Hitting the road and Web for good wheel deal

I don't know if you lose sleep over buying a car, but I do. Call it auto anxiety, SUV shivers, or being "wheel wired," but once I decide it's time for a new car, I can't stop thinking about it.

So in order to restore my normal sleep patterns, I drove off to various Boston-area dealers to test-drive mini-SUVs. These vehicles get decent gas mileage, meet my family's weekend needs, and allow me to view the road better than my old car. I had been commuting with a 1991 Mitsubishi Mirage, and grew tired of having my sight lines blocked by giant SUVs.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I quickly narrowed my options to the Subaru Forrester, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape.

Next, I did what all car shoppers should do, I turned to the Internet. At Edmunds.com I found invoice prices and reviews. The Subaru, I decided, was too pricey. The Ford was also out. After years of reading Consumer Reports, I have a bias toward Japanese brands. Finally, my desire for a sunroof put the Toyota in the lead, since Honda's factory wasn't installing them.

During my test-drives, I had obtained Toyota's "February Order/March Production/April Delivery" list, which basically lists inventory. It not only told me how many RAV4s (401) were headed to the 73 New England Toyota dealerships in April, but also how the factory equipped each vehicle. (There were 13 versions. For example, a "RAV4 w/ FWD, AC, CD, power windows and door locks." Another version would have that same package with four-wheel drive. Others had sunroofs.) The list also contained the manufacturer's suggested retail prices, so if a vehicle's sticker price didn't line up with the inventory sheet, then I would know there was funny business going on. I also wouldn't be confused if a salesman started talking about the price of one RAV4 vs. another.

So I focused on the specific vehicle that suited me best, and hit the road. Two dealerships offered me $400 for my trade-in. They argued that the car - with 105,000 miles - would be sold at auction for that amount. The Edmund's website, however, valued the trade-in between $700 and $850, depending whether I listed the car in "rough" or "average" condition. It also indicated that if I sold it myself, I would be able to make between $900 and $1,200.

So I went online and advertised the Mirage, free, at Autotrader.com, asking $1,100. Within a week, I was contacted by two potential buyers. Yet I suddenly realized I couldn't sell it. After all, I still needed my car to get to work.

So it was back to the Toyota dealers. On a late Saturday afternoon, one dealer offered to sell me the SUV for $21,078 - a few hundred dollars less than the $21,292 price listed by online car-seller carsdirect.com, and much less than the $22,535 suggested retail price. But the salesman wouldn't budge on the trade-in.

Being a diligent consumer, I went to other dealers to see if they could beat it. One didn't, asking $100 more, but did offer me $1,100 for the trade-in. I was hooked. The idea of paying less tax (Massachusetts charges 5 percent sales tax after trade) and not having to hassle with my old car - obtaining new plates, perhaps buying ad space, taking time to show it - clinched the deal.

I also think shopping late in the day helped. Dealers can make negotiations drag on, using that "I gotta talk to the sales manager" line. But if you arrive a half-hour before a dealer closes, the salesman may want to leave as much as you do.

Earlier car-buying experiences have left me feeling taken advantage of. With my first car, I bought "rustproofing" and "fabric protection" options - an absolute waste. The second time I avoided add-ons and got a decent price, but traded in my car for far less than what it was worth.

Even this time around, I know I didn't get the absolute best deal. The best move, according to the Edmund's website, is to figure out what car you want and then negotiate with a dealership's fleet manager. This way, you bypass salesman commissions. Yet I also feel sorry for car salesmen. Only those with the fewest scruples seem to survive in their commission-only world. They also work long, awful hours. In that sense, I didn't mind paying a bit more.

In the end, I think I got pretty good deal. If you beg to differ, please let me know. But be kind, I don't want to lose any more sleep.

***

Where to go online when shopping for a car

When e-commerce firms were spouting like weeds, plenty of businesses were rushing to sell new cars on the Internet. They wanted to reform the car-buying experience and even the auto industry itself.

"It was the days of the business model du jour," says Mark Lorimer, president of Auto-by-Tel in Irvine, Calif.

Now that traditional dealers have apparently held the car-selling road, only a handful of Internet-only auto retailers are left - and few turn a profit.

Customers mostly use the Web for car-pricing data and to obtain quotes from dealers, rather than buying.

Here are some of the best-known Internet sites, and what they do:

CarsDirect.com - Buys cars from dealers and sells them to consumers at a fixed price quoted on its website. The company gets actual sales figures from the dealers where it does business, and then sets prices at a point below what 90 percent of buyers have paid and above the last 10 percent. Unfortunately for CarsDirect, the company has been effectively banned from many states by franchise laws that prevent nonfranchised dealers from selling cars to consumers. Some laws also prevent Internet-only businesses from becoming authorized car dealers.

Auto-by-Tel.com - The pioneer of dealer-referral services. It doesn't quote prices on its website, but promises a local dealer will call customers back with a quote, usually within one day.

Auto-by-Tel requires its dealers to use low-pressure sales tactics with its customers. Dealers pay Auto-by-Tel for referrals. If customers are not treated well, dealers can be denied future referrals. Most paperwork is handled by phone and the dealer delivers the car. But you can still negotiate the price.

Carpoint.com - A service of Microsoft, Carpoint offers dealer referral like Auto-by-Tel, along with a host of other services, including car reviews, pricing information, service reminders, used car listings, and NPR's "CarTalk" online.

CarPrices.com -The only dealer-referral service that offers competing price quotes from several dealers in a reverse-auction format.

DealerNet.com - Price quote and dealer-referral service that offers a nationwide searchable database of dealers' new- and used-car inventory.

AutoNation.com -The website of the nation's largest dealer group, representing nearly every brand sold in the US. You can find new and used cars here, get financing and insurance, and figure the value of your trade.

AutoWeb.com -Another independent full-service referral service -but without Microsoft's deep pockets.

Cars.com -A great informational site that's a cooperative effort of major-market daily newspapers that put their automotive content online, including ads, reviews, advice, and news.

Edmunds.com - The online version of the country's most popular automotive price guidebooks. This site contains a wealth of information on pricing, options, feature changes for various model years, and more. Edmunds does everything but sell you a car.

KBB.com -Kelley Blue Book's site gives dealers' highball (sales) and lowball (trade-in) offers. But the site is particularly easy to navigate, with accurate invoice prices.

Send e-mail to Vic Roberts, deputy business editor, at robertsv@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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