Ten years ago, I needed a new car. Because my family falls into stereotypical gender roles when it comes to car shopping, my grandfather (hereby referred to as Papa because that is what I call him) did the majority of the work for that car purchase. Including picking it out.
That's how I came to drive a Pontiac Sunfire.
I'm not saying it's a bad car. It's served me very well for a decade, even though I DID cry bitter tears when I had to replace the fuel pump. (Note: Fuel pumps are not cheap.)
My point, though, is that I've never done a lot of car shopping independently. So I was actually looking forward to it quite a lot when I recently decided it was time to pass the Sunfire on into that good night. I'm picky as all hell when it comes to cars (which is why I've never truly LOVED the Sunfire) and, while not a gearhead in the mechanical sense, I know what makes a car fun for me to drive. I figured, hey, it's 2012 -- women buy cars all the time. This will be great!
This is where you laugh at my naivete.
Things started out well enough. I wanted to test drive a Fiat 500. I headed to the dealership with Ed (my husband) and a friend of ours who is good at engine things.
The 500 is super cute in person. It is, in fact, very similar to Luigi from Cars (voiced by Tony Shalhoub). That's positive points right there.
The car salesman, a Fiat-sized adorable man (further points for Fiat with their cute car salespeople) was very lowkey. When he found out I was shopping for a car, he talked to me. He let me poke around the floor models until my heart was content, and then sent me and my small entourage off on a merry little test drive.
It's possible he didn't come with us because Ed is not small and our friend who sat in the backseat is over six feet tall. It's also possible he didn't figure we'd get too far with an eighth of a tank of gas.
But it was good. The 500 is perky and cheerful to drive. The backseat is as laughably small as you might imagine but the front seat is pretty comfortable, even for a fat lady. However, I would not recommend the 500 for anyone over 5'10" tall -- Ed's head brushed the ceiling of the car. And our elbows battled it out for space a little bit, too. It runs out of breath -- it's so not sporty, even as a stickshift. (If they ever release the Abarth edition, we might have to talk about that again.) It's interesting-looking, it gets great gas mileage, and it's under 20k. I mostly dig it.
I let the warmth and pleasure of this experience fill me with excitement. Buying a new car was going to be FUN.
Then I let our friend talk me into going to the Ford dealership. This decision was inspired by equal parts "Oh, I should test drive the Fiesta hatchback" and "Oh, Ed will lick the Mustang GTs and it will be funny."
We walk in, the car salesman greets our group, and things go downhill from there.
Note: We're been watching a lot of the UK version of "Top Gear" and it has crept into our car vocabulary. Protip: don't Google "hot hatches" without some other contextualizing key word, y'all.
Hatchbacks have a racy repuation -- not because they have a backseat in which you can get busy but because they are usually cheap and fairly easily modded for street racing.
I told him I wanted to test drive a stickshift Fiesta hatchback.
The salesman turns at the door out on to the lot. "Oh," he says, "are you just looking for the cheapest possible model?"
The question caught me off guard. I chalked it up to my jeans and T-shirt and messy hair, figured I must look young AND broke. Even so, it seemed...really rude.
I took the time to explain that I really like driving stickshifts. They're generally more fuel efficient. Stickshifts make me feel more in tune (heh, car pun) with my engine and give me more control. I pay more attention to my car when I drive a stickshift. Those are all good things.
We test drove the Fiesta -- not my bag. It felt a little station wagony, and it wasn't very responsive. It's not a BAD car by any means; it accomplishes what it sets out to do. But since I'm not planning to trick my car out with a nitrous system... You put your foot down and the Fiesta has nothing more to give.
We were there, so I decided to test drive a new Mustang. I needed a palate cleanser -- and what better way to get the taste of a mediocre 4 banger out of your mouth than with a classic V-6 muscle car?
The Mustang is, of course, beautiful. Things are well arranged if you're taller than me. It's very laid back -- in the sense that you kind of half recline in the seat so you drive with your arms and legs extended.
I'm just way to tightly wound to be any good at driving that way. I sit straight up when I drive. Alert. Like a prairie dog. And I have short legs.
Ed called shotgun, which left our tall friend and the sales guy in the basically nonexistent back seat. I gunned it and drove it as hard as I could in the quarter mile stretch of parking lot we were allowed to test drive in (which means I only got through 5 of its 6 gears -- disappointment).
I'm in the very act of shifting gears when the salesguy says, with a completely straight face and with all seriousness, that women just don't drive stick.
It's clear that I was driving one at that precise moment, right?
Even if I were going to buy a Mustang, I sure as shit wouldn't buy it from that guy.
A lacklustre series of similar experiences followed. Sales guys talked to Ed but not to me. Sales guys showed me automatics instead of stickshifts. I kept trying to get away from the bad movie stereotype of the Car Salesman, but I kept running into it everywhere.
At one dealership (Honda), the sales guy tried to tell me that red is almost the same color as black. Listen, I know desperation when I smell it and desperation is a stinky cologne.
I decided to go to the Nissan dealership to test drive a used 350Z. Here are the defining characteristics of a Z car: two seats, rear-wheel drive, hot little sports car.
The sales guy who approached us introduced himself to Ed. Then stood there and blinked at me when Ed wandered off. I gave him a minute...nothing. When I told him I was actually the one in need of a car, he told me his name but never did shake my hand.
I told him what I was there to see. And he?
Well, he showed me a Versa.
Look, I get that he can't sell me what they don't have in stock on the lot. But seriously? The Versa is also not a bad car. But it is not a two-seater sports car with rear-wheel drive.
Also, it was an automatic.
I'm still driving my Sunfire. It's got a sunroof. And, compared to the casual misogyny of sales guys who think chicks don't drive stick, well, let's just say it's going to be mine for a little while longer.
And then maybe I'll buy the Mini Cooper Coupe S. Of course, then I have to actually bargain with the sales guy...