Sunday, December 03, 2006

Truckster Joins the Family

For a while now, our automotive family has consisted of Crush (our Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, which can only be used within the confines of the Celebration bubble and which rarely exceeds 23 mph even with the hammer down) and Canyonero, the trusty Aztek that we drove down from Chicago nearly two years ago. Good old Canyonero carried hubby and I, three cats, two fish, and a bird through a freak Atlanta ice storm that turned an 18 hour drive into 24 tedious, never-ending (and sometimes hair-raising) hours.

We've managed to juggle our lives around being a one-car family, but Canyonero is nearly five years old, and I've been worried that we're entering that ugly period when a car suddenly seems to self-destruct. We still have 22,000 miles left on our extended warranty, but that doesn't help with the inconvenience of shuttling it back and forth to the shop and finding a way to get home.

Between Canyonero's age and the occasional nuisance of one person wanting to go somewhere outside of Celebration while the other has the car, we decided it was time to expand the fold. I am a rabid Aztek fan, but sadly Pontiac stopped production back in 2005. We did find a used prospect on Car Max's website, but it was sold by the time we called. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact that it was time to switch brands.

I know that many people tie their identity, and sometimes even their self esteem, into the car they drive. I am very much the opposite; a car is a necessary evil, so I only care about two things: price and side curtain air bags (in Tourist Land, I want all the protection I can possibly get). Also, my purchase of Canyonero represented my leap to the Dark Side (SUV ownership). To me, they always seemed like overkill, but one day I was tooling along in my Neon and realized that I was surrounded by giant rolling fortresses that could crush me like a bug without even noticing. Reluctantly I resolved to put myself on even footing, but I shopped on price rather than prestige.

The Aztek had the best features at the lowest price, and I realized that it had an additional advantage: It was ug-leeee! What better vehicle for a person who can't stand SUVs than the ugliest SUV possible? Nowadays the Aztek is actually pretty low on the visual pain scale, but back in '02 it was still a shocker.

So what meets the price/safety/ugliness triad in the 2007 model year? The Honda Element, of course! You have to love a toaster on wheels whose owners adopted the following motto:

We considered a few other vehicles but were leaning towards the E, so we headed off to our local dealer for a test drive. I did some preliminary price research, but nothing too heavy duty since we weren't planning to buy that night.

The salesman took us for a spin in a nice blue LX model. I noticed that all of the Elements had various combinations of overpriced dealer-installed extras, like pinstripes for $195 (nearly $200 for a stinkin' sticker?!), mudflaps, and wheel locks. I know enough from my research not to allow those items to enter into the negotiations. Dealers put them on to add to their profits or to give them more wiggle room; if they come down on something that is overpriced in the first place, it gives an uninformed consumer the erroneous idea that they are getting something valuable. I don't want those items, so if I dealer really wants to play hardball, they can either take 'em off or order me a new vehicle without them. Most of the time, if you really dig in your heels, they end up getting thrown in for free.

After the drive, I stepped inside and gave the salesman a chance to make his initial pitch. When I told him we wanted to shop around some more, he did a turnover to one of the sales managers. The manager had no idea whether we were the sort to do research, so he went through his spiel while I snickered internally. My favorite thing that he said was how the internet invoice doesn't include expenses like dealer prep, so I'd have to factor that in too. Uh, no, that is reimbursed by the manufacturer. But I didn't say anything, just nodded, listened, and formulated my opinion of how upfront they were likely to be when we entered into serious negotiations.

We departed and I got online, tearing up the keyboard to determine a fair offer. I learned about a scam that seems to be concentrated in certain states, with Florida being one of the worst offenders: the documentation charge. I imagine that dealers would take offense at the word "scam," but what else do you call charging $299 to $599, and sometimes even more, for simply doing the paperwork? That's like McDonald's tacking on a "burger assembly fee" or the local gas station assessing a "pump equipment usage charge."

In Illinois, the fee is capped around $50, and since I bought Canyonero on an employee purchase program, that was automatically waived. In Florida, a dealer must technically charge the same fee to every customer or risk a lawsuit. But a savvy buyer will make sure that an equivalent amount is deducted from the car price.

I decided that I would offer $100 over invoice, with the only acceptable additions being tax and the actual cost of the license and title. But I tossed in one more condition: a two-year extension of the bumper to bumper warranty. In Illinois, that's never been a problem since the warranty mark-up is insane, but I soon learned that Florida has some big roadblocks to that stipulation.

