Friday, December 13, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 6 - When to Walk

No matter what happens in the finance office, or at anytime during the car buying process, remember this:  You can always walk. 

If for any reason you don't like the deal, or the deal changed for the worse between the time you left the sales person and entered the finance office, you can walk. 

Even if you signed a piece of paper for the salesman, committing to buying a car, you can walk.  Only when you've signed the final contact in the finance office, are you obligated to take possession of the car.     

There are always good reasons to walk away from a deal, and you should always have that option.  But there are two things to be conscious of if you do decide to walk away:

  1. The deal may or may not get better by walking away.  Yes, it's possible to get a better deal by walking and coming back later, but it might not.  

  1. You may not get a better deal someplace else.  Dealers have access to the same information you do and they keep a vigilant eye on their competition, including prices and sales volumes.  They also use the same tools to price their cars and appraise trade ins. 

If you do walk away from a deal, you have to be prepared to start over from square one.  Car buying is a lengthy process that takes several hours or more.  If you've already invested a whole Saturday or evening negotiating a deal, you have to decide if it's worth spending more of your time to try and get a better deal. 

This is where the time value of  money comes in--how much is it worth for you to try and get a better deal?  Are you willing to give up another evening or Saturday?  Take time off from work?  Miss out on an activity you enjoy?  You have to ask yourself:  "Is what I'm giving up, worth what I'm getting in return?"

It's a question only you can answer.  And to help answer it, we've come back full circle to the beginning of this series--the key to knowing when to walk is information.  It's another reason why it's important to do your research up front and gather enough information to make the best decision.    

Friday, December 6, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 5 - The Finance Office

Once you've agreed to the deal, you're only half done.  After negotiating with the car salesperson, the next step is the finance office, where the next battle begins.  Hard won concessions on the sales price or trade in value of your car can be easily lost in the finance office.  This is not to say the Finance office is shady, just an acknowledgement that it is a profit center for the dealership.     

When I was in the car business, the dealer I worked for made about $150 on every new car sold.  But if a customer financed a car with the dealer, bought an extended warranty or car care package, the dealer could make ten times that amount.  This is why it's important to do your homework on financing and your credit score. 

Most dealers work with a number of lenders, including local banks.  These lenders will give the dealer a "buy rate" or a base interest rate the dealer can use to finance auto loans for its customers.  The buy rate is based on tiers of credit scores--a good credit score might have a buy rate of 3% while an excellent score might be 2.5%.  The dealer then marks up the rate and makes a profit on that mark up. 

For example, if a dealer's buy rate is 3%, they might offer you a loan for 3.25% and will make money off the .25% markup.  If you are prequalified for a loan at or over the 3.25% rate, it makes sense to use the dealer financing.  If you can get a loan for less than 3.25% then you're better off financing the car from your own source. 

You can also use your prequalified rate to negotiate with the dealer.  If the dealer offers you a 3.25% rate, but you have access to financing with a 3% rate, the dealer might try to match the rate or get close to the rate to earn your finance business.  Most of the time I will go with the dealer's financing because they can either match or beat the rate I'm prequalified for.  But I always go in prequalified so I have options.    

Another place car dealers make money is on extended warranties and care packages.  The finance office will show you how adding an extended warranty or a rust prevention package will only cost you a few dollars a month but add years of peace of mind.  As a rule, I generally avoid every protection package except for the extended warranty, which I might consider based on the following criteria:

  1. If the car I'm buying is out of factory warranty or has less than a year of factory warranty remaining. 
  1. If the warranty cost less than $1,000 but provides at least 3-5 years of comprehensive coverage. 
  2. If the make and model of the car I'm buying has a reputation for costly repairs. 
  1. I plan to keep the car for more than 3-5 years. 

I passed on the extended warranty with the Chevy Traverse my wife and I bought, because it had two years of bumper to bumper coverage left on the factory/certified warranty.  I also passed on an extended warranty when I bought my new Ford Fusion, because it's covered for three years or 36,000 miles.  Had I bought a used high end luxury car, like a Jaguar or Porsche, or something like an Infiniti with over 70,000 I would have strongly considered one.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 4 - Doing the Deal

William H. Macy played a sleazy car dealer in "Fargo"
The single biggest challenge of negotiating a car is information.  Without it, you won't know what a fair price is--either for the car you're buying, or the one you're trading in. 

