I Spent A Saturday Car Shopping And All I Got Was This Great IdeaS

Sometimes a night’s rest is all it takes to gain a bit of much-needed perspective on a bad situation. Since I was in the middle of moving I had the frustrating benefit of four whole nights of worry and fitful sleep to endure. By day I was hauling crap back and forth from the old place to the new place and by evening I was sifting through crap in the online inventories of the local car dealerships. By Saturday, though, I was ready to put all the planning behind me and just get out there to find something. Anything.

As a car guy I fully understand the pleasure of casually browsing Craigslist or dealership websites with dreams of finding the perfect project car or that impossible deal that just can’t be passed up. It can be a blast to let your imagination run wild with fantasies of rebuilding an old Alfa or taking on the (often unwise) challenge of keeping an old Jag in running order. When the one-car-family status is unceremoniously thrust upon you, though? Searching for a suitable daily driver can get downright depressing, especially when a seriously restrictive budget is looming over your shoulder like Jon Lovitz in The Producers.

As such it came to a point where I finally had to stop researching and put some feet to pavement. Saturday was my first opportunity and was as good a day as any other, really. I momentarily lamented the fact that I wasn’t able to go out before the end of the month (do car dealerships really have monthly sales quotas or is that just a myth that people like me perpetuate?) but the pragmatic side of my brain knew that I wasn’t going to be purchasing anything on the spot anyway since I was taking out our other car, an ‘06 Mini Cooper, since I didn’t want to move the Jetta from the spot where I’d parked it three days earlier. If I found something worthwhile I’d have to go home and get the Jetta in order to hoist it upon the unsuspecting... I mean trade it in.

My plan at this point was simply to hit every car dealership with a used inventory that I could find in town and ask them what they had on the lot for less than ten grand. Around where I live there are actually quite a few places that don’t keep any inventory below the five-figure mark so it was a good way to immediately weed out a few lots and it ended up saving me several hours. If the place had cars in that range, however, my follow up was a more direct, “Actually I’m looking for much cheaper than that. What’s the most inexpensive thing you’ve got on the lot?”

This got me some looks, let me tell you. I don’t know what it’s like to sell cars professionally but I guess nearly all salespeople are use to customers being cagey and acting like they invented the art of the deal. I had a lot of places to check and not a lot of time so I decided early on that being direct was probably my best course of action. If I wanted to try to haggle later on I always had the option of using even more honesty: “Well, I’m broke. If you want to sell this car to me I’m going to need your help.”

I left home at about nine in the morning and didn’t return until at least six in the evening. During those nine long hours I must have stopped at no fewer than two-dozen car lots ranging from enormous franchise dealerships with slick local ads and free coffee in the lobby to the slightly scary lots with the dreaded BUY HERE PAY HERE signs out front and disinterested nephews working inside. By the end of the day I had at least four or five leads on cars I was seriously considering, the most exciting of which being a ‘98 BMW 328Ci 5-speed with just over 100,000 miles for under $5,000 and the most mature and responsible choice being an ‘04 Honda Civic with less than 40,000 miles for just over $8,000. I returned home feeling a bit less worried and even slightly encouraged. That night (because I am neither the most mature nor responsible person you’ll meet today) I spent a fair bit of time researching E36s even though it felt like it might have needed a new clutch and they promised me they’d find a way to fix the passenger seat which was stuck reclined all the way back. Oh, and that Brake Light Circuit warning didn’t mean anything, honest.

By Sunday evening I had received courtesy calls from three dealerships telling me that the car I had been considering had sold. My options were evaporating as rapidly as my available time. I knew that if I stayed on top of the dealerships I’d eventually stumble across something acceptable upon which I could pounce, but frankly I couldn’t afford to dedicate that kind of time. The idiot-programmer part of my brain started to wonder how difficult it would be to write a script that would scrape a list of dealerships’ websites for cars that fit my criteria and organize them for me, alerting me when something worth checking out was listed.

Usually when I get to the point of trying to fix a non-computer problem with code I realize I’ve gone too far. Clearly it was time to reevaluate my situation.

“Self,” I addressed myself aloud as I often do regardless of present company or situational appropriateness, “it’s time to narrow your field and focus on what you need rather than employing the spray-and-pray method.”

It was time to decide what kind of purchase I was considering. So far my mind had been split between two camps:

  • I could get something as cheap as possible (maybe even sub-$1,000) and drive it into the ground with the understanding that I’d end up replacing it in a year or so.
  • I could look more towards the top end of my budget with the expectation of getting something that would (hopefully) last quite a bit longer.

As liberating as it might be to not give a shit about what I drive the first option didn’t appeal to me much (probably because of vanity and this strange predilection to not die a fiery death), so more expensive and dependable it was.

So what do I need from a car? It’s going to be a daily driver taking me to and from work, not a project car and not a track car. It needs to get decent gas mileage. It needs to be dependable. It needs to fit my meager budget. The combination of those last two items meant I was likely going to be looking for something of Asian descent with at least six digits showing on the odometer but probably not starting with a two or a three.

Now, for schitzengiggle, what do I want from a car? I’ve been driving a slushbox for too long, so a third pedal would be nice. Something kinda zippy and fun would also be cool. The car I drove before the Jetta was a ‘98 GTI and I loved that thing so hard, Michigan-born undercarriage rust and all.

“Self, time to get serious. What could you buy that has all of your needs and as many of your wants as possible?” I said again, confusing my wife and causing our cats to rub against my legs wildly as though only their dander could cure my debilitating schizophrenia.

This was going to be a short list. Hondas from the 90’s have legendary reliability, Nissan (maybe) was an option, Hyundais from the last few years are nice and safe enough to merit consideration, Mazda is-

“Holy shit.” I said as my jaw went slack and my eyes glazed over with elated realization. “What’s wrong with me? Why... why didn’t I think of this earlier?"

It would seem, friends, that the answer really is and has always been “Miata”.