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Carmax and the No-Haggle Revolution

Durango First Day 500 Wide.jpg

The last Sunday of April, 2001, Carol and I stopped at a Toyota dealership on the way home from church. We’d been thinking about a new car for some time. Our 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee was not all that old, but it was a lemon and had become increasingly unreliable. We’d been considering the 4Runner and wanted to test-drive one. So we pulled into the dealer lot, and swung back the big glass door leading into a uniqely American vision of Purgatory. Six hours later, we emerged with a new 4Runner, and a solemn promise to one another that we would never do that again.

We’ve kept that promise.

It wasn’t easy. Carol and I did our homework. We scoured the Web for reviews, asked our mechanic and our nephew Matt, who’s a car hobbyist, and generally kept our ears open. We knew what we needed: A full-size SUV to replace our almost 20-year-old Plymouth Voyager minivan. The Voyager was 2WD, and the winters here in Colorado have been getting colder, grayer, and snowier. Our local government is throwing that classic extortion tantrum of selectively witholding public services until we raise taxes on ourselves, in this case refusing to plow streets in well-off neighborhoods like ours. Voters here do not bully easily, and have given them the finger three times in a row now, which still leaves us the problem of winter driving in a 2WD minivan. Winter this year basically began on November 1, which we took to be a Sign. We needed to trade in the van for something with a tranfer case. We were not going to do it by enduring another six hours of franchise dealership kabuki.

Our first thought was to use the Costco car-buying program. This is a no-haggle arrangement whereby the dealers and Costco agree on a price for each model and option. You ask for the price, and if you want the car, you pay it. That sounded fine to us. We used their Web site and contacted the Costco liaison at the big local Dodge dealer. We told him we wanted a 2014 Dodge Durango with our list of must-have and nice-to-have features. The guy did his best (I think) but didn’t come up with much.

Part of that was the odd list of features we wanted. Some, like a lack of second-row captain’s chairs, clustered in the two lower trim styles. Others, like a power liftgate, clustered in the higher trim styles. The color we wanted (a golden beige they call Pearl) seemed not to exist. The whites and reds did exist, but swam in a sea of black. You can get second-degree burns off a black car in Scottsdale, where we may soon be spending winters. Black was thus a deal-killer. We found a couple of contenders ourselves in the central Dodge inventory listings. The cars were on the far side of Denver. I emailed the listings to the Costco rep at the local Dodge dealer, who then had trouble getting the remote dealership to cooperate.

In the meantime, our nephew Matt suggested that we look at used cars. He’d bought a used Jeep through TrueCar and was delighted with it. I’d heard about CarMax, and had driven past their local retail location a number of times. So Carol and I looked at their inventory online, found a couple of cars that weren’t too far from what we wanted, and figured we’d give their system a try.

CarMax is a car-lot no-haggle system for buying used cars. We emailed a request for a test drive, and one of their reps contacted us and set up an appointment. We went out there and we drove ourselves a Durango. The car was a 2013, and whereas it drove very well, it had 27,000 miles on it and a V8 hemi under the hood. Carol and I wanted a V6 with under 15,000 miles on it. The CarMax rep, Derek Scott, scanned around other CarMax locations and found a couple of possibilities, again, up in the Denver area. He offered to have the best of them brought down to Colorado Springs at no charge so we could try it here.

He did. It took only two days. We drove it, we liked it, he stated a price, appraised the Voyager for a trade-in, and gave us a final number. We arranged financing, then went back the next day to push papers, and finally drove it home. No kabuki. No pressure. Sure, I might have gotten it for a thousand bucks less somewhere else (maybe) after another week or two of enduring the franchise dealership hell-hole. We felt disinclined to put ourselves through that wringer again.

So now we have a 2014 Durango Limited with 12,000 miles on it. We like the tan interior for the same reason we wanted a tan exterior–less heat absorption. The vehicle didn’t have a tow package, but it met all of our other requirements. I can get a real Mopar tow package installed for about $750, which I will when things settle down a little. (Our next assignment: Get new phones and a new carrier. Uggh.)

About CarMax I have nothing but the best to say. Their people were terrific (especially Derek Scott) and showed no impatience with us whatsoever. They brought out a car from another store without charging us for it, and gave us about what I expected for a 19-year-old minivan trade-in. Highly recommended.

I wonder, at this point, how long the traditional franchise dealership model would last if it were not protected by state law. I settled for a used car instead of a new car in part because I wanted nothing to do with a dealership. Even when I tried to work with a dealership (via Costco) the other dealerships didn’t seem to want the business. We would have replaced the Voyager years ago if we could have stomached the thought of going new car shopping as the law requires us to do it. I don’t think that the dealers, the manufacturers, nor the government itself have any idea how much that dealership kabuki has lost the industry in new car sales. It’s another example of a brittle business model that will fail badly when it fails, because its proponents can’t get their heads around the way their world is going.

