows. The car bucked. I raised them and it bucked even harder. I put it in neutral and revved the engine. I had no sound basis for thinking this would help, but it made me feel better. Plus, it distracted me from the feeling of being trapped inside an oven.
Light 3 was yellow. I hit the gas and bottomed out in the intersection, but we made it to the Skycrest straightaway. I hoped we wouldn’t stall at Skycrest and Southall, next to the creepy makeshift gravesite where that kid was murdered last year. We made the turn and started on our final stretch.
There was a lot of shuddering during that last mile, but we made it to our street, where Christopher breathed a sigh of relief into the stifling air and said, “Well, at least if it stalls here, we can walk the rest of the way!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t want him walking by the house where Kenny Ring’s accused murderers lived. We coasted into our driveway and I reminded myself that we really ought to move.
Just as soon as we have reliable transportation.