The Craigslist economy, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

I can see now why newspapers like The Washington Post are hurting. It used to be that if you wanted to sell something big, like a house or a used car, you called up The Washington Post classified desk, gave them your credit card number and a couple of days later your ad would appear in their classifieds. For a small ad, you were out $50 to $100.

In the 2000s, the way to sell your stuff online was to auction it on eBay. It’s still a good solution but of course eBay wants its cut. I tried it some five years ago when I had people bid on our very used 1992 Toyota Camry. I expected that people might want to first come and test-drive it, but no, just having photos online was enough. It was sold sight unseen for about $1000. I regretted the experience and wished I had paid for a Washington Post classified ad instead. I figured I would have gotten a lot more money for the car.

Given my recent success on Craigslist finding labor to remove an old basketball post, I thought I would try it for the larger task of selling a used car. I did not like my experience with eBay, at least for something as large as a car. And paying for ads seemed so yesterday. Granted, even on Craigslist some people have to pay to advertise. If you are selling commercially, you are expected to pay for your ad. (Apparently, many businesses figure fees are optional and are pretending car sales are private sales, when they are not.) However, if you are just an average Joe with something to sell, you just post it on Craigslist for free. No credit card numbers. No waiting for days for your ad to appear. The ad usually appears online within ten minutes.

As I discovered selling our 1997 Honda Odyssey, selling an automobile on Craigslist is not that hard. Craigslist can give you a temporary email address that forwards mail to your real email address. Call me paranoid, or too scared that the average Craigslist surfer is one of the unprincipled, erotic denizens haunting its casual encounter community. I decided to ditch my Yahoo account that I set up in 1998 for these purposes (too much spam) in favor of a new GMail account instead. Better safe than sorry.

There were also the minor matters of preparing the car for sale, taking pictures of it to post and figuring out a good sales price. I knew that if I sold it as a trade in, any dealership would give me a lot less than a private sale price. Selling it myself is a hassle, but not so much of a hassle that I wanted to take a $500-$1000 hit to avoid it. Therefore, I went to edmunds.com instead, where I determined my minivan was worth about $2000. It seemed a good starting price. I advertised it for $1999. And in a fit of honesty I did not hide anything in my ad. I warned buyers that the antilock brakes did not work (our mechanic said it was not worth the cost) and going between second and third gears the transmission jumped a bit. Otherwise, it was in great shape. I don’t know what’s Honda’s secret is, but thirteen years later the body almost looks new. No nicks, no scrapes, no rust, nor was I meticulous about washing and waxing it.

While my first encounter with a Craiglist denizen (Shawn, the guy who removed my basketball post) went well, I was still a bit leery. First, there is a large community of scammers out there preying on people, particularly on people selling automobiles. So I decided I would not accept any personal checks. I would accept no cashier checks either, unless they were from a local bank or credit union. Cash was fine but I figured it was unlikely someone would pay cash. Who would carry around $2000 in cash?

My ad went up Wednesday night. Ten people inquired about the car. Perhaps the most unusual inquiry was from a guy who rang me up Friday night. He was calling from out of town, exact location undisclosed, but he said he can fly for free. He wanted to fly into Dulles, check out the car and if okay, drive it home. Driving it home seemed problematical since it did not have a set of plates on it. He said he would pay cash. He sounded very serious. He had me opening the hood of the car and telling him the type of engine I had. Maybe he was just scrounging for parts or hoped to steal the van if I gave him our address. In any event, he did not call back the next day to tell me he was flying in.

Another guy came by to test-drive it. It was technically illegal to test drive the car, as its vanity plates had been put on its replacement (a Subaru Impreza for my wife). However, I felt it was safe to ride shotgun while he drove it around the neighborhood. He had the same model, 1998 edition and he liked it so much he wanted another just like it. He liked what he saw and made a verbal commitment to buy the car if I would come down in price. We dickered and settled on $1700, which was probably less than it was worth but I wanted it gone. Of course, these things are complicated. He worked late at the airport, my wife was at work all day and she needed to co-sign the title, so he would have to come by in the evening. He planned to but had to work late and did not make it by our 10 p.m. deadline. When I called him this morning, he was concerned about the car’s lack of an ABS, figuring it would not get through inspection, which was not true.

I kept wondering how I would feel if the private sale were done in cash, like this guy wanted to do. He seemed nice enough, but he suggested that my wife just sign the title when she was home, then we could conclude the sale at our convenience. I thought: would I be comfortable with this man alone in my house? He was African American, which made me wonder if I would feel the same way if the guy were white. I honestly did not know the answer to that one but felt somewhat bad that the thought went through my brain. Given my suspicions about Craigslist people, maybe we should transfer the title in a public place, like a Starbucks? I figured better safe than sorry.

After our call this morning, I sensed cold feet and told him I would put our van back on the market. I had other people interested in my email box. One of them showed up this afternoon with his wife and three kids. He spent ten minutes driving it with his family around the neighborhood. He was ready to purchase now. His wife had already been to the ATM and withdrawn the money. So we all went inside our house. I guess no Starbucks was needed if the guy is driving a Toyota Camry station wagon and the kids are enjoying jumping in the back seat of their new car. His wife plopped down $1900 in cash on our dining room table and gave me a check for the $99 balance. We gave him the keys, signed the title, wrote up a bill of sale for DMV and handed over our maintenance records. And there it sits in our driveway for a couple of days until he gets the plates and drives it away.

$1900 in crisp, twenty-dollar bills paid out right on our dining room table. Maybe drug dealers are used to carrying this amount of cash but I am not. All that cash made me nervous. We shook their hands and wished them luck. I was frankly surprised they did not negotiate the price down.

