How to sell a car, circa 2022 AD…
The Good Old Days
Buying a car is… different… Can I put it that way?
Last time I needed to do so was like 2003 or ’04. Toyota Camry. Walked into my targeted dealer in New Jersey after having accomplished test drives elsewhere, narrowed down the models, etc., having flirted with Nissan Muranos and Honda Accords and rejecting those ideas, and scanned around for the least sleazy looking salesguy I could spot. Older guy, snappy suit, probably into doo-wop back in his day. I had chosen rightly; he was cordial, gracious, and natural. Handshake, exchanged pleasantries, then I told him, ok so I want to buy a new salsa red Camry LE with a sunroof and no other options, and I want to pay 21K even, 20% down. I’d done my homework and had set numbers up so that he had a decent commission and a haggle-free scenario. It was over in five minutes; we spent the next ten or so exchanging stories about his rambling days in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had the car in two weeks. Low maintenance, decent gas mileage, and most importantly: longevity. Literally the only downside of the entire operation was the obligatory result-less conversation about rust-proofing the under carriage, which he downloaded to an underling.
Plus it came with a free CD player. Useful to me since I had five or six hundred CDs and fairly particular tastes in music, and a regular need for longish rides. In those ancient times you could still regularly find decent classical, world roots music, and jazz stations on the FM dial. That has become hard to do nowadays. There’s a lot of pre-pubescent stuff dominating the dial nowadays and 90% of the pop people being pushed seem to not be able to play instruments much or comprehend (or care) what a melody is. CD players are passé now; instead you get a central viewing console which scrolls through the extant radio stations and can bluetooth merge with Spotify or other curated web services. I prefer my teeth ivory-hued and my music hand-selected… my hands.
Other things have changed too, if you’ve not bought a car in two decades. For example: it is confusing now how to turn your car off. The off button seems to leave vestigal supporting activities still operating, kind of like when a corpse can still emit gas. My new car tells me goodbye with various lights still on and chime toned epigrams such as: Warning! Objects on rear seat! It also beeps with alarm, seemingly under arbitrary conditions, when it thinks another auto is too near to my front bumper. (But never for a person or bicycle.) The cars start keylessly, at the push of a button, although you still carry around a clump of keys for some nebulous design reason. Also, since many drives begin with the need to move the vehicle in reverse, you are presented with a realtime camera view of what is behind you — kind of a nifty if disorienting feature. There is easily as much software as there is hardware comprising the new vehicle, judging by the contents of the owner’s manual. And having been a software professional, I cannot help but speculate, negatively, what I am in for maintenance-wise down the road when glitches rear their heads. I can easily picture, for example, deadpan auto mechanics informing me that I will need pay $650 to replace doohickey #375-Z because a new Java bug was uncovered.
The car I got is a Hyundai Elantra. South Korean. Nice color, feels sturdy, performs great, and it fulfills the number one requirement I had stipulated: excellent gas consumption figures (in the absence of an electric). The other pleasant positive I can report concerning the acquisition process is that the negotiation haggle/hassle has been reduced to virtually zero. Personnel are still salesy in demeanor; speaking velocity is warp-9. But they seem to leave it 100% up to you to tell them what you want. Their chief pre-sales function is to make sure you comprehend the car-build website mechanism which walks you through all the available options and even financing. There is not a lot of undue customizing. And the price is the price. Period. The website tells you the number quite factually. No movement up or down. Nationwide standard.
There is a dinosaur-sized BUT to all this transactional modernity, however.
My previous vehicle expired sometime in April, though it wasn’t all that healthy in snowy March. Harder and harder, and harder to start up. Oil leaking, battery drains, scary near-stalls at traffic lights. Garage said no can fix. Options were replace engine for five thousand bucks, once you locate a used one, or get a new car. I still recalled the Puerto Rican doo-wop gentleman and imagined okay, maybe not such a bad turn of events. I had figured out how to get groceries delivered, ordered from supermarket websites, and was selectively using taxis when necessary, but it was getting pricey and old. I found a rental car place a 2-kilometer walk away and set up a cheapo rental for a week. They assigned me a late model Kona and said to swing by before lunch time. Sorry, we’re a small-time operation, so can’t deliver. The Kona looked spiffy and I figured I could spend the week visiting nearby car dealers, do some test drives, and hopefully get everything in place for my next vehicle by the time I had to return the rental.
