How to Buy a New 4X4

Follow our step-by-step guide to buying the new truck that fits your needs in the field.

On my last hunting trip Down South, I stopped at one of those roadside eateries that cater to folks like me who can't resist hand-lettered "BBQ" signs. Once inside the screen door, I stared a long time at the menu, which was nothing more than a painted board nailed above the counter. Finally, the counterman took pity on me.

"It's simple," he said. "Beef."

I nodded.

"'Course, you can take that chopped, sliced, or shredded, with or without sauce, and you got beans and relish on the side. Oh, we got two sizes--large and extra large."

As I recall, I went whole hog and ordered a huge sandwich with all the trimmings.

Buying a new 4x4 can be similarly gut-wrenching. You start simple, but suddenly you're looking at a vehicle with all the trimmings. The only problem is that a new 4x4 is considerably more expensive than a barbecue sandwich. Careful preparation, however, can keep the heartburn to a minimum.

Starting Out: The first step is to determine the type of 4x4 you require. Given the size of the market (more than 50), this may seem a Herculean task, but the field breaks down in a hurry into four basic types: full-size and compact sport utilities, and full-size and compact pickup trucks. By and large, full-size vehicles from the same manufacturer share mechanical underpinnings and designs. The same holds true for the compact segment. And broadly speaking, sport utilities will cost more than a comparably equipped pickup.

What type works best for you? That depends on the kinds of hunting and fishing you enjoy, whether you need the vehicle for work, and if you need to haul your family around as well. Inevitably, you'll have to compromise. Though most sportsmen would like a vehicle dedicated exclusively to hunting and fishing, the majority need their vehicle to do double duty.

Think this through; sometimes the best choice isn't obvious. For example, a Virginia angler I know was looking at compact sport utilities, but then decided on a compact pickup with a cap. Since he didn't have any children and generally fished with one partner only, he didn't need to pay for the extra seats of a sport utility.

A full-size sport utility, however, was the only alternative for a Texas sportsman because, as he put it, "I'm a gear hog, and during the fall when I'm after birds, deer, and bass I practically live out of my truck. I need a lot of storage space for me and my partner, and since I drive anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to hunt, I also wanted a cab with some room to stretch out. And when I'm not in the field, the rear seat stays up so I can haul around my family."

A Montana bird hunter recommends a compact sport utility. "There's plenty of room for my pointer, my partners, and all our gear," he says. "In addition, I prefer the fuel economy of the V6 engine to that of a big V8."

Finally, there's the big-game hunter from New Mexico who prefers full-size pickups. "With a big V8 engine, I can tow a big trailer, and with a cap in place I can store enough gear for a week in deer camp. When I'm not hunting, the truck holds all my tools and work supplies."

To each his own. Just remember, what works for a friend may (or may not) work for you. And since a new 4x4 will set you back anywhere from $20,000 well over $40,000, don't be in too big a hurry to make up your mind.

The Right Stuff: After you've established the type of 4x4 you need, it's time to figure out how the vehicle should be equipped. Here's where you really go to work, for nearly every 4x4 on the market offers a mind-boggling array of standard and optional equipment. A partial list includes engine, transmission, four-wheel-drive system, seats, tires, instrument panel, air-conditioning, power doors, windows, and mirrors, fog lamps, and specialty packages (trailer towing, handling, offroad, heavy-duty suspension, and auxiliary cooling).

This equipment may be available by special option groups or by trim levels. Some of it can be ordered separately. It all depends on the manufacturer.

As you mull all this over, be aware of some important industry trends.

Most new trucks are considerably plusher than before, and interior controls and appointments as well as such basics as ride and handling are much more carlike. Utilitarian versions, however, remain in many lines. Just don't expect a dealer to rush you into one. (He makes more on upscale versions.) A turkey hunter I know welcomed the improved mechanical components, but balked at the fancy interiors. He needed an interior that he could hose out after every outing, so he bought a pickup with vinyl bench seats and floor mats, though he had to fight the dealer every step of the way.

Many hunters and fishermen think V8! when truck engines come to mind. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you need to haul huge loads. But there are a number of good 6-cylinder in-line and V6 engines out there, some of which rival the power of a V8 but deliver better fuel economy. You should also think torque rather than horsepower. An engine's torque rating is a truer indication of its ability to work for you. Ideally, you'd like an engine to develop peak torque at a relatively low engine speed--say around 2,800 to 3,500 rpm. (This is especially important if you launch boats off steep ramps or drive on tough offroad trails.)

The Federal Government is tightening emissions standards as well as raising fuel economy standards for light trucks. As a result, we're beginning to see a profound change in the type of engines found in trucks. The industry standard has been the tried-and-true pushrod design, but Ford and Jeep recently introduced overhead-camshaft engines into some of their products. The difference? The pushrod engine develops high torque at very low rpm, which is perfect for many truck applications. Overhead-camshaft engines typically develop top-end torque at higher rpm, but this engine pollutes less and is more fuel efficient.

