Category: Car Buying Tips

By on July 31, 2008

Too bad it really isn\'t that pleasant.Once a car salesman “data captures” you, the calls never stop. Some are rude. Some are sweet. All are pushy. The salesman’s goal: get the sale. Meet the quota (placate the Alpha Dog). Pay the bills (placate the Ex). In America’s cratered new car market, the chances of a car salesman making his nut are only slightly less than that of a squirrel in the Ice Age. Has this stopped dealers from getting up to their old tricks? Hell no. If anything, they’re abusing their customers MORE. Still, if you know how to handle the heat, this is The Mother of All Buyer’s Markets. Here’s how to work the system…

Back in the good old days (for the dealer), when the salesman saw you walking away from a negotiation, they considered it the end of the deal. Hence their “reluctance” to let you go (a.k.a. “We lost your car keys”). While dealers’ “take lots of prisoners” approach is still in force, today, there’s no escape. Phone calls and emails, and emails and phone calls, are headed your way. The good news? All those years of incentives and finance offers have trained salesmen that the deal is all about price. And the price has nowhere to go but down.

So, patience. In a buyer’s market, you hold the cards. For the foreseeable future (well into 2009), the longer you hold them, the more valuable they become. Accept the fact that your purchase should take place over the course of days, maybe even weeks. Again, the greater the delay, the better the deal.

There two types of car customers: “show horse” and “work horse” buyers.

Show horse buyers are looking for one type of car, in one type of color, with a very specific set of options. They’re a dealer’s wet dream.  You want a BOSE DVD video navigation system in that minivan? Well, OK! Let’s find you one with option X! Dealers dedicate their lives to “upselling” customers on manufacturer-created option “bundles.” Sound systems, safety packages and other works of “in” technology are carefully packaged so that show horse buyers pay through their proverbial snout for that one cool feature they really, really want.

Salesmen kill to put customers in this psychological/financial box.

The same game applies to paint and trim. When John Q. tells a dealer they will only consider one combination out of hundreds, they effectively eliminate 95-plus percent of the alternative vehicles out there. That gives the dealer, and the parent manufacturer, an awful lot of leverage. For the pistonheads and car lovers amongst us, option and paint specificity is our Achilles’ heel. Overall, the more “choosy” you are, the more you’re going to have to pay. Period.

So don’t be a show horse buyer. Even in today’s doldrums, you’ll save thousands of dollars by tempering your lust with the knowledge that even “dream cars” becomes just another car in a year or two.

The workhorse buyer has the upper hand. They may prefer two or three models. Or they may have several good fits. They may want to consider a wide range of options, paint or trim. Or perhaps just a few combinations. Either way, they understand the most basic law of supply and demand. The broader their taste palette, the better their overall deal.

Take a lesson from the ultimate work horse buyers (also my favorite type of customer): commercial firms. When a corporate purchaser receives a request for three pickups with only a few specifications, they can play the entire field in the pursuit of the deal. They realize the simple fact what’s on the lot has to go out the door. Deal with what they got. If they ain’t got it, or the price is wrong. Move on.

However there is at times an even better avenue than that for the ‘workhorse’ buyer.

As Tony Blair would have said, there is a middle way: the “demo.” Cars set aside for customer demonstration (a.k.a. test rides) often offer better warranties than the new cars on the lot; demos are almost always certified models. The best ones are loaded, owned and driven by high ranking members of the dealership (or their spouses). They see little more than the daily commuting duty. If you’re a show horse who wants all the bells and whistles, and can wait ‘til the end of model year, demos can provide a full list of options for several thousands less than an identical new model.

After more than a decade as an auto auctioneer and car buyer, I would argue that flexibility, honesty, mutual respect and patience are the best lubricators for a successful negotiation. Regardless, the bottom line never changes: the only power you have as a buyer is the power to walk away. Now more than ever, use it.

By on July 22, 2008

Can you name the truck with four wheel drive?  Smells like a steak, and seats thirty five?  Canyonero! Canyonero!  Twelve yards long, two lanes wide, Sixty-five tons of American pride!  Canyonero! Canyonero! Canyonero!... Whoa, Canyonero! Whoa!All across the nation, SUV Sally's and Sam's are cussing at the pumps. They're watching the readout with mounting horror: $80, $100, $120+ per fill up. The automotive source of this pain of portly plenitude is has become the pink elephant of the American lifestyle. And it's true: SUVs suck. Not just gas. Depreciation, insurance and street cred. And so, the "Livin' Large" folks of the Oil War Era are giving up their SUVs en masse. Which brings us to a simple question. Should you?

The first thing you should consider is whether anyone wants your SUV. Really. That's not a misprint. The purveyors of maximum mass, maximum profit vehicles have been overproducing these beasts for nearly a decade. GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyondissan, Audi, Porsche, Saab and even granola-happy Subaru joined the fray of seemingly endless profit and demand. And now we have the Mother of All Gluts. On EBay, you'll find a 2006, 23k-mile Ford Explorer Limited ($33k new, at least in theory). The owner's asking $23k. Good luck with that; there isn't a single bid on the vehicle. Not one.

We hear reports that some dealers won't take your SUV in trade. Period. Of course, everything sells at a price. So take four good pictures of your vehicle. Write a glorious soliloquy of its qualities. Price it according to the completed items section on EBay. Put ads on Craigslist and Autotrader. Once you get two serious inquiries on your vehicle that don't involve low-balling, you'll see how bad things really are. And they are very bad indeed. And getting worse.

OK, so, you sell X. You buy Y. The cost to trade is pretty easy to determine (if hard to stomach). The hard part: take into account all the other costs that go into the equation. Depreciation (again), insurance, maintenance, even the ungainly pitfall that is financing are part of the wallet-draining process. These "hidden costs" determine the real cost of escaping your Escape.

A buyer of a Mercedes 320 CDI may love to brag about their outstanding fuel economy– until they start paying for the outstandingly expensive blue urea fluid that can only be had at the dealer. Likewise, a friend of mine absolutely adored his Jetta Diesel– until the dealer billed him over $1300 for 'regular maintenance.' One call to a dealer (or independent shop), a quick visit to an enthusiast's site can add an awful lot of wisdom to your final decision.

When it comes to car buying, knowledge is more important than imagination or instinct.
Along the same lines, you have to be honest with yourself, and God forbid, your spouse. Would either of you really feel comfortable making a leap from Canyonero to Cobalt? Safety, interior quality, and dare I say it, the pleasures of driving these money-suckers should be given weighty consideration over the course of weeks.

In my experiences, folks who drive Suburbans rarely fit in Fits. But they can be more than fine in a Camry hybrid or Malibu. By the same token, drivers who own and enjoy a compact SUV may be perfectly happy in a compact car. My wife went from Volvo wagons and minivans into a Honda Fit without any regrets. However the Scion xB and xD were rolling Edsels in her eyes. We all have our likes and dislikes. Be true to them.

Finally don't be sold on being sold; $2.99 gas, free maintenance programs and lifetime warranties may be a dream come true. But the car behind the fine print 'bling' may be a rolling shit can. When you drive away from the lot, the car will determine the quality of your "ownership experience." If you decide to buy used, it will be the prior owner. And if you keep what you have, it will be your own driving style and maintenance regimen that will likely have the most impact on your satisfaction.

It's true. In these days of $4 gas, many of us have been able to achieve fuel economy figures which exceed the EPA ratings by anywhere from 20 to 30 percent, just by changing the way we drive. Learn to coast. Keep the rpm's low. Pay attention to the traffic. Turn that cell phone off and make driving a 'mileage' game. Hypermiling– within reason– can put dollars back in your pocket and add years to your SUVs life.

