MONEY Autos

Cuba’s Classic Cars May Be Available, But Are They Worth Anything?

Classic 1959 White Cadillac In Veradara, Cuba.
A classic 1959 White Cadillac In Veradara, Cuba. Education Images—UIG via Getty Images

Cuba is home to a trove of classic American cars, but the ingenuity that has kept them running may have ruined their value.

If there’s a product Cuba is famous for—other than cigars—it’s cars. After Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, he imposed a new law that prevented anyone without government permission from importing foreign automobiles. That turned Cuba into a car museum in the making, sealing the island off from the automotive future.

For the past fifty-odd years, the streets of Havana have famously been filled with what have become classic cars. And now that President Barack Obama is encouraging Congress to remove a ban on Cuban imports, everything from Studebakers to mid-century Chevys could be available to U.S. buyers. The question for collectors is: Are they still worth anything?

“The problem is that, in general, the collectors know these cars have not really been maintained,” says Steve Linden, a vintage car appraiser. “They’ve been actually driven and used as daily cars.”

That’s an issue because a classic car is valued precisely for its classic components. Cubans have been unable to import new parts, so they’ve had to make repairs by creatively mixing and matching what’s available. A particular car might look like an original Dodge Coronet, but under the hood could be a frankenstein mix of pieces from other models. “The ability to keep these things running is what diminishes the value of the car because they’re not original,” Linden explains.

Some collectors might consider buying a car and restoring the original components, but that might not make sense either. A restoration, according to Linden, would cost somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000, depending on the car. Meanwhile, he estimates the same cars in good condition could be bought in America for somewhere between $15,000 and $70,000, with ’50s Chevys—ubiquitous in Cuba—on the low end, and Cadillac convertibles on the high end.

Jonathan Klinger, spokesman for Hagerty, a collector car insurance company, agrees the value of Cuba’s classic cars might be overblown. “I think some people have this vision of a treasure trove of lost cars, but some of the greatest cars from the days of the Cuban Grand Prix have already left through other countries,” said Klinger in a phone interview. “What’s left are a lot of 1950s American cars that have remained through the circumstances, and it took a tremendous amount of passion and ingenuity to keep them on the road.”

Donald Osborne, owner of Automotive Valuation Services, says there are rumors that exotic sports cars were abandoned as their owners fled Cuba, but nobody’s ever seen proof they exist. One of those cars, like a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, could sell for over $1 million. But the average Chevy? “Run-of-the-mill 1950s American cars make no sense as restoration projects,” declares Osborne.

But for both Osborne and Klinger, the value in these cars isn’t their classic nature, it’s in the story they tell. That story could lead some car connoisseurs to pay premium prices for a piece of history. “They’re not overly valuable, but they’re extremely significant,” says Klinger. “Line five cars up at a car show and one of them is tattered looking, but it came from Cuba? That’s interesting.”

Linden isn’t so sure the historic value of Cuba’s cars will be enough to make them valuable. He notes that when former Soviet territories began to open up, they boasted a similar cache of classics, but interest was tepid and few were repatriated to the United States. People might be more willing to import cars from nearby Cuba, admits Linden, but “My opinion is they probably won’t.”

MONEY best of 2014

7 Ways Tech Made Your Life Better in 2014

A new reason to ditch your cellphone contract, safer credit cards, and five more bright ideas that can help you save money in the year ahead.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these seven tech innovations.

  • Best Side Effect of the Hacking Mess

    Chip and Pin credit card transformed into a lock
    Image Source—Alamy

    Safer Credit Cards…Finally

    Chip-and-PIN credit cards include a special chip that makes them harder for hackers to replicate. Though you’re legally protected from having to pay most charges when a card number is stolen, more-secure plastic can save you a lot of hassle. Card companies had been slow to roll out chip-and-PIN—until millions of credit card numbers were stolen from major retailers such as Target and Home Depot. “The frequency and size of the breaches absolutely are driving more rapid adoption of the technology,” says Paul Kleinschnitz of First Data, a payment technology firm. Here are two more things to know about the new cards:

    They don’t eliminate all your risk. Chip-and-PIN makes it harder to create fake plastic but doesn’t stop numbers from being used at online stores. So you should still check your statement regularly for weird charges. Chip-and-PIN is already common in Europe; the new cards work in automated machines there that don’t accept old-fashioned plastic.

