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Friday, July 29, 2011

What's the best way to finance a new vehicle in Florida?

What's the best way to finance a new vehicle in Florida?

By Steven Cole Smith

Give credit where credit is due: Financing for Florida auto customers is a lot easier than it was less than three years ago.

"We have ample credit available," says Marc Cannon, senior vice-president of the Fort Lauderdale-basedAutoNation, which owns the country's largest auto dealership network. "And it continues to improve."

That wasn't the case in 2008 and 2009. Financing institutions, stung by loans made to customers who defaulted, tightened restrictions that limited who qualified. This was a major reason why new vehicle sales tanked during this period, and used vehicle sales rose -- people couldn't finance a new car, and often had to buy a used vehicle either with cash or loans from a "buy here, pay here" used car dealership.How bad was it? Claes Bell, banking and auto reporter for the North Palm Beach-based, an online clearinghouse for consumer financial information, cites a survey taken in December of 2008, the height of the financial crisis, that says the approval rate for new auto loans was just 46.3 percent.

"Now, it's way up," Bell says, to 74.5 percent, citing the same study from June of this year. And while new vehicle sales haven't been as strong in 2011 as predicted early this year -- due mostly to the still-struggling economy, and the shortage of vehicles caused by theearthquakes and tsunami in Japan -- neither manufacturers nor dealers are complaining.

Interest rates have also come down. Bell points to the most recent survey by the U.S. Federal Reserve that pegs the average interest rate from a commercial bank on a 48-month new car loan at 5.81 percent in May of 2011. The national average for 2007, for example, was 7.7 percent.

Bell says there are three central sources for new-vehicle credit: Banks, credit unions and the auto manufacturers themselves. Which is best? It can vary with every purchase. For that reason, Bell suggests buyers shop for credit before they shop for a car or truck.

"That allows you to walk into the dealership in a stronger position," he says.

Dealers may offer financing through the manufacturer -- typically at rates discounted by a contribution from the manufacturer, to help its dealers move cars -- or from banks and credit unions that the particular store has a relationship with.

There is no right answer as to where to get credit, except for one: The lender that costs you the least. has some online tools that help you survey loan rates, and figure up payment schedules. For instance, the site surveys banks and credit unions in geographical areas, and provides specific data as well as averages. The average interest rate for a 60-month new-car loan in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, for instance, is 5.2 percent. In Tampa, it's 5.065 percent. In Tallahassee, 5.432 percent.

Dealers invariably have multiple outlets for credit, including area banks and their own manufacturer's financing arm. Chad Rogers, general manager of Classic Mazda and Holler Hyundai in Orlando, says that when the manufacturers are offering attractive low-interest deals, the majority of the dealership financing goes there, "especially the customers with the top-tier credit ratings."

Otherwise, his dealerships maintain close ties to several banks, and even credit unions are becoming more aggressive in seeking business outside their captive credit union membership. "We've had several credit unions reach out to us and ask to be considered as a finance source," Rogers says.

Indeed, credit unions should not be overlooked:'s Bell cites figures from a Datatrac survey from last March that said the average U.S. interest rate on a 60-month new car loan from credit unions was 4.12 percent, compared to 5.46 percent from conventional banks.

Not all attractive manufacturer-backed finance deals are on slow-selling, unpopular models, or models that are about to undergo a major design change in the next model year. This time of the season, low-rate financing might be offered to simply clear the 2011 inventory to make room for soon-to-arrive 2012s.

Example: The two best-selling cars in the U.S. in 2010, the Toyota Camry and -- finishing the year slightly behind the Camry -- the Honda Accord, both currently have low- or no-interest financing. The 2011 Accord, for example, has a 0.9 percent race for 24 to 36-month loans, and 1.9 percent for 37 to 60-month loans. The Camry has 0 percent financing for 36, 48 or 60-month loans, and may include $500 "bonus cash back."

There is, as with all these deals, fine print involved. Sometimes you must purchase a vehicle that is on the dealer's lot, and take delivery by a certain date to qualify. Often these deals "cannot be combined with other offers," as Toyota says, meaning that if there is, say, a separate rebate offered, you can't take that and the financing.

And part of the fine print from the Honda Accord offer is also typical: "Not all buyers may qualify. Higher rates apply for buyers with lower credit ratings." In other words, if your credit rating isn't very good, you may still qualify for financing, but not at the bargain advertised rate.

For vehicle that offer either a hefty rebate or low-interest financing, you'll have to do your homework to see which suits you best. The 2011 Chevrolet Malibu, for instance, offers 0 percent interest for a 60-month loan, or a $2,500 rebate. The 2011 Ford Fusion is available with 0 to 1.9 percent financing depending on the loan length, or a $2,500 rebate.

All these deals can vary geographically. Check out the manufacturer's website -- typically the manufacturer's name, like, or -- and they will ask for your zip code before the site will list special financing or rebates in your area. Sometimes, you can also find incentives that aren't publicized. Ford, for instance, has a $500 rebate for police officers who are members of one of two national police associations, and $500 for active or recently-serving military personnel.

The bottom line: Shop for credit just as you do a new car or truck.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hackers Can Unlock Cars Via Text Messages

Hackers Can Unlock Cars Via Text Messages
Rue Liu

So we’ve all seen those commercials lately where the integration of new technology with automobiles lets a person unlock and start his or her spiffy new BMW remotely with a cellphone app. It’s convenient indeed and may also make it more convenient for hackers to hijack your car. According to two security researchers, hackers can do just that via what’s called “war texting.”

Don Bailey and Mathew Solnik, employed by iSEC Partners, have found a way to unlock vehicles using remote control and telemetry systems such as the BMW Assist, GM OnStar, Ford Sync, and Hyundai Blue Link. With off-the-shelf parts and a couple hours of tinkering, the duo was able to reverse engineer the communication protocol and pose as the GSM or CDMA mobile network servers via “war texting” or the act of finding open wireless networks.

The scariest part of this vulnerability is that it may apply to many other systems that also use telephony as a control network, including traffic control systems, 3G security cameras, home automation systems, and SCADA systems. SCADA is employed in many industrial applications such as manufacturing, power generation, water treatment, as well as oil and gas pipelines management.

