Commenter Keter posted a completely kick-ass 13 step guide to buying a car while maintaining total and absolute control over the sales process. It was so good we're lifting it and posting it to the front page.
1. Pick the exact make and model of car you want.
2. Call around first anonymously (such as calling from work on your lunch hour), and get prices. Tell them you are calling everybody, and the best deal wins. Write down the prices you are given, and note any difference in packages.
3. Pick the dealership you think you want to do business with based on the results of this phone call. Price should not be the decider -- demeanor and gut feel should be....
4. Go to the dealership you absolutely NEVER want to do business with. Nail down the details on the options -- go for "loaded," then whittle it down to find the approximate prices for each option. Make a detailed list with prices. Mark the options you must have and those can do without.
5. Do your research online and compare your pricing research with others and experts. Set an "ideal price" and an "I can live with it" price for the car you want with all the options you want, and again for the car you want with the minimum options you want. You now have a low and high figure for the car.
6. Go get cash or a a pre-approved car loan for something less than the upper amount. Put the cash or check in a blank sealed envelope. Find out ahead of time how to deal with the pre-approved loan if the negotiated amount is less than the amount on the bank check. You do not want to have to leave the dealership to get a new check for a smaller amount, so try to arrange something in advance for this contingency.
7. Call your insurance carrier and tell them you are buying a new car. Do as much of the paperwork ahead of time as possible and determine the hours they can service you so you can avoid delays or surprises at delivery time. (Any delays benefit the dealer.)
8. Go to the dealer you want to deal with -- on a weekday, in the morning. Get dropped off or, ideally, have a friend or significant other go with you. (It always helps to have a witness.) Bring a sack lunch and drinks with you. You're not leaving or letting your attention wander until you have a car.
9. Find the exact car you want. Use your list...this shows you've done your homework. Don't be surprised if your salesman suddenly has to handle an emergency and hands you off to someone else. This is a good sign that you have the upper hand already.
10. Show them the envelope. Tell them you have cash/a pre-approved loan check, and three chances to get it from you if you can drive out by an exact time (by 3 PM is usually good), all paperwork done, taxes paid, and every other fee under the sun taken care of for less than the amount in the envelope. Do not give any hints about the amount, make them name heir price. If it's way out of sight, don't say anything. Just laugh and head for the door. They'll chase you down and give you a much better number. If they don't, go elsewhere.
11. Read everything. Twice. Have your friend do the same. Line out anything you don't agree to or doesn't apply, initial and date this and have the dealer rep do the same. Do not leave any blank spaces. Count the papers and make sure you get copies of all of them. Ask if there are any programs you need to opt out of to avoid being automatically signed up for them. Do whatever is required to opt out.
12. If at any time they give you attitude or BS, walk out. They will chase you down. Tell them they have only one chance left because they gave you attitude. Now they will deal. If they don't, go elsewhere.
13. Try another city if yours is full of slime balls.
Good luck. I don't buy new, but I helped friends buy using this technique, and it really works...but it works only if you truly are willing to walk away...and then refuse to bend when they try to put you off or change the terms. Stay civil, do not let any emotion in. You are on a mission, Marine!
The same technique works for buying a used car, but tell them that you will not talk price until YOUR mechanic looks over the vehicle and gives you a report on it. Watch how much the squirm. I also learned the basics of car inspection, and perform my own pre-inspections right there on the lot -- 90% of used cars have a defect so serious they don't pass 5 minutes of my inspection! The best one (if any) goes to the mechanic.
Have the mechanic lined up for the time you will be needing the car checked out. I prefer to have my mechanic pick up the car from the dealer directly. The mechanic should be one you have had good experiences with previously. NEVER use a mechanic who is near the dealership. I tell my mechanic "check this car like you would if your 16 year old daughter was going to have to drive it to Alaska and back -- alone."
Go back to the dealer with a list of all defects and an estimate to fix them. Negotiate a price adjustment. In some cases, you may agree to let the dealer do the repairs, BUT specifically put in writing that these repairs will be accepted only after a re-inspection by your mechanic and no crappy used or after-market parts will be used.
Figure on devoting at least a month and looking at 200+ cars to find a good used car.
I've bought three truly excellent used cars this way -- all for less than $5000 -- all required minor repairs prior to delivery, and all lasted more than 100K miles with minimal repair costs afterward.