After a variety of health woes, my parents downsized from two vehicles to their one Honda Accord in 2006. They generously offered us their high mileage 1991 Honda Civic and, as I recall, we somewhat hesitantly accepted. Erin and I figured we’d drive it for a year, buy a new car to replace it, and all would be fuzzy bunnies and rainbows. Well, I think the reliability of the Honda, especially after the nightmare that was the Mazda 626, plus the lack of a monthly car payment, was compelling. We’d occasionally talk about upgrading to a new(er) car, but the Civic just kept chugging along and saving us money, so we kept driving it.

Here’s the thing: The late ’80s/early ’90s Civics with those little VTEC 4-cyclinder engines will run until the car literally falls apart around them. I don’t know what magic pixie dust Honda sprinkled into those things, but our 1991 Civic has 321,000 miles on it, and the engine, frankly, shows little sign of distress. It was rebuilt at some point (my dad says at 200,000 miles, but I think more recently), but it keeps going and going like an automotive Energizer Bunny. Meanwhile, the interior lights don’t work. The trunk leaks when it rains. The back doors won’t open. The radio doesn’t work. The crankcase leaks oil. The dashboard light is out (fun for night driving!). And more. So I’d been waiting for the day when the guys at Valley Specialists, the local Honda/Acura master mechanics who I highly recommend, would just tell me it was time to get a new car.

But it turns out they’re master mechanics for a reason: They can fix darn near anything, and they happen to be fairly affordable. So whatever problems I’d encounter would be inexpensive enough that I always thought I could eke a little more life out of the car. The turning point came in the Civic’s last visit, when the office manager Jim grimly informed me that Civic needed a $650 repair plus another $250 if I wanted to fix that oil leak. I dare say that my enthusiastic response was not what he expected; I knew this was the major car repair bill that would finally prompt me to upgrade.

The Honda Fit had been on my radar since it was introduced. The subcompact received rave reviews and seemed the perfect replacement. Although I occasionally need to drive a 120-150 miles in a day for work, mostly it’s a car Erin will drive about 5 miles to and from school. I looked a little bit at the all-electric Nissan Leaf. It would work well for Erin’s daily commute, but in talking with my soccer buddy Steve who owns one, I found that he was seeing a range of about 65 miles before needing to plug-in and charge up (for 30 minutes or more). I think that electric may well be the automotive future, but I don’t think it’s quite here yet. I also don’t know where I’d get it serviced, and not just because it’s electric—because it’s not a Honda. Since we moved back to Salem in 1999, I’d gone through four mechanics—one went out of business, two I didn’t care for, and one I didn’t think was competent. Getting a Honda meant having mechanics I knew personally (from soccer) and who I trusted. That alone was a very big incentive for me to stick with Honda/Acura.

Buying a Car
Here’s the process that I went through to buy the Honda Fit. I’m not saying I did it perfectly—in my defense, I’d never purchased a new car before—but at the end of the day, I’m pleased with the results. I feel like the parts of the auto buying experience that I could control actually went pretty well.

First, I started exploring used Fits. Well, that quickly led me to new Fits because great reviews, high demand, and the Japanese Tsunami had led many used Fits to sell for more than their original sales price. Traditionally cars lose 10% of their value as soon as they’re driven off the lot. Here, it seemed like the Fits were gaining 10% because nobody could get them.

I began by looking at the Honda web site and repeatedly using the “Build your Honda” tool. I must have tried dozens of different permutations of Fit and Civic and maybe a few other vehicles as well. I found it fun, and it was free. I also felt like I came away with a good sense of what options were available and what the MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) was on those things. I continue to think this is a good starting point for potential buyers.

