Friday, July 25, 2014

A New Leaf

Joe College's 1998 Volvo bites the dust in a supermarket parking lot and is towed back to Casamurphy and parked illegally on the street facing in the wrong direction. We've known that this death is imminent and that when the tags expire at the end of August, with it's blown head gasket the elderly Volvo stands no chance of passing a smog test. We hope that with the daily addition of oil, transmission fluid and coolant we can keep the sputtering thing on the road for another month but it is not to be. Joe College is wistful when his first car is donated to public radio and towed away.

Having lived in Redlands myself, I would not strand the boy there sans car. Himself probably catholically disagrees but knows to choose his battles. Our 2001 Volvo, the last car we purchased new, is handed down to the boy. The boy notes that he dislikes the color (beige) and instead of smacking him I confide that I don't like it either.

We decide that our next car will be electric. Himself is all about the planet, which is OK by me. But, inevitably some asshole leaves just enough gas in the pump for me to spill it all over myself and stink all day. In that nobody is going to give me a Tesla, choices in our price range boil down to Fiat 500e, Chevy Spark or Nissan Leaf. The Spark is slightly better reviewed than the Leaf but when I see one up close, I realize that it a much smaller vehicle than I am comfortable driving. The Fiat is even dinkier. Himself balks at this but his only experience pertinent to grocery shopping is grudgingly unloading bags and he is so anti-social that it is unlikely he will ever have to stuff anyone into the backseat.

I study up as much as possible and take a colleague who is knowledgeable about cars, although suspicious about electric, to Glendale for a test drive. Back in the day, men in any but blue collar professions, wore a dress shirt and tie. Now there are far fewer professions with these sartorial requirements. The car salesman uniform of white shirt and necktie sort of stands out now and connotes to me an untrustworthy unctuousness. I would be much more at ease dealing with someone in jeans and a Joy Division t-shirt. Despite the requisite uniform, our salesman is patient when we both take the wheel for a much longer than average test drive. We are both surprised at how well the car performs.

I figure out the fair price for a Leaf with the equipment that I want. The salesman in Glendale has spent so much time with us that I give him the first crack at the deal. He responds to my e-mail with a sky high quote and a load of crap about having to “ask his manager,” so my loyalty instantly vanishes. Knowing the exact car that I want, I ask for advice on Facebook about negotiating for a car without having to visit a dealership. Buying services through AARP, Costco and the Auto Club are recommended.

It turns out that all of these services emanate from True Car. You select the exact car you want but are unable to get “best local prices” without providing your e-mail address and phone number. This done, you receive a certificate with a price guarantee to take to the dealer. Upon receiving my certificates I send an email to each of the dealerships to confirm the price, availability of the exact car I want and confirmation that 0% financing is available. I add in huge bold font that I will communicate only via e-mail and not negotiate on the phone or in person. I state that I will only come into a dealership to sign papers and take delivery.

I receive dozens of form e-mails and a barrage of phone calls, even from dealers from whom I received no certificate. The personalized e-mails I receive all indicate that the dealer doesn't actually have the car promised on the True Car certificate in stock but I can get a great deal on a different model or color. Suddenly too, the 0% financing advertised on a huge banner on the Nissan website is not available. I am so disgusted that I stop by both a Chevy and Fiat dealership but decide that indeed these two alternatives are simply too tiny.

One complication is that 2015 Leafs have arrived and the 0 financing applies only to 2014s, which are in rather short supply. The Leaf comes in only in black, white, silver, blue or red and the red is more expensive. Despite Himself's annoyance, I plan on driving the car for many years and know that I will never be happy with anything but a blue model and I hold out for it. I've always been kind of embarrassed by the beige Volvo.

