Notes From A Car Shopper

In which I learn to shut up and take my own advice

First and foremost, don’t price-shop first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.

The last time I financed a brand-new car it was 1997 and the Internet was something to access only if you had the patience to ride out the “bzzzzz..eeee…BLAAAT” process of booting up your internet modem through AOL.

Forget about online car-shopping back then.  I had to take time off work, go to the credit union in person, get pre-approved, and then go to a dealership and waste half a day with their nonsense.

My two subsequent cars since then were purchased with cash. I wanted to go the older-car-for-cash route.

Damn,  how times have changed. Although I’ve been keeping abreast of Internet car shopping over the years as a lookie-loo/sometime automotive writer and while helping friends car-shop, it’s a different world when doing it on my own behalf.

Since when did dealers and lenders think it was a good idea to finance a 7-year old car with a six-year loan term? Did they learn nothing from the real estate crash when millions found themselves upside down on their mortgages? WTF?

For those of us shut out of the homebuying market, a car is the single most important big-ticket purchase we’re going to make. I don’t know about anyone else, but there’s already a low enough return on investment without getting shackled to a mega-loan.

Car prices today are similar to  prices that most of my generation’s parents paid for a home. The difference is people dropping 35-40K on a car won’t get the real-estate tax write-offs like our parents did.

My price range is nowhere near that anyway.

I’ve explored Beepi, Carvana, CarMax and TrueCar (no affiliation) and have bookmarked cars that interest me. My virtual garage is bursting. I’m armed with an excellent credit score and my  eyes are bigger than my wallet.

I’m also scared to death of making a huge financial commitment in this day and age where jobs are guaranteed for yesterday but not for today or beyond.

If I stick with a car that is well within my means, it will be too small, too old, and not safe enough. If I stretch a bit, I can possibly get into something a bit more substantial and to my liking. Both options give me sweaty palms and churning stomach.

Financing a car will be a leap of faith for me in the wake of two job losses in seven years in this New Economy.

And do it goes. I know I have plenty of company on all fronts.

I’ve been shelling out car-buying advice to friends and family for ages. Now it’s time I take my own advice.

Stay tuned.

Real-life Review: 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

  • Power train: 3.3 liter V6 DOHC hybrid engine, 288 v-nickel metal hydride battery.
  • MPG:32/27
  • Mileage at test drive: 110,000
  • NHTSA rating: 5/5 stars
2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

A rare 2007 Toyota Highlander hybrid suns itself in captivity.

Something that quiet can’t be up to much good, right?

I used to think hybrids were the sissies of the car world. Ungainly, ugly, and ill-mannered. Too quiet for my taste. I like to know what my cars are up to at all times. Won’t catch me dead driving one of those greenie cars. No way.

Get off my lawn and all that.

Naturally, I got my ego handed to me when one of my long-time neighbors flipped me the keys to her 2007 Toyota Highlander before going on vacation.

I honestly didn’t want to give the car back four days later. I also wanted to run back over to her house screaming “TAKE ALL MY MONEY!” Here’s why:

The 3.3 liter 268 HP engine delivered plenty of punch on the main highway, which is more like Death Race 2000 in this corner of the world. Coupled with firm, nimble handling, this car was a sweetheart.

It’s quiet, well-composed, responsive, and eager to run despite its relatively advanced age of 9. That alone is a testament to Toyota’s long-term staying power and my neighbor’s near-obsessive attention to the car’s maintenance schedule.

Unlike the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe I tested, the Highlander featured better fit and finish, higher quality materials throughout, and a firmer less, tippy ride.

The Highlander’s party line over the four days I had it was, “What? That’s all ya got? Sissy!” as I tip-toed it around town. Well, okay then.  Cornering in the Highlander was a delight and it handled the hilly coastal roads with a sure-footedness and power I wasn’t expecting.

It accelerated smoothly and without complaint. Despite its age, there were no mysterious rattles that sometimes plague older cars. Passing and merging were a breeze. The CVT was smooth and seamless.

The instrument cluster was well-laid out and easy to read. While it lacked the excitement and jet-engine feel of newer cars, fans of the “less is more” aesthetic will appreciate the 2007 Highlander’s no-nonsense approach.

