Ever since we wrapped up the Debt-Free Car Project, we've been looking for something fun and intriguing to take its place. There are three themes that we decided to bring together for our latest effort.
Millennials: These 18-to-34-year-olds are the next generation of car buyers, and they are the largest generation in the U.S. today. They're well educated, but often burdened by student debt. They've been wired for technology since infancy. Past studies have said they don't care about cars, but newer research shows the opposite. And although they hate the term, we are going to call them millennials.
Used cars: We learned tons by buying and keeping up a used car in the Debt-Free Car Project. We wanted to try the experiment again, with a newer car and a bigger budget. As always, used cars present interesting maintenance, DIY and upgrade opportunities.
Dream cars: Who doesn't have a dream car? Not an unattainable dream car, like a Bugatti Veyron, but a car that would be just within our reach if things were slightly different in our lives and budgets.
And so we imagined a millennial buyer who was on a budget but still desired a cool used car. We came up with what we think is an interesting choice: a 2007 Dodge Charger SRT8. Here's how we got there.
Busting the Millennial Myths
The perceived wisdom about millennials is that they don't care about cars. In one study, millennials said they could live without car ownership but not without their smartphones and laptops. Other studies found that they hate driving and would rather take the bus than buy a car. But this may not actually be the case, as a more recent study has shown.
A 2015 MTV research study of more than 3,600 millennials found that 70 percent of them actually enjoy driving, compared to 58 percent of baby boomers and 66 percent of generation Xers.
"Young people claim to drive more miles per month than any other generation, with a self-reported 72 percent increase in the average number of miles driven versus boomers (934 miles vs. 544 miles) and an 18 percent increase versus gen X (934 miles vs. 790 miles)," according to the study.
And finally, about 60 percent of millennials surveyed said they "feel like losers among their peers without their cars."
Also, when Edmunds recently analyzed car shopping data, it found that more millennials are buying, now that they have begun to land jobs and establish their own households.
We Started With a Magnum
What do millennials buy when they buy used cars? We asked Edmunds industry analysts to look at national DMV registrations from the past two years for clues. They reviewed data and filtered the results to cars that were within 10 years old and registered by people ages 18-34. This data does not reflect instances in which parents may have bought and registered vehicles for their younger millennial sons or daughters, meaning that the data might skew toward the older end of the generation, since they're more likely to be able to pay for and register the cars themselves.
There are two ways to sort the millennial-buyer results. You can look at the volume list, meaning the highest number of registered vehicles, and there you'd find the usual suspects: Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-Series, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. These are all fine vehicles, but the percentage of millennial buyers isn't particularly high.
When you sort the data by the percent of millennials registering them, the list becomes more interesting. At about 29 percent, the Dodge Magnum has the highest percentage of millennial registrations in both 2013 and 2014. For awhile, we considered buying a Magnum, but the sample size was too small. Next on the list was the Pontiac G8: Been there, done that. After that there were a few SUVs (Chrysler Pacifica, Jeep Commander and Chevrolet Trailblazer). For some of us, this missed the requisite dream car factor.
But the Dodge Charger, ninth on the list, caught our attention. It had the best blend of volume and percent of millennial buyers: nearly 25 percent. Plus, it was pretty much the same car as the Magnum, minus the hatch and added cargo space. A Charger, then. This left us with a big decision: the engine choice.
The Charger of Their Dreams
If we were emulating those millennial car buyers, the V6 would be the clear winner, since 75 percent of Chargers registered by millennials had that engine. But we felt we had a chance to take things in a different and interesting direction.
According to the MTV study, "85 percent of millennials are looking forward to one day owning the car they've always wanted," compared to 59 percent of boomers and 72 percent of gen Xers.
This generation wants its dream car — more so than other generations. And we were in a position to buy it for them, in a sense, answering such questions as:
"Instead of a boring V6, what if I could opt for the top-of-the-line, 425-horsepower Charger SRT8?"
"How much would it cost to maintain?"
"What would the fuel costs look like over a year or two?"
"Is it as cool to drive as I think it is?"
Shopping for a Charger SRT8
The 2006 and 2007 Chargers were the model years most commonly purchased by millennials in 2014. This coincides with the best-selling years of the Charger (including the SRT8). We set our sights on those years and scoured the used-car listings.
Most of the used 2006-'07 Charger SRT8s sold at dealers in Southern California were priced around $21,900. The odometer readings ranged from 43,000 miles to 75,000, but the pricing was strangely consistent. We usually see larger price variations on used cars. It's almost as if everyone had used the same pricing guide.
Next, we looked at private-party listings, figuring that these cars would be lower priced than what we saw at the dealers. They weren't. Many of the cars on offer were priced between $23,000 and $26,000. Either these owners didn't see what else was out there, or perhaps they had an emotional attachment that was inflating the value of their cars.
Since most of the Charger SRT8s sold at the dealers were around $22K, we figured it would be a cinch to get one under $20K. We set our budget accordingly.
Just about every Charger we saw for sale was modified, with a Mopar cold-air intake and a cat-back exhaust being the most common add-ons. Aftermarket wheels were the next most common add-on.
Carefully Chosen Photos
We saw four vehicles in person and tested the price over the phone on a few others. First up was a silver 2006 model at a small independent lot in Inglewood, California. It had 64,000 miles and an asking price of $20,979. It looked great in the photos and the Carfax report came up clean.
