Not Robert Cumberford

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A failed car designer tries to make sense of a flat design world.

The car search begins…

Navigating the European car scene.

To those who might not have heard the news yet, a few weeks ago my wife, 8-month old daughter, and I packed up our things, sold our house, and moved to The Netherlands. That’s a dramatic life change, coming on the heels of our first child last April, but one that we both have been desperately seeking for quite some time. My wife Mary was the one who managed to make it happen, with a lucky web forum post and a skillset that perfectly matched a Dutch company’s needs, but I was not only happy to follow, I was thrilled at the opportunity.

For me, living in Europe isn’t a novelty. I spent a year of High School as an exchange student in Italy and did all of my University studies around Europe (Switzerland, France, Italy), holding a diploma from a school in Paris (whose name shall remain unspoken due to a pathetic and continuous downward spiral since). I didn’t leave the continent willingly either. I was unable to find a job as a car designer and lost my visa, pure and simple. Hadn’t managed to get back (to live) since.

But despite my previous multiple years of residency in Europe, I have never really lived here. As a student, I never had the money or time to enjoy the things that I coveted so much. The food, wine, and cars remained largely objects of desire, and only when I’ve visited have I really had a chance to sample them first hand. For better or worse, that’s all different this time around.

And the first order of business? Buy a car (well, technically it’s “wait for the visa to come through and get a bank account”, but I’m not going to go into that here). My Peugeot short-term lease car goes back in just 2 short weeks (unless I choose to extend it), and it’s becoming apparent that our current apartment just isn’t as public-transport friendly as we’d hoped. We really need a car to get around here, especially in the winter months with a little baby. Bikes are nice and all, but you can’t take a baby on a bike to the airport to pick up your mother-in-law and her three oversized American suitcases.

So what to get? The options here are endless and fascinating. There are entire segments of vehicle in Europe that don’t exist in the US, as well as dozens of brands (or, at least one dozen). As a true gearhead, and a former car designer, my simple goal is to buy a car that is not sold in the US, fulfills all the needs of our little family in our little Dutch town, and is either fun to drive or quirky enough to not be (something French, for example).

But the options are staggering. Under €20,000 is my target price. That’s not bad, but quite limiting actually. First of all, 20K Euro is roughly equal to 27K USD, but add on top of that the painfully high taxes the Dutch government slams on car buyers, and all of the sudden things are tighter than they seem. That said, there are still tons of options, new and used, to look at. A 4-year old Alfa? A brand new Fiat? A year-old Citroen? A Skoda or Dacia or Opel?

So I’m putting the first round out to the readers. Drop me a comment and let me know what you think I should buy. Keep in mind the requirements of a young family with a 9-month old, city living, and only the occasional road trip to southern France or the Nurburgring. Tell me what you’d like to see me test drive, what you’ve read about and never dared consider, or why I’m being a dope for not just buying a German car outright.

Help me make sense of the European family car landscape, and I’ll do my best to document the process.