Tag Archives: car buying

I Bought a New Car! Part Two: The Budget

(When last we saw KHG, she was realizing that the Baja no longer fit her needs and she was ready to buy a sparkly new car.)

As I shopped for cars online between interviewing Chevy Volt owners for the New York Times and editing a book about marketing, I remembered that if I was going to take this search seriously — and apparently I was — I should probably consult my own book. How much car could I, a lowly freelancer, actually afford?

Turns out, not much. But not as bad as I thought.

I turned to the section on budgeting in Take the Wheel (page 19 for those of you following along at home) and ran the numbers. The sad, sad numbers. I used only my income and my portion of the monthly debt and bills — kind as if my husband were a roommate instead of a supportive, trusting partner in a long-term committed relationship. It turned out that, by taking my own fucking advice, I could afford no more each month than I was currently paying for the Baja. My dreams of a brand-new car flew out the sunroof.

I dangled the promise of a new-to-me car like a carrot: as soon as I signed the bottom of form 1040 and paid my tax lady (who is the best), I would allow myself to actually purchase an automobile. The search was on.

I Bought a New Car! Part One: The Decision

For those of you who have already read Take the Wheel, I was in love with my 2005 Subaru Baja. It was the ideal car. I searched for it, I waited for one I could afford, I bought it and threw the dog in the back seat and drove happily ever after.

The Baja in happier days.

The Baja in happier days.

But then.

When I drove with two coworkers to a writing conference six hours east of here, we had to cram our luggage into the fourth seat and wrap our business’s booth gear in plastic so it could ride in the bed — in one of the worst storms we’d seen in a long time. When I drove to the coast with a friend and the dog, we had to cram my luggage, her luggage, and the dog gear into the fourth seat, leaving the bed empty for lack of tie-downs.

I tried upgrading the stereo, and I bought the Baja-specific in-bed bike rack. I wanted to stay in love, but it wasn’t working out. My needs had changed. It wasn’t her; it was me.

I did love the bulletproof Subaru engine and all-wheel drive, so I first fell in love with the shiniest new Subaru of all, the Crosstrek hybrid. Which was way too expensive. So I flirted with the gasoline-only Crosstrek. That flirtation lasted a couple of months, during which time I was amazingly able to convince my husband that my buying a brand-new car was a good idea, despite my position as a freelance writer and book editor (in case you weren’t aware, not one word of my job description screams “Lucrative!”).

But I wrote this book, and I did all this research, and I knew better. I knew it was time to do the math.

Part Two: The Budget

Good News! Cars Are a Wee Bit Cheaper This Year

Everybody knows that the price in the commercial or on the MSRP sticker isn’t often the price you’ll actually pay for a car. After all the hemming, hawing, and haggling, you’ll likely pay a bit less than the official price, especially if the manufacturer has incentives involved, like $1000 cash back.

Happily, the people at TrueCar track these things for us. They look at the average transaction prices of new vehicles — the final price that people are actually paying — and look at how it compares to previous years and months. The good news right now is that passenger vehicles industry wide are half a percent between November 2012 and November 2013. According to TrueCar’s research, consumers paid $30,832 on average for a new car in November 2012 and $30,634 in November 2013. It’s only a couple hundred bucks, but for me, that’s three trips including tip to Maggie, who makes my hair pretty.

Manufacturers are also offering buyers more money as incentives — but only 0.7% more over last year. November 2012 saw an average of $2,490 being handed out for new-car incentives, while in November 2013 $2,507. That not-quite-twenty bucks isn’t going to make a huge difference in my life if I’m buying a $30,000 car. But that’s an industry average; the car you’re interested in might come in on the high end of the incentive scale. Ford and GM, as of last month, were averaging more than $3,000 in incentives, for example.

2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid: The Boringest Car I’ve Ever Loved

I needed to drive from Portland, Oregon, to Tacoma, Washington for work. Why not kill two work-related birds with one work-related stone and get a car to review on the way? So I contacted the car people and asked for a Corvette. There weren’t any to be had. So I asked for a modern muscle car, a Mustang or Challenger, say. No go. They offered a Ford C-MAX. Fine, I said. If I were a teenager, I would have huffed off to my room. Since I am a professional, I sulked in my studio. Because maturity.

They dropped off the C-MAX on a Thursday, and it was like a plain gray bean in my driveway. It had some swoopy bits on the body panels, but they weren’t fooling anyone. This car would be practical, not fun.

C-MAX Hybrid & C-MAX Energi

That is not my house. I forgot to take a picture of the car myself, so this is Ford’s photo.

