This page documents my recent adventures in deciding what I wanted in a new car, searching for information about cars, learning about the car business, pricing cars on the Internet, getting quotations on prices from dealers, and comparing cars. I spent over 250 hours, overall, on these activities - 80 hours just on learning more about the car business. Another think that took a lot of time was research on the cars themselves, as an awful lot had changed in 7 years. Turbocharged engines have become commonplace, new driver assistance and safety systems, and more complex infotainment systems. It was actually a lot of fun, if not financially rewarding.
There are three sections to this web page:
During my travels I encountered over a dozen different dealerships and sales people. Most of them were just fine, if not outstanding. But a couple of dealerships and sales people deserve special mention:
All of the following people and dealerships were also helpful during my search. I would not hesitate to recommend any of them.
Lexus of Madison. What can I say. Among a dozen apples, we were bound to find one that didn't taste so good. My experience with the sales staff and the sales manager at Lexus of Madison was quite a disappointment. Every other dealer I contacted could always accommodate me within a day or two of calling or emailing to set up an appointment for a test drive. Not this bunch. They always wanted to put me off for days at a time. During "crunch time" - where a Lexus ES 350 was at least a possibility for purchase - they were unable to provide an opportunity for a final test drive, and at first refused to provide a price quotation, stating that entering into such a process "devalues the luxury experience for everyone". Say what??? What do they think they are selling, Bentleys? Though they did eventually provide me with a quote, the discount wasn't even competitive with discounts openly disclosed online by other Lexus dealers in the state. What is more, during a test drive of an ES 300h earlier in the year, upon returning to the lot I wanted to make some measurements of things that I had found problematic on some of the other cars I had driven. The sales manager came out to the car during that process, and immediately starting pressing for a sale - behavior right out of the 1970s. Yeesh.
There are lots of costs to owning a car - far more than the price you pay at the dealer. If you finance, you have the interest on the loan. If you lease, you pay interest on the entire price for the car for the entire time you have the car - leases are generally the most expensive way to own a car, unless you really really want or need a car every three years. Aside from the costs to purchase, the car also costs money to operate, including:
In our case, we usually keep a car for 7 years or so. So for each candidate I had not eliminated, I calculated a Total Cost of Ownership
By the time we were done with test drives (see below) we had driven SEVENTEEN different vehicles. Time to identify the short list. In order of how much I liked them just as cars, without regard to price, and without regard to what my wife liked or disliked ;), we had
This naturally leads to the question of how one compares apples to oranges to grapes to pears to passion-fruit and so on. The answer is that it depends on perceived value - how much you are willing to pay for what you like or to avoid what you do not like. So, what I decided to do is create a table which had positive numbers, in units of dollars, for things that we liked, and negative numbers, also in units of dollars, for things that we disliked. Essentially we "handicapped" the total cost of ownership (TCO) of each car.
In the process, I found quite a few things that could be calculated quantitatively, including:
While I don't think I want to reveal the exact numbers - these things are very individual, anyway, the table below will give you an idea. The order in the table is not quite in order of how the perceived value came out at the end, and is based on actual quotes (written or verbal) for each one. Colors are used as follows:
|Factor||Acura TLX||Ford Fusion Platinum||Audi A4||Acura RDX (*)||Lincoln MKZ Reserve(*)||Lexus ES 350||Mercedes C300 (*)||Subaru Legacy 3.5|
|Exterior: Design Fit & Finish|
|Exterior Welcome Lighting|
|Exterior: Size Adjustment||(*)|
|Exterior: Hood Visibility|
|Interior: Design Fit & Finish|
|Interior: Wide Pillars|
|Interior: Color Ambient Lighting|
|Interior: Trunk size|
|Interior: Non Ventilated Seats|
|Interior: Noise Level|
|Interior: Infotainment System|
|Interior: Instrument Panel||!!!!!!!!|
|Adaptive Suspension: Standard|
|Adaptive / Auto-Dim Headlights|
|AWD Quality / FWD Penalty|
|Transmission Shifting / Drivability||!!!!!!!!|
|Naturally Aspirated Engine|
|IIHS Safety Collision Avoidance|
|Safety Technology Bonus|
|NHTSA + IIHS Crash Tests|
|Run Flat Penalty||Acc. $|
