October 23, 2014: There's a shiny new set of wheels parked in our driveway these days, and although they aren't particularly fancy or attached to the pickup truck we thought might be arriving on them, they are nonetheless ours — or at least 70 percent ours until we settle up the rest of the bill with the bank. The first addition to our family vehicle fleet in nearly 14 years is a "classic silver" 2015 Toyota Corolla LE Plus, and how it came to join us now is as much of an adventure as any that new car is likely to take us on as we travel America's highways through the years ahead.
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We have always been a two-car family since before we were married. And as long as we have known each other, those two cars have always been Toyotas. What they haven't always been is old Toyotas, which is what our current two Corollas were rapidly on the way to becoming, as Roni made no bones about pointing out. Hers was, in her objective opinion, the only 16-year-old vehicle in the parking lot when she went to the grocery store or had to be seen around town. Regardless of the truth in her observations, there was no denying the fact that even the best built vehicles eventually wear out, and hers was showing signs of its advancing years — a tiny leak here, an odd squeak there, broken door handles, peeling paint, tears in the cabin roof fabric. But none of the problems as worrisome as the loss of engine power during trips on the freeway or up hills and bridges. Fixable? Probably, but at what cost? Roni's reliable little car hadn't had a major repair in years, but its declining condition was giving hints that the eventual trip to the big garage in the sky might happen when we were least prepared. Given that Glenn's 2001 Corolla isn't acting so spry itself these days, we decided a proactive replacement plan would be the safest approach.
What we didn't want was what happened 14 years when we wound up having to replace two cars within less than two weeks. Glenn's car purchase had been planned while Roni's had not been. Coming up with the cash to put down on one new car can be a stretch, let alone for two, so we wound up settling on a used car for Roni. This time we were better prepared, having amassed enough cash to put a sizable chunk down on any vehicle we might choose. The only thing left to decide was, which one?
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WE HAD BEEN talking for months about the need for a pickup truck, so that was where we started on Sept. 19, a toasty Friday morning and the first day of Glenn's vacation, when we visited Antioch Toyota to begin our research on the midsize Tacoma truck. Being that we hadn't set foot on a car lot in many years and were dreading the prospect, we made it clear to the salesman who greeted us that we were very early in our search and were just trying to learn about our options. He indulged our many questions and was very helpful.
The first thing we learned was that Antioch Toyota did not have the brand new 4-cylinder, 2-wheel-drive "access cab" Tacoma that we'd been considering. Our sales rep showed us a couple of similar older models that were for sale on the used car lot — much out of our price range — so we could get a feel for sitting in them. We sat in a 2012 Tacoma pre-runner that felt too high off the ground for our comfort. Roni joked that she didn't want to be the old lady with bad knees 10 years from now that couldn't get in and out of her truck any longer without the aid of a ladder.
The second thing we learned was that Antioch Toyota didn't expect to get any of the Tacomas we were interested in before November. The 2015 models came out in August and are currently in short supply. The salesman told us they are manufactured in Mexico, and that Toyota sends most of the 4-cylinder trucks to the Mexican market while shipping mostly the more expensive V6 trims to the U.S., whose buyers are less likely to balk at the higher sticker price. They obviously hadn't talked to us!
Being longtime Corolla owners, we also made sure to check out the new sedans just to see what features had been added or improved. The 2015 models look more stylish and felt very roomy inside. We didn't take one out for a spin though, because we figured we were looking at trucks. No need to waste time driving something we definitely weren't going to buy. Our visit to the dealership concluded with a peek at Priuses, where we discovered how roomy the cargo area of a Prius V really is. So many options for us to consider, and we had only begun our search. But we still hadn't driven the Tacoma and couldn't make an informed decision without doing so. We pressed on.
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BY SATURDAY MORNING we had done some research online and narrowed down not only the average selling price of the Tacoma we wanted, but also had found a handful of dealerships that actually had some in stock. Glenn had Googled "Toyota dealership" and came back with more than a dozen that were within an hour's drive of home. One of those, Toyota Town of Stockton, even had one 2014 Tacoma on its lot, according to the dealership's website. If the 2015 models were in such short supply, perhaps the current year's model would be in less demand and we might be able to get it at a good price. We mainly just wanted to drive one to get a feel for it, so it was off to Stockton we went for a truck reconaissance mission.
Roni had left the checkbook at home, which was probably a wise oversight given the pressure to buy whenever a car salesman smells blood in the water. It was less than 15 seconds from the time we got out of the car at Toyota Town of Stockton that we met Mohamed Ali — and no, we don't mean the famous boxer. The dealership was undergoing construction to expand into a larger, fancier showroom, and Ali led us through the maze to where the pickup trucks were located. Contrary to what we'd seen on the dealership's website which said there were also two 2015 models available in the trim we wanted, Ali said the only one available was the 2014 Tacoma in metallic gray — a color we didn't particularly like; Roni had her eye on the Barcelona red. Nevertheless, Ali was soon racing back with the key so we could take the vehicle for a spin.
