Nissan plans massive shakeup

Over the next few months, Japanese automaker Nissan plans to introduce several big changes to its lineup of vehicles. As older models are replaced by new ones, drivers can expect previous vehicles to hit the used car lot at a discount.

Nissan's new ad campaign promises "innovation for all," and the company is putting its money where its mouth is by unveiling several brand-new or redesigned models before the end of the year.

The most visible of these will obviously be the highly-anticipated Leaf, which will be one of the first all-electric vehicles to go into mass production. The Leaf will be available in several markets in December before slowly rolling out nationwide in 2011. Demand is already high for the vehicle with the company already surpassing its sales totals. It's due to go head to head with the Chevy Volt, but the Leaf holds a key advantage (or possibly a disadvantage) over the Volt in that it only contains an electric motor compared to the Volt's electric-gas hybrid engine.

Another model sure to turn heads is the new Murano CrossCabriolet, which the company is touting as the first convertible crossover. Early impressions have been polarizing, with some loving the bold choice to offer a convertible on an SUV-like vehicle and others liking the idea less. Nissan itself has admitted that it doesn't expect the car to sell well compared to the regular Murano, but hopes that the design will call attention to its new marketing strategy as an innovator.

The brand-new Juke crossover is another new car that may benefit from Nissan's aggressive styling. Unlike other cars in the compact crossover class, the Juke achieves a coupe-like design by using sharp angles to immediately catch the eye. The vehicle is powered by a newly-designed 1.6-liter direct-injection turbo engine that produces 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque.

The last new model is the redesigned Quest minivan, and while this design won't turn heads like the new Murano or Juke, it got the attention of some insiders simply for being a minivan. As other automakers move away from this segment and parents move toward crossovers and SUVs, Nissan is banking on the dwindling minivan market to fall in love with the redesigned Quest. Previous versions of the van weren't as popular as competitors' models, so Nissan is hoping the new model will lure buyers back.

With so many new models set to debut before the end of the year and even more slated for 2011, buyers who are in the market for a car may want to hold off and wait for a used Nissan, as many of the older models will likely be able to be found at a discount compared to their current price.

What are the best used cars to own?

The internet was a game-changer in terms of auto sales, as it allowed consumers access to a wealth of information about cars that was previously scattered in a million different places. In the past, an interested car buyer might have been able to check a review in the local newspaper, but now shoppers can find thousands of opinions across the web at the click of a button.

That's changed, and before a driver goes to buy a car, they'll be able to read as many reviews of the vehicle as they like to get a well-rounded view of a vehicle's flaws and weaknesses. Yet the nature of reviewing means that most writers are usually giving their first impressions of a vehicle after driving it for a short time. There's simply no way that an automotive journalist could know how a vehicle will perform five or even ten years down the road. Almost every new car drives with no problems when it rolls off the showroom floor, but anyone who's owned a car knows that problems will crop up over time.

Another tricky idea to pin down is value. A car may represent a steal at its MSRP, but quickly lose most of its value as soon as it's driven off the lot. Car reviews also don't help once a driver begins searching for a used car, as every individual unit has a different service and drive history.

With that in mind, there are several factors that go into making a used car a great car to own. Reliability is key, as is the cost to repair and maintain the car should problems arise. The same is true of resale value, which will eventually determine what the driver gets in cash when he's looking to sell. Lastly, general satisfaction with a vehicle is something that many reviewers will not be able to predict, but is cataloged in numerous surveys over the lifespan of a car.

MSN factored in all of these variables when coming up with its picks for the best used cars to own in each class. These cars are not only great to drive, but also prove to be of value over many years based on statistical data.

Sedans are the most popular vehicle, and the news source highlighted three used cars in each size: the Hyundai Elantra for compacts, Honda Accord for mid-size and Mercury Montego for larger sedans.

The Elantra was praised for its value, as a used version will likely cost a driver less than $8,000. The Accord was no surprise in the mid-size slot, as it has posted dependable sales numbers year-in and year-out and holds its resale value remarkably well. Although the Montego and the Ford Five-Hundred are essentially the exact same car, drivers will end up paying more for the Ford simply because of the name, since the Mercury brand has lost a bit of prestige due to its discontinuation.

Those who like larger vehicles probably won't be surprised to find the Ford F-150 on the list, which has been a top seller for its entire 33-year lifespan. The news source recommends the models between 2004 and 2008 as a great range to target in order to get good value. That applies to the Toyota Highlander SUV as well, which had a number of additions in its 2004 facelift, like third-row seating and electronic stability control, that sets it apart from its earlier versions. 

