Tag Archive | "Car Research"

Wheel Envy


These last few weeks, I’ve been experiencing car lust. It’s come over me like a sickness, some strange mechanical version of spring fever, and I find myself becoming preoccupied by the existence of cars.

Every time I take the subway, I do a mental calculation — would this be a better trip if I had a car? Trips to the grocery store are so overwhelmed by car thoughts that I forget to buy things like cat food and have to go back. I scan the newspapers, online classifieds and cars I pass for notices of used cars in my price range. My price range is small, almost ludicrously small, which is most of the reason I don’t have a car yet.

I don’t need a car. I’m less than two years out of college, I’m trying to keep my fixed expenses to a minimum, and a car can represent a rather sizable fixed expense. Around the time of college graduation, when I had my job and apartment secured, I mentally ran some numbers on my expenses. The job was good but certainly wouldn’t make me rich, and a bus ran conveniently near to both my apartment and my workplace. I didn’t need a car to go to work. My friends all lived similarly near to public transportation, so I didn’t need a car to facilitate my social life. In fact, having a car might be a liability, because I’d have to watch how much I was drinking if I’d driven wherever I was. Public transportation didn’t run all night, but even if I took taxis I’d still be spending less than I would have on a car. Cars are expensive, what with insurance and the inevitable repairs. I was young and living in a major metropolitan area with good public transportation; a car wasn’t a necessity, and not having a car would enable me to spend my money on other things.

A year and a half later, I’m still young and still living in a major metropolitan area. I’m in a different apartment, but public transportation still gets me to and from my job more effectively than a car would. One or two friends have cars now, and my roommate has a car, and I’ve observed that finding parking in the general area of anywhere we’re likely to go is almost more of a hassle than public transportation. I still can, and do, get anywhere I need to go without having a car of my own.

The problem is, I can’t always get everywhere I want to go.

It’s starting to get warm, and I’m starting to get a touch of wanderlust. I want to go to the beach, I want to drive up into the mountains for no really good reason, I want to go to anywhere that isn’t here. If I had a car, I could just go. The car has taken on symbolic significance, something to do with independence and freedom. A car of one’s own, as it were. I find myself thinking things like, “If I had a car, I could go grocery shopping whether my roommate felt like it or not.” “If I had a car, I could go to the gym after work without having to drag my gym bag with me everywhere I went.” “If I had a car, I wouldn’t be stuck on this subway packed full of drunken college students.” “If I had a car, I’d at least have the option of quitting my job and making a cross-country road trip.”

With all of this in mind, I’ve started cautiously used-car hunting. I saw a ridiculously ugly (but probably indestructible) Honda Civic hatchback for sale while I was walking to the subway the other night. It was a little beat-up looking but definitely in my price range.

It’s unlikely that I’ll quit my job in favor of a cross-country road trip even if I have my own car, but by the time summer actually gets here I’ll at least be able to play hooky from work and go to the beach. A car may not be a necessity, but sometimes a little luxury is required.

Finding a Car Online

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The idea of buying a car online, in my opinion, is sheer genius. Being able to avoid dealers, while still having the luxury to view a car and select my options is an appealing concept to say the least.

Regardless, I would still be somewhat nervous to make such a momentous purchase with a simple click of my mouse. The average American consumer tends to agree. Perhaps it’s a wariness that keeps us from buying something we haven’t actually touched, or maybe it’s just the ingrained cultural notions we have about our cars. The test drive, for one, is almost as much a traditional mainstay as mom and apple pie. Whatever their reasons, most people prefer to do their research online and then head out later to a brick-and-mortar dealership.

While there are a few sites that promise to deliver your newly purchased vehicle, most car buying sites specialize in putting the potential buyer in contact with an “authorized dealer.” So if you were shopping online to avoid the dealer, you should probably resign yourself to having to deal with a live salesperson at some point in the process.

Why bother shopping online then? Well, the great thing about it is not that you’re necessarily buying anything from the comfort of home, but that you’re doing some in-depth window-shopping, which will allow you to walk into the dealership a much wiser (read: less vulnerable) consumer.

