Friday, August 13, 2010

A plan of attack

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 5: Next week, we drive.

As I write this, I'm finishing up a week-long vacation in South Haven, Michigan and will soon return to Sheboygan where I can begin phase two of the search, visiting dealerships and test driving cars.

This morning I spent time online mapping the nearest dealerships for each brand on the list (the web is good for something when shopping for cars) and it brings up another question: how important is proximity of a dealer?

As you can imagine, Sheboygan, a city of about 50,000 people, has a Chevy, Ford, Cadillac, VW, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru and Hyundai dealer and each is conveniently located within a few minutes of the ramshackle beach cottage.

To shop, buy and service the other brands – Audi, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, and Mini – I'll have to drive 45 minutes to an hour to Milwaukee. I realize this is not 1967, the era of planned obsolescence, where cars needed constant service and mechanical maladies were an expected part of the ownership experience for even the best cars. But will/should the inconvenience of having the nearest dealer an hour away factor in my purchase decision? We'll find out. 

I'm going to start the process by visiting my local retailers, two or three per evening and then on Thursday, trundle down to Milwaukee and try to take in the other 5 in the course of a day. The hope is I will be able to drive and negotiate the deal for each product, so I can make my decision next Friday.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The search continues

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 4: A little clarity

After yesterday's frustration of finding the information I wanted quickly and easily on the web, I turned to some trusty old friends, the car magazines. With all the hype around the web and its 24/7, real-time information, it's easy to forget just how easy and useful the good old paper and ink periodicals can be. Especially this time of year when the new car buying guides are being published.

So armed with more (and more easily accessible) comparative information, some choices need to be made.

First, I'm cutting Acura from the list. The RSX and TL are the two nameplates from the brand that fit my budget and while they are clearly better than any car I've ever owned, the fact that I'm just not in love with the styling means they're out.

I was on the fence about the BMW, but the reviews are universal that the 3-series is the best driver's sedan out there. If nothing else, I'll use it as a benchmark. In.

I'm cutting the Mazda 6 from the list as well. I've owned one. I liked it. But I can't look at everything and the Fusion, Altima, Jetta and Sonata intrigue me more.

On the advice of a very good friend, I'm told I must put Lexus on the list if for nothing else than to experience best-in-class dealer service. Done.

As I said yesterday, there was a lot of lobbying from friends to put Saab back on the list. The 9-5 is getting good reviews. But there's nothing new with the 9-3 and that's the model that best fits my needs and budget. So with great reluctance, I'm keeping them off the list.

I wanted to cut the list further, but I until I actually experience the cars, it's clearly impossible to judge them. So right now the list looks like this:

1.  Audi A4
2.  BMW 328
3.  Cadillac CTS sedan/wagon
4.  Infinity G37
5.  Lexus IS 250
6.  Chevrolet Malibu LTZ
7.  Ford Fusion sport and Taurus SHO
8.  Hyundai Sonata
9.  Nissan Altima
10.  Subaru WRX and Outback
11.  VW Jetta TDI Sportwagon
12.  Mini Cooper S

It's pretty clear the next big decision will be budget based. With an upper limit of $40k, is it better to get a base level premium sedan or a mid-tier car with all the bells and whistles? The only way to find out is to drive them...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A false start.

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

[A note: After yesterday's post, I had at least 5 people lobby me to look at Saab. Because of my affinity for the brand, it's back on the list.]

Day 3: The web: Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac

Now that I have my list of brands, it's time to do a little prework to narrow the list a little further and inform myself before I head to the dealer so I can get the right car and the best deal. I figured that I'd start my search with the brands' web sites to get a sense of packages, options, and what the sticker price would be a car configured the way I want.

After looking at the websites of these four contenders, one thing is becoming crystal clear. This decision will not be made by a comparison of features. Every brand offers performance packages, leather clad interiors, sunroofs, advanced electronics and more. Nobody has something the other guy doesn't. Thus, the goal of any website should be to get me in the dealership and behind the wheel. What's going to do that? It starts by making the process easy. 

Surprisingly, not all of these brands accomplish that.
  • The Acura, Audi and BMW all put "starting at" prices right up front. Helpful, but not the whole story. 
  • BMW annoyed me right off the bat by playing a commercial for the 3-series and making it really hard to find the button that controls the sound.
  • The Cadillac website is gorgeous but very difficult to use. All the flash panels mean pages load slowly. I want this process to be efficient and they're not helping. 
  • Like the cars, all web sites have the same features: model overviews, configurators, pricing generators, dealer locators...
I configured the TSX, A4, 3-series and CTS the way I wanted, got a relative sense of pricing and equipment. But I still don't really have a feel for the cars. Actually, I'm finding this part of the process frustrating and need to find information that will help me make my decision.

This is not helping to cut the list down from my 13 brands. Tomorrow, on top of the manufacturers sites, I'm going to look for independent information and critiques to help narrow this list from 13 to six or so.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The brands I'll consider

It's time to shop for a new car. For the next few weeks I'm chronicling my search, reviewing the process, the products, the marketing, the sales experience and the transaction.

