g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

Steven Den Beste
James Lileks
Little Green Footballs
As the Apple Turns
Cold Fury
Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
Ravishing Light
Cartago Delenda Est

Book Plugs:

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money. I think.
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Monday, April 3, 2006
15:31 - Generations

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After lunch on Friday, I went in to the Audi dealer with the intention of buying a new A3.

I had previously taken my much-beloved Jetta down to Cash For Cars, a little lot in the payroll-advance-loan district on San Carlos, to get it appraised. See, the car was in what I considered to be in very good shape, having been dutifully cared for over the course of its life, with every little squeak and squawk addressed. Indeed, the previous Friday, the morning after getting back from a Thursday of mid-week skiing at Sierra-At-Tahoe, I was scheduled to take it in for the appraisal; and wouldn't you know it, just as I pulled in to San Jose on Thursday night, the engine light came on. So I took it in on Friday morning and had a much-recommended local service shop take a look. (It was a cracked vacuum hose, which they replaced for free, charging me only for the time it spent on the smoke machine; they said the hoses came in bulk for like $5 each, so he'd just throw in the part gratis. I'll be going back there in the future, I believe.)

So anyway: Cash For Cars had done the appraisal on Monday following the hose replacement. I'd been hoping to get something in the neighborhood of $7000-$8000 for it, judging by edmunds.com and a rating of "good" for the car in the condition it's in, where the only major things wrong with it are a few scuffs and dings, and where I'd recently had that whole brouhaha with Bob Lewis that eventually was resolved by them doing a whole bunch of free work on the interior, restoring numerous little broken things to factory working order. (I'd also seen used '99 Jettas going for $10K in the paper, after being reconditioned, presumably.) But the guy rubbed his chin and told me that despite its good running condition, Jettas just don't sell that well around here; especially considering that mine had just shy of 100,000 miles on it. "If it were at 60K, this car would be gold," he told me. "But with this high a mileage, the best I can write you is $5000. Well, $5500, because of all that work you've put into it."

Disappointing, but at least that gave me a base from which to start. And on Friday I headed to the Audi dealer, full of high hopes, but also burdened with guilt over my impending release back into the wild of the Jetta that has treated me so well.

I'd been waiting all week for them to get my car in. What I wanted was a stick-shift A3 with the Sport Package and no nav system. (I do not want to have to dismiss a legal warning every time I start up the car, just to get access to the radio.) I'd considered the trick DSG paddle-shift system, and test-drove a DSG car a week or so ago to decide whether it was something I wanted, and concluded that it's very slick, but it turns into an automatic if you're not paying attention to it—which means that it would be cool about once per friend that I show it off to. Not worth the $1800 or whatever it cost. So it's the six-speed for me.

Only trouble is, there's apparently only one such car in the whole of Silicon Valley—a Lava Gray one with the Open Sky System (dual-paned sunroof, which I didn't particularly want, but I could live with it) that can be had through a dealer trade from somewhere else in the area. They'd been trying to get it in all week, and finally on Friday they called me to tell me it was in.

I stepped on the lot, met my sales guy, and we headed out to the back where they were hosing it down. Looked dandy to me—deep gray, large-grained metal-flake finish; two-tone alloy wheels; a broad expanse of elegantly textured plastic across the dashboard, and a line of light-colored thread trimming the contours of the leather seats. I gave it a quick look over and nodded my assent, and we went back inside.

On the way, I asked about the trade-in. I'd been told to be wary of this particular dealership, as it had attained something of a reputation of being very stingy on trade-in offers. But I had my options open, and so I filled out the declaration form in the salesman's upstairs office while he checked out the Jetta in the lot.

The office being where it was, in a loft at the top of a long metal staircase over the showroom floor, and the waits between phases of the purchasing process being on the long side with nothing for me to do but stare at the wall and ponder when my last tune-up was and whether the car was a "lemon law purchase", I got to observe many fascinating details of the auto sales business. A salesman down below closed a deal with an affluent-looking couple that moved a pre-owned A4 off the floor. As soon as the couple left the showroom, this salesman—a guy with a pronounced accent who had previously conducted me on a test drive of the DSG-equipped A3, and who had descended upon me on subsequent visits like a cranefly buzzing at me to give him the details of what car I was waiting for so he could helpfully take over from the sales guy I was working with—asked his co-workers, "Did they like me? Did they like me?", to which the half-lidded-eyes-and-knowing-grin answer was that he "had a lot of character; they liked that." Methinks he hasn't been on the job long. I was put irresistibly in mind of Gil, the hapless salesman from the Simpsons.