Thus concludes, I hope, my latest Craigslist adventure. I have a feeling more Craigslist adventures lie ahead for us. What’s next? Advertise our house for sale by owner on Craigslist? It seems like you can sell pretty much anything on Craigslist. If we ever sell the house, I sure hope the buyer doesn’t bring a suitcase of twenty dollar bills.

Kissing the Rust Belt goodbye

The Thinker by Rodin

If you want to know why the Republican Party is rapidly becoming the party of the Deep South only, you only have to observe the votes this week by Senate Republicans to block a bailout of our domestic auto industry. Thirty-five Republican senators blocked the bill, which actually won in a 52-35 vote. However, Republicans chose to invoke the cloture rule, which meant that 60 votes were needed to actually pass the bill. Therefore, it died leaving President Bush in the ironic position of deciding that maybe he needs to find $15 billion of the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street to keep millions of automotive and automotive related jobs from vanishing in this country.

Senate Republicans effectively gave the finger to Americans autoworkers this week, while also scorning them by telling them that they were paid too much. (This takes a lot of chutzpah when a senator’s salary is $169,300 a year, and a senator’s pension benefits for even a short stint in the Senate would make autoworkers swoon.) Yes, a bankrupt GM, Ford and Chrysler would probably destroy the evil United Auto Workers. It would also destroy the livelihood of millions of Americans, not just the autoworkers themselves, but a vast network of suppliers, dealers and merchants that eke out a living based on Detroit. But hey, that evil UAW would sure learn a lesson!

Yes, color the Midwest blue. If it is not entirely that way today, it will be in the next election. Moreover, if the key to winning the White House is to win Ohio, I may be in my grave before the next Republican ascends to the White House. (That would be fine with me, providing I live to a very ripe old age.) It used to be that you were showing your patriotism by buying American cars. Maybe you paid a bit more and maybe your car was not as reliable comparable with a foreign model. Nevertheless, it was “Made in America”, and that helped put food on your table, your neighbors’ tables and kept your community vibrant. Now in the bizarre world inhabited by a majority of Republican senators, you are showing true love of country by killing off our domestic automobile industry!

You see this is love. When your father beat your bums black and blue with his leather belt, he was doing it because he loved you. It was tough love. Never mind this sort of tough love that many of us endured growing up would now be considered child abuse. But it is okay to do it with auto industry workers and the vast numbers of workers who earn their living off our auto industry because, well, they are all adults! After all, it is not child abuse if they are not children.

Now the truth is that those of us who did have their bums beat black and blue by our dads (or in some cases, our moms, or both) do generally love them, in spite of their past proclivity toward inflicting violence on minors. You cannot divorce mom and dad. However, you can throw your senator out of office when their term expires. If they just don’t get it, that they are there to serve the interests of the American people, you simply vote for someone who does.

It is unsurprising that those Republican senators that voted for the bailout seemed to represent swing states. Few Republicans from swing states voted for the bailout, but there were some, including Allard from Colorado, Burr from North Carolina, Coleman from Minnesota, Ensign from Nevada and Gregg from New Hampshire. One thing these senators do have in common is that there is little or no auto assembly in their states. I have some advice for these senators: do not expect much in the way of contributions from the National Automobile Dealers Association for your reelection campaign.

There is no question that Detroit has been a follower rather than a leader in the auto business. Its management has been abysmal. However, the United Auto Workers has been accommodating about cuts in wages and benefits, somewhat begrudgingly of course, just not enough to keep up with the competition. What is true is that American automakers cannot be as agile as the foreign competition. For in most other countries the government provides universal health care for all, liberating manufacturers from these costs, or at least allowing them to be controlled. In our country, they are generally borne by employers. However, American cars no longer really deserve a bad quality rap. As Consumer Reports has documented, American cars are now often as reliable as their foreign competition. Part of the problem is the perception, which is often no longer true, that buying American means you will get a less reliable car.

You would think that if American autoworkers were so well paid that they would be living opulent lives. That is clearly not the case. The average assembly line worker for GM makes $28 an hour in wages. This is about $58,000 a year, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but not outrageous for a skilled assemblyman. All this assumes of course that they have steady employment. The auto industry has many ups and down, so it is unwise to count on full employment. It is true that autoworkers receive benefits too, but so do many of us who are employed. The cost of benefits is nowhere near the inflated $70 an hour figure bandied about. The Big Three’s pension costs are so high because they also have the legacy of pension costs for existing retired workers and their spouses. Foreign car companies do not have this baggage.

We should look on the $15 billion bailout as an interim measure to help put in place a structure that will make our car companies competitive again. At some point, this will likely mean shifting costs for pensions off the car companies and onto the taxpayer. Then American car companies can compete on something like an equal footing.

Meanwhile, by their votes, Senate Republicans have simply gained the contempt of many in auto producing states. Once you hold someone in contempt, it is nigh impossible to be held in esteem again. This is why Republican opposition to the automotive bailout was so needlessly counterproductive. Even the White House gets it. President Bush understands that his legacy rests on very shaky premises. To leave the White House with the American automobile industry collapsing around him will seal his fate in history.

Based on Senate Republicans’ foolish votes, people like me hoping to see even larger Democratic majorities have new reason for optimism. Any Joe the Plumbers out there living under the illusion that Republicans actually care about people like them are now thoroughly disillusioned. Instead, Senate Republicans are reminding them of their dear old dad and his leather belt, and senators are telling them to lower their trousers and assume a right angle. Why is Dad punishing them? Apparently, they had the audacity to expect a living wage.

Maybe they should run for the Senate instead.

Asleep at the wheel

The Thinker by Rodin

Based on reading news reports yesterday, it seems the SUV’s days may be numbered. Yesterday, General Motors announced plans to close four truck and SUV plants by 2010 as a result of shrinking sales for these vehicles. Ford Motor Company has also cut production of trucks and SUVs. Sales of large and midsize sports utility vehicles are down 30 percent compared with the May 2007. To try to get rid of them, Ford is offering substantial discounts. Good luck with that. With gas prices in my neighborhood now at $4.019 per gallon and with the summer driving season just starting, buying a SUV or any vehicle with low miles per gallon looks very stupid.

