Possibly to seek relief from a dreary campaign season, I recently went car hunting. Faced with an impressive array of controls and screens facing the driver, I didn't pay much attention to the engines. Times (and cars) have changed.

Possibly to seek relief from a dreary campaign season, I recently went car hunting. Faced with an impressive array of controls and screens facing the driver, I didn’t pay much attention to the engines. Times (and cars) have changed.

My wife’s people in Virginia were all “pop-the-hood” folks. And when cars were simpler, I too used to attend to the engine, change oil, set the timing, put in new plugs, and check the carburetor (remember what that was?). Nowadays, I’m happy if I can lug a dead battery to an auto supply store and lug back a new one. Certain satisfactions are gone, now that the engine compartment is so packed you have to go underneath to find the oil filter.

Possibly I gave it up after I put transmission fluid in a Jeep’s transmission in the 1980s. After it was ruined, I found out that I should have checked the manual, which clearly states one should put brake fluid in the transmission! It was my wife’s Jeep and her people would have known better.

In the matter of hunting cars, I once had a colleague of an evangelical turn who would not buy a car unless it “spoke” to her. Among others, a Datsun Z spoke to her and then a black Ford Ranger. She drove the former very fast and didn’t soil the bed of the latter by picking up anything. In fact, she put a shiny black top on the bed, making it more difficult to haul. I have never felt quite so connected to any car, though I have given names to some.

For me, hunting cars will never be a spiritual seeking. Consumer Reports ratings, frequency of repair surveys, and, of course, prices are noted. You check dealer websites for inventory and listed prices. You check with friends as to the reliability of dealers’ maintenance departments. You weigh whether purchasing and maintaining at a local dealer might outweigh the advantage of buying a foreign make that has to be serviced elsewhere.

Recently, I test drove a number of models since our current favorite, a wonderful 2008 Taurus, was getting long in the odometer. I test drove a Taurus, an Impala, a Buick, a Toyota, two VWs, and two Subarus. In fact, I drove five of them in one day.

Among other things, encountering the salesmen at the out-of-town dealers was interesting. Most of them were very young, it seemed to me. They were bright enough and well-informed, certainly. But perhaps too eager.

They had all been trained to form a personal relationship with me. (Standard since Dale Carnegie wrote his classic.) I got rather too full of bottled water and coffee during the 5-car day. One said he had just bought the same blue shorts I had on. Did we buy the same brand? (No) One thanked me for spending so much time with him. Indeed, he did seem lonely, with a rather bare desk in the middle of the showroom.

As opposed to the old days, I appreciated the relatively soft sell. I still remember being forced by politeness to sit while a salesman got the assistant manager and then the manager, each of whom lowered the price or added accessories to try to get me to drive away a new car that day. Unfortunately, the car they were trying to sell me, a Chevy Citation, had died in a downtown turn lane. While we were walking back to the dealership, the salesman asked if I couldn’t just see that beauty in my driveway. I told him I could do better than that by looking back at the stalled car in the intersection. But that didn’t keep the managers from piling on after we got back.

So this time I appreciated the fact that no manager loomed to put the squeeze on after my test drives. Only one appeared, shook my hand and thanked me for coming by.

And, of course, there were the comic moments. After test-driving a smallish SUV, I was asked if I wanted to take “this Bad Boy home.” I don’t know about you, but an SUV about the size of a large station wagon, is hardly a “Bad Boy” in my mind. It’s no Mustang. I joked with the salesman about it and he said that since they sold mostly four-cylinder models, any six-cylinder was called a “Bad Boy.” Times have definitely changed.

Then there was the eager kid at one dealer. He wanted to talk about all the features. I sat in the driver’s seat, ready to go, and he held the door open so he could point to everything the dashboard could do. Then, as I was merging into moderately heavy traffic on I-35, his hand came across my vision from the passenger side to point out what the many buttons on the steering wheel could do. I drew the line when he got ready to reach across to adjust the speedometer projection system so I could see it in the windshield.

Indeed, as the pictures show, there are often multiple controls on and about the steering wheel, not to mention all the apps on the radio screen. In fact, a spike in auto accidents is being blamed on the number of apps that can take one’s attention from driving. One wants to touch that screen to see what it can do.

One thought occurred to me after my experience. If cars that appeal to older drivers, have so many electronic features, perhaps we need several orientation sessions after we buy them! Sitting in one of these newer cars reminded me of my first experience with a personal computer. In a way, the newer cars are now computers with wheels. Either offer us orientation or equip each car with a teenager who will fiddle with every device and then teach us. How do I turn off the darned lane change dinger? Can I make my cruise control non-adaptive? How do I get from FM radio to a Sirius channel? What if I just want my navigation system to shut up about the best way to get somewhere?

I have to admire the optimism and energy of the kids selling cars these days—and those older salesmen who are hanging in there. They are a link to America’s sometimes honorable tradition of door-to-door salesmen, hoping to work their way into the American Dream.

I wish them the best, even though I disappointed most of them.