A salesman from Alhambra Nissan finally responds cogently and states that he has the exact car IN BLUE that I want. We go back and forth a bit on the 0% financing and after I copy and paste the offer from the Nissan website, that too falls into place. I provide him with the information necessary for the approval of the loan. It appears to be a done deal. He reports that he will not be working on Monday but one of his colleagues will e-mail me all the paperwork to review and then I'll be able to fetch the car, which it is then revealed to actually be at another dealership. The colleague leaves a chirpy stupid message on my voicemail but by Monday afternoon there is no paperwork. Around 5 the finance manager calls me to try to get me to subscribe to a maintenance plan and a number of different insurance policies. I refuse and also convey that if I don't receive the paperwork by the end of the day that the deal is off the table. He reports that the dealership has no scanner and cannot supply the purchase documents digitally.

I send a firm e-mail to the original salesman with whom I'd actually had an intelligent interaction explaining the bullshit that has transpired in his absence. I tell him that if I don't receive the paperwork first thing Tuesday morning that I will purchase the car via a broker that a friend's recommended. The paperwork magically arrives and I make an appointment to fetch the car. I e-mail the VIN number to my insurance agent so that he can add the new car to our policy.

Top 40 music blares at the dealership which is filled with young men in white shirts and ties and a handful of women in pantsuits trying to look busy. Despite my request that the paperwork be ready to sign, we wait about half an hour and then are forced behind the closed door of the finance manager's office. I snap first thing that we are not interested in any insurance or maintenance plans but he takes a shot anyway. Finally, documents signed, we are led out to the car. Having run a business and simply lived on the planet for as long as I have, I suspect I may be a bit more sophisticated than many car buyers. I can't imagine the great extent to which an average customer must be screwed.

The salesman goes through instructions so detailed that all are immediately forgotten and the car is left running for so long that it requires another charge before leaving the dealership. The owner's manual is as thick as an old school phone book. Driving the Leaf is weird. I still don't know what most of the buttons are for but I can at least get it into drive and even reverse. A gas powered car uses the least energy when it's operated at a constant speed. An electric car however has regenerative braking so driving in stop-and-go traffic actually extends the life of the charge. Unfortunately, running the air conditioning or even the radio, reduces it. Because the Leaf is only a short hop car and we still have a Volvo for longer treks, I don't anticipate any charging emergencies. When the Leaf reaches a dangerously low rate of charge, a turtle icon flashes on the dash. Cute.

Electric cars are eligible for so many rebates that they end up costing very little. While applying for the $2500 we'll be getting from the State of California, I notice that the VIN number that I'd received via e-mail and reported to my insurance broker is different than the one on the actual car I purchased. Apparently my salesman sews up the deal with another dealership but this car is sold for a higher price and the delay is not caused by lack of scanner, but by lack of car. Fortunately, they were able to scramble and find another, which I am told is the last blue 2014 Leaf in all of Southern California. I wonder, given my paperwork in hand, what would have happened if they hadn't been able to secure this car.

It's a whole new world for us. There is a long list of benefits, including carpool lanes and scads of free parking. We sign up for memberships with the three different firms that supply chargers throughout the state. A home charger arrives and we pull the permits for our contractor to install it in the driveway. The full price of the unit will be rebated by the Department of Water and Power. I spend an hour on the phone with one of their reps trying to determine if it is worth it to switch our electric meter to peak usage or even install a second meter to save money on charging the car. I consider switching to a peak usage meter but discover that the rate is substantially higher during the hours of 1 and 5 p.m. which would make me feel guilty about watching Judge Judy. It turns out that at the rate we pay now, it costs less than $3.00 to charge the car 100% with our charging station so no meter change is really necessary.

I still love the little C30 Volvo I picked up last year. Like the Leaf, it is blue and I call him Bluey. Joe College is mortified and embarrassed that I assign a car gender (male) and refer to him by name. In order that gas sucking, service requiring Bluey, with his 80,000 miles, not feel displaced in my affections, as an homage, the new Leaf is Junior. Joe College is transferring all his crap, like the Jesus air freshener, to his new wheels. “Hmmm,” he ponders. “I think my car must feel bad that it doesn't have a name.”