Bailey and Solnik will be presenting their findings at the Black Hat conference next week, but will not reveal the exact details of their attack until the affected manufacturers fix the problem. They also do not plan on disclosing which on-board systems they were able to hack.

Other security presentations expected at Black Hat include the recent claims of a vulnerability in laptop batteries, specifically those of Apple’s MacBook Pro and Air laptops, that could allow hackers to take control of laptop and even cause physical harm.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

California dreaming: LA imagines life without cars

California dreaming: LA imagines life without cars

By Michael Thurston

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles is famous for its addiction to cars -- whether cruising in their convertibles, or (more often) sitting in monster traffic jams on the freeway, the car is definitely king for Angelenos.
But a surprise public response to a "car-mageddon" warning this month has fueled questions over whether -- shock, horror -- LA motorists could wean themselves off of four wheels.
A new law bolstering cyclists' rights has also added to debate, in a state which enjoys year-round sunshine and spectacular scenery, but where smog haze regularly clouds views of the sparkling Pacific.
"You can suddenly hear people talking," said LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky after the closure of a key stretch of highway failed to produce the feared apocalyptic gridlock -- quite the contrary, the roads were eerily empty.
"You hear kids playing. People discovered something about themselves and Los Angeles auto culture that shocked them. Why can't we take some chunk of LA and shut it down to traffic on certain days or weekends, as they do in Italy?"
Before the closure of a 10-mile (16-kilometer) stretch of the 405 freeway at the northern end of the LA basin earlier this month, officials had blitzed the airwaves with warnings of "car-mageddon".
But in fact motorists who did venture out during the 53-hour closure found roads eerily empty, as Angelenos heeded the warnings in massive numbers -- producing what some called "carmaheaven."
The closure "demonstrated that Angelenos really can change their driving behavior if they're motivated to do so," said an opinion piece in the LA Times, noting that a similar thing happened during the 1984 Olympics in the city.
"It's not hard to get people out of their cars during extraordinary events; the tough thing is doing it on a daily basis," added the newspaper.
Critics say one reason that can't be done is LA' parlous public transport system: buses run even slower than cars, and the subway system is OK where it goes, but useless for most people simply due to the city's sprawl.

-- 'As natural as Botox' --

And walking has never been a real option, except for the shortest of trips, partly because in the summer it's too hot, sometimes for safety reasons, especially after dark.
One group who did take heart are cyclists -- who have long campaigned for more cycle paths, and who this week welcomed a new law passed this week by the the LA City Council to protect bicyclists from harassment by motorists.
The new law, which supporters say is tougher than anywhere else in the US, makes it a crime for drivers to threaten cyclists verbally or physically, and lets victims sue without waiting for the city to press criminal charges.
"It's a groundbreaking move," said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, while City lawmaker Bill Rosendahl, who championed the plan, said: "It's about time cyclists have rights."
Paul Tullis, who writes a blog for the Huffington Post, said car-mageddon had provided a unique opportunity.
"How about seizing the opportunity, when the memory of a virtually car-free Los Angeles is still fresh, to enact weekend traffic restrictions to make the region infinitely more enjoyable on the weekends?" he said.
"The picture of a virtually car-free Los Angeles could inspire some big changes, and the benefits seem significant enough to be worth trying different fixes to overcome various obstacles," he added.
But while car-mageddon has triggered debate, skeptics note that it will take more than a marketing campaign to change decades of car culture in America's second biggest city.
"Visitors to LA often express astonishment that Angelenos can tolerate the traffic, but to us it's as natural as Botox," said the LA Times' editorial writer.
"There are other choices: carpooling, biking, scootering, walking. And it's no secret what cities and countries need to do to encourage people to choose them. In Europe and Asia, such incentives are commonplace, and they work.
"Will any of these ideas fly politically in car-crazy LA? Don't hold your breath," it added.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ship to carry 2,000 cars, cut CO2 emissions by 40%

Ship to carry 2,000 cars, cut CO2 emissions by 40%
by Tim Hornyak

Japanese shipping giant Kawasaki Kisen is building a next-generation car carrier that will run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) instead of fuel oil, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent.

The carrier is set to be about 156 yards long, with a capacity of 5,000 tons, capable of carrying up to about 2,000 cars. Kawasaki Heavy Industries will supply the gas engines, and its nitrogen oxide emissions profile will be up to 90 percent lower than those of vessels using conventional diesel engines.

Kawasaki Kisen, whose K Line containers are a common sight in ports, made the plan in light of rising prices for fuel oil. It's apparently working on the design in conjunction with Norwegian experts who approve technology standards for ships.

As a cleaner transportation fuel, LNG is used in heavy trucks, buses, and ferries, but it's not common in cargo vessels. The carrier will start operating in 2015 or 2016 to service Europe, which is implementing tougher exhaust standards.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Borrower Nightmares: Soldiers battle car dealers over inflated prices, loan

Borrower Nightmares: Soldiers battle car dealers over inflated prices, loan

Lawsuits accuse some dealers near U.S. bases of aggressive tactics that drain young recruits' bank accounts, affect mission readiness
By Michael Hudson

Lori Mendoza saw an advertisement last year from South Colorado Springs Nissan, a dealership that promotes itself as "Proudly Serving our Military" and promises bargains for men and women in uniform.

That sounded good to Mendoza, an active-duty soldier stationed at nearby Fort Carson (Colo.) Army Base. With help from her mother, who co-signed on the deal, she traded in an older BMW and drove away with a 2010 Nissan Rogue.

Then things took a wrong turn, according to alawsuit Mendoza filed in federal court in Colorado.

The dealership, she claimed, boosted the cost of the transaction from the agreed-upon $27,000 to $35,000, admitting it had made a “mistake” only after she caught the discrepancy. Then, the suit said, it gave her a runaround about nailing down the financing she said it had guaranteed on the deal.

When Mendoza came back to the dealership to return the Rogue and cancel the transaction, another snafu emerged: The dealership claimed, the suit said, that it had already auctioned away the BMW trade-in. Later, when she demanded copies of her sales contractand the federal “truth-in-lending” disclosures, the suit alleged, a dealership staffer refused, saying he didn’t want Mendoza using the documents as “ammo” against the dealership.