I was going to email a number of area dealers, but I decided to run the offer by the local dealership first. After all, they had taken the time to give us the test drive, and I like to keep my business close to home when I can. They agreed to the price, but without with the warranty. In Florida, it has to be sold at the same price to everyone, and you can't shop around for it after the purchase at out-of-state sources because the law stipulates that you can only buy it from someone in FL. Dealers must have a heck of a powerful lobby here!

They had a finance guy come out to talk to me, but all he did was yammer about how I shouldn't want a Honda-backed extended warranty anyway and how his third-party provider was better (yeah, and people thought Warranty Gold was better, too, till they went belly up). Not only that, but I noticed that he only pushed the Platinum plan, which is overkill for an Element LX. I tried to ask some questions about the Honda warranty, but he kept correcting me because he was so focused on the terms of the other plan. I'm not sure how that dog and pony show was supposed to convince me to take their deal; it would have been more effective to simply say, "We can't do that" and then make a counter offer. Since they didn't match my proposal, and didn't put anything else on the table, I decided to go home to do some more warranty research and send out my email blitz.

I soon realized that the warranty was a lost, so I focused on an out-the-door price for the car. My blitz brought in one decent offer via email ($100 less than the local dealer had offered, i.e. invoice price) and an even better offer on the phone ($225 less than invoice). I wasn't too surprised at the under-invoice quote because Honda has a 3% holdback (an additional sum of money that the dealer gets from the manufacturer in a complicated financial dance). That brings their actual cost to $600 or so below invoice, although dealers are usually quite loathe to cough any of the holdback to a buyer. Sometimes there are also factory-to-dealer incentives, although my online detective work didn't turn up any for the Element. Also, it's sometimes a matter of timing; a dealer may need to "roll a unit" to qualify for some sort of financial incentive. If they need to sell just one more car to qualify, it might behoove them to sell it at cost, or even below, to earn several thousand dollars from the manufacturer.

I really don't know what factors were behind the quotes we had received; I only knew that they looked pretty good. Since we had taken up a lot of the local dealer's time, I decided to give them a chance to match our best offer before we took our business elsewhere. I called the salesman and told him that if he could match that price, I would be in that evening to complete the purchase. He said "yes," so we shuttled off to the dealership, believing that the third time would be a charm.

The salesman was with another customer, so hubby and I poked around the lot. We weren't looking at a specific car, just any Element LX with base equipment. We had seen a couple of vehicles come and go on the lot over the past three days, and we wondered what colors were currently in stock. It looked like we were going to end up with silver; I prefer blue, but for the right price it could be Teaberry Pink or Horse Poop Brown.

Inside the dealership, I gave the salesman my notes, with a list of the quotes I had received. He asked if I had the lowest one in writing; I explained that I didn't but that I would be happy to call that dealer back and let him listen in while it was confirmed. Instead, he asked me to send copies of all my emails to one of the sales managers. I plopped down in the dealer's internet cafe and forwarded a copy of everything that I had sent out and the quotes that had come back via email.

At the salesman's desk, he pulled out an infamous four-square sheet and asked me to sign it to show my intent. I was a little puzzled because showing up for the third time should be a pretty strong sign of intent! The four-square is usually used to divert payment buyers and people with trade-ins from the numbers that the dealer doesn't want them to focus on; it's also used to make offers back and forth. That puzzled me, since I'd made it clear that I had one number; either they matched it or I'd buy from the other dealer.

As I scanned the sheet, I realized that there were no numbers at all. I told the salesman, "First. fill in the price we agreed to and all the details, and I will be happy to sign."

He said, "Okay, one minute," and disappeared. When he returned, it was suddenly impossible to do the deal unless I produced the lowest quote in writing. When I had called earlier, the salesman had asked if I had it, and I had made it quite clear that it was a phone quote. Now the terms were suddenly changing, which didn't sit too well with me.

A manager came out to tell me how the offer was probably a low-ball and I'd never get the car at that price unless the other dealership really, really needed to make another a sale regardless of the profit. He said he would still meet it if they would put it in writing, but he bent our ear about how it would practically be a loss and he'd only be doing it because it was the end of the month...blah...blah...blah. I don't really care about the reasons; all I wanted to know is would they sell me the car for that price or not.

Since he insisted on a written quote, our only option was to leave. He said to bring not only the price, but also a specific VIN number of the vehicle the other dealer would sell us. As we walked out to Canyonero, I thought, "If I go through all that trouble, why should I come back here? They've let me walk twice already, so they could easily pull the same trick again. Why not just go with the other dealer?" Sure, we liked our salesman and we'd had the test drive there, but now they had just wasted a couple hours of our precious time. If they believed that the quote was a lowball, they should have simply said on the phone, "If the deal doesn't work out, please give us a chance to match the second lowest quote."

