Tips for a Fun Family Road Trip

Does a lengthy road trip with the family have all the appeal of do-it-yourself brain surgery? Does beating yourself on the thumb with a sledgehammer seem to be a pleasant alternative to hitting the road with spouse and children in tow? If so, it might make good sense to tap into the secrets of world traveler Irv Gordon, the only known person to have driven two million miles in the same car. His top-line advice: make the journey as enjoyable as the destination.

Gordon, a 62-year-old retired science teacher from Long Island, has taken more road trips than just about anybody. He gained worldwide visibility recently when he turned his two millionth mile in his shiny red Volvo P1800 while driving through Times Square. He's the kind of guy who takes delight in driving to Philadelphia for lunch, Montreal for dinner, or California just for the fun of it. He says family car trips are nothing to be afraid of.

"Some folks are stressed at the prospect of driving 500 miles with a car full of hyper family members," he said. "Why worry? Road trips can be the most wonderful time to re-connect with your family and with this beautiful country in which we live."

All of which is easy for Irv to say, but how do you go about turning several hundred miles of driving into an enjoyable and memorable experience? Gordon suggests you get off the Interstate and have lunch in a small town.

"When the Interstate system was built in the Fifties, it bypassed thousands of wonderful small towns, but they haven't gone away," he said. "So when you exit off the Interstate to grab lunch, don't just stop at the first fast food joint you see. Drive into the nearest town, usually about a mile off the Interstate. Eat at their town diner, talk with the locals, relax with the family, fill up at the local gas station -- you'll never forget it."

Gordon also recommends taking the time to shop in a new town. And he suggests that visiting "roadside attractions" is a must.

"Visit shops that you don't have in your own city," he advised. "You can buy gifts for your family and friends back home that they otherwise wouldn't be able to find. Don't skimp on roadside attractions. It breaks the monotony and guarantees laughs."

A very pleasant man, Gordon suggests interaction with others along the way, rather than sealing yourself in a metal cocoon and making the miles disappear uneventfully. In that spirit, Gordon recommends you buy a CB radio.

"Remember the fun you had when you were a kid and your parents had a CB in their car?" he asked. "Guess what, CBs didn't go the way of disco; you can buy a portable one for your car for less than $50. It's fun to listen to the banter, plus you can get weather and traffic updates."

And while we're talking about radio, don't hesitate to dial in the local A.M. stations as you drive through the hinterlands.

"When I learned that people were taking those new portable DVD players on road trips, I almost lost my mind," Gordon said. "If you really want to be entertained while on the road, crank up the A.M. dial and tune into the local radio stations to enjoy their local flavor, programming and music. You may also catch a song you thought you'd never hear again."

As a final bit of advice to avoid monotony and boredom, Gordon suggests taking a different route home.

"When you go home the same way you came, you'll see the same buildings, signs and towns, only from the other side" he said. "If time and the maps allow, go home a different route. Your return won't be tedious and the sites your family sees will double."

After driving his P1800 more than two million miles, it's a miracle Gordon himself isn't seeing double. Still, he breaks his own Guinness-certified world record every time he drives to the mall.

A native of Boston, Driving Today contributor Tom Ripley has driven extensively across Europe and North America. He currently resides in Villeperce, France.

Domestics Press Imports in Dependability

In automotive terms, things just keep getting better and better.  That's a key inference to be drawn from the industry's most influential study examining the reliability of cars and trucks. The three-year-old vehicles put under the microscope by the California-based research firm recorded an impressive 12 percent overall improvement in long-term vehicle quality, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS.)

At the industry level, manufacturers made a considerable leap in quality with improvements across all categories, J.D. Power reported. The industry average improved 32 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) compared to 2004, and, more specifically, nearly all nameplates and 84 percent of individual vehicle models included in the 2005 VDS also recorded year-over-year improvements. The categories showing the most significant improvements in 2005 versus 2004 include ride, handling and braking; engine; and interior.

