Sunday, July 31, 2005


Sunday car stuff

A few days ago, I was stuck behind a cell phone talker who failed to see that the light had turned green. I tried to give a friendly blast of the horn, only to discover -- no horn! I pushed and pushed on the horn panel, which takes up the whole steering wheel. Not a sound.

I rarely honk the horn. But do you have any idea the feeling of personal powerlessness that comes from discovering that you have no horn?

My car's owner's manual lists the horn as a "safety feature." It's low tech, to be sure, but I can see that -- a timely bleat can alert an oncoming driver to hit their brakes or swerve away from you.

This reminds me of a car shopping experience we had in the fall of 2003, when B and I bought the car whose horn just went out. We were checking out the 2003 Toyota Camry, found a dealership that had the model we wanted, and took it for a test drive.

This was one of those dealers who doesn't let you test drive the car on your own, so the salesman sat in the back seat during our test drive. I don't know if he was a wannabe actor, but he was born to play the role of car sales sleaze, so it was bound to be a short but awkward road trip.

As we were leaving the lot, I noticed that there were only 000002 miles on the odometer. "Wow, I thought, this hasn't even been test-driven before."

Quickly, it felt awkward to have Mr. Sleaze in the back seat, giving us a bunch of sales jive. B tried to head off his prying inquiries into our "lifestyle" by asking, "Can you tell us what safety features the car has?"

B really wanted the answer to this quesiton. She was quite keen on safety features: the new ESP braking system (whatever that is), side curtain airbags (standard in German cars but an option available in only some Camry's), and whatever.
"ABS brakes," said the salesman.
"What about ESP?" B asked. The salesman didn't seem to understand the question.
"I'll have to check," he said. Then a long pause.
"What other safety features?" asked B.
"Driver and passenger side airbags.... uh ... seatbelts."
I actually find a good sense of humor to be a winning quality in a sales person, and was prepared to laugh heartily and say, " seriously!" But I could see in the rear view mirror not a trace of irony. (Objects in mirror may be less savvy than they appear.)

We'd driven about two exits on the highway, turned around and were headed back to the dealership, having logged at least five miles or so. I checked the odometer. It was still at 000002 and showed no signs of movement
"Hey," I said, "the odometer isn't working."
"Really?" said the salesman. "That doesn't sound right."
I looked again and noticed that the speedometer needle was resting at zero and also showed no movement.
"The speedometer's not working either," I said. "Isn't that sort of a safety feature too?"
"Don't worry. Those things can be fixed," said the salesman. "So, what do you think? Do you want this car?"
My fall 2003 round of car shopping was a watershed experience, because it's when I learned that the traditional system of buying a new car -- high pressure sales from a good-cop/bad-cop tandem of salesman and sales manager (as in "let me go talk to my manager") -- is, or should be nearly, dead.

I was surprised and delighted to learn that you can basically get haggle-free pricing not just from Saturn, but from other brands, if you do your research. You can use the car dealerships as a showroom and test-drive lot, and also as the outlet to buy the car at the price you've zeroed in on by internet and phone. I think maybe now the system of car buying, which has been defective for decades, really works!


When I went internet-shopping for the best price on the make/model I'd chosen last summer, I sent emails to seven distinctly different dealer listings. Turned out that five of the seven automatically forwarded to the same dealership -- the one near here, whose price I hadn't liked. Then I got an email from the salesman at the dealership, saying something like "Seems you're really determined to get this car. Let us know when you're ready to make the purchase."

So much for my attempt to make 21st century technology yield mid-20th century prices for my vehicle.
That's funny.

About horns . . . mine theoretically works, but it seems every time I need to use it I either don't push hard enough or push in the wrong spot on my steering wheel. By the time I get the thing to honk, the situation where I needed it is usually already over.

Kind of scary when a car is starting to change lanes into you or back uncomfortably close to you and you can't figure out how to work the horn.
Liz S.W.: Yeah, we had no success whatever in emailing dealers. We researched prices on independent car-buying guide websites (we liked The we called dealerships and asked for the "internet sales manager" or the "fleet manager" and told them: "I've got a price of $X for the Cilantro. What's your best price?" They basically gave bottom line prices over the phone in response to that.
Oscar -- ah, the old telephone trick! using 21st century technology to lead you to the number so you can call with 20th century technology in an effort to get a 19th century price.

what will the 22nd century bring?
With any luck, we'll all be walking and riding bikes in the 22nd.
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