I'd hoped with the rise of the internet that buying a car would prove to be a fairly democratized process. I had envisioned a stress-free process where I would tell a bunch of local dealers what car we wanted, and with what extras, and they would come back with a price. Then I'd see if anyone would beat that price. Then I'd buy the car. Pretty simple, right?
Well...mostly. It turns out that there's still plenty of chicanery, incompetence, and outright lying perpretated by the sleaziest of occupations: the car salesman.
I did my homework. Once we had test-driven and selected our vehicle, a 2008 Toyota Highlander 4x4 Sport (with leather, satellite radio, and a nav system), I went to CarsDirect.com to see what the MSRP and Invoice prices were. I went to CarBuyingTips.com to read up on what I should expect from the salesmen in terms of shenanigans and bogus add-ons.
I had in my mind a target price, but I was interested in seeing what the dealers out there would offer me. CarsDirect and Edmunds.com (among others) have nice, if clunky, referral systems in place that send my info and desired vehicle to various local dealers. I ended up sending out messages to more than a dozen local Toyota dealers.
Most of them responded instantly, some with "we didn't read your referral, but I hear you want a car", and some with "I see you want a Highlander, let's see about putting one together for you." I sent them all a form message stating what I wanted and giving a color preference (Salsa Red and Magnetic Grey were our favorites, but so long as it wasn't Black, White, or Champagne, we were fine with it).
The initial call for offers went fairly smoothly, although the range in prices were fairly staggering. We had a statistical median at the low end of the cost spectrum, but there were some offers that were as much as $5000 more than the median. When I wrote back the expensive outliers and told them how out of line with reality they were, most of them said something to the extent of "call me when you want to deal with a reputable dealer." I hope they're not waiting.
We also tried to go through CostCo's fleet dealer (Jim Coleman Toyota), but they told me one thing on the phone ($500 under invoice), and another thing once I was in the store ($500 over invoice).
So then we iterated. I told everyone (save the lowest price) what our lowest price was, and asked they like to match or beat it. Most did, or indicated that the car they were trying to sell me had features that made it worth a few extra bucks. I got the offers in, picked the best deal, and made the call to buy our new car.
That's when things went south.
I ended up selecting the dealer who had been the most responsive, and seemed to be offering an excellent, if not the best price. This offer came from Castle Toyota in Baltimore. The sales rep was very nice and was very responsive over email. She also made an offer to me for a car that didn't exist.
So I went to offer two: the lowest price we were quoted, from Beltway Toyota in Marlow Heights. The car, he said, had been sold. Que sera sera.
Offer three. Antwerpen Toyota in Clarksville, was very close to a couple of other prices. I called Antwerpen up to say that, since they were the closest dealership to my office, I was leaning towards them. To close the deal, they offered me free installation of the Sirius radio system (Toyota charges a ludicrous $200 for the service). That was enough to seal the deal, so I made a deposit on the car. My mistake was not getting that last $200 discount in writing.
When I showed up there 3 days later to pick up the car, they wouldn't honor the $200 discount. I never spoke to the sales manager who offered it to me again. I declined to do business with them. This really seemed stupid on their part, since I would be likely to do all of my service and maintenance with them, but their sales staff and maintenance people don't seem to be on the same page insofar as maximizing profits. I guess Jack Antwerpen will have to deal with that. The salesman was PISSED.
Fortunately, four was a charm. While we were in LA for Thanksgiving, Russel Toyota in Catonsville came through with an offer $7 less than Antwerpen's bogus discounted price. We got a great car at a great price.
Would I recommend Russel to someone else? Sure, but even so, do your homework. Drop me a line if you want to know the name of our salesman.