Car Shopping

I’m in the market for a new car. I don’t really need a new car or even a newer car. My current vehicle is 15 years old, but in near-new condition. I’m one of those people who takes meticulous care of my things, especially cars. I get all the maintenance done on time and I have broken things fixed as soon as they break. That last bit is the key. Leaving broken things unattended seems to age a car.

I’m a bit of a clean freak so I make sure my car is always spotless. My current vehicle lacks a new car shine and has a few paint chips, but is otherwise pretty much as I bought it new. Inside it is exactly as new, not even a smudge on the carpets. I’m a bit lucky there, I guess, but it really is quite remarkable how long a modern auto will last if properly maintained.

Even so, I figure I have one more new car in me before they take my keys away so I have been thinking about spoiling myself and getting a nice new ride. Here in the ghetto, having a nice ride is pretty much required if you want to be respected. I see guys who have never filed a tax form in their life rolling around in E-series Mercedes. Whenever I see one of the fellas riding around in a high end vehicle, I always imagine the scene at the dealership when L’Trelle pays cash in crumpled tens and twenties.

I have not settled on what I want or even if I want to go big or small. I’ve always liked the look of an the Audi, but I’m told they’re brutal to maintain. I know someone with an A6 and he tells me he spent close to a grand having the brakes done recently. My last brake job, which included brand new front rotors and an alignment, was $450. I think I’d have a stroke if I got a bill for brake pads that had a comma in it. Maybe the driving experience makes it all worth it, but I’m skeptical.

The other end of the spectrum for me is an SUV. I’ve always thought it would be fun to own a Jeep with a lift kit and big tires. Maybe do some off-roading. Every Jeep owner I’ve met loves the things. It’s probably a lifestyle thing that may or may not work for me, but it is something I’m considering. If not a Jeep then maybe a different model SUV. Too bad they stopped making the Hummer. That would work perfectly in my neighborhood. I’d be the top honky in the hood for sure.

A good way to understand how social institutions evolve, sometimes into dead-ends, is to spend time at car dealerships. If you were starting with a clean sheet of paper, designing a way to distribute and repair cars, the modern dealership system would not be the model. Instead, you would probably come up with something like CarMax or maybe Amazon Cars, where users spec their car on-line and it is delivered to their home.

This was not a possibility in the dawn of the automobile age in America. Instead, manufacturers sought out local businessmen to represent their brand in their part of the world. Even 50 years ago, America was a vast country with lots of local variation. People did business with people they knew and the local dealership model solved a problem for car makers. Buying a car from the guy who sponsored your kid’s little league team was the American thing to do.

Today, people prefer doing business with robots. Retail is dying all over the country as people would rather shop through their PC. I just bought a new bed frame through Amazon. It will be delivered next week. Rather than spend all weekend at furniture stores, I went on-line, relying on the reviews of strangers. The transaction required an hour or so of my time and I did not have to haggle with another human.

Go into a car dealership and it is an elaborate system of time wasting and confrontation. The car salesman immediately starts asking questions and trying to lead you to a car you are inclined to buy. He’s there to sell cars so he works to narrow your focus quickly, often making assumptions about people based on their age, sex, race and appearance. Car dealerships are the ultimate in profiling.

Of course, this system of selling cars evolved over a long period of time and the men who have millions committed to their dealerships are not about to let it be replaced by another system. In almost every state, dealers have bribed local pols into passing laws protecting them from alternative modes of selling new cars. Some states even have laws forbidding warranty work by independent repair shops, forcing you into dealership repair shops.

The car business is also an example of how automation can be minimized. The software systems used by car dealers are crude by modern standards. Even the Japanese and German dealers rely on clunky old software to manage the dealerships. There are still loads of people pushing paper around in order to buy and sell cars. That’s on top of the government bureaucracy for keeping track of your car and taxing it. The economy of spoons comes to mind.

