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NEW WAY TO BUY A USED CAR

We cruise CarMax, AutoNation USA, a dealership, and the Internet in search of a great deal.
By Dave Sorter |

AT LEAST ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE SEEMED to heed George Bush the elder’s call nine years ago for ’’a kinder, gentler nation.” But who would have thought it would have been used-car salesmen? Believe it or not, the experience of buying a used car has come a long way from the days when slick-looking hustlers with shifty eyes made you feel completely clueless if you didn’t act right now to buy that super bargain that was owned by a sweet little old lady who drove it only to synagogue on Friday nights.

Partly because used-car dealers’ credibility was just lower than that of personal-injury lawyers and just above thatof supermarket tabloid reporters, and partly because of the new popularity of giant, independent, no-haggle “category killers” such as AutoNation USA and CarMax, the high-pressure sales pitch is a thing of the past.

Just a few years ago, the only ways to buy a used car were through used-car lots and the classified ads. Today, AutoNation and CarMax have become to used-car lots what The Home Depot and Lowe’s are to the corner hardware store. And, if you know what kind of vehicle you want, you can even shop for the best price over the Internet.

To help determine the best way to buy a used car, D Magazine sent me shopping- though not, unfortunately, with the resources to actually buy the vehicle. So, with The Wife and The Toddler in tow and a 1992 Subaru Legacy with 41,000 miles as trade-in bait. I went on a safari for a 1995 four-door Ford Explorer XLT with four-wheel drive, air conditioning, 4.0 liter engine, anti-lock brakes, an AM/FM/cassette sound system, and power locks, windows, steering, and mirrors.

Of course, with used cars, getting exactly what you want can be a crapshoot. North Central Ford in Richardson, for example, had no 1995 Explorers, but it had an abundance of ’96s. AutoNation USAinLewisvillehadafew’95s but no ’96s. The differences in the two models are negligible, but the newer version is typically about $2,000 more-though you get lower mileage and more protection under the original manufacturer’s warranty.

That’s right. The three-year, 36,000-mile warranty that came with the vehicle when it was sold new stays with the car until it reaches that three years or 36,000 miles. The question is, is it worth $2,000 to get that additional protection and a year’s longer life? I went searching for the answer to this and other questions.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

AutoNation USA: Help! I Need Somebody

ARRIVING AT THE AUTONATION USA OUT-let on Stemmons Freeway near Vista Ridge Mall in Lewisville, I feel as if I’m going to a game at The Ballpark in Arlington: Nothing but parking lot as far as the eye can see, except… wait.. .yeah.. .there in the distance is the edifice itself.

Unlike The Ballpark, however, you can park right next to the entrance. And when you enter the building, you are not immediately accosted by a salesperson. In fact, a couple of receptionists point me to one of two kiosks that feature touch-screen computer terminals on three sides and a printer on the fourth.

When I see ’The Café” and a children’s play center (which they claim is supervised but wasn’t the day we were there), 1 wonder if I haven’t stumbled into Incredible Universe instead of a used-car lot. The building is just as big and it’s just as easy to get lost. The showroom has numerous examples of vehicles for sale, an accessories shop, kiosks with computers for applying for credit and closing deals–and no visible sign of salesmen.

The Wife and The Toddler go to scope out the play center, while I play with the touch screen. I select the introduction to AutoNation, which features a couple cutely discussing AutoNation’s no-haggle sales, warranty policies (99 days on everything in the car and one year of roadside assistance). financing options (access to several banks with approval in as soon as 15 minutes), trade-in value (supposedly independent of the purchase), and the like.

From there, I start shopping for SUVs. I choose Ford, then Explorer, and six vehicles pop up on the screen, ranging from 1992s to one 1995. The 1995 is exactly what I’m looking for. It has 45,034 miles on it and is priced at $ 19,695-and I get a choice of a security system, a six-disc CD changer, or one of two accessory packages if I buy before a certain data. I print out the information, which tells Where on the massive lot the vehicle is located. I go to the playroom and tell The Wife and The Toddler we’re ready.

