Drive Time


More for Your Money

Jessica L. Anderson

Carmakers have introduced a fresh marketing strategy to attract your business: lower sticker prices.



Retailers have long manipulated consumers by marking up merchandise, then promoting sales to clear inventory. Car dealers know how to play the game, too. Their marketing ploys often take the form of manufacturer's cash rebates and low-rate financing. But car companies hate offering these incentives because relying on them to sell vehicles lowers long-term resale values across the product line.

So carmakers have introduced a fresh marketing strategy to attract your business: lower sticker prices. For the 2011 model year, several redesigned vehicles feature more amenities at prices that are the same as or less than prices for the outgoing models. This follows a trend that began with the 2010 model year (see my column from last year).

Biggest bargains. The starting price of the redesigned 2011 Volkswagen Jetta drops by $1,590, to $16,765, including the destination charge. A sharply creased exterior bids adieu to the prosaic design of the past, and added length gives the Jetta a bigger backseat but doesn't hurt its classic German-engineered drivability. A smaller engine in the base model improves fuel economy to 34 miles per gallon on the highway (24 mpg in the city). The savings top out at $2,180 on the SE model ($18,965).

Savings on the sixth-generation BMW 5 series range from $900 (on the top-of-the-line 550i, now $60,575) to $1,650 (on the mid-level 535i, now $50,475). Despite the lower prices, the 5-series models get a design upgrade that echoes the sleeker lines of the 7 series; they're also more powerful and have better fuel efficiency. The 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine in the 528i (starting price: $46,825) boosts the car's mileage to 32 mpg highway, 22 city; the 550i now has a turbocharged V8, which bumps its highway mileage (with automatic) to 25 mpg and its city mileage to 17 mpg. The new 5-series cars also earn a coveted Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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More aggressive pricing moves come from Suzuki and Lincoln. The Suzuki SX4 SportBack is nearly $1,500 cheaper -- even without a redesign this year. The compact hatchback, which has more power and legroom than a Honda Fit, now starts at a more palatable $17,244, and Suzuki has added standard rear side airbags. The new Lincoln MKZ Hybrid sedan has the same price as the gas-engine model ($35,180), erasing the average hybrid premium of $5,500. Mileage is 41 mpg in the city (36 on the highway) versus the gas-engine's 18 mpg city, 27 highway.

Utility reborn. The Ford Explorer dumps its truck heritage and reinvents itself as a crossover for 2011. The V6-powered version gets 20% better fuel economy and starts at $1,100 less ($28,995) than the outgoing model; an optional four-cylinder EcoBoost engine -- similar to the one offered on the Taurus SHO and Flex -- improves mileage by 30%.

The redesigned Kia Sorento also moves to crossover construction for 2011. Kia adds a four-cylinder model for 2011 and drops the starting price by $1,505, to $20,790. The Sorento has a sleek new shape and a roomier interior that now seats up to seven. It is also an IIHS Top Safety Pick.

A more luxurious and spacious interior graces the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee. Fuel efficiency improves to 23 mpg on the highway (city mileage stays the same, at 16 mpg). Its starting price is $30,995 (nearly $500 less than last year), and the price drops by up to $1,160 for the rear-wheel-drive Limited (now $37,100). The Grand Cherokee wins IIHS Top Safety Pick honors.

Seating up to eight, with oodles of storage, the third-generation Toyota Sienna is taking on the dull-minivan stereotype head-on with ads touting it as the "swagger wagon" (search for it on YouTube.com). The Sienna wins an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and it, too, is cheaper than it was last year: The CE starts at $25,070 ($280 less) and the LE starts at $26,155 (a $720 savings).



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