A Compromise Between New and Used Cars?

With the economy at a low ebb, there is little doubt that consumers are going out of their way to seek value, so it is not surprising that certified pre-owned cars are growing in popularity. But their current popularity might actually represent a wave of the future -- a wave that could well keep rolling even after the economy improves. 

One piece of evidence to that effect is the result of a recent online poll. It asked whether a teen’s first car should be new or used. The response was that the first car should be a used car, and by a very large margin. In fact, only 3 percent of respondents said that a teen’s first car should be a new car. That result wasn’t surprising given the tenor of the times, nor was the fact that 11 percent of respondents who said teens shouldn’t own cars at all. A substantial percentage of respondents -- 28 percent -- said the choice of a first car should depend upon what that particular teen can afford. Yeah, OK, we get that too.

But the interesting part is a potential trend the poll showed: 30 percent of respondents said a teen’s first car should be a certified used car -- in industry speak, a certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle. In comparison, just 20 percent of respondents said that a teen’s first vehicle should be a traditional, non-warranted, non-certified used car.

What these results suggest is that CPO vehicles are gaining visibility and credibility with the public. It indicates that many consumers are increasingly interested in the financial benefits of purchasing a CPO vehicle over a new vehicle. They like the peace of mind provided by the inspection process and warranty coverage. Plus, because it is impossible from a visual point of view for most consumers to tell the difference between a two-year-old model and a brand-new edition of the same car these days, the choice of a CPO vehicle becomes ever-more compelling. Today’s CPO cars offer virtually all the style, quality, amenities and safety items as new cars, and their useful lives extend far beyond the time a second owner would typically keep them. The major difference is the price. If you say to yourself right now that you’ll never drive a used car, you should consider the fact that you’re driving a used car right now, even if you bought it new.

The current era of high unemployment, pay cuts and downsizing has put new-car ownership out of the reach of many more Americans, and that’s another good reason for consumers to consider a pre-owned vehicle. What this could imply for the future is a smaller new-vehicle market than we have traditionally seen and a more robust and profitable nearly-new market populated by CPO vehicles and other well-maintained, low-mileage recent-model-year vehicles.

One question is, if large numbers of buyers shift to late-model used vehicles, who will buy the new vehicles that will turn into those used cars?

The Top 5 American Cars of All Time

So how do you go about picking the top 5 American cars of all time? Do you choose the great classics, like the Marmon and Cadillac V-16s? Do you go back into the antique era for worthy but largely forgotten models like the Curved Dash Oldsmobile and Mercer Raceabout? Do you embrace muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO, Plymouth Road Runner and Oldsmobile 442? Or do you invest in the premise that the best cars of all time are on the road right now and select things like the Cadillac CTS-V and current-generation Ford Taurus SHO?

Well, as they say, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The cars we’ve chosen for this list represent all three of those possibilities -- and more. The only thing noncontroversial about our selections is the fact that this list will create controversy. But that’s OK. Let’s get started:

Top American Car No. 5: Ford Mustang

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Mustang fanatic will admit that the original Mustang -- and for that matter all the Mustangs that have come since -- are rather rudimentary and unremarkable from a technical and engineering standpoint. What is remarkable is how the Mustang has captured and held the American public’s fancy for more than five decades. 

From the time the clay model of the Mustang was unveiled to Ford executives in August 1962, it exhibited the key features that the public would love two years later: the long hood, short deck, muscular rear fenders and expansive, forward-leaning grille. Under the designer wardrobe were some rather mundane mechanicals. The front and rear suspension was nearly pure Ford Falcon. Brakes were drum-type, also pulled from the Ford parts catalog, and the Mustang's base engine was a so-so in-line, overhead valve six cylinder that wrested just 101 horsepower from its 170 cubic inch (2.8-liter) displacement. But the optional 164-horsepower V-8 did deliver on the promise of the car’s good looks. And the public responded. Lured by its sporty lines and comforted by its palatable base price of just $2,368, buyers stampeded Ford showrooms, buying every Mustang in sight and ordering thousands more. In the first year, Mustang sales reached an astounding 518,000 … and the model was just getting started.

Top American Car No. 4: Chrysler Airflow

The importance of the Chrysler Airflow is largely underestimated because it was, unlike the Ford Mustang, a commercial failure. But despite the fact that the public didn’t take to its avant-garde looks, Chrysler's brave attempt at innovation may well have made this the most important vehicle of the 1930s. Not only did the Airflow lead the way in terms of aerodynamics (or "streamlining," as it was then called), it was the first mass-market car in the world to use the "modern" architecture that has now become standard.

