Car Buying 2001

Spring is upon us, and it is in spring that car lust comes into full flower. Ask any car dealer, and she or he will tell you that the spring is a great time to sell cars. Families are planning summer vacations and are worried about the reliability of their old clunkers. Others are just thankful their chariot has survived another hard winter. Still, others want a brand new vehicle to match the rebirth of spring. Face it: If you're going to show off a new car, spring and summer are the perfect months to do so.

But with the spring buying frenzy comes costly mistakes. In their rush to obtain new wheels, many consumers find their judgment clouded, their analytic faculties stunted and their brains on holiday. With the gleam of the new car finish reflecting on their foreheads, even the savviest shoppers are apt to slip into bonehead move. And car dealers, while certainly not the free booting pirates that some say they are, find themselves entirely un-required to correct consumers' mistakes. After all, if the dealer makes a mistake in his negotiations with a customer, is the customer required to correct him?

If you're thinking about buying a new car, minivan, sport utility vehicle or truck this spring, remember that the market is in your favor. The car industry consists of way too much production capacity chasing far too few qualified buyers. That means if you have enough cash in your checking account to contemplate buying a new vehicle, you are like gold bullion to the 20-some thousand new-car dealers out there. You deserve to be treated with respect, but if you are willing to play the fool, there are those out there who will be more than happy to separate you from your money.

That being said, here are three of the most common mistakes consumers make when buying a car, commentary on why they are mistakes, and the alternative choices that are not nearly as ill-advised.

Mistake #1: Looking only at the monthly payment Most people live with a monthly budget. They know what their household takes in, and they have some idea of what they can send back out in the form of a car payment while still having a few bucks left over. But if you determine the affordability of a vehicle only by the monthly payment, you run the risk of tying yourself into a bad, bad deal. Why? Because car salespeople can quickly lower the monthly payment by simply extending the length of the loan. If you take a five-year loan instead of a four-year loan to pay off your next car, the monthly payment will be lower, all other things being equal, but you could well pay thousands more for that very same vehicle.

Mistake #2: Failing to shop for price With the exception of your home, your string of polo ponies and your luxury yacht, your car is the biggest purchase you will ever make, yet many people approach vehicle purchase with the same careful consideration they devote to picking up a pack of gum. Research indicates the average car buyer visits just three dealerships before she or he buys and a sizable percentage visit just one. Now is that any way to comparison shop? Friends, the realities of the automobile market are in your favor. Industry experts suggest there are too many car companies, too many car models, and too many car dealers. This should be heaven for car buyers, and it is, but only if you make the dealers compete against one another for your business.

Mistake #3: Failing to determine what your current vehicle is worth In my spare time I study murder, so I am never amazed by the stupid things people do. One certifiably stupid thing is to bargain mercilessly over the purchase price of the vehicle you hope to buy, yet have no idea of the value of the vehicle you are "trading in." After all, "trade-in" is a misnomer in the first place. You're not trading baseball cards here; you're selling a car. By all means, get a handle on what your current car is worth in your local market before entering into negotiations on your new-vehicle purchase.

Certainly the new-car woods is filled with many more potholes, but if you can avoid these three common mistakes, you will go a long way toward making your spring car purchase smell like a rose instead of being covered with thorns.

Jack R. Nerad is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car, which is available in local bookstores and from online booksellers.

Scenic Spring Drives

Spring has sprung; daylight savings time is upon us; and in most areas the weather is taking a definite turn for the better. Given all this positive news, isn't it time to dust off that chariot of yours and hop in for a scenic drive? After all, the commute to and from work can be a serious drag, but a good pleasure drive reminds us why Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz invented the car in the first place. So if you want our advice, pack a picnic lunch, buckle in the kids (if you don't have any of your own, rent some) and motor out into this great big wonderful country of ours.

Herewith for your approbation are East Coast and West Coast drives worthy of the term "scenic."

Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway

If you like nature, and who among us doesn't really, the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway will more than give you your fill, and it's also fun to say aloud. It kicks off about nine miles south of Bristol, Florida, near the Apalachicola National Forest, on State Road 12. Then, turning onto SR 379, the byway winds through savannahs, which, of course, are grassy open spaces that play host to a wide variety of wild flowers, including orchids, sundews and the ever-popular pitcher plants.

Interspersed among the savannahs are gently rolling terrain and wooded areas. The trees you'll spot are sturdy oaks, cypress and longleaf pine. Spring is also the best time of the year to soak in the beauty of the magnolias. The Byway is said to meander through one of the largest remaining blocks of natural longleaf pine and wiregrass in existence.

Flora not your thing? There's plenty of fauna, too, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, black bears, bobcats, fox squirrels, wild turkeys, alligators and even sabre-toothed tigers. (Okay, I'm kidding about the tigers, but the wildlife is still cool.)

If you're more attuned to history than flowers and animals, then have a look at the Fort Gadsden historical site where nothing much happened more than 100 years ago. Visitors to the fort may view an outdoor museum on the site that depicts historical events that took place on the shores of the Apalachicola River, or they may choose to look away. In either case, the scenic byway ends when the National Forest begins on SR 65.

Bandon Beach Loop

Many refer to Bandon, Oregon, as "the Carmel of Oregon," and you can see why when you visit this lovely, throwback town just off Highway 101. The whole of the Bandon Beach Loop is less than 10 miles long, but you're cheating yourself if you don't take at least half a day to explore it.

Start by tromping around Old Town Bandon, hard on the shores of the Coquille River where it empties in the vast Pacific. Old Town is a perfect place for a stroll because it's filled with art galleries, shops and restaurants, many of which feature fresh-caught seafood landed locally. The town's marina is a colorful place to spend a leisurely hour or so, and it's within an easy walk of downtown.

Back in your car, cruise down the Beach Loop that extends south of town. First stop is the Coquille River Museum located in the historic Coast Guard building. The museum is filled with artifacts from the town's colorful history. Next along the route is South Jetty County Park, an excellent spot for picnicking that also offers many easy access points to the beach. Visible from the park is one of Oregon's famous lighthouses -- Coquille River Light.

The High Victorian Italiante structure was the last lighthouse of its type built on the Oregon coast, completed in 1896. It went out of service in 1939, but in 1976 a restoration began and, 25 years later, the lighthouse continues to be a prime tourist attraction. The light can also be visited up close in Bullard's Beach State Park.

Continuing south on the Beach Loop the scenery is nothing short of spectacular with "sea stacks" jutting up from the sand in a wide variety of formations. Some of them are so distinctive they've been named by the locals, so look for "Garden of the Gods," "Table Rock," "Cat and Kitten Rocks," and "Elephant Rock." "Face Rock" is said to be the countenance of an Indian maiden frozen in stone by evil spirits.

Finally, at Face Rock Viewpoint State Park, you can swing west to rejoin Highway 101, and, though your home might lie to the south, it's hard to resist the temptation to return to Old Town Bandon for one more look.

Elmer Hempstead, a longtime contributor to many periodicals, frequently looks out the window while he drives.

Nissan Pathfinder

The Nissan Pathfinder has come a long way since it was introduced in 1985 as a two-door sport utility based on the Nissan compact pickup truck chassis. In the last 15 years the SUV segment has transformed itself from a fringe area for single, young off-roaders to one of the broadest-based portions of the auto industry, and the Pathfinder has transformed itself several times along the way. What was once a truck with a four-passenger body perched on it has become a tall luxury vehicle with off-road capabilities. The current Nissan Pathfinder is more powerful and more refined than ever.

One thing the Pathfinder has retained is its fun-to-drive demeanor. While most SUVs offer the driving enjoyment of a UPS truck, the Pathfinder always had a sporty edge to its handling. It was no 300ZX, but it did deliver sharper handling than its brethren. Now, though, all that's changed - for the better. New this year is a 250-horsepower V-6 3.5-liter engine that makes the Pathfinder the most powerful SUV in its class. Derived from the Maxima engine, the new powerplant is a sweetheart. It whirs out power with a turbine-like smoothness, and when it is coupled with the five-speed manual transmission, you might think you're piloting a very tall sports car. More buyers will opt for the sophisticated automatic transmission, however, and in this application the engine is de-tuned by 10 horsepower, but you'll never miss them.

