Friday, November 21, 2008

On the topic of cars and searching in multiple states...

After my brief rant yesterday about the auto CEOs, lawmakers fawning over their American cars, and NY Rep. Gary Ackerman's saga of searching 5 states for the car with the right color, right package, and nav system yesterday, I realized I could understand where he was coming from. Not the whole "tell the story in the U.S. Congress" part -- that seemed a bit unnecessary -- but the quest to find exactly the car you want.

As the summer came to an end, we decided that it was time to part ways with my wife's venerable Saturn. So we decided to do the car shuffle -- she got my Honda Accord and I went looking for something for me. My wife also got a big ole I.O.U. that she gets to cash in at any time with no comment from me.

So I started looking and as my wife can tell you, once I get going on a project like this, I get a bit obsessive about it, not to mention compelled to bring things to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible. We found ourselves at a local dealership on a rainy Saturday driving a Saab 9-3 that was just a few years old with almost no miles. Man, that was a fun car. Saab might be owned by GM but their engineers apparently kept the skills necessary to make the driver's seat feel like you're in the cockpit of a jet. Alas, they also kept the quirky electrical issues that seem to crop up in Saabs.

I had a Saab 9000 several years ago and in the months before I moved on to the Accord, I'd regularly be startled by the sound of electrical short circuits somewhere in the dash in front of the passenger seat. No amount of testing and checking by my mechanic could ever determine what it was so I was left to wonder what combination of buttons would leave me unexpectedly crispy. Anyhow, this relatively new Saab was a great ride...until you made a 90-degree left turn when going at any speed and suddenly the electric door locks would rapidly unlock, lock, unlock, and then lock again with loud "chunking" noises. Now that's an interesting extra...hang a left and your car sounds like a package of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn. My uncle, who still owns his pre-GM Saab among other cars, shared a valuable observation when I called to ask his opinion on this: Saabs are fun cars but not for the faint of heart.

And so ended the flirtation with a sweet black Saab 9-3 that went like a bat out of hell. I might not be faint of heart but repeated trips to the garage for repairs? One of the more terrifying prospects in modern American life.

So I started doing some more research, realizing that among other things, I didn't want to give up a manual transmission. I tried driving a few other cars that were either automatics or the automatics that allow you to "shift" by tapping the gear shift up or down but these were either boring or felt like gimmicks that I'd never use. Yep, I need that manual transmission. It's fun to drive and much more manly. Would James Bond drive an automatic? Only if it's a rental like those Fords he's been showing up in when he doesn't have his Aston Martin. Rocky Balboa? In mourning for Apollo Creed, dead at Drago's hands, the Italian Stallion goes tearing off and shifting over and over and over and over again to illustrate how upset he was. An automatic? Pshaw! I'm a manly man, dammit! Just ignore that I said "Pshaw" and the fact that I tear up every time Red and Andy are reunited at the end of The Shawshank Redemption.

The new round of research led me to a 2005 Volvo S40 just two days later that was cherry red, fully tricked out with the spoiler sport package, and a 6-speed manual transmission. Really? 6 speeds? Wow, I've never had one of those before. That sounded very cool. And it was. And so was the car itself. You don't usually think of Volvos as sporty. Do you remember that movie, "Crazy People" in which Dudley Moore plays an ad man suffering a breakdown and a need to tell the truth, leading to the slogan: "Volvos...they're boxy but they're safe!"? That seemed to sum it up. This one, however, was very sporty and loads of fun to drive. It was just screaming out for me to get my radar detector up on the dash (not that I would ever violate traffic ordinances or speed limits, of course). The interior was, well, a bit bland but it handled well and I'm a guy so the whole spoiler thing appealed to me. They actually made this Volvo look muscular and cool. I took some photos, decided to put down a deposit to hold it for a day or two so I could think about it, and headed home.

"Honey, you're too young to need a mid-life crisis car."

That was the response I received when I returned home and showed the photos to my wife. Really? It's not like it's a Porsche or a convertible. It's a Volvo, for Pete's sake.

"Honey, you're too young to need a mid-life crisis car."

What made me change my mind, however, was not that it might be seen as a mid-life crisis car but that it didn't have any way to directly connect my iPod. Horror of horrors! The year before, I had the factory radio pulled from my Accord in favor of an iPod-ready Kenwood. God, I hated using those damn FM transmitters to play my iPod through the radio. With the Kenwood, I could not only play it through the radio but control it through the radio. Sweet mother of mercy but that was a slick setup.

But here was the Volvo sales guy, along with two of the dealership's electronics guys, telling me that Volvo didn't include a direct link for iPods until 2007 due to the fiber optic design of the Volvo stereo system. Instead I'd have to go with an FM transmitter again but really, they work great, sir. Come on guys, the iPod has only been the world's most popular piece of consumer electronics for the last 8 years! There's no way to do with this without major surgery that violates the car's warranty?

Yes, that was a deal breaker. No iPod interface? No sale. Call me superficial but I spend a lot of time in my car and the iPod has become an integral part of my travel routine. Did it make sense to spend money on a car that couldn't support my one must-have accessory? I don't think so.

So I went back to doing more research and found exactly what I wanted...a 2006 Acura TSX with 6-speed manual transmission. Awesome reviews, top of the class in virtually every category, audio input for the iPod, the reliability of a Honda with the bonuses that come with an Acura. It was perfect...

...and it wasn't available. No one had one. They were so beloved by their owners that people never got rid of them. Welcome to Gary Ackerman territory. With the power of the Internet and various used car search engines at my finger tips I carried out my noble quest, expanding my search area again and again until there it was. Exactly the car I was looking for and at a dealership in Connecticut.

Here's how the thought process went as I discovered it while taking a brief break for lunch on a Tuesday: Oh wow. That's it. There it is. Is it a 2006? Yes. 6-speed manual? Yes. Reasonable mileage? Excellent! Color? Dark grey...mmmm cool. It even has a spoiler package? Oooooo very very cool. In my price range? Close enough. I'll just be extra super sweet to the wife from now until the end of time! But it's the web. Oh no. Maybe it's still online but has actually already been sold. I'd better call. Yes, it's still there? How late are you open tonight? Hmmm...if I leave work right on time and only mildly stretch the speed limit (really, I'd just be going as fast as everyone else around me; it's a safety thing, you know), I could make it there before they close tonight. Because as we all know, someone else could come along to snatch up that car now that I've discovered it. So yes, I'll be there.

Four days later, I drove home in my new, pre-owned Acura TSX. It only took test drives of and deposits on (refunded of course) two other cars that were almost perfect and a quest through three states to find it but this ride is worth every minute, dollar, and gallon of gas spent during that search.

And the fact that my mother-in-law just happens to also drive an Acura TSX? Does that detract from my feeling of automotive coolness?


Because I've got a spoiler.

And my mother-in-law is actually pretty cool. So sue me.


Anonymous said...

I ran into the same problem with a Volvo. You could hook up the iPod but only by splicing into the CD player and then you could only listen to 5 or 6 playlists that corresponded to the 6 slots for CDs. At least they eventually got around to adding a audio in jack.

But I can completely understand that being a deal breaker.

Ellen Arlinsky said...

If I were really cool, I'd be driving a Lamborghini.
Chris's mother-in-law