In Search of the Perfect Hatchback
We’ve been car shopping this last month, Scott and I. Our cars were both the same make and model — Ford Focus 2-door hatchback. Mine was from 2007, and Scott’s was from 2001. The 12-year-old Focus just wasn’t driving that great anymore; it was grumbly and growly and needed some work done again, so we decided to go ahead and trade it in for something new.
Scott thought we should get something new for me, and he’d take over the 2007 Focus, since I drive a lot more than he does. I wasn’t about to complain.
So, we checked out all of the little hatchbacks currently available. We opted for a hatch for a couple of reasons — since we have no kids, and rarely chauffeur anyone else around, we only need two seats. We’re big fans of good gas mileage. And hatches are, for the most part, really cute.
So first off, let’s talk about the models we didn’t bother to test drive:
Mini Cooper: I have friends who own Mini Coopers, and seem to like them just fine. But the price point is kind of a shock — they’re a good 5 to 10 thousand dollars more than most of the other hatchbacks out there. And I suspect you’re not getting all that much more car for the money. Also, for me personally, Mini is kind of in the same category as Apple products or Harley-Davidson motorcycles or Vespa scooters — they cost more than other brands, because you’re getting a certain feel of status that you like. But the product itself might not be as great, and may in fact require a lot more repair. (I’m not saying that’s the case with Mini, but it certainly is with Apple and Harley and Vespa, in my experience.)
Ford Fiesta: We would have loved to test-drive a 2-door Ford. We’ve been very happy with our two Focuses, as well as the old Ford Escort I used to own. But sadly, the Fiesta is Ford’s smallest car in the USA right now. We might have considered it, except for two reasons: one, it looks like the modern-day equivalent of a station wagon (I’m also looking at you, Honda Fit), which is the last thing a non-mom wants; and two, my parents rented a Fiesta when they visited us in Florida, and it felt really cheap. Sad trombone, Ford. Sad trombone.
Smart ForTwo: We didn’t test-drive the Smart this time around because we’d test-driven one a couple of years ago. It was plenty cute, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t stand the transmission. It was a sort of automatic/manual hybrid; you could let the car itself do all of the shifting, but there were also paddles behind the steering wheel with which you could manually shift. But no matter which mode you chose, the car was sluggish to respond. It was as if the gear changed, and the car had to think about things for a second, then it finally realized, “Oh, the gear changed,” then it would accelerate again.
So those are cars we considered, then didn’t consider. Now, onward to the cars I actually drove:
Toyota Yaris: For the last couple of years, we figured that this would be the car we’d get. It’s small, it’s cute, no unnecessary back doors, comes in a huge rainbow of colors. But when I went to the dealership, I found out that most of the unique colors aren’t carried anymore. It was pretty much the standard black, white, silver, and red (none of which I wanted), and a blue that was tolerable.
I test-drove an automatic, because that was all the dealership had on hand. It was decent, but nothing phenomenal. The automatic felt a little sluggish, but I figured a manual might have a little more pep. I asked if they were expecting any to arrive with a manual transmission, and after some searching, the dealer told me that not only were no manual transmission Yarises on the way, but out of the 180 dealerships across the southeast that they could get cars from, there wasn’t a single manual Yaris to be had. Because very few cars are made in manual transmission anymore, they said. For safety, they said. I would have to special-order one from the factory. And, despite me repeating that there was no way I was buying that day, they tried to get me to order a car that day.
Scion IQ: Also at the Toyota dealership, I drove the Scion IQ. Also an automatic transmission, although when we drove it, I was assured that it could be had in a manual. Turned out that the guy who took me for the test drive was wrong — the Scion IQ only comes with “continuous variable transmission”, some sort of proprietary automatic transmission that makes the car feel slow and sluggish and way heavier than it really is. When the dealer was showing off the features of the car, he proudly showed me that it doesn’t have a glove compartment — instead, there’s a sort of plastic bin/drawer under the passenger seat. Also, it feels as small on the inside as it looks on the outside. Not an impressive car.
The Toyota dealership guys tried to get me to check out several other models, to try and be “flexible” (one of the most grating words a car dealer can ever use with me). They wanted to get me into a Prius (looks like a doorstop, plus it’s really long, I said), a Scion XD (the back makes it look like a hearse, I said), and a Corolla (after I specifically told them I would never consider a 4-door sedan). If I’m ever in the market for a Toyota in the future, I’ll try a different dealership.
Fiat 500: We had a challenging time finding the dealership in downtown Orlando, because downtown Orlando can be a little confusing, and the main drag was closed for several blocks due to some sort of festival. But we eventually found the showroom, which was more like a motorcycle/scooter dealership than a car dealership, because all of the cars were inside the building. I guess that’s what you can do when all you sell is tiny 2-door hatchbacks.
We were able to test-drive a manual transmission, because a good half of their cars were manual. We drove the base model, called the Pop, which had all of the features we needed and then some (base model Pop comes standard with A/C, power windows, power doors, cruise control, bluetooth, and a bunch of other little bells and whistles). It was a great test drive — the car was peppy and responsive, we actually got to go on the freeway instead of a plodding trip around the neighborhood, and the salesman was really knowledgeable about the cars. I guess that’s what happens when you specialize in one model.
We didn’t get a hard push to buy that day, which was refreshing after the Toyota guys. At that point, the Fiat 500 was the car to beat.
