Five Hot Domestics

Not too long ago, the American car manufacturers were at such a low point that their CEOs traveled to Washington, D.C., to beg for bailouts. Two of the Big Three automakers -- General Motors and Chrysler -- declared bankruptcy soon thereafter. And even after draconian reorganizations, many industry experts feared that they would never be competitive with the best of the foreign manufacturers. But jumping ahead to today, we have found the domestic car industry to be rejuvenated. It is producing world-class vehicles that are proving to be surprisingly competitive with vehicles from top-rated names, like Honda and Toyota.

So you want proof? The following is a quick look at some of the best new offerings from each of the Big Three domestic manufacturers. And with cars like these, they are worthy of that title again.

Chevrolet Cruze
The Chevrolet Cruze was the surprise hit of the summer. Not necessarily a car built to thrill car evaluators, the Cruze has been a sensational success with consumers. It has been at the top of the overall sales charts for several weeks during the past few months, shoving aside such perennial favorites as the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.

What makes this small car so good is the fact that it is not so small. In fact, it is the largest competitor in the compact-car class and yet offers class-leading fuel economy. That has proven to be a tough combination for the imports -- and other domestics, to beat. We like the Cruze’s well-sculpted, big-car styling, as well as its roomy interior and easy-to-use controls. We’re also big fans of its 1.4-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine, which delivers 138 horsepower and a potent dose of torque. Best of all is the Cruze’s smooth ride that belies its small size.

Fiat 500
Fiat? A hot domestic car? Well, yes, these days it is. For one thing, Italian auto giant Fiat is now firmly in control of Chrysler. For another, the Fiat 500 is built in a Chrysler factory in Mexico, so it is as North American as enchiladas. The 2011 interpretation of the tiny, rear-engine Cinquecento that first went on sale in Europe in 1957, the 500 uses cute as its calling card, but it is more than that. The interior is a whimsical combination of past and present, and the plush seats are remarkably comfortable. There isn’t much space in the rear seat, but the good news is that there is a rear seat, so your friends can come along.

The sophisticated 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine churns out 101 horsepower, not enough to turn the car into a sports machine, but you will like the fuel economy -- 30 miles per gallon city and 38 mpg highway with the five-speed manual transmission -- and you will like the high level of standard equipment even more. It’s probably the coolest car in America, and you can buy it for less than $17,000.

Ford Focus
Based on Ford’s global C-platform, the compact front-drive Ford Focus is the “world car” answer to Chevy’s U.S.-oriented Cruze. While the Cruze is a four-door sedan, the configuration most Americans favor, the Focus reveals its international roots in the form of a five-door hatchback that supplements the four-door sedan.

New, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter in-line 4-cylinders power the various Focus models. It features direct fuel injection and twin-independent variable camshaft timing, helping it whir out 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque, which are big increases over the numbers of the previous model. The choice of a five-speed manual transmission or a new six-speed dual-clutch automatic and a European-tuned suspension separate the Focus from its peers.

GMC Terrain
In the new, streamlined General Motors, GMC’s role is selling high-end trucks, SUVs and crossovers, and so the GMC Terrain has been created to carry the flag in the hotly contested compact crossover market. Based on the popular Chevy Equinox and facing competition from the well-established Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, the Terrain makes its mark with bold, masculine styling. That sets it apart in a segment that is filled with genderless vehicles. Offering a choice of both four- and six-cylinder engines, the Terrain returns laudable fuel economy and is equipped with some interesting features.

The impressive interior is library-quiet -- something we didn’t expect -- and offers a rear seat that slides back and forth about 8 inches for greater versatility in cargo-hauling. We were also impressed with the power rear-hatch mechanism that you can program to operate your way, and with the rear-vision camera that should be a must on all vehicles that are used for towing.

Jeep Grand Cherokee
If you want an impressive pedigree, consider the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It not only offers the go-anywhere, do-anything heritage of the Jeep brand that is now in its 70th year, but also is based on the same platform as the Mercedes-Benz ML. Unlike many of its competitors, the Grand Cherokee continues to eschew a third row, which gives it more maneuverability and enhances the accommodations for the second-row passengers. What you might not expect is how upscale and luxurious the Grand Cherokee’s interior is.

Leather and real wood trim highlight the tastefully designed interior, and the rear-seat area offers 4 additional inches of legroom. In addition, the cargo has been expanded to 35.1 cubic feet. Fold the rear seat and you can double that area if you and a significant other want to take off for the woods. To help get you to that inaccessible lakeside campsite, Selec-Terrain lets you change vehicle behavior with a twist of a knob, adjusting for the surface on which (or through which) you’re traveling.

ToyotaÂ’s Big Gamble

There is no doubt that the Toyota has been a stunning success for Japan’s giant automaker. Toyota has sold more than 1 million Prius models in the United States since the first-generation 2001 model was introduced. It currently sells at a 200,000-car-a-year pace in the United States, making it a sales winner. Its advanced technology has also reflected well on Toyota, giving the company a special place in the hearts of environmentalists. But the company is not satisfied with one Prius; now it has announced three others, including the eagerly awaited Prius Plug-in Hybrid. It is all part of a master plan initiated when Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe established a company goal of selling 1 million hybrids a year this decade. While the Prius gives the company a leg up in that direction, it is still a very tall order -- a goal some outside observers believe is far too lofty.

