Sienna vs. Odyssey in Minivan Throwdown

When one thinks of great car rivalries, it's usually two high-powered muscle cars going toe-to-toe on a drag strip. Yet drivers who have kids and gear to lug around simply can't justify a two-seater anymore. Fortunately, technological advancements have made minivans almost as powerful as the pony cars that tear up the track on race day.

If drivers are willing to pay for it, it's possible to deck out a minivan with enough performance upgrades to satisfy those with a need for speed. Edmunds Inside Line, a website normally known for debating the finer points of sports cars and sleek sedans, recently took two perennial van favorites and put them to the test.

Both the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have undergone facelifts for the 2011 model year, and families will have plenty of options when it comes to the vehicles. Edmunds opted to trick both cars out as much as possible, opting for the $45,000 Odyssey Touring Elite edition on the Honda and the Sienna's $40,000 XLE.

The Sienna might have the price advantage, but the news source ultimately determined that the Odyssey was a better value for families who wanted a true luxury experience. The Odyssey came with several substantial technological upgrades – including a blind-spot monitoring system, massive hard drive for holding music and movies, surround sound and a refrigerated storage unit – that drivers can't get on the Sienna no matter how much they're willing to pay. The news source did point out that budget shoppers might prefer the Sienna, as it had the option of a four-wheel engine with all-wheel-drive for a lower price that also gets better fuel economy than its more powerful counterparts.

The cheaper Sienna beat the Odyssey in 0-60, braking time and ride smoothness, but the news source concluded that it simply wasn't as fun to drive and didn't handle as well as the Odyssey. For drivers who want to inject a few thrills into their weekly shopping trip, the Odyssey's suspension can handle whatever a driver can throw at it. By contrast, the Sienna is probably better for those more concerned with making sure their kids stay sleeping.

Overall, the news source concluded that both cars were excellent choices and neither disappointed, but they ultimately do different things. With all the bells and whistles, the Odyssey is essentially a luxury sedan in minivan form. Meanwhile, the Sienna is tops in simply providing an affordable A-to-B ride.

Minivan prices have skyrocketed in recent years, as extra features like DVD players and refrigerated storage units ensure that every creature comfort is taken care of. Drivers interested in a more affordable vehicle may want to shop the used car market, as they'll be certain to find used Honda Odysseys and Toyota Siennas from years ago that give them just as much bang for their buck.

Honda preps electric vehicle for LA debut

GM and Nissan may have been the first out of the gate with their electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, but other automakers are planning to launch their own electric vehicles in the near future.

Honda recently announced that it will debut an electric vehicle concept car at the upcoming Los Angeles Auto Show, taking place from November 19th to November 28th. The company has publicly stated that it believes electric vehicles are a stopover technology on the way toward hydrogen-powered vehicles, but has also said it plans to put out an EV by 2012. Whether this concept will eventually become that model or if this is a separate project entirely is unknown.

The Japanese automaker will also be bringing a new gas-electric powertrain for hybrid vehicles. The system is expected to be used for larger hybrids, but Honda spokespeople were tight-lipped on details.

LA Auto Show organizers told AutoWeek that the show is currently slated to have close to 20 global first-time reveals. It will be the first time that Honda will debut a car at the show.

Drivers interested in a green vehicle may want to search the used car market for a hybrid, as they'll be able to save on the lot as well as at the pump.

Nissan to recall 2.14 million vehicles

Japanese automaker Nissan is recalling more than 2.14 million vehicles worldwide due to an issue that could lead to engine failure and stalling.

The notice affects used Nissans, mainly SUVs, from 2003 through 2006. The 762,000 vehicles recalled in North America include Pathfinders and Xterras from '03-'06, Armadas, Titans and Infiniti Q56s from '04-'06 and Frontiers from '05-'06.

The issue centers around the electric relay, which supplies power to the engine control module when the car is started. Over time, this relay can build up a silicon vapor. If that vapor becomes oxidized, the engine can stall and fail.

Drivers who bring their vehicle in as part of the recall, the third-largest ever for Nissan, will have a new electric relay installed. The process takes about half-an-hour.

Nissan says that no accidents, injuries or fatalities have been reported due to the problem. The flaw also applies to 835,000 cars in Japan and 354,000 in Europe.

If a driver is considering buying a used Nissan or any other used car, they should ensure that the dealer has made the necessary repairs to the vehicle. 

