The plea for help came in an e-mail from an old friend: "I need a car psychiatrist. I'm stuck and can't decide what to buy." Coincidentally, my brother was also buying a car. And, although he didn't say so, I knew he was stuck, too.
Working as a consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, I've run into a lot of car shoppers who can't decide what car to buy. In one particularly bad case, a middle-aged engineer I knew remained stuck for five years, carrying a clipboard of notes and a file folder filled with prospective cars. Each time I saw him, he was closing in on the perfect car that would optimize price, options and fuel economy. But as far as I know, he never did find one.
In some cases, being stuck is understandable. If the old car is still running or is fully paid off, there is no urgency to force the purchase. But other stuck car buyers remain undecided because they are simply overwhelmed by all the possibilities, or they are getting conflicting advice from family members and friends.
To get these buyers moving forward again, I almost need to psychoanalyze them (automotively speaking) before giving any car-buying advice. I've also learned that it's best not to make specific recommendations. I just ask questions that help them choose the best car themselves.
Although the two car shoppers I'm writing about here had very different psychological profiles, I agreed to help them both get unstuck and finally buy a car. Now, after many phone calls and e-mails, they are both driving new cars. And they are both happy.
Stuck Car Buyer No. 1
Barbara: 50s, writer, divorced, one teenager, modest budget
Wants: Style, fuel economy, interior space, safety
Cars considered: Honda Accord, Hyundai Elantra, Mini Cooper, Toyota Prius
Car purchased: 2013 Honda Accord Coupe
Why she was stuck: Fear of getting a hard sell at the car lot. Too many choices.
Barbara had been car shopping for a long time and was attracted to the Mini. Her reservation was the size. "Can a car that small really be safe?" she asked. She also said that she "hates, hates, hates" buying gas and felt she should get a Prius. From early e-mails it was obvious that Barbara had strong preferences about car design and she also felt an obligation to go green.
After talking with Barbara, it was clear she was all over the place in her tastes and not really in touch with the current car market. She frequently referred to cars she liked from the 1960s and '70s almost as if they were still available. I had to keep reminding her that car design and technology had changed radically since her younger days.
A breakthrough came when I asked Barbara how she liked driving the Mini. "I haven't driven it," she replied. Questioning her further, I realized she hadn't driven any cars on her list yet.
It was time to write her a prescription.
"Make a list of your top three choices," I said. "Then call the Internet managers at three local dealerships. Tell them you are cross-shopping brands and want to make an appointment for a test-drive but you won't be buying on the same day."
Barbara e-mailed me a few days later. She drove the Prius but felt it was "too snug." This was strange because she is not a big woman and no one else who has driven it has reported this to me. She also test-drove the Mini but felt it was, in fact, too small. She then went to drive the Honda Accord, which she didn't like.
But while still on the lot, she saw the Accord Coupe and "loved, loved, loved it." It seemed to fulfill her need for a stylish car and at a combined EPA rating of 29 mpg, it was also an acceptable choice environmentally speaking. After a test-drive, she went home, shopped prices via the Internet and wound up leasing one.
For Barbara, the breakthrough was finding a way to take a low-pressure test-drive. Using the Internet department gave her a chance to get in and out of dealerships without a hassle. She also found the dealerships' Internet departments convenient for negotiating by e-mail and phone. This allowed her to move forward both in her car choice and her deal-making.
There was one bump in this otherwise smooth process. When signing contracts, "You have to sit in that blasted finance dude's office and it takes so long," she told me. "It's their method of trying to break you down to buy the extended warranty. I said no originally to the Internet dude and he left me alone about it. Why do they do this?"
My advice: Next time, have the car delivered.
Stuck Car Buyer No. 2
Pete: 50s, engineer, empty-nester, frugal, 60-mile-per-day commuter
Concerns: Protecting the environment, good fuel economy, interior space, price
Cars considered: Ford C-Max Hybrid, Toyota Matrix, Toyota Prius, Toyota Prius C
Car purchased: 2012 Prius V
Why he was stuck: Little time or interest in car shopping
Pete was driving a 2004 Toyota Matrix with 189,000 miles on it. He had already replaced the manual transmission, and now the aging catalytic converter was beginning to trigger the "Check Engine" light. Still, he thought he might eke out another year in Old Faithful. But as winter approached, he reconsidered.
Pete was very concerned about price and was tempted just to get another Matrix since it was "good enough." But I told him the car-buying world had changed a lot since he bought the Matrix eight years ago. There were many new features available now that he might really enjoy. "I don't have time to run around and test-drive a million cars," he replied. I suggested that test-driving three cars would only take an hour or two. It would help him make a choice he would have to live with for many years.
Our consultation broke down at that point for two months. But one day he read a news story on the acceleration of global warming. He called me and said he decided to buy a hybrid, on the grounds that he wanted "to do whatever I can to help the environment." I was pleased with his decision but was concerned that he wouldn't find a hybrid he considered affordable.
Knowing that Pete thinks test-driving takes too long, I recommended that he call the Internet manager at his local Toyota dealership and ask to drive just two cars: the Prius C, a small, economical model, and the larger Prius hatchback. When I talked to him next, he said he had driven both, plus the 2013 Prius V, which he preferred because the rear visibility was better and the cargo area was bigger. There was only one problem: It was pricey.
I told him to shop for a 2012 Prius V, since dealers were giving great discounts to clear their lots. He did so and got a price below invoice. Still, he wanted to look at one more car. A friend had told him to look at the Ford C-Max. He found the cargo area wasn't as big as in the Prius V. That did it: His mind was made up.
The next day he called the Toyota dealership's Internet manager and accepted the offer on the 2012 Prius V. The delivery was smooth with no hard sell on an extended warranty or other extras.
While working on this story, I discussed Barbara's predicament with my editor. "She thinks there's a perfect choice out there that she'll miss, so she's afraid to make any decision." Another editor overheard this comment and said, "That's why I never buy a black purse: I want one that will do everything."
The fear of making a less-than-perfect decision when deciding what car to buy keeps many people from making any decision at all. I tell car shoppers to relax and keep in mind that once you narrow the field to a small group of cars, any one of them would be a fine choice. To move forward, shoppers have to let go of the fear that there is only one perfect car for them.
And finally, stuck car buyers need to come face to face with just what is keeping them from making a decision. Once they identify the sticking point, they can address it and move on to a successful car purchase.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.