The dreadful depth of winter is one of the best times of the year to buy a car, but most people don’t seem to know that. In fact, if you ask people, many of them might tell you the winter, especially in the northern half of the country that is battered by snow, ice, wind, and salt, is an especially bad time to buy a car. “Make the old car last one more winter” is their motto. But in the face of that—and partly because of that—the dead of winter has become a great time to buy a new car.
Back in the days of meaningful annual model changes, crank windows, and AM radio, there were some good reasons to avoid buying a car in midwinter. Before carmakers figured out how to fight a winning battle against rust, the idea of keeping your new car out of salt-laden slush meant you might have a better chance of avoiding early-onset oxidation. I mean, who wants their brand-new car to start rusting away in the first few weeks?
But that was then and this is now. And the present moment favors the idea that buying when others are not buying—in the stock market they call it being contrarian—is a smart move. Instead of waiting for spring and battling hordes of other car buyers for the most popular vehicles with the most desirable equipment, you can get into the market early and pick off a good deal without tripping over other car buyers in the dealership.
Here are some good reasons why midwinter is a great time to buy:
1. Only the Strong Survive (Winter)
Winter is tough on your car, so if you are concerned about the overall reliability of your vehicle, the winter months are the poorest months in the year to take a chance.
“When it is warm out and when it is nice out, people don’t worry so much,” John Hennessy, owner of Chicago-area River View Ford, told C/D. “And then they get to the winter months, and you get a little snow on the ground, and they get a little slippage because their tread isn’t so great, or it is taking a little longer to slow down with their braking, and now they have a dilemma.”
Should you get your current car fixed and try to make it through the winter, or do you take the money you would have used to fix the car and put it into a down payment on a brand-new vehicle? It might make sense to take the latter course.
2. Warmer Incentives
In days gone by, car manufacturers were more content to wait out winter with the expectation that sales would inevitably pick up in the spring. But today’s market is too competitive and too dependent on continued cash flow to sit out a couple months of sales or even let them slip markedly. So, to keep the sales party going in the face of miserable weather, the carmakers get more generous with the incentives they offer consumers to get them to buy or lease.
“In the northern states, you’re battling snow, you’re battling freezing temperatures, so inventories start to build up,” Hennessy said. “Well, manufacturers know that, so the levels of incentives they put on are always extremely good.”
Fellow Midwestern dealer Ray Scarpelli, president of Illinois-based Ray Chevrolet and Ray Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, agrees.
“The manufacturers know that people in the middle of winter take a little enticement to get them out in cold weather, in snowy weather, to look at a car,” Scarpelli told us. “So the rebates tend to be really aggressive, and they offer strong lease payments.”
3. Auto Shows
For the same reason, winter is the time for the local auto show in many cities. Car dealers, in cooperation with the auto manufacturers, put on these shows in an effort to persuade otherwise on-the-fence buyers to get off the couch and get serious about buying a car. To support the local auto show and turn auto-show visitors into paying customers, individual dealers, regional same-make dealer associations, and carmakers go to uncommon extremes to make their midwinter deals irresistible.
“The public knows that come February there are going to be great incentives going on at the Chicago auto show,” said Hennessy, who happens to be chairman of the show, “because manufacturers put a little extra on to try to entice people who go to the auto show to buy a car.”
The same holds true across the country as local dealer associations, car manufacturers, and individual dealers get together to throw midwinter events their experience tells them will result in increased business.
4. Lonely Dealers
The typical dealership depends on foot traffic, and when poor weather prevents potential customers from going out car shopping, dealers are more eager to close deals with those few customers who do brave the elements. Most consumers don’t realize that dealers finance a significant portion of their inventory, so they have car payments, too. And that means they are often more willing to take less for a car rather than making another payment on it. So a shrewd negotiator has more leverage in late February than in the beginning of June.
Hennessy agrees that the lack of traffic caused by inclement weather can be a big consumer advantage. “When dealers aren’t seeing a lot of people, we are more inclined to step up and put more money into that trade that isn’t worth too much,” Hennessy said. “We’re paying interest on that car sitting on the ground, so I’d rather relieve that interest and put a lot more money into that trade and help you get into the car.”
Having said all this, just scraping the snow off your current car and driving to the closest dealership won’t necessarily guarantee you a good deal. But if you approach the transaction with knowledge, you can use the snow, ice, and cold to save yourself some serious money.