James Bond car up for sale

Every used car is unique, but some are a little more special than others.

Case in point: The Aston Martin DB5 used in the 1965 James Bond film "Thunderball." The classic DB5 would likely fetch a high price at a used auto auction, but this car comes with a few classic Bond gadgets that make it the ultimate collector's item.

Two machine guns on the front actually fire blanks, sure to intimidate anyone on the road. Some of the car's other features include a revolving license plate, bullet shield, nail spreader, tire shredders and radar navigation that puts modern GPS to shame. There's even an ejector seat (that doesn't work).

American radio station magnate Jerry Lee has owned the car since 1969, when he bought it straight from the Aston Martin factory for $12,000. Now, it's expected to fetch $5-$7 million dollars at auction.

A 1998 Jaguar XKR modified for "Die Another Day" is expected to go for substantially less.

Drivers don't have to be millionaires to afford a luxury used vehicle. In fact, buying used can be a great way for buyers to get a good deal on a luxury brand like BMW or Mercedes. 

How to buy winter tires

With the winter season coming soon, drivers will be swapping their year-round tires for winter tires (also known as snow tires, though modern tires are designed for a range of wintry conditions). Some drivers like to change to winter rubber every year, while others have never felt it necessary.

Winter tires are especially important for used car drivers, who might be driving a vehicle without modern safety features like anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control. According to Edmunds' Inside Line, even new car drivers should consider making the winter tire switch. Brakes and stability systems will certainly help the car handle better, but its ultimately useless if a tire loses grip on the road – which can become very dangerous in icy conditions.

Even for those who don't live in areas that typically see a lot of snow or ice, purchasing a season-specific tire can be a smart idea. That's because the issue at the heart of tire performance is heat. A softer tire conforms to the road and achieves much better grip and traction. In colder temperatures, below 45 degrees, the compounds that many all-season tires are made out of will become harder. Think of it as the difference between driving on rigid, near-stone solid wheels and softer rubber ones. Winter tires are made with a rubber that retains its elasticity even at low temperatures.

"This leads directly to reduced grip on the road and a much-reduced overall performance – mileage, braking distances, cornering, handling, etc. – ranging from 20-25 percent," said Joerg Burfien director of research and development for Continental Tire.

Skeptics might point out that Burfien works for a tire company. That's why Edmunds independently tested a number of wheels last year in icy conditions on a used Honda Civic Si. All-season tires had an extended braking distance of 16 to 18 percent and a slowed acceleration of 24 percent. Tires made strictly for warm weather were almost dangerous – a 120 percent longer stopping time and 257 percent slower acceleration.

Once drivers have settled upon making the switch, they'll find a long list of options with plenty of features designed to keep them safe in winter weather. Drivers should keep in mind that studded tires are banned in many states and towns. Those planning to buy a new car should ensure that they don't purchase one that's not street-legal. 

Toyota makes comeback on reliability report

Toyota, once known for making quality vehicles, has struggled with its image this year following a rash of recalls. In fact, the issues surrounding numerous vehicles' troubles with unintended acceleration were so damaging that the non-profit Consumer Reports removed its recommendation for nearly all Toyota vehicles.

The automaker got a double dose of good news today when Consumer Reports announced two movements on the automotive front. First, the organization decided to reissue its recommended status for eight Toyota vehicles, including the Camry, Corolla, Avalon, RAV4, Sequoia, Tundra, Highlander and Matrix.

The non-profit wrote on its website: "We believe that Toyota has adequately addressed the problem of unintended acceleration and that its new vehicles on sale now are fundamentally safe." It went on to state that the problem had been fixed in all new vehicles and the vast majority of used Toyotas. However, it still recommended that a driver interested in shopping for a used car check with the dealer to ensure that the recall-related maintenance has been performed.

The other good news was that the issues didn't appear to affect their standing among consumers in terms of reliability. The company released its annual Car Reliability Survey, which polls drivers on issues with their cars, and Toyota, along with Japanese rival Honda, remained on top.

The survey is a good resource for those considering buying a used car, as they detail the real-life experience with a car over time rather than a simple review that details performance characteristics.

The overall top brand was Scion, Toyota's youth-oriented brand. The nameplate obviously benefited by having a small sample size of just a few vehicles, but the main Toyota brand's sixth-place finish showed that the Japanese automaker is still ahead of most rivals. In fact, Toyota cars took home the top honors in several categories, including the Yaris for small cars, Tundra for full-sized pickup and Lexus LX for luxury SUV.

