Next step on our path to really living in France: buying our own car. The rental cars have been OK, but expensive. And having a rental car feels like we are still just visiting.
(A warning: I couldn’t resist putting in lots of detail, probably too much detail. I need a good editor, and you may need a glass of wine. Proceed at your own risk!)
We had been compiling our wishlist for the car for many months; it is at last time to put it to good use. In essence, we wanted a car that looks pleasant and even modest on the exterior, and feels luxe inside. 5-door hatchback. Stick shift. Lots of gadgets. Great fuel efficiency. Fits in on the French road. And really important, a toit panoramique, or glass roof. We had rented a car with a toit panoramique on a previous trip and really enjoyed it. Instead of the little hole of a sunroof, almost the entire roof is glass; like a convertible without the endless wind.
When we rented our most recent car, we chatted with the agent, explaining that we were on a mission to buy a new car. She (in English) was very interested, asked us what we had in mind, and proceeded to offer her recommendations. She does, after all, deal with cars all the time, and undoubtedly hears detailed complaints and comments. She had specific models in mind from Seat (pronounced say-yacht, which is a VW company, with production in Spain), Peugeot, Audi, Fiat (The 500X, but definitely not the 500L, she warned!) and Renault. She cautioned against Citroen, one of the most French of brands, saying that, while the cars are reliable enough, the interiors are less well made, leading to knobs and buttons falling off.
We have bought new cars only occasionally during our lives in Hawaii and California, so this was a great opportunity to have some fun. We get to test drive all sorts of cars, hopefully finding a new car that will be fun to drive and experience (while staying in our budget!). On the other hand, we are buying a car in FRANCE, in FRENCH, with French SALESPEOPLE. I translated our wishlist into French as best as I could (thank you, Reverso.net), and printed out a dozen copies. At each dealership, I said Bonjour, followed by “We’d like to buy a car” (en français), and then showed the salesperson the list. That took care of all the details without too much tricky conversation.
Here’s whom we met and what we discovered over the course of a week:
Audi: All about attitude. This was our first stop, so our first try at doing all this in French. A serious stylish young salesman finally approached us as we milled around in the showroom. He was trim, with dark hair and eyes, and a day’s beard. He studied our list with a set face, checking off each line item. He pointed to the model that we already knew matched our criteria. He took us to his computer, where he worked up a price quote including the toit panoramique. He presented us with a statement of features and prices, which were about 8,000 Euros over our budget. The first price wasn’t really a huge surprise; we didn’t expect that that a new Audi would necessarily fall without our budget. But the assertion that the car wouldn’t be available for 2 – 3 months was a surprise. I immediately was calculating in my head the cost of 3 more months of rental car. His attitude was mostly take-it-or-leave-it. It was disappointing that this salesperson offered so much attitude of “Well, this IS Audi.” The worry was, more significantly, that all the salespeople would not be accommodating, that this process would be a slog.
Seat (which is next door to Audi): Friendly and comfortable. Completely different experience! A pleasant salesman, an Everyman, interested in what we were looking for. We are, after all, eager to buy a car, with the money ready. OK, we are two Americans, looking a little scruffy, relaxed and retired, but money is money! The salesman was patient with us, with my French, and happy to explain all the attributes of the Seat Leon. He was forthright about how the Seat differs from its more expensive Volkswagen Golf cousin. The first quoted price was in our budget. He sent us off on our test drive with ease. (The car was acceptable if uninspiring.) Again, however, 2 – 3 months wait for a new car.
Peugeot: French intellectual. Another easy experience. Maybe Mr Audi was the outlier. By now, we are getting more comfortable with the preliminary discussion of our list. When it came time for the salesman to show us the list of features and prices, he invited us to sit at his desk. The conversation turned easily to global, US and French politics, Trump, Le Pen, thoughts about political cycles in history, different attitudes of generations (he didn’t look old enough to have twenty-something children but he does), migrants, and cultural similarities and differences. He was convinced that the current teenagers and twenty-somethings are lost in their devices, unaware of how it is that they have so much privilege. You’d think all that could be contentious, but somehow it was just a pleasure. There is an observation that the French really enjoy intellectual and political debate, and here was the evidence. Another good test drive, this time with the salesman in the car, being our GPS along a very attractive country and city route. Again, long delay to receive the new car. Price quote was just above our budget cap. (A bit more solid and attractive than the Seat, but still uninspiring.)
Toyota: Eager. We have driven Priuses for years, happily, enjoying the mileage of the hybrid engine. While the agent at the rental car company hadn’t mentioned Toyota, we thought we’d at least see what was on offer. All the cars tested so far had been conventional diesels, purportedly with really good fuel efficiency: on the order of 55 – 75 mpg! It turns out that the Toyota hybrids, including the Prius, don’t offer any better mileage. We found another positive, communicative salesman. He explained that they don’t sell many Priuses any more since about half of their models are hybrids now. We could get a Prius if we wanted, but it would take the now-expected 3 months. We realized that he was focusing on “Prius,” so we invited him to suggest an alternative that would fulfill our wishlist as best as possible. He thought for a minute, smiled, and led us over to a C-HR, which is a compact SUV. And really SEXY looking. No toit panoramique, alas, and only automatic. The price quote was over our budget by a few thousand euros. We took it on a test drive nonetheless, with the salesman on board. It was great fun to drive. Mike was particularly smitten with its assertive style; I liked it too! It was the first car that generated some excitement. But no toit panoramique! Need to sleep on this.
