Thursday, June 4, 2009

New phone phishing scam on the rise

Police, banks warn consumers not to take the bait

By Seamus McAfee

Thousands of bank customers are being targeted by a new phishing scam where they are asked to enter their credit card information over the phone, police say.

In the scam, consumers are text messaged or robocalled (where the consumer is autodialed and given a recorded message), asking them to dial a phone number and then enter their credit card info. Messages may falsely claim, for example, that a consumer's account has been compromised and an account number and PIN is needed to secure it.

Phishing refers to a crime in which the scammer pretends to be a person or company in order to extrapolate confidential information. While most phishing incidents occur via e-mail or through computers, the latest scam shows phishing can also be attempted through phone calls.

Among the most targeted for the scam are bank customers in Tennessee and the Mid-Hudson Valley area of New York, among the institutions hit are the First Federal Savings Bank, the Federal Credit Union and F&M Bank, but the scam is nationwide and being reported as far away as Hawaii.

Fred Landiss, senior vice president and director of marketing at F&M, said in an interview with the Tennessean Web site that the bank reported an increase in phishing calls since December, but the frequency has picked up significantly. "We had a great feeling we had been educating the customers and public about phishing," Landiss said. "But about two weeks ago, they started back. I think it's a problem we are going to be dealing with for some time."

The Tennessean also reported that First Federal customers started receiving the calls since mid-May, while the Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union said its customers have been targeted since early May. Both companies claim that only a few customers released their information.. "We immediately shut their cards down and reissued them a new card, said Stewart Ramsey, president and CEO at the credit union. We caught it quick enough that there was nothing happening."

Earl Bradley, First Federal CEO, told the Tennessean while his customers were safe, the latest phishing attempt only illustrates a growing problem in the current economy. "A legitimate bank will never ask for information over the telephone," Bradley said. "They are preying on the unwary, uninformed customer they catch at a hard time."

Banks advise that if customers suspects a phishing attempt, they should hang up and call their bank or the phone number on the back of the credit or debit card to verify the call. If a customer accidentally provides a credit card number to the caller, bankers are asking to call the institution immediately to cancel the account.

'Free trial' offers can bring unwanted credit card charges


By Linda Childers

Log on to the Internet and prepare to be greeted with advertisements offering the latest energy booster, anti-aging cream, compact discs or other products as part of a "risk-free trial offer." If the ads sound too good to be true, it's because they often are."Free trial offers" can lead to unwanted credit card charges

"Most 'free' offers that you find on a Web site or social networking site are going to end up costing in one way or another," says Alison Southwick, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau (BBB). "Many of these offers fall under the category of 'negative option' marketing, a tactic where consumers' credit cards are charged for additional products when they fail to cancel after their 'free trial period' has expired."

Thousands of complaints
Southwick says that the BBB has received more than 3,500 complaints from consumers across the country who thought they were signing up for free trial-offers for items such as acai-berry weight loss products and information on how to work from home. "We have also received thousands of complaints from people who signed up for a free-trial offer of acai-berry weight-loss products and were charged month after month," Southwick says.

In May, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it would conduct a review of its "negative-option" rules, a process that could lead to tougher regulations on the practice.

While negative-option marketing isn't considered illegal, it is misleading. When consumers respond to an ad claiming they can receive a free 30-day supply of a product for a nominal shipping fee of $5.95, they often mistakenly believe it's a one-time purchase. It's all too easy to miss the fine print that may state the free trial period typically only lasts 12 to 14 days, and you will continue to receive regular shipments of the product at full price unless you notify the company with a request to cancel. Since the cancellation period is so brief, many consumers often don't realize their credit cards are being charged for additional costs until the charges show up on their monthly statement.

Hatti Hamlin, a public relations consultant from Orinda, Calif., learned the hard way that free offers often have a catch.

"I went to what I thought was a free site to get my credit report and after clicking on 'free credit report,' the company automatically added a monthly credit monitoring service," Hamlin says. "I didn't notice this charge as I checked out on the Web site -- even though they require a credit card, they are careful to state that the charge is "$0" -- until the next month when you start getting whacked with a $14.99 a month charge."