Honda posted a strong showing as well, with both the main brand and luxury Acura nameplate among the top four models. The Honda CR-V and Acura RDX were singled out as especially reliable compact crossovers.

Domestically, Ford and GM both made significant improvements to their vehicle lines. GM was able to successfully rid itself of poorly performing brands like Pontiac and Hummer, increasing its overall score, while Ford now has 90 percent of its entire lineup with scores of average reliability or better.

"There's a difference between actually having problems and having your car recalled," Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports' vehicle test center, told Bloomberg. "While the recalls were widespread, the actual problems people were having associated with those recalls were much smaller."

Toyotas have long been a favorite among those shopping used cars, as the models are known for their longevity. Although the recalls were surely a stumbling block, drivers who buy a used Toyota now may be able to get a great deal because of the recent damage to the company's reputation.

Shortlist determined for Car and Truck of the Year

One of the advantages of waiting to buy a used car rather than immediately buying a new car as soon as it hits the market is the benefit of time and hindsight. If everybody knew how cars would be received and perform over time, it's unlikely that many of the weaker models would sell very well when stacked up against cars at a similar price point.

Drivers who are shopping for a used car may want to look at the models typically considered to be among the best in any given year, for example. Every year, automotive writers across the country vote on what they believe to be the North American Car and Truck of the year. Looking at these lists can give buyers a sense of which vehicles are generally accepted to be a cut above the rest.

This year looks to be as contentious as ever as multiple brands compete for the top awards. The Detroit Free Press recently looked at some of the top vehicles that made the shortlist this year. These 27 cars and trucks will eventually be narrowed down to 3 in each class on December 16th, with the overall winner revealed on January 10th at the North American International Auto Show.

Two vehicles that were unsurprisingly included on the list were the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. Though both models have yet to be fully released, they each have a strong chance to win based on their heavily-hyped game-changer status alone. General Motors has been heavily pushing the Chevy Volt as a fuel-efficient compromise for many Americans, while Nissan took a risk by going fully electric straight out of the gate. It remains to be seen how these cars will do when they hit the market, but either makes a strong case for Car of the Year.

Hyundai pulled no punches with its redesigned Sonata, taking aim at the typically-dominant mid-size sedans like the Toyota Camry and Honda Civic. By all accounts, the South Korean automaker pulled it off, delivering a stylish yet affordable sedan that is helping Hyundai shed its "budget" image.

Small cars have gotten a big boost thanks to the flailing economy, and the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Juke and Chevy Cruze all made waves this year, earning places on the short list. The Fiesta changed the auto industry's approaching marketing, as the vehicle's brisk sales proved that Ford's social media strategy was a winner. The Juke has turned heads as a compact crossover with some aggressive styling. The news source said that the Cruze could possibly be "Chevy's best small car ever and GM's best-selling car," no small feat for a brand with such a long history.

In the truck segment, there was a bit of a surprise as no pickups made the list. New looks for old favorites like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer and Honda Odyssey may be tough to beat, but it might be the innovators, like the Infiniti QX56 and Ford Edge, that end up taking home top honors.

The cars that helped redefine their brands

Over the years, car brands become known for certain traits. Volvos have a reputation for safety, BMWs and Mercedes are refined, while Ford has always had powerful trucks and muscle cars. Yet as the auto industry changes, brands are looking to shake up consumer's perceptions as well.

Car and Driver recently examined some of the top cars set to debut in the next few years that may alter drivers' perceptions of a brand's reputation. At the same time, the news source also mentioned a few of the older vehicles, which can now be found on the used market, that were similar game-changers for their company.

One of the cars chosen was the new Hyundai Equus, as the South Korean automaker typically known for more affordable automobiles is looking to jump into the luxury market. With a $58,000 price tag, Apple iPad owners manual and valet maintenance service included, the brand just might have hit on the small details that many luxury drivers are willing to pay extra for.

The news source says that Hyundai is looking to avoid the pitfalls of the Volkswagen Phaeton, the automaker's attempt at a luxury model. This $70,000 extra-roomy car was a catastrophe in the U.S., although Volkswagen successfully sold the car in Europe, where its still popular. Instead, Hyundai is hoping that the new Equus will go the way of the Lexus LS400. This classic car was Toyota's first attempt at a luxury vehicle and it succeeded beyond the company's wildest expectations, eventually launching an entire brand that is still the most popular luxury nameplate in the U.S. today.

