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From the Virtual Highway to Highway 99

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
October 2008 Issue
September 11, 2008

From the Virtual Highway to Highway 99

Spending hundreds of dollars a month on gasoline meant my wife and I were cutting dinners out, DVD purchases, and our day trips to the national forests. My beloved Jeep was affecting our lifestyle. We made the decision to buy a new, high-mileage car.

Like many people, we first looked at the cars in person. I like to look after hours, when the sales staff is not around. Sure, I could look online, but it’s nice to see the car.

Once I had seen the cars and looked at sticker prices, I went to the Web site of each manufacturer. The sites are all nicely designed. Most let you see previews of various colors and options. I have to admit, the Mini Cooper site was a lot of fun, but my wife had already ruled out the car as impractical for trips to Home Depot or Costco. I settled for looking at practical cars in their mix of exterior and interior colors.

Having studied the options, we visited car lots for initial quotes and a sense of which dealers we might consider. I’m still a customer who has to feel like I trust a business. Having selected a few potential manufacturers, it was back to the Web.

The federal government has created a special Web site dedicated to fuel economy and the environment at http://www.fueleconomy.gov. You can research and compare car models to find the best possible mileage and the smallest “carbon footprint.” What really helped us decide on three cars to compare was the annual fuel cost calculations.

Based on the current cost of gasoline and the number of miles we average per year, this Web site estimated the annual fuel expense for each car. To make a new car a good investment, we knew it had to cost less than $3500 a year for fuel. Amazingly, we located several models with estimated annual gas consumptions under $1500.

The fueleconomy.gov is operated jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. It offers tips to improve your car’s mileage and a guide to how much manufacturing and delivering a vehicle can affect the environment. But we all know that there’s a lot more to owning a car than its mileage.

Safety matters a lot because we do a lot of highway driving. For comparisons of vehicle safety, we consulted http://www.safercar.gov. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transportation operate this site. There is a lot of information available and it took us several days to search through all the sections.

The link to crash test ratings appears in the middle of the Safe Car site. The prominent location and easy link implies this is the most popular feature. We’re probably all familiar with the popular crash test videos appearing on newscasts and shows like Dateline. Who doesn’t find a crash video more captivating than columns of statistics?

Selecting a crash test result is easy. From menus, you select the year, manufacturer and make of the car you are considering. The report that appears on screen has a lot of numbers that most of us won’t understand, but there are easy “five star” scales for each type of crash test. Yes, there are even photos from the tests.

We found the cars we liked did well in front driver and passenger crash tests, but none achieved a five-star rating for the rear passengers. A four-star rating would have to do, especially since our passengers tend to be books, student papers, road maps, and groceries. What mattered to us was how safe we would be.

The vehicle recall information was much harder to search. The screens are not well designed and it took a few failed tries to retrieve basic reports. Annoyingly, you have to search one year at a time, one model at a time. We looked at the last three years for the three manufacturers we were considering. The nine reports took a long time to skim.

It turns out most “recalls” have little to do with serious safety issues. The ones that were mechanical and serious included fire hazards and failed brakes. These are not the sort of failures I’d want to experience. So, we did rule out one car manufacturer and model based on a history of recalls.

We turned to the famous Kelley Blue Book (http://www.kbb.com) and Edmunds Online (http://www.edmunds.com) to estimate what dealers were really charging for the two remaining car models on our list. These are commercial sites, with lots of advertisements. However, the prices listed online were lower than the sticker prices and the prices the dealer representatives had initially offered.

Using online price guides, we learned that we should pay about $2000 to $3000 less than the sticker prices. Some cars are actually selling $10,000 or more below sticker price, but we were looking for something capable of 35 to 40 miles per gallon, not a monster truck.

The last step in the process was to check loan rates and potential financing online. Dealers make money on car loans, especially those through the financing arms of the auto manufacturers. Honestly, we’re on a tight budget remodeling a home. We knew exactly the best rate and best overall terms for a loan before returning to the dealer of the car we had chosen.

In this time of tight budgets and rising costs, we’re increasingly using the Web to comparison shop. We’ve researched home appliances, power tools, and even paint. Buying a car was the next step. Using the Information Superhighway, we ended up with a car we like for a great price. The gas savings is now covering much of the monthly payment. A reduced annual insurance rate also saved us additional money, proving it pays to research vehicle safety.

The Jeep is now parked, except when I need to buy a eight-foot piece of wood. While I miss the Jeep, we also took a drive to a state park and enjoyed a nice dinner on the way home.

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