(photo by Skip Breidbach)

Seat yourself in a comfortable position. Relax your shoulders, relax your face, let your tongue rest loosely in the center of your mouth. Feeling at ease? Now observe your reaction when you read the next very short paragraph.

Car salesman.

I’m guessing you feel considerably less relaxed. For decades the process of buying a car has been not dissimilar from having braces: the end product is shiny and better performing, but did the process have to be so painful?

Our new Forester is the third car my husband and I have bought together, and over the years we’ve developed strategies for, if not minimizing our own irritation and discomfort, at least spreading it around a little:

  1. Be ready to walk away. Don’t wait until your car has given up the ghost and your back is up against the wall. Car salespeople can smell blood and desperation.
  2. Be prepared. When we bought our Impreza in 1998 (still going strong 185,000 miles later), using the Internet to research real car prices was A New Thing. The saleswoman had seen just enough of it for her shoulders to slump when we walked in with a printout. In the years since manufacturers have learned to defend themselves against the rude truth of inflated prices, but dealers have their own tricks, and sometimes you can win the shell game.
  3. Be ready to walk away. It doesn’t matter how much you love and need That Perfect Car. Car salespeople can smell desperation and desire.
  4. Don’t play the little power games. If a salesman leaves you sitting alone in his office while he works out a “deal” with the finance guy, wander off. Go look at other cars on the lot, the farther away from the showroom the better. He may think twice about wasting your time if you start wasting his.
  5. Be ready to walk away. If you tell the saleswoman that you want to hear the real price for the car first time and she offers a lower one after you make a face, tell her, “I’m sorry, but I warned you,” and leave. Come back in a week if you really love the car (but see 3).
  6. Don’t be distracted by talk of monthly payments, for that way lies nudging you out of the lower price you’re demanding for last year’s pickup that you know isn’t going to sell because it’s the color of Barney. And practice your best glacial stare for the moment they write down on a piece of paper, “I want to pay $xxxxxxx for a car because _______________” then hand you the pen and ask you to fill in the blank. (Yes, that really happened.)
  7. Be ready to walk away. If the salesman comes back from the finance guy and says, “This is a sweetheart of a deal, the boss gets angry if one like this gets away,” remember that the boss’ temper is the boss’ problem, or possibly the employee’s, but definitely not yours. Suggest the boss find an anger management counselor, remind the salesman that this is a Very Large Purchase and you’re not in the mood for rushing, and leave.

We bought the Forester to replace our Mazda. I fell in love with the RX-8 in 2003 when it was still a concept on a web site. We bought one a year later, on Valentine’s day. I started falling out of love last September when the check engine light came on halfway between San Luis Obispo and L.A. Although the car had less than sixty thousand miles on it the mechanic was making noises about a new engine.

Stranded four hours from home I plunked down the nine hundred dollars for an ignition coil (but no motor) and began researching cars. Grumpily, because we are a “drive cars into the ground” family: the only reason we replaced the 1968 Cougar (his) and the 1984 Toyota pickup (mine) was because they began to feel unsafe in a world of ABS and airbags. Research took on increasing urgency as the “emergency light of the quarter” became the “emergency light of the month,” and our repair bills approached a car payment.

My husband also began researching alternative ways to buy cars. While before we bought the Mazda we once derived a certain perverse amusement from three hours spent watching a seemingly endless parade of salesmen (the green guy, the Internet Guy, the Guy Who Cuts Through Red Tape, the Guy Who Pretends He Knows You from Somewhere) try to confuse us into paying a higher price for the Barney truck than we were offering (we walked away), it was also an experience we didn’t need to repeat.

A few weeks ago we gave the local Subaru dealer a try, not least of all because we wanted to test drive a Forester. I took an instant dislike to the salesman, who eyed our old Impreza like a seagull circling a fishing boat and started talking about trade-ins before we’d even mentioned what kind of car we were looking for.

My husband smiled politely. “That’s not the car we’re replacing.”

“Well, you know, we can always drive up and get the other car, give you an idea of what it’s worth, and – ”

I cut him off, smiling less politely. “We’re not buying anything today. We’re looking, and thinking.”

We made our test drive, the salesman mentioned a financing deal that was actually quite good. After we parked I asked about colors. He said we’d have to go inside and lumbered off. When my husband and I paused for a moment’s private conversation he stuck his head through the door. “It’s a visual thing, you know.”

I pulled my glacial stare out of mothballs. “We’re talking. We’ll be there in a moment.” To my perhaps insufficiently disguised amusement, the swatches he’d pulled up on the kiosk weren’t the right ones. “We’re looking at the turbo,” I said.

“The colors are the same,” he replied.

“I’m pretty sure,” as in absolutely positive, “that the turbo only comes in a subset of colors. I just can’t remember which ones.” He never did figure out how to bring up the correct colors on the kiosk. Five minutes later we were on our way, his card in my husband’s pocket. He didn’t bother giving one to me, and never made a follow-up call to see if we were still interested.

Which is just as well, because that afternoon we requested a quote from CarsDirect, a brokering service that promises to find you a car, arrange financing, deliver your new vehicle and drive your trade-in away.

I won’t call the experience perfect. Our highly energetic salesman was like a squirrel who had gotten into the coffee grounds, and his initial brusqueness fell away with abrupt transparency after he ran our credit report. The dealer forgot to give the driver an important piece of loan paperwork, so there was an unexpected flurry of emails, signatures, scans and more emails two nights after we’d taken delivery. The windshield had a tiny (easily and cheaply repaired) chip in it. The trade-in offer for the RX-8 went from an insulting $2500 (Edmunds quoted $3000-$9000), to $3000, to “won’t take it sight unseen so you’ll have to make a three hour drive to Walnut Creek.”

To his credit, the salesman worked hard to find the RX-8 a new home. He pressed the dealer as far as he dared, then got a quote of $4500 from AutoNation – the wrinkle being we’d have to drive the car to Oxnard or Bakersfield. (We ended up selling it to a local used dealer for more than the AutoNation offer.)

But on the other hand, he arranged a better loan than we could have gotten from the dealer or even our credit union – and with a real bank, not some scary “never heard of them before” operation. We got the color and style we wanted – apparently the last one currently in the state – and when the package wasn’t precisely what we’d asked for the additional features were thrown in for free. No one hassled us about extended warranties, cargo nets or any other little tchotchke we could easily purchase cheaper as aftermarket. And since the dealer is two hundred miles away, I doubt if they’ll be pestering us about bringing the Forester to them instead of our own mechanic for servicing.

I felt a tiny twinge of guilt about taking a test drive from a dealer I had virtually no intention of buying the car from. But…they’re the ones who continue to make the experience unpleasant. Who offer teaser low-interest loans for term lengths that buyers already carrying a mortgage will probably be uncomfortable with and then trot out the unfavorable but more realistic 60-month rate after an unwary purchaser has grown excited about the car. Who push extended warranties like horny drunk frat boys on buyers who really do mean no. Who continue to stick their heads in the sand over the existence of the Internet, hoping buyers won’t investigate the chasm between MSRP and their final sales price.

And maybe a fall-off in business is what they deserve. Maybe, like the Walnut Creek showroom, they need to bow to the times and make their deals with the devils of CarsDirect and Costco and the Auto Club. Maybe they need to offer their own deals and perks, or even just civility, rather than lessons in psychological manipulation and will-weakening soft torture. Because the proliferation of broker services suggests at least a segment of the market has spoken, and what it’s saying is: Just Sell Me the Damned Car.