I LOVE GOING TO DEALERSHIPS AS A CUSTOMER because regardless of the experience - good or bad - I have something to write about. At such times I feel like a newspaper food critic anonymously going into a restaurant, except I'm planning to critique a dealership.
In September, I decided that it was time to retire my father's 1990 Oldsmobile. I was enjoying the low cost of operating the inherited old 88 but was pining for some modern safety equipment. Driving it in Michigan winters made me feel like Evel Knievel at times.
With the exception of a Mercury Sable, which was a company car, and my dad's Oldsmobile, I had driven nothing but Pontiacs, so I decided to do business with Jim Fresard Pontiac-Buick in Royal Oak, MI.
I was planning to buy a new Grand Prix, but I wanted a CD player and a cassette player in the sound system. Internet research showed me that this combo wasn't readily available. So I decided to check out the used-car lot to see if anything interested me there. I went shopping after hours to browse unmolested.
The Fresard used-car lot had several solid nearly new vehicles. But one caught my eye immediately: a black 1999 Buick Regal GS in the front row. It had leather seats, a sunroof and ... a Monsoon sound system with a CD player and a cassette deck. I learned later that the car had come in off lease that day.
I had found my car, but the place was closed so I stopped on the way to work the next morning to buy it.
None of the cars on Fresard's used-car lot had prices posted anywhere, which makes customers ask a salesperson about the vehicle. "Nice touch," I thought to myself.
I went to the lot first thing in the morning, walked right up to my car and two seconds later I was approached by Russ Jackson, a former dealer from the South who ended up selling used cars in Michigan after a messy divorce. "She got the gold mine and I got the shaft," says Mr. Jackson.
Just to show how even a jaded journalist who writes about this industry can get caught up in the emotion of buying a car, I asked, "how much?" Mr. Jackson said, "$18,988." I said, "I'll take it!"
In retrospect I should have tried to negotiate a bit, but like I said, I liked the car and wanted it ... NOW.
I brought $2,000 to put down and planned to trade in the Olds. It's value - with nearly 63,000 miles, a dent and a faulty air conditioning system - was in question. Kelley Blue Book put it around $1,300. Fresard gave me $1,200. I was delighted.
After extending the warranty to 100,000 miles, I was on my way. I love the new car.
Three months into my ownership experience, Fresard Pontiac-Buick had impressed me with its fair handling of my trade-in and its efficient delivery of a used car. Now, the time had come to put the service department to the test. Among the pile of paperwork I was given when I bought the car was a book of service coupons. Most applied only to new cars. But one - for a free oil change - applied to me.
This would be a test. I was accustomed to the 20-minute drive-through variety oil change.
I pulled the car in and presented my coupon. I also asked for a tire rotation and a new set of wiper blades. The service advisor, Randy Gaddey, said he'd have the technicians look at the driver's door, which had a molding out of line. I hadn't noticed.
An hour later, I was ready to go. Not as fast as Uncle Ed's or Minit-Lube, but then again, those places don't rotate tires, fix door moldings nor have "The View" on the television in a lounge.
Fresard Pontiac-Buick had passed the next test. I might even go back and pay for an oil change next time. Coupons apparently work for customer retention.
Then, on Christmas Day, I got a low tire pressure light on my instrument panel. I checked the tires. Yes, the extremely low December Michigan temperatures had dropped my tire pressures to about half of what they should be. I put air in and the light stayed on.
Had I consulted the owner's manual, I would have learned about the reset button in the fuse box near the passenger side door. But the manual was stowed back in the trunk to make room for things like gloves in the glove compartment.
What better way to put Fresard Pontiac-Buick to the test once again than to pull in and ask how long it might take to fix this dashboard light problem. I was expecting to take in another episode of "The View" and maybe even "Oprah" and "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" while technicians checked sensors in the tires and troubleshot my electronics.
"How long do you think it'll take to put this light out?" I asked. "About a minute," the service advisor replied as he opened the fuse box and pressed the reset button. The "low tire" light flashed off.
"How did you do that?" I inquired. "If I told you that, I'd have to kill you," he said. I like a sense of humor, especially on a person who usually brings news of high repair bills. Then he explained about the button and how the pressure sensing system works.
So, congratulations to Doug Fresard and his entire staff. Jim Fresard Pontiac-Buick passed every test I threw its way. No wonder I see so many of the store's license-plate holders on cars about town.