MONEY Autos

The Price of Hybrid and Electric Cars Is Plummeting. Here’s Why

2012 Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius David Dewhurst

Among the trickle-down effects of cheaper gas prices are lower sales totals for alternative-fuel cars—which in turn have forced automakers to slash prices on these vehicles.

USA Today just reported that Ford is cutting the sticker price of the fully battery-powered plug-in Focus Electric by a flat $6,000. That’s on top of a $4,000 price reduction on the same vehicle a year ago. The new sticker price is $29,995 including shipping—but not including federal tax credits of up to $7,500 and state incentives that might effectively knock another $2,500 off the amount buyers pay.

Obviously, Ford wouldn’t be instituting such dramatic price cuts if the Focus Electric was selling well, and part of the reason sales have been poor is that the model doesn’t stand out in an increasingly crowded field of midlevel-priced plug-ins where the Nissan Leaf, the pioneer in the category, remains the indisputable leader. Another reason for underwhelming sales of the Focus Electric—and for many alternative-fuel cars in general, for that matter—is simply that gas prices have been getting cheaper and cheaper.

According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, the national average for a gallon of regular was just under $3.10 on Tuesday, compared with $3.35 a year ago and around $3.70 this past spring. Gas prices for the year as a whole are down slightly compared with 2013, and projections call for continued lower prices in 2015. All of which hurts automakers’ efforts to convince buyers that it’s a savvy move to pay a premium over a standard gas-powered vehicle for a hybrid or electric car right now, with the anticipation that they’d more than make up the difference later on in the form of savings on gas.

To help sales, automakers have been trying mightily to make the difference in price between alternative-fuel cars and their traditional car counterparts disappear. Nissan slashed the price of the Leaf in early 2013, effectively bringing the takeaway price of the vehicle under the $20,000 mark. Leaf sales have been strong throughout 2014, up 23% year over year thus far. Ford Focus Electric sales are up in the U.S. as well, with September units sold up 60% compared with the same month last year. Even so, we’re talking about extremely small numbers: 176 Focus Electrics sold last month, versus only 110 for September 2013.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the combination of lower gas prices and increasingly fuel-efficient internal-combustion engine cars appears to be putting the squeeze in particular on hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. According to Toyota data, 14,277 Priuses were sold in the U.S. last month, compared with 15,890 for September 2013. For the year thus far, Prius sales are down 11.4% compared with the same period a year ago—and mind you, this slump took place a time when Toyota sales overall are up 5.7%. By far the worst-performing Prius has been the plug-in PHV; only 353 sold in September, a decline of 71% versus the same month a year ago (1,152). As for hybrid sales overall, a total of 31,385 units sold in the U.S. in September 2014, a decrease of 35% from the previous month, and a decline of 6.5% from the same month in 2013.

Bear in mind that the hybrid sales slump has occurred while automakers have gotten more aggressive with discounts. As Automotive News lately noted about the struggles of alternative-fuel cars:

Data from KBB.com show that Toyota boosted Prius incentives to $2,300 per vehicle in September from $1,400 a year ago while Ford ramped up C-Max spiffs to $4,900 from $2,650 per vehicle in the same period; neither move helped sales.

So cheaper gas prices benefit drivers not only in terms of the obvious—cheaper gas prices—but also because they’re forcing automakers to slash prices on hybrids and electric cars that boast savings on gas as a primary sales pitch.

MONEY Autos

The $64,000 GMC Sierra Denali Shows How Pickups Have Gone Crazy Luxe

A powerful engine, a moon roof, USB ports and comfortable seating for five are all signs of booms in agriculture and construction.

Even in the darkest days of the American automobile industry, pickup trucks came through. Detroit couldn’t build profitable cars to save its soul, but pickups always delivered sales and profits.

In the last couple of years, with agriculture booming and construction recovering, the auto companies have been outdoing themselves to hang on to this lucrative turf. Ford is about to launch a new, aluminum version of its top selling F-150. Chrysler has had to increase production of its Ram 1500 to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, GM is about to debut two middleweight contenders, Canyon (GMC) and Colorado (Chevy).

GMC also rolled out new versions of its heavy duty 2500 and 3500 Sierra HD models that highlight another trend: the pickup gone crazy luxe. For the successful farmer who now pilots a climate-controlled, $325,000 John Deere 9370R tractor with mission-control computer display terminals, the fully-equipped Sierra Denali 2500HD that we tested might be no less than the minimum required. This diesel-driven, high-waisted brute feels more like a working Escalade, and at $64,000 for the crew-cab, diesel version, it’s priced in the neighborhood.