The additional horsepower is big news in itself, but there's more. The LE version of the Pathfinder also offers an automatic All-Mode four-wheel drive system that makes four-wheeling a totally user-transparent process. The system has the ability to choose among two-wheel drive and high and low ranges of four-wheel drive automatically or, if you're a Type A control freak, you choose any of them manually with the flick of a switch. Leaving the switch in Automatic mode keeps you prepared for all eventualities, and, at the same time, permits the Pathfinder to handle like a normal rear-drive vehicle when the weather and roads are clear.

The Pathfinder offers handsome exterior style, and the beauty goes deep into its MonoFrame unibody construction. Some off-road purists might decry the shift from body-on-frame construction, but the MonoFrame is tight, tough and good-looking. It also increases interior space, while retaining the Pathfinder's handy overall length.

When you step into the interior, you'll see how upscale Nissan has taken its mainstay SUV. The seats are leather-covered comfort, and the instrument panel is clear, concise and rich-looking enough for a luxury sedan. The standard equipment list is generous, and in the LE version you can order a video system that includes a flip-down LCD screen, videotape player and PlayStation 2 compatibility. Luckily, you can only view the screen from the back seat per federal law. On the safety front, antilock brakes and side airbags are available. Maximum cargo area is a substantial 85 cubic feet.

Priced from $27,000 up to the mid-$30,000's, The Nissan Pathfinder is a sharp-handling, stylish sport utility vehicle with a terrific engine and excellent refinement.

Audi A6 4.2

Let's face it, Audi has always dwelled in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. If you want an American-based analogy, it has always played Chrysler to Mercedes-Benz' Cadillac and BMW's Lincoln. Sure, Auto Union had a proud if sometimes swastika-laden motorsports history in the Thirties, but in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties Audi (the successor company to Auto Union) scored technical breakthrough after technical breakthrough, highlighted by its evolving quattro all-wheel-drive system. Still, Audi has never completely established itself as a viable alternative to the best of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but one of its latest offerings, the A6 4.2 brings it one step closer. This is a car that offers superbly simple styling, huge technical merit, great comfort and, on top of that, it's a ball to drive. Take that, Mercedes.

Why is the Audi A6 4.2 so worthy a vehicle? You can sum it up in those two numbers separated by a decimal point: 4.2. The other variants of the A6 line -- the A6 2.8 and the A6 2.7T -- are very competent cars in their own rights, but the substitution of the 4.2-liter 300 horsepower V-8 engine sends the model into a much higher orbit. Of course, there is nothing new about dropping an oversized engine into a medium-sized car. Pontiac did it with the original GTO, and BMW turned the same trick with its fabled 2002, but it's nice to know the trick still works. Not only is the A6 4.2 a powerhouse that can vault from zero to 60 mph in a mere 6.5 seconds, but the smoothly linear V-8 power also makes around-town driving a study in luxury. And that luxurious "power-on-demand" feel is enhanced by the incredibly sophisticated electronically controlled five-speed transmission that offers more than 200 shift programs to match individual drivers' preferences. (No, you don't have to choose one; the transmission figures out the one that's right for you based on how you drive.) In addition, all this delicious power is routed to all four wheels through Audi's current-generation quattro system, which results in remarkable road holding and a feeling of complete control.

Oh, did we mention that the car is a looker? While diehard fans of chrome and Asian adherents of "surface excitement" might take issue, we see the Audi A6 as one of the purest automotive shapes out there -- everything you need and nothing you don't. It's an excellent evolution of the Audi 5000 shape that was a landmark design of the 1980's.

The interior has the same understated handsomeness as the exterior, and the cleanly styled leather seats provide sumptuous comfort. The gauges and switchgear are equally attractive and no-nonsense, and despite its luxury status the interior offers useful features like fold-down rear seatbacks that extend the cargo space to nearly station wagon-like proportions. The trunk-lid is big, and its hydraulic struts hold it far out of the way for easy loading and unloading.

