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I don’t make money from this blog, so I don’t really lose anything by giving away the punchline early. Doing your research is critical when buying a car. In fact, it’s so important that this will be a longer post than I like to write.
The first time I acquired a car with my own money was 1993, and I leased a Ford Escort LX. The LX stands for luxury! For its time, it was surprisingly modern and completely tricked out. I know; “tricked out Escort” doesn’t compute, but it had all the bells and whistles of the day, and both the cabin and the trunk were incredibly spacious. After three years, I decided to keep the car, which I drove until I gave it to a family member in 2002. Since then, every car I drove has been used and at least five years behind the curve.
This suited me just fine, because cars for me have been a “point A to point B” tool and nothing more. Moreover, conventional wisdom has always been that buying new was a waste of money. Two things changed my mind this time around.
First, the car I just traded in. It was purchased at CarMax in 2018. I did so without doing my research and wound with a 2009 Nissan Versa with 29,000 miles on it. This is a surprisingly low amount of mileage for a 9-year-old car, but it’s a lot more than 4 miles. Moreover, it turns out that for $1,000 more I could have bought a 2018 Versa at a dealership. In short, CarMax charges way too much for their vehicles. I’ll provide more data for that assertion in a moment.
Second, someone once told me (via Facebook) that he almost always buys new cars because you never know how the prior owner drove it. I was two out of four in this regard. The Grand Marquis was my grandmother’s car, and my Mustang was driven by someone who was highly unlikely to have mistreated it. Those cars did okay. Despite Nissan’s reputation for reliability, the Altima was a money pit. As for the Versa, within two months, I had to replace the struts, breaks, rear window, mid-pipe (part of the exhaust system), and catalytic converter, none of which was covered by their warranty they talked me into. Fortunately, much of that occurred within a month of purchase (requiring them to fix it), and the rest was fixed at no charge after blowing off a lot of steam at CarMax headquarters. They made all of those repairs, which is great, but only because their profit margin vastly exceeded those amounts. Moreover, the point remains that the car must have been mistreated by the prior owner for it to have so much wrong with it after only 29,000 miles.
When I decided it was time for another car, I decided that it would be new. I also wanted something fun. I instantly thought of the only car I ever really wanted: The Jeep Wrangler. Why purchase an overpriced Wrangler with a bad reputation for reliability? Because it’s a Jeep Wrangler, dammit! That said, I’m not doing it out of necessity and desperation. I’m not doing it because of a midlife crisis. Accordingly, I asked the Facebook and Twitter hiveminds for their opinions. My social network is apparently representative of the internet at large because the opinions I got were all over the place.
Still, it was both appreciated and helpful. One particular thing that helped was going to Edmunds. They have a rating system for almost all the cars I considered. I also took some online quizzes to try to match me with what I wanted. All of these led me to some SUV/crossovers and sedans, and in particular those with a high reliability rating. The only two deal-breakers were reliability and all-wheel drive (AWD). As long as a car had those two things, I was willing to look at it.
On Saturday, I visited a Toyota dealership and test drove a 2020 Camry and a 2020 Rav4. The Rav4 wasn’t to my liking, which makes sense. I don’t need an SUV. The Camry was good, and with AWD and a lot of bells and whistles, I was looking at $31,763. This in turn led to a lease payment less than what I was voluntarily paying for my current shitbox. (I was paying an extra 70% or so every month to pay down the car debt.) With an Edmunds rating of 7.6, the 2020 Camry was the highest rated car among those anywhere near my price range (though there were a few with 7.8). Seems like a plan, right? But I held firm. I wanted a car that I’d consider fun, and the Camry didn’t feel fun. It was a good baseline, but I wanted at least one more stop. After all, I had two more weeks before I wanted to decide.
I thought to myself, “Why not a sports car?” I answered my own question: “Because they’re rear-wheel drive.” So I searched for AWD sports cars and found the Kia Stinger. I never even considered a Kia. It just wasn’t on my radar scope, but it had an Edmunds rating of 8.2. I had to give that a shot, so Sunday I went to a Kia dealer near where I work.
