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Friday, August 7, 2009

They killed the Saturn experience.

I drove a Ford Mustang for years, not one Mustang but a string of them. I had a minor battle to buy my first, a navy blue Mustang II. My wife and I had seen a full page ad for Mustang IIs starting at $3799 if you ordered your car direct from the factory. (I may be off slightly on the price. Hey, it was more than three decades ago.) Also, they would give you a minimum of $100 for your trade-in, just drive it onto their lot.

My wife and I went immediately to the Ford dealer. We wanted a dark blue Mustang with camel interior and the folding back seat option. That's it, or so we thought. The salesperson thought differently.

He insisted on going over every option. And we insisted on saying no to every option. Until we came to, or should I say didn't come to, the optional folding rear seat. We insisted we wanted it and the salesperson insisted there was no such option. We couldn't have it — not in a coupe. We had to move up to a hatchback in order to get the folding seat but this sent the price soaring.

I pulled out a Ford Mustang II brochure clearly showing a coupe with an optional folding rear seat. Together we tore into the dealer's Mustang II binder. I found the folding seat; it was optional and available for less than $300. We had our car, an economical little four banger brought in on budget.

It was a good little car, much better than the VW beetle we trade-in. The VW was not seven-years-old but was dying fast. The floor had rusted through in a number of places. We had to move the battery because of a hole in the floor and we were using jumper cables to connect it to the car. We were happy to get a hundred dollars on the trade and we even got our jumper cables back.

We bought our next Mustang from an out-of-town dealer famous for a no-haggle approach. I had gone to a dealer in the city and asked how much they would like for a car on display. A million dollars, the salesperson replied. I started for the door. The salesperson blocked my way. We talked briefly. He made it clear that they didn't give out prices as you would just go to another dealer and compare prices. I left.

I drove my bought-out-of-town Mustang until the clutch failed. I was on my way home and the clutch packed it in right in front of a Ford dealer. The staff came out and pushed the car into a service bay, I walked into the dealer showroom and drove out with a new car.

I would have kept buying Fords except all the dealers wanted to haggle far too much. Even the out-of-town dealer changed his policy. No dealer was willing to offer a firm price without a meeting with the sales manager, take it or leave it. I left it.

I saw a Pontiac Grand AM with a fair price scrawled in white paint across its windshield. I called the dealer and chatted with a salesman who was quite happy to sell me the car for the advertised price. I bought the car over the phone.

I didn't own a string of Pontiacs. GM knew how to turn away a customer like me. I don't haggle. Tell me the price and if it's fair you may have a sale. GM had begun an ad campaign for their latest gimmick — 0% financing.

They ran full page ads proclaiming 0% interest, zero, nothing, nada, zilch and at the bottom of the page GM asked, “Is that clear?” Well, no.

Look at the ad on the right. You pay either 0% interest for five years or you can receive up to $4000 in rebates, but not both. The fine print in most 0% ads, and it is fine — I needed a magnifying glass to read it — states that by selecting 0% financing you are foregoing discounts and incentives “which will result in higher effective interest rates.”

I tried to buy a Pontiac with true 0% financing. No deal. This was not something on which the salesperson, or even the manager, was allowed to haggle. When I told him that I thought the almost hidden fine print was possibly illegal, he replied there was no fine print in their ads and no effectively higher interest rate. I pointed to an ad pinned to the wall and told him to read the fine print himself. He refused. Later the manager also told me that I was wrong and he too refused to waste his time, his way of putting it, by reading the fine print at the bottom of the displayed GM ad.

The fine print:
I left. I went to Saturn.

I have owned two Saturns. The last one, a four-door Ion, cost only $247 per month. Saturn offered 0% financing and calculated the payment by taking the price of the car on the floor, plus freight, dealer prep and taxes, and simply dividing the price by the months in the loan. There was no effectively higher interest rate. Pay cash and the price of the car was the same.

Recently GM has announced it is cutting Saturn loose. The GM that rises from the ashes of bankruptcy will not include the Saturn, Hummer, Pontiac and Saab brands. GM is now busy dumping those marques. Last week, I got a letter from GM telling me that I could get a jump on the close-out deals as I was a longtime Saturn customer. I could get a great price and 0% financing.

I went to the dealer and I almost bought a Saturn Astra. It's a nice car — essentially, a re-branded Opel. When it came to the price I learned there were two. Once price for those taking the zero percent financing option and another for those opting for bank financing. I was assured that the monthly payments would be about the same no matter which route I took. I took neither. The Saturn salesperson was apologetic. This was not the Saturn sales experience for which the little car that couldn't was famous. This was the failed GM experience.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the new GM may be a lot like the old GM and may be already working its diminished butt off on the road to fail again.

I may wait a year for a Ford Fiesta or maybe a Toyota Prius or Honda hybrid but I doubt that I will be buying another GM. I'm angry with them. They killed the Saturn experience.

Addendum:

I googled "0% scam" and found "The Zero-Percent Financing Scam" by Joseph Ganem. He has a calculator that compares the claimed 0% rate with the rate offered by banks for car purchases. I checked it out and it appears to work. Take a look and have fun. It is an eye-opener.

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