Sunday, June 14, 2009

Suzie New-Beginnings

And the winner of the Northwest Ohio Hatchback Smackdown is:
The Suzuki SX4

Here is her report.

Those of you that have been following my recent posts have heard me whine about the tragic caricide of my beloved CRV, Maggie. After much advice from my car expert brother, Phillip (thank you so much) and lengthy internet research, Justin and I set out today to look at and drive some cars. The Chevy Cobalt rental I was driving was making some scary rattling noises and smelled like something might have died in it recently. So off we went to Toledo. We looked at the Honda Fit, Pontiac Vibe, a used CRV, a Suzuki SX4, and did a driveby of a Scion . Even though in my heart I an a Honda girl, I had to admit that the Suzuki was a better buy for the money. It's basic... but not basic with a built in navigation system and cruise control. After much haggling with John who insisted on calling me "Sweetie" over and over (almost a deal breaker) We reached a mutual agreement on a price. After a phone conversation with Phillip( while the vultures circled around the office door) John came back with an even lower interest rate and Yes Phillip they did throw in the floor mats. it is a comfortable ride good handling and we got 30 miles per gallon on the way home. My nephew who is a deputy sheriff in an adjoining county stopped by shortly after we got home to get his 1969 Dodge Charger that he has been storing in our pole barn. Jerry gave it a very close inspection a short spin and was impressed with it's performance. He said he particularly liked the "arrest me red" color. I still miss Maggie. But, since driving must go on I think Suzie will be a good addition to our family.

By the way, initially the salesman drew up a deal that came up with a payment of $269. After the phone call described above (during which he was pacing nervously, no doubt chanting the mantra "Please don't bail, Please don't bail.....) the payment came in at $245. Under budget. About the only trump card a buyer has is the ability to walk away from the deal. It never hurts to stick to your target price and be prepared to walk. In this market you will get a call back. Pam had also done enough research that the sale price didn't start out in the stratosphere and come back to merely shocking.

I have to say that the Suzuki was my favorite going in. I would have liked to get a report on the Saturn Astra but it's lack of AWD and the future of Saturn were probably deal breakers from the get go. I'm not surprised that Pam and many others remarked on the good looks of the car. The SX4 is a joint venture of Suzuki and Fiat. The styling was done in Italy with Suzuki providing the AWD drivetrain and engine in this case. It also appears as the Fiat Sedici and is available with a selection of Fiat's nice turbo diesel motors. It is one of the few examples of a joint venture that I hope to see more of in the future.

The one weak point of Japanese cars until recently has been the ergonomics for American sized people. Europeans on the other hand understand how to build a smaller car for a bigger person. They just have trouble building engines and transmissions that are as reliable and easily maintained as their Japanese counterparts. Anyone who has owned a newer Volkswagen is aware of this. The current chaos in the automotive market in the US is going to force more joint ventures of this type and I think that's a good thing.

Fiat is already a master of this type of collaboration. As I've mentioned before, the new owners of Chrysler also have current or historical joint ventures with Ford and General Motors. So what can we expect in the new Chrysler lineup? Most of the buzz is about this car.

The Fiat Nuevo Cinquecento (New 500), here in Abarth performance trim. This has been a very successful car in Europe where it is marketed against the more expensive BMW mini. I like this car a lot but it won't sell to a broad audience and certainly is too minimal for family use. However Fiat has other options available that meet these needs.

The Fiat Bravo
The Fiat Grande Punto

These are the cars most ready to go to market here. Fiat also owns Alfa Romeo and Ferrari but these won't add much to the balance sheet. They also have quite advanced diesel technology and a number of other small SUVs and people carriers. This will be a good lineup if gas prices rise to the $4/gal. level again but they lack the bigger platforms Americans have traditionally favor. What will arise in this segment is anyone's guess but the current collaborations make me hopeful.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Facing the end

The end of the automobile comes in many guises. Some people choose to live in a post automotive world for moral or social reasons. Some, like Boulder's Ryan Van Duzer have never even driven a car. He is about to set off across the US on a 3 speed cruiser bike. Many others are trying to wind down their car habit by biking and walking more. For most of us, a car is a necessity for daily life. Until communities are designed to be navigated by something other than cars we're going to need some motorized transport.

Sometimes the end comes with a whimper. The $7 Accord went that way two weeks ago. I had an opportunity to buy a small Subaru wagon and I couldn't in good conscience pass it on to anyone else. 20 years, even in Colorado's rust free climate, is a long time for a car. Honda is one of the better manufacturers when it comes to supplying parts for older cars but even they get disinterested after a quarter century. Eventually the list of little things that must be fixed adds up to a good down payment on something newer.

In my sister's case the end came with a bang. She pulled up behind a municipal dump truck that went into reverse and crushed her 2000 CRV.
This sort of unplanned and unavoidable end is the hardest on people. If you need a car for work as she does you have to get going on a replacement process immediately and without the luxury of much research. You are tempted more than usual by emotional rather than informed decisions that can be costly in the long run. Pam knows she can afford a payment of about $250 a month and is hoping that her insurance will give her $5000 or more for her 9 year old 200,000 mile car. Using the payment calculator at that gives her a budget of about $17,000 including sales tax. A tricky price range given her need carry a lot of gear for her job and her preference for 4 wheel drive. Since her payment is based on her average reimbursement for mileage fuel economy is a big issue too.

