My Year of Buying a Car

[ This is not a standard blog post in that there is no travel, nature, history, or tea, unless you drink the latter while reading it (or count the cups I consumed while writing it). It was written partially as therapy to decompress after the experience and partially to inform. It is also long, so please buckle up and enjoy the ride. ]

I think everyone has their own view as to what components make up their identity. Some are broad brushstrokes build around our relation to others: spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend. Others are based on what we do for a living: nurse, teacher, accountant, engineer, plumber. Then there are the hobbies: bibliophile, gamer, crafter, gardener, runner. If we wanted to, we can drill even further into our psyche and the labels that make up our values: environmentalist, feminist, liberal, religious (or atheist), political persuasion.

If you had spoken to me prior to 2023, I would have confidently been able to provide a description of who I was and, equally, who I was not. For example, I was not in any way, shape, or form a car person.

Cars were simply these things on four wheels that got you from A to B. Smaller than a bus, bigger than a motorcycle. A type of vehicle that I haven’t bothered to drive myself in nearly 20 years since I can get most places by train or MrElaineous’ chauffeuring. I don’t even have a UK driver’s license.

Then our car began to fall apart. Literally. The exhaust fell off when (slowly) going over a speed bump. The brakes were shot. The car inched closer to the 200,000 mile mark (no, that is not a typo).

MrElaineous and I sprang into action. It was time to replace Wiffo—so named for the WFO of the vehicle’s number plate—with a newer model, and so we embarked on what became known as the Great Car Hunt of 2023.

Obviously, it didn’t have that name at the start, back in February. We foolishly thought it would be a straightforward process, but we soon found that our usual strengths became our kryptonite. Mine as a researcher meant I plunged into online sources for reviews: Which?, AutoTrader, Parkers, Top Gear, Car Buyer, What Car, Auto Express, Car and Driver, Carwow, and the synonym-inspired Auto Car. MrElaineous is very good with Excel spreadsheets and ranking systems; before long, a list of different vehicles was born, weighted based on the features we wanted (reliability was number one).

The problem? The sheer number of options available to us.

There is a well-known problem in psychology called the paradox of choice. The more choices that someone has, the less likely they are able to make a decision. When it comes to buying a vehicle, the consumer has dozens of options in front of them. The very first one is what powers the car itself:

  • Internal combustion engines (ICE): Although electric vehicles have been around since the 19th century, this is considered a traditional car: the vehicle is powered by gas.
  • Hybrids: These are also petrol powered, but with methods to capture energy from braking; this dual power system makes it a hybrid. By improving the efficiency, it extends the gas mileage.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV): These vehicles have a larger battery than a hybrid and can be plugged in, giving the driver the option to operate it electrically for short distances. Otherwise, they are powered by ICE.
  • Battery electric vehicle (BEV … or EV in common parlance): Fully electric vehicles that, at present, run on lithium-ion technology. Toyota is currently working on solid state batteries that promise a longer range and faster charging speeds … but that’s a blog post for a different decade.

Our original plan was to buy an EV. The Kia e-Niro had gotten rave reviews through Which? (the British equivalent of Consumer Reports) and other websites, and so we set out to test drive a low-spec version at a dealership in Swindon. It was … fine. It was very similar to a standard car, it just happened to be powered by very large battery. As a first test drive, it could best be described as beige: inoffensive, harmless, bland.

Next up was a Skoda Enyaq. We thought we were going to test the standard Enyaq SUV, but they handed us the keys to a neon green coupe, sports edition (i.e. VRS). The difference between the two cars could not have been more stark. One was a sedate family vehicle with no bells and whistles, the other a muscle car with a panoramic sunroof and every modern feature our current car lacked. I was immediately smitten.

But MrElaineous and I are a car dealership’s worst nightmare. We are not in any way impulsive (see above re: research and spreadsheets). We are practically the textbook definition of risk averse. We were not going to let emotion steer us into making a big decision.

We decided to check out a few cars at a dealership closer to home, only to be told that we couldn’t test drive them. Considering this is a big part of researching a vehicle before purchase, we were a little confused by the salesman’s reticence. Strike one.

This is how we found ourselves in a rented Fiat 500 while Wiffo was being repaired, making a four-hour roundtrip to Swansea in the pouring rain to test out a Kia EV6, one of the highest rated electric vehicles on the market today.

