Help me buy a new car.
October 20, 2004 12:01 PM   Subscribe

Help me buy a new car. (more under the hood)

My 1995 Nissan Sentra has seen better days, so I'm thinking strongly about getting a 2004 Hyundai Elantra (best ratings/warranty for my price range). I probably need to do this fairly rapidly (within the next 2-6 weeks) for various logistical reason. It also appears Hyundai's got some cash back/financing incentives through November (though perhaps it's safe to assume they'll repeat them in December as well, since it's the end of the year and presumably would like to get rid of 2004 models?). I've never bought a new car before -- the three cars I've owned since I was about 17 were all hand-me-downs from either my dad or my former husband.

What do I need to know and/or be prepared for? Should I go with a credit report in hand? (My once-atrocious credit is now much better, though still not perfect.) Should I be prepared for high pressure sales tactics? Am I really at a disadvantage as a single woman, or is that whole "let's take advantage of the little lady who doesn't know what a gearshift is" cliche kind of overstated? Thanks.
posted by scody to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Oops: I should have said that the Hyundai cash-back/financing deals are good through November 1, and so was wondering if I should assume they'd repeat them for the rest of November and into December.
posted by scody at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2004

You sure a new Sentra is out of range? (Maybe I'm thinking of the Altima. One of the Nissan cars has a dirt-cheap sticker price these days.)

If you're a union member, check if they offer (a) member car-buying services; (b) loans services. Might save you a few bucks, though also will limit your options.

If you're in Canada, you might want to check out the Acura EL. It's a spiffed-up Civic, but very well-appointed for the price.

If you can hold out for a year, the Smart car will be in North America. Might be ideal for your needs if you're a city commuter.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:30 PM on October 20, 2004

What do I need to know and/or be prepared for?

First and foremost: have another one or two makes of car in mind.

You don't want to go in and buy an Elantra. Don't fall in love with it, especially not in advance. The salesdrones are smart, will suss that out, and refuse to do much bargaining.

You want to go in, see what sort of deal you can get on an Elantra, and compare that to the deals you've checked out on the Civic and Lancer and Corolla and Sentra and Mazda3. They're all perfectly good inexpensive cars, each a different bundle of tradeoffs. There's no need to identify one as THE BEST ahead of time, especially not on things as dubious as popular ratings.

You say you have 2--6 weeks -- each weekend in the next 2--3 weekends, go test drive two or three of these cars, get the brochures, and get a quote. If a dealer won't give you a quote, leave and go to another dealer of that make, and get a quote. Then take the 2 or 3 cars you like best, and see which you can get the best deal on.

Should I go with a credit report in hand? (My once-atrocious credit is now much better, though still not perfect.)

As I understand it, the only thing that helps to have in-hand is a loan approval. Then the dealer is effectively selling for cash. They can do their own credit check.

Should I be prepared for high pressure sales tactics?

Yup. Remember that a deal offered today should be good tomorrow -- if it isn't, that's a hint that the dealer or salesman is shady and go somewhere else.

You're not under any pressure. You're in a big market segment, and there are several nearly interchangeable cars, all perfectly good, that you can pick from. You have essentially all of the power in this transaction. If you feel that a Hyundai dealer is fucking with you, go talk to Honda or Nissan.

*looks to see where scody is*

Or, since you're in LA, just go to another Hyundai dealer. There are at least five in the area.

Am I really at a disadvantage as a single woman, or is that whole "let's take advantage of the little lady who doesn't know what a gearshift is" cliche kind of overstated?

It can't ever hurt to be prepared for, and expect, such treatment. Again, if they do that, just get up and walk away, and go someplace where you might get better treatment.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:03 PM on October 20, 2004

Oh, and remember there are two entirely separable deals.

First you negotiate price. Then you discuss financing.

Don't fall into discussions early in the stage about "What sort of monthly payment do you want?" That sort of thing, which starts to get Math involved, is a prime way dealers fuck with you.

Ask nicely the first time they bring it up to deal only with price, or not to mix up discussions of price and financing.

If they won't play ball, get up, walk away, and go to another dealer. Who knows what they'll say as you're walking out the door.

