Buying new? Here’s how to make the most out of negotiating

Practice your power pose and start with an assertive handshake to set the groundwork for gaining the upper hand

Originally published on February 27, 2017

The next time I buy a new car, I’m taking Fotini Iconomopoulos with me. I’m not going to say a word, I’m just going to watch a pro handle a negotiation.

Iconomopoulos is a chair for the Network of Executive Women, and her mouthful of an official title – Negotiation, Communication, & Commercial Strategy Specialist – hints at the large corporate stages she works on. Taking her to an automotive showroom might be like taking a Howitzer to a pub league darts night, but her tips for buying a car are gold.

Our conversation was initially about the very real differences between how women and men negotiate, or fail to. If you’re a woman and dread buying a car because the process feels adversarial, you aren’t alone. But what if you could deal from a place of confidence, of strength? What if you could learn a few tips to balance the power scale? Buying a car isn’t just about securing the best price; it’s about making sure you’re buying the right car for your needs.

Iconomopoulos points out all the subtle – and not so subtle – ways a negotiation is controlled, and who does that controlling. It’s imperative that as a buyer, you establish the groundwork for not just what you may eventually buy, but how you will be treated in that transaction.

“You send a signal from the opening handshake,” she says, explaining that in this moment, you are messaging that you will be in a position of control. You can form the groundwork, letting them know this is the first appointment of the day for you, and you have a limited amount of time. “You anchor this position from the beginning.”

As a woman, if you’ve gone into a car dealership with a man, whether it’s your husband, your father, your friend or even your son, you may have experienced a sales representative gravitating towards that man with his or her explanations, even if you asked the questions, even if you’re the one writing the cheque, even if you’re the one who will be driving the car. The industry has worked hard in recent years to rebalance this, but the fact remains that too many still believe that men have a magic chromosome that allows them to understand complicated things better.

“Be prepared,” says Iconomopoulos. “Men are more confident; that’s testosterone at work. Women experience more stress, which is cortisol. You can physically prepare yourself with what I call power poses; they will ramp up your testosterone, regardless of gender, and help ditch the stress,” she says. Literally taking up more space is a non-verbal tell that you are in control. Wear something that makes you feel confident. Stand up straight.

Language, of course, is a huge part of a negotiation. Iconomopoulos suggests ditching the soft language that will present you as “movable.” “Don’t use words like: probably, maybe, around,” she says. Be concise, and look for hints of that soft language from the other side of the desk. “If you don’t hear ‘the price is X’,” says Iconomopoulos, then you have a negotiation beginning. “They’ve just signalled they have room to move. Listen for it.”

I asked the number one thing women do wrong. “They talk too much,” says Iconomopoulos, with a laugh. “Shut up. Silence is far more effective.” She admits women are socialized into much of that behaviour, using more words to justify a question, to overcompensate for, well, everything. She also notes younger women are often less jaded and more willing to step up, a clue that perhaps we are changing how we raise our girls.

I asked Iconomopoulos how to get around the problem of a sales rep addressing the wingman instead of the buyer. I shouldn’t have to leave a trusted friend or family member behind simply because they’re male.

“Go in with a game plan,” she suggests. “You initiate the introduction, you start the conversation, and your companion should simply say, ‘Lorraine is the decision maker.’ Own your presence, and pick up on subtleties. If this isn’t going the way you want it to, be polite and concise and simply say thank you for your time, but we won’t be reaching an agreement today.” You are the one spending money; you can spend it anywhere you like.

Do your research; ask specific questions
Boost your testosterone; pull off a few power poses before you go in!
Establish you are the one the salesperson will be dealing with
Refrain from using “soft” language, while listening for hints of it from the other side
Stop talking
Don’t be afraid to say no and walk away

I often make reference to the fact that the internet has changed the way consumers buy cars, with buyers now able to access a level playing field when it comes to information. There will always be differences between men and women, and there will always be inherent advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to negotiating on a new car purchase, however, Iconomopoulos’s tips hand power back to the buyer – male or female.

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Station wagons offered Dad that little extra “just in case” room

Though waning in popularity now, the wagon was perfect for those unexpected roadside treasures

Originally published February 20, 2017

Just in case.

That is the real reason people buy the vehicles they do. I was having another discussion with an industry consultant, and we were questioning why SUV and pickup sales remain so stubbornly high, even as manufacturers continue to pledge to reinvent themselves as a landscape of subcompact electrics.

There’s the usual emotion-got-the-better-of-me thing, and there are particularly adept salespeople who can push you off your mark. But the fact remains that many of us are driving around in cars that are too big, too small, too expensive to maintain, or simply not what we thought we were buying.

