So, you’re thinking of buying a new car



Jane and John Doe American driver have a wealth of information and choices available to them today to help find, research and buy either a brand new car or light truck, or, a new-to-them previously owned vehicle.

The data clearly illustrates why there are so many search engines and websites that cater to the American auto-industry: 210 million licensed drivers — two-thirds of the total population — looking to take part in the annual sale of over 50 million new and used vehicles in the United States. That is a lot of opportunity for auto retailers to make a living, no matter what the margins are for transactions.

A generation ago, car buyers went to the dealer, stood around and haggled over features and price, not really knowing what either cost, and then settled on a price that did not always benefit the consumer. Before that, some drivers even called their local dealer, told them what they needed, or wanted, and the dealer just brought the vehicle to you with little if any price “negotiation.”

Today’s electronic information access has altered the landscape significantly. Consumers can find new car pricing in numerous Internet locations, and can even use various sites to find the specific car they want, what other buyers have paid for similar vehicles, what incentives are available from the automakers, as well as discern a relative number for what their trade-in vehicle should garner — all things being equal.

The success of sites such as TrueCar, MSN.com, Kelly Blue Book, Auto Trader, eBay and many others — as well as the tried-and-true veterans such as Consumer Reports, plus the automakers and dealer sites themselves — have all empowered the American consumer to make better car-buying decisions. While readily enjoying more access to the details that they seek before spending their hard-earned money on what is usually the second-most expensive purchase that most of us make, better-informed consumers generally make better decisions.

Data also reveals other snippets: more than 15 percent of car-buyers use only the Internet to buy their cars (more people would like to make the whole transaction from the comfort of their home and never visit the dealership), female car buyers prefer Internet shopping over actual car store visits, while upstart car shopping site TrueCar reports 5 million visitors to its site each month, helping consumers make 4 percent of all new car purchases.

Our cars are vastly safer than ever — despite what some consumers see as weakening quality with the numerous recalls of the past two years. Increased electronic components in our cars plus a more litigious society are the two largest drivers of that data.

Nonetheless, despite more drivers and more miles being driven than ever before, traffic fatalities are at their lowest rates since the 1940s. If you have spent much time traveling state to state lately, that is very impressive.

Recently, Nat and Diane Smith of Blue Hill lost their ten-year old Honda Accord to a black ice accident. Fortunately, no one was injured and Nat had already been doing research on their “next car.” Armed with some already-arrived-at decisions, compact crossover with AWD, stocked with certain amenities, they began their shopping experience with the aid of three Internet points: TrueCar, MSN.com, plus Kelly Blue Book. TrueCar gave the Smiths the dealer location of the models they liked — a Honda CR-V, a known commodity due to their Accord ownership, and a Mazda CX5, a well-regarded new entry in this competitive segment — as well as what recent buyers had paid.

Armed with this data, as well as comparative reviews from the enthusiast press such as Car & Driver, they began their test-drive research in an orderly fashion, moving from closest to the farthest dealership site — which had the lowest retail prices due to its proximity to more population and larger sales volume.

In a note, Nat expressed the finer points he stressed in his dealer visits: seat comfort and ergonomics for each of them, how the doors feel and sound and how the vehicle’s construction appeared, the dynamics of the driving and how the paint actually looks in person.

“Finding the car online is fine for seeing what the dealer has for inventory, but you still need to see and drive the car to buy it,” Nat said.

With pricing info in hand, and an unemotional attitude about where they would spend their money, the Smiths didn’t need to visit too many dealers before finding the right color, the right features, and a dealer willing to meet their pricing objectives at a Mazda store about 85 miles from home. When the dealer offered an unknown Mazda customer-loyalty discount (the Smith’s had previously bought another Mazda several years ago), the deal was quickly cemented and a CX5 joined the household.

Without the TrueCar data, Nat was unsure if the numbers would have been as attractive for his purchase. Information is power; those consumers wielding it operate on more equal footing than consumers who do not.

For those drivers looking at making a used-vehicle purchase, they have multiple Internet options: EBay Motors, AutoTrader, Cars Direct, Cars.com, edmunds.com, and even Hertz and Craigslist. For buyers looking for specialized or antique cars, numerous websites can aid those searches too, connecting potential buyers with sellers pretty much anywhere in the country.

And this is how I found myself pursuing the desire for a rare two-door Chevy Tahoe, with the dual rear barn-doors, of course. The wife did not share this interest — of course, but she is coming around.

Diving into the AutoTrader search vehicle off-and-on for several months, I never pulled the trigger when I should have for the desired color and mileage Tahoe because of distance too far, price too much, or some other reason. However, a search in early January brought the stars together.

A desirable truck in Connecticut was listed; relatively low miles, close to Maine, and the photos looked good. Respond to the sale listing. The response the next day from the dealer site: too late, the truck was sold. Have to move faster, or, stop looking — the good trucks are getting harder to find.