My salesman, Mike, led me away from the Stinger. Why get a relatively stripped down sports car, which would incur higher insurance premiums and property taxes, when you can get a sporty sedan with all the bells and whistles? I quickly looked up the K5 as I was getting in the showroom car, and it had an Edmunds rating of 8.3. Once again, Kia outdid everyone else, including themselves. So, instead of the sports car, I was looking at a fully loaded, sporty, fuel-efficient, reliable car that was highly rated, wouldn’t kill me on insurance and taxes, and yet was fun to drive. Also, it was $30,313, which is about $1,450 less expensive than then inferior Camry.
It’s tough for me to review cars because I largely don’t care (or at least didn’t). I had an instant attraction to the car but didn’t know even half the features it had because I just ignored everything they told me once I knew my few concerns were met. I was absolutely floored when Jose went over its features with me post sale.
I feel like I’m in an episode of Star Trek.
This car must have phasers. Every single optional feature for this model is included with my car. It’s the only up-to-date car I’ve driven since 1993, and it’s a lot of fun, but let’s start with some serious stuff. It shows me how bad a driver I am. I apparently drift to far to the right, which is a problem with a bigger car. Whenever that happens, I hear a ding and the steering wheel gently encourages me to lean a little to the left. I always knew I was a terrible parker, but that rear camera with virtual guides makes me as good as anyone. I backed into a space at the gym just to test it, and I was perfect. Seriously, that’s a big deal for me. When I’m stopped a light, I can let go of the brake, but the car won’t move. “Auto-hold” keeps your can motionless until you step on the gas. So, if you’re dozing off while stopped at a light, you won’t slowly roll into the car ahead of you or the intersection itself. That’s only happened to me once in my life (with harmless results), but whatever your weaknesses are as a driver, these safety features will help and keep your insurance premiums down.
The integration with my phone is fantastic. No more phone mounts for me! I can set my car to turn on automatically on any day of the week I choose, immediately turning on the heated steering wheel, heated seats, and climate control so that the car is comfortable by the time I get in it. When I would drive my mother’s Jeep Cherokee in the middle of summer, I loved to turn on the seat heaters and surprise the other occupant. I need to give people some rides.
Everything is controlled via the steering wheel, and by the end of my trip home, I already had the hang of it. Surprisingly, the one thing I couldn’t remember how to do, or figure out, was cruise control. I’ll have to get on that.
I went with all the post-decision add-ons that they try to sell you after making the deal. This makes an ordinary warranty (CarMax MaxCare for example) look like a waste of money. For the next three years, I can get all my maintenance done free of charge by having it done at a Kia dealership. As I said, this Kia is down the street from where I work. Easy-peasy.
I want to take a road trip.
Could I have visited a third or fourth dealer and run some more test drives? Yes. Would I have found a better car? Maybe. There could be a Mazda out there that would have been a tiny bit better, but that doesn’t bother me. There’s only so much time I had to research, so if I’ve done a reasonable amount of research and found a car that really works for me, then there’s no more I can ask of myself.
Of course, I’m not saying the Kia K5 is for you. That depends on your budget and the feature you need. The point is that, based on all the relevant factors, it’s for me, and I didn’t know it existed until Mike suggested it to me at the Kia dealership. No matter how much pressure you’re under, from either salesmen or your circumstances, try not to buy until you’re ready, and only after doing your research. Also, make sure Kia is part of that research. My experience shows that, within its class, a Kia likely has a higher Endmunds rating than its equivalent for another make of car. I didn’t look at all of their cars, but I looked at a good number of them. My last point is that you should expect to hear a lot of contradictory advice, but listen to your friends’ explanations. Within all that noise is some very useful information.
But I’m not worried about any of that. I really want to go on a road trip. Freaking pandemic.