Accord, Civic are “hot” cars once again

There are hot cars, and then there are "hot" cars, or vehicles that were obtained through illicit means. While many auto analysts track sales figures, the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) tracks vehicles using a different system – which are most likely to be stolen. This list of "hot wheels," released every year, details which rides tickled thieves' collective fancy the most.

Naturally, most of the used cars are on the list because they are popular and there are more of them on the road. Drivers shouldn't hesitate from buying these used cars simply because they're afraid of it getting stolen. In fact, the list is more an endorsement of the car's desirability than anything else. The FBI recently released a study showing that car theft was at its lowest point in twenty years, so drivers who pick up any of these hot rides – preferably at their local used car dealership – won't have to worry too much about it disappearing.

The numbers from 2009, released this month, show a picture very similar to the previous year. Once again, the 1994 Honda Accord was the most stolen vehicle in the country, followed closely by the 1995 Honda Civic. These two models are best sellers year in and year out, and it's a testament to their durability that there are still so many of them on the road.

Those vehicles were followed by two more popular models, the 1991 Toyota Camry and 1997 Ford F-150. All four of these vehicles are perennial top sellers and these four particular models have held the top spots on the list for several years running.

The bottom of the list saw a bit more of a shakeup. The 1994 Chevrolet full-size Pickup was the biggest mover, jumping onto the list for the first time at number 7. The most recent car to make the list is the 2009, Toyota Corolla, a somewhat surprising entry given the modern car security features on many newer vehicles. The 2002 Ford Explorer, ranked tenth in 2008, moved up a notch to number 9.

This movement cleared the way for some cars to fall out of favor with crooks. The 1999 Ford Taurus and 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee both ended their runs on the list.

Even in older used cars, there are some prevention strategies that the NICB recommends so drivers can ensure their vehicle doesn't end up in a chop shop. First and foremost is common sense. The agency reports that many drivers would be surprised at how many thefts could be prevented by drivers simply locking their doors and taking their car keys with them.

Used cars might not have the best security systems, but most of the modern advances are easy fixes. A 1994 Honda Accord might not have an OnStar GPS system, but a LoJack or similar tracking device purchase can make it easy for police to track down a car. Authorities say that these devices shift the balance in drivers' favor of getting their car back.

It's also worth noting that the NICB maintains a system that tracks stolen vehicles by VIN number. Drivers in the market for a used car should be sure to check their purchase against the database to ensure that they're working with a reputable dealer.

Hyundai to recall 2011 Sonata over steering issue

Hyundai is set to recall 139,500 of its new 2011 Sonatas after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found a flaw in the steering system.

The regulatory body found that the wheel could, in some cases, detach from the steering column – not a small issue. Should it do so, the driver could lose control of the vehicle completely.

Hyundai has had eight reports of steering failures, but none led to any accidents or injuries. The NHTSA began investigating the issue in August. The recall will affect all vehicles built between December of 2009 and September of 2010, which is the majority of the 2011 Sonatas currently on the road.

The newly redesigned Sonata has received some strong reviews, but this latest news could put a stumbling block in the way of Hyundai's recent momentum, as it has gained on sales leaders like Toyota and Honda over the past few months. The car has been a hit for the company lately, nearly doubling its sales in August to 21,399, according to the Associated Press.

Drivers looking at the Sonata may want to go with a used Hyundai for the time being, as the vehicles are not known to have the problem. Or, they may want to wait until the 2011 model hits the used market, where it may be available for a reduced price due to the negative publicity associated with such a recall. 

Nissan reveals luxury EV

Nissan will already have a good lead in the electric vehicle (EV) market if its upcoming car, the Leaf, lives up to expectations. But now the company has revealed its plans for an Infiniti luxury model using EV technology in the form of a new sketch that has been released online.

Although the new Infiniti does not yet have a name, Nissan has already settled on the design of the vehicle, which isn't slated to hit dealerships until 2013. The sketch shows a coupe design with an elongated front end and wide, sloped windows, giving the car a sleek and futuristic look.

"This future EV will play a major part of Infiniti's 'eco performance' strategy that will see a greater focus on hybrid and EV technology," said Infiniti Vice President Ben Poore. "We are committed to applying the world's best technologies to reduce emissions without sacrificing driving excitement or engagement."