Friday morning, I awoke bright and early and poured myself a cup of the fresh-brewed coffee I had for once remembered to set up for myself the night before. I situated myself in the C-MAX and began the trek to Tacoma, a not-so-great town, in this hybrid, a not-so-great car.

As the coffee worked its magic and the sun arose over the Cascades, a funny thing happened. The C-MAX grew on me. It was comfortable. It accelerated like crazy when I wanted to pass. It had a nice, big screen in the console for the navigation. The digital dashboard told me all kinds of cool information, like how much of my braking energy I recaptured and sent to the battery when I slowed down to a stop. I could talk to it via the Sync with MyFord Touch system. By the time I arrived in Tacoma — early for my appointment, mind you — I was flipping through the owner’s manual to find out what else I could do in the car. It turned out I could do lots — I hadn’t even linked my phone. So I did that.

Ford got some shit for overstating the C-MAX’s fuel economy. They said it got 47 mpg combined city-highway. I didn’t get that, but I thought it was because I wasn’t trying to hypermile or drive even at all carefully in a fuel-conscious way. It was all jackrabbit starts and overtaking on the highway for me. But the revised numbers that Ford sent out the day after my C-MAX was ripped from my hands say it will get a combined 43 mpg, which is pretty close to what I got. I was a bit low, since I spent so many of my miles on the freeway, and hybrids suffer a bit in that arena, but well within Ford’s revised range. And Ford did what I think is the right thing here and reimbursed folks who’d already bought a C-MAX hybrid $550 ($325 for lessees) to make up for the numbers snafu.

You probably noticed I used some pretty strong words there when I said they ripped the C-MAX from my hands. That’s because it went from being an ugly gray bean to being an eminently useful car painted a nice shade of Sterling Gray Metallic. When my six-four husband got in and pushed the passenger seat back, he had tons of knee room, and there was still room for someone behind him. The cargo space in the rear held about a thousand pounds of dog food and cat litter with room for the few things the people were allowed to buy themselves on that shopping trip.

So yeah, the C-MAX is not sexy. It comes in an even nerdier — yet more fuel-efficient — plug-in hybrid configuration. No one is every going to whip their head around and push their sunglasses down their nose for a better look as you drive by. But it is so amazingly practical and gets such good mileage without the driver having to try (even with the revised numbers) that I’d say it’s worth the nearly $30k you’ll pay for it. This is the kind of car you keep for a decade.

  • 2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid
  • Base price: $28,200
  • Options: $2215 for nav, rear-view camera, power liftgate, hands-free tech
  • Price as tested: $31,210

The Most APEAL-ing Cars

For nearly two decades, J.D. Power has been releasing the Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout Study, which asks owners to rate their car on 77 attributes using a 1000-point scale. I feel its safe to assume that the owners who fulfill this huge survey request are super persnickety, which might actually make the results more reliable.

The real-world result of this study for you, dear car buyer, is that cars with higher APEAL scores fly off the lot — and at higher prices. As the study says:

Owners of vehicles with an APEAL score of 100 points or higher than the segment average typically spend at least $1,800 more on their new vehicle than do owners of vehicles with a score of at least 100 points lower than the segment average.

This does not mean that dealerships are gouging buyers; it means that customers are willing to pay more for cars that rank highly according to the APEAL study. And dealerships know that, so your negotiating skills will need to be on fire if you want to knock a significant amount of money off an APEAL-ing car’s sticker price.

Unsurprisingly, the manufacturers with scores above the industry average of 795 (out of 1000, remember) are often luxury car builders. See for yourself.


Secrets Revealed! How We Get Cars to Test Drive

In seven years of having my cool and unusual job of being a freelance automotive journalist, I’ve noticed one nearly universal misconception: people think I get cars from local dealerships to test drive. I like to think they imagine me wandering about the lot, one hand on my chin, as I decide which car is worthy of my week-long attentions. Then I point with an imperious finger. “This one!” I say. “This Honda Fit shalt be my chariot for the next half-fortnight.” Probably they imagine that I just call up the Nissan place, or the Ferrari place, or the Ford place and ask for a car. Neither of these is true.

There are three ways I get cars to test drive and review, and none of them involve me being imperious. One of them involves me being really lazy.

