Readers of the daily stuff will already have noticed that I bought a car earlier this week to replace one that fought a deer to a draw (both died) a week before. Since the purchasing of vehicles is a task greatly to be abhorred, generally, and I don't take to it any better than the next guy, I'm here detailing some of the thoughts I had, and where, if anywhere, they led me.
A. Replace the car with a twin.
This was the most logical approach, I thought; I would have essentially no learning curve on the new car, and since the insurance company didn't actually stiff me on the settlement, my out-of-pocket expense would be limited to the usual dealer markups. Accordingly, I began a search, and discovered to my dismay though not really to my surprise, given the low volume numbers on this model that poor examples of the breed were not all that common in these parts, and excellent ones were all but nonexistent. (A tip of the hat here to CARFAX, which turned up all sorts of bad news about seemingly good cars.)
A2. Seek outside the local market.
For most people, this means two alternatives. While I have had good luck on eBay two hundred or so successful buys I've never bought anything over $900 at auction, and while CARFAX would still be by my side, the pig-in-a-poke aspect of eBay Motors discouraged me from trying it out. This left national dealers, of which we have only one: CarMax, which built its rep on not offering junk. The local CarMax had a likely prospect on its Web site slightly newer, and given their quality-control measures, stiffly priced and I went to see it. It had, of course, gone. I spent an hour with a staffer discussing alternatives and listening to the official CarMax script, which specified that I could have any of their cars nationwide trucked here to Oklahoma City, at a transfer price not to exceed $750, which struck me as reasonable but there was a seven-to-twenty-eight-day wait involved, which didn't. This was a Saturday; I spent much of the rest of the weekend contemplating Plan B.
B. Find something different, but not too different. Under the general heading of "mid-sized sedans with Japanese nameplates," the market leaders are the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord; Nissan brackets the class with the marginally-upscale Maxima and the slightly-downmarket Altima. All of these sold well enough to appear in local listings with some frequency; of course, while they're familiar sights in most any parking lot, the sheer volume would make sifting through them a pain in the neck, and to meet my desired price bracket, which was now starting to creep upward, they'd have to be just this side of ancient. (I was, after all, replacing a car six and a half years old, though it had gone unsold for its first year.) What to do? To a friend of mine, the answer was simple: "Lexus ES 300."
B2. The joys of high price.
I had never, ever contemplated owning a Lexus, even let's say especially an ES 300. As a practicing plebe, I've always felt that if you want a Camry, you should buy a Camry, and forgo the big L badge. But there's another side to this story: suppose, just suppose, that the guy who buys the Lexus, knowing he paid the big bucks, actually does a better job of taking care of his pricey little beastie? To test this, I put CARFAX back to work, and sure enough, the Japanese luxe brands seemed to have a lot fewer dubious histories. (Aside: As of this writing, you can buy unlimited 30-day access to CARFAX for a mere five bucks more than you'd pay for one vehicle report. A word to the wise, and so forth.) So I decided I would consider, even at the risk of wallet strain, the Acura (TL) and the Infiniti (I30) and yea, even the Lexus, and to hell with my carefully-assembled shabby-unchic persona.
B3. Know your limitations.
The top of my list of desiderata was "Will I fit?" I don't fit into too many cars, a function of being six feet tall, mostly above the thigh; if you see me seated and if you don't look closely at my legs, and there's no reason why you should, you'd assume I was six-four or even six-five. (I have a ridiculous twenty-eight-inch inseam.) The rental car I'd tooled around in for a week, a Dodge Stratus, clearly fits into this size bracket, but its semi-swoopy styling and inflexible seat positioning left me with literally negative headroom; either I squeezed my scalp against the mouse-fur headliner, or I kept my head cocked at an uncomfortable angle. Neither of these practices lends itself to driving ease. I'd had to duck into the Mazda, owing to its low doortop, but once in, no problems. At the very least, any car I would consider would have to afford me at least that same amount of room.
C. Trust the Force, Luke.
Monday morning, still clinging to a vague hope of sticking to Plan A, I dropped into the local Mazda store. They had not one 626, and its replacement, the Mazda6, came out in 2003, which meant that there probably hadn't been enough depreciation to bring a 6 into wallet range. In the middle of the lot, though, was a 2000 Infiniti I30 which looked vaguely familiar, and after a second or two it hit me: I'd seen it on their Web site over the weekend, and it was one of the cars on which I'd run a CARFAX report to test my "they took better care of it" theory. I expressed interest, the keys were brought forth, and: nothing. The service department wheeled out the remote jumper, and this time it started right up. I slid into the leather seats, temporarily forgetting how much I hate leather seats, and the headroom appeared marginal until I reached Actual Driving Position and discovered the nice little recess in the ceiling.
Saved by a sunroof! I was gobsmacked. In the 626, the sunroof cost some headroom; I'd turned one down for exactly that problem in 2000. It took a little futzing with the seats to get them where I wanted them, but only a little, and while I didn't really push the car to its limits during the test drive, I appreciated its responses. "This could work," I said.
- I already had a working relationship with this store.
- At the other end of their quarter-mile-long complex, they had an Infiniti dealership, meaning that there was a good chance experts would be available for difficult diagnoses.
- This incarnation of the Nissan VQ engine does not have a timing belt, meaning I didn't have to worry about whether it had been changed or not.
- They were familiar with this specific car; it apparently had been owned by a manager, since gone to Corporate.
I had, of course, consulted the Kelley Blue Book, and based on their findings, I pitched an offer of twelve grand, about as much as I dared spend on rolling stock at this moment. The offer was met with frowns they were hoping for $13,000 or better but it was duly carried off to management. I tried not to think about what was happening, and was helped immensely in this regard by an incredibly-beautiful redhead who had just arrived in the showroom to look over a CX-7 on display.
They came back with twelve-three and change. I said, "Put a new battery in it, and you've got a deal."
And so they did, and off I went to discover something about this car that would suggest a name. About nine miles in, it hit: we're talking upscale, but part of that is feigned upscale it's still a Nissan, after all and we're talking brightly, almost blindingly white.
I must point out here that I don't know any Gwendolyns, not even this one; but somehow it seemed to fit.
22 June 2006