Soon my sales guy returned with his evaluation of my car, which to my consternation (but not my surprise) came to an offer of no more than about $3000. They'd rated the car's condition as "rough", which took me aback; I asked about it, and he said that they'd run a paint analysis on the body and found that the right front panel had newer paint than the rest, which meant that it had been recently replaced. (Gee, that's right; I'd had a fender-bender a few months prior.) And they're required to disclose information about any previous damage when they try to resell the car, even if there was no frame damage, and that pretty much guarantees that the car won't sell as easily. It also means they have to kick the car down to "rough" condition. Now, at this point they could have just been trying to sleazily low-ball me; but what tells me they weren't is that he said right out, "You might want to consider trying to sell it yourself." He wasn't trying to snap it up for cheap—he was actually recommending that I take it somewhere else, especially if I'd had a better offer. That seemed a pretty honest stance. And I had my $5500 offer from Cash For Cars, so I folded up the dealer's offer and we moved on.

From then on it was all very straightforward. My information all went into the computer; I was paying cash, so there was no financing stuff to worry about. We headed outside and took the car for a quick spin around the block; it had just finished being buffed up by the guys around back, and so our first stop was the gas station, where the salesman filled it to the brim for me. On the way he pointed out all the cool geek toys—the dual-zone climate control with its slick rotary temperature selector knobs and humidity-sensing defrosting functions, the radio with its spooky ability to download artist and track information even for regular old FM stations (I need to figure out what kind of side-band technology it's using), the sunroof controls, and so on. I discovered that the sunshade for the front sunroof panel had a broken latch and wouldn't close; the salesman, in genuine horror, begged me not to mention that little fact in the dealer survey form I was to get, and to fill out all the answers as "Extremely Satisfied" regardless, so he and the dealership wouldn't lose any brownie points with Audi; as a perhaps unspoken little quid-pro-quo, he took me to the parts department and put in my order for the factory iPod adapter using his employee discount. (It's back-ordered, and I'll have them fix the sunshade when they install the adapter after it comes in.) As an aside, the iPod adapter is apparently in such high demand that nobody at the dealership knew how exactly it works; it mounts in the glove compartment, but nobody can say whether the artist and track names appear on the radio console or what. I sure hope so; an iPod that's hidden away in darkness with no visible screen information is no fun at all. Even if you can skip tracks using the steering wheel scroll-buttons.

After that I was transferred in to the sales manager, who finalized everything with great efficiency. Here's where I was particularly impressed: they didn't even try to sell me on any dealer-added premiums. "You probably won't want to bother with any of these," he said, waving a little brochure full of extended warranty options. "But here's the warranty levels just in case. The prices range from so-and-so to such-and-such; whatever." And that was that. The original salesman once mentioned some rubber floormats that I could get (it was raining and muddy), but it appears that at least at this dealership, the days of $300 clearcoat treatments and hard-sell warranties are over.

A super-extra-legal-size contract form was printed up, I signed away my life, and I dropped two brand-new key fobs in my pocket. And at that point I realized that the process was far from over: I still had to sell the Jetta.

So I left the A3 sitting there in the parking lot, got back in the Jetta one last time, and took it out for its dead-car-driving ride a couple of miles down the road to Cash For Cars. The guy there was sort of surprised to see me; when I told him that his offer was the highest one I got, he grunted and said he must have been in a really good mood that day or something. He took another look around the car, repeating that $5500 figure to himself rather unbelievingly; we went inside, and he started punching up numbers, trying to figure out how he'd ever arrived at it. Now, I tried to be rather stingy with my information here; he was taking me at my word (I'd left his hand-written offer sheet at home), and I wasn't about to volunteer that the car had been in a fender-bender that had resulted in Audi downgrading the car to "rough". Even without that information, though, the guy never was able to figure out how he'd come up with such a high offer. Nevertheless, he cut me a check, I signed over the title, and I got in Chris's newly arrived car from work with no small twinge of guilt. Not to mention, of course, the pangs of regret as I saw his goons driving my beloved Jetta away as we pulled out.

We headed back to the Audi dealer and I fired up the A3, and drove it back to work. Then it was off home, for a weekend of giddy driving around the twisty roads south of San Jose. The A3 has a very grabby clutch that engages down at the bottom of the pedal travel, making it very easy to kill the engine; a few dozen miles of practice made quick work of it, though, and soon I was performing stop-light takeoffs on the dragstrip that is the Monterey Highway that would have left the Jetta well behind, the turbo four making a purposeful rattling growl that's very different in character from the nasal but smooth whirr of the seven-year-old VR6. By the time I pulled in at home, I could tell that this car and I were destined to have some great times of our own.