Even then, it took several months before Hamlin noticed the charges on her credit card bill.

"It wasn't labeled 'credit monitoring service,' but had some alphabet-soup name to the company and no description of the charge," she says. "When I called the company, they were nasty as could be and kept telling me they had clearly notified me when I signed up for my 'free' report that if I didn't cancel the additional service within one month I would start being charged for it! I filed a Better Business Bureau complaint, wrote a letter, and finally, without admitting they were wrong, they agreed to refund the charges."

Hamlin later found that more than 5,000 complaints about this practice had been formally lodged with the BBB.

Robert Pagliarini, president of Pacifica Wealth Advisors, an investment and financial planning firm in southern California, was intrigued by an advertisement for an energy drink that can be used as an antioxidant supplement.

"I ordered the free trial and was charged $7.95 for shipping and handling," Pagliarini says. "I didn't like the taste of the product when I received it and immediately called to cancel. The company said that my first month's subscription, costing $69.95, had already been shipped and charged to my credit card."

The company advised Pagliarini to return the shipment and told him they would reimburse him for the cost of shipping. Four months later, he is still waiting to be credited.

"In retrospect, I wish that I had taken a few minutes to research the company," Pagliarini says. "After a brief Internet search, I found many other consumers had encountered the same problem with this particular company."

Ways to prevent getting scammed
While the FTC does monitor negative option marketing practices, Southwick says there are steps consumers can take to ensure they don't incur unwanted credit card charges.

  • Conduct due diligence. Just because an ad is on a Web site that you trust, it doesn't mean you can trust the advertiser. The BBB offers a database of reliability reports on more than 400,000 companies. Consumer Web sites such as www.ripoffreport.com and www.complaintsboard.com also list complaints from consumers who fell for negative-option marketing offers.
  • Know what you're signing up for. Southwick says it's important to read the terms and conditions of an offer and to ask questions, such as when you need to cancel in order to prevent unwanted future charges. "And don't assume the seven-day grace period starts after you've received your order," she says. "Sometimes you will be charged seven days after your initial order has been placed."
  • Read the fine print. Does that teeny-tiny clause at the end say that the free offer is related to a membership or extended contract? Do you have to contact the company within a certain period of time to avoid receiving more merchandise? Who do you have to contact and do you cancel by phone, e-mail or letter? How long do you have to decide if you want to keep the product before incurring additional charges?
  • Watch your credit card statement closely. If you see any charges you don't recognize, call your credit card company immediately.

If you have done all of the above and continue to have problems with the company, it's time to file a complaint with the BBB and the FTC, who both work to prevent fraudulent and deceptive business practices. To file a complaint, call the FTC at (877) FTC-4357 or visit the BBB's Web site.

If you believe a company has charged you in error, you should also contact your credit card company to dispute the charges.

"You are ultimately held responsible for the charge until a dispute process has been resolved with your credit card company," says Gail Hurdis, spokesperson for Chase Credit Card Services. "When a customer contacts us, our team of dispute experts immediately begins working to resolve the issue."

If the inquiry is, in fact, a charge that is disputed by the customer due to merchant service or quality, Hurdis says the dispute adviser will spend time resolving the issue while the customer is on the phone.

"Our advisers will conference the merchant in on the call with the customer to help resolve the issue more quickly," she says. "Our approach to customer service in the dispute area has resulted in 72 percent of customer inquiries being resolved on the first point of contact and our customers receiving an immediate credit or a reversal of charges when they have a disputed charge."

Prioritize payments wisely to knock down debts


By Erica Sandberg

Opening Credits
Columnist Erica Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families.

Ask a question.

'Opening Credits' stories

Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
Please help me. I have a car loan of $19,500 with an interest rate of 8.6 percent. I have two credit cards with Chase, and both of them have a balance of $6,000 each. The interest rate for one is 12 percent, and the other is 24 percent. I also have a loan of $4,000 with an interest rate of 17 percent. I'm making my monthly payments on time, but I don't know which loan I should pay first. Please advise. I would like to be debt free soon. I'm 26 years, and I'm a single mom. -- Marilu

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Marilu,
Before delving into how you can quickly and economically pay off your balances, I'm going to implore you to do one thing if you haven't already, stop borrowing money immediately.