In person, however, the car was a different story. The rear tires were bald, the paint was oxidized on the rear spoiler and the previous owner had covered all the moldings and mirrors with chrome trim. The exhaust on this Charger was so loud that we had a slight scare when the dealer started the engine. We drove around a bit and heard a rattling noise that we couldn't quite pinpoint. This car wasn't at the top of our list, but it was the closest. We wanted to get an idea of where the dealer stood on price, thinking that if we got a screaming deal, we might handle some of the repairs ourselves.
"I've priced this car close to what I bought it for," the sales manager said. "The best I can do is a couple hundred off sticker."
Under normal circumstances, this would have seemed unusual, given that used cars typically have higher markups than new ones. But earlier that day, we had called a dealer in Rosewood, a town in far Northern California. He had told us the same thing.
We heard about another interesting possibility not far away from us: a black 2006 Charger with about 58,500 miles on the odometer. It was a one-owner car and was "bone stock," with no mods, according to Darren, a salesman at an independent lot in Brea, California.
"These cars are in high demand," Darren said. "My phone has been ringing off the hook." We drove over right away.
Darren must not have peeked under the hood, because this bone-stock Charger had the same cold-air intake that we had seen on other cars. Still, this seemed to be the only modification and the car was in very clean condition. The tires were the wrong size (slightly larger) and rotated incorrectly (the Charger has staggered wheels), but they were less than a year old and had plenty of tread. The asking price was $21,995 and we offered $19,000. Darren declined our offer. He said that this was a "no haggle" dealership, but he might be able to swing a $500 discount. We thanked him for his time and decided to keep looking a bit more.
An Open Recall
After running Carfax reports on a few Chargers, we saw an open recall for the driver side airbag inflator in the vehicles. This was part of the massive Takata recall, which has made recent headlines. The recall didn't deter us from wanting the car. In fact, it made us want it more. It means we can report on what it's like to get a fix during this huge recall. More on that in a future installment.
The San Diego Charger
After our visit to Brea, we went to look at a red 2007 Charger that was being sold by a Mercedes dealership in San Diego. The listing was so new that the car hadn't gone through its reconditioning phase yet.
This was another one-owner car, with an asking price of $21,888 and roughly 66,000 miles on the odometer. In fact, this Charger had spent its entire life in San Diego, according to the Carfax report. The paint was in great shape overall, but there were a few noticeable chips and scuffs. The tires were about 5 years old, which is about the time they should probably be replaced for safety. On our test-drive, we noticed the brakes making noise and were able to gauge the loudness of the JBA exhaust. It wasn't as bad as the Inglewood car, so we felt we could deal with it. The 2007 Charger was on our list of contenders, but we decided to wait for a bit to see what items the dealer would address in the reconditioning.
The Bargain Contender
A Toyota dealership in Livermore, California, had a silver 2006 Charger for $15,777. It was one of the lowest prices we'd encountered. Here was the catch: It had 95,973 miles on the odometer. It also had an aftermarket intake and exhaust, but the price was so low it provided an interesting dilemma when we compared it to the San Diego Charger. Was the San Diego car's lower mileage and newer model year worth roughly $6,000? Soon the decision was taken out of our hands. The Livermore dealer took its Charger off the lot and sent it to the auction block.
Betting on Black or Red?
By this point, we had narrowed down our selections to the black 2006 Charger in Brea or the red 2007 Charger in San Diego. We were prepared to go slightly over budget if it meant getting a better car. Given that the black Charger showed the best, we decided to give the dealer in Brea another call. Alas, it had sold the car the day after we looked at it.
We heard back from the Mercedes-Benz dealership in San Diego. The red Charger had just passed smog and received extensive repairs: a safety inspection, four new tires, new rear brake pads, oil change, headlight cleaning, a full detail and the removal of the paint chips we had seen earlier. They also refinished the wheels to take care of any curb rash.
We decided to take another look at it. On the way over, we stopped by a dealership in Santa Ana, which had two black Chargers for sale. Too late again: The dealer had already sold the one without modifications. All that remained was one with black painted wheels and an exhaust that was even louder than the one in Inglewood.
Once we arrived in San Diego, we found that the red 2007 Charger made a far better impression than it had before. All the repairs put this car at the top of our list. After a short negotiation, we agreed on a price of $20,600 before tax and title. The out-the-door price was $22,950.
Join Us for the Ride
This project, while conceived with a millennial in mind, is also for anyone who likes reading about interesting used cars. During our last project, a number of readers commented about how much they liked reading about our used car experience. We'll handle some repairs on our own, but others we'll leave to the dealership. We may even try an independent mechanic.
We also have other plans for this car in the future, including bringing the technology up to date, and making a comparison to a modern car that would cost thousands more.
You can follow along in our long-term road test blog as we'll be updating its progress daily. Also let us know what you think about the car and what you want to see us do with it in the comments below.
Chapter 1: Busting Millennial Myths and Shopping for a Used Car
Chapter 2: Buying a Car Under Recall and What It Took To Fix It
Chapter 3: Chapter 3: Adding Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a Back-up Camera
Chapter 4: Minor Maintenance and DIY Repairs
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.