Mazda 2: It looks like Mazda used to make the 2 in a 2-door version, but it’s all 4 doors now. Still, it was a fairly small car, not much different in size from the Ford Focus, so we gave it a ride. We actually managed to test-drive one with a manual transmission, in this very same cool green color. Sadly, the color was the best part about it. Even with a stick shift, the car was really sluggish.
Our dealership experience was a weird one. The salesman seemed sleepy or something. He strolled us out to the far corner of the lot to look at his Mazda 2 selection, then when we expressed an interest in giving one a test-drive, he sauntered back all the way across the lot to get the keys, then meandered back in a leisurely fashion. Am I expressing well enough how slowly he moved? Let me add that there was very little shade, and it was June in Florida. We were quite sweaty when we finally got a chance to get in the car. So I guess the car suited the salesman, and vice versa.
He sent a follow-up email the next day (I learned after the Toyota guys, only give an email address, not a phone number, because those dudes called the next day and wanted to give another try to getting me one of their special deals on Corollas). The email asked for more detail about what we were looking for, so he could tailor an offer to us. I wrote back that we were really detailed already: small hatchback, manual transmission, and the Mazda 2 was the only model of theirs we’d consider. Yeesh.
Chevy Spark: Chevy has two smallish cars right now, the Spark and the Sonic, with the Spark being the smallest. And yet, despite its size, it’s still a 4-door. We went to the second-closest Chevy dealership, because according to their website, they had the Spark with a manual transmission. When we got there, however, we found out that they only had automatics on hand. Still, we test-drove the Spark. The car itself was adequate — about on par with the Yaris. Not as peppy as the Fiat, and the color choices were really weird — a pink that was more of a silvery-pink, and a yellow that was more like cream. I don’t even know what you would call this green color. (Chevy calls it “jalapeno”, which is totally wrong; jalapenos are much darker. This is more of a metallic guacamole.)
The worst part of the Chevy Spark was the dealership. From the beginning, we told our salesman that (1) the car was for me, and (2) we weren’t buying that day — we’d be ready to buy in a month. For the rest of the time there, most questions and answers were aimed at Scott, and I felt a bit invisible. Despite the fact that I was the only one driving the car. When I did get a direct answer, such as the one to the question, “You WILL take this giant sticker with the dealership name off of the back, right?” it felt kind of eye-rolly and oh-ladies-want-the-cutest-thingsy. Gross.
Then we asked for a brochure and his business card to take away, because again, we weren’t buying that day. We went into the showroom and the guy immediately snagged a manager, told the manager that “she’s settled on the Spark,” and the manager started into asking what he could do to get us in a car today. We told him we weren’t buying today, we just wanted a brochure and business card. “Hear me out, we have some great deals today,” he said. Scott was awesome, and told the manager, “Look, one of two things can happen here. Either you can get us a brochure and business card, or we’ll just leave.” The manager gave a nice condescending smile and started in with, “Just let me finish, because we have some great deals,” to which Scott and I turned on our heels and left. Behind us, I heard the salesman call out, “See you in a month!”
The best part was his follow-up email the next day. Despite the fact that my first name is in the email address, he addressed it “Dear Scott.” Then it was a form letter about how they hoped we had a great experience, and to let them know if we had any questions. I had a great time responding to that email! Addressing it to someone who isn’t the buyer, treating a woman like she’s invisible, refusing to give us a brochure … it felt quite refreshing.
Fiat 500 (again): By that point, we were settled on the Fiat. We decided to visit the other dealership in town, to see what their inventory looked like. Unfortunately, they were much more like a standard car dealership than the one downtown. We got a salesperson who was borrowed from the GMC/Dodge dealership across the street, so it was her first time in a Fiat and she couldn’t really answer any questions we had. They didn’t have a color combo I liked (I don’t need white upholstery [seriously, who does] but probably 80% of their cars had it), but we test-drove one anyway, just as a reminder of how peppy and fun it was. The one we drove was this same minty green color in the picture, which I could have settled for, I guess, but it wasn’t my favorite color by far.
After driving, they wanted to (of course) get me to take that minty green one home today. Even after I told them it wasn’t my favorite color, and we weren’t buying that day. And the price they offered us was almost $2000 higher than the prices listed on their website. Sad.
So we visited our bank and applied for a car loan, getting a letter from them with a great rate we could take to any dealership, and thus avoid the hassle of dealer financing, and back we went to the downtown Fiat dealership (Fields Fiat in downtown Orlando, for the record).
They took our 2001 Focus in trade, gave us a great deal on the new car, had the exact color combination I wanted in stock, and we even got to have some free gelato while they processed paperwork, filled up the tank, and gave it a quick wash. The license plates from the Focus got moved over to the Fiat, which made licensing fees way cheaper than expected. No hard selling, no pushy attitudes. Our sales guy was delighted that we came back; apparently most people who say they’ll be back never return, because they get so frustrated with the car-buying experience, after 4 or 5 dealerships, they just buy the last thing they look at because they just don’t want to go through the hassle anymore.
The color is “rame”, which I guess is Italian for “copper”. This picture makes it look more on the red side, but it’s actually a pretty solid coppery orange. My first week of commuting in it to work was great — I feel really visible, it’s terribly comfortable, and I’m pretty sure I have the cutest car on the road.