The other day I discovered that the liquid in my van’s transmission had run dry. I borrowed a quart from a neighbor, drove to Walmart, and added another quart. It still jerked in reverse and shuddered in first. The van has 171,000 miles on it and is worth maybe $1000. So we started looking at options for a replacement.
I’ve always been a used car kind of guy. During my first marriage, we went through a 1975 Datsun 610, a 1983 Mazda GLC, a 1985 Caravan, a 1983 Pontiac 600, a 1987 Astro, and a 1998 Windstar. Of these, the newest was the Windstar, only two years old at the time. In 2000 I bought a 1995 Plymouth Voyager for $6000, and drove it until it left me stranded by the side of the road (some electrical problem) in 2006. I replaced it with this 2000 Grand Caravan, which had 33,000 miles on it and a salvage title because it had been in a minor accident. It was a steal at $6500.
Now, nearly 140,000 miles later, the van is due for retirement. Since I commute 40-60 miles a day, we decided to look at economy cars.
An online list indicated that there are a number of good new cars in the $14,000-$16,000 range. When we tried a couple of them at a Mazda dealership, we were disappointed; most of the cheapest cars are very small inside, not adequate for my 6’4″, especially not with passengers in the back.
So we looked at the Mazda 3, which is a nice car. It costs around $20,000 once you add all the closing costs. Alicia didn’t much like the sporty suspension, though; it’s a rougher ride than the old van.
We went down the road to the Toyota dealership, and test-drove a 2014 Corolla. What a difference! The ride was as smooth as the Caravan, and there was ample leg room behind my seat when I had it all the way back. The backup camera is a very nice feature; it’s not as easy for me to look over my shoulder as it used to be. And along with a 3-year bumper-to-bumper warranty, they offered roadside assistance.
I never thought of a Corolla as a classy car. My kids have a couple of old ones (1992, 1998). They’re small and simple and adequate. But the new ones are roomy and elegant. The only downside is that every single one of the 2014s has a black dashboard and black door panels. Stupid, especially in the Florida sun.
We looked at used Corollas on line, and found several that seemed reasonably priced. Sunday I got a call from the Wesley Chapel dealership, so we drove up there to look at one that seemed promising.
The 2012 we test-drove was gold-colored, which made me think of the suits on the Lawrence Welk Show. It didn’t have the smooth ride of the 2014, or a backup camera. Both Alicia and I felt an aura of depression in that car.
We looked at new and used Priuses. The regular Prius starts at $25,000, somewhat above our budget. The compact Prius is $20,000, but it’s tiny inside. They had one decent used Prius, but it was red, and Alicia didn’t want a red car.
So we sat down to talk about a new Corolla.
Wesley Chapel Toyota is one of the most successful dealerships in Florida. Their big selling point is a free lifetime powertrain warranty on new and newish used Japanese or Korean cars (under 5 years/50,000 miles). They have well-trained sales staff, and appear to be honest.
I was, however, put off by the “Commitment to Buy” form our salesperson tried to get me to sign. “I don’t know yet if I’m buying, even if the price is right,” I said. Fortunately, she didn’t push me on it, or we would have left. I know it’s not a legally binding contract, but I hate being pressured.
Their price and terms were very similar to what we had been offered at our neighborhood dealer, with the addition of the free lifetime warranty. Alicia wanted a white car, but my Plymouth Voyager was white, and I didn’t want to remember that stage of my life, so I pushed for silver, to which she was amenable. (See stock photo below)
Immediately after we signed the first papers with the sales rep, another lady came over to try to sell us a list of expensive options: door edge film, window tinting, door trim strips, clear coat protection against love bugs for $699, “all weather” floor mats ($199!)… Both Alicia and I expressed our discomfort with having this list introduced right after the salesperson had told us what a great car we were buying. “She just told us it already has protection against love bugs,” I said. “The only thing on this list that I would consider is the door trim, and I don’t know if it’s worth $199.”
“You make it sound like the car isn’t that great after all,” Alicia said to the lady.
The accesories specialist left quickly, obviously uncomfortable.
After a long wait and a phone call to my best friend in Dallas, who used to work in auto sales and finance (among other things, he told me door strips would eventually come off in a car wash), we met with the finance guy. I got Doug on the phone again, and he talked to him and made sure there wasn’t any junk in the invoice. “It’s a fair deal,” Doug told me. “The interest rate is a little bit high, but he’s got to go by their rate sheet. You could push him on the sales price to see if they can get your payment down a little.”
My credit scores are 20-40 points lower than when I bought my house in 2012, as a result of the debts I ran up last year (thanks to a failed septic tank and departing renters for the lake house). So the interest rate the dealer offered wasn’t the best available, but it was probably better than my credit union would have offered me. Unfortunately they wouldn’t go any lower on the sale price, which was already slightly discounted.
I consulted Doug again about gap insurance and a couple of other things, and finally started signing a stack of papers more than four hours after arriving at the dealership. Then we had to empty the van (they only offered me $100 for it, which I declined). We hit the road for home after 7:00 p.m., five hours after arriving.
On the way home, we stopped at Olive Garden to celebrate, courtesy of a Christmas gift card from a dear Xanga friend. (Thank you, Z!)
And once we got to the house, I discovered I had forgotten the garage door opener… Oh, well, I have to go back up to the dealer today to deal with the van and pick up our new car’s floor mats.
I just called a charity recommended by my salesperson, in order to donate the car. It turns out that Wheels of Success has just moved within two blocks of my office! They’re going to send AAA to pick up the van this afternoon. After lunch I’ll sign over the title and give them the keys. Then I’ll get it off my insurance. Tomorrow I’ll pick up my garage door opener and license plate from them. I hope.