I think there is something else at play, the Alfred Sommerfeld Just In Case dilemma. My father bought honking big station wagons because you never know when you’re going to need a honking big station wagon, and you’d hate to be caught with your pants down if the need for one arose.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I got stuck behind a line of cars who had slowed on a local street for no discernible reason. I finally crept past the hold up: somebody had put a bunch of household goods at the curb, and this required those driving past to decide if these goods should be added to their households. Maybe not every person going by thought that, but my father surely would have. He called bulk collection, good garbage days.

We didn’t have station wagons because we all played hockey or had dogs with kennels. We had station wagons so my father could shop by the side of the road.

Just in case.

Born in 1926, Dad threw away nothing and took full advantage when others did. He would haul me to flea markets and auctions out in the country, sometimes with a specific purchase in mind but more often than not, it was purely a scouting expedition. He was a coin collector, and we’d sometimes come home with a purchase he would assure me was very special, and we’d just stolen it because some people had no clue what they were selling while others were lying crooks. I listened to him though I mostly went along to get a hotdog and a Coke from the cart outside and wonder if the people who’d owned all this stuff were dead, and then I’d make up stories in my head about their lives.

The purpose of our station wagons was the promise they represented. If we could find it, we could bring it home. It didn’t matter if Dad’s new purchase was as small as a coin and fit in his pocket, or had to be strung onto the roof racks, we could do it. There was a box in the back of the car full of stretched out bungee cords and coils of rope.

There was a quilted packing blanket that could protect the delicate edges of a dresser or wrap up a kid too cold to care about the provenance of the warmth. I remember countless times Dad shaking grass clippings and bark and dried mud from that blanket, and then tucking it around whichever kid was complaining.

My Dad could root around in the back of that wagon and find everything from buckets of tools and rags to jumper cables, the same way my Mom could find everything from safety pins to Jolly Ranchers in her purse.

Just in case.

Growing up in a household that prided itself on its ability to haul home Christmas trees or a cord of wood, I ended up doing what many of us do when we purchase cars: I anticipated trips like that, though they may only happen once a year. I’ve had to educate myself on the fact the few deliveries I receive don’t justify owning a truck, and people selling cords of wood usually know they’ll have to bring it to you. Roaming the street with furniture tied to the roof racks like some metallic Sherpa is not what owning a car is all about, though I understand my father’s deep seated need to be able to do it. What’s the point of stumbling upon perfect treasure if you can’t get it home?

My Dad bought a small car just once, when he needed an A to B ride for work. A colleague found him a Morris dirt cheap, and after driving it for a few weeks someone rear ended him and he left it where it sat and walked home. He bought a Dodge Ramcharger. I swear it was because he couldn’t stand to drive by an abandoned but perfectly good bookcase, or to turn down a free load of cinder blocks.

Hatchbacks make up a larger percentage of cars sales in Canada than they do in the U.S. Seems we like practical, and it seems we like to have that little bit extra room.

Just in case.

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Appreciate the power you have to defeat depreciation

There are ways to get your full money back if your car is a write-off in a crash

Originally published February 13, 2017

Dilemma of the week:

A reader got rear-ended and was deemed not at fault. The car, a 2013 Ford, was written off by the insurance company. The bigger problem? The payout was $12,000, yet she had $15,000 remaining on her car loan. The payout was fair; she was a very high miler, and the insurance adjustor went to the top of the pay scale for her.

The issue now is that $3,000 gap on top of having to replace her car.

You might be surprised that a car that looks relatively fine can be deemed a write-off. The problem is often all the tech involved. If an entry level car has several airbags go off, it’s usually a throwaway. Replacing those bags is expensive. If a $12,000 computer system has been damaged, it could be rendered too costly to fix. Another problem is much of that tech is embedded in bumpers and mirrors; even a modest parking lot hit can end up damaging costly sensors and cameras. All of this can add up, and fast.

Before anything happens, this chasm between what you’re getting and what you need can be bridged on a new car in two ways. The first is on your insurance policy, where you can take a Limited Waiver of Depreciation. It’s available on new vehicles, usually for a 24- to 30-month period. It removes depreciation from the vehicle in the event of a total loss. If you paid $30,000 for a vehicle, you get $30,000 and your lease or lien is paid out. Aviva Canada has a five-year protection option, check out details and restrictions. Securing the wavier through your insurance could raise your annual premium by about thirty bucks, depending on your driving record; signing up for it at the point of sale could be around $20 per month, so shop carefully.

