Lifestyle

TCC Tip: Shopping for Hot Cars


More Car Shopping Tips from TCC

Cars can be like people: the popular, good-looking ones are sometimes hard to get. And neither are cheap dates.

In both cases, expect a lot of one-sided negotiation. You pretty much must agree to whatever terms are set out by the object of your desire (or listed on the bottom line of the window sticker).

In automotive terms, the Paris Hiltons of the showroom are, generally, brand-new models with high curb appeal that also happen to be in short supply - and thus high demand. Often, the cars are not even available yet, but pre-production hype has boosted their desirability, and thus what people are willing to pay, to sometimes silly levels.

Dealers can (and do) charge full MSRP sticker price for these sheetmetal prima donnas, sometimes even adding "buyer's premiums" that add thousands in pure fat-fingered profit to the bottom line without batting an eye. Before things settle out, you'll pay top dollar to be trendy or to be among the first in your state to be driving that hot new ride.

And because you're hot for it, it's take it or leave it.

Examples from the recent past include the launch of the Volkswagen New Beetle in the early 1990s, and a few years later, the introduction of the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser. In both cases, dealers were accepting "pre-orders" for these cars at prices that would choke a horse - as much as $30,000 for a New Beetle that today can be haggled down to about $18,000 nicely equipped.

Today, a crescendo of pre-launch buzz is building around the soon-to-be-here 2006 Shelby Cobra Mustang. If you think you'll be able to get one of the first ones for anywhere near the expected $40,000-something sticker price, you probably believe the return of Elvis via UFO live on "Dr. Phil" is a real possibility.

Some other current year (or early '06) models with a high "gotta-have" factor that will make you dig deep include:

Honda Ridgeline: Honda's first-ever truck has a high novelty factor and the initial supply is lagging substantially behind orders and interest. Don't even think about bringing your worksheet with MSRP vs. dealer invoice price. Just bring a big check.

Ford GT: The 200-mph supercar based on the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans race cars of the 1960s is fetching two to three times its six-figure sticker, mainly because of the one-two punch of its ultra-exotic nature combined with a short two-year production run that assures its current and future collectibility.

Toyota Prius: Demand for Toyota's high-tech gas-electric hybrid remains extremely strong, with Toyota unable to keep up with demand. Rising gas prices have only made matters worse. Result? Dealers are charging full ticket on these gas-sipping wonders. At least you'll eventually get back at the pump what you handed over at the dealership. (Demand is also strong for the hybrid version of Ford's Escape compact SUV, though great deals are available on the Honda Civic hybrid, which has remained "off the radar" of buyer interest even though it is an otherwise excellent vehicle.)

Dodge Charger: Huge anticipation surrounds the pending appearance of the reborn muscle car legend, especially high-performance models equipped with the fearsome 5.7-liter HEMI V-8. Expect to pay almost as much for one of these puppies as you would to acquire a classic-era "numbers matching" 383 Super Bee with a Hurst-shifted four-speed.

But there is some good news here. With the exception of exotic/low-production models like the Ford GT, the price of these others will surely drop within a year of their introduction, after the initial "newness factor" has worn off. Next year, for example, the Honda Ridgeline will be just another pickup, and you'll almost certainly be able to take your pick of a dozen or more sitting on your local Honda store's front lot. Ditto the Prius and other hybrids: these cars are becoming mainstream, mass-production vehicles - no longer quirky, low-volume specialty rides you'll have to wait in line for. Supply will catch up with demand and prices will drop accordingly, if you're patient enough to wait a little while.

No matter which of these you might want, it helps to be aware of a few general car-shopping rules:

Avoid shopping for a new convertible in spring. Dealers make the most of spring fever and do their best to charge as much as possible for ragtop that many people are just desperate to get their hands on at the first sign of a break in the winter bleakness. The best time to buy a convertible? In fall, when most people are thinking snow and dealers are anxious to get rid of their "summer inventory."

Avoid shopping for a 4x4 in fall. The same psychology and market forces at work when it comes to convertibles drive the seasonal shift in desirability - and thus prices - of all-weather-capable 4x4 pickups and SUVs, only in reverse. If you need a 4x4, try to shop for one in spring when 4x4 as a selling point is about as interesting as a face cord of oak in July.

Finally, never get emotional about any car. Follow this advice and you'll never overpay. Look at cars as you might a refrigerator, microwave oven or some other consumer product and you'll avoid getting sucked in to a deal you'll regret for the next five or six years - and reminded of it every month when you cut a check for your next payment. Ask yourself how much being trendy or being the first on your block to drive "the latest thing" is really worth to you.

And resist being taken in by the lure of a pretty face.


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