Tokyo Motor Show Promises Both Fantasy & Technology

“Your Heart Will Race,” is the Tokyo Motor Show’s theme.  And people who yearn for cutting-edge technology, way out-of-the-box concepts, and even some vehicles that will actually be produced, will probably find that true. Preshow publicity promised “Technology x Fantasy” and that’s been delivered during its nine-day run, which ends Sunday.

“Fantasy” doesn’t mean “no wheels,” but it takes in a wide spectrum of other design ideas. The shapes and sizes range from weird to wonderful.

One writer described Toyota’s Kikai concept as “a bit like one of the post-apocalyptic vehicles of Mad Max 2.” The engine is completely visible.  Meanwhile, the tiny Toyoda Gosei Flesby concept is covered with external airbags to help protect pedestrians.

Nissan’s Teatro for Dayz concept is geared toward tech-savvy youth. It’s a box on wheels, with an all-white exterior and interior that can instantly change via LED lights and screens to reflect the occupants’ desire. Onboard cameras let passengers communicate with friends wherever they may be.

Mercedes’ Vision concept also is designed for “Generation Z.” The sleek, rocket-like pod is configured like a lounge inside. It runs on a fuel-cell powered electric engine and can be driven or operated autonomously while the passengers are occupied with their media.

Toyota, Honda and Lexus also are showcasing hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Toyota’s FCV Plus concept is quirky-looking and interesting partly because Toyota boasts it could generate power for a home. It moves Toyota closer to its goal of being 90 percent emissions-free by 2050. Meanwhile, Honda’s new Clarity fuel-cell vehicle will be available next year offering a 300-mile range and capacity of five passengers. With just 12 public hydrogen stations in the U.S., Clarity will have limited appeal for now.

The Lexus LF-FC concept uses a fuel cell to power the rear wheels and electric motors for both front wheels.  However, when comes to market in a year or so as the next-generation LS it likely will be gasoline-powered. This concept version is longer, lower and wider than the current LS and offers gesture controls and several autonomous driving features in its technology portfolio.

The Nissan IDS (Intelligent Driving System) concept could indicate the direction for the next-generation Nissan Leaf. It’s a hatchback with a 60 kwh motor. It’s also a showcase for Nissan’s autonomous vehicle technology. Nissan says it’s testing an autonomous vehicle in Tokyo and promises multiple autonomous models available by 2020. In “Piloted Drive” mode the IDS’s seats swivel inward, the steering wheel retracts and the cabin is softly lit.

Subaru and Mazda are showing concept vehicles that signal future directions. Subaru’s Impreza concept hatchback is streamlined with a wider and lower profile than the current model, although the drivetrain probably will be retained. Subaru’s Viviz concept may be the future Forester – a crossover hybrid with a serious cool factor: a sliding bumper that converts into a bike rack. It also carries some new crash avoidance and autonomous driving features.

Perhaps the biggest oohs and ahhs were over Mazda’s RX Vision concept. It’s sexy by almost any standard, with an amazingly long hood. Speculation centers around whether it will ever get built, and if it does whether its Wankel rotary engine – remember? – will make driving it just as appealing

Arguably the most exciting drive shown in Tokyo is the BMW M4 GTS sporting 493 hp that does zero-60 in 3.7 seconds. The unique water-injection system helps up the speed. About 300 of them will be sold in the U.S. beginning next year for about $160,000 each.

The Tokyo show also offers many tiny, less costly, tech-laden “city cars” that may be the future of personal transportation in congested cities for drivers who want more than a bike and less than a luxury sedan. While they may not make your heart race, there’s plenty here to confirm that “Technology x Fantasy” are rapidly changing how and what we drive.


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The Future of Driving Is No Drivers

Back in 1956, General Motors envisioned cars driving on “autopilot.” That was pretty unrealistic. Self-driving cars are just now within reach; fully autonomous cars are not far behind. “Look Ma…no hands!” has taken on new meaning.

What’s the difference?  Self-driving cars handle many, if not most, of the driving chores but drivers still have to take control in some circumstances. Fully autonomous means the cars drive themselves completely and may not even have a steering wheel. Both kinds are steered by computers with input from cameras, lasers and GPS signals.

