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Pricing, financing, warranties, insurance--it's one hurdle after another to make it through the car shopping experience without paying a dime more than you must.
Sometimes, it's not the dealer or the bank that costs you extra money. It's you. By ordering optional features that don't add much to the driving experience--or worse, interfere with it--and don't hold their value over time, many car shoppers end up with a car more expensive than it should be, one that depreciates even more quickly the minute they sign the paperwork and leave the dealer lot. That's money that could go directly to paying off that new car, truck, or crossover sooner.
Wondering if you're spending too much? You might be, if you've ticked the boxes for these unnecessary features:
All-wheel drive--if you don't really need it. Some drivers in northern-tier states with regular sloppy weather and hilly unpaved roads will be well-served with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, which can distribute power more evenly when traction is dicey. Still, each year, hundreds of thousands of shoppers who live in the south and the southwest ante up for those heavy, complex add-ons that consume more gas and more cash, for little to no added measure of utility or safety. In almost all cases, a front-drive vehicle with good mud-and-snow tires will do the trick.
Estimated savings: From $1,500 and up. The 2013 GMC Terrain, for example, is offered with all-wheel drive as a $1,750 option on either four- or six-cylinder models.
Expensive navigation systems. Technology is driving down the price of GPS in cars, but many drivers are already turning toward even less expensive solutions. Phone-based navigation is often cheaper; some safety-and-security systems like GM's OnStar and Ford's SYNC come with serviceable, turn-by-turn navigation that eliminates pricey hard-drive or disc-based databases and big LCD screens. Meanwhile, Apple's plan to integrate Siri voice controls in cars threatens to turn the whole in-car navigation market into a free-for-all, literally. Some in-house nav systems are inexpensive, like the latest ones from GM and Nissan. Before you spend a thousand and upward on a bundled nav system, consider more practical options--and what the future may hold.
Estimated savings: From $590 and up. Some of the least expensive factory-installed navigation systems, like those in the 2013 Nissan Altima, may be worth it, but most come grouped with other options in packages that often cost more than a couple thousand dollars.
CD players, especially changers. Compact discs are on their way out of cars, and most manufacturers have already deleted CD changers from their options lists. The single-slot CD or DVD player is still widespread as a base sound system, or as a premium system when it's coupled with a navigation system, but if you're streaming audio via Bluetooth or a USB port, there's no need to spend more on another media reader.
Estimated savings: Up to several thousand dollars. Accessory CD changers can often be bought for a few hundred dollars and installed at the dealer, but order one with your new car--as with the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class' six-disc CD/DVD changer--and you'll pay $3,600 for it, and the power features, satellite radio, and rearview camera that come bundled with it.
DVD or streaming-TV entertainment systems. Keeping kids entertained and quiet is key on long car trips, and for the past decade, DVD entertainment systems have ruled the second- and third-row seats of minivans and crossovers everywhere. But there's a revolution already in hand that makes built-in DVDs and LCD screens seem so 2005--tablet computing. A Galaxy or iPad tablet is cheaper, portable, easier to manage and easier for kids to handle. They're relatively inexpensive, new or used, to replace systems that can cost three or four times as much, and can be updated with the newest software. The best part: Web connectivity through 3G that those hardwired systems can't match.
Estimated savings: $1,000 and up. The Dodge Grand Caravan SXT is a great deal at just over $26,000, but to get a DVD entertainment system for the second and third rows, you'll spend another $1,395, since it comes only with satellite radio and a rearview camera.
Leather upholstery. The new Lexus ES is more luxurious than ever, but inside its cozy cabin of base models you won't find leather upholstery, unless it's ordered off the options list. The same is true for the Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class, ML-Class, and GL-Class SUVs, and many entry-level German sport sedans. The Volkswagen Passat doesn't even offer leather on five-cylinder or diesel models, though prices can pass $30,000. What's at work? Better quality synthetic materials that look as good as leather but wear better, according to manufacturers. It's less expensive to manufacture, too, which means the "leatherette" that works better than the real thing saves you money--while the real thing is now, more than ever, bundled and packaged along with thousands of dollars' worth of other options you may not want or need. If after all that, you're still only interested in real hides, consider having it done post-dealer, where it can be considerably less pricey.
