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You can quote me on it

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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