In an SUV buyer's market, it's best not to sell an SUV. So how long before the market recovers? At best, two years. At worst, never. If it galls you that you're now an SUV owner for life, don't panic. Drive less. Drive more sensibly. And relax. It still beats walking.

By on June 24, 2008

cruiser.jpg$11,800. That’s the price for a 2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser down at my local Chrysler dealer. Throw in the “Refuel America” $2.99 per gallon guarantee into the equation and you end-up with a pre-tax, tag, title price right around $10,200. Not bad. Not bad at all. Then again, is it? There are a lot of factors to consider when approaching any of the bargain basement cars currently on offer during this, Detroit’s [most recent] dark days. Join me as we journey down the PT-shaped rabbit hole…

If you're not an enthusiast, and simply want a 'keeper' car, the $10k Cruiser may be a great deal. What’s that you say? It’s going away? Well exactly. There are a lot of pluses for soon-to-be-defunct, less popular cars like the PT Cruiser that go far beyond the initial purchase price.

A long model run usually translates into a lot of easily obtainable spare parts, from multiple sources. The nearby parts store or junkyard will likely have replacements available for the eight year-old PT in duplicate or even triplicate. The PT Cruiser will also outdo recent entrants like the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit when it comes to parts cost. For transplanted customers who have been beholden to the dealer for a $500 repair, that would cost maybe $150 in a mainstream Detroit iron, this is a weighty consideration.

All things being equal, a long model run also has the advantage of offering far fewer defects 'on average' than the latest and greatest models. A car that's been built a million times over has effectively given the supplier and the manufacturer plenty of opportunity to improve the car's design and reduce defects.

[Note: this isn't always the case. Google 'engine sludge' or 'transmission issues' and you'll see a long list of both domestic and transplant products that failed to make the grade, either initially or over time. However a quick visit to an enthusiast's site for your car (Google the model and add 'enthusiast' to the search) or owner's review sites like TrueDelta can tell you all you really need to know about a vehicle's true quality.]

Then there’s the double whammy of depreciation and gas cost.

For a car like the PT Cruiser, depreciation can be an absolute killer. As of writing, a PT Cruiser will lose an estimated 63 percent ($9,644) of it's retail value over five years. That’s far more of a hit than new models like the Yaris ($3,960), or Versa ($5,059), or the Fit ($5,152). For those who keep their rides for five years, the Intellichoice site is a good place to figure out your true costs of ownership, including depreciation. 

If you're one of the wiser souls who decides depreciation should be minimized at all [non] costs, you’ll find that a 10-year ownership period will reduce this difference by at least two-thirds. As common sense suggests, when it comes to depreciation, it's the keeper who usually comes out ahead.

There’s a lot anyone can do to minimize their vehicle’s depreciation. Keep it, clean it, use high quality parts, drive conservatively and know your car by joining an enthusiast's group. But gas cost is a far, far stickier wicket.

The PT Cruiser may be seen as frugal wee beasties, but a 19 city and 24 highway mpg rating puts it far behind on the other three competitors. If you keep a PT for 100k miles and drive evenly between the city and highway, you’ll spend $18,605 on gas (assuming $4/gallon). That is $6,105, $4,320 and $5,490 more than the Yaris, Versa and Fit. Double the duration and your gas costs may outweigh any other single cost. Even depreciation. With gas supply on a perpetual plateau and demand only going up, this is a real deal breaker for those who’ve changed their fuellish ways.

Finally, there’s insurance. An older and more conservative car with a strong safety rating will usually do far better here than a fashionable car that appeals to a riskier audience. In this sense, the PT is good news. A car like the PT Cruiser A) generally appeals to conservative and mature drivers B) offers pretty good safety ratings, and C) and requires cheap replacement parts (as mentioned). Most folks will simply call their insurance company and get a quote. That's fine. But being on the right side of these three rankings can make a big difference on the bottom line. 

So, for a retiree who drives sparingly, a brand new PT Cruiser is an excellent value. For an enthusiast, the Fit and Versa are the more fun vehicles to drive. If you look at cars as an overall economic proposition over a relatively short time period, the Yaris is probably a better bet. Personally I’d pick a VW Rabbit. But that’s an article for another day.

By on April 29, 2008

cadillac-ranch.jpgLast year, I scored over $400 worth of auto supplies. All it cost me was sales tax, a few stamps and about thirty minutes of my time. It was a lot of good stuff too: 24 quarts of synthetic motor oil, six gallons of coolant and a seemingly endless amount of top quality car waxes and detail products. Heck, I was even able to get three different tool sets and free wipes once all my maintenance work was done! Unfortunately, for a frugal enthusiast like me, that was then and this is now.

The auto parts market has changed dramatically in the last year. As I reported previously, soaring commodity prices have increased demand for recycling (rather than resale). At the same time, the economic downturn has millions of American motorists hanging onto their cars longer, and buying used instead of new. Rising raw costs and increased demand has made it a seller’s market.

Thus far this year, I’ve scored nothing free. Zero, nilch, nada. Every once in a while I see a complete oil change for $6.99, a free brake ‘inspection’ (with the obligatory small print shop fee) and parts store tools that are still thankfully available for free rental. It’s not the end of the world, but inflation is becoming a real bastard on the finances! Everything costs money now. As enthusiasts we have to watch for the deals whenever they arise.

In my neck of the woods, six auto parts stores serve local pistonheads and repair shops: Advance Auto Parts, NAPA, Autozone, O’Reillys, Pep Boys, and arguably (cough! cough!) Wal-Mart. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses that I try to play off each other during the year.

For example, Advance often has the cheapest parts available. This makes it a favorite among auto repair facilities and cheapskates in my neck of the woods. For the ‘trader’ who likes to tinker during weekends, Advance is often a good source. However, the ‘keeper’ should only get those parts that have lifetime warranties. From my perspective, that means they should focus instead on the quality side of the equation. Which calls for some serious online cross-shopping.

NAPA offers higher quality parts at a price. From my experience, NAPA’s the ‘Target’ equivalent. If you’re the type who doesn’t want to pay a premium for dealer parts but still wants quality, NAPA may have the best offerings. Rarely will NAPA ever have a good deal on motor oil or detail products. They do however have great deals for those folks looking to keep their car driving like a premium product.

Autozone is good for oils and accessories. It’s the perfect cross-shopping alternative to NAPA and Advance. In my experience, they have the widest selection, and it’s not too difficult to find parts that are similar to the other two retailers. As with all big box retailer these days, many products are virtually identical. Even though the parts manufacturer’s name may be different, it may have indeed come from the very same [Chinese] factory. An online visit to all three of these retailers is always worth the while for TTACers on a budget.

O’Reilly’s offers the most free and cheap repair tools. When they’re overstocked, they also have the best sales. However, you have to visit their stores to find the deals. Last year I bought over $300 worth of auto parts for virtually nothing because I went through the trouble of looking through the coupon rack right by the entrance. A list of 40 products were given in one little note card. An hour later, I was stocked for virtually the entire year. O’Reilly’s also have one of the most diverse additive product offerings I’ve seen. 

Pep Boys and Wal-Mart are usually the cheap tire / cheap oil places. Pep Boys will have the $6.99 oil change deals and Wal-Mart offers oil changes for less than $20. Wal-Mart offers every day low prices while you have to search the Pep Boys Sunday circulars to get the right deals.

