Car Trek: Day OneAugust 23, 2015
I’m buying a new car.
I shouldn’t be, I’m not normally the type who buys a new car everything three years or so (I bought my last car at the end of 2012), but I find myself in the not entirely unpleasant position of needing to get something else. A friend is buying my old car, which is a fine vehicle except that instead of a stick shift it came with an automatic transmission. When I bought it, I — with a little help from the sales associate — talked myself into believing that I wouldn’t miss shifting gears. We were both wrong.
I feel like I haven’t been driving at all. I’ve been steering. And now I have a chance to rectify the situation. O Happy Day.
But I hate to shop for cars. I hate it for lots of reasons — it takes a lot of time, it involves a significant expenditure of funds, you have to deal with dealerships who want to sell you what’s on the lot and maximize the amount of money they can squeeze out of you — but most of all because I’m the sort of person who is, when you come right down to it, willing to settle.
I am a car guy. But I have owned bad cars, unsuitable cars. I have also owned a few great cars but I probably overpaid for them. I probably overpaid for some of the not so great cars as well. Let’s face it, most of us probably overpay whenever we buy any sort of car. We’re not really a match for the pros. In the end, the extra $100 mystery fee isn’t going to stop us from picking up the car we think we want on the day we want to have it. The experience of getting a new car is just too good a feeling to defer for too long.
Anyway, I’ve debated how I should do this — which is document my car-buying process. If I were ambitious, I might wear a body cam. Or I might just write about it in painstaking detail, naming names and makes and drilling down into the psychological politics of car buying. What I think I’m going to do is not be terribly specific, because car salesmen have a job to do and enough to worry about without Carl Bernstein Jr. popping up in their showroom with a reporter’s notebook.
I think I’ll keep the names out of it, that I won’t name dealerships or salesmen. I might change my mind is something really egregious happens during this journey, which I expect will take about a week, but right now I’m more interested in the process than exposing bad behavior. I don’t think most car dealers are dishonest, at least not by their own lights. I do think they probably see us coming and try to get us to buy what they want us to buy.
But we’re supposed to have free will.
Anyway, I have an idea what I want to buy.
This may sound immodest, but I could probably buy any car I wanted. I mean, I probably couldn’t buy something super high-end, I’m not talking about buying a Maybach or a Maserati or a McLaren, but if I stretched (and was willing to burn my marriage) I could buy a Porsche or a Jaguar. Plenty of people do buy these cars, and that’s great. I love seeing expensive cars on the road and parked. But they aren’t what I want.
I don’t really want a $30,000 car. I know that’s not a particularly high figure for some people, while other people think spending even $20,000 for a new car is decadent. I understand both of these positions actually — it’s sort of ridiculous to spend this kind of money on a machine to move you from place to place. Especially when you — and the planet — would be better off walking or taking public transportation. But I live in America, where once upon a time lobbyists for the auto makers prevented us from having a really good nation train system, and where we’d rather have parking lots than parks. And I live in a part of America where you actually kind of need a car to get along.
But I have a particular kind of car fetish, one that doesn’t manifest itself in big trucks or Bavarian steel. And while I can be tempted by other types of cars — a sales manager at a local Dodge dealership might have sold me one of the new revved-up Challengers when they first appeared a few years ago had he known that, yes, you can get that car with a manual transmission —I generally like a certain type of relatively modest automobile.
What I want is something stealthy — a fairly normal looking car that has great engineering and is fun to drive. It doesn’t need to have a top speed of 200 miles an hour, because I’m not going to drive it 200 miles an hour, but I want a peppy engine, a good horsepower-to-weight ratio, stiff suspension and great handling. I need to be able to carry one other adult, and three sub-20 lb. terriers comfortably. It would be a plus if alternatively I could carry a couple more adults in the car, but that’s strictly optional.
For this I’m willing to pay a lot — but not as much as most people in my neighborhood seem to be willing to pay for a vehicle. I don’t plan to finance it; I’ll either pay cash for the vehicle or I will lease. (I leased a great car once — I liked the experience and I don’t drive too many miles. It makes a certain amount of financial sense for me. Probably not as much financial sense as finding a good used car and driving it into the ground would make, but hey, I’m not Paul Krugman.)
Fortunately, there are a few cars out there that satisfy this criteria. I know a bit about most of them, but to others I’ve never really paid much attention. I have a couple of favorites, cars I believe I would immensely enjoy.
So I started with them.
First I went on the website of a popular fun car manufacturer, and spec’ed and priced out a vehicle I thought I’d like. When I got to the end of the process, I wasn’t horrified by the cost, so Saturday morning I drove over to the dealership, parked in back by the service bay, and got out and wandered across the lot, looking at the stickers in the windows.
The first thing I noticed was that the sticker prices were probably 20 percent higher than the car I’d priced out. But there were an array of stick shifts. And I was on the lot five or eight minutes before I was approached by a low-key salesman, who we will call B.
I basically told B. what I’ve told you. I said I wasn’t ready to buy — but that I would probably be buying in the near future. He brought me in the showroom, pointed out a few models and asked me if I’d like to drive the car. Sure. That was my intention all along. We went for a little loop.