Living in debt robs your family of cash necessary for financial security. By owing $35,000, you are paying hundreds of dollars each month in finance charges -- money much better spent running your household and preparing for important future goals. Not only that, adding to the balances as you're working toward your debt-free objective is counterproductive. The primary reason credit counseling agencies' debt management plans are effective is that their clients agree to close existing accounts and not apply for new ones while participating in the program. Such strict guidelines are an integral part of learning to live within one's means.

So, Marilu, are you ready to live a cash-only lifestyle for a while? If the prospect has you biting your nails, gain confidence by developing a budget that allows you to methodically direct funds to key costs. This exercise will also help you determine the amount of money you have to apply to your liabilities:

  1. Write down the total of your monthly net income.
  2. List and total all monthly expenses, including cash set aside for savings and periodic costs such as home maintenance and medical expenses.
  3. Subtract your expenses from your income.
  4. Reserve the remaining sum to divvy up among your creditors.

Now, about your debt: If you're making just the minimum requested payments, it's time to "power pay." Establish the maximum sum you can regularly promise to your creditors by revisiting and refining your budget. Identify ways to earn more and/or pare down. As you're doing so, avoid being ridiculously frugal -- noodles every night is neither reasonable nor healthy -- and overly liberal -- manicures are not, and never will be, a vital expense.

Once you know your guaranteed base figure, look at the numbers for all accounts in the order listed in your letter, with their estimated minimum payments:

Debt type

Debt amount

Interest rate

Payment

Months to repay

Total cost

Car loan*

$19,500

8.6%

$432

55

$4,164

Lowest-interest credit card

$6,000

12%

$150

52

$1,724

Highest-interest credit card

$6,000

24%

$150

82

$6,257

Unsecured loan

$4,000

17%

$198

24

$750

Total finance charges

$12,895

* Approximate figures, assuming 55 months left on a 60-month, $21,000 loan

Next, prioritize the accounts by interest rate, adding extra funds -- I've proposed an additional $200 -- to the one with the highest rate and leaving the others the same:

Debt type

Debt amount

Interest rate

Payment

Months to repay

Total cost

Highest-interest credit card

$6,000

24%

$350

22

$1,476

Unsecured loan

$4,000

17%

$198

24

$750

Lowest-interest credit card

$6,000

12%

$150

52

$1,724

Car loan*

$19,500

8.6%

$432

55

$4,164

Total finance charges

$8,114

* Approximate figures, assuming 55 months left on a 60-month, $21,000 loan

As you can see, the increased payment to the credit card with the highest rate made every month until payoff would shave $4,781 in total finance charges. Even better, when that debt is gone in 22 months rather than 82, you can use that $350 to add to the account with the next highest interest rate, the unsecured loan. When that's done, send it to the remaining credit card. (Pssst, this constant reapplication system is the other reason credit counseling plans work so well.)

That leaves the car loan. Once your unsecured debts are paid, you should have $700 more in your pocket to work with on a monthly basis. Though the rate of 8.6 percent is not terrible, after you've deleted your other balances, you may be in the perfect position to refinance. "Compare multiple lenders online," says Dale Peterson, president of myAutoloan.com. "With rates being at a low these days, it's possible to get a 6 percent loan." Such a reduction would decrease the payout time and finance charges further, efficiently eradicating the final debt.

Finally, Marilu, part of our job as parents -- single or otherwise -- is to teach financial acumen and responsibility to our children. Therefore, consider this the ideal opportunity to educate. In age-appropriate language, explain what happened and how you're fixing the problem. Then lead by example. Your commitment and ultimate success will be an invaluable lesson for them, and a source of immeasurable pride for you.

