When a manufacturer shows transparency as Toyota has done recently, consumers can feel good about their loyalty to brands and dealers.  Keeping all this in mind consumers still need to use the power of the internet to gain the knowledge needed to approach their purchasing decision with confidence.  The Boston Globe recently published this article about smart buying in a down economy.  Well written and full of knowledge – enjoy and let us know what you think!

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Recalls add a new twist to buying a car, but a few easy steps can steer you clear of sour deals

By Johnny Diaz, Globe Staff | April 11, 2010

BRAINTREE — Bill Bailot narrowed his new car search down to the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion.

His 2005 Camry has been very reliable, wracking up 122,000 miles, and the two car manufacturers’ latest incentives — zero percent interest for 60 months — are a draw. But the recent Toyota recalls drove Bailot toward the Ford.

“My hesitation and ultimate decision not to go with [Toyota] again is the apprehension I felt over their recently discovered and reported mechanical problems,’’ the Weymouth moving company analyst said after signing the paperwork on his new sedan at Herb Chambers Ford recently.

Buying a car can always rev up some angst. But buyers today have to navigate a choppy sea of car recalls and mea culpas from automakers. In addition to Toyota’s recent recall of 8.5 million vehicles for problems related to unintended acceleration and brake failure, General Motors Corp., Honda Motor Co., and other manufacturers have issued various recalls in recent months. That makes it more difficult for prospective car buyers to avoid getting a defective vehicle, auto analysts say.

Jake Fisher, a senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports magazine, said most cars “undergo a recall in their lifetime,’’ so that doesn’t necessarily mean a model is unsafe. Likewise, he says, “finding a vehicle that has no recalls doesn’t assure you that you are going to have a reliable, safe vehicle.’’

Analysts say that there are several ways consumers can protect themselves from buying a lemon, though. “People don’t realize how easy it is once you know the tools you have to work with,’’ said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for auto research website edmunds.com.

Safety first

There are a number of places for consumers to find safety information about new cars. The websites of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at nhtsa.gov, or the Center for Auto Safety at www.autosafety.org, inform people about recalls, potential defects, and complaints.

Car analysts also suggest buyers do an Internet search to find out what other drivers are saying about a particular car. They say this is sometimes an easier than going through the national federal database, which doesn’t say which complaints might be the result of driver error or a defective car.

“It’s easier to get information from enthusiasts’ message boards where people are talking about a particular brand of cars,’’ said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at edmunds.com. “If you see lots and lots of the same thing, it can rise to the level of a potential problem with the car.’’

Consumers also can find out the number of accidents and previous owners for a used car by supplying the vehicle identification number to Carfax Vehicle History Reports by going to carfax.com, for example. But you’ll have to pay for these background searches. A single report from Carfax costs $35.

Other sites including Edmunds Inc.’s edmunds.com, AAA’s aaa.com, Kelley Blue Book’s kbb.com, and Classified Ventures LLC’s cars.com, give people an idea of what a dealer’s costs are on the car, what other people might be paying for the same model, recent reviews, as well as crash safety test information.

Additionally, concerned car buyers can take a look at a model’s technical service bulletins. These bulletins are what manufacturers issue to dealers when they’ve received a large number of customers complaining about an issue but not enough to warrant a recall. Often, the bulletins include extended warranties or promises to fix the problem if someone shows up at a dealer with a faulty car.

Analysts also suggest buyers read up on the state’s three specific lemon laws, to make sure that they are familiar with their rights when purchasing a car. The state attorney general’s office and the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation provide buyer’s guides under the lemon law section at www.mass.gov/consumer.

On the website, you can also find a sample letter car owners can use to send to dealers when their cars need repairs.

“You can’t buy a car from a dealers as is,’’ said John Paul of AAA Southern New England.

Getting a deal

Paul said that thorough research can only help a shopper get a good deal on a new or used car. Calling various dealerships ahead of time to collect quotes on a specific model for comparison purposes can save you time on showroom visits.

“The more prepared you are and the more information you go in with, the more likely the salesperson will recognize that you are a serious buyer and the more likely that salesperson is going to give you the best price that they can,’’ he said.

But the research doesn’t have to end at home. One car analyst suggests what the “out-the-door’’ price will be once you’re at the dealership, meaning, “How much would the car cost with all the fees included?’’

“What they may do is give you a worksheet where they list all the fees and you can look that over and see if there is anything extra,’’ said Reed of Edmunds.com. “You want to make sure there aren’t any advertising fees and additional preparation fees. What should be charged is sales tax, documentation fees, [registration] fees, and in some cases, some minor environmental fees.’’

Also, some analysts say that buyers should be careful in choosing the color for their new car if they want to save cash. Certain model colors sell faster than others. Blue, silver, and gold are popular right now, according to some analysts. You may be able to save money by buying a car of a color that isn’t as popular.

Additionally, the car’s engine can affect the overall price.

“The bigger the engine and the higher the horsepower, the more the car costs typically,’’ said Mark Ragsdale, a former Massachusetts car dealership owner and current author of “Car Wreck — How You Got Rear-Ended, Run Over, & Crushed by the US Auto Industry.’’ “This may also increase your annual insurance premiums.’’

Other considerations

Shoppers should call their auto insurance company to check whether the model they’re interested in is on a high-theft list because that may increase premiums.

“Insurance costs can be a deal breaker depending on your own driving record and the type of car it is,’’ said AAA’s Paul. “Remember, car insurance can be an expense that you have to deal with on a yearly basis.’’

Experts also suggest scheduling a test drive ahead of time through the dealership’s Web sales department. They are less likely to hound you than the showroom staff once you’re there, say some analysts.

“The only thing you need to do in the dealership is the test drive,’’ said Reed, with edmunds.com.

Reed suggests that car buyers can even do the financing and negotiating ahead of time remotely, via phone or e-mail. This way, he said, “you can avoid one of the worst parts of the car buying process, which is the finance and insurance offices.’’

After you strike a deal, be careful with extended warranties, some analysts say. New cars come with warranties that range anywhere from three years or 36,000 miles to 10 years or 100,000 miles, depending on which the car reaches first.

Optional extended warranties, which vary by model and manufacturer, are lucrative for dealers for both new and used cars, but you don’t have to buy one when you purchase a vehicle.

You may be able to get an extended service contract later on from the manufacturer or through a third-party insurer such as AAA or EasyCare. Prices vary for both manufacturers’ and third-party extended warranties.

Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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