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That New Car Smell

March 16, 2010

Our loyal and faithful Toyota Matrix recently reached a significant milestone: it rolled over 100,000 worry-free miles. This was, of course, occasion for us to consider purchasing another car.

The Moncadas have been, for the better part of the last five years, a one-car family. Our reasons are environmental, economical, and personal. We’ve perfected the negotiation of our schedules – morning meetings, afternoon pickups, transfers from work to teaching class, etc. This car sharing is admittedly easier due to the fact that my husband works from home, dutifully spending days in front of his computer writing his dissertation and never leaving the house beyond walking to the mailbox.

So, despite the hoopla in the media about the Toyota recall, our little blue Matrix has been good to us. It is the car we brought our son home from the hospital in, the car that we drove up to Rhode Island and back to Miami in, and while our address has been anything but constant, the space within those four doors has been a sort of home for us over the last few years. Despite the nicks and scratches and the ghetto upholstery job on the passenger seat, it is hard to consider letting it go.

Last week we took a few steps closer to doing just that, however, when we ventured to a couple of dealerships and did a few test drives. When we bought the Matrix, the experience was straightforward and pain-free. We knew exactly which vehicle we wanted, how much we wanted to pay for it, and where we wanted to buy it. We walked in, and two hours later we drove away, the happy new owners of a lovely new-to-us car.

If our recent experience is any indicator, the coming transition is not going to be as simple. First of all, we’re ready to upgrade a bit, but our budget isn’t quite ready for the car we’d ideally drive. We tested a Volvo and a Venza and are actually considering – and I can’t believe I’m about to say this – a BMW.

The Volvo dealership we went to was quiet. Deathly quiet. The only sound was the guy in the parking lot detailing what appeared to be a perfectly clean vehicle. Because our son wasn’t interested in riding around in anything that wasn’t a “racing car” I sat in the showroom while my husband drove a sporty wagon around the block. The salesman was friendly and helpful and we didn’t feel pressured at all. We didn’t walk away convinced the Volvo was the right option for us, but we didn’t run away screaming in agony either.

Not so at the Toyota dealership. No, despite the fact that it was the same exact dealership where we’d had such a simple transaction just a few years before, two hours after we walked in, I vowed never to return.

Now, I know car dealerships. For more than 25 years, my dad worked in them, mostly as a Service Manager who drove home cool loaner Range Rovers and Jaguars, always kept my mom in a late model Cadillac someone had brought in on trade and frequently brought home random gifts from loyal customers.

My favorite car was the 1983 Fleetwood that hung off both ends of the ferry boat that took as across the river to Nashville. I could (and did) sleep comfortably in the floorboard of that car, the warmth and hum of the engine lulling me to dreamland. Some of the most memorable holiday gifts included a case of Now & Laters and another of fortune cookies, several Amy Grant albums marked “not for retail sale” and my prize Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet sweatshirt that I somehow convinced my mom to let me wear to junior high. She must not have known what it meant either.

So, knowing what I know about dealerships, I shouldn’t be surprised at the mayhem that awaited us at Kendall Toyota. There was the Corolla filled with Easter eggs that I’d seen parked at Miami Seaquarium the week before. There was our salesman with these weird sunglasses that doubled as Bluetooth receivers. And, most bizarrely of all, there was this other salesman who came out of his office where he’d been massaging the shoulders of his co-worker quite vigorously and proceeded to plug in his pannini press in the outlet right next to us and toast his Cuban sandwich without saying a word.

We drove the Venza, and it was okay. Kind of boring and not really worth the same price we could pay for a BMW wagon that wouldn’t potentially leave us careening off the highway at 90 miles per hour.

The salesman somehow convinced us to drive the new one. He claimed the used one we’d seen online had just been sold and that with the financing and customer loyalty program, we’d work out ahead of the game getting a new one. The negotiation – or his attempt at it – that proceeded once we sat down at his desk, was so transparently sleezy as to be impressive. And in terms of price, instead of coming down on the cost of the vehicle, he tried to trick us into thinking they were giving us a deal by changing it from a 6 to a 4 cylinder, increasing our down payment, and figuring in a trade-in of our Matrix. At no point did the actual cost of the car change, but he didn’t seem to recognize that we were well aware of that fact, and for some reason, he kept asking us to sign pieces of paper that he claimed had nothing to do with purchasing the car.

We actually had to pull the “We have to go pick up our son from school right now” card for them to give us our keys back (which they had taken to go check the trade-in value) so we could leave. Four times we told the salesman and then his manager no and still they weren’t getting it; they just kept trying to make us believe they were giving us a great deal when it was clear they weren’t budging at all.

The whole experience has turned me off from buying a car at all at this point. Maybe in a few months I’ll be ready, but for now the idea just makes me tired. When I climbed back into the trusty Matrix and hit US 1, I was glad for the ease of just putting in the key and starting the ignition. I’d rather negotiate our schedules every morning for another year than face the prospect of walking into a showroom again any time soon.

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