Despite their popularity, the SUV epitomizes America at its worst. SUVs were always expensive. Double the cost of gasoline and it is like adding an extra hundred dollars a month or more to your car payment. Unless your SUV is paid for, this either makes your SUV unaffordable or moves it into the luxury category. Moreover, the more you drive an SUV the more unaffordable it becomes. Even the automobile manufacturers’ attempt to put lipstick on a pig by making hybrid SUVs has not worked. GMC has sold only 1,100 of its Chevy Tahoe hybrids. That’s 1,100 total nationwide.

Unsurprisingly, fuel-efficient small cars are now hot. Fuel-efficient hybrid cars are even hotter. The Washington Post reports that owners of the Toyota Prius compete against each other to prove they are the more fuel-efficient driver. Also rising in popularity is mass transportation. Overall ridership was up 3% in the first quarter of the year compared with a year ago. In Baltimore, light rail usage is up 17 percent in a year. The Metrorail system here in Washington D.C. is running more and more eight-car trains, and most rush hour trains are still standing room only. While only 5% of Americans use mass transit regularly, you can bet many more wish it were an option and would use it if available. They have just unwisely chosen to live in an area that is not accessible to mass transit. More businesses and governments are allowing employees to work four 10-hour days so they can save on fuel costs.

General Motors seems to have figured out that gas prices will not return to nostalgic gas guzzling levels again. In one of the least surprising news stories of recent months, Rick Wagoner, the current GM chairman and chief executive said, “We at GM don’t think this is a spike or temporary shift; we believe that it is, by and large, permanent.” Which is why it is closing plants and laying off employees. GM has shrunk to half the size it was in its heyday and will now shrink even further. Thousands of American workers are among victims of their unenlightened leadership. Our friends in the North American Free Trade Agreement are also feeling GM’s pains. A plant in Canada and another in Mexico are among those that GM plans to close.

While GM’s sales plunged 28 percent and Ford’s dropped 16% compared to a year ago, some automakers are sitting pretty. Honda Motors, which has engineered fuel efficiency into its cars for more than two decades, reports its auto sales rose 18% in May. Both our cars are Hondas. I have been driving a fuel efficient 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid for three and a half years and routinely average 37 to 40 miles per gallon. We will likely add a third Honda to our family shortly. Our daughter needs a car for college, which begins in August. While we looked at used cars, we found we could purchase a fuel efficient Honda Fit for the same price as a used car that is three or four years old.

America’s love affair with the automobile is destined to downsize in the 21st century, but it will not go away entirely. Clearly, we are now in the transition phase where we have to live within our means in an increasingly expensive world. Unlike the oil shocks of the 1970s, this one is not going to go away. It may moderate from time to time. When even General Motors acknowledges the long-term trend is real, you know the gig is up.

American automobile manufacturers should have learned from the oil shocks of the 1970s. Instead, they chose complacency. Why reduce shareholder profits by making long-term investments in fuel-efficient vehicles? Instead, executives can get big bonuses for short-term profits. Inertia pays because America’s brand of capitalism rewards short-term profit makers. The formula works of course until market forces change the dynamic. Then stockholders get the shaft for their obsession with short term profits. Auto manufacturers like GM are caught flat-footed. This is a company that is so unenlightened that it killed its own experimental electric car, the EV1.

Honda Motors is laughing all the way to the bank. Americans will still need cars, but they will need reliable fuel-efficient cars. The company showed the long-term vision that positioned them well for any change in market dynamics, which will translate into greater market share and greater profits. GM and Ford were largely asleep at the wheel, belatedly reacting to market forces rather than positioning their companies to profit from them. As a result GM and Ford are shrinking.

GM plans to either radically change or sell its Hummer brand. Once the world’s largest automobile company, it now looks in real danger of going out of business. It may join a long list of failed automobile manufacturers.

If I were a GM stockholder, I would be working to fire its whole management team. It needs new leadership with a clue on how to anticipate market dynamics. This way stockholders always win. It needs a consistent long-term vision. More likely though GM will suffer the fate of companies like Bear Stearns, and be sold off in pieces for chump change to some much smarter companies. If that happens, let us hope it is Honda Motors.

She’s got a ticket to ride

The Thinker by Rodin

A gray Monday. It came with a spattering of rain, but that was not necessarily bad. If that meant that fewer people were at the local Department of Motor Vehicles office, then we would be on to enjoy the rest of the day all the sooner. Luck was with us. The parking lot at the Sterling, Virginia DMV was only half-full. We discovered why when we entered the building. Their camera was down, so no new licenses would be issued today.

So it was back in the car again. This time I drove us to the DMV office in Leesburg some fifteen miles away. Luck was with us again. The lot was only a quarter full. We had just explained our mission at the information booth (to get my daughter a driver’s license at last) when her number was called. We shuffled down to another booth. We did not have even ten seconds to work on the application.

Trying to get our daughter licensed has turned out to be a two and a half year endeavor. She may be eighteen, but she was never in a hurry to drive. We had to coax, nag and occasionally demand she set her heinie in the driver’s seat to get her any practice at all. She preferred to be chauffeured, no matter how much it annoyed her parents. Attrition and bouts of perseverance from her parents eventually succeeded in turning her into a competent driver.

Then I naively took her to the DMV for a driver’s test. Things had changed but I never bothered to read the latest regulations. I figured that at age 18 she was a legal adult so they would give her a written test. It would be followed by a driving test then she would get her license. That won’t work in Virginia until you turn 19. In addition to the formal driver’s education that she had as a sophomore (from a book and driving simulator only) the state said she was also required to get professional instruction. So despite the fact that she was ready for her license, we had to plop down $325 to the AA Driving School of Herndon, Virginia for seven chaperoned lessons.

