Buying a Subaru Outback

I recently wrote about how we decided which model to buy. This post talks about trim level and options for that model, as well as the actual buying process.

We started by using the car configurator on Subaru’s website.

Engine size

After driving weak cars for 20 years I was hoping to get something more powerful. I thought the four cylinder 2.5i would be underpowered when hauling a lot of weight (four people and luggage) up hills. I was drawn to the six cylinder 3.6R, but the gas mileage isn’t great. I estimated that we would spend between $5k and $8k more on gas over a 10 year period when compared to the 2.5i. And dealerships around here had fewer in stock, which meant the selection wasn’t great. And hauling a lot of weight up hills isn’t something we do very often (kids are light). We test drove the 2.5i with three adults and acceleration felt fine to me. Speculation: While the engine is listed as only having 175hp, maybe this is more adequate than you might think because CVTs allow for quicker acceleration than a traditional transmission by allowing constant high RPMs. So we went with the 2.5i—the rational choice, really.

Color

To pick the color, both of us rated the options on a scale of 1 to 10. Our top three were the same and we decided on Dark Blue Pearl as our favorite.

Trim level

We knew we wanted the Limited trim level, which includes push button start, PIN code vehicle access, power adjustable front passenger seat, and HomeLink rear view mirror. Subaru’s adaptive cruise control/automatic emergency braking comes from a system called EyeSight. We didn’t feel strongly about it, but most Limited Outbacks in stock around here have EyeSight and it seemed like it could potentially prevent or reduce the severity of an accident, so we got it.

Options

Most Limited Outbacks around here also had “Popular Package 2.” It includes a few things we cared about: rear bumper cover, new all weather floor liners, rear seat back protector. And some things we didn’t care about: exterior auto dimming mirror with approach lighting. To find a car in local inventory without the package would have meant limiting our options and possibly making it harder to bargain while not actually reducing the cost much, so we got it.

Getting price quotes

I looked up dealer invoice price for the base car and each add-on (possibly from NADA Guides). Cars 101 is also a great Subaru-specific resource (though they don’t list dealer invoice prices). I also looked at the price estimate on TrueCar. I was very familiar with the options at this point so I started calling dealerships. I asked what their best price was for the options we wanted.

Three dealerships gave me similar prices that were below dealer cost and on the lower end of the TrueCar range. The price was lower than I was expecting. We bought at the end of December, so maybe there were manufacturer incentives at play?

The dealership I found easiest to work with was also the closest, and they price-matched the lowest price, so we took their offer.

I thought having dealerships bid against each other was a great strategy. I also liked having an agreed-upon price before going to the dealership.

Considerations when negotiating a price:

  • Dealers like add-ons because they’re cheap for them but they have a high MSRP, so it sounds like you’re getting a lot. For example, LED map and dome lights have an MSRP of $99 but LEDs are like a penny each. I don’t know why this is even an option except to give dealerships an opportunity to charge more. Remember to negotiate these prices, too.
  • Some options are installed by the manufacturer, some are installed by the dealership, and some seem to be “port-installed,” meaning they’re installed at the port after arriving in the US. Manufacturer options make sense—it’s hard for a dealership to swap out a 2.5 liter engine for a 3.6 liter engine. And dealership options make sense—not everybody wants a trailer hitch so it’s easiest to just have the dealership install it on demand. I don’t know why port-installed options are a thing.

Lease, finance, or pay in full?

After looking at lease prices it seemed likely that a lease would have been the most expensive option for us over the long term. It was less clear whether it was better to finance or pay in full. Auto loan rates are very low, so it’s conceivable that you would earn more from stock market index funds than you would lose in interest payments. It’s impossible to know, of course, since stock market performance isn’t predictable. And should inflation be factored in? I don’t know. There are a few inconveniences associated with a loan: hassle of making payments, setting up autopay on the lender’s inevitably-crappy website, making sure you keep a high enough balance in your bank account, notifying the lender if you move, dealing with tax implications if you move to another state. There’s also a risk that the lender will neglect to remove their lien from your title once the loan is paid off. I assume this is very rare, but it did happen my brother (I’d love to see stats on this). So we chose to pay in full.

Dealership experience

We bought from Putnam Subaru in Burlingame. It went smoothly. We had an appointment first thing on a Saturday morning. We did one last test drive then filled out forms, read and signed documents, wrote a check, etc. All told it took between one and two hours.

