Going to the mat(s) for a good car deal in the '90s

MIKE LITTWIN

November 09, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

My rich friend Alan and his wife-to-be, Anne Marie, are car shopping, which is how, to his surprise, he comes to be studying a brochure on floor mats. Alan drives an '81 Honda Civic, which explains both why he is so rich and why he never really considered the merits of floor mats before. Doesn't old newspaper work just as well?

Alan has this thing about money: He spends as little as possible. What he does with the rest -- and this may confuse some people -- is save it.

For those of you who came to adulthood in the '80s, let me explain this concept. You make X number of dollars. You budget Y number of dollars for expenses. You subtract Y from X, leaving Z. That's the money left over (yes, money can be left over, at least in theory, although the last time it happened to me was 1973). You put Z in, say, tax-free municipal bonds, and the next thing you know, you're brown-bag lunching with Ross Perot, who is showing you these great pictures he's got of Neil Bush and Madonna.

The '80s were different. You made X number of dollars. You spent Y number of dollars. Y was, of course, greater than X, because you just had to have the portable combination VCR/Stair Climber/fax machine/pasta maker for your leased BMW. Meaning there was no Z. Meaning you were thousands of dollars in the hole each month. Meaning, that's the amount you spread out among your 12 Visa cards, on which you paid $50 a month apiece and hoped there was something left over for groceries, especially that delicious brioche. Gosh, I miss those days.

We can sum up this behavior with a popular T-shirt slogan of the day: "The one who dies with the most toys wins."

Alan is way behind on toys -- and the '80s are over. These are the austere '90s, when spending is down because people don't have actual jobs.

The reason he's car shopping is that Anne Marie refuses to ever step foot into the Honda again. This is not completely unreasonable. The passenger-side door opens only after the use of an incantation and a crowbar, and the last time the car was cleaned Cher was dating Greg Allman.

So, Alan agrees to buy a new car. He even agrees to buy a nice one.

"How about a Toyota Camry?" he says.

She looks at him blankly. "Loads of people have them," she says.

She suggests an Acura. The expensive one. Now the great thing about luxury car salespeople is that they don't pressure you. The first guy they went to see spent the entire time talking about his house on the Cape. They left a number -- no fax, he asked? -- and the salesman never called back. This is your basic soft sell, wherein the customer must beg before he can buy.

Where I buy cars, the salesperson -- and you may recognize this scene -- first asks you what you want to pay for the car. What you want to pay is under $10. You say this, he grins with those special shark-implant teeth, he asks you again, you shrug, he says he'll ask the boss, a certain Mr. Barnum. He comes back a few minutes later to give you his absolute low number, and says if you walk out of the office, you'll never see that number or any of your children again. And so you buy the car -- at only a few hundred over the sticker price.

Alan settles on a leftover '92 Acura Legend L, which the man says he can let go for $25,900, plus taxes, tags, etc. Alan gulps. He leaves, says he'll think about it and then lets the guy sweat for 48 hours. When he calls back, the salesman comes across. He tells Alan he can have it for $25,900, but he'll throw in the floor mats.

The car is a beauty. It's got power seats, windows, locks. And terrific floor mats. There are dual air bags. There are anti-lock brakes (who buys lock brakes?). A sun/moon roof. A domestic-wine alarm. A used Bush-Quayle sticker. You'll love this: There's a radio volume/station changer built into the steering wheel, so you don't have to actually lean the 8 to 10 inches.

But you can't simply buy a car like this. You have to protect your investment. So, Alan installs the Lo-jack security system -- for just $600 -- that buries a homing device somewhere in the car. Says the salesman: "Even I don't know where it is." When a car is stolen, the device is heard at police stations. Police can follow the sound, apprehend the suspect and possibly beat him senseless.

The question I had is how the car knows it's stolen. Does it recognize low-life characters? For instance, what would happen if I drove it?

I can now tell you the answer. The police were very understanding.

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