The new car

So, I bought a new car.

As I wrote back in my post about the accident, the insurance company made the entire episode pretty painless. They towed my Saturn to a collision repair shop and got me to Enterprise, where there was a rental car waiting for me. I got the car for up to two weeks (which turned into three when I explained that Pesach would prevent me from shopping for a new car) and, once they declared my car a total loss, they sent me a check for about $1,000 *more* than [Edmunds]( said it would cost to replace the Saturn. So, with the insurance check in hand, I set out to find a replacement car.

Let me tell you, buying a car is a pain in the rear… and that’s from a guy who actually *enjoys* doing it!

The first decision I had to make was easy: What category of car do I want? I quickly closed my eyes to SUVs and sporty cars and decided to stick with the compact sedan, which is where my old car fit in.

The next question was “New or Used?” This one took me a while. I visited my local [CarMax]( three different times and test drove three different vehicles, a Toyota Prius, a Chrysler PT Cruiser and a Saturn L200. They all drove great, but the Saturn, which had the lowest milage of any of them, had 35,000 miles on it, and I couldn’t get over being frightened of driving a car with that many miles on it.

You see, my Saturn, which I bought new in 1997, had only 43,000 miles on it when I totalled it. That’s less than 5,000 miles per year. I could drive a new car for seven years before it racked up as many miles as that Saturn L200!

But, there are benefits to buying a used car. Foremost among them is the fact that, for the same money, you can purchase “more” car, since a used car has already depreciated significantly in value when compared to a new one, right? But, it seems that CarMax charges a little more for cars than other places (which I think is worth it for the extra services and excellent customer service they provide). The problem is that they charge so much more that I couldn’t find an acceptable used car for the price of the new compact sedans I was considering. So, I was back to new.

I did some research at Edmund’s then headed out to test drive. I looked at the Ford Focus, the Saturn Ion 2, the Hyundai Elantra, the Kia Spectra, the Toyota Yaris, the Scion XB and the Honda Fit.


Here’s how they broke down:

* Toyota Yaris – Fun to drive but *much* too small. This is a college-kid’s car.
* Scion XA – Hard to believe, but this car is even smaller than the Yaris.
* Scion XB – I surprised myself by falling in love with this really ugly car. But, I realized that its remarkable backseat room, which was what I liked the most about it, wasn’t on the list of things I needed in my new car. Plus, since it’s a Toyota, the engine is top-quality… but, to keep the cost down, they down-graded the fit and finish on the inside. It drives really well and will probably last forever, but it *feels* cheap.
* Ford Focus – I had this car as a rental while I shopped. I liked it a lot but–and I know this sounds stupid–I hated the cupholders. They’re simply too far away, way down by your ankles. And there is no center armrest, so I was uncomfortable while driving it.
* Saturn Ion 2 – I like this car a lot. It’s the new version of the SL2 I wrecked, but a little sportier. It drives really nicely and is a quiet ride. This was a strong contender.
* Hyundai Elantra – This car surprised me quite a bit. Hyundai is postiioned where Toyota was 20 years ago: they make high-quality imports and give quite a bit of fit and finish away to get their cars onto the road.
* Kia Spectra – This was simply the cheapest car I looked at. I considered it my baseline: It was acceptable, but basic and plain in every way.
* Honda Fit – I liked this car a lot. It’s got Honda quality and does some neat tricks with the back seats to create a ton of room in various configurations. But, the lack of a center armrest turned me off. Plus, since it’s a brand-new model, it’s priced a little higher than I wanted to spend.

loan_chart.001So, I narrowed this list down to the real contenders, the Elantra, the Ion 2, the Spectra and the Focus. I drove each, studied the brochures and visited the dealerships again to get price quotes. I also secured a loan offer from and drew up a spreadsheet to compare all of the prices and financing options. This graph shows the three- and four-year loan options for each (a 36-month loan is in blue, 48-month is green).

As a brief aside, I have to say that the process of getting cost information from car dealers is quite different than it used to be. I last bought a new car in 2000, and, then, it was still a challenge: the salesman would play the “let me go ask my manager if I can tell you what the car costs yet’ game. I didn’t have that experience at all this time: every dealership I walked in to made me a real-world, down-to-the-dollar offer within fifteen minutes. It was simple. I asked, “What does the car cost with these options?” and the saleman told me, often to the penny. That sort of no-nonsense dealing is what got Saturn started… and they’re not the only ones doing it anymore.

Anyway, I created the spreadsheet and was surprised to see how close all of my contenders stood when compared month-to-month. What the decision boiled down to was the silly things: cup holders, key fobs, cruise control and radio options. When I had it boiled down to two final choices, the Saturn Ion2 and the Hyundai Elantra, the key difference was that the Saturn had a place to plug my iPod in and the Elantra had more back seat headroom and better cup holders.

I decided on the Saturn and went out to the dealership to pick a color… then took one last look at the car, seeing it for the first time with the eyes of someone who just bought it, as opposed to the eyes of someone who was about to buy it. And, I’m sorry to say, the car didn’t look as good. It wasn’t any one, specific thing… but now that I had told the salesman to find me one in my color, the car lost some of its luster.

Then, on the way home, I stopped and took another look at the Elantra. The sales manager asked me why I was there, since I had told him he could sell the one manual-transmission Elantra they had in stock, so I told him that I was still on the fence but couldn’t figure out why. Like a good salesman, he reminded me that the Elantra was a better car, with more air bags, a more luxurious interior, free oil changes for life and a better waranty. When I got home and the Saturn guy called to say that they couldn’t find one that was the right color, things fell into place and I made my final decision. Again.

elantraI called Hyundai back and told the kid who was, technically, my salesman, that, if the car came with floormats, I’d buy it. He said that it did and that, by buying it, I’d made him “very happy.” His voice cracked as he said it; I may have been his first sale.

So, that’s the story. I’ve been driving the car now for about three weeks and I *love* it. Every time I head out to the garage or parking lot to somewhere, I smile and get a little jolt because I’m about to drive my “new car.” The only thing left to do is probably install a new stereo because I really would like that little aux-in port to plug my iPod shuffle in. Other than that, things are *great.*

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