Sunday, August 1, 2010

From Car-Buying Misery To This Lovely Thing

There she is! I don't have a name for her -- I only name iPods and iPads because I'm not totally pathetic -- but I keep walking outside every so often to look at it. It is gorgeous and I got a tremendous deal at CarMax. But we'll get back to that in a moment.

First, to understand why I put myself through the gruel of buying a car this week, take a minute -- really it's 57 seconds long -- to watch what my 1998 Chrysler Sebring has been doing for the past seven months:

Nobody was able to figure out why the old thing was shutting down while idle, shifting on its own in and out of gears and several other miseries. But one ride across town two weeks ago en route to an interview was particularly awful, with the thing dying at six traffic lights and two speed bumps and leaving me rumpled, drenched in sweat and crabby by the time I arrived. Two days later, the car refused to start twice unless I turned the ignition key dozens of times and somehow pushed it downhill to get the RPMs up. Really.

As much as I loved the Sebring -- bought it off my dad for a song in 2004 after driving it top-down on many wonderful seaside rides along A1A when I visited my folks in Florida -- we were at a crossroads. My trusted mechanic, Juan at this Smog Busters, had spent weeks investigating and test-replacing different parts at no cost to me before saying he concluded that it probably needed a new harness that only the dealership could provide for several thousand bucks. (That video was shot because at first the car refused to misbehave for Juan.) And he didn't even know about the not-starting thing, which just began this summer.

So we got going on finding something new. Or should I say, "I got going" as Miles, a certified car nut, had to take a proverbial backseat or I would run the risk of ending up with something well above of my price range.

It was a thoroughly disorienting and consuming experience to the point that the only thing I wrote last week was my LVW column. First, what kind of car to get? I started out going to Chapman Chrysler early in the week and taking a gander, concluding that maybe I ought to stick with what I know and get a newer, used Sebring.

After that evening browse, I took to Twitter and Facebook for advice on a few things. And that, I hate to say it, was kind of a nightmare. I solicited the insight, so I can't blame anyone, but I learned two fascinating things from all you chatterboxes:

* I had done everything wrong that night before. I'd told them I had a trade-in, I'd told them I was concerned about my credit, I professed love for a specific vehicle and I told them the price range I was considering.

* Carbuying has become very, very politicized. You have to buy American! You must get a hybrid to save the planet! You must punish car companies that took bailout money! All I wanted was something reliable, likable and within my budget. Yeesh!

Later in the week, I stopped by CarMax for an estimate on what my trade-in was worth. For readers outside the US, CarMax is a used-car dealer that does not allow haggling or negotiating. The price is the price. You decide if it's worth it to you. And they'll buy your car even if you don't buy one from them.

I saw a few vehicles that interested me at CarMax, including that lovely Lexus pictured above. What? You don't wish to scroll up? Here's another angle:

CarMax offered $1,000 for the Sebring. Not bad, thought I. Good to know.

Still, I worried about the no-haggle thing. If I didn't get to negotiate, how would I ever know how low I could go? I did query the Tweeps and Facebookers about CarMax, though, and almost without exception heard big raves. It was one of the few things most everyone agreed upon.

On Friday, I went looking some more. I pulled into the Planet Hyundai, saw literally swarms of salesmen eyeing me in the uncomfortable way the guys used to look at me when I was in my late teens (sigh, yes) in gay bars, and drove right away. But the weirdest moment was at Honda West when I got out to look around.

Salesman: "Can I help you find something?"
Me: "No thanks, I'm just looking."
Salesman: "I see you're interested in the CRVs..."
Me: "Yeah, I'm just looking. I'll let you know if I need you, but I just want to look by myself."
Salesman: "What price range are you looking..."
Me: "Hey, I just told you twice I want to be left alone for now. Am I not allowed to just look by myself?"
Salesman: "No, really you can't. That's not how it works."
Me: "Goodbye, then."

Rattled, I stopped for a little dinner and went on the laptop to do some more research. To my surprise, that 2009 Sebring I was interested in earlier on the week at Chapman in Henderson was online for about $2,000 less than the sticker price I'd seen. It's really cute, see?

Off I went all the way back to Chapman to take it for a test drive. It rode really well and I was ready to make a deal, but that's when the whole ridiculous charade began, of course. They sat me at a table with a strategic view of a glass office where some self-important men kept gathering to put on a show for me that was intended to look like some negotiations were occurring.