|MSRP / TCO (after discounts & presumed trade)||$45,740 $64,971||$39,890 $55,319||$61,675 $75,218||$48,515 $65,954||$45,920 $67,116||$45,854 $64,646||$50,845 $72,761||$33,830 $53,176|
|Final Value Placement||#1||#2 (+$1,098) (-$402*)||#3 (+$1,147)||#5 (+$2,134) (*)||#4 (+$1,845) (*)||#7 (+$4,475) (*)||#8 (+$5,190) (*)||#6 (+$4,305)|
Notes on the above table
During the latter part of 2015, as our 2009 TSX approached 100,000 miles, it felt like it might be time to find a new car. The TSX has served us very well over the years - no problems at all. But it is our only vehicle, and so continued reliable operation is extremely important. Additionally, I had become aware of the existence of advanced safety technologies that I feel are essential in any new vehicle. We had also, at the time we purchased the TSX and in the years of ownership that followed, identified some things that we wanted in our next car, including height adjustment on the passenger seat, integrated navigation, and maybe a bit more room and a bit smoother ride, while preserving good handling and peppy acceleration.
We had acquired the TSX because, in 2009, the Accord was a big (literally) disappointment. It had gotten big - too big. In fact, it was now classified as a "full size" sedan. An Accord??? Big??? In a 4 cylinder model, it was sluggish as well, and in the V6 flavor, handled like a boat. What a disappointment. That led to test drives of various vehicles. The Toyota Camry at the time wasn't much better, and the Camry Hybrid had no trunk pass-through, nor did the Camry sport. One evening we decided to stop by the Acura dealer, and on the showroom floor was this nice-sized TSX, at a price point that, while more than we had planned, was approachable. A test drive soon confirmed that the car was preferable to the alternatives.
At the end of 2014, we had attended an unveiling event for the new Acura TLX at our local Acura dealer. Sticker shock hit at that point, big time. My 2009 TSX (base trim) had cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $28,000, but a TLX equipped with the safety features that I had identified as critical would require at least the "Tech" package, and to get the height-adjustable passenger seats would require a V6 - $40,000 dollar territory. At that point, I increased the amount I set aside each month to go towards the purchase of a new vehicle with that price point in mind.
As 2015 ended and 2016 began, and I learned more about the new safety technology, I realized that autonomous braking was also very important to me, and in the TLX, that meant stepping up to the high price-point "Advance" trim. But I felt, and still feel, to not have that technology in a car, followed by an accident that would have been preventable with it, justified such an additional expense. So now, I was looking at more like a $43,000 price point.
During the early part of 2016, I bought a copy of the 2016 spring new car edition of Consumer Reports. I immediately went to the page on the Acura, expecting to see the usual above average to excellent reliability rating, and a good, if not glowing, road test result. Uh Oh.
Instead what I found was the worst possible reliability rating, and complaints about rough shifting transmissions, among other "dings". What the heck?
Some time on Acura/TLX forums soon uncovered the potential issues. The 2015 Acura TLX was indeed having transmission problems. In some cases, an issue with the parking brake pawl had caused some transmissions to self-destruct, for which a recall had been issued (and the damaged transmissions replaced). But there was more to it than that. Folks felt that both the 8 speed and 9 speed transmissions shifted harshly. Some people had already sold their TLXs after less than a year of ownership. I also learned that the 8 speed transmission was a brand new Honda/Acura design, and that the 9 speed was actually coming from the German company ZF, and was also being used in Chrysler products. Really? Wow. Time for a test drive, to see for myself
Because I knew that I would want the "Advance" package to meet my other requirements, that meant the V6 and 9 speed transmission would need to be tested. The car was, frankly, disappointing. Acceleration was sluggish (I drove mostly in Normal mode). Handling, also in Normal mode, was OK - better than the Lexus ES 350 I had test driven to get a $50 gift card a year earlier - but was nothing to write home about. The car was stone quiet. However, early in the test, a very disquieting thing occurred. As we approached a stop light, I started to brake. I tend to brake lightly, expecting that the car will notice the deceleration, and downshift the transmission. What happened, though, was a period of time where the car felt as though it was actually accelerating, causing me to then brake much more forcefully than I usually do. It was actually a little scary. Uh oh. Time for some more research. At the least, I needed to suss out what behavior was "as designed", what the reliability issues were, and what behavior was aberrant.
