For many people buying a car is the second most expensive purchase they will make after buying a house, for many of the rest who rent it will be the most expensive. Yet the buying process is often flawed as I have been reminded recently. Recent discussions in a car showroom, we only popped to look at a particular car, caused my wife to comment that sales people always fail to understand that they will not sell to me, that I am often better informed than they are but if they are good and understand my approach (very rare) we can work together to craft a deal.
I am in the process of choosing a replacement for my eleven year old BMW 335i convertible that featured here some years ago and I am finding it difficult to get much of the information I need to make a decision on both the choice of car and then the options I should take. Sales staff seem to struggle with me as I often know as much as they do as I do my research before visiting the showroom. I also have a technical background and briefly worked in motor racing and with specialist car builders. I tend to ask technical questions to which sale people often find it difficult to give a straightforward, or even accurate, answer; of which more later. Finally I have a professional procurement background so get irritated by pushy sales techniques —it will not work, you do not sell to me, I buy if the seller makes presents the right package of price, product and services. I will walk away otherwise.
I have now reduced my shortlist to two high performance five-door hatchbacks: Volkswagen Golf R and the BMW M140i. Almost invariably |I have had high performance cars and even with increasing age I remain a car enthusiast. That means strict common sense gets over-ridden by the desire for something that can be entertaining and fun, even on today's crowded roads. However I am not a boy racer, that was a very short period in my motoring history, so many of the hot hatches like the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic R or the Renault Sport Megane are too raw for my taste. I want a car that is refined on a long trip on mixed roads, often through France and Spain, but can let its hair down and be fun when conditions and mood permits. I considered cars like the Jaguar XF or the BMW 3 or 5 series — they fulfil the first requirement but even though they are quick they are not the sort of cars one would take out just for the fun of driving. So I will buy something smaller and still refined but with real performance for those rare moments on quiet and open roads.
Getting to that point was not too difficult, there are plenty of reviews so that one can get a sense of the characteristics of each model. One has to treat reviews with care as many reviewers have something of a boy racer mind set for whom outright performance and handling on the limit is all. There is a need to read between the lines and interpret what reviews say in the context of one's own approach to driving. With modern roads and traffic, especially in the UK, there is little opportunity to take even quite modest cars anywhere near their limit safely or comfortably, hence my desire for a car that is refined in normal conditions. Performance comes into play when I want to be able get past slow traffic, say in the mountains of France, quickly and safely. The other time I want a performance car is for the sort of driving I wrote about in How to enjoy fast sports cars on the road safely.
Fortunately the Golf R and the M140i are well specified to start with so there are not too many options that are of interest to me. The problem I am having is that a detailed technical description of the difference between choices is almost impossible to find. There is a lot of sales fluff for suspension options or for different types of sat-nav but there is insufficient technical detail to make a properly informed comparison. As a journalist I may have to approach the press office of the manufacturers to get the information I need.
The other problem is that buyers are expected to sit through a session with the dealer's salesman (it usually is a man) and play their sales game. Then we have to complete the buying decision on the basis of a test drive of an hour if one is lucky, most of which will be in traffic. This does not give any real sense of a performance, any, cars capability on the open road or sufficient time to appreciate its nuances. I asked about hiring each of my short list choices for a couple of days but most dealers could not make it possible. In one case I was told I 'might' be able to borrow one for the day if they had one that was taxed but it did not seem a serious offer.
As a result I have decided to try and use a more formal purchasing process that puts me in control rather than the salesman. My aim is to make it less time consuming and more objective, to allow me to buy rather than the dealer to sell on their terms.. A classic approach is for the sales man to keep making trial closes and find out what my target is, I want to put them, rather than me, on the spot to give me their best price, not the price they think they can get away with. I have sent out a request for proposal setting what information I want so that I can short list one dealer for each model and will then ask them to give me a test drive and answer any questions I have. Only then can I choose which car I am going to buy. We will then fine tune the deal based on a refined list of options. Already I am finding that dealers are trying to turn it back to their game rather than mine. Oh well, they have a week to respond and then will see if I can make this disciplined approach to buying a new car work. I will write up this experience in due course.
If it does not work out I will simply walk away and think again, a lesson I learned from a general trader many years ago: when selling, your don't need to sell (however much you need the cash) and when buying you must be prepared to walk away from a poor deal. In that case will probably change my wife's more modest car and perhaps buy a classic for my occasional needs. Fortunately I have plenty of options — I don't need to buy a car, especially one with such high performance. But then I am a petrol head and there are many different ways to get my fix!