The Heart Wants What It Wants: Car Shopping, Dealer Markups, and the MX-5 Factor
As Todd pointed out on a recent podcast episode, these days, it’s a seller’s market when it comes to cars new and old. Count me among the people experiencing this fact firsthand. I’m in no rush to buy another car, but with my son moving on to the next chapter in his life at summer’s end and some changes for my life on the horizon, I decided to start shopping around and test driving a couple of contenders for my next chariot.
For context, I currently own two cars about which I’ve written extensively here: a beloved 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata and a canyon-carving 2015 Scion FR-S. Both are low-mileage examples that would sell reasonably high in this market. The Miata is old as dirt and has serious paint-chipping issues but is otherwise in great condition for wringing out on a backroad or for commuting (top-down, of course). There aren’t too many almost-32-year-old NAs like mine with fewer than 75K miles still on the road. And, recently-shod with Enkei wheels and Michelin PS4S tires, the excellent FR-S with just under 40K miles could conceivably sell for more than I paid for it (cost for wheels and tires included).
But on the flip-side of one of those snazzy new wheels, as a buyer, I have about as much leverage as a chopstick prying open a manhole cover.
Assuming I do sell my cars, what will replace them? I’m still in the process of sorting that out. I’ve been inclined to find a new or almost-new “do-it-all” car that would still be a hoot to drive while managing the practical stuff (suitable for commutes and road trips alike, stingy on gas mileage, relatively easy for my octogenarian mom to climb in and out of). With the kid leaving the house, I don’t need a family hauler, but some room for extra cargo and occasional backseat passengers would be a plus. Since I am decidedly not a fan of SUVs and CUVs, that means a hatchback, wagon, or sedan.
I’m partial to hot hatches, so with that in mind, I began researching those options. The Mk8 GTI & Golf R aren’t yet available in the US, and given the Mk7’s subpar manual gearbox, I’d have to wait to drive the Mk8 or live with the admittedly very good DSG transmission (also, I’m still a little miffed over my own unfortunate Dieselgate experience). Whether because of the chip shortage or high demand, Hyundai Veloster Ns are nowhere to be found within 250 miles of San Francisco. And since I live in a land ruled by SUVs (aka North America), there aren’t many other new hot-hatch options out there.
Luckily, the Civic Type R remains one of the few standout exceptions--or so I can safely assume, given all the glowing press on the vehicle. Mark of Savagegeese calls it a car with no compromises, and on paper, that appears to be the case. Garish styling aside, the Type R represents everything I’d want from a somewhat affordable hot hatch, including a legendary engine and gearbox. Civic Type R might be the answer for me, even if I’d cringe a little every time I looked at it in my driveway. There were a few Type Rs in stock locally, so I arranged to test-drive one at a Honda dealer just a few miles from my house.
When I showed up, however, the salesperson with whom I’d spoken over the phone informed me that I couldn’t test drive the vehicle without purchasing it first.
I will not purchase any vehicle, new or old, without test-driving it. Plus that made no sense. After some back and forth about this, the guy found his manager, who clarified that I would be able to test-drive the Type R, but only after agreeing to a price, applying for financing, and having a handshake-type deal (not binding, but close). Though I found this annoying, I was theoretically willing to do this at a later time—after having driven other contenders and only when I was absolutely ready to buy. While we were talking, the guy’s manager’s manager walked up, interrupted our conversation, and pointed out the dealer markup, which wasn’t anywhere to be found on the Monroni sticker (showing $39,285 MSRP) and was hand-written and tucked in the bottom-left corner of the windshield: $51,900.
“That car isn’t worth $52,000,” I told him. “I’m sure it’s great, but not for that price.”
“We can sell it for that much,” he replied, curtly. And because I made it clear I would never pay for the markup, that was that. He didn’t even suggest other models or alternatives. If I ever shop for a Honda again, I’ll avoid a certain dealership just south of San Francisco and right off the 280. I’m sure there are much better options locally.
