Quest for the Perfect Car

Published March 31, 2019 in Warp & Woof

Quest for the Perfect Car

Five Step Process for Car Shopping

William Sundwick
We buy a car approximately every five-to-seven years. In a two-car family, that means cars generally sit in our driveway for a minimum of 11 years. Maybe as many as 15 years.
So, car shopping is a big deal. It happens rarely and amounts to a major life event. Typically, it is attenuated over two or three years.
In my family, I play the role of car buff and market analyst. My wife takes the role of sensible consumer making a sizable investment in our future. Thus, we are now involved in year two of our quest for the perfect replacement for our 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
The old car still has some miles left in it (~86,000 now), so this quest could continue longer. But we both feel it is time to start thinking of a successor. We have visions of ever higher repair costs, and many small, unsightly dings and scrapes are now marring a body we no longer think deserves body shop treatment. The fabric interior is stained with accumulated grime and wear. We replaced a windshield at Safelite a few years ago with an inferior-spec non-polarized version.
Any new car we buy will have an updated audio system, with infotainment, more active safety measures, and heated leather seating. All constituting a significant upgrade – not to mention that it WILL BE NEW!
But, will we lose anything? To ensure that we don’t, I have created a spreadsheet (2019 is its third model year tab) detailing specs and review notes from the automotive press on all possible replacement candidates in the hottest segment of the auto market – compact two-row crossover/SUVs. This is the segment inhabited back in 2007 by our Highlander, and it is even more popular now, with more competitors.
There are 15 possible choices for the 2019 model year (down from 2018 and 2017 because of more stringent filtering). The threshold filters this year are measures of fuel economy, cargo volume, and price for the lowest acceptable level of equipment, based on manufacturers’ online “build-and-price” sites. Fuel economy must reach a minimum of 27 mpg highway by EPA estimate. Cargo volume with rear seat folded must exceed 63 cu. ft. And, pricing for what I’ve defined as “level 1” trim must be less than $40,000. Level 1 (as opposed to “level 2,” which is fully-equipped top-end trim) includes power driver’s seat, touch screen infotainment system, some active safety features (e.g., front collision warning, lane-change warning, active cruise control), and a rear cargo cover and storage net. These things make the car equivalent or superior to my 2007 Highlander.
The filtering has been refined over the last two years. We’re older now, more spoiled by amenities (preferring something closer to “level 2” trim), and our cargo carrying requirements may have diminished somewhat. Now we look at things like easy-to-find LATCH anchors for child car seats (grandchildren!), competitive price, and the newest active safety features unknown in the days of our ’07 Highlander.

Step One of our five step shopping process was to assess our current needs. It’s looking like we’ll go for a fancier, smaller, more economical vehicle with comfortable accommodation for growing families. But a big tax bill this year and Trump’s threatened tariffs on imported cars make us wary of purchase price, too. We have completed Step One.
Step Two was the follow-up. We looked at the market. What were the choices? This is where my “crossover shopping” spreadsheet became the tool. The 15 vehicles this year from Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen all meet my threshold requirements (which have changed each year). Each contender has certain strengths and weaknesses; the best in class fuel economy goes to the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, next best is the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Roomiest is also the Outlander (PHEV version), next roomiest is the new Subaru Forester. Lowest price for comparably equipped models, Ford Escape (unfortunately, made in Mexico, may be subject to those tariffs); next lowest, Honda CR-V (more domestic content than Ford!). Active safety features like blind spot monitoring, active cruise control, and automatic emergency braking are options on many entrants in this segment, but standard across the line on Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and both Subarus, Forester and Outback. We are now poised to begin Step Three.
This step will determine which trade-offs are worthwhile. We may sacrifice less important things, like power passenger seat, or faster 0-60 mph acceleration (measured in tenths of a second). But things like accessibility of LATCH anchors may be more important – or the angle of opening for rear doors (there is variability here). Much of this detail information can be found in reviews, such as Car & Driver blog, or Edmunds, and are reflected in my spreadsheet. We will then visit dealerships (and the annual Washington Auto Show). Look and feel of the contenders will become the most important factor, things like dash layout, interior materials quality and finish, styling. 
Step Four will narrow the field to test-drive candidates. We will not test drive all 15 entries in the spreadsheet. We may not even visit dealerships representing all the manufacturers. Hyundai has relatively poor EPA ratings, whereas Mitsubishi and Toyota are at the top there, but lack other features — reliability for Mitsubishi, rear seat passenger accessibility for Toyota RAV4.
The final decision constitutes Step Five. It will be made from a combination of impressions garnered in the first four steps. And, it may well be that the clincher is the personal touch from the salesperson at a specific dealership. Our last car purchase – a Chevy Volt – was ultimately decided based on the incredible knowledge of PHEV Voltec engineering, combined with personal charm, of the salesman we dealt with at Koons GM Corner Tysons (one Mark Gomez).
Other decisive factors include a business assessment of the manufacturer — how long will Mitsubishi survive in U.S. market? How about ethics at VW or GM? (Scandals have affected both companies recently). The design of the manufacturer’s cars also conveys how badly they want me as a customer. In GM’s favor, they have three vehicles that meet all the requirements to be included in my spreadsheet, no other manufacturer has more than two. My wife has a much stronger aesthetic/social appreciation for what she wants in our driveway. That, more than strategic financial concerns, is why we have eliminated all the “luxury” brands from our potential candidates. Similarly, brand images might narrow the GM entrants to one – Chevy Equinox (eliminating both Buick and GMC). But that would mean two Chevrolets in our driveway. (What is this? Flint, Michigan, ca. 1965?)
Not a trivial matter, this final decision. It’s a car we may keep until we cease driving. The last car we own? What a weighty thought!

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