Setting aside the 8 speed DCT transmission, what I uncovered was that the ZF 9 speed transmission has an unusual, innovative construction using atypical clutches. That went a long way towards explaining what I had experienced. I also learned that, particularly in 2015, a sizable percentage of the ZF 9 speed transmissions shifted roughly in the lower gears. So, I scheduled a second test drive, with that knowledge in mind, to try and sort out what was typical of these transmissions. This second test drive was considerably better - the car did not surprise me this time around. Also, it seems likely that a TSB - a software change - applied to the transmission and/or engine control modules was applied in the meantime. I also spent more time in sport mode. The 2016 that I drove did not exhibit any of the rough shifting behavior (which does seem to be limited to 2015 models), but downshifts were slower than I cared for, and sometimes the car "free wheels" when shifting between 4th and 5th gears (in either direction), which can be disconcerting. I better understood and felt better about the car, but reliability and drivability were still question marks.
Since the 2016 TLX was no longer "the obvious choice" it was time to broaden the search. The critical differentiating criteria during this search were:
The first car make that came to mind was Audi. In part this was because I and another person who worked in our work unit with my boss in 1986 had "ganged up" on said boss, and suggested that an Acura Legend would be a good alternative to the Audi that he and his wife were considering at the time. The Audi A3, like the Lexus IS and Acura ILX would be too small, so the candidate was the A4. Consideration of the Audi A4 naturally led to consideration of the BMW 3 series and the Mercedes C Class C300. All of these cars seemed to meet our requirements, except perhaps the desire for a slightly larger car than our 2009 TSX. However, those are all "pricey" cars, which then led to the consideration of cars that met our requirements (or at least most of them), but were at a lower price point: the Honda Accord, the Toyota Camry Sport and the Subaru Legacy. Also on list list as a dark horse was the Lexus ES 350, since, having driven it a year earlier, I felt I could "live with it".
At the time, the Audi A4 was not yet available at dealerships to drive, but an examination of the online materials, coupled with some questions asked of the dealership and Audi online support, led to the conclusion that only the top trim line "Prestige" would meet our requirements - a $52,000 car (naturally, with an Audi, one would want the Quattro all wheel drive). Configuring a BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C Class with AWD and the required driver assistance safety features also led to cars approaching $50,000. Ouch.
Also, in investigating the BMW and Mercedes made me realize that I did not want to go back to just rear wheel drive, after decades of cars with front wheel drive. For those two makes, which do not have a front wheel drive variant, that also meant all wheel drive. In order to compare cars competitively, I added all wheel drive to my list of requirements. That then naturally led to at least a brief consideration of smaller SUVs, such as that Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the Subaru Crosstrek, the Acura RDX and the Lexus NX.
At this point I also considered the 2016 Lincoln MKZ. However, in the 2016 model year, it only had braking "pre-charge", and not actual autonomous emergency braking - and the same applied to its lesser sibling, the 2016 Ford Fusion.
So, time to start some test drives of the alternatives.
We did some "test sits" of the small SUVs, and it quickly became apparent that they were not what we wanted. The Acura and Lexus aside, their interiors were all quite spartan, and they typically did not offer sufficient comfort and sufficient passenger seat adjustments. As a result, most of the SUVs were quickly set aside
A summary of our test drive experiences, what we liked, and what we did not like in the first round of test drives is shown below.
