Category: Car Buying Tips

By on July 25, 2011

[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]

Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule. Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes. When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.

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By on June 1, 2011

Mark Modica, a former Saturn dealer GM bondholder, has leveraged his financial loss at the hands of the government bailout into a blogging position at the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative nonprofit that “promotes ethics in public life through research, investigation, education and legal action.” At the NLPC, Modica focuses on what he believes to be corruption surrounding the auto bailout, and has written a series of anti-GM posts that make TTAC look like a Detroit hometown newspaper (TTAC “bias police,” take note). Most recently, Modica has caught the attention of the auto media, including Automobile Magazine and Jalopnik, with a series of posts accusing Chevy dealers of “scamming” taxpayers by claiming the Volt’s $7,500 tax credit and then selling Volts as used cars. TTAC welcomes anyone seeking to cast more light on the bailout, but unfortunately, Modica’s attacks are too focused on making GM look bad and not focused enough on providing relevant information to the American people. Let’s take a look and see why…

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By on January 21, 2011

I moved to Denver over the summer and am now experiencing the joys of proper snow driving for the first time in the 29 years since the State of California saw fit to give me my first driver’s license. With just a ’92 Civic and a ’66 Dodge A100 in my personal motor pool, I figure it’s time for me to start shopping for something with four driven wheels. In fact, I need something that can do four-wheel burnouts on dry asphalt! Read More >

By on December 16, 2010

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.

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By on November 3, 2010

In Part 1, we found that, despite its large overall sample size, Consumer Reports’ has serious gaps in its coverage. But what about the reliability ratings they can provide? An FAQ asserts CR’s ability to split results by engines, drive types, and so forth. At first glance, this appears valuable, as CR’s reliability scores often differ from powertrain to powertrain. But are these differences valid? Should you avoid the V6 in the Camry or insist that your Flex be EcoBoosted?

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By on August 31, 2010

What you see above is the cutaway of the Ford 5.0L mill, taken from the 2010 New York Auto Show. Formerly known as the Coyote V8, the 5.0-packed 2011 Mustang GT hit the showroom floors, winning rave reviews with every journalist lucky enough to get their hands on one. While blogging for TTAC at the New York Auto Show, I hit up the Five-Oh engine displays at the Ford booth.  It was a thoroughly technical and suitably beautiful exhibit.  Only problem was, it gave away a secret that nobody should know.  Camera in hand, I did the deed: a picture tells a thousand words, but this TTAC Editorial still needs about 800 words to go with.

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By on June 1, 2010

In recent years Sweden’s car makers have staked out an uneasy position above the mainstream brands but below the premium European marques. With profits elusive, both were recently sold by their American owners. And both are about to introduce new sedans that they badly need to sell well. How does the pricing of the new 2011 Volvo S60 and 2010 Saab 9-5 compare? Has either been priced aggressively to pump up sales?

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By on May 10, 2010

With strong new auto safety legislation being debated in congress,the role and scope of government regulation in the auto industry is becoming a hotly-contested issue. But one important consideration is being left out of the discussion: the role of private “regulation” of the auto industry. Even as the new legislation was being drafted, we were treated to an object lesson in non-governmental regulation when the non-profit Consumer Reports issued a “do not buy” warning for the Lexus GX after it exhibited lift-off oversteer on a test course. Because CR performs independent testing on a wide variety of dealer-example vehicles, it was able to detect this error, which prompted Toyota to stop sales and production of the model until a fix was released. Throughout the incident, NHTSA played second fiddle to CR, merely checking the non-profit’s work. The lesson: a subscriber-based, non-profit is the real front line of US auto regulation. But, as the Wall Street Journal [sub] reports, Consumer Reports is being shadowed by another organization called Consumers Digest… and you don’t want to make the mistake of confusing the one with the other.

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By on March 15, 2010

That Bible of the intelligencia, Consumer Reports, has released its 2010 Annual Auto Issue, and once again, denizens of Cambridge, Austin, Berkeley, Eugene, and their sister university towns all over the land are parsing its pages, seeking cars that will maximize their utility. Or maybe I’m projecting. Anyway, with apologies to Michael Karesh and True Delta, here’s a summary of the work of the wonks from Yonkers and East Haddam.
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By on October 11, 2009

Decisions, decisions... (

The 1969 Camaro is an automotive icon. Because of this juggernaut tag there are tens of thousands of these late 60s pony cars restored or under restoration. The late Reverend Jimmy “drink the Kool-Aid” Jones would have been humbled by this kind of blind loyalty-the sole reason the 09 Camaro exists was GM’s critical need for a home run.