  • Best Smartphone Savings

    No-Contract Plans

    Old way: Commit to a contract and pay $200 for a smartphone that really costs $650. Of course, you still pay for the phone as part of your monthly bill.

    New way: Wireless companies are making it easier to separate the cost of the phone and the price of service.

    You can shop for a new plan with your old phone. Low-cost players and now the big carriers offer no-contract plans, which may be $100 cheaper per month for a family. Check with carriers for phone compatibility; look up network quality in your area at rootmetrics.com.

    Or get a new phone. You can buy a phone outright or on installment, and combine that with a no-contract plan. Sometimes, but not always, the total price beats the comparable contract option, so run the numbers. If you do go contract, mark your calendar: After 24 months, switch to no-contract if you don’t care to upgrade.

  • Best Reason to Rent, Not Own, Your eBooks

    Amazon Kindle

    All-You-Can Read Subscriptions

    As with music, books are moving toward an all-you-can read subscription model.

    The Services: The service you pick will hinge on the device you prefer to read with. Scribd ($8.99 per month) lets you read an unlimited number of books, and it quintupled its library this year to 500,000, with 30,000 audiobooks. The service now includes many titles from the big publishers Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. Works on: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire (but not e-ink readers), Nook tablets.

    Though Scribd is the better service overall, it doesn’t work on Kindle e-ink readers. If you’re devoted to that device, Amazon has its own options. With an Amazon Prime subscription, you can choose from thousands of titles to read for no extra charge (one per month). Kindle Unlimited ($9.99) is like Scribd, but customers and reviewers say it’s hard to find books from the “Big Five” publishers. Works on: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and Kindle readers.

    The Gadget: Phone and tablet apps are fine for many readers, but e-ink devices provide a more booklike experience. The new Kindle Voyage has a screen that’s 39% brighter than its predecessor.

  • Best Reason to Rent, Not Buy, Your Music

    Streaming Services

    Why buy songs that you’re rarely going to listen to in a few months? What if you could listen to just about anything—except for a few famous holdouts, like Taylor Swift and the Beatles—for less than the price of one CD per month? (Remember those?) A smart new pricing plan could make 2015 the year you make the switch from buying music to legally streaming it.

    The Service: Spotify lets you listen to any song you want in its vast catalogue. A free version, with ads, works on desktops or allows you to play artists or albums on Shuffle on your phone. Paying up for Spotify Premium ($9.99 a month) gets you no ads and total control on any device. Spotify has rolled out a family plan that lets you add new users for $4.99 each; that way two people in your family can play their own tunes at the same time. Works On: iOs, Android, desktop

    The Gadgets to Listen On: Docking stations are easy to use, with no setup or wires required. The $130 iHome iDL48 works with most iPads and iPhones. A portable speaker lets you get your music off your little earbuds and carry it to any room. The reliable Jawbone Mini Jambox ($130) connects to smartphones, tablets, and most computers through Bluetooth. If your existing stereo has an auxiliary input, an easy fix (in you’re not a hi-fi purist) is to run a cable from the headphone or line-out jack on phone, tablet or PC. Cords are $5 to $10 at Monoprice or Amazon.

  • Best Retro Tech

    2015 Ford Focus
    2015 Ford Focus

    Dashboard Knobs are Back!

