DETROIT — The new car deals are still out there. As U.S. auto sales continue to recover from the recession, automakers aren't discounting like they used to, and that's made deals hard to come by. Plus, the Detroit Three got rid of excess factories during the downturn, and in most cases they don't make more cars than they can sell anymore. That used to drive big price cuts.
Yet there are still some simple ways to get a great car at a relatively low price, with a little work. It's all supply and demand.
First, figure out what size and type of car you want and check what all the automakers offer. There are tons of websites that have this information, including kbb.com, edmunds.com and truecar.com.
Then, find the cars in that segment that aren't selling. The trade publication Automotive News and some websites such as cars.com list inventory levels and count the days' supply of each car — the number of days it would take at the current sales rate to sell everything on dealer lots. The latest numbers come out about a week after automakers announce sales figures at the start of each month.
Look for cars that you like with high days' supply. About 60 days is optimal to have the right selection of models, but many cars are way above that. Those are the ones that likely will have big discounts, either from the automaker or the dealership or both.
Dealers borrow money to finance their inventories, so they are eager to move them to unload the interest payments. Especially those that have been sitting for a long time. "As a vehicle sits there for 30, 60, 90, 100 days plus, every additional day that vehicle sits on their lot, they have to pay for it," says Alec Gutierrez, a senior market analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
Auto companies also don't want vehicles piling up and will offer low-interest financing, rebates and other goodies to help control inventory.
The average discount in the United States today is around 5 percent, excluding incentives, Gutierrez says. Generally, the smaller the car, the lower the discount. Sticker prices are lower and there's not as much markup on small cars.
But you can beat that by looking around. And sometimes there are great cars that sell for less than what competitors are charging. Here are examples for 2012 models, based on inventory figures from early August:
Mazda 3: The compact car has won rave reviews for its handling, styling, equipment and gas mileage, and its engine and transmission have proven reliable. It's been among Consumer Reports' top-rated small cars for years. But since Honda and Toyota have recovered from inventory problems caused by last year's tsunami in Japan, the Mazda 3 hasn't been selling well. Automotive News says dealers have 36,500 in stock for a 97-day supply. Because of that, there's an average 8.6 percent discount at dealers, about $1,500 on the 3i sedans, which start around $17,640 including delivery fee, according to Kelley Blue Book. There's also zero percent financing and good lease deals. Kelley Blue Book says you should be able to get a base model for $16,123.
Fiat 500: The stylish Italian subcompact also isn't selling well, even though it looks cool and is fun to drive. Dealers have 14,300 on hand for a 93-day supply of the hatchbacks. Kelley Blue Book says there's an average 5.2 percent discount on the 500 of about $849. There's also a $500 cash incentive, no-interest financing and nice lease prices, too. KBB says a two-door hatchback starts around $16,200, but you should be able to get one for as low as $14,851.
Acura RL: The flagship big sedan from Honda's luxury brand isn't selling that well, either. Automotive News says dealers have a 120-day supply on hand. Gutierrez says it's always been a phenomenal car with decent gas mileage for its size, but it's pricey compared to the competition, namely the BMW 5 series. With discounts, you could get a nice, reliable luxury car for less. The RL starts at about $49,000, but there's a 7.6 percent average discount of $3,751. Acura is offering 1.9 percent financing. Kelley Blue Book says you should be able to get one for $45,344.
Lincoln MKZ: Based on the underpinnings of Ford's acclaimed Fusion, Lincoln's midsize luxury car isn't selling well, yet it comes with a lot of goodies for the price. Compared with the competition (BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4) it's cheaper after the discounts. Its design also is getting old, and it doesn't have the luxury panache of the other brands, but it's a good car, Gutierrez says. Lincoln dealers have 11,300 in stock for an 89-day supply. A four-door sedan starts around $35,630, but Kelley Blue Book says dealer discounts average around $2,200, or 6.2 percent. Then there's zero-percent financing or cash of up to $4,500. With the cash, the price drops to around $28,900.