I checked with our insurance company beforehand (Allied Insurance, a subsidiary of Nationwide) and they do not require that the car be added before purchasing. There’s a grace period.

It was helpful to know typical California new car fees ahead of time. For us, use/sales tax was $2,700ish, registration and related fees were around $350, and the dealership charged an $80 documentation fee, which is the max allowed in California for dealerships that partner with the state to provide on-site registration (it’s capped at $65 for dealerships that don’t provide on-site registration). The California DMV has a calculator that you can use to get an estimate.

We declined the extended warranty because it’s basically additional insurance. I use the same rationale for all extended warranties: Presumably the vendor makes money from the extended warranty. If they’re making money then, on average, the consumer is losing money. I’m ok with weathering the financial risk of my specific car (or whatever) having problems. So if I decline all extended warranties then I’m likely to come out ahead.

We declined the extended service agreement. Mostly because it wasn’t clear whether it would save us money. Speculation on the economics and psychology of car maintenance: In my experience dealerships tend to charge more for service than comparable non-dealership auto shops. Dealerships make money from extended service agreements by locking people in. If we planned to have all maintenance done at the dealership then perhaps the extended service agreement would save us money. But if we think we can find a cheaper or better mechanic elsewhere, even for a few of the scheduled services, then the extended service agreement is a bad deal for us. You would hope dealerships do better quality work since the mechanics can specialize and be intimately familiar with the dealership’s lineup. But it’s not fair to assume independent mechanics will be worse. There might be more variance among independent mechanics, but the best independent mechanics will be just as capable and might take more pride in their work. Or might work harder if they’re invested in the success of their shop. And of course some independent mechanics also specialize in specific brands.

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Choosing a new car

Emily and I bought a new car! Our old cars are from 1998 and 2003, so this was a big change. In this blog post I’ll describe our decision process in more detail than anyone could possibly care about.

I was fairly confident I wanted to buy new rather than used. I know “new cars lose a ton of value the minute you drive them off the lot” (because why would someone buy from you when they can get the same thing from the dealer), but there’s also risk in buying a secondhand car. For example what if the first owner didn’t respect the break-in period, or didn’t change oil, transmission, or other fluids, or what if the seats got wet and there is early mildew growth? These problems are hard to check for and could reduce the longevity of the car or lead to higher maintenance costs. It’s plausible, at least, that the money lost by paying more upfront will be saved in maintenance costs in the long run. I guess I don’t have a lot of faith in the average person to treat a car decently. Plus who doesn’t appreciate a new car?

High level filtering

We had four requirements that narrowed the options significantly:

  • Can fit two rear-facing child car seats without inconveniencing driver or front passenger. Specifically our Graco Size4Me 65, which is huge (my review on Amazon, if you’re curious). This requirement eliminates a lot more cars than you would think if you don’t have much experience with rear-facing child car seats. Two great resources for this are Cars.com’s Car Seat Check and Alex on Autos’s Child Seat Reviews.
  • Enough cargo space for road trips and camping/climbing trips. For a family of four. This is subjective.
  • All wheel drive and decent ground clearance. Experience tells me that this is good enough for approach roads at many climbing areas while not hurting paved road handling or fuel economy too much.
  • Either a tow hitch or roof rails. For transporting bikes. I prefer a tow hitch.

That led me to SUVs and crossovers. So in May of last year I started making a spreadsheet of all 103 SUVs and crossovers currently sold in the US.

Mid level filtering

I spent a few hours here and there over the next few months recording various stats about each model. Length, fuel economy, seating capacity, etc. From early on I was reasonably confident that the Subaru Outback and Toyota Highlander would meet our requirements, so I used them as benchmarks for comparison. I crossed cars off the list if it was obvious we wouldn’t be happy with them. Some examples:

  • Too short (Kia Soul, Mazda CX-3). Generally anything shorter than our Corolla wouldn’t have as much trunk space as we wanted.
  • Absurdly long (Chevrolet Suburban, Infiniti QX80). Longer cars are more difficult to drive and park.
  • Poor gas mileage (Cadillac Escalade, Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada).
  • More expensive than other good options without clear benefits. (Bentley Bentayga, Toyota Land Cruiser). Subaru Outback MSRP is around $36k when configured with the features we wanted. We couldn’t bring ourselves to spend $20k more for the Lexus RX Hybrid or Volvo XC60, or $30k more for the Volvo XC90. That’s a huge difference. Sure, these are “luxury” cars and they’re nicer, but not $20k or $30k nicer. Not to us. So that eliminated a lot of cars. It basically wiped out the luxury brands: BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Porsche, and Volvo.
  • Poor reliability, owner satisfaction, and road test scores from Consumer Reports. (Various Jeeps, Mitsubishi Outlander).
  • All electric (only the Tesla Model X). I love all-electric cars but we live in a building with a shared parking garage with no charging options. This also reduces the benefit of plug-in hybrids. We could have worked with the homeowner’s association to hire an electrician to install a charging station or at least an outlet, but we didn’t want to put forth the effort.

Low level filtering

And then it got difficult. We had a list of seventeen cars from eleven brands, any of which would be fine. Eleven dealerships is too many to visit. We needed to narrow it down further.

Diesel vs. gasoline wasn’t a factor—all the cars on our short list were gasoline.

Some cars have three rows of seats. We thought about whether that was important to us and decided it wasn’t. Children have to be in child seats or booster seats until they’re like 8 years old so we wouldn’t be driving anyone else’s kids around anytime soon so the extra seats would only be useful when we have extra adults with us which basically only happens when our parents are visiting, which is infrequent. So the third row is nice-to-have but certainly not a requirement.

I love hybrids in theory. We’re planning on owning this car for a long time so there probably is a small cost savings with a hybrid, but it isn’t huge. If the car we chose had a hybrid option we probably would have taken it, but it wasn’t something that factored into our decision.

Two person seat memory was an absolute requirement because I’d be driving the car on weekends and Emily would be driving it on weekdays. This didn’t rule out any cars, but it did mean we had to choose more expensive trims.

Blind spot monitoring was an absolute requirement—it’s a fantastic safety feature—but this didn’t rule out any cars, either.

We started visiting dealerships. We visited the Putnam group of dealerships in Burlingame, because they sell five of the brands on our list (Chevrolet, Buick, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota). We also visited dealerships for Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, and Subaru. We test drove a few cars and sat in a few more. I’m wary of American cars so we didn’t see the Ford Edge. The Acuras were a little pricier so we didn’t see them. Maybe we didn’t give them a fair chance.

We got a better idea how much trunk space we wanted and which features we did and did not care about, and we narrowed it down to four: Kia Sorento, Nissan Murano, Subaru Outback, and Toyota Highlander. The Highlander is the most expensive of the bunch, and we both thought the handling was cushier than we would like. Not the end of the world, but we thought the other options handled better (though we didn’t actually drive the Murano). The Highlander was also the most expensive of the bunch. The remaining three were similarly priced, though perhaps the Outback is slightly cheaper when built out with the options we wanted. The Outback also has better gas mileage than the Murano and Sorento. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Sorento’s frontend. Reviews generally praise the Outback’s AWD. Consciously this didn’t play a big part in our decision making, but subconsciously… who knows.

Then we decided on the Outback!

The spreadsheet

Switch to “The Short List” tab at the bottom to see only highly ranked cars. View full size in Google Sheets for ease of use and to see full column titles. Disclaimers:

  • Ratings and notes are my personal opinion for my specific needs. A car that’s a bad choice for me might be a good choice for someone else. In other words, sorry if I railed your car!
  • I make no promises about any of this data. If you notice a mistake let me know and I’ll fix it.
  • MPG numbers are from fueleconomy.gov (EPA and Department of Energy) for the all wheel drive trim with the best MPG (not necessarily what we would have bought, but useful for eliminating poor performers). Most numbers are for the 2018 model year, but a few are for 2017.
  • Most other info is for the 2017 model year, but some is for 2018.
  • An empty field means I didn’t collect data. I didn’t bother for many minor features, especially for cars that we had already ruled out.
  • The “as configured” price is a rough approximation of how much it would cost for us, configured with the features we want. This usually includes things like all wheel drive, blind spot indicators, lane departure warning, surround view cameras, etc.
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Two movie recommendations

Emily and I watched two movies recently that I thought were worth recommending.

