As the Toronto Star’s chief auto reviewer, Jim Kenzie has spent decades hanging out at car dealerships, buying and test-driving the latest wheels. But recently, he says, he and his colleagues have noticed that the number of trips people take to the dealer is “down considerably.” The way Canadians shop for cars has changed because people are researching cars extensively before driving to their dealers, says Kenzie: “What is different now is that the customer comes in with much more knowledge than historically. They know what the profit margins are and what cars have been selling at in various locations. Both the dealer and the consumer now know that everybody knows what’s on the table, much to the tactical advantage of the customers.”
While going to the dealership to test-drive cars and pick up the keys is still part of the car-buying process, what happens in between those 2 tasks has changed because consumers have a wealth of online tools. Here’s a guide to buying a car in the new digital era, so you can get the most out of your trip to the dealer.
1. Narrow down your choices with a car comparison tool
“I have always recommended that before you walk into the dealer you have it narrowed down to 2, 3 cars, max,” says Kenzie. “There are several cars that will achieve what you want to achieve, and the choices can become overwhelming when you walk in the dealer.” Several websites will compare your car’s price, transmission and engine against earlier or older models or even other makes of similar cars. Driving.ca has curated a series of popular search comparison groups that can be helpful if you don’t know where to start. For example, you could compare cars under $30,000, fuel-efficient cars under $20,000, or 7-plus passenger vehicles. Wheels.ca, Autotrader.ca and Auto123.com also offer easy-to-use comparison tools.
Note: When using non-Canadian tools, be sure to convert the listed prices into Canadian dollars to make the prices comparisons accurate.
2. Connect with a salesperson before you even step in the dealership
Most major dealers have an Internet sales manager listed on their site, to whom you can reach out directly on the phone or via email to go over how the dealership handles online sales, if you are thinking of going that route. Think of the Internet sales manager as the guide for your digital car-buying journey, who has insights not only on deals for cars but also on the dealership’s rates for financing and even insurance. The Internet manager may also be the person who works out other charges for your new ride, such as warranty prices and dealer-installed options, so be sure to inquire about those items as well. As valuable as online research is, there’s nothing like going straight to the source.
3. Research the average selling price of your car
Once you have settled on your top pick, you can use online tools to find the average selling price for the vehicle and compare that to what your dealer is offering. In Canada, there are several useful comparison gadgets such as Autotrader.ca’s valuation tool, which lets you know how much your car is worth approximately depending on the year, make, model and your postal code. Another great tool is the Canadian Black Book’s value calculator (the Canadian equivalent of the Kelley Blue Book); it can let you know the vehicle’s trade-in value, future value and average asking price. This site is also helpful if you are considering buying a used car or trading in your old vehicle.
4. Watch safety review videos of your car
Use online safety reviews to assess the safety of your potential new vehicle. Consumer Reports has created videos that show what happens to your vehicle in the event of an accident. After the test, an expert gives you detailed results on the performance of the vehicle. The series was created in partnership with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and currently has around 200 crash videos on its site. If there isn’t a video of your car there, though, you can use other resources such as the IIHS’s annual Top Safety Picks list or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Crash Test Database, which is quite comprehensive.
Note: These safety videos offer no guarantees regarding your car’s safety – use them only as a guideline.
5. Organize your research
Toggling back and forth amongst all of the various comparison tools can get overwhelming, so make a list of all the must-haves for your dream car even before you start your research. Then, as you gather more details about your new car and your financing and insurance options, keep your findings in a document like an Excel spreadsheet or use an organizational app like Evernote or Microsoft One Note to store multimedia files. An app like Evernote can store photos of your car, website links and any audio or written notes you make in one place. Keeping this information organized is particularly helpful if you are buying a car with someone else such, as your spouse or child.
6. Look for a discount on insurance using referral codes or online offers
Often dealers will steer you towards preferred car insurance carriers, but beware of these partnerships, as that carrier may not be the best partner for you. Take a note of what the dealer is offering and, just as with car prices, you can use a simple comparison tool to see how your quote stacks up against the competition. In Canada, LowestRates.ca and Rates.ca can give you more than 20 quotes from top auto insurance companies based on your postal code, vehicle details and driving record. Also, watch out for referral programs, as they can offer substantial savings. For example, right now through Belairdirect’s partnership with Sun Life Financial, you could save 10% on your first year’s premium.
The bottom line
Canadians are buying cars in record numbers – a whopping 1.948 million in 2016, according to a report from Richmond Hill, Ont.-based consulting firm DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. But the Internet has substantially changed the way we buy them. Using these online tools can help make your car-buying journey a smoother ride, whether you buy your next car online or offline.