Writer chronicles his journey through car dealer land
By Mike Costanza
Sometimes, when life gives you lemons, you make…uh, tracks. After three thieves made off with my beloved Hyundai Sonata on May 1, I was forced to do just that — make tracks to used car dealerships.
Much as I’d sometimes like to do without a car for financial and environmental reasons, I need one in order to shop, work and travel. Plus, I was raised on Long Island, where only the terminally uncool are wheel-less. I heard someone once died of that. OK, he got hit by a truck while hitchhiking, but it still counts.
The thieves wrecked my Sonata, (see July’s 55-PLUS) so my insurance company deemed it a “write off,” sent a check for its value and covered most of the cost of renting a car for 30 days. I carefully researched used cars to find affordable models that could give me the best value, (Consumer Reports became my bible) then looked online for ones I thought I could afford. They had to be roomy — I just can’t scrunch into a tiny car anymore.
Once I found a likely candidate, I looked up its accident record on CARFAX, which sells information on car histories online. One minor accident was OK and two minor fender benders a concern. Three accidents of any kind? Fuhgeddaboudit!
Day after day I called dealerships, winnowing the possibles from the fuhgeddaboudits before heading out into Car Dealer Land. My journey initially took me all around Monroe County, to Syracuse and its outlying towns and as far away as Pulaski, which is 40 minutes north of that city. Who knew Car Dealer Land was so big?
Every car I checked out was too expensive, in poor condition or had some kind of problem I couldn’t accept. A Chevy Impala I found drove well and looked pretty good, but for the half-inch of water in the bottom of its trunk. It sloshed around when I made turns. When the sales manager asked what the problem was, I couldn’t resist.
“It’s a swimming pool,” I told him.
He didn’t even smile. You’d think someone who works with people all day would have a sense of humor.
A dealer in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville offered a fairly good-looking Mazda that rode well, was in my price range but had the cutest, brightest little “check engine” light on, indicating the car definitely had problems.
“Oh, I didn’t see that light,” the salesman said.
The Malibu also smelled like an ashtray — a no-no for this ex-smoker. After I left that dealership, the salesman called twice to try to get me to come all the way back to Fayetteville.
“I really think we got that smell out,” he said. Twice.
Then there were the salespeople who seemed incapable of hearing me. All too often, the conversation went something like this:
“What are you looking for?” the salesman asked.
“I’m looking for a Mazda 3 that’s no older than 2015 and has no more than 79,000 miles,” I said.
“We got a 2014 Jetta with 120,000, but it’s in reeeaaaally good shape,” he said.
“I’m looking for a Mazda. A Mazda 3. Under 80,000,” I said.
“Hey, we just got a 2016 Chevy in. When would you like to take a look at it?”
I considered looking at it, but didn’t. Who knows what I’d find in the trunk?
After three weeks, I began to get desperate (the clock on the rental car was ticking) and turned my sights toward Long Island, where most of my immediate family lives. Car dealerships are all over the place down there and the selections and prices of used vehicles appeared much better than I’d found Upstate.
Hopping into my rental car, I headed down to “the island,” as we call it, to continue my search and try my relatives’ patience.
That wasn’t hard. My rental car broke down just as I arrived at my sister’s house. For much of the next two weeks, my relatives very generously ferried me from place to place to check out used cars. Their support and generosity helped keep me going as I traveled the difficult roads of Car Dealer Land.
It was a very frustrating and often maddening, journey. Some of the cars I found looked promising, only to come up short in the end. One car looked good online, only to be missing the inside of a fender.
“You really don’t need that,” the salesman said.
A 2015 Honda Accord looked like just what I wanted, but had one problem.
“It was a write-off,” the owner said. “I fixed it.”
A wreck that had been stitched back together? Fuhgeddaboudit!
A Subaru Legacy I test-drove had just about everything I wanted, but its touchscreen didn’t work. The saleswoman and I agreed on a price, conditioned on the repair of the problem.
The next day, the saleswoman called out of the blue to tell me that instead of repairing or replacing the Subaru’s touchscreen, the dealer had decided to auction the car off. I revisited that dealer sometime later, and the car was still on the lot.
Perhaps the most infuriating sales tactic is one that led my brother and me to drive nearly an hour in heavy rush-hour traffic to a dealership. When we arrived, the salesman told us that the advertised price of the car we’d come to look at was the “internet price.”
“You pay that after a $3,000 down payment,” he said.
The asterisk by the “internet price” should have been a give-away, but I’d missed it. From then on, I always called dealers to find out what the real price tags for their cars were. Those who skipped the “internet price” malarkey were one up in my book.
After diligently searching for weeks, I finally found a shiny Subaru Legacy with relatively low mileage. Though the payments on the car will be hard to make, especially in my 70s, I need wheels. My newest and, I hope, last car now sits in my parking lot with a device that immobilizes its steering wheel locked in place. It’s not foolproof, but it’s always there when the car is parked.
The past few months have often been very difficult, but the experience has revealed to me how lucky I am to have loving relatives and good friends in my life. I will not forget how much they’ve done for me.
For the complete story on the theft of my Hyundai Sonata, see: https://www.roc55.com/features/and-my-car-was-gone