New Definition of Women's Work

If you are a male, you might take offense, but there is a new premise making the rounds that says, "If you meet the expectations of women, you'll exceed the expectations of men." While that might imply that men have lower expectations than women -- and many would say that's simple fact, not a sexist slam -- the credo, formulated by marketing consultant Marti Barletta, launched Volvo Car Corporation down the path that led to Your Concept Car (YCC), a striking gull-wing concept vehicle loaded with innovative features.

On a visit to Volvo in the autumn of 2001, Barletta, a U.S. expert on female consumer patterns, introduced the idea that vehicles designed by women would address the needs of all customers. Volvo execs took notice and formed an all-woman team to direct the development of the new concept car that would translate the vision of female designers, engineers and other professionals.

"We're sure it's right," said Camilla Palmertz, who is one of the two project managers for the YCC. "That's why that thesis has been our guiding light in developing Your Concept Car."

YCC is a sporty mid-size coupe about the size of the Volvo S60 with gull-wing doors and excellent driver visibility thanks to a low hood, a long rear window and a unique technology that tailors the car to the driver's size.

"We didn't want to put together something that was mundane and boring," Anna Rosen, the YCC's chief exterior designer said. "I wanted to design something exciting that would convey that it's fun to drive."

Volvo research shows female customers in the premium segment want everything men want in terms of performance, prestige and style. But it doesn't end there. They expect a bit more like smart storage solutions, easy entry and exit, good visibility, minimum maintenance, easy parking and a car they can personalize.

To provide buyers with those extras, the project team went to special lengths. For example, YCC designers determined the best place for keeping things on hand in the car is between the front seats. But that is where you normally find the gearshift lever and handbrake. "So we moved them," said Cindy Charwick, who designed the YCC interior. "In the YCC, there are gear levers by the steering wheel, and the parking brake is electronic and integrated." Suddenly, there was space for storage in the center console, making room for a shallow compartment for keys, mobile phones, coins and other small items. That compartment, in turn, slides back to reveal a deeper one, large enough for a handbag. A third compartment accommodates a notebook computer. As if all that isn't enough, an insulated food/drink compartment is within reach of the driver's seat and the console also features a wastebasket.

Getting tired of your car's interior? No problem with the YCC. Its cockpit can be dramatically altered. There are eight inter-changeable seat pad options with matching carpet that can be swapped easily, offering a whole range of styles inspired by contemporary home interior design. "There is no need to trade in your car just because you have grown tired of its color scheme," said Maria Uggla, the color and trim designer for the YCC. "You can change it anyway you want very simply."

Other innovations in the car include Easy-Clean paint, which behaves like the coating on a non-stick frying pan, and the Ergovision system, which records a driver's body measurements (height, leg length, arm length) and stores them in a personal key unit. When the key is docked on the center console, the seat, steering wheel, pedals, head restraint and seat belt are all adjusted automatically. The result is a fully personalized driving position with the best line of vision.

In all, the YCC is a rare animal, a concept car that actually offers new concepts. We're certain that we'll be seeing many of these innovations soon, and men as well as women will reap the benefits.

Cleveland-based contributor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about design issues.

Sticker Price Fiction

When you go to buy a wheelbarrow or a table lamp or a half-gallon of milk, you probably don't think twice about the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price, if, indeed, there is such a thing for those consumer products. The only price that has any meaning is the price you pay to purchase most items. Every car buyer, though, keeps a weather-eye on the MSRP. For the savvy buyer, it's the place from which negotiations begin, and for the surprising number of less educated buyers, it's the price they pay, no questions asked, without even considering the fact they could pay less.

So what's up with the MSRP anyway? What good does it do anybody? Well, originally it was created as a "consumer service." The MSRP is required by federal law to be prominently displayed on every new vehicle for sale in the United States, and usually it is plastered on what is referred to in the industry as the Monroney label or simply "the Monroney," named after U.S. Senator Mike Monroney, an Oklahoma Democrat who sponsored the 1958 bill that established the practice. Though it began as consumer protection, the result of the MSRP is consumer confusion. Why? Because the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price is not a price in the sense most of us understand the term -- namely, the amount of money we actually pay to buy something. Instead, it is a fiction that has come to be used as yet another way to separate money from the consumer.