Another thing that strikes me about the car buying experience is just how ugly modern cars have become in the last couple of decades. Walk around a car dealership and it is like being on the set of a film noir movie. The most popular colors are black, gray and white. The alternatives are muted, depressing metallics that strongly suggest the owner is suicidal. Interior colors range from black to gray. It’s as if all of our cars are designed by former East German bureaucrats.

Way back in the olden thymes when car makers first started using wind tunnels for design work, someone I knew at the time said eventually all cars will end up looking the same. That’s pretty much what has happened. To break out of this and get something funky and weird, you have to spend a king’s ransom. When I was a kid, cars said something about the owner. It was an extension of his personality so variety was everywhere.

That’s still true, except the guy driving is no longer a free man driving his own car. Instead, the car is leased to him and he is permitted to drive it by a gaggle of faceless bureaucrats, who spend their lives in committee meetings. That’s why our cars look like extras in a funeral procession. An optimistic people buy weird looking cars in bright colors. A society marking time leases gray sedans that go back to the dealer when they are done for.


40 thoughts on “Car Shopping

  1. Costco offers a car buying service that seems to get good reviews. My last vehicle was bought via the internet and I literally walked into the dealership, handed over a check and drove away. And that was in 2000.

  2. You don’t need a new car. Either refurbish your current classic car or buy some silver or ammo. I would buy silver, then buy a new blingmobile after the dollar goes belly up.

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  4. I work in an auto manufacturing facility. Management environment is horrible. Used to be I could count on one hand the the number of people between me (hourly) and the president. Now it takes two hands just to get out of the building. Speaking of colors, I have noticed the same thing over the years, that and the styling from manufacturer to manufacturer is almost indistinguishable. Technologically the car is far superior to the ‘good old days.’ Engines used to be built to thousandths of an inch now the tolerances are in the microns, 25 times tighter.

    • And I USED to be able to give a car a tune up, on the side of the road, with a match pack, spark plug wrench, (hey? Does that fit lug nuts? NO? Why NOT!) and a screwdriver.
      Oooooo. the check engine light went on? $1200+ at “the dealer” for those proprietary
      Progress indeed!

  5. If you hate new cars, don’t buy one.

    Go find yourself a nice looking and fairly recently done resto-mod and buy that instead.

    Since you are meticulous with your maintenance and enjoy shining on the car anyway, an older car with new running gear (that’s what a resto-mod is) will be just the ticket, and should last you for the rest of your life.

    It’ll also impress the hell out of your ghetto monkey neighbors (so much so that they’ll probably try to steal it, or failing that, set it on fire).

    A nicely done late 50’s to early 70’s Chevy, Ford, or Mopar resto-mod can be had these days for between $35k and $50k, which is right in line with what nice new cars cost, but without all the existential angst and a lot more horsepower.

    Gas is cheap, and the modern engines in these beasts will still get 20 mpg while making 600hp.

    Your biggest expense will be new rear tires every fall after you’ve spent all summer hooning. 😉

  6. “how ugly modern cars have become.” Amen! Amen! White, blue, gray, brown. We have become blandized, equalized, centrified, molded into sameness, in cars and houses and jobs. For noticeability, get an M35A2. Loud, seeable, and people will get out of your way.

  7. I grew up on my father’s used car lot, so I’ve never owned a new car. As Dad used to say, “You lose 1/3 of its value when you drive it off the lot.”

    For the last 15+ years I’ve been buying all my cars for the whole family on eBay. This allows for you to pick exactly what you want, usually from dozens of offers. Price is always lower than the locals. No sales tax if you buy out of state, although you do have to factor in shipping. Biggest bonus: You get to avoid the entire car lot experience.