It seems complicated, but buying a car comes down to four things: 

  1. The price of the car you're buying
  1. The value of your trade in
  1. The finance terms you can get
  1. Your payment terms

Years ago, when my grandfather bought cars, he didn't have access to the internet or other sources of information about car prices.  Instead just he'd go in and haggle with the salesperson.  This could take all day or several days as he started with an unreasonable offer, picked apart the car he was looking at, and generally annoyed anyone who wanted his business.  It would go on and on until the salesperson or the sales manager practically threw him out of the dealership.  That's when he knew he was close to the dealer's best price.   

Today there are books and internet sites like Kelly Blue Book, NADA,  and Edmund's that provide pricing information for cars.  You can get information on the new car's invoice price, and what the dealer actually paid for the car, as well as any incentives or rebates.  You can also get wholesale and retail values for used cars as well as the car you're trading in.  And there are even calculators to create a custom appraisal for your trade in or the car you're looking at, based on mileage, condition and options. 

Financing is another key piece of information.  Even if you finance with the dealership, which typically works with a number of lenders, you need to know your credit score and what terms you an qualify for.  The difference between a 3% or 6% interest rate can add $20 or more to your payment.

Smartphones are a great equalizer when you get to the dealership because this information is readily available at your fingertips.  Having this information was invaluable for me recently, when I went to a Ford dealer in Raytown several weeks ago. 

I made the trip planning to buy a 2012 Ford Fusion, a gray SEL V6 with leather.  When I got there, the car was in the service department and we had to walk through the new car showroom to get to it.  Sitting on the showroom floor was a brand new 2013 Fusion, SE Sport Package with the Ecoboost engine, in white platinum metallic paint. 

My one criticism of the 2012 was its Plain Jane looks.  Then again nothing in the midsize segment is eye candy, with the exception of the Kia Optima.  But the 2013 model is stunning.  Ford cribbed off Aston Martin and Jaguar and threw in a bit of Audi S7 for good measure.  The result is one of the best looking sedans in recent memory.  The car in the showroom was exactly everything I wanted but didn't think I could afford. 

Doing the math on my phone, I realized I could afford it, if I cut some other things out of my budget like running to Starbucks or eating out at lunch 2-3 times a week.  Given the choice between driving leftovers or eating leftovers, I decided I could live off Hot Pockets or yesterday's dinner. 

The negotiation process was short.  The dealer had advertised their best price on the car and a quick check on my phone to Edmund's and confirmed the car was priced a few hundred dollars under dealer invoice, and below what both websites calculated as their target price.  Given the easy access to this kind of information, most dealers are now upfront about their prices.  The days of the car price guessing games are largely over. 

I spent most of my negotiating time on the trade in value of my car.  Dealers want to sell cars at retail prices and buy cars at wholesale prices.  Buyers want to buy cars at wholesale prices and sell their cars at retail prices.  Since I was already under invoice, or the wholesale price for the Fusion, I tried to bump up the price on the Nissan Pathfinder I was trading in, and managed to get a price I thought was acceptable.  Given more time and persistence, I may have been able to get another $100 or so out of my trade in, but I knew the value of the car and knew that overall I was getting a very good deal. 

I agreed to the terms of the deal and sat down to wait on the sales manager to put together the paperwork and my trip to the finance office.  I was halfway done, but still had to get through the finance process, and the myriad of extended warranties, credit protection, and accessory packages offered by the dealer before I could go home.    

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Ford Fusion SEL V6

This is the car I was going to buy--a 2012 Ford Fusion SEL V6.  For me, it represented the best blend of value, performance, and practicality for $15,000.  Practically every car publication has given it good reviews and it would be in my driveway today if I hadn't fallen in love with the new body style.

The four cylinder Fusion has adequate power for most situations, but the V6's burble and additional power makes the car somewhat more performance oriented.  It's not the silky smoothness of a BMW inline six or even the Maxima's 3.5 V6, but there's enough sound and fury there to enjoy.  It also handles well enough to be rewarding on curvy back roads, but not enough to seek out those same roads during your daily commute. 