Wyn Taylor, an attorney for South Colorado Springs Nissan, said the BMW was eventually returned to Mendoza and her mother. Steve Kern, the dealership’s general manager since February, told iWatch News that “we work very hard to help our men and women in the military.”

In a written statement about the case, Taylor asserts the dealership acted properly, and that documents signed by Mendoza showed the total cost of the deal was always in the $35,000 range. The statement also says the financing was never guaranteed and Mendoza knew, even though she was allowed to start driving Rogue, that the deal couldn’t be consummated until the loan was approved.

For Mendoza, the issue is now settled — she and dealership resolved the lawsuit on undisclosed terms. Many other men and women in uniform, though, are still vexed by car financing deals gone bad.

Consumer advocates and military officials claim that some car dealers target soldiers, sailors, Marines and other service members for predatory financing and other tricks that drain their bank accounts and, in some instances, interfere with their ability to do their duties.

“I think it happens every day of a week,” saidMichael Archer, a retired Marine officer who serves as director of legal assistance for Marine bases in the Carolinas and Georgia. “I think it’s at least as likely as not that when a troop buys a car, he’s overpaying either on the price of the car or the price of the loan.”

When it comes to dealers that fly American flags and post signs that say “Welcome Military,” consumer advocates often joke that “the bigger the flag, the worse their practices are,” said Rosemary Shahan, president ofConsumers for Auto Reliability and Safety , a California-based advocacy group.

The practices at some dealers are enough of a concern that the Federal Trade Commission has invited Archer, Shahan and other experts to speak at a public hearing Aug. 2 in San Antonio to focus on the problems servicemen and women face when they try to buy cars on credit. Industry officials deny that car dealers routinely take advantage of members of the armed forces.

“I don’t see military being targeted. I don’t see that,” said Larry Laskowski, executive director of the Independent Automobile Dealers Association of California , which represents some 450 used-car dealers in a state that is home to more than two dozen military bases.

In instances where there are bad apples that “don’t adhere to a code of ethics,” Laskowski said, there are laws on the books that are designed to protect service members and other consumers.

The National Automobile Dealers Association didn’t address questions from iWatch Newsabout military members who purchase cars on credit, but it told the FTC “any abuses which may have occurred” in auto financing “are isolated and most assuredly are not prevalent.”

Easy targets

Next month’s FTC hearing is another sign of the increasing attention on consumer problems faced by members of the U.S. military.

In recent months, three of the nation’s largest financial institutions — Bank of America Corp., Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase & Co. — committed nearly $80 million among them to settle claims they improperly foreclosed on military personnel or overcharged them on their mortgages.

The new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which officially kicked off operations on Thursday, has signaled it will make protecting military consumers a priority.

On July 6, the CFPB and the military’s top uniformed lawyers released a “ joint statement of principles ” aimed at providing better protections for service members when they borrow money or buy things on credit. Officials said they’ve set up procedures to work together on addressing consumer complaints and improving financial literacy for servicemen and women.

“Service members and their families sacrifice a great deal for our country and they deserve advocates who will use every available resource to protect them from financial threats,” said Holly Petraeus, the consumer bureau’s assistant director for the Office of Servicemember Affairs and the wife of Army general and newly confirmed Central Intelligence Agency chief David Petraeus.

"Through this partnership and our other efforts,” she said, “we will work to make sure that the days of military families being easy targets for predatory practices and unscrupulous lenders are a thing of the past.”

When it comes to policing auto loans, the CFPB is handicapped because of a loophole written into last year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform law after intense lobbying by car dealers: The bureau has authority over auto lenders, but it generally won’t have authority over car dealers, which play a crucial role in the auto financing process. Dealers often prepare loan applications and work hand-in-hand with lenders in hammering out loan terms.

As part of a legislative compromise, the law increased the FTC’s rulemaking authority over car dealers. An FTC spokesman told iWatch Newsthat the agency has “has done extensive military outreach to provide service members with consumer education about finances and avoiding fraud.” The FTC is also working to coordinate its efforts with the CFPB, including talks about how about sharing access to complaints, the spokesman said.

Battlefield promotion

For their part, military brass have spent much time in recent years documenting the problems caused by lenders and car dealers that cater to men and women in uniform. When soldiers get ensnared in bad deals, military officials say, the fallout can affect their “mission readiness” and, if their credit is ruined, put their security clearances at risk.

“It absolutely affects their ability to perform their mission,” Archer, the Marine regional legal director, said. “When you have a lance corporal who literally has his finger on the trigger, he needs to be focused entirely on the front post site and where he’s shooting, rather on extraneous personal concerns about whether somebody is going to take away his car or his house.”

Some car dealers like to locate near military bases because many of the troops stationed there “are of an age when they’re probably going to get their first car, and they’re all concentrated in one place,” Archer said.

A November 2009 memorandum by Archer sketched out several examples of the sales tactics and credit practices that car dealers used to fleece young Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and at other installations in the Southeast.

One bold car salesman trespassed onto Camp Lejeune, “conducting an impromptu class to our most junior Marines on how car dealers will rip them off. Yet the salesman describes how he can ‘hook them up’ with a reputable dealer to avoid scams.” At least one “class,” Archer wrote, “is held when the salesman sneaks into the auditorium during a break between legitimate orientation classes.”

In another instance, the memo said, a dealership tricked a Marine lance corporal into buying an overpriced car by promising him free round-trip airfare to visit his parents in a distant time zone for Thanksgiving. It turned out the airfare wasn’t free — it had been financed into the loan contract at 13 percent interest.

Across the country in Southern California, three Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton are pressing lawsuits claiming that a nearby car dealer, Certified Auto Sales, falsified information on their credit applications.

In one of the three lawsuits in San Diego County Circuit Court, Areon Simon claims the dealership gave him an imaginary promotion on his credit application — listing him as a corporal when he was in fact a private.

Another Marine, Logan Turk, claims Certified Auto Sales reported on the credit application that he was buying a 2006 Mitsubishi even though he was really buying a 1997 Camaro.

A third Marine, Mark Splawn II, alleges that the dealer socked him with what amounted to a hidden finance charge, increasing the price of his 2006 Mazda because he had a poor credit history. It also promised him that the Mazda was in good condition, his suit says, but he soon discovered the vehicle had serious defects, including a leaking battery and “worn and unsafe” tires and front brakes.

