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Friday, August 2, 2013

Car lease deals are no longer just for luxury vehicles

Car lease deals are no longer just for luxury vehicles

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. - Toyota is using $199-a- month leases on its Camry to keep it the top-selling car in the United States, much as it did to recover from record recalls and Japan’s tsunami. Now it’s pulling the rest of the industry with it.
Once primarily a tool for selling luxury vehicles, leasing is becoming common among hot-selling family sedans, such as Ford’s Fusion and Honda’s Accord. Supported by high used-car prices, low interest rates and Americans’ tendency to buy vehicles based on the monthly payments, U.S. auto leasing is at the highest levels in at least a decade and pacing the industry’s best year since 2007.
"It’s a great way to present a product at very affordable monthly prices," Peter DeLongchamps, a vice president for Group 1 Automotive Inc., the fourth-largest U.S. auto dealership group and one of the nation’s biggest Toyota retailers, said by telephone. "There’s absolutely no question" Toyota is using leasing to contend in an increasingly competitive mid-size car segment.
Leasing’s share of U.S. new-vehicle sales has been at least 22.5 percent in every month this year, according to J.D. Power & Associates. The four top months for lease penetration in the last decade, the extent of Power’s data, were in 2013, and each of the year’s first six months rank among the top nine, the Westlake Village, Calif.-based researcher said.
The momentum for leasing is driving U.S. car and light truck sales to a six-year high. Deliveries may climb 15 percent for July to 1.33 million, the average estimate of nine analysts in a survey by Bloomberg News. The annualized industry sales rate, adjusted for seasonal trends, may climb to 15.8 million, the average of 15 estimates, from 14.1 million a year earlier.
The industry sales pace for the month keeps the U.S. on track for its best year since 16.1 million vehicles were sold in 2007. It’s also further evidence of the disparate paths of the American auto industry and the city of Detroit, which filed the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in history this month.
The reasons for leasing’s strength extend beyond the race for the top-selling U.S. car. Industrywide gains in product quality and strong used-car prices allow automakers to project higher values for their vehicles when leases expire. This trend is combining with record-low interest rates in allowing the companies to offer cheaper monthly payments.
Leasing has historically tended to be more common on high- end models, accounting for roughly half of sales for some. David Welch, a product manager for a technology company in San Jose, Calif., signed a two-year lease on a Mercedes E350 4Matic during the Fourth of July weekend.
"Moving into luxury cars, it made so much more sense to rent them than to buy them," Welch said in a telephone interview. "For two years, I’ve got a car where I’ve only got to put gas and insurance into it."
Leasing’s expansion into more mainstream segments also can cultivate loyal customers who can move up into higher-priced vehicles for their future purchases, said Kevin Tynan, an auto analyst for Bloomberg Industries in Skillman, N.J.
"It does create move-ups," he said. "Instead of being in a compact car and having to lease, you’ll get people up from compact cars into mid-size cars by being aggressive there."
Buyers are showing "growing acceptance" of leasing in more segments, including mid-size cars, said Bill Fay, a Toyota group vice president. The prices paid for Toyota’s vehicles at the end of their lease, known as resale or residual values, tend to rank among the highest in the industry.
"We’re going to leverage a good position we have from resale values to use that as an advantage," Fay said in a phone interview. "It allows us to offer very competitive monthly payments."
The ability to offer Camry at cheaper monthly rates is crucial as Toyota tries to stem declining demand for the car in the year’s first half. Camry deliveries slipped 2.9 percent to 207,626, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
Competitors, including Ford, Honda and Nissan, are closing in on Camry, the top-selling car in the U.S. for the past 11 years. A 20 percent surge in Tokyo-based Honda’s Accord deliveries during the first half cut its sales deficit to Camry by 65 percent from a year earlier, to less than 21,000.
The Altima, one of seven models that Yokohama, Japan-based Nissan lowered prices on beginning in May, has trimmed its shortfall to Camry by 30 percent, to about 40,000. And Ford has pared Camry’s lead on its Fusion by 40 percent, to less than 47,000.
All four automakers probably will post increased July sales across their respective lineups. Ford may report a 17 percent gain, the average of nine estimates. Deliveries probably will rise 17 percent for Toyota, 16 percent for Honda and 13 percent for Nissan, each the average of seven estimates.
The analysts’ average estimate for Honda sales is in line with the forecast John Mendel, the company’s U.S. executive vice president, gave in a telephone interview. Deliveries will be up 16 percent to 18 percent for the Honda brand and 6 percent to 7 percent for Acura, he said.
Leasing is "a way to reach consumers that were risk-averse and hesitant to jump out there and buy a new car," Alec Gutierrez, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said in a telephone interview. The leasing rate for Camry rose to about one-fourth of sales in each month early in 2013, from 20 percent or less a year earlier, according to the Irvine, California- based researcher’s data.
The rise in leasing activity extends beyond top mid-size car contenders. Leases were 20 percent of GM’s U.S. sales during the second quarter, up 4.6 percentage points from the same period a year earlier, Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann said last week during the company’s quarterly earnings call.
GM said it outpaced the growth in leasing for the rest of the industry, which was up 2.5 percentage points to 24.3 percent of all sales. The Detroit-based company, which is preparing to roll out a wave of new models in this year’s second half, probably will lead all automakers this month with a 20 percent sales gain, the average of nine estimates.
"As long as things are going in that direction, it can’t ever get too high," David Westcott, a dealer selling GM’s Buick and GMC brand vehicles in Burlington, North Carolina, said of the leasing rate. Westcott is chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Ford is more cautious in its views on the trend of increased leasing activity. The Dearborn-based company’s leasing business has been increasing as a share of its U.S. sales, although its mix is still below the industry average, CFO Bob Shanks said in a phone interview.
"If you go back though in the prior decade, there were periods where leasing was excessive," Shanks said last week. "I don’t think we want to return to those days. We just want to be able to provide the appropriate level of leasing depending upon who’s out there and interested in our products."
Automakers and lenders moved away from leasing during the financial crisis, with Chrysler’s predecessor abandoning the market in 2008, as the credit markets seized up and residual values fell. Since GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcies the following year,
GM has acquired AmeriCredit and renamed it General Motors Financial, and Chrysler has formed an auto-financing venture with Banco Santander.
Chrysler deliveries may increase 16 percent in July, the average of nine estimates. The Auburn Hills-based company’s residual values have been on the rise, helping boost sales of 200 sedans and Dodge Dart compacts from the lot of dealerships such as Extreme Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram.
"We love two-year leases because people come back in two years," said owner Wesley Lutz, who said leases have accounted for about one-third of the Jackson store’s sales this year.
Leasing will stay strong as long as used-car prices remain at historically high levels and interest rates continue to be low, said Group 1’s DeLongchamps. The Houston-based dealer group reported revenue of $2.34 billion for the three months ending June 30, a quarterly record for the company.
"Finding low-mileage, late-model cars is still very difficult," he said. "The supply is improving a little bit, but you still see leasing activity happening because the residuals are so strong. Interest rates are still cheap."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mercedes-Benz integrating Google Glass into its cars

