Car Talk. Not the Click and Clack kind, but rather the ignorant ramblings of a guy who has driven a total of three cars in the last 29 years — a 1977 Dodge Colt, a 1987 Subaru station wagon, and a 1998 Subaru Forester. But now I’m giving up on the Forester a year or two early, because the 14-year-old in the back seat is as tall as I am, with size 11 1/2 feet compared to my size 10. He is not a complainer, but his knees are pushing through the back of the seat in front of him. It makes for some long rides to Upstate New York or northeastern Pennsylvania.
It’s time for a change, and I get my first dose of buying a car in the brave new world of Edmunds.com, consumerreports.org, and thetruthaboutcars.com. It’s instructive. In fact, I’m reminded of an observation made by Edward Tenner, the technology observer, offered at the first glimmer of the Internet age: The Internet will change a lot of things, Tenner predicted in a conversation that I recall taking place somewhere on Nassau Street sometime in the late 1990s. But it won’t change human nature.
The quest begins on a drive back from northeastern Pennsylvania, passing by the Subaru dealer on Route 31 in Flemington. I had heard that the Subaru Outback had been re-engineered and made 11 inches longer. Perfect. In the showroom I put the two kids in the back seat and couldn’t tell the difference. I measure the Forester from the top of the steering wheel to the top of the back seat, and compare it to the Outback. Not more than an inch difference. Most of the extra length has gone into the storage area behind the seat.
As I measure and kick tires, the sales guy asks where I heard about the dealership. I tell him I wish I could say newspapers because I’m in the business myself, but in truth I just saw the sign.
We hardly ever advertise in newspapers anymore, he responds. Everyone’s buying through the Internet now.
As soon as I get home I hit the keyboard. The last time I thought about Edmunds they had a magazine, but now I discover the website, and the nearly infinite number of car comparisons available. The specs that Edmunds provides about each make and model are boggling: Forgetting about engine and fuel data, and concentrating just on interior capacity, the only reason I was in the car market, Edmunds rattles off numbers for front head room, shoulder room, hip room, and leg room, and then more numbers for the same dimensions in the rear seat. None of those numbers mean much to me, and I keep measuring the distance between the steering wheel and back seat. The Forester is 61 inches; the Outback not much better.
But the Flemington showroom also has a new Subaru Tribeca on display — Subaru’s new entry in the fullsize SUV category. It’s got a good six inches of extra rear seat room. My kids love it. But by now I’m an Internet shopper, as well as a showroom tire kicker. I Google Tribeca and come across a review at thetruthaboutcars.com that is scathingly negative. I later discover the whole website is pretty negative, but that does it for the Tribeca and Subaru. Live by the Internet, die by the Internet.
The Tribeca inquiry brings up a comparison with Honda’s Pilot. I visit the Honda showroom on Route 206. In the old days Honda might have had a sale on my first visit. I would have told the guy I had a Forester that was now too small for the growing family. He would have told me he had two cars that might fit the bill. The Pilot, much bigger, and the CRV, much like the Subaru, but recently extended with extra room in the back seat. But I arrive loaded with Internet data on the Pilot — the CRV never gets mentioned.
The kids love the Pilot. I am reluctant. It’s a bigger car than I need, and it’s a little pricey. I go back to the Internet and — through Edmunds — solicit prices from other Honda dealers. I get an E-mail quote from Clinton, New Jersey, that seems to be $1,000 cheaper than Princeton. I call the guy in Clinton. It’s not a mistake, he says. I decide I will drive nearly an hour to save $1,000. I call him back and leave a voice mail. He never returns the call. No sale.
In the days that I’m waiting for that call the Super Bowl comes along. I tune out most of the commercials, but one lackluster one about the Toyota RAV4 catches my eye — the car is 14 inches longer, it claims. Because of the Outback experience, I’m skeptical. I go to Lawrence Toyota on Route 1. I decline the offer of a test drive, but pull out the tape. By my standard the RAV4 is six inches roomier than the Forester. We’re in business.
The sales manager at Lawrence, named — get this — Bill Rein (no relation), comes up with his “best” price. I hit the Internet again, and ask for a quote from Toyota in North Brunswick. It comes back $100 higher than “Uncle” Bill’s. I check Edmunds and check the “TMV” price — what others are paying for this car. It’s $200 higher than Uncle Bill’s. I pay $15 for a “bottom line” price from consumerreports.org. With options, Consumer Reports says, this car cost the dealer $22,515. If you figure a profit of 8 percent, the cost to me should be $24,316. I can’t see haggling over $84. It’s a deal.
Not quite. While I’m surfing the ‘Net, a friend who knows cars mentions the Honda CRV. It’s also bigger inside, he says. I take the 14-year-old back to Honda on Route 206. Sure enough, it is bigger. He luxuriates in the back seat, his bony knees not coming close to the seat in front. If we had seen this car while we were looking at the Pilot, we would have bought it in a heartbeat. Now it’s got to compete with the RAV4.
Just to play Dumb Dad for a moment, I ask him, in mock seriousness: “So how are the cup holders?” He pauses: “I can’t find them.”
He looks. I look. Eventually we find them, incorporated into a fold-down arm rest between the two back seats. I think back to the boatload of data on the Edmunds website: horsepower, torque, towing capacity, payload, fuel tank capacity. In my mind I add one more spec — cupholders. The RAV4, with deeper cupholders in the door wells, separated from each rear seat passenger as far as possible, wins hands down. The Internet has changed the process a lot, but in the end, it can’t change the value of cupholders. The next day we buy the RAV4.