The study also included some welcome good news for domestic manufacturers, who continue to battle the perception (and misconception) that their products are not as reliable as imports.  General Motors and Ford Motor Company brands did well in the study on an aggregate level, but since consumers buy individual models rather than corporations or brands, that is where the bright news is most important.  On the model level, GM topped eight segments, while Ford topped five.  In comparison, models from reliability icon Toyota Motor Corporation were number one in just four segments.

It was not surprising that GM products were tops in several truck segments, including Midsize Pickup (Chevrolet S-10), Light-Duty Full-Size Pickup (Cadillac Escalade EXT), Heavy-Duty Full-Size Pickup (Chevrolet Silverado HD) and Full-Size SUV (GMC Yukon/Yukon XL).  But more interesting was GM's dominance of dependability in popularly priced cars.  It had number-one-ranked vehicles in the Compact Car segment (Chevrolet Prizm), Entry Midsize Car (Chevrolet Malibu), Premium Midsize Car (Buick Century), and Full-Size Car (Buick LeSabre.)  Each of those segments with the exception of Full-Size Car is filled with competitive models from import nameplates.

Ford Motor Company, meanwhile, had segment leaders in Entry Luxury Car (Ford Thunderbird), Mid-Luxury Car (Lincoln Town Car), Midsize Van (Ford Windstar) and Full-Size Van (Ford E-Series.)  Mazda Miata from Ford-controlled Mazda led the Sporty Car segment.

Honda, which, like Toyota, has a sterling quality reputation, captured the top spot in only one segment, Entry SUV, with its CR-V.  Toyota 4Runner was the only Toyota-brand segment leader, but Toyota-built Lexus products won in Premium Luxury Car (LS 430), Entry Luxury SUV (RX 300) and Premium Luxury SUV (LX 470).  

The study measured problems experienced by original owners of three-year-old (2002 model-year) vehicles. According to actual retail transaction data from the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power and Associates, three-year-old vehicles of brands that perform above the industry average in VDS typically retain $1,000 more of their value than those of brands performing below the industry average. The 2005 Vehicle Dependability Study was based on responses from 50,635 original owners of 2002 model-year cars and light trucks.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley views the automotive scene and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France. 

Pain at the Pump?

Sure, gasoline costs more than it did a year ago.  That pain at the gas pump has people looking for ways to cut costs, according to a recent countrywide online survey.  But before you make a big change in the way you live your life, the big question you should ask yourself is what are you willing to do to save money on gasoline?  And a good second question is how much will it cost you?

Yes, gasoline prices have made U.S. consumers reconsider their current driving behaviors. Last year, when prices topped $1.75 a gallon, half of all drivers (50 percent) surveyed by the Progressive Group of Insurance Companies said they would change their driving habits as a result of rising gas prices. When the same question was posed this year as gas prices reached an all-time high of $2.22 a gallon, 14 percent more drivers (57 percent) said they'd change their driving habits. And the more gas prices rise, the more people are willing to change: 66 percent will change how they drive if prices reach $2.40 a gallon, and 78 percent will if prices reach $3 a gallon.

Additionally, respondents cited all kinds of things they would do differently in light of the increased price of gasoline. According to this year's survey results, the majority say they will drive less often (52 percent) while others say they will drive shorter distances (24 percent). One has to wonder, will their places of employment get closer somehow?  Some responded they will cut down on driving to see family and friends (23 percent), and the majority (61 percent) say higher gas prices will affect their summer vacation plans. For example, they will vacation closer to home (24 percent), cancel vacation plans altogether (14 percent), fly instead of drive (13 percent) (there's a money-saver) or take short day trips instead of driving to a destination farther away (11 percent).

While all of this might seem a rational response to the increase in fuel prices, doing a little simple math might change your mind.  Let's say you put 15 gallons of gas in your car once a week.  At $2.25 a gallon a fill-up will cost you $7.50 more than it did when gas was $1.75 a gallon.  That means if prices stay at that high level (and that's a big if), each month you'll spend $32.50 more on fuel than you did in the halcyon days of $1.75/gallon gas.  In this scenario you'll spend $390 additional dollars a year. 