Mercedes-Benz integrating Google Glass into its cars

Google Glass may be the must have accessory for nerds of the moment, but it could play the same role for luxury car owners soon.

The Silicon Valley Business Journal reports that Mercedes-Benz is working to integrate the wearable computer with its in-car infotainment systems.

The primary goal, according to the report, is to create a navigation system that seamlessly moves with the wearer from inside to outside the car.

The idea is that you enter a destination when you leave home which then automatically transfers to the car’s built in system as you drive and back to the Glass when you get out of the car, allowing for walking directions to your final destination.

Glass currently offers navigation when tethered to a smartphone, but using it requires that you wear the device the entire time.

The Mercedes-Benz still a few years away from the real world, as Google Glass itself is still under development and not even generally available to consumers yet, but Mercedes Benz is clearly aiming to be ready if it catches on with its customers.

In the meantime, to prove its agnosticism when it comes to technology, the automaker is also working on a suite of applications that work with Apple’s Siri voice command system, because there’s no telling what those successful nerds of the future will be into.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Porsche's expanded lineup has auto dealers coveting brand

Porsche's expanded lineup has auto dealers coveting brand

When a cluster of Minneapolis luxury-car dealerships went up for sale last year, one brand was prized above the Mercedes-Benz and Audi stores.
“Porsche was the cherry on the cake,” Jay Hulbert, the president of the dealership group that acquired the outlets, said in a telephone interview. “The volume is so dramatically different, yet when you dig into the financial performance, Porsche meets your expectations and then some.”
For decades, Porsche AG took Henry Ford’s any-color-so-long-as-it’s-black approach. It offered only high-end, two-door sports cars. The addition of a second sport-utility vehicle to the lineup later this year, after a decade in which Porsche introduced its first SUV and four-door sedan, is heightening the interest of dealers who used to view the franchises mostly as trophy stores.