  8. I still have my 2002 A4 – some dings & scratches, one of the seats has a crack in it, but I do plan on keeping it for a few more years. Car has 206K miles on odometer. With diligent maintenance, car was generally trouble free, except two sub-1K jobs ( chain cam tensioner broke & transmission was slipping). A lot of parts had to be replaced due their age – dry rot on rubber parts & some corrosion on electrical ones. A4 does not get much use now, since it has been replaced by a Golf GTI ( what a joy to drive!). I hear from a reliable source (indy shop which also services several BWM dealers), techs are required to find repairs worth one grand, or it would be held against them. Customers now know cars real values, interest rates are low, so dealers make money on repairs. My mother was told she needed $1100 brake job on her VW. Indy shop did it for about 400.

  9. I don’t know what your parking arrangements are on the edge of the hood, but if you can keep two cars there is another option. Keep your wheels until they take your keys and in the meantime hook up with the boys who restore classics and not so classics. If you want to pimp a ride occasionally there is nothing better than selecting one from the ’40’s or 50’s. I’ve a neighbor hobbyist who has restored a 1940 Ford with the jump seat, and, of all things, a 1963 Valiant– the ugliest car ever built IMO–for his wife’s daily driver. But somehow or another, spotless and gleaming in chrome and two tone green and white paint, it’s irresistible, and men honk and wave at her or stop to ask if she will sell.

    Then you gotcher ’55 Thunderbird all the way to a ’55 Caddy just in one year, and the hoodrats will be all be conceding
    the field to the white man.

    • That’s a possibility. Selling the current vehicle may be more hassle than it is worth. Having a spare for the winter opens up some options. I could then get something less practical.

      • I have a 2002 Astro van that runs great at 224,000 miles. It’s more useful as a backup/utility vehicle than the few hundred dollars someone would pay me. Same with my 2002 S10–recently spent $1250 fixing seals, clutch, radiator hoses, head gasket, rebuild rear brakes and emergency brake cable. Good for another 5-7 years hopefully. That’s about $250/year for 5 years. A vehicle is for reliable safe transportation…that’s it! $250/month barely gets a lease on a new car. I lose interest pretty quick when I see the price on new cars and trucks.

  10. Have you thought about going to one of those Hagarty (or the like) auctions on a Friday when they sell the lower-end restored classics?

    I’ve seen some pretty fine deals on great rides. They are on Velocity TV and NBCSN all the time so you can get the flavor.

  11. Fun post, ZMan. Not trying to brag, which would be pointless under a pseudonym anyway, but, for some time. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to maintain two cars for myself at any given time: a weekday car and a weekend car. My weekday car is an 08 Prius. Besides being all around terrific car, and a legitimate cost-saver if driven long enough, it’s also a veritable skeleton key to every hip clique in the book. Every in-group that right-of-center politics should surely exclude you from is easily infiltrated by that silent-running little shit. Pull up to the nearest Whole Foods in one of those things and bathe in the warmth of approving glances from all the granola moms in their Hillary yoga pants. Walk out of the store with an Iced Cumin Agave Coconut Water in a 100% recycled-material bottle and it’s like you’re Leonardo D’Fuckin Caprio. King of the damn world.

  12. If you know what car you want and what options the best plan is to use a service like True Car or any number of other similar services on the internet to determine dealer cost for the vehicle. Then simply email the fleet managers of multiple dealerships in your geographic area with your car request and the out-the-door price you are willing to pay. Do not give them your phone number.

    You should wait at least until the end of the quarter as all dealerships have quarterly sales quotas, and preferably until the end of the year–after Christmas. Dealerships get bonuses for meeting or exceeding annual sales targets and will frequently sell cars at a loss at the end of the year in order to make their yearly revenue quota to get the bonus.

    I use this technique and consistently get vehicles at dealer cost or below, and I’m in and out of the dealership in about an hour. No hassles.

    I buy old, well maintained, low-mileage cars (preferably Toyota or Lexus) like your current car for my kids. Wanna sell it?

  13. We have one vehicle, a 97 GMC Sierra stepside that I refuse to drive. I’ll be renting a car to make the long drive into work next week for a company meeting. Never have liked this pickup and I usually do like trucks. I did buy a 95 Mazda 626 from a dealer and drove it into the ground. Great car for long commutes and good in the snow.

