Decent set of wheels

Where do I stand? What do I need?
What does it take to own a set of wheels in Washington? Honestly, a lot of money, patience, courage to take a few bold decisions, lots of time, a good internet connection, and email address and primarily a very clear idea of what you want.

I’ve been thinking of an automobile for over two months now. My life has been tough without one, having to bike in the rain, or to trouble my housemates and friends for rides. This was only the case when I moved to 19321 in Issaquah. Staying on campus is a lot simpler, you don’t require a car when there are free shuttles. I always managed to get a rental if I needed to travel, or just take the greyhound. I always wanted to get my driver’s license done, procrastination always got the better of me and I kept putting it off.

Having moved to Issaquah, things got a lot tougher. It rained more often, the closes bus stop was 2 miles away and no bus bothered to pass our house. To be ignored by buses is bad enough, but the weather made it worse. Thankfully, I have a great bunch of roommates who helped me get a lot of work done.

I thought about it often when I realized it was time to get the car. Should I get a new car? Will it be a SUV or a Sedan or a Compact. Choices definitely made the task very difficult. The best exposure I had to automobiles was the Suzuki I owned in India. A cheap and underpowered car, it had great gas mileage but it didn’t offer any pleasure to drive. Yes, it was a poor mans car and it was used.

I drove 3 different compacts when I rented cars, before my driver’s test: The Mazda3, Ford Focus and they Chevrolet Cavalier. The Mazda was an outstanding rental. It was simply luck that I got my hands on the Mazda. The focus on the other hand, offered far less pleasure to drive than the Mazda, although it had a zippier engine. The Mazda offered better control, vision, and in general was a smoother drive.

It’s true that Americans treat you based on the car you drive. They believe that there is nothing more reflective of a persons true personality than his wheels. From the skateboarding, skiing, rock climbers Jeep Grand Cherokee, to the sophisticated, well to do business-mans Jaguar, from the city-slickers BMW 328xi, to the playboys Mercedes SLK, everyone has a car for them out there.

So which car does befit me? I always, thought 4-door, 4 cylinder, great mileage, low maintaenance. Trouble is, a number of cars fit that profile. The frugal Civic, the popular Accord, Nissan Altima and Sentra, Mazda 3 and 6, Toyota Camry and Corolla, and I haven’t even talked about the mid-size SUV’s yet or for that matter the American and German made cars.

Beyond the stereo-typing, Americans also do judge you by the size of your wallets and the degree of chrome on your vehicles. The Intern I worked with for example, told me that being a CS guy, I could use all the social uplift I could get, so a BMW 3 series would be a great buy.

And then there is this wilder side to me, when I slept, before I woke, I could only think of one car that had captivated my imagination, the Mazda RX-8. An awesome car, with the right curves and the perfect sticker price. It has so often tempted me to take a jab at financing a whole bunch of money!

Will it be an import or an American
Some can be so sensitive. Buy American, or will it be an import? From the day I discovered the world of automobiles with my friends, I have heard one saying that I cannot be sure if its a myth or not “As compared to American cars, Japanese cars are way more reliable and are also more economical”. I have also heard various justifications, for example American companies don’t want to invest in the reliability of their vehicles. They would rather prefer to have people replace their car that just ran a 100,000 miles than go on to 200,000 miles. I have also heard another popular rant that German cars (including BMW, VW, Audi) are comparitively expensive to maintain.

What is the truth? I cannot say yet, I didn’t find anything that put everything in black and white. Instead, I did find some indicators that told me what was what. While scouring the newsboards, I kept looking at a $6000 to $8000 price range, since that was what I wanted to pay. In that range, I saw very very few automobiles that were made in the USA. Most of the automobiles were imports and had easily done a lot more than 90,000 miles. I did see a bunch of trucks, but they truly don’t count, and even a beat up, low miles Jeep Liberty that the owner had truly trashed.

When I looked at the higher prices (with the hopes of financing my vehicle), I found a better balance between American and imports.

In the end, I still feel the American cars some time ago, offered some sort of individuality and uniqueness. If you appreciate the RX-8 like I do, I am sure you will also like the older Mustang. That is no longer true today, the Malibu goes head to head with the Accord, and the Aveo struggles with the Civic. With all the competition the american production cars melt away. If you want something unique, your probably going to shell out $50,000 for a flashy Corvette – 6 in Red (or maybe yellow if your willing to be that unique).

Even though, this is the USA, you can still run into a lossy deal which is going to hurt you very badly. Sometimes it may even cost you your life. I’ve heard of scary stories from technicians stuffing beer cans and peanuts in the air bag compartment instead of a real airbag to, flooded cars making their way back into the market after the people involved (read the insurance guys and the dealers) figure out a way to drag the car across several states and sell it to you disguised as a sweet deal. In fact, Odometer fraud is probably the simplest of things a scrupulous curbstoner will execute and is the last of your worries (definitely not the least).

Buying a used car is fraught with dangers. But you are bestowed with Superhuman powers to fight back, effectively. Thanks to VIN# and some states that make it mandatory to report sales, registrations, major accidents and other serious issues its possible to get the history of a car on paper. For example, if the car has always been registered and driven in the great state of Washington, you can find out for sure if the airbags on the car were ever deployed, or if it was a car that had ever been to the bottom of a lake and then just rebuilt.

