The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Monday, March 31, 2008

Won’t Anyone Sell Me an Entry-level European Luxury Car?

Café Leffe, Place de Terreaux, Lyon

As soon as you enter the parking lot, they spot you. They snap to alert, every head swiveling, focusing. Instinctively, they begin to converge on you, some slowly, others with frightening speed, slipping between the parked cars, converging like a horde of zombies who have scented fresh brrraaainnnsssss…

Car salesmen. You’ve been there. You know the drill, you brace yourself for the onslaught of cheap cologne, bad suits, overly-aggressive handshakes and tacky jewelry.

But the fact that you’re seeing a post on this topic here should tip you off: Things are just a little different in France. Perhaps it’s because the car-culture/car-as-identity mindset doesn’t really exist here. Perhaps it’s that the French are simply bad at capitalism. Whatever the reason, the French car dealer just doesn’t give a damn if you buy a car from him or not.

Dig: V. strolls into a Saab dealership in Ecully, in the western suburbs, having taken a metro and two buses to get there (wouldn’t it make sense for a place that sells cars to be located in a place where people who do not have cars can get to it? Just thinking out loud). She’s wearing probably a thousand dollars worth of clothes, because that is what one does in France when one goes shopping, if one wants not to be ignored by salespeople. The sales zombies look up briefly, then go back to their cigarettes and discussion of the OL/Monaco match.

Because of my job, I have quasi-diplomatic status and the benefits that entails. That includes diplomatic immunity, which I never have had occasion to use (using diplomatic immunity to get out of traffic tickets is considered bad form), and the opportunity to buy new cars tax-free and at a significant discount. See, the big-name European manufacturers (Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo et al.) consider it good advertising to have their new-model cars cruising around town with green diplomatic plates on them, so they give price breaks to people who don’t really need them.

Now, I’ve never been a flashy-new-car kind of guy; it just doesn’t make financial sense to pay a big premium for a new car only to have that value evaporate the second you drive it off the lot. My last car was a ’95 Integra with 160,000 miles on it. I loved it dearly, and as the guy I sold it to drove off, I turned away so he wouldn’t see me getting choked up. He bought it as a graduation present for his 18-year-old son; I guarantee that the kid stuck a fartcan “performance” muffler and a ridiculous wing on the back within the first few weeks, and he’s probably totalled it by now.

Still, we’ve decided that we're going to need a car, and since I have the opportunity to buy a new made-to-order car at the price of a year-old used one, why not? I almost certainly will never buy a brand-new car again.

So I e-mailed the diplomatic sales departments of the various marques, flipped through the glossy brochures they sent, and cut down the list to a few cars: You can’t get a C-class Benz in a wagon, and too pricey anyway; out. Audi’s discount is far less than the others; out. You can’t import an Alfa Romeo into the US; out. Jaguars look nice but have that famous Jaguar reliability; out. So we’re deciding between entry-level wagons from Volvo, Saab, and BMW (yes, I am aware of the difference between BMWs and porcupines*). The Diplomatic Sales offices for those brands have generally been helpful and responsive. It’s the local dealers that have made the whole process a hassle. The BMW dealer doesn’t return my calls and ignores my e-mails. The Saab dealer has apparently never made a diplomatic sale before, and after considerable hassle gave us a handwritten price list that was totally different from the one I got from Saab HQ.

The Volvo guys were affable enough, once I got their attention and once they heard “diplomat” (if they think I’m the US consul, I’m not going to try to disaver them of that notion). But here’s the tricky part: we want a car with a gasoline engine and automatic transmission (V. can’t drive a manual), and both of those things are relatively rare in France. Both of them in the same car is extremely rare.

So we made an appointment for a test drive. Bien sûr, Saturday will be fine. But we will not have a V50 wagon for you. Um, what? But you can drive one of our other cars, one with the same transmission. Is almost the same. So we took our Volvo V50 wagon test drive [grey car, first photo] in a Volvo C70 convertible [red car, second photo]. And here’s the crazy thing—when he said it I was pretty sure I had misunderstood his French (happens to me a lot). He said “How long do you want it for?” I boggled at him. Not only was the salesman not going to ride along with us on the test drive, he was just going to let us walk out the door with the keys to a brand-new $50,000 car, having done nothing more than write down my telephone number.

You know the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with the parking attendants and the Ferrari 250 GTO?

France's nationwide autoroute speed limit is 140km/h (87 mph). Deeplomatic eemmunity!

*Porcupines have pricks on the outside.


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