No. First clue about the concealed miseries of modernity was the rental contract price. Although the website had thrown around affordable numbers like $250 per week, this bill was cheerily presented at just under $900. The clerk was absolutely beautiful with the most fetching English accent — and brand new, her first day.
“Umm, question. Un question, s’il vous plait, mais le site du web a dit un prix moins que $300 pour, uh, a week, par semaine.”
She seemed genuinely flabbergasted at this, as well as plunged into uncertainty, given my pronunciation, as to whether to try her English on me or plow ahead in French. She opted for staring at her monitor for twenty seconds and stammering a little. Finally, clicking a few icons, she announced exploringly that she could offer me a reduction down to slightly above $800 for the week.
I explained, with deficient vocabulary, that I had no beef with her personally, but that the woman I had spoken with on the phone Thursday seemed cool with the website price. She grokked me eventually, and after blushing that the woman in question had departed the enterprise, demurred that she was going to seek a more bilingual manager type who could explain everything more articulately. She remained dutifully at his side when she returned with him, diligent in her analyzing of the ensuing English. The guy explained that the prices more than doubled over the weekend because of the situation in Quebec, and also to some degree, worldwide, you understand.
— “Yes. Combination of things, a perfect storm. Covid, Ukraine, the recent storm…”
It’s true there was this devastating spring storm two weeks before, very close to a tornado. I watched it from my window, albeit standing back a good six feet. Sky almost black even at 4 in the afternoon. Swirling black dust and wind, color wiped away from the entire panorama. Fairly tall pine trees bending up to 90 degrees, no exaggeration — those things can outbend yoginis, and absolutely torrential wind and rains. Deafening noise. I lost one 75-foot fir tree with an unearthly thud detected more in my stomach than by my ears. Neighbor had a shapely old willow tree snap into the side of their house. I nodded in comprehension as the manager went on drawing his connections.
— “In Quebec alone, in the Laurentians, 780 cars were destroyed by felled trees. All the insurance companies called us clamoring to buy out our inventory and extend rental contracts for a month. And it is the same story all over the place. Nobody has any cars. We cannot increase our fleet with purchases because the war in Ukraine has closed the pipelines for many key auto parts. Everything is on hold. Plus lots of employees have checked out because of the covid factory shutdowns. Demand is through the roof and dealers are telling us the wait times for new cars are indefinite, at least four months if you want something with decent fuel consumption. Complicating all this, nobody wants to work anymore. The gas prices make it cheaper to stay home. We cannot hire anyone.”
While the fetching new girl was flinching at this, I took the deal for one week, happy to actually convey myself somewhere without walking. But I knew that budgets would preclude much more of this sort of thing. Further, I drove past a gas station or two on the way home, and could not believe that the prices had increased another 30% since last I drove! Still, I naively looked forward to systematically visiting the dealers next morning.
Kia. Mazda. Honda, Toyota, Hyundai. Subaru. A not too far-off highway had all of these clumped together within a mile or two of one another. Off I went after breakfast. By 11 o’clock I was utterly defeated. For one thing, the showrooms were empty. You could not try anything, except occasionally, for a luxuty model something or other, and even then you had to be convincing. Salespeople were scarce also. Nobody greeted you, or even took notice. You had to hunt employees down, whereupon they greeted your questions as though you were from Pluto. The net-net of it was that inventories were universally zero, typical lag times for ordering a new vehicle was 3 or 4 months at a minimum, test-drives were a quaint concept, and one got the sense that even these estimates were delivered with a kind of false bravado, the truth being that nobody actually knew anything about when matters would resolve. All subsequent car shopping would be relegated to the phone and online. (Additionally, as I later learned, phone answering by salesfolk was itself a fairly haphazard prospect.)
