Car Buying: The Experience

Published September 28, 2019 in Warp & Woof


Car Buying: The Experience
 
William Sundwick
 
For a life-long car buff like me, shopping for a new car has been an exciting, intensely pleasurable, experience. Cars are fascinating to me: their design, their features, their engineering. I grew up with the industry, and I’ve followed the automotive press intermittently ever since.
 
My latest experience was no exception. My Excel workbook of all possible competitors compared not only numeric specs, but capsule summaries taken from reviews and road tests. The process lasted two years – my spreadsheet had tabs for 2017 models, 2018 models, and 2019 models. I didn’t pull the trigger in either of the first two model years I tracked. In 2017, I merely collected data on all possible popular-priced SUV/Crossovers. For 2018, I devised elimination thresholds based on certain specs. This, combined with a comprehensive tour of the 2018 Washington Auto Show, allowed a hypothetical emergence of an “elite eight,” then “final four” contenders (roughly on time for the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament).
 
But I didn’t buy a car. Rinse and repeat for 2019 models. For this model year, I could only reduce to five finalists – I had tightened my elimination standards, but there were simply more cars that met those requirements.
 
Test drives at dealers finally became a reality this August. Dealers were ramping up their summer clearances, seeking to clear out inventory for the coming model year. They wanted my business. Five contenders quickly became four after a disconcerting phone call to a Nissan dealer where the salesman conceded: “nobody stocks Rogue Hybrids — they don’t sell!” – the Rogue Hybrid was only model that made Nissan one of the five finalists. “Thank you, I guess I can cross Nissan off my list!” Four different test drives ensued. VW Tiguan was eliminated after a decisive spin – too big, ungainly, slow. A slight delay before following up with the remaining three choices found both my wife and me getting bored with the process. Eager to reach a decision, we arbitrarily crossed Ford Escape off our list: “It is due to be replaced for 2020 with an all-new model,” I reminded my wife. “And Consumer Reports rates its ‘expected reliability’ as low,” granted a statistical assumption. That left a titanic duel between Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V.
 
We went together to other Subaru and Honda dealers, searching for the one thing that might be key to a final decision. This was somewhat painful until my wife took the wheel of both contenders. Even though she had insisted throughout the test drive process that this would be my car, not hers, the final word belonged to her! The Honda felt more “familiar” – coinciding with my own feeling that it was more “straight-forward” (less “gimmicky”) than the Subaru. And there were no minuses with the Honda, except that it didn’t include a heated steering wheel in the price (a $500 accessory, we later discovered).
 
The decision was made! Now came the hard part. Where would we buy my Honda? And, how to avoid being taken for a ride by that dealer? Further Internet research followed.
 
All dealers publish their inventories online. While it is possible for them to trade cars to make a sale, I found that such practices work against the best price – seems reasonable, especially in this annual inventory reduction environment. All dealers may not have equally well-managed stocks of cars. They do compete after all. In our case, a larger inventory worked to our advantage.
 

With some insight provided by Edmunds.com, I decided the best approach was to email blast all local Honda dealers with my requirements and wait for the best quote for an “Internet price” to come in response. The Edmunds site provided the interface for my blast. The response came same day — from the dealer which had claimed, when we visited, to be the largest in Northern Virginia (Ourisman Honda of Tysons Corner). The test drive there had been pleasant enough. The salesman said he remembered us from five years previous when we were last car shopping – and, we didn’t even buy from him! It’s possible he could have done advance research on us, since I made the appointment with another sales associate – I didn’t remember him. “What did you buy five years ago, you were looking at a Civic Hybrid?” he offered unprompted. (Winner then, a Chevy Volt!)
 
One of the best qualities in a car salesman is the ability to put the customer at ease, with personal anecdotes, less-than-perfect knowledge, and general easy-going demeanor. This salesman possessed all these skills. He had some knowledge of features he could demonstrate – hands-free tailgate, remote starting with key fob, personalized settings for almost everything in car. He continued his presentation, even after we announced we were ready to buy his car.
 
He did, however, gloss over a problem we had with our “Internet price” quote: the fine print said “dealer financing required” – we expected to pay cash! Since Virginia doesn’t allow pre-payment penalties for financing, we all agreed that the “dealer financing” requirement was a mere formality. We could pay it off with only one additional small payment – our salesman insisted. But that was before he went to his sales manager to seal the deal.
 
Hard-nosed negotiation commenced. Finally, a concession from the sales manager: “I’ll give you two free oil changes if you agree to make at least three payments.” And only the oil changes were in writing! He seemed so pathetic in his desperation to make a small amount in interest for his bank! Margins must be very tight in this business. The law was on our side. He can’t force us to pay interest!
 
And, he wanted to sell us a car.
 
Driving away from the dealership in my new Honda gave me a sense of accomplishment. I’m not sure I’ll bother with the two free oil changes, anyway. I still needed to arrange for the towing of our old car, to be donated to Vehicles for Change, as we have for the last two cars we’ve replaced. The satellite radio needed to be registered (first 90 days free), presets set, old car’s radio deactivated. I needed to read the manual cover-to-cover. Fortunately, Honda also provides a website with a collection of videos on how the car’s controls work (the manual is not especially comprehensive or well-written). 

 
 
Driving is the best way to learn about the car. And that is what I’ve been doing for the last few weeks. Its HondaLink navigation system now knows where I live!

 
 

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