Last minute recalls for 2010

In a year that has seen more than 19 million recalls, the highest total since 2004, it makes perfect sense that the last day of the year would have several automakers throwing in some last minute safety notices.

Ford issued a minor recall this morning for issues with the new 2011 models of the Ford Edge, Ford F-150 and Lincoln MKX. Turns out that particular versions of these models have an issue with the body control module, which affects the car's electrical system. If these models were to short circuit, the entire electrical system could potentially overheat and cause a fire, according to the company. The recall is pretty small, with less than 15,000 vehicles affected, but the consequences could be disastrous.

Meanwhile, Chrysler's problems affect nearly 150,000 new and used vehicles in total, although they're not quite as serious. A problem with the rear axle on the Ram 1500 requires an extra 20 ounces of lube to be added, which drivers can do either on their own or for free at the dealer. On the Ram 4500 and 5500, a side ball stud on the tie rod could possibly fracture, requiring a replacement to be installed. Finally, the 2009 Dodge Journey has a problem with door-mounted wiring that could ultimately lead to the disabling of the side-impact sensor. That means side-curtain airbags may not deploy in a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

Cool cars on a budget

Drivers can compare vehicle specifications and performance as much as they like, but ultimately one of the biggest motivating factors that drive vehicle purchase is simply how "cool" a car is – a highly subjective but nevertheless important quality for cars to have.

In a recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates, the company found that one of the reasons that customers will stay loyal to an automaker is if the vehicles are particularly fun to drive. Rather than focusing on practical reasons like fuel economy or horsepower, the driver was instead looking for an emotional response.

So which cars are cool? That's entirely up to the driver, but there are some cars that nearly everyone agrees on. The vast majority of drivers won't turn down the chance to get behind the wheel of a Mustang, and "lame" isn't often heard to describe James Bond's lineup of Aston Martins.

Yet while many of these no-brainer cool cars are in the luxury or supercar segment, automakers have also been a bit more aggressive with their styling as of late. Kelley Blue Book recently profiled ten cool cars that can all be had for less than $18,000. Drivers should keep in mind that if they instead opt for a used car, they can probably afford a cooler one as well – as long as they don't mind a few miles on it.

One of the prime examples of a cheap but cool car is the recently-launched Ford Fiesta. Ford started the marketing buzz on this machine with a cutting-edge social media movement, and it was reflected in the sales. With a highly-personalized exterior and an eye-catching shape, the Fiesta will turn a few heads without breaking the bank.

For those who want a car that breaks the traditional rules, the Nissan Cube is another affordable option. This box-shaped compact looks like something out of a science-fiction movie and features unorthodox styling, like a wraparound rear window.

Yet a car doesn't need to be unconventional to be considered cool. The Hyundai Elantra Touring edition sticks pretty closely to the established station wagon archetype. Where it really diverts is in the bevy of features that come standard. Drivers will be safe and secure with eight airbags as they rock out to a 172-watt sound system that features MP3 playback and iPod integration.

The common sedan might not be the first thing that drivers think of when they hear the word "cool car" but the news source cites the Honda Civic as a notable exception. The Civic is reliable and practical, with good performance and a reputation for reliability, but it also offers drivers styling that's reminiscent of the cars of the future. Inside, options for Bluetooth, a navigation system and all-leather seating can turn the Civic into a truly cool car.

Ultimately, getting a cool car on a budget will come down to what the driver is looking for, but the wide variety of cars for sale in recent years gives them more options than ever in creating their own cool ride.

Honda dealing with recalls, hackers

Honda has announced that it will be recalling a large number of new and late-model used Honda Accords and Pilots due to an issue with the suspension system.

Rather than a flaw in the design of the vehicle, the problem stems from a piece of critical machinery at the Japanese automaker's Alabama manufacturing plant. A machine that was supposed to tighten the bolts on the vehicle's suspension may have been calibrated incorrectly, leading to the possibility that the pieces connecting the suspension to the front axle could come loose. The flaw was caught by workers at the plant.

The recall notice applies to 10,800 Accords and Pilots manufactured at the plant since 2010. Affected owners have already been notified.

In a separate incident, the company also sent out a notice to nearly 2.2 million customers who had registered with the company on their website. A group of hackers were apparently able to steal a list of email addresses and passwords from the company, along with vehicle identification numbers (VINs). Although sensitive information like social security numbers were not obtained, users who use the same password for every website could potentially be exposed to further attacks. 

Ford to debut stop-start technology

American automaker Ford has largely shifted to a small-car strategy as of late, focusing marketing efforts on cars like the Fusion and Fiesta while modifying classics like the F-150 and Mustang to offer more fuel efficient rides. The company seems to be furthering that aim by announcing that it hopes to have "stop-start" technology available on all cars for sale by 2012.