I knew it would end badly on the first offer. I had asked one of these guys earlier in the week whether trading in a Chrysler at a Chrysler dealer would be advantageous to me and, predictably, said, "Oh, yeah! We can fix it cheaper, blah blah blah." And yet after all that fictional "number-crunching," the same man presented me with an offer that is exactly the Internet price of the Sebring minus a trade-in value of ... $500.

CarMax, I told him, offered me $1000. "You told me that I'd get a better trade-in deal if I did it through Chrysler, then you deliberately low-ball me. Why should I believe anything else you say?" The Chapman guy looked at me and gave me a hey-this-is-how-the-game's-played shrug.

Chapman ended up offering me the $1,000 for the car, but that was the only thing they changed. We were apart by a measly $900, by the way. After many long "chats" in that glass booth and silly moments when two different salesmen had me sign below some scribble to "prove" to the manager I'd buy the car if my conditions were met, some finance guy came along to say they'd be losing money on the car if they moved toward me in any way on the offer. Oh, and they did try to play that hide-and-seek thing with my car keys, but thanks to some Twitter warnings I made sure to insist several times on getting them back so I could leave when I wished.

We were at an impasse, so I left. My first salesman, though, was now by my car feigning outrage that I had been treated so badly and insisting I return inside. At this point, truth be told, I was just playing along out of morbid fascination as I was never going to give any of these jerks a dime. I did go back in and sat down again, watching through the glass yet again as these people had "negotiations."

Then, shock of shocks, he returned to reiterate that they couldn't change the price. So I got up to leave again.

Pathetic Salesman: Oh, you gotta do this deal.
Laughing Me: No. I don't.
Pathetic Salesman: But it's a really great deal.

He followed me to my car again. He stood in front of the driver's side door until I asked him to step aside. He gripped the top of my door window as we continued this senseless banter until I said to him, "You're not really holding my car door open against my will, are you?" He let go and fumbled for a business card to hand me. I left before he could.

At home, Miles finally stepped in. He saw me aggravated and defeated and told me that I was to go onto the CarMax website, pick all the cars they had in my price range with the features I desired and go back and drive every one of them.

And I did on Saturday afternoon. I brought my printout, some of the cars were already sold and others I knew on sight I didn't like. I even drove an '09 Sebring and felt a minor hesitation that was much too familiar given my woes with my current car.

The Lexus, however, was unbelievable. It's a pearl-white 2004 Lexus ES 330 with a measly 37,000 miles on it. One owner, no accidents. And the price was, well, shocking. I'm not going to disclose what I paid -- well, am paying, for the next few years -- except to say it was a few thousand less than the Blue Book price.

My new vehicle is so quiet, so physically flawless inside and out, it's like driving a pillow. I'm going to show it to Juan tomorrow anyhow just to be sure, as CarMax provides a 5-day return policy. I'm also going to see if I can find a cheaper loan, although I got a decent rate from them, too.

All in all, the CarMax experience was blessedly absent of drama and misdirection at which normal dealers are so expert. I regaled the CarMax salesmen with the tales of the night before at Chapman, Planet Hyundai and Honda West, and one of them said to me, "Gosh, I'm so sorry you went through all that."

I'm not. Had I not, I wouldn't be able to sit here knowing that I got a good deal, that there was no way I was ever going to do business at Chapman or any other traditional dealer and feel good about it later.

After leaving CarMax Saturday, I drove to Miles' office to show him. He was proud and elated. Later, at home, he asked if I love it. I do, and I'm scared about how much because I've never been a car person, I don't feel worthy of such a lovely car even if the price was so great and I'm terrified I'll ruin this because I know I can be a terrible driver.

But for now, I'll wallow in this happy feeling because this experience cost a week of my life and now I'm not afraid to make daytime appointments. Here I am at CarMax about to drive off:

Oh, by the way, the Chapman folks called me four times on Saturday. Four times! Each time, the guys who called told me they had other Sebrings that they could get "much closer to your price." Closer? We were only $900 apart and they wouldn't budge! I must have really convinced them I'm unbelievably desperate and stupid.

Ah, well. Maybe I should stop by and ask them to appraise it for a trade-in. You know, for giggles.


