Buying a Car: The Wrong Way and the Right Way

There are two ways of buying a car. One is wrong. The other is right. I managed to do it both ways in 3 days.

Part 1: The Old Car
When my mother died in late 2007, I inherited her car and sold my own. Hers was a 2001 Cadillac Seville (purchased in 2005) in pretty good condition with very low mileage, as neither Mom nor I did a lot of driving. She went to church, to music club meetings, to the beauty parlor, to the grocery store just a mile away. Later, when she was no longer able to drive, I used her car to take her places, as it was more comfortable for her.

After I moved, I put more miles than before on the car because some of my doctors were farther away, but I’m a homebody, and don’t travel great distances. (My first car had just 6,800 miles on it after 15 years, and that included a lot of 700 round trips when I lived away from home.) The Seville had 48,000 miles on it at age 14, most of those put on it before Mom bought it.

However, I didn’t do well with taking care of the body of the car. I tried to jam it into a tight parking spot one winter, thinking the pile of snow next to it would still leave me room to get out. Not only was there no room, but that pile was frozen into solid ice and bashed in the driver’s door so that I couldn’t get it open. Cadillac tried to sell me a new door (hugely expensive to repair, those cars). I laughed and said just make it work again, leave the dent.

Over the next several years the car got dinged, scraped, and finally took some significant damage. I hit a mailbox, breaking the passenger side mirror and scoring a long dent in that side, so that the back door made a horrible noise when it was opened and closed. Then in 2014 I did a really stupid thing – tried to beat a bus in a construction zone where my lane was getting narrower, and all but destroyed the driver’s side outer mirror when it hit one of those big orange and black barrels.

By that time, new mirrors for a 2001 Cadillac weren’t even available. Try a junkyard, they told me. To hell with that. I found some mirror inserts at Amazon and a friend duct-taped them into place. (I could always find the car in a parking lot after that, even though it was the same color, silver, as at least 60% of all the other cars, by the bright turquoise duct tape on the mirrors.)

I’d been thinking about getting a newer car for some time, especially since I was putting a fair amount of money into service repairs by this time, more than the thing was worth. Just for the hell of it, a couple of weeks ago I put it through to see how much I could get for it.

Part 2: The Dealership
I got phone calls and emails from Ray Chevrolet almost daily after that. YES, we want to see your car, we always try to give you more for it than AutoTrader said it was worth. (AutoTrader hadn’t given me a figure.) And then the front fender got almost completely torn off, had to be duct-taped back in place. When the dealership called the next day, I went ahead and took it in.

Now, I knew what I wanted – a Ford Focus hatchback. But because it was a GM car, AutoTrader was sending me to a Chevrolet dealer. I thought maybe they’d have a used Focus on the lot, but I really didn’t intend to buy a car that day. I just wanted to know what they would take for the Cadillac.


They wanted to sell me a car. Of course they wanted to sell me a car. And there I was in a t-shirt and grubby jeans, no makeup, looking like an old lady pushover. Now I know, I KNOW, that I am a sucker for salespeople, but I still let Andrew start showing me cars.

2011 Chevy Spark

The Chevy Spark is UGLY.

No Ford Focus. “I’m gonna take care of you. I’m going to sell you a GM Certified Used Car.” The problem was, Chevrolet only has two hatchback models – the Sonic and the Spark, which are both butt-ugly. Literally – the back ends of both are squared off, boxy, and I hated the way they looked.

Still, I let him talk me into a test drive in one of the Sparks. It was okay, that’s the best I can say of it, but it was pale pink. I wouldn’t own a pink car unless (maybe) they paid me to take it. He found a screaming red one, 2013, low mileage. I didn’t even test-drive it. I… just… bought it. I guess I thought it was the best I could get at a price I could afford. To tell the truth, I don’t know what I was thinking.

They gave me a whopping $200 for the almost 15-year-old, beat up Cadillac.

Part 3: Financing a Car Takes Forever!
For all my previous cars I had paid cash. This time I couldn’t afford to do that. This meant waiting – and waiting – and waiting – while the financing guy put figures together. The customer service lady sold me a protection package.

Reminder to all car buyers: The price they initially quote you (in this case, $258 payment for 5 years) is not what you’re going to pay. There are taxes, paperwork fees, the aforementioned protection package, etc., etc., etc. I wound up with a monthly payment of $258 per month for six years.

And that didn’t include $35 a month for OnStar after the first free 6 months.

After over four hours at the dealership, I could finally go home – a half-hour drive. And before I was home, I knew I hated the car. Hated it. HATED IT.

Part 4: The Chevy Spark

The Chevy Spark has an awful boxy back end.

The Chevy Spark has an awful boxy back end.

