Buyer's Guide: Big Cars, Great Deals

You want a vehicle that's loaded with standard features and roomy enough for your mobile office? And you want a bargain? 1999 may be your year.

October 1, 1998

Buying a new car is usually a matter of making compromises-sacrificing style for space, or comfort for price. That's especially true for real estate practitioners, who often need a car that can serve as both business tool and personal transportation.

If you're looking for a new car, you undoubtedly want one that offers prestige, leg room, styling, and comfort. The added visibility of a sport-utility vehicle is certainly a plus. Yet there's a real need to stick to a budget and ensure that your new car retains the maximum residual value when it's time to trade it in.

The good news is, 1999 will be a buyer's year in the automotive market. Here's a look at some of the trends and new models you'll find at local dealers.

Year of the buyer

For decades, each fall has brought a round of price hikes outpacing the rate of inflation. Suddenly, the trend has reversed. Take the '99 Mitsubishi Galant. Although it's bigger, roomier, and certainly more expensive looking, it will actually come in nearly $500 below last year's model.

That's not unique. Car prices have fallen in recent months, according to the annual Affordability Index compiled by Detroit's Comerica Bank. And the trend appears likely to continue through at least 1999.

Better yet, you'll find automakers offering a more complete line of standard features without forcing you to load up on costly options, notes Chevrolet General Manager John Middlebrook.

And there's a wide range of new features on the market designed to enhance both safety and comfort. As is common in the automotive industry, many of the breakthroughs are debuting on high-end products-good news for many of you. REALTOR®Magazine research shows that nearly 28 percent of readers own or lease a luxury vehicle.

A Little Extra Security

Safety doesn't sell. That used to be an auto industry axiom. It's not true today. For many car buyers, safety is at the top of their shopping list-it's certainly important to those who let clients or customers into their car-and 1999 brings some interesting innovations.

The Infiniti G20, back after a two-year absence, delivers European handling with Japanese quality. Add to that, new, dual-mode side-impact air bags. They provide a cushion of protection for both head and chest. Better yet, they are seat mounted, so they always deploy in the optimal position.

The Cadillac Seville, a popular choice with our readers, boasts the StabiliTrak system, which can help keep your car from skidding, even if you enter a turn too fast. (Cadillac, a REALTOR® Rewards partner, offers NAR members a $1,000 rebate on the purchase, or $500 toward the SmartLease, of a new Cadillac. Call 800/333-4223.)

Then there's the redesigned Acura TL. Sometime later in the model year, Honda's luxury division plans to debut a new technology dubbed adaptive cruise control, or ACC. With conventional cruise control, you set the desired speed and hope no one slower gets in front of you. ACC uses a radar or laser beam to watch out for traffic ahead. If someone's going slow, the system automatically reduces your speed until the road is clear again. Adaptive cruise systems are planned for the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, as well.

You've Got Style

Styling is a traditional sedan trade-off. You got four doors and gave up the sleek looks of a coupe. But look what's coming in '99.

The Chrysler LHS is a bit shorter than last year's model, though you'd never know it from interior and trunk space. It's designed to present a more youthful appearance, an aspect matched by its tighter handling and quicker acceleration. Then there's the 300M, a Euro-styled midsize that's roomy and offers plenty of performance, thanks to a new-generation Chrysler V-6.

Speaking of European styling, our research shows that 42.5 percent of REALTORS® own or lease nondomestic models. In fact, REALTORS® are almost five times more likely to own a foreign luxury car than the average American adult.

For those who lust after imports, there are some hot new products this year. BMW's 3-Series is back in fine new form. The restyled 325i and 328i sedans are lightly roomier, and if you're into performance driving, you'll notice the stiffer body and wider track.

Oldsmobile's big rollout last year was an "Intrigu-ing" proposition. The General Motors division had developed a reputation for stodgy styling, but the Intrigue gave buyers a reason to look again. There's another good reason to check out Olds this coming year: the Alero, a compact sedan that's been one of the hottest models on the auto show circuit.

'Sport-ute': The New Sedan

To many buyers, the sport-utility vehicle is the perfect no-compromise car. Light trucks now account for nearly half the U.S. motor vehicle market, and SUVs make up the fastest-growing niche in that segment. They may fall under the designation "truck," but as far as buyers are concerned, they're go-anywhere sedans that offer better visibility and four-wheel drive. No wonder more than 25 percent of REALTORS® own or lease SUVs.

Chrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the market's most popular, and it has been redesigned for 1999. You may not notice at first glance, since Jeep opted for an "evolutionary" approach to the new vehicle's styling. Emphasis was placed on ride and comfort levels. You'll find it has more carlike handling and lots of cup holders, a nice feature when you're hauling a passel of potential buyers and their kids around town.