Anonymous said...

So even your bud Wynn wouldn't cut you a decent trade deal on one of his Ferraris, Maseratis or a low mileage Maybach from his fleet. Just can't count on those shifty car dealers!

Had a friend who had one of these and while it was a nice car he suffered the weird transmission problems. Ended up unloading it. Should make sure this one doesn't have it before your 5 days is up. LA Times wrote about it a couple months back and it turns up other places on the net.

Maybe yours had a fix applied. Still, better not try to park it in the Golden Nugget garage until you're sure yours doesn't have the lurch. On the bright side if you get pulled over for speeding you can blame it on the Toyota unintended acceleration. :-)

Michael said...

Congrats on the new car, I can so relate to your horror stories of car purchases, I'm not a car guy, but sort of know what I want and it's exhausting to deal with the used car salesmen. Glad you got a no hassle deal done on something you like. I was lucky this last year and went through a work purchasing program for a new car, no hassle at all and all the incentives, it was for a new car though, not sure what I'm going to do for a used one the next time I want to purchase one.

The Celiac Husband said...

A funny story.

Car Sales men. Same everywhere.
Well done on the Lexus.

The Petcast said...

What do you mean, "I know I can be a terrible driver?!"

Chris R said...

Nice ride, nice story, interesting to see car dealers the same the world over... disheartening, but interesting.

Bay in TN said...

Pretty car, Steve!!! Congrats on your purchase. :D

Jeff in OKC said...

I think Lexi is the obvious chioce for a name for your beautiful new car. I have names for many, but not all of my fleet of crap-wagons. My naming method is all over the road. Some simple, such as "Green" (for my green GMC pickup). Some whimsical (the 98 Olds I bought from my father was "Daddy", and when I bought an 88 Olds from the Uncle of a friend, it became "Ucle Louis").
I think people take better care of vehicles that they name. It becomes more personal. I hope you name her soon and take unexplained drives, with a smile on your face the whole time.

mike_ch said...

Heh, well, you did express a love for Chrysler. And over the past twenty years or so as US car companies fall further and further behind into irrelevancy, pretty much the only reason to buy their brand is because they're American, or make things they don't sell in Japan (big trucks). Very few people who bought American felt that the product was any good, but they had to support the country (until they simply couldn't take the breakdowns anymore.)

Then throw in how so many "American cars" are actually built in Mexico or Canada, and how many "foreign brands" have opened factories in the US, and the old "Buy American" thing from the past 30 years becomes much more complicated.

In addition to not taking bailout money (whatever), Ford has been improving in durability ratings to just below Honda/Nissan levels. I am a Nissan fan myself (well, a public transport fan, but if I ever owned a car...), but if I did have to buy a US brand I'd presently go Ford.

Adam Dukes said...

Oh the joys of buying a car. My lease is up soon and I am not looking forward to this.

robertw477 said...

First...Chrysler has a terrible record on reliability. I dont think the Seabring has a good record at all. Lexus is more reliable however if you need repairs/parts you might be in for a big repair bill. Still better than Audi/BMW/Mercedes on part costs and hassles. I do all my negotiating on the phone for the most part. It really helps when you know what you want. I use technology. I am very good at that. If they wont talk price I tell them thanks and goodbye. The sconomy stinks and car sales stink. Not to mention how many people cant get a loan either.


Jeff in OKC said...

I have had a 2007 Dodge Magnum for over 2 years now and have had zero problems with it. I bought it used with about 25,000 miles on it. It has been the best car I've ever had.
And, no bullshit, I have had over 100 cars. I currently own over 20 cars, 10 of which are Mercedes-Benz (old enough to be old, not old enough to be classic).
I have spent my adult life repairing cars. Over 35,000 at last count. Primarily upper end cars. The reputation of my shop in Oklahoma City is outstanding. My shop may look like the Western Hotel and Casino, but the finished product is more like Caesars Palace.
The reason I say that is to make it clear that I know what I am talking about.
And my message is very clear-all new cars today are good! There is nothing that isn't light years ahead of anything made 25 years ago. Durability, effeciency, comfort, you name it. The difference between the best and worst new cars is, maybe, 10%. So when I read that American cars are bad, or irrevelant, I think the person saying it is biased and making superficial and under informend statements.