Day 2: The long list

How many car brands are there? If I were to visit dealers and test drive a car from every one, this process would take months. So there needs to be some initial screening. Using the criteria I laid out yesterday and my impression of the brands, here's the in and out list.

Acura – Honda goes upmarket and a little sporty. When I put my unaided list together last night this brand didn't even come to mind. It wasn't until I checked the brand list at that I remembered them. IN.
Audi – Heritage, performance, design, technology. One of the first brands I thought of when I put together my list. IN
BMW – I owned a 320i in the mid eighties when I was young and trying to look successful. I keep reading great things about the 3-series. Why am I on the fence about them? MAYBE
Buick – Inside dope says the new Regal is going to be a home run. But it's still a Buick and I don't wear a hat behind the wheel or drive for extended periods with the turn signal on. OUT
Cadillac – I looked at a SRX three years ago when I bought my Acadia. Wasn't a Cadillac guy then. Have they changed over the three years or have I? I'm going to at least research the SRX and CTS. IN
Chevy – I created advertising for Chevy from 1985 - 1990 while at Campbell-Ewald. Lets see what the Malibu has to offer. IN
Chrysler – These guys make Buick look sporty. Nothing for me here. OUT
Dodge – Bad styling, poor quality, unsophisticated technology. Need I say more? OUT
Ford – In 1984, I was fired from J. Walter Thompson while working on the Ford account. I guess I shouldn't have told the creative director that he could find someone else to write the headline: "Ford Taurus: World Class Quality!" In spite of that, IN
Honda – My son's CRV has 188,000 miles on it and it's showing no signs of slowing down. My impression of the Accord is that it's incredibly competent but uninspiring. OUT
Hyundai – How crazy is this? I'm not going to look at the Accord but I will drive the Sonata. I saw one in real life the other day. Gorgeous. IN
Infiniti – Even while they screwed up the launch of this brand with the infamous "Rocks and Trees" campaign, the car guys knew this was the hot rod of the segment. Still is. IN
Jaguar – The Buick of Great Britain. OUT
Kia – Based on the dealer advertising I hear, the only people who drive Kia's vehicles are those who can't afford a real car. Is that really the impression I want to give my clients? OUT
Lexus – The Buick of Asia. OUT
Lincoln – Doesn't quite seem to have the same mojo as Ford. Now that the company has divested itself of Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin they can fix this brand. Until then, OUT
Mazda – Owned a Mazda 6i a few years ago. Loved it. IN
Mercedes – The sports MBs are too expensive. The non-sports versions are too Buick. OUT
Mini – I spent a day behind the wheel of a Cooper S, filling the rear view mirror of a Porsche Boxster as we were screaming through the Irish Hills. It doesn't fit any of my functional criteria but I love this car. IN
Mercury – They're killing this brand. If Ford doesn't think it's worth investing in, why should I? OUT
Mitsubishi – When I think of Mitsubishi, nothing comes to mind. OUT
Nissan – Not a big fan of Carlos Ghosn's megalomania. But something seems to be working at Nissan. IN
Saab – I've always loved this brand since I drove a two-stroke 96 with the freewheeling transmission back in the late seventies. When Saab is Saab again, I'll add them to the list. Today? OUT
Scion – I'm not twenty-something. OUT
Subaru – Quirky, rugged, all-wheel-drive. And the WRX kicks ass. IN
Toyota – Apparently the Camry is perfect for everyone, except me. OUT.
Volkswagen – After years of wandering through the wilderness, this is another brand that seems to have found itself again. IN
Volvo – The Chinese can't produce milk or toys without endangering significant numbers of their population. That doesn't bode well for their cars. OUT

Twelve in. One maybe. Time to shop the web and read some reviews.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's car shopping time

I'm going to be doing something a little different on this blog for the next two weeks.

The time has come for me to buy a new car, and I'm going to chronicle the process here. Other than a few cursory web searches I haven't started the process yet, so I'll be using this blog to talk about the marketing, the products, the sales and the overall shopping experience.

I figure the first thing I should do is determine what I need from my new car.
  • I don't have kids at home anymore, so happily I can cross minivans, large SUVs and full-size sedans off the list.
  • I do a significant amount of driving to visit clients in cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, Indianapolis, and Detroit. Thus having something that's comfortable for six-plus hour drives is a must.
  • I will easily put 30,000 miles on my car every year.
  • I do a little entertaining so having something that seats four adults comfortably is probably a good idea.
  • In case you're not aware, it snows in Wisconsin and living somewhat off the beaten path presents some challenges.
  • I grew up in Detroit and still have a lot of friends in the auto business there.
  • I've been known to haul a few plants and bags of mulch in the spring.
  • The other cars in my stable are a Volkswagen Cabrio and a 1968 Volvo 1800 (that needs a little work).
  • I love to drive. Given the choice between driving and flying, I'll drive.
  • I like to drive fast. Especially on one of the many great stretches of winding road in the Wisconsin countryside.
So, I guess this is a starting point. Tomorrow, the first draft of a long list of cars that I'll start researching on the internet. Suggestions and comments are welcome.