A field guide to the fine art of buying a car

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.