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In the olden days known as the late 20th century, an ancient artifact called a “newspaper” would be dropped by your front door.

Inside this mostly unrecycled piece of pulp was an automotive “Classified” section. In better times, this magical list of thousands of vehicles would have offered car buyers an incurably acute case of acronymitis. “1994 Camry, ps, pw, a/c, auto, abs, 1 ownr! $5500 Ph#…”.  A short three line list of minimalist communicado would have cost the seller about $50.00 and given them a secondary presence in a newspaper section that made millions for major publishers.

There was only one saving grace if you wanted to find cars for sale that offered big print, big pictures and big discounts. The new car advertising section… and there were two reasons for that.

The first is that the dealer had to follow strict advertising laws that were enforced with an iron hand. You want to sell a car for a low price? Great! Now you get to tell the buyer everything that enables them to enjoy that unusually low price.

Does that price include a $250 discount for trading in a vehicle that is less than 10 years old? Well that’s one way of making it up on the used car side of the ledger if you are Bill Heard Chevrolet. But it’s perfectly legal, and thank you for disclosing it.

Does the cheap price also include seven long lines of legalspeak that are tucked into the nether regions of the ad? With sixteen asterisks and financial terms that would make even a finance major scratch their head? That’s fine. Just make sure you let everyone know the exact model you are selling with those terms, and how many of those specific vehicles are available at your lot.

New car buying was obviously still a bit difficult, even back then. Now it’s even more nuanced when it comes to mathematical misdirections.

Enter the new dealer/manufacturer pricing strategy which, as far as I’m concerned, has become way out of hand.

You start with one model with an insanely small MSRP. It could be $11,990 or $19,995. But you use that model for only about .2% of your sales and about 15% of your publicity.

That car is then given a destination fee that is now usually around the $800 range. So now you have anywhere between another 4% to 7% bump in the real selling price.

Dealer fees then pop up in the sales contract. In certain areas of this country, this is done in concert with low content add-ons. If you want to buy a car somewhere else in the state, good luck. Bogus fees of varying sorts and prices have now become a near universal reality. Especially for those markets that rely on distributors.

These fees often help bump the real selling price another $500 to $700. All of a sudden that cheap low level car of $12k is now at a genuine selling price of $13,500. While the midsized loss leader is edging ever closer to a real selling price of $21,500.

Finally you are levied with tag and title processing fees… and endless time wasted trying to get them reduced or removed.

In many dealerships you may possibly be looking at anywhere between a 7% to 14% jump in the final selling price of the car even before you pay sales taxes.

There is only one thing to blame for all this. The same truth in advertising laws that allowed the same loopholes and gotchas to take place way back in the old media days. It’s deceptive. But many consumers have come to expect these types of deceptions when it comes to buying new cars.

Should this change? Should dealers and manufacturers be compelled to advertise one simple price that reflects all their charges and fees? Or should we continue to play a decades old shell game that’s as useful as VINs etched on a car’s windows, and carpet care treatments, that consist of a low-paid kid from Savannah, Georgia spraying fifteen cents worth of aerosol into the inside of your vehicle.

People should vote with their feet. But sometimes those feet have nowhere to go, thanks to selling practices that go back as far as those old classified sections and the local Sunday comics.

So what should be the standard pricing model for today… when it comes to new cars?

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