    For years cars have become more tech-laden, with systems to let you make phone calls, find local pizza joints, or answer email. Which is nice, unless you prefer to keep your focus on driving. Interiors became a maze of numeric keypads and other control points. Ford says its research shows drivers don’t use or want all that tech. Now it’s retro time. For the 2015 model year Ford Focus, the automaker has eliminated many buttons, and added old-fashioned knobs to systems such as heat and A/C. In the next Fusion, the company is even getting rid of touch screens. — Bill Saporito, Time assistant managing editor, car reviewer at Money.com

  • Best Online Security Fix

    Two-Factor Verification

    Worrying about bank and brokerage hacks is understandable. But money can be replaced—and you have legal protections. What you should worry about is a hacker mining your more vulnerable iCloud photos, Facebook page, or email account and impersonating you. Two-factor verification, a login protocol, makes it vastly harder for hackers to steal your digital life. Here’s what you need to do to set it up:

    Select “login approval” or “two-factor verification” under settings at sites you want to protect. The first time you visit that site on a new computer, you will have to enter a code that’s texted to your phone. (You only need to enter this code the first time you log in from a new computer.) In case you lose your phone, you can print out backup codes, which work once. Once you’ve done this, a hacker would need to guess your password and have physical access to your computer in order to steal your data.

  • Best Apps to Get Before You Travel

    Chi Birmingham

    Taxi Apps

    It’s not always easy to scare up a cab in an unfamiliar city. (Where are the best streets to try to hail one? Should I find a taxi stand? Call ahead?) But smartphones are making it much easier to get around. The Uber app can summon a for-hire private car in numerous cities in 45 countries (though the service has recently come under fire in a few cities). In some big towns, like New York, it will also hail a traditional taxi. Curb and Flywheel also grab regular cabs—check first if they work in the town you are visiting. Want help navigating subways and metros? Hopstop has stop-by-stop directions and travel times, as do the transit directions on the Google Maps app.

MONEY Autos

New Alfa Romeo Is a Beauty and a Blast

The Alfa Romeo 4C isn’t a car so much as it is a Milanese fashion model on wheels.

A very, very, fast fashion model. I will admit to a certain amount of man drooling when this creature showed up. And I was not the only guy on the block with that reaction. What a looker: a swept-back, mid-engined beauty whose lineage dates back to Alfa Romeo’s 33 Stradale supercar of the 1960s.

The 4C gets its curves from technology. It isn’t assembled so much as shaped from carbon fiber over an aluminum frame, which allowed the designers to devise the 4C’s sinuous looks. The Alfa is also fashion-model skinny, weighing in at about 2,500 pounds — some 1,000 lbs. less than the Jaguar F-type, for instance. The Alfa is also lighter on price than the F-Type: $53,900 vs. the F-Type’s $65,000; to get the baddest F-Type, the R model that matches the Alfa’s speed, it’s going to cost you $99,000 to open the door.

Alfa’s corporate masters at Fiat (it will be sold here by Fiat dealers) have been able to keep the 4C’s price relatively modest by creating a very basic animal. This thing comes with few accessories, and there aren’t a lot of toggles and knobs to play with. If you want the Jag’s ultra-plush, 14-power control racing chair with the inflatable side baffles — very nice in 90-mile-per-hour turns — you should expect to lay out 100 large. The Alfa driver’s seat slides up and back using an old-fashioned ratchet mechanism. The car is barely four feet tall, and given the size of the cockpit and my own 6-foot-2 frame, I had to push it all the way back to get my legs in. It reminds me of an ancient MG in that regard.

Understand that with the 4C you’re going to have to give up things along with weight. Like comfort. The car won’t coddle you. You’re four inches off the ground in a carbon tub, the suspension has no intention of making New York City’s potholes any softer, and the guy in charge of sound reduction at Alfa had the day off when this thing was designed. It’s loud, and turning up the radio just adds to it.

And if you’re looking for the latest in interactive accouterments, such as a touchscreen navigation system or voice-activated controls, the 4C laughs at you. It’s a sports car, not some Wi-Fi hotspot. There’s an input for your mobile phone in the form of a collection of loose wires stuffed into a sleeve below the glove compartment. Except that there is no glove compartment. Instead, there’s a slot on the back wall above the center console. It’s a very handy spot to store your speeding tickets.

There’s no backup camera, either, which is a shame because there’s basically no rear view. The engine is in the way. Nor is the peripheral vision all that great. The 4C is designed for fast forward. Don’t count on taking a long road trip in this thing, unless you travel very very light. The trunk space is ridiculously small, and there’s no storage beneath the hood.