While Google and other companies are testing autonomous cars, several automobile manufacturers already offer hands-free features such as self-parking and keeping their vehicles in the correct lane. For example, Subaru currently is advertising “Eyesight,” highlighting its ability to automatically brake to avoid a collision without driver intervention.

Adaptive cruise control, which maintains a car’s distance from the vehicle ahead – particularly useful in heavy traffic – is already a commonly available feature. Audi is building on that with a car that is able to drive itself completely in a traffic jam, and others are following suit. Cadillac, for example, will offer “Super Cruise” hands-free highway driving sometime next year. Ford says its next Super Duty pickup will have seven cameras to totally eliminate blind spots, with other camera-enabled features available soon on its other models.

Nearly every vehicle manufacturer is racing to develop a self-driving/autonomous vehicle. Daimler-Benz, which builds Freightliner trucks, already debuted the first self-driving semitrailer truck. During a media event early in May it showcased its “Inspiration Truck” by having it drive itself on the road atop the Hoover Dam. The truck could take over driving tasks on a pre-selected route. The driver could use the time to fill out paperwork or even play video games while the truck rolls down the highway.

Fifteen automakers, including GM, Toyota, Honda and Ford are each spending $1 million to conduct self-driving/autonomous vehicle research on a 32-acre Michigan testing facility that’s filled with different road situations and conditions. The State of Michigan and other companies spent $10 million to build the campus. Automakers are flocking to Silicon Valley to tap into its concentration of high-tech expertise.

Silicon Valley-based Google says its autonomous cars have driven almost two million miles, while experiencing only 14 accidents – 13 caused by the other vehicles and one when the Google’s engineer took over control from the car’s systems. Earlier this month, Continental (an automotive technology supplier) sent a self-driving Chrysler more than 200 miles to an automotive convention in Michigan. Delphi, another supplier, “drove” a robotic Audi A4 from San Francisco to New York in April.

The vehicles raise many questions. Who regulates self-driving/autonomous cars – federal or state governments? Will insurance companies lower rates for the vehicles since human error causes about 90 percent of accidents? Since the vehicles are programmed to follow traffic laws, how will local governments replace traffic violation revenues? How can vehicles be programmed to make ethical decisions; for instance, how would they choose between crashing head-on or swerving into a pedestrian? How can the vehicles be made hacker-proof…and prevent misuse of private consumer information?

Self-driving and autonomous cars have many benefits. Beyond their ability to improve safety, they likely will drive more smoothly and efficiently, increasing fuel economy. By freeing drivers from focusing on the road, they could enable more productive or enjoyable use of time. They would offer the elderly and disabled better mobility.

But consumers will have to be convinced that self-driving/autonomous cars are safe. According to one survey of 1,000+ people, 55 percent of women and 37 percent of men are apprehensive. Half of respondents also reported unwillingness to pay more, problematical since by some estimates being self-driving/autonomous could add $7,000 or more to a vehicle’s price by 2025, dropping to an added $5,000 by 2030 and $3,000 more in 2035.

Making transportation “easier” is pretty complicated.


Tim W. Jackson

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College not the best fit? Opportunities abound in automotive technology fields


Jobs in automotive service technology pay well and have long-term potential. Certified automotive service techs spend less time and money in school than at a four-year college degree and automobile dealers in Colorado are eager to hire them. In fact, dealers say jobs are going unfilled.

One reason is that high school graduates don’t know – or don’t believe – that college is not the only way to a good future. According to Lincoln Technical College Director of Career Services Lee Koelliker “I think high schools still preach that [four-year college] traditional paradigm and it’s been difficult to get it shifted. We’re working to change some stereotypes.”

Auto tech jobs require plenty of smarts, though, says Schomp Automotive Service Director Jim Thurman. “The idea is that if you’re not smart enough, you can go work on cars. But working on cars today is more like being a mobile computer programmer. There used to be maybe 15 things that the computer controlled and now it’s 250-300.”

Bill Carmichael, CEO of Summit Automotive Partners, agrees. “This is a path for people with technical and critical thinking skills who are fast thinkers and productive. The opportunity to learn and grow without a college education is a great way to enter into a career.” Koelliker adds, “Technical college actually teaches skills students can universally use to sustain themselves for a lifetime.”

