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Welcome to Chief Oddball’s Great Dodge Hunt

Well, that came together sooner than I expected. Just days after posting that we might have a buyer for Mrs. Oddball’s Mazda6, I now have a verbal agreement and will probably have the money in hand come Monday. As I mentioned in my last post, the buyer is a coworker of mine who recently moved here from outside the U.S. and is in great need of some basic life necessities — shelter, transportation, etc. — in his new place of residence. As a result he’s going to want to take possession of the car as soon as possible, particularly since the guy who’s been shuttling him to and from work this past month is out of town for the next two weeks. That’s fine by me.

Of course, it means that our only family-friendly car is going to be leaving our hands perhaps as soon as this coming Tuesday, so that means it’s time for us to start searching for a replacement car in earnest. With discussions of budget, rehearsing of tactics and test-fitting of baby carriers now complete, I’m moving full speed ahead on what I’m calling Chief Oddball’s Great Dodge Hunt 2013.

Yeah, I always get very histrionic about car stuff — get used to it. As purchasing a car is a fairly rare occurrence for me — it’s been seven years this month since I picked up my GTO — and I am very much a gearhead at heart, each and every crack I get at it is to be relished. As usual, I had a firm idea going in of what car I wanted: a Dodge Charger. (Somehow, that particular decision always seems to make itself.) Since mutually arriving at that decision with my wife, I’ve loaded myself down with user manuals, iPhone apps, forum posts, market value data and Auto Trader listings so as to be as fully prepared and as knowledgeable as possible about the vehicle I seek.

36 hours ago I finally started putting feet to pavement, and have now personally looked at two Chargers at two separate dealers in the metroplex, one on my own and one with Mrs. Oddball and our son. Interestingly, the two experiences were near-polar opposites. As this is the first used car purchase I’ll have ever made from a dealer — a situation dreaded by many — I thought I’d document my findings and experiences for my own future amusement, if nothing else.

Friday: Charger One

Charger One.
Charger One.

I took off early from work on Friday and drove down to Plano to lay eyes on Charger One. It’s not the top candidate vehicle on my short list, but I needed to drop off something in Plano anyway and the dealership was right down the road, making Charger One a target of opportunity.

Like all of the units on my short list, it’s a 2012 Charger R/T Max, effectively loaded with every option available except for the Road & Track package and the power moon roof. Unlike most of the cars on my list, it’s gray. (“Tungsten Metallic”, I believe Dodge calls it.) In fact, it’s pretty much the exact same color as our outgoing Mazda, right down to the black leather inside. Black on black would be my first choice, but I have to admit, the Tungsten offers perhaps the perfect contrast between the dark tinted windows and chrome wheels and grille. It is, in fact, the color on which Dodge’s inexplicable chrome grille surround looks least offensive to me.

The dealership at which Charger One was located, normally a retailer of high-end luxury vehicles, was a bit of a mixed bag. In fact it reminded me a bit of car dealerships in Naples, except without the douchebag salesmen who treat you like you’re unwanted if you don’t have gray hair and a blank check in hand. The salesman I spoke with, in fact, seemed like a very nice guy who was easy to talk to and, on the test drive, even encouraged me to hoon around a bit and get the back end of the car to step out. My mind immediately started recognizing the typical sales tactics; get me to fall in love with the car, get me to lower my guard by being friendly and conversational, and finally bring in the manager to play Bad Cop when I start talking dollars.

The car itself was immaculate. A former rental, it didn’t have any of the telltale signs of abuse; the paint looked near flawless but for a small hairline scratch on the front fascia, and the only defect I could find inside was a scuffed-up PRND indicator window on the floor console. The car was parked up front in a small area of the used car lot clearly reserved for high-end stuff; it was flanked by a red Ferrari F430 on one side and a year-old Corvette ZR-1 on the other. I showed up at the dealer only 5 minutes after making my first call (to ensure the car was there), so it’s not like they saw me coming and dressed it up nice. It had to have been clean and presentable beforehand. Say what you will about dealerships wanting to make an impression; it works.

After the test drive — in which I couldn’t find Issue One with the car — the salesman invited me back to his office and started turning on the sales pitch. We talked for a bit and I explained that I wasn’t going to make any decisions that day; after all, I had a handful of other identical vehicles to check out at other dealers. Not only did the salesman try to get me to reconsider the private sale of my Mazda and trade it in instead, he also offered to let me take the Charger home for the night so I could show my wife. I’m familiar with these tactics too — I ate them up back in 2004 when I was shopping for the Mazda. I’d like to think that I’m (almost) ten years wiser now, but the truth is, I need to consciously remember to check myself to avoid being led on. I ended up declining the “24 hour test drive” and saying that I might be in touch with them again next week.