All the 4C’s shortcoming are quickly forgiven quickly once you start it up and the automotive aria that is sitting behind your head begins to sing. And this is not the fat lady singing, either. Even in the engine compartment, the 4C is slim : a turbo-tuned, in-line, four-cylinder power plant puts out a mere 237 horsepower. You might be tempted to snicker, given that the top-end F-Type is pumping out 550 hp and Chevy’s even faster Corvette muscles up to 460 hp. Keep in mind, though, that the new Ford Mustang is available in a four-cylinder version, and I’ve been on track with that Pony at 132 mph. The 4C, though, is so much lighter that its power-to-weight ratio is in the supercar class. Which means that if you touch the pedal, the response is, si, signore, and you are blowing past traffic in hilariously fast intervals.

What we‘re talking about is fun — knowing that whatever traffic is in your way will be out of your way on command. You do that with the pedal and the 4C’s dual clutch transmission. There’s a funky gear selection on the center console: R for reverse, and then a 1 for forward, as in drive. There’s also a button that lets you select automatic or the paddle shift, six-speed mode. (There’s no stick shift option.) In auto mode, there’s an interesting knock-down feature. If you’re in sixth gear and cruising, and decide you want to make a pass, the engine downshifts a gear to fifth to provide more torque.

Like most new sports cars, the 4C has a tunable ride. A three-mode toggle called D.N.A. lets you switch from normal driving mode (in which can get an admirable 28 miles per gallon combined, although you’ll need it with the 10-gallon tank) to an all-weather mode or to dynamic mode (and if you hold the switch in dynamic for five seconds, you’ll engage the Alfa’s race mode). The all-weather mode is designed to keep the wheels from spinning by not overresponding to the pedal while an anti-slip regulation (ASP) keeps brakes and engine in sync. Put it into dynamic, however, and all bets are off. The pedal response is reflexive, and gear shift times are reduced by 25%, according to the company. That’s another way of saying that when you bang on the accelerator, the trip to 60 mph — which takes a shade over four seconds — feels nearly seamless.

That would not describe the steering, which lacks electronics, At slow speeds you have to pull the wheel to get the tires to come with you; forget about trying to parallel park. On the other hand, there’s an electronic torsion control that brakes the interior tire on turns so you’re getting optimum grip on the outside wheel. That means you can power through turns at will.

So how do you size up a car like the 4C? It’s impractical, not particularly comfortable, and rather loud. It has a lousy infotainment system and no trunk space. Then again, it’s flat-out gorgeous and race-car fast. It is both beauty and beast, and a wonderful one at that.

View an extended version of the Alfa Romeo 4C video on YouTube.

MONEY Autos

Toyota Tries to Nudge the Camry Upscale

A test-drive of the new 2015 Camry shows how Toyota is using fancy trim and gadgetry in a bid to make a thoroughbred out of its workhorse.

Living in New York City, I am always amazed to see how many beat-up old Camrys prowl the streets.

A lot of them are missing fenders or sporting that two-tone, quarter-panel-from–the-junkyard look. Nobody here seems to buy a Camry to style around town. It’s a car you buy because you can beat the crap out of it, and 100,000 miles later you can let your kid beat the crap out of it or sell it to someone else who will do likewise.

Toyota redesigned the 2015 Camry to give its prized midsized mule a little bit more thoroughbred swagger and sheen — making it look like something you’d want to take care of, so that maybe when you’re backing into a tight parking spot you’ll be less inclined to tap bumpers. It’s got a rear backup camera, which will help. But this newest version is also sharper-elbowed and sharper-shouldered in its styling, and on some trims there’s a new front grill that‘s really trying to look angry. “Demands respect at every corner,” barks Toyota’s marketing department.