What the Fusion provides is competence in any situation.  It's not a minivan or seven passenger crossover, but it will carry 4-5 people and a decent amount of luggage.  It's not a Jaguar or Lexus, but equipped with leather and the Ford Sync infotainment system, it's interior is a nice place to pass the miles.  It's not a BMW or Audi sports sedan, but provides enough balance between ride and handling to be rewarding to drive.  For 98% of the car buying public, it's an ideal balance between need vs. want. 

If that seems like faint praise, consider two things: 

First, years ago Ford positioned the Granada, a distant ancestor to the Fusion, against Mercedes Benz in their advertising campagin.  It was laughable for the sheer absurd audacity, like comparing Ron Burgundy to Walter Cronkite.  But if Ford position the Fusion today against the Mercedes E-Class, I'm not sure it would be that far off.  The car might be 8/10ths a Mercedes at half the price. 

Secondly, I almost bought one.         

Friday, November 15, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 3 - Test Drives

Never, under any circumstances, buy a car you haven't driven!  You need butt time in the seat to determine if you like the way the car drives and if it's comfortable.   

Let me give you an example why the test drive is so important:

Recently I was looking at four cars to replace my Nissan Pathfinder--the Nissan Altima, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Maxima, and Ford Fusion.  I had already done my research and those four cars were in my price range, offered the features I wanted, and had received good reviews from a number of automotive publications. 

The Altima was my top choice, until I drove it.  The steering was vague, and while I didn't mind the CVT transmission, it would drone under full throttle and didn't snap off crisp gear changes, even in the manual shift mode.  It also felt cheap inside, with cheap plastics, and I didn't like the orange font on the stereo or gauge cluster.  But what really bothered me was the noise level and ride quality.  It rode like a ten year old Honda Civic, which is okay… for a ten year old Honda Civic. 

I also drove the Maxima, which despite being built on the same platform as the Altima, was a revelation.  Many automotive journalists have bashed the Maxima for costing as much as an Infiniti without being as good to drive.  They argue that the Altima is a better car for a third the price.  But as a used vehicle, the Maxima is a screaming deal.  It has Nissan's 3.5 liter V6, which is one of the best engines of all time.  It's got immediate power and will go from 50-90 miles an hour faster than you can say, "Scotty, I need warp speed now!" 

But the Maxima also suffers from the same Jack o' Lantern display as the Altima.  And even though the ride was sublime until you gave it the beans, it just didn't feel quite right to me.  I can't explain it, but I just didn't love the car like I wanted to. 

I think part of the reason was because I drove the Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion.  I know it sounds like I'm comparing cream to creme brulee', but hear me out--both the Malibu and Fusion nail the right balance of ride and handling for the midsize car segment.  They also offer more features and nicer interiors than the Maxima.  Neither car will show its taillights to a BMW 3 Series, but they aren't supposed to.  You won't take a Malibu or Fusion to Laguna Seca.  You also wouldn't take a Maxima to Laguna Seca, although Nissan's marking to position it as the "four door sports car" make you think you should want to. 

2012 Ford Fusion 4-door Sedan SPORT FWD Dashboard

The last car I drove was the Ford Fusion with a V6.  It was almost as fun to drive as the Maxima, but it had a nicer interior and more features.  In my everyday slog to work, those things are more important.  A quiet ride, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity to my phone, are more enjoyable than a snarling exhaust note, track tuned suspension, and whippet handling, when I'm commuting in stop and go traffic. 

If I hadn't driven those four cars, I'd have picked the Altima and never looked back.  Instead, I ended up picking the Fusion.  I liked the looks, and the interior.  It felt like a quality car and checked all my boxes.  I started looking for a used one with leather and a V6.  I found several on the internet within 30 miles of my house, including one in one of my top colors.  And on a cold, damp November Saturday, I headed for a Ford dealer in Raytown to see a man about a Fusion. 

But things didn't go exactly as planned...  

Friday, November 8, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 2 - Used Cars

Used cars have come a long way.  Back when cars seemed to wear out after 5-6 years, buying a used car was a risky proposition.  Today, with all the advances in technology, cars last longer and are more reliable than ever.  In 2012, the median age of a car in the US was 11 years old and had over 100,000 miles. 

It used to be that a used car was a car a new car dealer took in on trade and moved to the back of the lot, so a guy in a plaid suit could have a job.  Today, used cars are big business and are more profitable to sell than new cars.  Part of this reason is that more new cars than ever are leased for 2-3 years and then turned in to the manufacturer.  The manufacturer then runs the leased cars through an auto auction, where they are bought and transported to your local dealer. 

