Cars to Be Thankful for

Yes, the world economy stinks, and war, disease and pestilence have not been eradicated from the earth. The auto industry, vibrant for so long, has itself fallen into a bit of slumber, awaiting a re-awakening of consumer confidence. Yet, that being said, the industry is still producing a wide variety of cars that make us glad we drive. We could pontificate more, but let’s get right to the top five vehicles we are thankful for this Thanksgiving week:

1. Audi S4
More powerful and better looking than ever, the new Audi S4 makes yet another run at the BMW 3 Series. As the sportier version of the already sporty A4 sedan, the S4 offers a 3-liter, 333-horsepower supercharged direct-injection V-6 sitting where a 2-liter engine normally resides. It’s all-new seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic lets you shift for yourself and offers slightly better fuel economy than the manual. Plus, the S4 offers standard Quattro all-wheel drive to handle all that horsepower and torque. Not only is performance covered, but the S4 is a delight to look at -- inside and out. 

2. BMW 335d
One of the most satisfying driver’s cars we’ve piloted this year is a diesel. Yes, a diesel! The builder of “the ultimate driving machine” knows how to build diesel engines that are right in line with its sporty persona, so the newly available BMW 335d is not only a diesel but a 3 Series, which means it is the epitome of a driver’s car. It offers 265 horsepower from its twin-turbocharged 3-liter inline six, but it also features an amazing 425 pound-feet of torque, which means the 335d has excellent acceleration. Happily, the 335d is also a wonderfully comfortable place for a driver and three passengers. 

3. Cadillac CTS-V
Mothers, hide your children! The Cadillac CTS-V is in town, and it’s like no Cadillac you’ve ever driven. Those who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s will find it hard to imagine a Cadillac muscle car, but that’s exactly what the CTS-V is. It’s a romping rear-drive sports sedan that has elite cars like the BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG dead in its sights. With 556-horsepower from its supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 engine, the CTS-V has the goods to play and win in that stratospheric company. Offering a zero-to- 60 sprint in less than four seconds, this Cadillac is faster than fast.

4. Chevrolet Camaro SS
After a long, long seven years, the Chevrolet Camaro is back, and Camaro fans have reason to rejoice. Not only does the new Camaro look every bit as hot as the show car on which it was based, but it offers the performance to back it up. We think the 300-horsepower V-6 version of the car will surprise people with its overall balance of acceleration, handling and fuel economy, but our true love was the SS. With its 426-horsepower LS3 V-8 and six-speed manual transmission, it will jet from zero to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. And because of its sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and meaty tires, the 2010 SS handles better than any Camaro in our long memory. Amazingly, the SS also offers a very comfortable, quiet ride. We’ve come a long way since 1967.

5. Ford Flex
Some love it, some hate it, but no one can ignore the Ford Flex. This seven-passenger crossover has a boxy, straightforward style all its own, and now Ford has added a distinctive new drivetrain. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 engine delivers V-8-like power while maintaining the fuel economy of a V-6. The magic is in the combination of twin turbochargers and direct fuel injection in an all-wheel drive configuration that delivers 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway along with 335 horsepower. And while the drivetrain is remarkable, so is the Active Park Assist feature that will find parking spaces and then allow you to parallel park hands-free. 

Silver Still Favorite Vehicle Color

What’s North America’s favorite vehicle color? Well, according to new data from paint-maker PPG Industries, silver and charcoal were the most popular color family in North America, followed by white. But according to last year’s DuPont data, white was the leading car color in America. So who’s right? It depends on whether you consider charcoal to be part of the silver family.

While we don’t claim to be color experts, charcoal to us seems to be properly ensconced amid the blacks rather than silvers. But PPG has lumped charcoal in the silver category, so the combined entry of silver and charcoal (with 25 percent of vehicles) is the most popular “color” in North America. White paint adorns 18 percent of North American new cars, followed by black (16 percent), red (12 percent), blue (11 percent), natural colors (7 percent) and green (4 percent.) If you were to add the “charcoal” percentage to the “black” percentage, maybe that combo would out-point white -- but we don’t want to start an international color controversy here. 

For the ninth consecutive year, the silver category -- which, as we said, inexplicably includes charcoal and gray shades -- has ranked as the most popular vehicle color in the world, according to PPG. In Europe, silver and charcoal (35 percent) were followed by black (22 percent), blue and white (13 percent each). These four color categories comprise more than 80 percent of all vehicles in Europe, while white is the fastest-growing color in Europe. Now at 13 percent, in has nearly doubled its popularity in just two years’ time.