We hear you, Toyota, but in the wheelhouse there’s not much that’s new. The Camry’s engine choices haven’t changed. Long a paragon of four-pot pragmatism, Camry offers its standard four-cylinder, 2.5 liter engine on the 2015 models, which gets you to 178 horsepower and a combined 28 miles per gallon. The XSE model, which we drove, also offers a 3.5 liter, 236-hp V-6 engine to do the loud talking, with fuel economy at 25 mpg combined. There’s also a 200-hp (combined) hybrid electric engine available that gets about 40 mpg.

Things were going well in the XSE, with its blue-tinted entry lights on the bottom door sill, the broad moon roof bathing the car in light, the phone charging wirelessly on the clever Qi pad on the center console. The XSE also had $1,200 worth of safety options such as a blind-spot monitor, lane monitor, and pre-collision braking system — options that should become standard.

I was beginning to buy into the whole bold new Camry idea when the voice from the passenger seat T-boned into the sentences forming in my head. “This feels like a rental,” my wife said.

How brutal! No, no, no, she responded, as if the Camry might hear her; it wasn’t a putdown, just an observation. The Camry is a fine car indeed, she said.

I agree: Nice ride, decent noise and vibration levels. Pretty comfortable. Nothing too fussy on the dash despite its Entune premium audio/navigation technology. But nothing to raise the pulse rate too much, either, and we were driving a jazzed-up version that weighed in at $35,000, not some fleet meat from the Hertz lot. Ours had 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, and dual chrome tipped exhaust. The leather-trim seats seemed a little underwhelming given the rest of the package, but how much higher can you drive the price of this car anyway before drivers start balking?

That’s the point, isn’t it? You can drive out of a Toyota dealership with a perfectly nice Camry for $25,000 without having second thoughts. When you start pushing $35,000 for a midsized nice car, your thoughts start to wander to Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, the new Chrysler 200, maybe even an Audi A3 — smaller but more luxurious.

It isn’t easy being popular, so all credit to Toyota for trying to raise Camry’s game and hold off the mid-sized hordes. But maybe there’s a better way to do this than add chrome and glitz and a higher sticker price. I’m sure Toyota will figure that out.

In the meantime, I expect that in 10 years someone will still be driving that XSE in my neighborhood. And there will be some big dings in that restyled grill.

TIME Recalls

What You Should Do About the Massive Airbag Recall

Car Dealerships Ahead Of Total Vehicle Sales Figures
Honda Motor Co. vehicles are displayed for sale at the Paragon Honda dealership in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Millions of cars from ten automakers are subject to an airbag recall. Here's what you need to know

Takata produces about 300,000 airbag replacement kits per month, possibly increasing to 450,000 or so. At that rate, it will take from 2 to 3 years to recall and replace the defective airbags in the 16-million to potentially 30-million affected vehicles in the U.S.

So what do concerned vehicle owners do in the meantime?

Takata is the only airbag manufacturer to use ammonium nitrate as a propellant for its inflators. Ammonium nitrate is affected by heat-and-cold cycling over time, plus humidity, that can cause it to become too forcefully explosive when ignited in a crash.

To fix this potentially lethal default the company says it has (1) changed the compression density force with new press machines; (2) rejected products that are not meeting quality standards; and (3) changed humidity control during production and assembly. Takata also says it also improved the hermetically-sealed package to minimize effects of moisture that would deteriorate the chemicals and make them less stable. Perhaps NHTSA should consider outlawing the use of ammonium nitrate in the first place, or at least use a safer chemical in the recall campaign.

But there are safer alternatives. It should be feasible to re-program the software in the vehicles’ airbag control modules (ACM). By changing the software, including the thresholds of activation and the control algorithms, the system could be made safer— as a temporary solution. The threshold to trigger the airbags could be raised so that it would take a crash at 30 mph, rather than 18 mph. In these low-speed collisions, the driver and passenger would still be protected by wearing their seat belts.

Since the driver and passenger airbags are dual-stage designs, they could be re-programmed to inflate only at the lower-pressure level to help ensure that the explosive force does not exceed levels that cause the metal canister to become lethal shrapnel. Because of the inherent instability of ammonium nitrate, such lower pressures in the canister cannot be absolutely guaranteed, but the risk would be reduced. (On the other hand, passenger risks would rise in a high-speed crash.)

