Friday, May 4, 2012

buy a car for the non-car enthusiast

buying a car is like shopping for groceries or clothes...the question is do you really need it? my husband resistant to taking the bus and we have zero cars, so we needed at least one.  we have driven enough cars and judged our friends' cars enough to know just enough car for the next 7 years = 4 doors, fuel economy, reliability, decent acceleration and a trunk.  once our price point was set (ie. less than my brother spent), the cars seem to line themselves up - car companies do like to compete with each other.  we also bought a copy of consumer reports because this month's was the best and worst new cars of 2012.

they're all the same to me
a quick perusal of my consumer reports, and at the mid-range price we've set, all cars are the same.  they all have four doors, drive straight, consume gas (because let's be honest, hybrids still runs on gas) and have an option to make a sedan trunk into a hatchback.  doesn't it make sense that when one car company finds commercial success with a particular model, other companies will try to replicate it (with small detail changes)?  nobody is really re-inventing the wheel, and even as a child,  i didn't like the modern sleek designs when i first saw at the auto show at the javits center twenty years ago. 

so what kind of car?  i try not to be a brand whore but i like european cars.  german = luxurious interiors at the cost of electronics reliability (and i'm not talking about the stereo).  germanesque + reliability = lexus.  i was able to find a 2011 lexus ct 200h but despite it's sleek hybrid appeal, the narrowness of the interior made me feel like a small man with a giant ego.  plus price hunting didn't help because of high demand by a large supply of smallish male lawyers in the tri-state area.  so despite my devotion to lexus and their reputation for outstanding customer service (a service associate in santa monica replaced my sister's rx300 transmission for free.  including labor and parts.  that's $7k.  on a car 2 years out of warranty.  because he made a few phone calls to corporate), i thought i'd check out their crunchy granola sister's prius.   

the king of hybrids
the problem with priuses/prii is that they are like shopping for paper towels.  it takes like fifteen minutes of standing around in the aisle trying to compare prints, quantity, size, and '#-ply' of paper towel just to figure out which is the cheapest paper towel to not waste.  at this point, we had narrowed our search to deal breakers - we needed a sun roof and leather.  i was willing to compromise on power everything: less acceleration, manual seat adjustment (annoying because we are two drivers sharing one car and i'm not the same height as my husband).  the prius v was an obvious no because i am not going to drive a minivan until i have three large children.  the prius c was tempting because it starts at under $20k but even in a non-electric hue, i felt like a teenage boy driving a scion...fully loaded comes in over $25k, has psychedelic blue lighting, stiff faux leather...and makes me feel like a mom borrowing her son's car. 

at this point, i had corned myself into the prius which only comes in 'leatherette' (ie. SofTex) in the fourth generation - basically two levels up from the basic/rental car model.  the lovely new country toyota dealership in westport claims they spearheaded the leatherette movement, but they were willing to install leather seats into a 2011 (at the fair price of $1500).  sadly, they could not cut a sun roof int a car...and it wouldn't be the cool moon roof that solar powers your a/c (only available in 2012 models - third and fourth generation, but why not fifth?  maybe because at that point you are paying $35k for a prius!).  i may have ended up with a 2011 with leather seats from a kit and no sun roof because i hate the flip screen on the 2012 prius mainly because yes, i still listen to cd's and want to be able to insert them into the front of my stereo flawlessly for my 1990's listening pleasureAND i don't like rotating/breakable/flipping parts unless we are talking about my cell phone c. 2002 - aka the text machine.

sadly, my simplistic 2011 prius without nav or fuss was gone...and to be honest, i am not a fan of the sky reflecting sea glass green hue.  not a fan of driving a car people can't see coming even though this is based on anecdotal advice of a 4'11" late teenage female asian driver who had her honda prelude totaled no less than 7 times...once almost by my mother.  being an asian female driver, i don't trust other drivers.  i want good brakes or at least the ability to steer out of an accident. 

used vs. new
since the prii post-2011 were not pricing out well, we dove into the bottom of the barrel and tried a used prius with moderate mileage - but even the at under $20k, the used models didn't give me the feeling of bang for my buck...the interior just feels used (by an army of small kicking children).