There are several cars you could be happy enough with, and probably dozens of dealers within shooting distance of you. Take advantage of this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:08 PM on October 20, 2004

There's a ton of information out there on how to buy a car at a good price, you might try just going to a place like and reading everything you can. A few basic things that occur to me:

You needn't go with your credit report in hand, I'd think - they'll run their own before giving you financing no matter what you tell them, but you must know your own credit, especially if it might be spotty. Never negotiate monthly payments - have a target interest rate/loan period/monthly payment, but what you really want to focus on and haggle over is the actual price of the car. Do your research online and you'll know what the payments will be like based on the target price, finance rate, and loan term you're looking for. Dealers will play wonderful games with what look like low payments that add up to years of overpaying.

You said you're on a tight schedule, but trying to buy a car in a hurry is a huge disadvantage. Beware of shopping for and buying a car in the same day - you'll probably want to talk to your insurance company first and line up some insurance for your new ride, depending on what your current policy is like. There's some other tricks there you can get nabbed on. The oldest one in the book - conditional financing: dealer lets you drive off the lot with your shiny new car that day, with what you think is a great interest rate. Turns out a week or so later that the financing was only conditional and they tell you your interest rate and monthly payment will actually be much higher...

You should be prepared for shadiness. Hell, you should be prepared for war. Dealers haven't gotten any more respectable, and yes, it's amazing how sexist they can be. When I tagged along car shopping with my girlfriend - for her car - nine times out of ten she would ask a question, and the dealer would look away from her and answer to me. When I hadn't said a word the entire time.

Salesmen will lie to you. They will lie about the deal you can get, they will lie about the car's specifications, they will lie about options, they will lie about what they can and cannot do. Do not trust them about anything. You should do all of your learning online and by talking to people. View the salesmen as an unpleasant hazard you need to cope with in order to secure test drives and arrange a final price. Do not view them as a helper or a guide.

Also, are you sure about the Hyundai? Their quality has gone way up in the last few years, but impressions change slowly and as a result I'm pretty sure they still don't hold value well. So a new Toyota or Honda may be worth a lot more if you end up reselling the car in a few years. (For the same reasons, though, I bet a 2-yr-old Hyundai might be a killer steal) If you're gonna keep the car ten years, don't worry about it. But I'm biased towards Toyota/Honda/Nissan (in that order) if you're looking for reliability for the next decade or so. Have you looked at Corollas or Civics? If you're willing to pay a bit more for a great driving experience, look into a Mazda3.
posted by tirade at 1:12 PM on October 20, 2004

I've got a 2003 Elantra GT hatchback and it's a fine car. Every other small car I test-drove would have cost me $2000-$3000 more with the same equipment. Resale is the only thing I'd really worry about, and if you intend to keep the new car for nine years too, that's not a concern.

Go to Edmunds and figure out what invoice is for the exact car you want. You shouldn't have to pay a penny over dealer invoice for the Elantra. I actually paid below invoice on mine, because there was a factory-to-dealer incentive in effect which I split with the dealer. (Plus there was a factory-to-buyer incentive as well.) However, keep in mind that Edmunds may not show you the advertising charge that Hyundai charges its dealers. The dealer has to pay this to the factory so the "actual" invoice price will be about $500 more than Edmunds says.

Go test-drive the car to make sure it is what you want, if you haven't already, but make it clear to the salesman you are just test-driving. Then go home and prepare a letter explaining exactly the car you want -- trim level, color, options, accessories, etc. -- and fax this to all the dealers in your area. The letter should say you know what invoice is and you'll buy from the dealer that makes the best offer. They'll start calling you or faxing you back with offers. When you've got all your offers back, call all but the lowest and give them the opportunity to beat the lowest offer. Avoid going in to the dealer or otherwise dealing with salespeople until you have an offer in writing that you intend to accept.

Get your own financing before you go from your bank or from Then let the dealer try to beat it. Do not under any circumstances take a car home "contingent on financing," because you don't own the car at that point, and the dealer has you over a barrel and can basically make any financing deal they like. (If you don't like their deal, they can report the car stolen.)

Turn down all high-margin dealer add-ons such as fabric protection, undercoating, VIN etching, etc. If they insist you pay for it anyway, because it's already on the car, tell them to get you a car without that stuff on it. They'll probably give it to you for free.

Also, don't worry about the incentives going away; Hyundai has those constantly, and the new ones are always about the same as the old one (though the details may change slightly). They're just there to impart a sense of urgency to your purchase.

If you can wait a week or so to make your purchase, I would. End of the month means some dealers and/or salesmen will be hungry to meet their quotas and more willing to deal.
posted by kindall at 1:35 PM on October 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

Many dealerships will offer quotes with a simple email. Often, the internet sales manager is also the fleet manager and he will, in all likelihood, be able to offer you the best price on the vehicle. They often get special incentives from the manufacturer that they (may) pass onto you.
posted by trillion at 2:03 PM on October 20, 2004

Go through an internet site to get a price on the car, usually the actual company site will do (instead of some sort of type place). This will use the Fleet sales wing instead of the hucksters in the showroom.

When I bought a VW a couple years ago from the fleet guy, it was the nicest experience in the world. The guy didn't really deal with people shopping for cars, he dealt with people *buying* cars so he gave competitive prices up front, didn't try to sell me bogus add-ons, and it was over in just a couple hours. I'm never buying off the lot again, only through fleet sales.
posted by mathowie at 2:09 PM on October 20, 2004 [2 favorites]

Turn down all high-margin dealer add-ons such as fabric protection, undercoating, VIN etching, etc. If they insist you pay for it anyway, because it's already on the car, tell them to get you a car without that stuff on it. They'll probably give it to you for free.

Yup, I walked out of the VW dealership repeatedly when they tried to ding me for stuff that they were putting on the car. They insisted that they couldn't sell the car without VIN etching on all the windows, so I told them that I was glad that they were going to pay for that (since they required it), they said no, I walked out, they called me back in and paid. They did the same thing over the tire return fee, undercoating, transport (why is it MY fault they don't have the car I want in stock?) and a couple other "add-ons".

I'm a woman and it was a bit brutal because they really try to play you up: "Oh, you look so good in that car", "we like to see women buy fast cars", blah blah. Don't buy it (I did, and I probably could have gotten a better deal on the car).

Just look at it as a game and you'll be fine. Don't try to make friends or be nice - try to screw'em. They won't let you, so don't feel bad about haggling, but you can get really close to the dealer price on the car.
posted by some chick at 2:41 PM on October 20, 2004

For about $200, you can hire a service to do all of the haggling for you. Just tell them the make model and build you're after, and a day later they'll give you a nice stack of quotes. All you have to do is pick one, call the dealership, and announce that you are taking them up on their offer.

Consumer Reports runs a service like this; there are two or three other web sites that do it, too. It's worth the money, especially if you lack confidence in your own ability to bargain.
posted by profwhat at 2:50 PM on October 20, 2004

You should be prepared for shadiness. Hell, you should be prepared for war.

My wife and I bought a new car earlier this year, and I was amazed by how easy it was. We did go in with pricing info from the internet, and arranged the test drives by email, so maybe they knew not to mess with us. But still, by and large we experienced: no high-pressure sales tactics, my wife and I were treated equally (her opinion, too!), up front negotiation of the sticker price rather than financing, very technically informed sales people, and honest comparisons to other cars in the category.

Most of the dealerships we shopped at were smaller urban dealerships. Our one bad experience was at a big Toyota dealership in the suburbs. Standard tag-team pressure tactics, time limits on prices, "what do you want your monthly payment to be", etc. I'm not sure how universal this urban/small dealership vs. suburban/large dealership difference is, but I definitely noticed it, and I've heard it mentioned by others.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:53 PM on October 20, 2004

I bought a new Elantra in February. I regret it to this day. Long rant follows:

Admittedly, almost all of the problems I had are the fault of the particular dealership (anyone in/near Orange County, CA? Stay as far away from Santa Ana Hyundai as you possibly can), but the corporate entity was so incredibly unresponsive when I tried to tell them what their franchisees were doing that I don't particularly trust them either.

I went in as a college student with a part-time job and very little cash on hand. Not a good way to start, and the dealership didn't make it any easier. My old car had completely died the day before, and I (at the time) had a 60-mile commute, so I needed a car right away. They agreed to sell me the car with no down payment and a fairly decent interest rate (for my not-so-great credit score), and so I took it. This was on a Saturday.