Those lessons dragged on too. Meanwhile, we shuffled her off to work at odd and inconvenient hours, often picking her up after midnight when we felt like zombies. Her driving instructor had to work around her job schedule and she had to work around frequent inclement winter weather, which meant that it took nearly two months to get all her lessons. Can’t you just be licensed already? Finally, last Friday, on my 51st birthday, I got my real birthday present. She took her last lesson. Her instructor signed the special blue form. All we had to do was get her to the DMV to have her picture taken and license issued and she would be a licensed driver at last!

The lack of lines at the DMV helped but for some mysterious reason the Social Security Administration’s computers were inaccessible for a while, so we waited for forty-five pointless minutes until her SSN was confirmed. A few minutes later she was unceremoniously handed her official driver’s license. I felt like Pomp and Circumstances should be playing. If they only knew how long we waited, they would play the music! Instead, I suggested we celebrate her belated milestone in a mediocre fashion by stopping somewhere for a fast food lunch.

“Drive us home, licensed driver,” I said. She elected to go to our local Burger King. Still, I gritted my teeth. It was not that she was a bad driver; it is just that with probably something like 75 hours on the road, she was still very much a novice. I got in the passenger seat and tried to act nonchalant. Except along Sully Road, there were concrete barriers pushed up against the side of the road and she has a tendency to drive six inches from the curb. “Pull to the center!” I yelled as she nearly clipped those concrete dividers. For the rest of the ride home I bit my tongue. I have to let it go.

On our way out of the Burger King, she turned too tightly, causing a rear wheel to go over a curb. If only all her initial mistakes could be like these: minor ones that won’t hurt the car.

Let it go. I called the insurance company and had them put her on our policy. She will cost an extra $55 a month. As long as she is not in school, she can pay the cost of her own auto insurance. She can drive one of our cars, but only when we have an extra car available. We were not going to buy her one.

The weather outside looked a bit chancy, but I decided to bike to work today anyhow. I needed the exercise. For my birthday, I purchased a new 27-speed hybrid bike. While this was good for my cardiovascular system, it would leave her home alone with my car, my keys and the state’s permission for her to drive it anywhere she wanted.

I arrived home from work hours later to find my car in the driveway where I had left it, but it clearly had been driven. She told us she did not feel the need to drive a car until, of course, the opportunity finally presented itself at last. How could she resist? Tonight, rather than pay $2 to have her pizza delivered, she elected to drive and pick it up instead.

I am trying to turn off that parental part in my brain that tells me to keep fretting, but it is not easy. I have spent eighteen years fretting over her and trying not to let my obsessiveness get the better of me. The day had come. I had to trust her with a $22,000 hunk of metal and more importantly, her life, doing what for most Americans is the most dangerous thing they will ever do: drive a car. “Remember what I told you,” I said on the way home. “Driving is 99% boredom and 1% terror. Don’t ever get complacent!”

My wife has chimed in later too. “Drive like everyone around you is insane,” was her sage advice. This is good advice, especially in this area which is a weird amalgamation of people from across the United States and many foreign countries. It is not technically true that everyone driving is insane, of course, although it frequently feels that way. However, there are enough drivers driven by distraction where, if you are smart, you should realize that when on the road your life is always a couple second from ending. You survive by always driving soberly and always being mindful of the traffic around you.

So Rosie, stick to right lanes for a while if you can. Pass with care. That means always looking behind you. Don’t trust your mirrors. Stay in the center of your lane please. You will hit fewer potholes that way. In addition, don’t go anyplace unless you aren’t sure you know how to get back. And keep that cell phone with you at all times and keep it charged! God forbid that you should ever need it but the registration is in the glove compartment, along with the insurance card. Moreover, watch carefully whenever you park and whenever you back out too.

Yeah, I am going to do nag her for a while. Maybe she will tune it out. I cannot help it. She is too precious and she is our only child, after all. I know in time my anxieties will ease. Right now, I take many deep breaths whenever I hand over the keys. Relax, Mark. It’s going to be okay. Relax.

Yet my hands remain clenched.

Mediocrity abounds on the rental car lot

The Thinker by Rodin

Has anyone else noticed that rental car lots are stuffed with cars that you would never actually buy?

This has happened so often to me that I have begun to think it is more than coincidence. The one exception was one Toyota Camry that I rented some twenty years ago. More often, when I rent a car I end up with a bright, shiny, clean and well-maintained car that, if I did not have to rent it, I would never even want to test drive.

Last week I was in Denver. Since I am a government employee, naturally I have to go with the contract car rental firm. In this case, it was Alamo, which at least at Denver International Airport is now partnered with National. Although my contract was with Alamo, I was pointed to the compact cars in the National lot. “Pick any one of them,” the attendant told me. “Any one of them” turned out to be a half dozen or so Chevy Cobalts, in my choice of colors.

I picked the closest one, pulled the key out of the driver’s side door lock and pressed the trunk release button. Nothing happened. I pressed it several times, very hard. Nothing happened. Okay, I thought, I will just try the next Chevy Cobalt. At least this key allowed me to pop the trunk. I put my suitcase in the trunk. Fortunately, it was just me in the car. For a two door car there was not much room for luggage. Then I made the mistake of actually getting into the car.

This was wrong. All wrong. I am six foot two inches tall, but I could not fit in this sports car unless I bent back seat quite a way. Of course, I could reach the steering wheel, but my long arms had to be fully outstretched. Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be with sports cars. I have never owned one. However, the position felt unnatural and awkward. I couldn’t imagine driving this all day long.

