Monday, July 13, 2009

Adventures In Incredulity: New Car Shoppin', 2009

Or, No Wonder All You Dumbass Motherfuckers Are Going Out of Business

It's one of those things the undeniability of which forces me to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the fact that my personal world view does not extend to the entire universe: Not everybody wants an old car. Not everybody wants an interesting car. Not everybody wants a two-thousand-dollar car they then have to spend two thousand dollars annually to keep on the road. Despite a veritable cosmos of ebaymotors awesomeness at their fingertips, many people want nothing more than a car that is economical, runs dependably, and provides them some small modicum of comfort.

What the fuck, right? It's weird. But my girlfriend Patricia is one of those people. And with her '98 Sentra having reached a state where it resembled less an automobile than just a heavy, noisy, somewhat portable oil sieve, she enlisted my aid in finding a car that would be something different than one I would buy for myself. I grilled her about her priorities, likes and dislikes, what she was looking to spend. One by one my candidates fell away. The QIII Maserati was out. Ditto the Milano. This wasn't fun at all.

Eventually we winnowed the field down to a few possibilities. She liked newish small Volvos. She liked the last-generation Mazda 3. And she could see herself in a Civic, even though she hates the idea of driving a "teacher car" (she's a teacher). Those are all great choices, I assured her. You can't go wrong with any of them. Let the shopping begin.

First stop: Dick Ide Honda Pontiac. We spot a brace of late-model Civics out front of the Pontiac showroom and wander over. Salesman approaches, is friendly, not pushy, offers to get keys if we want to test drive anything. We sample a couple of four-door Civics, both low-mileage trade-ins. It's the first time I've driven a new Honda in more than a decade, and it's hard not to be impressed. The Civic in its current U.S. four-door form is to my eye one of the most handsomely modern small cars on the road, futuristic in a way that is largely disguised by fundamentally pleasing proportions and smart detailing. Getting behind the wheel only reinforces the impression of otherworldliness hinted at by the exterior: it feels strangely perfect, as if delivered from some more advanced civilization. So refined in its manner, so seamless in its presentation, it seems less a conventional vehicle than some sort of sexless Marilyn Mansonesque automotive android. Patricia isn't thrilled exactly but likes it well enough and feels comfortable behind the wheel. This will be our fallback.

Next up: Mazdas. The guy at the dealer down the street explains apologetically that Mazda doesn't give their own dealers first shot at cars coming off lease and sends them instead to auction. So if we want a low-mileage, last-generation 3—which we do: Patricia isn't interested in spending another ten grand for a brand new car and doesn't like the new 3s' weird Jim Carrey grin anyway—our options are limited to ebaymotors and those sketchy Auctions Direct places. When we'd kinda like to, you know, actually drive the car first, and have a place to take it for warranty work when something goes wrong. Mazda 3 is out.

Onward. Local Volvo dealership has hardly any used models and none that we're interested in. Little mom-and-pop Volvo place out in the 'burbs though has a small lot full of possibilities, including one so understated that I didn't notice it until we were walking away: an '05 V70R. Three hundred horsepower, four wheel drive, gunmetal gray with a gorgeous orange leather interior, 70,000 miles, asking mid-teens—less than the Civics we were driving. Ummm...? Patricia loves it. Total wolf in sheep's clothing, the exact opposite of a teacher's car. I'm soft-selling, pointing out that the mileage is a little worrisome for something with this kind of power and complexity, at least as far as her priorities are concerned, but really I just want to drive the freaking thing. Only problem: nobody's around. I call the number listed on their web site. No answer. No voicemail. Well okay then.

I find something for us to test drive at a Mercury-Dodge-Jeep emporium instead, a late-model, low-mileage S40, asking high teens. I've driven these before and they're pleasant and competent, if unremarkable, cars. It takes a while for the smarmy salesguy to notice us nosing around the lot but eventually he does and I explain that we'd just like to take the Volvo for a spin. Instead he brings us inside and sits us down in his office and starts going through the rigamarole of what we're looking for, what kind of payment we can swing, etc., all the while apologizing and explaining that he's really a terrible salesman and doesn't really know that much about cars and has only been doing this for six months after getting laid off from his job in manufacturing. Nothing like the fine edge of desperate pathos to polish off your typically douchey car-shopping experience. After dutifully taking down what information we're willing to give him, he disappears to get plates and the keys. He will not return for twenty minutes.