The second is through the dealer. When you buy a new car, you can purchase gap insurance to cover the shortfall. You can also purchase it from third-party companies. I strongly suggest starting with your own insurance broker, it’s where you’re likely to get the best deal. Different dealers carry different products, but I was once offered this coverage at a monthly rate at a dealer for what it ended up costing me annually through my insurance.

This information is useful if your car that has been written off is new. My reader, with that 2013, would have been well outside the compensation boundaries even if she’d had gap coverage. So, unqualified for gap coverage, more than fair settlement from her insurance company, and still out three grand. What are her options, from an insurance perspective?

She could sue the at-fault third party. The problem, of course, is that I have a reader with a problem that has a clock ticking on it, and when you need answers in a few days, entertaining watching it drag out in the courts for possibly years does little to solve the more pressing issues at hand.

If you don’t have the resources to simply absorb the loss, is there anything you can do? One dealer I spoke to offered up the following:

“If a new car had a rebate on it, say three or four thousand, you could create the loan on a new purchase without the rebate, and direct that money to pay off that shortfall. The rebate can be applied in several ways, and every customer is different,” he explained.

Be careful inflating the value of a new car loan in other ways when it comes to securing funding. With the extended life of car loans (84 months is now quite common), you run the risk of being underwater on your loan for longer. If the value of your car is less than what you owe, you’re underwater. This is most likely to be in the first few years of your loan, making a write-off collision potentially more costly in more ways than one. Dealers have been known to get creative to get your business; be wary of anyone who is promising you what nobody else could deliver. Be prepared to be stuck with the difference between what your car is worth and what you might owe, and talk to your insurance broker when you get a new car.

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Alongside Trump, Uber feeling the fallout of its policies

Twitter campaign #DeleteUber a sign that the company took a step too far by taking advantage of demonstration

Originally published January 31, 2017

If the 45th president of the U.S. decides to adopt another kid, he might as well make it Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Oh, I know, what use does he have for yet one more squirrely, money-hungry, rules-are-for-other-people, thin-skinned sycophant?

As you might have noticed, that country is at a turning point, and a pitch point, in history. Never before has such a spotlight been shone on the inner workings and inherent weaknesses of the system so many took for granted, regardless of which party was having a turn at the wheel.

Now, with a merry band of plunderers kicking everybody else out of the room and bolting the door so they can play with all the toys, America will see just what President 45 is capable of unleashing, abetted by those happy to go look for kindling to add to fire that 45 prepares to play his fiddle beside.

But why am I picking on poor old Travis, again? Because it’s just too easy. Uber and I go back a long way; I’ve hated it since it launched, breaking rules, treating its drivers like crap, putting profits ahead of people at every single turn yet pretending it is an industry leader. It has a good cell phone application. That’s it. As a principled business, it left its muddy shoes on and marched right into your city. I’ve stood by my judgment all this time. I continue to.

Over the weekend, when 45 unleashed yet another round of unconstitutional edicts barring Muslims from entering a country when they’d had prior clearance, leaving them stranded at airports (unless your Muslim country had a Trump Hotel, and then, hey, you’re cool), New York City Taxi Drivers Alliance staged a one hour work stoppage to JFK airport in support of the demonstration. You may have noticed those demonstrations; they happened all over the U.S. at every major airport. Hey 45, seems like every gathering is bigger than your inauguration was.

Those taxi drivers formed yet another link in the chain of resistance to the tyranny forming to the south that isn’t even bothering to pretend it’s anything else. When a president, even a puppet one, signs off on made-up laws with no congressional or senate oversight and with no view to adhering to the law, he doesn’t get to be president anymore: he gets to be King.

So Uber, of course, being made up of drivers who represent such a cross section of the cities they flourish in, did the only smart thing: it scabbed out those drivers. Instead of seeing a viable moment to stand in solidarity with millions around the U.S. (yes, millions, and wait until the science marches begin) its CEO, Travis Kalanick, instead saw an opportunity to profit. He promoted his service with a Tweet (“Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.”), which he later apologized for.

It was too late. The hashtag #DeleteUber dominated the social media sphere within minutes. And remember, that is the place that places like Uber live, and stumble. The actions of 45 have unleashed a sleeping giant of an electorate that perhaps realized too little, too late, but have realized, nonetheless. Many of us will be using economic sanctions of our own; we learned them from global governments, and they work. Like those that 45 is about to lift from his buddy Putin.

I’m sure Kalanick is still just giddy from getting to be on the White House business advisory group (Elon Musk is another member) and maybe he’s just trying to impress Papa 45 that he’s got the stones. The problem of course, with a fascist in control, means you’re trying to impress a fascist. I hope others on that board have a more encompassing worldview than Uber.