Christopher Ramey , an attorney for Certified Auto, denied that the dealership engaged in fraud or did anything improper.

In Simon’s case, for example, Ramey said the dealership didn’t submit any information about Simon’s rank or employment to the lender — that was Simon’s responsibility, the lawyer said. “Mr. Simon signed and delivered the application to the lender,” Ramey told iWatch News.

He added that the dealership made it clear to Splawn, Turk and Simon that the vehicles were being sold “as is,” and that they were welcome to take them elsewhere if they wanted to have an independent mechanic check them out. He said a judge ruled in the dealership’s favor in November in a similar case of another Marine who claimed that he’d been sold a defective vehicle, finding that the “as is” label meant just that — “as is.”

Certified Auto’s owner, Joseph Romero, “is a small-town dealer,” Ramey said. “He’s probably one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Romero has been victimized” by consumer attorneys seeking to generate fees for themselves.

The three Marines’ lawyer, Hallen Rosner , says his clients’ stories are examples of how poorly service members often fare when they buy cars on credit.

Rosner, who frequently represents service members in credit disputes, says many are young and aren’t “future-oriented” — which is understandable, he said, since they’re often waiting to be transferred to overseas war zones. Car dealers like them as customers, he said, because they’re “bankable” — they have steady incomes and ready access to loans from military credit unions.

“They’re a vulnerable group, like any other group that gets exploited,” Rosner said. The Navy and Marine Corps maintain lists of off-limits car dealerships that sailors and Marines aren’t supposed to set foot on, he said, but “it takes an awful lot to be put on that banned list.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Toyota System Can Sense Pedestrians, Avoid Accidents

Toyota System Can Sense Pedestrians, Avoid Accidents
By Martyn Williams

Toyota has developed a safety system that can automatically stop a car in the moments before a collision with a pedestrian.

The system, which will begin appearing in Toyota cars in the near future, is built on existing pre-collision detection technology that is already fitted in some Toyota cars and those of competitors. Those systems are designed to guard against collisions with large objects, such as stopped vehicles or walls, and don't do a good job when it comes to people.
Toyota's new system, which it says is a world's first, uses a millimeter wave radar and stereo camera to constantly monitor what's in front of the vehicle.
In a demonstration on Thursday at the company's Higashi Fuji Technical Center in Japan reporters were given the chance to drive a car fitted with the technology towards a mannequin in the roadway. (See video of the demonstration on YouTube.)
Toyota asked drivers to keep the car at a constant 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour) and head straight for the mock pedestrian.
An audible warning first sounded when the system picked up the pedestrian and judged that a collision was possible. Moments later, when no change in the vehicle's speed or course was detected, the system prepared to stop the car.
Then, with the car approaching the mannequin fast, the brakes automatically applied and the seatbelts tightened slightly. With a slight screech the car came to an emergency stop a couple of meters from the mannequin.
The technology is one of several the center is working on that Toyota hopes will make driving safer.
In another building at the sprawling complex located at the foot of Mount Fuji, Toyota has one of the world's most advanced driving simulators.
Here a car is attached to a platform raised off the ground, the whole thing under a plastic dome and wired to computers that monitor every aspect of the way the car is being driven.
On the inside of the dome a 360-degree computer-generated image of a road and town make for a driving experience that's much more realistic than any video game. Fake road noise and computer-generated vibrations add to the feeling of being in a real car but that's not what makes it most special.
The entire platform the simulator sits on can move up to 20 meters from side to side and 35 meters from back to front. This means drivers even experience the forces they would when driving a real car.
Toyota uses the facility to simulate a variety of conditions and situations to a variety of drivers to gather data on how different people react when behind the wheel.
Around 1.2 million people are killed in road accidents every year, according to the World Health Organization. Road fatalities are expected to rise by two-thirds over the next two decades as the number of cars on the world's roads increases.
Technologies like the pedestrian detection system are meant to make driving safer and advance Toyota towards its goal of zero fatalities on the road -- an ambitious goal for sure.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Man rams cars at dealership to show his displeasure

Man rams cars at dealership to show his displeasure


PORTSMOUTH — Believing he had been sold a lemon, a Massachusetts man turned his unwanted vehicle into a consumer complaint form Wednesday and rammed the cars parked at a city car dealer, police said.

David Cross, 41, of 21 North St., Salisbury, Mass., calmly walked up to Portsmouth police shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday and told them about his antics, said police Sgt. Chris Roth.

"He wasn't happy with the service he got there so he figured he would take it out on them," Roth said. 

Police said Cross damaged several vehicles, including a Mustang, Dodge Caravan, Mercedes and Infinity, at Portsmouth Used Car Superstore, 2219 Lafayette Road.

"He did some pretty good damage," Roth said. "He had his license plates in his hand. He took them off his lemon and walked across the street with them."

Cross had purchased a 2000 Dodge Caravan from the dealership, Roth said.

He was charged with criminal mischief and released on bail after being booked.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Nissan sets its sights on big goals

Nissan sets its sights on big goals

By Paul A. Eisenstein

With buyers waiting in long lines, Nissan is honoring the law of supply and demand, raising the price of its new Leaf battery-electric vehicle by 7.4 percent for the upcoming 2012 model-year.

At the same time, the maker plans to continue expanding the availability of the Leaf, which it has until now been offering in just seven states. So far, Nissan has delivered just 4,000 of the high-profile battery cars, but it is rapidly ramping up production and could come closer to its original goal of 20,000 Leaf sales for 2011.

That Nissan is able to boost production of Leaf, and most of its other products, is significant considering that its key competitors, Toyota and Honda, are still struggling to cope with the shortages caused by the March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. While those two makers work their way through a variety of issues that have slashed sales and slammed profits, Nissan has been posting sharp gains and setting its sights on even bigger goals: its CEO wants to boost global volume by as much as 50 percent over the next six years.

With last December’s launch of the Leaf, Nissan has been stealing a march on lead rival Toyota, aiming to position itself as one of the auto industry’s environmental and technology leaders. Though the numbers have so far been modest, Nissan claims that four out of five Leaf buyers have been “conquested” from other brands. What's more, it is providing the Japanese maker a much-needed halo.

