Part 1: The Demise of the Panda Mobile
A sad day has arrived. I have finally declared my reliable, old Mazda unsafe to drive. This was the first car Panda learned to travel in. I bought it in February of 2001. Panda arrived in September of that same year. When I went shopping for a compact car, I never imagined it was going to turn into a horse transport.
Panda arrived in an enormous horse trailer. It pulled up outside my suburban home. That got enough heads turning as cars drove past. But then the back doors of the trailer opened and out stepped tiny Panda!
Her first lesson in car travel began the following day. I have a wonderful video clip of her trying to figure out how to get in the car. She was willing. She just couldn’t figure out where all her feet were supposed to go!
Panda figuring out how to get in a car.
When she finally did jump in, my emotions jumped from “Wow! I have a horse in my car.” to “Oh no! I have a horse in my car! Now what!”
Panda shows off her guiding skills by finding the car door for her blind handler.
Because Panda was in training to be a guide, she needed to be able to travel with me wherever I went. Mostly that meant running local errands and going to the barn. On our first car trip through town, she didn’t yet have her “sea legs”. I remember driving like a proverbial little old lady. I was terrified a squirrel or another car was going to pull out in front of us and make me hit the brakes.
Balancing on the back seat was clearly not a good option, so we took the seat out and built a platform for her to stand on. I just reinstalled the back seat. For a thirteen year old car that’s gotten a lot of heavy use, it’s got to be the cleanest back seat ever!
Panda has changed the way I shop for a car. I wonder if any of the salesmen noticed the unusual order in which I examined each car. I suspect most drivers open the driver’s door first. I opened the right side passenger door because that’s the door Panda uses to get in. I didn’t tell any of them that I was checking the height of the seat and the swing of the door to see if a horse could jump in. That would have taken more explaining than it was worth.
In case you’re wondering, in the cars I have checked out so far, Kia’s back seat failed the Panda test. Mazda’s gave excellent access. The Toyota Prius would be really hard for her. The batteries are under the back seat so she would have a big jump up (or more to the point down) out of the car. Fords were useless. The Suburus were great. I have other cars on my list, but I haven’t yet had a chance to look at them.
Panda has also converted me from a manual shift to an automatic transmission. I have driven manuals all of my adult life. That was always my driving preference, but Panda has changed that. She’s such a decadent little thing. She loves resting her chin on my shoulder while I drive and taking a nap. In the winter the vents blast hot air directly at her, and in the summer she gets the full effect of the air conditioning. But, oh dear, every time I need to shift I have to wake her up. I decided years ago that my next car would have to be an automatic.
Panda’s regular “Panda mobile” is Ann’s family van, but I do still occasionally provide transportation. I want to keep Panda happy so my car selection is being very much influenced by her.
So what did I buy?
When I bought my Mazda thirteen years ago, I knew I wanted a small car. I was replacing a Nissan Sentra that had over 250,000 miles. It had been a reliable car to own, but dull as ditch water to drive. I knew I wanted something different so I test drove every small passenger car on the market, foreign and domestic. I also consulted Consumer Reports and several other sources of car reviews.
I had fun test driving all those different cars even though it created a great deal of head-spinning confusion. Almost every car had something going for it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but one by one I was able to cross the different makes and models off the list. It finally came down to a choice between the Mazda and a Suburu. The Suburu almost won because of the all wheel drive and, I have to say it, the heated seats. I live in snow country so the Suburu’s reputation for being good in snow was definitely tempting. And when you’re out in cold barns all day, heated seats also have a draw. But in the end I chose the Mazda because, quite frankly, it was fun to drive.
I don’t mean this to turn into a car review, but my Mazda has been the best car I have ever owned. It doesn’t have as many miles on it as my other cars. With the clinics scattered as they are all across the country, I am traveling more by air these days than by car. So it may not be quite a fair comparison, but the Mazda has lasted longer and had fewer repairs than any other car I have driven. What finally did it in was rust. It was a victim of too many days spent parked at the airport or sitting out at the barn instead of sheltered in my garage.
