Driving on the left side of the road is not hard after all. After a couple of hours, I was still struggling with the turn signal and wiper handles being on the wrong side (they are positioned correctly – from my US-centric perspective – in newer cars), and had to catch myself a couple of times at turns, but other than that I did quite ok.
The weekend was spent mainly on going to various auto dealerships and figuring out which car to get.
From the phone directory, I put together a list of nearest dealerships for practically every car make that is sold in England. Of course, I needed a mode of transportation to get from one dealership to another. There is a car rental place right by my station. It is not a well-known chain, but I did not work out a “pick-Enterprise-we’ll-pick-you-up” deal in advance, so I figured – how bad could it be for one day?…
Pretty bad, I tell you.
On Saturday morning, I walk into the place.
“Hey, I need a car for a day.”
“What kind of car?”
“Ok, we have…”
“… and it needs to be automatic…”
“Well, the only automatic we have is a Toyota Previa, but it’s not at this location currently.” (…and it’s not cheap either).
I am thinking: I can walk some and take a bus some, but figuring it out will take me half a day; I slept later than I expected this morning, and I only have maybe 6 hours to work with, while planning to get to at least 7 dealerships; and I am not getting into a manual-transmission car! “Ok, I’ll take it”.
“Do you have a proof of address?”
I have been warned on several occasions that having a proof of address – the only acceptable form of which is apparently a utility bill – is paramount for successful business deals where some form of credit is involved. Only, I moved into the house 5 days ago. I already have all utilities converted into my name, but no bills yet (I asked them, by the way, on an internet forum advice, to send me something, but they simply have not turned it around yet). “The only thing I can show you is a tenancy agreement”. The girl who I am dealing with says “I am sorry”, but her boss, who sits at the next desk, says “No problem”.
Actually, I responded to “I am sorry” with “Well, ok, thanks”, and started walking out… I should have kept walking…
Instead, I turn around, agree to being driven to another location, pay exorbitant amount with my US-based credit card (plus the extra 3% that good old credit company invariably charges for foreign transactions), and get into a smoke-filled car with a nice chap called Terry.
In about 15 minutes, we get to the other location. It turns out to be a rundown garage in a rather dilapidated area. There are no cars that I can see that remotely look like rentals. My car is in a separate garage, it turns out. We walk up, and the huge metallic door is too heavy for Terry to single-handedly open. So I help him push the door. There is a girl who tends the garage, apparently, and her friend had driven up, and her car stalled around the corner. So Terry and the girls go give the car a running start, only they cannot do it. Who’s to the rescue? With tons of apologies, they ask me if I could help push the car. What am I going to say – no?
Finally, we walk to the Previa. It has a thousand scratches and dents all over. What it does not have is a driver-side mirror. Or, rather, there is a mirror and there is a car, and they literally need to be taped together. Which Terry accomplishes with a flourish. He then proceeds to thoroughly mark every single dent and scratch on the check-out form.
It’s already 11 when I am finally satisfied that all existing damage has been recorded, get in the car and drive away. By the way, the tank is practically empty – which Terry duly notes – so my first agenda item is to go to a gas station.
It is right across the street. I triumphantly drive to the pump, figure out how to pop the tank door, pick the nozzle… and realize that it has a small sign on it that says “out of order”. I get into the car, maneuver to another pump – same story. All other pumps are taken – I have to maneuver into a queue, wait for a few minutes, and finally I am able to fill the tank.
OK, I’m on my way now! Relocation company supplied me with a decent atlas, I figure out which route I want to take, and the driving commences. I try to ignore the funny sounds that the car makes, concentrating instead on making sure I squeeze between oncoming cars and the ones parked along the road. Plus, staying on the right – left – side of the road.
I will probably get used to this quite quickly, but driving in England has very little to do with driving as we know it. There are endless signs every couple of yards. The signage on the road itself requires a full-time reader in the passenger seat. There is never a straight interval of road for more than 30 or so meters – it will either curve, or some speed-limiting device will require you to slalom through. The only lane can suddenly become a turning lane – there are funky arrows painted on the road that kinda warn you, but I have not gotten to deciphering it yet…
I managed to visit 6 dealerships on Saturday. I’ll describe the dealer-related stuff in more detail below, but first, let’s finish with Previa, which I have gotten fed up with quite quickly.
I think I am lucky that I was able to drive it all the way back (not to the dilapidated garage, but to the station location). With time, the sounds got noisier, – some clunking and clicking that clearly intensified every time I pressed the gas pedal, – I started to smell gasoline inside, and the air conditioning only worked if I held the switch with one hand… I spent the whole day in a deep “renter’s remorse” funk, and decided quite quickly that I would definitely return it before the end of the day.
So, now I am pulling into the lot. The owner, who is doing something outside, runs over to my car, touches the passenger side and starts cursing. I get out of the car, thinking “I could not have scratched even more”, and realize that certainly I could not. The guy is getting out of shape about a dent that Terry perfectly noted on the check-out form. He is cursing Terry, promising to take money out of his paycheck, shouting that the dent was not there yesterday, this and that. I feel compelled to point out that the dent must have been there before, since it is clearly marked on my form, and how could it be poor Terry’s fault? The man calms down, thanks me, and, upon inquiring and learning that I am from New Jersey, starts boasting about the Lincoln Navigator stretched limo that he bought in Chicago, drove to Elizabeth, NJ, and shipped here. Weird guy! After signing the check-in form that does not indicate any new damage, I walk away with a relieved sigh.
