In 1998, half way through what should have been a nine hour drive to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, the engine of my Pontiac LeMans siezed. After renting a car to get home, I ended up purchasing a 1994 Saturn Sedan.

A couple months ago, I got to thinking… This car is 13 years old. It’s still running great, but it has some cosmetic issues:

* the drivers side window doesn’t close all the way, unless you assist it
* some of the trim is coming unattached, which makes it rattle, which
drives me a bit crazy
* the odometer is frozen at 124,477
* it’s got some small body blemishes
* it’s got some interior blemishes
* the ceiling panel stuff is falling down

So I says to myself, I says: you know, you don’t HAVE to drive this car until it dies. You can afford a newer model. Think about it.

I did think about it. I went so far as to set up an RSS read for cars being sold nearby on Craigs List so that I could look for cars that might interest me. I’m not that picky. I was pretty sure I wanted another Saturn, used, and I just sort of watched what little passed by.

Well, while talking with Sue and Michael about their new car, Sue mentioned, and I figured I should check it out. Well! Different scene from Craigslist.

Let me say: I hadn’t realized that the world of used car dealerships was such a prominent item in the long list of things revolutionized by the Internet. But, wow, yeah, totally. When I was shopping for a car back in 1998, I remember visiting a couple of lots, saying the kind of thing I was interested in, seeing what they had, going for a test drive, wondering if I should put up with it even if I am not taken by it. You get the picture.

My point of view now is that the Internet shifts the balance of power hugely in favor of the shopper. Why? Well, the popularity of the Internet means that the dealerships feel compelled to list their cars on sites like So they do. Then these sites allow one to do things like “show me all of the used, 4 door Saturns for sale within a 50 mile radius between $4000 and $10,000” (with all of those bold entries being up to the shopper). Turns out I had too many to choose from at that rate, so I added “with manual transmission”.

Do you see? Now instead of just asking a dealer what they happen to have, I’m specifying what I want and comparison shopping between essentially all of the dealers I’m likely to drive to. This would have been unthinkable pre-Internet. Obviously, this also puts pressure on them to list a low price, since they know I’m comparing them with other dealers.

As if that weren’t enough, the Internet also makes it easy to run checks like Carfax to see what the vehicle’s history has been like, and sites like Kelley Blue Book to see how the list price compares. Again, the intimidation typically associated with buying a car from a used car dealer is pretty-well squashed by the Information Age. I love it.

So, what do you know, I found a 2004 Four Door Saturn Ion with manual transmission and 38,000 miles listed at $8950, which was more than $3000 less than’s suggested dealer price for that car (and still $1000 under the suggested private party price). Woah. told me that it was originally purchased from the Saturn dealership on the south side of Indianapolis, and had had only one owner. I furthermore visited the Saturn web site and priced what I’d likely pay if I were buying a similar Saturn brand new: just over $15,000. So, I reasoned, I’m getting a car three years older but $6000 cheaper. Going by my age-old per-year-price-of-owning-a-car perspective, the car “cost” over $2000 per year for those three years, without even knowing what maintenance it had. My goal is $1000/year, so I’d be lucky if I could do that well buying the car new.

So, I was pretty well convinced before I even left my couch (literally). Indeed, my brain started spinning on “there’s no reason not to buy that car is there? I mean, as long as it seems ok when you see it. You should see it. There’s no reason no to go look at it. You should call them tomorrow. Yes, call tomorrow.” so much that I had difficulty sleeping that night.

But, the next day did roll around and I called them up. “Hi, I’m interested in this particular Saturn. Is it still available?” “Yup” “Ok, I’ll see you later on this afternoon.” Again, the contrast in the experience of dealing with the used car dealer can barely be overstated. I drove up there and said “Yeah, I called about the 2004 Saturn” “ok, I’ll take you to it… there you are, let me know if you have any questions, of if you’d like to take it for a drive.” Sweet! I spent about 15 minutes alone with the car in the lot. Looked in the trunk, under the hood, sat in each of the seats, pressed all the buttons, etc. Everything checked out ok. Not that there weren’t minor issues, but nothing scary. The test drive was similarly reassuring.

So, ok. I actually felt a bit of awkwardness with the sales manager because it seemed to both of us like the process should be more difficult or something. He gave me a talk about the business, how long they’ve been around, how they want to encourage repeat customers and referrals and stuff. Mmhmm. That’s all nice. But eventually we just realized there wasn’t much else to discuss. So, I put a deposit on it, and said I’d be back later in the week to give the rest of the cash and to pick up the car. Done deal.

Did anything bad happen with the car? Were there problems at the bank? What else might have gone wrong? Or right? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Car: The Mini-series