Watch out for hidden charges and miscellaneous fees. If you’re one of those that prefer to have someone else do the wrenching, make sure you know the total cost before you visit. Wal-Mart installs tires and changes your oil. Pep Boys will do that and install parts as well. In both instances, I would still prefer the services of a reputable independent mechanic.

Car-part.com is another excellent source for factory parts. I suggest you visit the site before going the used/recycled route. Craigslist can be a Shangri-la for cheap parts, and EBay still offers plenty of good deals for those who are willing to wait a week.

In the today’s world of car parts, there's no such thing as a free quart of synthetic oil. It pays to look around and shop smart.

By on March 11, 2008

tiregirl.jpgI studied epistemology in a college religion class. Epistemology is a fifty cent word for the branch of philosophy that explores the way in which man learns truth. What leads a person to the certain conclusion that God exists? Is it the conclusion of a logical process? Or personal spiritual experience? Maybe it’s embracing family tradition? At the risk of offending deity and condemning my soul to an eternity burning amid fire and Bridgestone, I liken the process of buying new tires to the quest for faith.

When we buy a car, we are able to visit local dealerships to test drive the vehicles under consideration. We can see, hear, feel, smell and [theoretically] taste a car before we buy it. Of course there are variables that are unknowable after 20-minutes at the helm and an hour putzing around the sales floor. But our personal sensory experience generally provides enough data to conclude whether a candidate car meets our needs, desires, and budget.

It’s not the same with tires. Ideally buyers could mount various tires to their car and perform comparative test drives back-to-back before deciding on what rubber they want to invest in.

The closest experience I’ve had to this occurred last year when Cooper Tires invited me (along with a dozen other auto journalists) to their test track near Pearsall, Texas.  They prepared a number of head-to-head comparisons between their new CS4 tire and selected competitors.

Scribes were allowed to race a Mustang fitted with CS4s through a wetted rally track back-to-back with a second Mustang fitted with Bridgestones. Next we drove two identical Cadillac DTS’ shoed with Coopers and Continentals through an emergency stop trap.  In each instance, the CS4 performed favorably.

I don’t think the Cooper folks did anything underhanded, but like a vacuum cleaner salesman who demonstrates his product sucking-up nuts and bolts, the tests were clearly designed to show their product in the most favorable light. 

So we’re still relegated to grasping for truth through a fog-filled maze of mirrors. The manufactures (i.e. father of lies) and their self-serving marketing claims simply can’t be trusted. Most tire dealers (i.e. devil’s spawn) are equally untrustworthy; they will spin you toward the tire that makes them the most money. Car buff book, consumer guides and tire rag evaluations (i.e. sacred writ) are compromised by the same temptations that afflict their car reviews: pressure from big advertisers and addiction to the press junket gravy train.

That narrows reconnaissance options to word-of-mouth and Internet reviews (i.e. testimonials), both of which are also fraught with risk. When your neighbor (i.e. the zealot) tells you about his favorite tire, you have to wonder, “What the Hell does HE know about it?” Has he compared his favorite doughnut to each competitor so he can draw comparisons? More importantly, his automobile and driving style are unlikely to match your own. 

Internet user reviews might be the most suspect of all. You can never fully know the background and biases of the reviewers. A bitter critic stung by bad service or stuck with a lemon could be on an e-jihad to ensure that the world hears of his pain. Furthermore, I find that familiarity breeds contempt among the most popular models. Somehow human nature makes us want to despise the successful and root for underdogs.

On the other hand, the review you are reading might be the handiwork of a marketing firm looking to stack the net with glowing reviews of their client’s product. Shopcartusa.com (i.e. Beelzebub) is an obvious example of this nefarious practice.

[Last year, as I searched for the best deal on a new camera body I stumbled across their site. Their “customers” unwaveringly gave thousands of five-star ratings and rave reviews of known suspect merchants, some of whom fell under indictment by the New Jersey State Attorney General.]

If you manufactured tires, wouldn’t you make sure that there were as many positive reviews about your product posted on TireRack.com as possible?  If an electronic warrior is smarter than the guys at Shopcartusa.com, they can make favorable reviews look quite natural and convincing.

Most tire buyers become so confused by the chorus (i.e. legion) of unreliable messages that they immerse themselves in the only thing they know for sure– their own experience (i.e. tradition). But this fear of getting something bad blinds us from discovering anything better.

In my most recent tire search, my cynical self (i.e. the tire agnostic) was left to sort through the mass of information, sniffing each data and casting aside anything smelling of spin, reeking of bile or spritzed with eau de incompétence. I looked for threads of consensus from the many differing sources that remain. Balancing these conclusions against my needs and budget led me to my final selection. And then I prayed that I’d made the best choice.

[Cooper tires provided Mr. Montgomery with lunch, track time and insurance.] 

By on February 19, 2008

2009_gt-r032.jpgIn Michelangelo Antonioni's film "Blow Up," Thomas (David Hemming) watches a rock guitarist smash his ax and toss the remnants into the audience. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, Thomas joins the scrum scrambling for a piece of the dead guitar. He grabs the lion's share and runs away. Dozens of fans give chase, attempting to wrest the prize from his grasp. Finally, Thomas is clear of the crowd. Alone with his treasure, he contemplates his booty– and then casually tosses it into a nearby trash can. Nissan GTR anyone?

Sacrilege! The new Nissan GT-R blasts from zero to 60mph in 3.5 seconds, navigates the Nürburgring as fast as the Porsche 911 Turbo and (allegedly) does so with more confidence than Stuttgart's finest. All this with a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) starting just under $70k. Clearly, it's the performance automotive bargain of the decade.

On the day the initial U.S. dealer allocations of GT-Rs were announced, the mathematics made the problem clear. Nissan deemed exactly 691 dealers "qualified" (i.e. large and financially productive enough) to sell the GT-R. During the model's inaugural year, Nissan will build 2500 GT-Rs worldwide, only 1400 vehicles of which will make it stateside.

It doesn't take long to divide 1400 by 691 and conclude that the anointed U.S. Nissan dealers will receive two GT-Rs (on average). Since these dealers were obliged to make an investment in the equipment needed to service the GT-R's unique run flat tires, it makes sense that they'd want to recoup that investment ASAP, over the two model transactions they'll experience in 2008. And, lest we forget, they're car dealers.

Bottom line: a "buyer's premium."   

So when I contacted my local dealer to place an order for my very own Nissan GT-R, I wasn't surprised to encounter a lot of squirming and shadow puppeteering. This, of course, gave me a reverse Groucho Marx; I wanted to join a club that didn't want me as a member. BUT–  

I am allergic to paying more than MSRP for anything (I have a doctor's note to prove it). The idea of forking over a significant premium for a GT-R in its first year of release makes me feel both elated and stupid.

To delete "stupid" from this equation, I began an on-line investigation, hoping to tap the experiences of other enthusiasts desperately seeking a Nissan GT-R. Most of the stories I encountered indicated that dealers were adding a $10k to $25k additional onto the car's MSRP.

About a half dozen commentators listed dealers committed to selling their GT-Rs at MSRP. This information did me little good, as one sale accounted for half of their allocation. By the time I'd identified the virtuous dealer their other GT-R was also sold. Living in California didn't help; the Golden State's love for fast cars seems to blur the lines of whatever rational decision-making may remain within state borders.

