Friday, February 20, 2015

Buying a New Car, Part 4: Starting Over

By Scott Araujo

In my last post, Buying a New Car, Part 3: The Negotiation, my plan to seek out and find a 2013 xD leftover ended in frustration and disappointment. So I take a step back and start again.

I was pretty steamed about how things went while trying to buy a 2013 Scion xD leftover. I believe it truly was a series of honest mistakes and blunders as they said it was, but it was still very frustrating. After a few days I still liked the Scion but I certainly wasn't going to buy from that dealer.

Things going south like that may have been a blessing in disguise. I had been very focused on creating the list, whittling it down, and buying the car. I had become very driven and goal oriented, seeking to just get it done and over with. When it all came apart I was left with some time to reflect on what I was doing.

I had set out with a fairly simple goal: find an inexpensive car that met my needs. I had also decided to be pretty picky since I tend to keep my cars for a very long time. Andy and I had already discussed how any time you set a limit on the price, you are going to have to make some compromises. I had been pretty staunch about keeping the price low, and I had been overly motivated to get it all done ASAP. On reflection, I had been pushing too hard on both fronts. I didn't need to get it done immediately. My Honda Civic was still running just fine. I didn't need to be so hard on the price point. I was trying to keep the price really low when in reality I can afford for it to be a bit higher.

I talked with Andy, I talked with Mercedes, I talked with my wife. I can certainly be prone to tunnel vision at times and they all helped me to calm down and open up my perspective. I moved back to square one and once again considered the creation of The List.

An important point Andy made is what he tells everyone who is looking to buy a car: if you're even remotely interested in a car, go drive it. And he's absolutely right. Taking a car for a test drive is very easy to do, and whether you're hot or cool towards a car, five minutes behind the wheel can change that faster than anything else.

The List Revisited
With that in mind, I remade the list. Which cars had I liked? Which cars deserve a second look? The xB was great in so many ways, but the center console really was a deal breaker. The xD was also great, though I still had some reservations about the way the clutch pedal felt under my foot. Likewise, I had really liked the Soul but written it off for grabby brakes. I had really liked the Impreza when we were shopping for my wife's car; I should put in a little more effort to find one with a stick. And I had knocked the Mazda3 off the list without even doing a test drive because I sat in it and my elbow bumped the center console. If I'm going to spend another 17 years in the same vehicle I should at least take all contenders down the road for a few miles.

So the new list was formed:
  • Scion xD
  • Kia Soul
  • Subrau Impreza hatchback
  • Mazda3 hatchback
Andy and I made plans to meet up after work one day and hit the dealers again. Since there was no point in going for test drives at 5:00 with rush hour traffic, we decided to meet at a local brew pub first for some early snacks and libations. Better still, it was Miser Mondays with half priced pints! What seemed like a spakling plan with a serendipitous bonus at first quickly tarnished when we realized that you probably shouldn't show up for test drives reeking of beer. Yeah, we're not the world's best planners. So we ordered some appetizers and iced teas to pass the time until the traffic let up and we'd be able to take some test drives.

Once we had filled our bellies and the roads had lightened up a bit we headed across town to a different Scion dealer. They had some xDs with manual transmissions in stock, though not in my top color choices. No matter, color doesn't matter for a test drive.

Scion xD, Round Two
It's a great dealership with a nice little display of TRD accessories in the showroom. We were greeted and handed off to a very professional and polite salesman who brought an xD around for us, and we were off. We did a nice little loop around the neighborhood where there was no traffic. The clutch pedal still felt funny to me but it was also still a really nice car, and I have to admit that I like it in white more than I thought I would. We come back to the dealership, chat a bit with the salesman, get a card from him, and head off to the next dealer.

