Jason Thurlkill’s search for the perfect car resulted in something far different than he anticipated.
Dreaming about cars is fun. Driving your dream car is more fun. Looking for your dream car, on the other hand, requires a steel will, monk-like devotion, and Sherlock Holmes’ powers of deduction. If you’re on a budget, driving a sub-compact with no A/C and a broken window during the hottest, driest Texas summer, it’s downright painful. During my car odyssey, I expected the Miller man to declare: “You, sir are not living the High Life!”
My road to the High Life had roadblocks, U-turns, and lane changes. Consumer experts describe car buying as a series of cold transactions—research, shop, negotiate, finance. Finding my car felt more like a pilgrimage. Though I took many paths, I made it to Mecca—and found it had air conditioning.
In the end, I found the car I wanted but wasn’t looking for.
Like cars, I have blind spots. I’ve interviewed politicians, crafted messages for corporate titans, and worked for presidents-in-waiting. Put me in front of a mechanic, and we might as well play Pictionary. Engine!…noise!…gestures…something’s wrong!…puzzled looks…more gestures… it’s broken! Why can’t I find the right words? Because I do not speak car.
I was convinced neither I, nor my 13-year old Honda Civic, would survive summer. It had about 150,000 miles, didn’t brake well, and showed signs of old age. The window crank broke, and my window collapsed. I duct-taped it, a ghetto but cost-effective solution, but that left me just one window to roll down. My car turned into an oven. I decided not to put more treasure in this sinking ship.
I started my car search full of hope and fear. Hope I would find my dream car: a manual sports coupe with premium audio and lots of pick-up for less than $20,000. Fear whether I could pull it off; family did the heavy lifting before. I’m not Jewish, but it was my Bar Mitzvah of sorts.
Like car seekers world-over, at first I saw the usual sights: After turning down a coupe with a bad clutch, the salesman, his manager, and mechanic told me I wasn’t pressing hard enough. I have blind spots; I’m not blind.
And unusual ones: Heading home from a failed search mission, I stopped at a gas station outside Houston, covered in car sweat. There a man escorted an Asian woman wearing a hospital gown. She was barefoot, pregnant, and clutching her belly. This why I shouldn’t venture outside Austin. Or visit Houston in July.
Amid the heat, self-doubt, and AutoTrader ads, I learned some lessons.
Some things I must do myself. Initially I wanted a Pontiac Solstice GXP. It reminded me of a British roadster, something in which Sean Connery would dash about town. General Motors stopped making them and produced a fairly small batch. Luckily, my bank offered a locator. Someone else could do the hard work. Problem solved.
Nope. The locator found base models, not the turbo version, and automatics at the upper end of my price range. I told them exactly what I wanted, and they came back with exactly the cars I didn’t want.
So I conquered D.A.D. (dealer anxiety disorder). I visited lots. Although I eventually bought from a private seller, I sounded more direct and negotiated better after each stop.
After all, no one cares more about my interests than me. Still, I didn’t go it alone. I had a team of advisors—co-workers, family, and friends—who filled knowledge gaps, brainstormed ideas, and steered me clear of lemons.
But I couldn’t outsource the search.
As my grand plans fizzled, I opened my eyes and noticed my blind spots. For weeks all I thought about was that Solstice. It checked off so many boxes. The more I drove, the more problems I discovered: poor visibility, no spare tire, brake trouble, and other issues. It seemed like a toy made in China: playful perhaps, but could it kill me?
I turned my attention to a sporty hot-hatch. What the Mazdaspeed3 lacked in sex appeal, it made up for with 263 hp, impeccable handling, and a low sticker price. Given its black smiley grill, I wanted a black one—only black. Yet I couldn’t find a dealer who had it.
Two months into my search, exhausted and out of ideas, I lost it to a family member: I’m stuck. Spent. Done. “What about a Volvo?” she replied. Do I look like a C.P.A. who uses safety scissors? No.
I checked out Volvo’s website. To my surprise, they made a smart coupe: the C30. I checked the specs: turbo-charged, 227 hp, reasonable price, luxury options. A used lot near my house had one. It looked better than the ads. Before I knew it, I was doing 70 mph on the service road. A car that wasn’t on my radar three months ago suddenly shot to the top of my list.
My first brilliant ideas, apparently, weren’t the best ideas. If I had known about the C30 when I began my search, I would have dismissed it outright. I was getting a sports car. End of story. Early on I eyed a Nissan 350Z. After some rough rides and learning it would raise my insurance $100/month, I crossed it off my list.
Still, I was certain I wanted a sports car. No way would I consider the preppiest car maker on the planet.
Following months of sub-par test rides, I came around. I loved what the C30 offered. No, it wasn’t a sports car. But it was a sharp-looking, two-door coupe with a turbo-charged engine, near-360° views, surround sound, leather seats, and sunroof.
The C30 was exactly the car I wanted but wasn’t looking for.
I knew I was close to the right decision when I felt peace. A day after my first C30 test drive, I found another from a private seller. I never wanted a red car—but wow, this popped: fully loaded, low miles, fair price. Three days and a faultless inspection later, it was mine.
The deal came together seamlessly. I sold my Honda the same day I picked-up my C30 and got market rate, no small miracle given its problems.
More importantly, it felt right. When I came this close to closing on other cars, I felt forced, rushed, or uncertain. Not this time. After months of resistance, everything fell into place. I ran into a wall so often; I rebounded, each time, only to run faster and hit harder.
I didn’t need to try harder. I had to open my eyes and see a better route.