We have just taken delivery of the first new car we've bought in 8 years (and the first new car we've bought for me in 21 years): a 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid. Ever since watching The End of Suburbia and An Inconvenient Truth, we've been increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of our decisions and actions. We're not ready to move out of our comfortable suburban house - and way of life - yet, but we were eager to make a car buying decision that would better reflect - and enact - our environmental values, and so we decided we were going to buy vehicle with high fuel efficiency ratings (40+ mpg). Since I'm only willing to buy Toyotas or Hondas, this left us with the choice between the Toyota Prius (rated at 48 mpg city / 45 mpg highway) and the Honda Civic Hybrid (rated at 40 mpg city / 45 mpg highway).
Both of these hybrid vehicles are currently in very high demand and very short supply, as the increasing cost of gasoline has provided significant market incentives - as well as environmental ones - for people to purchase and drive fuel efficient automobiles. However, we didn't realize how wide the gap was between demand and supply until we actually started shopping - and that gap is only widening as the price of gas continues to increase (although the decrease in the average price of gas we've seen over the past two weeks - more than 15 cents per gallon, to $3.96 nationwide and $4.23 in Washington - may slow the increase in demand ... temporarily).
We'd been thinking about getting a third car for almost a year - ever since Meg turned 16 - but now that she has a job, and will soon be returning to school, we decided to act. In an unusually swift decision process (for us) - motivated, in part, by the increasing prices and decreasing supplies of the cars in which we were interested - we started car shopping last Sunday afternoon, and placed the order for the car Monday morning.
We made several phone calls, and went to look at - and hoped to drive - cars at Michael's Toyota and Honda Auto Center, both in Bellevue. We went to the Honda dealership first, to test drive a Honda Fit and a Honda Hybrid Civic. Although we eventually decided to restrict our focus to cars that had high fuel efficiency ratings, I've really liked the Fits I've seen on the road. I also liked the Fit I saw at the dealership, and enjoyed driving it too, but Amy was less enthused about its looks, and pointed out that its mileage rating - 27 mpg city / 33 mpg highway - was not nearly as high as the hybrids. Since Amy may eventually "inherit" this car - much as I'd inherited the 1994 Toyota Camry LE Wagon we bought (new) for her 14 years ago - it was important that we both like the car, so we moved on.
We test-drove the one Honda Civic Hybrid they had on the lot. Although the Civic Hybrid reviews at USNews were generally high, their summary of reviews of its performance were not very positive. I found that the performance was fine - Ferrand, one of the salesmen there, took us out on a course that included highway and secondary roads, and going up and down hills, and I thought acceleration during merging on to the highway and going up a hill was fine. Of course, I'm used to driving a 4 cylinder Camry wagon, so my standards may be somewhat lower than performance-oriented drivers. Although we were positively inclined toward the Civic Hybrid, we still wanted to compare it to the Prius, which we expected to like even better (based on reviews we'd read).
We headed over to the Toyota dealership in the hope of test-driving a used Prius - from our earlier phone call, we knew there was a used one, but no new ones, on the lot (and that there are never any new Priuses - Prii? - to test-drive on any lot, as they are all sold well before they arrive, often before they are even manufactured). After a great deal of talking about the Prius - especially in comparison to the Civic (and Toyotas vs. Hondas in general) - the salesman we met there told us there were no new or used Priuses to test-drive. We told him we'd called earlier, and had been told there was a used Prius on the lot; after some phone calls and searching, the salesman was able to find that car - a base-level 2007 Prius - and take us out for a test drive. He didn't propose any course, but as Michael's Toyota is just on the other side of I-90 from Honda Auto Center, we took it on the same course as we did for the Civic. That section of I-90 has pavement that is rather worn - and loud - and we were surprised that we couldn't detect any difference in the level of road noise we heard in the Prius vs. the Civic (in general, Toyotas tend to offer smoother and quieter rides, whereas Hondas tend to offer better handling). We didn't go over any particular rough sections of road, so we couldn't determine whether the ride was any smoother, but the Civic did seem to grip the road better around bends and have a better overall road "feel" than the Prius.
Overall, we just weren't that impressed with the Prius. I've never particularly liked the way they looked from the outside, and on the inside, the base-level 2007 Prius we drove seemed very spartan. I would not be surprised if the higher level packages of the 2008 Prius have interiors that have more to offer, but I don't like to buy a car on faith.