Got rid of the Kona after a week and meanwhile I had test built a dozen or so brand new cars at dealer websites. I called dealers in widening circles of miles from home. Nobody had anything. Once in a while somebody could — maybe — get me an SUV. Not an option considering fuel costs. There were also Cadillacs, Lamborghinis, and Porsches to be had. I went through various Plan B schemes. Thought about how to set up homeschooling for my son, checked out the various used car venues — which the market had driven to absurd prices — and considered motorcycles, a pretty seasonal idea in my climate. I cycled through various key dealers, touching base with them once a week or so. I joined DoorDash for occasional meal deliveries and got to know a dozen or so drivers. I even dreamed up a vacation with my son to Halifax, a fourteen hour drive away, cheap flight, to pick up a car there if it could be arranged. It couldn’t. After a month of this, I was texting with a friend who couldn’t believe it all, and on a lark she made a phone call to her old dealer for her previous car. She texted me back in caps that they had a car. One car. Elantra. HUH?? How could that be? She told me that she gave them my name and that I would call them back pronto. The salesguy told me, in complicated French, that a customer who had waited forever and was supposed to take delivery next week on a 2022 had changed their mind and decided to move to Alberta province. We were the first people to know about it. It was mine if I wanted it, but I had to let them know within half an hour.
I had never driven one. I quickly reviewed all the consumer info about them. Good ratings. I texted the guy:
How’s this work?
— You have to text me an image of your license and credit card. We’d take an imprint for a $300 deposit, which secures it in your name.
What model, and it is there, I mean physically, at your shop?
— Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I am sending you the photo right now, it is right next to me in the showroom.
The guy texted me a photo of it, including the VIN #. Told me it was an Elantra Select S, rattled off some features, gave me the list price, the only price.
OK, let’s do it. Sending you the images…
— Congrats. I will setup the paperwork; you can do almost everything online, but you have to come here to finalize. It could be as soon as tomorrow or the next day.
I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it. Just like that? The complexion of everything had changed. As it happened, I should not have believed it. Not entirely.
It would be more than five additional weeks before I had wheels again. The Elantra would eventually come through, but a technicality intervened almost at once. Cedric, my guy at the dealer, opened my file, got past all the financials, and told me he would get back to me definitely before the weekend. Friday afternoon I called him and got his voice message… home for the weekend, get back to you Monday. Cedric did not work Friday afternoons. Nobody did. Not enough business to warrant it. Early next week I got a voicemail from him.
— Sorry I missed your call Friday Mr S. We pretty much close down here after lunch. Listen, there is a minor, minor hitch. The car is definitely yours. Says so on our shopboard. But Hyundai Canada requires that we include a very small part before you can take delivery. We are expecting the part very soon from Toronto. Possibly tomorrow. I will call you at once. Thanks for your patience!
He’d also sent me an image of their shopboard. and my name was at the top. Elantra. Sold. What was the part, I wondered? We got around to talking on Thursday. He explained that the director knows about my situation, how I do not have a car and am waiting, but the part has been held up. It had something to do with a security recall. The part was a small hard plastic insert. I asked if maybe they had a courtesy car available but he assured me no need as the situation was bound to resolve very quickly.
We fell into a pattern of reconnecting weekly, Thursday mornings. I could tell he was frustrated but knew and could do nothing. Very sorry, but no loaner cars available. They had hundreds of people on waiting list for ordered vehicles, and nearly all of them had clamored for loaners at some point. I asked him how widespread this issue was, and he said beyond Canada even. All of North America on hold. I looked up the Hyundai 2022 recall info and saw a possibly explosive metal fragment mentioned upon airbag deployment. Affected thousands of Elantras, most of which were already owned. Hyundai was mailing out official recall notices to them no later than July 10th. This made me wonder. If all these owners were already driving around in their 2022 Elantras, obtained before May presumably, why couldn’t I just take delivery immediately and visit their service center soon as the part came in? No. Very sorry. But it is a legal matter, you see. We cannot do anything about the people who already have their vehicles but mail out notices. But for you, we must wait until we can change the part. It is very dangerous. But you are first in line, I promise.
Little over a week ago, after I’d stopped asking, I got frantic rapid-fire messages that the part arrived and could I take delivery tomorrow at 3PM, please? Yes. I can do that, Cedric. Thanks.
There are plenty of advantages to localized commerce. Global supply mechanisms have strange consequences sometimes. The more abstracted and centralized various kinds of resource dispensations are, the more control over thousands or millions can reside in the hands of the very few. There can be both deliberate and inadvertent abuses. It gives new meaning to the phrase dark web. For nowadays information itself, as a resource, has become oddly controllable by a small core of individuals with the capacity to affect millions. And brilliantly enough, there is on top of this a widespread ideal out there that we can and should entrust all of this distribution deciding to AIs in order to maximize efficiencies and eradicate the stench of human fallibility from any such judgments. Gee! What a swell idea!
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