Then I closed the door. I should have grabbed the seat belt before I shut the door because, even though I had the seat pushed way back to accommodate my long legs, I could not grab the seat belt. Even with the door open though, it was a hassle. The arm motion to grab the belt was beyond unnatural; it was almost painful.

After the usual inspection at the exit gate, I left the car lot. Then I tried to change lanes. WTF? I knew I had a blind spot, so of course I craned my head back to see what was coming in the lane next to me. I could not see my blind spot; the frame of the door, which was receded way back, got in the way of my vision. Are all sports cars this dumbly designed? Maybe there is more than testosterone to blame for so many sport car accidents.

Perhaps it is stylish. I am no judge of style. I can say it is an impractical car. There were numerous other things that annoyed me: a badly laid out instrument panel, a funky interior car smell, no elbowroom for my left arm and it was hard for me to read the odometer. I kept fumbling trying to locate radio station; the buttons were not in the usual spots. For a sporty car, you would think it would take a light touch with the accelerator to move it forward, but I had to press quite hard to make it move.

I was so glad to return the car. As I scanned the lot, I realized there was not a foreign car in the whole place. Like the Chevy Cobalt I drove, the lot was full of very shiny, clean but wholly unmemorable cars.

Last year on a similar trip, I was given a Chrysler PT Cruiser. Oh boy, I thought. This was a step up because it looked bigger than a compact car. I had rather admired the car when I saw it on the road; it was somewhat retro. After driving it though, it felt flimsy and was loud. I too turned that one in, glad for the experience because here was another car I would now never buy in a million years. I prefer a car that looks plain but is well engineered. While I prefer quality to style, but I do not understand why I cannot have both.

Perhaps the worst car I ever rented was some ten years ago. It was a Ford Aspire. It was a catastrophe of a car. As the Car Talk guys put it, “It aspires to be a real car.” Truer words were never spoken. It was cramped, loud and came with a sticky accelerator. No power brakes here: be prepared to press very hard. It had virtually no headroom either; it was the rental car from hell. For years after when I would see someone drive an Aspire, I would laugh aloud. “You mean you actually paid good money for that piece of crap?” I wanted to yell at them. Alas, I am too well mannered to actually articulate it.

I guess it is too much to find a copy of my Honda Civic Hybrid on a rental lot. What I wrote about when I bought it is still true: it is a finely engineered automotive experience. Over eighteen months later, I am still thrilled with my car. The trunk is too small but that is its only drawback. I feel integrated with the car. It breaks smoothly. It turns steadily and predictably. It is amazingly quiet in spite of having its tiny four-cylinder engine right next to the steering wheel. It responds uniformly to the minutest presses on the accelerator. While I am sure there are better-engineered cars out there, it is about as fine a driving experience as is possible in a compact car. In addition, it is better for the environment.

My theory is that rental car companies buy overstocked cars that would otherwise languish for years on dealer lots. I figure they are getting a hell of a discount from the car manufacturers. Why else would anyone buy these cars? They have to go somewhere, so they end up in rental car lots across the country. Apparently, we rental car buyers just are not fussy because we know in a couple days we will turn the car in.

I heard that buying used rental cars makes sense. Perhaps there is some logic to this. Rental cars are very well maintained and their vehicle history is rarely in any dispute. I doubt though that you will find a model for sale that will inspire you. If you aspire toward mediocrity or if you are trying not to be noticed on the roads, any of these cars will do. I would ask for a hell of a discount.

The Virtues of Small Cars

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m wondering how much longer it will be before small cars became chic again. They were popular in the 1970s but only because gas cost so much. The current high cost of gasoline is now making many reconsider their love affair with their SUVs and consider the merits of smaller cars and hybrids. Perhaps in the process Americans will discover that small can be beautiful.

Why do I love small cars? I should first qualify what I mean by a small car. To me any compact or subcompact qualifies as a small car. I currently own a Honda Civic Hybrid, which would be considered a compact car. It’s a lovely car, and not just because it is friendlier to the environment than most cars. It is also a pleasure to drive. I buy new cars so rarely that every time I purchase one I realize what quantum leaps car technologies are being realized in just five to ten years. My Honda Civic may be a compact car but it is a pleasure to drive. It is amazingly quiet. When the engine is idling you have to listen carefully to hear it. Even at full throttle it is a hum, not a roar. This quietness comes despite an engine placed very close to the driver. It accelerates very briskly even though it has only four cylinders. (I assume this is because of the assist it gets from the battery.) It handles very well. I have yet to feel unconfident or not in control when I drive it, even when I need to come to a sudden stop. It lacks the hatchback feature of its non-hybrid cousin but otherwise it is as roomy as any compact car I’ve driven and roomier than most. In short it feels about as close to perfected engineering as a small car is likely to get.

Of course being a compact car it is not meant to haul much of anything. It’s really a commuter car. And that’s fine. That’s exactly what I need. I don’t know what your driving is like but I suspect you spend more time in traffic doing stop and go than cruising at high speeds on the freeway. Compact cars make excellent commuter cars and mine excels at it. There are times when I feel like I need a big car to haul something. But then I think again about it. Do I really need some huge honking SUV for the couple times a year I might want to move something large like a sofa? Is it really worth $15,000 more in price and hundreds of dollars a year more in gasoline for something that I need a couple times a year? To me it isn’t. That’s why I pay $30 or so to get the item delivered. And I’ve noticed stores like Loews and Home Depot offer trucks for rent by the hour. When I need a truck I can rent one very conveniently and inexpensively.

It is true that an SUV can probably get through snow better than my small car. I don’t have four-wheel drive, but I do have front wheel drive. It is pretty unusual to have any snowstorm in Northern Virginia that requires a four-wheel drive car. So I just don’t think this feature is something worth paying for. And if I did perhaps I would consider a compact Suburu wagon.

