Volt delivered to first customer

The Chevrolet Volt has reached its first official customer – a retired airline pilot from New Jersey.

Jeffrey Kaffee of Parsippany, N.J. returned home from vacation early to pick up his Chevy Volt at his local dealership. The Parsippany Daily Record reports that Kaffee paid about $42,000 for the vehicle before the $7,500 federal tax credit.

Kaffee has a history with green vehicles, as he traded a used Toyota Prius to help lower the cost of the purchase.

Chevrolet announced that Kaffee is the first of nearly 360 customers who will receive their Volt this week. The first areas to receive the new vehicles are California, Texas, Washington D.C. and New York City. The cars are being delivered from a manufacturing plant in Detroit.

The Volt recently took home the Car of the Year awards from two major publications – Motor Trend and Automobile magazine. The series hybrid can travel for 35 miles on electricity only before switching to gas mode.

The main rival to the Volt, Nissan's Leaf, appears to have beaten GM out of the starting gate. The company announced last week that it had delivered the first Leaf to a customer in California.

Drivers who want to make the switch to a greener vehicle should consider selling or trading their current car. They may also want to wait until the models hit the used car market.

Great two-car combos for families

For many families, one vehicle is simply not enough to handle all of the tasks that the various members will need a car for. That's why many families choose to purchase multiple vehicles, so as to ease the load on the family car.

When a family hits the dealership, they'll have a wide variety of cars for sale to choose from. One thing that buyers want to keep in mind is the concept of pairing their vehicles to accomplish different tasks. If there's already a minivan in the garage, an SUV or crossover might be a bit redundant. Conversely, if dad already has a Ford Mustang, mom won't likely be looking at a Chevrolet Camaro.

MSN Autos recently gave some suggestions for families looking for two vehicles that compliment each other nicely. Most follow the "small car-big car" formula, which should allow drivers the flexibility to haul cargo and kids while also maintaining an everyday vehicle for less-intense tasks.

In terms of an affordable pairing, the news source recommends the Scion tC from Toyota paired with the Kia Sportage from Hyundai. When bought new, these two vehicles retail in the $18,000 range, but those shopping the used car market can likely get the pair for under $30,000 – the price of many upscale vehicles.

The Sportage serves as a great family hauler, with plenty of room for seating and cargo. Meanwhile, the tC is an affordable option for drivers who don't want to sacrifice performance, packing 180 horsepower under a sleek coupe-inspired frame.

Another pairing is titled "The Odd Couple" by the news source. The Mini Cooper from BMW is an extremely fuel-efficient and fun city vehicle that can produce some serious horsepower with the right performance package, but drivers may worry about their ability to handle more than two people. By opting for a Chevrolet Suburban, those fears will be out the window. With seating for up to 9, the Suburban is more than three times the size of a Mini Cooper, according to the news source. An odd couple, indeed.

What about for families that are trying to go green? Purchasing a big family vehicle may seem contradictory to that philosophy, but recent offerings like the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid are smart alternatives to the gas-consuming models of yesteryear. Additionally, purchasing one of these vehicles will allow the family to use a compact electric car, like the new Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf, without worry. Families won't have to stress about battery range if they use the SUV for road trips and the EV as a secondary car for shorter excurisions.

Another thing that families should keep in mind is that it will be significantly easier to purchase two vehicles if they shop used auto dealers. It might be more efficient for a family to purchase two cheap used vehicles rather than an expensive new one.

What are the most considered luxury brands?

Every quarter, Kelley Blue Book, the company behind the popular used car pricing guide, surveys thousands of shoppers in the market for a new vehicle about what brands they are considering. This "most considered" list is used as a barometer for determining which brands are first and foremost in shoppers' minds.

This type of information is especially important in the luxury segment, which has heated up as of late as three brands – BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus – all compete to be the brand with the most sales for 2010 in North America. The results were largely in line with recent sales figures. BMW placed first, which might be an explanation for its recent surge in sales. It was followed closely by Lexus, Audi, Acura and Mercedes-Benz. The company pointed out that while Mercedes was fifth overall, it held the top rank in a number of a factors
that drivers cited as important, such as prestige, family friendliness, safety and interior design.

The rankings got shaken up a little bit when the group turned its attention to the luxury crossover/SUV market, a quickly growing segment. Lexus held onto the top spot in this category, followed by Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln and BMW. This suggests that the domestic luxury brands aren't appealing to buyers in the market for a coupe or sedan, but still make their way onto buyers' shopping lists for larger vehicles.

Toyota regains top spot on “most considered” list

When shopping for a new or used car, one of the major factors for buyers to consider is the brand of car that they will be purchasing. Each automaker has perceived strengths and weaknesses, which often translate into their position on buyer's shopping list.

Every quarter, Kelley Blue Book polls a variety of shoppers in the market for a vehicle about which brands they are considering for their next purchase.