Of course, the upshot of this hot model fever is a four-wheeled Ponzi scheme. Aside from the Ferrari Enzo, you can count on one hand the number of cars that garnered a premium from the onset, and maintained that value (and you'd still have enough fingers left to make gang signs). Anyone remember the $100k dealers placed on top of the dreadful BMW Z8? The SL55 AMG for $50k on top? And yes, people paid above the odds for a Pontiac Solstice.

Eventually, as the hot model cools, someone gets burned. IF you're going to pay a premium for a hot car, the "trick" is to do so straight out of the chute, then sell the car before availability catches-up with demand. Given that the Nissan GT-R ain't no Ferrari, and Nissan dealers love money, I reckon Nissan will up production after the 2008 model year, big style. At that point, the premium will disappear, for both buyer and seller.

You want to talk about killer depreciation? Then you need to contemplate the concept of "front loading" an asset destined to shed value. A 2005 SL55 AMG with less than 20k on the clock can now be yours for $86k as a certified pre-owned car from an MB dealer- and a lot less as a private purchase. With Solsti piling-up on dealer lots, there isn't a single soul in the U.S. who'll pay you above the odds for a new one. Not one. 

So I'm hot on this quest to find someone who will accept my order for a Nissan GTR at MSRP and I've never even seen one in person– let alone felt the driving experience. Two questions. How long will the hype last? With all this demand and little supply, how long will there be someone willing to pluck this discard from my trash heap and pay ME more than MSRP for the privilege? Second, would I even like it?  

By on January 21, 2008

07malibu.jpgWhen it comes to buying fish, stocks, bonds or cars, timing is everything. The factors determining a savvy buyer’s ideal window of opportunity are mercurial. And, like the mystery surrounding a good fishing hole, there are plenty of industry professionals whose livelihood depends on shrouding the “inside line” in secrecy. For example, you won't find prices for “leftover” ’07 Chevrolet Malibus on Edmunds or kbb. Of course, when it comes to car buying advice, The Truth About Cars is on YOUR side. We’re here to help.  

If you want to save money, it often pays to wait until a manufacturer introduces a new version of an existing model. Dealers hawk model year “close outs” on a regular basis. But the deals don’t get crack-a-lackin’ until the model undergoes a significant “refresh.” If the “old” model looks old or the “new” model is significantly better— like, say, the aforementioned Malibu— the discounts are intense.We've found new old ‘Bu's for $5k off list.

Normally, model “refreshes” are evolutionary, not revolutionary. And the price difference ‘twixt old and new is impressive, not astounding. But impressive ain’t bad. Let’s have a look…

The Nissan Murano has been a solid seller since its introduction in 2003 (with a 2004 model year designation.) This first major update has now shipped, as a 2009. As there was no 2008 model, disconcerted dealers now have 2009 AND 2007 Muranos on sitting on their lots side-by-side. 

What’s the diff?  The new model gets a more hideous nose and badly revised sheetmetal. Horsepower’s up 25, though mileage remains roughly the same. Nissan claims the new Murano has increased rigidity and decreased noise. In the main, that’s it.

There is a value to newness. It is nice being the first on your block with a car no one’s seen before, to feel special for a while, like you’re on the cutting edge. But there’s also value to be extracted from Nissan dealers with unlucky ‘07s who MUST lure customers away from the new and improved Murano. We're talking $1,500 from Nissan and the $2,500 between the dealer’s sticker and his or her invoice. Or more.

After six years, Volvo is also launching a heavily-revised V70 wagon. The new model takes their bread-and-butter load lugger up a whole platform, from P2 (shared with the S60) to P24 (shared with the S80). Bottom line: it’s a move up market, not up-size. In America, the engine gains a cylinder, the horsepower jumps from 168 to 235, (the 2007 turbo makes 218) and gas mileage drops by around five mpg. The new V-wagon extends a lineage of safety innovations and offers some unique new features, like a power tailgate.

Volvo's a done a good job reducing supplies of the outgoing model. But more than a few 2007s V70s lurk on the lots. In the notoriously cool buying climate of January and February, buyers could find discounts as deep as upstate New York snow. There’s around $2k between invoice and sticker, more with more depending on options and local incentives.  

In 2003, the Pontiac Vibe began rolling out of the NUMMI plant (a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota) and the Toyota Matrix emerged from Toyota's Cambridge, Ontario plant. Both vehicles are tall, harshly-styled Corollas– and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Both the Vibe and the Matrix are reliable, versatile, borderline fun vehicles. They just look… dated.

The models’ sheetmetal changes a bit, but the song remains the same; there’s no drastic increase in size. Horsepower is up, without a hit to gas mileage. For the base 1.8-liter engine, GM and Toyota lose the manual transmission option. Toyota and Pontiac are also offering a 2.4-liter powerplant putting out 158 hp. All wheel-drive is back as on option. If these things be important to you, stay home until March. 

Good news for the bargain shopper: the 2009 versions of Matrix-Vibe don’t look all that much better. Go poke around under the plastic pennants and you'll find aggressively-priced models aplenty. Dealers are watching flat spots grow on these all season radials, knowing the new 2009's are being assembled in California and Canada as I type. 

Here’s the caveat: resale. When a new model comes out, it dings the value of the previous model. In the grand scheme of things, over the long term, it’s not a huge hit. In the short term, it’s a big old whack. If you’re planning to sell your pre-model change car in two to three years, you will not get as much money as if you’d bought the “new” new car.

If you sell your pre-model change vehicle in five to seven years (or longer), factors like mileage and condition come to the fore. Of course, even then, timing is everything.

By on December 31, 2007

afa2.jpgFrom candy corn to Lincoln Continentals, Craigslist is the ultimate Turkish bazaar. It's an almost universally accessible free market for millions of folks who once paid (and paid) for the ‘privilege’ of selling their stuff. From a pistonhead perspective, Craigslist seems to be a great place to buy and sell automobiles. Even a brief scan shows that the site offers a vehicle for every type of appliance seeker, enthusiast and hobbyist. I’ve been using Craigslist as my site du jour for nearly three years. During that time, I’ve sold more than a hundred vehicles through the service. But I'm a pro, and I’m here to warn you that there's a dark side to the deal.

While Craigslist offers free, instant access to an enormous quantity of listings and potential buyers, car buyers and sellers get very little information about the vehicle involved. Vehicle Identification (VIN) numbers, ownership histories and other critical details regarding the car’s true condition (i.e. collisions, insurance claims, outstanding debt) are few and far between. You can imagine what happens next…

I’ve seen cars from commercial auctions with salvage and rebuilt titles advertised on Craigslist with nary a mention of these “issues.” And that’s not the half of it. I’ve heard numerous tales of car dealers stuck with lemons using Craigslist to make lemonade, sticking their poison fruit on someone else’s plate. And these are just the pros. We’ll never know how many less than scrupulous private sellers have hidden potentially lethal problems or grievously misrepresented their rides.

Craigslist– like any website encouraging “real world” interaction– also has the potential to connect buyers or sellers with deviants, thieves and thugs. Scam artists bent on identity theft can use Craigslist contact to solicit credit card information from all-too-gullible buyers. Fake car buyers can show-up for a test drive, convince buyers to let them take a solo test drive, and disappear. But wait; there’s worse…

Way back in July ‘06, the San Francisco Gate newspaper reported that several Craigslist advertisers were held up at gunpoint by criminals posing as buyers and sellers. “In April, two men in Boston who responded to an ad for a used 1995 Honda Civic were robbed of their money,” the paper reports. “The suspect directed the men behind a house to look at the car, and then pulled a gun and forced the victims to the ground before fleeing, according to Boston police.”

