Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Car shopping

This winter in Michigan was so hard even the cars died--or so did my beloved blue Mazda3 that I'd bought with 1 year and 20,000 miles on it ten years ago in NJ.  It was nearly the perfect car, and it had been the perfect car-buying experience: I found it online, test-drove it, liked it, made a low but firm offer, and traded in my Nissan Sentra SE-R for it all in one fell swoop.  I knew I was lucky to find a stick shift in a nice color with reasonable options in mint condition--even as I was driving it, the salesman was incredulous: "You understand this car is a manual?"  When they tried to play games with the price, I said, "Well, I don't have to buy a car today," which was true--my little Nissan was old and a bit beat-up, but it was fun as hell, and my favorite color (red) to boot--and eventually they caved.  Braving the NJ DMV to title and register a not-quite-new car knowing I would just have to do it all over again a few days later in MI wasn't fun,  but the DMV was light-years ahead of the Ellis Island-like purgatory I remembered from high school.  At the risk of playing misery poker, I have to stop Michiganders every time they complain about the DMV--or "Secretary of State," which are clean, well-lit places staffed by friendly, helpful people.  When Kurtz mutters "The horror, the horror!" he could well be talking about the NJ DMV of yore, where they had a line you had to wait in just to figure out which line to wait in.

Can a car have a nice ass?
Reminiscent of a Beetle or 911: curves in all the right places.
The perfect blue:
unmistakable even buried.
Easy to clean.
Bye-bye, baby!
I've been in a kind of mourning ever since late January, when Li'l Blue went to automotive heaven after abruptly running out of oil, locking up the engine for good.  My mechanic blamed the "oil-sending device," some mysterious mechanism deep within the engine, but I wondered if the drip-pan had ruptured on some super-frozen ice protruding from the road: there was enough oil spilled to seep through the snow in the driveway--by March a substantial stain was visible--and this was the Polar Vortex, after all.  I would need a new engine for more than $3000--almost exactly the Blue Book value.  No 10-year-old car is worth that.
MINI Cooper S "Hardtop":
I wish they all could be British Racing Green...
MINI Countryman:
A scaled-down Honda Element?
Friday I finally bit the bullet and started going for test drives.  Fortunately, the salesmen haven't been nearly as slimy as I feared.  I started at the MINI dealer, where a friendly, low-key, Lebanese-looking fellow let me take out both the four-door "Countryman" and two-dar original "Hardtop" by myself.  At the end he gave me a bottle of water, offered to let me come back and drive some more anytime, and let me go on my way without any pressure whatsoever.  Classy!  But I was surprised by how little I was taken with the cars.  They’re undeniably zippy, and reasonably roomy, but they felt cheap, which is odd given that they’re made by BMW.  Little things like turn signals not moving as smoothly as I’ve come to expect, radio knobs being too small and hard to turn, dash and other materials being too rubbery or plasticky.  And the newest ones are moving away from some of the throwbacks to the original Mini, like a center-mounted speedometer, in favor—like frightfully many cars now—of a giant digital “infotainment” display in its place.  More intangibly, they’re just silly, like giant toys.  Some details are endearing, like metal pedals, but most seem to be trying much too hard for the “go-kart” feel their owners for some reason crave: very stiff ride, jumpy steering, light, rubbery clutch, arcade game-like gearshift.  They did drive very well: super-grippy around corners and able to pull or pass in all six gears.  But the real winner of the visit was a vintage Morris Mini they had, with an elegantly simple dashboard, and matching pistachio interior and exterior, the likes of which you can't get today at any price.
Original Mini interior:
How far we've fallen since the '60s...