|Subaru Legacy 4||
|Subaru Legacy 6||
|BMW 328i/330i xDrive||
|Mercedes C Class C300||
|2017 Audi A4||
|Toyota Camry XSE V6||
|Toyota Camry XLE V6||
|Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE||
|Lexus ES 300h (and ES 350)||
|Honda Accord EX-L V6 / Touring||
|Acura TLX Advance (3 Tests)||
Given the above eliminations, at this point the remaining candidates seemed to be, in order of desirability (without regard to price):
At this point, We had a vacation coming up. The top candidate had just come out, and the discounts were small to nonexistent. So, I started to spend some time on other activities, including getting pricing estimates from:
I also started reading some books on the car business, to educate myself on how car manufacturers and dealers worked and could be handled, and to improve my negotiating techniques. Part of the idea was that I generally have not done better than "OK" on my car deals, and in a few cases felt I had been taken advantage of. Also, I felt that perhaps a great deal might be found on one of the more expensive cars. Finally, I was just curious to know more about the car business.
Really, for all of the hours spent doing that didn't glean all that much useful information, aside from reenforcing one critical point I already had learned from experience: always get pricing from multiple dealers. The only real "eye opener" was that by paying list price for "Extended Warranties" (which are now called by the partially confusing name of "service contracts") is often avoidable. But apparently that lesson didn't quite sink in - as I am about to do it again. Sigh.
In the process, I also learned some car business terminology (there a lots more, but these are the ones I remember offhand
But, in addition to reading books, I went looking on the Internet, and on YouTube in particular, for videos that showed how car dealers train their salespeople. The result was a real eye opener. Most of what I saw there was very discouraging, with training designed to encourage and perfect all sorts of coercive and misleading sales behavior - sometimes even under the guise of claiming to be "transparent". Some names (each of which I think is worthy of several "rotten tomato" awards) that you might want to search for on YouTube to see for yourself, many of which are in the business of training car sales people, include:
But I also found some people who are in the car business who are actually trying to help people, and who really "get" how important it is to treat customers well. I think that Norbert Anderson, a former administrator at Wisconsin DOT and advocate of quality improvement and customer relations, and who at one time consulted with Zimbrick to improve their dealerships, would approve of these two:
The Acura TLX was arguably the least expensive car still on my list, and it was already more than I really wanted to pay. But there were some stones that remained unturned. So I did some more research, uncovered, and conducted test drives of some lower cost alternatives that still had the driver safety technology that I felt was critical, along with reasonably powerful 2 liter turbo engines and that were worthy of a test drive. Also, during this time Ford announced the 2017 Fusion and 2017 Lincoln MKZ, with the addition of automatic emergency braking (which had been missing in the 2016 lineup), and the cars were already showing up on dealers' lots.
|Buick Regal, Premium II||
|Kia Optima SX / SXL (Note)||
|2017 Ford Fusion Platinum||
|2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve||
|2017 Acura RDX||
The situation with the Kia Optima is noteworthy. Overall, the car was excellent for the price. Certainly a worthy competitor for the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. However, I discovered that there have been some serious engine "meltdowns", and the way that they have been handled by Kia and Hyundai have been disconcerting. According to several forum accounts, owners suffering from engine failures would have them towed to the dealers. Kia would require that those engines be torn down, and inevitably there would be evidence of "sludge" found. I have seen information which indicates that the source of the sludge formation has been contamination of crankshafts or camshafts (I don't recall which) during manufacture that was not cleaned off before engine assembly. It was common to read accounts where, if the owner had changed their oil elsewhere than a dealer, and was missing even a single receipt, Kia would turn down the claim. Hyundai had done the same, at least at first. This story is also reminiscent of problems with Toyota Camry engines a few years ago. While I was investigating, I learned that Hyundai had settled a class action lawsuit on the matter, but Kia had not yet done so. Curiously, there was not a SINGLE 2.0 liter turbo Hyundai to be found on dealer lots, whereas Kia dealers had plenty of theirs. I quickly eliminated Kia from the process.
Acura has had its own class action lawsuit filed, over the 2015 Acura TLX transmission issues. However, the story on the forums in these cases was very different. Transmissions that had failed because of the issues with the parking brake pawl were simply replaced. Those with rough shifting go through a well defined, if somewhat onerous process, to qualify for a transmission replacement, and most of the complainants I have seen on the forums do eventually get replacements, and find the car acceptable after the replacement.