I personally like the way a small car hugs the pavement. Unlike the SUV owner, I don’t spend much time worrying about whether my car will rollover in an accident. For some people it might be a bit awkward to get into the car that is low to the ground. But I don’t find it an issue. I slide in smoothly.

Unlike many of my bigger car brethren, my car slips through the atmosphere. I don’t create much drag because there is not much surface area for it to be much of a problem. I don’t usually hear or feel the wind.

Parking is never a problem with a small car. I watch SUV drivers creep into parking spaces, always careful not to be scraping the car next to them. Even if the SUV next to me in the parking lot is encroaching on my space, it’s still not a problem. I can get in and out with relative ease.

A smaller car is easier to access and maintain. I don’t require a stepladder to get the snow off my roof. Pity the fool with a Ford Expedition after a snowstorm. Since my compact car has less surface area it is easier and faster to wash and wax. Vacuuming it is quick. With four cylinders instead of eight, maintenance is markedly less expensive. A complete tune up can be done for a few hundred bucks. That everything is smaller usually means parts are less costly to replace. I bet the muffler on my car is at least $40 less than the muffler on an SUV.

I clearly don’t get the allure of an SUV. To me big is not better. Big is more hassle. They cost more money to buy and more money to maintain. You can buy two of my tires for the price of one of their behemoth’s. Me: I like quick. I like stealthy. I like being ubiquitous on the road. You can have none of these in an SUV.

And call me a militant environmental, but I like leaving a small footprint on this planet. My life is finite. I don’t feel I own anything. Instead, I feel like I need to be a steward of the planet so that those who come after me will be able to enjoy its natural wonders too. I suspect that despite my best efforts, and due to the many others who don’t seem to care about the consequences of their lifestyle choices that we will leave a pretty toxic environment for our children. But I’d like to be able to at least hold my head up high and said I did my part. I would hope that others would notice. Perhaps with gas prices so high large car owners will finally see the virtues in driving small again. Most will do so grudgingly for purely economic reasons. But perhaps in time they will discover the joys of small cars too.

Driving the Hybrids

The Thinker by Rodin

There are two hybrid cars in my driveway at the moment. There’s my new 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid but there is also my Dad’s 2005 Toyota Prius. The latter sits in our garage until he gets back from California where he is visiting his sister. I’ve driven both cars and I can tell you that driving a hybrid takes some getting used to.

In many ways my Honda Civic Hybrid seems more conventional. The Toyota Prius feels really out of this world. For example, at least in my Dad’s version of the car, there is no place to insert a key to turn on the engine. Want to turn it on? It’s pretty simple, just not intuitive. First, put your foot on the brake. Second, press the Power button. No key needed!

To get in the car you normally use the remote control. The car assumes that anyone who can get inside it should be okay to drive it. According to my Dad you have to have the remote control with you to actually start the car. I guess the car detects its presence through some sort of wireless signal, and will only start it if it detects it.

Many of the controls are not where you would expect it. If you are looking for the speedometer over your steering wheel, forget about it. You have to glance to your right and up a bit at look at the little monitor that tells you the current status of your car. Need to go into reverse? Don’t look for a lever between the front row seats. Instead, look for an odd lever built into the dashboard itself and look at the monitor to verify you are actually in the gear you think you are.

Backing out of the garage with the Prius does not necessarily mean starting the engine. Battery power will usually kick in to push it out of the garage. The motor seems to come on transparently when you need it. It is very quiet so it’s hard to know it is there sometimes.

In short what Toyota has done to the interior of the Prius is a little like what VW did when they introduced the Beetle. It’s like “What the heck is this?” It would deter, or certainly slow down most car thieves. I feel sorry for valet parking attendants for the next couple years. It’s going to be confusing for them.

My Dad has ridden in both hybrids. Even he noticed that the Honda Civic Hybrid coveys less road noise. It also rides a lot smoother. But having driven them both it is clear to me that the Prius is the cleaner car, simply because it seems to use the engine less. On the Honda Civic Hybrid the engine always kicks on when I start the car.

The Honda Civic Hybrid though feels much more like a “normal” car. There’s a lever to put the automatic transmission into drive or reverse, and it’s right there where it should be: between the passenger seats. I don’t have to hunt for the speedometer. It’s in my face above the steering wheel as I expect, however it’s an electronic display. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason on when the engine will kick off. I get a feeling that in the morning the car waits until it is hot enough before the engine will kick off at stoplights. Releasing my foot from the brake kicks on the engine again instantaneously. The Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system (which indicates how the battery is helping the motor, and visa versa) is impressive. For a four-cylinder car this thing is surprisingly peppy. It does not have the power of a V-8 but the battery adds a larger than expected oomph to the acceleration that to my mind makes it feel more like a V-6.

It’s starting to feel normal to be at a light and have the engine shut off. And this is good. It seems strange that there are so many cars queued up on all sides of me with their engines running while I sit serenely inert through the three minute traffic lights.

I don’t know how many miles per gallon I will get yet. In the two weeks I’ve owned the car I have yet to refill the tank! Yes, my driving needs are modest. I have put about 250 miles on the car and the tank is still about 40% full. It seems likely I will average over 40 miles per gallon.

Some of the features, now standard in most cars, are annoying. I’m already annoyed by the optional security system. I have to use the remote to enter the car and to lock it. If I don’t the security alarm goes off. The car chirps every time I lock or unlock the car. I’m sick of it. There is a way to turn it off. I’ve read the manual but I still can’t figure it out because it refers to a switch that is not in my car. I need a less hassle security system.

And I guess electronic keys are standard now. But they are new to me. I can’t get a new car key cut at the Sears Hardware, that’s for sure. I have to go to my Honda dealer and I better bring in my key code with me.