And that, in effect, appears to be what one must do if one wants a Prius - buy it on faith. The Toyota salesman initially told us we'd have to put a $3000 deposit down just to get on a waiting list for some future allocation of Priuses, and that would not be refunded unless they couldn't find a Prius for us in 120 days. If they did find a Prius within that time, we'd have to take it, unless there were some serious defect with it. The cost would be the MSRP plus a mandatory $600 paint & fabric protection plan, which is still less than the average selling price being reported for Priuses. Although we had misgivings about this arrangement, we went into the showroom to further discuss packages, as the criteria one specifies when going on a waiting list affects the length of wait (the more colors and packages one is open to, the more likely an allocated Prius might fit that criteria). We were open to most any color (although I really only like the white and red Priuses), and Packages #2 and #3 seemed to have the most features we wanted - and the fewest we didn't want. We weren't willing to put down the $3000, but were willing to give the salesman our name and number to call us if / when the next allocation was available (which he predicted would be Monday). [Update: Cathy Guisewite expresses this whole situation so much more effectively in a recent comic strip, shown below.]
Having been for a test-drive, and learned more about the uncertainties involved in buying a Prius, we headed back over to the Honda dealership. Ferrand was busy with another customer, so Marco came over to help us. We had another look at the Civic Hybrid, and learned that there were some supply constraints for this car too - the Honda Auto Center had only three more Civic Hybrids allocated for the 2008 model year (the 2009s are expected to start arriving in October) - one white car and two blue ones. They had a blue Civic Hybrid in the showroom (that had already been sold) and happened to have a natural gas powered white Civic (that is [also] not for sale). Amy liked the blue one, but I did not. We both liked the white, although Amy did not like the beige interior fabric that comes with the white Civics. However, Honda subcontracts out to Classic Soft Trim in Renton to replace fabric with leather seating and trim. Amy was very happy with the beige leather sample that Marco showed us, and we decided that if we were going to opt for the Civic (vs. Prius), we'd go for the white exterior and beige leather interior. I wanted to do a bit more research, and it was closing time for the dealership anyway, so we told Marco we'd get back to him the next morning.
The last two times we bought new cars (the 1994 Camry and a 2000 Honda Odyssey EX, which we'll also probably drive for at least 14 years) I spent many weeks - probably months - researching various cars and their various options. In fact, in both cases, I was so thorough in my research that we had friends - who shared our same criteria and priorities with respect to safety, reliability and [other] features - who ended up buying the exact same vehicles we bought from the same dealerships at the same time (and for the same price). This time, we don't have any local friends I know of who are in the market for a new vehicle and share our relatively high prioritization of fuel economy (for that matter, I can't think of any local friends who have bought a hybrid), despite the fact that many of the people in this neighborhood are [also] commuting at least 20 miles each way for work. Since I have no way of directly sharing the wealth of information we've collected, I'm hoping that sharing some of the details of our experience on this blog post might help others benefit from that experience ... another part of my self-assigned 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid duty (and I'll report more about my experience after the first 1000 miles).
Returning to our earlier experiences in car shopping, in both of those cases cases, we were also interested [only] in vehicles in high demand and short supply. For the Camry, which we bought when we lived in Amherst, MA, there were very few LE Wagons on any lots in western New England, and given that I was, in effect, offering to buy two cars - one for us, one for our friends Tony and Carla - I was able to negotiate a price that was $1000 over dealer invoice ($20,633, vs. the manufacturer's suggested list price - MSRP - of $23,316).
Unfortunately, when we bought the Odyssey (while living in Libertyville, IL) - which was in even higher demand and shorter supply, as it was the first model year of their redesigned full-sized minivan, with the "disappearing" fold-down rear seat and dual power sliding side doors - market conditions were more like the current market for the 2008 Prius and Civic Hybrid. We found out about a new Honda dealership in Wisconsin that was getting extra allocations (because it was new); they not only had an Odyssey on the lot, they also had a few more allocations they expected that summer before the end of the model year. We ordered one - and our friends Jack and Donna ordered another - and while we were thrilled to find these vehicles, we ended up paying the full MSRP of $26,415. However, given the market conditions, and reports we'd heard of many people paying $1000 to $2000 above MSRP for their Odysseys, we didn't complain. And, in both cases, we've been quite happy with our purchases (even though Amy has always wished we'd gotten leather seating in the Odyssey, which our friends had installed in their minivan).
In an article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Waiting Game: Patience Pays When Shopping for a Hybrid, Family Money columnist Karen Blumenthal describes her experience in shopping for a Toyota Prius, and notes that Kelley Blue Book pricing for the Prius reveals that the average price paid is currently $1000 to $2000 above the MSRP (as of today, it is listed as $1400 above MSRP), and many people are waiting 3 months or more. The average current selling price for a 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid is $24,434, about $1200 above the MSRP of $23,270 (and about $900 more than the average selling price just one week ago (!)). With the leather seating option ($2000) - an essential feature for Amy - Marco initially offered the car at the asking price of $27,599; this price includes an additional 10% "market adjustment" above MSRP. I countered with the MSRP, plus the leather seating price, ($25,270), and we settled at $26,000. Although this was more than I'd wanted to pay, given current market conditions (which presumably would put the average price, with leather seats, at $26,434), I feel pretty good about the deal. I also found out that as the buyers of a hybrid car, we're eligible for a $525 federal tax rebate, which further ameliorates the pain of paying more than MSRP. And, when we picked up the vehicle yesterday, I discovered that the other two Civic Hybrids have also been sold, so I'm glad we acted when we did.
