Friday, May 31, 2013

Some Car Buying Tips

Car shopping would be funner if I were buying one of these.

I absolutely hate car shopping. Most people are surprised to find this out since they just assume my automotive infatuation makes car shopping a joyful experience. When I clarify why I hate car shopping everyone just nods and smiles to themselves, because they know what I'm talking about.

I hate car shopping not for the test drives, the kicking of tires, etc. What I hate is the money end of it. While there are a few dealerships out there that are pretty honest and straightforward with customers, there are unfortunately enough shysters out there that the car buying experience can be pretty miserable. It makes buying a car a completely stressful experience, where one wrong move can cost you thousands of dollars without giving you anything extra in return.

After many vehicle purchases and many painful hours spent in car dealerships, I am passing my knowledge of car shopping on to you all. This is by no means the end-all list of car shopping tips, but rather some useful items that can help save you some grief. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any tips of your own or want to share your car shopping horror stories.

Now, for the tips:

Know what you want before you get there. If you walk into a dealership or peruse the lot and you haven't done some research, you need to make a solemn promise to yourself that you are not going to sign any papers or talk anything about finance that day. Test drive some vehicles if you aren't sure what you will like, but don't mix that visit with your visit to actually purchase a vehicle. Do thorough homework at home on the Internet about the vehicles you are considering to help you narrow down what you want. When you go to a dealership to buy a vehicle, you need to know exactly what make and model you want, plus all of the options you would like. NEVER ask a car salesman, no matter how honest he seems, what kind of car you should get or to help you choose between two different cars you are considering.

Set a time limit and  stick to it. Car dealers often like to make you wait for hours on end. It's a device they use to wear you down so you don't put up as much of a fight over all the extra crap they will throw on your sales contract. If you are being made to wait around too much, leave. Seriously just get up and walk out. You might even want to tell them you only have so long. But don't let them hurry you up into a deal right then, because that's when you can agree to things you should not. Instead, tell them to write up the sales contract and give you a call when it's ready. Then you can go back at your convenience and review the contract. This puts you in the position of control.

Leave if you are getting jerked around. I've done this a few times with dealerships that try to play games or go back on their word about something. If you haven't signed the purchase agreement you can leave at any time and they are powerless to stop you. If a salesman starts chasing you, then is an opportune time to give them your final demands as you continue walking to your car. In the event they offer to "fix" the deal for you, let them know there is a time limit to make it happen or you will leave again. Sometimes the dealership will let you leave but then later in the day or even a few days later you will receive a call from the sales manager. Again, this is your moment to negotiate for what you want, so go for it.

Always cite a reason for a lower price. If you feel that a price offer on a car isn't fair, you need to have done your homework to know exactly why. Is there a competing dealership offering a better price on the same car? Is it a used car with high miles or damage on it? If you can cite a reason for a low ball offer on a car, the dealership employees will know you are educated enough to know the true value of the vehicle and they will often cave in to your request.

Never concentrate just on monthly payments! Too many car shoppers look exclusively at the monthly payments for the vehicle they are interested in. BIG MISTAKE! Negotiate the car's total purchase price before you ever talk about monthly payments. Dealers will often get you to concentrate on the monthly amount as they jack the total purchase price up. There are plenty of ways to shrink a car's monthly payments, like extending the life of the loan a year. Keep your eye on the prize and get the total purchase price hammered out first, then check that price when you sit down to sign the sales contract.

Shop around before you buy. Once you hammer out a purchase agreement with a dealer, stop right there and tell them you need to sleep on it. NEVER purchase the car right then. Most contracts are good for a few days, so use that time to shop the competition. Tell them what kind of a deal you are getting at the competing dealership and ask if they can beat it. If they can produce a more competitive deal (again, without making you wait forever) then go with the best option.

Use the Internet to shop. Some dealerships will actually offer better prices through increased incentives for buyers who shop online. Not only that, but talking to the sales staff online helps decrease the pressure you would normally feel sitting in the showroom. You can even slow the sales process down to several weeks, giving you time to mine all kinds of information about dealer incentives and buyer reward programs from the sales staff.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Evolution of Fast and Furious

The new Fast and Furious movie is coming out on May 24th, and so in the spirit of the movie I wanted to talk about the evolution of franchise.

