Looking up in a Nissan cube
Or, How to Buy a Car These Days
By Brian Kennedy, PhD
There is no magic to buying a car. It’s a job, just like what you do to feed your family, and you’ve got to go about it systematically to get a good deal. But knowing a few tricks in the modern way of doing things will help you avoid the dreaded car-sales encounter and make you confident that you’re getting what you want for the best buck.
Let’s start with the assumption that you wouldn’t buy anything you weren’t crazy about, no matter what the price. So your first step is to go to the dealerships and eyeball the goods, drive the cars, and try to plug your ears when they start backing you into a corner to “make a deal today.”
We began our quest for wheels with the idea that the MINI Clubman would be divine. And when we saw the special edition called the “Laurel Sport” online, the deal was sealed. I looked around on cars.com, noticed that only a couple of these models were available in SoCal, and sent an internet inquiry to Crevier MINI. Back and forth a few days, and they had come to a really screaming deal. No pressure. Very professional.
Clubman interior (with options)
But we’d never driven one. So off we went on a Saturday evening to the MINI store in Monrovia, because it’s nearby. There we were taken care of by a well-trained young salesman (he was male) who answered all our questions, some repeated more than once as we went from car to car and tried to keep the models straight (they didn’t have the Laurel in stock). We got in the full-boat Cooper Works Clubman S, ready to go around the block. And the first impression, before we started it up—wah wah wah—this is not our dream car.
Driving it was good. The car is fast and tight. But some of the finish inside seemed like way less than a thirty-plus thousand dollar machine. How disappointing. But that’s a subjective opinion, and I’d have no problem recommending that a friend deal with the sales staff at Monrovia, or try to make a deal there or at Crevier. It wasn’t them. This just wasn’t the car for us. (Editor’s note: The new MINI, due out in September, gets an upgrade to the interior, replacing the silver-painted plastic pieces with a piano black finish.)
Nissan cube Krom
We batted around a few more ideas, and then realized that the Nissan cube (small c) might be the one. It’s got lots of airbags, looks great (totally subjective opinion—one of my favorite mags had a piece in it a couple of months ago where the writer said this was a study in ugly, this car. The worst ever. And that includes the Aztek), and even the fully loaded one, which has lots of goodies, is about twenty-one grand sticker price.
I looked at the Carsdirect.com price so I knew what we could use as a possible best-case scenario. We went to a dealer and looked at the car, I drove it, and we got the brochure.
We worked out some numbers with a salesperson at this SoCal dealership (sorry, can’t get more specific than that). It was a relatively low-pressure thing, and he did offer us a good deal, including the whole “show you the invoice” stuff. We did have to tell him a few times that we weren’t paying a grand for the “environmental package,” which “all of our cars have.” Thanks. I can put a paint protector on for about ten bucks. It’s called Mother’s California Gold car wax. He finally gave that up, and we had a deal, slightly better than the Carsdirect.com price.
Note here that the truth was we thought we had a deal. More on that later. And please, if you’re thinking of buying, do try Carsdirect. They have a no-pressure sales approach, and they name their price up front. It’s usually better than you’ll find at a dealer, and they get you the exact stuff you want on the car. It may be that in this case, the Nissan people are desperate to sell and so are in cut/cut/cut price mode. Other cars I looked at in the dreaming phase, including the BMW 135i, were definitely well-priced at this internet buying service, and I would always start there as a base point.
Back to the Nissan experience. We told the salesperson that we’d be back the next day. The problem was, the color we wanted was not available at this dealership, but he assured us that his sister store had one. (You smell a rat, right?)
VOLKSWAGEN GTI AND TIGUAN
Just for kicks, the next day we headed out to a VW dealer. Again, got a really knowledgeable and patient salesman, test-drove two different models. It was a little off-putting that every car on the lot, EVERY ONE, had a sticker beside the official window MSRP that had “additional dealer markup” on it. From two to three grand in most cases.
I ignored this and talked price with him as if we were starting at sticker and going down from there. He was noncommittal, only saying, “the easiest part of my job is the price.” OK.
We finally settled on two possible candidates, a GTi or a Tiguan. I know, completely different, but each had a separate appeal. The only thing was, they had neither car in the exact mix of features we wanted—with the GTi, they didn’t have one with leather. With the other, they didn’t have the model we wanted with a sunroof. So we went inside, and we wrote up the spec sheet, asking him to find and price each of the models configured just like we wanted it.
“Which of the cars do you want?” he asked. Well, we didn’t know. We had to see what each would cost, do the value equation thing in our heads. He tried to close us a couple of times, asking if we’d take one of the cars he had if the price was right today. But then he wouldn’t name the price.
I learned a long time ago that if you name a price or payment first, you’re dead meat. But he wasn’t budging either. The Internet Manager came over, really friendly like, and told us that he would be running ads on the weekend, and the demand would shoot up, so we’d be better to buy now.
OK, so let’s review. Auto sales are down about 30 percent from what they were a couple of years ago. The whole morning we were there, nobody else came into the dealership. The prices are all inflated, with every car on the lot sporting an additional markup sticker. And suddenly, if we don’t buy now, we’re not going to get a car. So we should buy one that we really don’t want, or at least, one that’s not ideal.
No thanks. Get us prices on the cars we’d spec’d, and we’ll talk. Bye bye.
Now, this was actually a good experience. The sales guy was really knowledgeable about his product, and the whole thing was conducted at low key. But you’ve gotta do what the customer wants, and they weren’t really keen to go there.
BACK TO THE CUBE
We went back to the Nissan dealer. Gaby had not driven the car the day before, and it’s going to be hers primarily, so she needed to take a spin. As soon as we’d gone a block, I could see the shine in her eyes. It was going to be a cube. I like the little bugger too, so that’s great.
