A New Bearmobile: Thoughts on Car Buying

It was a long time coming, but yesterday I finally retired the old bearmobile (which provided thirteen years of honorable service) and purchased a new buggy.
The experience was actually a pleasant one: although Mrs. Bear and I did purchase a car for her use a few years back, that was a hurried process, as for various reasons we Had To Get A Car within a few weeks. So that left little time to enjoy the research and selection process: which for an analytical type like myself, is the fun part.
This time, there was plenty of that. So, I figured I should share my thoughts & lessons learned on the process.
Selection & Research
The absolute best tool I found for online research is the Consumer Reports New Car Buying Kit. For $39, you get three months of unlimited access to their car database. This includes detailed reviews by the CU staff, specifications and ratings on each vehicle you are considering (both the base specs/measurements/features of the car, as well as CU’s ratings and crash test results), and full pricing detail comparing MSRP, “dealer invoice” and the price you should be bargaining for on the vehicle, including all options (more on this later).
Most usefully, the CU car kit also provides a widget that lets you select up to four vehicles at a time and compare their specifications and ratings side-by-side across all categories. Very handy: I found myself printing these off and carrying them around with me during my research quite a bit.
Beyond the CU tools, manufacturers web sites are also useful, of course. And many of them also have comparison tools (from allegedly neutral data sources) that let you stack the manufacturer’s vehicle up against its competition. These are useful mainly to see which attributes each manufacturer highlights as “advantages” — browse the comparison tools of all of them, and you’ll start to get a good picture of the strengths/weaknesses of each.
Lastly, there are plenty of sites online that offer car reviews, including Consumer Guide, Yahoo Autos, Automotive.com, and Cars.com. My preferred technique is to simply use Google to search for reviews on the specific make and model I’m looking for. I’ve found that the following syntax works best: “2006 Honda Accord” review .
Be sure that you understand when the vehicle you are looking at last went through a major redesign, and what changes (if any) occurred in the current model year. Generally, reviews of the current model year will mention this information: then you can use that data to expand your review search. (If, for example, the 2006 review for a vehicle mentions that it was redesigned for the 2004 model year, you can then also look at 2004 and 2005 model year reviews for a wider set of reviews).
Also be aware that all the online “build and price” tools you will find where you can select the options you want are a bit deceptive — including the ones on the manufacturer’s sites. Consumer Reports, CarsDirect, and the manufacturer’s own web sites will let you configure option packages which, while not technically invalid, will be practically impossible for you to find, unless you’re willing to wait for a special-built model to come from the factory (if such a thing is even feasible). Make a point of understanding what option packages are actually commonly available, so you don’t get a surprise late in the process and either can’t get the gadgets you want or end up with a few extra grand on the price you weren’t expecting due to “required” options you weren’t aware of.
Safety & Crash Tests
There are two major sources of crash test information for cars in the U.S.: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The NTHSA is the official government agency charged with smashing up cars, while the IIHS is a nonprofit group funded by the insurance industry.
The two groups perform different types of crash tests. As I’m not a safety expert, I won’t offer any opinions on the merits or disadvantages of the tests themselves, other than to state the obvious, which is that ideally, you want a vehicle that performed well on both the IIHS and NHTSA tests.
Frustratingly, you might not be able to find crash test data for all vehicles — particularly from the NHTSA. My understanding is that NHTSA selects a subset of vehicles each year which they predict will be big sellers to test — so if you are looking at a lesser-known model, you might be out of luck. While this makes sense from a government-spending perspective (test the cars that the most people will drive), it might leave you with just the IIHS tests to rely on.
Test Drives
Of course, everything on paper doesn’t matter much unless it feels right behind the wheel. I never liked going to car dealerships much in the past, for fear of being hassled/harassed, but it didn’t really bother me much this time. Just walk into the dealership, scope out the vehicle you’re interested in, and ask to take a test drive. Generally, it’s as easy as that. After the test drive, your sales rep will frequently ask the classic question “is there anything I can do to get you to buy today?” — just politely but firmly decline, and most won’t bug you further. They’ll usually want to get your name and phone number: if you don’t want to get harassed but are too honest to give a fake number, give ’em your office number (not your home or cellphone).
Closing the Deal
OK, so you’ve done your homework, and have found the Perfect Car. Now you want the Perfect Deal. How do you get it?
In theory, you could go about it the old fashioned way. March right into a dealership, tell ’em what you want, and ask for their best offer. Stare into the whites of your sales rep’s eyes; look deep into his soul (if he has one; not necessarily a good assumption) and let the test of wills begin. A couple of hours and a few trips to “check with my manager about what we can do here” later, you might walk out with a good deal. Or, you might get screwed.
I’m told some people enjoy this kind of bare-knuckles negotiation. But then, I’m also told that some people enjoy bungie-jumping and eating sardines, so my conclusion is that some people are idiots.
No, in today’s car buying environment, you have two real options if what you are focused on is the bottom line price you’ll pay, and not the thrill of the chase. One is Internet services like CarsDirect, where you select a vehicle online, and their staff finds it for you at a predefined special price. The other way is to do what I did, and use a car broker.
The reason that negotiating at the dealership is now only a game for suckers is that via a car broker or (reputable) Internet service, the department you are dealing with at the car dealership is the “fleet” department. This department (or person), isn’t tasked with making enough profit to pay the salaries of all the charming sales personnel you meet roaming the dealership: they can sell a car for a price that is significantly lower than the truly “best” deal a sales floor manager could offer and still have it be considered profitable business for the dealership. So what the means is that it doesn’t matter how skilled a negotiator you are: if you’re talking to the sales floor staff, it is pretty much impossible to get as good a deal as you could via a service that goes through the fleet department.
And going the other route is also much easier. In my case, I was lucky to have a friend in the business: Larry at Fleet Auto Buyers in Costa Mesa, CA. (No, Larry isn’t paying me to plug his service, nor did he even know about TTLB until I told him after we closed the deal. Although now that I think of it, I might make him buy me a beer).
Here’s how the process worked with Larry: late Wednesday, I gave him two vehicles that I had narrowed my choices down to. On Thursday, he had found out their availability in the area and gave me pricing. Friday morning I filled out a one-page credit application (the only form I filled out myself in the entire process) and sent it back to him. Around noon I made my final decision told Larry to pull the trigger on one of the cars he had found.
Larry got the vehicle from the dealer, and I met him at his office late Friday. About fifteen minutes of signing the inevitable required forms, and a half hour of “ooohing” and “aaahing” at the features of the vehicle as Larry explained them to me, I was zooming away in the new Bearmobile. Final price I paid? $600 under dealer invoice, which is about as good as you’re going to get. (The auto broker’s fee comes from the dealership, not from you, so that really was the final price.)
So bottom line on closing the deal: avoid the dealership sales force. If you’re in the Southern California area, I can definitely recommend Fleet Auto Buyers (and I’ll bet Larry might have references to other brokers if you call him from somewhere else). And if you can’t find a broker to trust, consider the online services like CarsDirect.
Conclusion
So that’s the story of my car-buying experience. Take it for what it’s worth, because as they say: your mileage may vary…