One of my co-workers enthusiastically endorses the online car “shopping” process. While he didn’t actually purchase online, the car he drives now is the result of some thorough mouse-clicking research. He searched through his preferred manufacturer’s pre-owned certified stock, picked several cars that met his needs, and compared the prices that the manufacturer offered against the online Kelley Blue Book to make sure that he wasn’t paying for a huge hike-up price. He even ran lemon checks and VHR reports on his choices. Finally, he compared and ultimately obtained insurance for the car of his choice. In short, he did everything a potential buyer should do to make sure that a car buying experience is rewarding. He offers these words of advice for the online window shopper: “Car shopping is like buying jewelry — you should actually go look at it before you buy it.”

How it Works

When you’re car shopping, the Web can provide two services: providing the means to buy and finance online, and providing a massive quantity of information. Any of the larger search engines, such as Gor MSN, have auto sections dedicated to providing users with online price quotes, a wealth of tips on everything from avoiding “lemons” to getting the best price out of a dealer, to online calculators to help you determine your monthly payments.

Online Comparisons.

Any number of sites, AutoWeb, Autobytel, CarPoint, Cars.com, DealerNet, AutoVantage, and AutoTown, for example, allow you to request free price quotes from local dealers. You simply provide the make and model of the car you’re interested in purchasing, your contact information and you receive a quote in a short period of time, usually within the next 24 hours. Most of these sites also offer model comparisons, reviews, ratings and images in addition to providing price quote services.

Better yet, you can shop for financing in much the same way. Apply for a loan online — from online lenders like CapitalOne Auto Finance, ELoan, and LendingTree.com — and you receive quotes within a matter of days, if not hours.

Consumer Resources.

Another advantage to online window-shopping is that you have quick access to sources like the Kelley Blue Book, which provides a car guide with invoice prices for new cars and current trade-in values (to help you negotiate that trade-in to your best advantage), and Consumer Reports online, which rates just about everything in terms of value-for-your-money. For auto shopping purposes, however, the CR site has an entire section of the site dedicated to advice and ratings on every conceivable aspect of new and used cars. While Consumer Reports online offers extensive information for free, you have to subscribe to their site for a fee of $4.95/month to access their entire ratings and reviews archive. That fee may keep you from making a $20,000 mistake.

Edmunds.com also has extensive vehicle guides for both new and used cars, as well as consumer advice and resources that range from road test editorials provided by the site’s staff, to crash test data. Best of all, the pricing and rating information is free of charge.

The Step-by-Steps.

There are several sites that are godsends to those who, like myself, have never really been familiar with car lingo and need every tip available to make an informed decision.

The MotleyFool.com offers an extensive thirteen-step guide to help you make an informed choice, and alerts you to any of the pitfalls of making such an enormous purchase. It even provides worksheets to take you through any of the car-purchasing processes, giving you handy lists to bring along when you test drive a new or used car.

The guys at CarTalk.com, who host the NPR talk show by the same name, also provide a handy guide for the car novice. The site provides a link to Cars.com’s pricing guides and classifieds, but most helpful are the Car Report and the Test Drive Notebook. The report allows you to access varied information — from performance on crash tests to common user complaints — on the make and model of your choice. The Notebook provides observations made by the Car Talk hosts — the reigning experts on any kind of “funny noise” your car might be making — on their test drives of an extensive list of vehicles.

Now get out there and click that mouse.

Taking the Test Drive


You’ve done the research, calculated your budget and narrowed down your list of prospective cars down to a handful. Now it’s time to take the finalists for a spin. This will likely be your first fully escalated interaction with salesmen, and your first hands-on-experience with the cars you’ve been reading about during the course of your — hopefully — intensive research. Therefore, before going in, it’s very important to know what to expect from the dealer, what to look for in the car, and above all, how to get the best feel for the model you’re testing.

