Saturday, June 7, 2008

Can Someone Just Choose For Me?

My car turned 11 years old today. Well, at least 11 years old in my ownership of it (and I’m the only owner). I’m still calling this its birthday though. It’s seen a lot of history with me, and a couple of minor incidents.

It’s an Explorer, and to be honest I hate Fords at this point and am not likely to buy American (or at least Ford) again given the quality issues I’ve had with this car (and my previous Explorer – which says a lot for me being a slow learner, right?)

For as many issues as it’s had over the years – the most recent being a mysterious unwillingness to start again if I’ve driven awhile in hot weather, stop the car and restart it in under twenty minutes. Given that this last issue cropped up last summer, you’d think that I would have replaced it before now. Knock on wood, I haven’t had this issue yet this summer.

I haven’t replaced it yet though for several reasons. The first is that I tend to be a bit ummm frugal, shall we say. I hate spending money on things like this, and a car is a huge money pit of a depreciating asset. More importantly, I couldn’t decide what to replace my Explorer with.

Part of the debate was sedan vs SUV (minivan isn’t a consideration – I just can’t bring myself to buy one). Gas mileage alone, sedan all the way and hopefully hybrid. However, I have two small children and am already starting to need to carpool. Plus, when my family goes somewhere with my parents (which we do frequently since they live 15 minutes away), we always take two cars because 6 people don’t fit into any of our cars.

I did finally decide SUV is the way to go, but I continue to have the dilemma of what to buy. There isn’t a car that jumps out at me shouting BUY ME! Many marketers will be crushed to hear that, I’m sure. I definitely don’t want a car any bigger than my 1997 Explorer (the current Explorer is already a bit bigger), but I also want a third row.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog for more than a couple weeks, but my dad has decided that he’s going to get a new car after the breakdown he had on Wednesday (fuel pump went on his 12 year old 150K mile Yukon). So yesterday, we went car shopping together.

The first dealership we went to was a Chevy dealership to look at the Tahoe hybrid. Ray greeted us, and internally I groaned. I hate to stereotype, but Ray lived up to it in the end. He was a quite elderly, slightly unkempt looking man in a non-matching plaid collared shirt and pants.

We asked about the Tahoe, and luckily there was one on the showroom floor. As we asked what the third row seating looked like folded down, he tried to describe it until we asked him to actually show us with the car sitting in front of him. He walked around to the back but couldn’t get the tailgate to lift – entertainingly, he did the “Hey, watch this; it’s really cool!” – because the battery was dead in the car. Hmm. “Well, I suppose if you really want to see it I can find a car on the lot and bring it around for you to look at.” Uhhh yeah, actually we were hoping to do a test drive, so please bring a car around, thanks.

Ray then disappeared for the next 15 minutes. Had I not been with my dad, I would have been out of the dealership well before he finally walked back to us. My dad, however, really wanted that test drive, so he hung out in the driver’s seat of the non-functioning showroom car looking around the interior.

Ray’s expression wasn’t too promising, and well… neither of the two hybrid Tahoes he had on the lot were functioning. They both had dead batteries, too. Apparently it had been awhile since anyone had expressed any interest in driving them. He was going to have someone jump them though. Comforting.

We finally got into a car that was running, and my dad noticed that the gas gauge was on empty. Ray then went back into the dealership to get a voucher for gas. Apparently either changing to the other car that was now also running wasn’t an option or it’s normal for cars on the lot to not have gas. We drove to the gas station, and I won the bet with my dad. I chose the under on his line of 5 gallons. Yep, 4.65 gallons – just under $20 – went into the tank. My confidence in the dealership continued to plummet – the two-thirds empty lot for a brand whose fortunes are down (along with the caliber of salespeople still there) makes me wonder how long the dealership will remain afloat.

As we drove down a side street, I commented that I had not seen a certain neighborhood before but that the houses were really cute. My dad explained that they were actually Habitat for Humanity houses, which was pretty cool. Then Ray piped up from the back seat that nope, they weren’t Habitat, they were built in 2000, they were like townhomes but with no wall sharing, they have full basements, the neighbors are all really nice, etc etc. In case you can’t guess, Ray himself lives in that not-Habitat neighborhood. My poor dad.

Unfortunately, the Tahoe wasn’t even an option. The seats didn’t even come close to folding flat in the third row (a need for Costco trips!), it was really hard to get into the third row, etc etc.

We then moved on to the Honda dealership a mile or so away. There, we were greeted by someone opening the door and welcoming us. All the employees wore smart looking matching outfits. Dustin was able to answer questions we had about the Pilot (unlike poor Ray). He could walk through all the features on the various levels of the Pilot, plus the differences between the 2008 and 2009 models.

He quickly brought around a 2009 for us to drive and kept us up to date with everything he was doing, so we never wondered where he was or what he was doing while we were patiently twiddling our thumbs. That alone earns Honda some points in my book. Plus, the Pilot is a far superior car in my book.

