I’ve been writing car buying advice columns for years, and for good reason—most people have absolutely zero idea about how to buy a car. When I say that, I mean that they are completely uninformed about the entire process, starting with the selection of the car, whether to buy new or used, how to negotiate, whether or not to get an extended warranty, etc. Sure, your Uncle Bark can help, and I’m always happy to do so, but more often than not, even people who reach out to me for advice end up missing out on one key piece of the journey, and that one piece can often cause serious financial and time-oriented headaches.
This is why CarMax is so incredibly successful. For reasons that we will absolutely address later in this blog post, CarMax appears to be the only dealership chain in the country that truly understands how much most people loathe everything about buying a car.
Pricing transparency? Got it. Everybody pays the same price. Financing transparency? Also got it. Not sure what car you want? No worries—they’ll find it for you. Worried that your car will break? They’ll give you a free limited warranty and sell you one that covers anything else.
So, yes, CarMax is successful, but if you are one of the few automotive consumers who really does know what he’s doing, dealing with them comes at a somewhat terrible price—namely, you’ll likely pay too much for your car. After all, the reason we do all of that silly negotiating and backslashinforth in the first place is because we want to save money, not because we particularly enjoy it. Having a fixed price relieves the anxiety for most customers because everybody walks away feeling like they got the same deal anybody else in their shoes would have gotten.
It’s a well known fact in the car biz that the customers who get the best deals walk away the angriest. It’s the customers who get absolutely cracked who write great Google reviews and refer all of their friends from church. So it’s no wonder that people love CarMax—everybody gets cracked.
Or do they? I was determined to find out. Why, you may ask?
Well, after eight long years of dedicated and faithful service as the family hauler, my Ford Flex surpassed the 200,000 mile mark earlier this year. And while it has largely been a trouble-free vehicle thus far, I had reason to believe that my luck would run out soon. The Check Engine Light had become permanently illuminated, thanks to a fuel filler neck that I could never seem to get clean enough. The TPMS had failed. There had been a constant whirring sound coming from the dash for several years. The seatbelt on the passenger side in the middle row only retracted sometimes.
Individually, none of these matters were particularly concerning. Collectively, they were annoying. Also, everybody knows that it’s just a matter of time before the water pump dies on the 3.5L V6 D4 cars, which in turn tends to crater the engine. I could prophylactically fix it, sure, but the value of the car was less than the price of doing the water pump. So while I definitely enjoyed the complete lack of car payment for the last three years, and the incredibly low Kentucky vehicle property tax, I had to admit that the time had come to start thinking about a car that would be able to handle the majority of the Flex’s duties—including a 100 mile round trip every day for work.
Again, the value of the Flex was next to nothing, thanks to the mileage and the fact that it had been rear-ended by a government employee a couple of years previous. The damage was cosmetic and had been repaired, but it was a ugly blemish on the CarFax. So rather than take a $1500 trade in valuation, I decided to keep the Flex for weekend soccer chores and find something a little less…CUV-like for the daily grind.
I had paid around $30k for the Flex eight years ago, and I wanted to keep in line with that price for its replacement. Obviously, the price of new cars has gone up significantly over that time, by almost twenty percent. Therefore, in order to get something that had a similar value as my 2013 $30k Ford, I would have to pay $36k for it in MY 2021.
Or, I could just buy a used car.
Those of you who have been somewhat loyal Bark readers over the last eight years know that I always, and I do mean always purchase new. Here is a list of the cars that I’ve owned in my life, along with a New/Used designation:
- 1994 Jetta III GL (New)
- 1996 INFINITI G20 (new)
- 1988 Porsche 944 (used)
- 2000 Hyundai Tiburon (new)
- 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe (new)
- 2001 Hyundai Elantra (new)
- 2004 Mazda RX-8 (new)
- 2005 Scion tC (new)
- 2007 Mazda CX-7 (new)
- 2009 Pontiac G8 GT (new)
- 2011 Chevrolet Equinox (new)
- 2013 Ford Boss 302 (new)
- 2013 Ford Flex (new)
- 1995 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight (used)
- 1996 Subaru Legacy Wagon (used)
- 2015 Ford Fiesta ST (new)
- 2016 Ford Focus RS (new)
None of the used cars lasted more than a year after I acquired them. The Porsche met a breakaway light post. The Oldsmobile had unsolvable electrical gremlins. The Subaru just blew up.