But so far at least the Honda Civic Hybrid is a neat car. It may be a hybrid but unlike the Prius when you drive it you don’t feel like you are sacrificing much. It’s definitely smaller than the Prius and I wish it were a hatchback. But for a small car it’s quiet and fun.

I look forward to the day when hybrids are mainstream. But hybrids still have to seriously catch on. I would think more people would be interested in them, not just because they care about the environment because you can get a tax credit for buying a new hybrid. It’s disturbing to read reports that hybrid SUVs aren’t selling well. The hybrid technologies certainly seem viable enough to me. I hope more Americans will see their virtues. It won’t solve the global warming or air pollution problem, but it’s a start.

The Slimy, Icky Business of Car Buying

The Thinker by Rodin

The last straw was when the air conditioner went out. I was fifty miles out of Raleigh heading back to my Northern Virginia home when the compressor died. If it had been a good day it would have been no big deal. But it was a hot and sticky day and it was interstate driving all the way home. With no AC I had to travel with the windows open. Yet I sweated like a pig anyhow. I had to make frequent pits stops for bottled water. The road noise actually hurt my ears. I arrived home a stinking mess with my shirt soaked in sweat.

The 250 mile drive home was a piece of cake compared to trying to get my 91 Camry fixed. It lingered for four weeks in the shop. Replacement parts repeatedly failed and had to be replaced. After three weeks the shop finally determined that the compressor clutch had failed. A new compressor would cost $700. I had already invested about $600 trying to solve the problem. Eventually I found a used compressor online and had them install it. It cost about as much to fix up the car so I could have cool air as it was worth. It was time to buy another car. I had finally exceeded my tolerance level for automotive problems.

Overall the Camry remains a great car. It may be a bit oxidized and scratched. Rust may be encroaching in a few spots. But it still runs well. I haven’t been as good as I should have been keeping it washed, waxed and polished. But it has been extremely reliable and could probably go for another 60,000 miles. I just don’t want to nurse it through its next 60,000 miles. I want a car that just offers basic and reliable transportation.

Hybrids are an up and coming technology. Although my neighbors in their gas guzzling SUV behemoths may not give a damn about the environment, for some reason I cared about it enough to put my money where my mouth was. A small hybrid car was all I needed to carry me the three miles or so to work when the weather didn’t allow me to bike it. My next car would spend a lot of its time in Northern Virginia traffic running errands. I would be driving it alone 90% of the time. Our 97 Honda Odyssey would suffice for transporting teenagers and larger items when needed. So a small fuel-efficient hybrid made sense.

So I got on a Prius mailing list to get on their waiting list. I waited and waited and was glad the used compressor was still working. Meanwhile my father finally got his Prius and I took it for a test drive. While a nice car I found that it didn’t accommodate my 6’2″ frame and long legs very well. Driving it actually hurt after a while. I had to keep my foot at 45 degrees to the accelerator and my thighs were touching the bottom of the steering wheel, even after it was adjusted up. However it was otherwise a surprisingly roomy car and a hatchback to boot. It pained me to have to say no to this hybrid.

My wife suggested trying the Honda Civic Hybrid. We took it for a test drive. It was noticeably quieter and had a smoother ride than the Prius. But its back seat was comparatively cramped and batteries behind the back seat kept it from being used as a hatchback. But overall it was an impressive car. And although we were in no particular hurry it was readily available.

Naturally the dealership where we got our test drive wanted us to buy it right then and there. We firmly said no and went home to consider our options. In other words we mostly went home and forgot about it since that’s what we do in our family. But both the Toyota and Honda salesmen kept calling us trying to close the sale. I just didn’t want to pay their inflated prices. (The Toyota salesman wanted to order one for us. No discounts at all, naturally.)

We discovered that our credit union offered United Buying Service. I did some inquiries to find out what it would cost to purchase the Civic through their service. We bought our Camry through UBS many years ago and it seemed to be the way to go. The UBS price was reasonable. Only I felt sorry for the guy at the Honda dealership who gave us the test drive and kept calling us. Once we had decided on the Honda Civic Hybrid I felt I should give him a chance to meet the UBS price.

In retrospect this was probably a mistake. Buying the Camry through UBS had been such a pleasant experience. We had none of the high-pressure sales techniques usually found in car dealerships. But when we walked into our local Honda dealership yesterday to try to close the deal with Sodik, our salesman, it was back to the “let’s see how much money we can squeeze out of them” salesmanship I grew to loathe during my car buying experiences in the 1980s.

There is this protocol to car buying that seems sacrosanct. Wildly inflated prices are offered and the expectation is you want to drive away with your new car today. It seems impossible to buy any car at a dealership without mud flaps, pin stripes and security packages. They wanted to charge for dealer preparation fees and transportation charges and they want you to ignore the dealer charge backs they were getting. But at least this time I had my UBS purchase certificate. I told them they could meet the price or I could leave. We spent a lot of time twiddling our thumbs while Sodik went back and forth between us and the sales managers behind the counter. Surely we would pay $450 for an appearance package? Surely we would not. Okay, let’s split the cost in half: $225 for the appearance package. But I don’t want the appearance package. Can’t you just order me the car I want? Eventually they met my UBS price after considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I did agree to pay $150 for the appearance package since even the UBS dealership said all the cars came with it. Cost so far $19,829.

Of course it’s never over until it’s over. There are options available and a lady came by to let us know we could get 5 CD changers, all season floor mats and even a cargo net for the Civic’s tiny little trunk. I bit for the security package for $399 figuring it might pay for itself in reduced insurance premiums and passed on the rest.

Then it was upstairs to the guy with the green eyeshades. There were extended warranties and paint sealants available too. Surely I would want them. He had never sold a hybrid, he told us, without the extended warranty, since it was “new” technology. I said there is a first time for everything. He gave us a jaundiced eye but eventually put the order together. Add sales taxes and titling fees and my $19,829 car now cost $20,922.78.