Now nobody wants to pay an additional 400 bucks if they don't have to, but is it worth blowing off a vacation for an extra $7.50 a tank?  Certainly you'd spend more on that on t-shirts and suntan lotion.  And how about the idea of buying a new car to save money on gas?  Get serious.  A new car will likely cost you thousands of dollars in additional expense, including financing and depreciation, versus staying in your current vehicle, so buying a new car to save money, despite the increase in gasoline prices, is a fool's errand.

In fact, even driving to an inconvenient gas station to buy cheaper gas might well be foolish. A whopping 93 percent of drivers told the survey they would drive out of their way to save 20 cents a gallon on gas.  But is that rational?
"Driving out of the way to save 20 cents a gallon is pretty extreme when you stop to think about how much money you're really saving," Robin Harbage, product development general manager, Progressive. "Assuming you fill your 20-gallon tank about once a week and save 20 cents a gallon, in a six-month period you'll save $104."

That's four bucks a week, friends, and that doesn't include the extra miles you'll be burning fuel getting to and coming from that secret station with the bargain gas, not to mention the time you'll spend doing it.  If you want to save money, shop around for car insurance and keep your tires inflated to the proper pressure.  And rest knowing that maintaining your current chariot is still your best route to saving money overall.

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on personal finance issues relating to car ownership.

Domestic Vehicle Quality Improves

It has become fashionable to knock General Motors these days.  The automotive trade press and the general business press are rife with stories deriding the company that is still the largest automotive manufacturer in the world.  But now new data from J.D. Power and Associates, the California-based market research firm, indicates the widely held perception that GM builds vehicles that are much poorer in product quality than the import manufacturers is simply not true. 

In the study General Motors vehicles were tops in initial quality in five of the industry's 18 segments. The GM segment winners were Chevrolet Malibu/Malibu Maxx (Entry Midsize Car), Buick Century (Premium Midsize Car), Buick LeSabre (Full-Size Car), GMC Sierra HD (Full-Size Heavy Duty Pickup) and Chevrolet Suburban (Full-Size SUV).  And though there were no Japanese competitors in the Full-Size Car and Full-Size Heavy-Duty Pickup truck segments, more telling was the fact that GM products were prominent among the top three in quality in a number of segments.  For example, in the Premium Mid-Size Car segment the top three vehicles were all GM-built:  Buick Century followed by Chevrolet Impala and Pontiac Grand Prix.  In the Full-Size SUV segment the Chevrolet Suburban led the pack followed by the Chevrolet Tahoe, while the Toyota Sequoia ranked third.

News was also good for Ford Motor Company, like GM, much-maligned lately.  Ford led the Mid-Size Pickup Truck segment with the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, followed by the Ford Ranger, and the Ford F-150 was tops in the Light-Duty Full-Size Pickup truck segment.  The Mercury Grand Marquis was second place in quality in Full-Size Cars, followed by the new Ford Five Hundred.

Though the domestic have made inroads, there were two other very telling conclusions to be drawn from the survey.  First, on a segment-by-segment basis, Toyota-built vehicles, which include the Lexus luxury brand and the Scion entry-level brand, topped 10 of the 18 segments.  Interestingly, the Toyota brand ranked seventh, behind (from number one) Lexus, Jaguar, BMW, Buick and Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz in a tie for fifth.  In addition, Honda, which has gained reputation for quality rivaling Toyota, finished 12th and its sister brand, Acura, was 15th, just above the overall industry average.

While the domestic manufacturers have been painted as "poor quality" builders, it is interesting to note that the bottom of the initial quality list is strictly the domain of the import brands.  In ascending order from worst, the ignominious "bottom five" were Suzuki, Mazda, Land Rover, Volkswagen and Porsche. 

