Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Car (or, how car shopping is not fun)

While visiting Los Angeles over Halloween, I drove a Ford Fusion rental car that I really, really loved. This got me thinking (for the second year in a row) : maybe it's time to go new-car shopping. My Pontiac Grand Prix was 10 years old (2003), and starting to show its age. While it hasn't had many expensive repairs recently, I'd rather buy a new car proactively, and on my own timeline, than be forced into a purchase because my old car goes up in smoke on the freeway entrance ramp, which for the record, actually is what happened last time.

In mid-November, I visited a Ford dealership to find out more about the Fusion. After researching on the Interwebs, I decided I should also check out the Hyundai Sonata, which had higher customer satisfaction and safety ratings than the Fusion. Facebook friends also encouraged me to audition the Kia Optima and Nissan Altima; the Kia was okay, but I didn't love it; and the Nissan dealer, I doubt he could possibly have been any less helpful (maybe my salesperson was just having an off day, but seriously, they made me feel like a terrible inconvenience).

Walking into Inver Grove Hyundai I was greeted by Lisa, who broke many of my stereotypes about car salespeople. She was friendly, helpful, respectful, not pushy. We chatted about what I was looking for in a car, she gave me her card and we emailed about different models and prices. Long story short, after reading online reviews and gathering input from friends/family (my Aunt even put together a spreadsheet comparing the different models I was eyeing), I decided to purchase a Sonata. Thanksgiving night, I left Dealer Lisa a voicemail and email, letting her know which two specific Sonatas I wanted to test drive from their online inventory (one was a decked out hybrid, the other a middle-of-the-line normal non-hybrid), and asked her to call me when she got in in the morning.

Lisa left me a voicemail at 7:15 a.m., right when she got into the office. I was still asleep, thinking I wouldn't hear from her until the dealership opened at 8:30. I woke up, called my parent, they picked me up, and we arrived at the dealer about 9:15. Lisa had parked both cars alongside the building, idling their engines so they were toasty warm for our test drives.

Dad and I both had read reviews claiming hybrids experience awkward delays after pressing the brake pedal, and likewise that the acceleration is a bit dodgy while the car switches from electric to engine. Though the hybrid was my preferred choice between the two cars I'd picked out, I wanted to make sure I could live with these braking and accelerating issues (if they existed), so I took the hybrid out first. We got out onto the road, hopped on a highway, and I didn't notice any issues with the acceleration / deceleration. Cruise control worked as expected (I use cruise all the time, so that was an important test). Overall, it was a beautiful car. When we got back to the dealership, we hopped out of one car right into the other. My parents and I pretty much knew right away that I'd be picking the first car over this second one. Had I driven the second one first, maybe I would have loved it, but simply put: it just wasn't as nice a car as the hybrid (mostly owing to it not being as spec'd out). I drove it anyway, just to see if it handled any differently. Same model, the only difference was no hybrid assist.

That is where the fun ended.

Back at Lisa's desk, we looked through all the numbers. And by "looked through," I mean I completely mis-read the deceptively phrased numbers. Yes, shocking as it is, the dealer lied about how much the car would actually cost. The real tragedy, though, is that I didn't catch her deception until much, much later. For that moment, right after the test drive, all I saw was "good deal."

I realized I'd left some important paperwork at home, like my proof of insurance (it's in my car... which I didn't drive because Mom and Dad picked me up). Fortunately, my insurance agent's office was open, so they faxed over new insurance papers, already valid for the new car. Shortly thereafter, Lisa deposited my parents and I in the waiting area and took her leave, while we waited, and waited, and waited some more, for the financing guy. During this time, I came to the awful realization that, despite all my research about how to haggle car deals, I'd completely forgotten to negotiate. I was pissed at myself (still am). The whole point of going at the end of the month was to put myself in a good negotiating position, and I utterly failed.

After a long wait, Mr Financing (Mike) made his appearance, brought us into his office, and I began signing paper after paper after paper. Granted, the house I live in I bought from my parents, but seriously, buying this car took several-fold more papers than buying my house.

Much time was spent haggling over warranties and extra options. In this at least, I remembered what I'd read online, and politely declined their deals-that-aren't-really-deals.

Then, we got down to the final paper. And as I was just about to sign, I said, "wait a second, that price is wrong. It's $3,000 more than it should be." I asked Mike for another 5 minutes alone with my parents, and I was about ready to walk out. The issue: Lisa was outright deceptive when she talked about the pricing. The "$1,000 off here, $1,000 off there", turns out that was already included in the online price she showed me, even though she made it sound as though it would come off after that price. The killer is, even reading the fine print online, it's not written in understandable english, they use car-dealer-legalese, abbreviations, and words that have no meaning unless you already know what they mean (that sounds self-evident, but what I'm trying to say is: unless you know what to look for, you can read the fine print all day long and it won't raise any red flags, even though it should; and as a first-time car buyer, I didn't know what to look for).

It broke my heart, but I signed the final paper anyway, deciding that $3,000 over the course of the 10 years I own the car was going to be okay, not that big a deal. I should have walked out, but after wasting half a day there already my stubborn ego couldn't bear the thought of it all being for nought.

