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Having a Fit

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January 18, 2009—I can hardly believe it: there's a bright red brand new Honda Fit parked right next to Skylark. Yesterday I drove into town and did a load of laundry and bought some groceries. Today I went to lunch in Truth or Consequences with friends at the wonderful Café Bella Luca. I can go anywhere. I have a car!

I've known since more than two years ago that I wanted a towed car. After five years of traveling with just my motorhome, I was very much aware of the drawbacks of having just one large, fuel-hungry vehicle. Because it was a nuisance to break camp, and expensive to drive Skylark into town, I did almost all my errands "between parks"—every three weeks when I moved to a new park, I'd stop along the way to pick up mail, do laundry, stock up on groceries, and so on. Then I'd find a good campsite, set up... and stay there for three weeks. Only rarely would I interrupt my stay to go into town for supplies or mail.

This lifestyle worked, but there was something missing: the ability to go off on day trips, explore the surrounding area, see the local sights. Impromptu day trips aren't very practical when your only vehicle is a seven-ton, 27-foot motorhome. I was made aware of what I was missing every time I stayed at a campground with friends with towed cars, who generously invited me along on their trips. I needed a towed car—a "toad," in RVers' parlance—of my own.

But my old 1985 motorhome, Gertie, just didn't have the power to pull a car... and after buying my new 2003 motorhome, Skylark, I just didn't have the money for one... until I was old enough to cash in a small IRA. By that time it was looking more and more like the perfect time to buy a car: in addition to the usual post-holiday slump in car sales, the economy was in the dumps, credit was extremely tight, car dealers' lots were crammed with unsold cars... nobody was buying.

Picking a car

Over the past two years I'd thought a lot about what to buy. My priorities were light weight, safety, and reliability. From what I've seen, probably the most popular towed cars are Saturns, Jeeps, and Honda CR-Vs. But Saturns have mediocre reliability at best, and Jeeps are even worse. (I'm judging by Consumers Union's annual 1.4-million-owner survey, the only unbiased and statistically valid data on car reliability that I know of.) CR-Vs are great cars, but larger and heavier than I really needed. Oh, if I could have found a bargain on a used CR-V, I would have jumped on it... but I looked, and I couldn't.

I really wanted a subcompact—something I could tow without feeling as if I were pulling a sixty-foot semitrailer behind me. The best cars fitting that description were Honda's Fit (known as "Jazz" everywhere but in the US), Toyota's Scion xD, and Toyota's slightly larger Matrix (also sold by Pontiac as the Vibe). All three are extremely reliable, versatile, and as comfortable as a subcompact can be made. Any of the three would have been fine, but the Fit has garnered the best reviews of any car in its class... and frankly, I prefer its sleek, smooth lines to the bulkier Matrix/Vibe or the bob-tailed, snub-nosed styling of the Scion.

Limited availability market adjustment

The Fit was my first choice almost from the beginning. But for a long time I didn't think I could afford one, because until late in 2008 they were so scarce that dealers were slapping $1,500 (and up!) "availability adjustments" on top of the list price. When my friend Debbie went to look at Fits last summer, she couldn't even get a test drive. The dealer told her that she could order one, but she'd have to wait two to three months for delivery, and take whatever color came in when her number came up. Understandably, she bought a Scion xD. (Great little car, by the way.)

But by late 2008, the drought was over. First, Honda doubled production of the 2009 Fits (which are both more comfortable and more powerful than earlier ones)... and then the economy collapsed, credit dried up, and so did car sales in general. Suddenly, dealers for all brands were desperate to get rid of excess inventory. (Every car on a dealer's lot represents a loan that he's paying interest on, so the longer it sits unsold, the more it costs him.)

Honda sticker

Making the deal

Since car sales were so sluggish, I thought I had a decent chance of getting the Honda dealer closest to my campground—Borman Autoplex in Las Cruces, NM—to sell me a base-model Fit with manual transmission for less than the $15,220 sticker price. But that would mean haggling over the price, and I hate haggling. I'm really not practiced at it or good at it. I spent weeks planning my tactics, watching Borman's inventory on their website, getting Consumers Union's detailed price report, and mentally preparing for the struggle. My daily blood pressure readings climbed steadily. I was really dreading the experience.

One thing that helped was Chandler Phillips's article "Confessions of a Car Salesman" on the edmunds.com website. I read and re-read the article to get a feeling for what it was like on the other side of the desk. That was a big help, because it taught me to regard the salesperson not as my enemy, but as my opponent in a game. The difference is that you hate and fear your enemy, but you can respect and like your opponent, while still trying to beat him or her at the game you're both playing. Thinking of it that way took a lot of the fear and loathing out of the experience, and Phillips's insider stories prepared me for the sales tactics I'd encounter.

