Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Baby Got (Hatch)Back: An Automotive Snark

Last week, car shopping went abruptly from "I should think about that" to "I need to do this right now," so I've spent way too much time lately at dealerships and on car websites.

Apparently, someone passed a law saying that all car salespeople must be male. Over the past week, I've dealt with I don't know how many salespeople, and they've been a multiracial, multiethnic group of young men. The demographics are pretty much the same as a minor league baseball team. I have no explanation for this.

I thought car shopping would be easy enough. I had my Consumer Reports at the ready, and I knew the parameters I had in mind. Cost is a real issue, given that the whole family is on one academic paycheck, so the cooler, more expensive cars were out of the question. Reliability is key, as is mileage; I consider money spent on gas or repairs to be money wasted. I don't do SUV's. And most important of all, it had to have enough headroom in the backseat to accommodate tall children. Still, I figured, with car companies desperate for customers, how hard could it possibly be?

Yuck yuck yuck.

I didn't get the memo, but it seems that, at some point, the car companies collectively decided that anybody who wants rear seat headroom should just buy an SUV or minivan and be done with it. Cars – by which I mean, “not trucks” -- have incredibly short back seats these days. It seems that the trend of higher bodies has collided with the trend of aerodynamic shapes to squeeze backseat headroom.

Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Fusion, Ford Focus, Mazda 3 – no backseat headroom in any of them.

The Honda Fit has headroom, but awful rear-seat crash test ratings, so I ruled that out, too.

The Scion xD has headroom, but it's butt-ugly, gets terrible mileage, and has one of the shorter windshields I've ever seen – it's like the thing is squinting. I sort of like 'visibility.' I use it every single day. No, thanks.

I've had lousy luck with Toytoas – I've buried two of them – and Corollas just make me sad, so that was out. (The Prius was out of my price range, anyway.) And I won't do Dodge or Chevy, just because I don't enjoy spending time in repair shops. (How Chrysler stays in business is a complete mystery to me. A few years ago I rented a Sebring, and couldn't believe the overall crappiness. My brother in law bought a Dodge truck new three years ago. At 50,000 miles, the transmission went. His mechanic told him they're notorious for that. Amazing. They're like big American Yugos, without the charm.)

After burying two Toyotas bought used in my grad school days, each having consumed several years' worth of repair shop intensive care, I have an allergy to the concept of buying 'used.' There's just something comforting in the concept of a warranty. I know that, say, a used Camry wouldn't have been an unreasonable option, but I'm just not there psychologically. Twice burned, real shy. Besides, with the two greatest kids in the world, I'd like the most current safety features I can get.

So, my latest in an ongoing series of hints I like to drop for the Big Three automakers: some of us have tall children, and don't want SUV's. Hint freakin' hint. Produce something decent -- reliable, safe, efficient, not-butt-ugly -- and you'll own this demographic.

Or you can keep producing unreliable, squat, poorly-engineered pieces of crap, and try to make up the difference with union concessions. Your call.

Also, I'm fairly sure that equal opportunity laws apply to car salespeople. I'm just sayin'. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that it's not actually technically illegal to have women on your sales team. Whether it would help, I don't know, but I'm guessing that the overall level of cluelessness might be a little less bad. ("I don't know about antilock brakes, but check out the CD changer!") Worth a shot, anyway.

And then there's Idiot Feature Creep. When did sunroofs become moonroofs? And why do about half the cars out there suddenly have them? I didn't get that memo, either. Little known fact: when they put in a sun/moonroof, you lose about an inch of headroom. When there isn't enough to start with, that's a big deal. Clearly, this is a conspiracy of short people. They're getting back at the rest of us for those high shelves at Barnes and Noble, or maybe that Randy Newman song.

So after all these years, and all this research, and all this looking, I'm back into the hatchback habit of my grad school years. Back to the egg. As The Wife puts it, I'm returning to my roots. All because the ()#%)# car companies haven't grasped that some of us have tall kids.

Confidential to the Ford Motor Company: Seriously, are you guys even trying anymore?