Second, I knew that I had no desire to negotiate with car salesmen. I don’t haggle for a living, I’m not particularly good at it, and I have little desire to learn. That leaves me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the normal car buying process. (I did briefly entertain the idea of engaging our neighbor across the street, an attorney, to negotiate on our behalf.) Eventually, I looked at two car buying services, USAA and Costco. With these services, they contact a dealer on your behalf, negotiate a price somewhere below the MSRP, and send you the offer which you are free to then accept or reject. Both USAA and Costco services have a “build your own car” web site tool. I found that Costco’s had more of the accessories I wanted on the Fit whereas the USAA tool was lacking some. This is literally why I choose to go with Costco, and it was based on a misunderstanding.

Honda ships the Fit from their factory in Japan (new plant to open in Mexico soon) in a Base, Sport, or Sport with Navigation configuration. Those configurations can be either manual or automatic, so effectively there are six different models of Fit coming out of the factory (though in different colors, admittedly). All accessories—from floor mats to splash guards—are dealer installed options. I didn’t know it at the time because I didn’t see that on the Honda site. I assumed that Honda put all the accessories on at the factory. (But if they did, then what would the dealer overcharge us for?) So it didn’t matter that USAA’s site didn’t include all the accessories. The dealer would just be adding the ones I wanted after the car arrived. I’m satisfied with the $250 no-haggle discount I got via Costco; however, I don’t know if I could have saved more via USAA. If I were doing it again, I would certainly try USAA service as well to find out.

Costco’s car buying service simply put me in contact with the local Salem Honda dealer of dubious reputation. I filled out the online Costco forms on a Saturday. The local dealer’s rep called me Sunday afternoon with the name of a person to talk with at the dealership the next day. He told me they even had a Fit on the lot—it’s a car in short supply thanks to strong sales and a certain Japanese Tsunami of which you may have heard. Up to this point, things were moving smoothly, and I was pleased.

Arriving at the dealership, I was told the person with whom I had an appointment wasn’t in. They handed me off to Tony, a junior grade salesman with, as it turns out, no real decision-making authority. Tony was a nice enough guy, and I don’t want to understate that because being nice is important, but it was not a promising start. Oh, and the Fit they had for me to test drive? Sold. (“Overnight?” I wondered.) Then while sitting in Tony’s office, I heard on the intercom the name of the guy I was originally supposed to be meeting. Excellent. Of course he was in the building.

That’s what it took for me to understand what we had here: a classic car sales showroom. And I mean that in as disparagingly a way as possible because relationships are built on trust, and I go in ready to trust. But when you don’t have the car you say you have, when you make an appointment then change it when I arrive, and when you hand me to a junior grade fellow when the guy I was supposed to meet with is still in the fricking building, you’ll excuse me if my shields go up and I henceforth don’t fully trust a damn word you say.

Does that sound bitter? It’s not intended to because that’s not how I feel. I find sales shops like these, whatever the product line, to be unfortunate. I feel experienced enough now to deal with this sort of thing, but I hate that I have to. Why do Apple’s official retail stores have the top sales per square foot in the United States? Because they are the exact opposite of this type of buying experience.

Don’t think that I wasn’t cordial or that I wasn’t interested in doing business. It’s just that when you can’t trust who you’re doing business with, it’s a lot more work and it’s not pleasant. Tellingly, if these people were my clients, I would fire them.

For what it’s worth, Erin had her guard up from the very beginning. I don’t know if she has a fear of being taken advantage of, if she’s naturally more intuitive about these types of things, or if she’s just not quite as trusting of people in sales circumstances. Regardless, I tried to shield her from as much of this process as possible, because dealing with people you don’t trust isn’t fun, and she, quite understandably, hates it.

When Erin and I both visited the dealership in early August, we were told that we could reserve a 2012 Fit Sport that would be delivered in October. They would be getting four of them in: one was already sold (a classic sales technique, so no idea if it’s true), two were manual transmission models, and would we like this one here, a Silver Sports Fit with automatic transmission? Why yes, yes, we would. $500 down would reserve it for us.