The biggest advantage to buying a used car is price.  New cars depreciate 30-50% in value over the first three years of their life.  By buying a 2-3 year old car, you take advantage of the depreciation instead of taking the hit.  It's a good way to buy a car that sold for $40,000 new in 2011, for $25,000 today.  

The drawbacks of a used car are primarily age and mileage.  You're getting a car that is several years old and may no longer be covered by the new car warranty.  But there is an exception to this rule on "Certified Used" cars, which offer some of the benefits of a new car, including a warranty, as well as special incentives or financing.  What you get for the certified status, depends on the manufacturer, but in most cases it will include a one year warranty and the same financing rates or terms as a new car.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The $15,000 Question: BMW E39 5 Series

File:BMW E39 5-Series MY1999 523i (3).JPG

The  1996 to 2003 E39 might be the best 5 Series BMW will ever make.  A good looking, reasonably modern car, it's a better driving Bimmer than the two generations that replaced it.  It's not that the newer cars are bad, just that priorities have changed.  People want cars with sat-nav, Bluetooth integration, and in-car infotainment.  Driving has become secondary to whether or not you can stream Pandora from your smartphone or get directions for dinner.

File:BMW M62B44.jpg

For $15,000 you can buy anything from a BMW 525i to an M5.  Any choice should be a good one, but the M5 has the potential for appreciating in value, like the older M5s and M3s are currently doing.  The 540i is also a good alternative to the M5, with it's V8 engine from the 7 and 8 Series but without the Red Bull laced edginess of the M.  Either way you go, you'll get a focused driver car, with the practicality of a Honda Accord. 

File:BMW E39 5-Series MY1999 523i (5).JPG 

The only drawbacks to these cars are age related.  Even the newest one is ten years old, and like all older cars, what you get is largely based on how the car was taken care of.  When something breaks, parts are usually readily available but the repair bill will be expensive.

Thee biggest challenge of owning a BMW, any BMW, is the yuppie factor.  There was a time that a BMW was the required vehicle for young urban professionals.  It was a status symbol, like a Rolex watch or Hugo Boss suit.  That perception exists today, can dampen the inherent baked-in goodness of the car, but if you can tolerate that perception, or welcome it, the E39 makes a good all around car for an enthusiast on a budget.               

Friday, November 1, 2013

How to Buy a Car: Part 1 - Research

I've been out car shopping this week.  The truth is, I'm always out car shopping, but usually I'm just window browsing.  This time it's actually to buy a car to replace my Pathfinder. 

Car shopping is looking at different makes and models to get an idea of what you want.  Car buying is about numbers.  Most car dealers are reputable, but to buy a car you have to have information.  The following is a list of information or things I think about when I'm getting ready to buy a car:

  1. Research.  I look at sites like, Edmunds, or Autotrader to get a list of available cars in my area.  Carmax is also a good source.  You can search locally, within a specific radius, or nationwide.  You can also narrow your search by make, model, trim level, options, colors, year and mileage.  You can also use these tools to read reviews about the cars you're interested in--reviews by regular people or people who work for the companies that manage the websites.  I use these tools to put a list of cars together that I'm interested in, before I set foot on a dealer's lot. 

  1. Test drives.  Don't ever buy a car without driving it and checking out several other makes and models.  You need what I call butt time in the driver seat.  Do you like the way it drives?  Is the seat comfortable?  Do you like the color or colors?  The way the car is designed?  Buying a car is like entering a multi year relationship.  You wouldn't move in with someone based on their online dating profile, so don't buy a car you haven't driven. 

  1. More research.  After I've driven some cars, I go back and research them more thoroughly.  I look at the reviews and check out publications like Consumer Reports to get information like repair ratings and reliability.  I also call my insurance company to find out if my rates will go up and by how much. 

  1. Financing.  If you're financing a car it pays to get pre-qualified and know what interest rates and terms are available.  The difference between a 3% and 6% interest rate can make a big difference in your car payment. 

  1. Trade in.  Are you trading your old car in?  What's it really worth?  I like to check out sites like Edmunds, or Kelly Blue Book to get the value of the car I'm trading in.  These sites will give you the value of your car as three numbers--wholesale, private party, and retail. 