Thanks to my friends Clive & Curtis who gave me a lift down to Las Cruces on New Year's Eve, I had already visited Borman to see the car firsthand and get acquainted with the salespeople. (I've read in several places that the best times to shop for a car are Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, because nobody is buying cars on those days... so salespeople are standing around, desperate for a customer.) I didn't try to do any negotiating, though.

Two weeks later, once I had the money in hand, I called up Borman to talk prices. The sales manager began a spiel about how scarce the cars were, "forcing" them to add a $2,000 surcharge that would have put my car at $17,220. I countered that I had been tracking Borman's inventory on their website, which showed that they had more than a dozen Fits in stock and hadn't sold one in two weeks. Then he grudgingly allowed that maybe he could sell the car to me at the $15,220 sticker price. I countered with Borman's dealer costs—thanks to the Consumers Union pricing report, I knew not only their invoice price, but their bottom-line price after a $295 factory "holdback."

CU price report

He asked me how much profit I thought the dealership should be entitled to... but the "Confessions" article had prepared me for that ploy, so I merely replied that I had no opinion; I was just interested in seeing how low they'd go on the price. I casually mentioned that as a full-time RVer, I could just as easily go to any of a dozen other Honda dealers in Albuquerque, El Paso, Tucson or Phoenix—"All dealers are local to me."

Eventually he offered to let me have the oldest 2009 Fit on the lot for $13,999. I didn't believe for a minute that I'd actually get it at that price—I figured when I got there, they'd pack on hidden charges or claim that I'd misunderstood what he said—but I would have been happy with anything significantly under $15,000. So I asked my friends Jim and Gayle Cummings, who were also staying at Elephant Butte State Park, for a lift down to Las Cruces, about 80 miles south.

It was a long afternoon. First the dealership tried to sell me a $14,778 upgraded model with cargo mats and locking wheel lugs. $800 worth of mats and lug nuts? I politely said "No, thank you." Then they tried to convince me that I could actually make money (!) by financing the car instead of paying cash. "Thanks, but I'd rather pay in cash." They tried to sell me an extended warranty. "No thanks, but I appreciate the offer."

I was just as nice as I could be while declining all these offers. After all, the three ways dealerships make the most profit are financing, trade-ins, and add-ons—and I had nixed all three from the git-go, leaving them no maneuvering room. I'd known all along that they weren't going to be happy with that, or with the deal I was aiming for. But I did my best not to give them a reason to hate me personally. I just kept smiling politely and saying "no, thanks"... until finally, to my surprise, they gave up and sold the car to me for the price we'd agreed upon over the phone.

Fit invoice

I didn't even need my calculator, because there was only one number on the invoice: $13,999. According to Consumers Union's pricing report, that was $420 less than they had paid for it—not just less than the dealer invoice price, but less than their actual cost after factory "holdbacks." They must have been truly desperate to reduce the ocean of cars I could see on their lot, in order to sell it to me at a loss. They even took a personal check—I didn't have to get a bank check.

I made them put in a new battery, since the one in the car I chose had been dead since my friends Clive & Curtis and I had looked at it two weeks earlier. They washed the car and put in a full tank of gas ($17.50 at today's prices). And at about 5:00 p.m., off I went in my shiny new red Fit, grinning from ear to ear. Lousy bargaining skills or not, I had talked them down $3,200 from their original asking price, and ended up buying the car for $420 below cost!

Heading for home

Since it was rush hour, I soon stopped for supper, and ate a leisurely meal while the traffic crawled past. (Tip: avoid "The Spanish Kitchen" in Las Cruces. The food was mediocre and overpriced.) Then I headed homeward in the dark, stopping at an auto parts store for a couple of socket wrenches that I'll need to install the towbar and baseplate.

I would have preferred not to make my first hundred-mile drive in the dark, but the Fit was a pleasure to drive. Not surprisingly, this little 2,300-pound car is much more responsive than a 14,000-pound motorhome! It hugs the road like a sports car.

I've relied for years on an Obus Forme back support to prevent what used to be chronic back pain after driving. The Obus Forme in Skylark's driver's seat eliminated the pains completely, so I had intended to order a second one for the Fit. But now I'm glad I didn't: after driving nearly 100 miles nonstop back to Elephant Butte, I knew I wasn't going to need one. The Fit's seat is perfect for me.

My GPS got me slightly lost once I got into the park... but for a wonder, I managed to figure out how to get home anyway. At around 8:30 I pulled in next to Skylark, tired but elated.

As you can tell, I'm delighted with the Fit. It's comfortable, practical, economical, fun to drive, safe, and reliable. And thanks to Honda's ingenious two-way folding rear seat, it has simply enormous amounts of storage space for such a diminutive car.

Now I have a car parked next to my rig... but I still need to install towing gear—baseplate, towbar, auxiliary brakes, and lights—before I can go anywhere with it. But that's a story for another day!

My new Fit
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