MONEY Autos

Why I Won’t Ditch My 20-Year-Old Car

Alan Ripp's Toyota Camry station wagon
The author's 1995 Toyota Camry. You can't blame him for not wanting to get rid of a car with this much personality. Allan Ripp

A PR pro, who loves cars and who can surely afford something fancier and more modern, reflects why he's sticking with his 1995 Camry station wagon.

I drive a 1995 Toyota Camry station wagon, forest green with 131,000 miles. It struggles up hills with its 4-cylinder engine, the air conditioning has one sub-zero setting, and the rear cargo door drops onto your back while you’re pulling out groceries.

After every summer, when I drive less and dealers pump up their autumn sales pitches, I resolve to buy a new car, urged on by my wife, Sarah, who claims our Camry is way past its prime and a hazard on the road. My son, preparing for his learner’s permit, reels off models worthy of replacing our aging wonder, perhaps a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander.

I realize cars have vastly improved in the past two decades. Computerized “collision mitigation” aids prevent drivers from drifting into oncoming lanes or stopping short at a red light. Dashboard video monitors expand rearview vision. Climate control adjusts for front-and-back temperatures. Vehicle entertainment delivers concert-hall quality and smartphone connectivity. Seats are heated and provide lumbar support. The Honda Odyssey minivan has a built-in vacuum cleaner, while the 2015 Hyundai Equus offers personal concierge service, bringing the mechanic to your doorstep.

And there’s more to come. General Motors plans to roll out its first “hands-free” cars in 2016, with Wi Fi-enabled vehicle-to-vehicle communications to prevent smash-ups. GM’s “super cruise” control will keep freeway drivers in their proper lane – an automatic pilot for the road.

Yet as sensible as it seems to retire my Camry and trade up to the 21st century, I can’t quite make the switch. Despite its age, our car needs little maintenance beyond a biannual check-up. And it’s never been subject to a recall. The dealer who sold it to us said the Camry could easily log 250,000 miles – enough for a trip to the moon (roughly 240,000 miles) with a little to spare. If that’s true, at my current pace I could keep the Camry until around 2030, by which time I could probably trade it in for a flying car that actually would take me to the moon.

Strange that I’d be resistant to an upgrade. As a kid, I was obsessed with new car models and could spot the difference between a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville and a ’65, based on the contour of the back-door hump. I conned my parents into subscribing to National Geographic, not for the photos of the bare-breasted Watusi women but so I could stare at the luxury car ads – the Cadillac Seville, Buick Riviera, Ford Thunderbird (with the disappearing headlamps) and the Lincoln Continental, whose back door opened out like a handsome carriage.

Well into the 1960s, my father drove a used 1952 pea green Oldsmobile, which spurred my auto-erotic lust for something more contemporary. My sister refused to allow him to carpool her to dancing school. He didn’t like the windows open, and I would nearly retch when he turned on the heat. Luckily, my mom brought home a turquoise 1968 Chevy Caprice station wagon with skylight window slits over the back seats. When I went to college she broke the family’s image barrier and got an orange Karmann-Ghia – a snappy little thing, but made of such tissue-thin metal that bottle caps from a six-pack of Tab left an imprint on the front-hood trunk.

My first car was a two-door Toyota Corolla purchased in 1979 for $2,500 when I was living in Baltimore. I was happy to sell it upon moving back to New York a year later, where I remained blissfully carless for nearly a decade; on occasions when Sarah and I wanted a getaway, my in-laws lent us their wood-paneled Ford County Squire wagon, which handled like an 18-wheeler.

By 1989, going stir-crazy in a chopped-up apartment with two young children, we bought a weekend house, and a car was a sudden necessity. My father-in-law secured a sporty, 1985 metallic blue Saab 900 for $4,000; it came with a leather-bound maintenance log. We’ll never know if it could have been our 20-year car. Driving the Saab to the garage one spring evening in 1995, Sarah had a run-in with a dumpster that creased the passenger side, and we were forced to go for something new.

The Camry wagon fit all of our checklist items, including dual-side airbags. I had my heart set on a cobalt blue model with a moon roof, but settled for what was on the lot – a dark green wagon sans retractable roof for $23,000. For about a week I went nuts when even a grain of sand touched the seat. Now, the interior is embedded with sand, along with newspapers, tennis balls, umbrellas, CDs, quilts, loose change, seltzer bottles, dog treats, and other remnants of 20 years’ occupancy.