Lyft, on the other hand, Uber’s chief competitor in most markets, pivoted in an instant and made a million dollar donation to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Is it a business tactic? Sure it is. But Uber performed one kind of business tactic – side with those with money – while Lyft did another – side with those making history. I don’t actually believe Lyft’s action is any less about capitalizing on the situation as it unfolded, but it is savvier. Now if only all ride sharing companies treated their drivers more fairly, maybe even I’d stop ragging on them.

Kalanick and Uber can backpedal all they like. I hope those who deleted them, keep them deleted. And I think they might.

Update: In the wake of the overwhelming pressure applied following the #deleteuber campaign – according to the New York Times, more than 200,000 people deleted their account – Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced he was stepping down from the President’s Advisory Council. “Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s,” he said in a statement to employees.

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A car horn is for safety, so don’t try to bully me

The solution to bad honking? Limit every driver to 100 in a lifetime – if it’s possible

Originally published January 30, 2017

For any car in Canada to be street legal, it has to have a horn. It’s a fact I don’t think too much about, until I spend a weekend driving in a city like Boston.

I recently spent a weekend driving in Boston.

I have a new proposal for people who drive in North America. At birth, you shall be given one hundred horn uses to use as you see fit. But only one hundred. Like three wishes from a genie or two balls in bowling, that is it. One hundred. When you’ve used them up, you’re done.

My editor shuddered when I mentioned car horns; he’s driven in India where, like many other countries that are less regulated than our Canadian lines-on-the-road and follow-the-rules driving mandate, driving is a spirited game made up by the participants on the fly. He said you honk to indicate you are about to overtake someone, which results in a cacophony of horns that left his ears ringing for days.

We are not India. We have traffic signals and clearly marked roadways and drivers who have been rigorously tested before being set free on the roadways. Well, maybe not rigorously, but still. We all know what’s supposed to happen when we set out, and that horn you have should be used if somebody is in imminent danger. Someone backing out blindly and doesn’t see you? Tap the horn. Kid chasing after a runaway soccer ball onto the road? Tap the horn. Somebody neglected to check a blind spot and is heading into your car? Tap the horn. Squirrel headed under your car? Tap the horn. The horn is your friend.


Unless it is in the hands of the angry, the ornery, the bully or the impatient. A horn then becomes a tool of not warning, but a weapon. When I was a kid, our old Rambler had a huge chrome press bar that filled the lower half of the red steering wheel. It enabled my father to not just lay on the horn in fits of automotive rage, but let him do it with gusto. You could put two whole hands on that bar, and mash it with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Increasingly, the horn retreated to smaller and smaller buttons, often hard to distinguish in a sea of technology now sported by so many steering wheels. It’s kind of hard to feel much triumph when you go to blast someone and only end up changing the radio station. There is a disconnect between poking a button and slapping the heel of your hand with force.

My father was wrong when he got into one of his horn-offs with some other frustrated driver. My mother would pretend she wasn’t in the car, and we would crane our heads to see if the other driver was swearing and turning red with rage. It was stupid and tense and I’m sure it’s why I rarely, if ever, use my horn now.

Not so, Boston drivers. Their streets are squirrelly little shortcuts that start and end with no apparent plan, much like many of the streets in some of the oldest and most amazing places in the world. I understand that; the forefathers weren’t really worried about on-street parking and advanced turn lights when they were plotting the Revolutionary War.

I’m comfortable driving in places I’ve never been. I had a great navigational system in the Infiniti Q60 I was piloting, and my passengers were familiar with the area. We were there for a non-typical event so there were many, many out-of-town pedestrians along with the usual uni students doing their thing. And I think only one person actually honked directly at me, but regardless, there was no shortage of car horns busting out all over, and all night. Why? You can’t get from there to there any faster than the next guy, that light will remain red until it doesn’t, and you don’t get to mow down someone crossing in front of you whether they should be or not.

One of two reactions occur when you honk at someone: They ignore you and blithely carry on, which makes your blood pressure rise, or they engage you and honk back and you start a horning match (which can escalate), which makes your blood pressure rise. You know what doesn’t happen? The interior of your car doesn’t suddenly become infused with the relaxing scent of lavender as an apology pours from your radio from the person you just honked at.

One hundred honks, folks. You get one hundred honks. Make ’em count. I’d use most of mine for squirrels.

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Zipper merging may be frustrating, but it works

Turns out those people who race right to the end of the merge lane are helping traffic run smoother

Originally published January 23, 2017

Zipper merging will never happen until we have autonomous cars.

