Final sales tally shakes up global order

The final sales figures for 2010 are in, and there's been quite a shakeup in the rankings of automakers by global sales.

Toyota was able to retain its title as the world's largest automaker, despite a significant challenge from General Motors. In a year marred by recalls, Toyota saw its global sales lead dwindle, but still managed to sell 8.42 million vehicles, edging out GM's total of 8.39 million cars sold worldwide. Volkswagen was a distant third with 7.14 million vehicles sold.

Hyundai and its Kia brand had a fantastic year, as the two nameplates combined to sell 5.74 million vehicles, making it the fourth-largest automaker in the world. That was enough to push it past Ford by about 400,000 vehicles.

The biggest story, however, might just be Nissan, as the Japanese brand's alliance with French automaker Renault is paying dividends. Nissan surpassed Honda as Japan's second-largest automaker for the first time in decades, with strong showings in India, Russia and China. Although Nissan and Renault totaled their vehicles separately, a combined tally for the companies would make it the third-largest automaker in the world, unseating Volkswagen.

As the auto industry begins booming again and manufacturers start introducing new models, it's a great time to shop for a vehicle. Those searching for a car may want to check out New Jersey State Auto Auction, which boasts a massive selection and rock-bottom prices.

Mercedes to introduce front-wheel drive vehicles

Mercedes-Benz has announced plans to introduce a new lineup of front-wheel drive vehicles to the U.S., with plans for two and possibly even a third model over the next three years.

Automotive News reports that the automaker has concrete plans for at least two U.S. models sporting the new "Mercedes Front-wheel-drive Architecture" or MFA.

"We will introduce the next generation of our MFA family to the U.S.," Mercedes' global sales and marketing boss, Joachim Schmidt, told the news source.

A coupe and an SUV are already confirmed to be making an appearance stateside. The SUV is planned for 2014 and will go head-to-head with the similar BMW X1, reports the news source. Meanwhile, the coupe, dubbed the "baby CLS" by Mercedes insiders, will arrive in 2013.

In addition, Mercedes is currently deciding on whether or not a third vehicle will see production. If it does, it would likely be in the form of a convertible or a "shooting brake," a rare compact wagon design with a squared off back.

Europe will also get two new hatchbacks, with Mercedes leaving the door open for a possible U.S. debut if they prove popular enough.

Drivers considering the purchase of a used Mercedes or any other vehicle may want to head to New Jersey State Auto Auction, where they can find vehicles for well below their Kelley Blue Book value.

Auto loan default rates continue to drop

Auto loan default rates continued to drop in December as borrowers began to dig themselves out of the financial holes that the recession has helped to create.

Standard & Poor and Experian's joint Consumer Credit Default Indices report that the rate of auto loan defaults declined nearly 5 percent from November to December and now sits at 1.68 percent. That figure was down 36.85 percent when compared with December of 2009.

"Default rates across the four major categories of consumer borrowing declined in December from November and from a year earlier. Nationally, consumers continue to gradually improve their financial condition," said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P.

The index also tracks default rates across mortgages and bank cards, but reported that auto loan defaults remained the lowest and experienced the biggest decrease out of all types of borrowing.

This news, coupled with that of interest rates dropping for car loans, means that it may be a great time to secure financing for a new or used vehicle.

New safety system allows cars to “talk” to each other

A new safety system has the potential to prevent a majority of car accidents, according to a preliminary report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford demonstrated the new technology for federal officials and media members on Tuesday, though it is not the only automaker to be working on the technology. The idea behind the system is to essentially allow cars to "talk" to each other using GPS and WiFi signals. The signals, sent out ten times every second, broadcast the location of a vehicle in relation to others.

That means that when another person runs a red light or is approaching a car at a high rate of speed, the driver can be alerted via a series of automated beeps. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these vehicle-to-vehicle systems could help in 80 percent of crashes that do not involve drunk drivers.

The main drawback to the new system is that it only works if both vehicles are equipped with the sensors, meaning used cars are out of luck. Federal officials are scheduled to meet in 2013 in order to discuss the feasibility of making it a requirement for all new vehicles to have the systems in place. 

IIHS names Top Safety Picks

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) has revealed its Top Safety Picks for 2011, and 66 vehicles have earned the honor.

This year's tests featured a new variable that focused on roof strength, as the increasing number of rollover crashes have made the consideration more important in determining overall safety.

"We added the roof-strength requirement after our research confirmed the importance of roof strength when it comes to the seriousness of injuries to persons involved in rollover crashes," said Russ Rader, IIHS vice president of communications. "Federal studies on fatality and injury data showed that vehicles with stronger roofs resulted in the occupants having a much lower rate of serious injuries."

The big winners were Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi, each of which walked away with nine total vehicles designated as a top pick. Subaru also earned some bragging rights, as every model it entered was named as a top pick.

Some of the individual models chosen by the IIHS included the Audi A4, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Explorer and the Toyota Sienna, which was the only minivan selected.

Drivers considering purchasing a used car can check out some of the Top Safety Picks from years past in order to ensure that their car of choice will protect them in an accident. 