But which car is going to be more valuable in 2019? Even after 10 years of service as a daily driver?

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By on October 10, 2009

I recently came across a brand new Lincoln MKS. I’m a pretty hard core Japanese car fan but I had to admit that this car looks pretty slick. I had heard that it was pretty fast too. I like fast. Upon inspecting the exterior of the car it came to my attention that the MKS is equipped with ‘EcoBoost.’  Not being up on the very latest in automotive tech, the unfamiliar name intrigued me. Was this some hybrid or electric technology? Curious, I started off on a quest to find out what this EcoBoost is and what makes it so… EcoBoost-y.

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By on July 1, 2009

In the wake of JD Powers’ Initial Quality Survey, several other lesser-known awards are giving OEMs a whole new reason to cobble together a press release touting their top place, improvement or mere presence in one of these meaningless satisfaction surveys. And why not? It’s summer, and things (sales, in specific) are slow. And the award fandango is win-win. The awards allow OEMs to ridiculously inflate the importance of their results, while publicizing the research firms that created the awards. Case in point, the Dodge Ram.

The Ram got top full-size truck honors in the “Strategic Vision Total Quality Index,” a result that prompted the Chrysler Blog headline “Ram Ranked as Best Truck Ever (No Exaggeration).” Except that the survey (like so many meaningless surveys) only gathers impressions of quality and satisfaction from owners of 2008/2009 models, providing a less-than complete picture of “total quality.” In other words, yes exaggeration. But by embracing subjectivity and endless categorization, the awards dance keeps shuffling along.

“We know Total Quality is strengthened by delighting customers and getting them to love you. We stand ready to include love in all the work that we do since measuring love is the next step in discriminating between winning and losing in today’s competitive environment,” explains Strategic Vision’s Darrel Edwards.

But how do you measure such an ineffable emotion with any reliability? As the Bard put it, “love is not love which alters when it alteration [Ed: or awkward panel gap] finds, Or Bends with the remover to remove. O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark.” In short, who doesn’t love their new car? Finding out whether a car lives up to its owner’s expectations is more a measure of the owners than the car.

“Vehicles that score highest in the Vehicle Satisfaction Awards hit the mark with their buyers by delivering value and satisfaction across a wide range of attributes,” says George Peterson, of Auto Pacific, and grand pimp of the 2009 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards. “The winners perform well in 48 separate categories that objectively measure the ownership experience.”

Leaving the challenge of “objectively measuring satisfaction” aside for a moment, that’s 48 freaking categories! Which means every OEM is guaranteed to have at least one “class-leading” vehicle to brag about in press release which backhandedly legitimizes the award. Which is the whole point.

Not that such circle-jerkery is necessarily an inherently bad thing. People often buy cars for irrational reasons, a fact that has gone a long way towards making the auto industry what it is today. If consumers want to factor an aggregation of opinion and after-the-fact purchase justification into their decisions, so be it. But it’s not like either partner in the awards fandango acknowledges that the data in question is scarcely an improvement on a single random opinion of a given car.

“In a year that promises to be the toughest in more than a decade, car buyers are being especially prudent, and the data we’ve analyzed for the Vehicle Satisfaction Award will help this year’s customers make wise purchase decisions,” says Peterson of his award. “We’ve found that more than 25% of respondents are positively influenced by awards like the VSA when deciding on a car and this trend will certainly continue given the economy.”

But wise purchase decisions have nothing to do with it. These awards are little more than marketing information, to be overemphasized by marketing departments. To the consumer, a test drive will tell you more about your likely satisfaction with a given vehicle than any survey can (incidentally,whatever happened to the 24 hour test drive?). Meanwhile, despite slow sales across the industry, every OEM has at least one “winner.” And therein lies the real problem.

The proliferation of meaningless awards contributes to what is already one of the banes of the auto industry: attention span drain. Just as most consumers would be hard pressed to match every automotive brand with its OEM, the public is so inundated with quality survey awards that it’s impossible to expect consumers to seperate the wheat from the chaff. And the wild divergence in results only adds to the confusion.

Jaguar/Land Rover and Volkswagen, for example, may rank towards the bottom in more objective long-term quality and reliability testing, but a press release based on the opinions of buyers who have yet to experience engine sludging or electrical issues conveniently allows them to tout their quality and out-publicize their negative results.

Meanwhile, the awards keep on coming. There are infinite paths to an ill-advised vehicle purchase, but awards purporting to measure intangible attributes using questionable methodologies continue to be the best publicized of the bunch. Deluding consumers and OEMs alike may be good for business, but not in any meaningful or sustainable way.

Consumers, in particular, would be well served to ditch the annual awards and focus instead on methodical, long-term reliability studies such as Consumer Reports or True Delta. If emotional reactions to a vehicle are (for some reason) important to your buying decision, even online forums offer a broader range of reactions and dialogue than an awards aggregate. The truth is out there, but only if you look past the press releases touting useless awards.

By on March 5, 2009

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.

By on November 3, 2008

Everybody who knows me knows I’m a tightfisted son of a bitch. I may own Benzes for their profits, but gas sippers are my daily drivers.  My wife’s daily driver has been an old Volvo wagon (which she loves). And like many of you, I’m nearly OCD when it comes to buying quality on the cheap. When Robert asked me to find him a $5000 car, I found a $4000 car. Why? Because $4000 is the new $5000. For those of you contemplating a new ride and have the cash, now’s a good time to buy. The Manufacturers’ Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) is dead.

Reality check. At the moment, there are only two types of car companies: the living and the dying. Brands such as Toyota, Honda, VW, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, MINI and Nissan still have healthy balance sheets and great products. As long as they stay true to their core talents, today’s recession will lead to long-term global progression. But even though these brands offer quality vehicles, the money to support the demand has disappeared. That’s bad for some customers. Good for everyone else.

Most credit-driven customers have been cut off. Many of the banks that were ‘helped’ by the recent bailout are also among the largest auto finance lenders in the U.S.: Capital One, Citibank and Bank of America. The bank’s balance sheets are looking better– in the same that clothes can hide leprosy. Unfortunately for the ‘fleeced’ taxpayer, and the political ‘yes’ men, the banks are hoarding their new found, taxpayer-funded wealth.

This net drop in the amount of money truly available has resulted in a cliff-face 20 to 40 percent drop in new car sales for even the “good” brands. Although these manufacturers aren’t selling vehicles at Buick levels, the previous customer dealer paradigm has rolled-over and died. To say it’s a buyer’s market would be like saying a jailhouse crack dealer has sway over an incarcerated junkie.

The consumer strategy required to make the best of a bad situation (for the dealer) is simple enough. When you visit that big fishbowl called the dealership just say no to whatever’s on offer and wait. Or leave. There’s no ‘take it or leave it’ or ‘you really need to buy today’ when the inventory is stacked to the roof and the customers are none deep. If you want to squeeze the best deal, all you have to do is say ‘No!’ for a week and enjoy what amounts to a Chinese auction.

Sticker? What sticker? Brand new 2008 Mercedes GLs are going– or not– for $14k off sticker. The same vehicle can be had for a three-year lease for $5k down, $800 a month. Did I say $800? How about $700? $600? I’ve never seen anything like it. Pay no attention to Edmunds or anyone else. Published deals have nothing to do with anything anymore. Desperate doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The same reality applies to the used car markets. Last night I saw a 2003 Mercedes SL500 go for a mere $20 grand, a 2006 Scion Xb sell for $9200, and a loaded 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited with less than a thousand miles no sale at $17k. All of these cars were in strong demand when they were first released. Now they’re just casualties of a credit-driven economy and a repo-saturated car market. In a recession, used car vehicles pick up some of the slack. But not today. Even the market leaders of not too long ago are in a depreciation death spiral.

Then we have the ‘patients.’ GM, Ford and Chrysler are fighting for their survival. Many of their models will not be replaced (through Ch11 or otherwise), and virtually all have record levels of supply. From a 200+ day supply of Corvettes to fields of near-new rental crapmobiles (e.g. Pontiac Grand Prix and Chrysler Sebring), there’s nothing but metal to be moved. Buickman is sending brand new Chevy Silverados our the door at $10k. Again, just say no and reap the rewards. Stupid deals are smart. Don’t be what William Shatner calls timid negotiatiors these days: “mamby-pamby.”

The situation is even more ridiculous at small dead brands such as HUMMER, Saab and Volvo. Their dealers face the morbid task of selling cars that with virtually no marketing dollars behind them. A 2008 Volvo S80 may theoretically compete with the Lexus LS and Mercedes E-Class, but no one knows or cares. A non-competitive product with no market presence will eventually go out the door for a price that is closer to the lower car class.