On Sunday, I managed to get to 4 more dealerships that are located not too far from one another. I probably walked for close to 2 hours combined, but the day was nice, I was not in any rush, explored the area a bit, – all in all, a more pleasant day than the one before, if not so eventful.
Anyway, the cars. There are probably three dozen different makes sold in England: All the usual brands found in the States (with the notable exception of Acura and Infiniti), plus some European brands (Peugeot, Renault, Fiat, Skoda) that we know about but never see on American roads. While planning, I have initially excluded some obscure makes, some luxury brands and the likes of Kia. That still left 17 potential choices. I then excluded those whose dealerships were too out of the way. Regrettably, that cut Volkswagen and Mazda, among others. I was left with 11 dealerships which I covered in 2 days.
By the way, unlike in New Jersey, auto dealerships are open on Sunday in the UK. Not all, but many, albeit for a shorter day. They have skeleton crews, more or less, and very rarely can you get to test-drive a car on a Sunday, but the showroom is open, and you can subject yourself to a conversation with a salesman.
In the end, only Mersedes took me American-like hour to go through the test-drive and requisite conversations with a sales associate, his manager, sales manager, financing manager and two janitors who were on a break. At Citroen, I ended up with a guy who was, while generally nice, definitely suffering from an OCD. He spent probably 25 minutes with a pencil and a ruler, drawing straight lines on the customer form, and then calligraphically filled it up with tons of stuff that neither of us really needed. But, as he did not have an available car for me to test-drive, – don’t forget, automatic transmission is still a not-so-common occurrence in the Old World, – he proposed to drive to my office in the middle of the week, so that I can take a car for a spin during my lunchtime. Not that his manager would ever let him do it, but I appreciated the offer.
At the other places, test-drives were quite informal, and the quotes were quick to come by.
On a general note, we are going small. Not Mini small, but quite small nevertheless. Previa is an American-size car, and I really had to sweat out some tight squeezes. U-turns were almost impossible to make in less than 4 maneuvers… We are going to get a car that is fit for English roads, and that means going smaller than what we are used to in the States. We have had Mersedes A-class on several European rentals and found it quite comfortable. That was my point of reference.
On another note, many British companies buy new cars for corporate purposes and then sell it to dealerships after a couple of months at steep discounts to original price. Why – beats me! But every dealer mentioned the phenomenon to me without trying to explain it, and suggested that buying a like-new car with just a couple of thousand miles on it is a pretty good deal. I agreed that it was sensible. One small problem: Very few of these have automatic transmission…
So, what’s the score?
The triumvirate of top Japanese car makers struck out – Honda was closed at 2:30 on a Saturday, while at Toyota and Nissan I simply could not get anyone’s attention (and, of course, I am somewhat bitter at Nissan for the way my Infiniti lease transfer is being handled). As I am not looking at exciting cars, it would be incorrect for me to say that I did not see anything exciting at either Toyota or Nissan, but while they have models that fit into my current parameters, I did not feel any pangs of regret as I indignantly walked away.
Mitsubishi is relatively cheap, but does not have anything in the class that I am looking into.
BMW is as overpriced here as it is in the States. Used 1-class is priced almost out of my range. The dealership was closed on Sunday, when I visited. I could see a guy sleeping behind the receptionist desk, but my attempts to wake him up via phoning the dealership were not successful… There were enough cars in the lot to give me an idea of where the prices are.
Used Mersedes A-class was as comfortable as I remember it. The engine sounded a bit louder than a couple of other cars that I tested, but maybe it was my imagination. The price was also rather high, but contract breakdown indicated a manageable monthly payment.
Peugeot is where the math got really weird – it is much cheaper than Mersedes, and there is an additional £2K incentive available, but the monthly payment came to exactly what I got quoted at Mersedes. Must be some exorbitant interest rates. The quote was quite offhand, too. The car is ok, I might go for it if I decide to finance the purchase elsewhere.
Audi A3 was quite good. I always felt incomprehension in the past at someone’s supposition that Audi drives exceptionally well, given that I had driven it myself on occasion and never noticed anything extraordinary. But this test-drive was definitely the best of all (it must be what you comparing it with that does the trick). The salesperson Dave was a pretty cool and knowledgeable guy, not pushy or overbearing, but very pleasant. Audi is pretty overpriced as well, with this used car approaching my upper limit, but I could not get exact quote due to absence of a finance person onsite. Dave promised to follow up on Monday. I don’t think Audi will make the next cut, but I’ll definitely consider it if it comes close.
Renault Scenic is the car that really impressed me, design- and equipment-wise. New car, drives quite nicely. The quote was slightly lower than others, even though it was given to me on the back of the salesman”s business card.
Vauxhall Astra I only sat in, not being able to test-drive it on account of Sunday. Vauxhall is a British subsidiary of GM. The used car that I looked at had all the equipment I needed and was fine size-wise. It had about 6K miles on it. It was priced considerably lower than its “competitors”, but the salesperson helpfully warned me that I will probably not get approved for financing, since I need at least 3 years of credit history and US one does not count. I find it insulting that an essentially American company would so refuse an American citizen! Anyway, I’ll probably come back and test-drive it next Saturday…
Finally, Citroen, which I already described above. The quote was very close to others, and the OCD guy mentioned that used automatic are impossible to come by. If I get to drive it, we”ll see…
So, next Saturday I’ll attempt a couple of more test-drives, and it will be decision time!
P.S. This entry was written over two days, and since I do not have broadband internet at the house yet, I will only post it on Monday. I will probably refrain from such lengthy posts in the future…