Can Toyota Rise Again?

For a long time, Toyota had everything going its way. Its vehicles were adored by the American public and revered overseas. It was acknowledged as the automotive-technology leader. Plus, it shot past General Motors to capture the top spot on the light-vehicle sales and production charts after assuming the throne of the “world’s leading automaker.” The economic disaster of 2008 and 2009 hampered the Japanese auto giant in the United States, but globally, Toyota remained in a strong position to become an even more dominant force as 2010 dawned. But then the unthinkable happened: Toyota tripped over its own shoelaces in the form of an “unintended acceleration” issue that mirrored what Audi had experienced a generation earlier.

The “unintended acceleration” and safety recall problem threatened the very core of the company, since Toyota had built a reputation as a car manufacturer that didn’t make mistakes. Other auto builders might put products with iffy quality into the marketplace and then suffer the consequences of consumer outcry, but not Toyota. Sure, its cars and trucks weren’t the most exciting in the marketplace -- or the least expensive -- but they sure as heck didn’t break. Then, out of the blue, we began to hear reports that Toyota and Lexus vehicles allegedly did some pretty scary things, like accelerating wildly when the brakes were applied. Even more damning, we learned the Toyota officials had worked hard behind the scenes to cover the stories up.

Now some automotive experts will tell you that suffering a bout of “unintended acceleration” in a car is akin to being gored by a unicorn. It just can’t happen. Others will say that intermittent, unrepeatable electronic and/or mechanical problems can, indeed, happen; they are just, by definition, impossible to repeat. No matter how you feel about the entire issue, there is no doubt that the deluge of bad publicity that started almost exactly one year ago was devastating to Toyota’s reputation and to its bottom line. People who track such things said that fewer and fewer consumers considered buying Toyota and Lexus vehicles as the crisis deepened. Owner loyalty dropped, and Toyota’s used-vehicle values, which had stood tall on the citadel of its quality reputation, took a tumble as well.

Oh, then there’s the company’s sales performance in the United States, which is the second-largest car market in the world. In December 2010, Toyota sales tumbled 6 percent in an overall market that was up 11 percent. Even unheard-of levels of incentive spending by the automaker couldn’t quell the downward trend. But despite having its turn as whipping boy -- something that General Motors also experienced -- and despite the fact that some have predicted its steady decline, Toyota can expect to recover quickly this year. At North American International Auto Show in Detroit recently, it showed off a full line of new Prius vehicles, which places firmly at the forefront of the hybrid segment. Even more important, new versions of old, reliable favorites like the Corolla and Camry will eventually arrive on the scene to expected fanfare. By this time next year, we expect consumers and the press alike will be singing Toyota’s praises again.

Our 5 Favorite Must-haves for Car Geeks

With its crazy traffic and horrible weather, Christmastime might not be the best season to go driving -- but it is a great time to turn some of those driving fantasies into a reality. Instead of opting for a necktie or a matching underwear-and-coveralls set, you might want to put top-notch car-related items on your wish list. The following tally is a good starting-point for any car lover.

H.S. Trask Guide Driving Shoe
Many so-called “driving shoes” are more appropriate for lounging around the bar than heel-and-toeing it through a mountain pass. That’s why we favor the lace-up leather driving shoes from H.S. Trask. The specially designed soles grip your car’s pedals, and a wraparound heel-pad prevents scuffmarks. The cushioned heel and forefoot areas make for comfortable walking as well. Upper linings and removable foot-beds wick away moisture and allow you to use your custom orthotics. (AutoSportCatalog.com; available in several earth-tone colors; about $99 a pair.)

TAG Heuer Men’s CV2010.BA0786 Carrera Automatic Chronograph Watch
There are hundreds of watches out there that claim to be driving or racing watches, but the one we favor has a long motorsports history. TAG Heuer introduced the original Carrera Chronograph in 1963 as a tribute to the epic Mexican road-race known as La Carrera Panamericana. The current version of this classic timepiece captures the spirit (and the clean, no-nonsense lines) of the original -- while updating its technology.

The large, polished steel case holds a black dial with luminescent, diamond-set hands, hand-applied indexes and an automatic date display under a scratch-proof sapphire crystal. The black bezel features tachymeter readings, and the fluted crown is identical to that of the original model. The Calibre 16 automatic chronograph movement, visible through the back of the case, delivers accurate time. (US.TagHeuer.com; about $3,000.)

Accutire Professional Metal Digital Tire Gauge
If your tires aren’t at the right pressure, your entire driving experience can be thrown off. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to make certain your tires are at the proper PSI. While the Accutire Professional Metal Digital Tire Gauge doesn’t have the most engaging name, it does deliver the correct readings time after time.

