Sunday, May 14, 2006


Since 1994 when I bought it used, I've driven a 1992 Chevy Lumina. I got it with about 78,000 miles on it, and it last week flipped over 200,000. (Today, it's about 220,218.)

I've toyed over the years with buying a new or used car, but it never seemed the right time: not enough money, shaky job, no job. Recently, though, my job has proven itself to be steady and supportive and my car has over the last year had its water pump, battery, and starter replaced, and new tires are in the near future.

My old boss used to say that you could handle only so many crises at one time and you don't want your car to be one of them. Your car may have to get you out of a crisis, so that's one area of your life that you want taken care of. So, on the grounds that it's best to fix the roof before it starts raining, and seeing that ol' Lumy was going to turn 200K, I decided it was time to get that new car.

I set the parameters for the search as: it would happen in the second quarter of the year; I would go about it in an easy and relaxed manner; I would not let anyone, anything, or any event pressure me into making a quick decision; as much as possible, I wanted a low-haggle deal.

Ramit details his decision-making process in his sprightly new-car rant. I won't go into similar detail here, except to say that after driving used cars all my life, I was ready for a new car with modern safety and convenience features. Airbags! Keyless entry! ABS! Cupholders!

I threw myself into the process by first picking one or two cars to focus on. I started at the library with The Car Book 2006's list of recommended vehicles, moved on to MSN Auto's ratings, Consumer Reports, and other sites and rankings.

The Web has made car-shopping so different from the old days. Information is so plentiful you can drown in it. I find it useful to pick one or two sources at the beginning that I trust, then after I've got the lay of the land, expand my search radius to other sites.

I also wanted a way to track my online searches; this seemed like a perfect time to explore PBWiki. I'd had a free account for a while but hadn't really hit on a use for it; so I took this occasion to create a car-buying page that basically became my online scratchpad, holding the data I collected and ongoing notes as my ideas changed. I found that my account was also extremely helpful in collecting relevant reference links. (Look for the "cars" tags.)

Aside: I found that after I'd decided on a specific car, I really didn't need the PBWiki page anymore for collecting car ideas or links. Instead, it became a page where I recorded ongoing progress and data. I hardly ever refer to the car information now.

My online info gathering eventually rotated around, especially its terrific user forums. Any car's make and model has its own dedicated forum area and so, in economics parlance, I was a free-rider on the enthusiasm and research of others.

And now--a digression on logic and intuition. At a previous job, one of my managers sent me on a research mission within the company on how our software was perceived; he was particularly interested in anecdotes, he said, even more than raw data. Anecdotes communicated. I found that, as much as MPG ratings mattered, I tended to read more closely the forum posters, especially on their experiences and their problems. I paid special attention to those people who posted negative points of view and found them very valuable. As a former arts reviewer, I know that when you like something, you tend to gloss over its shortcomings.

I also remember an episode from "The Paper Chase" TV series when it was on Showtime. Prof. Kingsfield corrected a student who was making an incorrect but "logical decision" (this is from memory): "I have spent years trying to make students consider the facts and think logically. But there are certain facts--emotional facts, personal facts--against which the great god Logic is impotent." Emotional facts--I've always liked that concept. Logic has its domain and its uses, but it's not an all-purpose tool; like a knife, it's useful in specific situations and not in others.

In the comments to Ramit's rant, many people dinged him for not acting logically and hewing to his own financial best interests. They seemed to be accusing him of making an emotional, non-fact-based decision, and then backfilling the decision with logic to justify it. I suppose it depends on what you hold to be your highest priorities. It also depends on what facts you consider to be paramount in your decision making.

Psychologists have proven that every decision we make--political, financial, sexual, career--is first and foremost an emotional decision. That's the legacy of our lizard brains. No one can ever render a completely objective decision, because our minds simply don't work that way. Yes, we do use logic to justify our emotional decisions, and then remember or convince ourselves that the decision made logical sense all along.

So, how did I use intuition and logic to help me make a decision? I started out interested in the Scion xB, then heard a few anecdotes from acquaintances about the low-powered automatic version (I don't drive stick, sorry). I then moved to the Honda Element, which is the car whose looks I really liked the most anyway. Read the Edmunds forums and you'll see that its owners love it. LOVE it. I figured I would too--it was such a sharp-looking car. But a friend's mechanic said his customers were disappointed with its low mileage and that stuck with me.