I’m still wondering if I got a good deal or not. Why am I paying $40.46 for a “Dealer Business License Tax”? But anyhow it’s done, except for the pesky matters of getting a loan (we put $10,000 down), adding insurance for the car, the property tax stickers, our special clean fuel license plates (which lets us drive with one person on I-66 HOV lanes), selling the Camry and, oh, actually taking possession of our new car. We do that tomorrow evening after the security package is installed.

Despite the friendly but aggressive salesman and despite the gleaming Honda showrooms I still find I have almost no interest in my brand new car. I don’t find myself lusting for my first drive in it. If I had any of these feelings they went away after the slimy business of buying a new car. I should have just used the buying service and avoided the hassle altogether. I should not have felt sorry for a salesman who gave us a test drive and kept calling us. Now I feel unclean.

I hope if I ever decide to buy through a dealership again that the car buying process will have improved. But the quintessential car buying experience in America must include high-pressure salesman in dazzling suits and endless shuffling back and forth to sales managers.

Next time I’ll use a buying service for sure.

Our next car

The Thinker by Rodin

Ah car shopping. Ack! Car shopping! My wife and I hate it. That’s why for years we’ve talked about replacing one of our aging cars and haven’t done anything about it. But the law of diminishing returns hasn’t been repealed. Last year we spent big bucks to continually fix up our aging cars.

Nonetheless we continued to dawdle. That’s what we do. My wife Terri has a 9-5 job and works five days a week. Until recently I taught a class on Saturday mornings in addition to my day job. That left almost no time to actually go out and look for another car, which frankly suited both of us quite well. Terri believes weekends are for relaxing and doing much of nothing; the last thing she wants is to do something she loathes like buy a car. I wanted to avoid it too. If there is anything less fun than a root canal it is being harassed by over eager car salesmen.

For months we sporadically debated what we wanted in another car. New or used? New is always more fun, of course, but dropping $25K and doing the car payment thing is no fun. I like to pay cash, if possible, and skip the car payment thing altogether and we have the cash for a decent used car. Our last car, a 92 Corolla station wagon was our first used car. We avoided the badly dressed car salesman by buying it from a private seller via an advertisement in the newspaper. But the penalty was the huge hassle getting a registration and transferring titles. It’s been a good car but it is time for it to be retired. It can’t get above 60 mph without doing the shake, rattle and roll thing and more mysterious and loud noises seem to be coming from it every day.

Which car to replace? The other car is a 91 Toyota Camry sedan, my principle car, and I was sort of hoping to replace it, perhaps with something new like a hybrid (we try to be sensitive to the ecology and besides, we are cheap). But with new valve seals it is running better than it has in years and unlike the Corolla it is a solid car. So replacing the station wagon seemed the way to go.

But we still needed a station wagon. We simply won’t do the SUV thing: we hate them and we resent every one of those suckers we see on the road. A Camry wagon was our first choice, so we fired up our web browser. We quickly ascertained that finding a used Camry wagon was next to impossible. There are acceptable station wagons out there including Suburu Legacy and Loyale wagons but they were like the Corolla wagon: a wagon in theory but not one in practice, unable to store much of anything. Maybe this is why people buy SUVs. It’s plain people don’t buy them to go up gravel roads along the sides of mountains. In our neighborhood they are used to pick up kids at day care and bring home food from the Giant and that’s about it.

Minivans were the next option. Neither of us are wild about minivans. We are a family of three, not of six and it seemed obscene to have all that extra room and to not use it. Mileage was better than a SUV but not great. And they seemed so tall and boxy … we don’t like boxy.

Cars come in two types from my perspective: real cars and SUVs. SUVs aren’t real cars. They get half the gas mileage of a real car, they pollute disproportionately and they don’t have bumpers. Because they aren’t a real car they have a high center of gravity and tend to turn over a lot. Real cars usually have bumpers, and air bags and don’t require a ladder to get in the cab. They have to meet auto safety requirements.

Mostly I don’t notice cars. Fortunately Terri does and the 1997 Honda Odyssey impressed her. Until 1999 when the Odyssey became a real minivan it was something between a small minivan and a station wagon. It had doors on latches, not sliding doors. We did an Internet search and looked at Consumer Reports, which gave it thumbs up. On Cars.com we found two for sale down in Falls Church. We looked at one by a private seller over the weekend and liked it, but it was a bit too used and overpriced. We also stopped by a lot in Falls Church where another one was for sale that looked nicer and had fewer miles on it. The lot was closed so we couldn’t take it for a spin. We did take the first car for a spin and it was a good driving experience. It has a modest four-cylinder engine and will never be the first out the starting gate, but we could live with that. It also seats 7 but the seats easily disappear and lo and behold there is this really nice cargo space for that hauling. And it gets decent gas mileage.

Last night we went down to the Falls Church car lot and test-drove the other van. We put a deposit on it. I will take it to our mechanic to get it checked out on Friday. Perhaps by Saturday we can take possession of the car. There will still be “minor” matters like getting a permanent registration and selling the Corolla wagon. But hey, it’s a step. After dithering for a couple years we at least made a decision.

The place we bought it from too was kind of interesting too. No weird car salesmen to deal with. Just two guys and a lot at one of Falls Church’s Seven Corners. Low overhead, low key, reasonable markup, nothing to haggle over. Drive the car. If you like it let’s talk. The price was very fair based on our research and this car was clean off a lease and drove well. Clear title; free car fax history. We got good vibes from both the car and the car lot … Vantage Auto Imports, if you are interested: corner of Route 7 and Route 50.

The Camry will have to be replaced in a couple years. A smaller car to replace it will be appropriate. Perhaps then I will buy that Toyota Prius I had my eye on. If only it were available today as a station wagon…