See related: Credit card calculator: What will it take to pay off my current balance?, 8 things you must know about credit card debt

F1: Haug Says McLaren Title Talk Is Bizarre

f1_mclaren_lewis-hamilton_spain_2009

MERCEDES-BENZ MOTORSPORT BOSS Norbert Haug has declared it would be “bizarre” for McLaren to consider the possibility of defending its World Championship.

While McLaren has managed to remain in the headlines throughout the season – albeit for the wrong reasons – on the track, the Woking-based outfit has found itself battling to remain relevant in race discussions.

The team has amassed a paltry 13 points from six races and find themselves fifth in the constructor’s championship, with the best result a fourth place finish by Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain.

Hamilton did appear set for a surprise podium finish in Australia only for the Briton to mistakenly allow Toyota’s Jarno Trulli past under yellow flags before he was disqualified for misleading a stewards inquiry.

In Monaco, a series of aero updates had Hamilton on course to challenge for pole position, but his chances were scuppered when the reigning World Champion ploughed his McLaren into a wall.

With Hamilton now 42 points behind championship leader Button, Haug believes McLaren should simply focus on making itself competitive.

He told Eurosport: “It would be bizarre to speak of defending our title. Why should we think about it when we are not competitive?”

f1_lewis-hamilton

Hamilton though is enthusiastic about the prospect of racing around the track at Istanbul Park in Turkey this weekend despite McLaren’s lack of pace around high-speed corners.

“I love the fact that it’s a new circuit that has really captured the flavour of some of the older, classic tracks – it’s got a bit of everything and is fantastic to drive,” he said.

“Also, as it’s anti-clockwise, it gives your neck a bit of a work-out – but you just need to make sure you’ve exercised the left side of your neck a little more than usual before getting in the car.

McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh however was cautious about the task facing his team in Turkey’s largest city, saying race setup will be crucial.

“We go to Turkey in the knowledge that the track characteristics are a bit less likely to suit our package than Monaco, but we are improving all the time, have several minor upgrades for the MP4-24 and look forward to assessing our competitiveness against our rivals,” he said.

Suzuki Urges Govt To Adopt Scrapping Scheme

scrap_yard_01

VEHICLE SCRAPPAGE SCHEMES have gained traction in Europe and the USA, now Suzuki’s local arm wants to see a similar program set up in Australia.

The importer says that such schemes have worked wonders for new car sales overseas, and that a similar strategy backed by the Australian government would give manufacturers a well-needed boost.

Suzuki also favours making the level of incentive proportional to the environmental credentials of the car to be purchased, which would also help lower the nation’s carbon output.

“We’ve been closely monitoring the results from countries that have introduced a scrappage scheme and cannot fathom why the idea meets with such resistance here,” said Suzuki Australia General Manager Tony Devers.

“In the UK more than 35,000 vehicle orders were taken in the two weeks after introducing its scrappage subsidy.

“In Germany, its scrappage scheme has increased sales more than 20 per cent.”

Mr Devers says a vehicle scrapping program would also improve road safety, with outdated cars being replaced by newer, more advanced vehicles. Many older cars on Australia’s roads lack even the most basic of safety gear, such as ABS, front airbags and three-point seatbelts on every seat; so there’s certainly some truth to the claim.

Suzuki isn’t the only one calling for a scrappage scheme. The Motor Traders Association of New South Wales is also calling for an incentive program, estimating that it would cost the government 4.5 billion over three years to run - a figure which Suzuki says should be mostly covered by increased income from import duty, stamp duty and GST.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, however, thinks otherwise. According to the FCAI, buyers incentives are already in place in the form of investment tax breaks, which recently rose from 30 percent to 50 percent.

2013 Tesla Roadster To Pack Four Seats And All Wheel Drive, Aiming At 911 Carrera Turbo

tesla-roadster

TESLA MOTORS CEO Elon Musk has revealed that his company’s plans for the next generation Tesla Roadster includes a 2+2 seating configuration, available in both rear- and all-wheel-drive models, aimed at the Porsche 911 Carrera Turbo.