In the late ’20s, most automotive design could be characterized as one box stacked on another. All the car's equipment -- lights, horn, bumpers, spare tire -- were hung somewhere on the two boxes and allowed to wave in the breeze. Just from eyeballing some airplanes, Chrysler engineer Carl Breer intuited that taking a similar approach to automotive design could result in some real benefits, and the approach changed everything about the automobile -- from where the driver and passenger sat, to the placement of the engine, to the design of the body. Although far from beautiful, the final Airflow design unveiled at the 1934 New York Auto Show stopped traffic and generated tens of thousands of inquiries. Sales weren’t nearly as robust, but the model is an important part of every car we drive today.

Top American Car No. 3: Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray

The first 10 years of Corvette history were years of struggle, experimentation and difficulty. Despite the fact that the model is now iconic, customer acceptance didn't come easily to the Corvette, and the design of a sports car didn't come easily to Chevrolet engineers. All that would change, however, with the 1963 model year. The Corvette was given a second name, Sting Ray, and the chassis and body were new from the asphalt up. The changes gave the Corvette a level of sophistication equal of any European sports machine.

Undoubtedly the biggest change was the switch from the solid "live" axle of the previous-edition Corvette to an ingenious independent rear suspension that stepped the car up several notches in technology. In tandem with the shorter wheelbase, the new independent suspension made the Corvette much more maneuverable and helped immensely in getting the Corvette's substantial power to the road. And there was power aplenty. The 327 cubic inch V-8 was offered in four versions. In base trim the Corvette delivered 250 horsepower, but step-ups could net 300, 340 or even 360 horsepower -- the latter with fuel injection. No matter the engine, however, the Corvette Sting Ray of the era had few equals on road or track, and no equals in price. It was truly America's sports car.

Top American Car No. 2: Duesenberg SJ

Duesenbergs won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, 1925 and 1927. But sweet as that last Indy 500 victory was, the year 1927 was not a good one for the brother team that owned the company. With financial difficulties hanging over their heads, the Duesenbergs found a savior in Erret Lobban Cord, and what Cord had in mind was translating Duesenberg's news-making racing exploits into an ultra-luxury line of vehicles for the street. His grandiose but ultimately accurate claim for Duesenberg was "The World's Finest Motor Car."

Cord’s first order of business was designing a new Duesenberg model with styling as impressive as its engineering. Since most buyers of cars in the Duesenberg class had their cars fitted with custom bodies, only a few portions of the vehicle were ripe for standardization, but the Cord design team did a masterful job. The grille and radiator shell of the new Duesenberg had the classic grace of a Greek temple, while the oversize headlights gave the front end a wide-eyed look. The hood was impressive both in its length and simple form, and under the hood was a sophisticated twin-overhead-cam engine that produced 265 horsepower.

If there was any doubt that the Model J was an ultra-luxury machine, that doubt was removed by its price tag. A body-less chassis often sold for more than $8,000, and custom coachwork then added $4,000 to $7,000 to that figure. Of course, to those who were living large in the Depression-ridden 1930s (like movie idol Clark Gable), that price was another mark of distinction. And for those who were even more power-hungry, a supercharged SJ model was also available. With the right bodywork, an SJ was said to have a top-speed potential of more than 130 mph.

Top American Car No. 1: Ford Model T

The Ford Model T achieved legendary stature after its passing, but during its life span, it got little respect -- despite the fact that it literally changed the world. While the Model T would eventually be viewed as old-fashioned as high-button shoes, it was innovative when it crashed headlong into the American market in October 1908. Among its special features were its planetary transmission, the use of a detachable cylinder head and the left-side mounting of its steering wheel. The two forward speeds and the reverse transmission was operated by foot pedals, enabling, as Ford claimed in its literature, "the driver to stop, start, change speeds or reverse the car, without removing the hands from the steering wheel."

The four-cylinder engine was ruggedly simple. Its block and crankcase were cast as a piece, and the detachable head made service easy. Reliable as red brick, the 177-cubic-inch Model T engine produced 22 horsepower at 1600 rpm and delivered a fuel economy better than 20 miles per gallon. The chassis of the Model T was just as rugged. While many cars of the day still used wooden parts in their chassis, the Model T's frame and running gear were fashioned from vanadium and heat-treated steel. With a 100-inch wheelbase, the typical Model T weighed about 1,200 pounds and offered more than 10 inches of ground clearance. It was perfect to do combat with America's vast network of unimproved, unpaved roads.

