SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Once I saw a commercial in which a salesman said shopping for a new car should be a no-hassle, stress-free experience.
Yeah, I laughed too.
For most people, the three biggest investments they ever make will be in a house, a car, and a second mortgage to pay for their divorce. I now have all three. Yay, me! It’s the hat trick of debt!
The old Nissan, much as I loved it, wasn’t reliable enough to depend on as our only car anymore. The rust I can live with, but I draw the line at seeing more flashing red lights on the dashboard than in the rearview mirror.
Also, there are three adults in my household, and only one car. I’d hear my pager go off for a fire, but have no way to get to the fire station. In the old days, when the station was a block from my house, feet provided all the transportation I needed. Now it’s three quarters of a mile away, and while I’ve walked to it many times, getting there in time to answer a call would leave me in no condition to actually help.
Eventually, I was left with a choice of what to do with my money: Buy another car or reroof the house, which has been shedding shingles the way my head sheds hair. The answer was easier than you might think: I can use plastic and buckets to handle the roof, but even a plastic sail wasn’t likely to get me far without wheels.
I’m not a big fan of shopping. In fact, I didn’t want a new car; I wanted my old car – just newer. But one day I snapped, and the next thing you know, we were cruising around car lots in the dead of night.
Unlike in horror movies, when car shopping it’s during the day that the scary people come out. That’s especially true now, when auto dealers are in rough times and descend on customers like a pack of wolves on an injured deer. They’re just doing their jobs, but I’ve got enough pressure without someone hovering over me with a stack of forms and a fake smile.
It was kind of fun stalking around at midnight, perusing cars without crowds or pressure. It was a bit less fun going on the internet, where I spent hours discovering that dealership websites can make clunkers look very nice.
Sooner or later, you have to get behind the wheel. I narrowed it down by making the deliberate choice of an American made car, although, since my wallet had narrowed it down to a used car, I wasn’t really helping out the auto industry much.
(This all happened before the Cash for Clunkers program came along. My Nissan wouldn’t have qualified, anyway – it’s a clunker that gets 32 mpg.)
The first salesman we encountered was the high pressure type who pretended he wasn’t the high pressure type. I don’t like being pressured. It turns me into a grumpy person who makes excuses, then goes to a different dealership. I may not buy a car based on who’s selling it, but I definitely will not buy a car based on who’s selling it.
The second salesman (well, woman) we encountered was – how can I put this? – motherly. I mean that in a good way, with the whole small town/knows the same people/smile that isn’t painted on kind of attitude. But did they have a car?
Boy, they sure did. A new Ford Mustang, tricked out, the right paint job, ready to zoom off down the road. Now, did they have a car we could afford?
Turns out they had that, too, in the form of a Ford Focus. No, it’s not a sporty little thing that attracts gasps of awe, but it’s also not my mom’s car, and did I mention the money part?
We took it for a test drive and stopped by to see my brother, who got all the mechanical ability in our generation. It checked out with him. It was clean, rust free, drove like a dream, had a CD player and air conditioning, and did not have power windows.
I like power windows – when they’re working. But the driver’s window on my Nissan stopped working years ago, and I can’t begin to tell you what a pain that is. At least a non-powered window would be affordable to repair.
So we drove happily back toward the dealership, and since we were on a straight stretch of road I reached up to hit the cruise control -- which wasn’t there.
“So,” I said to the sales lady, “Do you have a car exactly like this, only with cruise control?”
Turns out she did. That’s service for you.
Okay, it wasn’t exactly the same. The other Focus was a year older, had half as many miles on it, was “tundra” (Um, light green) instead of Burgundy, and had power windows as well as cruise control. While test driving it I hit the gas, expecting it to have roughly the same acceleration rate as my Nissan.
Two miles later, across the county line, I managed to get it stopped. “If this engine is a four cylinder,” I told my girlfriend, “I’ll eat my shorts.”
They didn’t taste all that bad, freshly laundered and with a touch of salt.
My bank signed the loan, apparently reasoning was that if they had to repo it, all they’d have to do is walk across the street. Three hundred dollars later, I had plates, insurance, and payments stretching as far as the eye can see.
Oh, and my comment about how it’s not your mom’s car? I realized later that my mother had also bought a Ford Focus – from the same dealership.
But I don’t care. My new car may be three years old, but it’s new to me, and I like it. It’ll be a reliable way to reach the third job I’ll be working to pay for it.