Last summer when I began in earnest to shop for a car, I didn’t know what I was in for. I hadn’t bought a car since 1999, in a previous century—in fact, in a previous millennium! It was an altered world. For one thing, it was possible to buy a car from Carvana, which would mean the car could be delivered directly to my door or I could go to a major city and buy one from a gigantic vending machine in the sky. Like buying a Snickers bar—a Snickers that cost $30,000. I rejected the Carvana notion since I thought it was crazy foolish to buy a car I’d never driven in person, never even seen in person.
After first lusting after Nissan 370Z’s, I remembered my bank account and decided I wanted a black 2-door Honda Civic coupe, preferably new since I discovered there was little price difference between a two-year-old Civic and a brand new one. (When did that happen?) But then I learned that 2-door coupes had been discontinued after 2020. If I bought a new one, it’d have to be a less sleek, less sporty sedan, and I’ve never liked the sound of “sedan.” “Sedan” sounds sensible, not sexy. I admit I’m old, but not, God forbid, that old.
So I called ahead one Monday afternoon to the nearest Honda dealership, about an hour away, to set up a test drive. I was stunned when the salesman, John, told me there were no Civics on the lot that I could test drive. None. At a Honda dealership. He said a colleague of his owned one, so he put me on hold and came back to tell me I could test drive the colleague’s car on Wednesday. So two days later, I drove an hour to the dealership, walked into the showroom, and asked for John.
“He’s not here.”
“But I have an appointment with him.”
“He’s still not here.”
When I told them of the arrangement John had set up, they looked blank, but they had me fill out paperwork and asked to xerox my driver’s license and insurance card. After I waited 30 minutes (I don’t know why), I was told I could not test drive the other employee’s car after all. Instead, they took me out to the lot, where they had two new Honda Civics. They said these were on hold to two people who had put down a $500 deposit, so I not only could not drive either one; I couldn’t even sit in them. The salespeople wouldn’t unlock the doors. All I could do was peek in through darkly tinted windows like a Peeping Bill. It seemed so sordid. And unsatisfying. They encouraged me to pay a $500 deposit for the privilege of having first dibs on whatever Civic might possibly show up on the lot in the next few months or so. They couldn’t make any promises.
Carvana no longer sounded quite so cuckoo. But, still, they required a non-refundable transportation fee of $700-$1000, which means if I chose to return the car, I would’ve been on the hook for the world’s most expensive test drive.
It hit me that while buying a car was once like buying a house, involving a lot of investigating and trying it out, these days it’s like buying underwear. You can’t try it on before you buy it even though the only way to be sure it fits is to try it on. It’s like underwear that costs 3 years’ worth of Social Security. Actually, you can try on the underwear, but you’ll have to put down a $500 deposit or pay a fee possibly twice that, because, frankly, once you stick your legs in it, nobody else is going to want to buy it. “Somebody already tried on this car? Ewww!”
I did finally find a 2017 Civic two hours away that I could test drive. I paid way too much for a 4-year-old car with 47,000 miles on it, and it took hours to complete the process. On the drive home, a low tire pressure warning lit up, and after I got home, the tire went flat.
CHOOSE YOUR ENDING:
A) That’s my story. Sorry the ending—was a little flat.
B) I felt compelled to tell you this. I thought it was my civic duty.
C) At least I did learn something from my experience: while it’s hard to buy a whole car these days, it’s really, really easy to get the shaft.
Bill Spencer is author of Uranus Is Always Funny: Short Essays to Make You Laugh.