The luxury SUV market is growing especially fast. The new model year brings the debut of Cadillac's Escalade. It's big and bold and loaded with just about every kind of creature comfort you can imagine, such as leather, eight-way power-heated seats. It also offers the GM OnStar system as a standard feature.

OnStar delivers a range of useful service, from navigation information to a valet on call. If there's an accident serious enough to set off your air bag, OnStar will automatically notify the authorities. Call the OnStar Center for directions-or to order flowers for that client whose building you just sold.

Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have weighed in with their own luxury SUVs in recent months. There's been a waiting list for the stylish Mercedes ML320, though it should be in better supply for the '99 model year as the automaker expands production capacity.

The Lexus LX 470, the new sport-ute from Toyota's luxury division, shares the same chassis as the Toyota Land Cruiser, but it adds features like heated leather seats.

Although SUVs have been drawing all the attention lately, minivans remain popular. Nissan is back with a redesigned Quest. It boasts a larger engine, bigger wheels and tires, and an all-new body design. More luggage space has been added by placing a movable shelf in the cargo hold, giving you the flexibility of a closet.

Ford is relaunching its own minivans this year. And the biggest draw with the redesigned Windstar is the addition of a second sliding door. Your kids-and your clients-will never again have to clamber over seats to get in and out.

Minor Updates on the Classics

Some sedans simply maintain their popularity year after year-and for good reason. They offer room, comfort, attractive styling, and good handling. The market mainstays are undergoing only modest updates this year. The Ford Taurus remains one of the most popular cars in its class and will get slight exterior enhancements for 1999.

Then there's the Toyota Camry. Its mix of room, comfort, and reliability helped propel it to the top of the sales charts last year, and its popularity shows little sign of abating. The '99 Camry does deliver one notable innovation: a three-disc, in-dash CD changer.

Honda has always placed a premium on environmental issues, and the '99 Honda LX sedan takes another turn down green street. California buyers will find that the LX with automatic transmission is the first car to meet that state's stringent ultra-low emission vehicle standards. On the Los Angeles freeway, what comes out of the tailpipe could be cleaner than the ambient air.

Ford's Lincoln division helps define the luxury sedan market. The previous model year brought redesigns of the Continental and Town Car. Now everyone's watching for the debut of the division's LS sedan, which is designed to go up against imports such as the BMW 3-Series. Technically, the LS is a 2000 model, but the first cars should roll off the assembly line in the 1999 model year.

The Hybrids are Coming

Light trucks are hot. Minivans, pickups, and sport-utility vehicles now account for nearly half of the U.S. motor vehicle market.

But light trucks do require some trade-offs. Try climbing into a Ford Expedition wearing a short skirt, or parking a Chevy Suburban. They ride rougher than conventional passenger cars-and forget about fuel economy.

Now comes a new generation of vehicles that blend the best aspects of cars and trucks. Car-truck hybrids like the Lexus RX 300 may redefine tomorrow's new-car market. The RX 300 looks like an SUV, offering higher seating, enhanced visibility, and all-wheel drive. But it's based on the same platform as the ES 300 sedan, and that means a more comfortable ride.

The list of car-truck hybrids is growing fast. There's the Subaru Forester, Volvo Cross-Country, Honda CR-X, and Toyota RAV-4. And plenty of others are on the way. Even Porsche is getting in on the act. It's working up a hybrid sports car with the help of Volkswagen. Look for a price tag of $55,000 on this off-road performer.

Automotive designers find the crossover trend appealing because it breaks down conventional car classifications. So look for some wild designs to pop up in showrooms shortly after the turn of the century.

Itching to Buy?

If you're an Internet user, you can shop for your new car online. Besides the manufacturer sites listed in the story, there are many others out there that'll help you compare features, prices, financing, and even insurance rates. Most of them promise to save you money.

Autobytel, operated by a former California megadealer, lets you shop online and then connects you with a wired dealer in your area.

Two years before it began putting homes online, Microsoft launched Carpoint, a car-buying site that, like Autobytel, links buyers with dealers.

Click on Autos, and you'll be taken to Netmarket's Autovantage site. Netmarket is operated by Cendant Corp. and is open to all shoppers. For an annual membership fee, you get extra services and discounts.

Operated by AutoFusion, a Web site development company, has created an easy-to-use site for researching your car purchase. Its price quotes are made through Autovantage.

In addition to offering the same sort of services as the other car-buying sites, A-Links has a neat added feature for those with Real Audio. It gives audio instructions on how to use the site.

Consumer Reports puts its product testing online. You won't buy a car here, but you may want to visit this site first for an unbiased look at performance. There's some free auto information, but only site subscribers can see the car profiles and product comparisons.

And there are more, a test-drive magazine site, the National Highway Transportation Safety Board site showing car safety ratings

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of the products in this category. NAR doesn’t evaluate or endorse these products and isn’t responsible for changes in product info. Prices are the vendors’ suggested retail prices and are subject to change.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.

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