The car will seat five and is expected to include zero emissions technology similar to the Leaf.

Infiniti will also reveal the 2012 M35h, an upcoming gas-electric hybrid, at the upcoming Los Angeles Auto Show. The gas engine will produce 302 horsepower, although drivers can opt to run solely on electric energy at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.

Best-selling certified pre-owned vehicles

Buying a used car has several advantages over buying a new one – namely the price. Yet there's no denying that the peace of mind that comes with a manufacturer's warranty is a nice perk for those who buy new.

That's where Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles come in. Nearly all major automakers maintain some type of program that allows them to resell their used cars. Vehicles that are certified by the automaker are backed by a warranty. This allows the manufacturer to also offer financing for the vehicle, just like a new car.

To qualify, a used car must be subjected to an independent refurbishing process, where it's restored to "like-new" condition. So getting a CPO eliminates much of the worry that comes with used cars, as it's highly unlikely that the car will be a lemon, and if it is, it has the manufacturer's support behind it.

The trade-off is that these cars fetch a higher price than non-certified used vehicles. Yet because they're still cheaper than new cars, many drivers see CPO's as a great compromise.

Drivers should be careful, as some dealers often offer their own versions of CPOs. But this typically means that the car is inspected by the dealer's in-house repair shop, and while it may come with a warranty, its one that would only be honored by the dealer, not the manufacturer. There are also a few independent certification bodies that operate outside of manufacturers and dealers and could offer a better deal and possibly higher repair standards.

MSN Autos recently compiled the top 10 CPO sellers of the first half of 2010, according to data collected by the manufacturers. The list could provide drivers with some clues as to which vehicles have become popular because of the program and what they should keep their eye out for if they choose to go this route.

Honda had a strong showing on the list. The Odyssey, at number nine, was the top-selling minivan, while the Civic and Accord placed fourth and first, respectively. These cars hold their resale value well and are already known for their reliability. Yet the news source notes that drivers should beware, as CPOs from Honda with low mileage can come very close to the price of a new car.

Honda's chief rival Toyota also had three cars on the list, with the always popular Lexus RX crossover joining perennial best-sellers the Corolla and Camry. BMW took up two spots with the 3 and 5 Series sedans, and the news source notes that a several-years old 3 Series CPO makes a luxury car affordable for many drivers. 

Used car chain CarMax sees profits rise

CarMax, which operates more than 100 used car dealerships across the country, has announced that its second quarter saw a five percent rise in profits.

The company's overall revenue jumped 13 percent on the back of an 11 percent increase in used car sales. Overall, revenue rose to $2.34 billion dollars, which beat many analyst's expectations, according to Reuters. The company revealed that the positive results were a quarterly record.

While manufacturers like Toyota and Ford saw second quarter numbers slip a bit compared to the clunker-inflated sales of the same period in 2009, CarMax was able to post a profit, suggesting that more Americans may be considering used cars over new ones.

"We are especially pleased with the strength of our comparable store used unit sales where, despite our toughest comparison in recent quarters, we still delivered positive comps," CEO Tom Folliard told investors.

As more consumers look to buy used cars, drivers considering an upgrade may wish to do the same, so as not to miss out on some of the great deals being offered.

A car for every lifestyle

Cars are diverse enough that when it comes to picking a vehicle, there is no clear "best." For all the awards from major automotive sources that are handed out every year, nearly every car has strengths and weaknesses that make it suited for certain lifestyles and preferences. One driver may enjoy the off-roading capabilities of an SUV while another would rather have the crisper handling of a crossover. Another might worry about performance while parents will be more concerned with transporting their children comfortably and safely.

Whether shopping for a new or used car, what a driver ultimately wants out of a car will determine their purchase. But as subjective as buying a car can be, there are still some vehicles that are better than others at certain tasks. That's why this year's Motorist Choice Awards, compiled by auto analysts IntelliChoice, bucked the traditional categories like "sedan" or "crossover" and instead asked survey respondents about their favorite cars based on their lifestyle.

The awards, which have been handed out for five years, compile over 42,000 consumer surveys. This year is the first that the new categories have been introduced.

"From an emotional standpoint these awards are a reflection of how cars fit into people's daily lives, the tasks they fulfill on a day-to-day basis and the image people have of their vehicles," says Charlie Vogelheim, Executive Editor of IntelliChoice. "The cars in these categories not only represent tremendous value, they are also about the image you want to portray to other motorists as well."