People just hate total strangers too much for common sense to ever get in the way. The physics of the merge – use all of two lanes until the last second, at which point a car from each lane should proceed in an orderly fashion – has been proven, repeatedly, to reduce congestion at crash sites and construction zones. It should be easy; you’ve only to look down at your own crotch to see how a zipper works, as well as understand the frustration when it doesn’t.

The Alberta Motor Association (AMA) recently posted a release about zipper merging. They’ve officially stated, like so many before them, that merging is most effective when done at the last moment; those who speed down the emptying lane are doing it right, and you who pulled a Boy Scout and got all prepared as soon as you saw the signage, are doing it wrong. You are now the steaming Boy Scout, no doubt.

When the AMA report came out, media duly noted it, but nearly all proceeded to say why it would never work here, much as I just did in my opening sentence. We are hardwired to see those who cut to the front as cheaters, and even cheer on those who try to block them. It’s one thing if you think you are being a noble rule-follower, but could you finally be convinced you’re following the wrong rule?

Much as people will cling to a parking spot if they know someone is waiting for it (Ruback and Juieng, Journal of Applied Social Psychology), people will “hold” their position in a merging string of cars to punish the late intruder. That parking spot study found if someone gets honked at, it makes the situation worse. Sounds about right.

Others will block late intruders – again, intruders who have science on their side – like so many Gladiators in Camrys. Maybe you get less stressed about all this, and just let in anyone because life’s too short. Maybe you make the judgement depending on the intruder; there is a remarkable bias against black BMWs driven by young males, and honking big pickups sporting Trucknuts driven by anyone. Or so I’ve heard. To be clear, playing blocking games with your vehicles is dangerous, regardless of the situation. Yes, there are those who tear off down the shoulder and the sight of them being cut off by a rig can send a little shiver of schadenfreude down your spine. But using available lanes to do a late merge is not riding the shoulder.

If this were purely about physics or the law, it would work because that would mean we were in Germany. They don’t mess around when they find a better way, they legislate it. They might be a little humourless, but they spend less time trapped in traffic than we do.

Municipalities could do better. If the goal is to encourage a healthy merge, there’s no need to post a warning sign five kilometres out. That just makes everyone – zippers, non-zippers, nervous drivers and black BMWs – start sizing up everyone around them. Five kilometres of unnecessary tension.

The New York Times reported a few months ago on a Colorado initiative that laid the groundwork for how to change motorists’ thinking. The first signs read, “Use both lanes during congestion.” The next signs said, “Use both lanes to the merge point.” When the lane was ending, the last signs read: “Take turns. Merge here.”

It’s simple, it’s clear, and it lets those doing it right not have to explain, and gives those dying to try it, permission.

Those yearning for the days of fully autonomous cars, of course, are giddy with the understanding that they will make this entire conversation moot. The cars themselves, those models of physics and reason, will merge like a zipper that’s been soaked in WD40. Remove the human element, and remove most of what is wrong on our roads.

The State of Missouri is testing a different approach. They’re simply defaulting to not providing too much information. Signage will indicate that a merge is coming ahead, but not which lane will actually be lost. Instead of providing too much information to drivers who interpret it too many different ways, they give them just enough to be prepared for a merge. They’re getting complaints, but the bottom line is they’re reporting backup reductions of 50 to 75 per cent.

Perhaps this simple, uncluttered approach is best. Until the robots can take over, of course.

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Passing along a car in the family isn’t just kid’s play

“Free gift” isn’t so free after the paperwork, vehicle testing and insurance

Originally published January 16, 2017

Thinking of giving a vehicle to your niece? Maybe grandma has announced she’s hanging up the keys and is ready to let her adored grandson drive that Buick like it’s never been driven before. There’s an adage that says no good deed goes unpunished, and that holds true when it comes to transferring the ownership of cars.

Having to pay tax on a used car has long stuck in many craws. Taxing used goods that have already been taxed once, at their original point of purchase, is irritating. I’m not here to argue politics, but to instead share what I’ve learned while doing the used car waltz recently within the family.

My sister gave me her car. It’s a mint condition 2002 RAV4 that has been babied since it rolled off the line. With low mileage and having been scrupulously maintained, I’d told her for years that whenever she wanted to sell it, I wanted to know. With two kids still at home, one who commutes for school and one who works, we do a car juggle most days. Factor in one car that was becoming increasingly unreliable but not worth fixing and the juggle got more intense.

Enter the RAV4.

I knew there were sales tax exemptions for vehicles that are gifted between family members, but I had no idea who qualified. And unless you’re someone who frequently registers cars, the process can be a little daunting. Each province has its own regulations (go to your provincial transportation ministry website for specifics) but here in Ontario there were a lot of hoops to jump through.