RF and I are still debating the ‘when’ of car buying during this current carmaggedon. I believe now’s a great time to buy. Robert points at the sheer volume of unsold inventory at the new and used car level, and the lack of consumer confidence (tied to the housing market). Whatever the scenario, however long it lasts, however MORE desperate things become (fancy buying a C11 Malibu for under $5k?), MSRP for all but the most exclusive vehicles is RIP. Go get ‘em tiger!

By on August 14, 2008

Not changing cars is always the easiest option. Until it isn\'t. (courtesy 33 years Jane Hoyt has been driving her baby blue 1975 VW Beetle. Is it love? Madness? A '70's thing? When I asked her about the appeal of her longtime automotive companion, it was none of the above. "It's a story of inertia. Really, it's a metaphor for my life. I always stay too long at the fair." That last word struck me as kinda funny. If a car ownership is a metaphorical "fair," can you get a lifetime of kicks from a four-wheeled Ferris Wheel? 

Yes, the Ferris Wheel. It's a nice, simple machine. Like the Model A, VW Beetle and 1960's Chevy Pickup. While reliability-crazed motorists tend to focus on things not going wrong, it's important to remember that simplicity means ease of repair, and that's the real key to longevity

Simply put, if a mechanic working on a vehicle can quickly figure out what fig-a-ma-jig needs to be replaced, the car in question can usually be repaired in matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. It's going to be easier for an aspiring lifer to tolerate the problems that come along. Because once you pass a certain point in a car's lifespan, come along they will. 

Thankfully (for you if not the manufacturer), that point of plenty of returns is stretching-out further and further. Six Sigma, lean production and a variety of manufacturing standards and practices that you've likely only heard in passing have enabled all carmakers to move towards incredible heights of build quality and mechanical robustness.

At the same time, there've been steady improvements on the repair front. For example, mechanics– be they shade-tree or franchised– now use an OBDII scanner and Alldata (the name says it all) to diagnose and repair vehicles. Identifying electrical problems has never been easier.

Well, at least post'95 or so. From the mid-90's back to time memoriam, each manufacturer had their own unique way of doing things. To wit: most pre-'96 Volvos had little plastic inserts that looked like a magic wand which went into little holes of a diagnosis system. Toyota's diagnostic system was completely different from GM's, and Honda had their own system. 

In fact, cars often had several unique "languages." A mid-1980's Jeep Cherokee may have been given a computer system from AMC, an engine from one of three automakers and a transmission from one of six completely different companies. Throw in a multitude of carburetors and a diagnosing system from a long-ago defunct AMC, and it's no wonder motorists longed for cars that never, ever broke.

It was an automotive Tower of Babel, that forced mechanics to specialize. Which kept both labor and parts prices high. So how come there are still "lifers" out there that stretch back to this pre-historic times? 

As I perused the web in search of lifer stories, I found that most of the cars were those made by companies that churned out the same powertrain for as long as possible. Mercedes and Volvo are the two mantle holders of many elderly lifers. Daimler offered very long model runs for the S, SL and E-Classes; the Swedes finished a 20-year run for the Volvo 200 series.

The thinking back then: if a car model made money and customers kept coming back for new ones, keep making the same thing. Only do it a little better every time. Improving the design, making the parts more durable and maintaining the language of diagnosis and repair kept more of these vehicles on the road past the average life expectancy of their rivals.

And then we have to consider the owner. Lifers tend to have what I call a 'blue jean' mentality when it comes to cars. That is, if the basic shape and design of the vehicle fits their needs, they just keep wearing it regardless of the current fashion. They realize that holes can always be sewn or patched, tastes change with time, and that in the end what really matters in most daily driving is that you're comfortable.

But they also don't "let things go"– as most owners do. If they sense a problem with the vehicle, they make sure it gets taken care of by someone who can be a good steward for that vehicle. That makes a huge difference in their overall happiness with that car. In the end, 'knowledge' and automotive excellence enable them to do what they want to do rather than what society, friends or the modern media encourages them to do.

So, if you're looking for a lifetime automotive companion, you're a lot better off now than at any time in the past. But the rules still apply: simple is best, mainstream is cheapest and regular maintenance is critical. With a bit of luck, you'll avoid the roller coaster of high monthly payments, rapid depreciation, repair and hassle. 

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