In previous years, Toyota's grip on the top spot has been iron-clad, with the Japanese automaker opening up a big lead over its rivals. Yet a recall scandal in 2010 caused Ford to slip past Toyota into the top spot.

According to the latest survey, Toyota is back on top once again, with 25 percent of buyers considering the brand, compared to 24 for Ford. Honda was close at 23 percent, with Chevrolet, Nissan and Hyundai rounding out the top six.

"The latest Brand Watch data from Kelley Blue Book Market Intelligence indicates that Toyota is slowly recovering from its public-perception crisis and regaining a position of prominence in the minds of new-car shoppers," said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "However, whether Toyota will ascend as high as it was before the recall crisis remains yet to be seen. Hot competition from the likes of Ford, Honda, Chevrolet, Nissan and Hyundai could make it very hard for Toyota to keep a strong lead moving forward." 

Famous cars tear up Germany’s Nurburgring track

The Nurburgring track in Germany is one of the most famous race tracks in the world, and some of the most famous vehicles in existence have tried their best to set world-records on the course.

MSN Autos recently detailed some of the most legendary runs made at Nurburgring in an effort to prove which car could claim the title of fastest in the world.

The most recent record-holder is the Pagani Zonda R, which broke the Ferrari 599XX's time by nearly 11 seconds in June of 2010. Clocking in at 6:47.5 seconds, the Zonda set a new standard for racing at Nurburgring.

Yet a Zonda isn't what anyone would describe as "street-legal." It's a race car built for those purposes only. While the Radical SR8 can be lumped in the same category, the car can technically be used on the road in some European countries, depending on the laws. Normally, outfitting a car for street legality means that the time will suffer, but the SR8 came in at just half-a-second behind the Zonda at 6:48.

Still, no driver is gonna find an SR8 lying around at their local used car dealer. More common automakers use the track as well, and quite frequently. In the past 3 years, the title for the world's fastest production sedan has bounced through numerous automakers. Cadillac's CTS-V set the bar pretty high with its 7:59 time in 2008, but it was bested by the new Porsche Panamera Turbo's 7:56 in 2009. Surprisingly, both were taken down by the Subaru Impreza WRX STI, which was able to edge the Porsche by just a second.

Nurburgring might be designed for high-horsepower machines, but that doesn't mean it's not used for a bit of fun as well. Mercedes-Benz' Mini brand debuted their Mini E at the track, posting a pretty respectable time of 9:51 purely on electric power.

Finally, perhaps one of the funniest moments at Nurburgring came on the British television show "Top Gear." Host Jeremy Clarkson was given a Jaguar S-Type to tool around with on the track, but was ridiculed after he posted a disappointing time of 10 minutes. That caused professional driver Sabine Schmitz to boast that she could beat his time – in a Ford Transit Van. Surprisingly, the model known more as a delivery truck was able to come pretty close, finishing just 8 seconds behind Clarkson's S-Type time.

With the exception of the Transit, all of these vehicles will fetch a pretty penny at a dealership – if they're available at all. Those who are looking for a performance vehicle, however, might be able to find a good deal on the used car market.

Chevy to rebrand Aveo as “Sonic”

Chevrolet has announced that its Aveo subcompact will be renamed as the Sonic, after confusion about how to pronounce the small car's unorthodox name.

Although General Motors refers to the 2012 Sonic as a "new car," there has been no indication that next year's model will get anything more than a minor styling facelift to accompany the new name.

"The Sonic represents a new beginning for Chevrolet in the small car segment and so we felt it was time to give it a new name," said Chris Perry, vice president, Chevrolet U.S. Marketing. "The new car is roomy, stylish and fun to drive, and Sonic is a youthful, energetic name that helps convey what this vehicle is about."

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Aveo lagged far behind its subcompact competitors like the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent in 2009, which all broke 60,000 in total sales for the year. Meanwhile, the Aveo couldn't achieve 40,000. However, statistics from Autodata obtained by USA Today reveal that the Aveo's sales are up 40 percent this year, enough to push it past the Yaris.

Those who don't care what their car is called might be able to find a used Chevrolet Aveo for a discount once the Sonic is introduced. 

Automakers betting on electric future

While Chevrolet and Nissan will be first out of the gate with their new Volt and Leaf electric vehicles (EV), drivers shouldn't expect the electric segment to remain a two-horse race for very long. In fact, nearly every major automaker has unveiled plans for a fully-electric or plug-in hybrid by the end of 2012.

Yet it remains to be seen if the American public will be waiting with open arms. A recent survey by Kelley Blue Book revealed that only 7 percent of Americans would consider purchasing an EV, citing issues like range, availability of charging stations, and price.

Several automakers have recently made a move to work on the price of the electric battery packs that every EV must contain. Current technology means that the packs cost $700-$800 per kilowatt hour. But a breakthrough by electric automaker Tesla in adapting lithium-ion laptop batteries for use in vehicles means that the price could soon be reduced to $200 per kilowatt hour.