Fifteen categories were broken down into "popular" and "premium" choices to denote value and luxury. For example, the Hyundai Genesis was the popular choice for a "country club" car, while the Audi A6 was the premium winner.

Toyota was a big winner on the list, taking 10 of the 30 awards. According to the respondents, the Japanese automaker represented a good choice for fuel economic cars in the city. The company swept the city car category with the Toyota Yaris and Lexus LS taking honors, as well as the eco-friendly category for its Prius and Lexus RX Hybrid. In fact, the RX Hybrid won in multiple classes, also winning premium value and high tech vehicle awards.

Some drivers, however, want a bit more space with their vehicle, and this is where categories like "people mover" and "kid friendly" come into play. The Honda Odyssey was chosen as the best popular people mover, while Toyota's Sequoia was deemed the most kid-friendly. The Mercedez-Benz GL was noted as the best premium car in both of these segments.

Consumers won't find hard numbers on this list, but they will get some popular opinions on subjective categories like "sexy styling." The winner in that category was the always-popular Chevy Corvette, while the Audi A5 turned heads in the luxury market.

Shopping for a deal is a smart way to buy a vehicle, but by heading to a used car dealership, drivers will likely be able to find a multitude of great prices on a range of vehicles. Once they've done that, they can pay a bit more attention to how that car will fit into their everyday lifestyle.

Ford to end Ranger pickup

Ford has announced the end of its compact Ranger pickup line as it looks to streamline its fleet and jettison struggling products.

A redesigned Ranger is set to debut at the Sydney Auto Show on October 15th, but that version will not be sold in North America, the company says. The new Ranger is a larger vehicle, much closer to Ford's F-150 in size. Not wanting to cannibalize sales of its more popular pickup, Ford is moving ahead with the decision to solely offer the F-150 and its variants in the North American market, while the new Ranger will be sold worldwide.

Drivers generally choose a Ranger if they want a smaller and more fuel-efficient engine, but 2011 will see the F-150 get several new options for smaller engines that don't consume as much gas. Thus, the Ranger won't be offered past that year. Last year, Ford sold just 55,000 of the compact truck.

After 2011, it appears that drivers will have to search the used car market to find Ford Rangers. They may also want to consider used Ford F-150s, which have won several top awards and are generally considered to be one of the best pickup trucks available.

Automakers betting on smaller cars

With the compact car segment growing and more models on the way, car buyers may notice a shift toward compact and microcars over the next few years.

As drivers worry both about the initial price of the vehicle and the fuel economy, both new and used car buyers are turning to subcompacts as an alternative to bulkier sedans, according to the Detroit News. Automakers have been happy to oblige, with a wave of small cars hitting the scene in recent years and even more to follow.

According to the news source, the "C-Segment" or compact sedan (including the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Elantra) were the dominant small cars for many years, as Americans tended to favor larger vehicles. Meanwhile, small cars that were easy to drive in the city enjoyed success in Europe and other regions around the world. Yet the "B-Segment," which now consists of hatchbacks like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Mini Cooper, was introduced to America with some success. Now, more "B" cars are on the way with "A" cars – like the Smart Fourtwo, Fiat 500 and Scion iQ – close behind.

Automakers are not yet sure how Americans will react to the shrinking interior space, but Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive predicted strong growth in these segments, with at least 850,000 cars per year in the B-Segment by 2015, up from the current level of 300,000.

For drivers in the market for a vehicle now, there are more than a few options in the small car category that they may find appealing, and quite a few on the way. These cars are already marked down when compared to their bigger counterparts and save drivers more at the pump, but patient consumers who wait for them to hit the used car market may be able to save even further.

The recently debuted redesign of the Ford Fiesta has been a big hit for the company, with the automaker currently struggling to keep up with demand. Reviewer's have praised the wealth of customization options in addition to its 32 miles per gallon EPA combined rating.

The Honda Fit is another example of a compact car that has enjoyed robust sales, jumping out to a clear lead in the segment sales-wise before the Fiesta came along. The car is a solid alternative and affordable option with basic features like air conditioning, power locks and a radio all available for under $15,000.

Whether it's one of the current subcompacts or one of the upcoming microcars like the Scion iQ, Fiat 500 or Chevy Spark, drivers can't go wrong with these small cars' mix of power and efficiency at a low price.