Getting the most from Costco

The Costco Auto Program doesn't offer much help in deciding which new car is right for you. You still need to use resources like MSN Autos, Consumer Reports and Car and Driver for research. You may also have to go to some dealerships for a few test drives, even if that means testing your resistance to pressure from salespeople to make a decision then and there. This is a big purchase, and getting it right means more than looking for the best price on a car you assume will be right for you.

If you're leasing a new car, knowing the Costco price at a dealership is also useful. After all, leases are based on the selling price of the vehicle, its predicted residual value at lease end and the price paid for it by the leasing company. Reducing the selling price will show up in the cost of the lease.

The Costco Auto Program also has some muscle with the dealers if the transaction develops problems. "We have a whole division called 'Member Advocacy,'" explains Rick Borg, the vice president of the Costco Auto Program. "We follow up with the dealer and the member to make sure things go well. We're a service to our members, and it's part of their membership at Costco."

In fact, says Costco's Paolino, the dealers certified in the program are "shadow-shopped" regularly to ensure they're performing as they promised they would. And, she adds, about a dozen or so dealers a year are expelled from the program.

"We try and correct mistakes and make sure the members got the right deal," she continues. "We try and work with the dealers through mistakes once or twice. But after that, it's time to say bye."

However, Costco doesn't offer any price guarantees. So the program's advocacy has its limits.

The best deal

About 250,000 cars were bought through Costco last year. Yet while the Costco Auto Program is huge, it doesn't necessarily cover every brand in every market. It's rare, but it may be that there are no Costco certified dealers in your area for the car you want. And it may be that the closest certified dealer is too far away.

But if you're a Costco member, using the Costco Auto Program makes sense most of the time. Even if you're a silver-tongued negotiator, having the Costco price in hand provides a good jumping-off point for the down-and-dirty of hammering out a deal.

Be honest with yourself. If you're the type of person who dreads buying a new car, then the protected experience of a Costco Auto Program transaction has true value. You still need to be aware of your financing options before going to any dealer -- always shop for the money first. You should also know the value of your trade-in and recognize that as a separate negotiation that may be unavoidable.

The best new-car prices still come from hard-core research and flinty negotiation between buyers and multiple dealers in a competitive environment. But that route isn't for everybody. Costco's price might not be the ultimate low price, but a pain-free transaction at a very good price can often be worth a couple hundred bucks.