The Model T wasn't just an immediate hit in the marketplace: It transformed the marketplace. To keep up with demand, Ford had to invent new production techniques, culminating in 1914 with the invention of the moving assembly line. By 1919, Ford Motor Co. had produced its three-millionth Model T, and the momentum was continuing to build. After weathering a recession in 1920, Ford's yearly production topped one million a year in 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925. In 1927, after an incredible production run of more than 15,485,000 Model T’s, Ford's factories ceased building the car -- a car that, more than any other, defined what the world's auto industry would become.

American Cars vs. Import Cars: The Short Course on Vehicle Quality

The headlines have appeared nationwide: “Quality from Domestic Automakers Tops Imports for the First Time.” That was the quick takeaway from the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 U.S. Initial Quality Study, the latest version of a landmark report, conducted annually for the past 24 years. The study chronicled the ascendancy of the imports, and especially the Japanese brands, over the past two decades. When domestic automakers contended that they were being unfairly criticized in the motoring press for their supposed shortcomings, the J.D. Power IQS rankings made it crystal clear that there was, indeed, a quality gap between the import cars and the domestic brands.

Now, the most recent survey will undoubtedly be used by the domestic brands to tout their strong improvements in vehicle quality, and more to the point, to give American consumers a reason to buy domestic-brand vehicles again. Certainly, J.D. Power and Associates seems to suggest that by leading its press release on the IQS with the sentence “Domestic auto brands, as a whole, have demonstrated higher initial quality than import brands for the first time, according to [the study].” If you want the numbers, initial quality for domestic brands in the aggregate improved by four “problems per 100 vehicles” (PP100) in 2010 to an average of 108 PP100 -- slightly better than the initial-quality of import brands, which averaged 109 PP100 in 2010. So is it time to run out and buy an American car?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. As always, it depends on the car model you intend to buy. No one buys a composite “American car” any more than a composite “import car,” or for that matter, “Japanese car.” Consumers buy individual models, and individual models have varying degrees of “initial quality,” as indicated by the J.D. Power and Associates report.

It should also be noted that the report was designed for the automakers, not for consumers, and it’s intended to help automakers determine how relatively trouble-free the vehicles they produce are once they’re in the hands of consumer owners over the first 90 days of ownership. Since you probably intend to own the next new car you buy for longer than three months, you can take the IQS as an indicator of how problem-prone each model might be -- but you must take dependability and reliability largely on faith.

In any case, there are no doubts that many domestic models, including the Ford Focus, Ram 1500 LD and Buick Enclave, have experienced an increase in quality that helped drive the overall improvement of domestic automakers in 2010. J.D. Power noted the initial quality of Ford models has improved steadily for the past nine years, and 12 Ford Motor Co. models rank within the top three in their respective segments in 2010.

When it comes to the leading models in each segment, the picture looks different. Or, should we say, the same as in prior years, where imports continued to be best-in-class in most segments. For example, Honda received “segment leader” awards for the Accord and the Accord Crosstour, and Toyota received the same “segment leader” awards for the FJ Cruiser and Sienna. Lexus tied Ford with three segment leaders -- the GS, GX and LS models. The Hyundai Accent, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Frontier, Scion xB and Volvo C70 were each also ranked highest in their individual segments. That is 13 segment leaders in all for the imports. 

In contrast, domestic-brand vehicles led just five segments. Ford captured “segmentleader” awards for the Focus, Mustang and Taurus, while Chevrolet models earning awards were the Avalanche (in a tie) and the Tahoe. So while the American cars have improved their quality as a whole, if you’re looking for the top vehicle quality in a particular segment, import cars still rule the roost -- and that’s not something you would’ve guessed from the recent headlines.

Gittin Gets Mustang Drift

The 2011 Ford Mustang is getting rave reviews for its combination of price and performance, and that has been a Mustang staple for decades. Through those decades, Mustangs have also been no stranger to motor sports, but these days a relatively new form of motorsports -- drifting -- has become extremely popular. Drifting, for the uninitiated, is one of the few motorsports that is judged, rather than based on getting around a course the quickest. Like freestyle skiing, drifting rewards those who exhibit the best control while doing the most outlandish things. The powerful, rear-drive Mustang seems perfect for this unique branch of motordom.