The receptionist flags down salesman Wes Hart, who puts us into a golf cart and drives us to the vehicle, which seems so far away, I Wonder if it’s still in Denton County. Wes demonstrates the fold-down seats and the hatchback and lets us all sit inside. But h? doesn’t pop open the hood.

Wes know ledgeably answers our questions about the remaining life of the vehicle, financing, warranty, and other matters. He tells me that AutoNation does a 165-point inspection and reconditioning process and that the car should last 150,000 to 160,000 miles-probably 10 years. One thing the cars don’t get is regular baths. I’m tempted to write my name in the dust covering the Explorer.

The Wife asks several questions, and Wes addresses her directly-unlike the stereotypical salesman who might be condescending to women.

He does, however, misread me. After demonstrating that I have done my homework and have determined that I want an Explorer, he responds to my statement that I’m going to shop around by saying, “Well, I’m not sure you know what you want.”

A few days later, I come back for a test drive-having forgotten to bring the spare child seat with me the first time. Wes isn’t there, so I’m hooked up with Jason Dorsey. Poor Jason can’t find the Explorer (it has moved). But he does find another 1995 Explorer that isn’t listed among the available cars. Apparently, it has just come in. He lets me peek under the hood. We go out on die road and talk about jobs, the growth of Lewisville, and the popularity of Explorers. He asks if I’m ready to make a decision. I tell him we’ll be deciding when we have all our facts together. He seems disappointed.

But the real hassle comes when I try to get my Subaru appraised. He asks me what I’ve been told at other places. I tell him the range. He says, “Well, I’m sure it will be about the same here.” I want to get a solid figure from AutoNation, but Jason doesn’t seem to want to do that unless I’m ready to make a deal right then. “I don’t want to do this appraisal and then you leave and never come back,” he said. “Besides, the appraiser is going to want to know what kind of car you’re looking at.”

Time out. AutoNation’s literature says, “And since this transaction is separate from your vehicle purchase, it is never factored into the price of your vehicle, no matter what you buy.” Then why, Jason, does the appraiser need to know what I’m looking at buying?

Finally, I persuade him to have die car appraised. I answer several questions about the Subaru, and finally, the car is appraised. I’ll get about $7,300 for it.

AutoNation is certainly a godsend for people who know what they want and are knowledgeable enough to do most of the work themselves. You can look with absolutely no pressure. But if you want to go beyond the looking stage, it seems, they want you to be ready to play ball if they’re going to keep working with you.



CarMax:

Used Cars as Stereos

CARMAX SALES CONSULTANT GEORGE Casteleiro-who bears a striking resemblance to George Costanza on “Seinfeld”-says that Circuit City, the owner of CarMax, wasn’t looking for typical car salesmen when it was hiring. George had been in the rental-car business, then in the real estate industry. Many CarMax consultants, in fact, come from Circuit City, the premise being that selling is selling, be it a $2,000 big-screen TV or a $20,000 used car.

CarMax, whose first Dallas-area outlet is in Irving, is a cross between AutoNation and the average dealership. There’s no reception desk here; George greets us as soon as we walk into the door and leads us directly to his office, where the first thing he does is set up an appraisal for my Subaru-without my asking. Before he even inquires about what I want, he inputs the information about my trade-in and electronically shoots it off to the appraiser. No papers to sign, no questions.

The Wife and The Toddler, however, might as well not be here. George seems to get the idea that I am the one making the decisions, so he concentrates on me. After a few minutes, my family leaves me alone to check out CarMax’s play center–which is supervised.

While the appraisers are kicking my tires and my son is kicking the plastic balls, George and I proceed to CarMax’s touch-screen computer. But I can’t play with this one. George has to sign in, but the drill is pretty much the same as Auto-Nation’s. Eight Explorers of various body and vintage appear on the screen- three 1996s and one 1995 among them. The 1995 model has 33,000 miles on it and costs $19,995. No incentives on this one. The 1996 with 26,000 miles is $21,995. George tells me he thinks the warranty protection is worth the extra $2,000.