The real hammer blow fell in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy went through my area. I was teaching that weekend at a clinic in Groton New York about four hours from home. Over the weekend we kept an anxious watch on the weather channel. The hurricane was forecast to hit the northeast sometime late in the day on Monday. I wasn’t the only one who lived in the path they were predicting it would take, so we finished up early in the day to get everyone home before it hit.
Once home, I decided to spend the night camped out at the barn with the horses. Quite apart from wanting to be with the horses should anything happen, I decided I was safer weathering a hurricane in my strong, new barn, rather than in my house with three tall pine trees looming over the back garden.
I wasn’t sure where it would be safest to park my car. In the end I brought it into the barnyard and parked it under the composter.
I parked my car under the composter and hoped it would survive the hurricane.
Hurricane Sandy went up the east coast causing major damage, especially to the New Jersey coastline and to New York City. It caused enormous flooding in the hill town communities in Vermont and parts of New York, but in my area we had high winds but no real damage – except in my barnyard. I don’t know what happened to my poor car, but in the morning it looked as though someone had taken a car key to the paint.
And then there was the back bumper. That can’t be blamed on the hurricane. I don’t know what happened. I suspect someone backed into it in a parking lot and left without owning up to the damage. In any event the bumper had a huge crack in it. I was busy at the time between traveling, the horses, and creating my new on-line course. I never repaired the bumper. Big mistake. The wobble put extra wear and tear on the bolts holding everything together. They eventually gave way and left the side bumper hanging at a precarious angle.
But I’m a horse person. There’s always duct tape and baling twine. I strapped the bumper up with duct tape and kept on driving.
I strapped the bumper up with duct tape and kept on driving.
I’ve had to go from regular duct tape to the black gorilla tape to keep everything in place. This past weekend I was driving back from a long road trip through a bumpy stretch of highway construction. I bounced along over huge potholes. My car decided it had had enough. After jarring over a particularly bad stretch of road I heard a horrible banging coming from the back. It reminded me of a horse I knew years ago who had shattered his jaw. When he chewed, he sounded as though he was rolling cracked marbles around in his mouth. The car sounded like a supersized version of that. I thought for sure the bumper had finally fallen off, but when I pulled over, the duct tape was still holding everything in place. I looked at the underside of the car, added more duct tape to the bumper, and drove off. The rattling continued. I pulled over again, added even more duct tape and tried again. It was no good. Every time I hit a bump, the whole back end sounded as though it was bouncing off the chassis. And given the amount of rust on the car, that could well have been the case. But I was two hundred miles from home. I didn’t fancy being stranded in the middle of nowhere, so I kept going. Once I got on better roads, the car quieted down and drove just fine.
It got me home safely, but I knew I was probably looking at the end of the road. When I took it in the following day to have it checked over, my local mechanic confirmed what I already knew. It was time to call it quits. I will miss my old Panda mobile.
Part Two: Shopping for a New Car: Hasn’t Anyone heard of Positive Reinforcement?
So now the search was on for my next car. I’ve known this day was coming so I’ve been doing my homework, reading reviews and paying attention to the cars I see on the road. It made sense to begin with the Mazda/Ford dealership since I had enjoyed my current car so much. It was also the closest dealership to my house.
I drove my pickup truck to the dealership, so my first challenge was finding a place to park. My truck is designed for hauling horse trailers, not squeezing through narrow gaps in an overstuffed parking lot. I headed into a blind alley and spent the next few minutes inching my way back out. This might have been a Ford dealership, one that sells and services pickups, but there was no room to maneuver. By the time I got inside whatever good mood I’d been in had evaporated.
I was greeted by a salesman. “Hi, my name is Jim, but everyone calls me Doc. You can call me Doc.”
Okay, not my style.
As we were walking out to the lot, he asked the inevitable question: “So what do you do?”
I never know how to answer this question. I wear so many hats. I’m a writer, a publisher. I’m an experimenter, an inventor, a teacher, a coach. In the end I say what I always say, I train horses.
It turns out that was the wrong answer. “Doc” had had horses. Years ago he’d owned a couple of standardbred race horses. He went on to tell me how much money he’d lost on them. “Those horses cost me a bundle. The only people who got rich were the vets and the trainers. The horses were always breaking down” Okay, same species, different world.
