Today: New Wheels Without a Dealership?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 06, 2015

Dear Car Talk:

I haven't owned a car for over 20 years; I don't need one. But my mom fell, broke her hip and had to be moved out of her home and into an independent living situation. Mom can no longer drive, and her old pickup is impossible for her to get in and out of, even as a passenger. And it's not a good choice for city driving anyway. So now I need a car to get my mom around. I have rented 14 different cars, checking for: Can Mom get in and out; do a wheelchair and third passenger fit; is it safe and reliable; and does it get good gas mileage?

I went to several Toyota dealerships and ended up walking out feeling like I needed to be decontaminated, and thinking, "I am not going to give that guy one cent of my money." Any recommendations of cars that meet the above criteria? And do you have any good advice on buying a new car that does not involve having to talk with a dealer? Many thanks for the years of laughter and any advice you have to offer.

-- Heather

Well, your mom's comfort is completely subjective, of course. But I would think a good bet for her would be cars that are in a category called "compact crossovers."

A crossover is a vehicle that's a cross between a car and an SUV. It's a car built on a car chassis, with an SUV body style. So crossovers drive like cars, get better mileage like cars and tend to be safer and more comfortable, like cars. But their seating position is higher off the ground than a car's, though lower than in a truck or SUV. When the seat level of the car is the same as your derriere, that means you don't have to climb up or fall down to get into the car. That's probably what Mom would find easiest. Crossovers also have wagonlike cargo compartments -- for stashing a wheelchair, for instance.

The so-called compact crossovers are just smaller, more economical crossovers. It sounds like economy and maneuverability are priorities for you. So if you haven't looked at vehicles like the Kia Soul, Nissan Rogue, Honda HR-V, Subaru Forester or Buick Encore, just to name a few, those are worth a try. You also might visit the Special Needs Zone of our website, cartalk.com, which has a bunch of resources for people with car-related mobility issues.

In terms of how to buy one, it's hard to completely avoid a dealer when you're buying a new car. But at least do the negotiating on your own turf these days. There are a number of websites that will allow you to research a car, configure it the way you want and then ask several local dealerships for a price, all online. Sites like BestRide.com, cars.com and truecar.com offer some form of that service.

The trick in using those sites is to know pretty much exactly what you want before you start the process, and handle the negotiation by email so you aren't put under pressure. For instance, if you decided you want a blue Nissan Rogue SL with leather seats, you'll be able to send that request to several dealerships. And once they respond, you can tell them you prefer to correspond by email, and ask them for the "out-the-door price" of the exact car you want. Tell them you want to know the amount of the bank check you need to bring with you in order to drive off with the car.

Asking for the complete, final price, including taxes, dealer prep, registration and the little strip of paper that says "Sanitized for your convenience," has several advantages -- not the least of which is that you won't be surprised by additional charges later on. And if you are, you say: "Oh, sorry, I already had the bank make out the check for the amount we agreed on. Do you want to sell me the car, or do you want me to go away?"

But it also allows you to compare apples to apples, so you can see which dealer is really offering you the best price. And then you can choose between the dealerships based on whatever variables are most important to you: price, distance from your house, reputation, the way they handled the negotiation or the reported quality of their waiting room coffee.

If you agree on a total, out-the-door price by email, you won't have to go through the song and dance in the showroom, with the salesman going to ask his manager if he can throw in the embroidered floor mats if you promise to buy the car "today." That pressurized drama is what many people object to when buying a car.

So take your time, figure out what you want, and do as much of it as you can in writing by email. Good luck to you and Mom, Heather.


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