Friday, August 27, 2010

The final push

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 15: It's all good.

It's almost over. This weekend I drive the Mini, Fusion Sport and hopefully a Saab 9-5, then decision time.

Going back over my initial criteria yesterday, I don't think it's changed much. Actually, it's pretty simple. My new car has to be fun to drive, comfortable on long trips, seat four adults, get me through a Wisconsin winter and cost less than $40,000.

The one thing I've learned in the process is that there has never been a better time to be a car buyer. From the cheapest car to the most expensive you can get all the features you want in a package that will last well over 100,000 miles without even trying hard.

Monday, I'll have the list pared down to my final three and then the fun begins. Negotiating!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Driven by advertising

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 14: No drives, but a lot of deep (okay not so deep) thinking...

As I've been going through this process I've wondered what role advertising has played, if any, in the decisions I've made.

Conventional wisdom is that advertising will help gain consideration for a brand, but the many other influences – word of mouth, automotive press, dealer experience, etc. – actually sell the car.

I may not be a typical consumer having worked in advertising for almost 30 years after spending three years as a gofer at Car and Driver Magazine while in college. But I'm not immune to advertising. I've seen the BMW spots on Mad Men reminding me of the brand's authentic performance heritage. I've responded to GM's challenge of "May the best car win" and driven the Regal, Malibu and CTS.

Would I have driven these cars anyway? Perhaps. But, I honestly can't recall seeing an Audi spot since the Super Bowl or any communications for the Jetta TDI SportWagen, yet both were on my initial 'must drive' list.

Advertising only works for brands that have a point of view. It works when it communicates that your brand and your product stand for something. Most car advertising lacks that. It sells features or rational reasons for purchase like fuel economy, resale value, incentives and safety. None of those messages are truly differentiating. None of those messages validate the self concept of a potential buyer.

And that's really what car buying is all about. A car always has been and still is one of our greatest forms of self expression.

Prius buyers don't buy them because they get great gas mileage. They buy them because it's an outward expression of their inner tree hugger.

People don't own Jeeps because they go off-roading every weekend. They're expressing a deep-seeded sense of freedom and independence.

The cars that seem to be rising to the top of my list get this. They come from a point of view that's beyond the features. They stand for something.

That's what separates great cars from all the good ones.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The perfect car

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 13: The most rational car in the world

The Subaru Outback has long been a favorite of snow country residents, outdoor lovers and people who see themselves as adventurous. From the bulletproof boxer engine, to its full-time all wheel drive, the ample cargo room, comfortable ride and a $27,000 price tag, this car makes so much sense for me.

Which only goes to show that car buying has nothing to do with rational decision making.

I admire this car. I like this car. I actually want this car. It will do everything I need it to do. I'd never have to worry about foul weather. It's reasonably efficient and unlike other Japanese cars, it actually has an intrinsic personality. There's no reason I shouldn't buy this car. Yet, if I were to pick today between this and the smaller, more expensive, front-wheel drive Jetta SportWagen, I'd pick the VW.

Am I mad? Possibly. We'll find out soon.

I just heard from the Saab dealer that the new 9-5 should be in soon, so I'll drive that, the Mini and the Fusion Sport in the next couple of days. Then, decision time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hyundai makes it's case

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 12: The pretender is a contender

A few years ago when writing on a freelance assignment for Winding Road Magazine, I was told by another journalist on the trip that there are no more bad cars. There are just varying degrees of good. Aside from the spontaneously combustible Tata Nano, he might be right.

And the Hyundai Sonata is exhibit one.

I went to drive the Sonata because of the buzz it's been receiving and to see if the car drives as good as it looks. And while it's no BMW or Audi, this car is surprisingly good. I drove a Sonata SE that had every option except a navigation system and a power moonroof, which stickered at $23,500. The first thing that impressed me was the fit and finish. Nice paint, even seams on the hood and trunk lids, and the exterior styling is quite good.

On the inside cloth seats with leather bolsters looked and felt supportive. The driver's area wrapped around me and everything was right where I'd expect it to be. The controls, switches and levers all had a quality feel, right down to the push button start.

On the road the Sonata was quiet, solid and the 200 hp 4-cylinder engine was impressive, not spectacular. This car is as good as they come in this segment and I'd definitely rank it ahead of a Camry or Accord based on the styling, driving experience and overall value.

I'm not going to buy a Hyundai for the same reason I'm not going to buy a Malibu: it's not a true sports sedan and that's what I really want. But if I had to make a living trying to convince people to buy the Malibu instead of the Sonata, I'd be looking for another job.

This is a damn good car.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Not all sports sedans are created equal

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 11: Are we done yet?

Looking at this many cars is harder and taking more time than I would have thought. I'm not sure how many cars most people look at before they actually buy, but my guess would be somewhere between three and five would be about as many as most people can handle before they make their decision.

I spent Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee trying to drive the cars I can't find in Sheboygan (that would be most of them). I visited five dealerships and drove two cars. Unfortunately the Saab dealer didn't have any 9-5s on the lot, the first Ford Dealer I visited didn't have a Fusion Sport and by the time I got to the dealer who had one, it was a few minutes away from closing time, so I was only able to see and sit in the car, the test drive will come later this week.

I did manage to track down a Chevy Malibu LTZ and drive that. Here's a tip: if you want to like this car, don't compare it to a BMW 328 or an Audi A4. The Chevy is a good car, powerful with a stiffer suspension and all the right features (sunroof, satellite radio, automatic climate control, etc.) but it's just not as refined. It's a more powerful version of a family car, but not a sports car. There's no manual transmission. The driver's seat doesn't offer the lateral support you need for hard driving. The suspension's stiffness allows too much of the road noise to come through and it's jarring over bumps. This is disappointing because I really wanted to like this car.

My Audi dealer experience was very different from what happened at the BMW dealer. I walked into a busy showroom on Saturday afternoon and it was clear that every salesman was occupied. Expecting a long wait, I was surprised when the sales manager, excused himself from the customers he was talking to and came up to me, let me know everyone was busy, offered to get me a bottle of water and asked what I was interested in. The one-minute he spent setting expectations of when I would be helped made the five minutes I had to wait perfectly acceptable.

The car itself was everything I expected. Quick, tight and fun to drive. It differs from the BMW in that it feels more gadgety and high tech with the interior and dash design while the BMW is more classic. The Audi was on the top of my initial list based on what I think about the brand and what I've read about the car, and after driving it, it's still right up there. Especially since it's just a few thousand more dollars than the Chevy.

So far I've driven an Audi A4, BMW 328ix, Buick Regal, Cadillac CTS, Chevy Malibu LTZ, Nissan Maxima and VW Jetta TDI SportWagen, and the cars I can see myself living with are the Audi, BMW and VW. I still have to drive the Fusion, Sonata, Infiniti, Saab and Subaru. With any luck I'll get this wrapped up this week and I can get on with my life.