“If Nissan can do a product like the Leaf,” suggests Vice President of Product Planning Larry Dominique, “a lot of people are asking what else can we do.”

Quite a bit, he suggests. After several slow years, the maker’s product program has been rapidly ramping up, both for the mainstream Nissan brand and for its up-market sibling, Infiniti. The latter, long an also-ran in the luxury segment, has begun gaining traction in recent years. That's largely based on well-reviewed G-cars, like the G37 coupe, which compete with the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Infiniti has three more offerings in the works, near-term, including the compact JX crossover, which will be unveiled in August, and a high-end variant of the Nissan Leaf. The main brand, meanwhile, has a number of new 2012 offerings, Among them is an upgraded version of its small Versa sedan, which has been gaining ground with Americans who want to migrate to smaller, more fuel-efficient models.

Nissan didn’t escape unscathed from the March disaster. It was clobbered in May, posting a U.S. decline of 9.1 percent. But while key Japanese rivals were slammed again in June, Nissan sales surged back, rising 11 percent, year-over-year.

“They did a lot better job” overcoming the shortages, says Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst with the consulting firm IHS. “They’ve been a lot more effective at global sourcing” of parts that would have been in short supply otherwise, he explains.

That’s a key reason why the maker was able to boost production at its four North American assembly plants by 9.1 percent during the first half of 2011, to 565,730. That put it in the lead position among the so-called “transplants.” Toyota’s year-over-year production slipped 28 percent, to 555,972, while Honda’s North American output dropped 20.8 percent, to 516,603.

Last month, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn indicated the maker’s U.S. sales should top 1 million in the current fiscal year, a 7.7 percent increase over the prior year, which ended March 31. If anything could deliver a setback, it’s that Nissan’s four U.S. and Mexican plants are pushing up against capacity constraints.

“What’s clear is if we look at our aspirations for growth in the U.S. and the role the (two Nissan) Mexican plants play for our growth in North and South America we’re going to have to have more capacity,” acknowledges global marketing chief Simon Sproule.

What’s now being debated, inside the company, is whether to add additional factories or expand the existing plants. The maker’s original U.S. facility, in Smyrna, TN, is already undergoing an update to permit it to start producing the Leaf, starting late in 2012.

With less than a third of its global capacity based in the home market, Nissan is the least dependent of the Asian makers on Japanese production. And that trend will continue as it moves ahead with plans to put factories in Brazil, among other places, while also pushing to expand its role in booming China. Nissan has a substantially stronger position there than latecomer Toyota, analysts note.

That has helped Nissan become the second largest of the Japanese makers, last year nudging past Honda. But for Ghosn, who took over Nissan in 1999, when the company seemed doomed to failure, that’s just the beginning.

On the downside, as a result of the Japanese disaster, rising raw materials costs and lopsided exchange rates, Nissan’s net profit is now projected to slip 15.4 percent, to 270 billion yen, or $3.4 billion, down from 319 billion yen in the previous fiscal year, which ended March 31. On the other hand, revenues are expected to climb 7.1 percent to 9.4 trillion yen, while unit volume is forecast to grow 9.9 percent, to 4.6 million.

Longer-term, Ghosn is aiming for significant growth. His new Power 88 six-year plan aims for an 8 percent global market share – its worldwide sales rising to 8 million — and an 8 percent profit margin on sales.

"This is the first time that Nissan is starting a plan on the offensive instead of reconstructing something, or defending something," Ghosn said last month.

It’s an ambitious target. Analysts note that, under Ghosn, Nissan has missed a number of targets over the past decade. But it has still come out ahead. And so, “with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck,” the Power 88 plan is do-able, contends Kurt Sanger, of Deutsche Bank.

While the Leaf will be little more than an asterisk on the corporate charts, the little battery car is nonetheless helping to charge up Nissan’s image and helping lure in the buyers it needs.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Automatic braking in cars helps cut down on crashes

Automatic braking in cars helps cut down on crashes

By Jayne O’Donnell

HERNDON, Va. — It's one of the coolest video games around, but it is not available online or at stores. It's Audi's just-out A6 and a million-dollar computer simulator that has the car bouncing off of lane lines and slowing before it crashes into the car in front — without any input from the driver. Warning lights alert when cars are in the blind spot and flash furiously if the driver appears ready to steer into them.

Careening around even the simulated Bavarian mountains would be more daunting if the A6 weren't equipped with all of the latest advanced safety technologies. You almost can't crash during some maneuvers in this would-be video game, which Audi showed off recently at its headquarters here. Even when you do rear-end another car, your belt cinches up, windows and sunroof close and your speed slows enough that, at least virtually, you're far safer than you would have been without what's known as precrash sensors.

But these technologies are hardly automotive fantasies. Many, including intelligent braking that stops — or at least slows — cars if drivers don't act, are already on high-end vehicles including Audi, Lexus and BMWmodels and are trickling down into more affordable cars, including several by Chrysler.

The first real-world evidence that these brakes are keeping people from crashing is being released today by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS found that a version of automatic braking in Volvo SUVs prevented one out of four low-speed crashes. That's likely to speed up installation of similar technology in other vehicles and should help persuade regulators to consider rules to require automatic braking, some safety experts say.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thinking of getting a smaller car? Wait until fall

Thinking of getting a smaller car? Wait until fall

Thinking of trading in the clunker in your garage for something that gets better gas mileage? Wait a little longer.

Small car prices, which have set record highs this year, are expected to come down this fall.

Lower gas prices will make people comfortable driving something bigger. Honda and Toyota, which were hurt by the Japan earthquake, will crank up production of small cars. And Japan and Detroit will offer big discounts on smaller models as their lots fill up.

The average new compact car, which cost a record $20,500 in June, should fall to about $19,300 by the end of the year. The average used compact car should fall from a record $11,300 to about $9,600 over the same time, according figures compiled by the Kelley Blue Book auto pricing service.

Small-car prices should start falling in September and accelerate through the end of the year.

"Values for these vehicles just rose too quickly and got to a level that was really unsustainable," says Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation for the Kelley Blue Book car pricing service.