My reluctance to reset the odometer, so to speak, is evidently not so unusual. Kelley Blue Book, the automotive research bible, reports the average car on the road today is 11.5 years old, compared with 9 years in 2007. Many drivers are extending the life of their ride, including those choosing to own rather than lease, and those who’ve learned the downside of zero-percent APR financing.

But plenty of people are still buying. New car sales surged to 15.6 million in 2013, the highest level since before the recession. Edmunds.com reported that Americans bought 1.4 million light vehicles this past July alone, a 10% jump from a year earlier.

Part of me feels that Americans have an economic duty to rev up new car purchases. Imagine the grinding multiplier effect if everyone held on to the same car for 20 years – Cuba and Venezuela come to mind. Motor vehicle sales contribute significantly less to the economy than 30 years ago, now accounting for 2.8% of GDP. But car buying still plays a huge part in driving consumer spending. By staying on the sidelines, I may be stalling national prosperity.

On the other hand, my thriftiness also produces a social benefit, in terms of fuel efficiency, household savings, and a lower carbon footprint. Keeping a reliable, fully amortized product seems the sustainable, fiscally responsible choice.

In fact, my reasons for keeping our Camry are more pedestrian. For one, I can’t stand that manufacturers and dealers spent an estimated $33 billion on automotive ads in 2013. In my view, every penny was an absolute waste. There is nothing produced today to compare with the brilliant Volkswagen Beetle spots created by Doyle Dane Bernbach 50 years ago, or with the arresting image of a powder-blue ’64 Lincoln resting at an uptown intersection, overlooking an infinite row of green stoplights stretching down Park Avenue. I am immune to the current tide of sale-a-brations, racetrack test drives, Lexuses wrapped in Christmas bows, and Dennis Leary voice-overs.

I also admit I’m emotionally attached to our car. Unlike most other things I depend on – laptop, smart phone, Internet connection, the TV remote, my children – the Camry always performs as it should and never acts out. It’s age and history of coming through are precisely why I trust it for any maneuver – like, when I’m zipping up Amsterdam Avenue and a halting cab forces me to veer right toward the bike messenger and I’m not sure I have enough room to slip back into the lane ahead of that UPS truck but what the heck, let’s hold our breath and give it a try. No collision-mitigation system could ever pull off that move the way our car does every time.

Twenty years of ownership shows itself another way. Near our weekend house is a lovely freshwater lake, where the town issues its annual beach passes – I’m among the first to arrive on Memorial Day weekend for ours. Most people slap the current sticker on their bumper over last year’s, though I got into the pattern of placing them side by side, until eventually, the whole left front of our car became filled with stickers – blue, orange, red, black, yellow, green, purple. Seeing them crammed together is a snapshot reminder that summer returns every year, and here is the chariot that’s taken us there and back.

This past Labor Day weekend, as I stood admiring our sticker mosaic before we headed back to the city, Sarah proposed I replace the fender, mount our collection someplace and put the car out to Camry pasture. “It’s had a good run, let’s not press our luck,” she said. I mumbled some form of consent, while a Ralph Kramden-like voice inside was thinking, To the moon! After all, we only have 107,000 miles to go.

Allan Ripp is a former journalist who now owns a press relations firm in New York City.

TIME Food & Drink

Kraft Recalls American Singles Cheese Slices

Beef to Tomato Send July 4 Food Cost to Record
Packages of Kraft Foods Group Inc. sliced American cheese sit on display for sale in a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, July 2, 2014. Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images

No customer illness has been reported

Kraft Foods Group voluntarily recalled nearly 8,000 cases of its American Singles cheese Friday because a supplier “did not store an ingredient used in this product in accordance with Kraft’s temperature standards,” according to a Kraft Foods press release. At total of 7,691 cases of the pasteurized cheese product have been recalled.

“Consumers who purchased any of these products should not eat them,” says the release, which advises people to return the slices to the store where they bought them. Kraft says it has no reports of sick customers and described the recall as a “precaution” to avoid premature spoiled food and related illness. All affected products have a “Best When Used By” date of either February 20, 2015 or February 21, 2015.

The cheese was produced at the company’s Springfield, MO manufacturing plant.

MONEY Autos

WATCH: Americans Still Love Buying SUVs

GM lost billions of dollars due to recalled vehicles, but sales are actually up thanks largely to SUVs.

TIME General Motors

GM’s Mary Barra Back in the Hot Seat on Capitol Hill

GM CEO Mary Barra Testifies At House Hearing On Ignition Switch Recall
General Motors CEO Mary Barra (L), and Anton Valukas, head of GM's internal recall investigation, field questions while testifying during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

"It is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly," General Motors CEO told lawmakers at a hearing over defective engine parts

General Motors CEO Mary Barra was grilled by lawmakers over a lethal defect in vehicle ignition switches once again Wednesday, expressing regret for lax oversight, while promising skeptical lawmakers that quality controls had improved across the company.

Lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations criticized GM managers for fostering a “culture of secrecy” that allowed knowledge of defective engine parts to remain concealed within the company for more than a decade.

Faults in the ignition switches have been linked to 56 accidents in which car engines and air bags suddenly switched off while the car was in motion. GM has admitted faulty switches played a role in 13 deaths, though advocates have claimed more lost their lives.

Barra, who had already appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April, called the findings of an internal investigation into the ignition switch defects “brutally tough and deeply troubling.”

“For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company, it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly,” Barra said in her opening statement to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. She said the company has since fired 15 employees and beefed up its staff of safety investigators.

Skeptical lawmakers pressed Barra on the extent of the fixes. “You mentioned 15 were fired,” Rep. Timothy Murphy (R-Penn.) said to Barra, “99.999 percent, if my math is right, of the people [still at GM] are the same … If you haven’t changed the people, how do you change the culture?”

The questioning narrowed in on the role of senior managers, including Barra, who claimed to have no knowledge of the faulty switches until 2014. “That the most senior GM executives may not have known about a defect that caused more than a dozen deaths is frankly alarming and does not absolve them of responsibility for this tragedy,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). The company’s “culture of secrecy” must be changed, she added.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about GM’s successive waves of recalls. GM has issued 44 recalls for 20 million vehicles worldwide. GM says defects related to more recent recall notices have not been linked to any known deaths or injuries. Nonetheless, Rep. Murphy called the most recent call, on Monday, “hauntingly similar to the Cobalt ignition switch recall.”

Barra said GM was currently preparing a compensation fund for victims families that would begin processing claims by Aug. 1st. “I want this terrible experience permanently etched in our collective memories,” Barra said.

TIME Gadgets

After Recall, Nest Smoke Alarm Is Back and Discounted

Nest

Nest’s followup to its nicely designed smart thermostat was a smart smoke detector called Protect (see our original coverage here).

One of the features of Protect — aside from being Internet-connected and able to send alerts to your smartphone — was a trick that let you wave your hand underneath it to silence it.

The thought was that people have a tendency to accidentally set off their smoke alarms while cooking, and getting the alarms to pipe down is more cumbersome than it should be.

However, the company found that the feature might have been at risk of malfunctioning, which in certain cases could have silenced the alarm when it was supposed to be making noise. So in early April — a few months after Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion — nearly half a million Nest smoke detectors were recalled; the wave-to-dismiss feature was able to be deactivated via a software update as well, making physically sending the smoke detector back to Nest unnecessary.

Now, the Nest Protect is back on the market, with the wave-to-dismiss feature disabled altogether. The company had originally alluded to trying to fix it via a future software update, so we’ll see if and when that comes to fruition. The price of the Nest Protect has also dropped from $130 down to $99 as well.

[New York Times]

MONEY stocks

Recalls Aren’t General Motors’ Only Problem

2014 Chevrolet Cruze
Strong sales for the fuel-efficient Chevy Cruze helped drive General Motors sales in May. courtesy of General Motors

GM's strong May sales show consumers are looking beyond the automaker's recent quality issues. Unfortunately, the company faces other challenges.

So much for the specter of recalls.

In May, car buyers in the U.S. largely ignored the bad news surrounding General Motors and flocked to GM dealerships. In a month in which the nation’s largest automaker announced yet another series of recalls — bringing GM’s total number of recalled vehicles this year to more than 11 million — the automaker reported its best monthly sales since the global financial crisis struck in 2008.

GM said it delivered 284,694 vehicles in the U.S. last month, marking a 13 percent rise from May 2013’s tally. The better-than-expected results were driven in large part by a strong month for GM’s Chevrolet division, where sales jumped 14%, led by strong demand for the Chevy Cruze, which appeals to younger buyers. As for Buick, GM’s more upscale line saw its best May results in nearly a decade.

Analysts had been expecting good results, but not this good. For instance, Edmunds.com, citing favorable credit conditions that were making it easier for consumers to buy and lease new cars, forecast that GM sales would reach nearly 270,000 in May.

This proved to be a good test for CEO Mary Barra. When General Motors named Barra the first female CEO of a major automaker late last year, the C-suite shift was supposed to herald “the new GM,” a reinvented titan with improving finances and better cars. Recently, though, it was another switch — a malfunctioning part in ignitions in some older-model vehicles — that dominated the headlines and kept reminding the public of the old GM.