We're off to the another Kia dealer. It's not far but there's still some traffic and so it takes longer than usual. On the way we discuss the xD, and in particular the funny cramp I seem to get from the clutch pedal. I realize that I only drove the car for five minutes but here it is ten minutes later and my foot is still cramped. It's suddenly and sadly clear that this isn't a car that I'll want to be stuck in stop and go traffic with. Such a shame. If I were getting an automatic I'd probably already own an xD or xB, but as it stands, the xD is off the list. And I'm begrudgingly glad I dodged a bullet because of the bungled sale by the previous dealer.
  • Scion xD
  • Kia Soul
  • Subrau Impreza hatchback
  • Mazda 3 hatchback

Kia Soul, Round Two
We make it to the Kia dealer and boy do they have Souls in stock! You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting one; loads of them on the lot. We're greeted by a very nice young man and I explain that I'd like to drive a base model with a stick. He pops off to the office to find the key for one and is back in a flash.

Last time I looked at this car I was alone, this time Andy is with me. I was really impressed with the attention to detail on this car so I start popping everything open to show it all to Andy. Now this is where our salesman really started to shine. Most saleseman know a few facts and figures but if you get into the nitty gritty they need to ask a mechanic or pull out a brouchure. Not so with our salesman, he really knows his stuff. For instance, while the Soul does not come with a spare, a kit with a spare and jack is avaialable for about $200. Also, the base model does not have keyless entry but it's the only car I've seen so far that actually has a keyhole on the passenger side. So while you can't just push a button to open the passenger side you can do it with the key. No need to leave the kids on the curb to go open the doors and then run back before they get up to something. Further, they can easily install factory keyless entry in this model, also for about $200. We like this guy a lot!

A slight aside here. The upper trim levels of the Soul actually funnel air from the air conditioner into the glove compartment. It lets you have a built in mini-cooler of sorts. The base model does not have this feature. It turns out this cooler ducting takes up about half the glove box space, so when you don't have it you get a glove box big enough to fit a small baby. Seriously. You could fit a 12 pack in there.

It's time for the test drive so off we go. The dealership is just a few blocks from the freeway. In Portland, the freeways make a nice loop around the river and downtown, so it's a great way to test the car at freeway speed. Last time I was out I was disappointed with the grabby brakes. My wife had pointed out that they were A) probably just a bit tighter than I was used to in my seventeen year old car and B) probably a touch rusty from the recent rains. It turned out she was right.

Pulling out of the lot I made a few light taps on the brakes to scrub off any rust and I set about evaluating them. We were on some side roads with no other car so I made a few stops. Some quick and harsh, some smooth and easy. The brakes certainly were tighter and the feel wasn't great, but they weren't as bad as I had first suspected. I was sure I could get used to them. Our salesman was nice enough to take us to the worst local road with the most pot holes, and once again Kia showed that it had done its homework and sorted the suspension: no bump steer. Off to the freeway.

The loop of I-5 and I-405 that crosses the river and runs through downtown was a great test. It's a freeway with some good hills going up to and down from the bridges. With three adults aboard the base model's 1.6-liter engine was once again ... adequate. It gets up to speed with no problem and stays there wthout feeling labored. I wouldn't want to try to pass anyone at 70 MPH, but for the usual commuting and weekend family duty it's just fine. The steering and brakes are both still kind of numb but not the worst in the world.

We head back to the dealer. As luck would have it, they have a first gen Soul across the street next to some current models. We scoot over to take a look at them side by side.

Second Generation Kia Soul next to a First Generation Soul
It's amazing how many small changes they made that you'd never notice if you didn't see them side by side. This moved a bit, that shortened a smidge, there's more going on than you'd suspect. Once again I think it's a testament to Kia's attention to detail that they made all these changes that go mostly unnoticed. The essence of the car is completely intact in the new model.

It's fairly late and dark now. We get a business card and take our leave of our favorite salesman so far. It's too late to test any more cars tonight but not too late to get back to Miser Mondays at the brew pub. We return for a few pints, a little more to eat, and a discussion of the evening's events.

The xD is sadly off the list but the Soul is back on. I liked the Kia a lot to start with and I like it even more now. And to sweeten the pot, the salesman told me that they were cutting very good deals on the low end models that I was interested in. It's definitely a contender. Enough cars for today. Andy and I pack up and head home.

A few days later I had some time to head out alone. I figured I was scarred by the center console in the xB so I never gave the Mazda 3 a fair chance. I also figured I'd hit the Subaru lot again and see if there was a manual Impreza around today.