Here are factors pushing down small-car prices:

_ Small-car surplus: Carmakers such as Honda and Toyota are boosting production following Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The disaster essentially shut down that nation's auto industry and slowed Japanese-brand factories in North America. With factories returning to normal, American dealers will have more Civics, Corollas and Priuses. And they won't have to put small-car buyers on waiting lists, like they did this spring.

In fact, some will have more small cars than they need says George Davis, general manager of a Honda dealership in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"One minute they're going to look out the window and see 50 cars. Two weeks later they'll see 300. Panic sets in," he says. "They pay interest on these cars and they'll have to discount."

_ Deals: Honda and Toyota dealers will increase rebates, low-interest financing and other promotions, Gutierrez predicts. "GM and Ford will be right behind them, and Hyundai as well," he says.

Automakers say they won't cut prices even if Toyota and Honda come out with bigger incentives. Instead, they want to sell cars on quality, styling and features.

Dealers and analysts are skeptical, though, saying that once Honda and Toyota restock, prices will fall as rivals try to win customers who have to replace their clunkers. The average age of a car in the U.S. is now 10.6 years, up more than a full year from 2008, according to the Polk research firm.

_ Lower gas prices: Gas prices are down 31 cents from their peak of $3.98 a gallon in May, and although small-car demand is still strong, buyers have started to shift to larger vehicles. Compact and subcompact sales fell to just under 195,000 last month, down from 238,000 in March, according to Autodata Corp.

There's now a shortage of cars at Pacific Honda near San Diego. But they'll be a surplus after July and buyers will see deals, says Wayne Meyer, president of the chain that owns the dealership. Pacific Honda has about 38 vehicles in stock instead of the usual 350.

"There's going to be so much car availability," Meyer says. Automakers "are going to be defending market share they gained or regaining market share they lost."

Friday, July 15, 2011

A little help? Recent college grad goes looking for his first new car

A little help? Recent college grad goes looking for his first new car
steven cole smith

Pedro Falci of Coral Gables recently graduated from college, and soon he'll be starting a new job in Los Angeles. Which – like some of our larger cities in Florida – isn't known for its stellar public transportation system.

So Falci needs a car. "I didn't need a car in college," he says, "but I'm starting this new job, and I need a car now. This is my first time dealing with car dealers, and I'd be thankful for some advice."

No problem. And while Falci is interested in a particular new car – a 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LS – the suggestions apply to most every potential purchase.

He has some specific questions about the car-buying experience, so let's get to them:

What would be the best time of the year, and of the month, to buy a new car?

You'll hear and read plenty of advice that suggests the end of the month is the best time for multiple reasons, including the fact that dealers are hustling to make their quotas. I've seldom found that makes much of a difference. I believe any good, slow day, when there isn't much going on inside the store, the sales staff and the F&I (finance and insurance) managers tend to work a little harder to make a deal happen.

Is it true that when the 2012 model comes out prices of the 2011 model drop dramatically?

Not always. The Cruze you are considering was all-new for the 2011 model year, and since very few changes ae expected for the 2012 Cruze, I'd wouldn't look for big discounts. The Cruze replaced the Cobalt: When a car is getting replaced, or undergoing a major redesign, the previous' year's model usually is discounted considerably. There were, for example, very good deals on the 2010 Cobalt.

Why do prices vary so much in Florida from city to city, county to county?

Dealers pay the same price for new vehicles, whether the store is big or small. Differences are usually due to overhead, the value of the real estate the dealership is located on, and how badly the dealership needs to sell cars. I've gotten great deals at tiny country dealerships, and at huge big-city dealers. Sales tax can vary from county to county in Florida, but the differences are small.

Why do prices vary so much on different models of the Chevrolet Cruze?

The Cruze LS starts at $17,275, and the top-of-the-line Cruze LTZ can cost as much as $23,670. Manufacturers and dealers make a higher percentage of profit off "loaded" vehicles that have a lot of features, so they aren't always the best buy. Even the base Cruse LS has air conditioning, a stereo with satellite radio, stability control and all the other safety equipment you'd get on a pricier model. (And you do need air conditioning in Florida – a car without air takes a huge hit in resale value, eliminating any original savings.) Do you need a navigation system, or leather interior, or flashier tires and wheels? If you do, fine, but expect to pay for them on any new vehicle.

Is everything negotiable?

Tax, title and license aren't. In Florida, most dealers charge a "dealer fee" between $400 and $1,000, which is set by the dealer. They don't have to charge it, but if they do, they must charge it to everyone. Technically, then, it isn't negotiable, but when I deal, I expect them to either discount the car enough, or add enough to my trade-in, to where I'm comfortable with the numbers. Any add-on stickers for extra dealer-installed features, or "market adjustments," is negotiable. Be sure to check for rebates or financing deals on the manufacturer's web site, which usually asks for a zip code, because there may sometimes be regional rebates that apply only to Florida or surrounding states. Chevy, for instance, offers more than $400 for a "college discount" to current or just-graduated students.

A final word of advice: Shop around until you are satisfied with the deal. I've bought from the very first dealer I've visited, and I've bought after visiting a dozen. I always have a price in mind (which I typically do not share with the dealer), and if I can find it, I'm buying. And if I can't, I won't – or will reconsider whether the price I have in mind is reasonable.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

'Used vehicle market under pressure'