I can’t say much about the car just yet. I’m still trying to program its multitude of options. (The Durango’s 626-page owner’s manual has to be special-ordered in print form and is not shipped with the vehicle.) It’s big, shiny, and so far works perfectly. I guess that’s more than enough for the time being.


  1. Larry Nelson says:

    Congrats on the new vehicle and a good purchase process.

    When time comes for new cell phones, consider I’ve been a customer for 27 months and highly recommend them.

  2. Tom Roderick says:

    Hearty congratulations on the new steed Jeff.

    I am 67 years old and have only bought 4 new cars in my life and still own two of them! I never enjoyed the kabuki theater of car buying either, but once I found the script that the dealers were using it at least made it a bit amusing. Here is where I found it.

    When I needed a new vehicle in a bit of a hurry in 1988 I found a book called Don’t Get Taken Every Time by Remar Sutton. He gave a full outline of the dealers play book and their tricks. Using some of the counter “tricks” he described I was able to get what I wanted at what I thought was a very good price with almost none of the Kabuki.

    Another trick I have learned is to have the financing done, but don’t tell the dealer before they make the offer you want. I have financed my last 3 cars using deposit backed loans from a credit union (simple interest on declining balance). Back in the day when there was interest on deposits I paid about 1% over what I was being paid but I was being paid on a steady or increasing balance.

    I am not sure if you agree, but this cold start to Winter makes me think of the Maunder Minimum — Sunspots and all. Your idea of seasonal migration may be the best idea for those who can do it. Some friends of mine summer by a lake in Pennsylvania and Winter by a beach in south Florida. Nice work if you can get it.

    1. We’re not in Maunder territory yet, but we’re moving in that direction. I’ve sometimes wondered (assuming that climate is describable by chaos math) if Maunder tipped us over the edge into the start of an ice age, and CO2 from the industrial revolution tipped us (temporarily) back. There seem to be two states to the climate system when seen across near geological time: Warmth (as in the Holocene Optimum) and ice age. In between there’s some stuttering, which looks to me like where we are right now. If there were a third state (high heat) we would have detected it in the geological record by now.

  3. Tony says:

    First, congratulations on the new to you and Carol car.

    My wife and I are facing some of the same issues here. We’ve avoided used cars here because there are a lot more smokers and we do not want a vehicle that has ever been smoked in.

    Did you or Carol ask about the car in that regards? We have a CarMax here and some of my co-workers have used them in the past with good experiences.


    1. We definitely recommend CarMax. We gave the rep a list of prioritized requirements, including a few that we considered deal-killers. Smoke smell was right up there near the top. (The top spot actually went to power liftgate, a feature we required before we would even open a car’s door to do the “smoke test.”) Don’t hesitate to tell them what you want and don’t want to see. They have a lot of cars in their network, as we discovered when the closest match to our list was brought down (without charge) from Denver. We bought that one. It didn’t have a tow package, but we can get a genuine Mopar tow package installed at the local Dodge dealership for about $750. That wasn’t a deal-killer. Make it clear to them that you have a clear idea of what you want (many people don’t) and that you absolutely don’t want to be rushed or pressured. They’re more than good with that; in fact, it’s one of their USPs.

  4. Jason B. says:

    From your comment, I assume you’ve come upon the manual in PDF or other electronic format?

    On my previous car I figured out where the PDF of the owner’s manual was to be found online. Then when I got my current one I went in short order to find its manual(s) in PDF as well. It’s been way too nice, having the paper manual in the glove box when you need it, and then the electronic copy on my desktop where I can easily look up something without tromping out to the car.

    I don’t know that I’d want to do without the print version in the glove box, especially if trouble happens. So I understand you wanting to order the print version, too. But it’s gotten to where it makes almost as much sense to just have the electronic version and do away with print.

    If the full manual is so huge for this model, maybe somebody ought to consider breaking out an emergency manual (e.g. changing a flat tire) and always including that in the glove box, but for everything else just going electronic.

    BTW my current car also came with an instructional DVD on how to use various features, but it was so laughably basic that it was worthless. I think it wound up in the trash. Great idea with great potential, but they needed a whole lot more content.

    1. Jonathan O'Neal says:

      Is this the manual in question? Or perhaps you just need the user guide?

  5. […] was the first long trip we took in our new 2014 Durango. That car is so comfortable that I could credibly describe it as a Barcalounger with a V8. […]

  6. […] to say it’s the best vehicle I’ve ever owned, in my 45 years of owning vehicles. I described the purchase experience (via CarMax) here. The CarMax people were very impressive. We gave them a list of must-haves, can’t haves, and […]

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