2011 Car Buying Guide

SmartMoney

Despite the wobbly economy, auto deals aren't easy to find. Here, our annual road map.

We're tucked safely inside our metallic gray BMW 535i xDrive, ready to hit the twisty, two-lane back roads of central Massachusetts. After sinking into the ivory double-stitched-leather seats, we program our destination into the 10-inch nav screen and scan the handsome cockpit controls. We set the Adaptive Drive switch to the sportiest (read: high-performance) setting, hear the Teutonic growl of the engine, and we're off. The pickup? It takes our breath away.

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As, by the way, does the price of this beauty.

Before the recent market gyrations, Americans had been returning to car lots in impressive numbers, pushing sales up by as much as 13 percent at midyear. But for buyers who held off making a new-vehicle purchase during the recession (the average American car is now around 10 years old), getting back into the market has brought on an unexpected round of sticker shock -- and not just for luxury imports. Overall, car prices rose 3 to 5 percent in the first half of 2011, compared with a year earlier. That's hardly a blow to the knees, but it comes just a year after many dealers were lowering base prices. What's more, incentives like cash rebates are now half what they were in 2010. The bottom line, according to Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation at Kelley Blue Book: "A consumer out in the marketplace is going to have to pay more."

One reason, of course, is shrunken supply. Not only did carmakers slash inventories after the 2008 crash, but the March earthquake and tsunami further limited production (for Japanese manufacturers, as well as for others using Japanese electronics in their vehicles). And let's not forget that even dinky compacts are increasingly loaded with extra options, putting an end to the idea of a "simple" car purchase. A good haggler, for example, might be able to get that BMW 535i xDrive for close to $50,000. But add in packages like Premium 2 ($4,900), Dynamic Handling ($2,700), Driver Assistance ($1,350) and M Sport ($6,500), and suddenly you're tooling around in a $65,000-plus ride. Heck, BMW even charges an extra $550 for paint colors other than basic black or white. But analysts say there's good news ahead, especially for end-of-the-year tire kickers. As carmakers rebuild their inventories and the economy continues to sort itself out, drivers can expect more give-backs on the lot and a little less strong-arming in negotiations. Below, our annual car-buying survey.

Green Car

The Winner: Nissan Leaf

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Nissan Leaf
• $36,050
• Est. miles per charge: 99
• 5-year ownership cost: $32,330

After installing home solar panels and zeroing out his family's electric bills, Jeff Lander has recently gone back to paying $20 to $30 a month. But this time, the culprit isn't an air conditioner or a flat-screen TV; it's their new electric car, the Nissan Leaf. Charging the car between midnight and 6 a.m., when power is cheapest, Jeff calculates, he pays 3 cents a mile -- a third of estimated gas costs for a similar sedan. And cruising past gas stations feels good too, says the Redondo Beach, Calif., software designer: "A lot of people give you the thumbs-up."

With gas prices still on the high side, fuel sippers are now getting more than a thumbs-up: Hybrid sales have risen 8 percent in the past year, compared with the same period in 2010. The decade-old Toyota Prius may control 50 percent of the hybrid market, but when it comes to buzz, gas electric hybrids have been eclipsed by the newest kids on the eco-friendly block: the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. These two electric-powered cars feel more like well-equipped mainstream sedans -- think nav systems, power steering and Bluetooth -- than whirring, wimpy little golf carts. Nissan says our winner, the Leaf, can run for up to 100 miles on a single charge in "optimal conditions" -- that is, barring aggressive driving and blasting air-conditioning. (Note to drivers: Cold weather can also significantly reduce your driving range.) The Volt, for its part, includes a gas-powered generator, which takes over when the charge runs out.

Plug-in power may be cheaper, but it's nowhere near as convenient as a five-minute fill-up. Recharging a lithium-ion battery pack to 80 percent can take from 30 minutes, with Nissan's 480-volt accelerated home-charging station (an extra $2,000 or so), to 20 hours, with a standard 120-volt outlet. And outside your garage, experts say, options are still pretty slim. (Nissan says that when drivers go beyond the car's 100-mile range, the navigation system can help locate nearby charge spots.) The so-called green premium -- 2012 Leaf pricing starts at $36,050, a $2,400 jump from its first year -- also packs a jolt. But government incentives help: Lander says that after figuring in a $7,500 federal tax rebate and a $5,000 California one, the first year of his lease was pretty much free.

Luxury Sedan

The Winner: BMW 535i

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BMW 535i
• $53,130
• Avg city/hwy mpg: 22
• 5-year ownership cost: $70,950

While the economy may still be in a funk, the let-them-eat-cake segment has seen a discreet -- but marked -- resurgence. By late summer, luxury-sedan sales had jumped 25 percent versus 2010, with high-end vehicles like the Audi A6 and the Mercedes E350 grabbing a steady 11 to 12 percent of market share. Says Rebecca Lindland, director of industry research at IHS Automotive, "My theory is that people on Wall Street who aren't getting eight-figure bonuses anymore are buying cars instead of houses."