Plenty of time to savor the all-pervasive stench of death that is the signature of a Chrysler dealership circa 2009. As a trio of proud Challengers stand sentinel out front, salesmen mill aimlessly about the showroom, muttering to each other and trying to look busy. "What's a 'Caliber'?" Patricia asks me, brow furrowed. Sigh. You don't want to know. Just as we're about to bail, salesguy comes back looking harried and realizes he also needs the keys to the car that's blocking in the Volvo. Another ten minutes. Now he doesn't have the right kind of screwdriver to put on the plates. At this point we've been here almost an hour and still haven't so much as sat in the car. At last this joker hops in the back with us and we're off.

The Volvo is exactly as I remembered it, pleasant and unremarkable. What is remarkable, however, is salesguy's insisting on making conversation throughout our drive, even though that conversation consists almost exclusively of him pointing out how little he knows but that he can definitely check up on my few, trivial questions once we get back (not that I actually care, or couldn't check on those questions later myself if I did). Patricia isn't particularly impressed with the car. Back at the dealer, despite our protests that we're not looking to buy today, he pleads with us to come back inside and look at numbers with him. It's like dealing with a special needs child. We play along.

The sticker is totally reasonable but still a little more than Patricia was looking to spend and we tell him so. This is when he busts out the line that I honestly thought had been retired with dot matrix printers: "What would it take to send you home in this car today?" Completely earnest. Wow. Really? I tell him we're not buying the car today, that we're not buying the car at all, that we only came because we were curious to drive it. He persists: "At what price would you consider buying the car?" This is ridiculous. Why am I having this conversation? I quote him a number thousands less than what they're asking, in the hopes of gently pointing out the absurdity of his question. He jumps up! "Let me talk to my manager!" Good Christ. Now it's just morbid fascination that's keeping us here. We stare in mute horror at a Dodge Avenger poster until he comes back.

Tight-lipped, shaking his head, he sets a piece of paper in front of me. It's a print out (not dot matrix) showing listings for four or five similar cars for sale regionally, each of them at prices ten to twenty percent over what they're asking for theirs. Scrawled across this in green hi-liter is the word MINE, which has been crossed out, and then, underneath, the words MY PRICE and, again, the exceptionally reasonable sticker, underlined several times for emphasis. I look at him sadly now. Part of me resents being bullied, but this is bullying of such a pathetic and ineffectual nature that I almost feel compelled to apologize for not being affected by it, and a larger part of me just feels pity. I pocket the paper and thank him for his time and tell him we have a lot to think about.

Over the next few days we do some cursory recon of the larger dealerships in town just to compare deals, during the course of which I discover that Patricia's anti–one-box bias ("I don't like cars that look like shoes") does not extend to the Honda Fit. Back to the Honda dealership then. They don't have any used ones, but a new Fit costs the same as the used Civics we'd been driving. It looks smart, with a huge and ridiculously reconfigurable interior, and suddenly this is a serious contender. The drive is a bit of a let-down, though: it feels merely like a very good small car, the Honda sheen of perfection marred by just the slightest hint of road noise, engine buzz, sluggishness. The Fit, alas, is no Civic, and the Civic, almost by default, is looking more and more like our winner.