To re-program your car’s Takata airbags, you’d drive over to your local dealership and download new software into your car’s ACM computer. It would likely take less than an hour, and then you’d drive away with a less-risky airbag system that could still offer protection in a crash. If the automakers and Takata cooperated, such software could be developed and tested and available probably within a month…. or maybe even a week.

I believe it should also be a requirement that each affected vehicle have a label attached permanently on the instrument panel, advising that the vehicle has been recalled and that a replacement airbag system has been installed. The date of such recall and replacement action should also be noted on the label.

Finally, I believe that all Takata airbag systems should have a “failsafe” pressure-relief mechanism to prevent any over-pressurization of the airbag. In the late-1970’s I became aware that too many pressurized beer kegs were exploding and propelling lethal shrapnel that injured or killed college students. I showed there was a solution, a simple device that would vent out any over-pressurization before it could cause the metal keg to explode. Lives have been saved by adopting such an inexpensive, simple device for beer kegs. Why not a use a similar device to prevent excessive forces from rupturing the metal canister that holds the airbag’s propellant? And yes, the canisters should be made stronger, too.

Byron Bloch has over 30 years of experience as an independent consultant and court-qualified expert in Auto Safety Design and Vehicle Crashworthiness. Over the years, he has inspected accident vehicles to evaluate how and why the occupants were severely injured, and exemplar vehicles to evaluate their structural details. He has qualified and testified as an expert in auto safety defect cases in Federal and State Courts coast-to-coast. He also lectures, writes, and appears on TV reports on auto safety design and vehicle crashworthiness.

MONEY Autos

Americans Are Back in Love with SUVs. Is Cheap Gas the Reason?

141202_EM_LuxSUVLove
2015 Cadillac Escalade Richard Prince—GM

November was an exceptionally strong month for auto sales—especially for trucks and SUVs of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of luxury.

With the help of Black Friday promotions and the cheapest gas prices in years, the auto industry posted a brilliant November for sales. General Motors announced that sales were up 6% compared to a year ago, making for its best November in seven years. In fact, the Detroit Free Press reported that once all of the sales totals are in, last month could very well be the best November the auto industry has seen in 13 years, thanks especially to strong performances from GM and Chrysler (up 20%).

Ford sales in November were down 2% compared to a year, but even that is being considered a victory of sorts, because the results outperformed analysts’ expectations. (Experts anticipated a sales decline largely because Ford is in the process of producing a new aluminum-bodied F-150 truck—the country’s best-selling vehicle for more than three decades—and naturally sales are slumping while drivers await the updated model.)

What’s interesting is that while Ford had a less-than-stellar month overall, a few of its vehicles experienced a terrific November in terms of sales. Two SUVs, the Explorer and the crossover Escape, did great business, up 13% and 22% compared to a year ago. And those impressive gains pale in comparison to their higher-end sibling. Ford’s Lincoln brand was up 21% overall for the month, and sales of the Lincoln Navigator—a luxury SUV with a sticker price starting over $60,000—reached 1,433 for the month, a rise of 88% compared to a year ago.

Similarly, one of the Navigator’s luxury SUV competitors, the Cadillac Escalade (MSRP from $72,970), saw sales increase a whopping 75% in November, even as Cadillac as a whole experienced a 15% decline for the month. Several other GM trucks and SUVs, including the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and Buick Encore, also had booming Novembers, with sales up 24%, 57%, and 72%, respectively.

Yet another SUV-centric auto brand, Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep, had a brilliant November, with sales up 67% for the new Cherokee and up 27% overall. Meanwhile, Toyota, which beat expectations with a mild 3% sales increase in November, made a point of noting how well its trucks and SUVs did for the month. “Consumer demand for light trucks continues unabated and Toyota dealers set new November sales records for light trucks and SUVs,” Toyota division group vice president Bill Fay said in a press release.