Just how big a fiction it is was demonstrated recently in some research undertaken on an on-going basis by Edmunds. One of the many things Edmunds does is track both Manufacturers Suggested Retail Prices and what they refer to as "net prices" -- the actual transaction prices for which vehicles are bought. And what they have discovered is that there is a wide gulf between MSRPs and net prices. For example, in December 2003, the sales-weighted average net price was $26,077, some 14 percent below average MSRP.

So does that mean you as a car buyer should look at the MSRP, offer your friendly dealer 14 percent less, and go smiling off into the future in a new vehicle? Would that it were that easy! It's not. These days with cash incentives and cheap financing deals fueling (and confusing the market), there's no telling what kind of discount from MSRP you should be looking for. For one thing, the MSRP-net price discrepancy has varied between 14 and 17 percent in just the last year. And part of the issue is a variation on the old shell game.

"Some automakers have begun to institutionalize incentives into their overall pricing strategy; in other words, they raise incentives and prices in tandem," said Dr. Jane Liu, executive director of data analysis for Edmunds. "It's working relatively well for the automakers, especially as improved products and a brighter economic situation is narrowing the difference between asking prices and net prices."

But while it might be working well for the automakers, it is throwing yet another hard slider at car buyers who have to withstand enough obfuscation in the process of obtaining a new vehicle.

To make matters even worse, there is a further discrepancy between domestics, Japanese, European and Korean nameplate vehicles in terms of their net pricing versus the fictitious MSRP. For example, in December 2003, the average domestic net price was 18.8 percent below MSRP, but for Japanese nameplate vehicles the difference between MSRP and the real transaction price was only 7.5 percent. Among the Europeans, the difference was slimmer still with the gap 4.8 percent in December 2003. Meanwhile, incentives and discounting assured that for Korean-built vehicles the difference between MSRP and net price was 15.2 percent.

So Mrs. and Mr. CarBuyer, do you look at the MSRP as consumer protection? Or is it just another in the auto manufacturers' kit bag to make the vehicle acquisition process more stressful than it needs to be?

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car.

You Are Being Watched

If you have ever bought a new car -- or if you plan to in the future -- you are being scrutinized. Car makers want to know how you think, where you live and, most of all, what you are likely to buy. They want to gauge the upcoming trends or at least catch the wave of current ones, and to do that they have to know what you're thinking. There's nothing really sinister about it, because all they really want is to learn what vehicles you're going to want in future months so they can plan their production accordingly. Still some consumers might be uncomfortable with the extent that car manufacturers will go to learn about their lifestyles.

And the degree of consumer research just got a little deeper. In days of yore, namely six months ago, car manufacturers had to wait until their new vehicles hit the market to get a firm handle on not only how they were selling, but, equally important, who was buying them. Now, though, a new monthly automotive omnibus study from Harris Interactive and Kelley Blue Book called AutoVIBES provides shopper profiles for vehicles before the first one is ever sold. This can be invaluable to car manufacturers because it gives them an early read on how and where they should be advertising before the first of a new model line even hits the showrooms. The result can save millions of dollars in otherwise misplaced advertising expenditures.

The new study tracks car shoppers' awareness, "favorability" (whether they like them or not) and buying intentions of new vehicles before they hit the marketplace. The detailed demographic information is collected on the Kelley Blue Book Web site from 1,500-2,000 consumers who say they plan to buy a new vehicle in the following six months. Harris Interactive and Kelley Blue Book marketing research jointly analyze the data to create "profiles" of shoppers of each new vehicle. The data is "trended" beginning several months before a vehicle is sold and tracked all the way through its consumer introduction and sale.

Early results of the study indicate that many manufacturers should tune up their crystal balls, because the consumers they are targeting for various models are far different from those who are actually expressing strong interest in buying the vehicles. For example, the new, Korean-made Chevrolet Aveo has been touted as GM's answer to the youth or "entry-level" market, twenty-somethings who are buying their first new car. But while Chevy has gone to a hip, Gen X-Gen Y ad campaign for the Aveo, the AutoVIBES study indicates a full 41 percent of those considering the car are age 45 or older.

