THE CAR MARKET today exists in a kind of twilight zone, eerily balanced between high interest rates on the one hand and pent-up demand on the other.
Cars on the road now average around 8-years-old, and drivers must eventually replace them. When they do, though, they'll face loan rates of 9.3 percent, up from 8 percent last year -- enough to raise the monthly payments on the average $20,000 car financed over four years to $434 from $398.
Result: Car buyers face a kind of multiple-personality market that offers easy deals and rebates on slow-selling models such as minivans and small cars but exacts high -- and firm -- prices on hot sellers such as sports utility vehicles and pickups.
The best deals will inevitably go to shoppers who know their chosen vehicle's real value and who are flexible enough to exploit the market's soft spots.
You may even want to consider whether actually buying a new car makes sense for you. Several manufacturers now save their most tempting incentive packages for leasing customers.
At the same time, higher manufacturing quality has made used cars a serious alternative, even as no-haggle, one-price dealers remove some of the hassles stereotypically associated with buying used.
Before you set foot on any dealer's lot, however, you should take a reading of today's market. You may discover that some familiar assumptions no longer hold. For example:
U.S. cars are not necessarily cheaper than comparable Japanese models.
The average Japanese car still lists for about $2,000 more than the typical Detroit model, but averages can deceive. "The sticker-price gap does not reflect the real cost to the consumer," says Susan Jacobs of Jacobs & Associates, a Rutherford, N.J., auto consulting firm.
Despite a 12 percent rise in the yen vs. the dollar, Japanese makers held down price increases in the market's fiercely competitive midsize segment. For example, Toyota reduced the sticker price on its 1995 Camry DX coupe; at $16,128 it lists for $300 less than last year. Among subcompacts, Nissan knocked down the price of its Sentra by $290 to $10,999 despite adding dual air bags.
Haggling still rules.
Two years ago, the low-pressure, no-dicker approach seemed to be the wave of a laid-back future for car salesmanship. Indeed, about 9 percent of the 15,000 U.S. dealers now take the mild-mannered approach.
But one-price marketing suffered a bloody nose in December when, at the insistence of its dealers, Buick opted out of General Motors' value price program. In value pricing, dealers sell well-equipped vehicles at supposedly firm list prices about 6 percent more than dealer cost, roughly half the usual markup. Inevitably, however, some dealers broke ranks and accepted prices below sticker.
Oldsmobile and Saturn continue to use value pricing for their entire product lines, and Chevrolet retains it for a few models, such as the $21,410 Caprice Classic wagon. Nevertheless, some analysts believe that Buick's backpedaling may have signaled the peak in the one-price trend.
A manufacturer-subsidized lease may be your best deal.
Careful, though: Leases are not for everyone. If you always keep your car five years or longer, for example, forget leasing. "To squeeze out maximum value, buy a car and drive it until the wheels drop off," advises James Bragg, author of "In the Driver's Seat: The New Car Buyer's Negotiating Bible" (Random House, $12).
On the other hand, if you would normally come back for a new car every two to four years anyway, then you're a candidate for a lease. You have to be reasonably sure that you will keep the car for the lease's full term because stiff penalties of up to several thousand dollars can kick in if you try to wriggle out early.
You should also expect to drive less than 15,000 miles a year and be diligent about maintaining your car; otherwise, you could face extra fees at the end of the lease for extra mileage and wear and tear.
If you pass all those hurdles, the case for leasing is surprisingly strong. The so-called subsidized leases (promotional deals usually sponsored by a manufacturer's finance subsidiary) can cost far less in the long run than financing a purchase. Some even beat buying for cash.
Leasing this year will also keep you from having to sell a used car in what may be a buyers' market a few years from today. But don't discount this risk: Leases now make up 25 percent of new-car sales, which means that roughly 3 million vehicles will come off lease in both 1997 and 1998, potentially glutting the used-car market.
Getting a fair shake on a lease takes some work, however.
You can buy used without feeling abused.
If you don't have the urge to keep a new car in your garage, buying a sound used car remains the most cost-effective deal overall.
Since a car suffers about 60 percent of its five-year depreciation in its first 24 months, buying a 2-year-old car is perfect economic timing. Lightly used 2- and 3-year-old cars are much easier to find than they were as recently as 1990, largely because formerly leased vehicles have flooded the market.
Thanks to manufacturing improvements at some companies, today's late-model used cars are likely to be of much higher quality than used cars of the past.
(Consumer Reports magazine rates new and used cars in its April issue, which will be on newsstands later this week.)
