Surviving the Showroom

Buying a new car is a lot like skydiving. It can make you so ecstatic your lips will touch your ears - but the mere thought of it can make your heart pound for weeks beforehand.

It needn't be that way. Buying a new car isn't a game of Russian roulette. It's a straightforward process of deliberate planning, sensible reasoning, and savvy negotiation. Follow the simple guidelines listed here and soon you'll be driving off in the car of your dreams - without the nightmares.

Rule #1: Shop before you shop. An auto showroom is the last place you should go to browse. Car dealers could sell sunglasses to a coal miner. Once they catch you ogling that gleaming red coupe in the corner, you're toast.

Instead of letting the hunters guide the prey, do some research first. What are your auto needs - cargo room, low cost, good fuel economy, something fun to go with that new job? Write down your requirements, then read what the experts have to say. The major auto-enthusiast magazines are excellent sources of facts and learned opinions. And check out the reputable online auto sites which offer a wealth of auto reviews and shopping advice. There are also many resources available which can inform you of what the invoice price is for your desired car with the options you want. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily what the dealer paid for it as the manufacturers pass along incentives that can add up to several thousand dollars on each car.

Rule #2: Be prudent. That 300-horsepower sports car sure looks sexy, but can you put up with the higher payments, the higher insurance, the higher fuel and repair costs, the limited cabin room?

Automakers know exactly how to tap into your wallet. So be ruthless in narrowing your choices. Pick a car that will actually fit your lifestyle, don't go overboard with luxury amenities you don't really need, and be wary of buying a car because it "looks good" on you. That famous hood ornament - or those premium options that seem so enticing - can quickly grow burdensome when you find yourself struggling to meet a high monthly payment. Trust me: These days, with cutthroat competition forcing automakers to produce ever-better cars, even a no-frills econosedan can be entertaining to drive.

Rule #3: Stick to your decision. Once you've settled on a particular car, don't be tempted to change your mind once you're in the showroom. Ask to see the model you're interested in. If the dealer doesn't have one, find another dealer. It's when you become "car hungry" that dealers get the upper hand.

Rule #4: Sound like an expert. Bone up on car terminology. If the dealer asks "Do you want the V-6 or the four?" and you don't know what that means, it could cost you. You'll find that becoming better educated is not as daunting as it might seem. There are many books and online sites that demystify automotive terms. Learn a few basics, so when you visit the showroom and say "I'd like to see an XL coupe with the double-overhead-cam V-8 and the ABS brakes," the salesman will know right away he's not dealing with another pushover.

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