A similar phenomenon exists with Scion, Toyota's new youth market brand that is the most aggressive in courting Gen Y buyers. In fact, a Scion TV ad could easily be confused for a spot touting skateboards or soda pop. Despite the marketing slant that is skewed heavily toward college kids and young singles, however, more than 40 percent of those who have expressed interest in buying the Scion xA are 45 or older. And though Scion also has made an attempt to be unisex, xA intenders are predominantly (75 percent) male.

Nissan is running into almost the opposite case with its new, beefy Pathfinder Armada sport utility vehicle. Based largely on the macho Nissan Titan full-size pickup truck, the vehicle might be expected to grab a similar male-oriented group. But the study shows that more than half (52 percent) of prospective Armada buyers are women.

Finally, there is the virtually inexplicable. Ford has recently introduced its new Freestar minivan, designed from the ground up to put it in the ballpark with the segment-leading Chrysler and Honda family haulers. But how do you figure this? Some 44 percent of those considering a Freestar don't have kids under the age of 18 living with them. Why these folks want a minivan is a mystery deeper than who killed Dickie Greenleaf.

What this shows, yet again, is that automotive consumers are fickle, hard-to-read and borderline irrational, which, we guess, is what one should really expect. After all, they're people like us, aren't they?

Driving Today contributor Tom Ripley studies the automotive scene and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Getting Top Dollar for Your Car

How much is your time worth? No, this is not a rhetorical question; it is something you should immediately determine if you are considering selling your current vehicle yourself rather than trading it in, especially if you are about to buy a new vehicle.

If you don't figure out what your time is worth, you might well spend costly hour upon hour engaging in amateur salesmanship only to find you would have been better off trading the old boat in to the dealer where you purchased your new car. Or, conversely, you might discover that selling your car yourself is more than worth your while.

So do a little math. What are night and weekend hours (when you'll most likely be collecting most of the phone calls and giving prospective buyers impromptu walk-arounds) worth to you? Only you can determine that figure, but the guess here is it is quite a serious number. Once you've determined that dollar/hour figure, then multiply it by, say, eight hours, as a reasonable estimate of how long it will take you to complete the requisite steps to selling it yourself. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, your weekend hours are worth $50 to you, then selling your car yourself will cost you $400 (8 x $50). But the return from that $400 expenditure of time and effort can be substantial -- not enough to buy a second house on a lake but more than just pocket money.

Take this as an example: Your goal is to sell your current 2000 model-year full-size SUV, so you can buy another vehicle. If you trade it in and you are astute about the negotiation process, the dealer will allow you $15,095 as the wholesale value of your SUV. But if you sell the car on the open market, you could well reap $17,395 for the self-same vehicle or (quick, do the math) $2,300 more. So spending eight hours ($400) of your time to collect $2,300 seems like a good investment. Sure, you might further spend $100 or so in newspaper ads, Internet listings and signage, but after accounting for everything -- your costs and your time -- you still could be up $1,800. Not bad at all.

So how do you go about maximizing the price you'll get for your car?

First, get a good idea what your vehicle is worth at retail. These days, that is simpler than ever, because Web sites like Kelley Blue Book offer estimated used vehicle pricing (for private party sales and trade-ins) based on your location. (And that is important since vehicle prices differ regionally. For instance, four-wheel-drive vehicles don't sell well in Florida, while big, domestically produced vehicles aren't Californians' cup of tea.) A quick method to test that appraisal is by perusing the newspaper, "shopper," and magazine ads for vehicles very similar to yours. This will help you "ballpark" the price you should charge for your vehicle.

The next step is to take care of cosmetics. Would you go into a store and buy a dirty shirt or a scratched dining room table? No? Then you'll understand why making certain your vehicle looks as good as it can is a key to getting top dollar for it. So wash the vehicle inside and out until it sparkles.

