Kiplinger’s Best Value Awards can help you find the right car at a great price. 2015 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan Mercedes-Benz By Jessica L. Anderson, Associate Editor From Kiplinger's Personal Finance, March 2015 The lowest gasoline prices since the great recession, rock-bottom interest rates and an improving economy are fueling a boom in new-car sales. Automakers sold 16.5 million new vehicles in 2014, the most since 2006. And all signs point toward another banner year in 2015.See Our Slide Show: Best Values in 2015 Cars: Best in Class Encouraged by the record sales and aiming for ever-smaller niches, automakers are carving out new categories, such as subcompact crossovers, four-door coupes and reimagined hatchbacks. Low gas prices are also opening the door for buyers to do what Americans love best: Go big. Trucks and SUVs account for nearly half of recent sales. Though big often means bigger price tags, a plethora of leasing and financing deals are taking some of the sting out of higher sticker prices. Plus, the trend toward supersizing is creating deals in neglected categories, mainly sedans and eco-friendly models. You won’t find deals across the board, but there are still plenty to be had; you just have to know where to look. Kiplinger’s Best Value Awards can help you narrow the field. We sorted the 2015 models by price and category (and you, too, can sort more than 2,000 new cars) and ranked them for performance, safety and value, including resale value and fuel economy. See our slide shows for our picks for Best in Class and Best New and Redesigned Models. Read on to find out what you need to know before you hit the showroom. Luxury Trickles Down As automakers compete for your business, the lines are blurring between mainstream brands and luxury cars. Mainstream models are getting safety and tech features once reserved for luxury models, and luxury brands are introducing entry-level vehicles with lower prices. No matter the emblem on the front of a vehicle, overall quality has never been better. “The high level of competition means all automakers have to produce very high-quality cars just to stay in business,” says industry analyst Jesse Toprak. Advertisement High quality is the reason Bob Schultek has been buying Subarus since the 1980s. His family currently owns five. But when he went to buy a new Legacy, even he was surprised at how much better it was than his 2011 model. (The redesigned Legacy wins our Best New Car award in the $25,000-to-$30,000 category.) Schultek found that, compared with his old Legacy, the 2015 model’s ride was smoother and quieter, and its interior was more spacious. “They’ve made remarkable improvements and really upped their game,” he says. For example, the new Legacy features a forward-collision warning system, which uses sensors and automatic braking to help you keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you. Just five years ago, collision warning systems were mostly limited to luxury vehicles. Today you’ll find them in a number of the least-expensive models; Subaru offers the technology even on its entry-level Impreza for 2015. The trickle-down of safety technology to mainstream vehicles has been helped along by government regulators and consumer advocates. For example, after several delays, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated in 2014 that every new car built in 2018 and beyond include a rearview camera. This feature is already becoming standard equipment in vehicles across the price spectrum, including the all-new Fit, Honda’s entry-level model, which includes a rearview camera on every trim level. “Safety has been democratized,” says Bill Visnic, a senior editor at Edmunds.com. One industry group pushing the safety envelope is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Without the government red tape, the IIHS can quickly adjust requirements for its coveted “Top Safety Pick” awards. Vehicles that do well in IIHS crash tests receive a Top Safety Pick designation. But to earn the IIHS’s highest rating of “Top Safety Pick+” this year, a vehicle must receive an “advanced” or “superior” rating for front-crash prevention with a forward-collision warning system. To achieve these ratings, vehicles must have a system that includes automatic braking; a warning isn’t enough. You might expect that with more stringent tests, fewer vehicles would excel. Rather, the Top Safety Pick+ group has grown, says David Zuby, chief research officer for the IIHS. Advertisement Other collision warning systems have become more common as well. A lane-departure warning system uses cameras to watch the road and alert you if you’re drifting into another lane; it’s on NHTSA’s recommended list. Blind-spot warning, which isn’t on NHTSA’s list, alerts you if a vehicle is in your blind spot. This year, compact crossovers get these systems as optional equipment; Mazda has upgraded the CX-5 to include blind-spot warning, and Honda has equipped the CR-V with a lane-departure system, along with forward-collision warning. Let Siri Do It? Improvements in infotainment systems continue to march across dashboards. No matter the car, syncing a smartphone is getting easier, and you can accomplish more tasks without taking your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road. Apple’s Siri Eyes Free mode currently appears in models from 10 brands. The feature allows you to direct Siri to perform tasks via a button on the steering wheel. Apple’s CarPlay is an integrated system that lets you use your iPhone directly through a car’s dashboard; Android users can get in the game, too, with in-car apps such as Pandora Internet radio, OpenTable and Bing. Of course, all this tech is a dual-edged sword. Although drivers can do more without holding a phone, distraction is still a problem. Researchers say that distracted driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving. A recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that inaccurate voice-recognition software and tools that allow complicated tasks, such as dictating a text message, increase distraction. Where the Values Are The crossover craze continues this year, so deals on them will be scarce. The newest segment: subcompact crossovers. Built on the platforms of subcompact cars, such as the Honda Fit, these new models are smaller than compact crossovers and sport a lower price. Among the new offerings for 2015 are the Audi Q3, Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade and Mercedes-Benz GLA. (Honda’s HR-V will arrive early in the year as a 2016 model, so it’s not included in our rankings this year.) The hype will likely dictate transaction prices near the sticker prices. Small and midsize crossovers have replaced sedans (and, once upon a time, station wagons) as