That night a thought occurs to me, and I put the question to Patricia: "What do you think about Subarus?" She's game, and next day it's down to Van Bortel Subaru in Victor, America's Number Two Subaru Dealer, famously founded twenty-five years ago by a (gasp) woman, the eponymous Kitty. Our salesman is friendly and helpful and quickly fetches plates for the Impreza we're curious about. It's a last-gen four-door RS, low miles, cheap, and looks great in WRX Jr. fender flares; it's undeniably cool in a way that nothing else we've looked at has been (the V70R place still isn't answering its phone). It drives cool, too. It's quick, responsive, tossable, fun even. "It makes me feel like a guy," Patricia says. I'm filled with visions of four-wheel-driven drifts through the snow next winter. We're both into it. Like, a lot. Our enthusiasm is tempered, though, by an overall feeling of cheapness. The interior is flimsy and plasticky and the flipside of that responsiveness is a coarseness that doesn't feel all that different from Patricia's decade-old Sentra; indeed, it's all too easy for both of us to imagine what this car is going to feel like five or ten years from now.

Back at the lot we wander idly toward a row of Legacies and I can't help but notice that the stickers are considerably lower than I would've guessed. We stop by a pretty blue one, an '07 with under 30,000 miles for about the same price as our now benchmark Civics. It's roomy where the Impreza felt cramped, plush where the Impreza felt cheap. It's loaded, with a sunroof even (one of the few non-reliability-related things on Patricia's wish list). We drive it. It feels great: the same revvy flat four as the Impreza but with just enough soundproofing that what gets through to the cabin provides a pleasant reminder, not an intrusive announcement, of the work being done at your right foot's behest; the ride is crisp but supple. It feels grown up. It also feels like a hell of a lot of car for the money. We go home to think it over, but Patricia is pretty much sold.

A couple odd things give us pause, though. When we come back from driving the Legacy, standing around talking to the salesman, we pop the hood, more out of a sense of ritual than anything else. I notice that a vacuum hose to the intake manifold has come loose and is just floating around in the engine compartment unmoored. Mechanic comes over from the garage and casually reattaches it, as if to say, you know, they all do that. A few minutes later, staring idly at the Impreza we'd driven, I notice something weird about the tires: they're unidirectionals, and while the V formed by the tread is pointing upwards, looking from the rear, on the left-hand tires, as it should be, on the right-hand tires it's pointing down. Thinking it must be an oversight, I check the front tires and they're the same. Not only that, but the Impreza next to it is wearing identical tires, and they're mounted exactly the same too! Hydroplane much, Van Bortel Subaru? We stop at the supermarket on the way home and there's a Forester parked across from us, left tires pointing frontwards, right tires pointing backwards, license plate frame proudly proclaiming—you guessed it—Van Bortel. These people don't understand how directional tires work. Not that this could be potentially dangerous or anything. Not that having water drawn under your tires at high speed rather than expelled from underneath them could result in any kind of life-threatening harm or anything.

So yeah, there's that, too.

Undaunted—the Legacy we'd driven did not have directional tires, as it happened—we go back the next day to do the deal. Given the drivable-but-just-barely state of the Sentra, Patricia's eager to get this done. We talk turkey with the salesguy and he explains that the way they do business is no-haggle so the sticker is pretty much the deal. Fair enough: it's about a grand cheaper than equivalent cars elsewhere already. He shuttles us to the loan guy who politely takes stock of Patricia's financials—essentially: solid paycheck, middling credit score, big chunk of cash to put down—and points out that as it's Friday afternoon before the 4th of July weekend he probably won't be able to get an answer until Monday. No problem. Nice to meet you, talk to you then.

Weekend comes and goes. No word from them through Monday afternoon. Finally Patricia gets the loan guy on the phone and it's clear from the conversation that he doesn't remember her. She reminds him and he says oh right, we're still working on that. No word for another couple hours. Astonished, I call the salesguy thinking maybe he can light a fire under loan guy's ass. After all, you'd think he'd have a stake in this, right? Instead he tells me their internet has been down all day, assures me that both loan guy and his loan-lady assistant are on the case, and rather patronizingly informs me that what's probably best right now is just a bit of patience on my part. Again, wow. Okay? I guess? Dick?

