Cash for Clunkers officially ends today, so would you like to learn another way to save a pile of money on a brand new car? A method that you can do any time without Uncle Sam's help? Yes? Ok, let's get started.
I'm talking about buying a "dark horse car," a term coined by auto website Edmunds.com. These are vehicles that are similar to the most popular models but less well known. For example, Edmunds says the Nissan Altima is similar in features and quality to the Toyota Camry, but less expensive because it doesn't have the famous name. Edmunds says "dark horses" can be as much as twenty percent less expensive.
There are lots of dark horse cars. Here's a list of popular models and their dark horse counterparts to get you started thinking this way.
Popular Model Dark Horse Alternative
Honda Odyssey Ford Flex
Lexus GS Hyundai Genesis
Toyota Camry Chevy Malibu
Chevy Tahoe Buick Enclave
Dodge Caravan Kia Sedona
Honda Civic Mazda 3
Toyota Prius Honda Insight
Honda Fit Suzuki SX4
BMW 5 Series Cadillac CTS
Chevrolet Silverado Dodge Ram
Edmunds.com Road Test Editor Brian Moody compiled this list for me. "People tend to pick cars that are well known," Moody said. "Many shoppers simply ask a friend or relative for advice and that only reinforces that the most popular cars are the most popular simply because they are popular." Moody says how much a manufacturer spends on advertising can also be a factor, giving certain vehicles high name recognition. He also points out the most popular models "may be the most generic – the ones with mass appeal."
So want to be a money-saving individualist? Consider a dark horse car! Here's what Moody had to say about the examples he selected:
"Many people need a minivan but just don't want to be seen in one," Moody said. "For those people, the Ford Flex is excellent. It's comfortable, spacious and adds some much needed style to the family hauler segment."
Moody on Hyundai: "Anyone who sees Hyundai as just a budget friendly brand hasn't been paying attention. The Genesis comes with a V6 or V8 engine and is just as nice inside as any Lexus."
The Toyota Camry is always one of the top two or three sellers in U.S., but Moody wonders what all the fuss is about. "The Malibu, by comparison, looks and feels more elegant and even more stylish," Moody says. "Features like OnStar and Satellite radio are standard even on reasonably priced mid-level versions."
Moody points out many people buy more SUV than they need. He says the Chevy Tahoe is great for towing or off-roading, but for many people a car-like SUV such as the Buick Enclave is more practical. "It has better highway manners and a roomier interior," Moody says.
Many people think the Toyota Prius was the first hybrid vehicle, but actually the Honda Insight was first. It disappeared for awhile but now it is back with a lower base price than the Prius. If you want a hybrid, it's particularly helpful to shop for dark horse cars because there are waiting lists for the most popular hybrids and demand for them is so high that prices are inflated.
"The interior is surprisingly upscale on EX models and for under $30,000 dual power sliding side doors are standard as are stability control and traction control," Moody said.
Older generations strived to afford a Cadillac and Moody says newer car buyers should take a look too. He says Cadillac is building some "terrific cars." And, as you probably know, Cadillacs are less expensive than most European luxury sedans.
Moody likes the new Dodge Ram as an alternative to the popular Chevy Silverado because its suspension and interior can feel more like a car than a truck.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that you can also buy a used dark horse and save even more money. Remember, cars depreciate an average of 45% in the first three years, so a three-year-old vehicle can be a great value.
I checked online and found a 2008 Nissan Altima for $24,995. A Toyota Camry with almost identical mileage was $31,809 --21% more. So, if you want to cut costs, it might be smart to put your money on a dark horse.