After a couple of dicey years, the U.S. car market is growing again, with about 14.5 million cars going out the door in 2012. Suddenly, everyone seems to be doing well. But the law of the jungle still holds that any car sold by Chevy is one that's not sold by Ford and vice versa, so car companies are constantly scheming for a bigger share of the pie – a boon for buyers because vicious competition begets lots of cool choices.
It wasn't long ago that your major car-buying decision amounted to whether to get a big engine or a small one. Now an everyday VW Jetta offers five different engines, including a hybrid and a diesel. There are at least 10 different Mustangs (more if you count variants, like the GT500 Super Snake), and Porsche currently sells the 911 in 12 flavors. What bounty! Now how the hell do we make sense of it all? I have a few ideas, some of them learned the hard way.
Make platform-sharing work for you.
Which brings me to my next point. You don't have to hold a business degree to understand the benefits of platform sharing: Spin a bunch of vehicles out of one basic set of ingredients, and you offer a little something for everyone. And if you know what's under the skin, you can work a better deal by, say, pondering a luxury car's humbly branded mass-market cousin. If you dig the new Porsche Cayenne diesel, you might be able to wangle a better deal by making it clear that you could walk across the street to the Volkswagen dealership and buy the Touareg Diesel. Likewise, you could cross-shop Lincoln and Ford (MKZ or Fusion), Buick and Chevy (Enclave or Traverse), or Nissan and Infiniti (Pathfinder or JX35). Car companies are generally adept at building distinctive-looking cars off the same platform, but the guts – and thus the driving experience – are hard points that aren't very negotiable. Blindfolded, could you tell a Toyota Avalon from a Lexus ES350? Someone should go out on the Bonneville Salt Flats and answer that for me.
Given the variety of options, there are plenty of ways to go awry. But this is the golden age of the automobile, a time when a V-6 Honda Accord will smoke the Ferraris of your dad's generation. So if you do your homework and use your choices to your advantage, there's a good chance you'll end up with the best car you've ever owned.