The engine's torque is harnessed by the transmission. In the past, many hardcore four-wheelers opted for manual transmissions because of the extra gearing they provided. (Most manuals offer five forward speeds with overdrive for improved fuel economy.) These guys were dissatisfied with automatics that offered only three or four forward speeds; the three speeds offered limited gearing, and many four-speeds were plagued by "gear-hunting" computer controls that favored fuel economy over performance.

Most of these problems have been rectified through the introduction of four-speed electronic automatic overdrive transmissions. Still, you'll find that the transmission on a new truck has been deigned for ride quality rather than performance. Although new transmissions don't "gear-hunt" as badly as they did a few years ago, you may be less than enthralled with their performance in high-country and towing situations.

A generation ago, 4-wheel-drive systems featured manual locking hubs and a manual-shift transfer case. In order to get into and out of 4WD, you had to exit the cab, lock (or unlock) the hubs on the front wheels and then shift into (or out) of 4WD. Nowadays, many 4-wheel-drive sport utilities and pickups come from the factory with automatic locking hubs and electric-shift transfer cases. You never leave the comfort of the cab to engage 4WD.

Many outdoorsmen don't like the new systems, but they're here to stay. Some models still offer manual-shift transfer cases, though you may have to special order the vehicle to get them.

As for those special packages mentioned earlier, carefully evaluate each one, especially if you plan to tow a trailer or boat. In some cases, you may have to order more than one optional package to get all the required equipment. For example, to get underbody skid plates and heavy-duty shocks, you may be required to order an offroad package and a handling package. Those who tow may need to order a handling package for the shocks and sway bars, a cooling package for heavy-duty radiators and engine oil and transmission oil coolers, and a trailer-towing package for the wiring harness and the hitch.

Some factory towing packages don't include the hitch; it may be a dealer option. In this case, you can take the truck to a hitch dealer or have the dealer install it. (Many opt for the latter because the cost of the hitch installation can be rolled into the monthly payment.)

Selecting certain options may preclude you from others. For instance, some trailer-towing packages specify automatic transmissions only. And particular engine and rear axle combinations may not be available because of federal regulations or market availability.

You also need to consider whether the accessories on your current truck--slide-in camper, cap, roof rack, winch, and the like--will fit the new truck. Case in point. New, more aerodynamic trucks use internal, rather than external drip rails. If the old roof rack was designed to fit an external drip rail, and you buy a new truck with internal drip rails, you'll need to invest in a new rack as well.

Sourcing the Accessories: Truck manufacturers have noticed how hot the truck accessory market is these days, and they are rushing into the game by offering some accessories that had traditionally been left exclusively to the aftermarket. The problem is that truck manufacturers design a product to appeal to a broad, general market. Hunters or fishermen may find that manufacturer-offered accessories don't meet their needs.

Much of the rest of this book is devoted to accessories that have been specially designed to meet the needs of hunters and fishermen. So read those chapters before you purchase any new accessories.

Dealing With a Dealer: I don't know anyone who enjoys haggling with a dealer, and the inevitable tug-of-war between buyer and seller makes buying a 4x4 about as pleasant as having your guns scraped. But if you go armed with a firm strategy based on careful research, you can make the experience more bearable.

A friend of mine launches a preemptive strike when he enters a dealership. "When I walk in, I'm ready to buy," he told me. "I know exactly what I want down to the last detail. I tell the dealer, 'You're not going to have the truck I need on the lot. I'm going to order it, and you're going to turn a profit for very little work.'"

This approach works well when buying a domestic truck. Import truck buyers have much less leeway because you can't special-order from the factory.

A Montana trout fisherman confronts dealers this way: "First, I get the invoice price of the truck. These figures are usually available from libraries, banks, credit unions, or the Internet. Then, I call a dealer (I never walk on the floor if I can help it), ask for the sales manager, and tell him I'll buy the truck for "invoice plus $350, straight cash [outside financing]. If the sales manager won't go for it, I may have to offer invoice plus $500, but that's as far as I go. That's plenty of profit for a dealer, because he usually also gets incentive money from the factory. The whole process take about 2 minutes 30 seconds, and there's no skating around."

The only way to make this system work for you, however, is to do all your homework, know exactly what you want, and be persistent. Also, the "plus" figure will vary. It might be as low as $200 if the vehicle in question isn't selling well, or much more if it's in great demand. If the dealer has a lot of trucks on the lot, he's usually more willing to bargain, but if he has control of his inventory, he'll tell you to take a hike. You also need to make sure the invoice figures are current (last year's won't do) and cover all the options and special equipment you need. Otherwise, they're no good.