The dealer didn’t have a firm MSRP from Honda on the 2012 models—a fact I knew from checking online previously—so I insisted that the deposit be fully refundable. If Honda was going to jack the price by $500 or $1000—the Fit is in high demand after all and the strong Japanese Yen is hurting profit margins—maybe I didn’t want a 2012 Fit. I had Tony write “Fully refundable” on the $500 deposit agreement we signed. The take-away here is that you should always feel free to modify a “contract” to your liking. If you don’t like it, don’t sign it. This wasn’t asking much of the dealer: If we didn’t buy the Fit, in no time they’d surely find someone who would.

We also looked at accessories. It turns out that there is the Honda price and the dealer installed price, and they are not remotely the same. Because your helpful Salem-area Honda dealer will charge you $75 to install…floor mats. I wish I were kidding. The cargo tray, a large plastic piece that literally drops into the hatchback area of the vehicle, is a relative bargain with an installation cost of $20. To be clear: I don’t mean that the floor mats were $75 and the cargo tray was $20. I mean that they cost whatever Honda charges plus the dealer charges $75 and $20 respectively to install those items. Ultimately, we decided to decline all accessories and packages through the dealer. We’ll be buying parts through College Hills Honda and having Valley Specialists install them all. Trust me, they won’t charge $75 to put in floor mats.

So we rolled on through August with our 1991 Civic. While we were on vacation in California, a received a call: They’d received a final shipment of 2011 Fits. Was I interested? At this point the specs and the pricing on the 2012s had not been released, so I had to take a leap of faith. Cars generally are improved at least slightly from one model year to the next, and I was willing to hope that I’d be rewarded by waiting 60 days. I knew there was no major revision scheduled between the 2011 and 2012 models, but I declined to take a 2011 Fit. I ended up being right about this—the 2012 was $50 more and added noise reducing glass and few other minor features—but this was just me getting lucky. Honda could just have easily followed Subaru’s lead and jacked prices 7%.

September came around, and I received a voice mail from Tony with the exciting news that “the 2012s are in, and oh, by the way would you like blue?” Blue had been our original color choice. We’d settled on silver since it was an acceptable alternative and, more to the point, actually available. Now I was being offered blue again.

“Hmm…Okay, sure…Pick up tomorrow morning? Great.”

I ran upstairs to tell Erin the news, and just after telling her, the phone rang.

“Uh, I’m really sorry, but the blue one was pre-sold to a lady in Alaska.”

Now that may well be true—indeed, it’s a weird enough excuse to have a ring of authenticity to it. But it’s also the type of thing you can hear as sales manager saying to a junior grade: “Just tell him you sold it to some little old lady in Alaska.” Erin took this, I’m sure, as further evidence that car dealers can’t be trusted, or at least that this one can’t, and she may be right. I’m inclined to think that Mr. Junior Grade got excited about having actual cars to sell and get a commission on, and he made a mistake. Ultimately, I didn’t care. Silver was fine with me. Junior Grade Tony, in the most wonderfully indicative phrase of our brief association, ended our phone conversation by thanking me “for being understandable.”

Getting the Car
Erin and I hauled the kids with us down to the Honda dealer to get the car. I hung out with them in the spacious upstairs guest lounge while Erin took a test drive of the Fit—the first for either of us—with Tony. She seemed to like it. It’s funny about women and cars. I think all she wants is reliable transportation from A to B and a radio to boot. Me? I’m stoked that the driver has 3 cup holders, that the iPod will play through the stereo via a USB jack in the glove box, that it’s got crazy-awesome fold down seats, and on and on. She assures me that she’s excited about all those things too, but surely we’ll agree I’m more demonstrative in my enthusiasm. Anyway, successful test drive.

Then the paperwork nightmare. Our $500 deposit? Not on their paperwork. The $250 Costco discount? Not on their paperwork. So Tony fixed it all up. Purposeful omissions or incompetence? I don’t know where Occam’s Razor comes down on this one.

We verified all kinds of information for them. They even ran a credit score (803—Woot!)—and tried to offer us financing at least three times. I was very happy to have set up financing through USAA previously. The dealer’s 3.99% APR offer from our August visit was beaten by USAA’s 3.25% APR. Now, when I’m just about to buy a car, they’re telling me that they can “save me some money on financing.” Well, if that were true, they should have started with their best offer. But they’re not going to give their best offer first, because if you’ll take 3.99% so much the better for them. Who is the dealer looking out for here? Right. Not the customer.