Training to be an automotive service technician requires investing some time and money, but far less of both than for a Bachelor’s degree. Auto tech programs lead either to Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification or an Associate’s degree. Programs are available through vocational schools and community colleges.

Denver metro area programs are available through Lincoln Tech, both Denver and Jefferson County Schools (Emily Griffith Technical College and WarrenTech), and at Arapahoe, Front Range and Red Rocks Community Colleges. Other community colleges throughout the state also have programs. Scholarships, such as the ones offered by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association-sponsored Clear the Air Foundation, are available, as is financial aid. Several programs offer apprenticeships and training partnerships in conjunction with dealerships and manufacturers. Manufacturers frequently require techs to receive some additional training specific just to their vehicles.

With auto sales at the highest in years, the need for qualified technicians is also soaring. In Montrose, Flower Motors Fixed Operations Manager Ron Ellis says “It’s become such a problem that even when I have a full load I devote 45 minutes to an hour every day” to identifying potential employees. He travels to other cities to interview several candidates at a time, flying the most qualified to Colorado for a final look-see. “If you’re going to do a quality job in servicing new cars, you’d better have the best techs on the line.”

Auto service technology is proving popular among military veterans. Lincoln Tech’s Campus President Al Short says, “Veterans are one of our core groups,” with about 150 among the program’s 800 students. Vets can use their GI benefits for training.

“The opportunity for women is greater than it’s ever been, too, because it’s not just heavy work like it used to be,” Schomp’s Jim Thurman says.

Once a tech has secured a job he or she can expect frequent ongoing training through their employer to keep up with the latest automotive technology. “Becoming a master tech is the same as having an advanced degree,” according to Carmichael. “You can go anywhere, and based on certifications and work ethic, you would be highly valuable.” Lincoln Tech’s Koelliker agrees, “You can come out with a skill set and go essentially anywhere else in the world.”

“This industry offers great benefits and a good work environment,” says Thurman. It can also lead to other jobs, he points out. “I started as a tech and I’ve done all the pieces of the puzzle but I always gravitate back to service.”

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Frigid Chicago puts on a hot auto show


Media and auto industry honchos may flock to auto shows in Detroit, New York and LA, but the Chicago Auto Show (CAS), which closed last Sunday, was designed to appeal to consumers. CAS actually is the largest U.S. auto showcase, with over one million square feet stuffed with more than 1,000 vehicles.

The massive McCormick Place made it easy to house Jeep’s Camp Jeep obstacle course as well as a test-track for some of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ hottest wheels. There was also a sizeable amount of space devoted to displaying exotic vehicles from storied brands like Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus and McClaren.

Plunk Coloradans down at this year’s Chicago Auto Show, though, and they would have been likely to gravitate toward the trucks and SUVs. There were several exciting things to look at in this segment.

The redesigned 2016 Honda Pilot, which debuted at CAS, generated maximum buzz. In fact, one media type called it “the most significant car at the show.” The eight-seat SUV lost 300 pounds, gained fuel-efficiency and now has a more rounded silhouette and all of Honda’s latest safety and tech bells and whistles. Its Acura cousin, the RDX crossover, also been updated with new LED head and taillights, a nine-speed gearbox, better fuel efficiency and tons of tech and safety features.

Another attention-attracting SUV was the full-size Mitsubishi Concept GC-PHEV (plug-in hybrid), notable for its angular design. It has both a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 and a 70-kilowatt electric motor, which together generate 335 horsepower with an electric range of 25+ miles.

Chevrolet showed off its updated Equinox SUV with new taillight and rear bumper styling, a seven-inch touchscreen and reworked center stack. Ford’s big debut was the Police Interceptor, available only to law enforcement, but based on its newest civilian Ford Explorer. Ford boasts that it is “a vehicle ready to meet extremely demanding needs.”

Fiat Chrysler’s Ram top-of-the-line Laramie Limited comes with huge gleaming chrome grille and trim and wicked all-black leather interior. It goes on sale later this year with engines ranging from a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel to 5.7 or 6.4-liter Hemis and 6.7-liter turbo-diesel.

