The Definitive Guide to New and Used Car Buying, Auto Leasing, Auto Financing and Auto Insurance

Driving Today is your daily resource for new car buyers, used car buyers, auto leasing, auto lending and auto insurance. We offer high quality reviews and content designed to equip the automotive buyer with all of the information necessary to make informed purchasing decisions.

Buying a Car This Summer

If you are thinking of buying a new car, this could be your summer of discontent. Buying a new car is a challenging task under normal circumstances -- and this year, circumstances are anything but normal. Due to the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami that occurred in March, supplies of Japanese-built cars are already down, and many could reach precariously low levels in the next few weeks. Further, because so many carmakers rely on Japanese-sourced parts, vehicle supplies around the world are being negatively affected. This situation and the gradual improvement in the economy have persuaded vehicle manufacturers that they don’t need to be quite as generous with consumer incentives -- offering low-interest financing and cheap lease deals, among other perks -- as they have in the past. This means getting a great car deal is getting harder, quite an unusual situation in an economy that is as anemic as the U.S. economy is right now.

The good news is that it is not impossible to get a great deal. The fact is, if you do your homework and stand your ground, you can emerge with a very satisfying car purchase. Here are a few tips that can help:

Don’t fixate on the monthly payment.
Yes, most of us have monthly budgets and consider expenses on a monthly basis, but one quick way dealers can lower your monthly payment is by increasing the length of the loan. If you go there, you almost always end up paying much more in the long run. A salesperson might also try to switch you from a purchase to a lease. There’s nothing wrong with leasing if the lease term is short (three years maximum), but a longer lease is a money pit. You end up paying a lot for a car you have to give back -- a miserable situation for your overall finances.

Do your homework on prices and values.
A car is one of the rare consumer products for which you can quickly and easily find out what the retailer paid for it. Plus, the Internet offers you several websites where you can learn what consumers like you are typically paying for the same car you are considering. That is extremely valuable information to have as you negotiate your purchase. Many of those same websites will also give you a precise idea of what your current car is worth. Again, that information can be invaluable at trade-in time.

Shop hard and be prepared to walk away.
Feel free to walk into a dealership, look at the vehicle you are considering and get information from the salesperson, but feel just as free to walk out that door with no questions asked. Don’t be intimidated into making a deal you don’t feel comfortable with because the salesperson tells you the deal is good “today only.” New vehicles are essentially a commodity. At any given time, thousands are for sale, and factories are churning out more. You’ll find a deal that is as good -- or better -- the next day and the day after that.

BMW 1 Series M Coupe: Furiously Fast

If you test vehicles for a living, you will eventually come to the conclusion that cars that are good on the street are not so good on the racetrack. Racecars are one-dimensional vehicles designed for going fast in controlled conditions. Street cars, on the other hand, have to perform a much wider variety of tasks. So we have to admit, we were a bit curious -- if not skeptical -- about what the all-new, limited-production BMW 1 Series M Coupe would feel like on the track. What we found is that the M Coupe can more than meet the rigors of a very challenging course. Yet, like Superman when dressed as Clark Kent, it is perfectly at home in more mundane settings, like commuting to work or picking a child up from school. In other words, it is one of those rare passenger cars that is in its element on the track, but also utterly practical for day-to-day use. It’s an amazing feat accomplished by judicious acquisitions from the BMW parts bin and a serious influx of engineering dollars.

If you follow performance cars, you know that BMW has been building highly tuned M versions of many of its models for decades. These cars raise the already high level of handling, acceleration and braking from those of the marque’s standard passenger cars, which carry the bold slogan “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Plus, when putting the 1 Series M Coupe together, BMW engineers borrowed liberally from the same bag of tricks they used to make the M3 -- one of the most respected sports coupes in the world. So M’s are, put simply, the “Ultimate Ultimate Driving Machines.”

So why isn’t the M Coupe called the BMW M1? Well, the 1 Series M Coupe is to the 1 Series what the M3 is to the 3 Series, so it might logically be called the M1. However, that would be flying in the face of history. Back in the late 1970s, BMW introduced a sports GT called the M1, which became an instant legend. Like a Teutonic Ferrari, the M1 was all low, swoopy and super-exotic -- all things that the 1 Series M Coupe is not. What they share is an innate ability to go fast, but the last thing the BMW executives wanted to do with the 1 Series M Coupe was prompt comparisons to the M1. Thus, the new car is tagged with an unwieldy name.

Frankly, that’s the only thing about it that is unwieldy. With 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque available from its twin-turbo, all-aluminum, in-line six-cylinder engine, the M Coupe is a rocket sled. It will sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 4.7 seconds, and its top speed is electronically limited to 155 miles per hour. Offered only with a six-speed manual transmission, the car has EPA fuel economy ratings of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway -- a performance car with a conscience.

It’s also equipped with computerized electronic driver aids that allow you to push its limits, yet help prevent you from tumbling over the other side. For example, its standard Dynamic Stability Control keeps a sharp eye on overaggressive maneuvers that could dent its handsome sheet metal … or worse. But the DSC also has an intermediate M Dynamic Mode that M Brand Manager Matt Russell refers to as a “track training mode.” It allows yaw and wheel-spin, but if the electronics intrude upon your driving style in this mode while you are on the track, you are probably doing something wrong. Like a stern but loving kindergarten teacher, the DSC quickly nudges you back in line.

