Once a virtual contact sport complete with fake moves and trash talk, the process of buying a new car today has turned into a kind of badminton: genteel, polite, and downright boring. Rhetorical volleys have no steam because there's little chance of landing a "kill shot" of an argument. In fact, there is no argument. The price too often is predetermined. To be sure, scouting helps by uncovering minor differences among dealers. But really, the thrill of victory once you get the car is tempered by the fact that almost anyone could have gotten the same deal.
Blame Saturn for that sad state of affairs. By introducing the no-hassle, one-price system of car sales, the company took the fun out of the buying process. Internet car sales have made the situation worse by eliminating human contact. None of this is good for society.
Now, certainly, there are exceptions. Many dealers will entertain offers and go through the motions of presenting your offer to their sales manager for approval. But the intensity just isn't there.
In the old days, when car salesmen wore funny-looking suits and sweet smiles that concealed their flesh-ripping, serrated teeth, car buyers had to rely on their wits, their reflexes, and their stamina. They had to know how to fake disinterest, attack with an insulting offer, make a tactical retreat, and then launch a surprise second attack. It was great training for life, not to mention for certain professions, like Marine drill instructor, mob hit man, or parent of a teenager.
My father was a master at all those moves. He knew little about the mechanics of cars, but he could spot a weakness in a salesman a mile away. Many times I watched as he would stomp out of a dealership feigning disgust after having one of his truly unreasonable offers refused, only to have the salesman run after him and accept the offer or something close to it. Looking back, I'm convinced Dad cared more for the game than the car.
Unfortunately, I didn't inherit those genes. That was obvious when I bought my first car as a freshman in college. It was a Dodge convertible and the seller, a few years older and a generation wiser, was asking what was probably a fair price. I groused and pouted and said the car was so inferior I would probably never drive it, then offered about 40% less than the asking price. The seller never winced. He said "no," and walked away. I ran after him and offered full price. I haven't gotten much better over the years.
But my personal failings don't change the fact that in the interest of toughening up a flabby population, we should find new ways to put the competition back into new-car buying. So, here is an idea on how to do that:
Next time you go to a dealership, challenge the salesperson to match your technical knowledge. Since many sales people don't really know much about cars, you should win easily. If it's a new car you're looking at, ask him to show you the distributor. It won't have one, of course, but let him look before you tell him. If it has electronic fuel injection, tell him to show you the carburetor. After he fumbles around for awhile, tell him there isn't one. And if you're looking at a hybrid, ask him if it's a series or parallel. When he admits he doesn't know, tell him the parallel uses either the gasoline engine or the electric motor for propulsion, or both together.
Once you've beat him down with your knowledge, make your low-ball offer. If he walks away and you really want the car, chase after him. Heck, you probably don't want to be a drill instructor anyway.
Reach Teague at email@example.com.