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A field guide to the fine art of buying a car

I SPENT a Saturday morning just over a fortnight ago going car shopping with my niece. She’d decided she needs a car of her own and she thinks I know a bit about the subject, so she asked me to come along.

Last time I went looking for a new car I already knew what I wanted – the make, the model, the options and the budget – so I hit the dealer and negotiated something I was happy with and that the salesman could live with. When I look back on it, it took me less time to buy that car than it did to buy a new outfit for the last gala fund-raiser event I was invited to (pre-COVID-19, of course)

But it’s a different story when you’re not sure what you want except that it has to be green and it has to have shoe storage. To a car salesman it’s a signal that they’re dealing with someone who might not be quite as automotively literate as they could be. In other words, they’re ripe to be ripped off.

‘We all know what it’s like when a female walks into a car showroom: the assumptions, condescension, the patronising (and sometimes comically inept) explanations of the difference between torque and power, and so on.’

Not knowing exactly what you want also adds considerably to the legwork involved. Even though we headed to a location where there are six or seven dealers within a few hundred metres of each other, we still had to walk to each one of them and after a couple of hours I was exhausted.

My niece was also exhausted, and she was confused as well. She’d reached the stage where all the cars she’d looked at started to blend into one amorphous vehicle that was the right colour and had all the options she could wish for. No such actual car existed, of course, but in her head it was sitting in one of the showrooms we’d just visited. She just couldn’t remember which one.

Over a shared pot of green jasmine tea and some raisin toast we reflected on what we’d seen and been told over the previous few hours. She was still insistent on the colour and storage; but now she was discussing options like electric seats, sunroofs, sound systems and LED headlights. She’d picked up a lot but was labouring under an information overload. So we took a deep breath, sipped our tea and took stock.

It took probably half an hour but slowly a clearer picture started to emerge of what she thought was important (I could not convince her that lack of shoe storage shouldn’t be a deal-breaker) and what was not important – what were essentials, as it were, and what were just nice-to-haves. Then we compared her list to what we’d seen.

Nothing fitted the list exactly, but a several fitted reasonably closely. We compared prices for the options she was interested in, as best we could, and flagged a couple as potentially too expensive. And really, really importantly, we resolved to not make any hasty decisions.

During the following week an interesting thing happened. Through some possibly subconscious process, she filtered through what she’d seen, been told and thought about, and defined a shortlist of three cars, one of which had been flagged as possibly too pricey but worth revisiting, just in case a deal could be done. We set out on a second Saturday morning to finish the job.

We all know what it’s like when a female walks into a car showroom: the assumptions, condescension, the patronising (and sometimes comically inept) explanations of the difference between torque and power, and so on.

Memorably, on one occasion when I took the Companion with me to a showroom the salesman conspicuously snubbed me and directed all of his attention and energy at him. When the salesman finally got around to asking what car he was interested in, The Companion replied that it wasn’t he who was buying a car. By the time the penny dropped for the salesman I was already leaving the showroom and I’ve never been back, even though at last count I’ve bought two cars from other dealers for the same manufacturer. There’s no excuse for being a sexist pig – any time.

I can report there are vestiges of this attitude that remain, but for the large part the salespeople – two men and one woman – treated my niece with respect and listened to her carefully. One did try to upsell her (it’s his job, and good on him for taking a swing) but armed with her list of essential and non-essential options, she was well-equipped to resist.

When the issue of price came up she was polite but immovable. And then something even more interesting happened. The salesperson floated the idea of doing a deal on the car my niece had tagged as potentially too expensive.

Now my niece has a car she is over the moon about. It has space under the driver’s seat for her shoes. It has parking sensors, and a good sound system. And it’s green. It’s also the car she thought might be too expensive.

She’s learned some valuable lessons: don’t do anything hastily; think carefully about what you really need and what you don’t really need; try, try, try not to get emotionally attached to anything too soon (this is the hardest part of all); and don’t underestimate the willingness of a salesperson to get you into one of their cars, provided it’s at a price you’re both reasonably happy with.

I’ll try to remember these things myself next time I’m looking for a new car of my own. I can’t guarantee I’ll have quite the same discipline as my niece. But that’s the thing about young people: they’ve got their heads screwed on tighter then we sometimes give them credit for.

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Jeep helps us hit the road with purpose and an Empty Esky

COVID-19-induced travel restrictions look like they’ll remain part of life for some time to come, especially by air. That’s bad news for those of us in Melbourne, particularly, still enduring months of enforced local isolation.

We at Madam Wheels are not sure about other Melburnians, but the first thing we’re going to do once our 5km lockdown radius is removed is get into a car and go for a very long drive! Anywhere will do.

Of course, in Australia, the possibilities are endless, we’re spoilt for choice. But a fantastic new initiative might take some of the guesswork out of choosing where to go while helping struggling Australian communities at the same time.

‘We really want to encourage all Australians to enjoy the beautiful land in which we live and ensure small businesses can revive and prosper.’

Empty Esky was set up to support communities hit hard by last summer’s Australian bushfires. The not-for-profit tourism movement encouraged Australians to hit the road with empty eskys then fill them up with goods and local produce purchased from small business in those fire-effected communities.

Now, with the backing of Jeep Australia, Empty Esky founders Eleanor Baillieu and Erin Boutros have launched an interactive new website to make it easer for users to consider pre-prepared itineraries to places around Australia. Options range from Lakes Entrance, in eastern Victoria, a foodie’s guide to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and the Scenic Rim region in south-east Queensland.

A clever feature on the Empty Esky site is an interactive map which enables Empty Esky road trippers to design their own itineraries and have it delivered to their inboxes.

Baillieu says Jeep Australia’s support helped improve the website in a way which will benefit both travellers to and businesses in the fire-affected areas.

 “It is now more important than ever to think about towns and businesses impacted by the bushfires,” she says. “They lost the summer season and now many, in particular the Victorian businesses, have been shut down due to COVID-19.”

Jeep Australia Managing Director Kevin Flynn says it’s great the new Empty Esky site is up and running as COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to ease so Australians can head out on “home-grown adventures” and support local businesses.

 

“If it is safe to do so, we really want to encourage all Australians to enjoy the beautiful land in which we live and ensure small businesses can revive and prosper,” Flynn says.

We couldn’t agree more.

Now, if only we could convince everyone in the car to down devices and just talk while they were on the road. Jeep Australia, can you help with a solution for that new-world issue, please?

“If it is safe to do so, we really want to encourage all Australians to enjoy the beautiful land in which we live and ensure small businesses can revive and prosper,” Flynn says.

We couldn’t agree more.

Now, if only we could convince everyone in the car to down devices and just talk while they were on the road. Jeep Australia, can you help with a solution for that new-world issue, please?