These are strange days for car dealers and consumers alike. On the one hand, a punishing economic climate has caused automakers to do away with incentives such as cash back and rock-bottom financing that drove crowds into showrooms for the past few years. On the other, buyers are showing that if a car is on their personal wish list, they’re willing to pay extra; in some cases, thousands of dollars extra.
Those two factors are instrumental in these two groups of five cars: The first of which are less in-demand vehicles priced well above what people are willing to pay, and the second of which have consumers running for their checkbooks even when that means paying more than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP).
“The month of May was a perfect example of what’s going on,” says Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at analyst firm TrueCar.com. “It was a very slow month, with (U.S.) sales falling 3.7% to just over a million units. But at the same time, the average transaction price per car was at an all-time high of $29,900. People are still buying, and when they do they tend to go for smaller but highly contented and desirable cars.”
Toprak says that many buyers are downsizing out of large, well-appointed vehicles “but are insisting that the luxury and safety features they were used to in those cars be retained.” That often translates to heavily optioned cars that boost dealer profits, and aptly describes the five Asian-made cars that make up our list of under-priced cars.
But dealers with hot commodities aren’t the only winners in today’s climate. “Anyone who’s in the market for a large truck or SUV that isn’t that great on mileage is going to do very well,” says Toprak, neatly summarizing the following five vehicles — four American and one Japanese — that are overpriced in the face of slow demand:
1. Chevrolet Impala
Currently in its ninth generation, this legendary American nameplate isn’t moving consumers the way it did when it debuted in 1958 — as a two-door coupe with racy Corvette styling cues. These days, the rather bland-looking Impala is, for better or worse, most often seen in its police cruiser livery.
Base MSRP: $24,495
Average market value: $19,224
2. Ford Ranger
Despite decent gas mileage for a truck (22/27 mpg city/highway) pickup shoppers just aren’t willing to pay full sticker for the Ranger. According to Vincentric's raw data, which analyzes vehicles by trim level, five of the 16 vehicles on the list with the worst MSRP-to-market-value ratio are some form of the Ford Ranger.
Base MSRP: $19,075
Average market value: $15,430
3. Chevrolet Colorado
Four doors and interior space rivaling some small sedans (the LT trim is available with six-passenger seating, thanks to an optional front bench) isn’t enough to entice buyers into a large and capable 4WD truck. Part of the problem may be due to the fact that the Colorado rated "Poor" in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's side impact crash test in 2010.
Base MSRP: $20,650
Average market value: $16,960
4. Chevrolet HHR
The demise of Chrysler's PT Cruiser certainly didn't hurt Chevy's sales. Although the four-door and vaguely hot-rodded version of the HHR (which stands for Heritage High Roof) still draws a cult-like following, that's not the case for its paneled cousin, which faces stiff competition in the form of the new Ford Transit Connect.
Base MSRP (LS two-door panel model): $19,030
Average market price: $15,624
5. Mitsubishi Endeavor
Although the Endeavor is a capable mid-size SUV, its ho-hum gas mileage (15 mpg in the city) may be part of what's keeping folks away. The other part is the Endeavor's competitive set, which includes the highly acclaimed Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-9, as well as the fun, functional, and downright funky new Nissan Juke.
Base MSRP (LS model): $28,299
Average market price: $23,266
Crunching the numbers that produced these two lists were the folks at Vincentric, a firm that measures and analyzes the real-world cost of vehicle ownership. The metric was a fairly straightforward comparison between suggested retail price and what, on average, was actually paid for a vehicle. “At the end of the day, the transaction price on any car is dependent on supply and demand,” says Vincentric president David Wurster. “Even if you are building a car that’s very popular, if you have too many it’s going to be hard to charge more.”
The natural disaster in Japan has meant that the supply of some cars made in that country is slowing as manufacturers await parts. But, says TrueCar’s Toprak, there’s “a big difference between actual shortages of product and perceived shortages, and I think we’re now realizing that the percentage of cars that really are being held up due to the earthquake isn’t that large.”
That means prices may start falling into line soon. In the meantime, here’s a look at some cars that may require patience and deep pockets to nab the keys. The top five vehicles most likely to be highly valued due to heavy demand:
1. Kia Optima
The Korean automaker is coming into its own, as this white-hot sedan's status proves. Although priced low the car scores high marks for both interior fit-and-finish as well as thoughtful exterior touches common to more expensive competitors, including body-colored side mirrors and chromed out door handles and exhaust tips. Factor in an exciting silhouette and competitors such as Toyota Camry and Chevy Malibu could look staid by comparison.
Base MSRP: $18,995
Average market price: $20,473
2. Nissan Versa
To be blunt, the Versa is a bit of a homely machine, but what it lacks in looks it clearly makes up for in sheer practicality and price. Although the car comes in a half-dozen trim levels (with either 1.4- or 1.8-liter four-cylinder engines) that top out at more than $17,000, this vehicle's average market price indicates that consumers view it as the ultimate in practical econo-boxes.
Base MSRP: $11,240
Average market price: $11,924
3. Toyota Prius
The machine that made small but frugal machines cool is more desirable than ever, and several new models, including a nifty plug-in version, will soon debut. What's more, the recent earthquake in Japan has made the current car scarcer than ever on dealer lots (recent reports indicate only a four-day supply of Prii), adding to the frenzy that's existed for this car since its worldwide debut in 2001.
Base MSRP: $21,650
Average market price: $22,901
4. Scion xD
Toyota's product planning wizards struck gold when they decided to build a luxury car and call it something else (Lexus) to create a new market for its automobiles. They repeated this trick downmarket with Scion, and the xB and tC have scored bulleyes with Gen Y buyers looking for reliable cars that scream hip. The comparatively low-key hatchback in the line-up - the xD - is along for this winning ride.
Base MSRP: $15,845
Average market price: $16,605
5. Scion xB
The xB arguably made Scion's name, a veritable four-wheeled box that in 2004 announced its practical intentions while at the same time somehow redefining what a cool car was all about. Seven years later the xB is taking cues from aftermarket customizers and now comes in a limited-release series featuring an impossible to ignore blue exterior that boasts dramatic front, rear and side skirts. But desirability alone doesn't account for the high prices being paid for both the xB and xD: the earthquake damaged plants that make both cars and production has been halted under further notice.
Base MSRP: $16,950
Average market price: $17,670