When the first movie came out I was in college and was swamped with homework, trying to balance a social life, etc. I knew vaguely of the movie but that was about it. It wasn't until the movie came out on DVD that I saw it and was intrigued by its portrayal (however unrealistic) of the tuner world. I had experience modifying cars and was adding onto my car at the time, so that made the movie that much more interesting to me. Of course the cars in the movie looked pretty ridiculous, but that was a thing among some tuners at the time (kind of like with donks now). Some of those zany looks were a way to ruffle people's feathers and for the tuners to thumb their nose at them. And of course the scene where the Supra "smokes" the Ferrari further infuriated many automotive purists that solemnly and foolishly believed a Ferrari would win any race by virtue of the prancing pony slapped on it.

That first movie inspired many, many poser racer bois to start slapping huge aluminum wings and coffee can exhausts onto the economy car that used to be mommy's. In a lot of ways it cheapened the tuning scene. This cheapening, I feel, became even worse with the completely cartoonish and disappointing second movie, 2 Fast 2 Furious, which I unfortunately saw on opening night (complete with a Supra car show in the parking lot). Anyone who had a modified car that was not a Corvette or better came under quite a bit of fire from all over the place. We were the cause of idiots who raced on busy city streets, we were the source of the stolen car parts market (never mind that the market existed before the movies), cops tailgated you on the road for no reason and so forth.

Then my project car was totaled out by some complete idiot driver, plus I was married and had a kid. So I stopped really playing with cars out of necessity. The third Fast and Furious movie came out, Tokyo Drift, and I didn't see that one until it came out on DVD. Honestly it was an improvement on the horrible second movie, but like the two previous movies it still leaned heavily toward tuner cars or "ricers" as some people are fond of calling them. The series introduced the world to the drifting movement, which then inspired all kinds of idiot kids trying to drift on roads or in busy public parking lots which of course often ended badly (just like in the movie).

It wasn't until the fourth movie that the franchise took an interesting turn. Sure there were some tuner cars in it, but instead of just one or two American muscle cars there were several. Why nobody tapped into the muscle car scene before baffles me. The new movie brought a different dimension to the series, and it was a huge success. The fifth movie built on that momentum, plus introduced some exotic vehicles (like the Koenigsegg CC) to make even more people feel included.

So the series has evolved quite a bit. The one major scene or segment I feel hasn't been truly represented is the European tuning market, specifically the Germans. It looks like the cars in the sixth movie will include some British speed demons, but why aren't there GTIs, a C63 AMG, M6 or even an S60R? There have been a few Euro vehicles in the series, but most of them have fared pathetically, like Jesse's Jetta in the first movie.

Maybe there will be a seventh movie (I think they're going to keep making them until Vin Diesel is behind the wheel of a Little Rascal). And maybe in the seventh movie we will finally see a bunch of German muscle cars. That would be fun. The evolution of the series has kept it going, because if in the fourth movie there were just a bunch of newer tuner cars with a rainbow of paint jobs I think that would have been the death of it all. So if anyone involved in the production of the Fast and Furious movies reads this, you should go for some German flavoring in the next movie; plenty of us would pay to see that.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Automotive Market Needs a Convertible Minivan!

Chop that top!

 A good friend of mine contacted me today to gripe about how there are no convertible minivans on the market. With the weather warming up, us minivan drivers get to watch with envy as the good people of the world cruise by in their convertible Mustangs, 911s and Sebrings (okay, I'm not really jealous of that last one). If I want the wind to whip through my hair (or what is left of it) I have to roll down my window, which is just plain rough. I want to put the top down on my luxury cruiser minivan and roll hard on the way to dance lessons.

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet

Apparently my friend wasn't aware of the fact that Nissan produces a convertible version of the Murano, called the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. The great thing about the CrossCabriolet is its huge trunk, even with the top folded down. Not only that, but it has a folding hardtop and all-wheel-drive meaning it can be driven year-round for mad shopping trips. The bad news is the Murano CrossCabriolet has the highest percentage female ownership out of any newer vehicle in the United States, according to a source I cannot recall now (bad writer!). I guess that's only bad if you are a guy, like me.

But back to the convertible minivans. You know, as I've said over and over I never thought I would own a minivan. But they are incredibly practical vehicles when you have kids, with a low step-in height, large door openings and huge cargo capacities. Do you have any idea how many strollers I can fit in the back of mine at once? It's crazy. Still, I would like a little bit of impractical fun, and a convertible van would provide a smidgen of that impractical fun.

But the technical side of me knows a convertible minivan would present some serious mechanical issues. First off, such a large folding roof would use a pretty complicated folding mechanism, which would take some fancy engineering. Not only that, but where would the top go once it's folded? There isn't exactly a trunk in a minivan. And then there are those pesky, practical sliding doors that would look pretty weird without a roof on the van.

