Answer Man

Beware of ‘sign and drive’ offers from car dealers

Q: Some car dealerships (Volkswagen, etc.) now frequently tout their “Sign and Drive” sales. I would like to know what is behind this idea. It has to benefit the dealership. In the old days you picked a car, took it for a test drive with or without a salesman and bought it.

T.L., of Collinsville

A: Looking for a new car? Well, just stop in, whip out your Bic and put your John Hancock on a contract. In just a couple of minutes, you’ll be driving home in your new Passat, Accord or whatever.

Sounds so easy and inviting, doesn’t it? No muss, no fuss. Like stopping in for a pound of bologna at a convenience store — without even having to fork over the $4.49.

And, according to financial experts, that’s the picture car dealers are trying to paint in your mind. To move inventory and boost their bottom line, they figure the allure of putting no money down may spur an extra quick decision to act without thinking — especially among those prone to impulse buying.

That’s why gurus like Ilyce Glink, who has written more than a dozen consumer books (such as “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask”), warns potential customers not to be mesmerized by this siren song because the offer may contain at least a little of that Kwik-E-Mart bologna.

Please note: Some of the following caveats may not apply to all sign-and-drive deals. However, they seem to be common enough in the industry that Glink asks you to consider them if you pursue such a deal:

First, you may not even qualify. Because you’re putting no down payment into the car, these deals are even riskier for lenders than if you pay a thou or two up front in good faith. Unless you have a strong credit score, you may find yourself quickly being pointed to the dealer’s used car lot.

Second, you’re still going to need your checkbook. Even though you’re not making a down payment, you’ll still have to come up with the do-re-mi for taxes, title, registration and insurance, so make sure you keep that in mind in your planning.

Third, some dealerships may offer only a basic factory model. If you want all those fancy add-ons and gizmos to impress your friends, you may be out of luck.

“Most sign and drive deals will not allow you to make any upgades to the vehicle,” Glink says.

Fourth, you may find your driving restricted. Many or most of these Sign and Drive events are for leases, not outright purchases. Because you will be returning the vehicle after a few years, the dealership may limit the number of miles you can drive, Glink says. Sign-and-Drive deals may be more restrictive than standard leases, although you might negotiate for more miles if you agree to a higher monthly payment.

Finally, remember the old Fram oil filter ad wisdom: “You can pay me now — or pay me later.” That’s what you’ll be doing with a Sign and Drive deal. Because you’re putting nothing down, you’ll have to make it up with higher monthly payments.

In fact, you could hypothetically wind up paying more with an S&D lease than a standard lease. Let’s say a standard 36-month lease requires a $2,000 down payment and a $300 monthly payment while an S&D deal has no money down and a $369 monthly payment. The standard deal will cost you $12,800 while the S&D will set you back $13,284. Again, shop around and crunch the numbers for your best deal.

And remember the downsides to leasing, Glink cautions: If you think you’re going to buy the car after the lease period, you’ll likely spend more than if you had bought it in the first place. If you return it, you will be liable for repairing any damage and may even be hit with wear-and-tear fees. Of course, if you only drive your car to the Piggly Wiggly on Sundays and you like the prestige of new wheels every couple of years, it could be the deal for you.

Bottom line: Read all offers carefully and ask plenty of questions so you don’t wind up being steered wrong.

Today’s trivia

Where would you go to see the oldest zoo in the world?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Visitors to Vienna, Austria, can enjoy being taken for a ride — if they make their way to what is usually billed as the world’s oldest Ferris wheel still in operation. To honor the golden jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I, the Wiener Riesenrad was built just four years after George Ferris put his first Ferris wheel into operation in 1893 at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. In 1914, Madame Solange d’Atalide, a circus director, even completed one rotation sitting on a horse that was standing atop one of the Vienna ride’s gondolas.

Since then, the Vienna attraction has survived more perils than Pauline. In 1916, for example, the city issued a demolition permit, but the wheel was spared when no money could be found to carry out the order. In 1944, it was heavily damaged by Allied war bombing, but it was rebuilt, although with only half of the original 30 gondolas. Still, at 212 feet, it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world from 1906 (when the original 264-foot-high Chicago wheel was demolished after it had been moved to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair) to 1985.

Movie fans perhaps know it best as a key piece of scenery in the 1949 film noir “The Third Man” with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. If you’re in town, you can take a spin for about $12. Or, if you’re feeling romantic, you can buy tickets for a 90-minute three-course meal for two with two bottles of wine for just a smidgen over $400. For more history and trivia, go to

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer