The word for car shoppers this fall is TECHNOLOGY. But it may not mean what you think.
By Sarah Lee Marks
In the brave new world of Internet shopping and home delivery, it has never been easier to purchase a car. Or trickier. Whether you are in the market for a new or pre-owned vehicle, doing your homework before hitting submit is critical—from ﬁnding the best deal to getting what you paid for, with no surprises in between. Here are some tips you’re unlikely to ﬁnd elsewhere, in plain English, arranged to form a word with which we’re all familiar: TECHNOLOGY.
T is for Terminology • When choosing features, words matter. Understand the difference between an ALERT or WARNING feature—which indicates pending disaster—and the active KEEPING or ASSIST, which actually performs an action to avoid the wreck. For example, a LANE DEPARTURE alert warns you that your car’s tires are creeping over to the next lane. LANE KEEPING corrects this with a subtle nudge back into the lane. Keep your hands ﬁrmly on the wheel when testing this feature as drivers have complained the sensitivity in the steering wheel can “rip it out of your hands” if you aren’t paying attention.
E is for Emergency Braking • I think this is the best new feature available and here’s why: Sensors in the front grill monitor the trafﬁc ahead to maintain a set distance between your car and the one in front of you. As trafﬁc slows, if you don’t have your foot on the brake in two seconds or less, the vehicle will apply the brakes to slow or stop the car to avoid a front crash. The key to this feature is knowing which models have a feature that slows down the car and which one actually stops it. Neither feature works 100% on wet, leaf-covered or slushy roads, where skidding is only avoidable with defensive wheel maneuvering.
C is for Cash • Should you ﬁnance, lease or pay all cash for your next car? Cash is king everywhere but in a new car dealership. Did you know that dealers make a few extra bucks when you lease or ﬁnance a car? So if you’re buying new and expect a “cash discount,” fuhgeddaboudit.
H is for Help • Just because you are shopping online, it doesn’t mean you are alone. Honest, informative help is out there if you know where to look. Research web sites like IIHS.org and SAFERCAR.gov provide recall, star rankings and “crash avoidance comparison” tables by brand and model. Look for “make and model” forums online to learn what owners are saying about their car experience. Edmunds.com, KBB.com, CarandDriver.com and USNewsandWorldReport.com all offer car reviews with varying perspectives on the drive and functionality of new makes and models. This is a great place to ﬁnd out if the model for 2020 is a complete redesign—and, if so, whether those amazing new features are adding a hefty price increase. Also, be aware that the pre-owned version of your dream car that is magically available with a killer discount could be a known lemon…or, on the other hand, a 2019 closeout with great rebates that may suit your needs perfectly. Speaking of rebates, watch out for “rebate stacking” on dealer websites. This tactic shows an artiﬁcially lower price by counting up rebates that you might not qualify to receive when you show up at the dealership. It’s a nasty trick to get you to the lot. Get a detailed price breakdown to be sure the incentives offered apply to you.
N–O means NO • The idea of buying a car completely online, in the middle of the night while dressed in your pajamas, may look fun and easy on TV, but be prepared to say No if something seems amiss. Check the dealership or sellers’ reviews on Google, Yelp and DealerRater.com. Reviews by previous customers can reveal chilling stories of dirty cars, missing maintenance or accessories upon arrival. A seven-day return policy is usually a return and replace option, not a 100% money-back guarantee. The online companies may offer little assistance or telephone support, and little to no instruction on how to use any of the features. Local dealers aren’t keen on offering free advice for a car you purchased online. So NO also means know who you are the six-year auto loan when searching for a lower payment. Leasing makes sense for those buyers with lease with a score in the 600s but the payment is unlikely to be as attractive as the one advertised on TV.
Inexpensive leases require a huge down payment, have very low mileage limitations and run longer than the typical 36-month term. Among the many advantages of a lease is the option to purchase your vehicle at the end of the contract; with a loan, the car is yours even if your transportation needs change. Also, car-leasing banks have ﬁgured out the sweet spot to make it easy for you to move from an old lease to a new one before the term is up. However, be alert for dealers who claim they can: 1) “pull you out” of your lease with more than four months remaining, 2) lower your payment, and/or get you a newer, fancier ride. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
O is for OnStar • Concierge or SOS services are part of the Bluetooth integration between your cell phone and your new car. If your car has an emergency response system, sensors in the car will connect a satellite transmitter in your vehicle to an emergency operator. The operator will speak to you through the radio speakers to determine the seriousness of the situation. If you can’t speak, the operator will send Emergency responders to the coordinate location of your vehicle. You may also manually activate this process if you are in danger, lost or otherwise need assistance. These services are free during the warranty period of the car when purchased new. If you buy a used car, contact the brand to determine their SOS policy. Additional services you might want to explore include 1) a mobile hotspot, which enables you to utilize your computer while traveling, 2) concierge services, which make reservations at your favorite restaurant and
3) turn-by-turn navigation from a live person—all at a price, of course. Apple Car Play and Android Auto also offer integration for navigation and “SIRI/Hey Google” voice commands through the speaker system assuming you own a compatible phone. Test your phone sync before you buy.
G is for Gas • Don’t be timid about asking whether a car takes regular or premium gasoline. Over its life the difference in cost can add up. However, if you lean toward alternative fuels, be clear about what it is you are shopping for. A hybrid vehicle is gas-powered but uses an electric motor and lithium-ion battery to increase miles per gallon. In some cars, this process is assisted with regenerative braking. When you brake, the energy of the vehicle stopping sends additional energy back to the battery for use on demand. The Toyota Prius is the most well-known model on the road today using this type of hybrid system. The Chevrolet Volt, Audi eTron, Porsche Cayenne and Panamera are parallel hybrids. Parallel hybrids use electric power of various range before switching over to fuel. The combination system reduces “range anxiety”—the concern of running out of power far from a charging station. The cost to your home electric bill is negligible. The Volt was discontinued in 2019, but if you ﬁnd a deal on a new (or almost-new) one, don’t be afraid to buy it. Electric or EV models on the market include Tesla, Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf. They are 100% electric and differ in price largely based on range, which varies from 180 to 300-plus miles per charge. However, if the power goes out in your home, you are stalled until recharged. Tesla uses a unique charging coupler that requires an adapter when charging on non-Tesla charging stations. If you are in the market for an all-electric automobile, look into federal and state legislation involving tax credits and charges applied to EV owners. Not long ago EV purchasers enjoyed a huge tax credit—up to $7,500—but that has disappeared on most models. Many states are grappling with how to tax EV owners who enjoy the roads but pay no fuel tax to maintain them. Ask your accountant if there are any tax credits on the car you like, and monitor your legislature for activities which could cost you in the future.
Y means Why? • When you are test-driving, discussing prices or debating extended service contracts, the most important word you should use is Why? “Why do I need it? Will it keep me safer on the road? Will it save me on insurance costs?” If the answer makes sense to you, then act. If you don’t get a reasonable explanation, hit the brakes and do more research.
Editor’s Note: Sarah Lee Marks is a car concierge and automotive consumer advocate for all things car-related. Sarah lives in Henderson, Nevada with her husband, Norman. You can ask her car questions at her website: www.mycarlady.com.