To cut to the chase, our dear Doracar went to heaven two weeks ago and I had to look for a new car. Thus began a fortnight of searching through not just car showrooms, but my own heart too. Was I a sporty, outgoing driver, or a grumpy old Ah Pek?
I’ve been driving a Toyota Corolla since my mum, in a fit of pride, decided to buy a new Corolla in 2001 although she was in no shape to drive. She just wanted to prove who had the earning power in the house. She passed away the next year and the car was then shared between me and my sis Joanne. That car was pretty good for its time, made in Japan and had great exterior finishing.
In 2006, I decided to trade in the old Corolla for a new Corolla Altis while the former’s trade-in value was good, and got a lovely blue-hued edition, which we called Doracar (you can search this blog for other images, I feel a bit heart pain to paste pix of it now)
So you can imagine, after 8 years of driving Corollas, I’d be really sick of going to the Toyota showroom again this time. I decided I wanted a Honda Civic, a model that’s really taken off here and in other parts of the world. A cool speedometer ala Knight Rider, sleek styling and a purring engine.
I test-drove the Civic, loved it to bits but gawked when told the pricing was S$72,500. (The same model is less than half the price in USA, we get crazy car prices thanks to our stupid motoring system in Singapore).
So I went shopping around and narrowed down to a few candidates.
Simple key criteria on my checklist:
- Value for money
- Can iPod the sound system.
- Have a decent exterior and interior color.
I’ve always turned my nose up at a Vios (it’s like a Hobbit Altis), but the new model really doesn’t look too shabby. The looks are directly inherited from the 2006 Camry. The boot space is pretty decent too. Then I drove it and found the noise insulation to be terrible. Can you imagine, with my kids yakking in the background during the test drive, I could still hear the engine growling away and the wheels pounding the tarmac.
Sorry Vios, I need a car with proper sound insulation so I can enjoy my digital muzak.
Yes, I never thought I’d bother to do it again, so many years after driving Mum’s second-hand, problematic 1995 Lancer. But at the then price of S$49k new (when I checked it out), I thought why not. Then you realise how entry-level the car really is. It’s a nice car for beginners and people who think they can somehow zhng it to look like an Evo, but for more experienced drivers, the car really displays its downsides very quickly. A so-so engine, 1990s interior finishing and no damned powered side windows. And no matter what you do to the body, it still looks like a 90’s car!
Mitsubishi Lancer EX
Now this is a really different beast from the plain old Lancer. The EX looks really good at all angles with its sporty styling (love the front grille), and it took a while before I could get a test drive. That’s when my heart fell again – the 1.5 version I tested had pretty lousy pickup. I did a U-turn, floored the accelerator and the car patiently took its time to rev up. The car drove pretty okay after that. I asked the sales guy: “What about the 2.0 model?” He said it has the same kind of pickup acceleration. The fact that the audio system was difficult to mod was another downer.
Nice car, pity about the engine.
The old City was really unlovely with a squashed profile and ungainly design. But the new one caught my eye, and a few friends asked me to check it out. Aggressive new front grille and coupled with a good engine, this is from Honda’s Thailand factory and targeted straight at the Altis. The test drive was pretty decent and I was impressed.
But what killed the deal?
The price was way too high at about S$58,000. At time of test drive, I had to look at the higher-end model because of the audio controls on the wheel (most people must think I’m crazy here, but once you’ve used it, you’ll never be able to go back to plain steering wheels again). Also, only the higher-end model offered iPod-compatibility out of the box with its integrated audio system.
Price and features-wise, the City is simply uncompetitive in an economic downturn.
Pic from www.sgcarmart.com
Brrrrrr! How could I go back to another Altis? But after looking at a whole range of car brochures, visiting various showrooms like Kia, Suzuki and so on, a sense of dread dawned upon me.
There’s simply no car in the same price-performance class as the Altis.
And I don’t give a damned where the car is made – Thailand or Japan, it really doesn’t matter these days when the best stuff is mostly made in China.
I took a test drive in the latest Altis model and was pleasantly surprised. The wheel is a lot lighter (no longer hydraulic, said the sales girl), the interior is bigger than ever (AND very quiet) and the driving experience was not bad at all.
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, the steering wheels came with audio controls (many other car models don’t offer this unless you buy the higher-end model). Perfect for iPod modding. The 2-DIN audio head unit could be removed easily, unlike most other car models today where it is integrated into the dashboard and requires a lot of cutting to mod. The average consumer probably thinks this is cost-cutting on Toyota’s part but these are the same buyers who can’t tell the difference good and awful audio quality.
The only problems were the exterior colors (the worst boring uncle colors available like silver, white, grey etc) and the gray-beige interior, which I really dislike.
I told myself I’d consider the Altis which was going for about S$53,300, but my eyes were kept firmly on the Civic.
Then the COE system collapsed on 21st Jan and I made the unlikeliest decision.
The Final Decision (or is this the Post-Purchase Dissonance Bit?)
On 21st Jan, the Cat B (above 1600cc) COE plummeted from S$4273 to a staggering S$200. The Cat A COE (below 1600cc) dropped from S$2693 to S$1839. I had no idea market demand was that weak, but it couldn’t have come at a better time because the car dealers started to slash prices.
The first thing I did was to check with Kah Motor but was disappointed to find out that they were only cutting $500 from the Civic price. Their excuse was the strength of the yen, but my response was that they are out of touch with the market. The young salesgirl refused to cut a satisfactory deal and I decided the Civic was out.
What really made her sale disappear was the Honda salesgirl’s lack of drive to lock down the deal. On the 22nd, she couldn’t even be bothered to call me to update me on the latest price in the first place, unlike the Toyota folks who called immediately when the morning post-COE meeting was done. When your product sells well in the past, you start taking customers for granted.
Now I’ve always liked Borneo Motors – they’re a bit more attuned to the circumstances. Although Cat A COE only dropped S$854, they slashed the Altis configuration I wanted from S$53,300 to about S$49800. That’s over S$3,000 in lost margin. In a downturn, that’s one of the most effective ways to stimulate sales and move inventory. While I’m sure their margin is still healthy, the perception that the public has is that Toyota is more aggressive at reclaiming its market share from Honda.
I started out looking at getting a better car than the old Altis, but over the fortnight, I realised that I’m really not the kind of car-crazy guy who’d go out and buy his dream car on a whim. If you think about it, is it really worth the $23k premium to get a Civic over an Altis? Everyone agrees that the Civic is the better car, but then again, I could live with anything with four wheels if the price and performance was right.
My biggest bugbear was that the Altis often did not look like a S$72k car from the exterior (unless you get the funky black model which really fits the smooth lines). And if I was going for spaciousness and better engine, a big fat Camry is now S$75k! I don’t think it’s so much a case of sour grapes versus practical utility. The family car is really only meant for transport in our case, and my key focus is still to ensure the iPod sounds good inside. If the music ain’t right, the drive ain’t right.
Now to really put things in perspective, Microsoft decided to layoff 5,000 people on 23rd Jan, and while I’m not being fired (yet), I’m not going to get any merit pay increment for the next fiscal year. So yeah, prudence must rule the heart and the wallet.
That’s why I’ll continue to drive an Altis, much as a part of me is still in disbelief.