Overall, we were very happy with the entire experience at Honda Auto Center, and we would highly recommend that dealership in general, and Marco (shown in photo at the right, next to the new car) and Ferrand, in particular. Ferrand was extremely helpful in our test drives, both with his judicious choice of course, with a nice combination of driving conditions within a short distance of the dealership, and pointing out the various features of the Civic Hybrid (and before that, the Fit). When we returned to the dealership Sunday evening, Marco picked up where Ferrand had left off, and helped us better understand some of the features we could better appreciate after having seen and driven a Prius. At no time did we feel any pressure at all, and felt that we were being treated with fairness and honesty throughout the entire process.
Our impressions at the Toyota dealership were rather different. It seemed like the story evolved through a few twists and turns - there are no Priuses available for test drive, or maybe there is one; you need to put down a non-refundable $3000 deposit to get on the waiting list, or maybe you don't - and we came away feeling uncertain about the fairness and honesty we might encounter in future interactions (and potential transactions). To his credit, the salesman did call on Monday, and told me they'd received an allocation, and that he could offer me a white 2008 Prius with Package #2 (though it probably would not arrive for several weeks). By that time, though, we'd already made our decision and I'd already returned to the Honda dealership that morning to put a down payment on our white 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid ... which, much to my delight, arrived at the lot the next day (rather than one or two weeks later, which was the initial estimate). Our decision to buy the Honda Civic Hybrid was primarily based on our relative preference for the car itself (compared with the Prius), but our feelings about the dealers were certainly a part of the overall package.
Our experience at the Toyota dealership reminded me of the expediter that Joel Spolsky wrote about in his recent article on his experience of Starbucks culture and operations, How Hard Could It Be?: Good System, Bad System. Based on something he says he read in the Starbucks Gossip blog (perhaps this comment), Joel says:
For example, I learned from the website that the woman I had seen in the headset taking orders was officially called an expediter -- but the job title is something of a red herring, according to the collective wisdom of the Starbucks staff members chatting on the site.
Expediters are not really there to see to it that a customer's order is filled more quickly, they believe. Rather, expediters exist solely to prevent people in line from giving up and wandering off, maybe to go to the Dunkin' Donuts around the corner. Once a customer places an order, the logic goes, he or she feels an ethical obligation to wait for it to be filled, no matter how long the process takes. Expediters are there to lock in that order as soon as possible.
Given the difference in relative supply between Toyota Priuses and Starbucks coffeehouses, I don't want to make too much of this analogy. I'm sure the Toyota salesman sold the Prius to the next person on his list Monday afternoon, and I'm sure that that person - and most Prius owners (and Michael's Toyota customers) - are very happy with their experiences (which, unfortunately, seems to be less and less the case with Starbucks customers over time).
And speaking of experiences over time, one of the interesting side effects to having test driven the hybrids last weekend was that the real-time feedback offered on their dashboard displays regarding the fuel efficiency (or lack thereof) of my driving helped modify my driving style. I accelerated more slowly, was more opportunistic in both my acceleration (e.g., more willing to lose some speed going up a hill) and my deceleration (coasting up to red lights, stop signs, and traffic backups ... sometimes to the consternation of more aggressive drivers who are behind me), and practiced driving at or below the speed limit (60 mph) on the local highways. In the week since the test drives, my next fillup revealed that these changes in driving style resulted in a fuel economy of 28 mpg on my 1994 Camry, 3 mpg (12%) more efficient than the 25 mpg we've consistently seen over the entire time we've owned the vehicle.
Meg will now become the sole, or primary, driver of the Camry. As a new driver, we're going to be somewhat restrictive in allowing her to drive our first brand new car in 8 years - although _I_ haven't gotten a new car since 1987, we did buy the Camry new in 1994, and a new Honda Odyssey in 2000, but those were both Amy's cars (originally). We may let her drive the Civic early on, just to see whether / how the exposure to the real-time display of fuel efficiency in the Civic might impact the fuel efficiency she might get in the Camry ... and since she'll be paying for her own gas now, that might be an increasingly important "market" factor.
[Reposting this due to Typepad's confusion over a post that was started in July and completed in early August - the assigned URL was invalid. Also changed a few "I" and "my" references to "we" and "our" references.]