Finally Tony turned us over to the sales manager, Mark (who Tony called “The Bossman”), who proceeded to come over and talk at us with the speed of an auctioneer. Blah-blah-blah-and-all-you-need-to-do-is-to-sign-this-paper-here-saying-you-agree-to-buy-the-2012-Sport-Fit-at-this-price-and-you’ll-be-ready-to-go. It was, on some level, a truly remarkable performance. The very force of his words and personality left me momentarily stunned. I kid you not, I would almost be willing to pay the man to talk at me again just so I could feel that wave of confusion wash over me one more time.

Up to this point everything, however occasionally distasteful, I’d seen with perfect clarity; I knew what was going on. The Sales Manager does 15 seconds of rapid fire babble and, literally, for 5 to 10 seconds, I don’t understand what’s happening. It’s almost like he could have been talking in Greek. As I say, I’d almost like to experience it again just so I could try to figure out what he did.

I’m pausing here to expound on this for the following reason: I’m a business person, and I deal with people and money frequently in the course of my work. If I could be thrown into even temporary confusion, I pity the souls who don’t have any business acumen. This guy could fleece them like sheep, which he probably does. If you ever find yourself in any contractual situation where you don’t understand what is going on, take a timeout. And make sure that the paper you’re about to sign says what you think it should.

Because, interestingly, the Bossman’s paperwork didn’t have our $500 deposit even though Tony had supposedly fixed that. And the $250 Costco discount wasn’t in the paperwork either, a fact which, when we pointed it out, led to the following spectacular exchange:

Mark (gruffly): “The Costco discount doesn’t apply to 2012 models. It’s only for 2011s.”

Ty: “That’s not what we were told.”

Mark (aggressively): “Who told you that?”

Ty (looking at Junior Grade Salesman Tony): “Oh, hi.”

Mark storms off.

Tony, running off after Mark: “Don’t worry. I’ll fix this.”

Honestly, it was like being part of a real life comedy show. Mark was clearly just so disgusted that Tony couldn’t upsell us anything (financing, accessories, warranty, etc.) and that he had to give us a $250 discount on top of that, that he just walked off in a huff. I don’t think we even saw him after that. Which was OK by me. I don’t think he likes people. Hell, I don’t think he likes himself.

Importantly, Erin and I were in immediate accord: If we hadn’t gotten the Costco discount at this point, we would have walked. The $500 deposit was on a VISA, so I could have still disputed it if necessary. But I think it was clear, to Tony at least, that if he wanted the sale, he was going to have to give us the Costco discount. And what’s more I’m not sure that they would’ve had a lot of choice: Costco’s auto buying service has to be worth something, or why use it? If I’d walked out, I’d be sure to be talking to Costco and they’d be talking with the dealership and, potentially, Honda itself.

After the Mark episode, we were handed over the finance guy who made us officially decline all the warranties, protectants, sealants, and every other possible upsell. He filled out the DMV paperwork and took care of the final contracts which included the official sales price. As you might have guessed by this time, the price was incorrect and did not include our $500 deposit (though it did, interestingly, include our Costco discount). The finance guy told us that even though the number was wrong, we could go ahead and sign. “We’re not crooks,” he said, and I remember thinking (1) it’s always bad sign if you’re forced to make that claim and (2) that sounds mighty similar to Nixon. We insisted that the finance guy print up a new contract, a correct one this time, which we reviewed carefully and signed.

At the end of the day, I really love the car. I continue to think Honda’s engineering and design are amazing. If you’re a member, I recommend checking out the USAA and Costco auto buying services. I recommend buying your Honda accessories through College Hills Honda and having them installed by a trusted mechanic. I trust and recommend Valley Specialists. I would not use again and do not recommend the Honda automative dealership in Salem. But I do really love the car.