The Chevrolet Spark is a subcompact. It’s cramped. There’s NO trunk space unless you put the back seats down, and you can’t put the back seats down without pushing the front seats forward. I have long legs. I need the driver’s seat to be back a ways.

I nearly broke a nail trying to change the tilt of the steering wheel. The unpadded arm rest on the door was painful to my elbow. The non-adjustable seat belt scraped my neck. And the driver’s area was so narrow I felt like I was sitting in an economy seat on a plane.

I loathed the car I had just bought. It was ugly, extremely uncomfortable, and not at all what I needed. It was so ugly I refused to post pictures on Facebook. I felt like an idiot. Well, I had been an idiot. I’d let a salesman sucker me once again – and for a lot more money than the time I let someone sell me the hideous $1800 Kirby vacuum.

Illinois has no 3-day grace period for cars. Still, the next day (Sunday) I wrote an email to the customer service representative telling her just how much I hated the car and why. I fretted miserably all weekend.

Monday morning Andrew, the salesman, called me and said to come back, they’d make me happy.

Well, Marcia the old-lady pushover was not going to the dealership. “Channel your inner Daloki,” one of my Facebook friends said. My roleplay character Daloki is tough. And I was not going to be wishy-washy again.

Part 5: The RIGHT Way to Buy a Car
I put on full makeup and dressed in good clothes before setting out. I also made a list of everything I wanted in a car – which I was not going to show to Andrew. It was for me alone, a checklist for rejection. I also knew, now, to test everything myself, from putting the back seats down to opening the hatch to the comfort of the seatbelt, and everything in between.

Andrew met a different person than the one he’d sold a car to on Saturday, and he knew it. He complimented me on my looks. He tried to start out by going over my email where I listed the things wrong with the car, and I stopped him before he got through the first item.

“I hate the car.” End of story, Andrew.

He couldn’t fix what was wrong with the Spark. Only a different car would satisfy me. And he knew that, too. He huddled with his manager. “We’re gonna take care of you, we’ll make you happy. Let me show you another car.”

I went outside to smoke and watched as he backed out the one car whose color I’d particularly noticed and disliked on Saturday – shocking orange. I laughed to myself. But as he began showing me its features, the color began to matter less. (And at least it wasn’t silver, grey, white or black!)

2011 Dodge Caliber

2011 Dodge Caliber

It also wasn’t a “GM Certified Pre-Owned Auto.” It was a 2011 Dodge Caliber with 41,000 miles. The hatchback opened easily, and the interior was not only level with the bottom of the opening (the Spark’s interior was not), it was roomy with the back seats up. Those back seats went down and up easily. There was a spare tire (the Spark hadn’t had one). There were two keys (the Spark only had one). The driver’s door arm rest was padded. The seat belts were adjustable. It was easy to move the driver’s seat up and down, back and forward, easy to tilt the steering wheel. And the driver’s seat was comfortable.

I took a 30-minute test drive this time – the same length of time it had taken me to get home on Saturday and realize just how big a mistake I’d made. I liked it.

Mini-Fridge in Glove Box

Mini-Fridge in Glove Box

“Oh, yeah!” Andrew exclaimed. “You’ll love this!” He opened the glove box. Inside was a mini-fridge with slots for four bottles.


He was right. I loved it. I loved everything about the car. I was even reconciled to the color.

Back at the dealership, I got out my list and checked the car against it. It had everything on the list. Only then did I show the list to Andrew.

Color: Screaming Orange

It really is screaming orange

But we weren’t done yet. There was the price. Very firmly I told him I didn’t want to pay more than the $258 per month they’d come up with for the Spark. I could be slightly flexible, but not much. The price they’d have to show me would include everything – taxes, title, protection package, whatever else.

They came back with $289. No OnStar, which meant I’d be paying $4 less per month than on the Spark. I was happy. I shook his hand. He offered me a hug, which I gave him. Mazeltov!

But then I sat down to wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. How could the financing be taking so long again? Hadn’t they had to figure that out in order to give me the price? Outside for a cigarette. Back in again. Apologies for the wait. More cigarettes. More waiting. More apologies. Finally I channeled Daloki once more and went down to find out what the holdup was. Told the finance guy I was going to smack him if I had to wait much longer. I was in his office in just five more minutes.

Signed the papers. Made a list of everything I signed and whether I got a copy of it or not. Transferred my ashtray, GPS, umbrella and garage door opener to the Dodge. Drove away happy. Today I am still happy.

I love my Dodge Caliber!

I love my Dodge Caliber!

So that, my friends, is the right way to buy a car. Dress to feel confident. Make a list and don’t take less. Speak firmly. Stand up straight. You may not be fortunate enough to have an inner Daloki, but find something tough inside yourself before you ever leave the house.

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