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Build a Car: They Will Come and Hound You

The option to build a car abounds on every vehicle website. You take the ride from selecting the car model, options, exterior and interior color, to the summary of the final projected cost. Along the way, should you dare request a quote and leave your email address or number, salespeople will come out of the woodwork and glom on like tenacious hyenas starving for your credit report, trade-in potential, and urgency to test-drive at their lots.

What surprised me in all of this was the desperation, given that so many consumers in my city seem to be driving new cars. Believe me, I’ve studied them. Now proficient at building cars, I want to see what they look like on the road. I want to know if the ratings I read up on religiously hold true. Does the ultra-cool Infinity SUV really lack passenger and cargo space and is it basically a glorified sports truck for one? Is the cubist Element best for hauling greasy junk and less preferable to other box cars? Does the Prius suffer from low visibility as does the Cadillac CTS wagon? The drivers seem content in their shiny new oil-guzzling trucks, dog-happy cubes, and hybrids. You can literally go crazy trying to decide.

What also drives me crazy about wanting to drive something new is the bombardment of emails and phone calls from San Francisco Bay Area dealers. “Thanks for your interest but I will contact you should I need to come by and test-drive one of your models,” I politely reply, hoping to swat away the pests. One woman from Concord Acura called me twice in a row, claiming she was following up on marketing for the company. Clearly, she was running through a marathon list of others who have been so bold as to build a car.

The Ford people in Colma are more tenacious than most, so tenacious that I felt compelled to test-drive one of the Flex SUVs my brother had told me about. He said lots of folks in his horsey Southern Cal subdivision are sporting the massive seven-seaters—and that they come in a very cool turquoise shade. I did the build-a-car thing and read the ratings and learned that the new eco-boost turbo model is way more powerful than the “ho-hum experience of driving an ordinary Flex.”

I enjoyed taking the monster out on the road. The dealership had three, all in that one garish shade of blue. The thing is, you don’t see the Flex in my part of California, the congested ghetto parts of alpine climbs, one-way suicide streets, poorly designed freeway entrances that immediately have you merging with other angry drivers, and no parking spaces. You do see a lot of cubes.

I like how it drove, despite the fact I would only own one if I lived in L.A., Phoenix, or Florida, or if I had horses, or was a dog walker or furniture mover. But I couldn’t take the salesman, an overeager Chinese man who yelled loudly in my ear and grilled me continuously about my intentions. “So, Luanne, I see you want to drive the Flex. What would you rate it, from one being the worse, to one hundred being so great?” I told him it was like ninety-nine, really smooth, but I was agitated that it took thirty minutes before I could test it since he wouldn’t stop quizzing me and taking up my time with what I considered a wartime interrogation.

After at least twenty test-drives of various cars from Honda to Chevy to Cadillac and Subaru, I have yet to build my dream car. And I’m left wondering if the car biz is suffering as much as it appears by the overzealousness on the part of the salespeople. Maybe I haven’t purchased because the process is so fascinating, or perhaps it is simply the reason of so many people on the list at Concord Acura: I have to cough up the cash, and face a devalued trade-in (getting hosed, as my brother puts in) to drive one off the lot.

So I will continue building a car online and wait for the moment to strike. It will involve emoting from the features I love in each one—the retro symmetry and pop-up navigation of the Cadillac wagon, the comfort of the Honda, the giddyup of the Acura, the fuel efficiency of the Fusion. When I get all I want in one car, I will go for it, and free myself of this obsession to build, and shake off the new friends I’m making in the process.