April . With much fanfare, General Motors unveils its heavily promoted X car -- Chevy Citation, the car of the '80s.
We are interested since our cars of the '70s -- a '71 Toyota and '73 Fiat -- are vying with each other for most worthy of replacement. Last winter we discovered that being a two-car family meant having one car with which to jump-start the other.
We cruise over to our local Chevy dealer for a first look. While we are impressed, we decide to wait until Consumer Reports has checked out GM's rather extravagant claims.
September. Consumer Reports prints its assessment of the new GM cars, giving them high praise.
Between our initial visit to the Chevy dealer and Consumer Reports' rating, the price of the Citation has increased over $300. We swallow that bitter pill and regard philosophically the replacement since April of one muffler, one exhaust system, and the purchase of two new tires.
Sept. 29 . With our Washington Checkbook, Consumer Reports and a stiff upper lip we head for a major Chevrolet dealer, having been bombarded with commercials attesting to its virtues.
We are not disappointed. The dealership sparkles. Six supersalesmen, looking like Esquire models, decorate the showroom. We listen to a disarmingly soft sell ("If you drive it, you'll buy it"), and decide to test-drive the car. After a short but impressive ride, we sit down with our salesman to talk turkey.
Starting with a modest list price of $5,000 we add air conditioning, power breaks and power steering, necessary to accommodate the additional load of air conditioning with front wheel drive. We choose a few extras -- bumper guards, steel-belted radials, FM radio, clock and intermittent windshield wipers.
I propose a sunroof I've long lusted for, but drop that option for a sexy side stripe after receiving a "don't-be-ridiculous" glare from my husband. We've managed to raise the price of our dream machine to $6,300. On top of that, we are offered only $150 for our trusty (if rusty) Toyota.
After much negotiating ("Folks, what will it take to get you to buy today . . . Okay, I'll take another hundred off") and with our fingers very close to the dotted line, we decide to think it over. The deal sounds unbelievably good -- almost $600 under quoted list price, on a car we'd been warned wasn't being discounted.
However, we are keenly aware of the powers of persuasion being used; we decide to shop some more.
Our next stop is Arlington. In contrast, this dealer seems like the Robert Hall of Chevy dealers (low overhead). Our salesman tells us that he's new at the business. (A gaunt, middle-aged man, I imagine him as a Gideon Bible salesman in his former life.)
In discussing price, we find that the incredible reduction offered by the other dealer is the result of adding an inflated dealer prep charge to the list price, then discounting off that figure. Even so, the Arlington dealer can't compete with the other on price; he tries instead to sell us on his proximity to the soon-opening Metro station. ("I think that I can safely say that we are the only Chevy dealer on a Metro line.")
The salesman rolls his eyes and scoffs at the other promised delivery date of four to six weeks. Ten weeks is his "honest" estimate. As we are leaving he throws us his close. Solemnly shaking hands with us both, he moves in and confides: "I'm sure you'd be much happier buying from us."
With prices differing by more than $100 and delivery dates differing by a month, we rush to get a third opinion.
Oct. 1 . With a recommendation from friends we head for Wheaton. Living in Montgomery County we are willing to trade money for convenience. Frankly, we tell our salesman that if he can come close to the first price, we'll sign. He shakes his head and tells us that a small dealership can't compete.
Our final stop is a dealer close to home. We are tired and ready to buy. Our enthusiasm, however, is dampened right away when we are told that the anticipated delivery date is four months away. This dealer matches its longest delivery time with the highest price.
We are crestfallen; the more we shop, the worse the situation gets.
Oct. 2 . My husband chokes on his breakfast when he hears on the radio that GM has just announced an average increase of $260 on all models. We race out to Dealer No. 1, hopeful that we can beat the price increase. We symbolically kick ourselves on the 20-minute trip to Virginia.
Has our commitment to being a cautious, well-informed consumer cost us a bundle?
We chat nonchalantly with our salesman, telling him we are ready to buy. After filling out forms and listing options, he excuses himself. Returning, he announces grimly that he's just been informed of a price increase. (Don't they listen to the radio?) The price increase on the Citation is a whopping $320, effective Oct. 1.
The salesman swears that the dealers had no advance warning. He suggests back-dating the contract to our earlier visit. We are dubious that this will work, but willing to try any trick of the trade.
We order a 4-door, 4-speed, 4-cylinder claret Citation with beige interior, side stripe, and no sunroof.
Oct. 16. Having heard nothing about the status of our back-dated contract, we call. Good news, our contract was accepted for the pre-increase price!
Nov. 7. We call to check on delivery date. We are nearing the six-week mark, and wondering if indeed we will ever see this car. We are told that we are 16th in line for delivery of a Citation.
"It's like going to the movies," explains our salesman. "You're in the ticket line, but you haven't gotten in the theater yet. A few more weeks," he promises.
Nov. 27. Unexpectedly, we get a call. We are in the popcorn line! Our car will be in by the weekend. We must now decide which car to sell: the newer Fiat with the torn interior seats and falling interior roof, or the older, higher-mileage Toyota with a few more exterior gashes. The Toyota wins; we place an ad in the paper.
Nov. 30. We have two prospective buyers coming that evening for our $750 cash-in-hand special.
Our first customer goes for a ride and, complaining about the shocks, offers $500. With a second buyer on the way, we turn him down flat.
The second prospects arrive after dark. With flashlight in hand they inspect the car. Like all aging ladies, she does better under that subdued light. The couple offer $725, and we accept.
Dec. 2. We arrive at the dealer's at the appointed time, but we are forced to wait while the mechanic replaces a faulty starter. (A lemon, we wonder?) We inspect the car, looking for other flaws, checking that it contains all that is ordered.
Like a kid with a new bike, my husband proudly but gingerly drives the Citation home. I follow -- two car lengths behind -- in the much humbled mud-caked Fiat.