Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cash for Clunkers Adventure 

My partner and I participated in helping to boost the US economy (or at least the fortunes of car dealers) this past month, by taking part in the 'Cash for Clunkers' program that made sufficiently inefficient gas guzzlers eligible for a $3500 - $4500 trade-in value toward a new vehicle with sufficiently better gas mileage. Yeong was in China last month when the program became big news for having nearly run through its initial budget of $1 billion so quickly. I emailed him a link to a news story about the program, and added, yr Ford Explorer? His aged 1994 Ford Explorer with 190,000 miles on the odometer had been sitting in a driveway, undriven for months and gathering dust. By the time he and his two college-aged sons returned home, they had speculated on a range of potential replacements, settling on the small SUV solution space, partly to keep some sort of SUV in the extended family and partly to replace for daily commuting chores Yeong's well-worn BMW convertible, itself with 130,000 miles on the dial and increasingly expensive to maintain, but which he does not want to sell.

So beginning the weekend of August 15th we made the rounds of car dealers, focusing on three candidates that were highly rated by Consumer Reports and which were popular [taking college-aged perspectives into account] -- the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and the Subaru Forester. Over the course of the weekend we visited three Honda dealers, four or five Toyota dealers, and two Subaru dealers throughout the Los Angeles/Orange County area. The Honda and Subaru dealers had typical customer traffic given the weak economy, i.e. not much, while the Toyota dealers were overwhelmed with customers. The first Toyota dealer we visited had no cars on the lot to test drive at all. The second had two -- oh wait, that one just sold, said another salesman running up to us as we prepared for a test drive -- had one RAV4 to test drive, and not in the color or model that we had in mind. On Sunday we stopped by Longo Toyota, one of the largest dealers in Southern California -- a huge place the size of a mall, with its own Starbucks in one corner and two cafeteria-sized rooms full of customers filling out paperwork at little square tables. There were a dozen or so RAV4s on the lot, but we weren’t inclined to join that customer herd.

So eventually... we bought the Subaru Forester. We decided the Honda was solid and dependable but rather dull; the RAV4 was fun but hard to get (and under the circumstances Toyota dealers were demanding full sticker price); the Forester wasn't as common (once I'd started noticing, I saw CR-Vs and RAV4s *everywhere*), was fun to drive, and a better value (with all-wheel drive standard, rather than an option, for a similar price). I'll also admit that one reason we considered it in the first place, and partly what swayed me in its direction, was that Subaru appeals to a specific marketing segment to which we happen to belong, its ads for the Forester appearing in several special-interest magazines I subscribe to...

But wait, the story isn't over yet. Ironically, car dealers were finding it a bit of a hassle to deal with 'cash for clunkers' customers, because the government requirements for clunker rebates were exacting about the necessary documentation. Two requirements are (were) that the trade-in have been both registered and insured for the past 12 months. OK, here are insurance cards, and here's the current registration out of the glove box. But wait, the registration runs November to November, so that proves only registration for the past 9 months. But who saves old registration forms? Most people don't. [Well, I do.] So our first attempt to close a deal stalled, late that Sunday night. Yeong had to make a trip to the DMV [California’s Department of Motor Vehicles] the following week to get documentation showing he'd registered the Explorer every year for the past 15 years since he'd bought it. And by that time -- sorry, Subaru of Thousand Oaks! -- he'd contacted a couple other Subaru dealers via the web and gotten a better offer on the model he wanted. Despite that hassle, it all ended well, with him taking delivery of his shiny black new Forester, for $500 above invoice, last Friday.

Is there any kind of SFnal connection here? Well, I'll say this: I appreciate cars and have been attentive to car designs since I was, what, 10 years old. I've saved a cool pictorial of future cars from a mid-1960s Boys' Life magazine that perhaps I'll scan and post someday. As a driver, of family and rental cars for a couple decades, I'm one of the legion of customers who've been so unimpressed by US cars that their makers have been going bankrupt lately. (Thus our solution space of Japanese makes, though of course actual vehicles are mostly built in the US or Canada.) All of that aside, it's worth noting how far car technology has advanced. All cars, even the US models I get when I rent on business trips, are better built, more solid, and with more features, than those '50s and '60s "classics" revered by collectors. Features that were unimaginable a couple decades ago are standard now. Navigation systems are especially cool, and our new Subaru has a Nav screen that displays current location with an ever-shifting map display that orients itself to the direction the car is driving. It's just one example of how, for those us paying attention, the future we've imagined and thrilled about for so long is arriving in reality, day by day.
We have friends who own a Forester, so I'm sure you'll be happy with it. But you would have been happier with a Toyota Yaris :) Does anyone really NEED a four-wheel-drive?
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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