PREST: Dodging Jetta mind tricks and other car lot hazards

There’s nothing quite so flattering and terrifying as buying a car.

Dealerships are so clean, so friendly with their tall windows and white-tiled floors. They’re like spotless aquariums full of the world’s friendliest great white sharks.

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Many car salesmen have a fascinating and unique grasp of the English language. For most native speakers, common phrases such as “I’m just looking” or “I need to talk to my wife before making a final decision” or “May I please use your bathroom?” have very clear meanings that we all agree upon.

Your average car salesman, however, hears these phrases and takes them all to mean the exact same thing: “I would like to give you thousands and thousands of dollars RIGHT NOW!”

This generalization, of course, applies to car salesmen in all other parts of the world except for those in North Vancouver and West Vancouver, who are all kind, generous people who enjoy getting you the right car at the right price and also enjoy buying a lot of advertisements in the North Shore News.

Even under the best of circumstances, however, buying a car can be a stressful task. While cycling, walking, taking public transit or becoming a hermit are all viable, eco-friendly options, the truth remains that most families need a vehicle to get them to their important baseball practices, camping trips and baseball camps. And when you need a new one, the price can be daunting.

If you’re in the market for a big SUV, a fancy electric machine or a luxury automobile, you can soon find yourself facing a bill that creeps up towards $100,000. Here in the Vancouver area that $100,000 could be used as half of a down payment on a house the size of a small broom closet.

Even if you’re looking at a much more modestly priced new or used vehicle, few purchases outside of a place of dwelling will rival your automobile purchases for sheer price.

My family recently was faced with this distressing process after a visit to my local mechanic confirmed that the clutch on my old hatchback was shot.

The fix would be a few thousand dollars at least, for a car that was worth a few thousand dollars at most. My mechanic, whom I’m sure enjoys taking money from people like me for performing mechanic work, pumped the brakes instead. “Just buy a new car,” she said.

So it was that during a recent trip to an out-of-town baseball tournament, my family and I found ourselves killing our downtime by touring various car lots. My wife took the first test drive while my kids and I went for lunch, and from how she tells it, the sales shark could smell a fresh kill.

“How much are you looking to spend?” he asked her once the test drive was over. My wife made up a semi-plausible number, at which point the salesman poked at his calculator for a few seconds, got a big friendly grin on his face and said, “Yup, we can do that! Right on the button. OK, what colour do you want? You like red? You’d look great in red. OK, sign here please. I’ll just need your credit card for a quick deposit so you know you’re getting the one you want. How about blue? I’ve got one blue left on the lot, you can have it this afternoon. You’d look great in blue. OK now, we’re all set. All I need is your life savings.”

That may be a slight exaggeration, but the car salesman quick sell most certainly does happen, probably because it works. You start to wonder, “Oh no, what if I miss out on this model with the heated seats and white paint and four doors. They probably only made one of them!”

My wife, however, was too wily to fall for these Jetta mind tricks. Me on the other hand ... during our recent car search I fell in love with the first one I drove – it was so much better than our 10-year-old hatchback with no clutch! – and my wife nearly had to cut off my arm to keep me from handing over my wallet.

Finally we visited several dealers in the Northshore Auto Mall, a place full of lovely and helpful and honest and extremely nice-smelling people who have great deals and support local newspapers. We bought a cool car, got a good deal on it too. We made sure to find out exactly what the “all-in” price was before pulling the trigger on the sale. All that was left was to go chat with the dealer’s finance manager, at which point the “all-in” price doubled. Approximately.

Actually it wasn’t that bad at all. And at least we got the floor mats we really wanted. In fact, I feel like a crafty wheeler dealer now.

I even have a little money left over. Maybe it’s time to tackle that one bigger purchase I’ve never quite got a grasp of here in Vancouver: a house.

My new car sure would look snazzy parked out front of a nice little West Coast-style broom closet.

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