Further down the listings (there were 54 Tahoes that met my criteria at that time, all across the country) was a white sample just outside Nashville. Now, Nashville is not very close to Maine and would be a very risky drive to review a vehicle purchase — especially in the throes of the winter we have been enjoying. Moreover, a white Tahoe was about number seven on my list of preferred color options. But this particular truck had the sought after equipment; LT trim with heated leather, 4WD, rear panel doors and it had not been lifted or otherwise altered for off-road use, as many have been. The truck had high miles, but it was a one-owner vehicle from someone who did not smoke and had never had an accident. The back seat looked like it had never even been used.

Inquiries to the selling dealer provided more concrete information and details. My interest peaked and I made an offer, a 10 percent discount from the asking price. They accepted and the document shuffle started via FedEx.

Coincidentally, I was headed — along with my unknowing bride — to Nashville for a February convention, only four weeks after cementing the truck purchase. The selling dealer would gladly hold the Tahoe. I bought one-way airfare; we were going to drive the Tahoe home in bliss, or, have a very long rent-a-car trip.

The seller delivered the Tahoe to our hotel as promised and the truck proved to be as good as depicted. Very clean, with no exterior blemishes, the seventeen-year-old Chevy then marched up to Bowling Green, Ky., to visit the Corvette Assembly Plant and Museum (see below), while the next day we headed east to visit family in North Carolina and then marched from Abington, Va., to Maine in one day, a 1,000-mile drive in 17 hours ahead of a pending snowstorm. The Tahoe drove fine and provided excellent comfort for a great adventure and an extended road trip.

This is the third time that I have used AutoTrader to make a vehicle purchase — with no regrets, so far. Yes, there are little details that are forgotten, or not disclosed, that you discover after the purchase — things such as the window glass under the seat was because of vandalism not an accident, or, a surprise like the towing hitch really does include the transmission cooler and the best 3.73-axle ratio. Buying from a distance — online or not — still means Caveat Emptor. There are risks; you have to be willing to be a little bit of a gambler. Nothing is truly a sure thing.

But heck, if it doesn’t work out, you can always resell the vehicle you just got. Someone else is looking for what you bought too.

 

Bowling Green, Ky.: Home of Chevy’s Corvette

Just an hour north of downtown Nashville, Tenn. — a friendly, clean, fun city — lays the National Corvette Museum as well as the GM Assembly Plant for Chevy’s Corvette.

Right at the exit from Interstate 65, and visible as you drive north and south, the Corvette facilities are well worth the visit for any motorhead. On a very brisk February day, we did the self-guided tour at the sparkling museum and then took the guided tour at the Corvette Assembly Plant across the highway.

Corvette buyers can elect to take delivery of their new sports car directly at the museum — the 20-year-old site now famous for the sinkhole that swallowed eight classic Corvettes two years ago. In fact, eight shiny new Corvette Stingrays were prepped and staged for consumer pickup on the Thursday that we visited — including three new $80,000 Z06 Coupes. Eight more cars were rolling in the back door, for Saturday pickup.

The 115,000-square-foot museum is full of Corvette history, including displays on Zora-Arkus Duntov — the first chief engineer for Corvette — as well as lots of Corvette racing history. With videos and movies, plus cars recovered from the infamous sinkhole, there is a lot of eye candy to entertain visitors. An on-site café completes the visit along with the museum’s well-stocked souvenir and gift shop. Visitors can also enter one of numerous raffles to win a new Corvette, as the Museum gives away a new Stingray every month!

Moving over to the assembly plant, visitors get a free tour that shows much of the process that builds America’s favorite sports car. We were not allowed to visit the Performance Division room where Z06 engines are hand-assembled (no cameras are allowed either), but we did witness interior construction as well as much of the machinations of a 1,000,000-square-foot plant that employs 800 people creating this incredible machine. Chevrolet has been building the Corvette in Bowling Green for over 30 years.

Near the end of the tour, the slow-moving conveyor system marries the body to the Chevy’s aluminum chassis, where technicians attach the various electrical systems, the body, and install fluids in a seamless dance. In a scant 200 feet, the incomplete car is essentially completed and fired to life for a tumultuous first few feet over a rumpled floor to make sure that the chassis is in fact complete. After alignment comes a 200-point technical check and then a high-pressure car wash. Any cars that fail either test are immediately removed from the line, while one of eight cars is automatically pulled out for detailed testing. Every Corvette is then thoroughly torture-tested for squeaks, rattles and body integrity before being placed outside and covered in a special fabric awaiting transportation to your selected dealer — or to the museum for delivery. Corvette Assembly normally builds 170 cars a day on one long shift, with some cars being prepped for export.

Bowling Green Assembly is a great visit if you are ever in the greater Nashville area. The rolling countryside is very attractive with lots of history and natural attractions besides the fun of Nashville.

In addition, it is good to see that America Still Builds Rockets.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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