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Death of a Malibu

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Montréal traffic was a horror show. In my taxi's front seat sat Leslie Rochette, the customer I had picked up in Stowe. Leslie was set to fly from Trudeau International Airport to Zurich to spend the holidays with her daughter's family in Switzerland. She was an extrovert and readily shared tales of her life.

Stowe is home to some of the state's wealthiest homeowners, or often second-homeowners, so Leslie's autobiography was a window for me into how the other half lives. (Well, more 1 percent than half.)

Traversing Pont Champlain (the Champlain Bridge, en anglais) is a personal nightmare. And I don't mean this (only) metaphorically: I literally have had nightmares about this crumbling gateway into Montréal. After decades of delayed maintenance, the province finally bit the bullet and undertook construction of a replacement bridge with a scheduled opening in two years. Until then, the nightmare continues with a hodgepodge of repairs and lane closures.

Oh, did I mention that it was snowing and rush hour? I nearly asked Leslie to stop conversing so I could better focus on the road, but I found her voice soothing and helpful to my concentration.

Thinking ahead, we had built in plenty of extra time, so, despite the conditions, we arrived at Trudeau more than two hours before her scheduled departure. Whew! The ride back to Burlington was easier, as the snow had let up and it was now past rush hour. Still, I let out a sigh of relief when I crossed the border back into America. O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain...

Here's the thing about my taxi, a 2010 Chevy Malibu: It has not served me well. I can't reconstruct the thought process that led to my purchasing it a couple of years ago. It was small, underpowered and tinny. My regular customers put up with it because, well, they like me and they count on my dependable service. In any event, the vehicle was at 115,000 miles, and I planned to go another year before putting it out to pasture. But then there was what I call the "shudder."

For months, the transmission would shudder when ascending hills at highway speeds. I'm far from a mechanic, but I can read the signals my car is sending, and I knew this was not good.

I had scheduled a look-see at Shearer Chevrolet to follow my return from Montréal. So I dropped my taxi off, placed the key in the overnight key box and rendezvoused with my brother for the ride home.

I normally don't activate my phone until 10 or 11 a.m., but the following morning I switched it on early to take the call from Shearer with the diagnosis. When the call came, it was the worst possible news. The transmission specialist, I was told, had taken the car on a test drive to try to replicate the symptoms I had described. On Van Sicklen Road in Williston, the transmission died.

"It neutralized out" was how he put it, which sounded like something the Special Forces would do to terrorist targets. Including the substantial labor of installing a new transmission, the repair would cost $4,000. I absorbed the news stoically, telling the specialist I'd think about it and let him know shortly.

Hanging up, I gave silent thanks to my guardian angels. I had safely completed a Montréal round trip with a transmission that was, it turned out, on its very last legs. I could easily have broken down, perhaps on Pont Champlain — my nightmare scenario! Dodging that bullet could be a lucky coincidence, but I believe a benign force is watching out for me.

Regarding the repair, there wasn't much to think about. To spend that much on this vehicle would epitomize throwing good money after bad. I called Shearer back and told them it was a no-go. I would find somebody to buy the car and tow it off the lot within a couple of days. Later that day, I showed up to remove the taxi meter, taxi light and all the other stuff from the car's various nooks and crannies. Bye-bye, Malibu.

Now I was in a bind. The economics were stark: No taxi equals no income. Normally, the transition from one taxi to the next is a well-choreographed process that takes a few months. This time, I would need to act within days, particularly since I was booked with Christmas travelers and partygoers over the upcoming weeks. I had to decide, and immediately, what type of vehicle to search for and get on with it.

The taxi vehicle of choice for Burlington cab owners — the "standard," as it were — is the minivan. This is because most of us do a lot of airport work, which necessitates room for multiple passengers, often with substantial luggage. I have, until now, resisted the minivan. I thrive on zipping around town, and there's no zipping in a minivan.

On the other hand, driving sedans has limited me to four passengers (or five, if they really like each other). Many times I've turned down work because of the seating limitations. Likewise, I've had to decline certain airport runs owing to the limited trunk space.

For years, a trusted colleague has encouraged me to make the move to a minivan. "I've tried 'em all," she told me. "The best by far is the Toyota Sienna."

Some quick internet research confirmed her assertion. I showed up at Heritage Toyota the next day and hooked up with Phil, a genuinely lovely guy who put the lie to the "car salesman" stereotype. And Phil had just what the doctor ordered: a red 2013 Sienna with only 17,000 miles. I took it out for a spin.

It was like captaining the starship Enterprise — everything digital, controls and features up the wazoo. None of that particularly appealed to me, but what did was the smooth, solid ride. And the roominess: With three rows of seats, I could accommodate up to seven passengers. Plus, the hatchback lifted to reveal enough luggage space to move the Kardashians.

Buying this vehicle was a financial stretch for me. I would have to finance a good chunk of the purchase price. But it was time to make this move, and I pulled the trigger. Forty-eight hours after the death of the Malibu, I was back on the road.

My regular customers love, love, love the new wheels, so that's gratifying. And, truth be told, I've grown too old for zipping.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Death of a Malibu"

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