But I had a pretty specific set of requirements for my Flex replacement, and unfortunately, $36k wasn’t gonna cut it if I was going to look for all of those features in a brand-new car. I wanted to ensure that my car would have the following features (yay, another list):
- All-Wheel drive, for the ten days a year that it snows in Kentucky
- Comfortable seating for four
- leather seating, lumbar support, heated and cooled seats
- Apple CarPlay
- Premium quality stereo
- modern safety feature suite (a la Honda Sensing)
- Preferably a car instead of a CUV/SUV
- From a luxury brand
I know, I know on that last one. But honestly, I had never owned a luxury brand car, and I felt like it was time—I had dealt with Ford-level interior quality for long enough. Obviously, I wasn’t going to find a new car that fit all of these qualifications, so I begrudgingly began to admit that it was time to go used car shopping.
If you know my personal history (worked for Autotrader for four years, Cars.com affiliate for three years), you know I’m not a huge fan of any of the third-party aggregator sites. They served their purpose at one time, but that time has come and gone. Both Autotrader and Cars need dealers more than dealers need them at this point, a result of a drastic switch in consumer behavior around the years 2014-2017. Customers no longer go to these sites organically—they perform a google search for something like “Used Luxury Car under $35,000 near me) and then they go on a wild goose chase to find the car that they want.
Or, if they’re like me, they realize that Carvana and CarMax have already done the work of aggregating all of that inventory on their own sites, and you can just search for the car you want a hell of a lot more easily that way.
So that’s what I did. I started looking for pre-owned luxury cars that met all or most of my criteria. Here’s what I came up with (one more list for y’all):
- Lincoln MKS
- Lincoln MKT
- Lincoln Continental
- Audi A6
- Mercedes E300/350
- Genesis G80
- Assorted other dumb ideas (Volvo, Jaguar, etc.)
Surprisingly, I never seriously considered a BMW 5 Series of any type, which I think speaks volumes about how far the brand has fallen. The Fiver is just overpriced and blah.
Also surprisingly, the Lincoln MKT and Genesis G80 leapt to the top of almost any comparison that I could come up with. I had loved the idea of an E300 or an A6, but the E300s were a little high on price and the A6 were a little low on power. The MKT just felt comfortable—after all, it’s a Ford Flex in Lincoln clothing. Brother Jack has had a EcoBoost MKT for a couple of years, and it’s a delightful highway cruiser. Good, late model, low mileage examples with nearly every box checked can be found for under $30k all day long.
However, they’re almost always rental cars. MKTs didn’t sell in very high retail volume. I don’t personally mind buying a rental. After all, they are better maintained than almost any car on the road—they’re inspected every two or three days. And with the Kung Flu pandemic hitting these shores in 2020, rental cars have seen very little use in comparison to rentals of the past. So was it a huge deal that every MKT I found was a rental?
Okay, yes. It was. I hated to admit it, especially after having given the advice to literally hundreds of readers in the past that buying a rental is no big deal. But if I could avoid buying a car that dozens of tourist asses had ripped Rally’s farts in, it would be ideal.
So that led me to the Genesis G80. Talk about a car that’s difficult to find in the right color, trim, and package! After some internal deliberation, I decided on the 3.8 HTRAC with Premium and Ultimate package. I decided on the 3.8 over the 5.0 for two reasons—fuel economy and balance. The six second zero-to-sixty time of the 3.8 HTRAC was more than quick enough in comparison to the Ford Flex I’d had for eight years, and it was more important for me to get those extra MPG. Plus, my friends at Hyundai all told me that I’d enjoy the daily driving experience of the 3.8 over the 5.0, that it was better balanced and handled better as a result.
