Digital Strategist Goes Car Shopping

My first-ever word was “car”. That’s probably not that exceptional for an American kid, but it starts this blog post off nicely.

When I was little, I’d stand on the white leather seat of my Nana’s mint-green Cadillac Eldorado and pretend to drive it. (If only it were here today.) As an 11-year-old I memorized all the makes and models I saw, which in our late-’80s/early-’90s hood were blockish Chevy Cavaliers and Ford Tempos from what I would consider the ugliest car-making era in history. (One neighbor also owned a heinous gold Pontiac Fiero for good measure.) Having never owned my own car, I was more excited at the end of college to finally buy an auto than to get my own apartment – I had the black 2002 Chevy Monte Carlo SS in mind, the one that got a shoutout at the end of “#1 Stunna” by Big Tymers. Birdman and Manny Fresh, you have taste.

But then I moved to New York and to D.C., and the car love was lost and forgotten for the sake of urban practicality. Even after marrying into my first car, the wife’s 2003 VW Jetta GL Turbo, I took good care of the vehicle but never really geeked out over it. Over time it aged gracefully but more and more pointedly, signaling in the past year that it was time for a new whip.

Then last month happened and I’m squarely back in four-wheeled hotness territory with this new machine, which I have named Big Shine:

2013 Audi Q5 3.0T Premium Plus

So as an Internet-enabling pro, how’d I go about that? I’m glad I posed that rhetorical question to myself because it gives me the chance to expound on car-buyer digital behavior.

Three-part staging is nice and neat in consulting slides, so that was how I set my shit up:

  1. Price-be-damned big list to find the best choices,
  2. Final four to get down to a chosen few, then
  3. Negotiation to get the best deal.
  4. First up was figuring out what style of car to get. I’m down with the slow-roller, old-man-luxury American rides (see the aforementioned Eldorado), while the wife comes from a family that’s long been in love with German sportiness and precision. We also had to think about the smaller family members we hope to add in the next few years, so practicality and space were a concern. A sedan might work for this situation, but it’d have to be pretty sizeable to hold any kid stuff, and a contiguous cabin-trunk still has a spatial advantage over a separate compartment. I have a strict no-station-wagons policy having grown up with two nerdwagons – one even had wood paneling – and a full-sized SUV is too big and impractical for the city. That left a crossover as the best option, so I dove into the top-three resources I used in my search:

  1., for reviews and specs,
  2. Kelley Blue Book, for their useful pricing model of MSRP > Suggested Fair Price > Invoice, and
  3. A Google Drive spreadsheet to keep track of all the info, consultant-style.

I started pasting relevant info into the first tab in my sheet: price, engine, performance, dimensions, and any other stat that might be even mildly relevant. I went for the new models to pick out our optimal car, because I figured I would do the feature-cutting and used-car-shopping once I got to the negotiation stage. Also had to throw in the photos for visual appeal. I got this:

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 2.25.53 PM

So then it was all about paring to a test-driveable list. By the time the first available Saturday for both of us rolled around, we made it through seven cars in one day, all 2013 models:

  • BMW X5 – nice ride, but too expensive and too big – I did keep the smaller X3 in mind.
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee (V6) – too sluggish.
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee (V8) – much better with the gas-guzzler engine, but too expensive for what it is.
  • Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 – drove great, sweet interior, cheaper than expected, but nerdy exterior and in-laws don’t love theirs. The dealer was my favorite of the day though.
  • Audi Q5 2.0T (4-cylinder) – nice pickup, great handling, great interior, slight egg-shaping. Lost some points for the hair-geled dealer rep who was a sleazy douchebag even by car-sales standards.
  • Lincoln MKX – luxuriously cavernous old-man interior (cream-colored leather and wood FTW), but sluggish to drive and with an ugly, horse-toothed snout.
  • Cadillac SRX – handles great, solid pickup, looks like it will cut you and is a Cadillac (+10 baller points), though it was dark when we drove it so the verdict was unclear.

So for the next week, I whittled it down to a list of 3.5 cars — we kept wavering on the Mercedes and ultimately dumped it — and made spreadsheet tab 2:

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 2.31.45 PM

That meant the next Saturday we’d be re-driving the X3, Q5 and SRX. Now I also brought, and (mobile site built by Acquity Group) into the mix to check out all the available option packages and trims. (Audi of America, your site is terrible at this.) I called up the dealers and made some appointments so we could get our final, more immediate comparison between the three:

  • BMW X3 xDrive28i: Fast acceleration even with a 4-cyl, great steering, roomy, but the most expensive of the bunch despite its Spartan, Reagan-era interior. I’d also be just another Lincoln Park jagoff in a Beamer. Keine Bayerische Motoren Werke für uns diese Zeit.
  • Audi Q5 3.0T / 2.0T: The 3.0T has the V6, and it was the shiz. Nice, quiet, smooth ride with great handling and a nicely appointed interior. We drove the 2.0T again but were spoiled by the 3.0T, and the 2.0T didn’t measure up anymore. We left thinking this was a really great car, but I still wanted to try the Cadillac.
  • Cadillac SRX Performance: We showed up at the dealer and it was a thing of beauty: sharp, shiny, strong-looking, black clearcoat and fitted with the high-polish 20-inch wheels the dealer knew had caught my eye. Yet after driving it, I found it inverted my expectations for a Cadillac: it drove just as nimbly as the high-end German cars, but the interior was disappointingly plasticky and cramped. The cool CUE touchscreen didn’t make up for a weird V-design on the console with buttons that weren’t sensitive enough and, as the true death blow, a tiny backseat with no legroom. This one hurt because I was all about the idea of Cadillac ownership — I had already named my future SRX “The Stackillac”. But alas, the SRX just didn’t want it enough with that weak backseat effort.

    Clear winner: the 2013 Audi Q5 3.0T.

It was time to negotiate. While I had wanted to buy a 2- to 3-year-old car to save on the depreciation, the only used Q5s I saw on Carmax, or the dealer sites had racked up big miles and were still barely cheaper than a new one. (Ultimately a good sign if everyone’s holding on.) I hadn’t intended to buy a new car, but here we were.

Google Maps helpfully provided me with a list of all the Audi dealers in the area, so I busted out spreadsheet tab No. 3 and started emailing and calling each dealership. I knew I had three areas to work:

  • New-car price
  • Trade-in value for the Jetta
  • Options or extras

I conducted all my discussions through email whenever I could to make things go at my pace and put all the offers in the spreadsheet for comparison, only picking up the phone when I needed to confirm an offer or communicate a better one I had at a competing dealer. This worked like a charm: I got a price just barely more than invoice, a trade-in value for the Jetta right near blue-book value, and a few hundred (at least in MSRP terms) worth of throw-ins like all-weather floor mats and wheel locks. Did I still lose somewhere? Probably, but as far as I can tell from every independent online source, we got a truly phat deal in the end with these awesome LED accents to boot:

This was a firsthand demonstration of the value of information. I mean that literally: access to digital information saved me thousands of dollars. We hear a lot from the news industry about its own disruption, but the auto industry has been equally upended. That’s tough for dealers, but great for us auto buyers. As I gotta say in all aspects of my life: Thanks, Internet.

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