21st May 2004

Thinking of buying or leasing a new car or truck or SUV online?

Not up to facing those eager faces that study your every move from the moment you pull into the showroom parking lot? Well, haggling by email is the way to go, folks. Everything you need to know about buying or leasing a new car or truck is available to you online. Sure, you will still end up at the dealer to sign the final paperwork. No getting around that, unless you are hiring a car broker to do all the work for you. The main advantage of the online process, however, is this medium allows you to be much better informed—with far fewer surprises—prior to your ultimate trip to the dealer…where most of us are going to finalize the deal, regardless of the preliminary work anyhow.

The facts are, even with the current explosion of shopping via the Internet, it still works better for CDs and books than for automobiles. No matter how great your disdain for that daunting experience at the showroom, no matter how many preliminary details you think you’ve worked out beforehand online… guess what? You are going to eventually wind up in the lair of the adversary…The Dealer Showroom.

But we do not wish to appear overly disparaging of our Type-A personalities who populate America’s new car dealerships, friends. They have to eat too. Yet, facts are facts. They do what they do every day of the week. You only go through the grueling process every few years, if you’re like me. We’re just trying to level the playing field here a little.

Here’s an overview of how the online process works:

  • Select the make and model of the vehicle you want.
  • Is a lease or purchase best for you?
  • Determine the financing.
  • Select a third-party service who will calculate a fair price in advance, and then contact local dealers for you.
  • Wait for the dealer emails to start coming in!

The above is an introduction to the material we will be covering in the pages to following—including some personal experience accounts with the whole process!


Selecting the vehicle

Choosing a new vehicle is, of course, subjective to the prospective buyers needs, weighed against his or her individual personal preferences in car, truck or SUV. Are you looking for an implicitly practical vehicle—the perfect combination of great gas mileage, proven reliability for years down the road, along with the ability to carry three or four passengers in reasonable comfort? If sheer practicality is of utmost importance, I’d be inclined to look no further than something in the order of a Honda Civic or a Toyota Corolla. If the primary use for the vehicle is to be commuting back and forth to work, I’d hardly be looking for something as impractical as an SUV. And a married man or woman with a family would scarcely be shopping for a compact pickup, unless this was to be a second vehicle that not only provides fuel-efficient transportation to and from work, but doubles as a handy means of hauling building materials for that weekend project.

Just as an exercise, you might want to look at this rather simplistic chart. Might not tell you much you don’t already know, but could help frame your new-car thinking a little, and aid in organizing your real objectives.

NEEDS

  • Will it carry the required number of passengers or cargo needs safely and in reasonable comfort?
  • Is it dependable? Anticipated cost of maintenance?
  • Depreciation—how well will it hold its value?
  • Can I afford the payments, and will I still love the car in three, five years, down the road?

WANTS

  • Performance: How does it handle? How much horsepower? How long will it take to get from 0 to 60?
  • Is it sporty? (Will I look cool driving it?)
  • Is it “loaded” with extra power features?
  • Can I afford the payments, and will I still love the car in three, five years, down the road? (Be honest!)
  • Is it the Motor Trend Car of the Year?

If in doubt as to considerations such as reliability and economy, balanced against such perks as performance (how fun to drive), passenger comfort, safety and sheer street appeal, I would recommend consulting a rating service such as Consumer Reports before going any further. Their Rating the New Models feature offers a useful comparison of various models within the respective category. From there, you can click on individual selections for a more comprehensive look at the comparative features, specs and individual reviews.

We don’t get a dime out of Consumer Reports for this plug, by the way. But it would be irresponsible on our part to not point you in their direction. Personally speaking, I’ve sure taken away a few good tips from their test results on a variety of consumer goods throughout the years.

On the downside of Consumer Reports (the online version, especially), don’t expect to get the latest, up-to-the-minute reporting on any given model, on any day of the calendar. Don’t expect to pore over any paper issue of Consumer Reports, or online counterpart thereof, in expectation of being greeted with an article entitled, “Mustang Sally, do WE have the car for you! And we just reviewed it yesterday!”

Not gonna happen. The work behind the scenes in reviewing/rating an automobile is quite a bit more complex than rating a toaster. First, they have to BUY it, then they must put it through a series of rigorous tests… most of which can be pretty time-consuming, in comparison to determining how reliably it toasts your average bagel.

Given the expense and time required to put every model of every car, truck or SUV (“automobile”) manufactured this year or last through the paces, any rating service is going to economize in terms of duplications. If the 1999 model year is identical to the 2000, no need to purchase a 2000 and start over. If there have been virtually no model changes between the 2002 Dodge Caravan and the 2003, the same rigorous tests done on the ’02 model will apply to the 2003.

Of course, it is typical to see some specific upgrades from model year to model year. For example, everything else may have stayed the same, but the standard engine offered in 2002 may now offer better gas mileage with more HP in the 2003. This is where you want to pay more attention. Accept the 2002 model they reviewed last year, but note any improvements/upgrades made in the 2003 models.

A word on customer reviews

While a rating service such as Consumer Reports will customarily provide one vehicular review per model year—performed by their team of experts—other resources may merely offer “Customer Reviews.” A word of caution. While cumulative customer reviews—direct from the actual consumers—may be reflective of the actual overall value, quality or general desirability of any given consumer good, do be a little bit wary when evaluating individual consumer reviews. Especially if a particular product reveals only one customer review—and that singular review is either exceptionally high or ridiculously low. Let’s look at the following example for a 2003 Dodge Grand Caravan (the “consumer rating” was 1 1/2 stars out of a possible 5, and was the sole review):

This I have to say is the WORST vehicle that I have ever owned. I now have the vehicle 14 months and it has been back to the shop 12 times for part failures, door failures and recalls. The transmission intermittently causes the whole vehicle to vibrate when sitting at lights. The MPG is well below the advertised amounts and its fit and finish is terrible.

Thanks to this vehicle I will NEVER buy another American vehicle again. Hello Toyota.

Tell me, does this sound like a fair, unbiased review to you? If this Dodge Caravan experience were typical of all or most such models, Chrysler Corporation would soon be out of business! Moreover, this same model enjoyed rather high customer reviews for the previous model year (2002), where more reviewers had the opportunity to respond. And, essentially, the 2003 is the same vehicle!

There are several good auto purchasing services available on the Internet (which we’ll go into later). Frankly, the choices can be challenging. We like CarsDirect.com because this service not only gets down to the nitty-gritty in actual pricing, feature for feature, it also checks for available manufacturer rebates, bringing these to the forefront. Rebates can be applied to your down payment—lease or purchase—thereby, lowering your monthly payments. More importantly, CarsDirect.com offers you a no-haggle bottom-line price, should you choose to purchase directly, on the spot, bypassing subsequent dealer offers.

Not to be confused with CarsDirect.com, Cars.com is among the most helpful sites we’ve found. While the latter doesn’t tout an obvious direct-purchase option, it does include both the MFR Invoice and suggested Retail—option for option—plus offers numerous valuable tips and services along the way. Cars.com was also prominent in locating used car deals, based upon your zip code and range of preference. We highly recommend checking out both of these fine auto-buying (or selling) services.

Whatever your course in wading through the various deals, bells and whistles along your serpentine path to the ultimate auto purchase, please make sure you are comparing apples to apples at all times. For example, a Honda Civic DX offers a different package from the Honda EX. A slight oversight during your selection process could easily make the difference of a few hundred dollars, rendering a skewed comparison, overall.

In conclusion, make sure all your ducks are in a row throughout the entire elimination process—to avoid any unpleasant surprises down at the dealer!

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