I bought my 2002 Dodge Neon new on October 28th of that same year. I’d had a 1995 Neon since I was in college, and had paid it off just a few months earlier. Of course the minute I paid it off, everything broke. I replaced the computer. I replaced the fuel pump twice. I replaced the tires and brakes. I was absolutely pouring money into that stupid car. And then after all that, I took it in for its state inspection and the guy came out of the shop with a list in his hand. I took it for a second opinion and was told I might want to think about buying another car. So I started looking. But I didn’t look hard.
We’ve had a close family friend managing a Dodge dealership ever since before I learned to drive. So when it came time to buy cars, we’d head over to that dealership and pick out what we wanted and they’d take good care of us. It was really kind of a pampered way to get a car and I never had a traumatic experience at all. So this time, I headed over there, told them I wanted the blue Neon with the sunroof, and we were off to the races.
I loved my zoomy blue Neon. I really did. And I refused to listen to shit from “car buffs” who wanted to bust on Dodge for making shitty cars, and on the Neon for being a shitty car, and on me for buying a shitty car. It handled well, it got good gas mileage, and I felt good and happy and cute driving it. These were the things that were important to me.
And then on November 1st, almost five years to the day after I bought it, I was driving up a hill on my way into work and instead of shifting, the car roared and the transmission failed. I’m lucky I wasn’t in traffic because I had no gears at all, and could only try to roll backwards down the hill as safely as possible. I turned it off and back on, I fiddled with the gearshift, and I did a few other things, and it was clear that something major was wrong. Campus security helped me get it rolled to a safer spot and I called to have it towed to my shop. Several hours later, the shop called to tell me that the transmission needed to be replaced, and that it would cost anywhere from $2,500 to $2,800 depending on whether I wanted to rebuild or replace the transmission.
Did I mention I owed only $1,200 on the car that day? It’s true. We were so close to being paid off. I had a giant meltdown about the $2,800 I didn’t have and the transportation I didn’t have, and the guys at the shop were very kind and said I could leave it there for a few days while I figured out what to do. So early the following week I had it towed to Roanoke to a guy who works on my family’s cars. Willie does good solid work and is very very very inexpensive, but Willie also takes his sweet time fixing cars. But he agreed to diagnose it for $30 and I knew that he’d try to find a way to fix it without having to replace the whole transmission.
Three and a half weeks later I learned that something about a shaft was broken into two pieces and that the transmission would definitely have to be replaced. Willie thought he had a guy who might sell him a used one for $250 or so, and he’d let us know. And then last week I heard that Willie’s first guy had the wrong transmission and he thought he might know of a second guy but he wasn’t sure, and he’d let us know. I’d been driving Big Red, the van we did not actually sell in 2005. Big Red is a good reliable old girl who just had her engine replaced, but Big Red is also a big red van, and I’m short and can’t reach anything in it, and it doesn’t have a CD player or power windows or door locks and I’m spoiled, and besides I suck at parking it.
I realized that if I didn’t go ahead and do something, I might be driving Big Red six months from now, and the broken Neon has been an unnaturally big source of stress for me over the last few weeks. I’d been researching cars online since the day the Neon kicked the bucket, and I decided that over the weekend I’d go take a look at some cars. Then I’d at least feel like I was doing something productive instead of waiting around helplessly.
I’d originally wanted a RAV4, but it was out of my price range, and since I only like the last two model years or so, getting a used one still wouldn’t make it affordable. I know everyone says you should buy used and blah blah resale value, but honestly, I like to drive my cars until they fall apart (clearly) and so resale value isn’t that big a deal to me, and there’s something I just love about a brand-new car. So, no RAV4. It was back to the drawing board.
Because of our close connections to the Dodge dealership, I’d never done much research on a car purchase. But this time I was all up in it. I’d had a month to tool around the internet reading up on cars, and I had decided that $20,000 was the most I could afford, and that I wanted a small, maybe slightly sporty sedan. I also wanted to write sentences with lots of uses of the letter S. And since the Neon dumping its transmission after only 5 years and 95,000 miles is bullshit, I was leaning toward a foreign car. Dodge didn’t have anything I liked in its lineup anyway.
Amusingly, after all the shit I’ve given to the Honda Civic over the years, it was one of my finalists. The other was the Mazda3. I’d never even heard of the 3 until recently, when Ginny got one as a loaner while her Jeep was in the shop. She called to tell me how much she’d liked driving it, and while I wasn’t planning to buy anything anytime soon at that point, I guess I filed that information away.
Edmunds and other review sites love both the Civic and the Mazda3. They’re comparable in initial cost, features, safety ratings, and repair costs over time, with the Civic being slighty more expensive. It was really going to come down to which car I liked better, and as it turned out, I was leaning toward the Mazda. The Civic was just a little too pointy and too teenage streetracer for my liking. So on Saturday, Sammi and I got in Big Red and went to check out the cars at the local Mazda dealership.
We found the one I liked the best, and I drove it and promptly fell in love. But there was no way in hell I was buying a car on Saturday. I’d already applied for financing with my credit union and was waiting to hear from them before making any decisions, and besides, we just do not make big purchase decisions without sleeping on them. I got the hard sell anyway, of course, and after at least an hour they realized I wasn’t budging and offered to let me take the car until Monday with a temporary registration. I happily agreed.
So I left with the car and a price sheet, which was way higher than I’d hoped to pay. After several strategy sessions with all my life coaches and a bunch of printouts from the internet, I prepared to negotiate at the dealership on Monday, and I had a fixed price in my head that I was not to exceed.
And then on Monday through a string of friends-of-friends, I got really lucky. I called another dealership and got a significantly cheaper quote for the same car. I asked him to fax it to me, and was very upfront in telling him that I was going to take his price to the local dealership and see if they could beat it. So I walked into the local dealership with a kickass price in my hand, and that made all the difference in the world.
I told them I was buying a car that day one way or another, and that I personally didn’t care much whether it was in Roanoke or Lynchburg. I showed them the price the Roanoke dealership had given me and asked them to beat it. They went and got the big manager (so I now had three people working on me), and told me that they could beat this price and that price, but that their processing fee was higher and not negotiable, and blah blah blah. I asked if that would make my out the door cost higher. They said yes, unfortunately. So I said that wouldn’t work. It needed to be lower. “Lower?” the closer asked. “I thought you said we could match it.” I told him no, that I wanted them to beat it, and I didn’t care how they did it or by how much. They could beat it by $5, but it had to be a lower total cost. A few minutes later, they came back with a price that was exactly five bucks under the quote from the Roanoke dealership.
They groused a bit about how they were so eager to have my business that they were willing to lose money on the sale (BS), and I said that was a bummer for them but it was working out pretty well for me. And so we got down to the paperwork and several hours later, I drove away in my brand-spanking new car.
I got a phenomenal deal on that car. In fact, I got such a good deal that I was able to reduce my financing period by an entire year and still have a payment in the range I’d budgeted for, and that term reduction dropped my interest rate by 3/4 of a point. I got my first payment deferred until March so that I could pay off the Neon before having to start payments on the Mazda. And I got a kickass car for nearly $1,500 under my self-imposed top price. Since it will be cheaper to insure than the Neon, I will actually be only paying $20 more a month for the Mazda’s payments and insurance than I had been paying for the Neon.
I was really proud of how I handled myself throughout this process. I was kind, but firm, and did not allow myself to be intimidated. I was prepared and very clear about my goals, and I turned out to be a much more savvy negotiator than I had ever imagined I could be. And I did it on my own without having to take a man with me (though I got lots and lots of advice from my dad and my guy friends first). It was pretty empowering, actually, and that was something I really needed right now.