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Safe bets: Top-rated 2004 autos

Latest edition of 'The Car Book,' helps make sense of what's happening in the showrooms. Jack Gillis shares some highlights.

Buying a car has become more confusing than ever. Not only have SUVs become so ubiquitous that they have their own size classes, but carmakers also are trying desperately to overcome last year’s sales decline with a dizzying array of incentives and deals. To help make sense of what’s going in the showrooms across the nation, “Today” asked Jack Gillis, as he has for the past 24 years, to bring us some of the highlights from the latest edition of “The Car Book,” published by the non-profit Consumer Federation in cooperation with the Center for Auto Safety.

1. What’s the big picture? What has happened to the Big Three? And what do these changes mean for consumers? First of all, Toyota and Honda have done such a good job of building cars that the Camry and Accord are now #1 and 2 in car sales. There are ten foreign manufacturers now building cars in the U.S. while some traditional U.S. nameplates like the Ford Crown Victoria and Buick Regal are actually built in other countries.  So it’s become nearly impossible to buy what we used to think of as a “domestic” car.  GM is still the top U.S. automaker, but its share has slipped by about 20 percent in 10 years whereas Toyota’s increased by 50 percent. And the bottom line for consumers: The average price of a new car is now a whopping $30,000!

2. Before you highlight some of the 2004 “Car Book” choices, remind us how you arrive at the best bets.We look at eight criteria: Crash Tests, Safety Features, Rollover, Fuel Economy, Warranties, Maintenance Costs, Insurance and Consumer Complaints. We rate the cars by size class and there are a number of choices in each class.

3. What were the best small cars?
Our two top choices for subcompacts were the Hyundai Accent and Mini Cooper. The Hyundai, in particular, proves you don’t have to pay a lot of money to get a good choice. The Accent ranges between $10-12K. It got 10s in Repair Costs, Warranty, and Complaints, 9s in Front Crash Tests, Fuel Economy and Rollover. It’s powered by an adequate 1.6-liter 4-cylinder, so it’s clearly not the fastest car on the block and you’ll have to upgrade to the GL model to get air conditioning, but fuel economy at 27/35 mpg is very good and its top rated on our ease-of-parking index. In short, it’s safe, inexpensive transportation.

4. Talking of safety, who did best in the front crash tests? 
Ford Freestar/Mercury MontereyChrysler PacificaHonda Civic 4-Dr Acura RSXHonda Accord Coupe

5. Isn’t it a bit surprising that there isn’t a Volvo among the top five?
That’s right. Where Volvo and Mercedes once had the corner on safety, other manufacturers have dramatically improved their crashworthiness. Nevertheless, in terms of well-rounded safety, Volvo remains a top choice. In addition to scoring 10s in side crash tests, safety features and rollover, the Volvo S60 has a traction control system to prevent skidding, is equipped with Volvo’s unique whiplash protection system — where the seats themselves respond to an accident — and has optional speed-sensitive steering which increases the tension on the wheel the faster you go to help prevent oversteering.

6.  Before we look at the large cars, repair costs are important in your ratings, which cars have the lowest repair costs?
To determine repair costs, we compare nine typical repairs you’ll likely experience after the warranty expires. The first lowest cars are: 

Kia Spectra                  $1,768Hyundai Accent            $1,779Chrysler Sebring           $1,817Ford Focus                  $1,822Hyundai Elantra            $1,846

7. And what is particularly good in the large car class?
The Mercedes E 320 Wagon joins some Chryslers, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Fords as a Best Bet in the large car category because of very strong performance in front and side crash tests, excellent safety features, low rollover rating and insurance costs. Noteworthy about the E-Class is that the models range in price from $48 to 78K. The higher priced models offer more horsepower and features, but the rating will be the same because we consider the basics. So you don’t have to spend an extra thirty grand to get a highly rated car. In fact, one of the things that we’ve noticed over the years, is that how much you pay for a car does not predict its rating!

8. There are now more than 80 SUVs on the market right now, with more on the way. What sort of impact are they having on the market?
First of all, they are ubiquitous! Nearly 40 percent of all registered vehicles on the road are SUVs or trucks. More and more minivan buyers are turning to SUVs and companies are now designing both cars and minivans to have SUV qualities: all wheel drive, more cargo room, and higher seating positions. The result: minivan sales are down nearly 7 percent. GM is even dropping the term minivan, calling the all-new Saturn Relay and Buick Terraza crossover sport vans or CSVs. The two top choices in mid-sized SUVs are the Acura MDX and Jeep Liberty.

9. We’re seeing lots of rebates and incentives. What’s the deal?
GM, Ford and Chrysler are leading the pack with rebates as high as $4000 and 0 percent financing is still available. And some companies like Jeep are actually offering you both.  But be aware that to get the low priced financing, you have to have a very high credit rating.  In the past, only about 10 percent of buyers have qualified for the 0 percent. The most important thing to remember in negotiating is to get your best price, THEN get the rebate.

10. How much should you consider resale value when buying?
First, you have to remember that cars basically are a bad investment. Resale value is difficult to predict and affected by factors other than the car. So be careful buying a car for its predicted resale value. There does, however, seem to be a lowering of resale value of some with high rebates. Essentially, the high rebate lowers the value of the car right away. We’ve taken a look at the top 100 selling cars 4 years ago and determined the following had the top resale value: 

Jeep Wrangler 85% Toyota Tacoma 85%Toyota Celica 82%Honda Odyssey 81%BMW 3 Series 80%

11. How about showroom strategy? What’s the best way to get a good price?
Your most powerful weapon is the 180-degree turn. If you don’t like what you hear, be prepared to walk away from the deal. Here are some others:

-Don’t fall in love with one car.-Never look too interested in a particular vehicle.-Bring a friend to play the pessimist.-Never leave a deposit. You’ll feel rushed and end up facing the dealer again before you’re ready.-Buy from stock if you can. The dealer is more eager to get rid of stock.-Beware of silence. Dealers use it to intimidate you.-Bring ads or brochures about other vehicles and make notes to send the message that you have other options.-Negotiate. Nothing is set in stone — everything, even if written down, is negotiable.-Don’t talk price until you’re ready to buy and you won’t be ready until after you’ve test-driven a few possibilities and researched invoice prices.-Use the phone. Call about six dealers and tell them they have one chance to make you an offer.

12.  Fuel efficiency continues to be one of your concerns, but are we really seeing much in terms of new technology? 
The hottest fuel improvements come from hybrids. These are cars, which actually have two engines — gas and electric that kicks in at different times. This combination not only reduces pollution but improves fuel economy as much as 40 percent. There are 3 hybrid-powered cars on the market. The Honda Insight and Civic Hybrids and the Toyota Prius. The all-new Prius is in the same size class as the Camry, which means people interested in a larger vehicle now have a hybrid choice. Not only can these cars get 50 miles per gallon, but also they qualify for $2000 No Emissions Vehicle Tax Credit from the IRS. They are so popular that the carmakers are scrambling to design hybrid engines for SUVs and pickups. In fact 4 SUV and 1 pickup hybrid will be on the market in 2005: The Lexus RX400, Toyota Highlander hybrid, Ford Escape, the Saturn Vue, and the Dodge Ram.

For more ratings from the “The Car Book 2004,” you can go to the Center for Auto Safety’s Web site at or obtain a copy by sending a check for $17.50 to Center for Auto Safety, 1825 Connecticut Ave NW, #330, Washington, DC 20009. Sales benefit the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.