My partner bought a car recently.
As much as I try not to embarrass Jason, I figured I'd discuss the happiness he has with this purchase, but also some cautionary tales regarding the car purchasing process.
Before we discuss what Jason bought and the machinations that went into the process and aftermath, we should explain how he got to this point.
The plan was to replace his 1999 Mercury Mystique, which he had for several years in both Madison and his current home of Mukwonago, Wisconsin outside of Waukesha and Milwaukee. The gold/beige colored four-door sedan was once the upscale version of the global Ford Mondeo for North America. It belonged to his late mother before Jason inherited the car after her passing. All told, it had 200,000 miles on the odometer with major brake service looming for it.
The Mystique served Jason well. His mother would have been proud of the way he took care of it to the end.
When Jason began shopping to replace his Mystique, he reached out to me for assistance. Jason told me he had an idea on how much he wanted to spend and what he really wanted – and did not want.
The research was done through articles in V&R and other outlets I am published in. Plus, Jason took to Consumer Reports for their ratings on reliability and value. I know how much a lot of folks are not thrilled with CR, but since I have friends over at their automotive content department, I will keep my opinions to myself. I also added crash testing information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.
On a previous trip to see Jason, we did check out a couple of vehicles. One was a Chevrolet Impala at his local Chevrolet dealership. Jason had issues getting out of the car, so it was test driven. At a nearby Toyota dealer, he was able to navigate in and out of a 2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Jason actually liked how it drives and wondered if this would be his solution when Jason was able to afford to sign his life away at the Finance and Insurance desk.
Months past and we got closer to when Jason was able to shop and actually buy his next vehicle. My visit to Wisconsin included two weekends with Jason, plus the Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally. It also included two attempts at finding Jason a car.
The first attempt was more of a goose chase. We went to a few dealers in Milwaukee. Neither of them yielded anything for Jason to truly consider. We tried to look at his comfort and ergonomics – which most of them did not meet Jason’s wants/needs. It would be the seats, the steering wheel controls, the ride quality, and other nagging details that would spurn Jason from considering these vehicles.
One test drive yielded the only dealer listed as supporting the LGBT community – Schlossmann Subaru City in Milwaukee. While Jason drove a Honda Accord Sport with his salesperson, I chatted with the general manager about his dealership and the state of Subaru. The salesperson and Jason walked up on his and wondered if someone was in trouble. The dealership was great, as were the people we dealt with. Sadly, we could not find anything for Jason to buy there. It would have been great to have done business with them.
The one thing that annoyed me during our shopping trip was that salespeople and other dealer personnel were looking at the car I was working with – the 2018 Kia Stinger GT2. I felt that they wanted to talk about the Stinger rather than help Jason. In retrospect, this was not productive for either of us
After my return from MAMA Spring rally, we went back at it. Jason saw a few listings at a dealership in Madison. I had a feeling he would look there. I also had positive dealings with said dealership when I lived there, so I figured we’ll head out to Madison.
At the dealership, Jason test drove a few different Toyotas. One, he said was "too utilitarian" for him. The second simply was not right, either. The third car – he loved it.
I could discuss the process, but I have a few thoughts on how it went. It was not a smooth car buying experience overall. One salesperson did not want to deal. We returned because Jason wanted that third car. After talking to a new car salesperson and a sales manager, Jason got the price down to a deal.
Admittedly, I almost screwed things up. I knew this was Jason's car purchase, but I was uncomfortable with some of the things I saw at this dealership. I should have been much calmer and less defensive, as Jason thought I was going to come to blows with the sales manager. Love will do things to people, you know…
We returned the next day to do the F&I part. First, there was a miscommunication with his credit union regarding his pre-approved finance rate for the loan. Luckily, the F&I person shopped his rate with a higher credit score. They returned with a better rate – enough to add gap insurance to the monthly payment. Because of the deal, they also honored the Certified Pre-Owned warranty for his car. Jason poured over the multitude of paperwork he had to sign – carefully. Something, I think every car buyer should do. Whether it is on paper or electronic method – read the fine print and make sure the numbers jibe!
Then, the final act. They skipped the vehicle delivery procedure. Understanding this is reserved for new vehicles, this would also be helpful for CPO program vehicles as many buyers are upgrading to new technology and features they have never used before. This was very true in Jason’s case. Luckily, I had extensive experience with this particular vehicle to help with some setup.
What happened instead was a dealership gimmick. Every vehicle bought at this dealer has some sort of ritual to finalize the sale – photos, confetti, clapping, and cheers, or ringing a gong. Jason did the latter. He said it was "cathartic." I thought it was too cheesy.
In the end, a 2014 Toyota Avalon XLE Touring became Jason's new ride. It was in the signature deep red that appeared on three out of four Avalons I worked with since 2013, along with Almond leather upholstery. Though there are more features Jason had not experienced before in any car he owned before, he started to warm up to the idea of blind spot monitoring, a touchscreen audio system, Bluetooth connectivity…among a few others.
What Jason loved is the performance of Toyota's superb 3.5-liter V6 – still as strong as it was new. He also loved the ride quality on the Avalon, something I pointed out in my reviews of this generation of the car. What Jason discovered is more than just a return of a car he once owned during my time knowing him – a last-generation Buick LeSabre. I will argue that the Avalon is much better than his former LeSabre.
Incidentally, the Avalon has a name. Jason has called it Ken. It means "sword" in Japanese. Let's go with that…
As for his Mystique, he donated it to Wisconsin Public Radio. It was something his mother would be proud of.
This car buying experience with Jason yielded a few more thoughts about how to deal with getting the deal and taking delivery of a new or pre-owned vehicle. What could I impart through this experience?
First of all, do your homework. Jason and I did our part to find the right set of vehicles to look at, though other opinions and real testing. Look at IIHS and the NHTSA for crash-test data, read ratings from Consumer Reports, Consumer Guide, and other consumer-focused outlets. Read reviews from publications you can trust – V&R included. Have a list of vehicles you are interested before you start looking.
Next, look at inventories through larger shopping websites and local dealerships. That is what Jason and I did – going through local and regional dealerships, as well as Cars.com. Why Cars.com? They happen to have better listings throughout the Midwest and nationwide. CarSoup, Edmunds, and AutoTrader are also full of good listings, too.
The toughest thing to do is to work with a salesperson you do not know. Not everyone knows a salesperson at a dealership or a reputation of a particular dealer. If someone knows someone at a dealership – follow that trail and start a conversation. As for dealerships, use ratings to help you pick the right place to make your transaction. You can find these ratings on Facebook, Yelp, and Google for the most part. Read reviews of the dealerships, too.
Here is something I will impart to you – sales volume is one thing; customer satisfaction is another. If they are high in volume, one would suspect that some transactions might not go as well as they would be expected to. The ratings and reviews come into play. Customer satisfaction is what you need because you expect your purchasing experience to be smooth, engaging, and extremely positive from the first greeting on the lot to the final delivery step.
All photos by Randy Stern