In a recent talk with Green Car Advisor, Musk said that while the company hasn’t yet begun work on the next Roadster, tentatively scheduled for 2013, he is exploring the idea of a larger body with a small back seat, because he also owns a Carrera Turbo and it offers two back seats for his children.

Musk said that if not for those back seats, the Roadster would be the only car he’d need.

Musk said that the new Roadster would be available in hardtop and convertible models, and would likely ride on the larger Model S platform to accommodate the additional seats.

Whether Musk is targeting the Carrera Turbo purely because of its rear seats and overall shape, or if there’s also a performance-oriented goal there as well, was unclear.

Whether we’ll see this new Roadster – or even the current model – in Australia remains to be seen, but short of private importers, it would seem unlikely.

Daimler – parent company of Mercedes-Benz – recently purchased a 10 percent stake in Tesla to accelerate development of its own all-electric vehicles.

While that new Daimler involvement could feasibly lead to a Mercedes-Benz-lead Tesla distribution in Australia, it’s more likely only the jointly-developed Mercedes-Benz or Smart-branded electric vehicles will appear in Aussie showrooms.

2010 Suzuki Alto Aiming For Four-Star ANCAP, Likely Price Under $13,000

suzuki-alto_01

LATE LAST YEAR TMR reported that the Suzuki Alto supermini will hit Aussie shores this year, and we first caught a glimpse of it in the flesh at the 2009 Melbourne International Motor Show back in February.

Suzuki has this week confirmed that the Alto will hit showrooms in Australia on August 1, and unlike the lower specification European model – which recently achieved only a three-star Euro NCAP rating – the Australian-delivered Alto will feature six airbags as standard and should achieve a four-star ANCAP rating.

suzuki-alto_airbags

Suzuki Australia General Manager Tony Devers said the Alto tested recently by Euro NCAP and reported on by foreign news services was not indicative of the Australian specification model, which will include head protecting side curtain airbags among its six airbag complement.

“Our engineers have converted the Euro NCAP data to the specific ANCAP criteria for local customers and we’re confident the Australian specification Alto will achieve a four star safety rating.

“We are working closely with ANCAP to have that result verified very shortly.”

Devers said safety is a key priority in every Suzuki vehicle. In the smaller and more competitive Australian market, this would seem a wise approach.

“Every passenger car in the Suzuki Australia line-up has achieved a minimum four star rating, and we are confident the Alto will maintain the company’s proud safety record.”

While the Alto will feature six airbags as standard, the higher specification model will also offer ESP stability control as standard.

suzuki-alto_02

With a tiny 50kW 1.0 litre three-cylinder petrol engine – not unlike the Suzuki Swift of days gone by (when just about all hatches were about the size of the Alto) – the Alto achieves a hybrid-like fuel economy of just 4.5 l/100km, releasing a tiny 103g/km of CO2 emissions.

“Not only will the new Alto offer the fuel economy of a hybrid for around a third of the price, it will also be one of the safest cars in its category.”

suzuki-alto_03

TMR spoke to Suzuki Australia Communications Manager Andrew Ellis, who confirmed that the Alto should slot in at under $13,000.

“With the Swift already such a good value buy, pricing of the Alto will be critical, and we expect it to come in under $13,000.

While the average Swift buyer tends to be late 20s to 30 and beyond, the Alto will appeal more to younger buyers [such as] university students, as well as empty nesters; people downsizing to a smaller, more efficient car that suits their own needs rather than family needs.”

The 2010 Suzuki Alto goes on sale in Australia on August 1.

2009 Peugeot 308 Touring Takes Awards At Australian International Design Awards

peugeot-308_touring-wagon_01

THE 2009 PEUGEOT 308 Touring Wagon has picked up two gongs at the Australian International Design Awards; one in the Automotive and Transport category, the other, the Wheels Automotive Design Award for Best Interior.

Presented by Standards Australia, the Awards recognise Peugeot’s efforts in blending good design, rigorous standards, quality manufacturing and innovative application.

peugeot-308_touring-wagon_03

The judges noted that the Peugeot 308 Touring featured “outstanding versatility with a highly functional seating configuration”.

