Or you’ll end up on a test drive that looks like this, which is exactly what happened to me this week. It all started when I found a 1 owner, 52k mile 2005 WRX for sale nearby. A total unicorn. I was excited and drove to the dealership the very next day. It was incredibly clean inside and out, aside from a small crack in the windshield, which was “scheduled to be replaced.” Fair enough, I told myself...

No. Definitely not. That should have been a big red flag. My gut told me that this was probably just the tip of the iceberg. Windshield replacement is free in Massachusetts, by law. It’s covered by the insurance companies and this place has had the car since June.

In my defense, the small crack was the only visible flaw. There was no rust on the body, and the interior looked like a stock photo. Its service history was extensive and the Carfax was clean. Awesome! Time to take it for a test drive.

It looked exactly like this one, but with some tasteful OZ Prodrive wheels the previous owner bought.

After a relatively tame 30 minute cruise, we parked the car in front of the dealership and went inside to figure out a price. We agreed on a number and I went outside to give the purchase some thought. Was I really about to buy this thing? Is this really going to be my ride for the next few years? I paced around in front of the car and mulled it over.

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Wait... what’s that? Is that smoke coming out of the hood? It was indeed. Oil smoke, which I’d smelled a hint of during the last couple minutes of the drive. It was coming out slowly but steadily, in quantities so small that you couldn’t see it unless you were looking from the perfect angle. I went inside and told the salesman, who took so long to come outside that it had stopped completely by the time he arrived. We decided to take it on another quick drive to see if it’d happen again.

I pushed the car a little harder that time, revving it all the way to peak boost when I could. It wasn’t all that fast (225 horsepower) but still a lot of fun to drive. Great steering, boxer rumble, and over 1000LBS lighter than my current car. And then it happened. After a 1-2-3 pull between a set of lights, the car began billowing white smoke. It looked like someone was shooting a fire extinguisher out of the hood. We were a quarter mile from the dealership so I didn’t pull over and opted to nurse it back instead.

 This is the point where I should have just walked away. That may be super obvious to older Opponauts (and the wiser young ones) but I was enamored with the car’s showroom fresh appearance, so I pressed on.

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Given how much sitting around the car had done (only 4,000 miles per year) I assumed that the culprit was simply a leaky valve cover gasket dripping onto the header. Rational thoughts like: “What kind of dealership would have a car suffering from catastrophic gasket failure on the lot, and have no idea about it!?” were brushed aside in favor of delusional rationalizations like “I’m a car guy, I understand exactly what’s going on and I can handle this. Sometimes good cars end up in the wrong hands.” Furthermore, the dealer had M cars, S cars, and AMGs galore. There was even a Bentley Mulsanne in the showroom. I was starstruck. Between their 60 day/2000 mile warranty policy and all of the exotic metal they had on the lot, it seemed like a decent enough establishment. I really liked the car, so I decided to give them a second chance.

It’s a trap!

I had them put the WRX up on the lift for me and verified that there was indeed oil dripping from the driver’s side valve cover, right onto a heat shield. While I was underneath the engine bay I also noticed some fresh gasket sealant on the other cylinder bank’s valve cover, which I asked about. Apparently the tech had only done one side.

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Yet another massive red flag that I chose to ignore. A pair of them actually. Why was only one side done? Any halfway decent mechanic knows that if one went, the other is probably about to go too and would have done both. Furthermore, did they just fix the one gasket, then drive it out onto the lot without taking it for a spin? A decent test drive would have revealed the gnarly state of the remaining original gasket, as I found out.

The dealership said they’d fix it immediately and call me when it was done. At this point, I knew that the only way that I’d buy this car would be after a pre purchase inspection at the Subaru dealer down the street, which I scheduled for the next morning. My salesman protested a little bit, extolling the virtues of their warranty and safety inspection, but eventually gave in.

Aaaaand there’s yet another willfully ignored red flag. We’re on number 4 now. Actually scratch that, we’re on number 7. During BOTH of my test drives, when I mentioned the odor, the salesman turned the HVAC onto recirculate (which I immediately undid both times) and claimed the smell was just coming from another car in front of us. He even had the audacity to claim that he couldn’t see the smoke before it got really thick. So yeah, we’re up to 7 painfully obvious red flags now.

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The last straw was the result of the PPI: A clean bill of health... except for the gasket. They botched the job. Subaru told me that it was not only still leaking, but also down a full quart of oil. Unbelievable! Who knows what the issue really was. Maybe they had just pinched the new gasket during the install. Maybe there was an even more serious issue afoot, like a warped head. I didn’t care anymore, I was done and feeling incredibly foolish. I had ignored an inordinate amount of red flags, and it cost me $120.

The service rep asked me where I got the car from, and he recognized the dealer’s name immediately because it was right down the street. He gave me a knowing smile, narrowed his eyes, and shook his head. Apparently this place is notorious, and that WRX wasn’t the first turbo Subaru from that dealership they’d told someone not to buy. Far from it. I paid Subaru, gave the dealership their car back, and told them “no thanks” because of the PPI result.

You’d think that’d be it; that the dealership would cut their losses after a smoky test drive and a disastrous PPI. But no. The salesman called me to grovel as soon as I got home, and I wasn’t having any of it. I humored him for thirty seconds and politely asked him to never call me again. And you know what? I got another call, from the owner this time. He wanted to give me my $120 back, claimed that they just hadn’t cleaned the engine so that’s why Subaru thought there was a problem, etc. I politely asked him to never call me again too and hopefully that’s the last time I’ll ever hear from them. Those calls were so scummy. But you know what? I don’t blame them. I was acting like a fool. They were right to assume that the kind of person who would put up with all of this ridiculousness would also be stupid enough to get talked into buying the car despite everything that had happened.

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Yesterday, I learned how to walk away: immediately after the first sign of something suspicious, and without telling them why.

And with that, I’m off to check out two more cars today: A 2009 WRX and a 2011 S80 T6 (a For Sweden suggestion), both of which are at dealerships affiliated with their respective manufacturers. This should be a refreshing change of pace. My first foray into buying a car from an actual dealer continues...