Archive for February, 2010

Starting a New LIfe

February 23, 2010 1 comment

Cheap and Cheerful

After months of searching, I’ve got myself a new Life, literally and metaphorically.

In the metaphorical sense, a new world of opportunities has been opened to me. In the literal sense, I’m the proud owner of a (slightly used) 2009 Honda Life G.

As mentioned in my previous post, most Japanese dealers do not sell off the lot, but have a limited availability of test drive cars. My new Life was one of them, for the fine Honda Cars Yokohama group of dealers. In its 12 months of service in that capacity, it was driven only 6,000 km, and was carefully maintained. Unlike most Japanese used cars, it has not been smoked in, nor eaten in, nor modified in any detrimental way. And despite the excellent condition it’s in (and largely due to the outrageous color), a year’s depreciation has saved me hundreds of thousands of yen – about 30% of the price as new – and helped take the sting out of a new car purchase.


Big in Back

Enough of that, though, and a bit more about the car. The Life was comprehensively redesigned for the 2009 model year, and along with the Suzuki WagonR, is one of the newest in its class. A so-called “middle-height” kei, it has ample interior room front and rear, even for six-footers, and a healthy amount of cargo space with the rear seats down. While it lacks the trick folding seats of Honda’s Zest or the sliding rear seats of most of its competitors, its exceptionally low load floor and fixed design gives it the greatest cargo capacity in its class when the rear seats are up – even while providing business-class legroom in back.

Mechanically, Honda’s kei leave something to be desired – the suspension is a bit busier than the silky-smooth WagonR, and the engine, while happy to rev, strains a bit when paired with the four speed automatic (most of its competitors now have a CVT). Strictly on numbers, the Life’s 660cc 3 cylinder is down four horsepower on the class leading Daihatsu engine, even with Mitsubishi, and a touch behind Suzuki and Subaru. But it is smoother than most of the 3’s on the market, with excellent, linear throttle response, and for those with a distaste for the buzzy, anemic feeling of CVTs, the 4AT feels more like a regular car.

The earliest production models (like mine) introduced electric power steering to the Life, and due to the largely female customer base of these cars, it was modified to feel a bit lighter at highway speed from mid 2009. I personally am not much ruffled by missing out on the newer version, because the steering now is a tough on the light side, and a touch too light on center for my taste. It’s never vague, but it’s never dialed in, either. More than anything, however, the impression from behind the wheel is overwhelmingly one of Honda-ness. For anyone who has driven Honda cars before, the Life will present few surprises, despite its diminutive proportions. I’m inclined to believe this is a good thing.


A beautiful view

The Life is available in three flavors: the standard “G” (with the stripped down “C” for businesses), the pinch-me cute “Pastel” and the confusingly named “Diva” (which is supposed to appeal to men). My car is a G, which despite its positioning in the lineup still comes with a lot of standard equipment. Power windows, keyless entry, air conditioning, ABS with electronic brake force distribution, power folding side mirrors, UV rejecting glass with rear privacy tint and – most trick of all – a standard rear-view camera cover all the bases. Step up to the higher end Diva or Pastel models, and this itty-bitty commuter, Honda’s most basic model in Japan, can be spec’d with HID headlights, rear park distance sensors, curtain air-bags, auto climate control, aluminum wheels, hard disk based navigation and keyless ignition. Pretty cool considering that, so specified, you’re still looking at a purchase price of around ¥1.5 million, taxes included. It really does pay to live small.

But best of all, by buying off the lot, it will be in my parking space in less than a week, rather than waiting the three to four weeks common when buying new.

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You can quote me on it

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m finally buying a car.

I’ve been thinking of doing precisely that since about twenty minutes after I disembarked UA837 at the then newly re-christened “Narita International Airport” and wandered into the parking lot en route to the microbus to my university. It’s been some time. Now armed with a driver’s license, a consenting partner and cash, I felt it was high time to start car shopping in earnest.

I should state that I’ve been to car dealers in Japan dozens of times. They’re small, tidy affairs, and since cars are ordered from manufacturer inventory (or off production lists) in Japan, they tend to have only a small handful of test drive cars on hand. As a consequence, if you’re looking for any but the most popular model at any but the largest dealership, you had better check in advance to see if they’ll actually have one on the lot. This can be easily accomplished by checking most dealer’s websites, and some manufacturer pages list the information directly, but for those accustomed to American-style mega dealers with two months worth of inventory, be forewarned.

The lack of inventory has a profound effect on negotiations: you can’t just “buy one off the lot.” One needn’t be concerned with managing inventory swaps or balancing option packages because, once ordered, you’ll be receiving the same vehicle from the list regardless of the dealer you buy it from. All you do is decide who gets your hard earned yen – and how much.

Wiggle room can be found in two places. First, when asked, the dealer gives you a quote at list price, explains each and every item on it, and proceeds to handwrite the real number on it. Plausible deniability and all. You can push to get that number down – here you’ll quickly find which dealers get the better deals from the manufacturer – or you can get concessions from the accessory column. A third, unexpected area of flexibility comes in the many fees associated with buying a new car. Some dealers can give concessions on destination, plate number selection, plate registration fee and even give you discounts for future vehicle inspection. Just don’t expect too much.

Unsurprisingly, though, the most important factor is finding a salesperson you’re comfortable with and who’s comfortable with you. I’ve had good luck with mid-sized dealers. The smallest are generally not competitive (or competent, or informed, or able to speak coherently to foreigners…) while the mega-dealers are predictably impersonal. If your Japanese level is low, finding a place that has dealt with many foreigners may be helpful. On the other hand, If you’re conversational in Japanese, a shop without a foreign clientele may have fewer preconceptions. If you have special needs – and by this I mean SOFA – it’s best to stay close to base.

