How To Shop For a Used Car

"You want car? I have car! Car break. I fix car! Car good now. Real cream puff. You buy now!"

“You want car? I have car! Car break. I fix car! Car good now. Real cream puff. You buy now!”

The adult experience is loaded with grim tasks, responsibilities, expectations and unfortunate realities. It’s a good thing I’m married so I have a wife to handle all that shit.

But when it comes to buying a car, I’m in the driver’s seat. Not to say that women don’t know their way around the automotive ken, but we dudes have cars in our DNA. This kind of stuff is fascinating to us. We learn to identify make, model and year from the time our tiny hands can grip a Matchbox car. Our veins practically run with transmission fluid.

When a young woman gets her very first car, she insists that it is clean, easy to operate, and gets decent gas mileage. Oh, and it would be nice if the vanity mirror is lighted. This is why God created the Plymouth Neon.

When a guy gets his first car, it is usually some hand-me-down square car or mom’s old station wagon. No matter. By the end of the first week of ownership, the lad’s vehicle will be festooned with every cheap-smack, bolt-on piece of chrome crap you can get at the corner auto parts store. From a shiny eight-ball gearshift handle to the skull-and-barbed-wire sticker obscuring the rear window, these accessories serve to individualize the vehicle. The young driver’s hormone-addled personality is on display for all to see. Chrome exhaust tips, LED running board lights, a stick-on dash compass, a fuzzy steering wheel cover—they all say, “Look out world, here I come! Better lower your deductible!”

“You want car? I have car. Car break, I fix. Car good now. Real cream puff. You buy now.”

This irrational compulsion for low-rent customization is endemic to all young men, so don’t try to stop it or understand it. If a teenager discovers a loud racket coming from a hole in the exhaust system, he’ll rush right out and lay down $300 for a bigger set of speakers.

So when it comes time to replace our used car with a not-quite-so-used car, I’m the man. Mrs. Wire and I discussed the make and model we’d like to have, and looked at our budget. Then we had a good laugh, wiped the tears from our eyes and took another run at it.

I went directly to Craigslist because anyone dumb enough to still pay for newspaper classified ads probably has been pumping gasoline into the wrong hole, if you know what I mean. The car we targeted was a Subaru Outback, no older than a 2007. This is a model that’s so ubiquitous in our neck of the woods, there’s a good chance one of our next-door-neighbors has one for sale.

But they didn’t (alas, only a Forester and a Legacy sedan), so I opened my laptop. I did a search under “Private Owners.” Nothing against the dealers, but their relentless hyperbole makes me feel icky. (“Once In a Lifetime Deal! Hard to Find Ford Expedition! Hardly Any Bullet Holes At All!”) So I searched and searched. I called and talked. I visited and drove.

One character, who speaks with a heavy Russian accent, runs a curbside car lot on the edge of town. He finds wrecks, has his team of crack immigrants bend and twist them back into shape, and runs photos of the car’s “good side” on Craigslist, so you can’t see the duct tape and raw Bondo. Nix. I kept looking.

My cream puff finally appeared. This 2008 model was owned by a young professional whose wife had recently had a baby. As all parents know, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution states that any American engaging in procreation must avail themselves of a minivan. Their Subie had to go.

So I called him up and arranged for a test drive. He couldn’t be there during the day, being a professional and all, so he said he’d leave the keys. As an unprofessional, I have a lot of time on my hands so I drove out to his house in the countryside late one morning. I parked my 4Runner and hopped into the Subaru.

Nice. No one had stuffed candy wrappers and Tootsie Pop stems into the armrest holes. There was no bubble gum rubbed into the carpet. I could see clearly out the rear window because it was not hazed with dried dog slobber. The seats were all one color, not a Jackson Pollock pastiche of fast food condiments and vomit. Boy, these young parents had a lot to learn.

I pulled out of the driveway and headed for Highway 93 to get this baby up to speed. All of our vehicles have been five-speed sticks, but this was an automatic. There was only one five-speed stick Subaru Outback manufactured after 2005, and it is currently in the Smithsonian, suspended in amber for possible future DNA reanimation.

An opening appeared in the traffic and I jammed it into Drive. Or so I thought. Subarus come with something called Sport Shift, which is a shifter selection that allows you to override the automatic transmission. I had unknowingly pushed the shifter all the way over to Sport Shift, so this thing wasn’t going to shift to a higher gear until I tapped the knob forward. Kind of a clutchless manual.

So I revved that poor engine up near the redline, waiting for it to upshift. Just when I thought the car was going to fly apart like Rand Paul’s head when some trick or treaters asked him to donate to UNICEF, I pushed the shifter into a higher gear, and kept pushing it until it reached fourth. Well, this sucks, I thought. Mrs. Wire and I do not want to learn how to operate a THIRD kind of transmission.

Then my cell phone buzzed. I pulled over on a river overlook and picked it up. As luck would have it, the car’s owner was calling to see if I’d picked up the car. I asked him how to get this goddamn thing out of Sport Shift, and he told me to just let the shifter slide to the bottom where it naturally wants to go. Test drive saved.

So I drove around town, had my boys at Kent Bros give it a thorough Bob’s-your-uncle, and picked up Barb for a quick test drive. I climbed into the passenger’s side and she began tooling around the streets of Missoula. Within a couple of minutes I started squirming in my seat. Sweat filmed my forehead, and I ran my window down.

“Are you okay?” she said, looking concerned. “Is it hurting your back?”

I shifted back and forth in my seat. “No, it’s not that. I…I think I’m having menopause.”

Barb frowned, slowing for a red light. She looked down at a couple of controls on the console between the seats. “This model has heated seats.  You must have bumped yours when you got in. It’s all the way up.” The light turned green and she accelerated, laughing.

“Very funny,” I said, rolling back the heater dial. “By the way, I have lost all interest in sex. Augh. I am so tired. Wow, my hair’s starting to fall out. Where are we going? I hate you.”

She kept her eyes forward. “I see the airbag on your side is deactivated,” she said coolly. “Let’s see how it does in the front crash test.”

“Sorry.”

The sleek Subie passed all tests with flying colors. Looks like we’ll be handing our vaunted 1993 Grocery Getter down to our teenagers, the younger of whom I just signed up for Driver’s Ed yesterday.

I dropped Barb back at work and returned the car to the owner’s house.

“So what do you think?” he said. “Do you guys want to make an offer?”

“Well, let me put it this way. I’ve already changed all the radio station presets and swapped out the gearshift knob for a chrome skull. Let’s talk money.”

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