Of course, making certain the vehicle is in good running condition is also important. Major squeaks, rattles and leaks can put the damper on a lofty sales price. But it is not imperative, as you might think at first blush, that the vehicle be mechanically perfect. Rather than paying top-dollar to get your vehicle totally renovated, you might well be better off simply to point out its shortcomings to potential buyers. As long as those mechanical maladies don't make the vehicle unsafe or undrivable, and as long as you make monetary allowances for them, you could well find that would-be buyers will talk themselves into believing they are getting a good deal.

Obviously, any documentation you possess that will indicate that the car has been well maintained is helpful in backing your case for a higher price for your car. Therefore, repair and maintenance receipts and records are worth hanging on to.

Then, with good doses of honesty and salesmanship, you will be able to negotiate a sales price that will be significantly above your bogey -- the trade-in value plus the value of your time in selling the vehicle. So, while selling a vehicle yourself isn't as simple as driving it up to a dealer, tossing him the keys, and shouting, "What will you give me for it?" the process isn't, as they say, rocket surgery. In fact, even I have done it.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car.

The Upside-Down Blues

When an issue makes the front cover of Automotive News, the Bible of the car industry, you can bet it has gravity, and the phenomenon of being "upside-down" in a car loan reached that status last week. The trade publication described the growing number of consumers who owe more on their loan than their vehicle is worth -- the simplest explanation of the term "upside-down" -- as "an industry time bomb." It just couldn't predict when that time bomb would explode, but with interest rates predicted to climb over the next several months, it could be sooner rather than later.

Before we discuss what effect the overall phenomenon might have on the car industry and the American economy as a whole, let's look at how it affects individual consumers.

Most consumers find themselves upside down for a simple reason -- the pursuit of the lowest monthly payment possible. There was a time when the "standard" auto loan was just two years (24 months.) Then, as cars grew more expensive and lenders grew more lenient, loan terms stretched to three years, and four years, until now, some industry data suggests the average car loan term is 63 months -- more than five years!

At the same time, down payments have shrunk from an average of 20 percent back in the deep, dark past to less than five percent today. In just the last decade, they have diminished from 15 percent of the purchase price, and "factory cash" often subsidizes even the five percent down payments being made these days. If you have no money at all and just mediocre credit, you can probably "buy" a $20,000 new car this afternoon.

Because of the long payment cycles and small down payments, a vast majority of buyers have just a tiny amount of equity (real ownership) of their cars. Instead, for most, the finance institution is the actual owner. All of which would be essentially transparent if car buyers held their vehicles until they were paid off. But they don't.

Consumers who are carrying a five-year loan will frequently walk into a dealership after, say, three years and want to buy a new vehicle. This is where the problem surfaces, because very frequently these days -- some experts say 30 percent of the time -- that consumer will find, to their great dismay, that they owe more money on the vehicle than it is worth as a trade-in. And to buy a new vehicle, the first hurdle is to get clear of that old debt, which Edmunds says now averages $3,700.

What happens next? Well, logic might suggest that the prospective buyer backs off from getting a new car and holds onto the old one at least until it is paid off. But logic and car dealerships rarely walk hand-in-hand. What the typically solicitous car salesperson does in this situation is help the consumer by suggesting that she or he "roll" the accumulated debt on the old vehicle into the about-to-be-established loan on the new vehicle.

In a recent example cited by Automotive News, a Texas Chevrolet dealer signed a customer to a $47,000 96-month (eight year!) loan on a big SUV, a loan that was for some $15,000 more than the value of the vehicle the customer was buying. That's called going from upside-down to UPSIDE-DOWN.

The result of all this is that individual consumers will keep falling deeper and deeper into debt until they find bankruptcy the most advantageous course of action. Then the financial institutions holding the paper get burned -- and those of us who spend within our means and pay our debts get burned by higher interest rates and higher loan fees to help compensate from the bankruptcies and repossessions that will inevitably result from this more-debt merry-go-round. The auto industry, which now seems to be fueling the upside-down trend, would also be a casualty because as finance companies rein in their loan practices in response to more and more defaults, as fewer people will qualify to buy new cars.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car. He speaks and writes frequently on car-purchase issues.