On the safety front, the A6 4.2 improves on federally mandated driver and passenger airbags with front side airbags and inflatable "curtain-type" airbags that protect driver and passenger from contact with the side windows upon impact. Rear side airbags are an extra-cost option.

As to the driving experience, it is all you would expect it to be with 300 willing horsepower and a well-tuned sport suspension aided by all-wheel-drive. The A6 4.2 is just as responsive as you want it to be, while still offering the smooth ride of a luxury machine.

It's not our style to gush, but it's hard to find much to criticize about this particular piece. I guess we could take a shot at the $50K price tag, but we'd have to immediately qualify that by adding the price is not the least bit out of line versus the competition. So if you've recently made a bundle shorting Internet stocks (ouch!) you might want to take a look.

Jack R. Nerad, former editor of Motor Trend magazine, tests a car a week for his national syndicated radio show "America on the Road," which he co-hosts with Mike Anson.

The DaimlerChrysler Predicament

"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." - some smart dead guy

Last year the American auto industry set a new sales record. More than 17.4 million new cars and light trucks rolled out of the nation's showrooms, marking the second consecutive year of banner sales. But something odd occurred in the last half of 2000. As the good times rolled, as car company after car company enjoyed stellar sales results, DaimlerChrysler, one of the domestic Big Three, saw its sales plummet precipitously. Even worse, what sales momentum it did maintain came on the back of rebates and other financial offers that have cost the company gigantic amounts of money. In what seemed like little more than the blink of an eye, DaimlerChrysler transitioned from strong profitability to huge losses. In the third quarter of 2000, the company's reported loss was a staggering $512 million, and financial analysts expect the fourth quarter 2000 loss to be in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion.

How could a company that was so fabulously profitable as recently as 1999 fall into such a black hole of losses?

The answer is multifold, but all have combined to put the relatively new DaimlerChrysler on the ragged edge of the precipice, where Chrysler seems to have reserved a space. It's not like the company hasn't been there before: Recall the federal government bailout of Chrysler after the 1979-80 oil crisis left it teetering on the brink. After that, Chrysler invented the minivan and rolled into good times, only to come perilously close to failing again in the late Eighties. But here they are again at death's door, and they are threatening to take some of their suppliers and tens of thousands of jobs along with them.

The problems that have put them where they are can be summed up in three vital areas: products, quality and costs.

On the product side, much of Chrysler's success in the last two decades has come from the company's invention and subsequent domination of the minivan market. But lately that domination has weakened and the major threat came from an unlikely source, Honda. The Honda Odyssey is now widely regarded by auto journalists as the best in the business, a position formerly held by the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country minivans. To stay competitive against the Honda and improved products from Ford and General Motors, Chrysler has been forced to rebate heavily to keep minivan sales active. So, minivans are not the cash cow they once were for DaimlerChrysler.

The minivan experience has been echoed in other product lines as well. For instance, the re-designed Jeep Grand Cherokee, once a big success for Chrysler, is now regarded as a failure in the marketplace. The Jeep brand name still has a great deal of power, but consumers look at the Grand Cherokee as too small when compared to other vehicles, like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition, that populate the price class. New additions to the segment, like the high-quality Toyota Sequoia, won't help Chrysler either.

On the quality front, many people find that the mediocre quality of some previous Chrysler products is coming home to roost. For example, the minivans were plagued with notorious automatic transmission ills for years, so when the bulletproof Honda Odyssey came along, many buyers defected.

Finally, though Chrysler products were often regarded as "cheap" in comparison to their domestic competition, reports in trade publications indicate that Chrysler execs were cavalier about cost increases from suppliers. Because of this, Chrysler has largely lost its cost advantage, and the rebates that are required to move its vehicles are doubly expensive.

The question now is: Can DaimlerChrysler's largely German top management solve these problems in the North American market?

Jack R. Nerad, the former editor of Automotive Age magazine, has long been fascinated by the business of automobiles. He is editor of Driving Today.