An Auto Journalist’s Worst Nightmare

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— story by Jason Fogelson

My sister and her family needed to upgrade their transportation recently, and through some twists and turns, I wound up selling them my trusty 2005 Toyota 4Runner, the second 4Runner in a row that I had owned and passed along to my sister. Only then did I realize that I was about to enter an auto journalist’s worst nightmare: I needed to buy a vehicle. Not because I wanted one, but because I needed one. I had become a consumer.

If that doesn’t send a bolt of fear through your heart, it’s because you haven’t experienced the car-buying process recently. I had to ask myself all of the same questions that I put to friends and relatives who ask for my advice. How do you use your car? What kind of driving do you do? How long do you think you’ll own this car? Who will be driving it besides you? And the frightening question: How much do you want to spend? What’s your budget?

My thoughts immediately turned to a roadster. I recently missed the chance to buy a neighbor’s 1978 Porsche 911SC Targa, and I was full of remorse. Maybe this would be my opportunity to own a Porsche? A used Boxster could fall near my budget range. Or maybe this was my chance to get that Honda S2000 that I’ve coveted, or even the classic Triumph TR6 that has been on my wish list for about 40 years.

The roadster fantasy lasted about a week. It finally sunk in that my two big dogs would never fit into a roadster, and even Costco runs would become a challenge. The roadster was out, at least as an only car.

Maybe another 4Runner would do the trick. I quickly crossed that one off the list, too. I decided to concentrate on compact to midsize crossover vehicles with high reliability and low fuel and maintenance costs, shorter and narrower than 4Runner to leave a little bit of open space in my two-car garage (keeping the roadster/second motorcycle dream alive in theory).

I proceeded to buttonhole my colleagues for their opinions. June was a busy travel month during which I attended four launch events. I’m sure I bored every co-driver with my questions and musings about what to buy. I got plenty of feedback, and some great suggestions. Judie Stanford from Texas actually had me talked into a 2008 Porsche Cayenne S for a little while, responding to my 911/Boxster longing with a dog-friendly compromise. Luckily, several level-headed colleagues talked me down from the Cayenne, focusing on the potential for expensive repairs down the line.

Aaron Gold reminded me that I really liked the Honda Element, especially the “Dog-Friendly” edition that I reviewed with a manual transmission. I used the internet to track down a manual-transmission 2008 Element for sale by a private party in Santa Monica, about 11 miles from my house. The asking price was reasonable for the crossover, which only had about 60,000 miles on the clock. I exchanged numerous texts and emails with the seller, who assured me that the Element was in “Excellent” condition, with just one small ding near the rear wheel. She texted me some photos of the pickle-sized dent, and I decided to arrange a look. I got a loan pre-approved from my credit union, and scheduled a meet-up for the weekend.

My wife and I drove over to Santa Monica, and spotted an Element in perfect shape parked at the owner’s address. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the subject vehicle. A minute later, another Element pulled up with the seller behind the wheel. “Sorry I’m late,” the young lady called out through the open window. “I realized that there was no gas in the tank, and when I went to start the car, the battery was dead. I have to keep my foot on the gas or it will stall.” Uh-oh.

She pulled into a parking space, and stalled the Element to a stop. I took a quick walk around the vehicle, and immediately spotted several scrapes and dents that she hadn’t disclosed and that didn’t show up in photos. A quick look at the interior revealed faded upholstery, floor mats that were worn through, and general dishevelment. Not the car that was described, and not a car I was interested in buying.

I didn’t even take it for a drive. I told the seller that I thought she had made a mistake describing this Element as “Excellent,” and pointed out the shiny example across the street. “That’s ‘Excellent.’” She was sheepish and apologetic, and asked if there was a lower price that would change my mind, but I was turned off, and my wife and I left without negotiating. I had to regroup, and rethink my car choice again.

The next day, Monday, on a whim, I drove to a nearby Mazda dealer. I decided to drive the new CX-5 again (I’ve reviewed it in the past) to see if it still appealed to me. I found a new 2016.5 Touring model in a good color, and asked my salesperson to put together a price. While he was working on it, I walked out to the used car lot to browse. I found a 2014 CX-5 Touring that was exactly within my budget, but it had 60,000 miles on the clock. The new CX-5 came in way above my desired spend, so I was ready to head back home to think some more. Of course, my salesperson asked if I would mind talking to his manager before I departed. I knew that I was being worked, but that was fine. He asked what I was looking for, and I told him that the 2014 CX-5 was close, but had too many miles. He punched a few keys, and discovered that he had a 2014 CX-5 in the service loaner fleet with 8,954 miles on it. Would that fit the bill? I took a quick drive, he named a fair price, and I went home to think it over. The next morning, I called my salesperson and made arrangements to close the deal. A few hours later my new (to me) CX-5 had found its new home in my garage.

What lessons did I learn from this experience? Buying a car is a nerve-wracking experience from start to finish, even for an educated consumer. From the moment that I decided I was in the market until the time that I had the keys in my hand with all of the paperwork out of the way, I thought of little else. I had ricocheted through a dozen possibilities, driven a dozen cars, and worried myself silly before I finally pulled the trigger. I’m very happy with my choice, and I’m sure that the CX-5 will be my daily driver for years to come.

Thank you to everyone who helped me make this decision. It’ll take a while for me to stop missing my 4Runner, but the CX-5 will grow on me – especially when I calculate my fuel savings at the end of the year.

I will remind myself how challenging this process was as I work on my articles and reviews in the future. Buying a car is a major decision, and every bit of empathy and support matters.

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