We decided to eat out, and on the way to the restaurant, I called the low-offer dealer to see whether they would re-confirm the price. The person I had spoken with was gone for the day and wouldn't be returning till Friday. We had a nice dinner at Mimi's Cafe, and when we got home, I got a new email from yet another dealership. Coincidentally, it matched the second-lowest offer we'd gotten earlier. I fired off an email to our salesman, explaining that we appreciated his help but that we were just going to go with the low-quote dealer if they confirmed their offer because it didn't make sense to risk wasting our time again.

The next day, the local manager emailed me and also left a phone message asking me to submit the second lowest quote; he said he would let us know for sure if he would honor it. Duh! He already had that quote, since I had forwarded it right there at the dealership internet cafe at the salesman's request. Besides, why would I want the second lowest quote matched when I was reasonably confident of getting the lowest price?

I responded by reminding him that he already had the second lowest quote but that I wasn't worried about matching it because I had two other dealers who had confirmed it in writing. I explained that while I wanted to purchase locally, I was leery of being burned again. I rereiterated that we had visited his dealership fully prepared to buy a car twice; if they were serious, they could have either made a counter offer the first time (which I probably would have accepted) or offered to match our second-lowest quote if the rock-bottom deal didn't pan out. Why call and make that offer now, and worse yet, not have a definitive answer?

I hate it when a dealer feels that a customer should jump through hoops. If you think my offer is too low and don't want to be bothered, just tell me so. I'm not interested in reasons, justifications, etc. A simple "yes" or "no" will save us both time and energy. And the worst thing that you can do is make me an offer, then back down when I show up on your doorstep.

I emailed a request to the low-quote dealer (Holler Honda in Winter Park) to confirm their price in writing. On Friday, the salesman from the local dealer called, and I explained that I had responded to his manager via email and that I was now waiting for a call from the low-quoter. He said he would talk to his manager and call me back; in the meantime, Holler called me and promptly followed up with email verification. I called back our salesman to tell him that it was all a moot point now; I certainly wasn't going to give his manager another shot after being told "yes" and having it turn to "no" once already.

I said, "I'm sorry that he didn't believe me when I didn't have it in writing." The salesman kept insisting that it wasn't me they didn't believe, but rather the other dealer. I was snickering internally, remembering the old car sales motto: "Buyers are liars." No matter what they say, I think they let a foolish stereotype kibosh the sale. Perhaps they're just not used to people who present an offer up front; they're conditioned to dicker, so something in their genes prevents them from just saying "Yes" to a figure without increasing it in some way.

But thankfully not all dealers are like that. Dealing with Holler Honda turned out to be a very pleasant and painless process. I probably shouldn't even have gotten the closest dealer involved beyond the test drive; I like to support local businesses, but not when they make me waste time and actually work to give them my money!

Holler took my deposit over the phone and told me my new Element would be waiting for me on Saturday (they didn't have any in stock, so they traded with another dealer in Lakeland). Since they could get whatever color we wanted, we chose the nice midnight-blue color that we'd been favoring.

We did get a call from another dealer who offered the vehicle at $100 below Holler's price, plus a free extension of the powertrain warranty and free maintenance for a year. It was tempting, but they are out in Tampa so it wouldn't be practical to run out there for maintenance. It would have been nice to save an additional $100, but I was tired of negotiating and decided to stick with the known quantity.

On Saturday, hubby and I decided to combine the car pick-up with a stop at the spa store to replenish our supply of chemicals, since they are close to the dealer. We climbed into Canyonero and drove it off to meet its new sibling, stopping for lunch on the way.

We ate at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, reveling in the weekly specials (steak brushetta and a grilled goat cheese and crab sandwich with tomato and red pepper soup, and French cake with pears and homemade pistachio gelato for dessert). Tummies full, we tooled towards the spa store. Suddenly I looked at my husband and said, "Did you bring the check?"


Back to Duloc Manor for the check, then back to I-4 for a grueling repeat journey. Now we didn't have time for the spa stop; instead, we headed directly to Holler. We managed to get lost once we got off the expressway, but after wandering aimlessly a bit in Winter Park, we finally reached our destination.

There was a blue Element sitting right near the gate, so we gravitated to it immediately, thinking that it was Truckster. A salesman came out and greeted us by name, guessing who we were by the vehicle we had approached and the sheaf of paperwork in our hands. Turns out it wasn't Truckster, which was still getting its final detail work. He showed us the correct vehicle, and we poked around looking for any scratches, dings, or other imperfections. After all, it might manage to survive for a whole week, or perhaps even two if we're lucky, in Tourist Land before the first door smack mars its perfect blue body. It looked great; I doubt that it was even test driven much at the dealer it came from. They are 58 miles away from Holler, and it had 63 on the odometer, meaning that it only ran up 5 miles at its original home.