Obviously, printed classifieds also offer (offered?) criminals a chance to find their marks. But just as the web makes commercial transactions vastly more efficient, Craigslist has made it easier for dangerous and devious criminals to identify, lure and victimize their targets.

Crime thrives in the dark. Returning to the actual transaction, the scrupulous seller who provides full disclosure on Craigslist is no more likely to find favor than the unscrupulous scammer whose car title is as genuine as a thirty-three dollar bill. Once a Craigslist user buys a vehicle, it’s theirs and that’s that. A dishonest seller can easily continue with their deceptive and dishonest practices, under a different name if necessary.

Craigslist does not attack abuse. Click on the New York City site’s “personal safety tips” and you’re assured that the “incidence of violent crime has been extremely low.” One of five bullet pointed tips advises you to “trust your instincts.”

Click on “avoid scams” and the site advises you to “DEAL LOCALLY WITH FOLKS YOU CAN MEET IN PERSON – follow this one simple rule and you will avoid 99% of the scam attempts on Craigslist.” And if that one simple rule doesn’t save you from fraud, they refer you to the Federal Trade Commission, the Internet Crime Complaint Center or your local police’s “non emergency number.” 

The real answer to this question is on eBay. Not only does eBay have a Global Law Enforcement Operations Team that actively pursues fraudsters, but they also provide buyers with a feedback mechanism to check the seller’s reputation. Sellers must provide a vehicle’s VIN number, which links to a downloadable AutoCheck report ($7.99). eBay also automatically protects buyers of qualified passenger vehicles against certain types of fraud (e.g. it’s a stolen car, unrevealed damage above $1k or a vehicle simply never gets delivered), up to $20k. 

All of which means that scam artists have a harder time slipping through eBay’s net, and if they do, the car buyer has financial or criminal redress.

Since I first used Craigslist, the site has gone from being a quality-focused website to the electronic equivalent of the Wild West. The days when this electronic bazaar was a well kept secret used by overwhelmingly decent and (how can I say this nicely) intelligent users are long gone. The truth is that anyone who uses Craigslist instead of eBay now does so at their own peril, which is far greater than most people realize.  

By on December 6, 2007

subaru_legacy_1065727.jpg“Wooden Shoe Rather Be Dutch?” Sigh. Bumper sticker humor aside, the Subaru Legacy had 140k miles on the clock and a well-maintained powertrain (records in the glovebox). The hardback book about Abraham Lincoln under the driver’s seat gave me hope that the owner was equally conservative with his driving. After a bit of tire kicking, I slowly concluded that the old girl had plenty of life left. Fortunately, the kicked-in driver’s door and smelly interior made the other dealers turn-up their nose when the Subie went across the block. For $500, the Legacy became mine… all mine. BWAHAHAHHA!!!!

Welcome to the wonderful world of the $500 car. From public auctions to impound lots to private sales and eBay, they’re there for the taking. We’re talking old Fords that hardly ever fail, to mondo mileage minivans with the interiors to match. The cost of today’s ‘affordable’ commuter has rapidly sunk to the point where it’s nearly equal to the price of a new scooter. Even better, as the old saying goes, “They ain’t building em’ like they used too.”  They’re building them better.

Thanks to huge advances in mechanical engineering, materials and manufacturing, the average vehicle has a remarkable ability to sustain itself well in six figures on the clock and double decades on the calendar– given the right owner and proper maintenance.

In my daily work as a dealer, I see the results of this every day: old Camrys old enough to drink in all fifty states that run as well as a twenty-year-old sewing machine; old Volvo wagons that you can’t kill with a stick, SUVs built for durability instead of bling that can still climb every mountain, conventional family sedans that have watched an entire generation grow up and head off to college, ready for grandchild duty.

For a true indication of the average car’s added endurance, look no further than Canada. Our neighbors in the Great White North recently reported that the number of 15-year-old vehicles on their roads had skyrocketed from just 800k in 1990 to 2.8m today. They’re not hanging onto to their vehicles longer because they’re poor. They’re doing it because they can. And the money saved is phenomenal. But the $500 car? How can that be a good deal?

First of all, understand this: the $500 car always has something wrong with it. Examples: the Subaru had a foul odor and a severely dented door. A $100 door and a $50 detail brought it back to its rightful glory. A 1989 Toyota Camry and a 1993 Eagle Vision I bought for $500 apiece needed nothing more than a $190 paint job (called a “scuff and shoot”). Two 1989 Volvo 240 Wagons, a 1988 Isuzu Trooper and a 1991 Ford Explorer Sport needed… well… nothing actually. They were just unpopular and ‘old’. Finally, a 1977 Mercedes 350SE bought for $250 needed a/c, new tires, and an alignment.

That old Merc was a freakish, right place/right time deal. But all the others had dozens of eyes on them and nary an interested buyer in sight. But why did all these sell so cheaply? Most car shoppers (and dealers) judge a book by its cover. Fashion rules. A damaged door or other body panel, peeling paint or lack of functional air conditioning stops most buyers in their tracks.

In time though, most folks pretty much just treat their cars as appliances. If it breaks a little bit, but it still works, they figure why bother even fixing it? Car buyers prefer to trade-in or sell their problems instead of fixing them, predominantly because they believe the repair cost is simply too much to bear.

That’s where the challenge and opportunity lies. Paint is cheap, parts at the local recycling yard (check car-part.com) or parts store are a fraction of dealer prices, and the time spent calling a few shops to get a direct quote for the labor on a specific repair costs you absolutely nothing. Enthusiast sites for specific cars are great at telling you the weak spots of any particular model, and what to look for during the test drive. Again this costs nothing but time and the willingness to learn.

For those of us who buy for the long haul, or just want a good cheap car to play with for a while, my advice is to look at the ‘scratch and dent’ side of the market. There are a lot of cheap old cars out there that had owners who did the maintenance, but not the cosmetics or the seemingly big repair.  A little homework and a good independent mechanic can truly give you a ‘keeper’.   It will also stave off the five figured financial scourges of depreciation, higher ad valorem taxes, and insurance while keeping your car hobby affordable and fun.

By on November 15, 2007

2008_ford_taurus.jpg“Is that yours?” Millions of car buyers spend billions of dollars hoping that this statement will be born of admiration rather than pity. When these words come out of a car dealer’s mouth at trade-in time, they can be especially hurtful– even if the salesman is as honest as their spiel is long. That’s the moment when most car buyers finally discover whether or not their automotive “investment” has walked off a cliff and fallen into the financial abyss known as depreciation. Here’s how to avoid the freefall…

It simply can’t be stressed enough. Depreciation is the mother of all automotive operating costs. Even if gas soars to four bucks a gallon, depreciation STILL repesents the biggest hit to the car owner’s wallet. To wit: The average cost for a new car in these great United State currently hovers around $24k. After seven to eight years– not far from the ever-increasing average amount of time American new car buyers hold onto their whips– the car’s owner will be looking at a depreciation rate somewhere between 70 percent and 85 percent.

In other words, come trade-in time, they’re facing an average loss between $16,800 and $20,400. That’s before any considering of the “opportunity cost” (i.e. money lost by NOT investing the cash in a house/money market/alpaca farm). Or inflation.

Bottom line: if you want to avoid depreciation, forget about buying a new car. Yes, a new car offers warranty-related peace of mind. But it's an extremely expensive security blanket. A carefully-selected used car may need repairs, but in most cases, they'll still cost a lot less than depreciation..   