'Used vehicle market under pressure'
The used vehicle market is under pressure as the price gap between new and used cars narrows, according to the results of the TransUnion vehicle pricing index released on Thursday.
“The shortage of quality, late model used cars on the market, combined with the many excellent 'deals' that are available from manufacturers on new cars, has led to declining demand for used vehicles,” said TransUnion Auto Information Solutions CEO Mike von Höne in a statement.
The number of one and two-year-old models available for resale had dropped due to a decline in new vehicle sales in 2009 and 2010.
“At the same time, the fall in the rate of new car inflation from more than 10 percent in 2009 to under five percent in 2010 and the first half of 2011, has resulted in a narrowing of the price gap between new and used cars.”
The ratio of used to new cars financed dropped from 1.95 used cars for every new car financed in the first quarter of this year, to just 1.63 used cars to every new car financed.
However, the number of used vehicles financed in the second quarter of 2011 was up 24 percent from the previous quarter.
According to the index, new and used car inflation lagged consumer price inflation in the second quarter.
The index, which measures the year-on-year price inflation of a market weighted basket of new and used vehicles, shows new car inflation at four percent for the second quarter.
This was higher than the rate of 3.7 percent in the first quarter.
Used car inflation slowed from 3.4 percent in the first quarter of the year to 3.1 percent.
“It is the slowest rate of increase since 2009 when used car price deflation was a regular occurrence.”
Both new and used car inflation was lower than consumer price inflation which was 4.6 percent in May up from 4.2 percent in April.
Von Höne said the disruption of the Japanese vehicle manufacturing sector following the earthquakes and tsunami in March had no impact on new vehicle sales or pricing in South Africa.
“There have been some delays in component availability, which affected local manufacturers' ability to produce new vehicles, but this situation is not expected to continue for much longer,” he said. - Sapa

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Groupon's Latest Offering? $500 Off a Car

Groupon's Latest Offering? $500 Off a Car

By Graeme McMillan

For those who feel that daily deals sites would be a lot more interesting if only they offered deals on something other than spas and local restaurants, Groupon has an offer for you: $500 off a brand new car.

Admittedly, you'd have to be in Detroit to take advantage of the deal—paying $199 to get $500 off a new or pre-owned vehicle from LaFontaine Auto dealership—but it's another sign that Groupon is taking the daily deals framework into areas where you wouldn't expect it. The company has recently also offered a deal for $500 off closing costs for real estate purchases.
These moves may be a way in which Groupon aims to distinguish itself from the masses of competitors springing up recently (GoogleOffers, Amazon Local, et al) but beyond the headlines it'll generate, it's uncertain how successful such big ticket items will be with the site's 80+ million members and whether it'll end up sending some of those members to other daily deals sites where they can more easily afford what's on offer.

That said, as soon as someone starts offering 50% off transatlantic air fares, I'm there.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Equifax Shows Auto Loans Way Up in Q1 of 2011

Equifax Shows Auto Loans Way Up in Q1 of 2011
By Justin Stoltzfus
New data from a major credit research company shows that auto loans are becoming a bigger part of the American market, with a substantial increase that brings overall lending for car financing back to “pre-recession levels.” Equifax, one of the three major credit agencies, has announced that the first quarter of 2011 brought 87 billion dollars in American car loans, a gain of 20% from Q1 of 2010, with March 2011 numbers at around 33 billion. In its National Credit Trend Report, Equifax shows how the auto sector is coming back, as other parts of our economy continue to flounder. The recent numbers are higher than anything seen since 2008, even in 2009 when consumers could take advantage of a little more seed money for an auto loan with the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.

The Equifax report also shows consumers a little more about what the average car loan borrower was paying in March: estimates of average loan amounts and payments can help new or used car buyers figure out where they stand when inking a car loan deal. Equifax cites an average of around $18,500 for car loans originated through banks and credit unions, with just over $19,000 for the average deal through an auto finance company. For new car buyers, monthly payments for loans made through a bank or credit union are also slightly cheaper than those from auto finance companies, with averages of $366 and $397 respectively. These numbers are both down from March of 2010, which indicates that even with supply issues dogging the general auto market, and many lenders skittish about reaching out to the growing “sub-prime” crowd, there are still deals to be had in financing a car.

Use these numbers when you go to the dealer’s lot, or when you are calling up a third party lender, and do appropriate research to make sure that you get the auto loan that you deserve with the lowest interest rates and fees possible. Some dealers and other lenders will use a kind of carrot-and-stick approach with the implicit threat of loan rejection to get borrowers to agree to higher interest rates or extras tacked onto monthly payments. Stand your ground and know your credit score, as well as the current prime lending rate, and your trade-in value, to keep debt off of your plate when financing a new or used car.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Upcoming vehicle technology and trends just around the corner