The Accountant

Ben Affleck is an accountant and also a trained assassin. Rated R. It’s pretty violent and a lot of people get shot in the head, but I thought it wasn’t over the top gory. Emily wasn’t too turned off by it. Great pace. Interesting story. Some twists. Well-placed humor. Not a kids movie.

Netflix | IMDB

Spider-Man: Homecoming

I know, another Spider-Man reboot. It’s PG-13 and I assume middle and high school kids would love it. The action and story are fine. Interesting. Kinda quaint when compared to the planet-threatening aspects of some of the other recent Marvel movies. But that’s fine—kinda refreshing honestly. The best part is the lighthearted humor. The writing/acting/directing/editing really clicks. It’s playful and fun to watch.

Netflix | IMDB

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Assisted braking belay devices

Hey climbers, did you know there are assisted braking belay devices other than the Petzl Grigri? Did you know there are passive assisted braking devices where “passive” means “no moving parts”?

It occurred to me that many people might not be familiar with the other options. Weightmyrack.com has an extensive list. The Mammut Smart has been around for a while. I recently bought an Edelrid Mega Jul. I’ve only used it a few times but I’m fairly happy with it. The Black Diamond ATC Pilot is also interesting to me.

I don’t have enough experience with the various devices to recommend one over the other. If you’re thinking about buying a new belay device I encourage you to read a few reviews online, watch the manufacturer’s how-to video, and try to test out a friend’s device.

Lastly, I’d like to point out an important safety tip from an OutdoorGearLab review, “passive models do not generate the same braking force as active devices. … Contrary to what we’ve seen on the internet, the Smart and Mega Jul cannot be expected to catch even small falls without a brake hand on the rope. To say it another way, if your belayer gets knocked unconscious by rockfall, these passive assisted braking devices are unlikely to catch your fall.” And of course it’s wise to keep your brake hand on the rope for active braking devices, too.

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On the Shadow Brokers NSA leaks

The leaks published by The Shadow Brokers (Wikipedia, New York Times) are the perfect example of why we should minimize the sensitive information kept by the government. I posted about this in the context of encryption backdoors two years ago. But whether we’re talking about encryption backdoors, security vulnerabilities or hacking tools, the most reliable way to avoid data leaks is to not store the data in the first place. It can’t be stolen if it doesn’t exist.

A simplistic way to do risk analysis for data leaks is to ask “what are the chances this will happen?” But that’s wrong. Data leaks will happen. It’s not a question of “if” it’s a question of “how often and how severe.”

We can look at the WannaCry ransomware attack for a real-world example. The Wikipedia article cites damage estimates of hundreds of millions of dollars. We don’t know how long the NSA has been building hacking tools, but I’d be surprised if they started before the year 2000. Are we ok with $100 million dollars in damages/lost productivity worldwide every 17 years?
What if it was every 10 years? Every 5 years? What if the damages were worse?

I strongly believe the potential harm from withholding security vulnerabilities far exceeds the potential gain from attempting to keep them private. The NSA shouldn’t be stockpiling security vulnerabilities or building hacking tools, and they shouldn’t have backdoors into encryption. The advantages do not justify the disadvantages.

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Star Trek

I watched all episodes of the original Star Trek series over the last two years. It’s not amazing, but it has its moments. Some episodes are great, some are dumb, and some are boring. Episodes are almost entirely self-contained—no cross-episode story arcs.

I watched the “remastered” versions on Netflix. The quality is good, though I disliked basically every CG effect that was added. They look cheap and feel out of place from the rest of the show, which retains a 1960s look. The rotating colored lights at the tips of the warp nacelles are especially ridiculous.

I’ve now moved on to watching The Next Generation. Everything is better: the stories, the scripts, the sets, the lighting, the CG effects. The cast is bigger and characters are better developed. The cross-episode story arcs add a lot of depth (e.g. Wesley and The Traveler, The Borg, Data learning more about his origins and family).

It took me two years to watch all 79 episodes of the original series, so it’s gonna be a while before I finish watching/rewatching all 178 episodes of The Next Generation.

