A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Smart Car from a To(yo)tal Idiot
Setting foot unsuspectingly on to a Toyota lot, we were eagerly approached by a salesman whom I’ll call Pebbles, suggested by his real name, but more suggestive of what was rattling around inside his skull. What should have been the tip-off that this was not going to be a winning match between seller and buyer? If it weren’t out of bounds to judge by appearances, I’d say it could have been the young man’s mahogany tan, heavily-moussed hair, or maybe the faux-diamond stud in his ear.
Or maybe it was the “Yes, we have no cars” approach. There wasn’t a Toyota in the showroom, so Pebbles led us up a hill, me gimping along shortly after knee surgery, to a dirt back-lot where a couple of Camrys and some other vehicles were parked. We were there to look at a Prius, but good luck with that. They were taking $500 deposits just to have dibs on one when it came in, with a 6-8 week lead-time on orders. It was worth looking at a 2010 Camry, since we liked the three we had previously, more than our current Accord. While Pebbles ran to get a license plate, CE and I exchanged smiles. His puppy-like enthusiasm reminded her of Jason Street at Buddy Garrity’s dealership on Friday Night Lights, but I felt that was an insult to the Dillon Panther’s fallen star quarterback, who was equally earnest but not nearly so clueless.
I was already tuning Pebbles out, but I caught his lead-in pitch about how the new Camry had changed, talking about its “more aggressive” front end. Apparently Pebbles mistook us for Hummer shoppers. But face it, the Camry is a nice ride, and the interior changes were a plus. We didn’t learn much about features other than the MP3 port, even after we told him we didn’t have an iPod, as he extolled it as one of the virtues of his mother’s car, which he was driving now, because his car was being shipped up from Florida, where he had been for seven months before returning to the Berkshires, and on and on with more than we wanted to hear and less than we wanted to know.
We left it that he would call us when they got any sort of Prius delivered, which we could sit in but not drive because it would already be sold. The two phone contacts Pebbles gave us turned out to be wrong numbers (one a dead line and the other answering in Quebecois French), and he called the Clark instead of the home number we gave him, so we got his message too late to sneak a peak at one Prius passing through, and then heard no more.
The weeks went by, and on two trips for service, we got to look over the more ample offerings at the Honda dealership. I was rather taken by the Swiss-army-knife cleverness of the Fit (which was on the cover of the Consumer Reports auto issue as the most economical car to own over five years, though the inside story gave the crown to the Prius, based on a slightly different calculation), but did not care for the initial feel of either of the Honda hybrids, and found the Accord just too upsized and elaborate.
When we went back for test drives, however, the Fit proved underpowered and less than comfortable for highway driving, intended more as a versatile urban car, but the highly approachable and low-key salesman directed our attention to the Civic as closer to what the 2001 Accord was. They were more than ready to deal, and we walked out of the showroom with the intention of researching the Civic, which hadn’t been among our antecedent choices, and the expectation of going back within the week and making the deal.
Once we were on the verge of buying, due diligence led us to take a comparative look at the Corolla and make one last effort to see a Prius. We were literally on our way out the door to the Toyota dealer, when Pebbles finally called and said there was a Prius not just to see but available, because on delivery the buyer had decided to get one of the pricier models. I actually had been hoping to go back and see some other salesman, but welcomed the lucky chance to drive the Prius. In the event, it was vehicular love at first sight, and within a couple of hours CE had herself a new car, an act that seemed impulsive at the time but has seemed nothing but right since. The car itself may be great, but what I’m talking about here are all the obstacles Pebbles interjected between us and our automotive desire.
First off, let me observe that a Prius is easy and fun to drive, but a little bit different from a conventional car. It’s not rocket science, despite the feel of the cockpit, but Pebbles did his best to make it seem just as forbidding. This happened to be the standard model with only the audio option added, so the first thing Pebbles went on about was the built-in Bluetooth connectivity. When we told him we didn’t have cellphones, he paused in his patter for a second — “No cellphones? Really?” — but then went on chattering. A little flummoxed by the keyless ignition, I was looking around for guidance, when Pebbles assured me, “It’s easy, just start it like a snowmobile.” That didn’t help me, but I held my tongue and suppressed my deepest prejudice, my visceral reaction to all drivers of recreational off-road vehicles, which amounts to “Exterminate the brutes.”
So there I was, bumbling about, a stranger in a strange car, trying to get it started and into gear, while Pebbles babbled on and on, about the holographic dashboard display activated by controls on the steering wheel, about the three different driving modes — EV, ECO, and Power — which are really needless overrides that one would rarely use. About anything but the reassurance that driving a hybrid is not all that difficult, once you’re aware of a few simple differences. All the bells and whistles are clever and fun, after you’ve got the basics down, but it can be a bit daunting at first, and Pebbles distracted more than he helped.
But damn, that was a comfortable car, with a smooth and quiet ride, sleek inside and out, quite beyond its green pedigree and the siren song of 50+ miles per gallon. We weren’t about to let Pebbles talk us out of our wheel affair. But it was uncanny how hard he unconsciously tried. Extolling the dealership’s service department (about which I held a slight grudge anyway) in a pro forma way, he talked about upgrades to the waiting area, which amounted to a big wall screen tv, while what we hated about the room earlier was the unignorable tv — we’d have to flee its noisy daytime programming to wait in some remote corner of the showroom. Pitching another standard salesman’s line, he assured us we would not just be buying the car but buying his services in the bargain. CE and I exchanged a glance, but did not go so far as to immediately demand a big rebate.
It was the Prius that attracted us, as much as Pebbles put us off. That may have worked to his advantage, since we wanted to get the negotiation over as quickly as possible and not have to deal with him anymore. There was no dickering permitted on sticker price, so it simply became a matter of the trade-in. With an offer already from the Honda place, it was easy to say no when Toyota came back at a thousand less. While Pebbles went back to the manager, CE and I talked it over. We both liked the Prius a lot (though upgraded to compare to the Camry in fit and finish, it was considerably less expensive), and CE was really ready to buy, having lost faith in her 2001 Accord as it approached 150,000 miles, with repeated trips to Pennsylvania coming up. If we didn’t snatch this one up on the spot, it might be months before we could get another. The price was actually less than she had budgeted for and the trade-in more than she expected, so she was inclined to make the deal if they just split the difference. It seemed a little impulsive for her and for me, but more a matter of seizing the moment, grabbing an opportunity before it passed by.
Wanting to drive that car now that I’d done so, I forgot all about my plan to insert in any deal with this Toyota place an additional $120 discount to compensate for the fee they charged when my last hand-me-down Camry died. That ’99 was the favorite car of my life to date, and it was a nasty shock when it expired at 150,000 miles, while I anticipated another 100K out of it. I’d put $3000 into it in the previous year, with that confident expectation. But then I took it in for a rock-caused hole in the exhaust pipe, and never drove it again. Besides the exhaust system, the whole engine would have to be replaced or rebuilt, which would cost more than it was worth. One of the mechanics offered $120 to reclaim it, which seemed better than finding another way to dispose of it. Then when I went in to transfer the title, the service department claimed the $120 as their diagnostic fee to certify mortality. Taking their word that the car was undrivable as it was, I saw no other choice, but the whole transaction left a bad taste in my mouth, with the aroma if not the substance of a scam. So I vowed to exact that money if I ever had any further dealings with the dealership.
Which vow slipped my mind, when Pebbles came back with the difference-splitting deal. It didn’t seem to make sense to haggle further, when CE had the car she wanted at a price she was prepared to pay. There are times when even the indecisive become decisive, when one pays the price for what one wants. Then there is the Quaker heritage of fair price dealing. So the purchase was made, and at that point I tuned out the blur of numbers.
When we were ushered into the business manager’s office, one of the first things he said was, “I’m sure our salesman has explained the three-year Toyota warranty to you” — well no, Pebbles was clearly a live-for-today sort of guy, with little thought for the future — and laid out a choice of extended warranties. (This sort of thing I would normally reject out of hand, but it was couched in such a way that CE tentatively signed on for the shortest term — later that night I read up on “Prius Chat” online, and learned that the time to sign on, if at all, is just before the original warranty expires, so we cancelled at pickup.)
We emerged from his office to meet Pebbles coming in with our license plates in hand. The manager rolled his eyes and asked what he was doing. Taking the plates so they could be put on the new car. No, no, that’s when the car is picked up — a process Pebbles continued to seem awfully dim about, since he called us on Monday to come in and drop off the plates so we wouldn’t have to wait so long on Wednesday. I told him we’d have to do our waiting then, though I didn’t say I thought he was crazy to suggest it would be four or five hours — I have no recollection of getting a new car being such a hassle. Then he called again on Tuesday morning, saying he was home sick (or maybe hungover?). I never did figure out what he was on about — I suspect it was simply “have cell, will call,” or protecting his salesman’s prerogative in some way — since I cut him off and said that we were on our way out the door to drive to NYC (taking Nat to JFK on his way to Italy). All he managed to do was insert anxiety into the purchase process.