Future Car Trends
Upcoming vehicle technology and trends just around the corner

By: Jon Gromer

In our lifetime we will witness the age of 100 mile-per gallon cars, lifetime headlights and taillights, streaming entertainment and information content, and cars that drive themselves. Actually, all this will be here a lot sooner than you think -- within the next few years. Here's the stuff of automotive dreams, already on queue for production.
Diesels are aiming to be the new hybrids. The problem is, diesel's used to be dirty engines and have had a hard time making any progress in the U.S. market. But new emissions technology solves that, giving these oil burners a clean bill of health in all 50 states. The high cost of diesels is also coming down to more affordable levels. Look for these cleaner, more efficient diesel engines in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Volkswagen Jetta TDI;Mercedes' E320, ML320 and GL320 BLUETEC models, Chevy SilveradoGMC Sierra 2500/3500 HD, Dodge Ram 2500/3500 and the Ford F-250/F-350/F-450. Also on the horizon is a diesel powered Honda Accord, set to debut in 2009, which is apparently capable of 52 mpg.
Hybrids are hot now (who's going to argue with 50 MPG?), but they'll be getting hotter as prices in this segment also come down. J.D. Power predicts 345,000 hybrids will be sold in '07 -- a 35 percent increase over '06. Honda and Hyundai are gunning for the big mileage (and sales) numbers by dropping their smallest engine into their most lightweight chassis (a Honda Fit-sized car and Hyundai Accent respectively). Also look for large models, like the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and Saturn's Vue and Aura Green Line models to deliver modest fuel savings at practical prices and stylish packaging.
More exciting than both diesels and hybrids is a technology that has gone from theory to aluminum in the last couple of years because of advances in computer technology. HCCI, or homogeneous charge compression ignition (also see more on HCCI at Autoblog), is a gas engine that acts like a diesel motor. Like a diesel engine, gas inside the cylinder is ignited through compression and the heat generated by the engine itself. No spark plugs. The result? Diesel economy and efficiency at roughly half the weight and materials cost of a conventional gas engine with no need to treat the exhaust. GM demonstrated two vehicles fitted with HCCI engines in August. Mercedes wowed crowds even more recently at the Frankfurt auto show with their DiesOtto implementation that merges HCCI technology with a mild hybrid module to produce 238 hp, 295 lb.-ft. of torque and 39 mpg in a vehicle the size of an S-Class sedan. Mercedes squeezed that performance from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine.
All of these technologies are stop-gap solutions until the most efficient answer arrives on our shores -- hydrogen. How soon? FreedomCAR, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Energy and the United States Council for Automotive Research, projects that hydrogen technology will be broadly available to the masses by 2015. On the fuel cell side, Honda has indicated that their new FCX Concept will slide alongside the existing previous-generation FCX already on the road by 2008. GM's Project Driveaway is putting at least 100 fuel-cell powered vehicles in the hands of lucky testers this year, but the hydrogen-powered Equinoxes are not available for sale. As for hydrogen combustion engines, small numbers are popping up as manufacturers like BMW (see the BMW Hydrogen 7 at Autoblog) keep real-world testing and refining concepts, but there are no production plans as of yet. Obviously, both solutions face infrastructure challenges for refueling that are still being worked out.
Until the heady days of hydrogen power are realized, you still have radical alternatives to diesel and conventional hybrids if you want to drive green.
Internet reports abound of home-customized Priuses topping the 100 mpg mark with the advantage of enhanced battery packs and modified software keeping the cars running on electric power far longer than their stock counterparts. Plug-in hybrids hold the potential to dwarf the fuel economy potential of diesels and hybrids, but cheeky price points, mostly from the cost of hefty battery packs, might be what are holding off production announcements from manufacturers. Not even a date can be pegged to the darling of poster boards, Chevrolet's Volt. While plug-ins are being researched and developed by major manufacturers like Toyota, Ford and GM, the impatient can check out a handful of small companies which offer plug-in conversion kits for hybrids, complete with instructions.
Or the impatient can skip the gas motor all together. The smooth exterior lines and booked solid pre-orders of the Tesla proved that the electric car is far from dead ... it's just pretty expensive. Miles Automotive Group aims to change that. Their coming XS500, an electric midsize sedan, will arrive in the states in 2008 with a top speed of 80 mpg and a range of 120 miles. The price: $30,000. The XS500 could be joined by a $45,000 electric sport-utility truck and SUV from Phoenix Motorcars sometime in 2009. The SUV and SUT would start with a 130 mile range, a 0-60 time of 10 seconds and a top speed of 95 mph. Additional models coming to U.S. pavement (or already there) include Zap's intriguing Zap-X, Wrightspeed's blazingly fast Wrightspeed X1, and the very affordable NmG from Myers Motors.
A survey conducted by TRG, Telematics Research Group Inc., reveals that nearly 70% of announced upcoming 2008 vehicles for sale in the U.S. will have a Bluetooth communications system either as optional or standard equipment. Navigation systems will be available in 80% of coming 2008 vehicles, according to the same survey. We're at the point where digital entertainment storage systems like Microsoft/Ford's SYNC (see video of SYNC at Autoblog) and Chrysler's MyGiG (see MyGig at Autoblog) are about to go from super cool to everyday accessories like an iPod thanks to broad introductions that span the luxury segment to value-driven cars like the Ford Focus. What's the next frontier?
Streaming media is one. Supplier interviews conducted by the Center For Automotive Research (CAR) point to 2010 as the year when customized or on-demand content will be streamed to vehicles. That customized content could span the gamut from television programming and movies to important local updates, along with new, far more robust real-time traffic data through two-way communication. Couple this trend with the fact that vehicle-based digital storage (handy for buffering downloads) will increase and drop in price, and you have a done deal. Almost: CAR notes that the challenge isn't displaying the content, but finding the bandwidth and compression necessary to deliver the programming.
A closer star on the horizon of coming entertainment is HD radio, which is popping up in cars by BMW and Ford this year, and will be added to, at least, the Jaguar XJ and Hyundai's Genesis for 2008. Using technology licensed from a company called iBiquity Digital, HD radio promises to deliver AM radio in FM-quality sound and FM channels in CD-quality sound, along with accompanying data that will begin with artist, song and station information. Digital radio gives a broader frequency response to channels, transforms AM radio from mono to stereo, and allows for better stereo separation. Check out iBiquity Digital to hear the difference. Bob Struble, president and CEO of iBiquity sees next-generation HD radios offering users the chance to buy songs and advertised products or even bring TiVo-like qualities to the radio experience. iBiquity estimates that by 2008 more than 90% of the U.S. population will be reached by HD radio broadcasters.
The Lexus LS 460 is the first vehicle for sale in the U.S. that can park itself. Audi's dynamic steering system adjusts the driver's steering inputs when the vehicle senses that the handling limits have been reached, even making slight corrective inputs on its own when things are getting out of hand. The Lane Departure Prevention System on Infiniti's new EX35 manipulates the brakes at individual wheels to help steer the ute back into its lane when it senses an unintentional drift. Welcome to the brave new world of Active Safety 2.0, where your vehicle humbly offers assistance to keep you out of trouble, in addition to trying to save you when you're in it.
In 2005 General Motors announced that the 2008 Opel Vectra would be the first car to boast Traffic Assist, a system that allows the car to drive itself at speeds up to 60 mph -- even in heavy traffic. The system sees road signs, bends and other vehicles in the road to adjust the car’s trajectory and speed according to everything going on around it. As advanced and capable as the system may be, composed of processors, lasers and a video camera, it won’t be offered for sale in the United States, but in Germany. Why? Two reasons: one, we live in the most litigious nation in the world. Two, we Americans, as a mass of consumers, aren't comfortable paying additional price premiums for the safety technology we crave -- we feel it should be included in the vehicle's price.
One coming revolution we'll definitely see is brake-by-wire technology. A brake-by-wire system replaces the hydraulic hardware of conventional brakes with faster-acting and more environmentally friendly electric motors and relays that should be more reliable and take up less space. We're already seeing conventional hydraulic systems get smarter with radar-based augmentations like Mercedes' Brake Assist Plus and Infiniti's Preview Braking by pressurizing the brake system earlier, allowing for a faster response and shorter braking distance when the driver decides to hit the pedal. A fully electronic braking system should further improve on stopping times and distances. Automotive News predicts brake-by-wire systems will surface in 2011.
Whether or not you purchase a vehicle with any, or all, of these trends one thing is certain ... automotive dreams do come true.