Glenn was first behind the wheel. Ali pointed out several of the features including the parking brake pedal and we were soon rolling onto the street and headed for the freeway. We accelerated onto Highway 99 with relative ease and power that didn't seem possible in a 4-cylinder pickup. The ride felt comfortable, although trucks aren't known for their handling. Compared to a passenger car, even a small pickup drives like a tank. It was just bouncy enough to remind us that you pay for its functionality as a hauling vehicle by sacrificing the smooth ride you get with a car.
Back on the city streets, we pulled over so Roni could take a turn behind the wheel. After all, this was to be her everyday car and she needed to know if she could get used to driving it. We rolled back into the dealership and spent another few minutes "kicking the tires" as Roni and Ali talked more about the truck's features while Glenn inspected the body and tailgate. At close to $25,000 MSRP, we needed to be certain that this was the right vehicle for us before committing to buy it. Ali invited us inside to run some numbers in hopes of making a quick sale. He reminded us several times that the 4-cylinder Tacomas were nearly impossible to keep on the lot and he feared that at any moment one of his associates would come over with a customer to buy the truck right out from under us. Uh-huh. We weren't exactly talking the release of the iPhone 6 here. A car is a car is a car, no matter how few there might be on the lot; someone else would have the same vehicle if we were patient. Ali made that task easier when he came back with a price that was almost exactly the MSRP. We told him and the sales manager that followed we were disappointed they couldn't make a better offer on last year's model; it was just a few dollars cheaper than the new 2015 model. Good resale value or not, we didn't want to overpay for whatever we bought. Ali said that "maybe" he could get his boss to knock $500 off the price. We told them we'd have to talk it over between ourselves during lunch and that we'd let them know if we were still interested.
We left Toyota Town of Stockton knowing we wouldn't be buying that truck, but Glenn said. "I'll put money on it that Ali calls us bright and early on Monday morning after that truck hasn't flown off the lot to ask us if we still want it."
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AFTER A PLEASANT lunch at a Mexican restaurant in nearby Lodi we were prepared to head home. But we were very close to the Lodi Toyota dealership where we had also seen a listing for the Tacoma, so we decided to pop in and check it out. There we were met by sales rep Jon Smith — no connection to Pocahontas — who explained as others had that the Tacomas were hard to keep on the lot. True enough, the two he had both had sold that day — one of them a double-cab Tacoma in the Barcelona red, very close to the style we wanted. Jon asked a little more about why we wanted the Tacoma — mainly for hauling print jobs from Oakland and an occasional run to the home improvement store — and said that he had another vehicle we might want to consider.
Jon went off to get the key and in a moment returned with a 2014 RAV4. Like a truck, the RAV4 had plenty of cargo space so we could stack all those newsletter boxes we needed to carry, but unlike a truck it got better gas mileage — an estimated 27 mpg average vs. the 21 mpg of the Tacoma. Considered an entry-level SUV, the RAV4 had the most roomy cabin of any of the vehicles we'd seen. It also had a pricetag that was at least that of the Tacoma if not more, although there were some good rebates on the 2014 models that would bring the price down by at least $1,500. Jon understood that we weren't ready to buy that day and sent us on our way with a promise to return in three days so he could help us with our purchase of whatever we decided to get. We liked working with Jon, but we also knew that even though he said he could order the Tacoma we wanted, it would have to be delivered to Lodi from another dealership, and we could do that ourselves without having to travel to Lodi.
We spent that evening researching the RAV4 and trying to picture ourselves driving an SUV. We just couldn't. Despite Roni's dislike for its large interior and high dash that made her feel as though she was riding too low in the driver's seat, Glenn had another criterium by which the RAV4 would be judged: its ability to haul a full 4x8 sheet of plywood. He already knew the Tacoma could handle the task, but could the RAV4? Nothing he found online answered the question to his satisfaction, so the next day we were back to the car dealerships for more research.
This time we headed south to Livermore Toyota, tape measure in hand, to check out the dimensions of the RAV4. The salesman we worked with indulged us as Glenn measured the horizontal, vertical and diagonal clearances of the vehicle. He concluded that the RAV4 might be able to handle a sheet or two of plywood with the rear cargo door open, but it was an awkward fit. Coupled with the fact the RAV4 had a smaller payload capacity than the Tacoma and that Roni simply didn't like it, we decided not to pursue the vehicle further.