Who would drop $64,000 on a pickup? Look, I’m a car guy so I really can’t answer that question, but if I had to get up at 4 a.m. every day and do actual labor on a farm or ranch, or at construction sites, I’d like to think I’d earned a cushy ride. And in the Sierra Denali you’ll get one. Once you adjust to sitting a mile high and towering over mere cars — and in Manhattan (New York, that is, not Kansas) it’s kind of a cool perspective — you realize that the Sierra doesn’t feel like a truck. On the highway, it’s one of the quietest vehicles on the highway that I’ve tested this year.

That’s even more surprising considering that this particular Sierra Denali is powered by a 6.6 L V8 Duramax diesel tied to a 6-speed Allison Transmission. But this combo, odd to say, doesn’t shout its 397 h.p. worth of trucky-ness. Because the diesel delivers bigtime torque at low revs, (765 lb. ft. @ 1,600) the pickup’s power sounds more oceanlike as it gathers force. You’ll pay for that power, with the diesel package adding $8,845 to the standard price of $53,740. Since you are already in luxury car territory, why not throw in a power sunroof ($995), aluminum rims ($850), and 20-inch tires ($200)?

You are now styling in four-wheel drive and your buddies will appreciate it: You can fit four of them in the Sierra Denali 2500HD, and they will be properly seated in the more-than-roomy-enough crew cab. You, though, will have the best seat, one that’s heated and air conditioned and equipped with its own alarm system: The seat shimmies to keep you alert in slow traffic or if it senses you are drifting out of your lane. And because this is a work truck, the center console is loaded with storage for files, laptops, or even power tools; there’s also a power panel that includes USB ports, a couple of 12-volt ports, and a standard electrical outlet.

It would be silly of me to try to tow a trailer around New York City, but the Sierra Denali 2500HD can haul one weighing up to 13,000 lb. On the other hand, we did manage a brief four-wheel drive test on a rough patch of Harriman State Park about 50 miles north of New York. The fall foliage was beautiful and the pickup handled the high brush easily given its substantial ground clearance. I’d be looking forward to winter driving in this thing if I worked outside. Although I wouldn’t be looking forward to working outside.

MONEY Tech

Why Siri Is the Worst Backseat Driver

iPhone with Siri on screen
Iain Masterton—Alamy

Two new studies find that Apple's voice-activated virtual assistant is the most distracting hands-free technology to use while driving.

Hoping to arrive at your destination in one piece? Up your odds: Leave Siri out of it. According to two new studies out Tuesday from AAA and the University of Utah, the iPhone’s little helper is more distracting for drivers than any other voice-activated technology.

One study looked at brand-specific automotive infotainment systems, like Chevrolet’s MyLink and Toyota’s Entune, while a second examined hands-free use of Siri. The researchers asked 162 University of Utah students to use the voice-based systems to perform a variety of tasks while in a lab, operating a driving simulator, and actually driving a test route. Each technology was scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the mental capacity required to drive with no distractions and 5 representing the degree of distraction when drivers are asked to solve a complex math problem. Siri received the worst rating: 4.14. To add insult to (virtual only!) injury, two testers actually crashed their simulators while using Siri.

Among the in-car infotainment systems, Chevrolet’s MyLink earned the worst marks (3.7), followed by Mercedes’ COMMAND (3.1) and Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch (3.0). Toyota’s Entune was rated least distracting, at 1.7.

The testers used the infotainment systems for tasks like changing radio stations and making phone calls. They used Siri (version iOS 7) for a different set of activities: navigating, sending and receiving texts, posting to Facebook and Twitter, and using the calendar. All tasks were done without looking at or touching the phone itself.

According to the AP, Apple noted via statement that the studies did not use the company’s CarPlay or Siri Eyes Free, which are integrated into certain new cars and designed specifically for use while driving. (We reached out to Apple for comment but have not heard back as of the time of this posting.)

The researchers concluded that the less complicated technologies proved less distracting in part because they’re simpler to use and more accurate. Some systems proved so challenging to use that study participants “were cursing the systems out,” said University of Utah psychology professor and study leader David Strayer. That’s likely to strike a chord with many Siri users—just check the hashtag #SiriFail on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram—as is the study’s note that “some participants also reported frustration with Siri’s occasional sarcasm and wit.”

