We are attempting to purchase a new car, and I have just one teensy little question: WHY WON'T THEY TELL YOU HOW MUCH IT COSTS?

I mean, let's say you're in the market for a rutabaga. You go to the supermarket and there, plain as day, is a sign stating the price of the rutabaga, allowing you to decide instantly whether it is in your price range. If it is, you simply pay the amount and take your rutabaga home, and you hurl it into your garbage disposal. At least that's what I would do, because I hate rutabagas.

But when you walk into a car dealership, you are entering Consumer Hell. There is no easy way to find out what the actual true price of any given car is. Oh, sure, there is a "sticker price," but only a very naive, fungal creature just arrived from a distant galaxy would dream of paying this. In fact, federal law now requires that the following statement appear directly under the sticker price:


The only way to find out the REAL price is to undergo a fraternity-style initiation. First you squint at the sticker, which lists the car's 163 special features, none of which you could ever locate on the actual car because they all sound like rocket parts, as in "tranverse-mounted induced-torque modality propounders." Then a salesperson comes sidling toward you in an extremely casual fashion (do not attempt to escape, however; an experienced car salesperson can sidle great distances at upwards of 45 mph) and chatters on at length about the many extreme advantages of whatever car you are looking at ("it has your obverse-shafted genuine calfskin bivalve exuders"). But if you ask him the true price, he will make some vague, Confucius-type statement like: "Dave, we are definitely willing to go the extra mile to put a smile on your face."

"But how much does it COST?" you say.

"Dave," he says, lowering his voice to indicate that you and he have become close personal friends. "Frankly, Dave, {name of whatever month it is} has been a slow month, and I think, Dave, that if we sit down and cut bait, we can come up with a number that we can play ball with."

"WHAT number?" you say. "TELL ME THE NUMBER."

"Dave," he says, "I think if we both pull on our oars here, we can put the icing on the cake while the iron is still hot."

The easiest solution, of course, is to simply pull out a loaded revolver and say, "Tell me how much this car costs or I will kill you," but unfortunately it is still a misdemeanor in some states to shoot a car salesperson. So eventually you have to start GUESSING at the price ("Is it more than $9,500?"). It is very similar to the childhood game 20 Questions, only it takes much longer, because instead of saying "yes" or "no," the salesperson always answers: "Let me talk to my manager."

The manager is comparable to the Wizard of Oz, an omnipotent being who stays behind the curtain and pulls the levers and decides whether or not the Cowardly Lion will get a free sunroof. I have never heard a conversation between a manager and a salesperson, but I assume it goes like this:

SALESPERSON: He wants to know if it's more than $9,500. Can I tell him?

MANAGER: How many times have you called him "Dave"?

SALESPERSON: 1,672 times.

MANAGER: Not yet.

So it can take hours to determine the true price, and this is just for ONE car. If you want to find out the price of another brand of car, you have to go through the entire fraternity initiation all over again. And there are hundreds of brands of cars out there. THOUSANDS of them. Back when I was a child and Abraham Lincoln was the president, there were only about four kinds of cars, all of them manufactured by General Motors, but now you see new dealerships springing up on a daily basis, selling cars you never heard of, cars whose names sound like the noise that karate experts make just before they break slabs of concrete with their foreheads ("Hyundai!!").

So far, the cars we have looked at include: the Mimosa Uhuru 2000-LXJ, the Mikado Sabrina Mark XVIXMLCM and the Ford Peligroso, which is actually the same as the Chevrolet Sombrero, the Jeep Violent Savage and the Chrysler Towne Centre Coupe de Grace, and which is manufactured partly in Asia (engine, transmission, body) and partly in the United States (ashtray). They are all fine cars, but at the present time, based on our discussions with the various salespersons, we find ourselves leaning toward the rutabaga.