For many consumers, the great car deals in 2014 are the ultra-low auto loan rates combined with easier credit.
But saving real money will require digging through cryptic lingo for car loans, going beyond some wacky ads and, yes, even decoding some charges.
We've seen federal regulators in the past month highlight some ways consumers have gotten taken for a ride in the car-buying process.
Earlier this month the Federal Trade Commission announced Operation Steer Clear, to crack down on deceptive advertising. (Did you receive a postcard from a car dealer saying you had won a prize at a dealership? Don't bank on a fat check.)
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also is taking issue with dealer markups involving car loans obtained at dealerships, bringing home the point that consumers need to shop around for loans before heading into the showroom.
For consumers, it's essential to know the traps and tips.
» Should you worry about being able to get a car loan?
Not really. Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, said auto lending had one of its best years ever in 2013, and lending should remain strong in 2014.
“Subprime auto lending is almost back to its prerecession levels,” Zandi said.
Overall, borrowers with good credit can expect to see rates below 4 percent on both new- and used-car loans, according to Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.
» Take steps to lock up a loan before you take a test drive.
In December the U.S. Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau brought to light charges of discrimination in lending that allegedly took place through dealer markups regarding interest rates.
More than 235,000 African-American, Hispanic and other minority auto loan borrowers who dealt with Ally Financial were unfairly charged higher interest rates for loans on cars or trucks because of discriminatory practices, according to the federal regulators.
Ally Financial and Ally Bank were ordered to pay $80 million to harmed borrowers and pay $18 million in penalties relating to auto loans made between April 2011 and December 2013. In a statement, Ally said the company does not engage in or condone violations of law or discriminatory practices, and, based on the company's analysis of its business, it does not believe that there is measurable discrimination by auto dealers.
The lesson for consumers: Make absolutely certain to be preapproved for a car loan before shopping for a car. Then you have a better idea of what type of loan rate would apply to someone with your credit score, said Christopher Kukla, senior vice president for the Center for Responsible Lending.
Kukla pointed out that consumers don't know what kind of extra compensation dealers might be getting on the auto loan markups.
“You're paying the dealer for a service, but you don't know how much you're paying the dealer for that service,” Kukla said.
» What if an ad looks too good to be true?
Consider that things might not be on the up-and-up.
The FTC said false claims made by some dealers drove consumers to believe they could keep super-low monthly payments until the car was paid off. But the payments were temporary teasers, after which consumers would owe a higher amount each month, or perhaps a large balloon payment at a given date.
And the FTC said a dealership in Michigan allegedly violated the FTC Act by sending mailers that deceptively claimed consumers had won a sweepstakes prize, when they had not.
» The price of the car isn't just a sticker on the window.
Consumers want to compare the going deals on similar makes and models by going to sites such as Kelley Blue Book at KBB.com.
But get a detailed breakdown of fees and features on a specific deal, too.
One consumer told me a few weeks ago that while considering buying a sport utility vehicle, he spotted that he was charged for a full tank of gas, too.
“Oh, really? You're going to take $30,000 of my money and you're going to make me pay $60 for a tank of gas?” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
Spot an item like that one? Negotiate.
>> Don’t be pressured for extra services or fees. Consider VIN etching. Some dealers may want to charge you extra for the somewhat added security of etching a car’s vehicle identification number onto a windshield, warned Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine. Yet it could be a better deal if you do it later yourself. AAA Michigan, for example, has a free VIN etching program.
>> Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said consumers need an itemized list of everything they’re paying for on a proposed deal. Maybe you could spot that you’re paying way too much for a feature, such as wheel locks. If you go to Amazon.com or an auto supply store and see that you can buy wheel locks for $30 or $40, for example, you can tell the dealer you don’t want to pay $120 for wheel locks, he said.
Source: Detroit Free Press research