  • Wholesale is the value of your car at a dealer auction.  This is also the close to what the dealer wants to pay in actual cash value for your trade in. 
  • Private Party value is what you could expect to sell the car for yourself, if you placed an add in the paper or online. 
  • Retail is the price a car dealer would list your car at, if they sold it on their lot. 

Normally, I will try to get retail or private party value when I trade in a car.  But it depends on the deal.  Carmax and stores that offer cars at a fixed price will typically only pay wholesale value for a car.  Or if the car I'm buying has been significantly discounted and is far below the retail price, the dealer may not offer much more than the wholesale amount. 

Next week I'll talk more about new and used car prices as well as how to equip yourself to negotiate the best deal. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Chevy Malibu

Most of the cars I've mentioned as part of the $15,000 Question series have had some semblance of practicality, but were geared more towards the enthusiast on a budget.  The Chevy Malibu is not one of those cars.  It falls on the practical side of the equation without any real sporting pretense.

90% of the car buying public are not car enthusiasts, or at least not rabid fanboys that squawk about things like the virtues of Porsche's PDK vs. BMW's SMG from the comfort of their mother's basements.  No, the average person thinks about what they need for the drive to work and to haul kids around on weekends.  They think about cup holders and bun warmers more than engine displacement and 0-60 times.  And at the end of a long day at work, full of emails, meetings, bad coffee, and eating at their desks, the average person wants a little serenity on their drive home.

It's the reason why Lexus has sold so well and why the Malibu makes perfect sense.

I'm not saying the Malibu is as good as a Lexus.  But it is very, very good at its intended mission.  It's very quiet, comfortable, loaded with features and has the best balance of ride and handling of any car in its class.  It's quieter than a Nissan Altima and doesn't float like a Toyota Camry.  It's also well made.  The doors close with a solid thunk and the interior is as nice as anything in its class.  Some might find the stereo and HVAC controls simplistic, but they are uncluttered, unlike the myriad of buttons on the Honda Accord's center stack.

Ten years ago, the thought of owning a Chevy Malibu, or any GM car, was laughable to anyone who had a Camry or Accord at the time.  Now it's not.  There was a time when Chevrolet made good family cars, when owning a Bel Air, Impala, or Malibu was something you could take pride in.  Some would argue that Chevy has not made a car like that since we landed a man on the Moon.  But I would argue Chevy has in the form of the 2008 and newer Malibu.            

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ford Probe

ford probe lx

This car was supposed to be the 1989 Ford Mustang.  But when word got out that the Mustang would move to a front wheel drive Mazda platform, the public freaked.  The backlash was so severe Ford hastily updated the Mustang and instead launched this car as the Probe.

File:1993 Ford Probe GT.jpg

The second generation car was introduced in 1993 and built on the model's success.  After Ford ditched the 3.0 liter Vulcan V6 for an early version of the 24 valve Duratec V6, performance improved as well.  As a result of these changes, the Probe won a number of accolades from the automotive press, including Motor Trend's Car of the Year.    

I've driven a number of Ford Probes over the years, from the base GL model to the turbo and V6 GT models.  They were all remarkable cars with a good mix of handling, power, and economy.  I'd have taken a Probe over just about any car in that segment, except for maybe the Acura Integra or Mitsubishi Eclipse.


Ironically, the launch of the 1994 Mustang was the death knell for the Probe.  Sales dwindled from 120,000 sold in 1993 to just 16,000 by 1997.  Overall, I think it was a good car with a bad name.  Style wise it's held up better than MC Hammer and a lot of other things from the early 1990's, including parachute pants and mullets.      

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

$15,000 Question: Mercedes W126 S-Class

Sheila E sang about a girl with "big thoughts, big dreams, and a big, brown Mercedes sedan" in the "Glamorous Life".  Given the mid-80's time period, that car had to be the Mercedes W126 S-Class.

File:500 SEL W126 2.jpg

Built from 1980 to 1991, the W126 was the status symbol you had to drive if you were wealthy.  It didn't matter if you were nouveau riche or old money, this was the car you owned.  But it was not just a hollow icon.  The W126 pioneered many safety and technological features we take for granted today, like anti-lock brakes, traction control, and air bags.  For comfort, you could also order an automated climate control and heated seats.

