Lessons Learned While Car Shopping
Boy oh boy has shopping for a new car been an eye-opening experience.
My 2005 Volvo XC-90 has 173K miles on it. It shakes and shimmies when I drive it over 60MPH. There are little quirky things happening that need to be tweaked and fixed. I decided it wasn’t worth trying to sink money into it anymore….it was time to shop for a new car.
I know there are a ton of car-buying guides out there but here are a few things I learned while trying to find my new ride.
1. Do Your Research. I know, I know. EVERYONE says this. But what does it MEAN? It means start with a search of vehicles that are highly rated. A couple of great sites are: Edmunds.com and Cars.com. Consumer Reports is also great, but you have to be a subscriber to get full site use. However, you CAN find lots of free Consumer Reports reviews on youtube. I also found out that my bank participates in the TrueCar car buying service. It takes the BS and hassle out of buying a vehicle and helps guarantee you the lowest price. Don’t forget to check with your own bank to see if you need to get pre-aproved for an auto loan or if they offer any other services to help you in your quest. Also, Kelly Blue Book isn’t the only game in town when it comes to assessing your vehicles value. There’s NadaGuides.com and CarsDirect.com and probably even more than that.
I searched for “top affordable mid-size suv 2014” and it landed me on the US News “Best Cars” site. That list gave me a starting point. From there I created my OWN list of cars I wanted to research further and either rule out or test drive.
Here’s my innitial list: 2014 Dodge Durango Citadel, 2014 Chevy Traverse LTZ, 2014 Mazda CX-9, 2014 Ford Flex Limited, 2014 Ford Explorer and Expedition, 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited Platinum, and the 2014 Kia Sorento Limited.
2. Do MORE Research. So once you are at a starting point and you have a list of vehicles you find visually appealing, are in your price range and meet your needs on paper, it’s time to really learn about each car. Go to the manufacturers website and download the brochures. Go through the paces on their website as if you’re buying that car. It will give you a cost to lease or finance the vehicle. Also, you’ll be able to narrow down the trim you’re interested in such as “limited edition”. You’ll be able to see what’s standard and what’s optional. Take note of things like the horsepower and wheel size. An SUV with 191 horsepower and 17 inch wheels may not meet your needs when it comes time to drive in the snow and slush. That’s why I started to focus on vehicles with 270 horsepower or higher and 19 or 20 inch wheels. Utilize not only the manufacturers’ website but also the local dealers sites too. Check available inventory. The longer the car’s been on the lot, the better chance you have of getting a good deal.
3. Pay Attention To DETAILS. Things like noticing if you’ve clicked 15,000 miles or 10,000 miles when using an online lease calculator. Manufacturers default setting on the lease calculator seems to be the 10,000 miles option. If you don’t click the accurate amount of milage you want to lease, you won’t get the right monthly payment estimate. I used the ‘build your own’ feature on the Dodge website for the Durango Citadel. I put in the numbers and clicked calculate and got a monthly payment estimate of $432. Then I realized that was for 10,000 miles on a 36 month lease. When I corrected the mistake it upped the estimate to $477. But even THAT number is not totally accurate as it doesn’t take into account dealer fees, tax, title, registration and all that crap.
Other details to take note of include paying attention to anything in the vehicle’s interior that’s advertised as “drop-down” or “pop-up”. In my mind drop-down and pop-up equals “breaks easily.” I’m talking about things like cup holders and compartments with retractable “pop-open” closures, “pop-up” booster seats or “drop-down” DVD player TV screens. These are items that can be constantly opened and closed and they take a ton of abuse. Be especially mindful of those things if you have kids who like to open and close things just for fun. Suddenly that $1400 drop-down DVD TV screen becomes a liablitiy.
4. Learn The Lingo. You absolutely, positively have to know what car dealers mean when they say “money factor” and “residual value“. If you don’t learn this shit you will be sorry and you WILL PAY MORE. What a shock it was to learn that the value the car has at the end of the lease (residual value) plays almost as much as or even bigger role in determining my monthly payment as the cost of the vehicle and interest rate do. You can find a list of cars that hold their value by searching online. Toyotas and Lexus are both tops in residual value.
5. Compare Models. I don’t mean just comparing one new car to the next, but also comparing your OLD car to the new cars. Ask your mechanic if the car you’re interested in is easy to repair. Some brands are known for being more difficult to work on than others and therefore more expensive to fix when simple things go wrong. Check out the site FuelEconomy.gov to compare the gas mileage and cost to drive on multiple vehicles at a time. Here you can see I compared my Volvo to the cars I was interested in.
6. Know What’s Coming. Find out if the car you’re interested in is slated for a major redesign. Ask the dealer. You may not want to buy a car that’s gonna be redesigned inside and out. I discovered that the 2015 Ford Explorers and Expeditions will have their interiors redesigned to reflect the more luxurious interior of the 2014 Ford Flex. For that reason, I ruled both the 2014 Explorer and Expedition out. However, I put both those models on the back burner for my NEXT lease in 36 months. While we’re on the topic, know where the model has been. By that I mean, know if the model you want to buy has been completely redesigned. Ask what was changed and why.
