2000 Spring Auto Guide.


The best vehicles for this season

Happy days continue for the automotive industry. Perhaps no other major industry is as easily and quickly affected by major trends in the general economy, and with the U.S. enjoying its longest economic boom ever, the car business is rolling along.

That doesn't mean there isn't any more competition. The weak are being culled, often by mergers or consolidation. DaimlerChrysler is more German than ever, leaving General Motors and Ford as the only two major U.S.-based automakers. Japan's Mazda is part of Ford, and Nissan is now partnered with France's Renault. Such marques as Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo belong to Ford, while BMW owns Rover and is about to take over the Rolls Royce brand. Volkswagen, which owns Rolls Royce for the moment, will hold on to Bentley, while also keeping a few other exotic makes. GM just bought the other half of Saab.

A few years ago there were several Korean automakers. It seems likely that by the end of the year, Hyundai will stand alone. Hyundai ate Kia last year, and Daewoo may be sold soon.

Even among independents, smaller brands are partnering up with bigger ones. Porsche is developing an SUV, but couldn't do it without help from VW. Honda has agreed to sell engines to GM, while GM has bought into Subaru. Among the Japanese, Toyota is the largest and will stay the course, while Mitsubishi continues to search for some sort of relationship.

Most of the amalgamation is not obvious to consumers. Plymouth is the only major name disappearing this year. Most brand names will be sticking around under new ownership for now.


Here's what you should do before you purchase your new car:

DO YOUR RESEARCH. Refer to publications at your library or bookstore to determine the type of car, features and options that will meet your needs and fit your budget.

PICK THE RIGHT TIME. Shop at the end of the sales week-typically Saturday--or the last day of the month. Also, arrive one hour before closing. This will force the salesman to give you the best deal fast.

GO FOR A SPIN. Assess the car's performance in traffic and on a highway, evaluate the vehicle's design, comfort, safety features, braking, handling, acceleration and basic components (e.g., radio, air conditioner, heater, defroster) during the test drive.

NEGOTIATE FOR THE BEST PRICE. Generally, dealers have a profit margin of 10% to 20% and they may be willing to bargain to close a sale.

HOLD OUT FOR YOUR TRADE-IN. Mention trading in your old car only after you've received the best price on your new car.

BE PATIENT. If they don't have the car you want on the lot, order it.

SHOP AROUND. Once you strike a deal, get the final price in writing and don't be afraid to take this price to other retailers.

1 Somewhat weary of being criticized for making cars that lack thrust. Audi is making 2000 the year for real horsepower. The A4 has long been an attractive sedan that handles well, but with either the 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbo or the 2.8-liter V6, acceleration could leave the performance enthusiast yawning.

No more. The S4 is basically the A4 treated to a slightly smaller 2.7-liter V6, but with twin turbochargers. The net result is 250 horsepower and, even more thrilling, 258 lbs. ft. of torque that arrives at a low 1,850 rpm. Translation? Step on the throttle and you go 60 miles per hour in less than six seconds. Thanks to Audi's renowned standard Quattro IV all-wheel-drive system, the S4 is surefooted in nearly any weather.

A firmer suspension and grippy 17-inch tires help complete the performance package. A five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission is standard, as are most amenities. Starting at $37,900, this is the Audi that's ready to tangle with the best from BMW. And when the weather turns sour, the smart money bets Audi.


2 Although BMW would prefer you call the X5 something other than an SUV it does fall firmly into that category. It reigns at the upper end with a starting price of $49.970 and can reach beyond $60.000 when fully equipped For that, you get a powerful V8 engine, a full-time four-wheel-drive system and a road-conquering suspension. The X5 is also equipped with a host of electronic goodies that will keep you in line during exuberant cornering, assist you in...

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