To illustrate my point, I visited two Honda dealers today: Honda Cars Sagamihara-Higashi (Zama store) and the considerably bigger Honda Cars Chūō-Kanagawa (Sagamiōno store). At the former, I was greeted by a well-meaning but perfectly hopeless salesperson who had great difficulty realizing that I was speaking to him in Japanese and kept insisting that I must be from the nearby Army base, camp Zama, despite all attempts to dissuade him. At the latter, I was greeted with great service, no interruptions, preconceptions and no difficulties following my Japanese. I left the first dealer discouraged and frustrated, and the second with a pair of quotes and lots of useful information.

Another – and unfortunate – variable in service is make. To put it succinctly, downmarket dealers (Suzuki, Daihatsu and Vitz, I’m looking directly at you) tend to have downmarket service. Having been to three Suzuki dealers to get quotes for the WagonR Stingray I decided on, I’ve been left so unimpressed I’ve reassessed my decision and I’m now including the Honda Zest Spark once again, just on the basis of Honda’s superior service (and factory nav, though that’s a different story).

But with a little persistence, I’ll have found that special someone to take just the right amount of my money, and hand me a tiny little car in exchange. Wish me luck!

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How to get a perfect score on your driving test (on the third try)

February 9, 2010 1 comment

My apologies for a long absence from blogging. To put it succinctly, this had been the winter of my discontent. Three great shocks and one personal upheaval later, I feel things are getting back on track.

That personal upheaval – beginning a new and considerably more demanding position at work – has kept me away from the blog. Not that there has been much good news. But more of that to follow.

What has gone well, now that I’ve had a chance to settle into my new job, is that I finally made it in for my third driving exam, only three months late. And as I’ve found, the Japanese say “third time’s a charm” for a reason.

So here, in short, I offer you the most important things I’ve learned:

First, a word to the wise: if you suspect you’re not going to make an appointment, it’s better to change it than to be stuck going in at 8:30 in the morning to make a new one having missed it.

The biggest factor in your success, whether on the first try or the last, is that you’ve unlearned everything you had expected a driving test should be. Your mindset going into the test determines your success far more than simple driving skill, because skill is not what’s being tested. The Japanese driving exam is neither subtle or nuanced. Silky starts, gentle braking and smooth lane changes will kill your chances of success.

The most important word to keep in mind for your test is merihari. Your driving style must be deliberate. When you complete a turn, your hands return the wheel to center, not inertia. When you change lanes, you do so having signaled well in advance, and you do so abruptly, not gradually.

The examiner wants to feel your knowledge in the seat of his pants: be unambiguous. Hit him with a sledgehammer. When you accelerate, make him feel it. When you brake, make it obvious. When you stop, let the nose of the car dip a bit. Announce to him: “Yes, I have stopped, thank you very much.” Don’t crawl along between turns. Get up to speed, and then slow down when you get where you’re going.

As a test taker, your natural reaction is to be overly cautious in all the wrong ways. You want to crawl along. You want to sit at clear intersections. You don’t want to screw up. But in the eyes of the examiner, your hesitation is a mistake. Yes, when you come to an intersection, visibly move your head both ways, check your mirrors, but then, when you can see you’re clear, just go. Moving to the side of the lane, your instinct in a test will be to do so slowly and gently, drifting along. What you should be doing is showing your confidence: turn on your indicator, look over your shoulder, and then move with authority. You own that lane.

Let your interaction with the instructor reflect that. When they tell you to make a turn, give them a strong hai and repeat what they’ve told you. Show them that you’re mentally in control. If you’re timid on their test course, imagine how they think you’ll behave on a real road.

And keep in mind as you prepare for the test, when you look at the map, when you visualize your course, that you are not doing this test to demonstrate your profeciency in operating a motor vehicle. They don’t ask you to do a J-turn, you never even need to put your car in reverse. You are being tested on your ability to follow the idealized rules of the Japanese road. This is why lane placement and turns are so critical, because Japan’s academic driving style differs so much from other countries.

Practically, a few points are critical: When you turn left, hug the curb. Unless, of course, that left turn is immediately followed by a right; then make sure you proceed straight into the instersection and delay your turn such that you align your car beside the center line from the moment you enter the intersection. You’re showing anticipation of your driving path, and this is key.

Likewise, when you turn right, start from the far right, move straight into the intersection, delay your turn and align your car with the far left of the lane. Don’t cut the corner – go straight, turn sharply. A right followed by another right, naturally, should do the same, but align with the right hand side of the following lane.

At a controlled intersection, proceed quickly with a glance to either side, or come to a stop, depending on the indication. Stop forcefully if you must. At an intersection where you have priority, slow to glance to the sides, but don’t crawl. At an intersection where you do not have priority, or at blind corners, slow to a crawl, but do not stop unless there is traffic. Demonstrate to the examiner that you understand how to proceed through the intersection, and do so with your right foot. Being overly cautious shouts “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing,” which is not what you want to say during a test.

Finally, understand that this is all a lot to take in. You will probably not pass on your first test. You may very well make a stupid mistake. Don’t become disheartened as I did. When you first take the test, even if you’ve taken lessons, you may only focus on what not to do. But if you focus on what to do – to embrace the blunt-force method of driving, and focus on demonstrating rather than simply doing – you’ll realize that you can control much more than you think.

And as you walk back to Futamatagawa station (for those of you who, like me, live in Kanagawa), you’ll not be looking at the people driving by and wondering what they knew that you didn’t. Because you’ll have a shiny new green striped license in your wallet.

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