Only problem was that our salesman was on his day off. So one of his colleagues tried to steal the deal. Wanted to sit down and talk numbers. We told him we’d already gone through that with the other guy. We talked with the manager and told him all of this, and said if he could get the car in the color we wanted, we’d buy tomorrow.
Then the stories got shifty. “I can’t bring that car here unless you put down a deposit.” (But the other guy said you could.) Then it was, “And if you put down the money and don’t take the car, you don’t get the money back. It’s a transportation fee.”
Well, the other guy said the car was in the local storage lot. He’d also said it was at the other dealership they run, so we didn’t really know what the truth was.
I told sales manager man that he needed to simply get the car, we’d get the money, and we’d follow through on the deal the salesman had made us. He came back with some other stuff, and we just said we’d be back the next day.
The next day, I called, and got my salesman. We went over the numbers again, fair deal all around etc. “Please hold on a minute,” he said.
He came back a few minutes later. “That car’s sold. They sold it at the other dealership.” But you said it was at your storage lot?
“OK, then could you get me one, dealer trade?” I asked. He wasn’t terribly keen on doing that unless we wrote up the contract.
“I got in trouble for getting a car from somewhere else last week.” The customer hadn’t bought the car. Fair enough. I’m sure you get sick of dealing with general public jerks all day.
I told him if he could assure me that he could get the car, I’d come by the next day and sign the contract, and then we’d finish the deal in the afternoon after Gaby got home from work. “Sure, I’ll work on it. I’ll call you at ten.”
Of course he never called.
So to sum up to date: three dealerships, three salespeople. All three quite familiar with their products. All three obviously trying to close a deal, but nice about it. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, the old smarminess comes out.
That’s when the light went on. I decided to forget the BS, find the car myself at a local dealer by looking at inventories online, and make the deal over the phone.
The next morning, I found two cubes just like we wanted at dealers about fifty miles apart. Called one, and he made me a preliminary offer, slightly better than the deal I’d had as a walk-in. Called the other, and their price was immediately better than that. And no, I didn’t tell them what the number was that they had to beat.
This, by the way, was the Nissan dealer in downtown LA.
I asked some questions, got all the numbers straight, and told Mia, our saleswoman, that I’d come by in the afternoon, drive the car around the block, and buy it. In the meantime, could she please send an email that spelled out all the details, and please, don’t try to sell me an environmental package I don’t want when I get there. She didn’t seem like she would.
When I got back from the dentist an hour later (routine checkup, thanks for asking), I had the email. All the details were precisely like she’d promised. Woo hoo! We were getting a cube.
I called to arrange a time to pick up the car, and she said that there was one slight problem. Oh and I trusted you so! It wasn’t that. The deal was good. But Nissan had to answer a safety recall on the car, and they’d told all their dealerships not to release the cube until they could do it. The part, a minor thing, would be there maybe in a couple of weeks.
What? I tried to persuade her to let me buy the car, and she went away from the phone to check. Nope. The company is being super-careful after the Toyota debacle, and they would rather wait and get it right.
Of course, I was afraid that by the time the part came and was installed, the car would be sold to someone else. Or that the deal wouldn’t hold any longer. Could she, I asked, send me an email telling me that the offer would be good until the middle of next month (the latest time, they hoped, that the car would be roadworthy), and would she put the car aside for me with my name on it?
She would. And she even offered to take a picture of it and send it to me. I got the photo about an hour later. It was like we were adopting a baby from another country but just couldn’t see her or him yet. We were in love. But the waiting was going to kill us.
Again, let’s review. Here we have a courteous saleswoman who does everything she says she will do. Then she goes a further step. She is empowered to make a decent deal without the BS of running back and forth to the manager for clearance. And the whole thing takes about half an hour on the phone and by email. This was also the experience of my friend Tim, who bought a VW a few years ago. All negotiations done on email. (No, not with the same dealership we were working with). And all he had to do was get the money, go to the dealer, and grab the car. Super smooth.
This, my friends, is the way to buy a car. You just have to know what you want, and have done your research on price. Then do the internet salesperson thing.
But note to car salespeople—this is also the way to sell a car. Not by double-dealing, changing your story, pushing product the customer doesn’t want, and finking out of the deal you made when it’s not exactly to your liking anymore. People are just not that stupid these days. OK, maybe some are, but they’re probably the exception. The rest of us want a fair deal, in writing, no crap, and fast. And the person who can deliver that is going to make a lot of sales. The rest, well, it’s no wonder that the turnover rate in the biz is so high.
Before we go on about the cube, note that on that internet sales method, Crevier’s internet guy had worked out a killer deal after a couple of back and forth go-rounds. It just wasn’t, in the end, the right car. But I would buy from him in a heartbeat, too.
Of course, you’ll still have to visit the dealerships, but our experience suggests that until you get to the “let’s make the deal today” conversation, things will be easy. Just resist the sales pressure and get out of there, then get home and onto your computer.
Now, the end of this story is that we get the cube, we love it, and we live happily ever after. But that hasn’t happened yet. When it does, we’ll unveil part two of the tale, and hopefully there will be no surprises that will make me lose faith.
In the meantime, I am sure Mia is taking care of our bitter chocolate cube Krom edition until we can take it home. And I think that early next week, we’re going to make a visit, just to get acquainted. With the cube. And with Mia.
cube Krom sunglass holder
Brian Kennedy writes about cars as a member of the Motor Press Guild. He’s also a hockey guy, and his two books are Growing Up Hockey and Living the Hockey Dream, both available on Amazon and at bookstores.