Look, I get it. Cars like the Type R (and the C8 Corvette) are special, and apparently there are enough buyers out there who would shell out tens of thousands of dollars over MSRP in order to get them. Supply-and-demand is a thing. But these cars are designed to be good values. When opportunistic dealers mark up such vehicles just because they can, I find it odious. And I’d like to think that it’s a bad business practice over the long-term.
From the parking lot of that dealership, I called a local Mazda dealer and asked if they had any Mazda 3 Turbo hatchbacks on the lot. “Sure do,” the salesperson replied. “Come on by and take a look.”
The Turbo 3 is what Paul and Todd would call (probably have called) a “warm hatch” (compared with a hot one). They rave about it on a Season 8 episode which compares the 3 with the Mk7 Golf R. Though I was skeptical about the torsion-bar rear suspension and 6-speed automatic transmission, I decided--as a Mazda and EveryDay Driver fanboy--to give it a shot.
My experience at this dealership (just north of San Francisco) was alternate-universe-like compared with what I’d just endured. The friendly, low-key salesperson copied my license & insurance card and set me up with a test-drive within a few minutes.
Do I like the 3 Turbo? Yes. And yet, I want to like it a bit more than I do. The car is refined, beautiful (in my opinion), comfortable, practical, and more than fast enough off the line; however, the transmission and tires frustratingly limit the 3 Turbo. A six-speed or dual-clutch gearbox would transform this car instantly. Still, I could live with this car and be (mostly) quite happy with it, and the 3 Turbo remains in contention.
I relayed as much when I returned the key to the salesperson, who did not pressure me one bit and understood my misgivings. “What I really want is one of those RF Miatas out there,” I admitted, “even though that would be an impractical choice.”
“They are great,” he agreed.
After a pause, I asked if I could just sit in the RF Club on the lot with the Brembo-Recaro package (a $4,670 option that features heated Recaro seats, Brembo front brakes, and BBS wheels). “I’ve never sat in one of those.”
“Of course.” And so I did, upon which I instantly felt right at home. “Want to take it for a spin?” he offered. I told him I would be foolish to get it and would be unlikely to choose the RF, but of course I’d love to drive that car. Without hesitating, he grabbed the key and described a great drive in the area. I invited him along, and we took a 30-minute drive that was low-key but that did involve some corners and amazing views of the Bay. I was hooked, and I was grateful for his time. “My pleasure,” he said when I thanked him for the third time. “I’ve already sold two cars today, and besides, you’re getting me out of the office for awhile!”
All-around, this was the most enjoyable car-shopping experience I’ve had. A lot has to do with the dealership and their approach to customer service (I’ve been in contact with them since the test-drive), and certainly a lot has to do with the salesperson. Perhaps the seller’s market makes certain dealers feel less pressured to pressure customers. Whatever the reason, I will definitely work with them if I choose a Mazda.
Speaking of which, I am, I confess, considering the RF now. The heart wants what it wants, people. Driving the “ND2” MX-5 gave me the impression I had met my very own 1990 Miata, but the future “Tenet” version. The RF (which stands for “Retractible Fastback”) felt familiar and absolutely new simultaneously. Aside from slightly-less-connected electric steering, everything in Future NA is crisper, livelier, and much, much faster. The pedal box is perfect—perfect!—for heel-toe shifting with that superb six-speed gearbox; throttle response is excellent; and, like any Miata, the light chassis—which the driver wears as much as sits in—is designed to wring out at reasonable speeds.
No, it’s not very practical. And it’s not a hot-hatch, a style of car I also love driving. In the end, I might compromise and get something more “sensible” and less, well, selfish, maybe? I don't have to rush this decision, and I could wait for chip-shortages to end and new GTIs to show up in the US. At that point, though, my FR-S might not trade-in or sell for as much (especially with the new 86 about to hit the market). And there’s something about a Miata that makes the car feel tailored to fit me like the Paul Smith suit I wore at my cousin’s wedding a couple of weeks ago. It’s just right for me plus a passenger—or, as I know from my old NA, my hockey bag.
See? That car is practical after all!
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.