    I had an Alfa Romeo back in the 70s. You needed two cars, the Alfa and one to drive while it was in the shop. It was fun. I’ve considered buying a second car, but doubt that I’d drive it enough to justify it.

    • I did. In ’67. GTA, cherry Red, black interior. Later on kids drove it to school and trashed it. Sat in the garage for years. Had it restored in ’96 (many $thousands), and shipped it to my 16 year-old grandson in Vegas (many more $thousands). He totaled it within a month. Oh well, such is life.

    • I second that. Finally broke down (bad choice of words I guess) and bought a 2014 GT hardtop a couple years ago, dark blue. The car is a blast to drive. Incredible power, handles well (the 2015’s handle even better).
      Driving it is never boring. Biggest issue is holding it back.

  14. Another Subaru idea….
    Other than living int the hood, my criteria were similar to yours when selecting a new ride. If you want to combine: Quirky + High performance + SUV + comfort + off-road capability, consider an Outback with a 6 cyl. (3.6R model)
    It will not get stuck in deep snow or mud (I do run it with snow tires in WI in winter). The thing could climb a phone pole. Looks reasonable enough for a PTA meeting, but still goofy in a way. Since it’s a subaru, your Lefty pals will approve. Your car-guy pals will fawn over the 3.6 Boxer six under the hood (don’t tell the leftys – they won’t notice anyway). Not unlike a Porsche 911 engine. Sounds a little like one when you wind it up. Driveline parts: front, center & rear differential are similar to the WRX racerboy Subarus — tough. Quiet at 75mph, killer stereo, sips the gas if you stay off it. I wasn’t sure when I got it, but I love it now.
    Important: do not get the 4cyl! weaker driveline, accelerates like a sears garden tractor, noisy at 75mph. You’ll be flogging the crap out of it to get out of your own way. Worst of all, for all that poor performance you get, maybe, 3 mpg more on the highway. No city bonus at all.
    For all you Coloradans, I took my outback on the “Tin Cup to St. Elmo” near Buena Vista, last September. Kept up with the Jeeps just fine. Only thing you probably shouldn’t do with an Outback is technical rock climbing. Only because there isn’t much of a skid plate on it, or true low range.
    For the money, it checks a lot of boxes. 3.6R is can be hard to find in some areas. Especially lefty areas. The beads & sandals people can practically feel the oceans rising from the vast CO2 emissions of a 6 cylinder.

  15. Used to fix my own cars, back in the day when you could open the hood and actually SEE the engine! No more of that chit , man! Now, there are no mechanics in dealerships, just technicians who replace “modules”. The engines come form the factory more or less sealed and you justdeal with that, learning to replace expensive modules, rather than repair the car. But I do like the fact that cars last much longer than they used to. When I got my first couple of cars, they were exhausted by the 60K mileage mark. Now, my latest, a Toyota RAV4, just feels “broken-in” at 80K and I expect it to last through at least 300K, and likely more.
    Check out the Toyota AWD products and get the biggest engine you can afford in whatever model fits your style. They all have more American content than the Detroit products and most are made in US plants anyway, thankfully not by UAW slackers operating under 20,000 pages of onerous union work rules—light bulb burned out? Shut down the line for a few hours, until a union electrician can replace the bulb!!! A client of mine (a car mechanic by trade) just bought his kid a Toyota truck with 110K miles, figuring it was good for at least another quarter million miles of driving.

    • Almost forgot: Bought my last two used, from private sellers, using a good, trusted mechanic to check them out for me. I will never buy from a dealer again. I may lease, but never again will I buy a new car.

  16. Another voice for Subaru, because of the reinforced frame thing:

    btw. silver colored cars are statistically least likely to be involved in accidents!

    And stay away from Teslas, it’s all hype, marketing and momentum.

