Replacing the ‘Rolla, part one.

Allow me to enthrall you with the story of how I bought my new car.

Last week, I began to research cars, since mine was up in years and miles. I pored over car reviews and ratings, played with the build-your-car programs on various manufacturers’ websites, scanned the online inventories of nearby dealers, and test-drove over a dozen cars. It was fun.

I wanted a sedan, Corolla-sized or smaller. Why smaller? More cash for options. Power windows were number one on the list: roll-up windows saved me 8.2 cents per day over the last ten years, but cost me far more than that in terms of irritation and strained shoulders. A better stereo system, a GPS system, and sound controls on the steering wheel might be nice. Maybe a moonroof. Some tints. Oil slick, smoke screen, bulletproof glass– you know, Spy Hunter stuff– were also possibilities. I also wanted a really good warranty because I tend not to take the best care of my car. Kia and Hyundai offer some of the best warranties out there (10 years or 100,000 miles for the powertrain, 5 years or 60,000 miles for bumper-to-bumper coverage), so they had a leg up on everyone else.

First, the cars I didn’t give too much consideration:

Honda Civic: Good acceleration and handling. Honda believes that the less you look away from where you’re headed, the safer you are, so the most important gauges and monitors are closer to the driver’s line of sight than in most cars. It made sense, but the layout takes a lot of getting used to. Also, when the EcoAssist system is active, two bars to either side of the digital speedometer change from bright blue to bright green depending on your current fuel efficiency. I see the value in it, but the bars were a little distracting.

Mazda 3: Really good engine, sporty car, fun to drive. But I rented a Mazda 3 for my trip to Dr. Bassi’s wedding, so I already had a pretty good sense that it wasn’t going to be my next car. Why not? I couldn’t see out the back very well and I hated the layout of the stereo controls. I can’t rationally explain this, because the more I look at pictures of the stereo’s layout, the less it seems any worse than that in any other car… but actually put me in that driver’s seat and I won’t even bother turning the stereo on. The salesman thought I was nuts for holding the stereo controls against the car. I thought he was nuts for back-talking me.

Nissan Versa: I barely remember the car. Nothing really stood out about it; it was just a car. Maybe I should’ve given it more of a fair shake.

Volkswagen Jetta: Felt like driving a car made of LEGOs filled with sand. I could deal with the blocky look of the car, but it didn’t move well at all.

Hyundai Sonata: Oddly, test-driving the Sonata made me more willing to buy the Elantra. The cars were close enough in size and performance that the Elantra seemed like a slightly smaller, almost equally powerful, and much less expensive Sonata.

Kia Forte: After my first Rio test drive was such a disappointment (I’ll explain below), the salesman suggested trying out a Forte, which is the next size up, comparable to a Corolla. It was roomier, the engine was bigger and the acceleration was better, but the gadgets were pathetic compared to those in the Rio. Maybe that’s why they offered a $1,000 rebate on the Forte. I lost interest once I realized why the Rio test drive went so badly.

The real candidates were the cars I’d researched most: the Kia Rio, the Hyundai Elantra, and, because my car had been so good to me for a decade, the Toyota Corolla.

Toyota Corolla: I took a trip to the dealership that sold me a Corolla ten years ago. They deserved another shot at my business.

I’d been thinking about getting a Yaris for the same reason I was looking at Rios: smaller car, more options. But Toyota doesn’t make Yaris sedans anymore, so I tried a Corolla L, the base model. After testing several smaller cars, sitting in a Corolla felt like sitting in a tank– in a good way. The Corolla felt bigger, sat higher, offered better vision in all directions, and accelerated faster than the other cars I’d tried so far. I was content in knowing that if there wasn’t anything better, I could still count on Toyota.

That is, I could still count on Toyota until the salesman told me the prices. Suffice it to say they were shockingly high. I don’t want to give a specific number, but let’s do this: take the total price I paid for the base model Corolla CE back in 2002. Add five grand to that, and you have this dealership’s quoted price for the base model 2012 Corolla L before adding tax, tag, title, or any options. Add another grand for the LE, and another grand to that for the S.

I expected inflation, consumer demand, and technological change to push up the price, but nowhere near that much. Sadly, the Corolla was eliminated from contention.

Kia Rio: The 2013 was a small car, but comfortable enough for an economy-sized person such as myself to sit in. Some of the options on the EX were cool: a backup camera, an auto-dimming mirror with digital compass, a touchscreen audio system, Bluetooth phone controls on the steering wheel. It also got good mileage, but that was partly due to replacing the spare tire with a fix-a-flat system. I prefer to have a spare tire.

The trunk was huge for a car that size, but that just meant the back window was smaller, which made it harder to see out the back. The first test drive disappointed me; it took agonizingly long to go from a dead stop to 20 MPH. Turns out the Rio felt underpowered because of Kia’s special environmentally-friendly but acceleration-averse fuel conservation system. Fortunately, it came with an “off” switch. Turning it off meant far better acceleration and performance on subsequent test drives, and the Rio easily moved into the top tier of candidates to replace the ‘Rolla.

An out-of-town dealership showed me a 2012 Rio EX that they wanted to move off the lot to make room for more 2013s. If there was a difference between the 2012 and the 2013, I still haven’t figured it out yet. They made me the best offer I’d yet seen for my trade-in and offered a big discount on the Rio. They offered to let me take the car, no charge, for two days while I thought about it. I declined, but got them to hold the car for two days while I thought about it.

Hyundai Elantra: The 2013 Elantra is not directly comparable to the Rio because it’s the next size up, but I didn’t want to buy the smaller Hyundai Accent because it only comes as a hatchback now. The Elantra’s a long car, lower to the ground than the Corolla, and curvy with an angry-lookin’ front end– far more stylish than the Rio or the Corolla. There was no touchscreen audio system on the models I looked at, and no backup camera, but the rest of the gadgetry was comparable to the Rio.

The Elantra was roomier than the Rio, had a better view out the back window, and had comparable mileage. Like the Rio, the Elantra had a fuel economy optimizer. I deactivated it. “It’ll save gas,” said the salesmen. Maybe so, but I want a car that can blast off when I need it to. If I get in a wreck because I couldn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, then knowing that I saved a few drops of gas will be small consolation. With the fuel optimizer deactivated, the Elantra accelerated and handled better than the Rio.

A dealership on my side of town made me a really good offer on a 2013 Elantra GLS for just $1,400 more than the Rio offer. Because Hyundai offered $500 less for my trade-in than Kia did, I figured I could use that to haggle Hyundai down a bit more.

By last Friday night, I’d narrowed it down to the Rio and the Elantra. I’d trade in the ‘Rolla one way or another. I figured the Elantra was worth $1,000 more than the Rio, so I called the Hyundai dealership, and told them that if they could come down just a little further on the price, I’d be there Saturday morning to buy my new dark gray 2013 Elantra GLS. If not, I’d head out of town to buy my new white 2012 Kia Rio EX.

To be continued…