What explains the surge in SUV sales? To some extent, the category’s performance is emblematic of the auto industry having a strong month overall. But decreasing gas prices are probably playing a role as well: Apparently the dip under under $3 per gallon seemed like a cue to some consumers that it was time to consider an SUV again. The fact that new trucks and SUVs are more fuel-efficient than their older counterparts helps the cause. On the other hand, only rapidly decreasing gas prices—and short memories on the behalf of consumers who griped not long ago about dropping $100 on fill-ups—can explain the reported increase in sales of gas-guzzling Hummers on used car lots recently.

Toward the end of November in particular, dealerships were offering especially aggressive promotions on SUVs of all shapes and sizes. Ford’s rivals were very aggressive with deals on light-weight pickups, likely with the idea of wooing buyers before they have the chance to purchase the new Ford F-150, soon to be widely available. Finally, the Black Friday shop-a-thon weekend seems to have instilled in consumers a mentality for splurging on high-priced automobiles, especially when it seemed like the deals were good.

“Arguably more than other Black Fridays, this one seemed to have been positioned as a big ticket Black Friday,” LMC Automotive’s Jeff Schuster said, according to Bloomberg News. “It’s the 65-inch TVs, big appliances or cars that consumers focused on.”

 

MONEY Autos

Audi A3 is Made for Millennials

The new entry-level Audi is elegant and understated. Plus, it will read incoming text messages out loud for you.

A number of years ago I met with Audi executives, who wanted to deliver a message: keep an eye on us. They told me that Audi is going to get better and better and then challenge Mercedes and BMW.

That kind of statement sticks with you, but the Audi guys made good on their promise. Audi has now racked up 45 consecutive months of record sales in the U.S. because it can offer a full lineup of elegantly engineered automobiles, from the wondrous R8 sports car to the latest new model, the entry-level A3. The company is banking on winning conquests from Asian makers — maybe Lexus or Acura drivers who want a little more panache — and clearly it wants to take on its German rivals head-to-head.

And in the A3, which starts at around $30,000, Audi has a good case. Let’s be clear, though: If you’re looking for whistles and bells, for over-the-top (as in Italian) styling, or for lots of ornaments on your auto, you probably should go elsewhere. The A3 is luxury defined as restrained elegance, with quality if quiet materials, and a ride that is powerful enough without calling too much attention to itself. You may buy an A3 to announce that you’ve moved up into the 90th percentile, but you’re not going to shout about it.

That was true even with the color of the car we tested. Yes, the Scuba Blue hue was an extra $550. But unlike, say, the cornflower blue of the BMW M3 we drove a couple of weeks before, which was screaming, “I’m TOH-tally cool blue,” this color projected strength. And so did the engine, where it really counts. We were running the bigger of the two power plants that Audi offers in the A3, a turbocharged, 2.0 liter, 220-horsepower, 4–cylinder engine and all-wheel drive that brings the price to $32,900. The 1.8 liter, 170-hp front-wheel drive version gets you in at $30,795, which means you’re giving up a lot of power and torque for two thou. Both versions are equipped with a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission, and that’s not a small thing. It’s a lot of fun looking at the tachometer as you rev through the gears; although the needle races left to right and back again, the smooth transition up and down the gearbox is very impressive.

As for the ride, you can be comfortably aggressive however you like to drive, but the Audi, like lots of refined autos, offers you a couple of modes to tune your wheels. Choose the sport mode, and the electronic steering digs in a little harder and the pedal gets more jumpy, yet the feeling is calm and the interior is quiet enough to enjoy the sound system.

Inside, the A3 dashboard is like a German winter — cool and dark — with a couple of round aluminum AC ports to interrupt the rich leather panel. But it can be brightened by the MMI navigation package, which features a pop-up screen that rises out of the dash like a submarine periscope: Drive! Drive!

The center console is the control room with the commands dished out by a center dial and a four-corner touch panel to handle navigation, audio, and communication. The top of the dial also serves as a touchpad that allows you to write in the destination you want the navigation system to find. It all sounds a bit complex, but after two days I had a really good feel for it — something I can’t say for other vehicles with similar systems.

