U.S. Markets closed

What to expect when you visit a car dealer

Greg Rasa

For many of us, walking into a car dealership is like stepping into a lion's den just in time for dinner. And yes, at some dealerships, it can be something like that. Most car stores understand that treating you respectfully, negotiating the best discount possible for you and otherwise going the extra mile is how they win you back as a repeat customer and earn your ongoing business in their service department.

Here's a quick rundown of what to expect at a car dealership, and how to keep your wits about you:


PREPARATION IS THE SEPARATION

It'd be nice to think that every car sales person at every dealership has a mastery of their product lineup, each trim level, each option package. Not to mention, they'd be able to divine your needs. In truth, some know their products while others are still learning the trade — or are new to the dealership after moving on from Brand X down the street.

And it would be nice to think all buyers walk in knowing their needs and the limits of what they can reasonably afford. Not knowing those things is a good way to waste time — and spend a lot of money, if you let yourself get upsold into a vehicle you don't need or into a long car loan that costs you many thousands of dollars in interest.

Prepping for a car purchase is like studying for a big test.



So walk in prepared. You'll be more respectful of the dealer's time — and yours — if you know what you want, and even what you're cross-shopping against. You'll seem like a serious buyer.

To do that, you've got this thing called the Internet — nope, it's not just a way to view cat videos and pick fights with strangers. Be sure to read our news and reviews. We drive these cars all the time. And give our brand-new Car Finder tool a try. It might recommend a vehicle you hadn't considered.

Learn about the trim levels and packages. Compare specifications. Check the government's safety ratings and fuel-economy ratings and those of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Run the online pricing tools. You can focus your efforts and even eliminate some choices based on data alone.

Does all that research sound like drudgery? Did you think school homework was drudgery? Prepping for a car purchase is like studying for a big test.


UNDERSTAND HOW PRICING WORKS

In the Internet age, a lot of mystery about car pricing has gone away. Now everyone can now easily look up a car's MSRP and invoice prices, here on Autoblog or in a thousand other places. What you can't always know is how much profit is built into the backend of the invoice price. Though you can also look up the traditional "holdback" amount to the dealer (typically around 2 or 3 percent of a car's invoice price or MSRP), that's not entirely useful because holdback simply isn't a negotiable. There are other hidden aspects such as manufacturer-to-dealer sales incentives meant to move a particular car model in a particular month. Meanwhile, many sites, again including Autoblog, track customer-facing incentives and rebates, and a dealer will level with you about those and use them as a selling point.

It's fair to assume that car dealers, like casinos, are not in the habit of losing money.



Online tools can help you triangulate the current fair price or going rate for the car you want. And car-pricing or -buying services such as Consumer Reports, the Costco Auto Program or those available on our own site can take a ton of hassle out of the entire process. Likewise, the web is bristling with tools and advice for figuring out the complexities of leasing — a process with its own special mysteries.

You simply can't know the full extent of the profit the store will realize. And however diligently you negotiate, it's fair to assume that car dealers, like casinos, are not in the habit of losing money. Meanwhile, it's also fair that you not begrudge them making a reasonable profit, like any other business. But walk in with enough information to negotiate the best price you can.

One piece of the money picture that's totally under your control is the financing. Never, never, never negotiate a car deal based on the monthly payment, a common tactic of many dealerships. Signing up for "a payment I can afford" can saddle you with a loan that's 6, 7, 8 years long — and soon you're underwater, your debt far beyond the worth of the depreciated car. We'll discuss this in a later story about negotiating a deal, but it's a point to be made early and often.


DO SOME DEALER RECON

You've researched the car and price. Now research the dealers. As with any business, a car dealership's tone gets set at the top and pervades the operation. If customers have had repeated bad experiences — or repeated good ones — with a dealer, you'll probably get a sense of it from online reviews. Doesn't mean you can't get negotiate a good deal with an unctuous operation if you've done your research and know what you're walking into. Finding the right dealer is one of the great things about the Costco Auto Program — participating dealers have agreed to a set of standards regarding how they treat customers.

Oh, and pick a dealer close to home. Yes, you can drive 50 miles for a "country deal" and then get your warranty work done down the street. But ideally, the guy down the street will work with you on a solid deal. In the long run it'll all be more convenient, and perhaps you'll have more consideration in service visits, and the perks some dealers offer like roadside assistance or free car washes.


REACHING OUT

Your initial contact with a dealership can, and maybe should, be online. Most dealers' websites have ways to contact a salesman or an "Internet manager." Providing your email address and phone number is probably mandatory, but if the dealership is responsive on email, try to carry out your inquiries there regarding the car and equipment you're looking for, their inventory and so forth. That way you have a record of what was discussed.