But we still hadn't ruled out the Tacoma, so we took another test drive, this time in a 2015 Tacoma double cab — in Barcelona red. The double cab is about $1,000 more than the access cab model, but it has a full back seat that would be far more comfortable for a potential passenger like Ben. We drove the truck up into the Altamont Pass, getting the chance to test its power on the hilly road. It was a solid ride, but by now we were coming to the realization that we aren't truck people. Even if we could adjust to the less smooth handling of the Tacoma versus a passenger sedan, the lousy fuel economy was a deal breaker. And as one of the salesmen at Livermore pointed out, for the money we would save buying a sedan instead of the Tacoma, we could rent a truck several times a year and still not spend as much.
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THAT NIGHT AT home we decided two things: one, we were back to looking at the Corolla for our next car; two, we were growing weary of car shopping. The daily treks to car dealerships and comparison shopping on the Internet were taking their toll, and we wanted our next stop to be our last. So Glenn set about comparing prices for the Corolla and found what appeared to be a too-good-to-be-true price on the one we wanted in Vallejo, via an online service called TrueCar. The way it works is that TrueCar locks in the price you see by dropping a message to the dealership that you're interested. The dealer then contacts you by email or phone to set up the purchase.
In the meantime, Roni had been looking at the Costco Auto Program which provides member pricing on many types of vehicles. You tell them the car you want, they give you a voucher with a no-haggle price at a local dealership, then you go buy the car, generally for a bit of a discount off the MSRP. Concord Toyota is one of the participating Costco vendors, so we were able to get a price about $500 below the MSRP on the 2015 Corolla. That was still about $700 more than what Vallejo was offering. We decided on Monday that we would head toward Vallejo, but that we would stop by Concord first to see if they might match the price.
The truth of the matter was that neither one of us really wanted to drive all the way to Vallejo, still both skeptical of the huge markdown we'd seen. TrueCar offered some attractive deals, but as we had already learned in our search for the Tacoma, there was no guarantee that a quoting dealership actually had the exact vehicle we wanted in stock, or without a bunch of options that raised the final price. With Costco we at least knew what we would be getting — even if the price was a bit higher.
We arrived at Concord Toyota around 3 in the afternoon. We strolled around the lot for a few minutes before we realized that no salesmen had approached us. Very odd. We saw three of the silver Corolla Le Plus models we'd decided on. Now all we had to do was find someone to sell us one. In what was a first, we had to go indoors and ask for someone to help us. The young salesman we sat down with said, "You probably noticed that we do things a little differently here. We're sort of laid back." You think? He started going over some figures for us and then Roni pulled out our Costco voucher. Game changer. We were handed off to the Internet sales department and soon found ourselves talking with one of their online managers, Greg. He started working up the numbers for our Costco purchase, but then Glenn pulled out his TrueCar voucher for Vallejo. "We don't work with TrueCar," Greg said very matter-of-factly.
This was about the point where Greg conveniently discovered that we had gotten our original Costco quote through one of his colleagues, Singh, and so a few moments later we were sitting in Singh's office to talk with our third salesperson of the day. Singh showed us the Costco price, Glenn showed Singh the TrueCar price. Singh said he'd have to see what he could do and stepped away. A few minutes later he returned with his boss in tow. "Are you trying to get me in trouble?" the boss said to Glenn. "Not at all," Glenn replied. "It's just that these prices are so far apart that, if you were us, you'd want to check out the Vallejo offer." The sales boss scoffed at that. "I know the sales manager there personally and there's no way he'll give you that price." "Perhaps," Glenn replied, "but we'd be foolish not to check it out. If you're right, we can always come back."
The boss was clearly put out by this. He and Singh stepped away for a bit and then came back. He said it was highly irregular to go off the Costco price, but that because we were the first sale on the board for the day that he'd go down another few hundred dollars. His price was now close to our "wheelhouse" figure that Glenn had computed the night before — the figure including tax, license and interest payments that would get us close to what we wanted to spend and thought was a fair price. So when Glenn balked again at the new price Singh presented us, he countered with an offer of his own: $20,000 out the door.
The words "out the door" have a magical quality when spoken during car purchase negotiations. They allow the dealer to structure the sale in a way the customer finds agreeable, which in our case meant lowering the base price of the car about $200 more than the boss's "best" offer. He'd whined that our TrueCar figure was painfully below dealer invoice, so we figured that he'd make us sweat for a bit. If he didn't take the offer then we were prepared to head to Vallejo despite the afternoon commute traffic and our lack of enthusiasm about continuing our search. When the boss returned he was all smiles. "Congratulations, first sale on the board today." And that was how we negotiated our purchase of our new car, roughly $1,500 off the MSRP and $300 below the Costco price. Lesson learned: don't be afraid to haggle.