We went out to the parking lot. All the cars were locked. We wandered around looking at the exterior of cars. This wasn’t helping. I’ve seen them on the road. I know what the cars look like on the outside. I needed to see their insides. Whatever happened to show rooms where the current models are on display? This was beginning to take more time than it should, and I was liking these cars less with each passing moment.
Doc finally went back to get keys and I wandered around reading price stickers. At long last we got a couple of cars open. We looked at the Fords first. They were quickly crossed off the list. I didn’t like the interiors. For me the seats weren’t comfortable, and Panda would never have gotten in. We went back to the other side of the lot to the Mazdas.
We looked at the Mazda 3. Good access for Panda, check. Comfortable seats, check. Reasonable instrument panel, check. Attractive interior, check. The only problem was I hated the overall look of the car. Why do all these modern cars have front grills that look like cartoon character fish? Did all the designers grow up on “Finding Nemo”? Whatever car I get I plan to keep for ten years or more. I’m going to be looking at it for a long time. I don’t fancy walking out to my driveway every morning and being confronted by a cartoon imitation of a fishy grin. (My apologies to all the Mazda owners who have never seen their cars in this way and now will forevermore. )
I hoped the drive would make up for the appearance. I was not disappointed. It drove like a Mazda which meant it handled well. This car and mine might be thirteen years apart, but the feel was familiar. I was glad that Mazda had not messed with that, but still there was the look of the car. Doc was not helping. He had to refer to the brochure to tell me anything about the car. I can read brochures for myself. In passing he told me had been on the job for only seven weeks. Clearly the dealership provided very little training for their new employees. He was trying hard, so I tried to cut him some slack, but seven weeks is time enough to learn the basic facts about each of the main cars that you’re selling. He also didn’t know how to run a test drive.
Like most dealerships this one was on a busy commercial strip. You can’t really get a feel for what a car can do in stop and go traffic. But I know from my previous experience that once you turn up the side streets you can quickly get onto roads that let you really test a car. Doc hadn’t found those routes yet.
Oh well. The car was fine, but I left the dealership in a grump. I had wanted to like the car, but I couldn’t get past my dislike of the exterior.
Next stop was the Kia dealership just down the road. I didn’t even try to find a spot for my truck. I parked directly in front of the entrance. I cornered the first person I saw and asked if my truck was okay where it was. It turned out I was speaking to the owner of the dealership. He was in his early thirties, very cordial, very welcoming. He asked what I was looking for, grabbed a salesman, and told him the cars he should show me.
I had to repeat everything that had just been said – twice – not because the salesman didn’t hear me the first time, but because he didn’t remember a word I had said. He was too busy drooling over my truck.
My truck is even older than my car. It’s a 1997 F350 which I bought second hand. I’ve driven small cars all my life. Good cars, but not cars anyone ever pays attention to. No one ever commented on my Mazda or any of its predecessors. But when I bought my truck, things changed. Delivery men would stand in the middle of my driveway staring at my truck.
“Nice truck,” they’d exclaim, drawing out the vowels. They would stand transfixed, filled with obvious truck envy.
The first time I drove the truck to the local lumber yard I experienced the same thing. For years the lumber yard had been a place I tried to avoid. If you were female and wanted service, you had to come with a man – or I now discovered a “nice truck”. For the first time ever I got wonderful service – once they could take their eyes off my truck.
Not all trucks produce this response. Years ago I was helping a friend move house. We stopped at a warehouse to pick up some large packing boxes. She had her newer, shinier Chevy. I had my Ford. The Chevy was ignored. It might as well have not been there. “Nice truck,” drawled the warehouse worker, stopping just as all the others had to admire my Ford’s square, old-fashioned lines.
My truck is older now. It has spent the summer under the overhang at the barn so it is coated with dust and pollen. It was not looking it’s best when I pulled into the Kia dealership, but the salesman still had that “look”. “Nice truck,” he exclaimed, drawing out the vowels in the same way all the others had.
(Here’s a tip to Ford motors. You are missing the boat completely with your new trucks. What were you thinking changing your design? I do not see men stopping in parking lots obviously struck by truck envy the way that they do when they see my truck. If you want to sell trucks, reintroduce your old design.)