But one thing Toyota engineers always attempt to do is achieve company goals, so they have created the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, the latest hybrid model to join the range. It supplements the third-generation Prius Liftback and the new Prius v, which is essentially a station wagon version of the Liftback. The Prius c, a smaller conventional hybrid, will come to market next year. The big question is will the new Prii add buyers to the Toyota brand, or will they simply steal buyers who otherwise would have purchased the Prius Liftback, the car some refer to as “the real Prius?” Behind the scenes, Toyota’s American executives candidly admit that they don’t have the answer to that question.

Questions they can answer concern the advantages the Prius Plug-in Hybrid offers over the standard Prius we have come to know. First, they point out that it combines the benefits of the standard Prius model’s hybrid vehicle operation with extended electric-vehicle-mode driving, plus it is more affordable than pure electric or range-extender type (e.g., Chevrolet Volt) vehicles. Then there are the 87 miles per gallon equivalent in combined driving and the 49 miles per gallon in hybrid mode.

The Holy Grail for some hybrid buyers is electric-only range, and they might be a bit disappointed that the Prius Plug-in Hybrid offers just 15 miles of EV-only range at speeds up to 62 miles per hour. Better news is the quick home-charging using a standard AC outlet and 15-amp dedicated circuit. The Plug-in Hybrid uses the Hybrid Synergy Drive of the standard Prius model that will seamlessly switch into hybrid operation from battery-only at a predetermined state of battery charge. A newly developed 4.4 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack replaces the standard Prius model’s nickel-metal hydride battery and fits under the rear cargo floor, and the vehicle adds an easy-to-use external charging cable. A full charge using an external AC outlet takes approximately 2.5 to 3.0 hours using a 120-volt household current (standard in the U.S.) or 1.5 hours using a 240-volt outlet, the kind that might power a clothes dryer. The 120-volt charging cable connects to the charging port inlet located on the right-rear fender.

The Prius Plug-in Hybrid will carry a robust complement of comfort and convenience features, but will also offer a low curb-weight, which helps immensely with fuel economy. Now facing an all-electric Nissan LEAF and the technologically advanced, electrically driven Chevrolet Volt, the Plug-in Prius will have to prove that it has the mojo to maintain Toyota’s alternative-propulsion leadership.

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How to Choose the Right Mechanic

New cars are expensive. The economy, in a word, sucks. Because of this, you are probably thinking more about preserving your current chariot than buying a new one. You are not alone. According to a recent AAA survey, 54 percent of American drivers say they have decided to keep an existing vehicle rather than invest in a newer one. It can be a cost-effective strategy, but it requires that you find a good repair facility and a mechanic you can trust.

So how do you make this magic connection? The first order of business is to start looking now rather than on the day you walk out to your car and find its transmission lying on the street. One good method is to ask for recommendations from family and friends. You can also visit the AAA website to find nearby AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) shops.

When it comes to servicing your vehicle, you have three basic choices: You can take your car to a new-car dealership; go to an independent repair shop; or go to a shop that specializes in the particular problem you are currently experiencing (like a brake repair shop or tire retailer.) Once you’ve made that decision, check out the facility. Does it seem well-organized? Are the employees you talk to responsive to your questions, or are they clueless? Typically a repair shop isn’t the tidiest place on Earth, but it should give the immediate impression of being well-run.

See if the owner/manager is on the premises. Shops run by technicians with “skin in the game” often deliver better service than those operated by absentee owners. Of course, the facility should employ qualified technicians who receive ongoing training in the latest technology. Certifications from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) are often posted, and dealerships may display vehicle manufacturer service training credentials as well. Collision repair shops often have certificates from training offered by the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR). Remember, though, that just because these credentials are posted, it doesn’t mean that all the mechanics working in that dealership or shop are certified.

Ask an employee how he will go about diagnosing the problems you have with your car. A good repair shop will have up-to-date service equipment and repair data to help technicians make good calls. The amount of information that is necessary to repair modern cars can no longer be effectively contained in paper manuals, so quality shops today have Internet access to repair information or an on-site service information library of CD/DVD ROMs.

Finally, look at the shop’s reputation. Check with the Better Business Bureau, the state department of consumer affairs or the attorney general’s office; they will provide you with information on how the shop handles any consumer complaints. Additionally, ask how long the dealership or shop has been in business. The economic travails of the past few years have forced many dealerships and independent service shops to close. If a repair facility has weathered the storm, it is a good indication that it continues to satisfy its customers, and that’s what you’re looking for.