Most provinces have a statute that allows you to avoid the provincial or harmonized tax on a car gifted to immediate family members, but there is a list of whom they consider “immediate”. Nieces and nephews are not immediate; spouses, children, grandparents, grandchildren and siblings are all in the family. The good news? Yes to step- and half-children; the bad? No to your brother-in-law.

Most sites let you download a statement that you fill out declaring you’re not defrauding the government. Both parties go to a ministry office and swear the transfer is a gift before a commissioner, or you can get a notary to do it.

My sister lives in another city, so we had to coordinate this. Be prepared to set aside some time. Even though no money was changing hands, to register the vehicle in my name, it had to have a safety standards test done. In Ontario, you will need a Drive Clean emissions test done, though they are good for one year, so ask the gifter to check their records. A safety certificate is not required when gifting a vehicle between spouses in Ontario.

Because I couldn’t register or plate the vehicle in my name until these tests were done, my sister kept the vehicle insured and plated as we dropped it off at the mechanics. When you call your insurance, you will need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), make, model, year, and mileage. It can take a week to ten days to get updated slips so request they email you a document you can print off as proof on insurance. If the car isn’t plated, you can also get a temporary trip permit (usually valid for 7-10 days, again, check where you live) and add another cost to the total. No, you can’t just slap a pair of plates onto the car. Well, you could, but you shouldn’t.

On a side note: if you buy a used car and figure you’ll just dummy up a receipt save on the amount of tax you will be required to pay, be careful. I mean, don’t do it, of course, but if you do, know that they will look up the value of the vehicle you are purchasing and use their own number if they think yours is ludicrous. If you’re buying a heap that is legitimately worth less than the range outlined in whichever value listing (blue or black book) used in your province, you will need an appraisal done to convince them.

Back at the Service Ontario counter, I laid out all the necessary documents for the transfer: safety certificate, emissions test, proof of insurance, driver’s licence, sworn gift declaration and signed ownership. In most cases, while you can sell or give a car to someone without a safety or insurance, they can’t register it without them, nor can someone without a driver’s licence register a car in their name. I also didn’t have to have a Used Vehicle Information package usually required when transferring a car, due to the gift status.

Go to your provincial website to see if you can take advantage of ways to save money if you’re moving a car around within the family. There are a lot of required steps, but it’s worth it.

The kids have named the “new” car Ravioli.

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Gas prices bring plenty of complaints but little change from consumers

Drivers still opting for larger trucks and SUVs despite climbing fuel prices

Originally posted January 9, 2017

If I’m asked for advice about buying a car, I offer up one suggestion first and foremost: buy the car based on the whole price, not just the monthly payment. Now, I’m adding a second caveat to that: consider how much a tank of fuel might cost in that car within the range that fuel costs can fluctuate.

Of course this is about recent jumps at the pump. But there have always been increases in taxes, gas-jackings at long weekends and tragedy pricing whenever there is an oil spill or fire that oil companies seem uniquely good at pimping for a silver lining. Drivers are junkies, and they know it.

I have a lot of young people in my life, many commuting in transit-challenged areas for school to keep housing costs down and to jobs that get shifted on a whim. They know exactly how long a tank of fuel will last in the real world, and plan their do-not-overinflate budgets accordingly.

Speaking of the real world, I don’t know anyone who trusts the stickers in the car windows with fuel economy numbers; I know I don’t. We’ve been promised they’re getting better, and some are, but until they provide closer to actual, on-road usages, I continue to use them as a relative measure rather than an accurate one. You can compare them against each other, but not against actual performance. Much of that depends on how and where you drive, as well as the time of year. It only takes one harsh Canadian winter to have people crying fuel foul.

But consumers are a complicated lot, according the Automobile Protection Association (APA). “They respond one way in surveys and act another when they get in the showroom,” APA president George Iny explains. Over and over, they say they want fuel economy but ever increasing fuel prices do little to dampen their enthusiasm for buying bigger and bigger vehicles.

The same way consumers psychologically adjusted when the price per litre for gasoline broke the three-digit barrier, they have now apparently adapted to ever-increasing terms on loans. Taking five years to pay off a car was once the outer limits for average buyers; the introduction of 84- and 96-month terms should be a warning signal, not an invitation to buy more car than you can afford.

Will the latest round of fuel jumps change anything? John Raymond, a long-time industry consultant now with the APA, doesn’t think so.

“SUV sales will not change, except for some buyers converting to CUVs. Pickup sales will not change unless incentives dry up. People are tired of traditional three-box vehicles [sedans], that game is over. Hatchbacks are making a comeback, especially if they are two inches higher off the ground and have plastic appendages. Sports cars will continue to be making little more than a blip on the sales charts, because you get crazy performance from sport SUVs and premium cars today.”

