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How we bagged the elusive Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Real-world experience shows buying frustrations, and how to get what you want

Published: May 12, 2014 12:00 PM

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This is a tale of intrigue, mystery, and frustration. It’s about the challenges in buying our latest test car, a Toyota.

Back story

Where I work at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, I’m one of the troupe who routinely goes out to dealerships to anonymously negotiate for and purchase our test cars. In late April, I was assigned to buy a 2014 Highlander Hybrid Limited for evaluation. (Read our regular Highlander road test.)

Being fresh to market, we knew that availability would initially be limited, as is often the case when we purchase test cars. Adding to the challenge was the desire to find a model equipped with the Driver Technology Package, a $1,400 extra that includes new-style safety gear such as pre-collision warning. Vehicles with that package run somewhere between $49,000 and $52,000 depending on what else is piled on and whether it would mean stepping up from the Limited to Limited Platinum trim, where it’s included.

Like any savvy consumer, we do as much of the buying process as possible online, such as scope the local-dealer websites and ask for e-quotes. We follow up with phone calls or e-mails verifying that said car is actually there and available. (Sometimes it isn’t.) We see if they’ll meet or beat the best price we’ve gathered so far. Then we say yes and make a date to go visit the dealer. To preserve anonymity, we buy the test cars posing as our actual private selves, rather than as Consumer Reports employees.

Web of deceit

I started by checking the web sites of nearby Toyota dealers, rummaging through their “New inventory” sections. I soon find that each dealership has exactly one Highlander Hybrid, if that.

As with many other brands, Toyota dealer websites let you search the inventory easily enough but then don’t tell you exactly what you’ve found.

When you find a likely suspect in inventory and click the “options” tab, you’re presented with a long, run-together list of features, sometimes in alphabetical order, sometimes not. In this case, so-called options included air conditioning (every car in America has that), antilock brakes (required by law), blind-spot monitoring (every 2014 Highlander Hybrid has that), and on and on. More than 75 little red herrings. Instead of options-package names and their content, or the package code numbers, you get a mountain of information designed to conceal the truth. The smart thing to do at that point is to call the sales department for specifics.

Some other brands’ sites do tell you what’s actually on the specific car. Some even provide images of the window sticker, which does disclose the various packages. Hats off to them. Window stickers are required by law if you’re on a dealer’s lot, but not if you’re an online shopper. Go figure.

First bite

I found one Hybrid, with an MSRP of $50,844, at what I’ll call “Dealership A.” I emailed for the “ePrice” on their site and almost instantly got a quote more than $4,000 below MSRP. The site didn’t itemize the content, but the MSRP was within about $25 of what it should have been if Driver Tech were included.

Then I had the bright idea of making an in-person visit to the Toyota dealership closest to my home. They didn’t have the desired Hybrid, but I figured I’d save myself some travel time by asking them to acquire the example I’d found by myself, should that car’s options check out, or find another if that one wasn’t right.

Nothing doing. Mr. Salesman at Dealership B was one of those big, sinewy, tough old guys who’s just sort of naturally intimidating. He seemed not to like it that I’d shopped at other dealers first and had a quote in hand.

He let me cool my heels at length, twice: First while he checked with the manager, to see if there were any Highlander Hybrids available, and again when I asked how much they’d discount it for me. The net was that Mr. Salesman wanted me to put down a $500 deposit in exchange for just looking for my car. He said they would usually expect full MSRP, but that maybe, possibly, if I committed to buy from them, they would scrape off $1,300.

The next day I checked on my bargaining chip, that $4K-off quote from Dealership A. It turned out that their Highlander didn’t have the Driver Tech package after all. Instead, it came with all sorts of stuff I didn’t need, such as a rear-seat Blu-ray player. Oops. Back to square one.

The unclear option

Later that day, I found another Hybrid online, at Dealership C, and the Internet-sales department forwarded me an invoice sheet listing the Driver Tech package. The online quote wasn’t very enticing, but a little later an actual salesman from the dealership e-mailed me and asked precisely what I was looking for.

I explained, again, that I needed a 2014 Highlander Hybrid with the Driver Tech package. He replied that “given the scope and variety of your questions” it would be best if I visited in person “so we can talk about everything in detail.” He also said that the one in stock didn’t have the packages I wanted.

It took about 24 hours and numerous e-mail exchanges for me to realize that this guy didn’t know I’d already obtained an e-quote on their one in-stock Highlander Hybrid and had their inventory sheet in hand. After I pointed this out, he replied that that vehicle was spoken for, and no longer for sale, but that we needed to meet face to face and discuss ordering one.

One cool tool

The next day, Saturday, I clicked my way over to Toyota’s Customer Help site and engaged in a Live Chat to ask if they could find out if any dealer in Connecticut had what I was looking for. No, but they could direct me to the Dealer Locator. That’s simply a list of links to 27 Connecticut Toyota dealerships.

But the chat person told me that if I could find a Vehicle ID Number, they could tell me what packages it had. That was good, because the dealer inventories do typically list the VIN.

Long march

I then resumed the dreary task of checking the inventory at every Toyota dealership in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, southern New York, and northern New Jersey.

Still, I’d established that any Highlander Hybrid with Driver Tech was going to carry an MSRP of $50K, give or take. Each time I hit one of those, I’d run the VIN past Toyota’s help line to get the low-down.

Then I figured out how I could at least find all the Highlander Hybrids with the Limited Platinum trim. I turned to CarGurus.com and used their terrific inventory search function.

At CarGurus, I just entered “2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum” and voila! A list of every one in the country popped up. I narrowed it to my region. The nearest was in Newport, R.I., about 65 miles from the office—not a long hike.

I phoned on Saturday afternoon, and within minutes a very friendly person told me all I needed to know about the car, which had an MSRP of $50,870, and also the dealer’s discount, which was about $4,000 less than that. Also, they were open Sunday.

On Sunday morning, I hustled up the coast to Newport, and about 20 minutes after entering the dealership I’d signed the purchase order.

The final tally

Dealership A had a car I thought was right but wasn’t. But they did make me aware that big discounts were possible.

Dealership B wanted $500 just to start looking. I passed.

Dealership C, the one who kept insisting I come in to explain my needs, had the right car, but kept telling me it wasn’t. Besides, it had been sold already. Two weeks later, the dealership was still advertising that car on its website.

Dealership D said it had the right car when it didn’t, then offered others it said were the right one when they weren’t available, and then said there were none available.

The Newport dealer had the right car and sold it to me instantly, at a huge discount.

The take-away

  • Trust but verify. If you find a car you want on a dealer’s website, follow up with a phone call to make sure it really has the features you want, is actually there on site, and is actually for sale. Say that you’re shopping and you want their best price right now.
  • Check multiple dealers online. If you find the car you want, get a quote. If there’s a dealer you’d prefer, ask if they’ll meet or beat the best price you’ve found.
  • When you find the right car at a good price, say yes. Otherwise, it can vanish, leaving you forever shopping.
  • The exact configuration you want may not exist, so keep an open mind. But if someone tries to sell you something you don’t want, say, “No.” A car purchase is a major commitment. Make sure you get what you want and do so at a fair price.

See our new-car buying advice for more tips.

Gordon Hard   

   

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