Robert Wakeman, 36, an agricultural chemicals salesman from Eldridge, Iowa, paid $12,700 this past December for his red 1993 Chevrolet Lumina with 11,000 miles. At the time, a new 1995 Lumina carried a list price of about $15,500.
Wakeman bought his car from Lujack's Northpark Auto Plaza, one of the handful of used-car dealers that have adopted the one-price system. J.D. Power analyst Robert Fitzharris believes that the system will catch on among used-car dealers because their wares are harder to compare than new cars, making it difficult for rival dealers to undercut a value price.
"A used-car buyer may be able to find only one 2-year-old blue Taurus with a blue interior in a 100-mile radius," explains Ralph Mauro, president of the Mauro Auto Mall, a one-price new- and used-car dealer in Kenosha, Wis.
Mauro says he fixes his used cars' prices at 5 percent to 19 percent below the average retail prices listed in the used-car reference, National Automobile Dealers' Official Used Car Guide (available in libraries or through your bank or credit union's lending officer).
More than ever, savvy bargaining is one part perspiration, nine parts information.
Whether you are leasing or buying, new or old, it's up to you to learn the true value of the car you want -- because you can be sure the dealer won't tell you.
Used-car shoppers should consult the National Automobile Dealers' Used Car Guide or the quarterly Edmund's Used Car Prices and Ratings ($5.99 on newsstands).
As a rule, you should aim to pay 3 percent to 4 percent more than the invoice price for cars that list for less than $20,000, and 6 percent to 7 percent more than invoice for higher-priced cars.
Other information services let you delve in more detail into new models that may interest you. One of the best is Intelli-Choice. Its ArmChair Compare service ($19.95; 800-227-2665) gives you vital stats on two models side by side.
Fighting Chance (800-288-1134), a service run by auto-book author James Bragg, sends you details on your first choice for $22.95, then charges $7 for each additional model.
To hunt out the best deals, look for slow-selling models. Check your library for the weekly trade magazine Automotive News and find its listing of inventories by car model. (They appear in the third issue of the month.) Any model with more than 60 days' supply in inventory could soon be the target of manufacturers' rebates or subsidized lease offers.
For example, prices are softening for minivans at the moment, as buyers sit on their wallets waiting for market leader Chrysler to launch its restyled Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager over the next three months.
According to auto-buying services, hard bargainers can get the overstocked Mercury Villager (95 days' inventory) and Mazda MPV (70-plus days) at invoice price or even below.
To revive interest in its Windstar minivan (95 days' inventory), Ford is offering a $500 rebate to any leasing customer. Chrysler, in turn, is offering closeout rebates through March of $500 to $1,000 on the discontinued version of its minivans.
But there is hope for the haggle-impaired.
If the idea of dickering over a car gives you a migraine, consider hiring a buying service to negotiate for you. Then all you have to do is show up at the dealership, sign the papers and drive your new car home.
Apart from sparing you some hassle, a buying service may also be the only way to get a hot seller such as the GMC Suburban or Ford Explorer for a modest margin over invoice.
Roughly 30 buying services across the country strictly represent consumers and profit only from fees -- typically $250 to $450 per car, according to Linda Lee Goldberg of Larkspur, Calif., president of the trade group National Association of Buyers' Agents.
Two of the best-established national buying services are Goldberg's CarSource ($375 for most vehicles; 800-517-2277), and AutoAdvisor ($335 for factory orders, $359 to shop among dealers for the car or truck you want; 800-326-1976).
Car Bargains (800-475-7283) takes a somewhat different approach. For $135, the service will get at least five low-ball quotes from dealers near your home on the one or two models that interest you. Once you have the bids, though, it is still up to you to close the deal.
Ricky Holder-Adler, 32, of Lawrence, N.Y., used a conventional buying service, Automobile Consumer Services ($299; 800-223-4882) of Cincinnati, to land a great deal on her white Ford Windstar. In what may be a hint of car-buying stratagems to come, Ms. Holder-Adler found the name of the service on the computer network CompuServe, whose AutoQuote service gives retail and wholesale car prices ($16 for one quote, $30 for two) and maintains a bulletin board on which auto cybershoppers swap tips.
Automobile Consumer Service was able to get Ms. Holder-Adler a Windstar for $21,000, about 2.5 percent more than invoice.
As car buyers wise up, they will turn even more to buying services, computer networks and anything else that can give them an edge. But there will never be any substitute for learning the market first.