While manual tire gauges seem flimsy and can give inconsistent results, this one delivers a precise tire-pressure reading in an easy-to-read format. Plus, it’s equipped with a flashlight that allows you to measure your tire pressure accurately in any lighting condition. The large, backlit LCD screen is easy to read -- the pressure is displayed in bold black digits on a blue background. When it's not in use, you can stow the gauge in its storage pouch so it won't rattle around in your glove box. (AutoGeek.net; about $30.)

Ray-Ban RB2140 Original Wayfarer Sunglasses
We know your sunglasses are as personal as your mixed-drink or collar style, but we strongly favor the classic Ray-Ban Wayfarer -- likely the most recognizable style in sunglasses. After its introduction in 1952, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer quickly became a dear favorite of Hollywood filmmakers, celebrities, musicians and artists -- not to mention just about every sports car driver of the ’50s.

The Wayfarer has spawned a complete line of sunglasses, but we remain partial to the original RB2140. Do us -- and yourself -- a favor: Stick with an original color, like black or tortoise. The newer colors look like they were purchased at a dime store. (Ray-Ban.com; about $145.)

Damascus DMX50 Viper Gloves
So many driving gloves have silly knuckle cutouts and string-backs, but we were inspired by the modern Viper gloves that are often used by law enforcement. They feature a unique digital-print sheepskin leather palm that is laser-etched by Pittards, makers of some of the finest leathers in the world. Instead of the knuckleheaded knuckle-holes, the gloves offer a contoured, breathable mesh back for airflow, as well as seamless rolled fingertips for superior tactility. (LeatherGlovesOnline.com; about $37.)

This Just in: Winter’s Coming

Although the calendar says it’s still fall, it may not seem like it in most areas of the country where winter weather has preceded the official start of the season. With the holidays upon us, the last thing on your mind is getting your vehicle ready for the winter to come. You undoubtedly have a long list of people to shop for, food to prepare and stockings to hang by the chimney with care. If you don’t also tune your car, however, you may end up stranded by the side of the highway with anything but the thought of sugarplum fairies dancing about in your head.

We prepare ourselves for winter by getting out our winter coats, gloves, scarves and hats. You can also prepare your vehicle for driving in the harsh winter weather in that simple, orderly fashion. Even if you’re not traveling over the river and through the woods, it makes all the sense in the world to take a small break in your winter holiday preparation to winterize your vehicle and maximize your safety on the road.

“Oddly enough,” says Director of Consumer Education Bryan Gregory of Advance Auto Parts, “the best time to actually prepare your vehicle for winter is when it’s still warm outside.”

You may have already missed that window if you live in certain areas of the country, but that’s no reason to not do what you can in order to get your car through the winter. Here, some must-dos that will make the season brighter:

Inspect your antifreeze. Make sure to do it while your engine is cold. Use a tester to check the mixture for its freezing point. Half of the mixture should be distilled water, and the other half should be antifreeze. This is sufficient in most climates -- except in areas of extreme cold, which includes Southern California this year.

Check your electrical charging system. Cold weather makes your battery work much harder, so a battery that started your car just fine through the fall might not be up to the strain of winter. Make sure to see a professional. Advance Auto Parts stores will do it for you for free.

Change your oil and oil filter. Clean, high-quality engine oil goes a long way to protect the motor in cold-start situations. For cold weather, a multiweight oil like 10W-50 makes a lot of sense because it flows easily at low temperatures -- while still providing ample protection from wear. Check for vehicle manufacturer recommendations in your owner’s manual.

Visually inspect all lights. These include marker bulbs, tail lights and third-level brake lights (aka Center High Mount Stop Light, or CHMSL). Headlights and driving lights should get special attention. Lengthier hours of darkness require bulbs to work harder in the winter, causing them to dim or burn out more quickly. Check to make sure that the headlight lens casing around the lights is clean as well.

Check tire tread and inflation pressure. Winter driving requires good traction in snow and ice, so the condition and depth of your tire tread is critical. Bald or severely worn tires are especially treacherous in wet, icy and snowy conditions. Meanwhile, frigid weather can wreak havoc on your tires’ inflation pressure. Check your tire pressure regularly and follow the recommended pounds per square inch (PSI) found on the driver’s-side door post for maximum traction, tire life and fuel economy.

Get your brakes inspected. When it comes to safety, stopping is more important than going. Braking can be difficult in icy weather, so it’s essential that your brakes work properly. Check your brake pads and replace them if necessary. Have your rotors inspected as well.

Your car isn’t just a transportation device in cold weather; it is also your shelter from the elements, so treat it with the care it deserves. The steps you take now could save your life.

Time to Buy a New Car?

