Column: The all-consuming search for a new car

I’ve never considered myself much of car person. I never hung photos of high-horsepower muscle cars on my wall as a kid or dreamed about driving a Ferrari one day. I simply roll down the window when the air conditioning quits. I’ve always viewed cars more through a lens of practicality: Can it get me from point A to point B?

Still, a car becomes an extension of one’s personality. We spend countless hours, often alone with our own thoughts, in a car. So many memories are created while driving our cars, some exciting, like a road trip with friends, others much less enjoyable, like getting stuck in a snowstorm while driving upstate. In between are the hundreds of mundane trips back and forth to work.

I loved my first car in all its simplicity: A 1993 Saturn SL1. (Good luck finding one of those on the road today. It never quite became a “classic.”) It was a surprise gift from my parents my senior year of high school. It was a maroon car that I soon updated with a fancy stereo, speakers and amplifier. When you’re 17, what else is there to worry about except a bumping stereo system?

The car served me well through college. One of those unforgettable moments that tie us to our cars came for me when I drove home from St. Bonaventure University for the last time after graduating in 2006. After all the partying and jubilation had come to an end, it was just me and my Saturn, every inch crammed with personal belongings, and the vast, empty road of I-86. I remember the quiet and all the thoughts running through my head. A chapter of my life had just closed, and I had no idea what to expect next.

Shortly after college, I upgraded to a 1997 Chevrolet Malibu. It had been my grandfather’s car, and he had finally reached the point in his 90s where it was no longer safe for him to be driving as dementia began to set in. Even as months passed with me as the owner, my grandpa still believed it was his car and he could drive. He’d always tell me I could borrow the car and I’d just happily thank him.

After about a year I began to get that new car itch. And the thing is, once you start looking for a new car, you begin to realize all the possibilities out there and there’s no turning back. I started researching cars, and when the Malibu ran into trouble and needed $1,000 worth of repairs, the decision was made. I was about to buy my first car.

After considerable research, I purchased a brand-new 2008 Hyundai Elantra. It was a low-priced compact sedan with decent features for the cost. I had saved up some money my first two years out of college to help with a down payment. When else in my life, I figured, would I really have a chance to buy a brand-new car?

Fast-forward nearly 10 years, and I was still driving that same Elantra, which just passed 167,000 miles last weekend. What a journey it’s been.

But the time had come, I finally realized, to begin the search for a new car. I think part of the reason I try to hold onto a car for so long is simply to avoid the process of buying another. Even with all the advantages today of online tools that allow consumers to learn everything they need to know before ever setting foot in a dealership, it can still feel overwhelming. It took me months to finally decide on a new TV, so you can imagine how it would be for a car.

The car buying search becomes all-consuming, as if it takes over your life. There’s all the time spent searching the internet, comparing cars at dealerships across Long Island. There’s all the time spent traveling to car dealerships. (Don’t ever expect the car you like to be located at a dealer right where you live. It’s always a solid 25 minutes away.) Then there are the interactions with car salespeople, always eager to close a deal.

I hate this part because I’m almost too sensitive. I never want to hurt the salesperson’s feelings. I end up wanting to buy every car I see just to avoid the feeling of disappointing someone.

On Saturday I test drove a 2014 Elantra at Apple Honda in Riverhead. It was a sharp-looking car, but just didn’t give me the same feeling as the 2015 Elantra I test drove a week earlier at a different dealership. I decided to sleep on it. The next morning, I loaded up the webpage for the dealership that had the 2015. The price had just dropped an additional $595.

It seemed like destiny.

On Monday night, I signed the last of the paperwork and drove away with the fourth car of my life, on the path to a decade of new memories.

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].