I had come to the dealership to buy a car. I did not need a salesman who was distracted by my 17 year old truck. And anyway it was blocking a delivery van so I moved it, inching my way through the narrow lanes of the lot around to a corner spot where it was less in the way.
Again we walked directly out to the lot instead of starting in the showroom. And again the cars were all locked. He showed me the exterior of one car after the other. I wanted to see the interior. We marched up and down the parking lot before we finally found a car that was open. I sat in the driver’s seat and was immediately struck by how stale the car smelled. “Is this a used car?” I asked. I hadn’t yet looked at the sales sticker. He confirmed that it was.
“Well, it was owned by a smoker,” I declared.
“Oh don’t worry about that. We’ll have it cleaned before you buy it.”
That’s not a smell you get out with a little cleaning – or even a lot of cleaning. I got out of the car and announced that I wasn’t buying any car that had been owned by a smoker.
He was clearly annoyed. He’d found a car that was unlocked. Now he was going to have to go back inside and get some keys.
The car that responded to the panic button on the keys he brought back was a Kia Soul. What a funny looking car – again my apologies to anyone who owns one. I would struggle with the boxiness of the design. And for all it’s extra height, the interior was not that roomy. But I was curious to see how it handled, so we took it for a drive. I thought it was odd that he did not check my driver’s license first. Nor did he put dealer plates on the car.
As we were leaving, a Hummer pulled up to the front of the dealership. The salesman stared. Apparently Hummers also produce truck envy. He was trying to sell me a little car, but all he could say was a Hummer was what he’d buy.
We weren’t even out of the parking lot before I knew the Kia Soul was not my car. What a horrible drive.
Test driving cars is very much like riding. There, I knew I would get around to horses! It is so much a matter of feel. This car was wobbly. The brakes were abrupt. The steering wheel didn’t give that tight feeling of being connected to the road that I enjoy. This was not my car.
Next we looked at the Rio. The way the side door opened would make it hard for Panda to jump in, but I didn’t share with the salesman my criterion for judging a car. I did want to drive it though, so again he reluctantly went back into the dealership to get keys.
The car he picked was partially blocked by another car parked in front of it. I didn’t fancy trying to maneuver out of such a tight spot in a car I didn’t know. I asked the salesman to drive it forward for me. As he climbed into the driver’s seat, I heard him mutter, “for someone who drives a big truck you must get stuck a lot.” Points off for you. There’s no need to be rude. His job was to get this new car safely off the lot and onto roads suitable for a test drive. In my previous car-shopping experience the salesmen always drove the car first. They showed me what the car could do, and then they turned it over to me. I never drove any of the cars directly off the lot. Given the congested, bumper-threatening traffic of the commercial strips dealerships always seem to be on, I didn’t mind turning this part of the drive over to them. Let them be responsible for keeping the car out of harm’s way.
In this case the salesman pulled the car forward out of the parking space, then we traded places. I headed out of the parking lot, but again I didn’t even make it out onto the street before I knew this was not my car. I see a lot of Kias on the road. I will look at them differently now. And especially in the winter when the roads are slick, I will make sure there is a bit more room between us. I did not like the handling of that car – at all. Again my apologies to all Kia owners.
We took the short way back to the dealership. But as short as the drive was, the salesman was clearly bored with it. He might as well have been a small child in the back seat whining “are we there yet?”
So the Kias were crossed off my list. That made it easy, but there were lots of used cars on the lot in makes and models that were on my list. I asked about a Nissan that was directly in front of us. He said the obvious. It was a four door sedan. I was now getting tired of his lazy attitude. I had made it clear that I was replacing my Mazda. I wasn’t window shopping. I was here to test drive cars and to make a decision about buying one.
I asked about another car. Again he said something general about the exterior. Finally I snapped. I told him I knew what these cars looked like. I saw them all the time on the roads. I needed to see the interiors.
“That means I’d have to get the keys for each one,” he said in a tone that clearly indicated I was being a bother.
“Yes,” I snapped back. I looked at my watch. It was close to four-thirty. He had eaten up over an hour and a half of my time, and I’d only driven two cars around the block. I’d had enough. “It’s getting late,” I said. “This has taken too much time, and now I have to leave.”