Of course Germans are good at tackling such engineering issues. Volkswagen has their badge-engineered Routan that is a Chrysler abomination. This problem could present the perfect excuse for Volkswagen to reinvent the minivan in a format that would allow for a Cabriolet version. They could even offer a TDI version of the van using the same engine as the Touareg.

One huge advantage of a cabriolet minivan: when it gets crazy as it often does in minivans, mom or dad only need to fold down the top and hit the freeway. The whistling wind would quiet everyone down and force junior to hold on tight to his Avengers hat. I think that feature alone could help Volkswagen or whatever automaker brave enough to make a convertible minivan sell at least 200,000 models in the first year of production. Automakers lately are carving out all kinds of interesting niches in the marketplace, but this one so far has been untouched.

Now I'm off to catch a plane to Wolfsburg so I can sell the VW board on my excellent idea.

Legendary hot rodder, Dean Jeffries, dead at 80.

Perhaps best known for much of his work that was claimed by George Barris, Dean Jeffries was one of the most legendary men in automotive culture. He was the complete package. He was a metal worker, a painter, a designer, a car builder, stuntman. He did it all. I mean, where do you begin?

Jeffries was born in Lynwood, California in February 1933. He had dreamed of attending the Art Center in Pasadena, but instead of doing well in school he gravitated toward cars like most teens do, learning from his  father who was a mechanic. While stationed in Germany during his stint in the Army, he learned the art of pinstriping from a furniture and piano striper, and upon returning home to California, he continued to learn from Kenneth “Von Dutch” Howard. This landed him a  job as the in-house pinstriper for George Barris. Along the way, he learned how to shape metal, as well, and began to take the customization of his clients’ cars further; during that time, he not only striped James Dean’s infamous Porsche 550 Spyder with the nickname “Li’l Bastard,” but also built Chili Catallo’s 1932 Ford three-window coupe, the one that the Beach Boys used on the cover of their Little Deuce Coupe album.

Jeffries also did work for Caroll Shelby. He painted the first Cobra as a favor to Shelby. He sympathized with Shelby’s effort to get the car done on a budget. “The body was a disaster, all heliarced and torched up. I had only three days from start to finish. I asked Shelby what color he wanted, and he said, ‘Any color you want.’ So, not knowing if it was right or wrong, I painted it pearl yellow because I had heard on TV that yellow stood out the best.” Shelby would later provide Jeffries with a Weber-topped Ford V-8 and four-speed transmission for Jeffries’s Mantaray, an asymmetrical single-seater based on a 1939 Maserati 8CTF Grand Prix chassis.

After leaving Barris' shop. Jeffries set up shop in Hollywood. This attracted plenty of celebrity clientele and made way for jobs creating and customizing cars for the movies and for the stars, including the Monkeemobile, the Chrysler Imperial based Black Beauty from The Green Hornet television series, and the Landmaster from Damnation Alley. He didn’t restrict himself to Hollywood cars, however: He also designed and manufactured the Kyote Volkswagen based dune buggies and built a number of custom and concept cars for Ford Motor Company, including a gullwing-door show car called the Cougar, the Falcon Python show car, and the Ford GT40. He also did some construction and painting for several Indy Car teams. 

Jeffries also worked for a while as a stuntman. During the production of Honky Tonk Freeway in 1980, Jeffries performed a jump stunt with a truck in which he broke his back. He also performed stunts in The Blues Brothers and Fletch. What he will mostly rememberh him for if not through his cars then through his feud with George Barris, brought on by Barris’s habit of taking credit for Jeffries’s work throughout the years. “He couldn’t put a dent into something, never mind taking one out, but he’s a hell of a promoter, believe me,” Jeffries said. Barris retorted that he couldn’t “control what magazines write and who they list as the designer and builder.”

Jeffries remained very active in the industry until about five years ago and still maintained a shop in Hollywood. 

Source & Photos: Hemmings Motor News & The Jalopy Journal

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tesla Model S. The best car. EVER

In some news out of left field. The folks from Consumer Reports have come out an announced that the Tesla Model S is bar none, the BEST car they have ever tested. Interesting because of the fact that it is a full electric car. But that's also one of the biggest reasons why CR says it's the best. Styling is uniquely Tesla, and looks like nothing else on the road. Inside, a 17 inch touch screen panel controls just about everything in the car. Now how it is better than say a VW Jetta TDI?