7. Test Drive, Test Drive, Test Drive. It’s EXHAUSTING going to dealerships and test driving a car. It’s mentally and physically draining to do this. But it’s so damn important. Also, bring the family. I wanted my kid’s opinions on the ride and comfort in the backseat. They actually were extremely helpful in my decision making. They noticed things that I didn’t. A test drive may drop a car you thought was your #1 pick to the bottom of your list and vice-versa. The test drive is the ONLY way you’re gonna get a feel for the car. Does it feel big or small? Does it feel smooth or sporty? Are there blind spots, is the instrument panel user friendly? How does the car feel when you go over bumps and pot-holes? Take advantage of the dealerships willingness and encouragement to let you drive as many cars as you need!
It was after a test drive of the Dodge Durango Citadel that I learned about the difference between “body-on-frame” and “uni-body frame”. I learned that Mercedes and Fiat have teamed up with Dodge and that’s why the Durango has such a smooth ride, lux interior and 8 speed transmission. After that, I learned to ask what the platform is on any given vehicle. The Durango has a Mercedes platform. The Toyota Highlander has a Toyota Avalon platform. Explains the nice luxurious ride in both vehicles. So you learn more than just how the car handles on a test drive if you ask questions when you get back to the dealership.
8. Don’t Be Afraid. You CAN walk into a dealership ALONE and ask questions and test drive a car. Don’t let the sales person push you into doing something you don’t want to do. I went to several dealerships that kept asking me if I’d like them to go ahead and get a trade-in value on my Volvo. I kept saying no. Letting ALL the dealers do it would waste my time and put me in an uncomfortable position that indicated I wanted to purchase their car. Plus, why give every dealership more personal financial information up front than they need? Don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal. Don’t be afraid take the car through snow and mud on your test drive. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for a different sales person if you’re not making headway. Don’t be afraid to tell the sales person you didn’t much care for the vehicle you just test drove. And don’t feel pressured into committing to any deal on the spot. Tell your sales person to re-work the lease or offer again and again until you get what you want. It’s not personal.
So after all that research and test driving I narrowed my list down to the 2014 Durango Citadel and 2014 Highlander Limited Platinum. It was time to compare one offer to the other.
9. Make The Deal. I made yet another list. This time comparing one vehicle to the other. Both were going to be a lease. Both had payments were about the same and that fit my budget. The Durango has a 3.6 liter V6 engine with 8 speed automatic transmission and 290 horsepower vs Highlander’s 3.5 liter V6 6 speed transmission and 270 horsepower. Durango 20 inch wheels, Highlander 19 inch. Durango wider wheel base. Highlander huge panoramic sunroof. Highlander slightly better gas mileage. Highlander slightly better residual value. Durango more luxurious interior. I like the Durango’s unique exterior better. The Highlander looks a lot like the Volvo I’m getting rid of. Durango comes with traffic and satellite services for the first year. Highlander gives those services for 90 days. Considering the fact that I need a powerful SUV to get me to work on some mornings before the snow plows are out, power is big factor. I was leaning towards the Durango especially since I prefer the Durango’s attractive styling inside and out. However, Toyota offers Toyota Care, a complimentary maintenance plan that covers your factory-recommended maintenance for 2 years or 25,000 miles on eligible vehicles. Lots to consider.
10. Bottom Line. Compare apples-to-apples and if there’s something one car company is offering, ask the other one if they’ll match it. Chances are, they will. If you insist your payment has to be under a certain number, fight for that. Even if it requires removing a few options. If you can’t get the payment lower, ask for other ways to sweeten the deal like complimentary maintenance or an upgraded protection plan.
Remember, the thought of buying a new vehicle should not make you break out in hives! It should be a pleasant experience. If one dealership is too pushy and high-pressure, go to another that sells the same brand. If you’re prepared with all this stuff before you even set foot in a dealership, the car buying/leasing process will be much less over-whelming and possibly even–dare I say it–enjoyable!
And finally, Keep It Classy. This is a note to dealers and car sales people. Do NOT trash your competition in front of your potential client. If I show up at your dealership and reveal I’m also considering another brand and you let me know that you think that other brand is crap you’re also telling me I’M CRAP. Now if I ask your opinion on the other brand go ahead and give it. But don’t just roll your eyes and say how much the competition’s engine sucks or how terrible their interiors are. It makes you look childish and it makes me, the customer, not want to buy from you. If I find a half-eaten bagel on the floor of a new car I’m test driving, (yes, that really did happen) I will be sure to tell my friends how sloppy your operation is. On the flip side, I’ll be QUICK to recommend you even if I didn’t buy from you, if you’re an awesome sales person but you just didn’t have the car I wanted. Customers remember. Remember that.
Ok so there you have it! Lots of information to digest. What are you waiting for? Start researching that new car!