so why fixate on a prius when a used car is still a green choice?  friends have told me to look at a used acura or audi; my mind reminisces about having a used lexus rx300 or rx350h; my eyes are starting to eye the camry xle hybrid.  but having set my mind on a price range, it is easy to compare and eliminate -  i can get all of the above (except the camry xle) but they are at the high end of my range, have high mileage, and are outside of warranty.  and while a used luxury car means someone else has already eaten the depreciation, repairs will be more expensive unless i can stick comparable honda/vw/toyota parts in.

beep beep, it's love buy a nicer used car from a different dealership.
find a vehicle you love at first sight.  they are luxury goods - the value is not really for the parts (i'm pretty confident i could build a car if i had a guide with pictures), but in the brand reputation and image.  so when the cars seem to be interchangeable, and shopping for them started feeling like buying socks, we found our vw gti...and there was nothing to complain about. 

buyers remorse
there's no coupons or price adjustments with cars - make sure before you deposit that you have already negotiated the price.  and i was warned that 'sales events' are run by third parties to generate revenue and not necessarily the best deal.  since we were buying a  non-hassle priced car, we could only try to negotiate on the dealer's conveyance fee - which is barred by statute in most states.  in our exploration of toyota dealerships in ct, they give freebies (ex. car washes for life, loaners, oil changes) to add a perception of value for the fee.

we paid a premium on our fee because we bought it from an affluent town; like shopping for vintage clothes, if something is truly one of a kind and you want it, grab it.  the seller has already decided how much they want for it and are not going to negotiate much.  and you can use the internet to see if you can find it somewhere else, but my searches on ebay, carfax, and autofinder only justified my choice - it was the best price for a comparable car, that vw with autobahn package are few and far between, lowest mileage, and had been purchased most recently (ie. more time on the manufacturer's warranty).  the carfax also verified that it was a single owner used car and i was able to track the depreciation by looking at different models through kelley blue book value or edmonds.

finally to complete my due diligence (this is a lot of money), i go to the library and look at 2011 consumer reports - i want to read about my car model and find the truth to these rumblings of unreliability i hear about vw!  the vw gti was re-designed in 2010 which affects re-sale value, but there's no clear reliability data on a car that's less than 3 years old.  i've stuck a timing belt and new transmission into a luxury car with a 50/50 success rate - the audi a6 lasted another 2 years, the lexus rx300 is supposed to be good for another 10 years/80k miles.  these reliability issues are getting me down - enter the subaru.

how long is this really going to last me
there's nothing like looking at a three-pack of undershirts at costco to put things into perspective.  it's a safe purchase - all three will probably fit exactly the same, they're cheap, everyone's grabbing them...and at the end of the day, it's just an undershirt that you're going to treat like garbage in two years.  like subarus!   so after my husband saw one at the gas station (and made me ask the mommy driving it if she liked it), we test drove the 2012 subaru impreza, consumer reports car of the year - but in hatchback version.  the super relaxed sales staff (he let us test drive it alone.  i may have stopped to run an errand - i am checking for practicality!), the upscale/mercedes-esque camelia red peal hue, and awd at that mpg and price were tempting.  but the overall feel of the leather interior and dashboard - plus i hit my head on the side of the car TWICE - was 'affordable'.  and sadly, the 3 month waitlist didn't create demand for me - remember they're all the same to me and having a car put into production for me didn't seem as green as buying a used car with decent fuel economy.

it had been a fun experience shopping for a prius and settling on a vw gti, and then comparing it to a subaru impreza (and not it's sporty sister the brz3).  the prius reminded me that i'm not too old to enjoy driving, and i didn't need to get into the brz to know i don't want it (tokyo drift much?).  so whether i'll regret not having awd when i'm trapped at the bottom of my driveway, the gti's desirability for right now make it worth the risk - a whole summer of sun roof and easy city parking (it's 8" shorter than an impreza).  and with a strong and stable resale value, maybe next year i can get a used 2012 impreza even if i don't have to trade my gti in to someone who wants to grow up from a brz3.  the vw gti is the perfect car to pick up my things (ie. groceries, family, teddy bears with places to go) and then zoom them home...pleasurably.       

i guess my days of "making friends" on the bus are over.

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