December 09, 2002

DRIVING MR. MICKEY: So instead of blogging this afternoon (or, er, doing actual work) I went out to test-drive sports cars with Mickey Kaus, who was passing through town on his way back to Los Angeles. We had arranged this at the Yale Blog Conference, when Mickey remarked that he was going to do more automotive writing and I suggested a joint test drive.

Alas, though the company was all you could ask, the experience wasn't. Our first stop was a local Nissan Dealer, where we intended to drive a 350Z sports car. I had dropped by the dealer to look at one a while back (which Mickey even noted on Kausfiles, to my surprise) and thought the car looked great. (That's Kaus in the 350Z above).

It still does, but I have my reservations. The first was that the dealer had slapped a near-$6000 markup above the sticker price, turning the car from a bargain to, well, not a bargain. The second was that they wouldn't let us drive it. (In accordance with journalistic ethics, or whatever, we didn't tell them we were writing about it.) The salesman was extremely anxious to have me choose a car from the several on the lot, agree to buy it, "sign some papers" and then, and only then, actually drive the car.

I wasn't interested, of course, in buying a car on the spot, only then to test drive it. We left, but the salesman convinced us to at least sit in the car and try out the stereo. I pulled a CD from my car and inserted it into the CD player, which promptly ate it and refused to function. The CD is still in the car, with a promise from the dealer that I'll get it back someday. I have to say, though, that after that experience I'm pretty unimpressed. Bad enough that the dealer seemed so anxious to hustle us (well, me) into a sale: it's pretty bad when you get such a major malfunction off the bat. I think Nissan is blowing it here: the 350Z is supposed to be one of those cars that casts a halo around the maker's more mundane offerings. Instead, because of the dealer's churlishness, it left me with a distinctly bad feeling. The devoured CD didn't help, and seemed all the more irritating after the display of 'tude. (I should stress that the salesman was nice enough, but the dealer's policy was insulting and stupid).

Our next stop was the Infiniti dealer, to try the very similar Infiniti G35 sport coupe. Mickey thought the G35 looked better than the 350Z; I preferred the Z, but they're both good-looking cars inside and out. The backseat in the G35, while vestigial, was bigger than I expected: not only big enough for a child, but big enough for most adults on short hauls, like piling people in to go from work to lunch.

The Infiniti dealership demonstrated something that I've noticed before: one of the best reasons for shopping at a luxury-car dealership is that they're almost always nicer. (There was no nasty above-sticker markup, either). Unlike the snooty Nissan dealership, the Infiniti salesman handed us some keys and told us to come back when we were done. We took the G35 for a drive and it was nice . . . though not great. I'll leave the automotive journalism to Kaus, who has all the cliches down ("the slick shifter comes readily to hand, which is valuable on the twisty bits. . ."). But while I liked it, I didn't love it. It wasn't the top-of-the-line sport package, which may account in part for its slightly vague feel. It was an excellent car overall, but not one to fall in love with. (Given that it's nearly identical to the 350Z, this may be why the dealer didn't want us to drive the Z until there was some sort of commitment. If so, that's dirty pool even by car-dealer standards). The salesman promised to call me when they have a performance-package car in; I'll try that one and report back with a final opinion.

What I will say is that if Nissan is looking for image-burnishing from the 350Z, they'd better get their dealers in on the program, because greed and cheesiness are sending the wrong signal. I left the Nissan dealership with a bad feeling. I left the Infiniti dealership thinking well of them. Since both dealers sell a number of other brands, the benefit to letting customers go away happy versus annoyed would seem to be significant.

I also think that the car industry is screwed up. Every time I start to think about buying a car, I put it off for months -- or sometimes years -- because they make the process unpleasant. And I say this as someone who always negotiates a good deal, but who doesn't enjoy it. (Though the VW dealer who sold me my Passat made it as painless an experience as I've had along those lines, and gave me an excellent price, too.) If buying a car were as easy and pleasant as buying , say, a stereo, I think that people would buy new cars more often; I'm pretty sure that I would. You'd think that the automobile industry would have that figured out, but I'm afraid that fixing their distribution and sales system would threaten too many rice bowls.