I got to the Mazda lot and the same salesman was there that we spoke with last time. He remembered me and I told him I was looking to test drive an I Sport Mazda3 hatchback in manual. They didn't have a low end model on the lot with a stick, but they had one a few notches up. It has more bells and whistles but it's the same 2.0-liter engine and six-speed manual tranny. Good enough for a test drive so he goes off to get the keys.

The car is Titanium Flash Mica and it's a pretty sweet color. It's late afternoon and it really glitters in the sunlight. He returns with the keys and we open her up.

I pop the hatch, check the spare, all the usual stuff. The car is well made for sure. It's the most expensive car on my list and it shows. It's definitely a notch or two above the Scions and the Kia I looked at. The rear seat is roomy and comfortable with plenty of headroom. The front seats are awesome with hearty side bolsters, not full on race seats, but super comfy and supportive. Not quite as hardcore as the seats in the last STI that SCC tested but sporty enough to give you a hint of what this car is all about.

The body on these cars is one of my favorites. It's got compound curves everywhere! It's so nice to see a car that's not just a slab sided melted bar of soap. The smile is gone and the new grille looks like an over-wide Alfa Romeo from back in the day. And while so many cars are raking their windshields more and more, Mazda actually moved the base of the A pillar back a few inches for better looks and visibility. The overall profile of the car reminds me of an old Jaguar E-Type with its long hood, sharp windshield, and elegantly sloping rear lines. Mazda ads always show the car at flattering angles to accentuate this. Up close it looks bigger than it does in the pictures but it's still quite nice.

There is one oddity: the dashboard. Most cars these days are designing the dash around the touch screen. It's big enough that you need to plan. Mazda designers seemed to have taken a Mulligan on that one. The dash is more traditional with some vents, the SCC approved three dial climate controls, and a little storage spot to put your change. Where is the touch screen? Right in the middle of the dash! They didn't even try to blend it it, just stuck it up there and said "Good enough!" It seems incongruous with the fairly slick design of the rest of the car. The i Sport doesn't have a touch screen, so instead it looks like someone left an LED clock from the 1980s on the dashboard. Smaller but just as clumsy.

We start the car and head off down some back roads toward the freeway. Did I mention that you have to push the stick down to get it into reverse? Anything that reminds of my old air cooled VWs scores immediate points.

Right away the car feels really good. The steering is spot on, the brakes are strong with good modulation, and the clutch! Wow! Finally a clutch I can actually feel the engagement on. The overall handling is stellar, it tracks like it's on rails.

We've gone a few blocks and I have the basic feel of the car now. There is a nice set of S curves coming up to the highway.

"Mind if I push it a bit?" I ask the sales guy.

"Go for it!"

I downshift and lean on it and it delivers. The pickup is great. The car roars, takes off, and carves through the turns. I'm amazed at how little body lean there is and before you can blink we're through the curves and on the highway.

I've read a few reviews that mention excessive engine noise. Once again, this is a driver's car. At low RPMs the engine is there and you can hear it more than you might in some milquetoast sedans but it's not intrusive. Step it up to about 4k and you are met with a very nice little growl. It doesn't grunt like a muscle car or sing like a Ferrari, but any gearhead will immediately know this is a well designed engine, and like everything else in the car it's tight as a drum.

So here we are scooting along with traffic on the freeway, very comfortable and not too much cabing noise. I checked the figures and the Mazda3 with a 2.0-liter falls right in with the top end subcompacts on the power to weight ratio, and that's where it falls on the fun chart too. It's peppy and fun to drive but you won't beat anyone down the long straight at a track day.

The six speed transmission shifts cleanly, it's precise and solid. You never miss a gate but it's not as silky smooth as a Honda. I bump my elbow once or twice but the center console isn't nearly the issue it was in the xB. I still get confused when I have more than five gears—car or bike. They're all pretty evenly spaced and you can cruise on the freeway in fourth, fifth, or sixth. I think it's better to think of it as a five speed with overdrive.