If Raymond is right – and I think he is – ask yourself something as you go to purchase that SUV tomorrow. If a tank of fuel costs $75 and gets 600 kilometres, are you prepared for it to cost you $80? $90? More? Or will you simply believe that Canadians are somehow being punished more than other countries for exercising their right to drive comparatively huge vehicles?

As I write this, the average cost of gasoline around the world is $0.99 U.S./litre. On the chart, Canada sits at $0.95 U.S./litre, well down from Hong Kong’s $1.93 and places like Iceland, Norway, Israel, New Zealand, Italy and Greece – all commanding eye-popping prices. Historically, the higher the prices, the smaller the average cars on the road.

Maybe Canadians haven’t gotten the message because it’s never really been sent.

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Car safety systems still can’t replace a competent driver

Electronic safeguards such as automatic emergency braking do help, but they can’t be relied on in every situation

Originally published January 2, 2017

I reported recently on Aviva Canada’s decision to lop fifteen per cent from the car insurance rates of car owners who purchased a vehicle with automatic emergency braking (AEB). More car makers are offering this system, along with its sister, front collision warning (FCW). Their names explain the difference: one is a warning, while one actually applies the brakes in the event a driver is facing impact and not reacting. The warnings are abrupt and jolting, as they should be; the challenge facing manufacturers is to keep the false positives down so that drivers don’t tune out the warnings. It’s a work in progress.

I was driving the 2017 Infiniti QX30 AWD a couple of weeks ago. It was equipped with a technology package, which includes forward emergency braking. It would qualify under Aviva’s advertised rate reduction. I drove home near midnight as a winter storm started kicking up its heels, sleet and snow blowing on the highway and making it slick. It wasn’t newsreel worthy footage, just enough to be flying out of the dark to sticking to the car and coat the road.

Within ten minutes of hitting the highway, I got a notice on the dash that the system was currently unavailable. It remained unavailable for the duration of my ride. What’s important is that I was notified; what’s also important is that as more and more technologies like this come into play, drivers are going to have to be more engaged in the act of driving, not less so.

I consider lane departure warning (LDW) and blind spot warning (BSW) systems both a blessing and a bane. I call them text assist, because I’ve seen too many people texting away, their car happily keeping them between the lines like bumper guards at a 5-year-old’s bowling party. We also have inadvertently created two generations of drivers who seem to think shoulder checking is for the other guy: new drivers who trust the technology too much, and those drivers – frequently older – whose physical limitations mean many can’t turn their neck. Yes, placing your mirrors correctly can greatly improve your visibility of your surroundings but shoulder checking should never go away.

Uber has admitted in its self-driving car testing that bike lanes are a problem for the cars. They make a “right-hook” turn without checking for cyclists; if they admit a problem, I’d propose that other systems are experiencing the same issue. Cyclists are agile and quicker than pedestrians, often less predictable, and anything operating autonomously has to be safe for all road users, not just drivers. The functions we currently are seeing on the market – FCW, AEB, LDW, BSW – are all steps in the march toward automation. The fact they can be imperfect or compromised is a given, but the fact drivers may believe they are not is a problem.

An industry legal insider told me “basically, all of the existing technology (camera or radar based) have limitations due to contamination, mainly snow or ice. While not documented, I’d think heavy salt accumulation or excessive dust would similarly affect these systems, with camera based systems more prone to degraded operation. Also, camera based systems can be blinded by sunrise/sunset conditions.”

If you have a backup camera on your car here in Canada, you know it is rendered useless throughout much of the winter. Even though makers are working on recessing the cameras or covering them, our extreme weather can compromise even these protective mechanisms. The salt and brine and beet juice they use on the roads here in Ontario sticks like glue to the underside of our vehicles. It doesn’t take long for a camera lens to look like it’s been smeared with Vaseline, if you can see anything at all.

So how can something like an insurance company trust in the tech enough to offer up such a large deduction? A combination of two major things. Those warning signs I received put the onus back on the driver (though it technically never left), and even imperfect technology is better than what most drivers are doing on the road today. We should see all OEMs with systems that will warn a driver if a system is blocked or degraded below some threshold, even if only for liability reasons. We’ll no doubt see a court tested scenario sooner rather than later if a safety system is documented not operating without warning.

For all the discussions we had in 2016 about autonomous cars – and it felt like every discussion was about autonomous cars – the fact remains we’re still going to need competent, trained drivers for years to come. Don’t let the advertising on your new ride convince you otherwise.

