We all like to think that we are immune to the lure of advertising. But even the savviest consumer can be seduced by a carmaker's TV campaign that's filled with slow-motion shots of a hot new coupe. Likewise, a local dealership's pitch for surprisingly low, low payments and super-easy credit terms can speak to the heart, if not the head.
There's no doubt that car ads have their place. They can let us know about special bargains. They highlight upcoming sales that can actually offer great deals. But you also need to be a smart consumer and separate hype from reality. With that in mind, here are five of the most common issues you're likely to encounter in car advertising. And we've also included some advice for smart shopping when the deal seems too good to be true.
1. Showing the top trim, but advertising the base price. With some TV ads, it's common to see a fully loaded, top-trim model of a vehicle on the screen while the price of a base model is being displayed. You might assume that you could buy the car pictured at the price presented. Wrong. Even worse, the base price quoted probably doesn't include any fees. Fees, of course, can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a car.
What they'll say: Starting at only $19,999!
Our advice: Be realistic about choosing the car, the trim level and the options you want so that you stay inside your budget. Find out what range to shop in by using our Affordability Calculator.
2. Preposterous mpg. A hot-looking sport coupe is tearing up the landscape when the text flies across the TV screen: "40 mpg!" Granted, this car is capable of getting 40 mpg on the highway, provided you drive like a hypermiler. But you won't get anywhere near that mileage if you're driving full-throttle like the guy in the ad. It might even be that the fine print refers to a different version of the car entirely, the one with a small engine, tall gearing and no options. That's the one pulling down 40 mpg, not the version on the screen.
What they'll say: Fuel economy you'll love!
Our advice: Your mileage may vary — a lot. The most important number to consider is the EPA's combined mpg, not the highway mpg figure. Combined is probably what the car will get in the real world. To get started, here's a list of cars that actually do get 40 mpg. The excellent automotive site from the federal government at fueleconomy.gov also has this list of the most and least fuel-efficient cars.
3. Lease payments that are too good to be true. Over coffee on Saturday morning, you see a luxury-car ad promoting lease payments for only $199 a month. If you left for the dealership right away, you might not notice that $4,999 is required to start this lease.
Do you have nearly $5 grand sitting around? If so, please don't put it on a lease. There are two important reasons: 1) If you totaled the car in an accident within a month of signing such a lease, insurance would pay for the car, but you would lose the entire $4,999 and 2) Leasing is designed to maximize your personal cash flow, so rather than tying up your $4,999, instead pay $1,000 in "drive-off fees" to start the lease and invest the other $3,999.
What they'll say: Lease for only $199 a month!
Our advice: If you're looking for a good lease deal, try to find one with zero dollars due at signing. Also, pay attention to the miles allowed under the terms of the lease. In some leases, the allowance could be as low as 10,000 miles per year.
4. The phantom special. Many local dealership newspaper ads feature the phrase "One at this price," which is a tip-off to what insiders call an "ad car." It's usually the purple one with crank windows and no A/C — cheap, but not necessarily in a good way. If you go to the dealership and ask to test-drive the one-only car, it's likely A) "Already been sold," B) "Out on a test-drive" or C) "In the back of the lot, and I'd have to move 50 cars to get to it." The "good" news, of course, is that they have lots of other cars for sale. The bad news is that those cars are a lot more expensive.
What they'll say: One at this price!
Our advice: It's classic bait and switch. Instead of falling for this ploy, find cars that interest you on the Edmunds.com site and check for Price PromiseSM purchase and lease offers. Price Promise offers up-front, guaranteed prices on specific vehicles.
5. Rebates for everyone — but not you. Once upon a time, you fell in love with a certain car. But because it cost more than a degree at an Ivy League college, you put it out of your mind. Then one day, you see an ad for the car of your dreams, listed at a price that seems to barely squeak into your budget (plus about $2,000).
Before reason can return, you run down to the dealership and throw yourself at the salesman's feet. That's when you find out that to get to the reduced price of $28,000, the dealership factored in a $500 military rebate (your bad eyes kept you out of the Air Force); a $750 college-graduate rebate (you've always wanted to finish your degree but you're not there yet); a "loyalty bonus" for the brand (you've never owned a car from this manufacturer before); and several other discounts and rebates that are not available to folks like you.
What they'll say: You can buy the car of your dreams!
Our advice: This deal is perfect for a college grad who's a member of the quarter-horse association, is currently serving in the armed forces and once drove an Edsel. Instead take a look at our incentives and rebate pages to see what rebates are available and find out well ahead of time if you qualify.
Advertisers have every right to create excitement for their product. But to be a smart shopper, you need to understand and interpret the language of hype. Once you've translated an ad into consumerspeak, you'll know if the vehicle featured is a good deal for you.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.