Another day goes by with no word from these people. The people to whom Patricia is trying to give her money in exchange for one of the cars they are presumably in business to sell. She calls again and this time talks to loan lady, who sounds exasperated and asks if there's any way she can put more down. I'm out of town by now and only hear about this later, over the phone, and I'm incredulous. Fuck those people! "I just want to go back to the Honda guy," she tells me, defeatedly. Go back to the Honda guy! She does, the next day. She drives a blue Civic, 20,000 miles, same price as the Subaru. It's not as fancy but it feels as if it came from outer space. They do the loan business. She's approved within the hour and can come pick up the car tomorrow. Unbelievable. Somebody in this monumentally fucked-up desperate pathetic hemorraging-money laying-off-workers shuttering-dealerships-left-and-right hanging-by-a-thread-in-the-worst-economic-climate-in-eighty-years business still actually wants to sell a car.



Blogger Andrew Hime said...

You captured exactly the right American car ennui/malaise. The entire Dodge lines is just ugly, ugly cars. Irredeemably ugly. Irrevocably ugly.

While I do hear complaints about local Toyota dealerships from time to time, the big Japanese two seem to know what they're doing on selling cars, perhaps in part because their stock in trade are commodity cars. Selling a Civic or Corolla is easy, there's not a lot of room to haggle, nor should there be any need. Now, a Camry Solara, I don't want to think about on any level.

The rest of it: *facepalm* Do you think the place with the Volvo went under and nobody told anyone or something?

7:25 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

wow, yeah, quite the experience. good read though. and for a car guy, not at all one i'd want to go through. the quirky sub $5k craigslist set is, even in its infinite stupidity, more inviting (i.e. GOOD DAPANDABLE RIDE, THIS CAR WILL LAST FOR EVER, SMALL DAMAGE WITH THIRD CILINDER).

dude, i have to say the civic is badass! looks great, handling is superb and, well, it's a civic -- any more pragmatic and you'll be next to a tata nano.

V70R?! too bad about that one. the haldex awd is great for the winter, manages the low end torque really nicely (fwd is twitchy), not to mention it's the only volvo in the past 15 years that will actually oversteer at the limit.

1:39 AM  
Blogger DJ Rick said...

I've been wondering what the car biz has been like on the inside lately. It's been seven years since I last worked in automotive sales. I would've loved to have been the third wheel to you guys on this journey. Coulda translated a lot...such as, when you see a car dealership with little to no used cars, that is surely one that's just about ready to close. And what's with the Mazda guy using that excuse about Mazda exploiting the auctions rather than stocking its lease-returns at Mazda dealerships?!?! Translation: this dealership is too cheap to bid for cars at the auction. They're probably gonna close soon, too!

Of course, "I dunno...Lemme check on that for you...I haven't been doing this for long" means "I have been playing dumb forever because this actually works on a certain number of people."

It is true that some people do need to have the question put to them in such a cheesy way: "What would it take for you to buy this car today?" But that's usually only necessary for two kindsa people...(a) the kind of customer that actually enjoys this process way too much, or (b) the kinda person that needs some kinda pressure in order to do anything; i.e., the kinda person that pays their electricity or cable bills two or three at a time after getting a cancellation warning in a pink envelope.

Selling Toyotas and then Hondas in the ultra-egghead utopian environment of Davis, CA, required a much more cerebral approach. Yet at that Toyota store, there were still lotsa type-A thrashers that deployed stone-age sales tricks. It was truly appalling. At the Honda store, I'm betting that half the time, when a customer shook hands on a deal, we didn't even hafta ask "Do we have a deal?"; the customer just pretty much decided based on the facts that we gave them. It was about as heavenly a showroom as possible. By and large, the customers were far more dishonest than anyone who worked there! (Although I'd posit that they were made that way by being mistreated at other dealerships!)

I know what you mean by the soullessness of Honda. But, I always thought that comparing Honda and Toyota to other seemingly sexier cars is the automotive equivalent of saying one's a total hottie and the other is "marriage material". It's not fair at all....just like everyone needs to be loved, so does Honda. Its soul will become more apparent once it's as old as her old Sentra.

4:00 PM  

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