Buying a new car in a COVID environment
Monday, December 21, 2020
If you appreciate an interesting predicament (or read my earlier article), I have been struggling with what to do when the warranty expires on my 2017 718 Cayman in July. I can’t possibly chance an uncovered Porsche, as the potential consequences can be fiscally catastrophic. So, I’ve been accustomed to flipping for a new one when it gets too close.
I’ve been leaning strongly toward the 718 Cayman GTS 4.0 — with that insanely delightful flat-six powerhouse producing nearly 400 ponies. I was raised on muscle cars, so I was also intrigued by the release of the mid-engine Corvette C8. And it wasn’t long before I was obsessed. But only one of these beauties could fit in my garage, or in my wallet.
Well, that all went sideways when the coronavirus arrived. And the lives of those of us fortunate enough to be spared a direct impact were nonetheless altered, affecting most aspects of daily reality. My perspective on almost everything was distorted rather abruptly, and transportation was no exception.
My wife and I are listed in more than one medical high-risk category, so we’ve been hunkered down and working from home since last February. We food shop at off-peak hours every other week, and doctor appointments are generally telemed. We haven’t seen any friends or family in person for almost a year — that’s just the way it is when you need to stay safe.
A New Strategy
A third car was added to our two-person family just prior to the pandemic — my wife graduating from a well-used Honda HRV to an Audi Q3. The plan was for me to drive the Honda to work and the 718 Cayman would be my first garage queen. But since last November I’d only put 200 miles on the Cayman, and not much more than that has been added to the other two.
It was initially a solid plan. Until I realized that we were dedicating space for three cars that could not be driven nearly as much as they once had. Even post-pandemic any driving meant vehicular dilution from a surplus of options. And although the Honda was now middle-aged, I hated for it to be slumbering in the driveway and blocking the exit for my 718.
When we went shopping for the Audi, we had first visited our local BMW dealer to check out the X1, 2 and 3. But like Goldilocks and The Three Bears, one was too this and the other was too that. Having been previous owners of a BMW 325xi that both of us enjoyed, we left a bit disappointed fully expected to drive home in one of them.
I did get a glimpse of a stunning late model M4 on the way out, so all was not completely lost. It was low, lean and meaner than a caged badger. I thought about that car all the way home and then into the next days and weeks. I started doing the math in my head and assessing alternatives. Google and YouTube only fueled this obsession.
Lost in online searches, I stumbled on the 2021 BMW M440i almost accidently. Unknown to me at that time, I studied the first renderings and I liked the aggressive design (including the controversial front grill). When the pre-production prototypes appeared, the Corvette and Cayman GTS began sharing the stage with an unlikely challenger.
No, this BMW is not a mid-engine design — an undeniable departure from my more recent fixations. But the all-wheel xDrive is rear-wheel bias and standard on the M440i coupe, making it seriously contending. It’s not classically a sports car, but it’s an athletic, purposeful coupe with attributes neither the Vette nor the Cayman can compete with.
Moreover, I needed this car to be a serious daily driver — without losing a mischievousness nature. And since the M440i comes standard with the exclusive BMW 48-volt hybrid assist, it satisfies not only a desire to move toward eco-friendly technologies and shrink our carbon footprint, but simultaneously increasing performance in all measurable categories.
Finally, an enormous upside of the M440i is its ability to play the part of an extremely fun to drive, potent (and dare I say) practical car. Where else can you cut a check for sixty grand and walk away with a fully optioned 4-seat coupe that produces nearly 400 horsepower — all with the infamous BMW maintenance-free warranty?
The Quest Begins
I checked the official BMW website every day for the new models to appear, but week after torturous week passed without a sniff. At long last, it suddenly appeared one morning, and I could now play around with the BMW configurator to create the perfect M440i just for me — a bit anticlimactic it turns out since it’s pretty well equipped right out of the box.
I saved my choices so I could go back and tweak particulars later, and during the closeout process a solicitation request appeared requesting a contact from my local dealer, BMW of Devon. Sure, how much risk is there in a phone call? Anyway, I would have bet no salesperson would even be aware of its release. And I would have lost that wager.
After a few email exchanges, I was directed to Hakim, a polite and quiet young man who impressed immediately — not just with his extensive knowledge of BMW, but his specific familiarity with this car. This purchase could be one of the last entertaining cars I’d ever own, so I appreciated someone who held a similar level of awareness to help me finalize the build.
As far as my intentions go, I was straight with him. The M440i would need to be a substitute for some of the utility and practicality of my Honda but challenge the spirit I’ve experienced in the Cayman. I also wanted to trade in both cars for a respectable price and have a touchless experience from sale to delivery — a tall order indeed.
My nature is to set expectations low, so I wasn’t really prepared to get a reasonable offer for both cars. But I did. Oh, I could perhaps have gotten a bit more for the Cayman if I sold it outright. But there’s an intrinsic cost of selling a car on your own, not to mention it’s a gigantic pain. Sight-unseen, they made a bid for the pair of them. And I accepted.
I was pleased so far. But remember that I haven’t even seen one in the wild at this point. The online build was perfect – Dravit grey with a mocha interior. Hakim persuaded me to select the Shadowline package, blacking out the grill and other trim components. He was dead on. Black wheels with all-season run-flats complimented the final product.