While we can’t say we were in love with our kindergarten teacher, we love the 1 Series M Coupe a lot. Our only regret is that so few will come to the United States, something on the order of 1,000 cars. Now that might be the extent of the market for a $50,000 car of modest dimensions equipped with a manual transmission, but we have to admit we are thinking very seriously of putting down a deposit and getting on the waiting list. The 1 Series M Coupe may have a clumsy name, but it is anything but clumsy.

The SUV Evolves in Illogical Direction

The sport-utility vehicle -- the vilified, popular, demonized, versatile SUV -- was the hottest vehicle of an entire generation. Taking outdoorsy imagery and mixing it with warm-as-apple-pie family situations made the SUV the family vehicle of choice in the ’90s. The family station wagon and boring minivan were replaced by a big, truck-like vehicle that spoke of off-road adventure in exotic latitudes. So what if the majority of them were used -- and still are used -- to shuttle kids to school and to drive to family-vacation destinations that are no more exotic than Disneyland?

Instead of going the way of the brontosaurus, as some had predicted, the SUV adapted and evolved. This decade has changed everything we know about the SUV and its close cousin, the crossover. While in their heyday, SUVs were all about outdoor adventure. But the newest, hottest SUVs largely eschew any hint of outdoor exploration and instead adopt a high-performance, high-luxury philosophy. The leader of this vanguard is the just-introduced Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. If you want to know what the coolest soccer moms on the planet will be driving next spring, just take a look at this baby. To the new-generation M-Class line that Mercedes-Benz launched earlier this year comes the addition of a hyper-powerful twin-turbo V-8 engine and the all-wheel-drive traction of the renowned 4MATIC system. This is no rock-crawler; it’s a pavement-burner.

For the sake of painting the picture, let’s say your daughter is late for the playoff game, and you’re a little tardy leaving the driveway because you were gathering some sushi, designer water and a Tommy Bahama folding chair. There’s no better way to make up that time than by jamming the accelerator of the 518 horsepower bi-turbo V-8. You will undoubtedly take your place in the upper reaches of the soccer field car park. In fact, there’s only one way you’ll be one-upped, and that’s if someone else arrives in an ML63 AMG equipped with the optional-at-serious-extra-cost AMG Performance Package, which offers an additional 32 horsepower and a 174-miles-per-hour top speed capability.

You’ll also appreciate the designo leather interior, the black headliner and the four-spoke AMG Performance steering wheel with perforated leather grips, aluminum shift paddles and a flat bottom. The dashboard, armrests and door trim are also finished in designo leather with double topstitching.

The “more is more” theme is all over the ML63’s exterior. The special AMG bodywork includes deeper under-bumper aprons at the front and rear, heavily sculpted rocker panels under the doors and quad exhaust pipes. The standard engine is a direct-injection, bi-turbo V-8 that produces not only 518 horsepower, but also 516 pound-feet of torque. The AMG Performance Package ups the ante to 550 horsepower and adds the niceties of a carbon-fiber engine cover and red brake calipers. For those who like to keep their vehicles on the pavement, the ML63 AMG has both the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system and the newly developed Active Curve System, which supplies electronically enhanced roll stabilization.

The price for ML63 AMG has not yet been announced, but you can bet it will follow the trend in the ultra-luxury crossover class and be stratospheric. The model will be available at a Mercedes-Benz showroom near you in the first quarter of next year.

Bicycle Safety Depends on You

The warm days of May prompt millions of Americans to pull their bicycles out of their garages, dust off the cobwebs, oil the chains and go for a ride. But the sad fact is that riding a bicycle can be dangerous. The number of bicyclists killed or injured each month is truly staggering, and children are often the victims. To help curb bike injuries and fatalities, AAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have partnered to remind parents to set positive examples and encourage children and teens to ride safely. One key is to require children to wear safety helmets.

“Helmets, when worn properly, are up to 85 percent effective in protecting the head and brain in the event of a crash,” says AAA’s Traffic Safety Specialist Rhonda Markos. “With only 20 to 25 percent of bicyclists wearing helmets, there is a vast opportunity to reduce injuries and fatalities with this simple step. Children look to parents for guidance. When children see someone they rely on wearing a helmet, they are likely to follow their lead and do the same.”

You should also remember that concern about bicycle safety should extend beyond childhood. The simple fact of reaching puberty doesn’t protect people from possible injury. According to NHTSA, among children, 10- to 14-year-old males have the highest rate of injuries and fatalities. Older teenagers and adults are also part of overall bicycle accident statistics.

“Even the most experienced riders can crash or fall when riding a bike,” says Markos.

AAA and NHTSA recommend these easy steps to help keep bicyclists of all ages safe:

  • Wear a properly fitted bicycle helmet
  • Wear your helmet the right way: level on your head and low on your forehead, no more than two finger-widths above your eyebrow
  • Develop a family rule for helmet use and enforce it for every ride
  • It’s never too late to start wearing a helmet
  • Always follow the rules of the road
  • Bicycles are considered vehicles and must abide by the same traffic laws as motorists
  • Obey all traffic signs, and signal your intentions when turning or passing
  • Always ride in the same direction as traffic, keeping to the right
  • Make yourself visible
  • Wear bright colors during daylight hours
  • Use white front-lights and red rear-reflectors, as well as reflective materials on clothing and/or equipment, in low-light conditions
  • Drive respectfully and share the road
  • Focus exclusively on the road while driving; distracted drivers can be deadly for bicyclists
  • Be patient and pass bicyclists only when safe to do so, leaving a 3-to 5-foot clearance between your vehicle and the bicyclist

“When it comes to bicycling, safety is always the top priority,” says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. “Because parents and caregivers are role models for children, it is especially critical they teach by example. That means wearing proper helmets and observing all the rules of the road.”