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Technology news briefs

There were three events last week that I thought didn’t get enough news coverage:

1. Good news: Proposed restrictions on warrantless electronic device border searches

Bills were proposed in the Senate and House to require a probable cause warrant before searching the digital devices of US citizens and legal permanent residents at the border. This is great. Customs and Border Protection have been asserting that they’re allowed to search travelers’ digital devices because they fall under the “border search exception” to the Fourth Amendment. However, digital devices contain vast amounts of personal information. It’s unreasonable to expect a person to reveal everything about themselves just to get back into their own country. Thank you Senators Wyden and Paul and Representatives Polis, Smith, and Farenthold! More info.

2. Bad news: Hacking into a smart TV by sending it radio signals

Apparently some guy got full access to a smart TV by sending it specially crafted radio signals. Some new smart TVs have built in video cameras. This means a hacker could turn on your TV’s video camera and watch you. This should terrify you. More info

3. More bad news: Remote execution bug in embedded Wi-Fi code in a tremendous number of mobile devices

It’s not clear how severe this is. In the worst case an attacker could execute code on your phone just by being near it. Or maybe it’s only possible if the attacker is connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your phone. In any case, you should apply software updates ASAP, and as always, avoid connecting to random Wi-Fi networks. Only use Wi-Fi at your house and your office. According to Google’s blog post, potentially affected phones are, at a minimum: all iPhones since the iPhone 4, Google Nexus 5, 6, and 6P, and “most Samsung flagship devices.” That’s a shit ton of phones and that’s not even a complete list.

More info: Google’s blog post, Ars Technica main article, Ars Technica iOS article, April 2017 Android Security Bulletin link 1 and link 2, and Samsung security update announcement.

A few takeaways:

  • Always update your software/firmware/OS as soon as possible.
  • Don’t connect to untrusted or non-password protected Wi-Fi networks. You’re putting yourself at risk.
  • Google Project Zero should try harder for coordinated and responsible disclosure. I’m using a Nexus 5X, one of Google’s own phones, and I don’t even have the fix yet. The latest security patch level available to me is March 5, 2017. Imagine how screwed all the normal people are whose mobile providers really suck at providing software updates. Also, maybe don’t provide attack code immediately? I understand the rationale for wide disclosure once one vendor makes the issue public (Apple released their security update on April 3rd), but you don’t need to give the attack tools to the entire world. Edit: I want to add that I’m extremely grateful to Google and the Project Zero researchers. They’re doing fantastic work and we’re absolutely better off because of them (unrelated to this issue, but by all accounts Tavis Ormandy is absolutely crushing it). I just wish this specific issue was a little more coordinated.
  • This feels like it’s only the beginning. Vulnerability testing of this type of code is difficult (read Google’s disclosure blog post if you don’t believe me). I suspect embedded code like this hasn’t gotten a lot of eyeballs and we’ll see an increase in these types of discoveries in the future.
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Two years with a Retrospec Mantra

I commuted a few miles a day for two years on a black Retrospec Mantra single-speed bike. I bought it from Amazon for $256 in October 2014.

Retrospec Mantra

(more photos)

It’s nothing special. Fairly low quality, but appropriately priced. The steel is heavy and the ride is dull. The plastic pedals are clunky and don’t spin particularly freely. The wheels are sturdy. The Kenda KWest K193 tires have been fine. I put ~1200 miles on them and had 2 or 3 flats. Not amazing, but not terrible considering the roads I was on.

I added front and rear fenders, a seat lock, and front and rear lights. Total weight including fenders, lights, tires, pedals, and saddle is 27 lbs 11 oz.

It comes with a flip-flop hub, which means it can be ridden as a fixed-gear or freewheel by swapping the rear wheel around. It arrived as fixed-gear. I rode it this way for a few weeks and didn’t like it. I found it inconvenient to not be able to coast and freely position the pedals when stopping. So I switched to freewheel. I added a rear brake for redundancy.

The original brake pads were awful. Poor braking power and they shredded to nothingness after less than 100 miles. I switched to Shimano BR-6700 Ultegra brake pads and holders and they’ve been great. The brake levers have some wiggle in them, but they work fine.

I’ve been happy with it. I don’t worry about it getting beat up on Caltrain. I don’t worry too much when locking it outside. Total cost of ownership has been low. I’ve done no maintenance other than replacing the brake pads and changing punctured tubes. I wish the gear was lower to make going uphill less annoying, but it’s been fine. Buying a single-speed for this commute was a good choice.

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