We arranged to drop off the trades the next day — a simple process pre-pandemic, but for us it required strategic planning. Completing the transaction outdoors minimized complications. We arrived and Hakim greeted us from a distance, masked as we were. Some signatures occurred over the hood of the Honda and we were on our way. So far, so good.
I admit I was taking a bit of a risk having not seen or driven this car. But having owned a BMW with xDrive (not to mention the research time I invested), I felt reasonably confident that we wouldn’t be disappointed. It was only the second time I’d have bought a vehicle without actually sitting in the driver seat. My very first car was the other, and it didn’t have one.
The Test Drive
Two interminable weeks passed, and I nearly forgot about it (I’m lying now for the sake of drama). But while taking our lunchtime walk through the neighborhood one afternoon, my cellphone buzzed. It was Hakim, and he wondered if I’d be interested in driving a demo model that had just arrived. Was that a rhetorical question? We hurried home.
Arriving at the dealership for the second time, the exchange was similar to the first — socially distanced and masked at all times. The M440i demo still had the protective sheeting on the hood and trunk, and it felt much like testing a pre-production stealth fighter. They sanitized the interior and off we went.
We only had 30 minutes or so as we were on our lunch break and both of us had afternoon meetings. I grew up in the area, so I knew the roads I wanted to play on. The first thing I noticed (with great relief) was zero turbo-lag. Whether it was the 48-volt hybrid assist or some other technical gizmo, this motor pulled alarmingly hard, smooth and strong.
Another surprise was the interior comfort. We deliberately kept the default settings so as not to be overly stimulated by any excessiveness. The seats had a snug grip with just the right amount of support and padding, and without the mushiness of a family room recliner. Things tighten up a bit in sport mode, but that’s no surprise.
Less than half an hour later, we exited the car and removed our driving gloves (of the medical nitrile variety), left the keys with Hakim and were on our way home. A completely contactless experience, this was definitely the weirdest but also the most exhilarating test drive I’ve ever completed — legally at any rate.
On the way home we discussed the raw power, road manners and cornering. There was a misty rain for the duration of our assessment. But perfect conditions are not desired for a test drive in a car like this. The BMW M440i proved itself to be the most balanced and surefooted car I’ve ever driven in the wet. My Cayman would not have managed as well.
So then now we would play the waiting game. There is nothing more interminably annoying than anticipation. The hourglass dropped grains of sand so slowly I could count them as they fell. I wandered aimlessly in my garage – the lingering echo conspicuously apparent, and the empty bay looked lonelier than a pointless punctuation.
I’ve been pestering Hakim for updates when the urge became too intense. And he has obliged with select milestones as he received them. But it’s all rather hollow when there is no context to a specific delivery timeframe. A recent text indicated my car was in the body shop and transport was pending from the factory. And then nothing more for what seemed an eternity.
On Dec. 8 at 4 p.m. — 74 days and 10 minutes from my initial contact with the dealer, I got a call from Frank, the New Car Sales Manager. The vessel Manon was sailing into Port Bayonne harbor (New Jersey) and was scheduled to dock the following day. I logged onto VesselFinder.com and followed it for several hours until it reached the pier.
I had no idea how long the unloading and delivery process normally takes. I realize vehicle transportation is nothing like Amazon Prime and that there are customs, inspections and other logistics to contend with. Frank indicated this can take about two weeks — but I got a message from him late the next week indicating an imminent arrival.
There is no reason I should have expected the delivery to be that much more complicated than the first visits. Yes, there were several more sales related tasks to complete. The plan was to do as much of this activity ahead of time (dealer options, vehicle settings and such), so that there would be a minimum of contact.
We arrived as before and met in the transfer area outside — they are doing perhaps 50% no contact deliveries. The car was poised in seclusion, the black subdued wheels tucked inside the wells like the haunches of a panther straining to spring on its prey. We completed a visual inspection checking for imperfections. It was flawless, and my eyes watered.
The documents were prepared and reviewed on the phone with us that morning, and we signed off on them in the shadow of the coupe as the late afternoon sun faded. Less than an hour from arrival the process was complete. We parted and I drove home with my wife driving the Q3 in my rearview mirror.
I did not intend to provide a comprehensive review of my BMW M440i as part of this commentary — that is something I’ve promised for the early part of the New Year. I will need a chance to flog it around a bit under some diverse conditions. Initial impressions? It’s everything I expected it to be. Beautiful. Luxurious. Intoxicating.
I’ve appreciated every car I’ve owned for one reason or another, even some of our commuter clunkers. But I’ve truly treasured only a handful. The BMW M440i is such a car. I knew it would be the moment I configured it on the BMW website so many weeks ago. And it was well worth the wait.
Being a self-subscribed motor head has meant that I’m destined to pursue my next purchase. In the past my eyes have wandered to other tantalizing possibilities sometimes within months of a transaction. Perhaps that’s because I was always compromising for one reason or another. But now, just in time for the holidays, I have filled both the void in my garage and in my soul.
I will admit that I missed out on the typical car buying experience. This was the first, and I certainly hope the last time we have to complete a purchase in this way. The entire process was either remote or socially distanced. I agree that’s a bit peculiar, but given our relative health, we take this virus seriously. And we are thankful that BMW of Devon did as well.
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