On several occasions, I came across instances of cars being sold at auto auctions in the east coast (Indiana, Utah) and then being brought into the state. It definitely made me nervous since before the auction the car did not only have a clean history but also almost ‘no history’.

All this chicanery and deception almost makes it worthwhile to buy a new car. I cannot tell you how much wisdom lies therein. So what if your paying for the advertisements and corporate overhead. Yes, I also know you could be stuck with a lemon that just rolled out of the factory last week, but that risk is wayyy smaller. I appreciate it.

The Civic and the Desi
I so had to continue talking about stereotypes. If you asked me, what would you identify most with the civic, it would have to be the quintissential Indian immigrant who is fresh off the boat, has some money and wants a set of wheels. What does he buy? Especially, if he hasn’t had the exposure or the good fortune of having someone advise him? Of course, he finances a Honda, and yes surely, he thinks of the four door, or maybe even the two door civic. Its usually grey, never white or black!

Surprisingly, this is not just true of Indians. But this also true of any immigrant. I wish Honda would recognize the immense contribution the immigrant community has made to its reputation and to its bank balance!! Harshal on reading this, pointed out that Honda Motors, USA does not higher international students. Oh the Irony :)!

What is fun to drive?
Seriously, for me, driving needs to be almost effortless. The only way I discovered that is after having driven in Washington. Driving in India on the other hand, is way to stressful to be fun. I hated driving the Chevy Cavalier, simply because it was a cheap and old car, had few frills and the steering was ridiculously stiff and had to be manipulated instead of gracefully turned.

Similarly, I would hate driving a Dodge Durango simply because it would take an hour to park correctly and I would have to be a lot more watchful of crushing other smaller cars ;). But then to each his own. Fun to drive is not necessarily speed either. That is one thing I can do without, tickets cost a lot more here than you can imagine. Washington cops hate you if you speed. For them its not fun to have to chase you down and book you.

Fun to drive is also having a sunroof which you can open on a clear day and soak in the sun while you negotiate roads nimbly. Fun may not come cheap, but goes a long way in keeping your day sane!

Where to look?
There are so many places. I won’t even bother reviewing each one of them. For both new and used cars, the best place to start is the manufacturers website. Similar to graduate admissions brochures the manufacturers brochures will probably all sound the same. Still that should give you a good idea of the kind of car your looking at, the dealers in your area who you can talk to and of course what it might cost you.

Then there are the independant websites for the Seattle area!
Here is my list:
1. Micronews
2. Craigslist
3. Autotrader

Some independent websites also attempt to try to keep track of vehicle values depending on their, make, model, options, mileage and condition. However, I strictly suggest you keep in mind that this serves as only a guideline. I won’t be surprised if you found something less than its book value or the values printed on the site are skewed from reality.

1. Kelly Blue Book
2. Edmunds

KBB also offers some insight into market conditions which could be very effective when haggling on the price and edmunds offers great articles to get started with.

Carfax is a good place to research the history of a potential buy.

And finally, most dealers in Washington post their inventory on their own websites. Occasionally, they conveniently gloss over the details of the vehicles (for example the vehicle accessories and sometimes the price). So I warned myself “Research, Research, Research”!

In the end, I spent so much of my scarce free time on research I ended up chickening out and buying from a Private Seller, atleast I thought it was a way better deal than a dealer could get me.

Finance and the question of Money?
I’d really like to focus on whether you need finance at all, versus what kind of finance it is possible to get. One question I failed to satisfactorily answer is, would you rather loose money in interest on an automobile which is going to depreciate anyway? Yuppie car-lover says “Hell Yeah!?”, Family guy economist says “No way”. My friends happen to be equally balanced between the two. One even said that HE NEEDED the car but had no cash, so didn’t care about the interest.

I am not the best of drivers!
Yes, hence the first car, a cheap car thought. Something that has been used, has lots of life in it, is reliable, but isn’t flashy. I didn’t want to fret over the first scratch or dent I put in it. In the last 400 miles I’ve clocked, 3 drivers have honked at me (at my miserable driving). Most often, the mistakes have come due to a lack of judgement clouded by an almost edgy driving history in a jam-packed Indian city with a traffic trouble history almost as colorful as New York City itself :). Hence, a 1997 Honda CR-V suits me just fine.

I finally closed the deal!
Coughed up the cash, financed it a little bit at a decent interest rate, bought the car. Things were so smooth that I got to bundly my bicycle in the spacious backside of the CR-V before I drove home. Yes, that has to be the value in life.

I love her, but she costs me money!
Like all things that play on your heart strings, my CR-V is now officially my priority and I want to baby it, make sure she has the wings needed to keep her flying. In return, I hope she will give me driving pleasure, and the peace that one searches for in life and finds on the road.

“Road trippin with my two favorite allies… Fully loaded we got snacks and supplies, we’ve got to leave this town, we’ve got to get away, get lost anywhere in the USA!”