If you're willing to forgo that new car smell, figuring-out your buying pattern is the next step. There are two basic buying types: Keepers (keep cars for the long haul) and Traders (trade them in after a few years).

Many Keepers are ready, willing and able to enjoy a vehicle for well over a decade. “Keepers” believe their car should be a cruising companion until the point where the perceived risk of owning it (usually the cash outlay for major repairs) outweighs the fact that ownership itself [eventually] costs them nothing/virtually nothing. In the automotive world, they are what we call "married."

The key to being a successful Keeper: marry genuine quality, not reputation. Say what you will about “import bigots” and brand loyalty, but the automotive market is a place where perceived reputation translates into dollars and cents. Toyotas and Hondas routinely receive price premiums– even though many of their products fall far short in value and performance as compared to their peers. By the same token, overlooked or unloved models represent an excellent way to keep the hounds of depreciation at bay.

In most cases, car buyers get more bang for their buck (power, features, etc.), lower up-front costs, and lower depreciation costs simply by buying a used example of a less well known/accepted car. Mitsubishi, Subaru, Saturn– there are plenty of brands that sell excellent products that simply fail to capture the public imagination. The fact that these cars take a huge initial hit on depreciation works entirely in your favor, both buying and selling. 

For example, if you’re looking at a midsized commuter, a 2004 Buick Century or 2004 Oldsmobile Bravada, both of which finished first in J.D. Power’s recent dependability study and received strong ownership ratings, will cost thousands less to purchase than a comparable Camry, Accord or Pilot. Remember: badge snobs must pay for the privilege. 

The Trader is a different animal, a shorter time horizon than the Keeper, requiring a different strategy.

To avoid depreciation, Traders are best off buying a carefully vetted five to seven-year-old car of their choice. At that point, depreciation has exacted the majority of its revenge. With due diligence, Traders can get a superb return on their money. The average five-year-old car kept for two years experiences minimal depreciation (20 percent or so). The average seven-year-old car experiences even less, and so on. It's a simple but highly effective buying pattern.

And then there is the Sage. The Sage can buy nearly anything and make a buck at it. Yours truly has enjoyed hundreds of vehicles over the last few years– and it’s only taken huge chunks of my free time to do it. Mechanics, auto auctioneers, wholesalers, retailers and hobbyists will always have an edge when it comes to depreciation costs. We know what’s hot, and we know plenty of people who appreciate hotness.

Again, wisdom comes at a cost. Sages don’t pay for depreciation (much), but their insight requires years of hard work, money (mistakes are never free) and a feel for the auto biz' cycles of fashion and fame.

Whether you’re a Keeper, Trader or Sage, remember: a car is an expense. It may excite you or be a daily nuisance, but it is still an expense. By minimizing depreciation you will avoid the single largest cost in the process. With that money you can save the world, buy groceries or save up for your next car.  

By on October 30, 2007

nitrot1.jpgJet planes, armored personnel carriers and racecars all have nitrogen-filled tires. So it’s got to be cool, right? I mean, I wish my Honda Odyssey minivan was more like an F-22 in some way. Or in any way. Anyway, is it worth an average five bucks a tire to stuff your rubber with the seventh element? For the majority of American drivers– those who do not routinely drive through flaming pools of fuel, off-road on dunes hotter than Scarlett Johansson’s hips or hit 200mph on the straight-aways– the answer is a simple “no.” Yet thousands of vendors are setting up nitrogen pumps and enticing people to pop open their stems. What’s the point?

Purified nitrogen is more stable and less corrosive than a compressed version of the air we breathe. By its lonesome, nitrogen clumps in large molecules. Even better, it's not oxygen, which is the root of oxidation, which eats rubber just like steel, just not as dramatically or visibly. All of this means the gas has two things going for it.

First, compressed air is a blend of oxygen and other tire degrading contaminants, including water. Your tires should last longer filled with pure, dry, nitrogen gas. Second, nitrogen’s larger molecules are less likely to seep through rubber. Nitrogen-filled tires delivers more consistent inflation pressure– especially under temperature fluctuations. Studies suggest nitrogen-filled tires will remain properly inflated three times longer than air-puffed companions.

Nitrogen's advantages are solid (so to speak)– provided you're a diligent motorist and nitrogen refills are free. Add some nonchalance and a dollar figure and the benefits evaporate.

Oxygen only accounts for about 21 percent of the ambient air (nitrogen makes up 78 percent). And oxygen is going to eat the outside of the tire– no matter would put inside. And if you don’t drive that much, you’re not getting the air inside all hot and bothered, which increases the decay rate.

In truth, most drivers are going to wear out their tires long before the rubber will decay enough to lower tire performance or safety; those radials will last until much of the gas– any gas– seeps out. I repeat: whether you drive a lot or a little, internal tire degradation isn’t much of a worry.

Proper inflation is the real issue. Under-inflated tires reduce gas mileage. They flatten out, creating more surface area and thus adding friction, which makes the engine work harder. The extra friction, and resulting heat, also increases the chance of a blowout. A properly inflated tire is always safer and more efficient than under-inflated shoes (unless you're driving across a sand dune). 

Nitrogen’s reluctance to leave the wheel is a blessing because it helps maintain tire pressure at optimal levels. Of course, checking your tire pressure once a month does the same thing. AND regular checks get you close to the rubber for a chance of seeing something else that might be going wrong: weird wear, a protruding rail spike, a chunk scraped away by that curb you forgot you hit, etc.

In any case, tire manufactures reckon your tires lose around one pound per month of inflation pressure. There are a ton of variables, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that maintaining recommended pressure improves the average driver's gas mileage by three percent. That’s about $50 a year just for paying attention– not to mention the better handling and reliability that come along for the ride.

Yes but– nitrogen is still going to leave the inside of your tires for the big, wide world; just not as quickly as oxygen. A pound's worth of gas might seep out in three months, rather than one. Meanwhile, the idea that nitrogen-stuffed tires are a fill-it-and-leave-it alternative to air is an inherently dangerous supposition. Drivers still need to get down, stick on a gauge and hear the hiss whether they’ve used air, nitrogen or cream filling. Nitrogen hype can end up doing more harm than good.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is ambivalent about the use of nitrogen. The Rubber Manufacturers Association says it it's a good thing– when it's free. Michelin goes a step further. They recommend nitrogen only for tires used "in high risk environments” like aircraft landing gear and racing.

A quick look at a few of the nitrogen generator manufacturers' websites can give you an idea what may be driving some of the interest in swapping tire gasses. N2 machines can operate for as little as 25 cents an application. The generators themselves go for as little as four grand. After the first 200 or so nitrogen fill-ups, these things are more profitable than pretzel carts.

As with most things, it’s all about me. I’ve got to be more conscientious about checking and rotating my tires. If I want them to be all they can be, I’ve got to be better. It’s what’s inside that counts-– or, in the case of nitrogen, not. So, to make my minivan more like a fighter plane, I’m looking at other modifications. Possibly chaff.

By on July 12, 2007

dealer2.jpgScared of car dealer scams? Detroit News writer John McCormick says chill. In an editorial entitled "Afraid of shopping for a car? Get over it;" McCormick chronicled his recent car buying experience. The automotive scribe claims it's no biggie; car dealers are populated by "courteous, knowledgeable and professional" sales staff. While we're all glad Mr. McCormick's had such a wonderful experience securing a new whip, the chances of anyone else emerging with similar satisfaction makes Powerball look like a safe bet.