The judges described the 308 Touring as a durable and versatile car, pointing to its interchangeable seating arrangements, storage, reliability, fuel economy and safety as contributors to the award.

The 308 Touring offers seating for five in standard form, but allows for two extra seats to be added to the rear. The key to the design of the seating arrangements, however, is that each seat in the second and third rows can be removed and re-positioned to suit the user’s needs, leading to over 50 possible seating configurations.

peugeot-308_touring-wagon_02

Dominique Monet, Regional Director for Australia and New Zealand for Automobiles Peugeot, believes the interior is a key feature in the success of the 308 Touring in Australia.

“The 308 is Peugeot’s best-selling car in Australia today,” he said.

“Clearly Australians are attracted to the style, quality and versatility of the European interior.

“Peugeot paid particular attention to ensuring that the 308 Touring offered an interior configuration that can be easily re-arranged to match the changing requirements of today’s car buyers.

peugeot-308_touring-wagon_04

“The Australian International Design Award gives Peugeot something else to celebrate in its 60th year in Australia.”

Porsche To Sell 80,000 And Earn More Than $1.2 Billion This Year

porsche-911_2009_01

LAST WEEK TMR reported that not only had Porsche’s purchase of a 51 percent majority stake in Volkswagen left it some US$15 billion in debt, but it was facing a $4.4 billion operational shortfall (and had borrowed US$1.2 billion from Volkswagen earlier this year).

Now it seems a gap has appeared in the clouds of Stuttgart, with Claus Schmiedel, a member of parliament at Porsche’s home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg reporting that Porsche will sell around 80,000 cars this fiscal year, leading to a profit of between $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion.

porsche-badge

Schmiedel said that he had spoken with Porsche’s Finance Chief and gone over the supercar manufacturer’s books.

“On an operating level Porsche does not have a problem - unlike other producers,” Schmiedel told Reuters, adding that Porsche will benefit from an operating margin of 12 percent.

The MP went on to say that in 2010, Porsche expects to go one better, selling 100,000 cars and delivering a profit of more than AU$1.7 billion.

Porsche has denied any suggestion it would not be able to deal with its massive debt.

TMR Poll Confirms ‘Softness’ In New Vehicle Market

Hero car for Honda, Accord Euro up 27.4 percent (VFACTS)

Hero car for Honda, Accord Euro up 27.4 percent (VFACTS)

THE MOTOR REPORT POLL conducted over the month of May indicates an underlying softness in the new vehicle market, despite the strengthening new vehicle sales results for May reported by VFACTS.

Run for four weeks from May 6th, The Motor Report Poll sampled the views of respondents who had been or were currently considering buying a new car in 2009.

While 52 percent of the 600-plus respondents had not changed their purchasing plans despite the current economic uncertainty, the remainder, 48 percent*, indicated that the current uncertainty had delayed or derailed their buying intentions.

(* Note: Percentages rounded.)

The poll results indicate considerable softness in the market among intending private car buyers, which, if reflected economy-wide, would indicate that the May new car sales results may be a blip and not indicative of a trend.

Mazda 3, up 17.7% (VFACTS), Australia's top-selling small car.

Mazda 3, up 17.7% (VFACTS), Australia's top-selling small car.

With nearly half of all respondents indicating that they intend to now delay their buying plans due to the economic uncertainty, it may be too early to be calling a turn-around in the market as some industry commentators have done.

Certainly, the May new vehicle sales results would indicate that the Federal Government’s business tax break of a 50 percent rebate on the purchase of a new vehicle has put a temporary floor under the market and arrested the decline in business sales, down just 7.2 percent relative to May 2008.

Interestingly, that nearly three in ten responded that they planned to buy quite soon because “the current savings are too large to ignore” would indicate that current marketing campaigns focusing on discounted ‘drive-away’ deals, are hitting the mark with consumers.

However, the combined effect of the ‘drive-away discount’ sales, plus the Federal Government’s business tax break, may have created a temporary distortion that has produced the better than expected May sales results.

