Where Your Author Encounters a Sleazy 1980s Car Dealership in 2020

We’re not talking about my Golf Sportwagen purchase today; they were slow to negotiate, but not sleazy. The topic at hand is what happened this past weekend when I helped my grandmother purchase a used car.

It turns out that at some dealers, even though the calendar says 2020, sales practices are more in line with 1980.

My grandmother wanted to replace her well-worn 2007 Buick Terraza, and desired either a van or a crossover for her next ride. The project was handed to me, as the family “car person” (who’d also most recently purchased a lightly used car). No problem.

We narrowed down that she didn’t need the seven-passenger capacity of a minivan, nor something as large as a three-row CUV. Two-row crossover — easy! I showed her several used examples in the well-stocked marketplace, keeping the miles low and the price under $30,000. All-wheel drive wasn’t a necessity, but a decent backup camera was, with bonus points to parking sensors, heated seats, and a driver’s seat that could be adjusted toward the sky. She liked the Equinox, so the next Saturday with decent February weather, we were off to a family-owned Chevrolet dealer near the decrepit Tri-County Mall.

The dealer had two Equinoxes that looked about right — 2018 models, listed CPO. Only one of those was on the lot, as we were informed by the salesman the other was still undergoing the CPO process. It wouldn’t be available until Monday or Tuesday the following week. Grandma checked out the remaining low-mileage white example, went for a test drive, and was ready to buy. The salesman wasn’t applying pressure, and let us take the test drive on our own. Inside the office we went, ready to do some dealing.

It was a simple setup: We aimed to fix a price first before we talked about the trade-in (though they didn’t ask about it), we were ready to buy right then, and we had cash. The showroom was stuck in the late Eighties with its cheap, old furniture, somewhat dim lighting, and two cars on display in close quarters. The conditions were a good indicator of how the place did business. We started out an offer that was $1,900 less than the sticker, which would’ve been a good buy. The salesman pulled out a piece of paper: “Write your offer down and sign it so we know you’re serious, and I’ll go ask my sales manager what we can do.” It felt weird that the customer was required to physically write the offer. And even more so that I had to sign it, which meant literally nothing on a blank piece of printer paper.

Ten minutes later, the salesman returned with a counter: They could come down $500. But there was another facet to the offer — the dealership was willing to “uncertify” the car, making it a regular used car. The 12-month additional CPO warranty would disappear, along with another $500 from the asking price. I’d never heard of an “uncertification” in that way, after the car had already been through the rigorous 170-point certification process. Declining that, I suggested the price should come down $400 more, and the CPO should stay. Off the salesman went to the back office where customers don’t venture.

Another 10 minutes, and we had a return offer. They came down the additional $400 and left the certification on, with a smiley face drawn on the piece of paper from the mysterious manager. The salesman brought back a printed quote this time. The figure was still about $500 past a fair price for the Equinox, but assuming there were no other issues I was leaning toward “fine.” But on the quote there appeared a line that was a bit suspect: EPAP $499.

It wasn’t disclosed on the listing, or anywhere on their website. After inquiring what it was, I was presented with a shiny brochure on the benefits of the Environmental Paint and Protection package, which is some exterior coating and fabric protectant. “And it’s on all our cars, it’s great,” he reassured. A few more sentences about the benefits of this off-brand Scotch Guard package followed, and I waited patiently. Upon confirming this protectant “system” was applied to all their cars before they made it to the lot, I started to feel a bit gross about the whole thing.

“This really feels like 1980s used car games,” I said. The salesman sort of shrugged.

“The owner requires it!”

“Yes, but I won’t be paying for it,” came my reply. Assuring me he’d see what he could do, he ran back to the sales manager to see if he could help me out any on the price. Returning, the protectant that was definitely worth $499 was now priced at $299. I repeated that I’d not be paying for any protectant, and the salesman said he’d bring over the manager to see if I could “win him over.”

Maybe I should’ve worn my tight jeans.

The manager, Slick McSpikes, came over after 20 minutes and extolled the virtues of EPAP. He explained it was more a protection for the dealership, in case damage were to happen on the lot before the car was sold. Resisting the urge to shoot back with, “Then you pay for it,” I reiterated that I wouldn’t hand over the $299. “I have to charge you at least $299 for this, the owner requires it.” I said, well, go ahead and take $299 right off the car’s price then. His face changed a bit after that, with a flat “I’ve discounted this car enough.”

“Well, then we’ll be buying a car somewhere else.”

As we were getting our coats and walking out the door, Slick called after me “You sure you wanna throw away all this time you just spent putting this deal together?” Yeah, I was very sure. We headed up the road to Joe Morgan Honda in Monroe, Ohio, who didn’t see fit to apply such arcane protection profit centers to their cars. Much more respectful of our time, they were quicker to deal and more friendly. The metallic beige Equinox was parked up front and ready for viewing when we got there. Their price was already reasonable, and they knocked off $230 of the $300 I asked for. In and out in just under two hours, and grandma’s very pleased with her front-drive 2018 Equinox 1LT.

One previous owner, 13,000 miles, $18,095 before tax.

As surprising as it was to find a multi-brand and well-known dealership chain playing profit games with protectant in 2020, they do it because they get by with it. I’m sure most customers just eat the $499 and roll it into their payments, because what’s a couple more bucks? It smacks of hardcore dishonesty to me when such a “feature” is not listed anywhere on a dealer’s site, and effectively means the (already high) prices are actually misrepresented by $499 on every single car. These types of dealers are out there today. Don’t give them your business.

[Images: welcomia/shutterstock, General Motors, seller]

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