After we select a couple of vehicles to look at, we walk to the lot-not quite as spacious as AutoNation’s, so we don’t need a golf cart-and see all the Explorers lined up in a row. They, too, need a wash. George opens up the cars and pops open the hoods, remarking how clean the inside looks. He asks me which I’d like to drive, and I choose a 1996 model.

During the test drive, George asks me where else I am looking. When I tell him I had been to AutoNation, he remarks that CarMax is really the more established concept but AutoNation had gotten to North Texas first. My body language tells him that competition-bashing isn’t going to sway my decision.

After the test drive, George tells me about CarMax’s 110-point inspection and reconditioning. So which 55 of Auto-Nation’s points does CarMax not do, and does it make a difference? Charts detailing all the points are prominent inside the stores. He also shows me the service center, which could have been a hospital room. There is none of the grease and grime associated with garages. I wonder if it was that clean or just that new.

I join The Wife and The Toddler in the play area, and George comes in a minute later with the appraisal on my Subaru: $7,350. If I want, he says, they will write me a check for the car right now. Thanks, anyway, George.

Financing is much the same at CarMax as at AutoNation. Answer some simple questions about yourself, your job, your credit, and previous auto-loan history. It will be sent on-line, and you can get an answer within 20 minutes. If you’re rejected, you can reapply manually. It doesn’t take thai much longer.

Except for the anti-AutoNation commercial, there is no pressure whatsoever. When I told George I wasn’t ready to buy, he just shook my hand and said, “I hope to see you soon.”

Some differences between CarMax and AutoNation: The only extra CarMax offers is an extended warranty; there are no accessory shops like those at AutoNation. CarMax’s warranty is for 90 days and is limited to major mechanical and electrical systems and electronic components; AutoNation has a 99-day warranty on everything. AutoNation also has a one-year emergency roadside service plan. CarMax doesn’t.

CarMax and AutoNation provide almost every variety of relatively recent, popular-model used cars imaginable. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything that was made before 1991-returned lease cars and retired rental cars make up a lor of the inventory-and you probably won’t find that dream Alfa Romeo or Aston Martin (though you might uncover a sprinkling of Mercedes).

It would be easy, on first glance, to assume (he two are Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum. Not so. AutoNation is Incredible Universe. CarMax is, well. Circuit City.



North Central Ford: The Old Way

THE WIFE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE TIME TO get The Toddler out of the car seat before Tom Gant approaches us, hand outstretched, ready to greet us warmly. I never see the inside of the used-car shop at North Central Ford in Richardson at Central Expressway and Arapaho Road. But why would I? There are no touch screens here.

Not that Tom needs them. I tell him I am looking for a 1995 Explorer, and he walks me 50 yards to a line of eight SUVs. None are 1995 models, however. There are a couple ’94s and a whole slew of ’96s. And they are pretty clean.

The Explorers are part of a Red Tag Sale, which means the price is etched in stone. Tom says that were the sale not in effect, the price would be $1,000 or so higher, and there would be some haggle room. Then he shows me the sticker.

A 1996 Explorer with 25,000 miles, a V-8 engine, and a six-disk CD changer is $21,895. That’s $ 100 less than CarMax ’s ’96 with similar mileage, a six-cylinder engine, and no CD player. There’s a 30-day warranty and one-year emergency roadside service. But there’s no 165-point reconditioning program. Still, the SUV was serviced by North Central Ford’s garage appropriately for its mileage and it still runs well.

Now, Tom works for a dealership. So it’s in his blood to hype his product. Even though I had told him i had researched Consumer Reports, asked around, and had determined that, yes, the Explorer is the SUV for me, Tom delivers the spiel about how the Explorer outperforms all those other guys’ models. He lets us open all the doors and take as long as we want to look inside, but he doesn’t offer to let us look at the innards.