The salesman made sure that I met his manager before I left though, and the guy was a full-on twenty-something beefcake who looks like he pumps iron as a hobby. Exactly the kind of guy who has always (and probably always will) intimidate a soft-bellied computer nerd like myself. He was perfectly friendly yesterday, but I doubt that’ll last when I start pulling out figures. If I wind up back at this dealer trying to do a deal, it’s going to take effort: that much I can see already.

And not just because of the personalities I dealt with, either. In another nod to typical Naples dealerships, the salesman told me that every used car arriving on their lot gets full window tint treatment before it goes up for sale. As such, I will abso-freakin’-lutely eat my hat if I don’t see a $600 below-the-line charge for “window tint” on the contract. No doubt they will also try to charge for cleaning the car, prepping the car, inspecting the car, putting nitrogen in the tires (another thing they proudly told me they outfit every car on their lot with), and God knows what else. Charger One’s deep-dish chrome wheels, while similar in appearance to OEM equipment, are also strangely not OEM equipment, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a $3,000 line-item for chrome wheels either. Very, very Naples.

Still, as my wife wisely said this evening, “You’re buying a car, not a dealership.” And that car, friends, was mint. If you’re wise enough to recognize the sales tactics, they lose their impact and the dealer can only screw you if you let them. They can either agree to sell me the car for a reasonable price without any bullshit or I can agree to walk out. No harm no foul, I suppose.

I added Charger One to my short list.

Saturday: Charger Two

Charger Two.
Charger Two.

This afternoon the entire Oddball family (is that a sitcom?) piled into the family truckster and headed 30 minutes out west to a neighboring town, a town home to a Dodge dealer which just so happened to have Charger Two on their used car lot. This was to be not only a scouting mission for another candidate vehicle, it was also Mrs. Oddball’s first opportunity to drive a new Charger — and for me to test-fit our son’s Recaro carrier in its back seat.

I’ve been to this small town before. It’s got an old, run-down, low-rent affectation but it doesn’t give you an unsafe vibe, like certain corridors of Detroit might. My boss purchased his Mitsubishi Evo from a dealer in this town and had a great experience — I know he did, because I was there — and I’ve heard from all over that just about any dealership in town is a no-bullshit place to buy a car. Which was why I was hopeful that Charger Two would impress me.

Another former rental, Charger Two carried the same equipment as Charger One, except it wore Pitch Black paint on its exterior. When we first laid eyes on it, though, I have to admit that I was underwhelmed. Not that the Charger doesn’t look good in black — though I have seen other cars wear the color with greater impact — but this one just wasn’t sparkling. It was water-spotted and smudged, had strange paint marks on it, and the paint had bizarre, sun-bleached discolorations in the cracks around the door handles and fuel filler door. The sort of thing you might expect to see on a GM car from the mid-’90s, let’s say. Not on a Charger less than a year old.

Compared to the inside, though, the exterior was mint. The interior was covered with dust, the driver’s seat controls were speckled with I-don’t-want-to-know-what (dandruff would honestly be my best guess) and the cupholders were filthy and stained with spilt coffee. I even discovered a package of chewing tobacco under the seat. When I started it up, the first thing that happened was the EVIC display lit up with a warning that three of the car’s four tires were low, each running on 25 pounds of air. (Not only that, but in reviewing the Auto Trader listing photos again, I see that the EVIC has been saying this for some time now!) When we opened the trunk to put our son’s stroller in, I pointed out how the carpeting on the top of the rear deck was coming loose from the weatherseal, after which the salesman spent about a minute trying to stuff it back under the weatherseal with no succcess.

It was, frankly, a horrible first impression. What really gets me is that I called this dealer yesterday to tell them I was going to come look at the car. In the nearly 24 hours of warning they had, the most they could think to do was take it through a car wash and then let most of the water spot-dry without wiping it down. It’s unconscionable to me that someone would leave the interior of a vehicle that they’re asking someone to pay nearly $29,000 for in such condition. It suggests that the dealer doesn’t really care whether they sell the car or not, and that doesn’t bode well for a negotiation.

Nevertheless, we drove Charger Two around; to the salesman’s credit he let us go off with it on our own so we didn’t feel pressured. I got a more extensive test of the navigation system, and was in fact amused to find its location history (which no one had ever bothered to clear despite it requiring the touch of only a single button) filled with familiar landmarks in Orlando, which I guess tells me where the car served its time as a fleet unit. I let Mrs. Oddball play with the car as well and she very much liked it, finding it much easier to maneuver, much smoother to drive and much more impressive inside (despite the mess) than her Mazda. She even had some success making voice control work, though we were both stumped by its continual inability to recognize what we wanted it to do. In another touch of class, the Sirius satellite radio presets contained not only the Playboy channel, but also the Spice channel. (We jokingly tried to get voice command to “Tune to Playboy!” but it chastely refused.)

