Kiplinger's New Cars & Trucks

Adding bells and whistles

Adding bells and whistles

Ted Orme

Do some research on options before you hit the showroom, so you don’t get carried away.

You’ve done your homework and made up your mind: The Sedan de Grande is the model for you. The question now is you want your vehicle equipped.

The equipment level you choose can mean the difference of many thousands of dollars and can substantially change the personality of the vehicle you buy: from everyday working stiff to wild and crazy guy. And if impulse and emotion get the better of common sense and restraint, you could end up with an installment-payment hangover or a long-term lease that busts your budget.

You would not be alone. The auto industry was not built on hard-nosed, rational consumers. Cars and trucks are purposely designed to stir your passions and feed your ego.

The trick is not to get carried away. Before you hit the showroom, do some research on the options you might be interested in. The Kelley Blue Book, available in most libraries, lists option prices, as do Internet sites such as Edmund’s (

Once you’re in the salesman’s grip, stick to your plan and your budget. The cost of options is negotiable, but most dealers begin negotiating on the total price of the vehicle including options, not piece by piece. You can level the playing field if you know in advance which equipment you really want and how much it costs.

With most new cars, your first choice is among several trim levels, or levels of standard equipment. The base Toyota Camry CE, for example, comes with a radio with cassette player and remote-controlled outside mirrors. Move up to the Camry LE and the list of standard features grows: air conditioning; cruise control; power locks, windows and mirrors; daytime running lights; and, on the V6, anti-lock brakes. The top-of-the-line XLE adds standard automatic transmission, power seats, a premium sound system, an anti-theft system, aluminum alloy wheels and heated outside mirrors.

Then there are individual options and option packages to consider. The “extra value” option package offered on the Camry CE, for example, includes air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors. Variable intermittent wipers and cruise control can be purchased as individual options.

The more features a car sports, the higher its value at resale or trade-in time. But you can quickly reach the point of diminishing returns (see the box on the previous page). A three-year-old Taurus retains about 70% of its retail value, for example, while most of its options return only a third to half of their original cost, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association’s Official Used Car Guide.

The popular options listed below are grouped as essential, desirable and frivolous, based on the comfort, convenience or safety they add to the vehicle.


Automatic transmission. Standard in most models.

Air conditioning. Highly desirable south of Alaska. But automatic and dual-control systems can run the price up.

Anti-lock brakes. Rapidly becoming standard because of growing demand.

Rear-window defroster. Essential for wagons, vans and sport-utility vehicles.

Power door locks. Particularly handy in four-doors and hatchbacks.

Power mirrors. Easy adjustability improves safety for all drivers.

Power steering. Essential on all but the tiniest of vehicles.


More-powerful engine. Improves performance, versatility and resale value but is usually packaged with other options.

Adjustable steering column. Great for odd-shaped, slouching or multiple drivers.

Speed control. Makes for easier trips and long commutes.

Power seat. More adjustable for big, small and multiple drivers, and particularly convenient with a memory feature.

Power windows. A popular package item, especially on sedans.

Alarm/theft-deterrent system. These range from simple alarms to sophisticated systems that disable the vehicle. But “deterrent” is the key word. “Theft-proof” has yet to be invented.

Traction control. Keeps drive wheels from spinning in slippery weather.

Limited-slip differential. Aids traction by sending power to both drive wheels, instead of allowing one drive wheel to spin.

Four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Very effective in snow and mud, and the only way to go off-road in pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Sunroof/moonroof. Whether you go for a simple removable sunroof or an electronic moonroof with a retractable shade, this option will give you an excellent return on its cost.

Premium sound system. CD players and high-power, multiple-speaker sound systems are increasingly popular and great fun, but they’re frivolous at the upper end.

Luggage rack. Added utility, fair price.

Frivolous (but fun)

Cellular phone. Essential to some people, frivolous for many, car phones may be obsolete by trade-in time due to advancing technology.

Trip computer/vehicle monitor. A fun gadget, but no added value at trade-in time.

Adjustable ride control. Most drivers will leave it on one setting.

Automatic level control. Okay if you carry heavy loads or turn corners like you’re driving the Indy 500; otherwise the value is hard to notice.

Leather upholstery. Nice, but a pure indulgence. Same for heated seats.

Metallic paint. High cost, low return.

Appearance items. Racing stripes, pin stripes, door edge guards, mud flaps and the like add profit for the dealer, not value for the buyer.

Options that pay you back

Will you recoup the cost of new-car options when you sell or trade the car down the road? in other words, can you realistically expect a used-car buyer to swoon because your car or truck has the latest bells and whistles? Don’t count on it, say the experts. Most of the dozens of optional features listed by automakers for their new cars and trucks have little impact on the used-car market.

“When you’re caught up in the excitement of buying a new car, everything sounds like a good idea;’ says Patricia Erney, managing editor of the National Automobile Dealer’s Association’s Official Used Car Guide, “Buying a new car is a very emotional experience. But a used-car purchase is more of a functional need. You’re just looking for transportation.”