In the U.S. the Mercedes W126 cemented Mercedes' reputation as a builder of some of the safest, most durable cars.  Even 20 years later, many of these cars are still on the road and can be purchased for under $15,000 in pristine condition.  Like any old car, repairs can be expensive.  But unlike many old cars, Mercedes parts a usually readily available and can be ordered from the factory.

Either way, it's still the car to own, if you want to impersonate a Beverly Hills dentist or drug dealer.

Friday, October 18, 2013

When to Say Goodbye to a Car

I've owned cars that I couldn't get rid of fast enough.  There was the 1973 VW Thing which had the speed and weather protection of a Conestoga wagon; a Porsche 924 with a failing clutch; and a tan 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme...  Just because it was a tan Oldsmobile.  Each time, I had some regret selling the car for sentimental reasons.  But in all those cases, I knew it was time to say goodbye for practical reasons or because I had a more favorable option.  Usually both.  

Now it seems I'm again reaching the time to make that choice.  My 1999 Nissan Pathfinder, a truck that my wife and I have owned for over 11 years, is starting to break down in ways that make me question its reliability.  Normally I would just keep driving it until it died and then take the plates off it.  However, since my wife uses it to commute to the airport twice a month, where it sits for 4-5 days, I need a reliable car.

But at what point do I say goodbye to the Pathfinder?  It's a question that nags at me for two reasons:  First, it's an honest, capable SUV that's been a solid, reliable workhorse.  It has a real 4x4 transfer case with a mechanical linkage connected to both hi and lo drive ranges.  I've used it for camping, hauling lumber and tile, the occasional lawnmower, and even stuff to the dump or the Salvation Army.  Not that I really need all of the Pathfinder's capabilities, but it's nice having an old truck around when you need to just throw some stuff in the back of it and go.

The other reason is sentimental.  It's the first car my wife and I bought together.  Our son was two months old at the time and we were looking for more reliable transportation to replace Nicole's old Bronco II.  (Yes, there seems to be a pattern here...)  Over the years since then, we've taken the Pathfinder on trips to Iowa and all over Kansas and Missouri, racking up 140K miles in the process.  Through all that time it's been a reliable, faithful companion requiring nothing more than gas and occasional maintenance.

Until about three months ago...

The first sign of trouble was when the Pathfinder refused to start in my driveway.  It was towed to a local repair shop which discovered that the electronic ignition had failed.  Now lately it's been sputtering and losing power on the highway.  And in addition to whatever is causing that problem, I know I'm due for another round of tires, bakes, a transmission fluid service, and possibly new struts.  Added up, I have a nice down payment on a newer car.

To me, the time to say goodbye to a car is when the cost of repairs, other than routine maintenance, adds up to more than the value of the car.  Or when you know that the next $800 repair bill won't be your last and that you're about to spend more over the next year at the mechanic than you would making car payments.

I don't think I'm there yet--close--but not yet.  Besides, I'm doing yard work this weekend and have some home improvement project coming up, so I'll need an old truck to haul mulch/rock/lumber and miscellaneous supplies.      

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Fiat 500

There used to be a running joke that Fiat stood for "Fix It Again, Tony".  While the joke would certainly apply to Fiats imported to the US during the 1970's, the new 500 appears to be relatively trouble free.  Now if you're looking for a healthy dose of Italian style in an affordable small package, the 500 may be hard to beat.

The original 500 was the four wheel equivalent of a moka pot--small, simple, well packaged with lots of style.  And there are similarities between the "neuvo" Fiat 500 and the moka pot as well.  Besides the style, the new 500 goes from 0-60 in about the same time it takes to brew a cup of espresso.  But while the 500 is hardly fast, it is cheerful and driving one can perk you up like a good cappuccino.  

Inside the car is simple, but nicely styled.  It's also retro like a Vespa scooter.  Unlike the Mini Cooper, the dashboard seems to flow better and is more functional.  Also unlike the Mini, the back seat is actually habitable for full sized adults.  It's not much better than sitting in coach on an airplane, but you don't have your knees in your face.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Fiat 500 is that it seems to be trying to hard.  It's likable, somewhat fun to drive, and gets good gas mileage, but it comes across like the Volkswagen New Beetle.  In a few years it will look dated and be largely overlooked.