Speaking of Lexus, the luxury brand is looking to go even more upscale with the introduction of its $375,000 supercar, the Lexus LFA. Lexus' cars are typically known for their smooth ride rather than their race-day chops, but the LFA is looking to change that. The car is a substantial upgrade for anything the automaker has offered before, including the IS F, which was previously the fastest Lexus.

Mercedes took a similar strategy with the SLR McClaren, but the news source says the car was too conservative and not enough of an upgrade over the existing vehicles in the lineup. One car that Lexus might be hoping to emulate is the Ford GT. Ford had never made a supercar, but the GT sold like hotcakes and Ford still produces plenty of them today.

Buick is looking to change its reputation as an "old-man car" with the new Regal GS. The new offering from GM features a turbocharged engine, manual transmission and all-wheel drive, making it a performance-focused machine that Buick is not typically known for. GM could be hoping to duplicate the recent success it has had with the second-generation Cadillac CTS, which continues to be a bonafide smash hit for the company.

Innovation is great, but ultimately a good car is a good car. That's why so many of these classic vehicles succeeded. Drivers in the market for a vehicle may want to wait and try out one of these "game-changers" when they hit showrooms, but they should keep in mind that they can likely find the critically-acclaimed cars of yesteryear on the used car market for a substantially lower price.

Auto parts industry soars as more drivers sticking with used cars

Buying a used car offers several advantages over buying new, most of which have to do with price. In fact, many drivers are finding that hanging onto an older car and fixing it up is a more affordable option than purchasing a brand new one.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the auto parts industry is booming as drivers looking to cut costs are opting to repair their used vehicles rather than head over to the dealership and put down the money for a new car. Stock shares for the major auto companies, including Advance Auto Parts, Auto Zone and O'Reilly Automotive are all at or near 52-week highs.

"People who are not buying new cars are hanging on to their old cars and repairing them," Michael Odell, CEO of the Pep Boys chain, told the news source. Pep Boys has over 600 shops nationwide, but is taking advantage of the good business by adding 35 additional stores.

The surge in people hanging on to older vehicles is due to a number of factors, one of which is simply sheer numbers. Colin McGranahan of Bernstein Research speculated that in the early part of the decade, the industry was selling more than 16 million cars per year. In the recession-crippled era, that number is down to about 10 million cars per year. Simply put, there are more used cars available than new ones.

The current economic situation is contributing to other factors affecting the surge in business. Drivers still aren't keen on making a new vehicle purchase, and they may have even seen the dealership where they originally bought the vehicle close down. That means they're most likely taking the car to an independent mechanic, who relies on an auto part supply chain. McGranahan also said that others might be performing maintenance and repairs themselves in order to save money, which is also driving parts sales.

In addition, technology has advanced to the point that cars are lasting longer than they ever have before.

"People have realized their cars will last longer than five years," Judd Nystrom, senior vice president of Advance Auto Parts, told the news source.

Drivers might want to take advantage of longer-lasting vehicles by making their next purchase at a used car dealership. If a potential buyer is worried about maintenance, they may want to look into the certified pre-owned programs that most major brands maintain. These plans allow drivers to purchase a used car with a limited warranty backed by the manufacturer. 

Toyota recalling over 1 million vehicles

The maintenance issues continue for Toyota, which announced today that it will recall 1.53 million vehicles worldwide. Although the company claims to be employing new safety checks and focusing on restoring the brand's reputation for reliability, the automaker has continued to issue massive recalls this year for multiple vehicles.

The latest recall includes 740,000 used cars in the U.S., and doesn't affect any of the brand's new vehicles. The models in question include Avalons made between 2005 and 2006, Toyota Highlanders and Lexus RX330s from 2004 to 2006 and Lexus GS 300s, IS 250s and IS 350s from 2006.

Toyota says that the brake fluid used during maintenance can cause a small crack in the vehicle's master cylinder, leading to a "gradual decline" in stopping power. The issue will cause the brake warning light to come on. The automaker called the recall "voluntary," but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has pressured automakers to issue recalls for even minor problems in recent months.

The recall also includes nearly 600,000 vehicles overseas, mainly in Europe and Japan. Those vehicles have an additional problem with the electrical wiring related to the fuel pumps, which could potentially cause an engine stall.

Toyota has recalled over 10 million vehicles in the past year.