Tuesday’s announcement indicates Barra & Co. have gotten consumers to look past the bad headlines.

But Barra faces other challenges:

The company is still losing market share.

Last year, GM’s share of total U.S. auto sales slipped to 16.9%, down from the 17.5% share it enjoyed in 2012. Meanwhile, rival Ford — which also had a good May, selling 254,084 vehicles, up 3% from a year ago — saw its share rise from 15.2% to 15.7%.

It’s not because GM isn’t trying.

As a result of its bankruptcy five years ago, GM shed some struggling brands, such as Hummer and Saturn. The move allowed GM to trim the number of platforms on which the company’s vehicles are built, and that in turn made it easier and cheaper to upgrade the firm’s entire line. Starting last year, GM redesigned 80% of its vehicles, resulting in cars and trucks that have “never been better in the history of the company,” says Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer.

Unfortunately, GM’s chief rival is about to go on an upgrade spree. Ford is set to launch the first aluminum-frame truck, which significantly improves fuel efficiency.

And critics say GM priced some newer models, such as the Cadillac ELR, too high to gain market share.

GM still lacks buzz.

There’s one area where GM is selling at a big discount: its stock.

F Chart

F data by YCharts

The company’s shares trade at a modest price/earnings ratio compared to its peers, and GM’s P/E ratio — unlike Ford’s — hasn’t really lifted recently.

GM PE Ratio (Forward) Chart

GM PE Ratio (Forward) data by YCharts

GM’s low valuation may seem appealing at first, but the stock’s P/E ratio has barely budged in the past year despite the company’s refreshed domestic vehicle lineup — a sign that investors may lack faith in the turnaround.

Right now, Europe is still emerging from recession. And while China offers opportunity, GM sales there pale in comparison to the domestic market. Barrack Yard Investors portfolio manager Marty LeClerc says that puts the onus for General Motors’ success squarely on the company’s new U.S. line.

If today’s numbers are any indication, investors can feel hopeful the U.S. line is making waves. Unless Ford’s upcoming new truck has consumers thinking GM is old again.

TIME Technologizer

Nest’s Smoke Detector ‘Recall’ Doesn’t Mean You Need to Send Yours Back

Nest Smoke Detector
Nest Labs

A problem disclosed in early April is now the subject of an official bulletin from the Consumer Product Safety Commission

Nest Labs–a startup recently bought by Google which brings high style and web smarts to mundane household devices–is recalling Nest Protect, a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, over concerns that its alarm might fail to go off in emergency situations. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 440,000 Nest Protect units are affected by the problem.

Wednesday’s recall news, though important, isn’t quite as big a deal as it sounds like: It’s more of a formality, as the CPSC is officially alerting consumers to measures which Nest took on its own back on April 3. And the “recall” doesn’t involve Nest owners having to send the detectors back for repair; they were designed all along to update their own software over Wi-Fi, a feature which makes this unexpected development less of a disaster.

The risk relates to one of the detector’s most clever features, “wave to dismiss.” If the alarm goes off because of something which isn’t actually dangerous–like a little smoke wafting from your oven as you cook dinner–you don’t need to frantically whip a towel through the air or stand on a chair to turn it off. Instead, you can merely wave your hand and a motion detector inside Nest Protect will shut off the alarm.

Here’s the rub: The company concluded that there was a chance that the feature might malfunction, causing Nest Protect to stay silent in a situation that really is dangerous. There are no known examples of any harm coming to people or property because of the problem, but Nest decided to issue a software update which temporarily disabled the feature while it worked on a permanent fix.

On April 3, Nest disclosed the discovery of the potential hazard, issued the software update which shut off wave-to-dismiss, halted sales of new units and offered a refund to any Nest Protect owner who was unable or unwilling to perform the update.

Why the delay before the CPSC’s recall notice? The agency had its own technicians examine Nest’s solution for the issue and approve it–a process which took a few weeks. It considers the formal notification it published today to be a recall, even though the resolution involves the smoke detector self-installing the update. (And as before, consumers can also return the unit for a refund.)

Nest, meanwhile, says it’s finishing a new version of “wave-to-dismiss” which will bring back the feature while eliminating the malfunction. It’ll be part of another software update which the company plans to push out in the next few weeks, whereupon it will also resume sales of Nest Protect.