I have yet to stop regretting that decision. Every time I get in my car, nice as the vehicle is, my regrets re-surface.

The rest of the day was supposed to be a fun game day with my parents, but instead was marred by my obvious malcontentedness with what had gone down at the dealer. Though I shouldn't have let it happen, my day was ruined as I ran through the memory over and over. I did not sleep well that night.

The next morning, I knew Lisa would call to ask how I liked the new car. One of my goals for personal improvement recently has been to be more courageous in my interactions with people. Therefore I decided I would go in, in person, to talk with Lisa, rather than over the phone. I explained to her how I felt deceived by the pricing, and how I would not be able to give her or the dealership a high score on the customer survey. I knew this would get her attention, because she had made a very big point about how important it is for her to get perfect marks on the survey (I don't know if I believe this or not, but she claimed that receiving anything less than a perfect 10, meant she wouldn't get paid any commissions for 3 months).

Instead of hearing me, Lisa guilted me into feeling that my car-buying naiveté was my own fault - she claimed no one had ever misunderstood or felt deceived by their prices in the past. I explained how I thought she should have gone through the prices more thoroughly, because this clearly was my first rodeo. It is my fault for not asking enough questions, but at the same time the numbers she showed me were deliberately misleading, and it is my opinion that when you have a brand new client, you ought to take extra care to make sure they understand.

She insisted instead that she had done no wrong, got very emotional, and teared up, which means she's either a phenomenal actress, or it was actually true that not getting a perfect survey score would cost her financially. My intent never was to hurt her, and I felt truly terrible for putting her through the grief. At the same time, I needed her to hear me (which, again, she chose not to). When I went through a similar exercise with the Sears home delivery people last August, they took the time to listen, and did what they could to make it right. That never happened with Lisa. However, in the moment, because I felt badly for putting her through that emotional ordeal, I went back home, and then back to the dealership to drop off a thank you card.

It's counter-cultural that I chose to spend time talking to Lisa in person rather than just filling out the survey and avoiding a face-to-face confrontation. It's just plain weird that I'd spend time driving back and forth to drop off a thank you card that same day, rather than mailing it, or doing nothing. But that's who I am. I genuinely care about people.

Sadly, the only real satisfaction I got from the experience was knowing I'd "manned up" and talked to her face-to-face, rather than via email or over the phone. When I did get the survey a few weeks later, I gave Lisa her 10s, having been guilted into it. I also answered honestly when the survey asked "did anyone at the dealership try to influence your answers on this survey?" Yes:
My salesperson (Lisa) was adamant that any score less than 10 would result in her not getting paid for 3 months. If this is true, then please consider all of her scores to be 10s - she was phenomenal, treated me with respect, worked with me to find the right vehicle, and was just overall wonderful to work with. I visited 3 other dealerships while car-shopping in the past month, and Lisa was, hands-down, the best salesperson I worked with.

With that said, if the "no pay unless I get 10s" is *not* true, then my response about salesperson honesty needs to be adjusted from 10 to 0, and I request that you contact me for further comments."

I did not receive a follow-up call or email or anything, so... presumably I guess she was telling me the truth?

My co-worker Glen told me about some of his car-buying experiences and the games the dealers play, so next time I have to buy a vehicle I might bring him along to help me avoid making the mistakes I made this time. I also know next time to bring a physical paper checklist with everything I need to remember at every step of the deal.

Dad insists I got a good price for the car, but whether that's objective reality or not doesn't even matter, because the emotions overshadow any facts: I feel awful (still) about the experience, and at the end of the day that's what will influence where I buy a car next time, as well as what I tell people about the dealership. There's a systemic issue in the way car prices are advertised, and I don't expect that to get fixed overnight, but Lisa could have A) chosen to be up front with me and honest about the pricing, and B at least listened to me when I raised the issues, instead of focusing on herself and her survey score. She could have said, "I/we are so sorry, let's make this right." But she chose not to. Buying this car was one of the most stressful and awful experiences I've had in my life. (first world problem: acknowledged) Maybe what I'm most bitter about is how much the car-buying affected my time spent with my parents the rest of that day.

Some closing thoughts:

At the end of the ordeal, my Sonata Hybrid is a very nice car. The buying experience was terrible, but the car itself is wonderful. It has built-in GPS and maps, a back-up camera, streams bluetooth music from my phone, and I can use my phone handsfree with the car's speaker system. It's missing a sunroof, which I'll long for in summer, but I guess in winter that's not so practical anyway.

My old car, my Grand Prix, served me very well for 7 years, and I miss it. My parents bought it used in October 2006, after my first car threw a rod and went up in smoke. I remember the first night I drove it: I accidentally left the sunroof open (never having had one before, I wasn't used to closing it) and it rained. Oops. It dried out eventually. That car and I have driven hundreds of round trips to Northfield, and many dozens to Des Moines / Ames. Rather than trade it in at the dealer, I chose to donate it to Cars for Courage. The physical part of donating was very easy: a one-page form when you drop off the car. Emotionally, though, it was very hard saying goodbye.

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