The Chevy Colorado GearOn Special Edition, available this spring, should appeal to Colorado’s outdoor enthusiasts. The pickup’s GearOn accessory system facilitates mounting equipment such as bikes, kayaks, paddleboards and even a tent. Most can be attached to upper rails, leaving the truck bed open to hold more stuff. As put it, “This truck was made for glamping.” Glamping: “glamorous camping.”

The Kia Trail’ster concept hybrid crossover SUV also was a big draw in Chicago. It kicks the hamster-friendly Kia Soul up a notch with all-wheel drive and a hybrid drivetrain with a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a 270-volt electric motor that sends power to the rear wheels. It comes with higher ground clearance, tow hooks and a cloth sunroof with integrated roof rack. There’s no word on whether this concept will ever make it to production.

Even with all the trucks, crossovers and SUVs, there were plenty of cars. Nissan debuted the GT-R LM Nismo concept that earned looks with a cloth drop-top and 350 hp, 3.7-liter engine. Toyota unveiled the 2016 Avalon premium sedan. The engine stays the same but it gets an updated look, two suspension choices and five trim levels. The top trims come with a raft of advanced safety features, including pre-collision system and lane departure warning.

And for folks who think hybrid = slow, a pair of super-fast hybrids: the Porsche 918 Spyder that gets 887 hp combined gas/electric, and the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo 1,250-hp FWD race car that it plans to race at Le Mans.

The Denver Auto Show is scheduled for April 8-12, and like the Chicago Auto Show, it’s a show designed to intrigue and delight consumers. We will have something for every taste – including some of the vehicles we saw in Chicago.

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Newer cars mean safer teen drivers


The latest data on traffic accidents and fatalities are a good news, bad news story. The good news is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that after a brief uptick in 2012, fatal crashes have started going down again, re-starting a seven-year trend. The bad news is that motor vehicle crashes continue to be the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 20.

Teenage drivers comprise almost six percent of licensed Colorado drivers, but account for more than 11 percent of our state’s traffic deaths. And while the traffic fatalities for Colorado teenagers went down 67 percent between 2004 and 2011, they climbed by 10 percent in 2012, the latest year for which statistics have been reported.

Inexperience behind the wheel is the main reason for teen traffic accidents and fatalities. Other factors include not wearing seat belts, alcohol, speeding and what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls “problematic” behaviors – many related to lack of mature judgment and teenage psychology.

Graduated driver licensing laws improved the picture. Colorado enacted graduated licensing in 1999. It specifies that teens have a learner’s permit for at least a year, how much supervised driving time they must have, when they can drive and with whom they can drive for the first couple of years as well as the number of passengers allowed during the first several months they have a driver’s license.

Newer cars = safer cars:

However, there’s another major factor influencing traffic fatalities, especially among younger drivers: the safety of their automobiles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that many teenagers are driving vehicles that don’t have good crash protection or safety technology. The IIHS reports that in the period between 2008 and 2012, 82 percent of driving fatalities among 15-17-year-olds were in vehicles six years old or older.

While new vehicles are more expensive, they also are safest and most fuel-efficient (which will matter when gas prices rise again). They have longer warranties, better reliability and are protected by lemon laws. And they have the latest technology. Besides electronic stability control (mandatory beginning in 2012), newer cars also have anti-lock brakes (required since 2011) and many have surround airbags, not just front airbags.

Manufacturers now use safety as a competitive selling point. For inexperienced drivers they might make a critical difference. Forward-looking sensors such as radar and cameras can monitor distance to the vehicle ahead and send an alert if the vehicle is too close or even slow it down to maintain a safe distance; some can automatically brake to prevent or lessen an impact. Adaptive headlights direct headlights around curves allowing greater visibility for the driver.  Backup cameras and reverse backup sensors and side-view assist/blind-spot monitors help detect people and objects not easily visible. Lane-departure warning lets drivers know if they’re drifting.

In the long run, newer, more technologically advanced cars mean safer teenagers. Technology can’t compensate for inattentive driving or unnecessary risks, but it can help save lives.