(There are some downsides. The brake and gas pedals are very close together, such that if my foot is in the wrong place, I can't reach the gas without nicking the brake with the wide part of my shoe. Also the crossbar on the center console cuts across right where my right calf likes to rest, and it's not particularly comfortable. The rear seats are lacking in headroom. And the window controls on the driver's door are too far back; I have to contort my arm to reach them. But these are down in the noise as far as complaints go—and they remind me of things wrong with the Jetta that I'd gotten used to, such as the trunklid release that required me to hold down the button for like ten seconds before it responded, and the loose and floppy gearshift lever, and the dorky cupholders that apparently break whenever you try to repair the water pump. Seriously. Ask SpeeDee Oil Change how in the name of bilgewater they managed to break my cupholder while they were fixing my water pump. I'm dying to know, and they're keeping mum.)

The reason I went for the A3, by the way, has primarily to do with the fact that it's the modern generation of the Jetta/Golf platform, only kicked up a notch in the sport/luxury department. It's got the same upright seating position, the same push-in-and-left-and-up-for-reverse gearbox, the same sort of interior and exterior dimensions, the same aggressive, nose-down stance, the same knobbly chin, even with the big Audi horse-collar grille (which, as many have said, looks better on the A3 than on the other Audi models on which it appears). I feel very much at home in this car. Previously I'd been considering sport sedans a little bit bigger than the Jetta—the A4, for instance, or the Acura TL, or the Saab 9-3. But for some reason, a couple of weeks ago I suddenly found myself taking a second look at the A3—which I'd previously dismissed because its sport package wasn't available without leather seats, which I don't like as much as cloth mostly for reasons of hot and cold against the skin—and thinking, "You know, what I need isn't a bigger Jetta. I want another Jetta, dammit." The only problem being that the modern iteration of the Jetta is fugly. And the GTI, while its ads are among the Best Evar™, is two-door—a deal-killer for me, the one who does the bulk of the driving of my six-footer friends to lunch on a daily basis. (And the four-door Golf isn't here yet; nor do I like its styling much.) Besides, the A3 came to just a hair over $30K with tax and license and everything, a significant bargain next to the other cars I'd been weighing, all of which started in the $32K range, and that's MSRP. So the A3 it was.

So far, not a regret in the world. But there was one sticky point: the extra keys for the Jetta. I'd promised I'd swing by Cash For Cars today and drop them off. I sealed them in an envelope, along with the radio card (with its four-digit security code that unlocks the radio if the battery becomes disconnected) and the guy's original offer sheet, just to prove to him I wasn't trying to fleece him. But I'd been having nightmares all weekend: What if his shop had performed a paint analysis on the Jetta and found that there had been a body repair that I hadn't told him about, that would potentially have reduced its value by a whole bunch? He hadn't asked me whether there had been any damage; but still. Wasn't he just as required to disclose information about such damage to a buyer as the dealership was? Was he going to sic his goons on me and tackle me to the puddle-riddled asphalt as soon as I set foot on the property, and then beat me with a hose until I wrote him a check for the depreciation difference? How should I get this lumpy sealed envelope to him without exposing myself to physical or monetary liability?

This morning, I drove up to the Cash For Cars lot; I parked on the sidewalk on the next block, right on the main flow of traffic, avoiding any potential side-street traps, allowing me to make a clean getaway if necessary. I lurked on the corner, just within visual range and behind a pole, as the guy stumped around on the porch of the trailer. I waited until I saw him hold his phone to his ear—and that's when I made my move. I strode purposefully onto the lot, crossed the driveway, and went up the steps just as he turned and went inside and bent over a counter. I leaned in the door, and before he had a chance to say anything, I held out the envelope, with its clearly Sharpied scrawl of his name and the Jetta's license plate number on it, and smiled hopefully. And lo—he took it, gave me a genuine-sounding "Thank you!" that didn't seem to belie any hidden malice, and didn't lead into any "Oh, could you hang on for a minute? I need to talk to you about something" or anything of that nature. So I backed out of the doorway, spun around, and scuttled away.

With that, the last of my relics from the Jetta Age are with me no longer; only my file folder full of service records remains to me, and the VHS tape that had originally come with the car, explaining its amenities. Now I've got a new manual to pore through, a new binder full of mysterious little booklets, and a new car to which it all applies. It's faster and more nimble than the old one was—there's no body roll in turns, and it feels like a go-kart when I swerve around potholes—but I'll always miss the Jetta and its winsome eagerness to please when called upon to deliver for one of my silly stop-light-driven whims. The new car makes more exciting noises when the hammer is down, what with the rattling bang of its four cylinders and the high-pitched whine of the turbo that kicks in right around 2000 rpm, and the ESR light that yowls at me when I try to do it all on a slick wet road with manhole covers under the tires.

And if I'm ever pursued by goons who have come to the conclusion that $5500 is too high a price for a '99 Jetta GLS VR6 with 99,000+ miles on it and an infinitude of happy driving thoughts absorbed into its cloth seats, I feel sure I can outrun them.

UPDATE: It's RDS in my radio. Thanks to Jamie for the pointer!

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© Brian Tiemann