When we went into the showroom the following day, a half-dozen salesmen clustered around a desk chatting amongst themselves. I had hopes that one of them would help us, but no, Pebbles was paged from somewhere out on the lot. Perhaps he was out there playing the game he’d told us about, driving a Prius around in silent EV mode, like a giant golf cart, and sneaking up behind other salesman to startle them. He came in and sat us down at a table, and then disappeared to do this or that. I was annoyed with myself for not having brought anything to read, so sure we wouldn’t have to go through the rigmarole that Pebbles predicted. After a few minutes I went over and stood sheepishly near the clutch of salesmen till one finally asked if I needed any help. I said I’d seen an introductory DVD in the Prius manual and I wondered whether we could watch it while we waited. He did go and get it and set us up on someone’s laptop, and that did fill the time adequately — within a reasonable hour we were ready to drive away. But first we had to get our introductory run-through from Pebbles, filled with misinformation that I would correct within a half-hour of actual use of the vehicle.
But as the last word in not “getting” the customer with whom he was dealing, Pebbles tried to explain when to use the “P” button, “Use it whenever you stop, say, when you pull up to a convenience store and run in to buy a scratch ticket — the engine will shut off, but the electric motor will be on and the car might roll off.” Though CE was in the front passenger seat, and I was in the back, we couldn’t glance at each other without bursting into laughter, but managed to communicate our mutual amusement through a suppressed snort, at our man’s unstoppable ability to say the wrong thing. I wouldn’t have expected him to have read my op-ed screed in the local paper, against government-promoted gambling as the modern opiate of the people, but still, what a knack for touching the wrong nerve, calling up my every righteous prejudice!
When the manager had walked us to the car after the sale was made, he asked if this was our first hybrid and when we nodded yes, he replied, “Welcome to the Green generation,” whereupon Pebbles interjected, “Yeah, yeah, the high-mileage generation!” with no clue where we were coming from, as if green were somehow uncool. Just not into the business of reading our motivations, he still didn’t know us from Adam, despite the hint of the Mass Audubon sticker on our Accord (which is not to say that the sure return of $4 per gallon gasoline was not on our minds).
Mercifully reaching the end of the process, Pebbles wound up the sale by telling us how we would be getting a satisfaction form from the dealer, to grade him on every aspect of the transaction, and how anything but an A grade would be as good as failing. He came across almost pitiably, as the schoolboy who couldn’t pass the class no matter how hard he tried, or how much his ear stud twinkled. I was already thinking how to avoid any such incriminating exercise.
He finally exited the car, to our sighs of relief. But then it was time to start the vehicle and drive off, and so counterproductive had been Pebbles’ instruction, that I couldn’t even get the car started at first go, and some unintelligible warning light came on. I wasn’t about to call him back and ask a question, however, so it simply required another try to get us rolling, and within the time it took to drive home everything had started to feel familiar. We’d left one question for him to get back to us about — the manual said something about there being potential interference between the keyless ignition and heart pacemakers. Since CE was immediately going down to see her mother, she needed follow-up information on relative frequencies, so one hybrid didn’t mess up another.
Thereafter, it took only one commute to work and back to make the Prius more than familiar, almost lovable. The various displays that seemed so daunting at first glance quickly resolved themselves into handy tools for more efficient driving. Needless to say, Pebbles was wrong about which would be the best setting to use on a regular basis. That cool graphic shows energy transfers from battery to gas engine to brake and back again, but the useful display of the same continuously shifting data is in the form of a horizontal thermometer, with battery charging at one end and gas power consumption at the other, and a range of ECO readings in between. It really teaches one how to maximize mileage, and I got well over 60 MPG on my very first trip.
Then it was fun to play with the satellite radio settings, an option we wouldn’t have ordered but neat as included in the available package. Pebbles had told us that the car came with a year’s subscription to XM. It wasn’t long before I found the E Street channel — all Bruce all the time — and other attractive offerings. And then it took only one passing situation on the highway to remove any question about the instantaneous availability of accelerating power when needed, without any recourse to that “Power” button.
CE went to PA and back without ever getting follow-up information from Pebbles, and when she finally called the dealership found out he was no longer employed there. Well, at least we’ll never have to submit a compromising evaluation of him, though maybe this is that anyway. Nonetheless Pebbles’ mistakes are the gift that keeps on giving, since we just got a letter from XM that explains the free subscription period is only three months. Oh well.
The Prius itself, however, is no mistake at all. We are enamored of its cleverness and comfort, as well as its economy. I don’t believe I ever had a pet nickname for a car before, but already this one — combining the desirable qualities of the Pierce Arrow and the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud — is known in our household as the “Silver Arrow.”