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Shopping for an Instrument-Friendly Car

There's not always room for cello, as car shoppers who need to fit a large instrument will tell you.
Cello Sterbenz 622
When you shop for a car, the first rule is to choose one that will comfortably fit the people and things you carry with you. This is especially important for people who are in the habit of carrying large objects with them. Golf bags, bikes, and computer equipment are challenging enough, but car shopping really gets interesting when your additional passenger is a large, delicate musical instrument.

Three Problems

A few things you ought to know about large, delicate musical instruments. They are made of wood and can’t be left unattended or just rolling around loosely in a car, for three reasons: (1) temperature fluctuations, whether hot or cold, can be damaging, (2) too much shifting or banging around can be equally damaging, and (3) musical instrument insurance usually doesn’t pay off in the event an instrument is stolen from a car.
With a full-size cello starting at over $3,000 for the most basic instrument and going up into the stratosphere from there, a musician—or a parent of one—needs to consider the musical instrument almost as a member of the family when buying a car. My daughter’s first violin teacher told us, “Don’t leave the violin under any conditions you wouldn’t leave a pet in.” And that was when her child-size violin was about ten inches long, so it was a whole lot easier to comply. That’s why I talked to some people who have dealt with something much, much bigger.

Have Cello, Need Car

Misako Sterbenz has a teenaged son, Timothy, who is a serious cellist. In December, she was ready to buy a new vehicle. She was tired of driving a minivan and no longer needed the seven-passenger capacity it provides. Yet a vehicle capable of safely transporting her son’s cello was essential.
“Not only did it need to fit a cello, but the cello can’t be in a closed trunk where the heat or A/C would not reach. We also wanted it to fit without sacrificing seating capacity because sometimes we need to carpool with other orchestra or chamber ensemble members.” Misako narrowed down her list of needs to decide a small SUV would be the best choice for her. That choice lines up with what the chatters on the TalkBass.com online forum are saying. They enjoy the topic of transporting large instruments, and the consensus seems to be that a vehicle that has more than two doors, loads from the rear, and has fold-down seats is the one to get.

Testing for Fit

Before hitting the dealerships, Misako did a little networking, and she got a great tip. “A good friend of mine whose son studies cello at Juilliard gave me the tip to take an empty cello case and try it in different cars." You can apply that shopping tip when you shop for a car even if you don't have a cellist in the family: see if your own stuff fits well before you buy.
Since she drives her children to lessons and music activities to the tune of ninety-minute round trips on freeways several times a week, good handling and safety were tops on her list. Four-wheel drive—as opposed to all-wheel drive, which Misako complains “eats too much gas”—was another criterion for better dealing with Michigan winters. Plus, as she says, she is "vertically challenged, and most U.S. cars are very difficult for me to drive because they are just not dimensioned for someone built like myself.”

A Beethoven-Worthy Car

After trying the task of loading that cello case into the backs of a variety of SUVs, the family decided on a Toyota RAV4, and then they just had to narrow it down to which one. “A smooth, quiet ride is really important to us, partly because we like to listen to classical music in the car,” Misako said. If you do, too, you already know that the dynamic range of classical music is wider and more challenging to listen to in a car than standard-issue pop music.
"The Limited with the dual temperature range seemed to have a more efficient climate control system, and the Limited definitely had more sound buffering and therefore less road noise," Misako said. So the Limited it was. The next decision was the engine. "Between the four-cylinder and the V-6, there was maybe a 2-mpg difference in fuel efficiency, yet both in terms of noise and vibration felt in the car, the V-6 was considerably smoother, so the V-6 won.”

And Then There Are Harps

If you think cellists are challenged, how about those who travel with harp in tow? Jane Minnis is a professional harpist in Connecticut whose mother wrote a story in the New York Times six years ago about the search for a harp-friendly car. (Her mom settled on a Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but Jane was sticking to her old Toyota Camry.)
I asked for an update and learned from Jane that she ended up buying a 2008 Volvo XC70 a year ago, "which I have been very happy with," she says, the Camry having "actually died right before one of my busiest playing weekends." A Volvo wagon doesn't sound big enough, but Jane is happy with her choice. "For the first time ever, I am able to load the harp into the car without any assistance, and there is more space for carrying all of the added equipment (stand, stool, cart, amplifier). Plus, it is wonderful in the snow---a plus when the show must go on!"

Which Is Bigger, the Mini or the Bass?

Jan Hack’s oldest child, Charlie, plays double bass. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, it is a most unwieldy thing that resembles a linebacker in both height and girth. Despite this, Jan went ahead and accepted her husband’s gift of a Mini Cooper when her son was still at home and in high school. The bass was relegated to travel in her Honda Odyssey minivan.
“No bass in the Mini,” Jan said. That was okay, since one advantage of the Odyssey is its “pretty deep well that allows us to wedge the instrument more securely.” Charlie agrees with his mom that travel with a double bass can be "tricky. Trying to position the instrument in a small space is always stressful because there's the possibility of banging it up accidentally, or of it getting damaged in transit. It's possible to fit a bass in some sedans if you recline the front passenger seat all the way and lay it down on its side, but you really need a minivan. The Odyssey was always very well suited to the task because there's a deep well in the trunk." The bass has lived in New York City for a few years now, where Charlie studies at Columbia University. Jan proves that musicians’ families see instruments as family members when she muses that the bass “wishes it could be in its cushy minivan instead of being lugged all over on the train." Charlie says train travel "isn't all that bad if the stations have elevators but is a pain if there are only stairs. It's also a pain if the train or bus is crowded... which it often is before gig time. Most New York bassists I know who gig a lot have developed relationships over time with a few trusted car services that send minivans." That's an admirable thing, to hear a college-aged male admit a preference for the often maligned minivan. Plus you have to admire his mom for going ahead and getting that Mini, as long as there’s a bass-worthy minivan sitting in the driveway with it.
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