I’ve got three kids, so no M Coupe or other common object of pistonhead lust for me. Since 2003 I’ve been stuffing the brood into the back of a Mazda Protege5 while casually looking, off and on (mostly off) for a suitable three-row people hauler. Most people don’t spend six years looking for a car, but I’ve never found the right one at the right price. The right one being quite nice, since I’m picky (about cars at least). And the right price being low, because I’m cheap.
The search grew more active recently. My wife quit her “real job” to help improve our site, TrueDelta.com. With both of us now working at home, we didn’t need as many cars. And none of those we owned really fit our needs. With our parents aging, we’ve started visiting each set at least twice a year—a 700-plus-mile drive each way. The cars have also been aging, such that driving 700 miles had begun to push our luck. Oh, and the kids also seem to be growing.
So, at least eight years after the typical parent I finally got serious about getting something into which the family could comfortably fit. I’ve always liked the size and interior packaging of the Ford Freestyle, and it has been reasonably reliable based on responses to TrueDelta’s survey. So I limited my search to this model and the less tastefully styled but more powerful Taurus X that replaced it.
Both were offered with either a bench or two captains in the second row. In case I wanted to carry all three kids with the third row folded or in conjunction with two grandparents, I wanted the bench. All-wheel-drive would be nice for the snow in Michigan, but front-wheel-drive maintains traction pretty well in these vehicles, so either would do. The wife strongly desires leather, with heat. After watching the kids bake in the back of the Mazda, I felt we should find one with the optional rear HVAC. Finally, I don’t like how these vehicles look with the two-tone paint standard on the lower trim levels. Only the Limited was available with monotone paint, so I hoped to find one attractively priced.
Usually you can pay less buying a car from an owner rather than a dealer. For reasons that escape me, there doesn’t appear to be a good FSBO site for cars. There haven’t been many FSBOs on AutoTrader since they eliminated the free ad option years ago. Even most of the cars on Craigslist are posted by dealers. Despite the Internet’s potential for connecting buyers and sellers, have people given up on selling cars themselves?
I found a car that met my criteria early on, a 2006 Freestyle Limited AWD with nearly all options and 42,000 miles, for $13,900. But it was already sold. Another for eight-and-change had 96,000 miles. My wife vetoed that one—she didn’t want to have to repeat this process in just a couple of years.
Methodical person that I am, I put the key variables into a spreadsheet (8 cents a mile, $1,000 for all-wheel-drive, $650 for rear HVAC, and so forth). A couple cars came close to the one I had missed, but tended to have fewer features—and were also already sold. Reasonably priced Taurus Xs have been in especially short supply. They’re also much less likely to have a bench in the second row.
Lesson learned: if you spot a great deal, jump on it right away, or someone else will.
Tuesday afternoon I decided to take a quick look at AutoTrader, and there it was: a dealer only 70 miles away had just listed a loaded 2008 Taurus X AWD with 30k miles, certified with an extended warranty, totally clean Autocheck report, for $17,900. More than I’ve ever spent on a car before, but a quick entry into the spreadsheet confirmed the steal. Even with no adjustments for being certified, a sunroof, or the nav system, the Taurus X was better than the best deals I’d found thus far. Which were all Freestyles. No other Taurus X Limited had come close.
I called Scott Seiler, Internet sales manager for Brondes Ford in Maumee, Ohio—and was told there was already a deal on the car. Too late, again? Not this time. Scott called back a few minutes later to report that the other deal had fallen through. After making a weak attempt to negotiate the price—Scott was well aware that $17,900 was a “stupid price” (his own words)—I gave him my credit card info to hold the car. Minutes later I was on my way to Ohio, with snow still on the roads and, if I could nevertheless maintain the speed limit, an estimated time of arrival minutes before closing time.
This being my lucky day, the highways were free of snow, ice, and traffic. I called en route to give Scott the rest of my info, so he could get the paperwork together. During this call Scott overheard someone offering to buy the car from the salesman at a neighboring desk. He informed them it was sold.
I arrived still fully expecting a catch. They’d washed the car and put it into the brightly lit service lane—so much for the dangers of buying a car after sunset. The Taurus X could hardly have been cleaner. I found a broken release for the left side second-row seat, but the warranty will take care of that. Also found nearly new tires—they’d been replaced recently at a cost of over $600.
The paperwork was ready when I arrived, lacking only my signature. It included no unexpected fees. The business manager made no attempt to “rust and dust” me. Apparently there are some outstanding dealers. One reliable tell-tale: Scott has been with this dealership for 27 years, and attested that their employee turnover is very low.
One surprise once in the business office: the dealer had had the car for 400 days. The original asking price: $24,900. The general manager had been driving it, and they had depreciated the car in their tax return. Which might explain the low, low selling price. Or not. But I have yet to find another explanation.
In my earlier rush I hadn’t bothered to perform a nationwide search on AutoTrader, to see how the car truly stacked up. Back home, I discovered that it had been the cheapest Taurus X Limited AWD with under 45,000 miles in the entire country. The next closest was $2,100 more, had another 14,000 miles, had fewer options—and had buckets in the second row.
So I’m feeling quite lucky. The right car, at the right price, in the right place. What are the odds?
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data