This was now our fourth dealership. It offered fresh Welsh cakes in the waiting room, but the test drive experience left something to be desired. The salesman hopped in the passenger seat, forcing me to take the (admittedly very spacious) backseat. We rode around a residential area full of speed bumps and traffic lights, the top speed no more than 40 mph. At every bump, something in the boot made a clanking sound. It did not serve to sell the car to us. In one of those instances of marital telepathy, MrElaineous and I agreed this wasn’t the car for us, and we started on the two-hour ride back to Chippenham.

Wiffo was repaired and running well when we returned to our local dealership to test out a Kia Niro EV, the newer version of the e-Niro we had started with (yes, the nomenclature is confusing). This one offered more space, a better paint colour, and all of the specs, including a heat pump to help the battery on winter days.

It had been a few months since we last saw the salesman who told us we couldn’t do a test drive due to a staff shortage. We mentioned we had gone to Swansea in the meantime. “Wow, that’s a long way to go just to test drive a car!” he responded. Considering it was his lack of providing a test drive that had resulted in the trip, that was strike two.

We tested the vehicle—with no salesperson present so the comment regarding the lack of staff still has me scratching my head. We liked it enough that we asked what the best price was they could do on it. The answer? A refusal to negotiate. If they had knocked a little off, we would have purchased it there and then. But we felt like we were being held over a barrel and forced to accept a price for a used vehicle that, at the time, was just a hair under the cost of buying it new. Strike three.*

Our experience necessitated a discussion about how to proceed. Wiffo wasn’t going to last forever, but it was running smoothly at the moment. Why not wait a year or two before investing in an EV? We were in agreement and hit pause on the Great Car Hunt.

That decision lasted all of six weeks before the clutch started to go.

New plan: buy a cheaper ICE or hybrid to get us through the next several years. By that point EVs would have a better range and charging infrastructure. MrElaineous’ spreadsheet ballooned.

Remember the paradox of choice? There are countless vehicles available when you go the traditional route, and we spent the first part of the summer paying visits to various dealerships and testing out some of the top-rated used cars in the country, including but not limited to:

  • Toyota RAV4: Top marks for reliability and it’s considered one of the best-selling compact SUVs in the US. In the UK, it’s a massive vehicle for two people.
  • Skoda Superb: Ditto. Much bigger than we needed.
  • Mazda 3: Lovely car with some great safety kit but dark inside even on a bright day due to Mazda’s philosophy of jinba ittai. This refers to the connection between the horse and rider, and Mazda is all about the driving experience. Apparently some drivers like to feel like they’re in a cave.
  • Toyota Prius: One of the most popular and highly rated hybrids, this car provides a smooth ride and incredible gas mileage, but it put off MrElaineous by having a foot-operated parking brake and we could never get the Eco mode to work properly.
  • Vauxhall Mokka: Felt cramped. Full disclosure: we didn’t test drive this one, but a keen salesman thought we should check it out after we passed on the Prius.

We began to joke about looking for our Goldilocks car, one that had the features we wanted, but which wasn’t too big or too small, too light or too dark. We practically lived on AutoTrader and I found myself using the app when I would usually be mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. MrElaineous would book test drives that would get cancelled because the salesperson had double booked himself. Other dealerships required you to find someone to open the car if you were interested checking out the inside, which would then elicit a sales spiel about the particular vehicle. Perhaps it’s not the best choice of words for the subject matter, but it began to feel like a crash course in why people don’t like shopping for used cars.

We eventually ended up at Drive Green, a specialist electric vehicle dealership located just a stone’s throw from MrElaineous’ hometown.** To say it was a breath of fresh air would be an understatement.

All of the cars on the forecourt were open. We could just sit in them and get a feel for the space without anyone trying to sell us the vehicle. If we showed the slightest interest in a test drive, they practically threw the keys at us and encouraged us to go around a nearby 15-minute loop to get a feel for how the car drove. This loop allowed us to test the car at different speeds and in different traffic conditions; it was a world away from the stop-start experience we had in Swansea. If we had questions, sales manager Reece was there to answer them, but he never steered us towards one car or another. Instead, he let us lead and answered our (numerous) questions.

We tested a smorgasbord of cars during our first visit to Drive Green: another Kia e-Niro, a Nissan Leaf, and a Polestar 2 just for fun. We were no closer to making a decision about a specific car at the end of the day, but this trip convinced us that electric vehicles were the way forward. All of the vehicles provided an incredibly smooth and quiet ride, and we enjoyed the drive far more than any of the half dozen ICE or hybrids we had already looked at.

MrElaineous in particular became enamoured with what is known as one-pedal driving. Please note: you still have a brake pedal. You just don’t have to hit it as often. Some (but not all) EVs allow you to control the vehicle based on the pressure on the accelerator pedal. Need to slow down? Just ease off the gas. See a red light up ahead? Ease off a bit more to stop completely. This allows the battery to regenerate more power while making the drive a little smoother.