MORE: How a Thermostat Can Save the World

TIME Automakers

GM Recalls Another 2.7 Million Vehicles

The car giant is recalling about 2.7 million vehicles in the U.S. for issues like a hydraulic brake booster problem, hoping to raise flags early this time, amid a federal investigation into why it waited more than a decade to recall vehicles with a deadly ignition switch defect

General Motors said Thursday it’s recalling about 2.7 million additional vehicles in the U.S., including more than 140,000 cars suffering from brake problems.

Among GM’s newly-recalled vehicles is the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, which has a hydraulic brake booster problem that can make stopping the vehicle more difficult. The company said it was aware of four crashes, but no injuries, that may have been related to the brake issue.

The fresh recalls come as GM is already grappling with the recent recall of 2.59 million cars over defective ignition switches. GM faces a federal recall over its decade-long delay to address the ignition switch problem, which has been linked to at least 13 deaths.

“These are examples of our focus to surface issues quickly and promptly take necessary actions in the best interest of our customers,” Jeff Boyer, vice president of GM Global Vehicle Safety, said in a statement regarding the new recalls.

The largest of the recalls announced Thursday involves break lamp wiring corrosion affecting 2.4 million previous generation cars. GM said the defect could result in brake lamp failures as well as disable cruise control, traction control, electronic stability control and panic braking assist operations where applicable.

GM said it was aware of two injuries and 13 crashes as a result of the brake lamp defect as well as several hundred complaints. The recall related to the brake lamps involves the 2004-2012 Chevrolet Malibu, 2004-2007 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, 2005-2010 Pontiac G6 and 2007-2010 Saturn Aura. The automaker also said it issued a technical service bulletin about the problem in 2008.

In a third recall, GM said that 477 recently built full-size trucks may have defective tie-rods — part of the vehicles’ steering system — that could separate and cause a crash. The company said it has already fixed the problem on the assembly line and is now warning dealers and owners of vehicles that have already been sent to market.

GM said last month it took a $1.3 billion hit after it recalled 7 million vehicles worldwide, including cars with the defective ignition switch. GM said Thursday it expects the latest recalls to cost the company another $200 million.

TIME Companies

GM’s Plan to Prevent Another Recall Debacle

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, speaks at the New York International Auto Show, on April 15, 2014 in New York City.
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, speaks at the New York International Auto Show, on April 15, 2014 in New York City. Mark Lennihan—AP

CEO Mary Barra has announced a new "global product integrity" unit to prevent future problems, though hasn't yet detailed how the group would operate, as the car giant faces criticism for its bungled handling of a massive recall for a defect linked to 13 deaths

General Motors has created a new “global product integrity” group in the wake of a major, widely criticized recall earlier this year, CEO Mary Barra announced at the New York International Auto Show on Tuesday. She did not provide details on how the unit would operate, but acknowledged that it should not take 1o years to address a known problem like the ignition-switch failures, which led to at least 13 deaths.

“We know the world is watching,” Barra said at the annual car show. “And we know we’ll be judged by our actions.”

MORE: Should Mary Barra be on the 2014 Time 100? Vote now.

GM recalled 2.6 million cars in February for an ignition-switch problem that was detected as early as 2004, CNNMoney reports. Barra, who became the company’s first female CEO in January, testified in front of congressional committees this month about the mishandled recall. She has also met with and apologized to some of the families of the drivers who died as a result of the flaw.

[CNNMoney]

 

TIME Vehicles

Toyota Is Recalling a Massive 6.39 Million Cars Globally

Women walk in front of Toyota Motor's logo at the company's showroom in Tokyo
The Japanese giant Toyota recalls several million cars world-wide © Toru Hanai—Reuters

The world's largest automaker is recalling 6.39 million vehicles through 27 models for defects like a sliding driver's seat or airbags that won't deploy, making for the second-largest recall in the company's history

Toyota, the world’s biggest auto-maker, is recalling 6.39 million vehicles world-wide because of various faults, it announced Wednesday.

The recall, which applies to 27 models in five different regions of the world, is the second-largest in the Japanese automaker’s history, Reuters reports.

“Toyota is not aware of any injuries or fatalities caused by this condition,” the company wrote in a statement about the recall in North America, where more than 1.3 million cars are being called back.

The faults include steering problems that could keep the airbag from deploying, an engine starter risk that could be a fire hazard and a driver’s seat defect that could cause the seat to slide forward in a crash.

The glitches were found in 27 different Toyota models, including RAV4, Corolla, Yaris, Matrix and Highlander, that have all been sold globally. Toyota issued a recall of 7.4 million cars in 2012 and a recall of 2.1 million vehicles earlier this year.

 

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