AutoNation Inc., Penske Automotive Group Inc. and Asbury Automotive Group Inc., three of the largest new-car retailers in the U.S., all have purchased Porsche franchises since 2010. In a period of sparse activity for auto-dealership acquisitions, the deals vaulted Porsche among the most frequently acquired franchises by publicly traded groups during that span.
The unit of Volkswagen AG, which took control of the Stuttgart, Germany-based automaker last August, has capped its U.S. dealer count as it expands its lineup, pushing its sales per franchise past higher-volume brands including Chrysler and Cadillac. Plus, Porsche models such as the 911 sports car command margins among the highest in the industry.
Anxious Buyers
“If a dealer wanted to sell, I have 10 buyers willing to overpay” for a Porsche franchise, said Bob Morris, a director at auto-dealership brokerage Tim Lamb Group LLC.
While some Porsche aficionados chafe at the lineup’s expansion, seeing SUVs and four-door sedans as a violation of the brand’s principles, the value and profitability of the Porsche franchise has changed more dramatically than for any brand in the industry in the last 20 years, said Alan Haig, managing director for Presidio Automotive, which advises dealers who are looking to sell their stores.
“There aren’t that many sports-car buyers in the world,” said Haig, who previously oversaw acquisitions at AutoNation, the largest U.S. auto-dealer group. “Many Porsche stores were bought almost as a toy for the dealer, for him to have something nice to drive and to go on nice trips. But it wasn’t a serious money-making investment.”
Cayenne’s Impact
That changed when the brand introduced the Cayenne SUV, which debuted in the U.S. market in 2003. Porsche transformed from drawing wealthy males to attracting well-off families who could justify paying $60,000 for an SUV that drove more like a sports car than a truck.
“They combined the strength of Porsche in terms of performance with what the market wanted, which was capacity to handle a family or grocery shopping or maybe pulling a boat,” Haig said in a telephone interview.
Next came the Panamera, the four-door sedan that Porsche began building in 2009. It attracted the 50- and 60-something buyer who wanted to be able to stow golf clubs or drive friends comfortably to dinner instead of squeezing into a coupe.
While Porsche offerings expanded, the number of Porsche dealerships in the U.S. has shrunk slightly to 189 today, from a little more than 200 in 2009, said Detlev von Platen, president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America Inc.
The simultaneous moves have done wonders for Porsche’s sales per franchise, a figure that’s crucial to dealers and is referred to within the industry as throughput.
Porsche Throughput
Porsche’s throughput climbed to 183 vehicle sales per franchise last year, a 23 percent increase from a year earlier, according to Automotive News Data Center. Porsche franchises had better throughput than Chrysler Group LLC’s namesake brand or General Motors Co.’s Cadillac and they more than doubled those of GM’s Buick and Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln.
This year, Porsche is on pace to exceed 200 sales per franchise on surging demand for its Boxster and Cayman sports cars and the Cayenne. The brand’s U.S. deliveries increased 30 percent in the year’s first six months, paced by a 47 percent jump for Cayenne and tripling of Boxster and Cayman deliveries.
Even as the brand’s sales have risen thanks in part to entry-level Cayennes that start at less than $50,000, Porsche dealers still sell enough of the brand’s higher-end models to produce eye-popping margins within the auto-retail industry.
Dealer Profit
Presidio’s Haig estimates that a Porsche dealer may make about $10,000 per new vehicle. By comparison, a Ford dealer probably would make about $4,000 on a high-end pickup, and dealers for Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury brand likely average $3,000 apiece.
“We haven’t seen a scintilla of compromise with respect to the brand promise and brand equity in the decisions that they’ve made,” said Greg Goodwin, chief executive officer of the West Coast dealer group Kuni Automotive, which bought a Porsche store in San Diego in 2011.
The lure of owning a Porsche dealership also extends into the service bay. The company’s models are some of the world’s most highly engineered vehicles, making it difficult for independent repair shops to compete with dealers.
Porsche owners also have a reputation for wanting to maintain their cars well.
“When the Porsche guy comes in, he’s going to get the highest-end tires,” Haig said. “He’s happy paying $150 for an oil change. He’s happy doing the multipoint inspections. He’s going to really maintain that car well. That’s his baby. So the shop is busy.”
Private Autobahn
Porsche is revealing the Macan small SUV at the Los Angeles auto show later this year that extends the brand into another segment. Once the Macan is on the market, SUVs may account for a little more than half of Porsche sales, Von Platen said.
On top of the new product, Porsche is building a new headquarters in Atlanta that will include a test track and delivery center. Dealers will be able to send customers there or to a Porsche Experience Center that’s also under construction in the Los Angeles area.
This will give owners a chance to push the limits of sports cars that can churn 560 horsepower and reach top speeds of almost 200 miles (322 kilometers) per hour.
“You can’t really benefit from any of that unless you’re severely violating the law,” Haig said. “They see this as a matter of there being no Autobahn in the U.S., so let’s just build our own.”