So the first salesman was well meaning but inexperienced. This one was rude and lazy.
The horses would be waiting for their supper, so I headed out. I was hoping to return later that evening to continue the search, but a quick check on the internet revealed that the dealerships all closed at 6 on Fridays. That was a surprise. I would have thought they would stay open to get a jump start on the weekend shoppers. What it meant for me was I could spend the evening researching the remaining cars on my list.
Saturday afternoon the first stop was the Toyota dealership. This was centered around one of those oversized, glass fronted buildings that declared “we are a modern, up-to-date dealership selling the best cars in the business.” There’s nothing like a little window dressing for setting the stage. Inside the cavernous show room was buzzing with activity. I stopped at the reception desk and was immediately introduced to one of the sales staff – a woman this time. She was all smiles, welcoming me cordially to the dealership.
We went through the usual questions: what was I looking for? She asked if I ever drove a manual. “Yes, that’s what I had always driven.” “Oh, then I might have just the car for you!”
We walked out to the far side of the lot to look at a Scion. This was a car that was not on my radar. It looked less like a fish than the Mazdas and the Kias, so that was a plus. It had good side door access. The interior was roomy and pleasant enough, but how would it drive?
As I sat in the driver’s seat checking out the dashboard, she asked what I thought of the car. I responded that I liked it, but I would have to do some research. I would want to check out the reviews in Consumer Reports and other sources. The words weren’t even out of my mouth before she began disparaging reviews in general and Consumer Reports in particular. Hmm. Not a good move. I just let her talk. Salesmen tend to criticize reviews only when the reviewers don’t like the car, so what was I going to be reading about the Scion?
Reviews weren’t the only thing she didn’t like. We hadn’t made it out of the parking lot before she was criticizing how I drove a manual. I felt like saying I had been driving manuals all my adult life and every one of them had outlasted most of the cars on the road.
We were not off to a good start, and it went downhill from there. She had been all smiles in the showroom. Now she was clearly bored and wanting the drive to be over as soon as possible. The gas gauge was on empty so she was going to get her wish. By necessity this was going to be a short test drive. We turned off the main road onto a side street, made one turn, went a few blocks, turned again, and ended up back on the main road and the dealership. So much for getting to know what the car could do!
I had been pleasantly surprised by the Scion. The price was good. The drive was acceptable. The interior provided plenty of room and good access for Panda. It was something to consider. But I had come to this dealership to test drive a Prius.
You would think I had to apply in triplicate for the privilege. We wandered around the lot looking at a selection of Prius cars, but she showed no sign that she was going to get any keys. As we walked along the lines of cars, she asked what I thought of the Scion. I told her I had liked it, but I would have to do some reading about it.
“How long do you think that reading is going to take?” She asked in an annoyed tone. “How soon do you think it will be before you make a decision?”
What an odd question. Had I not told her that my car was no longer road safe? Didn’t that mean that I was a serious shopper? I was not window shopping. I was going to buy a car. She was annoyed that I wanted to test drive the Prius. She was also annoyed that I hadn’t driven my old Mazda to the lot. “How do you expect us to look at it, if you don’t have it here.” Did I not say that it was no longer road safe? And besides we are a long way from that step.
She asked again how soon it was going to be before I made a decision. Was it going to be a day? How long was all this reading going to take?
“Soon,” I told her in a cold voice. I might not know how long my car shopping was going to take, but one thing was becoming very clear. Whatever car I decided on, I wasn’t going to be buying it through her.
I was ready to leave, but I was determined to at least look at the interior of a Prius. She did eventually get some keys. The Prius she selected was a pleasant surprise. There was plenty of room in the back and the interior was very attractive. But the batteries are under the back seat so it would have been a big jump up for Panda.
We took the car for a test drive. She started telling me an improbable tale of how much you can pack into a Prius. She’d been visiting her mother who sent her home with a full dining room set, table and four chairs, several floor lamps, big, overstuffed sofa cushions. The list kept growing.
“In how many trips,” I asked as I turned a corner.
“Oh, then you left your children at your mother’s.”