The Right Used Car Now

Smart people buy used cars. That is a pithy piece of financial advice that has gained currency through the past several years. It’s a concept we at Driving Today have accepted and shared for several years now, but things are a bit different today than they were in past years. One big difference: There aren’t nearly as many one-, two- and three-year-old used cars available as there were a decade ago. Why? Fewer new vehicles have been sold in the past three years than were sold in 2000 to 2007. Previously owned vehicles are still built better, last longer and deliver more reliable service than ever before. But there aren’t as many of them and, as Adam Smith would tell you, this means they are priced higher than before. This doesn’t mean a used car isn’t still a good move, but it does raise the stakes on the individual used car you choose. It also implies that you should be even more thorough in your inspection of a prospective purchase before you buy.

One good first step is a vehicle inspection by a professional mechanic. Finding the right mechanic might be a bit of a daunting task, but it could well be worth the effort. A thorough inspection might cost $50 to $100, but if the technician discovers a major defect, it will pay for itself immediately. Here’s what a good used-vehicle inspection should entail:

Spend Time Under the Hood
It is hard to get a good look at various vehicle components in a typical late-model vehicle’s engine bay these days, but making the effort is important because any buildup of dirt or oil can indicate mechanical problems. Dirty or thick engine oil and sludge in the engine may indicate a lack of routine maintenance by the previous owners. Rattling noises heard while the engine is at idle can mean incorrect tuning or excessive wear.

Check Major Systems
The transmission and driveline, cooling system and brakes are three systems of vital importance. When inspecting the transmission, technicians test for smooth gear changes and listen for any rattles or knocking noises. These noises can indicate worn constant-velocity joints -- expensive. Radiator coolant should be clean and brightly colored. Oil in the coolant may indicate a cracked cylinder head or a leaking gasket. A properly operating vehicle should stop smoothly and in a straight line when the brakes are applied, and the pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy.

Don’t Forget to Road-test
During a test drive, technicians look for excessive body lean or wandering on straight roads, which can be a sign of worn suspension or misaligned steering. Vibrations in the steering can have a number of causes, but none of them is good. Stops should be sure and drama-free.

Look Closely at the Body
The vehicle’s panel surfaces should be inspected for overall fit and possible damage, since loose side panels may indicate a past accident. Floor wells, doors and rocker panels should be checked for red stains and dimpled or bubbled paint, which can be signs of rust.

Since you probably don’t have experience repairing vehicles, it’s a good idea to have the vehicle inspected by your trusted mechanic. If you don’t have one, you should find one -- for help in the purchase of a used car and for repairs and maintenance late

Irene More Than Just Another Blow to Already-bruised Car Market

Many Americans felt that Hurricane Irene hit them when they were already down. With much of the country suffering through economic hard times, and with many areas of the East already having suffered through a series of weather-related hardships this year, the recent hurricane was especially crippling. Sure, the storm wasn’t nearly as devastating as some had predicted, but the aftermath is proving full well that it was more than bad enough.

That is exactly how it affected the U.S. car market, which -- like U.S. consumers -- has already suffered mightily this year. Just when car buyers seemed to be returning to auto dealerships, along came Hurricane Irene to throw yet another monkey wrench into the works. In the wake of the destruction, the insurance industry estimates the insured losses to be somewhere between $2.6 and $5 billion. On top of that, of course, are the losses of infrastructure like roads and bridges, which aren’t insured but will have to be rebuilt at taxpayers’ expense.

And that isn’t even the biggest part of the story. Estimates indicate that the Eastern seaboard accounts for about $12 billion per day in overall economic activity, and you can bet that during the weeks following the storm, economic activity in the region will be only a fraction of what it usually was. While some of that economic activity might simply be delayed, a portion of it -- vacations not taken, restaurant meals not eaten, movies not attended -- is simply gone for good. One might try to make the case that most of the consumers who decided not to buy a car over the weekend of the hurricane will soon do so, but that fails to figure in the number of prospective car-buyers who saw their lives irreversibly changed with the high winds and flood waters that devastated many areas of the East Coast.

Instead of being an engine of growth, over the course of the past several months the auto industry has continued to tip into potholes. Weak economic growth and persistent high unemployment rates have sent the stock market into a tizzy over the past several weeks, turning stocks sharply downward. The rapid drop in the stock indexes has many people taking a hard look at their finances. What stares back at them isn’t pretty, so while millions of Americans would dearly love to buy a new car, many of them are deciding that it is more prudent to wait. That will have a dampening effect on new-vehicle sales, which have already been hampered by a faltering recovery that has included far too little job growth. Since unemployment continues to be a huge problem -- causing people to be concerned about keeping their jobs -- there is little impetus for the consumer to buy a new car. Why take on more debt if your future employment is iffy?

What does this mean? For one thing, it means fewer car sales overall, which translate into less economic growth. In fact, fearful of a double-dip recession, many economists are happy to see any growth at all. In essence the car market is going sideways, and one interesting result is that car companies aren’t offering the big incentives that they used to. They, like most of us, have learned to run leaner. And like us, they’ll get by, but it would sure be more fun to be in boom times, wouldn’t it?