CarMax prides itself on creating a dealership experience unlike any other. Well, now that Saturn is going Tango Uniform. CarMax emphasizes no haggle pricing, easy financing, and a process that involves only one person. No more having your salesperson go back and forth between you and “Bubba” (or “Cowboy” if you are Dodge). You’re greeted warmly, shown any car you like, and guided through a completely transparent transaction, with nothing hidden. That’s the theory. How does it hold up in practice? In true TTAC tradition, I offer a personal critique of one of our biggest sponsors.
My first CarMax transaction occurred before my prose ever graced the pages of TTAC. After buying a Ford F-150 I didn’t need, I decided to celebrate two years cancer-free and 40 lbs. of weight loss by purchasing a sports car I could drive on the weekends.
After wandering through the four-square, fishbowl wilderness, I pulled into my local CarMax. A salesperson immediately guided me to a computer to search the dealer’s nationwide inventory. I’d already settled on a Porsche Boxster S. They located a bright red model in Houston. For a modest $250, they’d transfer the Porker to my 10-20.
Inexpensive relocation is CarMax’s trump card. However, there’s a string attached. When the car shows up, if it’s not to your liking, you can walk away. But your up-front transfer fee payment is toast. To forestall this possibility, CarMax provides an electronic “walk around.” Customers submit questions about the vehicle of their choice to a representative at the relevant dealership. Within a short time, the answers are transmitted back
Like with any computerized solution, there’s a large element of garbage in, garbage out. The remote CarMax rep will answer all your questions, but you’re still talking to a car salesman. A question on how the wear of the driver’s seat returned “normal wear, some wrinkles, looks great! Ready for purchase!” The more specific your questions, the better information you receive.
Once you decide to purchase said vehicle, financing is a simple process. You plug in your vital information on a computer, wait fifteen minutes, and choose which bank loan fits your needs best. Easy. No dealing with an F & I guy breathing down your neck. No fancy calculations, hidden fees or emotional games.
Next: your trade-in appraisal. The sales rep plugs-in the salient facts about your gem/turd into the same computer. While you wait with your salesperson, going over warranty information and other plugs for add-ons (yes there is still that), CarMax’ trade-in expert gives it the once-over.
CarMax describes their trade-in prices as fair, and many times they are. However, top dollar is not yours for the taking.
My Ford F-150 was valued at $14,000 at the Ford dealership, and $15,500 at CarMax. Seems reasonable—until you realize Ford completely low-balled the offer with the full expectation of giving more on the trade to sweeten the deal.
Cars above 100K miles are given paltry values, as CarMax doesn’t sell high mileage vehicles; restricting their income to auction values (where 100K-mile cars are almost worthless).
To my mind, CarMax’s non-negotiation policy is the mega-dealer’s biggest flaw. While it’s great for people inexperienced, wary or anxious at the prospect of haggling, the lack of any sort of negotiation proves troublesome for experienced buyers, especially when they realize they’re going to pay more for a vehicle than they would at a “traditional” dealership.
CarMax justifies their higher prices with a simple guarantee: the vehicle they’re selling you has never been in a frame damaging accident, flooded, or experienced any other incident that would make it an “undesirable.” CarMax has so much faith in the quality of their vehicle selection that all of their vehicles are available with an extended warranty.
To be fair, I’ve found that nearly every car that I’ve inspected on a CarMax lot looks clean and tidy. More often than not, it’s in much better condition than an equivalent vehicle waiting for unsuspecting punters across the street at Super Bob’s Auto Liquidators. WYSIWYG.
For example, I’ve been trying to find a steed to take to Europe. I tried to buy a Dodge Challenger SRT-8. The Dodge Boys changed the numbers overnight. I then attempted to buy a brand new Audi A3 DSG from a franchised store. Audi’s finance company wouldn’t approve it for export. Whilst wrangling with Audi, I looked across at a CarMax lot and spotted a 2004 Pontiac GTO.
Clean as a whistle. Burbled like a dream. Did I pay more than I could have? Yes, I did. Did I get an exceptionally clean car and a decent offer on my trade? Yes, I did.
CarMax provides a welcome departure from the high pressure, cloak and dagger methods of a “normal” dealership. They charge a premium for the lack of aggro and peace of mind. For me and for hundreds of thousands of customers, it’s worth it.