The feature is a simple and cost-effective way to decrease the fuel consumption of any vehicle, and is already available on Ford's European models along with the American Ford Escape and Fusion hybrids. By detecting when a vehicle is fully stopped, the feature shuts off the engine in order to reduce the fuel wasted while a vehicle is idling. When the driver presses the accelerator, the engine automatically starts up again with no noticeable lag or delay – similar to a "sleep mode" for an automobile.

With commuters typically forced to come to a stop in heavy traffic and city dwellers dealing with numerous red lights, Ford claims that the technology can increase fuel economy by anywhere between four and 10 percent. The EPA has not yet included stop-start testing in their official fuel efficiency ratings, so the MPGs for any Ford cars that use technology likely won't see a bump for a few more years.

CarMax announces used car upswing

CarMax, a national chain that owns and operates a number of used car dealerships across the country, has reported a noticeable uptick in used car sales for the third quarter, allowing the chain to increase profits beyond investor's expectations.

Profit for the company rose by 10 percent year-on-year to $82.4 million, up from $74.6 million in the third quarter of 2009, according to The Associated Press. The strong postings for the company were largely attributed to a high demand for used cars.

Actual revenue for the company was actually up 23 percent, with all dealerships under the CarMax banner moving more than $2.12 billion worth of used autos. According to the company, it makes about $2,103 in profit every time a car is sold.

"We've seen a nice trend here over the last few quarters of increased traffic and increased sales," CEO Tom Folliard said in a conference call with investors. "This quarter's results showed sustained strength in many of our key areas."

While dealerships may have the widest variety of used cars for sale, shoppers may want to keep in mind that they may be able to find even better deals on cars by visiting an auto auction or buying through a private seller.

J.D. Power spotlights brand retention

Over the years, the automotive industry has learned that car customers can have a wide variety of different reasons for choosing which new or used vehicle that they'll be driving home. Some drivers only stick to used cars, while others are fiercely loyal to a particular brand. Many always buy a pickup, while some stick with American automakers. Beyond these trends there are a wide variety of reasons that drivers choose a car, whether it's resale value, safety, styling or performance.

In an effort to better understand the habits of these consumers, J.D. Power and Associates releases a Customer Retention Study every year that examines what factors a buyer finds appealing about particular brands. Building brand loyalty is one way that automakers ensure repeated sales, so the survey seeks to highlight strengths across an automaker's lineups as well as any weaknesses that they may wish to correct.

What's tricky is that shoppers' preferences can change from year to year. For example, the 2009 edition of the survey highlighted preferences that were highly tied to the tough economy at the time, such as resale value. This year, with the economy steadily improving, drivers flip-flopped in what they wanted out of their vehicle. Drivers citing resale value dropped a full ten percentage points, while "fun to drive" saw a nine-point upswing.

"Now that economic and market conditions have improved somewhat, vehicle owners are increasingly citing emotional, rather than practical, reasons for staying with their vehicle brand or switching to a different one," said Raffi Festekjian, director of automotive product research at J.D. Power and Associates. "In light of this, developing new models with attractive styling and that are perceived as fun to drive is increasingly critical for automakers in order to retain and conquest customers as the market continues to recover."

At the top of the list are two automakers with differing approaches to customer appeal. Ford and Honda both achieved a retention rate of 62 percent, meaning those drivers chose to purchase a vehicle from the automaker again. Ford respondents widely replied that their car was fun to drive or had eye-catching styling, while proponents of Honda cited safety and high resale value.

Just behind those brands was a three-way tie between Hyundai, Toyota and Lexus, at 60 percent retention. Also of interest was Hyundai's up-and-coming Kia brand, which was able to boost its retention by a whopping 21 points in 2010, up to 58 percent.

The survey also noticed a slight shift from imports to domestics. In 2009, 10 percent of drivers made the switch from an import to an American-made brand, but 2010 saw 14 percent of drivers change brands.

Drivers who are loyal to a particular brand might be rewarded for trading their car in for a model of the same type. Many dealers offer loyalty bonuses that can amount to significant discounts. And even if an automaker's new models begin to get away from the reasons a driver chose that brand in the first place, they should keep in mind that they can likely find the features they prefer on used autos.

Hyundai: Not so fast on Volt, Leaf

After the three finalists for the North American Car of the Year were announced, many publications automatically assumed that one of the two new electric vehicles – either the Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf – would walk away with the trophy. But Hyundai, the maker of the third finalist, the 2011 Sonata, is pointing out that its vehicle shouldn't be counted out just yet.