Singh went about finalizing our purchase contract and then left us while our new car went off to be washed and detailed before we got the keys. It was while we were cooling our heels in his office that we got to thinking, we never took the car for a test drive. More than that, we didn't even know which car we'd just bought. Fortunately Singh knew based on the Internet quote we had requested a day earlier. We had unknowingly specified the model by its VIN number, so the transaction was completed as if we had bought it through the Internet and just showed up at the dealership to take delivery. Good thing we didn't ask for a quote on a color we didn't like!
Glenn did the honors of driving it home — the first and perhaps only time he'll get to be behind the wheel of this beauty.
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THE LADY IN the dealership's finance department commented when we told her that this was our first new car in nearly 14 years that we'd feel like we were driving a rocket ship compared to what we were used to. She was right in many ways. The 2015 Corolla is a high-tech gizmo designed for an online world. It has controls on the steering wheel for hands-free cell phone operations and adjustments to the stereo system. There are digital displays computing your mileage and fuel economy. There is even a back-up camera located inside the rear license plate frame so you can see objects you might otherwise miss when leaving a parking space; mostly Roni has found this feature helpful in judging how straight a parking job she has done. It also has a keyless entry system — not a new feature by any means, but one we've never had before now. Yes, NASA would be proud.
Now that we had the new car it was time to put it through its paces, so we spent the next two weeks making excuses for taking trips, albeit good excuses. On Sept. 25 we took it to Martinez for the Contra Costa Fish and Wildlife Committee's annual barbecue at the Sportsman's Club. On Sept. 29, we drove to Union City to visit Glenn's grandmother in her new apartment (well, new as of two years ago) and to have lunch at Applebee's with Glenn's folks. Then on Sept. 30, it was off to Bodega Bay for an overnight getaway on the Sonoma County coast.
Our Bodega Bay trip included a stop in Rohnert Park to check out the Graton Resort & Casino, which Glenn had been wanting to see since it opened last year. Our low expectations were mostly realized, and after we had lunch and plunked about 20 bucks in the video slot machines, it was time to hit the road again for the rest of our rambling ride on Highway 12 to the coast.
We made our visit on a Tuesday, so we were able to tour the area without the usual weekend tourist traffic from the Bay Area. We didn't make reservations in advance, so we grabbed one of the few available rooms at the Bodega Coast Inn and Suites on the south end of town. After settling in, we drove up the coast a few miles to check out the beaches ahead of what we hoped would be a breathtaking California sunset, all the while listening to light jazz on radio station KJZY, which we had stumbled upon earlier in the day when nothing else would come in on the FM band. It made for a good soundtrack, so we left it on. The weather was perfect, without so much as a wisp of fog to spoil the view of the ocean. We didn't even need our sweaters, although we kept them handy for when we went out to dinner that evening at Lucas Wharf Restaurant.
Back at the hotel that evening there was little to do but watch TV, read and write, and it seemed odd not having Ben along with us for the first time on any of the vacations we had taken since he was born. We knew he was probably enjoying the vacation from us back at home, getting the whole house to himself and being able to hang out with his friends online.
The next morning we had planned to head out of town early and drive home via San Francisco, but we altered those plans because we got a late start from the hotel and there was still so much to see around Bodega Bay. The town's claim to fame is its starring role in the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds." Even the lobby of our hotel had a display case with glossy pictures, posters and collectibles from the film. We didn't go out of our way to hunt down the filming locations that appeared in the movie, but we did find a few of the giant ravens that were menacingly featured alongside Tippi Hedren. One of those birds we found perched on a rock at Bodega Head, a scenic park overlooking the Pacific Ocean where there is a trail visitors can take along the high cliffs.
From Bodega Head we stopped in town to pick up clam chowder for lunch before our final stop of the afternoon at Doran Beach. Unlike most of the coastal beaches in the area, Doran Beach features a long strip of pristine white sand where you can stroll, play, or kick back to enjoy the scenery. There are camping facilities there as well, for those so inclined. You pay the price for all these amenities, as it was $7 per car for day use. But we figured the expense was well worth the ambiance. Roni got to enjoy seeing some different shore birds, and we both indulged our photographic muses.
Vacation over, we have returned to the daily grind of our 9-to-5s (or 3-to-12, in Glenn's case.) We could share a lot more, but we're running long this month and have to get this edition posted. We'll try again in November. Until then, have a happy Halloween. (And oh yes, we continued to get phone calls from Ali about the truck for a whole week after our visit to Toyota Town of Stockton. Hope he finally found a buyer!)