“White is considered to be very trendy and sporty by consumers in Europe,” said Reiner Mueller-Koerber, PPG manager, color styling, Europe. “There is high demand to develop white with unique effects. This new interest in white will continue to be a challenge for the designers and technicians.”

At this year’s annual Automotive Colour Trend Show, the coatings company presented its ideas for future vehicle colors. Entitled “3D Colour,” the show included a collection of interior and exterior colors developed globally and inspired by fashion, interior design, industrial design, culture, commercial construction and nature. Among the 60 new exterior shades and 10 new interior shades were Champagne Silver, a tinted silver with a slight warm copper beige cast; Outer Space Blue, a deep, dark blue with a slight sparkle effect; Haute Couture, a black base coat with a high-sparkle blue mid-coat that gives it an appearance inspired by a black designer evening gown with blue sequins; Quantum Rose, an interior color close to a neon red; and Hulk, a color developed in Australia that is bright green, just like its namesake. (That should be enough to persuade you to avoid Australian designers at all costs.)

“Clearly, the automotive industry is moving toward more color choices,” said Jane E. Harrington, PPG manager, color styling, automotive coatings, in Troy, Mich. “Palettes are broadening as the number of models decreases and the industry consolidates. Going forward, automotive manufacturers are going to be relying on color more and more to distinguish their brands.”

In all, the more the percentages change, the more the colors stay the same. It will be interesting to see if the public warms to more vibrant colors when they come to market in the next couple of years.

Should You Fix It or Buy a New Car?

For many people, their car is an extension of their ego, but the fact is that the primary function of a vehicle is to provide transportation.

And in these days of economic turmoil, securing transportation for the smallest possible cost seems like a good bet.

But what does that mean to you, the owner of a car that, like us, is getting older by the minute -- and maybe, like us, deteriorating by the minute too? Should you buy a new car to avoid the risk of expensive repairs, or should you keep the car you have?

To Buy New or Not to Buy
Many folks apparently believe they will actually save money by getting rid of their current car. Sick of the hassle of repairs, they feel that shifting to a new vehicle is a better financial choice. But does their thinking make any sense? A study by the Automobile Club of Southern California says no.

In the year studied, the Auto Club found that the average driver of a new car spent between $8,000 and $10,000 on auto finance payments, insurance, gas and other auto-related expenses. The Auto Club also looked at the costs for owners of five-year-old models that were paid off.

The results were illuminating: Drivers who logged 15,000 miles a year paid just $4,126, or 27.5 cents per mile. Those who put in 20,000 miles for the year got by even cheaper on a per-mile basis -- 26.3 cents, or a lump sum of $5,266.  In either case, it was about half of what new-car drivers paid on a yearly basis.

How can this be? Don’t new cars covered by a factory warranty have lower repair and maintenance costs than older cars?

Herein Lies the Answer
Although new cars do have lower repair and maintenance fees, these expenses are actually a relatively small portion of overall ownership costs -- a highly visible portion, yes, but a small one. And the same thing can be said of fuel costs. Some folks actively seek out higher fuel economy vehicles in an attempt to save money, but figures indicate that if they are buying a new car to get better economy they are fooling themselves.

While gasoline and repair costs are in our face and thus get our attention, the biggest ownership costs for new cars in the first few years of ownership are depreciation and financing. Once the car is paid off, the financing charges vanish, and at the same time, depreciation slows markedly. So even though repair and maintenance costs do increase as a vehicle ages, they are more than offset by declining depreciation costs and the absence of financing.

So should you forget about buying a new car? Don't get us wrong: We can cite many reasons to buy a new vehicle, including additional safety, better efficiency and more carrying capacity. But thinking you're going to save money by purchasing a new vehicle is a fallacy. As for thinking the new car will help you with the opposite sex? That’s probably a fallacy too.

Car Industry, Post-clunkers

Like a long-lost love, the federal government’s CARS 2009 program is a distant memory. The vague good feeling that its mention engenders is now mixed with the pain of loss … at least if you’re a car dealer. Because in this post-CARS 2009 culture, now that the roads are largely clunker-free, the auto industry has settled into the same dreary morass that it was in pre-clunkers times.

Was the program a success or a failure? Well, of course, that depends on the point of view of the one you ask. Car industry types generally love it; citizens who saw their tax dollars funding other people’s vehicle purchases probably feel differently.

But one thing that is abundantly clear in retrospect is that the program provided consumers with a compelling reason to buy, and more important, to buy now. When all is said and done, the CARS program provided the immediate impetus for something like three-quarters of a million new-vehicle sales. It jump-started new-vehicle sales at a time of desperate need. It accomplished that with the aid of two compelling reasons for consumers to get off their couches and buy a car: substantial cash and a looming deadline. Sales spiked in August -- almost entirely the result of an unprecedented $3 billion, taxpayer-funded incentive program.