The IIHS has some guidelines for parents to use when choosing a vehicle for their teenage driver:

  • Go for lower horsepower. The more power, the more temptation to use it, testing limits that should be off-limit.
  • Larger, heavier cars provide more protection in a crash, particularly if teenagers are driving older cars that don’t have the very latest safety technology.
  • Do not invest in a car without electronic stability control (ESC), which helps control the vehicle on curves and slick roads – where a lot of emergency maneuvers take place. This is especially important in climates such as Colorado’s.
  • Pay attention to safety ratings. Go for four or five stars (NHTSA) and “Good” and “Top Safety Pick” or “Top Safety Pick +” ratings (IIHS).

Whether you choose a new or used car for your teenage driver, it’s good to keep in mind that old advice: “Safety first.”  Although a new car will likely cost more money, it may be the purchase decision that saves a life.

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Fast cars and new trucks lead the pack at Detroit Auto Show


Like the old quote about “the kid in the candy store looking for the perfect piece of candy,” the North American International Auto Show, (aka the Detroit Auto Show) is so full of goodies it’s impossible to choose. After days of media and industry previews the show formally opens Saturday displaying more than 750 cars, including 40+ eye-catching premieres and concepts.

Fast cars with high horsepower comprise a major contingent. Ford and Acura are especially buzz-worthy. The Ford GT racer’s twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 zooms beyond 600 hp. It’s gorgeously aerodynamic – a worthy heir to the 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning GT40 from 1966. Its sibling is the Shelby GT350R, available later this year with a 5.2-liter V-8 – street-legal but built to race. Acura’s long-awaited NSX supercar combines a V-6 twin-turbo with three electric motors: one per front wheel and one to aid in accelerating and braking. The all-wheel drive NSX sports more than 550 hp and will be available late this year.

The new Porsche 911 Targa GTS with 430 hp (zero-to-60 mph in 4.1 seconds) and Cayenne Turbo S with 507 hp are exciting. Also hot: Cadillac’s 640-hp 6.2-liter V-8 CTS-V advertised at 200 mph and zero-60 mph in 3.7 seconds. Not as fast but looking like it at 237 hp is Alfa Romeo’s sexy 4C Spider convertible. Mini’s hot looker is the 2015 John Cooper Works Hardtop with 228 hp and 153 mph top speed.

Gasoline prices are down and trucks are way up in the Motor City with tons of possibilities. Ford’s all-aluminum F-150 won 2015 North American Truck of the Year. Ford’s new F-150 Raptor has 4WD with “Terrain Management System” to take on anything drivers might encounter. Its got a V-6 EcoBoost engine that’s more powerful than the old V-8. Ram’s choice is the 1500 Rebel with an inch more clearance than other 4×4 Ram 1500s. It has a 3.6-liter V-6 or 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 and will be available later this year.

Toyota and Nissan also have new pickups. Toyota’s Tacoma has a 2.7-liter four-cylinder or 3.5-liter V-6. Its new “crawl control” can handle acceleration and braking while drivers steer, while adjustable throttle and brakes ease driving on unstable surfaces. Nissan’s Titan XD, with a 5.0-liter turbo-diesel V-8, can haul a titanic 12,000 lbs. Jeep’s Gladiator concept pickup is as big as a Ram but styled like a Wrangler. And Hyundai’s Santa Cruz concept “for urban adventurers” is but isn’t a truck: a crossover in front and pickup with extendable bed in back.

Even with gasoline prices down alternative energy options are visible in Detroit. Honda’s long-awaited FCV fuel-cell concept was officially introduced with sales set to begin next year. Chevrolet’s Bolt EV concept is attracting huge buzz with its 200-mile range, roomy cargo space, $30,000 estimated price and 2017 availability. It overshadowed Chevy’s second-generation five-seat Volt with longer range. Hyundai’s offering a plug-in Sonata, coming this year, and Mercedes-Benz unveiled its C350 plug-in hybrid, available this fall.

VW’s Cross Coupe GTE plug-in, seven-seat crossover concept will see production later next year. Another standout crossover on offer is the redesigned gas-powered Lincoln MKX, coming this fall with a raft of new tech features. Land Rover’s big news here is diesel engines for most of its models.