The list of new cars that fit the criteria and the budget is pretty short. Used cars are a good value but always involve a more complicated search. You have to find one that looks good and then have it inspected to see if it really is good or you have to assume some risk. After a long discussion we came up with these candidates. Starting with the new car choices:
Suzuki SX4
A Japanese made car that is often overlooked. Probably the value 4 wheel drive alternative in the market. It has a well deserved reputation for durability and gets reasonable gas mileage in the mid twenties for most people. The dealer network is a little thin but available incentives make it a terrific value. It comes in under budget. I think it's worth a look.

Saturn Astra (aka Vauxhall Astra by Opel)
Pretty much the same MO as the Suzuki but without 4 wheel drive. It's European genes should make it the most comfortable car in the mix. The uncertain future of Saturn make it more of a risk. Still, Opel cars are enjoying a good run in Europe right now and odds are that someone will be sure to continue to market them in the States. This wouldn't be my pick for a 20 year car but given that my sister will drive it 20,000+ miles per year and lives in Northwest Ohio it won't have to be.
Honda Fit
Doesn't have 4wd but heck it's a Honda. It does come in at the budget limit though with the most Spartan interior. I'll be interested to see how these fare in the test drive phase.

Toyota Matrix with available 4wd and Scion XB before their recent redesigns would have made the new car list but I'm just not feeling the love for the new changes. The Matrix would also be pushing the budget envelope with 4wd and a comfortable trim level. Pam would be counting on a lot of help from her insurance company to keep payments at a comfortable level. As used cars the old models represent a good value. For those who drive less miles and want the car that is most likely to be supported for 20 years these might be the choices.

One thing that has to be kept in mind is that most post 2000 cars have little maintenance beyond oil changes and filters for 100,000 miles. A good thing if you are making car payments. The other side is that they usually have an expensive service list due at that mileage as well as a list of consumable parts like brakes and exhaust parts. If you buy a car with 75,000 miles or more you are going to be starting on these lists pretty soon along with the car payment. You will want to figure that into the budget.

So the used choices that will be under budget and good for the long haul:
Pontiac Vibe/ Toyota Matrix
Built on the same assembly line in the US they differ only in the body panels. 4wd is available but relatively rare which could lengthen the search time. Pontiac is also due for the chop at GM though that shouldn't cause too many problems. Lots of ex lease and rental cars out there but many are in a pretty pedestrian state of trim.
Scion xB
Another Toyota and the best example of a box big enough to fit just about anything. No 4wd is available and you'll have to do without cruise control though you may get a jack for your iPod that the Suzuki lacks. Like the Matrix/Vibe and Fit you will get the best gas mileage in the group at 30+mpg. Not a small consideration if you get paid by the mile. Of course if you drive a lot of miles every day you may not mind paying more to get a seat that is comfortable at the end of the day.

Test drive day is today. I'm waiting by the phone. Details will follow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Detroit enters the Fifth Dimension

If you are a career auto executive in Detroit today you must feel like someone "electrified" the municipal water supply. Chrysler is now owned by a foreign automaker that hasn't sold cars in the US in over 30 years (FIAT). GM is busy divesting itself of just about everything but Chevrolet. Saturn is being sold to Roger Penske who is said to be considering filling the showrooms with Renault Samsung products which are actually Nissans built by South Koreans. Opel(GM's Euro Division) has been sold to Canadian parts giant Magna International. No one can guess where they plan to sell cars. Doesn't matter much since no one has any idea when Americans will start buying cars again and what they will want when they do.

Two days ago a municipal dump truck totalled my sister's beloved Honda CRV so she's in the market.She lives less than 100 miles from ground zero in Detroit but the Chevy Cobalt she got as a rental is making her cringe at the thought of buying American. Tata Motors of India is said to be thinking of bringing their "cheapest car in the world" Nano to the States if they can somehow cobble it into compliance with US safety standards. They already are partnered up with Chrysler's Italian owners to build Fiats under license in India. The Beat Goes On.

All this has me thinking about what the signature American car for The Great Recession might look like.Citroen (which along with it's partner Peugeot are about the only manufacturers not being mentioned in current US scenarios) once tackled this problem in post WWII France. They spec'd a car that would carry a family across the rutted fields to market without breaking the bushel of eggs in the back seat. It needed to be simple, reliable and affordable by nearly all. The result of this design exercise was the 2CV which sold without many changes for more than 40 years.

Of course a design like this looks silly to modern eyes but that's not the point. It met the needs of it's time in a radical and innovative way and at a price point that allowed a working family to afford and maintain a new car. It created jobs for French people while doing so. While it made for a very leisurely vacation to the mountains it would do almost everything else people wanted a car for quite adequately and at low cost. Besides, you can't really take much of a vacation if you have a cow at home that needs milking.

My fervent hope is that Detroit's current acid dream yields a vehicle that meets those same criteria, produces it domestically, and with the same lasting joie de vivre. American style.