The center stack was similarly well-organized, with buttons and controls within easy reach. The center console featured two storage compartments with integrated cupholders in the larger compartment.

Center stack 2007 Toyota Highlander hybrid

Sound quality from the 6-speaker sound system was excellent. Strauss never sounded so good!

Front headroom and legroom were generous at 40.1 and 42.9 inches respectively. Cargo space with seats up is 39.7 cubic feet, more than adequate for a busy family or active driver hauling people and cargo.

Whooping this mid-size SUV around town was a delight. Noise dampening was outstanding for a car of this vintage.

They said it wouldn’t last

Back in 2007 (the Pleistocene era in car years) hybrid technology was a  question mark in terms of battery life. There was much pearl-clutching and speculation that hybrid cars would bite the dust anywhere between 60-100,000 miles.

Based on the herd of Prii in my area and this Highlander, the earlier pearl-clutching was for naught. Everyone is alive and well, complete with their original batteries. Of course, these are spoiled, well-tended cars. Checking out maintenance records is key when buying a used car, but even more so with a hybrid.

The Highlander earned a 5/5 star rating from the NHTSA.

It’s a sturdy, likable vehicle with clean, sculpted lines and an eager to please demeanor. Featuring an assortment of standard goodies with few extras, the 2007 Toyota Highlander hybrid base is a smart choice for used car buyers looking for a lean, reliable used SUV.


Good News Garage: Changing Lives

Good News Garage provides the keys to a better life.

Someone’s cast-off car becomes someone else’s gateway to success through Good News Garage

(Note: I’m not affiliated with Good News Garage in any way)

Imagine needing to safely get to and from work , drop off/pick  up the kids from childcare, come home, go to night school, come back home and do it again the next day. Throw in a doctor’s appointment or other errand and you will have pulled off what just about every other busy American does on a given day.

Imagine doing that without a car of your own and very few transportation options.

Enter Good News Garage. Since its inception in 1996, the agency has donated refurbished cars to 4400 clients and counting. The Vermont-based agency relies on donations of used vehicles from CT, MA, NH, VT, RI, and ME. To say this program changes lives is an understatement. I think their most recent statistics tell the story much better than I ever could:

  • 89% of recipients reported greater economic opportunities
  • 86% reported better quality of life since receiving their vehicle
  • 83% consider their cars to be safe and reliable 12 months later

Check out some of their additional statistics and annual report. Minds blown and lives changed.

Transportation Deserts

This program is a boon to those in the New England area who lack access to regular public transit or whose circumstances make public transit impractical (distance, location,  multiple jobs, medical needs, child care needs) A safe and reliable car is the difference between economic mobility and economic hardship for low-income working people.

Mass transit is an inefficient and expensive afterthought in many parts of the country, and I’m glad that GNG has recognized this and taken action. With the recent shift of poverty from the city to the suburbs, hopping the bus to work is no longer a viable option.Suburban areas have little to no reliable mass transit.

Furthermore, a low-wage worker who spends hours on mass transit to and from work every day stands less of a chance of continuing their education, seeking supplemental employment, or attending job training/school.

GNG’s goal is to close that gap and provide their clients with equal footing in the process.

Humble gifts

Once a GNG client completes the application and vetting process, they’re matched with a vehicle that suits their needs and family size. All donated vehicles receive a 72-point inspection and are refurbished.

Something as simple as a donated car has the power to  change lives. As someone who dabbles in the automotive industry (I have a “day job” and a part-time business to keep the lights on and a roof over my head) it’s easy to get seduced by the many shiny toys that grace my social media feeds.

That’s not realistic for me, however.

And so it is for GNG clients as well. Something as humble as well-tended low-mileage  used car can be a catalyst for better employment opportunities, access to childcare, health care, and less time spent in transit. For someone without a car, a donated early-2000s model might as well be a sparkling 2016 model.

Why there isn’t a program like this in every state escapes me. If you’d like to find out more about Good News Garage and the various programs they offer, visit their website.

Better yet, if you’re a New England resident with a well-maintained used car, consider donating it to GNG. Your old car can become someone’s ticket to economic stability and better quality of life. Your act of kindness can change the course of someone’s life for the better.