As the technologies improve, the study authors say, there’s an opportunity for hands-free systems to get less distracting. In the meantime, Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research for AAA, says drivers who want to use hands-free technologies should try to avoid tasks that involve composing messages. While checking messages proved no more distracting than listening to an audiobook, the study found that responding is significantly more complicated. “Our message is, just because technology enables to you to different things while you’re driving doesn’t mean you should,” Nelson says.

MONEY Autos

Used Car Prices Are Plummeting. Here’s Why

Vehicles for sale at a used car lot.
Chuck Franklin—Alamy

When the market for new car sales is hot, smart buyers know to look instead at the overflowing inventory of used cars—a supply that's cheap and getting cheaper.

It’s a great time to be in the market for a used car. The Wall Street Journal recently cited data indicating that used-car prices declined for the four consecutive months through August. USA Today noted that the average used car purchased at a franchised auto dealership sold for $10,883 in August, down 1.6% from the previous year and 2.4% versus July 2014. Edmunds.com predicted that used car prices would dip around 2% overall this year, and that some used vehicles—in particular, large crossover SUVs like the Chevy Traverse—would drop in price by upwards of 8%.

What’s more, the forecast calls for used-car prices to stay on a downward trend for the foreseeable future. AutoTrader.com, the Atlanta-based online marketplace for new and used vehicles, says that its inventory of certified pre-owned vehicles has risen 6% since March, and that by year’s end buyers can expect a handful of top “pre-loved” car models—including the 2011 versions of the Ford Fusion, Toyota Corolla, and Honda CR-V—to be priced at roughly 5% less than what dealers were asking just six months ago.

What accounts for the sudden price dip? A quick review of what has happened in the new and used car markets over the past few years sheds some light. In 2011, used vehicle prices hit a 16-year high in the wake of the Great Recession, when relatively few consumers were purchasing or leasing new cars because money was tight and credit was less available. That meant a shrinking supply of used cars, as there were fewer trade-ins or vehicles coming off lease. The “Cash for Clunkers” stimulus program also removed millions of used vehicles from the market, further tightening supply.

According to Cars.com, the average 2012 listing price for five popular used vehicles five or more years old had risen a whopping 29% over the three years prior. Around that time, however, new car leases and sales surged, rising 13% in 2012 and continuing with impressive growth in 2013 and 2014. All of those new vehicle purchases and leases have translated to a parallel rise in trade-ins and cars coming off leases. “Leasing has surged in recent years with thousands of those cars coming back to dealerships as used cars,” Michelle Krebs, AutoTrader.com senior analyst, said via press release. “The abundance of returned lease cars should result in used cars coming off their historical highs of recent years, representing good buys for consumers.”

The takeaway is that used cars are cheap, at least when compared to the record highs of a few years ago, and that the market for previously owned vehicles should remain attractive to buyers through the near future.

Yet this turn of events isn’t all good for consumers. When used car prices tank, so does the value of your trade-in, if you have one. Also, automakers are more likely to offer low-price lease deals when their anticipated resale value is high. The flip side is that when used car prices crater, like they’re doing now, car dealerships must assume that they’ll be forced to sell off-lease vehicles for less money—and therefore they need to make more money from the person leasing the car in the first place. In other words, typical monthly payments for a customer leasing a new car are likely to rise compared to the rates available not long ago.

MONEY

Millennials Love This Old-Fashioned Company

The 2014 Ford Escape.
As millennials get older, they're more interested in SUVs and crossovers, like the 2014 Ford Escape. courtesy of Ford

You might think of Ford as the automaker your grandpa stubbornly stuck with for decades. Millennials think of Ford as something else—the auto brand they're most likely to buy right now.

It’s a common belief that millennials are indifferent to car ownership. They aren’t buying cars anywhere near the percentage rates of previous generations, and fewer young adults even bother to get drivers’ licenses. However, none of these factoids has stopped automakers from trying to win over the business of this huge demographic—which might not be flush with cash now but will surely represent a gigantic chunk of car buyers down the road.

A new study from Maritz Research shows that one automaker has been particularly successful over the past few years in appealing to millennials, and the name may come as a bit of a surprise: It’s Ford, the staid, century-old, all-American company from Michigan. According to Maritz surveys—which have been pumped up in a Ford press release—in 2008, Ford ranked fourth among millennials as the brand they’d most likely consider buying. (Honda and Toyota held the top two spots.) By 2012, however, Ford leapfrogged over the competition to grab the No. 1 ranking.