“Options should be appropriate to the vehicle:’ says Charles Vogelheim, editor of the Kelley Blue Book Used-Car Guide. “Don’t buy thousands of dollars of stereo equipment or leather for an economy car.” The larger and more prestigious the vehicle, on the other hand, the more amenities used-car shoppers expect. A midsize car with minimal equipment will probably be less appealing on the used-car market. For midsize sedans such as the Ford Taurus and Toyota Camry, the NADA and Blue Book guides define basic equipment as air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, tilt steering wheel and stereo radio with cassette. The NADA guide trims $75 off the resale value of a three-year-old Taurus if it lacks power locks, and $125 if it lacks cruise control. The Blue Book deducts $125 if either feature is missing.

Here’s how some popular new-car options fare in the used-car world:

* Auto transmission. ‘Any and every car will be worth more with an automatic transmission, from Porsches to Mustangs and Camrys,” says Vogelheim. “What makes a car worth more is broad market appeal. There are far more people in the market for an automatic, so it will have greater appeal.”

CarMax, the used-car superstore, discounts used cars with stick shifts at least $400, even though “some people actually prefer a manual transmission” on small sport utes such as the Jeep Wrangler and sports cars such as the Mazda Miata, says Tom Folliard, vice-president of merchandising for CarMax.

* Air conditioning. Vehicles without air conditioning are also hit with penalties. CarMax will discount a vehicle without air around $1,000-roughly the cost of aftermarket installation. The NADA guide deducts $650 from the value of a three-year-old Toyota Camry without air conditioning. The Blue Book pegs the difference at $525.

* Power steering. Like automatic transmission and air conditioning, power steering is installed on so many cars and trucks today that most consumers–and used-car appraisers–expect to see it on all vehicles. (Power steering is standard on all new vehicles except a few bargain-priced subcompacts and small pickups,)

* Special wheels. “The bigger the wheels the better:’ says Vogelheim. If 14-inch-diameter wheels are standard, optional 15- or 16inch wheels give the vehicle a more muscular stance and enhance its curb appeal. Seventeen-inch wheels and tires were a $3B0 option on the 1996 Ford Mustang GT, and today they’re worth $325, according to the Blue Book.

But don’t go overboard. “You could spend $4,000 on a set of highly styled wheels, but the next person may not like them,” Vogelheim warns.

* Aerodynamic features. Front air dams, side skirts and rear spoilers, which give a car a racier appearance, don’t add value to a used oar. “Half the people think they’re ugly” says Vogelheim.

* CD players. A CD player adds about $200 to a car’s resale value, but a big outlay for optional stereo equipment usually yields a small return on investment. For example, a JBL sound system with CD player that listed for $1,095 on a 1996 Taurus now is worth $350 to $375.

* T-tops. These removable roof panels have a higher resale value than sunroofs (either the manual pop-up or power versions). But buyers expect sunroofs on some luxury brands, such as BMW and Lexus says Folliard.

* More-powerful engines. With the last fuel crisis a distant memory, more-powerful engines are in greater demand than high fuel economy Owners of sport utility vehicles and pickups especially appreciate extra muscle when hauling heavy loads, but Vogelheim says horsepower is a selling point for cars, too.

* Leather upholstery. On a midpriced family car, leather may not add much value. But it is a must on luxury brands such as Lexus and Cadillac and upscale executive cars such as Buicks and Mercurys, Vogelheim says. The Blue Book knocks $475 off the value of a three-year-old Lexus ES 300 if it has cloth seats. But leather “doesn’t always age gracefully” in hot, dry areas, Vogelheim warns, and faded leather can reduce a vehicle’s value instead of enhancing it.

* Extra seats. Minivans and some sport utility vehicles are available with optional third seats that increase passenger capacity :0 seven or eight. The additional seat is a plus in the’ used-car market “Get it with the maximum amount of seating that is offered Vogelheim says. “More people will be interested if it has the third seat.”

* Traction control. This is a feature many buyers in northern states look for, according to Vogelheim.

The color of money

Choosing a popular color doesn’t cost extra when you buy a new car or truck, but it can pay dividends at trade-in time.

“You can ask more for a white car with a tan leather interior than for a brown car with a brown interior,” says Tom Folliard, vice-president of merchandising for CarMax, a used-car superstore.

The most popular colors at Carmax are white, black, red, dark green and dark blue. The slowest-moving colors are brown, pale blue and other pastels.

White “always does well,” agrees Charles Vogelheim, editor of the Kelley Blue Book Used Car Guide. Black is popular everywhere except the Southwest (where dark colors don’t sell well), and silver is in vogue. Some beige and champagne tones are selling well, Vogelheim notes, but brown is traditionally a weak color.

Bright colors generally sell best on smaller cars. Yellow is the hot hue for the New Volkwagen Beetle, for example. Yellow Beetles command as much as $2,000 more than other colors at used-car auctions.

Red is a traditional favorite for sports cars, but there are exceptions. Buyers of the Mazda Miata roadster tend to prefer black and green.

COPYRIGHT 1999 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

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