I wish they would of done a modern interpretation of the 500, made it look more 21st Century than a throwback to the 1950's.  But if you like classic Italian style and have $15,000 to spend, then the Fiat 500 might be your idea of a Roman Holiday.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Beware of Cyclists

It was a normal Saturday and I was running errands.  Coming to a four way stop that I'd encountered hundreds of times, I stopped,  pulled forward, and almost hit a person on a bicycle.  He skidded and swerved around me and once past my bumper, he turned and yelled, "Watch out, f---ing asshole!"

I am an asshole at times.  I may even be a f---ing asshole at times.  But in this case, the asshole was wearing a bright green jersey and coasting downhill on a Trek road bike.  He was immune to all traffic laws or at least determined that none would ruin his built up kinetic energy.

To be clear, I'm a fan of cycling.  I used to own a Bianchi road bike and follow professional cycling.  As a kid, I spent countless hours on a ten-speed, pedaling around Kansas City.  I still get out on my bike 2-3 times a week to hit the trail near my house and have even considered buying a bike to commute to work.

Just like motorcycles, bicycles belong on the road.  But they must follow the rules.  I know from experience that a lot of motorists don't see cyclists, or crowd and try to intimidate them.  The problem is that cyclists also play their intimidation games or do things that are just plain stupid.  I've seen them weave in and out of stopped traffic, ride between two cars, blow through stop signs and traffic lights, and even grab hold of bumpers to get a free ride.

What it comes down to is this:  If you are driving a car, look out for cyclists.  Give them room and treat them like you would any other vehicle on the road.  And if you are a cyclist, assume you're invisible, ride smart and be on the defensive.  And above all else, follow the rules like you were driving a car and don't be an ass.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

the $15,000 Question: Saab 9-3 and 9-5

"Quirky." "Weird."  "Odd but likeable."  Those descriptions seem to follow me, but they also apply to Saab.  Up until its 2012 demise, Saab was  known for building cars that were decidedly different.  How different?  They used two stroke engines up until the 1970's and the original 900 had its engine installed backwards. 

But if you like different, and have $15,000 to spend, a Saab is not a bad choice.  Saab frequently marketed its cars as "born from jets," a reference to Saab Aerospace and the interiors of Saab cars reflect some of that lineage.  The instrument panel is no-nonsense functional and features a switch to turn off all of the interior lights but the speedometer.

Even under GM's staid corporate umbrella, Saab produced some wild cars like the 9-3 Viggen which came standard with scads of torque-steer and a top speed of 160 MPH.  It's no BMW M3 but it is different and fun to drive.


Think of Saab as the Christopher Walken of cars and you wouldn't be far off. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Tale of Two F Bodies

When the Chevrolet Camaro was launched in direct response to the Ford Mustang in 1967, the Pontiac Firebird was its "Me Too" tag-along brother.  But a decade later, as kid brothers often do, The Firebird outgrew the Camaro's shadow.    

By 1977, the Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am was the hot car, partly because of the optional 6.6 liter engine, which was bigger than the motor in the Camaro.  But I suspect the big reason why the Firebird was so popular was because it was featured in "The Rockford Files" and "Smokey and the Bandit".  Burt Reynolds drove a black 1977 Trans Am as the Bandit and the car became legendary.  As a result, just about every Trans AM made after the movie was black with honeycomb wheels and featured the "Flaming Chicken" on the hood.

When the 3rd Generation Camaro and Firebird rolled around, both cars were very successful in the marketplace.  However, Pontiac again won the publicity battle, when a modified Trans Am played the part of K.I.T.T. on "Knight Rider".

After all, does anyone remember AJ's Camaro in "Simon and Simon"?

Eventually the Camaro regained the sales lead, with the debut of the 4th Generation model.  But by 1998, sales had dwindled, so being the sales leader was akin to boasting you were the more handsome of the Menendez brothers.  Eventually both cars were killed off in 2002.

The Camaro returned nine years later, on a new platform and with a vague resemblance to the 1969 model.  Pontiac would have returned with the Trans Am in some form, had GM not shuttered the brand as part of its bankruptcy.

Picking a favorite between the Camaro and Firebird is a matter of personal preference.  Both cars are a good value, offering good looks and performance for a bargain price.  The 1st generation cars have long been considered classics and the 2nd and 3rd generation cars are now becoming collectible as well.