Our research entered a new phase as we began to educate ourselves about EVs. We threw ourselves into YouTube reviews, Drive Green’s excellent videos, and Rory Reid’s entertaining and informative commentaries on AutoTrader. Words like vehicle architecture, powertrain, and kilowatt hour*** began to pepper our conversations. We debated the merits of going for a vehicle with CCS (combined charging system) vs CHAdeMO (the system used by the Leaf).

Every car we passed when out and about was glanced at, particularly those with a green stripe on their number plate to signify an EV. It didn’t take long before we started to recognise common models. It was like birdwatching. Rather than the shape of the beak or the colour of the feathers, we spotted different car parts, like BMW’s trademark twin kidney grills or Polestar’s distinctive square taillights. We could identify a car badge within a split second of seeing it.

We learned how cars were related to each other. For example, the Volkswagen Group oversees a plethora of vehicles: there’s the sleek and sporty Lamborghini and Bugatti, the luxurious Bentley, the Spanish SEAT, and the more traditional VW brand. SEAT itself has the Cupra performance range. Kia and Hyundai are sister companies (although they offer different warranties on their vehicles), and Hyundai has birthed the luxury brand Genesis, much like Lexus is the luxury arm of Toyota. And so on. You could practically create an automobile family tree to see how they were related.

We returned to Drive Green and proceeded to fall in love with a midnight blue Polestar during our second test drive of the car. My earlier flirtation with the Enyaq coupe was forgotten, and we left the dealership practically giddy. Was this our future vehicle?

It became a battle of head vs. heart. The Polestar was our mid-life crisis car, one that was impractical for our lifestyle but which we both really liked the look of and its driving power. A word that is regularly bandied about in EV car reviews is “refinement”, and cars are described as being more or less refined. I found it all a bit vague until I encountered the Polestar; it was probably the most refined of all the cars we drove this year.

And we came *this* close to buying it. But we got cold feet and the head won. The car would soon be out of its warranty period, and Polestar shot itself in the foot by splitting what should have been included as standard into different “packs” (they don’t do trim levels). It was a big oversight and one that I believe they’ve rectified in the facelifted model.****

At this point a latecomer entered the Great Car Hunt. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 is a retro-styled vehicle that I absolutely hated the appearance of when I first saw it. The car is a bit like Marmite. Some people—like AutoTrader’s Rory Reid—absolutely adore it. Others, like me, find it ugly.***** As a result, I hadn’t bothered to research it at all. But we gave it a test drive and, well, I’ll eat my words. I enjoyed the spaciousness of the interior and the car did everything you could want and more. Indeed, it was one of the few—if not the only—vehicle we tried that managed to include all of the features you would expect in the standard model, without needing to splash out for a higher trim level.

The Ioniq 5 we looked at also came in a stunning matte paint that, in my opinion, elevates its appearance. And if you had told me a year ago I would be waxing lyrical about a car’s paint job, I would have laughed. After all, I wasn’t a car person. But I warmed to the Ioniq 5 and it was a very tempting option. The problem? That matte paint requires special care and attention to keep it looking good. We decided it wasn’t practical.

We were beginning to feel the time crunch. If we didn’t buy a car soon, we would need to repair Wiffo so it could pass its MOT. Yet it seemed a waste to plough money into a car that been around the planet the equivalent of eight times and which had seen better days.

As we were leaving Drive Green and weighing up our options, my eye was caught by a car in the customer car park. I went over to check it out because I didn’t recognise it, and I was surprised to see that it was a Kia e-Niro. I assumed it belonged to a member of staff or another customer. I returned to wait in Wiffo, but MrElaineous went to check whether the car was for sale. It was. And would we like to take a test drive? Of course.

So that’s how we ended up buying the exact same model car we had started with back at the beginning of the year, although our yacht blue CUU—named after the number plate and pronounced Coo, like Highland coo—is the all-singing-all dancing version. Literally: we can hook our phones to it and play music from our Spotify account. For many people reading this, it’s probably a standard feature on your vehicle; for us, it feels like a whole new world. It has a range of about 285 miles when fully charged and costs approximately £20.00 a month to charge at home at the moment; this should be cheaper once Ovo gets its act together and opens their low-priced EV tariffs to more car types and wallboxes.******

So, thus concludes the Great Car Hunt of 2023. It was an experience that managed to turn a mild-mannered researcher and non-driver into a car person … for one year at least.