As expressed here in numerous articles and comments, buying a new car ranks just above root canal surgery on most people's "Things I'd Rather Take a Stick in the Eye Than Do" list. (At least the root canal is endured under the influence of pain-numbing pharmaceuticals.) While I've yet to see a car dealership with a large banner proclaiming "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here," I'm sure you could buy a car in at least one of Dante's circles of Hell. 

Car dealer profiling? Hardly. A few months ago, the mailman delivered an envelope bearing the logos of several GM divisions along with the words "Urgent Recall Notice." Although I don't currently own a GM vehicle, I've stabled several in the past. From time to time, I receive a recall notice from GM with a check box to inform them I no longer own the vehicle. This one was different. It was from a dealer– Bill Heard Chevrolet– and said I should call the dealership for important information concerning my vehicle (without specifying which one). I threw it in the circular file.

On Monday, The Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs filed suit against Bill Heard Chevrolet Company for "false and deceptive advertisements." And no wonder: there was no recall. The mailings were a ruse to get recipients to call Heard, so sales staff could flog rubes another car or a service contract. Heard attorney J. Matthew Maguire Jr. admitted that the faux notices were "inappropriate," but insisted that an independent advertising firm mailed them without Billy Boy's approval.

Folks, this ain't no nickel and dime operation. Heard operates 15 stores in seven U.S. states, with a claimed annual turnover of $2.5b. And this is hardly the organization's first brush with the law; the Georgia lawsuit chronicles 16 years of consumer complaints. The website ripoffreport.com lists 193 complaints against the Heard chain, from overcharging to high pressure sales tactics to removing the federally-mandated window sticker.

Heard's scams are literally the tip of the iceberg. Underneath this obvious deception lies a world of dealer deceit: hidden last minute extras added to the finance contract, "yo-yo financing" (calling the customer back for a deal redo), falsified credit reports, raising payments after completion, over-charging for "etching" (extra security marking) getting customers to sign blank paperwork, sweetheart deals with local lenders (hidden kickbacks) and more.

Clearly, what McCormick (and gullible buyers) can't see CAN hurt them. And yes, John it's true: Detroit's equally prey to this capitalistic cancer. According to the non-profit public interest organization Public Citizen, "Evidence from recent litigation, industry insiders and consumer complaints show that these practices are not restricted to a few areas or dealerships. Further, it is very likely that deceitful trends are spreading as more and more dealerships become part of major conglomerates."

If Mr. McCormick somehow believes these unscrupulous dealers are the exception to the rule, perhaps he should listen to Nat Shulman. A couple of years ago, the former owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA and columnist for Ward's Dealer Business served-up a brutally frank assessment of automobile dealer dishonesty.

"If dealer new car profit margins keep getting squeezed by Detroit so that the majority of dealers are losing money in their new car departments, these types of consumer rip-offs will continue to appear. True, they will happen in dealerships with questionable ethical standards, but who among us is immune from desperate measures when we're losing our butts every time we sell a new vehicle?"

At least McCormick got one thing right: "Part of the art of having a relatively happy car buying experience is some knowledge of the process. Take the time to research the procedure — easily done through a variety of Web sites — and you will feel much more comfortable when you step through the doors."

If you want that "relatively happy" experience, we recommend that your pre-visit research should include a Google search of the term "car dealer rip-offs." As for "getting over your fear," forgeddaboutit. Given the shady schemes bilking millions of American car customers out of billions of bucks each and every year, anyone who isn't afraid of shopping for a car will eventually learn that ignorance is the most expensive kind of bliss.

Click here to read Mr. McCormick's article

How much do you trust the average automobile dealer?
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By on July 1, 2007

donedeal.jpgWhen it comes to buying a used car there are two basic negotiating mindsets. You can either be fair and decent or unfair and obnoxious. You need only visit a used car lot to know that unfair and obnoxious works. But it is also true that many sellers respond extremely well to honesty and decency. Win – win is no sin. So, karma lovers, here's some tips for negotiating the purchase of a used car by traveling down the righteous route.

If you've followed steps one through three, you've already achieved a major victory. You've found a car that's superior to 90-plus percent of what's out there. Rejoice and let the seller enjoy the benefits of properly maintaining his car. Again, the "completed items" section of eBay is the only guide to the "right" price to pay for a given used car.

I always perform the final negotiations face-to-face. Do not discount the importance of charm, relaxed body language and a civilized tone of voice. Prepare yourself by deciding the absolute top price you're willing to pay for the car. The basic formula: the seller's asking price – agreed deductions for repair costs = the eBay price. More or less. 

Begin by declaring your intention to buy the car, subject to a nominal adjustment for necessary repairs. If these repairs are minor, immediately offer to split the difference for the repair costs and call it good. If, however, mission critical repairs run into the high hundreds to thousands of dollars, you have an "opportunity" ahead of you.

In this case, it's often helpful to ask your mechanic to fax the used car's inspection report to the seller before you speak with them. At first, the seller (and possibly you) may be shocked by the numbers involved. This can be especially true with older vehicles and luxury cars. However, with a little constructive conversation, even the most alarming repair costs needn't kill the possibility of an amicable agreement.

I like to start negotiations for cars with repair "issues" by giving the seller an opportunity to do the right thing. "Given what's in front of us right now," I ask. "What would be the fair way for both of us to resolve these repair costs?"

Worst case, the sellers stand pat. In that case, walk. Best case, the seller says they'll simply lop-off the total bill from the asking price. If that happens, it's time to shake hands and do the deal.

Some sellers offer to reduce the asking price by a very low number, figuring you're there to haggle (hoping you won't). Provided the asking price minus 50 percent of the repair costs is acceptable, again, offer to split the difference. If that doesn't work for either or both of you, it's time to go through the inspection report– and the probable costs of repair– line by line.

Keep in mind some items are your financial responsibility. Unless it involves a major repair (timing belt, water pump, adjusting the valves, etc.), upcoming maintenance regimens are always down to you. In particular, oil changes, tune-ups and replacing filters that aren't necessary right now should be removed from your list. By doing this from the onset, you're showing goodwill and fairness.

If the seller claims the cost of repair listed in your inspection is too high, ask them if they know of another mechanic who'd be willing to do it for less, and the type of guarantee they will offer. I've seen $450 repairs with 30-day guarantees turn into $200 repairs with a full year guarantee. If the car is worth it to you, it pays to explore alternatives that will benefit both of you. It may take research and patience, but it can be done.

Finally, if you have experience repairing minor automotive issues, use that skill to create some wiggle room to help close the deal. "You know, I think I could handle that myself. What do you think about us taking off x repair? Would a price of y make it a fair deal for both of us?"

If you can come to a mutual understanding, congratulations! If not, don't beat a dead horse. I like to back-out by thanking the seller for their time, leaving a copy of the inspection report as a "gift" and telling them my final price, should they reconsider. Above all, don't sweat it. There are plenty of excellent used cars out there looking for a good home.

To recap: research diligently, test drive patiently, let an expert figure out the unknowns, and negotiate in good faith. Do this and you'll save unnecessary test drives and thousands of dollars in future repair costs. You'll also buy the cream of the automotive crop at an extremely fair price.  

By on June 28, 2007

flyndrive.jpgIn 1959, William Lederer and Eugene Burdick wrote The Ugly American. The novel was celebrated by self-loathing intellectuals, who agreed with disdainful Europeans that Americans are far too stupid and arrogant to play any "useful" role in world politics. Yeah, well, screw that. If you're a latter day pistonhead willing to represent in the Eurozone, I suggest you do your bit to grace the Olde Worlde with American wit, intelligence, insight and humility. Buy your next ferrin' car via a European delivery program.

