Friday, August 21, 2009

Car Shopping

(News-Herald, August 20) I hate car shopping. I try to arrange to do it as rarely as possible. But my old car, which had always displayed a certain amount of character, had lurched past “character” into “personality disorder.”
This was not my car’s fault. On our semi-annual jaunt to Maine I forgot to account for the car’s oil mileage (roughly 200 miles to the quart). On the way home, the oil light came on and clunky noises were heard. (In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that there’s a part of the story where I technically set fire to the engine, but while that was alarming to my daughter, I don’t believe it upset the car.)
In the following weeks we moved from subtle death rattle straight on to the sound of marbles in a washing machine. I could no longer avoid car shopping.
I was prepared neither financially nor mentally for my car’s unplanned expiration, so I had to do my online and car lot homework. I learned some things have changed since I was last in the used car market, a decade+ ago.
First, car manufacturers are all making the same car, a sedan that’s about as bold as tadpoles in the Allegheny. These identically boring vehicles come mostly in colors like Grey and Beige. I don’t care much about appearance, but if cars were meals, every dealer would be selling tuna fish salad on white bread. With extra mayo. There’s a handful of fun and exciting looking cars out there, but based on what I’ve read, I conclude that the auto industry has decided that a car may not both look good and work well.
Second. If you’re my age, you probably remember “energy crisis” and “gas rationing,” which led to “cars that don’t have lousy gas mileage.” It seemed for a long time that all automotive genius was aimed laser-like at the issue of fuel efficiency. Apparently the more recent word on the hunt for fuel efficiency is, “Never mind.”
Third. Every used car lot must include at least one Chevy Malibu. I have no idea why. Maybe it works like the box of baking soda in the fridge.
We learned other things. I say “we” because my brother, who enjoys this stuff, came along to keep me out of the weeds. (Together, we can play bad buyer/confused buyer.)
We learned, for instance, that car dealerships aren’t all that excited about cash for clunkers. “There’s a perfectly good car and I can’t even sell you a hubcap from it.” Cash for clunkers manages to combine two of history’s great lies so dealers get to be on the receiving end of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you by sending you a check that is, I swear, in the mail.”
C4C has also caught the used car market in a giant vice, reducing inventory and driving up prices for those of us who can’t afford a brand spanking new tuna fish sandwiches.
Used car dealers remain cartoon versions of themselves. (At one dealership, the salesman in the next booth told his cellphone “Yeah, so I feel slimy. But it was one of those deals they force you to make.”) Pushy, manipulative, inappropriately friendly—what I hate about the car shopping process is that I start out feeling like a velociraptor’s lunch and end up feeling like a sucker. The best was the guy at 4yourcarconnection in Seneca, who talked with me like we were both real live human beings. But in the end, I did not buy a car from him. So while I enjoyed talking to him, I have to admit that he didn’t get anything out of it.
The place I did buy my car was in the classic vein. My salesman, clearly trained in a variety of sales “techniques,” eventually had to “go talk to the manager,” and when my brother began to whisk us out the door, the manager came to deal directly with us, acting as offended as if we’d claimed his sister was working in a Mexican brothel. So there was more posturing and totally-not-straight talk pretending, badly, to be straight talk.
In the end, I bought the car. I owe my brother one more large favor and I owe the bank a stack of money. I bought a Ford Taurus, respectable grown-up transportation, and while I don’t shop for color, I ended up with burgundy, so it’s a tuna salad sandwich with a slice of tomato.

1 comment:

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