Friday, November 03, 2006

Last week's column

Driving Around in Circles
To Buy a Car in Beijing

October 27, 2006

When we moved here last year, we took over a 1993 Beijing Jeep Cherokee with a booming V8 engine. I felt hardcore and macho driving it, with every liver-rattling bump reaffirming that I was on a rugged, wild adventure. But we bought two minivans in the last seven years based in large part on federal safety tests, so piling our kids into the back of a 13-year-old car with rear seat belts that barely worked seemed a little odd.

After one late night, death-defying drive down the truck-crammed Jing Shun road that runs outside our compound, I told my wife Rebecca that we simply had to buy a new car. She agreed and we figured that in a few weeks we'd be driving a new vehicle. Instead, we were setting out on a several-month ordeal that left me wondering how Beijing could be adding 1,000 cars a day to its already crowded streets.

We wanted to buy a minivan that we could comfortably move around China in while also accommodating a visitor or two -- something with seven seats and two airbags -- and began exploring our options. Buicks are surprisingly popular here, the top of the minivan heap, but they are owned almost exclusively by agencies that provide cars and drivers to corporate customers. The starting on-road price (including all licensing and the hefty taxes nondiplomats must pay) is about $31,000, with top-of-the line models going for over $50,000. That was far more than we were prepared to spend for a car we only plan to have for about two years.

A couple of friends had purchased cars with the help of African expat "Beijing Bob," who was said to make the process quick and painless. After browsing his Beijing Car Solution Web site, I told him we were interested in a Mitsubishi Futurer, which has a starting price of just over $20,000 total as well as a confusing array of Chinese named products all grouped together. He said he would arrange for us to see them. The next day, his employee Alice called and said the dealer was "close, close. Off the 4th Ring Road." Rebecca would be coming from the office to meet us there.

The 4th Ring Road runs fairly close to our house, but it also circles Beijing and once Alice's driver got on it, we turned south and drove nearly to the other side of the city, passing at least two Mitsubishi dealers en route. After 40 minutes, we got off and drove through a maze of side streets before emerging near a string of car dealers. Oddly, rather than pulling into one of them, we parked by the side of a dirt field bisected by a metal construction fence. As I got out of the car, Rebecca called to say Mr. Dou, her office driver, was lost. This furthered my feeling of being on another planet; he never gets lost. Alice's driver took the phone and he and Mr. Dou had an animated discussion.

Meanwhile, a young woman appeared, peeling back a section of the fence to allow us through. We crossed more dirt before entering a large, unmarked hangar-like structure. Four or five vans sat in the middle, each covered with a heavy layer of dust and grime. Alice cheerfully said, "Here they are." The dusty cars represented the different models, from cheapest (manual transmission, cloth seats, no air bags) to most expensive (leather seats, dual airbags, DVD player). It was the strangest way to view new cars I could imagine.

By the time Rebecca arrived, it had started raining and the dirt field was growing muddy. We asked if we could take the top-of-the line model for a test drive. They seemed puzzled but said okay. We circled the bumpy dirt road around the large building. The car seemed okay, though I had serious reservations about the in-dash DVD player, and big questions about just what made this car, which bore a Chinese logo, a Mitsubishi. "Mitsubishi engine," Alice explained. "What about this one?" I asked, pointing to the next cheaper model. "Mitsubishi design," she said matter-of-factly.

The next stop was what Alice described as a Hyundai dealer. We drove almost an hour to reach the showroom, where they obviously had some connection with Bob, but they turned out to sell "Hindais." At least I think they did; maybe it was a joint venture with Hyundai, but the van said "JAC" and it only had one airbag, breaking the main requirement I had laid out. We returned home after spending hours literally driving around in circles, annoyed and confused and no closer to having a new car.

A few days later, I piled into my old Jeep and found a Mitsubishi dealer near my home, only to be told "mei you" ("don't have any") when I inquired about a van. The salesmen signaled to wait, then disappeared into the back. A moment later, another guy emerged. He spoke English and explained that his name was Liu and he had his own company, Expat Cars, to assist people like me. A few days later, he and I canvassed the city, looking at Volkswagens (too small), Buicks (too expensive) and Kias (surprisingly too expensive) before ending up at another "Mitsubishi-designed" dealer, where the vans were actually inside a nicely lit building. They seemed like a good choice and it was possible to get leather seats and automatic transmission without the insane dash-mounted DVD player.

For roughly the same price, we could get a used Buick and we briefly considered it before realizing it was a five-year-old Chinese-made GM product with no warranty. I called Liu and told him we wanted the "Mitsubishi" and we went back to the dealer to pick a car and settle on a price. They were asking 168,000 renminbi, or $21,000. I was suspicious that Liu couldn't get them to budge more than a few thousand; this is a country where you haggle over one-dollar socks. We asked Mr. Dou to go there and try to bargain; sure enough, he got them lower, but just a bit. We struck a deal and felt relieved to be done with it.

Figuring out how to get the dealer 160,000 renminbi shouldn't have been difficult since we had the money sitting in the bank, aware that financing was not an option since we are foreigners. I was about to learn just how naïve I actually am about international finance. I transferred the money into a Citibank account designed for expats in which we usually only keep a small amount of cash for ATM withdrawals, then walked into a Beijing branch to transfer the money to the dealer's account. Liu was waiting to go pick up the car.

The nice people at Citi restrained their laughter and explained that I could not access my U.S. account. Tracy Tian, a bilingual bank manager who would prove to be something of a guardian angel, patiently explained that I had to open a separate renminbi account, then transfer the money. Ready to scream, I opened the account and wired in the funds.

I then had to convert it from dollars to renminbi, which can only be done at the rate of $10,000 per day. After three more trips downtown, I could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel and could only hope it was not a train. When I had 183,000 renminbi in the account I asked Tracy for a cashier's check and she looked at me as if I had inquired if she ever laid eggs. They don't really do checks in China so I had two choices -- withdrawing bags of cash, as most Chinese customers do (there is no currency larger than a 100 renminbi note), or transfer the money into the dealer's account, which I chose to do.

Mr. Liu text-messaged me the account info and I filled out the forms and waited for a confirmation-of-receipt call that never came. I had filled in a faulty, too-short number because the SMS message had been cut off. I panicked, fearing that I was the victim of an elaborate con job. Could all this time with Liu have been a complicated setup? Did I really know who he was? Tracy talked me off the ledge, assuring me the money would be returned to the account "eventually."

I didn't rest easy for two days until I got a call that the cash was back. I made a final trip to the bank, where I filled out the forms and showed my passport again, then withdrew almost 20,000 renminbi to pay taxes and licensing fees. That afternoon Mr. Liu drove our new van to the house, took the cash and returned with license plates and proof of insurance. A few days later, we drove downtown, where we met one of Rebecca's colleagues. "Nice car," he said. "But what is it?" I smiled. "Mitsubishi engine and design." I could walk outside and check the model name now but why bother? We like it, and the seatbelts work.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com