2009 Cruze: Holden's new entry to the small car market

2009 Cruze: Holden's new entry to the small car market

Whether it translates to an ongoing strengthening in the market is too early to tell. The Motor Report poll indicates an underlying softness among private buyers that may take longer to turn round.

An incentive for private buyers, such as the German Government’s successful ‘scrappage’ scheme for older cars, would likely ensure an ongoing recovery in the Australian new vehicle market.

As such, we agree with Suzuki Australia’s call for the Federal Government to institute such a scheme for Australia.

2009 BMW 320d Road Test Review

header

LET ME CUT straight to the chase here: if I was in the market for a new BMW right now, this is the one I would buy - the 320d.

At $57,500 (but check with your dealer on drive-away pricing), it is sensibly priced for a premium Euro package; has four doors (sensible if you need to use the back seats); looks a gazillion times better than the 1 Series five-door (and is not nearly so squeezy); it steers like a BMW should, sticks to the tarmac like a mother-in-law to a plate of custard tarts and has a massive boot (also just like your mother-in-law).

And it has an absolute cracker of a diesel engine.

So, if this was an exercise in ticking boxes, there can’t be many more to tick at this point.

And if that is all you need to know about the 320d, stop reading now and save us both a lot of time and effort.

Ok then, let’s pick through it: where is it best and, more to the point, why should you have it on your list?

Styling

When launched in Australia in December last year, the 2009 3 Series arrived with a few subtle styling tweaks over the previous model, and all of them good.

The hockey-stick LED rear lights, in particular, are a vast improvement over the plain segmented ‘rose-petal’ style of the outgoing car. The new look to the rump is both more integrated and classier: the strong scalloped line to the boot strengthened by the stronger elongated tail-lights.

2009_bmw-320d_rear

It also works better from the three-quarter view. It looks sharper and wider and carries a little more élan than the dumpier lines of the older model. Its footprint is actually wider: the rear track has been increased by up to 24mm, depending on model and tyre choice, while the front track gained 6mm.

Up front, the headlights and air-dam are slightly revised, with a deeper jowl giving a more purposeful tarmac-hugging look. There are also stronger bonnet creases and an evident power bulge to signal its on-road intent.

It is interesting that so few styling changes, and subtle ones at that, can so alter the personality of the car. The changes to the 2009 3 Series have given it a little more muscle than the outgoing model, and, with well-proportioned lines and on-road poise, looks the better for it.

That’s a purely subjective judgment of course, but while the Mercedes C-class knocked it off top-spot on the podium in Australia last year, the strong sales for the 3 Series here and world-wide would suggest that more than a few agree.

2009_bmw-320d_front

Let’s face it, no-one buys a Beemer to feel uglified. Purchasing decisions of this type are about feeling good.

And feeling like you’ve made it.

Slide in behind the wheel of the 2009 3 Series, and you can’t help but feel a little special. This is a car you most definitely want to drive past your neighbours, or six thousand of your closest friends. (“My God… is that yours???”) Yes, BMW has a better understanding than most of the aspirational classes.

So, on looks and style, all good.

The Interior

Inside, the news is just as good. Lean in a moment: take in the sumptuous leather, the crisp lines to the dash and the beautifully trimmed doors – this is one seriously stylish and well-executed interior.

Where the 1 Series perhaps carries a few compromises in its trim and interior execution, no such shortcomings are evident in the 3 Series.

The strong lines and defined creases that dominate the exterior metal carry over to the interior. The instrument binnacle, with large clear dials – sharp and stylish looking – sits under a hooded recess, with a crisp ‘edge’ that carries from the doors and across the top of the dash.

2009_bmw-320d_dash

Modern, yet tastefully restrained, you can’t imagine this interior will ever date. Of course, it will tire to the eyes one day (one of life’s little tragedies) and in a few years you’ll look at it and wonder what the fuss was about. But, right now, the interior of the 3 Series reeks of style and deftness of touch.

2009_bmw-320d_front-seats The only thing where I found my preference at odds with the 3 Series was in the shape of the seats.