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Ten achievable New Year’s resolutions — for your car

Here are a few things you can commit to achieving with your car in 2017

Originally posted January 4, 2016

Go on a diet; get in better shape; stop smoking. Typical New Year’s resolutions destined, of course, to the rubbish pile by the second week of January. You can hold a NYE resolution exactly as long as you can hold your breath.

I have a better idea. Adopt a set of resolutions for your car, instead — far more achievable, and great for your wallet as well as your car.

Lose weight. There’s a reason auto manufacturers are fighting to make every component on a car lightweight; every additional kilogram reduces fuel economy. Don’t defeat their very deliberate purpose by loading down your trunk with out-of-season sports equipment or those big Tupperware holders strapped to the roof racks. If you don’t need them, get them off. Roof racks themselves cut wind resistance. I did a countrywide hypermiling experiment a few years ago with a guy who would have removed the door handles if he could have. Okay, he was a little extreme. But we got across the country on four and a half tanks of gas. It was rather hellish, but very revealing.

Quit smoking. Well, at least pollute as little as possible. Resolve to get your car checked out twice a year. Go by your owner’s manual (Canada is an extreme climate), but remember that oil changes are about time as well as mileage. Changing your oil and rotating tires is the best, cheapest preventative maintenance you can do. A mechanic will be getting a look at your car, and having a set of eyes biannually on everything can save you thousands on an unexpected breakdown.

Doing your own oil change can be an easy task – if you prepare before hand and take the proper precautions.
Doing your own oil change can be an easy task – if you prepare beforehand and take the proper precautions
Eat better. You know your own body runs better when you’re feeding it well. Do the same for your car. If your car requires high-octane fuel, don’t cheap out; beware of second-rate parts that appear to save you a few bucks; keep your windshield washer fluid topped up all year ’round, and don’t let your fuel tank get below half in winter.

Spend more time with family. For your car, this means developing a good relationship with a mechanic you trust — someone who will get to know your car, and you. Ask friends and neighbours for referrals, and hold up your end of the deal: take your car there for all the routine maintenance, so if something big goes wrong, they know who you are and will probably go out of their way to help you. Screaming into the phone from your driveway to someone you’ve never met never ends well.

Join a gym. For your car, this means some kind of roadside assistance program. If you use your car for holidays or have an older car no longer under the manufacturer’s roadside coverage, make sure you have a lifeline.

Get out of debt. If your older car is getting more and more costly to maintain, do the magic math: Is the proposed fix more than the value of the car? Is it cheaper for you to do the fix and get another year out of the car instead of that many payments on a new one? Nobody has a crystal ball, but don’t make decisions based on emotion, about how much you love your car. Putting $3,000 into a car that’s only worth $1,800 is creating more problems than it’s fixing.

Or maybe this is the year you buy a new car. Buy the whole car, not just a month at a time. Keep an eye on how much your total payout will be over the entire term; more debt is incurred here than almost anywhere else. Dealers are happy to meet that monthly amount you’ve budgeted, just don’t let them extend the term by a year or three to do it.

Before you put pen to paper on your new car purchase, think long and hard about everything you’ve agreed to. There is no cooling off period after the ink’s dried.
Before you put pen to paper on your new car purchase, think long and hard about everything you’ve agreed to. There is no cooling off period after the ink’s dried.
Learn a new language. Your car is probably capable of a lot of things you don’t know about. New technology is changing so quickly, even a car a couple of model years newer than your last one will have a whole new cache of fun features. Spend some quality time with the manual and start experimenting. If you’re not tech inclined, recruit someone who is. Once you’ve dialed in your presets and finally understand all the GPS pathways, physically learn about your car somewhere you can play with the stability control and different engine settings.

Read the classics. If you commute, change the dial. Let your car help you enjoy all those books you can’t get around to. It may take a month to finish some Tolstoy, but the dude’s worth it, especially with someone else pronouncing all the hard names. If the classics aren’t your thing, dig out some Monty Python or Chris Rock. Learning or laughing, it’s all great.

Get more involved. This is where you can use your car to better yourself. If you have some free time and spend too much of it in front of the computer, offer to volunteer in your community. The Canadian Cancer Society in your area could use drivers to get patients to treatment; ask around about similar programs that could benefit from your driving – and people – skills.

No more stress. Also equally important for your car and for you. Decide to chill out. Leave the house each day deciding to forgive a dozen transgressions, to let in six late mergers and to decide the dawdler ahead of you is no doubt a new driver. Maybe the frantic person who cut you off just got terrible news; it’s possible. For your car, less stress will mean better brake life, better fuel economy and less spilled coffee. And for your passengers? They’ll be admiring someone who managed to keep a whole slew of New Year’s resolutions.

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