So when you try to gauge success, if the goal of the CARS 2009 program was to stimulate new-vehicle sales in the short term, it certainly did that. And if another goal was to get older, less-fuel-efficient vehicles off the road and replace them with brand-new, more-fuel-efficient vehicles, it did that too. But if the key goal of the CARS 2009 program was to give the U.S. auto industry a jump start that would continue after the program ended, it is now abundantly clear that the program didn’t accomplish that. 

The first post-clunkers month, September, was a very lackluster month, with sales down in comparison to the cash-for-clunkers month of August 2009 -- which will forever remain an anomaly -- and more important, in comparison to September 2008, which wasn’t all that great either.

While CARS 2009 was a compelling reason to buy in August, once the program was over, consumers put their car-buying plans on hold. Some hoped the unprecedented government support of vehicle sales would spur ongoing momentum, like giving a sled a quick shove to get it sliding downhill. It didn’t happen.

As has been historically the case dating back to the New Deal, government stimulus temporarily makes a difference, but when the government money quits flowing, the economic activity it fosters usually stops abruptly.   

In retrospect, for about a month, while the money was flowing, CARS 2009 got American consumers in a car-buying mood again. But to see a real recovery in the automotive sector, consumers will have to be convinced that their jobs are safe, a recovery is in progress and a new vehicle won’t break their personal piggy bank. Doing that is undoubtedly harder than putting $3 billion into a short-term government program.

Will Small Cars Hit It Big?

There has been a great deal of talk recently about the green economy, the creation of new jobs by the use of technologies that will also aid the environment. In some quarters, these efforts are seen as keys to economic recovery and future economic growth. With the federal government’s big stake in the ownership of General Motors and its heavier involvement in the auto industry as a whole, this premise will quickly be put to the test. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed very stringent new fuel economy restrictions aimed at not just limiting fuel use but also curbing global climate change. Soon we will see if consumers will accept the consequences, which may include significantly smaller vehicles with significantly fewer features. If consumers balk at this, it will have major ramifications that will reverberate through the economy.

Asked if they will make sacrifices to aid the environment, consumers most often say they will. But it is the nitty gritty of their actions, not the things they give lip service to, that will really make a difference. So, many question whether American consumers will accept the smaller cars that may soon be forced upon them. 

A just-released study on the future of small cars in the United States shows American consumers are increasingly “interested” in smaller cars but have reservations about size and features. The study underscores the challenge automakers will face in trying to meet the new government-mandated improvements in fuel economy while still delivering what consumers want and will buy. And persuading consumers to buy such cars is the key, since the government has put the onus on the manufacturers not just to offer high-fuel-efficiency vehicles but also to sell them in significant numbers. In response, one expert predicts that tomorrow’s “small cars” won’t be all that small.

“Our research indicates that American car buyers are definitely willing to buy a more fuel-efficient car but that they don’t want it to be much smaller than what they are driving today,” said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, the research firm that conducted the study. “Tomorrow’s successful small car won’t be tiny. It will be reasonably sized, have increased fuel economy, adequate performance and a full load of customer features.”

The firm’s study, Small Cars in the USA: Planning for the Coming Boom, is based on the results of its annual survey of over 32,000 new-car and light-truck buyers in the United States. The study looked at recent buyers of new small and midsize cars plus people who will consider a compact car the next time they buy. Findings suggest that current small-car buyers want features more in line with the features in larger, more expensive and more powerful vehicles.

“This survey shows that present owners of the smallest cars like the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Chevrolet Aveo want more power and acceleration, more technology and more cargo room next time they buy,” said Peterson. “When they bought these cars, they accepted lower power and cargo room for better fuel economy and a high-value price, but in the future they want something more -- bigger, faster and with more bells and whistles.”

While the world’s manufacturers are hard at work preparing additional small, high-fuel-efficient models for the U.S. market, American consumers show no particular interest in downsizing their personal transportation.  This suggests that all manufacturers, including the struggling General Motors and Chrysler, might find it difficult to meet fuel economy and profitability targets as we move through the decade toward 2020.

“The question is whether American car buyers will avidly embrace smaller-size new products,” commented Peterson. “In our Motorist Choice Awards polling released last month, 106 of the top 107 were large cars, luxury cars, sport utility vehicles, crossover SUVs or minivans. Only one small car, the BMW 1-Series, scored in the top 100, landing in the 35th slot.”