More than Wes or George, Tom includes The Wife in the conversation, making sure to talk to both of us. And, he makes some funny faces at The Toddler that elicit giggles. At the other places, The Toddler seemed to be more of a distraction.

Don’t bother asking Tom about financing or trade-in value, though. He w^ll be the first to admit that he doesn’t know anything about that stuff. At AutoNation and CarMax, one person takes care of you from start to finish. Here, the salesperson steps aside when it’s time to close the deal.

Tom doesn’t even get behind the wheel for the test drive. I back the Explorer out of the parking space and drive it to the Subaru, where The Wife is ready to install the car seat for The Toddler. That’s different from the superstores, where the salesperson has to start and finish the drive so he can open entry gates with his electronic pass card. Here, you’re just supposed to be careful you don’t hit any of the other cars on the lot. And as we drive, there’s no sales pressure at all. I can’t believe it.

When we return, I ask if I can get my Subaru appraised. Well, not until I start the work to close the deal, Tom says, but he’s sure it will be close to what the National Auto Dealers Association manual and Kelley Blue Book lists. The credit application is too long; I had forgotten that applying for a car loan could be so cumbersome. And I still don’t know how much they’d give me for my car.

But it is interesting to note that a dealership price is competitive with that at the megastores. Could it be that there’s not much difference?



The Internet: Roll on Down the Superhighway

SILLY ME. HERE I AM, LUGGING MYself, The Wife, and The Toddler from Lewisville to Richardson to Irving, asking all sorts of questions and taking my chances on what I’ll find, when I can get a lot of the same information in the comfort of my home.

Of course, once I find the Explorer of my dreams, I may have to travel a far piece to test drive it, not to mention purchase it. The question is: Would you travel 2,000 miles to save $5,000 or more?

In early October, I perused the Explorer offerings on Auto Web, a World Wide Web site () that lists thousands of used cars, their mileage, and their price. Enter up to three makes and models you may be interested in, a price range (optional), and a region (also optional). One region is specifically the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Locally, Doran Chevrolet was offering a 1996 Explorer-the amenities were not specified-with 18,571 miles for $20,988. about $1,000 less than other 1996s. You’d have to request more information to find out what features the vehicle has, but you can do that on-line. At the same time, you can input trade-in information and even schedule test drive. The dealer will get back to you by e-mail. The site even offers links to the various dealers’ web sites, so you can see what else they might have.

You can save even more money if you’re willing to travel. Beach Motors in Huntington Beach, Calif., listed a 1995 Explorer with 60,000 miles for $14,995. High mileage, low price. Peyton-Crawley Lincoln-Mercury in the Los Angeles area had a 1996 Explorer, 23,433 miles, with CD player for $17,995. This vehicle had two-wheel drive and a five-speed manual transmission, however. Ragsdale Chevy-Geo in Spencer, Mass., had a 1996 model with 29,288 miles for $18,995. At AutoNation, Dorsey had told me that cars usually sell cheaper in New England.

If you’re on America Online, the service’s auto classifieds (keyword: auto center) could net you the car you want. A person in Texas was offering a ’96 Explorer with only 8,000 miles for $22,500-and he’d probably come down if you haggled. But, as with any classified-ad purchase, you don’t get a warranty, you can’t buy an extended service plan, and you know the vehicle hasn’t been reconditioned.

Speaking of classifieds, a recent perusal of The Dallas Morning News ads found you could save about $2,000 on ’95 Explorers, priced an average of $17,500 to $18,000, but not much on ’96 Explorers. Plus, you don’t know what you’re getting, and you don’t know why the sellers are so hot to unload the vehicle. In these cases, it’s “buyer beware.”

Just like the stock market, you can take a risk and go for the big value when you ’re buying a used car. Or, you can be led by the hand into a safer investment. The new paradigm of used-car purchasing provides a lot of choices.