A Racing Pro in the Driver’s Seat

A new package designed by a top drifter will take Ford’s perfection to the next level in the Mustang RTR. The dealer-installed package was developed by Vaughn Gittin Jr. (who happens to be driver of the Monster Energy/Falken Tire 2011 Mustang GT in Formula Drift). The top racing engineers at Ford Racing Performance Parts were also intimately involved in the development of the package, which is aimed squarely at a new generation of Mustang owners.

Gittin knows just what Mustangs can do, and he wanted to share that knowledge with Mustang enthusiasts who appreciate the car’s power and capability. When it comes to drift, he certainly knows what he’s talking about: On the Formula Drift circuit, he’s the winner of the season-opening Long Beach event and was runner-up in Atlanta. And, he has a significant points lead in this year’s Formula Drift championship. The Mustang RTR is Gittin Jr.’s vision for introducing a new generation of owners to Mustang while catering to traditional Mustang enthusiasts as well.

“Vaughn’s goal was to introduce an exciting new package to the Mustang world that resonates with both the younger audience and with traditional muscle car enthusiasts as well,” said Mickey Matus, Ford Performance Group marketing manager. “By partnering with Ford Racing to develop the Mustang RTR, he has achieved that goal with ease and illustrates how universal Mustang’s appeal is.”

Serious Race Car Upgrades

The package was designed and manufactured in partnership with Michigan-based Classic Design Concepts, which has a reputation for creating high-quality stylish appearance and performance upgrades.

Some race-worthy new features include the following:

  • Ford Racing tires and unique RTR 19-inch by 9.5-inch wheels
  • Ford Racing calibration with a high-flow filter
  • Ford Racing mufflers
  • Ford Racing handling pack, including performance-tuned dampers and springs
  • RTR-exclusive interior details and striping scheme

The model’s unique styling is highlighted by a chin spoiler with splitter and supports, rocker splitters, a rear diffuser and aluminum rear spoiler. The interior showcases RTR-exclusive floor mats, shifter knob and emblems. Overall, it is one “bad”-looking piece.

The Mustang RTR package is available at select dealerships for the 2011 Mustang GT, and a Mustang V-6 package will be available later this year.

Hot Rods Invade Pebble Beach

To some it is an abomination --– hot rods on the grounds of the utterly exclusive Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.  The Pebble Beach event is, arguably, the premier antique and classic car event in the world, and up to just a few short years ago, it looked down its patrician nose at any car that wasn’t pedigreed and “stock,” although the notion of a stock coach-bodied car has always been a little hard to get one’s arms around.  And perhaps that is, in itself, a justification for the recent inclusion of hot rods and the creation of the Hot Rod Lakesters and Bonneville Racers class in the event.  While some might call it sacrilegious, others might say the inclusion of these cars is long overdue.

In the halcyon days of dry lakes racing, young men with little money but a wealth of intuitive engineering skills built cars in their backyards that rivaled the performance of the most expensive sports cars in the world.  Take, for example, the Spurgin-Giovanine roadster. Chuck Spurgin and Bob Giovanine loved working with their hands, and they enjoyed being part of the close-knit hot rod community. The car they built and raced so successfully was recently discovered intact after four decades of neglect parked behind a home in the California desert. And now the diminutive, hand-built race car has been painstakingly restored to become part of the Pebble Beach Concours, a fate its builders could never have envisioned. Current owner Ernest Nagamatsu has brought the car back to its 1940s racing trim and, even more importantly, back into the families of the men who originally built it.

“My earliest memory is pleading with dad to go with him and the car to the races,” said Curt Giovanine, Bob’s son. “I wasn’t even in kindergarten. A few years later, when the car had been retired and was stored in our garage, I’d bring school friends over. We’d sit in it and pretend we were racing. One friend used to say, ‘This is the fastest car on four wheels!’ It sure seemed like it to us.”

Many consider 1948 to be the peak for California dry lakes racing because that year saw the most entrants and some of the toughest competition. That year, the Spurgin-Giovanine roadster broke the existing world record in its class at the six consecutive Southern California Timing Association meets and was the year’s overall High Points Season Champion. It was also “Hot Rod of the Month” and was on the cover of the March 1949 issue of Hot Rod magazine. The car was unusual because it was powered by a highly modified four-cylinder Chevrolet engine when virtually all other successful competitors ran Ford or Mercury V8s.

In addition to this classic roadster, the Hot Rod Lakesters and Bonneville Racers class at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance will include several other cars built and raced between 1927 and 1953. The 60th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance will also honor the 75th anniversary of Jaguar and the centennial of Alfa Romeo, feature Pierce-Arrow, and showcase Italian designer Ghia.