“The jump was really at the expense of the Asian-based manufacturers,” said Maritz Research vice president Chris Travell, who pointed out that General Motors has also improved in the eyes of would-be millennial car buyers. “The North American manufacturers are making better product than they ever have. You can’t say that they’re not reliable and aren’t good quality anymore.”

Millennials have taken notice. They also aren’t likely to have much memory of the auto world of decades ago, when the perception was that American cars were overpriced and would break down quicker and more often than many imports. “Millennials don’t remember the bad stuff,” said Travell. “They’re coming in as mostly clean slates. Ford is not considered the ‘old Ford’ to this generation.”

The automaker has been catching the eye of younger buyers with its focus on techie features (admittedly, not always successfully), and, most important, a lineup of vehicles and price points that appeal to their needs right now. From 2008 to 2013, more millennials became interested in crossovers and SUVs, and fewer wanted compacts and other small vehicles, which is the strength of Asian car manufacturers like Hyundai, Honda, and Toyota. “The trend of millennials starting families comes at the same time Ford is updating or replacing nearly its entire product lineup,” Amy Marentic, Ford global car and crossover marketing manager, said via press release. “These fastest-growing segments—like small utilities—coincide with Ford’s product strengths.”

Ford has also actively targeted millennials and strategically pursued them as customers now and, ideally, in the future. “One thing we recognized is that millennials don’t want to be just fed information and trust it, necessarily,” said Lisa Schoder, Ford’s global small-car marketing manager, according to Forbes. “So how can we be part of their lives and inform them about our brands and products without overtly advertising to them? That has been our critical differentiator. They need to participate in experiences versus just being spoon-fed something.”

Accordingly, Ford introduced Focus Doug, a “spokespuppet” (a sock puppet, actually) in a series of online videos, and used social media in a variety of other unorthodox, irreverent ways to put vehicles like the Focus, Fiesta, and Escape on the radar of millennials. The Wall Street Journal just reported on Ford’s recent efforts to win over female customers via programs like Live.Drive.Love, which invites women to take Ford cars on 24-hour test drives.

What does reaching out to women have to do with millennials? Well, overall among car buyers, less than 4 in 10 of purchases were made by women in 2013. But among millennials, 53% of buyers are female.

Young women who are starting families or just want more space for mountain bikes and other gear are likely to be intrigued with Ford models like the Escape and Explorer. And those with less need for space, or those with simply smaller budgets will be more likely to go with the subcompact route, via the Fiesta. As Ford crowed last summer, the Fiesta has been a big success in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, and the Ford brand overall increased retail share among millennials by 80% from 2009 to 2013.

MORE:
10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On
Check Out This Revolutionary Car-Buying Advice—Then Disregard It

TIME U.S.

How Presidents Take Vacation

As Obama kicks off his Martha's Vineyard vacation, TIME looks at other presidential destinations. Fishing, golfing, time at the beach...in short, pretty much like the rest of us

TIME Auto

There’s Good News About Ford’s Hardcore New Truck

Ford Aluminum Pickup
An attendee looks at the Ford Motor Co. F-150 pickup truck during the Washington Auto Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ford’s big gamble moves into price point. Will it work?

fortunelogo-blue
This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at Fortune.com.

One of the most closely watched automotive introductions of recent years is set to unfold as Ford Motor Co. retail dealers begin placing orders for the aluminum-body F Series pickup trucks, scheduled to arrive before year’s end.

This week Ford told dealers the retail price of the new truck will increase from $360 for entry-level models up to $3,615 for high-line luxury versions. The base model 2015 XL F-150 starts at $26,615, up $395 or 1.5% while the top-end Platinum version starts at $52,155, up $3,055, or 6.2%.

Ford is taking a big gamble on aluminum. The new trucks will be up to 700 pounds lighter to improve fuel efficiency, relying on customers’ acceptance that the metal will prove every bit as durable as steel. Ford is sailing into uncharted waters with regard to the manufacturing process, since no automaker has ever fabricated aluminum vehicle bodies at high speed.

Collision shops and dealerships have had to buy new tools and undergo training to gain expertise in repairing aluminum.

Ford so far hasn’t released fuel efficiency figures, which means that the potential savings are unclear. If the numbers are dramatic, they could attract buyers – especially those who use pickups for commercial purposes – providing an advantage for Ford over Fiat Chrysler’s Ram pickups or Chevrolet and GMC models from General Motors.

