This entry might be a little mundane for those preferring pictures of the beautiful scenery of Portugal. But for some reason, the differences between the US and Portugal (or any other advanced country) fascinate me. Sometimes the differences are minor and inconsequential, but sometimes they’re a slap-on-the-forehead-why-don’t-we-learn-from-the-other-country kinds of issues (in both directions).
Since the process of buying a car is not all that consequential (despite the fact that it is usually one of the most expensive things most of us ever buy), the differences noted below aren’t really head slappers. I just find them interesting.
When we began our search, it was a bit confusing. In the US, you have rows and rows of new and used cars on all sorts of dealer lots. Just drive to “car dealer row,” and you can meander through thousands of choices. Test drive one, decide you like it, negotiate, and off you go.
In the Lisbon area, there are plenty of car dealers, but none of the new dealers we could see had lots filled with cars: just shiny showrooms with new cars on display (without any price stickers or anything else on the car windows). Just outside of Lisbon we passed by some used car dealerships that were clearly on the low-end side of things. We didn’t feel inclined to shop in those dealerships; I’m guessing our experience would have been more similar to used car buying in the US than it turned out to be in Portugal.
Otherwise, it was difficult to find used car websites that gave you any idea what to do from there, especially with them being clumsily translated by Google into english. So we decided to simply drive to a dealership on a Saturday to see what’s what. Lo and behold, they were all closed! Yep, car dealerships here are closed on weekends. Those are surely the busiest days of the week in the US… and Portuguese dealerships are closed. To which I say, “hurrah!” for the Portuguese. They put family time ahead of making a buck. And as long as everyone’s doing the same thing, no one misses out on any bucks at all, because surely no fewer cars are sold, they’re just all sold during the week, and all the employees get their weekends.
Of course, that’s something that can never change in the US, because it would not only involve a bunch of collusion between all the dealers, but a vast cultural change as well.
Our friend Erika steered us to a company called Santogal. Again, we looked at their website, but that really didn’t help us. So we ventured out once more (not on a weekend- see: we’re learning!) to find the dealership. It turns out that Santogal, as I understand it, is basically a company that networks all the top dealers in the area. And so ultimately, you sit down with a salesperson who works through the website with you, once he finds out what you’re looking for. And that’s simply how you find your car.
We were assisted by a gentleman named Pedro, who not only spoke excellent english, but he was a delightful, friendly, unassuming man. The only salesmanship he exuded was being helpful and friendly. He was about as far away from the “What can I do to put you into a car today?” schtick as Donald Trump is from being a scientist (even if you’re a fan of his, you have to admit he’s no scientist).
Pedro showed us all the VW Golfs and Polos that were available in our price range. Since I had never been in a Polo, he found one on the lot (as far as I could tell, none of the ones on the lot were quite for sale; maybe they were in the midst of being processed. In any case, it was apparent you wouldn’t point to one on the lot and ask how much it was). Once we were comfortable with the feel of the Polo, we went inside, perused through all the options, and found one to our liking.
(By the way, I typically prefer Japanese-made cars because of their reliability and quality of construction, but in Europe, Japanese cars are not only a fair amount more expensive, but getting parts and service is much more problematic. So German, French, and Italian cars tend to dominate the landscape.)
As to the deal, there was no negotiation: they listed the price and that’s it. I tried a little bit, but I believed him when he said they simply don’t do that. I confirmed this fact with Erika, and ultimately was happy for it. The other option was of course to try and buy one from an individual, but due to the language barriers and our newness to the culture and so on, we decided that wouldn’t be the best idea. Besides, you really have no idea what you’re getting, unless you take it do a mechanic and go through all that rigmarole.
So we now wanted to see the car in person. He said he’d have it delivered and we could come back in a few days to test drive it. Once it was in, I went back to the dealership, test drove it, found it to be perfectly great, and was ready to drive it off the lot.
Hold on there big fella! We don’t work that way in Portugal! It was a Tuesday, and I’d hoped to be able to pick it up by Friday because that’s when our rental car was due back. He said that should be okay, but what he thought I meant was a week from the upcoming Friday; in other words about ten days out. Once we cleared up our miscommunication, I expressed surprise that it would take so long.
He told me they had to service it, and he showed me some little dings here and there that they’d want to touch up and so on, and that it would take at least over a week to get all that done. Yes, they even provided touch up paint on the little dings a two-year-old car will always have. I couldn’t have cared less about them, but they wanted the car to look brand spanking new.
I couldn’t object too strenuously because after all, they were going to do good things to the car. It did mean that I had to rent a car for another week; but renting a car here is crazy cheap… about $5 a day (before taxes) gets you a nice little four door just like the Polo.
When the day arrived to pick it up, he told me it wouldn’t be ready until about 5:00. They had to download some additional software updates and make the final delivery to the dealership. I wanted to return the rental car to the airport by noon to avoid extra fees. When I told him that he said he’d be happy to come pick us up when the car was ready.
As it turned out, he was able to pick us up before 3:00, so all we had to “suffer” through was a leisurely lunch at the airport and about a half hour of reading.
The car was beautifully detailed and looked as good as new. They even replaced the license plates even though the car was less than two years old, because the new ones they’re using now look so much nicer. Hard to beat that attention to detail!
Santogal also provides a one year warranty on the car, which includes pick-up if there’s a problem as well as a replacement car for 48 hours. Even for a flat tire.
I noted with interest that the displayed price was actually calculated with a 23% tax included. That’s a hefty tax; I’m glad it wasn’t added in afterwards, I might’ve really suffered some sticker shock. I don’t begrudge Portugal their taxes, however. I did a search on tax burden by country, and Portugal wasn’t even on the list of the top 27. (Neighboring Spain was 19th on the list, while the worst was Argentina followed by Bolivia. Of course, this was a report on business taxes, but hey, I can only do so much research for a stupid blog only you’re reading (prove that anyone else is!). While we’re at it, however, the lowest tax rates belong to Macedonia, followed by Qatar. Neither the US or Portugal were on either list, so I guess they’re both somewhere in the middle.)
In the end, I was absolutely delighted with the process, the service, the warranty, the deal, the salesman, and of course the car. Santogal clearly dominates the used car landscape here, but the service they provide at reasonable prices clearly demonstrates that you don’t need 50 competitors to give consumers the best prices and services. I’d take the Santogal experience any day over every single car buying experience I’ve ever had prior to this.