Before you drive off the lot

  • Ask to drive the exact model you’re interested in, with your desired color and interior. Test-driving the model you want with a different engine and interior will defeat the purpose of the drive. Ideally, you want to test the exact car you’re interested in.
  • Admire the outside of the car, look for dings, study the contours. Does it look well constructed? How about the paint job? Do you like how the car looks? Will you be thrilled to see it every morning? Can you see yourself in it? Open and close the doors. Kick the tires. Stand on the bumper.
  • Climb inside. Sit in the driver’s seat, passenger seat, in the back. Lay down. Play with the controls, the knobs. Is everything within reach? How’s the layout? Will you be able to fit everything you need in it? How about the trunk? Will it suit your diabolical needs? Try out the stereo in the lot. You’ll want silence while you drive, to get a better feel for the driving experience.

On the road

  • Cover as wide a range of terrains as possible. Ideally, you’ll want to drive the car in both residential and urban areas, and highways. The more terrains you try out, the more complete your understanding of how the car reacts in different situations.
  • Work the brakes, take sharp and sweeping turns, floor it. Try to simulate different driving situations. How does the car respond? Do the gears shift smoothly? Are you hearing excessive noise? How does the suspension feel?
  • Is the car comfortable? Or would it give you bed sores if you were to drive it over long periods of time? Are there blind spots? How effective are the rear view mirrors? Are they easy to adjust? How about heating and air conditioning? Are the turning signals intuitively placed? Is the shift knob comfortable? Don’t overlook anything that strikes you as annoying or uncomfortable. Even the most seemingly insignificant problem may drive you nuts later.

After you return to the dealership, the salesman will likely try to sell you the car, that very day. Be forewarned. Even if you’ve fallen in love with the car over the course of the drive, it’s never wise to make a $20,000 decision without sleeping on it.

Buying Used Car

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That said, the big advantage of buying a used car is that you’re avoiding a huge depreciation of value over time. The value of a new car drops significantly the moment it is driven off the lot. After that, most cars tend to depreciate by about 50% after three years, and then drop about 10% per year afterwards, eventually reaching close to 0% per year. Aside from the lower sale price, knowing that a used car is less of a long-term investment is one of the better reasons to buy one.

Of course, if you’re in the market for a new car, you can compare identical models and play their respective dealers off each other to strike the best deal — luxuries you will not be afforded if shopping for a used car. But that’s what makes it sporting.

Buying a Used Car

You can find and/or purchase a used car through various means:

  • Dealer.

    The advantage to buying from a dealer is that many times used cars will come with fresh warranties. The problem is, you will be dealing with someone who has an even worse reputation than the stereotypical new car salesman. If you’re not getting a good vibe from the dealer, try a non-haggle superstores, like AutoNation or Car Max, which offer certain guarantees and warranties on their vehicles.

  • Person-to-Person.

    The advantage is you’re not dealing with the dealer and you’re more likely to be able to negotiate a price that’s close to the used car value that you’d find in the Kelley Blue Book or the Edmunds.com listings. The disadvantage is that you’re taking the car “as is” — it will not be certified or have any warranties.

  • Public Auctions.

    You’re literally determining how much you’re going to pay for that car as you’re buying it. Be forewarned that while you might be able to start the car and view it during the preview session, you’re not likely to be able to drive it and test it out beforehand.

What to Look For

When buying a used car, research is key. You don’t want to end up burying yourself with a purchase that was initially intended to save you money. Give the potential vehicle a thorough inspection: Examine the outside and determine its wear and tear from every angle, and find out what it has weathered. Has it survived a flood? Did it tow all of the owners’ kids’ stuff to college and back cross-country? Has it ever been in a major accident?

While you’re certainly going to want to ask the owner for all of this information, it’s a good idea to run a Vehicle History Report (VHR) using the Vehicle’s Identification Number (VIN) to find out where the car’s been and what it’s done. While a car may turn up with “no history,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s problem free. However the extra research (which can run anywhere from $10-$15 per report) could help you make a more informed decision… After all, you don’t want to end up foolishly buying the car that they used as the stunt-vehicle in the latest blockbuster car-chase movie.

If you punch up Vehicle History Reports on any search engine, you’ll come up with several services that can provide a VHR -

Finally, make sure that you ask the seller about any funny noises while you’re test-driving the car. Get a feel for the it, push buttons (make sure that what’s supposed to work does), ask questions — test it out in any way you can imagine, short of trying to determine how well it holds under fire (gunshots or otherwise.)