The sedan and convertible category doesn’t disappoint with a powerful midsize Lexus GS F and Infiniti’s Q60 concept designed with fierce-looking LEDs. Buick surprised with a very stylish Avenir concept hinting at future design direction, and a sleek Cascada convertible. From BMW, three restyled BMW 6 Series models – Coupe, Gran Coupe and convertible, and from Volvo, the S60 Inscription – built in China.

Here in Detroit, there really is something for everyone, even non-drivers. Mercedes-Benz’s F015 concept self-driving, capsule-like vehicle came fresh from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and China’s Guangzhou Automobile is showing the WitStar concept hybrid, steered by lasers, radar, cameras and GPS.



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It’s the best time of the year for great deals on cars & trucks


The end of elections opened the airwaves for automakers to trumpet year-end specials. Now is prime car and truck-buying time. An improved economy combined with the lowest gasoline prices in years make buying a new vehicle even more attractive.

Bloomberg-Business Week reviewed five years of sales showing that December is the top month for total U.S. car sales. About 10 percent of total annual car sales take place this month.

New car and truck sales have been brisk in 2015 but dealers still have 2014 models to sell and make room for 2015 models. Selling both years’ models will enable them to hit 2014 sales and revenue goals.

A storm of holiday-themed commercials with financing and leasing enticements invite you to buy or lease before year-end. Santa Claus enjoys Mercedes-Benz’ “Winter Event” in a red and black sports car; Friendly receptionist Jan welcomes buyers to Toyotathon; Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram encourage consumers to join the “Big Finish 2014” (their Italian cousin, Fiat, calls it the “Gran Finale.”

Jaguar invites you to “Unwrap a Jaguar” (Naughty Car, Nice Price) while Ford welcomes you to its “Dream Big Sales Event.” Lexus promises this will be a “December to Remember; ” Cadillac says this is the “Season’s Best Event;” and Audi says it’s “The Season of Audi.” “Oh What Fun It Is to Drive” an Acura, and at BMW you’ll have a  “Happier Holiday Event.” Honda’s got “Happy Honda Days,” and Lincoln suggests visiting their “Wish List Sales Event.” “Hyundai Holidays” offers some good deals, too.

The direct approach is the thing with Volkswagen’s “Special Offers,” while Nissan and Kia are having a “Holiday Event,” GMC and Buick invite you to “Celebrate the Holidays with Exceptional Offers.” Chevrolet is simply offering a “Year-End Event.”

Catchy name or not, all these sales end soon, usually by the 2nd or 5th of January. But if you come in during these last few days before Christmas you’ll be able to perch a big bow on the roof or hood and give the gift of a shiny new car or truck.

Whether you want to finance or lease a new vehicle there’s lots to choose from. Each manufacturer tailor deals to their stock and the deals vary between 2014s and 2015s, from model to model and among versions within models. It pays to do careful online research to refine what’s offered compared to what you want or need.

Financing deals through manufacturer-owned companies start at 0.0 percent APR and rise incrementally (0.9%, 1.9%, etc.) On some models, the more months financed, the higher the rate: for example, a Lincoln Navigator for 4.9 percent over 72 months. While some manufacturers provide the same financing rate for both 2014 and 2015 models it’s not unusual for 2015s to have slightly higher rates. Most financing contracts range from 36 to 72 months. Besides good rates, many manufacturers offer cash back either as straight rebates – $4,000 seemed to be the highest offered – discounts or “Loyalty Cash” to current owners.

A good holiday lease deal may secure you a more expensive vehicle for a lower monthly price than purchasing will. Leasing makes it possible to acquire a vehicle for less than $200 per month. Most lease deals run about 36 months and most still require some up-front money, but the best lease deals offer zero down/zero due at signing/zero security deposit. A few brands also offer to waive the first month’s payment.

For another year, Subaru offers to make a charitable donation in buyers’ names to the ASPCA, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Meals on Wheels or the National Park Foundation, or a favorite hometown charity. And Chevrolet promises to give $1.00 to the United Way, up to a half-million dollars, if you’ll share its online holiday message on Facebook or re-tweet it on Twitter. Yes, it’s a marketing strategy, but it also allows consumers to feel doubly good about buying or leasing a beautiful, efficient and comfortable vehicle.

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