Don't use the process to lowball the dealer with a completely ridiculous offer. Doing so brands you as an idiot. Remember, this guy sells trucks 6 days a week, 8 (or more) hours a day. You buy once every ten years. He is not going to sell you a truck at a loss. A fair offer tells him you are serious, and you are more likely to get the truck you want at a price you can bear.

If you live in an area with few dealers, or if you want a red-hot vehicle, you won't be able to bargain as effectively. Even so, have the numbers at your fingertips. Walking into a showroom completely unprepared is a simply a recipe for disaster.

If you can't come to terms that you can live with, walk. Let the salesman know you're willing to buy a different model from another dealer. That will often bring him back to the table with a more reasonable offer. (I must admit that sometimes this doesn't work. I once had a salesman just turn away from me as I walked out the door. I later bought at a better dealership with a terrific service department, so in the end I made the right move.)

Once you strike a deal, don't compare it to the deals engineered by the guys at work or at the gun club. Are you happy with the deal? That's all that matters. Salesmen can cut a deal in many different ways, and unless you're party to every aspect of the negotiations, you can't really judge the merits of a deal.

How much truck can you afford? The general rule of thumb is the purchase price should not exceed half of your annual income. And though you need to be cost-conscious, don't underbuy. In order for the truck to perform on target, you must order the needed special equipment. This is no place to scrimp, especially if your hunting and fishing takes you far from the beaten track.

The Rule of Three: When buying a new 4x4, keep in mind that you're actually engaging in three distinct transactions: Buying a new truck, financing it, and unloading the old truck. For best results, keep each transaction separate. Negotiate the price of the new vehicle first. That done, you can proceed to financing. (Big tip: call your bank or credit union for their rates before you walk into the showroom. Armed with this information, you may be able to get dealer financing at a lower interest rate.) Finally, you can consider trading in your old truck, though you'll usually do better if you sell it yourself.

A common ploy among salesmen is to mix these transactions. It's a form of voodoo economics in which they take the trade-in, apply it to the down payment, and then offer a longer-term loan--all of which gives the appearance of lowering the purchase price of the new truck. Doing so makes you a three-time loser: You get less for the trade-in, pay more in interest on the loan, and spend more on the truck. The tactic works because most people look only at the monthly loan payment--the lower, the better.

You should also be aware that the dealer cost (what the dealer paid for the truck), the manufacturer's suggested list price, and the sticker price (which includes all special equipment, preparation charges, and other fees) are different. So when you talk "price" make sure you and the dealer are speaking the same language.

Is Leasing For You?: Leasing, rather than buying, is a hot trend. In fact, nearly 40 percent of light trucks are leased these days. But is it really for you?

That depends. The big problem for hunters and fishermen is that at the end of the lease (typically 24 months), the lessee (that's you) must pay for any "excess wear and tear" when the vehicle is returned. Given where we drive our trucks when we hunt and fish, you may find that your truck at the end of the lease period has a number of scratches or small dents. You will pay handsomely for this. You also may not be able to personalize the vehicle. If you want to add a roof rack, brush guard, auxiliary lights, an electric winch, and other bolt-on accessories, you need to find out whether the lesser (the finance company that actually owns the vehicle) will allow you to modify the vehicle.

In some ways, leasing is a more complicated procedure than buying. There are many financial pitfalls, so you better do your homework before you sign on the dotted line. But a quick way to figure out if leasing may work for you is to answer the following questions:

Leasing may work for you if:

1) You prefer to drive a new, rather than old, truck;

2) You don't mind making monthly payments;

3) You put less than 12,000 miles a year on your truck;

4) You don't expose your truck to "excess wear and tear."

Leasing probably won't work for you if:

1) You prefer to pay off the loan in full and then drive the vehicle for several years thereafter;

2) You drive more than 12,000 miles per year;

3) You routinely drive into areas where brush, rocks, and other hazards can damage the vehicle.

Final Steps: Now that you know exactly what you want, you're ready to deal. Just remember that knowledgeable truck salesmen are a rare breed, which is why you need to do so much work beforehand. The complex option order codes don't help matters, either. Last year, as a hunting buddy wrestled over an order form at a local dealership, the exasperated salesman told him, "I wish you were ordering a car. It's so much easier."

After the order was completed, my friend double-checked the paperwork to make sure all the information was entered correctly. When the truck arrived, he checked the order against the invoice to make sure everything was in place. Smart move. Do the same. Truck buying is definitely an area where caveat emptor reigns supreme.

Finally, since some truck owners purchase new vehicles only every ten years or so, sticker shock is a big problem. The truck that cost you $15,000 ten years ago will probably run more than $25,000 today. If that seems beyond your means, you can take another tack by buying a used 4x4, a subject we'll discuss in the next chapter.