Are Car Dealership Upsells Ever a Good Deal?

Tire-and-wheel coverage might be worth it. Nitrogen-filled tires? Not so much.

If the modern automobile had a status on Facebook, it would undoubtedly be “It’s complicated.” With their computer-controlled fuel-injection systems, continuously variable transmissions and three-phase four-pole AC induction motors, the days when every Tom, Dick or Harry could wrench on their ride seem long gone. So let us help — especially with the seemingly mundane stuff that if not done properly, your dad and/or his favorite mechanic vowed would ruin your car forever. Because when it comes to cars — and this column — no question is too dumb.

Last time I leased a car, I got totally hosed by their finance person who sold me an expensive tire-replacement add-on that never came close to paying for itself. Are any of those after-purchase upsells worth the money?
I don’t know about you, but the times I’ve left the dealership with a new car, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit dirty — like someone had lifted me up by my ankles and shook me until every last penny had fallen out of my pockets. 

Yes, car dealerships are in the business of selling or leasing you a car, but they’re also in the business of milking you as dry financially as you’ll comfortably let them. And the upsell game that occurs in the dealership finance office after you’ve agreed on a price/payment is part of that business. A select few of those upsells are worth it; the vast majority, however, are so insanely outside the same universe of “worth it” as to be totally and completely laughable. The key, then, is knowing the difference.

Unfortunately, I cannot list all of the upsells you’ll likely encounter and tell you which is which, given that every dealership/manufacturer pitches a different set. But there are some usual suspects in the upsell game. So let’s start with the add-ons you’ll probably want to at least consider.

Take the maintenance package, for example: No doubt, the finance person is going to ask you if you want to pay a low, low price for all your expected maintenance upfront. Sometimes this is a bad deal, like when your manufacturer offers free scheduled maintenance for a certain number of years or miles anyway. But if not, do the math: Count how many oil changes, filter replacements, spark plugs and/or brake fluid flushes you’ll need, add up those costs plus 20 percent for anything you haven’t thought of, and if the maintenance package is less than that, it might be worth buying. It’s also worth remembering that many of these upsells are just as negotiable as the purchase price; and so, never take the first offer.

Also, tire-and-wheel coverage is an upsell that might really be worth it under certain circumstances. For instance, if you drive in a city with indescribably jacked-up roads,  like I do in L.A., you might want this coverage. Or if you’ve got low-profile tires — which, if you drive a sports/luxury car in 2020, you do — you might want this coverage since low-profile tires aren’t as sturdy as regular tires thanks to having thinner sidewalls, and are more likely to pop from hitting an errant pothole. Keep in mind, though, that in most cases, you’d have to lose at least four tires at $200-plus a pop (or two wheels) in order for the tire-and-wheel insurance to become economical.

Now, onto the upsells that are absolutely not worth it. Things like extended warranties (unless you’re buying a used car), nitrogen-filled tires (uh, the air is 78 percent nitrogen already), paint sealant (your car’s paint comes factory-sealed), fabric protection (your car’s fabric comes factory-protected) or rust proofing (your car comes rust-proofed) are just a few that don’t make much sense.

That said, if a lot of this stuff sounds like a good deal when the dealer tries to sell you on them, remember, that’s by design. “Saying ‘yes’ to buying the car feels good,” Shai, a car salesperson in Southern California, explains. “Once you say yes to that, you’re likely to want to say yes to other things — like upsells — to keep that feeling going. That’s why they’re handled immediately after you’ve agreed to purchase, and why they’re good business for the dealership.” 

So the next time you buy a car, remember to research exactly what’s a potentially good deal and what’s not before the sales dude starts coming at you hard with the upsells (and that good ol’ “yes” feeling kicks in) — you’ll save yourself a lot of Picard facepalming when you realize you got hosed later on.

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