It’s a much more comfortable drive – the Tahoe really was too big for me. The cupholders and storage areas are intelligently designed vs just dumping space together. Lots and lots of clever little things within the car, including my dad’s favorite feature, the backup camera mounted in the rearview mirror. On a lark, I’d stopped by the Toyota dealer about a month ago and test driven the Highlander and been perfectly content with it. But it’s hard-pressed to compare with the Pilot in terms of intelligent features.

We then proceeded to the Toyota dealership, where the intelligent and put together guy I briefly spoke with at my previous test drive was not around. Instead, Raymond helped us out. What is it about people named Raymond? He was very similar to Ray from the Chevy dealership in both looks and attitude. Actually, his attitude was worse than Ray’s.

We did finally get a hybrid Highlander to test drive, but unfortunately he knew nothing about the car. C’mon the 2009 Pilot has been out a few weeks and Dustin can recite everything it has and all the changes from 2008. The Highlander has been out since October of last year, and Raymond couldn’t answer half the questions we asked him (and they weren’t hard – things like does the third row support LATCH? Not a good sign when he’s never heard of LATCH).

Raymond never tried to sell us on the car. There was no reason in his mind why we should purchase this over anything else. In fact, he walked away from us twice to go talk to his buddies when we were looking at the car before driving it. And when we finished the test drive, he went inside and basically shook our hands and that was it. Truthfully, if I do go with a Highlander, I will be sure to not deal with Raymond as I don't want him to get any commission off me for his poor performance. And my dad, who's generally far more patient than I am, feels the same way.

Anyway, we drove the Highlander hybrid, as well, and we were definitely not as impressed. The storage space wasn’t as intelligently designed as the Pilot, nor was there as much of it. The backup camera was in the center console vs rearview mirror, which meant my dad couldn’t see it for the glare of the sun when he was driving. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable inside, and the seats don’t fold as flat. Plus, it is more narrow inside, so the middle seat of the middle row is literally about 5 inches wide and not really a feasible seat.

However, it isn’t a bad car. Plus, it gets 25/27MPG vs 17/23 for the Pilot. Given the state of the economy and me already feeling bad that I’m going to get another SUV vs a smaller car, I’d tend to go for the higher mileage. But the hybrids still aren’t even close to perfected. If I keep the car for say 6 years instead of 10 plus and get the much improved hybrid then, maybe that’s the smarter move. Plus, I already get more than the stated mileage on my Explorer because of the way I drive (my insurance company loves me), which means that I’d be closer to the 20s than high teens with the Pilot. And it’s a much better car.

Then, there’s the price differential. The hybrid is priced a whole lot higher than the Pilot, and I’m not sure I can justify the increased cost, although I’ll be creating a spreadsheet on the breakeven under a number of scenarios within the next few days. And the way Toyota does their features, I tend to end up with a package that has things I really don’t want (e.g., DVD player) to get things I sort of want (e.g., navigation system or other minor upgrades). That drives the price up even more.

When talking to my dad today, he’s definitely going with the Pilot. And he’ll probably buy one sometime next week, knowing him. I don’t know that I’m quite that ready to pull the trigger this quickly, but he doesn’t have quite the same issues given that he’s retired and puts fewer than 6,000 miles on a car annually. Oh yeah, and do I really want the same car my dad has? Sorta weird, no?

I do know that I need to replace my car somewhat soon. I really don’t want to get stuck somewhere with the wee ones (or needing to get to the wee ones). But I’m still not sure. Anyone have any experience positive or negative with any of these? Or for that matter, any tips on how to ensure I get the best deal?


Mary June 7, 2008 at 10:39 PM  

I have a sexy mini-van! 3 rows of seats and with stow and go, they fold down in nice and flat. I love my mini-van! I got it new last summer. It's spiffy!

Hope you find your dream car or SUV or whatever ends up calling your name! It's like getting married, you gotta find the right one.

Feener June 8, 2008 at 1:56 PM  

interesting as we are ready to start looking for a new car and our choices are the highlander and the pilot. i have no advice b/c i go and i basically just want to buy the one i like. i tend to stop thinking bout price or the sales guy. hence why hubby will do the negotiating

Michelle June 8, 2008 at 8:48 PM  

Mary -- Yeah but if you don't believe in *the* right one then what do you do? :) I will say that I'm leaning more and more towards the new Pilot though.

Feener -- That's too funny! You'll have to let me know what you think of both cars when you see them. I'll be interested to know what your thoughts are. Oh, and you sound like my husband. When he got his new car a few years ago, he walked into a dealership knowing he wanted a newer version of his car, drove it and was going to buy it that night -- all while knowing nothing about the car. I did the negotiating for him and saved him about $4K on his new Camry. It's all about personality!

Cookie June 8, 2008 at 10:41 PM  

Mary's comment cracked me up! I always say that i have a "sporty red minivan!" But I'm ready to a get a new car too. Mine is 8 years old. I'm hoping it will last at least till September 2009, that's when hub's work bonus will come. Good luck with the car shopping. I hate car shopping almost as much as I hate furniture shopping!

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