The car performed as I expected, maybe a little better than I expected. I had a great time with it. The salesman knew a lot about it — which isn’t always a given with new car sales folk. (Like the sales manager I mentioned above.) He answered my questions — most of which I already knew the answers to — calmly, and went a long way toward making me comfortable. When we got back to the dealership, I asked a few more questions, and we shook hands and said goodbye. He told me to check out a particular car on my way out — one that he might have a little extra room to deal on. I did. I took a picture of it, which I’m not going to post, because I’ve sort of committed to this vague narrative, at least for now. The whole process took less than 30 minutes.
I admit I wanted the car. The price didn’t seem too bad. But it was my very first stop.
I went to the second dealer on my list, which was located in a complex near a lot of other dealers. My feeling was I’d stop in, look at the car, maybe test drive it. I’d researched it on the Internet earlier and sent an email to the dealership’s website telling them the same thing I’ve told you and B. I didn’t hear back from them right away — I hadn’t expected to — and so when I parked on the lot and was immediately approached by a young salesman I’ll call W., I basically filled him in on my situation.
There was one model I was interested in. They happened to have one vehicle on the lot that fit my criteria.
I was mildly taken aback by this. I think that it’s criminal to put an automatic transmission in what for all intents and purposes is a sports car. But people simply do not drive stick shifts anymore.
I liked W. I liked him almost as much as I liked B., but for different reasons.
W. wasn’t a career car guy, he is a graduate student (in biology) and he was working on the lot to support his family while he went to school. He was probably one of the more junior members of the sales staff, and he’d probably been sent out to talk to me because the senior guys didn’t think I was much of a prospect. (One of them said something snarky about my current vehicle when I walked in — he probably understood I wasn’t a high roller coming to pick up one of the higher end models from one of the luxury makes the dealership carried. In the old days, they taught salesman to assess potential customers by their shoes and their watch. I was wearing a pair of beat-up Sketchers and a nice, unshowy Hamilton. (Maybe I should have worn the Cartier Tank Anglais.)
W. had certain things he had to do and say, and he sort of rolled his eyes and said and did them perfunctorily, letting me know that he knew I was in on the joke. He had to talk about things I didn’t really care much about. He had to at least go through the motions of pressuring me. But he knew it wouldn’t work.
Unlike B. at Dealership A, W. seemed compelled to keep me on the lot for as long as possible. After the test drive — during which the car performed well — he asked me to come in so he could figure a price. I told him it wasn’t really necessary, that I wouldn’t be buying for a week or so, but his body language said humor me. And, he pointed out, that the car I’d driven was the only one on the lot that met my criteria. If I had to order one, they wouldn’t “back off the MSRP.” If I wanted a deal, then this was the car.
I had no intention of buying of course, and I could have simply walked away, but I was curious about what sort f deal they’d make.
So I followed him to a little desk, and he plugged in some number in a computer. He asked me about my car, which I wasn’t planning to trade in, and he came up with a trade-in value anyway, just in case. He said he need to take a look at my car, so I gave him my keys.
I knew that was a mistake, but I had a forensic interest int he process. Giving W. my keys was an experiment. I kind of knew going in, it would be a while before I got them back.
He left me for maybe 15 minutes, and when he came back he had a sheet filled with what really weren’t bad numbers. He had a purchase price — and a lease price. Somehow, I hadn’t given them any information other than what was on my driver’s license (which they’d photocopied before I’d taken the test drive) but somehow they’d determined my credit worthiness.
I could put nothing down, leave with the car I’d just driven (and my old car as well, if I could figure that out) and pay $x for 36 months. It wasn’t a horrible deal.
W. looked at me with pleading eyes. “I have to ask this,” he said. “What would it take for you to buy today?” (He actually said “buy” but we both understood he meant “buy” or “lease.”) I told him I couldn’t do that, for the reasons I’d outlined before the test drive. He nodded.
“OK, I want to introduce you to my manager,” he said, sort of sheepishly. “He needs to see I did everything I could.”
He disappeared for a few more minutes.
When he returned, he was accompanied by a guy in his mid-30s who reminded me of the actor Clark Gregg. Agent Coulson level his gray gaze on me and said, “So, you want to sell cars?”
Uh, no. I might want to buy a car.
He glanced at W., who was visibly uncomfortable. He looked back at me. No one said anything for an uncomfortable few seconds. His watch went off, notifying him of a text. He glanced down, swiped it quiet. And looked at me again.
“I thought you wanted to sell cars.”
Another uncomfortable pause.
He noticed the golf hat I was wearing — from an exclusive country club to which I do not belong. He said the name of the club. I nodded. Maybe he got the impression I was a member.
Then: “I’m just jerking your chain. It’s good to meet you.”
We shook hands, he went back into the white blasted-bowels of the dealership,leaving W. and me staring face to face.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” he said.
“I guess so, I’ll be in touch,” I said, as I started to walk out. I patted my pocket. I turned.
He scurried off to fetch them.
More later. I’m going to go check out a few things on the deserted Sunday morning lots. Or maybe I’ll play golf.