* Two weeks after this, the price of the car began to drop. At the time of finishing this blog post in early December, it is currently several thousand pounds under what we were willing to pay and has yet to sell. [RETURN TO TEXT]

** It’s also a few miles from one of our favourite farm shops, Holy Cow (it’s located next to a church). Beyond Drive Green’s recent awards, I think this is also a point in the dealership’s favour: have a test drive then sample the cake. [RETURN TO TEXT]

*** The battery capacity of an EV is listed in kWh or kilowatts per hour. In general, the bigger the number, the greater the range of the vehicle. There are exceptions: heavier cars and those with less efficient motors can reduce the range. Rather than miles per gallon (mpg), EV owners will refer to how many miles per kilowatt hour they get, such as 4 miles per kWh (which is pretty good … it’s equivalent to 160 mpg in a gas or diesel-powered vehicle).

Another number to be aware of is kilowatt (kW), which refers to the power of the electric motor. Bigger is better … er, more powerful. In general, you’ll have a faster 0-60 time if that’s your thing. EVs typically have faster acceleration times than traditional ICE vehicles because the electric motor can provide instant power and torque (rotational force); check out the Lucid Air for a sub-two second acceleration (and an eye-watering price tag).

Slightly complicating things, kW can also refer to how much charge the vehicle can take (providing the charger can provide it). The higher the number, the faster the charge. For example, some home chargers can provide 22 kW charging … which doesn’t help if your car can only accept 11 kW alternating current (AC).

Okay, I’ve been trying to avoid this, but here it is: the most technical part of this blog post, based on my understanding of the technology (in other words, there may be mistakes) and what I wish I knew when we started the Great Car Hunt:

  • Level 1 charging is provided through standard household outlets and uses AC at 120 volts, which the vehicle converts to direct current (DC) to charge the battery. You can charge your vehicle this way, but it is slooooooow. There is a reason that it is also referred to as a trickle charger or granny charger.
  • Level 2 is still AC, but it is 240 volts, so it can charge your car much faster. Most home chargers use this system. For example, we now have a 7 kW Myenergi Zappi charger that means we can easily charge the vehicle overnight. 
  • Rapid charging operates using DC at around 400 volts. As implied in the name, it’s much faster than Level 2 charging, and can be found in many public charging stations. CCS (Combined Charging System) is one of the most commonly used systems in Europe, but Japanese carmakers tend to prefer CHAdeMO.
  • I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning Tesla so far for various reasons (such as this, this, and this), but the Tesla Supercharger network operates up to 480 volts. While the network is gradually being opened up to non-Tesla vehicles, it doesn’t mean that a car can charge at these speeds if its system wasn’t designed for it. It just increases the number of chargers available.
  • The ZapMap app is not only fun to say, but it allows you to see the location of public chargers, what system is available, and if they are working.
  • It’s typically recommended that EV batteries be charged to 80%, which is why charging times are usually given to 80% rather than 100%. There are a few reasons for this, but it primarily comes down to reducing stress on the lithium-ion battery, which in turn can increase the battery’s lifespan. [RETURN TO TEXT]

**** Isn’t car jargon fun? The trim level refers to the pre-packaged features or equipment included in a particular model. Most models have three or four trim levels that range from basic (cheapest) to top of the range (with a price to match). The sweet spot is usually right in the middle to get a decent set of safety equipment and nice-to-haves (e.g. heated seats and steering wheel).  

A change model refers to a significant change to the vehicle and is standard when manufacturers want to signify a new generation of a particular model. A facelifted model doesn’t have has many changes and is more of a continuation of the existing version. Based on my research, car manufacturers tend to facelift a model approximately every 3-4 years. In both cases, you want to make sure a review is referring to the particular version in front of you. [RETURN TO TEXT]

***** I find the Hyundai Ioniq 6 a much more attractive car, but 1) it’s pretty much only available new at the moment, and 2) it’s not exactly practical. [RETURN TO TEXT]

****** Shoutout to local firm MB Bells for the installation of our home charger in the remnants of a hurricane. The guys did a brilliant job in absolutely horrible weather. If you are considering an EV and home charger, make sure your garage electrics can take it: we had to upgrade ours. On the bright side—pun intended—we now have a much better lighting setup and can properly see all of the stuff in the garage that we need to get rid of. [RETURN TO TEXT]

UPDATE:

I’ll be honest: I usually ignore emails that request a link to their website, in part because 99.9% of the sites have no relevance to this blog. However, GoCompare.com reached out to share a tool they created to help would-be EV owners calculate the cost to charge their cars. It’s well worth checking out if you’re considering making the switch; I found it accurate based on our current charging costs: GoCompare EV Charging Calculator Tool.