VW, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Volvo: All these showrooms are next to each other. Fiat and VW were on our list; the others were just conveniently there. We were enjoying the search, so why not see as many options as possible. We came to the Volvo showroom first from our parking spot. A few nice cars in the showroom, much sportier than what either of us had ever seen from Volvo. The posted prices weren’t as high as we had expected. We conspicuosly looked at each car and wandered around. No salespeople. We saw a woman in a glass office, so we went over and said Bonjour. She said that the salesman would be right back. We waited a few more minutes before giving up. On to VW.
The VW salesman was helpful in the usual way. His proposed prices were above our budget. The Golf models were not any more inspiring than the Seat or Peugeot. We didn’t spend much time there.
We thought, let’s give Volvo another try; we’re here so why not. Again no salesperson right away. Within the same general showroom were Fiats and Alfa Romeos. A pleasant salesman for these brands appeared right away. The Fiat 500X, although a little bigger and taller than what we were envisioning, looked interesting — until we saw its fuel efficiency, which was much poorer than our other options. Off in a corner was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta: a very pretty car, reasonable price, with almost all the items on our wishlist. Again, 2 – 3 months lead time. And we would have to wait a day or two for a model that we could test drive. But it was beautiful! All that great Italian design. So we wouldn’t know if the Giulietta was a contendor for a few days.
Finally, the Volvo salesman, Sébastien, appeared: around 30, animated, big eyes, trim, stylish. Once again we produiced our printed wishlist. With theatricality, he ran through the list out loud. He turned to us and said that we were blessed by fate. He happened to have almost exactly what we were looking for available right now, including the toit panoramique. A new V40 had just been moved from the showroom to the lot outside; it had been immatriculé, which is the official transfer from manufacturer to the public realm. It was to be a demonstration car for test drives. It had 8 km on it! The dealership had reduced the price by about 1,500 euros because of the immatriculation, bringing it almost within our budget. And it was here now, not 3 months from now. The styling surprisingly included a bit of flare. The test drive showed a solid energetic car. Nice gadgets too! While the sexiness of the Toyota C-HR (alas no toit panoramique) and of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (but, research would show, not terribly reliable) was tugging at us, this Volvo surprised us with how well it fulfilled our hopes and needs. Need to sleep on this too.
At home that evening, we did some more internet research, and we tried not to make a decision before the night’s sleep. Great reliability on the Volvo, and just about the best fuel efficiency of all the candidates; decent driving quality; great safety of course (including an external air bag to cushion the blow to a pedestrian if you hit one!). No great reliability on the Alfa; lots of style, decent driving quality. At breakfast the next day, we both had decided that the Volvo was a really good fit for us. We transformed from overwhelm about the cars we’d seen, all of which included significant compromises, including the 3 month delivery delay, to excitement about this car, a Volvo of all things.
Now on to concluding the deal with Sébastien. The car was a little above our budget, but with saving 2 – 3 months of rental car expense, that seemed OK to us. Then a useful and fun coincidence presented itself. On this day, we happened to have a short conversation with Georges and Michèle, our landlords, about something else, but we mentioned where we were in our search. Michèle announced proudly that Georges was the King of Negotiation. He immediately offered to help us with the final negotiation. Of course, we said Oui! We all enjoyed anticipating the turn of events for Sébastien: He was probably feeling pretty fortunate to have these two Americans who couldn’t make much of a fuss in negotiation; and then we would bring in our ringer, Georges!
Georges joined us at the dealership that afternoon. I introduced Georges to Sébastien, and then shut up. It was a joy to watch Georges at work. He started right in, saying that more discount would be appropriate. Sebastién tried his best to dispute all of Georges’ assertions. Then Georges chatted about peripheral things, about Volvos in general, about his being a doctor, who might want to by a Volvo himself. Then, suddenly, he quoted an “acceptable” number, challenging Sebastién good naturedly but forcefully. Sébastien gasped; he turned to Mike and me, miming with a finger down his face that he was sweating now. He pulled up a folder cover and started scribbling behind it, ostensibly working his numbers. But he also animatedly chatted away with Georges while he was “calculating.” Finally, a number 300 euros more than Georges’ position appeared. Georges turned to us, and we confirmed that we have a deal. A handshake with Sébastien and we’re done. Georges saved us about 1,300 euros. He stood up, turned to Mike and me, asking if all was good. Yes, we said. He said, Bon, and turned and left. Sébastien looked stunned. We looked happy!
Later, when we saw Georges again, it was obvious that he had really enjoyed playing his King of Neogitation role.
After the handshake, we needed to arrange French auto insurance, wire money to the dealership, get the carte grise (registration) and wait a few days for them to finalize their papers and clean up the car. We spent a week managing emails, paperwork and payments to get everything in place so that we could pick up the car. All done with about two hours to spare.
We arrived on time for our pick-up appointment. As you’d imagine, there were various documents to sign related to registration, receipt of safety equipment and car manuals, acknowledgement of warranty details. But there was our car, back in the showroom, under a fabric cover. Sébastien relished the drama of unveiling our car for us. He then proceeded to spend about 30 minutes with us to explain every last button, lever and dial in the car. I don’t think he really wanted to let it go. But he was so cute in his enthusiasm, with his occasional phrases of Texas-accented English (all from movies and TV), that we just enjoyed the show.
We delighted in driving our brand new Volvo to the Toulouse airport the next day to pick up our visiting friends, Carol and Suzanne. The toit panoramique worked perfectly well, showcasing the light clouds of a sunny early spring day.