Buyer's Premorse

I am, once again, a car owner. Yes, while co-author psu was looking to buy a car, so was I. But unlike his rather straightforward and serendipitous journey that ended with his luckily finding a lightly used Volvo, I had a lot more (self-inflicted) drama.

I’d been driving a Ford Escort ZX2 coupe for 11 years. While this is the sort of statement that tends to make small children laugh and point, they can kiss my grits: I loved that car. It was tiny, it was agile as all get out, it accelerated like a bat out of hell (because it weighed nothing), and it worked without major malfunction for many many years. And all this for $13,000, which even in 1997 was a pretty low price for a car. It’s been paid off for years, which means that every month, instead of spending money on my car payment, I could spend it on video games responsibly put it in my savings account.

Somewhere around the 6th year of the car’s life, I realized that it was sufficiently valueless that I would not really get any money by trading it in. I resolved to drive it until it stranded me, and then buy a new car. It wasn’t until just last week, 5 years later, that it finally died. I probably could have kept it alive through heroic measures, but it was time. So I started the search for a new car.

It turns out that my answer to the question “What car do you want to drive?” changes dramatically when I’m faced with the prospect of actually spending the money. For a while now I had target-fixated on the Mazda Mazdaspeed 3, a rocket sled for men who haven’t figured out that women mostly don’t even notice how much horsepower the car we’re driving has. The Speed 3 is awesome fun, handles like a dream, is a bit spartan inside, and gets 19 mpg.

When I thought about living with the car, and commuting to work in it every day, the bloom sort of faded off the rose. I dismissed the Mini Cooper, after test-driving it, for similar reasons: a complete blast to drive in every way, but I just don’t think I would want to book 40 highway miles a day in it.

I test-drove a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a turbodiesel with some cachet. And you know what? I liked it. More than liked it: I loved it. The diesel is all low- end torque, the road handling is taut, the interior (while not excessively cushy) is polished, and it gets fabulous gas mileage, not to mention some good tax breaks.

There’s just one problem with it: it’s a Volkswagen. Now, I know there are plenty of people who have owned VWs and had no problems. I’m not one of these people. Every VW or Audi I’ve owned has, after a few years, developed weird electrical problems that can only be fixed (for 6 months) by purchasing very expensive Bavarian German pieces of electronics. Lather, rinse, repeat. The dealers insist that these quality problems have all been fixed. But then, what else would you expect a car dealer to say?

So here is where I was this weekend: I had a good deal available on a car that I love, but which in my heart I feel is unreliable. It’s like contemplating beginning a relationship with that really crazy boy or girl: it’ll be really awesome when he or she says “Let’s take a road trip to Vegas! On mopeds!” but the great stories you accrue will have to be counterbalanced by the number of hours spent in the waiting room of the psych hospital when you have to involuntarily commit them.

In short: even before spending a single penny on the VW, I had already envisioned all the bad things that would happen once I bought it. I would drive off the lot and the door handles would fall off. I’d go back to the dealer and they’d tell me they didn’t have the door handles in stock, but that they would order them from Germany. They’ll arrive in 3 weeks, but aren’t covered under the warranty, and so I’d need to pay $1500. Or I could just leave them off for now and use the sunroof to get in and out. Each and every scenario made me feel worse about buying the car that I hadn’t yet bought. It’s my own personal phenomenon: buyer’s premorse. The regret that comes from having made a purchasing decision, but before you’ve actually completed the purchase.

On a whim, I stopped off at an Acura dealership. This was very, very unplanned, because everything I’d heard about the Acura TSX had been negative. In our search for our respective cars, psu and I have been addicted to various motoring websites, such as The Truth About Cars. According to these sites, the TSX is sluggish, underpowered, has no road feel and you should absolutely buy a BMW 3 series instead. I drove the TSX and found it absolutely charming: responsive, nimble, certainly not a street racer but not slow by any stretch of the imagination. What car were these people reviewing? What gives?

Herein lies the rub about comparing cars: often, people tend to compare cars to other cars that are in completely different classes. An Infiniti G37 or a BMW 328i, configured similarly to the Acura TSX, will drive the pants off of it. And will also cost $10,000 more. As a car wanker this sort of comparison might be useful: most car wankers are boys, and it’s a time honored pastime for us to have long and involved conversations about whose wang is longest. But as a car buyer it’s extremely unhelpful. You can play the “…but this better car is just $4,000 more!” game all the way up to an Aston Martin Vanquish, at which point the bank comes and repossesses your house.

The other aspect, of course, is that “better”, according to the car enthusiast, often seems to be defined entirely by “which one goes from 0-60 in the least amount of time.” In the computer world, these are the people who tell you not to buy an iMac because you can’t replace the video card.

With respect to the TSX specifically, the dynamic you see between reviewers and purchasers is especially fascinating. The TSX is, essentially, a luxury version of the European Honda Accord. Car reviewers approach this from the attitude of “Ewwww. It’s just an upmarket European Accord.” But buyers approach this as “Cool! It’s an upmarket European Accord!”

It turns out that I, at least, find an upmarket European Accord to be a pretty compelling value proposition. I got a great deal on the car (thanks, Edmunds!) by sending it out for bid to a bunch of dealers over the Internet. From my perspective, I got a car that drives just as well as the TDI, and paid a small premium for a 4-year instead of a 3-year warranty, and for Honda engineering and service (“Oh, hey, your car has 100,000 miles on it. You might want to change the oil.“) versus Volkswagen engineering and service (“The engine is in perfect mechanical condition, but you can’t close the window or sunroof without shorting out the alternator. We replaced the window switches that were wearing out. They look nice now, but they still don’t work. That will be $679, please.“)

Despite the fact that I would have paid the price premium just for the perceived improved reliability of the Acura, it’s also undeniable that it has a much more well-polished interior. It’s luxurious without being cushy or soft. The car is a bit heavier than the Jetta, so it’s not quite as sprightly, but it has a taut suspension and is still very much a driver’s car. I’m really pleased. If you can afford to spend over $30k on a car, there are probably better alternatives to the TSX. But if you, like me, have an invisible line in the sand that keeps you in the $20s, you should give the TSX serious consideration.

I guess I can have nice things after all.