My personal favorites are the 3rd generation cars.  Given the chance, I'd love to own an IROC Camaro or a Trans Am.  But between the two, I have to give the nod to the Trans Am, only because the Bandit and K.I.T.T. captured my imagination as a boy.    

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

$15,000 Question: Ford Mustang

Back in junior high, my friends and I used to hang out at the local QuickTrip and play video games.  We'd save our lunch money or pool nickles and dimes and exchange them for quarters just to play Joust or Dragon's Quest.  Occasionally there was enough money left over for a pack of Now & Laters to split before walking home.  Usually there were one of two managers who worked afternoons at QT.  One was middle aged, sporting a wicked comb-over and generally grumpy towards us kids.  The other was in his early 20's, and to our 13 year old way of thinking, really cool.    

Part of what made him cool was he drove a Mustang, a maroon 1983 GT.

Few cars offer the combination of performance, heritage, and value of the Ford Mustang.  Now entering its 50th model year, the Mustang has been everywhere and owned by a larger cross section of people than just about any car in America.  It is an icon, one you can buy in just about any flavor for $15,000.

File:86 SVO engine bay.jpg

Mustangs come in many varieties--coupes or convertibles, 4 or 6 cylinder economy specials, V8 powered GTs, or performance versions like the Shelby and Mustang SVT Cobra.  There are even several tuner versions of the Mustang built by Saleen and Rousch, which include everything from body kits to fire breathing engines producing 700 horsepower or more.  Ford also built a Mustang SVO in the 1980's, which offered the same level of performance as the 5.0 V8 from a 2.3 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder engine.  The SVO was only made for 2-3 years, but paved the way for other specially tuned, factory Mustangs.

About the only misstep in the Mustang's history was the 1974-78 Mustang II.  Built on a Pinto chassis, the Mustang II was arguably the right car during the OPEC Oil Crisis and sold in record numbers.  But it's largely overlooked today by Mustang enthusiasts and panned by contemporary automobile publications.

My personal favorite Mustang is the Bullitt, a tribute car to the 1968 Steve McQueen movie of the same name.  To me, there's just something right about the understated car in Dark Highland Green paint with Torq Thrust wheels and a rumbling V8.

Friday, September 27, 2013

If Alfa Romeo Returned to the US, Would Anybody Care?

Like a tree falling in the woods, if Alfa Romeo returned to the U.S., would anybody care?

Outside a few thousand die hard Alfa fans, the ones who wear silk jackets with Alfa's cross and snake emblem and drink Peroni, I doubt it.  And that lack of interest is unfortunate.  Alfa has a long, storied history of racing and producing beautiful cars like the original 8c, the Montreal, and the new 4c.  It's also produced some great, affordable cars like the Giulietta,  GTV, and Spider.  And until recently it's modern lineup included the lovely Brera and 159.      

Since Alfa Romeo left our shores in 1995, it has announced and delayed its return more than a dozen times.  This fact makes the Alfisti, or die hard Alfa Romero enthusiasts, the automotive equivalent of Cubs' fans.  Every year there's a small chance something will happen... and... nothing.  Then it's "wait 'til next year."


For most people in the U.S., Alfa Romeo is long forgotten, like Renault, Citroen, or Lancia.  Even Studebaker gets more recognition than Alfa.  But not surprising seeing how Alfa's most popular car was named after a Dustin Hoffman movie in the 1960's, where he cavorted with Mrs. Robinson.

But Alfa's biggest problem is not brand recognition.  It's a lack of products.  If Hyundai and Kia can rise from humble beginnings, then Alfa, with its history and access to Chrysler's dealer networks should be able to market itself as a premium brand and sell as many cars as BMW.  But it needs a viable lineup that appeals to mainstream car buyers, not just the handful of Alfisti still clinging to their Milanos and 164s.  They have to lure the kinds of people who buy the Acura ILX or Mercedes CLA.  But other than the 4c, which competes with the Porsche Cayman, Alfa has nothing to offer.  The 159 and Brera are gone and Alfa's only platform is already on sale in the US.  It underpins the Dodge Dart, a car lot wallflower which seems to only drive sales toward the lowly and heavily discounted Dodge Avenger.

In fact, if Alfa Romeo finally does return to the U.S. it may find its place already taken.  There's already a car manufacturer offering good looking, affordable, fun to drive cars.  That company is Mazda.