Standard is no longer standard

IMG_8764Published July 19, 2013
The day I first visited the Honda dealer the salesman told me I made it easy for him because I knew exactly what I wanted and planned to pay in full, with no financing. I paid a $500 deposit that day and left for vacation in Nebraska, knowing the search was afoot for a blue Civic LX with manual transmission — a search that ended up being more difficult than anyone suspected.
I started researching cars in April on the Honda website, where you can electronically “build” your vehicle. You choose the model, the color, the transmission and the accessories. I chose the LX, the simplest Civic, because it had all the doodads I wanted except fog lights, which I added when I “built” my online car. I chose blue because I consider most other colors — gray, black, grayish-black, light gray, silver, dark gray, white, silver-gray, winter sky gray, road salt gray — drab and unremarkable. My last two cars were red, so that was out, and burnt orange held little appeal next to the snappy blue. I learned later that Honda makes coffee brown, but I was unaware of that color during my research, as you’ll see further on. Worst of all, I insisted on a manual transmission, and that was nearly my downfall.
After building my car I clicked the button requesting a quote with a local dealer, and a reply arrived in short order. It was a good price, and I found that other dealers sold the Civic LX for the same amount. Car prices, it seems, thanks to the Internet, are no longer treated like nuclear launch codes, entombed in a secret vault 10 floors underground or cached in a platinum suitcase that is shackled to the sales manager’s wrist. Dealers still often list car prices as monthly payments, but it’s also possible, nay easy, to find the true price.
When I was ready, I made an appointment with a salesman I’ll call No. 1. Meanwhile, my brother was in the area and stopped by the dealership to look at Civics just because he enjoys car shopping. He spoke to another salesman, whom I’ll call No. 2, and learned some helpful information, which I tucked away until needed.
I test-drove a Civic with an automatic transmission on that first visit to get a feel for the car, and we signed the papers. Being so particular I expected to wait a week or two, but the delay turned into five weeks. The difficulty arose from two things. First, manual transmissions are rare these days, and calling them “standard” is a misnomer because they’re practically a special order anymore. Second, my insistence on blue considerably narrowed the field. Through Internet searching I knew no blue manuals could be found nearby, which the Honda people quickly confirmed.
No. 1 called me a few days before I went to Nebraska and told me they had found no blue but found three manuals, one the coffee brown. I looked up that color and decided it was an attractive alternative to blue, but No. 1 called again when I was in Nebraska and said those three cars were not available. Nothing could be found anywhere.
A couple days passed with no further word, so I called the dealer. No. 1 was off that day, so No. 2 talked to me. “You’ve been the subject of lots of staff meetings,” he said. I told him it was time to get my check back and look for another brand, perhaps a Ford Focus, and he did two things. He drove to the dealer’s Ford lot and 15 minutes later gave me prices on a Focus, and a bit later he called and said they found a blue manual Civic on the assembly line in Canada. They had the car tagged for me and redirected to the dealership, and I told No. 2 I would be in Maine when the car arrived and would pick it up the following Monday.
I couldn’t reach my cellphone’s voicemail server in Maine, even in populated areas, so when I finally reached it, at a campground near Unadilla, N.Y., on the way home, I had daily messages from No. 1 and a message from Boss Rob that No. 1 had called The Review looking for me. I was puzzled because No. 1 should have known I would be incommunicado for the week, but No. 1 explained the reason that Monday when I visited the dealer to sign the papers and write my check. He told me No. 2 had had emergency stomach surgery and had been out all week, thus No. 1’s not knowing my whereabouts.
But it all worked out well. No. 2 recovered and returned to work, No. 1 made his sale and did not get arrested for poisoning his co-worker, and I bought my snazzy blue Civic LX with a manual transmission. It’s fun to drive and gets good mileage. Just don’t call that transmission “standard.”

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