This is an uprated model from the i Sport I want and it has the blind spot warning system. The salesman tells me to put on the turn signal when someone is in my blind spot and it dings in with a noticeable but not too loud warning. Nicely done.

We get back to the lot. I really like the car. I also really like the Soul. The Mazda retails for almost $4,000 more than the Soul and one of my questions was, would it really be worth that much more? The answer, definitely! The Mazda is everything the Soul isn't, a driver's car. The styling is pretty fresh but you can still clearly see the lineage of the previous generation. This car may not be trendy and there are no small furry mammals in the ads, but if you always have grease under your nails it should definitely be on your list.

I tell the salesman that I really like the car and ask if he knows when they'll be getting some i Sports in manual on the lot. He's not sure, they'll probably get some next week so call and check. We shake hands and I'm on my way again.

Subaru Impreza, or Something Like It
The Subaru lot is just a few doors down and I head over. It's not too busy and I'm greeted quickly by a very polite young man. I explain that I want to drive a base model Impreza with a stick. He makes a frowny face, he's pretty sure they don't have any but he'll go check the computer to be sure.

He's back soon. Sure enough, they don't have any Imprezas with a manual, but he does have something to offer. The XV Crosstrek is basically the same car but lifted with fender flares. Same drivetrain, same body, same interior, and they have one with a stick. Would I be interested in taking that for a spin? Close enough for me, I agree. The handling might be a bit more floaty but it will certainly be close enough to get a good idea.

We head to the back lot and quickly find the car we're looking for. He gets the keys and the inspection begins. Pop the hatch, check the back seat legroom and headroom, poke, prod, the usual. The Subaru is just as I remember it: a straightforward, honest, and well made car. The fit and finish is really top notch.

Getting in to the XV is interesting. It's just high enough to let you know it's not your average sedan but once you sit down it feels just like a regular car again. It's comfy and roomy, all the controls fall right to hand.

Off we go and we're on the road. You can tell right away that you're lifted. The big tires do feel different and you're up high enough to see just a bit more than from a regular car. The Impreza and the Mazda3 are really close on paper and in person too. Four door hatchback, simple solid car, about the same power, lots in common though the Subaru is about $1,000 less. And for that price you get AWD thrown in for free.

We roll down the side roads and the car feels very well sorted. Power delivery is good, the transmission shifts easily and smoothly and I'm back in my five speed comfort zone. Steering, suspension, brakes, overall road feel, it's all good. And no I'm really glad I took another look at the top end of my list, these cars deserved a second chance.

We get back and chat about the car for a bit. The salesman tells me that if I really want an Impreza with a stick they can find one or order from the factory if need be. I get a business card, say thanks, and take my leave.

The Decision
So I've got three cars on my list now: the Soul, the Mazda3, and the Impreza. The Soul is a great car and a screaming deal but my test drives in the Mazda3 and the Impreza only accentuated where it falls short. It's not a driver's car and I am a driver.
  • Kia Soul
  • Subrau Impreza hatchback
  • Mazda3 hatchback
Down to the Impreza and the Mazda3. As I already said, they are really similar in many ways both on paper and in the flesh. I drove them both and they were both great cars, but in the end the Mazda3 really grabbed me on a visceral level. It would be nice to have AWD for about three days a year, but it would be nice to have a real driver's car every day.

In the end I picked the Mazda3. The Mazda3 and the Impreza are so close but the 3 really grabbed me when I drove it, way more than any other car. I guess when it comes down to it, I've been a suburban dad on a budget for about five years but I've been a gearhead all of my life.\

The Purchase
Now this would be a good spot to end and have another installment where I regale you with dramatic tales of seeking out and buying the car. Truth be told I just don't have the material to justify another piece. The purchase was really fairly boring, so here it is.

Andy hooked me up with some good pricing from Mazda, and since I knew I wanted an i Sport with no options, there wasn't much to do but find one. I sent some e-mails to dealers and found one in Titanium. I called the saleswoman and asked if the car was on the lot, it was. I told her I had the Mazda pricing and she just said, "Oh I can beat that." And she did, by a lot. The price was so good I didn't even bother to haggle.