You can set an appointment for a test drive online. You can even ultimately negotiate the purchase price online. It's a lot less stressful and more efficient. Most dealers will work with you this way. Those that insist on having you come in might be keen on the hard sell. Though of course no dealer can price your trade-in without actually seeing it.


WALKING IN

When you go to the dealership at long last, it won't take long for someone to engage you. If you've been working with someone online, be sure to ask for him or her. You're that person's customer.

The salesperson will eventually want your contact information. Hey, he's not trying to steal your identity, he just wants to follow up with you, like any good salesman would. (But you'll be surprised how many actually don't.) He or she is there to show you cars, answer questions, and ultimately take you on a test drive. The better prepared you are, the better your questions — and, we hope, the better the answers you'll get.

Unfortunately, at many dealerships you find yourselves standing around for long stretches while keys are fetched, cars are located, or questions are relayed between salesmen and managers. Budget plenty of time.


SADDLE UP

For the drive, the salesperson will copy your license information. (And the dealer may well scan your license to determine if you have a clean driving record.) You'll undoubtedly fill out a form. And then you'll hit the streets. We have a whole separate story on the importance of a test drive. Some dealerships will let you drive off by yourself if you've sufficiently earned their trust — say, if you're a repeat customer. But typically the salesperson will ride along. It's a double-edged sword. The good ones will answer your questions but otherwise let you focus on the car. But often their conversation is a distraction.

Some dealerships have no qualms about letting you drive it to your house to see how it fits in your skinny garage, or to show the spouse. It isn't completely unheard of to let a customer keep a car overnight, but that might be pushing it — besides, think about just how obligated you want to feel to these guys, right?

With the test drive come the answers to all the questions your web research couldn't address. You might even want to bring along the following checklist.


THE TEST DRIVE

Before or after the drive, consider these details so you don't have to think about them during the drive itself:

  • Is the car easy to enter and exit?
  • Can you move seat and wheel into a comfortable driving position? Can you get a good view from the sideview mirrors?
  • Is the legroom and headroom good for you, or will you feel cramped over time?
  • How will the seat feel after a few hours? Is it supportive and bolstered?
  • When you've positioned the driver's seat, get out and go sit behind it. If you carry backseat passengers, especially adults, will they be comfortable?
  • Is the visibility good, or are there blind spots?
  • Do the infotainment and other controls work dependably and intuitively? Does it have a good user interface you can "just figure out"? Or will it require a deep dive in the owner's manual?
  • Consider technical details, like the image you see in the backup camera. Is it clear in all conditions, even low light, or is it blurry or grainy? Or the navigation: How detailed is the map? Does it have appropriate details for features or list street names at various zoom levels? Again, is the method for entering the address apparent, or a user interface that will be crazy-making to live with?


On the road:

  • Sales people often suggest a brief, standard route they use all the time. (Part of that is for expediency, and part of it is for personal safety. I once took a test drive with a saleswoman who had been kidnapped at gunpoint. She now keeps to a predetermined route so her colleagues know exactly when to expect her back.) But if you can, try to drive the car as long as you're able, say 30 minutes.
  • Does the car accelerate briskly, say, for passing? Does the transmission downshift smartly to help? Does the car accelerate powerfully and shift smoothly pulling a step hill?
  • Are the brakes ready and responsive, or too touchy/grabby or mushy? (Do understand that regenerative brakes on a hybrid or EV have a feel all their own that takes some getting used to.)
  • Is the steering hydraulically or electrically assisted? Is it responsive and precise? Can you get feedback about the road through the wheel, or is it numb? Is it appropriately light or heavy enough for a given speed?
  • How does the car ride? Too stiff? Too soft? Jittery? The suspension should feel tight and controlled over rough pavement.
  • Is the cabin quiet at all speeds? Turn off the radio, close the windows, turn off the cabin fan. Is there obtrusive engine noise? Tire noise? Wind noise? Squeaks and rattles? (Pro tip: You can download an app that will take decibel readings for comparison among cars.)
  • Does driver-assistance technology like blind-spot sensing, cross-traffic alerts or lane-keeping work well?


AFTER THE DRIVE

This is the point at which some salespeople would like to sit you right down, asking the age-old question, "What can we do to get you into this car today?"

But unless you've eliminated competitors from consideration, are certain this is the car you want, and walked in with your checkbook, now is not the time to negotiate — it's the time to run down the street and jump directly into a competing model for a head-to-head comparison, while your driving impressions are still fresh.

So give the dealership your contact info. Take, and keep, the salesperson's business card. And move on. If there's a "great deal" to be had today, it'll still be available a week from now. (We'll tackle the negotiating process in a future article.)

Final note: Take notes. If you drive car models back to back, it's easy to get confused. Jot down your impressions before moving on to the next dealership.