“Oh no, we fit everyone in.”
We were on a straightaway, a good place to test the steering, but somehow I didn’t want to. The Prius drove well. It was certainly a car I could enjoy, but it was not a feel that I loved.
We went around the block and returned to the dealership. I put the Prius on the possible list.
We went back inside the dealership. She disappeared for a few minutes. When she came back, it was to tell me that her next appointment had arrived. “Good,” I though. “That’s an easy excuse to leave.” She had wasted too much of my time already. I might be interested in both the Scion and the Prius, but I would not be working with her again.
Three dealerships. Three strikes.
People complain about the state of the economy. They blame everyone but themselves. Sadly, my experience at these dealerships is typical of far too many encounters in our service economy. It stands in stark contrast to the experience you would get within the clicker training world. Perhaps that is why these sales associates were so jarring for me. I know the message I would want to send to all the dealerships. If you want to increase sales, yes you have to have a good product, but there’s more to it than than. You have to teach your sales staff how to talk to people, how to listen to their needs, how to be supportive and positive – in other words, you need to teach them clicker skills. Just think of the staff training our clicker horses could provide!
I left the Toyota dealership feeling fed up with the search and headed down the road to the Suburu dealership. I almost didn’t stop, but I was going right past it, I might as well turn in. The dealership was under construction. In the background you could see the steel frame for yet another huge glass-fronted showcase. But for now the sales department was crowded into a large construction trailer. That meant the front parking lot was even more crowded than the other dealerships had been. But construction requires large construction vehicles. If they could fit, then my pickup certainly could. I drove past the construction area and found a spot way in the back of the parking lot. As I was getting out, I was greeted by a salesman who was collecting empty plastic water bottles from his own truck. The dealership paid 8 cents per bottle and gave the money to the local humane society. Extra points for both of them.
We went through the preliminary questions, and then he took me over to a line of Imprezas. They all had leather interiors.
I said I actively would not buy a car with leather seats.
“Got it,” he responded and we moved on. No questions asked. More points earned.
The cars he wanted to show me were of course locked, but he went off right away in a golf cart to get the keys. The Impreza he showed me passed the initial inspection. It’s front grill did not resemble a fish. The side doors would give Panda room to get in. The seats were comfortable, the instrument panel uncluttered. He checked my license, put a dealer’s plate on the car, and we headed out of the lot.
So far so good. Unlike the other salesmen, he had clearly been selling cars for years, and what’s more, he enjoyed it. He also knew how to conduct a test drive. He picked a route that showed off what this car could do. We didn’t just go around the block, he directed me down a winding side road that gave me a good feel for the car’s handling. We diverted into a large, empty parking lot where I could try out the car’s turning radius. It spun on a dime. What fun! Maybe it was because I was driving my tank of a truck which has no maneuverability, who knows, but I was loving this. I spun the car again. Now I was smiling. This was the first car that had made me smile.
I’ve grown so super cautious in recent years driving on snow. The Mazda always got me home, but it was only because in slippery conditions I crawled along at a snail’s pace. This was a car that handled well and was made to drive on snow.
We left the parking lot and headed on to a stretch of highway where I could run the speed up. I continued to like the drive. We returned to the dealership and I found myself inside buying a car! Just like that! So in answer to the Toyota saleswoman’s question: soon apparently meant today.
So I have bought a car. My first in thirteen years. I am looking forward to getting it home and taking it for another spin around an empty parking lot! I am also looking forward to driving it in it’s first snow storm and feeling the extra security the all wheel drive gives me. There were still cars left on my list that I had intended to test drive, but this salesman can thank his competitors for this quick sale. He knew what he was doing. He knew how to present a car well. He didn’t dither around and waste my time. He seemed to enjoy the experience of showing off a good car. He made it a pleasant, positive experience which stood in stark contrast to the others.
Perhaps it is simply experience that teaches this. Who knows how many other salesmen have come and gone from this same dealership, failing in just the same way that the others did. Or perhaps this dealership really does train its staff. I don’t know, but I believe in reinforcement. He had a good car. He presented it well. He treated me well, and for that he earned the reinforcement of a sale completed. There are lessons there for all of us.
The new car at the barn.