I did have to make a decision on color now. They had every color on the lot and my choice on the Titanium started to waver. White looks good but this is a car with curves. White doesn't show off curves so it was out. Silver is easy to keep clean but too boring for me. Since I got such a good price I did consider red which costs a few hundred more. Andy said that this particular red is his favorite red of any red on any car (This is true! - Andy), and in all his many years driving and many, many cars, the only car he got pulled over in routinely was red. Down to Titatnium and Meteor Gray Mica. I've always loved Porsche's for their curves and they always look great in gray, so gray it was.

They didn't have an i Sport in that color on the lot but got one from another dealer in a day or two. There was no push on options I didn't want. I had financing from my credit union so no push on that. There was the obligatory ask for the extended warranty that I declined. Easy peasey, lemon squeezy and I had a new car. And since I got it so cheap I spoiled myself with a set of alloy wheels.

In retrospect, I am really glad the first deal I tired to make on an xD fell apart. I was too focused on getting the process over with and keeping the price low. In the end I bought the most expensive car on my list and I have no regrets doing so. It was really great to have people like Andy and Mercedes to talk to about everything along the way. The question of 'What car would you get next?' is very different when it's for real and not just something to blather about over beers. It really is worth driving everything you're even the slightest bit interested in.

In the end I got a car that fills two very different roles that I would have thought were at odds with one another. It's a great family car and a great driver's car. While not quite as palatial as the xB or Soul, there is plenty of head, leg, and shoulder room. So in 10 years when I still have this car and my five year old son is now two inches taller than I am, he'll fit in the back seat. And another year or two later, he can drive and I'll fit!

It's nice stepping up to four doors from two, and it's nice to get child seat anchors for his car seat. It all makes it easier to get him in and out of the car. But the other side of the coin is that once I drop him off at day care these days, I'm even more likely to take the curvy back roads to work. The car handles and feels better than any stock car in it's price range, and better than many I've been in that have had some performance work done. It feels solid, and more importantly, it feels like it will still feel solid in five or 10 years.

There were many cars that I didn't even consider, and I'm sure some of you out there are fans and asking why. When building a list, the cars have to meet the criteria set out, but they also needed to grab me on a gut level, and that's a very personal note to hit. It certainly doesn't mean they're not good cars or not worthy of consideration. It just means they're not my cup of tea. If your favorite didn't make my list it's certainly no slight against it

If you've read this whole long saga and gone through all the ups and downs, thank you for sharing the journey with me. I hope you were entertained, I hope you learned something that may help you the next time you seek out a new car. And if you were paying attention at the very beginning, you'll remember that my wife told me to just buy the Mazda 3 to begin with. I could have saved myself a whole lot of time, trouble, and grief if I just listened to her in the first place. Don't tell her I said that.

Buying a New Car, Part 3: The Negotiation
Buying a New Car, Part 2: The Search
Buying a New Car, Part 2: The List


Unknown said...

Mazda3 5 door is on my short list to replace the Mighty Yaris. They are beautiful.

Barry Traylor said...

That brown Kia at the top is some really ugly color.

Barry Traylor said...

Another comment. Glad you settled on the Mazda. I love it in red and just might look at one when I am ready to buy. I owned a Mazda MX-3 for almost 19 years and was very happy with it. Now that they have gotten rid of the goofy looking smile on the front of the car they have made it a lot nicer looking. If I am going to own a car for 10 years or more I have to like the way it looks in my driveway.

Ducati Scotty said...

I think that color is called 'latte', and it looks just like someone spilled one all over your Soul. Not my favorite either, but the new version of Alien green is nice.

nlpnt said...

Great choice, Scotty!
Only knock I hear on Mazdas is rust, and given that all the best car-spotting blogs are run out of the PNW and give the impression the streets of Oregon and Washington state are filled with '70s Subarus, Fiats and Chevy Vegas that clearly isn't as much of an issue as it is for me here in New England.

Ducati Scotty said...

Just talking to Andy about this today. I grew up on the east coast and learning to deal with rusty nuts and bolts was a huge part of working on any machine. Here in Oregon, there's not much rust to deal with unless you live in the mountains where they have lots f snow and salt.