Full Speed Ahead

How to get the most out of your company vehicles
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the October 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It's a buyer's market out there, and cars are no exception. If this fall's Cash for Clunkers program weren't enough, dealers are eagerly throwing in their own incentives and extras, negotiating like mad (especially at the end of the month) and even dropping the prices of hybrids. Fleet managers are making deals, and auto insurance agents have joined the discount bandwagon.

Ready for a new set of wheels? Here's how to shop smart.

1. Look for Incentives and Sales
Incentives are usually promoted at the end of the year, but in today's economic climate, dealers are eager to sell at any time, especially toward month's end, when quotas need to be met. Check out newspaper ads on Friday and Saturday, when dealers promote heavily. The "dealer holdback," which often adds 2 percent to 3 percent to the manufactuer's suggested retail price as a profit margin, is another discount that buyers can try for but, according to edmunds.com, dealers are loath to trade this perk.

Some fleet manufacturers, such as Ford, throw in extras like built-in storage shelves or steel cabinets for cargo vans. It recently offered $6,000 cash back with its Employee Pricing Plus program, and Cadillac took $12,000 off the 2008 Escalade with cash-back and red tag offers. Red tag sales generally end Dec. 31, but this year, who knows?

2. Lower insurance costs
Some insurers offer discounts to longtime customers and to those who add other policies to cover offices and business equipment. Additional discounts and special rates can be found at websites like aaa.com. Check on group rates, too (and see if your professional organization offers group insurance). Insurers' rates are based on the value of the vehicle, safety and anti-theft features, the driver's safe-driving record, type of vehicle, use of vehicle and mileage figures. Check out the most frequently stolen cars at State Farm Insurance. And pay attention to provider reputations. J.D. Power and Associates awards Amica, the oldest mutual auto insurer in the U.S., highest honors for best pricing, followed by Automobile Club of Southern California and Erie.

3. Shop the Websites
Auto-buying websites are not only timesavers but also cost-savers. Simply type in the brand name, such as dodge.com or acura.com, and you're whisked to a virtual showroom. Most post interest rates and cash-back offers. But savvy small-business owners know they need to continue their research on sites that offer reviews, ratings, advice, tips and guides. Here are some of the most popular:

  • Edmunds.com. Car comparisons, dealer ratings, test-drive reports, information on new and used cars, listings for certified pre-owned vehicles, insurance provider quotes and a finance center.
  • Kelley Blue Book. Vehicle statistics, reviews, videos, incentives/rebates, a payment calculator, price quotes, links to other sources and shopping tools.
  • Autobytel.com. Similar to Edmunds, plus recall notices, trade-in values, Editors' Choice Awards and a celebrity car parade.
  • Other sites worth checking:Carsdirect.com, intellichoice.com, jdpower.com, realcartips.com and carzen.com, a site targeted to women.

4. Take Care of it
Routine care can prevent costly repairs later on and prolong the life of your car. Follow the timetable in the owner's manual (never miss a scheduled oil change). The Car Care Council advises regular under-car checks for leaks that can indicate a loss of brake or power steering fluid. Check tire pressure--underinflated tires lower mileage. A Runzheimer International study for Valvoline found that trading a vehicle every eight years instead of four saves more than $2,481 each year after payoff. Check out vioc.com for money-saving coupons on oil changes.

5. Go Green
More than two dozen hybrid cars and trucks are on the market. Compare their mileages at fueleconomy.org, and estimate annual costs online and calculate company driving needs--vehicle size, towing/hauling, number of drivers, fuel budgeting and time on the road. Consumer Reports claims drivers can save $500 to $4,250 over five years with selected hybrids, including the Toyota Camry. Some hybrids can also earn tax breaks.

6. Consider GPS and Other Gadgets
Many portable GPS units are more user-friendly than factory-installed units and can be shared with co-workers. J.D. Power ranks Garmin units highest, followed by TomTom. Average price: $245. Pioneer's hybrid AVIC-F500BT navigation system includes control of iPod and Bluetooth devices. Or find your route the old-fashioned way with Autosport's wireless Wayfinder digital compass/clock/barometer.

  • Vehicle Trackers. The Mobile Locating Unit from Millennium Plus ($599) tracks and manages a small fleet of vehicles, enabling contact via a standard web browser. Cars can be remotely disabled if stolen, and speed and travel direction monitored.
  • Heat it up. Keep your commuter coffee warm with the Smart Mug, $29.95, from www.drivingcomfort.com. Plugged into the cigarette lighter, it beeps when ready.

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