The salesman started our paperwork, and everything was in order. I breathed a sigh of relief; after our experience with the local dealer, I was expecting some bogus fee or other deal breaker to pop out of the woodwork. The only bump in an otherwise butter-smooth road was a long wait for the finance person. But it was Saturday evening, and the dealership was packed, so that was understandable; even if three finance people working, the customers were backed up.

To kill time, the salesman gave us an in-depth review of Truckster's features. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn't help being distracted by that intoxicating new car smell. Still, I think I managed to key into the main points, i.e. how to turn the car on and how to use the headlights and windshield wipers. Anything beyond that is gravy!

In the finance office, we were offered the usual array of extras, but we took a pass on all of them. Most are high-profit for the dealer and low-value for the consumer, although we are still considering the pre-paid maintenance plan. But I wouldn't buy any of that without considering it and running some numbers, so we declined for the time being. Also, I never buy a car without having my own financial terms worked out; if you use the dealer for financing, you open the door to all sorts of schemes. At the very least, you're likely to pay too much in interest unless the manufacturer has a special program and if you qualify for it.

The only tactic that I didn't like at Holler was having to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement, which takes away your right to sue. Granted, you don't have to sign it, but some dealers will refuse to sell you the car unless you do. I had forgotten all about those agreements; since I was sick of shopping around, I signed and crossed my fingers that we'll never have to test it. But next time, I will make "no arbitration agreement" a condition of my internet quotes.

Another stipulation that savvy shoppers often plan on their offer is to not allow the dealer to affix a sticker with their name to the vehicle. The reasoning is, why should you provide free advertising? Here in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, my reasoning is just the opposite. I want that sticker, free advertising or not. Heck, I want anything that differentiates my car from the scores of rentals on the road. If a criminal looking for someone to "bump and mug" notices Truckster was is a private vehicle, he'll probably think, "Uh oh, a local! They could have a gun, and if they do, they can blow my head off legally if I dare to threaten them! Better look for easy rental car pickin's. After all, what's a tourist going to shoot me with? Their suitcase?"

Once the papers were signed and the payment was taken care of, our salesman showed us a few last things. Then he shook our hands, and we drove our new "baby" home (well, I did; poor hubby was stuck in Canyonero...I felt bad for him sitting in the dirty, dusty workhorse car that probably reeked of my barn gear and the tomato soup I spilled last week while I was breathing Eau di Assembly Line).

I did let him drive to our "celebratory dinner" at Mimi's (yes, we go there a lot...their French Quarter burger with avocado is to die for), and on the way home he took an abrupt detour. "I'm going to be the first person to drive it on Disney property!" he announced, heading for the Osceola Parkway gate. Sigh! Pretty soon the novelty will wear off, and I'll be the primary chauffer again, so I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

After church today, we outfitted Truckster with Celebration license plate frames and a Celebration plate on the front. At the moment, it has a "barfing orange" plate on the back (if you're not sure what I mean, click here). That will change at renewal time in October, when I get to choose from Florida's ridiculousy vast selection of affinity plates. We have everything from "State of the Arts" (whatever that means) to "Imagine" (imagine what?) to "Parents Make a Difference (especially if you're raised in a dysfunctional family!). I'll probably just get "Animal Friend," which promotes spaying and neutering, as the world definitely doesn't need any more spoiled, belligerent cats like the ones that run my household.

I find myself comparing Truckster to Canyonero, and my 'Tek still comes out the winner. The main things it's missing are daylight running lights/auto-on headlights, built-in compass/thermometer, a roll-out tray, and extra electrical outlets. But the Element is the next best thing, and I do like the fact that not only do the seats come out, but you can also flip them up and "hang" them out of the way. Also, the front seats have waterproof fabric, and there is no carpeting on any of the floor surfaces, so they are easily cleanable. (There's an urban legend that you can clean an Element out with a hose, but don't believe it. Technically you can do it...but only once.)

Hopefully my Element will stick out here in Celebration, the Land of Extremes (sometimes I feel like I'm surrouned by Hummers and Minis, with not much inbetween). I am ordering a decal for Truckster that I think will sum up its role here in our town quite well:

Overall, I'm pleased with Truckster. Sure, it's not an Aztek, but it's a pretty reasonable facsimile. I'm proud of my toaster on wheels and proud to echo the slogan of Element afficianados everywhere: "The Element...screw aerodynamics!!"

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