Bret Michaels, Bill Goldberg, auction used cars for charity

Rocker Bret Michaels and former pro wrestler Bill Goldberg have gone head-to-head before on shows like "Celebrity Apprentice." But at a recent Arizona car auction, the two celebrities had pride on the line as they each auctioned off two classic used cars.

The money from the auction went to the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, so each wanted to see their cars go as high as possible.

Goldberg's customized 1968 Dodge Dart, complete with a 713 horsepower Hemi V8 engine, ended up selling for a whopping $92,500. Yet Michaels was able to best Goldberg, as his 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS, couple with a signed guitar and lifetime backstage pass wound up fetching $200,000.

Bruce Steinberg, the owner of the collision center that rebuilt the car, told the Mason City Globe Gazette that he didn't believe the car would sell for that much.

"Surprised isn't even the word, more like shocked and overwhelmed," he told the news source. "We had an idea in our head how much it would go for, but not that."

Later, the two friends took to the stage in order to pump the crowd up for the big-ticket item, a brand-new 2012 Ford Mustang Boss Lacuna Seca, which eventually sold for $450,000. 

Auto loan rates reach record lows

Auto loan rates are at record lows, making it a great time to purchase a new or used car, according to two separate sources.

According to USA Today, both Edmunds and Bankrate have reported interest rates that are among the lowest ever tracked by the two companies. Bankrate claims that the current average interest rate for a four-year new car loan is 6.21 percent, the lowest in two decades. Some dealers are even going as low as 2.99 percent.

Edmunds, meanwhile, also factors in automaker-subsidized loans and special offers into their rate tracking. According to the company, the average rate of 4.16 in December was the lowest since the company began recording rates in 2002.

There are a variety of factors at play that are driving rates down. Automakers made a big end-of-the-year push in order to drive sales higher, but some of the deals have overlapped into January as well. Dealers are also facing competition from banks and other lending institution hoping to expand their loan portfolio now that the economy is improving, which is in turn making them lower their rates.

Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealer Association, told the news source that it's a great time to trade your vehicle too, as dealers are valuing the used cars higher in order to stimulate sales. 

Automakers gearing up for the big game

Now that the world knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers will be vying for the Super Bowl this year, the only thing left to determine is "who's running commercials?"

Year-in and year-out companies like Anheuseur-Busch, Coca-Cola and Disney are sure bets, but the industry that may get the most airtime this year is automotive, according to the New York Times. Reflecting the recent rise in sales, nine brands have reportedly bought airtime for the big game, up from just six in 2010. And that doesn't even count car-related companies like Bridgestone and CarMax.

Two of those brands are already making their presence felt. Mercedes-Benz is planning its first TV spot ever at the Super Bowl in celebration of the company's 125th anniversary. They're leading up to the big game by giving away cars via a social media contest designed to encourage people to watch their sixty-second spot in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Hyundai's budget brand Kia is looking to capitalize off of last year's successful spot, which featured a crew full of stuffed animals taking the Kia Sorento for a joyride. Kia's VP of marketing, Michael Sprague, told the news source that the commercial helped the Sorento become the top-selling vehicle for every month in 2010.

Controversial Kennedy ambulance sells for $132,000

Occasionally, drivers who purchase used vehicles may see the car increase in value if they keep it in mint condition and that particular model ends up becoming a classic. Yet this is usually not the most efficient way to go about purchasing a vehicle, and more often than not a car will decrease in value over time.

However, one way that a car's price will shoot up dramatically is if it's involved with a celebrity, a famous event, or better yet, both. That was the case for a 1963 Pontiac Bonneville ambulance that was recently sold at auction.

These oddly-shaped machines normally fetch around $10,000, but this model in particular was rumored to have carried John F. Kennedy's body shortly after his assassination. According to the story, the ambulance met the Kennedys at Andrews Air Force Base and carried the body to the hospital for an autopsy and later, the U.S. Capitol.

In the end, a collector shelled out $132,000 for the vehicle, although that was much less than the once-rumored $1 million price tag. That may be because the car blog Jalopnik published a story days before the auction, which claimed that the actual ambulance had been destroyed in 1986.

The auction house independently investigated, but couldn't verify either story 100 percent. Thus, the sale went ahead, although the controversy likely contributed to the much lower bid. 

EPA approves 15 percent ethanol mixture

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce a new approval for the use of corn-based ethanol in a variety of used car models.

According to The Associated Press, the EPA has reached a consensus on the approval of 15 percent ethanol fuel mixtures for use in used vehicles made between 2001 and 2006. Previously, only solutions that contained 10 percent ethanol were okayed for use in those vehicles.

Proponents of ethanol-based fuel argue that it is an attractive alternative to traditional gasoline, which would theoretically reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Many gas stations have begun offering ethanol-based fuels for use. Cars with engines that are designed to accept E85, also known as "flex fuel," have the option of using fuels with higher concentrations of ethanol.

However, the use of ethanol is not without its critics. As ethanol is derived mainly from corn, some in the agricultural industry argue that diverting the resources to fuel will drive up the cost of food. Ethanol is also not safe for use in smaller engines, such as those found on motorcycles, lawnmowers or boats.

Congress has previously stipulated that gasoline refiners must blend in a total of 36 billion gallons of biofuel into auto fuel by 2022, a goal that many believe is only achievable with the higher concentration blends.