I'd long thought of a compact SUV as being my next vehicle. I'm 6'3", about 220 lbs (as of today--I hope to see it go down soon!), have a tall torso, and wanted a car that I didn't have to crouch or scrunch myself into. I didn't want another sedan.

My intuition told me to try the Element but stay open to other possibilities. At the Honda dealer, I sat in the CR-V--my hair brushed against its roof. No go. In the Element, I had plenty of hair room and it felt like driving in Liz's old Astro van. The Element handled OK, seemed a little underpowered, but it's a 4-cylinder, what did I expect? I didn't get a thrill from driving it though. And the reports from owners that they were averaging about 20 MPG really gave me pause. Three or four years ago, it would have been OK to buy a car with that kind of mileage. But today, with prices nearing $3/gallon, it struck me as irresponsible for me to buy a car that didn't get at least 25 MPG, or better.

(I really didn't consider the Prius or any other hybrid vehicles; I'm sure they're great cars, but they were more expensive and I'm in agreement with their critics who say they don't make financial sense. I know people who love their Prius, and that's great; they made their decisions based on facts that were significant to them.)

I'd defined for myself that my next car would be mainly a commuter vehicle, running errands, the occasional long trip. The salesman steered me to a Honda Fit. It's Honda's "Scion-killer," a subcompact hatchback with estimated 31/37 MPG. Yes, I have to bend down a bit to get in, but the cockpit felt comfy and the car was just fun to drive.

Liz asked me what I meant when I said it was "fun to drive." Sorry -- I can't quantify "fun." But it became a significant personal and emotional fact.

Also, it's MPG ratings and its price impressed me. It's not without problems; the Edmunds forum for the Fit has a couple of threads on overcoming the car's shortcomings. But as others have commented, if you want a Fit with fill-in-the-blank, then buy a Civic or Accord or CR-V or Element or whatever. The Fit is what it is.

I also had to come back to what I'd always said about cars (my cars, anyway): they're boxes on wheels. They get me from here to there. I don't want to get emotional about a box on wheels. However, I also don't want to get angry everytime I fill up the tank. And since I'll be spending significant amounts of time behind the wheel, I do need to be sensible about the box's comfort and amenities.

I only test-drove two cars--the Fit and the Element. I thoroughly researched the Fit, took a second test drive with Liz, and made the emotional decision that this was the car I wanted. It fit my price range, it was fun, it was a counter-intuitive car for me to buy after years of saying I wanted a bigger car, blah blah blah. I think Liz is a little skeptical of the decision since I really didn't drive any Toyotas or other cars (and I have to say the Kias and Hyundais also had some compact SUVs I was interested in). But based on my reading, my thinking, and my emotions, it just felt like the right decision.

At that point, logic kicked in: determine the price, get quotes from various dealers, check insurance rates, etc. Logic is very helpful at that point in the game.

Fortunately or not, the Fit is a low-profit enterprise for Honda and the dealers aren't making very much. They all quoted me the Edmunds True Market Value price for the car, which I'd used as my baseline, and their final prices all clustered very close together. I dealt with these guys via email and it was very pleasant to take time to craft a response and not talk myself into a hole. I know I don't do well in face-to-face dealings, so having the option of email or fax gives my emotions time to calm down so I can think rationally.

So far, the process has indeed been easy and relaxed. I've got my financing and insurance lined up. I've not had to "armor up" to do battle with salesmen, an experience that others look forward to but that I never did. I've not had to factor in any emotional wear and tear to the cost of the vehicle. There are still unknowns, to be sure: how will the seat feel after sitting in it for an hour? Are the headlights properly aimed? Will I miss an armrest?

Now I'm just waiting on the car. Given increasing demand and short supply, waiting for the Fit in my color (Blaze Orange Metallic) may mean waiting till August. My logical self is telling my increasingly antsy emotional self that it's character-building to delay gratification. But it's a hard sell.

Addendum: My Fit arrived on July 27 and I'm really enjoying it. I donated the Lumina to TROSA and that went OK. Before donating the Lumina, it got a good washing at the Durham Ritz car wash; it was the least I could do for a car that served me well for so many years. When I took ownership of the Fit, the business manager said that if you ordered some Fit models today, it might be December before they arrived.