  • They bring me a car. There are agencies all around the country, usually located near major airports for convenience’s sake, that manage what’s called the press fleet. These are the cars that the manufacturers release to journalists for a few months, and they make the rounds of being ridden hard and put away wet. We wreck brakes and clutches, we push all the buttons, we cram things in the trunk, we put our dogs in the passenger seats. We use them for a week the way we think the target buyer would use it. And then some.
  • My dog testing the passenger seat of a Jeep Wrangler

    My dog testing the passenger seat of a Jeep Wrangler

  • We go to association events. There are professional associations for automotive journalists all over the country. Some are huge, like the Motor Press Guild, and some are small, like the Northwest Automotive Press Association. But they all put on events where lots of cars from many manufacturers are in the same place and driven by all the journalists over a couple of days. NWAPA’s Drive Revolution event in July was one of these. Often, these events have a winner or three.
  • We get flown somewhere. Manufacturers will have launches for cars that are brand-new models or significantly changed models. They’ll take maybe a half-dozen cars or more to one place and invite journalists to fly in — on the manufacturer’s dime — and drive the car for a day. There are presentations on the new car and delicious meals and very nice hotel rooms, followed by a day on the streets or at the track. My recent trip to drive the Aston Martin Rapide S was a press launch.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these. Launches are swanky, but fast fly-in-fly-out affairs, meaning the jet lag is fierce. Getting a car from the fleet is convenient, but the cars all blend together after awhile if you’re not careful. That blending together is doubly true at association events, where I sometimes have to look at the emblem on the steering wheel to remind myself what car I just climbed into after a long day of driving, but being able to meet up with other journalists is priceless.

You’ve probably figured out that this isn’t any kind of sexy expose. If you ask any automotive journalist at a party how they get their cars, they’ll tell you the same thing. And the big car magazines just have press cars in the garage all the damn time for employees to try out and review. So it’s not a secret, but now that you know, the next time you see me at a party, you can jump right to the next most popular question: “What’s your favorite car?”

The Season’s Hottest Accessories: Back-up Cameras, Nav Systems, and More

Foresight Research recently released a report that says accessories are hot — vehicle accessories, that is. Where aftermarket purchases used to be about power (headers, dual exhaust, turbochargers) or appearance (giant spoilers, rims, grilles), now it’s all about technology, baby. And women are all over it.

The hottest accessories across all demographics are:

  • sunroofs
  • rear camera and park assist systems
  • LED/HID headlights and taillights
  • custom wheels

There is a bit of buyer beware in this study, though. This information is aimed at dealerships, not consumers. The report advises dealers to feature accessories prominently in their showrooms and to tack on as many extras as they can to make up for the lost profit margins on cars in the last few years. The rust-proof undercoat of yesteryear is the park assist of 2013.

If these accessories don’t already come packaged in the car you’re purchasing, make sure you need these extras and can afford them before signing any paperwork at the dealership. Can you get some of these upgrades as part of a package that includes other features you’d like to have? What’s the price difference? What’s your budget? What’s the monthly payment? Can you add it later if you get a big tax refund or a fat check from your dad at Christmas?

Four out of ten people who buy a brand-new vehicle will spend nearly $2000 on accessories within two years of driving the car off the lot. Check your checking account before you answer — you’ll probably have the car for 7-10 years, so you’ve got lots of time to save up and make it your own.

Ask for a Discount Next Time Your Car Needs a Repair

Check this little post from the Harvard Business Review’s Daily Stat:

Women who called auto-repair shops to inquire about getting a new radiator were quoted prices that averaged 6% higher than those offered to men, according to an experiment led by Meghan Busse of the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. Yet female callers who requested a price reduction were successful about 35% of the time, compared with just 25% for men. Shops may be caught off guard when women ask for discounts on car repairs, the researchers say.

This is from a study by AutoMD.com and the Kellogg business school, where mystery callers dialed hundreds of repair shops and asked the same question: How much would the shop charge to replace the radiator on their 2003 Toyota Camry? Callers would tell the shop they had a high dollar amount in mind, a market-rate amount, or admit they had no clue how much a radiator would cost.

The researchers were surprised (though, really, why?) at the results:

When they examined the price quotes given to male and female callers separately, a different pattern emerged (see the figure below). For male callers, there is no difference between having “no idea” about an expected price and being a savvy consumer: either way, you are quoted something right around market price. But for female callers, says [Florian] Zettelmeyer [of the Kellogg School], “you’re much worse off saying you know nothing as opposed to quoting the price of $365.”

But as long as the caller provided some number, whether it was the right price or way too high, the gender difference disappeared. Then there’s the fact that when women asked for a discount, they were given it more often than men.

The takeaway? Shop around on the internet to get some idea of what a repair would cost. Then talk to a shop or two about your problem and what you think it will cost. And finally, ask for a discount. Surprise them with competence, and you’ll end up paying less.