AUTO MARKETING;DOCTOR, WIFE IN SEARCH OF STYLE;TEN-YEAR PLAN FOR PURCHASES RUNS AFOUL OF CHANGING NEEDS, AND SURPRISES

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John Maki thought he had a master plan for a lifetime of car purchases.

Dr. Maki, a San Francisco surgeon who turns 50 in September, planned to buy new cars and hold onto them for 10 years. He and his wife would alternate with a new car every five years.

But the new attractive leasing plans offered by manufacturers and the expected boom in used car opportunities may put a kink in his purchasing patterns.

For the first time, the Makis' last year leased a vehicle, a '95 Mercury Villager. Dr. Maki might even consider a used car in the future, he said, albeit amid some family controversy.

"I don't see any problem with a couple-year-old car. I would give that some consideration," he says.

`NOTHING BUT TROUBLE'

His wife, Joan, 41, has another opinion. She still believes a used car purchase is "nothing but trouble.

"There's no way you can be sure you're not going to get a lemon," she says.

Ms. Maki's opinion was formed long ago when her parents bought her a used car for college-a 1975 Ford Pinto.

"I had to take it back to have a plate put inside so it wouldn't explode," she recalls, still doubting that the quick fix actually eliminated the car's defect.

The issue of a used car emerged last year when the Makis began looking for a new vehicle to replace their '86 Plymouth Vista. The Vista, a seven-seater actually manufactured by Mitsubishi, became available at the time minivans started their popular run on the American scene.

Ms. Maki liked the Vista because it was smaller than a minivan and more maneuverable in the city. She also preferred it because she was tired of hauling child safety seats in and out of a less accessible minivan.

The Vista served them well in bringing their two boys and their carpool mates back and forth from preschool.

Over the years, the Vista's mechanical problems grew, as well as Ms. Maki's discontent with Plymouth's service department.

BAD SERVICE EXPERIENCE

"I went back and forth several times with problems with the air conditioner before they replaced the system," she recalls. "And I didn't think they were courteous."

Nevertheless, the family was considering the Mitsubishi Expo, the replacement vehicle for the Vista, which was no longer manufactured. That's when they learned that the Expo was only sold to rental fleets and their only chance was to buy one used.

"That was one reason I didn't want the Mitsibushi Expo," she says. "I didn't want a used car."

That plan scratched, the Makis began to appreciate their need for a larger vehicle. As the children grew, along with an interest in soccer, baseball and roller-hockey teams, the Vista had became somewhat crowded. On one trip to Lake Tahoe for skiing, the family was so tightly packed in that the driver hardly was able to see out of the rear window.

They first considered the Honda Odyssey.

"I really like the Honda name-that was my first choice," says Ms. Maki. But "It was the most expensive of the minivans [about $5,000 over the asking price of other minivans] and had no track record" because it was new on the market.

With recommendations from friends, the Makis' looked at the Mercury Villager. They liked the easy removal of the middle seats, which allows the rear seats to slide forward to create a large cargo space.

SUMMER IN DEATH VALLEY

That came in handy when the family planned more driving vacations. Last summer, they went to California's Death Valley.

"I have no qualms about going back to an American car," says Dr. Maki. "I think American cars actually are being better built these days."

As they continue with a two-year lease, the Makis must decide what to do with Dr. Maki's aging 1990 Mazda Protege in a few years-if it lasts that long.

Dr. Maki purchased the Mazda because of its ergonomics. "It just feels right," he jokes, recalling the old Mazda theme line, which hit the nail on the head because his concern was a comfortable driver's seat in a commuter car.

What will be the Makis' do for their next vehicle?

Ms. Maki says when the boys go off to college she would like a two-seater-a Porsche or a little Mazda or Alfa Romeo. On a more realistic plane, however, she says, "once I get out of my minivan phase, I want a sedan with a little more style to it, and something easier to park."

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