How to Spend Money Wisely » Shopping

Test driving for a bargain

Last week I wrote about how we went to the bank to get a car loan. As one of you mentioned, perhaps we did that a little prematurely, as apparently we needed to get a bill of the sale first (who knew..?). So this weekend we decided to take another step in the direction of purchasing a vehicle by going and test driving a few cars. Our top choice for a vehicle is the Nissan Versa, but we want to compare it to a few other vehicles first. So we went to a local Auto Mall, where there are about 7 or 8 different dealerships all within a short walking distance. We bused to the auto mall, and started walking around, not really knowing what we needed to do. We figured it out pretty quickly.

Like most new, inexperienced car buyers, we were approached by a car salesman seconds after our feet touched the pavement of his lot. “Hi, is there anything I can help you with”. And with that, we were off. He happened to have a used Versa on his lot, the exact car that we’ve been looking for, so we asked him if we could hop in and take a look at the interior. He was more than happy to let us and told us all the features of the car. We sat in the front, in the back, popped the trunk, and just noted everything that we liked and didn’t like. One odd thing about this vehicle was that there were the cables for satellite radio just sticking out of the dash. It was obviously an aftermarket addition that the previous owner had added, which slightly turned us off. We were just about to ask if we could test drive it when the salesman closed up the vehicle, handed us a card, and told us to come back if we wanted to take it out for a spin. It was a little weird, so we left.

The next dealership also had a salesman approach us, allow us to look at some vehicles (the Yaris, and The Matrix), and handed us a card as well. The third dealership was the best. We got on the lot (a Nissan dealership), we asked if they had any used Versas (to which they said they were just selling their last one). So instead, he just handed the keys to a new Versa and told to come back in about an hour. They never took our driver’s license, credit card info, or anything. Just the key and a “come back later”. This was our first test drive, and was quite fun! We drove it through crowded streets, up onto the highway, and around some residential areas. It handled admirably and felt comfortable the whole time. We got back to the dealership, thanked them for their time, and told them to let us know if any used Versas came into their dealership.

The next dealership we went to also let us take a test drive, but only after they took everything but our fingerprints from us. This time we drove a Honda Fit, doing the same drive as we did before. In comparison to the Versa, it was a lot more “fun” to drive, as it had a fair bit better acceleration and handling. It didn’t feel like a “family” vehicle. Like my wife told me later, it would be the best car in class if she were single, but because this is going to be a family vehicle, it just didn’t seem to feel right. We also asked the saleswoman to let us know if any used Versas (or older Fits) came onto the lot and took off.

Finally, just before we were done for the day, we decided to try one more Versa, but with a different transmission. We went back to the same dealership we went to first and got someone to go out with us on a test drive. It drove very similarly to the first one, but with the CVT transmission, it was just a little bit more smooth. Very nice to drive.

Looking back, there are a few things that I would do differently. First, I would do more test drives. One of the best things that we did was test drive three vehicles in a short amount of time, as we were able to compare the differences between the vehicles. If I did it again, I would add the Yaris and probably the Matrix to the list of vehicles to drive just so that I can get a good sense of the differences between the vehicles.

Second, I would be a little more prepared. I am fairly well researched on the Versa, but because I was just interested in the other vehicles as comparisons, I didn’t feel as comfortable or confident talking with the salesmen on the other lots. When we mentioned we were interested in the Versa, the dealers were very quick to compare it to the Fit, or the Yaris, and how much better it would be for the price difference, which, depending on the dealer, is either vast or tiny. I didn’t really know what the local prices for a used Fit or Yaris would be, so I didn’t feel comfortable arguing with them.

All in all, the test drive was a very important part of buying a car. It is part of the process of purchasing a vehicle and can help you save tons of money by making sure you don’t make the wrong decision.

The next major step is to actually find a vehicle that we want to buy. We found a couple at the dealerships, but obviously their choice is quite limited. We’ve also looked on craigslist for a car, but the ones that are priced the best have been in accidents, or the seller seems sketchy, and it just doesn’t seem as safe as going through a dealership. One option that we haven’t tried yet is emailing every dealership in the area for a Versa and seeing which one gives us the best price. How would you recommend we find the vehicle we want? How did you find yours? Any advice for future test drives?


  1. Aaron @ Clarifinancial

    We were in a similar boat about a year ago or so. The Yaris felt nervous at highway speeds – safe but don’t sneeze or you’ll veer off the road. The Matrix has good performance and it’s the one we went with. It feels bigger than its size, but the suspension is not as responsive as the Mazda’s I’m used to. But it was for my wife, not me.

    I look forward to the exiting conclusion.

  2. Four Pillars

    Interesting description of your experience. For my last couple of car buys I found the occasional place would ask me to come back later for a test drive. Not a chance in hell.

    If I go to the dealership to look at a car then I want a test drive. One guy told me he had to move a bunch of cars to free up the one I wanted to try and he didn’t feel like doing it. 🙂

    Most places are good though with test drives.

  3. Car Negotiation Coach

    Hey Alan, It sounds like you’ve taken the right steps for test driving so far. No way to avoid getting a good feel for a car before you buy. However, once you figure out the exact make/model/trim/options you want, you’ll have a much easier time finding one in stock if you get quotes from multiple dealers at once. Then your best bet to get a good price is to negotiate over email.

    I try not to self-promote on other’s blogs, but I really think it will be helpful for you so I’ll mention that I do have email templates you can use in the “Negotiate” section of my site if you want to check them out.

  4. Ray

    I bought 2004 rx330 suv on kijiji in 2008 online. But opted for new Matrix last winter, as their discount was good, plus 0% finance for 3 years worked great. I think they are doing 5 yrs 0% which works out to be thousands in saving. I know you have mentioned loans at banks, if you can qualify for those, you can probably qualify for the Car corp. finance. I find those finance are far better than car loans.

    Knowing some used car dealer friends, they just buy bulk from car auctions. That’s where new car dealers has too many returns and auction them back to used car dealers. That’s why you have fairly small selections when you visit new car dealers. They keep small to none inventory for lease returns or trade-ins. Knowing that, you have to understanding the dealer (new or used) will probably charge you an avg of $1000~$3000 extra over what they buy at bulk price. You also pay extra tax with dealers as opposite to direct seller. Be sure to ask what extra warranty do you get from them? In a lot of the cases I found, there is none.

    If you have time, check out some of the lease take over sites (leasebusters, leasetakeovers), or kijiji, or learn about auctions if you really have time. Good luck

  5. Richard

    We bought a year-old car last month – we started out by looking at dealer websites to find what they had and where they were priced, and then went to the dealer that seemed most promising for a test drive. We liked it but after a couple of hours they couldn’t agree on the price (I did some research so I was working with a fairly tight range).

    After that I emailed another dealer asking if they had anything and telling them what the first dealer had offered, and they informed me that they had just bought a few cars that would be coming in later that week and they could give me the price I wanted. We agreed on the price, drove it a couple of days later, and decided to go for it.

    Since these were all a year old they were pretty similar cars (former rentals that had been driven the same distance), but with older cars it might be harder to compare directly. Once you know what you want you can send off a few emails and see what you get back. After narrowing down the list you just need to go see the cars to confirm that there are no surprises.

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