Super Shoppers: Automobiles

Car Lot Karate

Jim Garland believes that an average car buyer can save thousands of dollars on the price of a new car. “You can count on a minimum saving of $1,000 if you shop intelligently,” says Garland, president of J.R. Enterprises of Barrie, Ont., a firm that advises consumers on how to get the best car deal. “In most cases, you can reduce the cost by $2,000 to $4,000.”

Garland’s Tip No. 1 for smart auto shopping is deceptively simple — it’s to figure out the car you really want. Often that’s not the car you think you want. Garland says that advertising or false impressions of quality often lead drivers to focus their searches on inappropriate vehicles. He recalls a client who called him up, eager to buy a new Nissan Altima although he had never actually driven one. He wanted Garland’s help to negotiate a good deal. Instead, Garland insisted that the man go to the dealership and take the car for a lengthy test drive. “He phoned me back the next day and said, ‘I’m really glad you suggested I go drive it, because I didn’t like it.'”

The most comfortable place to start your search for a new car is from a seat in your local library or in front of your computer. Begin by checking out Consumer Reports, the king of objective, deeply researched auto rankings. Many libraries have copies of the magazine or you can access ratings online at for $5.95 (U.S.) a month. Also authoritative is Car and Driver magazine, the bible of the true auto enthusiast. The magazine’s online forums are especially fascinating because they give you a chance to see what real drivers are saying about their vehicles.

If you’re particularly interested in safety issues, spend a few additional minutes at the Web site of the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It provides safety rankings on dozens of car models. And, for a Canadian perspective, check out Lemon-Aid, an annual car-ranking guide connected to the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a non-profit Toronto-based organization that acts as a consumer advocate and information resource for car buyers. You can find out more about the organization at

Once you’ve found the right car — or, at least, drawn up a short list — it’s time to negotiate the right price. The simplest, most painless option is to sign up for the APA’s new vehicle buying service. You pay $65. In exchange, you get access to a list of recommended dealers who promise to sell a selection of models to program members for low, non-negotiable prices. The APA claims that the program saves you $200 to $1,000 off the price of a new vehicle. And you don’t have to do any dickering.

If you prefer to negotiate your own deal, consider timing your purchase for maximum advantage. September is an excellent month to find bargains because dealers will often knock several hundred dollars off sticker prices to clear out last year’s cars before the new models arrive in the fall. January is also prime time for deals. Post-Christmas business tends to be slow and dealers are eager to move product.

The more popular a vehicle, the less negotiating room you will have. Japanese and European vehicles rarely fetch much less than their sticker prices and sometimes go for a premium. North American cars, on the other hand, sell for as much as $2,000 less than their suggested price. And these days, domestic manufacturers are willing to throw in 0% financing as well.

If you want to know exactly how hard you can bargain, consider buying an APA membership for $52. Among other benefits, you get access to the dealer’s cost for most vehicles. (If you’re not a member, the service costs $25 per search.) Armed with this information, you know what the dealer is making from the sale and, hence, how low you can go.

Garland stresses that you should never buy any car immediately after a test drive. Tell the salesperson when you arrive on the lot that you will not be buying a car today. That way, he or she won’t pester you to close the deal. After the test drive, leave the dealership. “You don’t want to be processing your feelings with a salesman talking in your ear,” says Garland. “You want to go away and have a coffee.”

Try to test drive all the cars you’re interested in on the same day. You’ll find it easier to make comparisons. And make sure that you test drive the exact model you intend to buy. A popular sales trick is to offer you a spin in a model that has all the bells and whistles when you’re interested only in the base model.

If you intend to trade in your old vehicle, know what it’s worth. Many dealerships lowball you, hoping that you won’t have the energy to fight. You can quickly find out what most used vehicles should fetch by referring to Canadian Red Book, available in many public libraries. (You can order a copy for $11.95 online at or call 905-469-6468.) “Some people will say, ‘I have a busy life and I haven’t got the time to do all this research,'” Garland says. “But the process doesn’t have to go on for months. It’s just the difference between making a rash decision and waiting a week and getting a good deal.”

Click here to start driving a deal.

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September/October 2003 issue.

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