The car seemed mechanically sound, other than a subtle rattle in the dashpad (which went way when I tapped on it) and what may have been excessive valvetrain noise when the engine was first started (it quieted down after about a minute, but still got my worry glands working). Still, I almost feel as though I should write off Charger Two, given that it appears to have suffered just as much at the hands of its current caretakers as it did at the hands of all those people who rented it in the Orlando area. With one of the highest asking prices of all the cars on my list, I’d have my work cut out for me. And that’s before even mentioning the stuff like the trunk carpeting and weird paint marks on the windshield that I’d need them to fix before I’d take delivery. Sounds like a lot of hassle to go through for a car I’m getting bad vibes about.

I placed Charger Two on the reserve list, to revisit if all else fails.

Next Week: Charger Three

My next stop this coming week is a dealership nearly an hour away, to look at what appears for all intents and purposes to be the best candidate vehicle on my list. Charger Three was actually the first Charger I identified as a probable sale when I began combing through listings. The sister car of Charger Two (in terms of equipment and color), it carries the fewest miles, has the most recent build date, and the lowest sticker price. While Chargers One and Two both had original sale dates in early March 2012, Charger Three was sold in June of that year, and thus carries the midyear upgrade afforded to all R/T Max units: the Beats audio system “hand tuned by Dr. Dre himself”. An upgrade to the formerly-standard 500 watt Alpine system, the Beats system is supposedly head and shoulders above any other factory system offered by Chrysler/Dodge. And with a June sale date, that gives me three more months of balance on the factory warranty and the Sirius satellite radio subscription (the first year of which is complimentary).

My concern? The dealership which is selling Charger Three doesn’t have the most trustworthy reputation. There are reports online of people going there to buy a used car and finding the entire lot marked up to ridiculous prices. How, then, to explain the low asking price for the Charger? This too is a common tactic according to the online reviewers, who claim that if you come in asking about the Internet price, you’ll either be told that it was a typo or that the car is no longer available for sale. Oh, I see — it’s one of those dealers.

No harm in going there to check it out, though, right? If they act like sleazebags, I get in my car and leave. All well and good, but I’d have to invest almost an hour of my time just to drive down there and another hour to drive back. Not exactly what I call a good time when I have so much to do at work. Not to mention, my annual review is coming up on Thursday and I’m not in a real hurry to ask my boss to let me take 2-3 hours off to go schlep down to some car dealer.

Nevertheless, I feel like I simply cannot arrive at a final decision unless I at least see Charger Three — or try to. It looks like such a perfect specimen, I will forever have thoughts of “what if” should I choose to ignore it. So I’ll press on, perhaps at my own peril, for what is life without some modicum of risk/reward?

Charger Three therefore remains in play.

To Be Continued

It’s going to be one hell of a busy week, with the clerical process of selling the Mazda and signing it over to its new owner, getting the money in the bank and getting financing lined up for the Mazda’s replacement. Add to that all the reams of work I have to do at the office, plus my review on Thursday, and things start to look a little harried. (Time should fly by, if nothing else.)

There’s also a Charger Four on my list, another black R/T Max but this time with a “Radar Red” interior that looks like the spiritual twin of my GTO. How cool would that be, to have two black-on-red muscle cars in the garage? However, Charger Four combines the worst of both worlds: it’s a car with a very questionable CarFax report (why has it been sold to four different dealers since October, and who put 1,000 miles on it between December and January?), being sold by a dealership with a very poor reputation. It’s a Charger of Last Resort, but one that I will leave in reserve should the need arise.

Should all of the above fail, it’s back to the listings to find new candidates — with perhaps an even wider search radius.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

In the meantime, I’ve been rehearsing negotiation tactics in my head as I pace around my room or aloud in the shower. It’s really a mite ridiculous. But this is my time, my chance to score a great deal, and to prove that this once-timid programmer has chalked up enough life experience to take the bull by the horns and refuse to be jacked around with. This would be much easier if I could walk into a dealer with a check already made out, so that’s why we’re going to apply for financing here tomorrow and hopefully win approval for the amount we need. When you take both the trade-in and the financing out of the equation, there’s only one place left for them to screw you — the bottom line — and you can focus in on it with laser precision.

The Great Dodge Hunt of 2013 is just beginning. Stay tuned.

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