On Wednesday of the next week, I got a call from the dealership saying that they had forgotten to have me sign some paperwork. My SO and I went back to the dealership to sign the papers. I didn't notice it at the time, but as we were walking into the building, one of the sales guys parked a big SUV directly behind my car, blocking me in. When we got inside, the finance guy said that they had rejected my credit app, and that if I didn't sign the new application right then, they would invoke the recision clause of the contract and take the car back on the spot. The new terms? $3,000 down payment and an interest rate hike from 9% to 15%. In the end, since I had no transportation home from the dealership, a good 15 miles from my apartment, and no real option, I signed the new contract after about an half hour of arguing.

On top of this, they had bought my old dead car from me, and as part of the deal, they agreed to send in a payoff check (existing balance was added to the new loan). It took them three months to do this, so my credit union went to town on my credit record, making it even worse than it started out. After four attempts, I managed to get the dealership to send the check, along with a letter of explanation as to why the whole fiasco had occurred. Offending notes were removed, but the damage was done.

I spoke with Hyundai several times about the fraud, coercion, and irresponsibity. They never did a thing. Add to that that Hyundai keeps sending me other people's personal information (I don't understand this - they have in their records that I bought 5 cars of different models at the same time -- using other people names and information, apparently) - and I'm never buying one of those again.

End of that rant - on the other side, my SO's car buying experience was pretty much perfect. If you're a Costco or AAA member, walk up to the dealership, ask to talk to the fleet guy immediately. They'll give you a price that's hard to beat - every single one of the Toyota dealers she went to gave written quotes for $100 over invoice, which is what she wound up paying.

On preview - what mathowie said about the fleet thing.
posted by DoomGerbil at 2:55 PM on October 20, 2004

What everybody said above, especially ROU_Xenophobe. And finally, read the sales contract. It doesn't matter what the salesman said, what matters is what you sign. I have caught some very expensive charges going down on the sales agreement that I did not agree to. The salesman just said, "I'm sorry, I'll take that out." But he wouldn't have if I hadn't caught him and said "I didn't agree to this."
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:05 PM on October 20, 2004

Thanks so much, everyone -- this is all really helpful. I appreciate it. (And anyone who wants to add more, feel free!)
posted by scody at 4:40 PM on October 20, 2004

Credit Union? The one I belong to gave me a loan that beat the dealers best offer and has a free car buying service. I didn't use it - but as I understand it you call them - tell them what you want - they take care of the loan, the purchase and deliver the car to your door with the paperwork. Could be worth joining one if you're not yet a member.
Oh - and a second vote for another nissan. Those things are so amazingly indestructible. I handed down my 95 to a friend at 200,000 miles 2 years ago - and it's seen better days - but it's still truckin.
posted by Wolfie at 5:20 PM on October 20, 2004

I definitely recommend edmunds for info. They have a great tips and advice section. I enjoyed the Confessions of Used Car Salesman. Very long, but interesting read. The one VERY important thing I got from that article:

The phones in the office are bugged.

When they are off "talking to their manager", they're eavesdropping on the convo you're having with whomever you've brought. Scary, but true.
Like someone else said, it's an all-out war in there.
posted by j at 8:27 PM on October 20, 2004

Absolutely, no matter what, line up your financing before you go to the dealer. You can always apply again at the dealer to see if you can get a better deal, but you need to already have a pre-approved loan from the get-go.

You also might want to try CarsDirect -- I haven't tried them myself, but am considering it for my next car. But even if you don't buy from them, you can get a firm price for the car you want, and take it to the dealer with you. Its a good bargaining chip.
posted by spilon at 4:06 PM on October 21, 2004

eloan has a car buying service - I got pre-approved by them, and they helped me do car-buying research and called dealerships for me. The key is dealing with the fleet or internet sales department - they're not nearly as shady as the scummy bastards on the lot.

Incidentally, I had a great experience buying my last car. I got a used Audi. No shady crap, no treating me like some dumb broad. It's probably because I walked in with a pre-approved loan check. Audi Financial Services ended up beating the interest rate by about 6.5 points, so if you do go the pre-approval route, it doesn't hurt to try for better financing at the dealer.

Oh, and DoomGerbil - everything in the Santa Ana Auto Mall is horrible, even BMW. It's like they compete with each other to see which dealership can screw over more customers. Ugh.
posted by bedhead at 7:14 PM on October 21, 2004

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