Advice for Automobile Manufacturers:

  • Warranties: This became one of the key selling points for us, and we got to know most of the warranties on the market. Kia and MG offer a seven-year guarantee, Hyundai provides five, and most others provide only three. I would like to see manufacturers bring their standard warranty up to a minimum of five years as it would help level the playing field and give the heart a fighting chance. (The battery for most electric vehicles is covered under a separate eight-year warranty.)
  • Premium prices should yield premium features: I understand that car makers need to make money, and I don’t begrudge them having different trim levels or specifications. But if you’re going to charge a small fortune for your car, the least you can do is include features like a heated steering wheel, electric tailgate, and blind spot indicators as standard. This is where the Ioniq 5 really excelled.

    And, in a related complaint, I was stunned by the number of vehicles that only provided electric seat adjustments for the driver, even in the more premium vehicles (my darling Polestar, I’m looking at you). A theme running throughout the entire car buying experience is that the driver is put on a pedestal, and the passenger(s) are a second thought. Yes, I am taking this a bit personally.

  • Logical Trim Levels: For some reason it appears that car manufacturers like to use random themes to name the different trim levels in their vehicles. I am hereby requesting sensible names so you can tell what’s low-spec and what’s high-spec. Kia’s 2-4+ was the most straightforward of the lot; Skoda’s Loft, Lodge, and Lounge still have me puzzled.

    And AutoTrader, if you’re reading this, could you please make it easy to see what each trim level or model variant includes? I really don’t think I should need another advanced degree (or a separate Google search) to figure out what’s different about a GT, a GT-Line, and a GT-Line S.

Advice for Car Dealers:

  • Talk to both partners: It felt like such an out-of-date cliché, but a handful of salesmen (and all of the salespeople we spoke with along our journey were men) completely ignored me to speak to MrElaineous instead. It goes without saying that this is not a great way to sell a car (or sell anything for that matter).
  • Stop trying to sell: Seriously. Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to sales techniques after reading The Go-Giver, but some salesmen are clearly trying to get their commission and finding the right car for us didn’t really enter the picture. My favourite: a new salesman who mentioned he had only been working at the dealership for six weeks and had just gone through training. He then said, “I know you’re going to take this car, so I put £20 of petrol in it for you to get it home.” It was such a line that I had to bite my tongue not to laugh.
  • Beware the curse of knowledge: Forget the Ides of March, this is the statement that I find myself repeating on a regular basis when teaching academics and researchers as part of my business. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias—a shortcut in the brain—that states that once you learn something, you forget what it’s like not to know it … and you assume that others also understand it.

    As you can imagine, it’s very common in academia where people have spent years marinating in very specific subset of research and forget that their reader has not. The same goes for some car dealers who throw around terminology like kilowatt hour and CCS without actually explaining what it means. Your potential customers who have just started their EV journey will be grateful for a sentence or two of explanation in plain English. Not everyone is going to do the research necessary to write a 5,000-word guide after buying a vehicle.

Advice for Car Buyers:

  • Don’t be afraid of electrics: There are so many myths and so much negativity in certain media outlets about EVs, but you have to ask yourself, “Why are they pushing such an agenda?” Could the oil and gas industry be behind it, much like tobacco companies spent decades downplaying and casting doubt on the health impacts of smoking? Before judging the vehicles sight unseen, go out and try one. I’m obviously partial to the Polestar, but the EV6 is nice too if want to get a feel for a top-end electric vehicle.

    If you’re worried about the charging infrastructure in your neck of the woods—and it seems that this is holding a lot of people back—I recommend checking out ZapMap to see where chargers are located.

  • Don’t be afraid of automatics: I’ll be honest: I don’t get the UK’s obsession with manual cars. Why would you want to make the process of driving more challenging for yourself? I’ve had a few gentlemen of a certain age tell me that automatics stall more often, which may have been the case when they were first released on the market, but I have never ever been in an automatic that’s stalled during my four decades on the planet. MrElaineous was originally a little nervous about switching, but he made the shift without any problems at all.
  • Don’t be afraid to take your time: While I don’t necessarily recommend taking as long as we did, I feel we found the right car for us. We didn’t jump into anything, and we were well aware when the heart was trying to steer us into making an impulsive decision.

And finally …

From an environmental perspective, I recognise that cars in general are problematic and that governments should of course be spending money to support public transport and encourage walking and cycling. However, I think it’s important not to let perfect become the enemy of the good when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint. At the moment, EVs are more efficient than ICE and this will only continue to improve.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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