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Women's survival guide to buying a car

When it's time to buy a car, what's the first thing that goes through a woman's mind? Not MSRPs or power train warranties. Typically, the first thing women worry about when they head to the dealership is "What man can I take with me so I'll get a fair deal?" That's because women are treated much worse than men when they hit the car lot. But even if you grab your dad, brother or boyfriend, the headache has just started.

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"I actually met a woman who went into a dealership to buy a car, filled out the paperwork and when she got it home and reread it she found out she had actually leased the car," says Donna Kane, public relations manager for Hyundai Motor America.

Kane, who teaches empowerment workshops for women car buyers and owners through a Hyundai program called "Power of the Purse," explains that the female customer wasn't stupid, just totally misled. In fact, many women car buyers get no respect.

Wheeling and dealing
As an experiment in gender inequity, Bankrate.com sent me, a 22-year-old female reporter and John, a 34-year-old copy editor, to a local Nissan dealership. We weren't picking on Nissan -- it could have been any car lot.

We drove onto the lot, and I began to check out the new Nissan sports utility vehicle, the Xterra. On looks alone, I'd call it a "hottie." But I knew better than to be seduced by a great paint job.

Enter the salesman in a cheap shirt and cheaper tie, not that John and I held it against him. I walked up to him with all the confidence of Austin Powers on a shagadelic groove, baby. But the dealer had other plans ... making me feel like John's "Mini-Me." He introduced himself by shaking John's hand -- then mine. I explained I was there to see their Xterra. He immediately showed me the color palette for the SUV. I immediately wondered if that would be the main selling point if I had more testosterone.

Then he showed us -- or I should say, John -- the top model. He talked about the storage space and all the nifty things you could do with the seats. He showed me the "pretty" titanium controls that were white in the day and turned blue when you put the headlights on. Oh, goody.

But I had to ask to sit in the Xterra and was never offered a test drive. This may be the sports utility vehicle of my dreams, but Mini-me is not a happy camper!

He then took us into his office and spouted technical information about the warranties, engine and gas mileage -- all the while looking right at John. When I said, "I really like it, I'm surprised how affordable it is." And he responded "Yeah, it's real neat isn't it?" Then he was back to specifics with John while I stewed in silence. Where's a laser beam when you really need one?

As we started to leave, the salesman asked for John's phone number, but not mine. Again I was out of the loop. Then the salesman mentioned he was surprised how many women were buying the SUVs and pickup trucks. John piped up, "Yeah, my next purchase will be a pickup" That was music to our salesman's ears.

Next thing we knew, he was doing his sales-warrior's song and dance to sell John a new truck. My co-worker was shown every truck in the showroom. I wandered off to look at another vehicle, and our dealer didn't seem to notice my absence.

On the way out, the salesman again shook John's hand first and told him to come back when he wanted to buy that truck. Xterra? What Xterra?

Day two of the experiment:

So -- if a salesman talked to John instead of me, the salesman at the next showroom would talk directly to me if I were alone, right? Ha! I parked in front at a local Volkswagen/Mitsubishi dealership. There were no other customers on the lot. I had time to thoroughly read the stickers of the Passat, Jetta and Beetle, and the Mitsubishi Montero for good measure. The reason I had so much time is because I wasn't approached by a single salesman. No welcome, no handshake, no nothing. Had sales tactics changed so much that I needed to stand in the middle of the lot screaming and waving my checkbook around?

Disgusted, I drove to a Chevy dealership down the street. I again looked at several cars on the lot. And again, nothing. It seemed my hormones were making me Captain Invisible.

I went back to my office and called the general sales manager of the Volkswagen dealership. He informed me that his dealership liked to give customers a solid two minutes to look around, explaining: "We don't want to be waiting on the curb for you when you drive in."

Well, I was there for more than 15 minutes and told him so. I also explained that I was a reporter. His response: "Well, don't you think your story is about 20 years too late? Women represent about 85 percent of our sales. Times have changed and women are treated just the same on a car lot."

Kane disagrees. She says: "When are [car salesmen] going to get it? They just don't understand that women make 80 percent of all car-buying decisions. Over than 70 percent of everything sold in the U.S. is bought by women."

The problem is, Kane offers, "old habits die hard. Years ago, the man made all of the decisions when it came to buying a car, and the sales training manual teaches the dealer how to deal with men. I don't care what the manual says. They are dummies if they aren't respectful to women."

And Jack Nerad, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car," says the most important weapon women have to combat discrimination in the car dealership is their feet.

"Just walk out," Nerad explains. "There is plenty of competition out there. Continue shopping until you find someone who will treat you right.

"Things are changing, but they are changing slower than consumers would like. It's really self-defeating for the dealer to treat a woman badly. [Women] have a lot of purchasing power. They should use their immense leverage."

And respect is one option you won't find listed on the sticker of a new car.

Bill of Rights for female car buyers

-- Updated: Dec. 13, 2002




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