The Slimy, Icky Business of Car Buying

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

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 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…