Problem with the G80 is that they really did not sell in any significant volume. So to find the right color and feature combo was a rough one. CarMax had about 80 G80s in stock nationwide, and only 8 had the 3.8 HTRAC with Premium and Ultimate, and most of those were fairly high mileage. However, I did find two 2017 models that were acceptable.
One was a navy exterior with a tan interior, and one was a light gray with black interior. Both were $29,998, with an original MSRP of $54k, and both had around 22k on the clock I opted to have the navy car shipped to my local CarMax for $149, and I was pleased with my decision. After all, if it arrived and I didn’t want it, no big deal—I’d be out $149, but at least I found exactly the color, trim, and package that I wanted. And after 14 days, I received a call that the car had arrived, and I hurriedly went to my local CarMax to check it out.
It was fucked.
Honestly, the car didn’t even come close to resembling the car I had seen on the website. It looked like somebody had taken a rake to both sides of the car, over and over. The parking sensor cover on the driver’s side had fallen off. The interior was dingy. To say I was pissed would have been the understatement of the year—and keep in mind, we’re talking about 2020 here.
However, CarMax stepped up and did the right thing. They refunded my shipping charge to me immediately, and then offered to find me another car and ship it to my local CarMax at no charge. I decided to have the Parisian Gray model sent to the store, and when it arrived, I was glad that I had. The color was delightful in person, with a sort of lavender tint to it. I don’t love black interiors, but I was reminded of what my children had done to the tan interior of my Flex for the last eight years and begrudgingly admitted that it was probably for the best.
I had never actually driven that version of the G80 before settling in behind the wheel of this particular iteration—I had only driven the Hyundai Genesis of years past. Although the difference in the listed features was slight, the 2017 G80 was light years ahead of its predecessor in terms of refinement. The G80 simply glides over imperfections in the pavement as though they didn’t exist. The 17-speaker Lexicon stereo, while not ideal for thumping out hip-hop beats, makes listening to classical music or jazz a truly sublime experience—second in quality only to the ELS systems found in new Acuras.
It took me only 15 minutes or so to know that this was the car for me. I found some slight imperfections in the paint and on the right rear wheel, and they promised to repair them for me before I picked up the car, which they did. I promised to return when the issues were resolved.
When the paint was fixed, I received my call that I could come pick up my new (to me) luxury sedan. The delivery experience was fantastic. CarMax makes a big deal of making sure that the entire process is completely transparent—everything that is on the salesperson’s monitor is also on a monitor that the customer can see. I had my own financing arranged through my bank, but CarMax was able to beat my arranged rate, and presented multiple options to me depending on how much money I wanted to put down. The salesperson simply showed me what was on the screen. There was no F&I box for me to sit in—all of the financing and warranty options were presented to me by my salesperson. Nobody ever asked “what payment are you comfortable with” or “how much can you put down today” or “what will it take to earn your business” or “I need to go ask my manager.”
Simply put, there was no fuckery involved. I wanted the car, they wanted to sell it to me, and that was that.
Most important, the price was correct. I searched long and wide to find a 2017 G80 with similar mileage and options. None were even close to the $29,998 price of my car. Could I have negotiated down to that price with some other dealer? Sure. Would have been worth the hassle? Not even close.
So now I have my dream daily driver for the price of a Camry—and a fairly cheap Camry, at that. And when something went wrong—the button for the heated seats was sticky—CarMax just ordered me a new button and replaced it free of charge.
So should you buy a car from CarMax? Hard to say. Maybe the pricing isn’t as competitive on higher volume models. Maybe they won’t google your name when you have an issue with your delivery and realize that you have the power to blast them in front of tens of thousands of car shoppers. But for me and my car, well…it was perfect.