IQS is a model-level study that measures 135 attributes across nine categories, including ride/handling/braking, engine and transmission, and a broad range of quality problems symptoms reported by vehicle owners.  The 2005 Initial Quality Study was based on responses from more than 62,000 purchasers and lessees of new 2005 model-year cars and trucks, who were surveyed after 90 days of ownership. It does not, as some media outlets erroneously reported, measure "reliability."  Instead, it looks at vehicle problems and perceived problems in the first three months of vehicle ownership.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley reports on the international auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France. 

Why Haggle?

You don't negotiate the price of that gallon of milk at the grocery store.  You don't engage in a bargaining session over a two-by-four at the home center or the Barbie doll at the local toy emporium.  So why do we continue to haggle over the price of a vehicle when we go to the new-car showroom?  Is there a good reason for haggling or do we just do it because it has always been done that way?

The answer to that question is a little of both, depending, of course, upon where you sit.  To dealers, a perfect world might be one in which every prospect walked in the door, gave a vehicle a quick once-over and then paid the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).  Since that is not going to happen, a good second choice, from the dealers' point of view is individual negotiation or, in other words, haggling.  This method is preferred because it allows the dealership to control its destiny in each transaction more precisely gauged to what the market (in this case represented by a single individual at a single point in time) will bear.

Since a vehicle purchase is a large transaction in the overall scheme of things, the dealership can afford to spend time and effort in an attempt to maximize the benefits (largely cash) derived from each deal.  By way of comparison, a grocery store sees no benefit in forcing the consumer to negotiate the price of milk because the cash that might be gained from such an effort would be more than outweighed by the time-cost of entering into such a negotiation.  As the ticketed price and margin rise there is more incentive to spend time on negotiation, and that is exactly what we see in the automotive marketplace.

Though many consumers profess to hate haggling over the price of their vehicle, there are those who don't feel they could get a good deal if they didn't haggle.  To this group, simply assessing the value offered by a vehicle at a set price is not enough to satisfy them.  They feel they must engage the dealer in negotiation or they are leaving money on the table.  And the fact is, if you don't negotiate and negotiate hard, you probably will leave some money on the table.  But this begs the twin questions, how much money and how much is that money worth to you in terms of time spent and discomfort endured?

Another factor that has perpetuated and will likely continue to perpetuate haggling in the auto purchase process is the nearly ubiquitous "trade in."  In essence anyone who trades in her or his vehicle as part of the purchase of another vehicle is really engaging in two transactions simultaneously.  And since used car values are hardly set in stone, the concept of the trade-in by necessity guarantees that some sort of negotiation will take place.  One part of that negotiation is the trade-in value (i.e. purchase price) of the vehicle going to the dealer, and, since that is already in play, it is not a stretch to throw the purchase price of the new vehicle up for negotiation as well.  Add the bargain around possible dealer financing of the vehicle, and you have the basis for a complicated and often murky series of negotiations.      

All this can have a very negative effect on consumer satisfaction with the vehicle transaction process, because it is easy to become convinced, after the car purchase has been completed, that you didn't get as good a deal as you could have.  Further, many consumers have the sneaking suspicion that the person who bought the same model before them and the person who bought the same model right after them probably got a better deal than they did.  This is more than buyer's remorse; this can be buyer's morbidity.

How do you avoid this trap?  First understand that the new-vehicle acquisition process involves several transactions.  Try to treat them as discrete negotiations rather than lumping them together.  This will allow you to examine each more clearly than trying to make sense out of a multi-phase deal.  Second, arm yourself with information.  The Web has made it much simpler to get key pre-negotiation information like list prices, invoice prices, incentives and even "street prices."  (Kelley Blue Book is the best source for this information.)  Equipped with this knowledge, you can better assess each individual transaction and the acquisition as a whole before you shake hands on the deal.  Finally, don't try to wring every last dollar out of the deal.  There are diminishing returns to prolonging a negotiation, especially in light of the fact that you could well spend hours to capture that last 50 bucks.  Instead, aim for a mutually satisfying deal, a win-win, and you'll be more satisfied in the long run.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has been a student of the transportation marketplace for more than 30 years.