Sizing up year-end car deals

12/04/2013 3:51 PM

12/04/2013 3:51 PM

Talk about making you feel special: “You’ve worked hard and played hard all year. Now you deserve something really big!”

How about … well … a new car, truck or SUV?

When that sales pitch from a Kansas City car dealer arrived in the mail last month, it caught my attention because it was so personal. Aimed at my daughter, the letter urged her to trade in her 10-year-old SUV for something new. It even included the correct make and model of her car.

As a “preferred” customer, the dealer’s letter said, she could log on to a “personal” website and be eligible for a $500 cash bonus on her purchase.

While this was a smart marketing gimmick, there was a point to the pitch — especially for parents inching toward buying a car for a young driver.

Auto experts say the last few weeks of the year can be a great time to purchase a vehicle. Salespeople and dealers are trying to meet their quotas and profits for the year, the lots are still full of 2013 models that need to be cleared for the 2014s and 2015s, and there might even be a year-end boost in the number of used vehicles for sale.

“As you get deeper into the holiday season, the discounts will become deeper,” said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at the Edmunds.com car shopping website.

Keep in mind that December shoppers might not have as much of a selection in terms of options, colors and trim packages. But if you don’t mind buying last year’s model, deals abound, Reed said.

Here are some of his tips on how to shop smarter and save money on a vehicle for a young driver:

• Involve your young driver in every aspect of the decision. Lay down the shopping ground rules, and involve them in the economics and the insurance issues.

“If you don’t have a lot of money, lay it on the line and explain why the No. 1 choice is out of your price range,” Reed said.

• Do your homework. Since the weather outside might be frightful, don’t just wander onto a dealer’s lot and start kicking the tires. Check out several dealerships’ websites to get quotes and size up rebates and other year-end specials.

Also, go to Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book or other car shopping websites to compare the deals and plug numbers into their excellent shopping tools. Edmunds, for example, offers a True Cost to Own calculator that estimates a model’s ownership and operating costs over five years.

• Prune your favorites list. To keep the search manageable, Reed recommends targeting no more than five cars. Then narrow the list to three after reviewing features and affordability. Test drive those three as quickly as possible.

• Think about leasing. About one in five vehicles sold today is leased, giving you the potential to get the most car for the least amount of money. Most leases feature low monthly payments or no-money-down deals.

Reed said automakers are now targeting leases on new cars that are popular with college-age students, such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

• Used may be better. While your young one might be dreaming about a new car wrapped with a big red bow, shopping the used car lot might be the best choice for breaking in a new driver. The used car market has its own set of economic variables, and in some models the seller may have the upper hand.

Sticking with a used vehicle also can instill in a young driver the need to become an informed owner, from knowing the insurance costs to checking tire pressure. New drivers should learn how to interact with a mechanic and understand what needs fixing now or later. In addition, online videos can teach even the most mechanically challenged how to change the oil, replace a burned-out bulb and put on a new set of wiper blades.

Ownership of a car can be a big learning tool, Reed said.

His final point to remember: “A lot of parents will select a car they wish they had as a kid.”

That’s a big mistake that could sour even the most car-crazed teen.

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