Estimated savings: From a thousand to several thousand dollars. Leather seating often is an upgrade included with higher trim levels, so it's more difficult to separate from more lavishly equipped trim lines. The VW Passat doesn't get leather at all except on the top SEL trim--which at $29,985, is more than $9,000 more expensive than the base $20,590 Passat S.
Voice command systems--unless you're patient. A plethora of voice-command systems have flooded the market, led by Ford's SYNC and MyFord and MyLincoln Touch, followed by Kia's UVO and to some degree, GM's Intellilink system and the voice controls offered by German automakers. You could spend hours understanding the voice command chain that allows you to access music playlists, program navigation destinations, or set climate controls--or you could simply opt for a trim level of a vehicle that omits those complex, bleeding-edge systems. Of these, Ford's are the most advanced and have the steepest learning curve, and as such, have encountered the most criticism. If you're planning on buying a vehicle equipped with any of these, make sure to spend time before you buy, and after, re-learning how to accomplish basic tasks like choosing radio station presets--a former one-button affair that now can take three or four swipes and strokes and commands, depending on the brand.
Estimated savings: At least a thousand dollars. Voice commands can be an add-on to navigation systems offered in some car models, or they can come bundled with the navigation system itself. On the 2013 Ford Edge, the SYNC suite of Bluetooth-driven voice commands is a $1,250 option that comes grouped with satellite radio, automatic headlamps and keyless entry.
Power-folding seats--and power-closing doors, trunks, and tailgates. It's a classic first-world problem: how to wrestle with a cart from a warehouse store with kids in tow, while trying to open and configure a large vehicle to truck it all home. More and more vehicles now offer power assistance for everything, not just windows, locks, and mirrors--everything from Chrysler's minivan tailgates to the trunk lid on the BMW 7-Series sedan. Some new crossovers like the 2013 Ford Escape omit a convenience like a power front passenger seat entirely--but offer a power tailgate that opens at the wave of a foot. Some argue, the fewer the power-operated conveniences the better, for maintenance's sake. For your wallet's sake, skipping power-folding third-row and second-row seats, and power-closing doors, trunks, and tailgates, could also save you thousands off the bottom line.
Estimated savings: From $1,000 and up. Power assists can be helpful for smaller, less strong drivers, but are largely a convenience for the cash-flush. The 2012 Toyota Sienna LE offers power sliding side doors--useful for kids who sometimes can't open those doors by themselves--but they're $2,735 in a package that includes sunshades, Bluetooth, and steering-wheel audio controls.
In-car Internet service. Here, it's the hard-wired, accessory-option variety that makes no sense in an era of hotspot smartphones and dual USB ports in new vehicles. It's cheaper just to buy a new phone or to sign up for a 3G dongle, than to buy, install, and subscribe to an aftermarket or OEM-accessory system that grafts a permanent 3G networks into a new vehicle.
Estimated savings: A few hundred dollars. Most smartphones now can do what mobile, fixed-installation Internet routers used to do. Autonet has those aftermarket solutions for folks without advanced telecommunications in their pockets--but the hardware still needs a data plan.
The 72-month car loan. The last unnecessary feature you can skip promises the biggest savings of all. As it's become more difficult to buy a new car that suits all needs, many shoppers have turned to longer car loans, to lower payments to an acceptable level. It's a trap: interest rates may be historically low, but you'll still end up paying thousands of dollars more on a six-year car loan than you would on the good old traditional 48-month loan. Find a car that suits you and also suits your budget--a budget that includes paying it off in less than four years whenever possible.
Estimated savings: In the thousands. It all depends on the purchase price and depreciation rate of your new car, but as consumer expert Clark Howard suggests, keeping a loan under 48 months prevents you from a situation where "you owe more than the vehicle is worth."