Life is an eternal struggle between the fun and the sensible. Ostensibly, youth is when fun happens. For most of us, unless you're Jack Nicholson, maturity is a long, slow acquiescence to the sensible that ultimately ends several feet under.

These issues arose when the car died. This was unexpected. The timing, execrable. A car is not what you buy for the holidays when your company is bankrupt and up for sale. What seemed a muffler issue imploded into catalytic converter cardiac arrest. The mechanic said, as grave as any surgeon, "I don't think anything more can be done."

The car was my father's. He gave it to me a month before he died in 2001. My father was a wonderful man, but a wretched driver, a trait he shared with his wife. They were challenged drivers in different ways - my mother anxious, my father distracted - yet equally hard on cars. Red vehicles were cursed, regardless of brand. When he bought this last car, a 2000 Passat, I begged him to pick another color. But no.

Still, I was lucky to use something of my father's every day, like my mother's ring. I grew to love the car. Correction: I loved the car until it headed irrevocably south and bled money.

That's how we found ourselves in Car World, assaulted by too many choices in too little time, caught in the battle between fun and sensible. A car's an investment - one that loses value daily - and a statement of who we are or, more precisely, a projection of whom we wish others to believe we are. Hence, leasing: driving more of a vehicle than you can afford to own.

In Car World, more than anywhere else, the demarcation between fun and sensible is pronounced and severe. You can drive sensible (fuel efficient, affordable, plain) or fun (zippy, expensive to maintain). Good luck combining the two.

We reside in the neighborhood of Priusville. It's as though the clock was turned back to the early 20th century and there's only one make of car. It's the Model P.

"With a Prius, we'll be a cliché," my Camry-driving husband says.

"If we get the Prius, we'll never find it," I add - "unless, that is, we plaster the bumper with NRA and Palin 2012 stickers."

We consider the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Motor Trend's 2010 Car of the Year. We're the only customers in the place. A Ford hybrid is the ultimate one-upmanship: Buying American, we would be more politically correct than the Model P people.

The car is sensible and costly, which ought to be illegal. It's your great aunt's car - except my great aunt drove wickedly fun, impractical cars. Some were even French.

And there's the rub. At some point, we all deserve a little fun. I read a profile about a Swiss painter who tours around Manhattan in a BMW - and he doesn't even drive. I've never had a fun car.

Craving the antidote to sensible, we head to Audi. It's a party. The place is filled. The sales folks are laid-back and confident. We drive the A4. We love the car. The teenager, about to drive, loves the car. But is it too much car? Does it say more than we want it to say? Should the teenager learn to drive on something this nice, the car you get after a lifetime of dull?

The Audi is the wealthy cousin of the Volkswagen, the vehicle that proved an expensive lover the last two years but without, you know, the fun. Now, everyone shares stories of vertiginous Audi bills down the road, all that fine German engineering that ultimately subsidizes so many American mechanics.

The muffler guy says: "You should drive a Toyota. We don't see them." The mechanic says: "You should buy a Toyota. No problems." The Camry-loving husband says: "Your catalytic converter bill? Stratospheric. Mine? Zero."

But we have a Camry. Getting another would be like dating an old boyfriend: Been there, done that. We'll go to Toyota next week. (Turns out you can buy anything on Sunday - except a car.) Meanwhile, I remain caught in the existential struggle: Do I do the sensible thing, yet again, or finally risk fun?

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.