For the rest of the story, go to Fortune.com.

MONEY Autos

7 Cars That Save on Gas in a Way You Won’t Believe

2013 Ford Fusion
Ford began offering auto stop-start technology as an option with the 2013 Fusion. Ford—Wieck

New research shows that funky, futuristic auto stop-start technology is a proven money saver on gas. It's available right now only in a tiny fraction of cars, but that's going to change soon.

Over the years, one urban fuel-efficiency myth has been pervasive—that you’ll save gas by letting your car idle rather than shutting the engine off when, say, waiting at the curb for someone running into a store. Popular Mechanics, AAA, and others have busted this myth, pointing out that a vehicle gets negative miles per gallon while idle. The consensus advice now is that if you car is stopped for more than a minute, the smart move is to turn the engine off.

The arrival of auto stop-start, a technology most often seen in hybrids, does this work for you, and not only if you’re idle for minute or more. As the name suggests, the tech shuts off the vehicle’s engine automatically when the car comes to a stop—at a red light, say—and then starts it again in the jiffy when the driver takes a foot off the brake pedal.

The technology has slowly been spreading beyond hybrids to a few vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines, and new research from AAA indicates that this is a good thing. After testing several cars with the feature, researchers concluded that the tech is a no-brainer that saves drivers 5% to 7% on gas costs annually. A blurb from the press release explains a little more about what this means to us all:

“Up to seven percent improved fuel economy can mean a $215 annual fuel savings for Southern California consumers,” says Steve Mazor, the chief automotive engineer of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. “It also reduces the main greenhouse gas emitted from cars (CO2) by 5 to 7 percent in city driving.”

Navigant Research predicts that by 2022, 55 million cars sold annually will have stop-start technology, up from 8.8 million last year. Adoption is ahead of the curve in Europe, where gas prices are astronomical compared to much of the world: Roughly 45% of cars built in Europe already come with start-stop systems.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the stop-start feature remains an anomaly; only about 500,000 new cars sold in the U.S. in 2013 had the technology. Estimates call for that figure to shoot up to 7 million by 2022. But there’s no need to wait. The vehicles below already offer stop-start as an option or a standard feature in the U.S.:

BMW: Several BMWs have auto start-stop technology, but not all drivers are fans. “The stop-start system is just awful,” one Automotive News columnist wrote of his 2012 328i, describing the herky-jerky feeling of stepping off the brake and automatically restarting the engine as “balky” and “uncomfortable.” Drivers do have the option to turn the start-stop feature off if it’s proving to be too annoying.

Chevrolet Impala: The automaker has made stop-start technology standard on the 2015 Impala.

Chevrolet Malibu: Starting with the 2014 model year, Chevy made stop-start standard on the Malibu, which the automaker says has helped it boost fuel efficiency by 14% with city driving.

Ford Fusion: A couple of years ago, Ford introduced a stop-start system as a $295 option for the first time in the U.S. on a non-hybrid model. At the time, the automaker estimated that drivers would save $1,100 in gasoline costs over five years of driving by upgrading to stop-start. The 2015 Fusion is estimated to get an extra 3 mpg over the base model.

Ford F-150: Buyers who go for the 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine on the 2015 version of Ford’s best-selling pickup get a special auto stop-start feature that’s a little different than others out there. Like other systems, this one automatically shuts off the engine as a fuel saver when the vehicle is stopped, but not when the vehicle is towing something or when it’s in four-wheel drive. Without that feature, the tech could prove frustrating for pickup drivers who are hauling something in the rear or are inching along stop-and-go on bumpy or muddy terrain. During all other driving situations, “The engine restarts in milliseconds when the brake is released,” Ford promises.

Porsche: Among the Porsche models that come with auto start-stop, the new Panamera’s system is special in that the engine not only shuts off when the vehicle is at a full stop—but it also shuts off when the car is slowing down approaching a traffic light. While the engine goes quiet, climate control, audio systems, and other interior features remain powered by the battery. And if the battery doesn’t have enough juice for all the auxiliary equipment, the engine will simply turn back on.

Ram 1500: The 2013 model year Ram truck offered start-stop technology as an option, the first in the pickup category to do so. “This new system is just one of the advances that allow the 2013 RAM 1500 to offer up to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency than previous models,” the automaker stated.

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