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Beware the 'free car' deals

Once again, shy away from car offers that sound too good to be true.

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By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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Ford Focus: No, you can't have one for a dollar.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More and more car dealers are offering a free, or virtually free, small car if you buy a big truck or SUV. But look closely at these ads because the deals aren't nearly as good as they sound.

Don't expect to be able to buy any Chevy Tahoe or Ford truck on the lot. And don't think you'll get your pick of any small car on the lot for, basically, nothing, either. You'll just have to take the specific vehicles that the dealer is offering.

Ask yourself, "If this dealership really wants go give away a car when you buy an SUV, why aren't these vehicles gone in an instant?"

It's because, once you get to the dealership and a salesman begins to explain the offer to you - and show you what else you could get for the same money or less - you'll understand that the "free" car isn't free at all.

The set up

Basically, you're being asked to pay thousands of dollars over the full sticker price for an already very expensive SUV or truck in order to get that car that's supposedly free or just a dollar.

You wouldn't do that and the dealership doesn't really expect you to, either. Ads like these are designed to get you into the dealership. They're also designed to fall apart easily - to become instantly unattractive - once fully explained to the customer, allowing the salesman gain your trust while he guides you to a some other purchase.

On the surface, the "free car" offer sounds like an incredible deal. All you have to do is pay the manufacturer's suggested retail price for a full-size SUV or truck and you get a small economy car for as little as a dollar more.

But, first, you're being asked to buy a very expensive vehicle. If you wouldn't ordinarily have bought something that expensive, does it make sense to spend all that extra money? You may even be paying more money than you'd pay for two vehicles to begin with, all for a "free" car that you wouldn't have picked out for yourself anyway.

Second, who pays full sticker price for a big SUV these days?

You're paying thousands of dollars more than you ordinarily would to buy what is probably a more expensive vehicle than you wanted.

Third, you're actually being asked to pay thousands more. That's because there are big cash rebates on the SUV - cash rebates that were supposed to go to you - that will, instead, be pocketed by the dealership.

For example, there's a $3,000 rebate on the Chevrolet Tahoe. You'll be paying $3,000 over the sticker price - or about $8,000 more than anyone else - to get that free car. Plus, the small car probably has rebates on it, too, and you wouldn't get those either.

So the car and the truck together, assuming you really wanted those specific vehicles, probably wouldn't cost you much less than you would have paid anyway.

This is all assuming that both the SUV and the car in question are in tip-top shape with no damage, demonstrator miles or weird option or color choices that would significantly reduce their value.

Do your homework

If you start from scratch and research vehicles for yourself, you can easily find a small vehicle/big vehicle combination that will cost you thousands less than one of these deals. You'll probably get better vehicles too, because your choices aren't restricted to the ones with the biggest rebates.

Consider what the reaction would be if you walked into almost any car dealership today and said "I want to buy a full-size SUV and a small car and I'm ready to do it now."

If you think one of these "car for a buck" deals looks good, wait until you see what your local dealer can do when you come in sounding like an educated buyer and not a patsy who believes in free cars. To top of page

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