Well, I'm not sure other than you can take the Jetta on long road trips. The Model S can handle say Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Longer trips are possible thanks to a network of supercharged charging stations that can charge the battery from empty to half full in about a half hour. However, expect a full charge to take 12 hours using normal 240 volt home electric. That can be cut down with an optional charger from Tesla that takes about 5 hours to recharge.

Sticker price for the Model S comes in at a hefty $90,000 give or take a couple hundred bucks. And lets face it. Frankly, it's not a Prius, and that's why we like it. Even though we still prefer our cars to suck gas, not electricity.

So, while it may not fit the need for everyone, it's pretty darn close for some. Unfortunately, for those of us here in Pittsburgh, and the rest of Pennsylvania for that matter. There are no Tesla dealers. There is a service center in Philadelphia, but the closest dealer is in Tysons Corner, Virginia which is just outside of Washington D.C. That is partially due to Tesla's troubles with their store style of dealer system that has the national and state dealer associations up in arms. And that's not to mention the other financial troubles that have hounded Tesla.

Here's hoping that Tesla sticks around for a while. 

Source: Consumer Reports, Tesla Motors.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Creative Car Badging

I always wince when automakers engage in badge engineering, when a car is given new badges and maybe a few exterior pieces to make a different "model." As much as I would like to say that only automakers engage in badge engineering, unfortunately some car owners do the same thing.

Why do people put some wishful badges on their car? You know, like the Honda Civic owners in the United States who slap a "Type-R" badge on the trunk lid. Is it that these people think the badge will add horsepower or trick everyone into thinking their car is something it's not?

The other day I ran across one of the most creative badging jobs I've seen on a car in a while. It was on an old Dodge SRT-4, a car that posts some respectable output figures but in stock form is lacking in handling characteristics. Apparently the owner of this SRT-4 felt inclined to slap a Viper badge on this car's nose. Was it a joke? It made me laugh, but sadly I doubt it. Does the guy think the average person would think his car was a Viper? Most people know that a Viper looks like but sadly probably wouldn't recognize its badge. Or maybe the guy tries to claim he crammed a Viper's engine under the hood.

Whatever the reason, like I said it made me laugh, and hopefully it makes you laugh as well.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Electric Cars Are Dropping Like Flies!

Is it just me or does the Coda Sedan look a little too much like an old Civic?

There are many critics of electric cars, especially people who work in the petroleum industry (that's slightly a joke, but only slightly). People cite the limited range of electric cars as a concern as well as battery problems, battery replacement costs, extra strains put on maxed-out electricity delivery systems, etc.

Well, these critics of electric vehicles should be having a party right now because it seems that electric car makers are dropping like flies. In case you missed the huge news from last week, Fisker Automotive is quickly moving toward bankruptcy. It seems that the company continued to tax money from the US government even though it knew that it was losing a massive amount of money with each Karma sold (insert joke about bad Karma here). Now Justin Bieber is going to have to find some new car he can have wrapped in chrome so the paparazzi has an extra easy time of tracking him wherever he goes.

To add to that bad news for EVs, now Coda Automotive has declared bankruptcy. Of course the question that everyone asked was who would be stupid enough to pay $40,000 for a Chinese electric car with no reputation to uphold, but that's beside the point. There are plenty of people who are declaring the death of the electric car at this very moment.

Of course there is still the Nissan Leaf, which was not selling very well until recently. And then there is the Tesla Model S, you know that piece of "vaporware" that the critics said would never come to pass. The Model S has racked up some serious awards and I've personally seen several on the roads here and have to say they look as good in person as in the marketing collateral. But apparently the electric car is dead.

Sure, Toyota backed out of a deal last year with Tesla to start making all-electric powertrains Some other automakers have also backed off of their EV projects. And some really big players like Daimler and Nissan/Renault have declared they are moving forward with hydrogen vehicles.Does this mean the electric car is dead?

If anything the electric car is showing more life than ever. These deaths are a necessary movement in the marketplace, the casualties of faulty planning rather than a faulty plan for powering vehicles. Evidence abounds at this, including the recent surge in Leaf sales as well as big automakers planning on releasing EVs in the near future. The Fiat 500E is coming soon, promising another inexpensive electric car as well as the Smart Fortwo Electric, to name just two. And Detroit Electric is back, although it remains to be seen just how well the automaker survives the next few years. 

As for those who fear that all these electric cars are going to overload the power grid, I have one thing to say: buy a solar array and take yourself off the grid. Problem solved.