With the battery packs one of the costliest additions that cause electric vehicles' prices to skyrocket, that's good news for green drivers. However, those who want to truly save on a car may want to wait until some of the models hit the used car market, where they'll likely be available at a discount.

Hyundai to spin-off luxury brand?

Hyundai has been moving closer to the luxury market as of late, with models like the Equus and Genesis competing with the BMWs and Mercedes of the world rather than Toyotas and Hondas. Now, they may be committing to their vision of value in the luxury market even further.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the South Korean automaker is contemplating adding a new brand, likely known as "Genesis," that would compete exclusively in the luxury segment. Obvious additions to the new nameplate would be the Genesis and Equus models, but the company is also considering a new car to rival the BMW 3-Series and a luxury crossover.

According to the news source, three different plans are currently being discussed. One would see Hyundai remain as one brand while introducing the new cars as Hyundais. The second would see the "Genesis" brand sold alongside Hyundai's under one roof. The most radical idea is to give Genesis its own separate dealership facilities, sales staff and identity, much like Lexus or Acura.

Hyundai has been on a blistering pace as of late, growing its U.S. market share by 50 percent in two years while earning acclaim for its redesigned models, like the Sonata.

Those interested in purchasing a Hyundai or any other vehicle may want to keep in mind that they'll likely be able to find a deal by searching the used car market.

Tips for the negotiation process

Buying a new or used car can be a complex process with a lot of moving parts. If drivers aren't careful, they can quickly find themselves paying much more than they initially bargained for.

Fortunately, there are some easy tips that buyers can keep in mind to help make the negotiation process a bit easier on themselves. Despite the public perception, most car dealers aren't looking to swindle their customers. It would be naive of shoppers to think, however, that salesmen and dealers won't be attempting to maximize their profits.

MSN Autos recently spoke to several consumer advocates about some tips that could help buyers save a bit off of their next purchase. With these in mind, shoppers can help themselves negotiate the best possible deal.

As a starting point, Jeff Bartlett of Consumer Reports told the news source that it's helpful for shoppers to think of the process as a series of steps. Keeping these steps separate is key to understanding everything that's going on and avoiding potential pitfalls.

"They're looking at making money off you in stages," he said. "So it's important for customers to keep the stages separate and not lose track of what's going on."

For many buyers, one of those stages will be a trade-in. Swapping a used car for a new one can be a powerful tool that can work in the buyer's favor, but many dealers will use the trade-in value to distract from the actual purchase. They might make a generous offer on the car only to recoup the money by inflating the new car price, or vice-versa. The best strategy is for buyers to simply avoid mentioning the trade until the final price is locked in. Negotiate them as two separate transactions to make things easier.

Locking the final price of the car in can also help on the lending front. Buyers seeking a loan will have a whole other set of factors to worry about, including monthly payments and interest rates. So it's a lot easier to think in these terms once the actual price is known. Dealers make most of their profits off of financing, so those who plan on paying cash may not want to advertise it right away. That will tip salesmen off to the fact that they'll have to be very rigid with their pricing, since they won't be recouping any expenses through financing.

Finally, the news source reports that one of the more common mistakes that buyers make is simply not comparison shopping. Drivers may get locked into a specific model or settle for one of the cars for sale on the lot. It's important to test drive a number of different models and shop around for the best price. Shoppers shouldn't be afraid to quote a price from one dealer to another – this is a great way to drive down the cost of a vehicle.

Buyers who are really looking to save should keep in mind that new car lots aren't the only places to find vehicles. Often, better prices can be had on lightly used cars at their local dealer or auto auction.

Luxury sales race will be tight as year comes to close

The year-long battle between North America's top luxury brands has been intense, with three separate companies – Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW – all having a chance at claiming the crown. Though Lexus holds the lead going into December, all three have a chance at coming out on top.

Lexus has been the top-selling brand on the continent for the past 10 years, but has seen its dominance challenged in 2010 thanks to a wave of recalls by parent company Toyota. That gave both Mercedes-Benz and BMW a chance to knock the Japanese nameplate off its throne.

Bloomberg previously reported that the battle was down to Mercedes and Lexus, but a strong showing by BMW in November has made it a three-horse race. Lexus has the lead with 201,769 vehicles shipped, while the German brands are neck-and-neck at 196,833 for BMW and 196,288 for Mercedes.

BMW improved its sales by 30 percent year-on-year in November, compared to an 8.4 percent rise for Mercedes and a 1.4 percent drop for Lexus.

Despite the recent drop-off for Lexus, BMW U.S. unit chief Jim O'Donnell told the news source that Lexus would likely walk away with the crown thanks to December incentive programs that will drive sales. Mercedes and BMW, meanwhile, have backed off of incentive programs.

"Next year, I would like to think we may have a go at them," he said.