It was one of the first things I learned when I started selling cars all the way back in 1994: New-car buyers and used-car buyers are not the same. Not even close. It seems self-evident, but people both in and out of the car business never tire of ignoring this fact. And in the case of new-car buyers, their failure to understand the used-car buyer is costing them money. Tell you what. , “Shall we play a game?” I’ll briefly describe a few situations, and you will guess at the common theme that connects them. Then we’ll talk about how to use that knowledge to save you money on your next car purchase.
Scenario A: A friend of mine just bought a used Acura RSX. The first question I asked him: “Is it a Type-S?” He replied that it was.
Scenario B: Another friend of mine, R&T editor Sam Smith, just bought an Integra Type R. (He’s written about this.) He got a pretty good deal on it. But for what he paid, he could have gotten two dozen used Integra GS automatics from the same model year.
Scenario C: I had a chance to buy an Integra Type R when they were new. Instead, I bought a VW Passat 1.8T. I regret this.
Scenario D: When I bought a pickup truck a few months ago, I decided that I wanted a Chevrolet Silverado with the 6.2-liter engine. Out of the hundreds of Silverados and Sierras in a 50-mile radius from me, only two of them had the 6.2-liter engine and the “Max Tow” package. Even though I could tow my race car and haul my bicycles without that equipment, I made sure that I bought one of those two trucks.
What’s the thread that ties all of these scenarios together? It’s simple: The used-car market is very picky about what it really wants—and it is often willing to pay more for it than you did to buy it new. Consider the Integra Type R. It cost about 30 percent more than an Integra GS when it was new. It’s now worth about 2000 percent more. Or the RSX Type-S. It was about $2000 more when it was new. If you’d bought an RSX more than a decade ago, you would still get that two grand difference selling it today. In other words, you could have had the Type-S equipment level for free.
Are you selling a used Porsche 911? Expect the first question to be “Is it a stick shift?” followed by “Is it a coupe?” The most common new 911 is an automatic-transmission cabriolet. But the used market wants stick-shift coupes and will pay appreciably more for them. So if you really do the math on owning a new 911 for a decade, you will see that the cost of owning the stick-shift coupe can be much, much less than the cost of owning that automatic cabriolet.
I bought my Silverado with the 6.2 because I know that the first question out of any buyer’s mouth a decade from now will be: “Is it the six-two?” If I’d bought the 2500 or 3500, the first question would be “Is it a diesel?” The diesel engine option on a new one-ton truck can be disgustingly expensive—but trust me, in most cases it turns out to be absolutely free because you’ll get every penny back on resale.
Let’s say you’re interested in a new Volvo. You can get the S90 sedan, which is a sedan assembled in China. Or you can get the V90 wagon, shown above, which is a wagon assembled in Sweden. Go take a look at used-Volvo pricing for sedans and wagons. Then add in the “Sweden factor” and tell me: Which one will depreciate more in the next decade? I think we both know the answer to that. One of my readers just told me that he couldn’t get his Volvo dealer to cut him a break off sticker on a new V90. “Don’t worry,” I said, “you’ll get that money back.”
Of course, there are a million stories out there of cars that should have been resale slam-dunks but turned to be disasters, often because they ended up having some fragile component or assembly in them. In general, however, the Rules For Radical Resale are well-understood:
- Buy the biggest engine you can get.
- On trucks, always buy a 4x4 and always get the heavy-duty options.
- If there’s a sport package, take it. If there’s a package that just LOOKS sporty but isn’t different in any worthwhile sense—like Audi's S-line, which makes your A4 look like an S4—get it anyway.
- If there’s a manual transmission, take it.
- If you can get a wagon, get it. If you can’t, get a coupe.
- Don’t mess with convertibles if there’s a hardtop variant available. The one exception in history to this was the Ferrari Daytona, and it won’t repeat.
- Get the sunroof/moonroof, even if you’ll never use it.
- If you have a choice between the raised-suspension wagon and the regular-suspension wagon, get the latter, unless you live in a self-consciously adventurous state like Oregon or Colorado.
- Opt for dark interior colors in everything that isn’t a true luxury car.
In the same way that the New Testament replaced ten commandments with one, however, I can abstract all of the above into a single guideline: Get the enthusiast version. Get the vehicle that you would get if you were a real fan of the vehicle you’re buying—even, or especially, if you aren’t. You might not know or care about the difference between a Camry LE and a Camry SE. but the next buyer will.
When I drove the Integra and the Passat back to back, I thought that the Passat offered about the same amount of useful forward thrust, surrounded by a much more pleasant interior. I was right—but I neglected to consider the fact that the Type-R was an enthusiast car while a plain-jane Passat really wasn’t. The joke is on me, because I could have driven that Type-R 10,000 miles a year for 20 years and still sold it for the sticker price.
But if you need one final push, here it is: When I bought my 911 about a decade and a half ago, I could have bought any number of 1997 911 Turbos for $59,995. I didn’t think that the Turbo was worth twice as much as a Carrera from that same year. Yes, I ended up doing okay on my Carrera. But by violating my principle and not picking the most enthusiast-oriented version of a car, I missed out on $70,000 of additional appreciation.
In other words, the market would have paid me about five grand a year to drive a 911 Turbo. Think about that for a minute before you buy your next car. If you read R&T, you know which car variants are going to be catnip for the used-car crowd. Make your purchase accordingly. To re-coin a phrase, when it comes to automotive resale there’s no finance … without romance.