Today I hit the Fiat dealer.  I don't know how Fiat is doing elsewhere, but in my super-affluent and car-crazed zip code, they're the next big thing--two new dealers have sprung up within five miles.  I tried the 4-door 500L, which I'd read is actually based on a totally different platform from the self-consciously retro 2-door.  It feels--and looks--like a scaled-down bread truck: its boxiness gives amazing headroom, and an unusually impressive cargo capacity, made more useful by seats that fold six ways from Sunday.  It's a pleasant interior--at least in the upscale Trekker--featuring two-tone seats, an attractive old-school dash, and an obvious but not overbearing computer screen.  I've never driven a Jeep Cherokee or other small SUV, but I imagine they feel a lot like this: despite decent pep and a smooth shifter, it is very far from sporty.  The neo-classic two-door may be a little too true to its roots: a dash-mounted manual gearshift is just too much for me, even if it worked well enough.  The tachometer inside the speedo--or was it vice versa--was pretty, but hard to decipher.  But it is very stylish overall, especially the interior accents color-coded to the body (reminiscent of the vintage Mini above).  The salesgirl--who didn't look a day over her 21 years, and had a lot more pep than the cars themselves--touted the "Abart" extra-sporty model as being really fast and fun; I'll take her word for it, but it would take a lot to overcome the basic econobox feel of any of their models.  Cassandra was certainly the most fun salesperson I've had in a while, but I'm not nearly enough of a multitasker to drive, observe, chat, and make nice simultaneously.  But I give Fiat credit for being unabashedly different: a friend dismisses them as "clown cars," but I would say they're as close as anyone will get to a 4-wheel Vespa, or an espresso machine on wheels.
Fiat 500: Cute to a fault.
Fiat 500L: Beach Boys staff car?
Next stop: VW, where I told the understated, middle-aged saleslady I was interested in a Jetta Sportwagen or Golf, preferably in diesel, and she promptly determined that they were fresh out of either one.  "Not to make your job harder," I said, as she took down my contact info and promised to do her best to procure one for me to test, "but it really needs to be a manual."  This obviously was not going to help matters, despite VW's posturing as the frugal enthusiast's car, and every dealer I visited insisting manuals are on the rise.  Nonetheless, she dutifully asked about my preferences in "trim lines," which VW is mercifully simplistic with as far as I can tell, to which I countered that color is probably more important than sunroof or navigation system.  Trouble is, VW seems to use its Teutonic heritage as an excuse to spurn all but the most boring colors: they come in what seems like twelve shades of white-silver-grey-tan, and if you're really lucky, an overcharged red or dull blue.  This is especially unfortunate given that they're some of the most boring-looking cars out there to begin with.  Few seem to remember that in the early '90s they had a beautiful metallic blue-green.  Apparently most people pay far less attention to color in a car than I do--or else I'm the only one who favors interesting colors.  But it's more than trivial: never once did I have trouble spotting Li'l Blue in a parking lot, and it lifted my spirits every time my eyes fell on her from my window or the street.  Colors notwithstanding, I was expecting to be impressed, maybe even seduced, by VW, but instead I had the very odd-seeming experience of walking into a car dealer, money in hand so to speak, and being sent packing.
VW Golf:
Peugeot makes a much handsomer li'l hatch in Europe.

VW Jetta Sportwagen: Not an eyesore, but hardly sexy.

The Mazda dealer is basically next door to the VW dealer--and virtually every other brand imaginable, part of a sprawling "Motor Mall."  It was raining, so I drove from one to the next, which felt silly, but heck, if I'm potentially shelling out $20 or $30,000, I should get the VIP spot, right?  They were busy, and I almost had to ask for help.  The first guy who approached me was very young and didn't seem to know what to do with me, neither shaking my hand nor offering me a seat, so that I stood awkwardly in his cubicle while he sought advice from higher authority.  I'd already checked my email and the weather several times before an older, more with-it guy confirmed that they didn't have any Mazda3 manuals ready, even though one had "literally" just come off the truck but wasn't "prepped" yet (is this a racehorse?).  So I took out an automatic--a stripper "sport" model, it turned out, one of a dizzying array of trim levels and options.  Curiously, they didn't even ask for my license, just handed me the keys and let me drive off alone.  This felt like a real car--for better and worse--compared to the MINIs and Fiats, and, not surprisingly, a lot like Li'l Blue.  A bit sluggish, but very taut and solid.  The interior was pretty stark for my taste; so much black, and so little light or color, that I found it hard to read the heating controls, and the tiny digital gauges for everything except speedo were pretty awful.  Still, much the same endearing poshness I remember: the cohesion and quality of the interior suggests a much more expensive car.  Li'l Blue featured such little elegances as a six-point steering wheel design that echoed the giant alloy wheels and tail lights.  The new one's not quite that artsy, but it's a lot less random than a lot of cars.  I forgot to check the visors on the test car; on my first major drive with Li'l Blue, I fumbled at the tollbooth on the OH Turnpike with my ticket, until I opened the visor and found that there was a clip built in to the back of the mirror.  "That," I thought, "is why we're losing to the Japanese."  It's frightfully hard to tell how any car drives in suburban Detroit, where there are essentially no curves and no hills.  Oddly, I found myself seeking out potholes, of which we have plenty, to test the ride of the various cars.  All were on the taut side--as was Li'l Blue--which made me wonder how much of what we like in a new car, or eventually tire of in an old one, is simply age and wear.

The new Mazda3:
Even though they feature "soul red" in all the brochure shots, it costs $300 extra.
I thought that kind on silliness died with the Model T.

Make way for goslings!

On the way home my frustrations with capitalism were temporarily quelled by the adorable scene above, straight out of Robert McCloskey.  The plumbing van behind me was in a terrible hurry, preventing me from getting a better shot.  This brought me back to my grumblings: American consumerism is brilliant at delivering whatever happens to be available, or deemed appropriate by some unseen force, but it can be remarkably bad at letting you get exactly what you want.  Every dealer gave me, or suggested that I should be interested in, a list of cars on their lot.  Why should I care about their inventory problems?  If I'm going to shell out for a new car, I want it my way.  Doesn't even Burger King offer such customization--and speed?  Instead of agonizing over the merits of four or five cars as cars--the problem I expected--I'm left worrying over which might be available when and in what configuration.  It's been a fun process--as much for the people and setups as the cars--but I'd like to be able to end it on my timetable.