I Was a Frustrated Customer at Car Showrooms, but Made the Obvious Decision

By Larry Teller

Being a patriot who wants to do right by our still-struggling economy, I recently started looking for a new car. Well, to be honest, approaching another summer without car air conditioning didn’t delight.

The car I was replacing was 17 years old and, beside no A/C, had gradually lost other non-essential but nice-to-have features: FM and eventually AM radio, keyless door locks, two door locks (but, shucks, no one would steal the car), speed control and intermittent wipers. I’d figured in recent years, what’s the difference? I’m only driving six miles roundtrip to a commuter train. And, besides, the huge trunk provided a handy way to take my bike for repairs; the car was paid for; the insurance was cheap; it reminded me of the sweet day we drove our baby daughter home from the hospital; my friend the mechanic was always eager to fix things; I’m not wild about car salesmen……

It’s been, thankfully, years since I walked into a showroom. Do you, too, dread the experience, beginning with the sweet greeting, followed inexorably by the required question “What do I have to do to sell you a car TODAY?” My specs were simple at the three places I visited: compact car, four cylinders with good gas mileage, comfortable seats, several safety gizmos, any color but black or white, and—here’s the feature that, I learned at all three places, was the root cause of conflict—but I just felt I deserved: heated seats.

Here’s what I learned, unhappily: in order to buy heated seats, you must buy a “weather package,” which is available only on higher “trim” versions, which only come with a larger engine (and also requires, in the fancier trim package, a moon roof which I can happily live without), which has lower gas mileage, which was one of my most important criteria.

So, the frustrating choice the car companies shrewdly force us to confront is whether keeping our tushes toasty on those freezing Monday mornings is worth spending an extra $3,000 (the weather package and higher trim line) and losing, at least in the three compact cars I considered, 2-3 miles per gallon (“EPA estimated—your actual gas mileage may vary.”).

I hope it’s obvious from this tale how I resolved this showroom conflict. How would you?

About the author: Larry Teller joined EPA’s Philadelphia office in its early months and has worked in environmental assessment, state and congressional liaison, enforcement, and communications. His 28 years with the U.S. Air Force, most as a reservist, give him a different look at government service.

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