the go-to family cars, with their added cargo space and lifted ride, so prices will hold steady there as well. New models include the compact Lexus NX and Lincoln MKC and the midsize Nissan Murano. Full-size SUVs and trucks are making a comeback, thanks to cheap gas and new entries, so the price slashing is past, at least for now. Ford’s redesigned, all-aluminum F-150 has better fuel economy than the old model, and the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon are revitalizing midsize pickup sales (a new Toyota Tacoma is on tap for 2016). Kiplinger’s is back in the truck game, too; check out our Best Value Awards for pickups. Advertisement As buyers turn to crossovers, prices are softening on sedans of all sizes. The midsize-sedan category is seeing the most defections, so you’ll find plenty of incentives—mainly low-rate financing. In this competitive segment, most of the major players have been redesigned within the past three years; the Hyundai Sonata, Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry were redesigned for 2015. Compact cars will also be riper for haggling. Sales of large cars have plummeted, but that hasn’t stopped Chrysler from introducing a new 300 or Hyundai from revamping the Genesis. These cars have all the features of the German luxemobiles at half the price. If big is your bag, you should be able to drive a deal. With $4-a-gallon gasoline in the rearview mirror, green machines—including the ubiquitous Toyota Prius—are fighting sales slumps and will sport the sweetest deals in 2015. Not much has changed in this space: The Tesla Model S has added all-wheel drive as an option, and Kia and Volkswagen have entered the electric-vehicle market with the Soul EV and the e-Golf (mostly to comply with California fuel-economy mandates). “If you’ve been waiting to pull the trigger on a fuel-efficient car, now’s the time,” says Toprak. Many gasoline-powered vehicles are boosting fuel economy with smaller turbocharged and direct-injected gas engines, stop-start systems, and transmissions with more gears (Chrysler’s new 200 has nine). The Kia Sedona minivan and the Subaru Outback and Volvo V60 wagons are the only all-new models in their categories for 2015. Expect sales—and prices—on minivans and wagons to remain steady. Advertisement Driving a Deal The average transaction price for a new vehicle was $33,773 in December. That’s up 18% from 10 years ago, but adjusted for inflation, it’s actually less expensive than the price a decade ago. At the same time, many buyers are choosing higher trim levels and higher-cost crossovers and SUVs. Doing your homework before setting foot in a showroom will help you get the best possible deal. Check current transaction prices at Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book and TrueCar.com to see what others in your area are paying for the vehicle you want and to set a reasonable target price. When negotiating, keep all parts of the deal separate—the price of the car, the financing and your trade. Hate to haggle? For $250, CarBargains uses its professional negotiators to solicit bids from at least five dealers in your area. Interest rates are superlow, and if your credit score is high enough (typically more than 700), you’ll qualify for the lowest rate (sometimes zero) offered by the automakers’ financing arms. Even if you don’t have pristine credit, you’ll probably still qualify for a rate below 4%. Shop for rates before heading to the dealer so you can keep your options open. If you’re offered a zero-percent rate, take it, says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds. Cash-back deals are few and far between, but if you have the choice between a low rate and cash, Caldwell’s advice is to lock in a low rate at a bank or credit union and take the cash from the carmaker. Longer-term loans are becoming more popular as buyers try to keep monthly payments low. But with a longer loan, you pay off the principal more slowly and have less equity in the car for the first several years. That means if you total the car, you’ll still owe most of the note—possibly more than the insurance settlement. Leasing could save you money, particularly if you always have a car payment because you tend to take out long-term loans or trade in your cars frequently. Because you’re paying for depreciation only over the term of the lease, payments are lower than if you financed the entire cost of the car. The majority of leases are written for three years, so a leased vehicle is almost always under warranty (see our story When Leasing Makes Sense.). When you sell your old car, don’t leave money on the table. “There are plenty of used-car buyers, so tell dealers you know they’ll be able to flip it for a good price,” says Karl Brauer, senior director of insights for Kelley Blue Book. Find out what your vehicle is worth at sites such as www.kbb.com, and shop your old car at several dealers to size up a trade-in offer (see our story Best Ways to Sell Your Car). Keep in mind that CarMax can usually beat other dealers’ offers, and you’ll typically get even more if you sell the vehicle yourself to a private party. ____________________________________ Tech Features Worth the Price If you haven’t shopped for a new car in several years, you may be surprised at how much technology is packed into the dashboard. Tech options may be bundled in packages, but if the choices are a la carte, here’s a guide to what to choose. Rearview cameras. As safety standards rise, cars’ structural pillars are getting bigger and windows getting smaller, making it harder to see behind your car. Backover accidents cause about 200 fatalities a year, but you can avoid adding to that statistic by paying about $500 for a rearview camera. Forward-collision warning. These systems use sensors to help you keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you, which is especially helpful when a vehicle that’s several cars in front of you stops short and creates a domino effect of slamming brakes. Systems with automatic braking are safer than ones that merely warn you of an impending crash. Prices average about $400. Navigation systems. There’s no need to spend $1,000 on a nav system. If you have a smartphone with a maps app, you can get turn-by-turn directions free. (Most new cars come with Bluetooth hands-free systems to connect your phone to the car’s audio system.) An inexpensive suction mount ($25 or less on Amazon) can anchor the phone in an easy-to-see spot. Blind-spot warning. These systems, typically about $700, use cameras or radar to warn you when vehicles are in your blind spot. But if you adjust your mirrors properly—pushed outward just enough so you don’t see any of your own fender—you won’t have any blind spots. A related technology, lane-departure warning, is worth considering.