In a statement released to USA Today's "Drive On" blog, Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor lightly chastised the blog and other websites for essentially predicting victory for the new Volt, by talking up the Sonata's features while denigrating the two competitors' slow sales.

"You'll never have to worry about 'range anxiety' in a Sonata," he said. "And it must be worth something that customers have already taken delivery of almost 200,000 Sonatas – this while at least one other finalist is talking about their first two deliveries. The positive environmental impact of 200,000 high-fuel-efficiency Sonatas far outweighs that of a niche car that will sell around 10,000 units – about half of what we do each month."

Trainor also pointed out that the Sonata comes in three different versions, including the base, turbo and hybrid options.

Drivers interested in any of these models may want to wait until the vehicles hit the used car market, as they might be able to get a great deal on a Car of the Year candidate. 

Ford plans U.S. version of Euro minivan

Ford has announced that it will return to the minivan market for the first time in four years, with plans to debut an American version of its previous European-only C-Max compact van.

With minivan sales dropping off, Ford made the decision in 2006 to discontinue the flailing Freestar model in America. Meanwhile, Europe got a small minivan known as the C-Max that was based off of the successful Focus platform.

Now, the success of small cars like the Focus and Fiesta coupled with an expected boom in the minivan market is causing Ford to bring the C-Max stateside. Ford product development chief Derrick Kuzack told Bloomberg that the automaker purposefully avoided making the car look like a "box on wheels," instead opting for the exterior styling featured on the company's more recent successes. Although smaller than competitors, the C-Max still features seating for seven and a focus on cargo space.

According to J.D. Power and Associates, minivan sales are expected to increase by 52 percent in 2012. That makes the arrival of the C-Max in late 2011 optimal for capitalizing on the rising number of families in the market for a vehicle.

Drivers who are interested in the company's earlier van models may be able to find used Ford Freestars or Windstars are their local dealer.

Civic struggles in new crash test

After many vehicles posted consisted four- or five-star ratings under safety tests issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency revised its tests to become much more stringent, resulting in a drop-off for a number of popular vehicles.

The group is slowly making their way through batches of vehicles, and the latest tests exposed the safety flaws in one top-selling model: the Honda Civic. The Civic scored a two out of five in the side crash test and went home with an overall score of 3, a significant difference from the car's once 5-star reputation.

Honda is no slouch when it comes to safety, as the company's Accord has been the only model thus far to crack the new tests, earning a five in the rollover, side crash and frontal crash tests for a perfect score. Most cars receive a three- or four-star overall rating.

The other cars tested were the Nissan Sentra, Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain. The Terrain and Equinox received five stars in side crashes and fours in the other two categories. The Sentra got a four in the rollover, but could only manage threes in the front and side crash tests.

Drivers should consider safety ratings when shopping for new or used vehicles.

Finalists announced for North American Car of the Year

Every year, a group of automotive journalists select the 2011 North American Car of the Year, an award given to the vehicle that jurors feel exemplifies the best that the car industry has to offer. To be eligible for consideration, a car must be either entirely new or "substantially changed" in the eyes of the 49 journalists who vote on the award.

While the official winner has yet to be announced, the Automotive Press Association has revealed that the field has been narrowed down to three models in both the car and truck categories.

It appears the press favors green initiatives, as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt make up two of the three finalists. These two vehicles are the first electric autos to hit the mass market, something that will certainly work in their favor in the voting process. However, the cars are far from identical. The Leaf is fully electric, never requiring gas, but pays for it with a limited range. The Volt uses a gas generator to power an electric motor, extending its range but also technically making it a series hybrid.

The third finalist is the redesigned Hyundai Sonata. The jurors have already indicated their respect for the changes Hyundai has made to its brand, as the Genesis was the 2009 Car of the Year – the only win in history for the South Korean automaker. All three of the Sonata's versions – the base model, hybrid and 2.0T turbo – are considered in the voting.

Cars weren't the only models competing for an award. The same group also names the North American Truck of the Year. Historically, Ford has dominated the category, with seven wins for the automaker over the history of the award. Last year, the automaker won for the Ford Transit Connect, in addition to the Ford Fusion Hybrid winning the 2010 Car of the Year.

This year, the new Ford Explorer goes up against two redesigned offerings from Chrysler: the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango. The Grand Cherokee has actually won the award once, back in 1999. It's worth noting that all three vehicles were once wildly popular during the nation's SUV craze, but have since been redesigned to be more fuel efficient and eco-friendly.

Drivers in the market for a vehicle don't need to pay new car prices in order to own a Car or Truck of the Year. By searching the used car market, they can likely find deals on acclaimed models from years past.