The U.S. government has assured the world that the Great Recession is over. As proof, the overall American Gross Domestic Product grew and the seasonally adjusted light-vehicle sales rate creeped above the 11-million mark, where it had hovered for months. Other positive signs: The economy was upbeat enough for General Motors to pull off a successful public offering of its stock -- reducing U.S. government ownership of the company -- and Ford Motor Company was able to persuade creditors who held $2.5 billion in debt obligations to take common stock instead. Obviously, some people with cash to invest have a good feeling about the auto industry’s potential for growth and profits.

That list of positives, short as it is, gives some reason for optimism. Overall economic growth, even slow-paced growth, is better than no growth at all. The same can be said for the growth in the light-vehicle market. In overall terms, November didn’t produce as many U.S. sales as October did -- but November is a traditionally weaker month than October. Adjusted seasonally, the sales rate is finally above 12 million and has been there for two months straight. That’s a disaster within the context of the decade, but it’s also a positive sign within the context of the past three years.

The GM IPO is especially good news for the company, because it will go a long way to help GM ditch the derisive “Government Motors” tag dogging it since the bailouts. These days, Ford is the golden child of the domestic industry and one of the shining lights of the global industry, so it’s not a shock to hear that it could shed some major debt in return for an ownership stake. Year-over-year sales in the United States on a manufacturer-by-manufacturer basis were better in November 2010 than they were the previous year. All in all, it seems to foretell brighter days to come.

But because consumers still aren’t smiling, the industry isn’t smiling either. As recoveries go, the current one is about as tepid as imaginable. Yes, we’ve seen some signs of growth -- but it seems half-hearted compared to virtually every other recovery of the past century. Meanwhile, consumers who might be tempted to buy a new car see more empty showrooms, more retail space for lease, and less construction activity than most can ever remember.

If the goal is to make the United States more like Western Europe, it’s happening in at least one sense: The U.S. economy’s recent no-growth “growth rate” is more like Western Europe than ever. The Federal Reserve just revised its growth estimates for this year and next year downward -- significantly downward. Its predictions regarding the employment picture are just as dismal. The unemployment rate has been stuck at over 9.5 percent for months. While the Reserve predicts some improvement, it is not what the car business seeks. Among its predictions, the unemployment rate will be 7.5 percent at this time in 2013.

What does all of this mean? Many consumers are still on-edge. They’re saving more and living more frugally than before -- even if they are currently employed. The worry remains that they, like some people they may know, could be out of a job at any time. This is bad news for the car industry, but it might be the ideal time to buy a new car if you feel secure in your finances and are in need a new vehicle. The deals are plentiful, and dealers will welcome you with open arms.

Negotiating Car Price Still Saves Big Bucks

Haggling over the price of a vehicle in a dealership is an uncomfortable experience for most of us. A small percentage of buyers really love negotiating a car price and revel in the verbal and mental combat, but most consumers find it an intimidating process and wonder if they really have to do it. The answer is no, you really don’t have to … if you don’t mind paying hundreds or even thousands more for your new car.

Dealers would love it if every prospect gave a vehicle a quick once-over and then paid the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). But buyers aren’t getting the deal they could if they applied a little old-fashioned horse trading to the process.

The background: The dealer has big incentives to put out a high price and then let the consumer try to negotiate it downward. Since a vehicle purchase is a relatively large transaction, the dealership can afford to spend time and effort in an attempt to maximize the cash derived from each deal.

Murky Negotiations Lead to Buyer’s Remorse
Another factor perpetuating haggling in the auto-purchase process is the nearly ubiquitous trade-in. Trading one car for another is really two simultaneous transactions. And since used-car values are hardly set in stone, the concept of the trade-in 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. Since that price is already in play, it’s not a stretch to throw the purchase price of the new vehicle up for negotiation as well. Add negotiations over possible dealer financing of the transaction, and you have the basis for a complicated and often murky series of negotiations. 

The process can quickly lead to buyer’s remorse, the feeling that when all’s said and done, you didn't get as good a deal as you could have. Many consumers have the sneaking suspicion that the person who bought the same model before them -- as well as the person who bought the same model right after them -- probably got a better deal. 

Negotiating Your Car Price Like a Pro
So how do you avoid feeling like you’ve been had?

  • Separate negotiations. Understand the vehicle acquisition process involves several transactions. Approach each negotiation discretely rather than lumping the negotiations together. This allows you breathing room to examine each one more clearly rather than trying to make sense out of a multi-phase deal. 
  • 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 “target” or “market” prices. Equipped with this knowledge, you can better assess each individual transaction -- and the acquisition as a whole -- before you shake hands on the deal.
  • Let it go. To maintain your sanity, try not to wring every last dollar out of the deal. Prolonging a negotiation diminishes returns, especially in light of the fact that you could spend hours trying to capture that last 50 bucks. Instead, aim for deals others are getting. You'll feel more satisfied in the long run.