BUYING A CAR

Narrowing the Field to Three

Buying a Car
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Okay Fool, by now you've determined you have a need. You've proven to yourself that you have the financial clout and stability to make this potentially colossal purchase. Not to mention the fact that you've decided to buy a new car, and you know generally what you want, since you determined your Big Fit to be, say, a sport utility vehicle. So, is it now time to set off for the land of the lots? (Yea! And verily he drove to the Land of Lots! And it was good.) In a test drive or two you'll have yourself a wonderful shiny new Ute, right?

Whoa Not so fast, Fool!

Visiting a car lot at this point would be placing yourself smack dab in the middle of a perilous game we like to call New Car Jeopardy.

Yes, step onto a car lot without a well-defined concept of what you want, and you'll soon find yourself up against an Alex Trebek clone who's grilling you on questions for which you have no answer. Don't get caught in that game; you don't stand a chance. Even if the car salesperson looks and dresses like Herb from WKRP in Cincinnati, you can bet your bottom dollar that when it comes to selling a car, he's highly sophisticated. (We use "he" because most car salespeople are participants in male genderhood.) Remember, this is how he makes his living; he's done this a lot more than you, and he probably has a sack full of tricks to make you believe that this deal is "tailor-made for you!" So beware, Fool: before you venture out for a test drive, or even take a look around, do your homework.

"Homework!" you moan, "I thought this Fool stuff was suppose to be fun!" Ah, but this is not your den-variety homework. Grab that piece of chicken-scratched paper you created in Step 3, and take a look at the vehicle segment on which you settled. Recall that (with us) you developed your own Foolish Vehicle Use Profile.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, start your browsers! We're now going to put that profile to use. The Information Superhighway is chock-full of automobile information. The Internet is, in fact, causing a full-scale revolution in the vehicle retailing market. Scads of information and data can now be found online, in the privacy of your own home. Car buying services and dealers are flocking to the Internet. It is now possible for a consumer not only to research a vehicle on the Internet, but to buy one, warranty it, obtain a loan for it, and even insure it. The only physical contact necessary with the dealership is the actual delivery of the vehicle. And who knows? One day even that may be unnecessary. Of course, by that time cars themselves will be but a distant memory, as we beam ourselves hither and yon, but let's take this one step at a time.

The digital revolution has created cataclysmic upheavals throughout the automotive retail business, leveling the playing field for a small dealer in Idaho who wants to sell more trucks over a wider territory. The same revolution allows the Foolish car buyer -- using the same new digital tools -- to gain equal footing in the negotiation process. Today you can enter a dealership armed with real and useable data concerning nearly every aspect of a new vehicle purchase. This was virtually impossible for the average consumer of yesteryear.

As with much in this Age of Information, the danger is overload: how can we avoid becoming awash in a tidal wave of data? If you settle on, say, a sport utility vehicle, you still have over 50 entries across the entire segment. When you mix in the numerous permutations of every vehicle -- limited editions, two doors, four doors, two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, V8, V6, diesel, etc. -- and when you count the previous model year's vehicles, which are often on sale well into the next year, your "narrowed" list climbs to over 100 vehicles!

That's why this step is called "Narrowing the Field to Three." (If you end up with four or five, that's okay. It just means that the subsequent steps are going to take you longer.)

What do we mean by "field of three"? Simply that you've whittled your list down to three specific makes and models within that category. For example, if you are looking at sport utility vehicles, your field of three makes and models might include a Dodge Durango, Chevy Blazer, and the Suzuki Sidekick. It is important here to diversify your choices amongst the makes as much as possible, but you may like two entries from a particular manufacturer that fit the bill as distinct models. In this case your three choices may appear as, the Ford Explorer, Ford Expedition, and Isuzu Rodeo.

It's always a good idea to compare twins and cousins so you can pick the relative in the vehicle family tree that best suits your needs. For example, the Isuzu Rodeo we mentioned above has a vehicle cousin, the Honda Passport. Just as the Ford Explorer listed above has a "twin" vehicle in the Mercury Mountaineer. So your "field of three" may include four choices when twins and cousins are involved.

Now, your "field of three" should not include vehicles that are the same make and model but with differing option packages. In other words if your list ends up with the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer Limited Edition, Ford Explorer AWD, and the Mercury Mountaineer AWD, you need to reevaluate your choices. These are all Ford vehicles of the same model and only differ in the amount of installed options.

Below you'll find some websites which will aid in focusing on your chosen segment. We've listed these sites at the bottom of this article; to access them you just click on the blue hyperlinked text.

If you've researched car buying before, or just like to hang around magazine racks (shame on you!), you've probably run across an Edmund's Car buying guide. The print version was and is an excellent product for consumers to use, the only problem being that the material was sometimes dated. The Internet changes this. At the Edmund's site, you can use the search function to narrow your search. In our example, we found some 111 entries under sport utilities, but when we limited the search to Sport Utilities with Automatic Transmissions and under $25,000, the list was dramatically reduced to only 15 vehicles. Microsoft's CarPoint also does a great job of focusing your search, but be careful not to limit yourself too much on the first pass. That is, use a higher price than you're willing to pay, and be open to alternatives with regard to options, such as two wheel drive versus four wheel drive.

Print it out your whittled-down list so you have a hard copy to work from. Next, use Edmund's and the other Internet sites listed to read up on these remaining makes and models that you have on your list. Slowly prune the list, eliminating vehicles that don't have the features you need and want, or the vehicles that don't meet your criteria. For instance, if safety is critical, look at crash test data, check which makes have air bags (driver, passenger, and even side-impact), which have anti-lock brakes, and so on. If resale is important, check residual values or used prices, using your average mileage assumptions from Step 3.

Now, Fool, set to! Spend a couple of hours researching your new vehicle selection, and winnow your choices until only a few remain. Good luck with your homework, remember to Be Foolish and avoid tailgating -- give your fellow driver some distance! We'll see you in Step 6 when we prepare to take our test drive.

Car Sites

  • Edmund's links to the search criteria page in one of the best auto information online sources
  • Microsoft's CarPoint is similar to Edmund's, but you may need the latest browser
  • AutoSite is similar to Edmund's
  • LeaseSource is a great place to learn about leasing and get residual pricing
  • Kelly Blue Book is the online version of the well known used car pricing guide, check out what your deprecation may be
  • Consumer Reports is available on AOL, soon on the Net, see if they reviewed any of your vehicles
  • Car Connection is another excellent car related site
  • National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration is the place to find your vehicle's past, crash tests, TSB's (Technical Service Bulletins). Use it -- your tax dollars are funding it.

Car Magazines

Buff Books contain reviews galore. Your particular vehicle may not be reviewed, but you may be able to use these publications to narrow your field. Remember, though, to be leery of uncritical gushing.

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