    There is no magic smoke, no new cutting edge technology, it simply uses an array of 7000 off the shelf 3400mAh lithium ions cells, which look like slightly larger heavy duty AA batteries. The motor is nothing special as well, it’s a standard three-phase AC induction motor like from 100 years ago, virtually unchanged.

  17. Subaru BRZ if you want a sporty car. You will fit.

    If you are in the market for a not new car wait a few months. A fair number of 2 year lease cars will be coming to the lots.

  18. I have had a love affair with cars ever since I was 14 years old. I was in love with the boy next door who was always in the driveway working on his Chevy Super Sport. I quickly learned all about the gasoline engine and could fix anything….it was a lot of fun. When I was able to afford a kit car, my husband purchased a Shelby Cobra kit for me. I spent many hours tinkering in the garage. I love driving that around. People are actually nice to me when I do and people always want a picture! The big joke in our family is, it’s for sale….or you can trade your house for it…

  19. I too hate the car buying process. Bought the last one using True Car – so I knew the actual price before walking into the dealership. Did a test drive to make sure it was what I expected and that was it.

    I currently have an SUV which I have learned not to hate but will never love. When the kids clear out, I shall be treating myself to the latest Miata or Fiat equivalent before they kill roadsters and manual transmissions forever. If my wife wants to get another giant dog, she can drive an SUV or station wagon (hard to find theses days).

    • I don’t fit in a Miata. I’m not a giant, but the last time I tried to drive one, my head was above the windscreen. I kept imagining a stone flying just over the edge and hitting me in the forehead at highway speeds. It’s a shame as I love the small roadster. I had a Triumph as a teen. It was a POS, but a blast to drive.

      • I have sat my medium-sized body in the newest Miata and my head doesn’t come close to the top of the windshield. I hear they made the interior more spacious.

        • That’s a good possibility. My first and only Miata experience was the first generation. They are wider now and a little longer.

    • re: “before they kill roadsters and manual transmissions forever.”Drake

      On my 3rd Audi S4 since 2000. Keep them six years. Was at my dealer last week for the 45,000 mile service for my 2012 S4 and my salesman saw me and struck up a conversation. He asked if I planned to get a 2018 edition of the S4 in two years. He then said that if I did I could not get a manual 6 speed any longer as it was automatics for Audis now, no exceptions. As to driving a S4, get some track time and have a trained driver do some laps with you as a passenger. The Audi four wheel drive is worth trying especially in wet track conditions as one’s control envelope is increased over two wheel drive vehicles.

      • Shopping for a mid-sized sedan with a manual transmission we have 3 choices. BMW – have one, don’t want to spend the money on another one. Mazda 6, and Honda Accord Sport. Those are the choices assuming the dealer can find one with a stick. We wound up with the bimmer because the Saab dealer couldn’t locate one before they folded.

        • @Drakr
          My first car was a three cylinder, two stroke SAAB that I bought in Europe and delivered to me in New Haven with free shipping as it was used (by me for at least 1000 km)–what a deal in 1967. Total cost was $1,300.00. Drove the car for 125,000 miles. Next car was another SAAB which I kept nearly 15 years till it reached 125,000 miles.
          Dan Kurt

          • I really liked our 9-3 Wagon. 2005 I think. Fun and fast and quirky. The most comfortable car seats I’ve ever sat in.

            Destroyed in a highway pile up. Still hold a grudge against GM for running them out of business.

          • Did you change the oil?
            Current Saab daily driver, ’91 Saab , 130,000mi. Expecting another
            100,000, or “turn in the keys”, which ever comes first.

        • When I went to replace my 2007 Accord- 5 speed, leather, XM radio, I found I could not get what I wanted- I’d I got a 5 speed, no leather, no XM! Frustrations. I wound up with a 2014 Ford Fusion- 6 speed, XM but no leather. It was one of two manual Fusions n the Commonwealth of MA. And I was told there would be no more six speeds starting in 2015. The Volvo dealer told me that they do not import a manual! Oh well, driverless vehicles will make this all moot before long.

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