American life has its rituals. Some are small. Some are big. Some mark a transition from one age to the next. Some are trials by fire, ordeals designed to break us and leave us whimpering, lying in pools of our own sweat and tears.
Buying a car is one such trial.
I don’t like buying cars. Buying a used car, I worry about what’s wrong with it. Buying a new car, I worry about how much more it costs than a used one. In addition, I don’t like spending large chunks of money, so I do it as infrequently as possible.
The last time I bought a car was in 1993. Yesterday, I traded in that car (a 1993 Geo Storm) on a new 2014 Mazda3. I hope this car lasts twenty years, too, because I really, really don’t want to go through another “purchase experience” like yesterday’s.
We always do our homework before large purchases, so for the past couple weeks we’ve been establishing our criteria (mileage, reliability, cost-of-ownership, cargo space, etc.), analyzing the Consumer Reports ratings and Edmunds reviews. By last weekend, we had narrowed our choices down to two models from three different brands and ranked them from our first choice to our last. The first two on our list were both Mazdas: the Mazda3 Touring (a hatchback) and the Mazda CX-5 (a smallish SUV/crossover).
Well-meaning friends gave us all sorts of urban-myth advice on how to get the best possible deal: Don’t buy a car built on a Monday! Go at the end of the month when their quota is low! As for the “reserve price!” (as if by speaking those words, we would “name the devil” and rendering him powerless.) Some, all, or none of this may have made a difference, but my method has always been much simpler: Know what is a fair price and what isn’t.
But all of this was not difficult. It was merely preparation for the challenges that lay ahead.
We had yet to step into the fire.
The new-car-buying-process is designed to wear you down without your realizing it is happening. Its sole intention is to render you insensible to the damage you are suffering until, at the end, you have no choice but to collapse in abject surrender.
We arrived at the dealership on a warm-cool day. Birds sang in the cedars. Overhead, sunshine peeked around clouds that tumbled toward the horizon.
A cheerful man emerged from the building with a jaunty step. He greeted us warmly, as old friends. Cheerful Man spoke to us earnestly for a few minutes, comprehending our desire to test drive a vehicle. He nodded and showed us a few models, then brought us inside so he could “set things in motion.”
Then Cheerful Man disappeared.
About forty-five minutes later, when we were sure we had been forgotten, he reemerged, smiling, still cheerful. He took some pertinent data from us…
…and disappeared again.
Somewhere in the second hour, while searching for the “dealer plate” to put on the car, Cheerful Man was replaced by an older, less exuberant man with a hang-dog expression and a raggedy cough. He did not move as fast as Cheerful Man. This did not thrill me. Clouds began to gather. There followed much xeroxing of licenses/proof of insurances and time-wasting discussions of model specifications, until the dealer plate was found (I could have ransacked the place solo and found it faster). Finally, we were able to take the car out for a drive.
Unfortunately, by this time, the fine day we’d arrived with had turned to downpouring drear. Welcome to Seattle.
No worries, I told myself, still upbeat and hopeful. How better to test the handling on a new car than taking it out in a monsoon? We set out, and I put the car through the paces–off-the-line starts, clover-leaf corkscrews, hill-climbs, quick stops–and we were well-pleased with the car’s performance. We even took it home to make sure it would fit in the garage. All was good.
We returned and told Hangdog Man yes, let’s do it. We want the blue one.
Forty-five minutes later, we had negotiated a base price and a trade-in value for our old 1993 Geo Storm. Hangdog Man disappeared to “set things in motion.”
Forty-five minutes after that, bad news arrived: the blue one was already sold and another one wouldn’t come off the assembly line for three months. We were displeased. We were ready to leave. Hangdog Man suggested a red one and, when the rain let up a bit and the light improved, we took a look and decided the red was actually rather nice. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a red one in the model we wanted, not on the lot, anyway.
Forty-five minutes later, a red one was found. Now we could enter into the heart of the ordeal: Finance. Hangdog Man wanted to go home for the day, so he turned us back over to Cheerful Man (he had resurfaced sometime during the “bad news” period). Cheerful Man told us that Finance was just finishing up with another customer and would be with us shortly.
“Shortly” turned out to be…you guessed it…forty-five minutes.
Cheerful Man introduced us to Loquacious Man, who amazed us with his ability to search through drawers of hanging folders filled with myriad forms. He impressed us with his technique of tapping keys without looking at the screen. We were bowled over by his talent for telling a story while slowly entering each letter of my last name, individually, into a computerized form using only one finger.
To say he was inefficient does not do the job. He was stultifyingly inefficient. His inefficiency was actually infectious, making us less efficient simply by being near him. We sat there for two hours watching this man search for forms, enter data, print forms (occasionally round-filing them after printing them), only to pick up new forms. We were tired. We were hungry. We had been at the dealership for five hours.
And then he hit us with numbers.
Blinking through my blood-sugar deprivation, struggling to conceptualize the difference between bumper-to-bumper warranties, power-train-only repairs, and comprehensive wear-and-tear service contracts, I noticed that my wife’s face had gone slack. She had lost the will to live somewhere in the fourth hour of our ordeal. I stared blearily at payment options–1.99%, 2.99%, 60 months, 72 months, Gap insurance–and began to despair.
We didn’t have much time. I had to get us out of there. I had to save my wife, save us both if I could. Loquacious Man kept smiling and pulling out forms, printing them, and throwing them away, all the while telling us of his beloved Saab 9000, and why he liked Waterman pens more than Montblancs.
Then he delivered the coup de grâce.
He pulled out a form that was literally two feet long, picked up his pen, and began to fill it out by hand.
I succumbed. Yes. Yes. Yes. We’ll take it all. Just let us leave. Please. Spare us our lives from this monstrosity!
We escaped in Hour Six, leaving Loquacious Man behind to print up and throw away a few more forms, while Cheerful Man kindly unlocked the doors to let us go home.
It did not kill us, but are we stronger? I’m not sure.