How I bought a new car and how not to sell one


I went car shopping earlier this month. My 2000 Honda Odyssey minivan was faltering with a clunky transmission, so I decided I wanted a new car. It was time for an upgrade. The Odyssey has a cassette player with a four-speaker system. It has power locks but no remote operation. So first stop was the Hyundai dealer in El Monte. A salesman named Wu introduced himself, and I expressed my interest in the 2012 Elantra GLS. Wu led me toward a video screen, saying, “It’s our best-selling car, and we don’t have any on the lot right now.” Having taken three steps with him to this point, I pivoted and headed for the door. Wu stayed in hot pursuit, pointing out a “pre-owned” 2011 Elantra GLS on the lot. “It’s the same body,” he protested. I marched toward the minivan. Last thing I heard was, “What about a Sonata?”

Next I went to the Subaru-Mazda dealership. First out to spring upon me was a kid who might have said his name is Jason and wore a black tie over a black shirt. I am not too likely to buy a car from a Goth bon vivant. He said there were no 2012 Imprezas on the lot; they typically don’t arrived till later in the fall. I dismissed him but then wandered over to look at the Mazda3. After a while, a saleswoman named Cindy, who was missing an eye tooth, showed up and said Jason had sent her. I told her the Mazda3 sedans struck me as hideous, while the sporty hatchbacks are pricey. The cars with the new direct-injection engine hadn’t come in yet. She maneuvered me back to the Subaru side to look at the remaining 2011 Imprezas, which only get 20/26 mpg. (The Odyssey got 18/25 mpg.) I pointed out the poor fuel efficiency and that all-wheel drive is useless to me. Reading since then Ezra Dyer’s insightful review of the all-new ’12 Impreza in the December issue of Automobile, I’m sure glad I got out of there. The old models are completely outmoded.

Over at Honda, within seconds of our meeting, a tiny Chinese saleswoman named Amy inquired if I’d be trading in a vehicle, and when I pointed to the Odyssey, she asked what it was. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying anything if you don’t know whether the Accord with five-speed manual transmission is stocked or a special-order, if you don’t know an Odyssey when you see one, and particularly if you don’t really speak English. Besides which, although I’ve spent 23 of the last 25 years in Hondas, the brand now offers nothing that seriously interests me.

So I drove 18 miles to Glendale. Eric Tingwall, Automobile’s associate editor back in Ann Arbor, had suggested a Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. I was sitting in the Odyssey outside Macy’s when we spoke, and hearing him say “Volkswagen” prompted me to blurt out, “Nah!” But later I searched online and found one with a five-speed; it was in stock at New Century Volkswagen. I proceeded south on Brand Avenue through downtown Glendale with its big, impressive buildings. At times on Brand you can see directly to downtown Los Angeles, so there’s a real sense of momentousness. There’s also a whole bunch of car dealers just south of the downtown. I almost stopped at the Hyundai store because they actually had an Elantra GLS parked out front. But I persisted and soon walked in through the front door at New Century. Two men were leaning against a car. One had several days’ growth of beard and looked like a member of the Russian mafia; I decided he was a down-on-his-luck customer waiting to receive news that his 1988 Scirocco with 317,243 miles could in fact be repaired with paper clips and rubber bands in order to keep it on the road for three more months.

So I met the eyes of the other fellow, a slender young man in a long blue coat, who introduced himself as Chris. We found the white Jetta SportWagen S at the very back of the lot. Chris knew the car’s features, reciting the list of them and demonstrating several key ones. And he mentioned his own street-performance-modified GTI. I mentioned my apprehension about VW due to its history of low scores on initial-quality surveys. The first thing I noted upon opening the driver’s door is that it stayed put when I stopped it at the first detent, unlike the Odyssey’s door, which always flops closed again, an annoying characteristic when you’re leaning back into the cabin in order to fetch the wallet or phone you’ve forgotten. I also commented on the positive action of the handbrake: click, click, click. And the controlled opening of the glovebox door. When raising the hood, he pointed out the gas-filled struts that hold it up, instead of the typical Japanese car’s prop rod. These little things sure heighten the perception of quality.

We took a test drive. I liked the car. It’s nice. And there’s some built-in value with heated, power-adjustable front seats and a few other things. When we returned, he looked at the Odyssey; I’d already taken it to CarMax for an offer, and the deficiencies were obvious; Odyssey transmissions are renowned for their laxity after a certain point. He said the dealership would wholesale the van at auction. Then he led me back into the showroom, mentioning along the way that he’d worked here five years, which is impressive given the brutal nature of car sales. He spoke to his used-car manager and gave me an approximate figure on the trade, which was sixty-percent better than stingy CarMax did.

That was on a Saturday morning. I told Chris I’d give him a call on Monday afternoon, after I’d had a chance to look into the matter of how to pay for a car. Indeed, around midafternoon on Monday, I rang up and got him on the phone. He didn’t remember me and said he had lots of clients. This irked me some, especially after he’d seemed genuinely interested in my background. But I returned to see him, and we made the deal. Unlike the guy who sold me the Honda years ago, and the guys who delivered my new refrigerator last month, Chris did not spread cheese all over the experience by beseeching me for a perfect score on the satisfaction survey that would be coming my way; in fact, he didn’t even mention such a thing. And so far, none has come.

One thing I wanted to salvage from the Odyssey was the license plate holder that memorializes my participation in the 2004 Alcan Winter Rally. I unscrewed it from the back of the minivan, but a pair of zip ties kept the license plate fastened to the holder. Chris took a single-edge razor blade from a mechanic’s workstation and slashed at one of the zip ties; following through with this stroke away from his body, he cut the palm of his left hand. So I had drawn blood during the transaction!

So far, what I’ve enjoyed most about the Jetta is the hands-free, voice-activated calling via Bluetooth. And with eight speakers, the stereo sound is hugely improved from the Odyssey. I’ve actually used the seat heater on two of the four occasions I’ve driven the car in the nine days since it came home. After all, as one of my friends admonished when I was getting rid of some winter clothing, the temperature does drop into the thirties! And as Chris asserted, it’s the fastest way to warm up inside the car.

Naturally, I’ve heard various reactions in response to my new car. Everybody has an opinion. For example, whether I should or shouldn’t have purchased an extended warranty. (I did.) The most ridiculous comment I’ve heard so far came from someone I met at the L.A. Auto Show: Why didn’t I spend half the amount of the Jetta’s sticker price and get a nine-year-old AMG Mercedes off eBay? Why, this fellow said, he’d just bought one for his wife. Three hundred horsepower. “Good” fuel efficiency. You don’t lose all that money on depreciation. If there are problems with the car, you can spend another twenty percent to sort them out. I hemmed and hawed before saying, “I guess you’re right.” Instead of revealing what I really thought: “Are you fucking nuts?”

Later I read an auto shop manager’s letter to Automobile: “When I see customers come into the shop in older VWs, Bimmers, Benzes, or Audis that they just purchased, I feel so sorry for them. I can foresee the headaches and check-engine lights in their future, right through their gleaming smiles.” Hmmm. Sounds as though I should trade the Jetta at the end of the extended warranty. Besides, I like the latest features.

Oh, the Russian mafia dude turned out to be a salesman.

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