The process is simple enough. Head down to your local franchised new car dealer, check book and passport in hand. Tell the shysters you'd like to buy car "X" with your choice of options. Oh, and you want to pick it up at the factory or at "select pickup locations across Europe." Then watch the smile disappear from your salesman's face.

Here's the good news (for you): buying your car overseas is about five to 13 percent cheaper than an American handover. This discount does not reflect a reduction in taxes or duties, as many buyers are lead to believe. It's down to the fact that cars delivered in Europe are excluded from most or all manufacturer-to-dealer incentives and kickbacks. Hence the salesman's dismay and the lack of European delivery posters thereabouts.

As an example, I took delivery of a 2006 Volvo V70R på Svenska. I saved over $6k (13 percent) off the manufacturer's suggested retail price and the deal included round trip airfare. 

Six automakers currently offer Yanks European delivery: Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Saab. Of course, if you're buying at the tippy top of the luxury car market, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and Bentley will all pander to your autobahn ambitions. They'll pick you up at the airport, arrange your accommodations and charge you great big stacks of cash to shuttle your ride stateside (forget that discount).

BMW and Volvo are the big boys in the Euro delivery game. They continually jostle for Number One bragging rights, delivering around ten cars per day to American owners. Mercedes clocks in at number three with some 1300 cars delivered in 2005, and the others round out the bottom with significantly smaller numbers. BMW and Volvo's higher volumes make their programs the most polished. They provide more assistance in travel planning, packaged holiday tours, route planning and special events.

A few months after your order, you can fly to Europe to pick up your new whip. Depending on the manufacturer, you may be offered a factory tour, a ride in their stretched limos and bratwurst or a meatball or two (the Saab lutefisk lunch deal has thankfully been dropped). Once you've racked up a few miles of smiles, you drop your car off, fly home and wait six to 14 weeks for your ride to arrive stateside.

The shipping doesn't cost you a dime; all Euro delivery programs' pricing scheme include shipping, duties, fees and destination charges. The dealer can arrange dockside pickup, registration and home delivery. All European delivery-mobiles are 100 percent North American spec vehicles (sorry kiddies, no Euro-only models) equipped with U.S. spec lights and emissions control systems.

And now the downsides…

Under the terms of all European delivery programs, you must buy your new car before it actually exists. The first month's loan or lease payment is typically due before your car is even built. Since banks and credit unions are a little wary of loaning money on cars that have yet to be screwed together, you're usually stuck with the car manufacturer's finance company or paying cash.

You must pick up the car yourself; your kids can't vacation in your new 3-Series convertible and your mistress can't swan around in your (her?) new Mercedes Benz. The program is not available on certain BMW models like the Z4 or X5, or select Mercedes models (ML, G, GL, R) or the infamous Trollblazer Saab 9-7x, as these models are manufactured stateside. (Somehow, "Alabama Delivery" just doesn't have that je ne sais quoi.)

When abroad, remember that much of the German autobahn is speed-restricted, and that many European police forces issue on-the-spot fines for accelerative exuberance. If you're prone to this sort of behavior, have a large wad of cash safely secured. Also, while the "Green Hell" (Nürburgring) may be on your "Before I Die" list, don't let it be the last item you ever tick.  

You don't want to smash your brand new car AND have to listen to Europeans sniggering about stupid, ugly Americans. That said, most Europeans are gracious hosts, happy to encounter an articulate American. It's not you Monsieur; it's your government that's causing all these problems. Whether or not you agree, you'll have done your part for international relations, saved a bunch of money and had one Hell of a drive.

 Click here for a chart summarizing the various European delivery programs  

By on June 26, 2007

notrecommended.jpgYou can rigorously apply the tests described by previous installments of this series without encountering a single setback. However when it comes to buying a used car, it pays to assume one simple salient fact: you don’t know the complete truth. At least not yet. When it comes to pursuing the deeper truths about a used car, an experienced mechanic will inevitably become your greatest ally and advocate. For most consumers, finding a knowledgeable mechanic will be the most important step in the used car buying process.

Before we talk about that, I want to be perfectly clear on this point. A used car is guilty until proven innocent. Do not buy one without taking the car for a professional inspection. If the seller doesn’t agree to let you do so, you’re done. Period. No exceptions. Ever.

Now, mechanics tend to divide into three categories: the shade-tree, the Nazi and the diligent professional.

Shade-tree mechanics are hobbyists on limited budgets. Due to the lack of equipment (or experience), they may not be familiar with the unique wear issues and maintenance needs for your vehicle. The shade-tree mechanic will look at the car’s basics, take it for a short test drive and call it good (or “not bad”).

The Nazi will attempt to perform every mechanical test known to wrenchkind, submit the car to a standard of inspection that is rooted in la-la land, and then make you financially fearful of buying anything other than (cough! cough!) one of their vehicles.

Obviously the Nazi is a non-starter. Often times, these party members will work for dealerships (but not always), and are therefore pre-occupied with meeting their service department’s monthly quota of service hours and revenue.

Unless your next car has a prancing horse or bull at the front of it, you’re usually far better off with a diligent mechanic. The diligent mechanic will work through a standard check list, and then take the car for a test drive in a variety of operating conditions.

Diligent mechanics are experienced independent professionals with established roots in your community. To find one, I strongly recommend visiting the Mechan-X files at Cartalk.com. I also can’t over-emphasize the importance of personal recommendations– especially from people who own the same model of car you’re considering buying. Many small to medium-sized repair shops will post testimonials on their “ego wall.” Read them carefully.

Before the inspection takes place, collate the list of the concerns you created during the test drive. When you deliver the car for inspection, go over them with the mechanic one-by-one. Make sure you both have a clear understanding of all your potential concerns. This will provide a base line for the inspection to follow.

Some mechanics inspect used cars for a set fee. Others charge an hourly rate. In both cases, the post-list discussion should conclude with a confirmation of the probable inspection cost. Leave some leeway; you don’t want the mechanic to stop their investigations for the sake of a few bucks. (Leave your contact number for this possibility.)

The best way to build a healthy relationship with any mechanic is to simply try not to be one of “those” customers. Just let them get on with their job. Don’t stare at the mechanic while they’re doing the inspection. In fact, it’s best to leave the premises entirely. And don’t phone your mechanic two hours later and ask for a status report; wait for their call.

Once the inspection is completed, sit down for a one-on-one debrief with the mechanic (even if you have to come back on another day). I always prefer to speak with the actual mechanic involved in the inspection, or at least have them in attendance with the “service advisor."

First, let the mechanic speak without interruption. Some diligent mechanics will go on for quite some time; some will simply say “here’s my report.” Either way, review the information and let him explain every issue and potential issue to you. After they’re finished, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about” or “Is this a sign of normal wear or abuse?”

Make your own list of trouble spots from this conversation, noting down the potential cost to repair, replace or reinvigorate each item, and whether or not the issue is urgent, eventual or unimportant.

Once you’re finished the play-by-play, ask a few general questions. I always ask “Did the owner do a good job maintaining this vehicle?” and “Did the owner use good parts or cheap parts?” Either of these inquiries usually invites a deeper conversation with the mechanic. 

If the used car has survived the inspection process without revealing any critical issues to your diligent mechanic, it’s time for the final negotiation with its owner.

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