Friday, December 20, 2013

COLUMN: New Car 3: Car Hard With A Vengeance

This sure has been one educational month.

If you're a regular reader of this column, you know that I've spent the better part of the past four weeks shopping around for a new car. I started losing trust in my trusty Beetle after it's seventh trip to the mechanic this year, and the car that once was my trademark now is long gone, presumably to a farm where it has plenty of room to roam and make fahrvergnugen all the live-long day.

Finding a new car was a learning experience. I got schooled on the performance power of more than a dozen different compact cars in my price range. I learned about navigation systems, eco-boosting, tire sizes and warranty plans. I confirmed that Sirius/XM still has the "1st Wave" channel (huzzah!).

But most important, I learned that I never ever ever could be a car salesman.

It's not that I'm incapable of sales. In fact, in my ongoing attempt to have the world's most confusing job description ever, I actually spend most of my work week here at the paper selling ad space. But here's the thing about ads: They have fixed prices. An ad that's X size and runs for X number of days equals X dollars. Sure, I can tell you about different packages and schedules and specials that give you the best possible return on your investment, but for the most part, the price is the price is the price. There's little room to wheel and deal.

Car selling appears to be a slightly different beast. Sure, there's the sticker price. But then there are rebates and incentives and discounts and options you can just casually throw in or toss out. There are license fees and title fees and doc fees. Or maybe it's dock fees. I honestly don't know if I've just paid for documents or a warehouse dock. I just know I paid it. In other words, there's math -- and waaaay too much of it for my comfort.

Counting my new ride, I've now owned three cars in my life. The first was blessedly a graduation present from the best parents on the planet. I didn't have any say in it; I just came home one day and presto, there was my car, and much hugging commenced. The second was my Beetle, a purchase I actively was involved in. I'm pretty sure my activity in said purchase was this: "I wanna Beetle I wanna Beetle gimme gimme gimme Beetle now please yes."

I'm absolutely positive that when I bought that car I had to sign the usual barrage of important paperwork, but I don't remember ANY of that. I was on the waiting list for that Bug for so long that when it finally showed up, I would have signed ANYTHING to get it. I still live in fear of the possibility that the former Williams Volkswagen just might own my soul when I die. I had no clue what I was doing. Sign this? Sure. Sign that? You bet ... just fork over the keys, buddy.

This time, though, I wanted to at least pretend that I am a mature, focused and responsible car shopper -- and that meant trying the patience of every dealer I visited and making salespeople explain in layman's terms what every option and dollar amount represented. In other words, I was the kind of customer that I'd hate.

At some point during this process, I discovered a really odd thing about auto sales. Today's car salesperson appears to have two distinct jobs: 1. Convincing you that the car you're looking at is the ideal choice for all of your automotive needs, but then 2. Convincing you that your car needs tons of extra stuff in order for it to survive the nightmare of your ownership.

While I was test-driving my future car, my salesguy told me all about its durable, high-quality, stain-resistant leather seats. But once I bought the car, the next step was telling me that I needed those durable, high-quality, stain-resistant leather seats treated with a stain repellent. I was told my car will keep its value for a super long time because of its fine quality, but then I was told that I need to buy something called "gap insurance" because of how much value the car loses once you drive it off the lot.

I was told my car is super-resistant to rust, then was told I need to rust-proof it. I was told that my car has one of the best warranties in the business and then was encouraged to buy an extended warranty. Notice a pattern?

None of this is a complaint about car dealers new OR used. It's just the nature of their business. In a way, it's similar to how we sell ads. No matter what you buy, we're going to do our best to get it out to our many readers -- but if you invest a little more and put some boldface or color on that ad, you'll end up with better results. The same goes for cars.

But for a novice like me, it's a little much to digest. Thankfully, I still have a few days to decide what to do. In my wildest dreams, I never once thought I'd be spending my down time researching the pros and cons of rust-proofing, but that's been my mission this week: to become a super well-informed car shopper, if for no other reason than to never have to put these poor salespeople through my barrage of inane questions again.

The best news is that once I firm up a decision on these add-ons, my job will be done. I'll be the owner of a surprisingly affordable car that I adore. Well, technically a credit union will be the owner, but it is going to graciously allow me the privilege of driving the car for the next 60 or so months, as long as I fulfill my end of the deal.

That's good -- it'll take at least that long for the car dealers of the Quad-Cities to forget how annoying I've been.

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