BMW has done more than its share to drive the trend: After unveiling a major 2011 model-year redesign, the company reported that sales of its 5 Series sedans soared 60 percent from January to July of this year. The Bavarians have long set the standard for spirited road manners, and in its winning test-drive, the 535i's turbocharged, 300-horsepower V-6 engine delivered a muscular -- yet sprightly -- ride. The Dynamic Handling button lets you tweak the car's performance; the four options range from Comfort (good for Grandma) to Sport Plus (which tightens the steering, jackrabbits the acceleration and might very well rattle her dentures). In this iteration, BMW has plushed up the cabin and simplified the iDrive system, which controls audio, navigation, Bluetooth and other features and was a notorious sore spot on past models.

But while the iDrive controls are intuitive, the hard-drive-based navigation system misdirected us more times than not. (BMW says its GPS technologies work well the majority of the time.) And then there's the cost. After lowering the 535i's base price last year, BMW tacked another $2,000 onto the price of the 2012 model. That does include one of the most comprehensive free-maintenance programs around, but standard features run on the thin side (remember that alternate paint color charge?), and even some basic luxury-car features, like keyless entry, are tucked into pricey packages. BMW says the price of the 2012 model is higher because some amenities, including leather seats and an iPod and USB interface, are now standard equipment.

Family Hauler

The Winner: Nissan Quest

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Nissan Quest
• $28,560
• Avg city/hwy mpg: 22
• 5-year ownership cost: $43,140

For most parents, minivans are a practicality play. No one buys one for the sporty ride or the check-me-out cachet. (In that department, dads, your status hovers only slightly above that of a bus driver.) But while such compromises have fueled the market for swoop-backed, less truck-like crossovers, van sales are (ever so modestly) on the rise. Ed Kim, director of industry analysis at research firm Autopacific, is forecasting that minivan market share, which has held steady at 6 percent during the past few years, will tick upward, to 7.5 percent by 2014 -- a shift Kim attributes to Gen Y drivers now sprouting families and taking a second look at the minivans they grew up with.

Vans have become more car-like lately, with unibody frames and more styling than the bland rolling bread boxes of yore. Honda and Toyota have long ruled the minivan rankings, but with its redesign last winter, the new 2012 Nissan Quest won our top slot. Okay, so its near-vertical rump is an acquired taste. (The company calls it bold styling.) But the 260-horsepower V-6 engine -- the same model found in some Infinitis -- places the Quest at the pinnacle of the minivan muscle ranking. Drivers, including us, say it's got a firm but forgiving suspension that takes the jolt out of bumps. But what boosts its ride over that of the competition is its "continuously variable transmission," which eliminates the clunking gear changes of most automatic transmissions. The result: a quiet ride -- wailing toddlers notwithstanding -- and, in theory, better fuel economy, although its ratings (19 mpg in the city; 24, highway) are middling.

What distinguishes the Quest, fans say, is its luxe interior. A model with more desirable options will cost around $35,000, but drivers rave about the van's soft leather seats and tri-zone air-conditioning. Paul Hansen, an educational-software adviser from Rock Island, Ill., says he didn't exactly score a bargain on his but was surprised to get a backup camera and a keyless-entry system. The latter, he says, is "very convenient when you have an armful of kids."

Midlife-Crisis Car

The Winner: Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet

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Porsche 911
• $91,050
• Avg city/hwy mpg: 21
• 5-year ownership cost: $97,770

Let's just say it: In an economy as wobbly as this one, we're not suggesting you make an oops-I-couldn't-help-myself purchase unless your finances are healthy enough to take the hit. Prices for the Carrera 911 convertible range from $91,050 for the base model -- if you can call it that -- to (cough) $245,000 for the GT2 RS, a 620-horsepower monster that accelerates to 60 mph in a neck-snapping 3.4 seconds. That said, some folks are feeling flush: Porsche says sales of its 911 models were up 7.4 percent at midsummer, compared with a year ago.

People like to compare the Carrera with the Corvette, both of which take you to the wild side -- in different styles. The 'Vette, which starts at the (relatively) bargain price of $55,500, drives like a steroidal street punk, compared with the refined malevolence of our pick, which is more of an automotive Daniel Craig. The 345-horsepower 911 Cabriolet we tested, which gets to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, gracefully carves its way through tight turns, while the 'Vette seems to pound corners into submission. And though the Corvette feels bigger inside, the Porsche, with its compact interior, fits the driver like a second skin.

The Carrera is far from practical, but you don't buy a sports car for cargo space. Nevertheless, its rear-engine layout leaves the nose available for golf clubs and weekender bags, and the tiny jump seats in back could accommodate two children in a pinch. Then again, if you're in midlife-crisis mode, you may want to leave them at home.

See the Runners-Up in Each Category at Smartmoney.com

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