The only drawback to the interior is the back seat, which can hold three passengers, but only if you really don’t like the one stuck in the middle. Some reviewers have found it downright cramped, but this is what entry-level luxury means in a small sedan. Same thing with the trunk, which I found to be adequate, if just barely.

How can you make a German luxury car that sells for $30,000? Don’t build it in Germany. The A3 is assembled in Gyor, Hungary, and 35% of the parts are Hungarian-made. It’s actually a good deal: Hungary’s wages are lower than Germany’s, which helps keep the price down, yet at the same time it has a very skilled labor force.

But also keep in mind that $30,000 is bare and spare, with no rear-view camera or blind-spot mirrors. The nav and communications system adds $2,600, and the A3 Premium Plus model tacked on $2,550 for heated power front seats and mirrors and other goodies. Paddle shifter? That will be $600. The price for the total package we drove was $40,000 and change. So while the entry-level price is reasonable, the finishing price could boost the bill depending on your choices. That said, if you do choose the A3, you have chosen well.

TIME The Brief

#TheBrief: The Air Bag Recall That’s Affecting Millions of Cars

Exploding air bags made by Takata Corporation

Exploding air bags have led to one of the biggest auto recalls in history, one that’s five times larger than GM’s ignition-switch fiasco. How did this happen?

Several large automakers including BMW and Honda have used the air bags, made by Japanese company Takata Corporation, the largest supplier of air bags parts in the world. Now they have had to recall millions of cars after the defective driver’s-side air bags have been blamed for at least five deaths and more than 100 injuries in the past decade.

Watch #TheBrief to find out more about the recall.

TIME Transportation

What Happened to the Car Industry’s Most Famous Flop?

A 1958 Edsel Convertible
A 1958 Edsel convertible made by Ford Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Market researched failed in a major way

Any crossword puzzler knows there’s a five-letter word for a Ford that flopped: Edsel.

At the heart of any big flop–like when Ford ended the Edsel 55 years ago, on Nov. 19, 1959–lies high expectations. The Edsel was named after Henry Ford’s son, no small honor, and it had its own division of the company devoted to its creation. As TIME reported in 1957 when the car debuted, the company had spent 10 years and $250 million on planning one of its first brand-new cars in decades. The Edsel came in 18 models but, in order to reach its sales goals, it would have to do wildly better than any other car in 1957 was expected to do. The September day that the car first went on the market, thousands of eager buyers showed up at dealers, but before the year was over monthly sales had fallen by about a third.

When Ford announced that they were pulling the plug on the program, here’s how TIME explained what had gone wrong:

As it turned out, the Edsel was a classic case of the wrong car for the wrong market at the wrong time. It was also a prime example of the limitations of market research, with its “depth interviews” and “motivational” mumbo-jumbo. On the research, Ford had an airtight case for a new medium-priced car to compete with Chrysler’s Dodge and DeSoto, General Motors’ Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick. Studies showed that by 1965 half of all U.S. families would be in the $5,000-and-up bracket, would be buying more cars in the medium-priced field, which already had 60% of the market. Edsel could sell up to 400,000 cars a year.

After the decision was made in 1955, Ford ran more studies to make sure the new car had precisely the right “personality.” Research showed that Mercury buyers were generally young and hot-rod-inclined, while Pontiac, Dodge and Buick appealed to middle-aged people. Edsel was to strike a happy medium. As one researcher said, it would be “the smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up.” To get this image across, Ford even went to the trouble of putting out a 60-page memo on the procedural steps in the selection of an advertising agency, turned down 19 applicants before choosing Manhattan’s Foote, Cone & Belding. Total cost of research, design, tooling, expansion of production facilities: $250 million.

A Taste of Lemon. The flaw in all the research was that by 1957, when Edsel appeared, the bloom was gone from the medium-priced field, and a new boom was starting in the compact field, an area the Edsel research had overlooked completely.

Even so, the Edsel wasn’t a complete loss for Ford: the company was able to use production facilities build for Edsel for their next new line of, you guessed it, compact cards.

Read the full report here, in the TIME Vault: The $250 Million Flop

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