The centre of the bucket – for my shape - feels a little hollow; I would prefer more support directly under the bum. But it might be my bum and my shape at fault here.

No such complaints with the leather-bound, multi-function steering wheel nor the ‘feel’ it imparts of the road. It calls for a decisive hand – it’s not as ‘light’ as some and offers slight resistance away from the dead ahead (as though you are pushing against a detent) - but is brilliantly connected with what’s happening below.

Other nice touches include the under-dash ambient lighting and the door handles that light-up when the ‘unlock’ button is pressed. Skiers will also appreciate the ‘through-loading-system’ in the rear seats for carrying the obligatory skis.

A leather-bound gear knob along with mahogany dash fascia and centre console with iDrive controller, set off a very classy cabin.

2009_bmw-320d_door-trim

For fit and finish, for its flawless leather and premium style, the interior of the 320d is very hard to fault.

Thanks to the accommodation it offers and the brilliant dynamics at the wheel, it is an effortless companion on a long drive.

Equipment and Features

It’s a thing with BMW that everyone knows: if you want your car kitted to the max, you’re gonna pay for it

2009_bmw-320d_dash_centre-stackBut the criticism that BMW’s competitors from Japan (we’re thinking Lexus and the upper-deck Hondas here) have it all over the Bavarian stormers for standard features, is simply not true.

The 320d, straight out of the packet, with nothing added but number plates and with you behind the wheel, is nicely configured.

Besides the expected features like cruise control, front and side airbags (front seat occupants), head airbags front and rear, seat-belt pre-tensioner, rear park distance control, rain sensor and automatic headlight control, it also comes with a premium six-speaker sound system, Dakota leather, woodgrain trim, USB audio interface, dual-zone climate control, on-board computer (with outside temperature display), Bluetooth compatibility, retractable front arm-rests and run-flat tyre indicator.

2009_bmw-320d_idrive No problems with that list… but wait there’s more. Depending on the health of your wallet, you can add electric seats, navigation, Bi Xenon headlights, headlight washer system and a host of other features all the way up to the M-Sport package, which then starts relieving you of serious shekels.

And, in case you’re wondering, the new iDrive is a doddle to use even for a techno-dunce like me (believe me, you won’t have any trouble).

You get a lot of car packaged up behind that badge. The simple fact is that few drivers taking delivery of a new 3 Series will anguish over the standard kit.

The Drive

If you’ve got a BMW in the garage and you don’t give it a bit of a boot every now and then, you’re missing the point. And you’ll have BMW chassis engineers weeping into their schn√§pse if they hear about it.

You have to go all the way back to 1957 and the Isetta to find a BMW that is not a driver’s car. A BMW is to be driven; to be pointed at a mountain road and hustled enthusiastically through the curves. To drive it is to appreciate one of the finer road machines.

This is the 320d.

Forget any prejudices or pre-conceived notions you may have about diesel-engined cars, because, as we mentioned earlier, the diesel in this one is a cracker.

And while it makes the typical diesel clatter outside (“it sounds like a tractor”, a neighbour called out), from behind the wheel you can barely discern it.

Importantly, putting 130 kW @ 4000rpm and 350 Nm of torque @ 1750rpm under the toe, it pulls like a train.

2009_bmw-320d_front_02

That torque figure gives it, as BMW asserts, “the most torque of any four-cylinder 3 Series model, and second only to the twin-turbo petrol 335i model in the entire 3 Series family”.

It is also happy to rev, and, combined with the standard fit tip-tronic style six-speed automatic transmission (no steering wheel paddles though), can knock out surprisingly quick point-to-point times.

We didn’t put it under the stop watch, but BMW claims a 0-100kmh dash in 8.2 seconds. That would accord with our gut feel; the 320d is no slouch. More importantly, when on the move, it goes like a shower in that critical overtaking band from 80-140kmh.

Point it at a winding road, and you will have great fun exploring the performance of that willing diesel and the innate chassis balance below.

2009_bmw-320d_headlight

Few cars provide the balance, the accuracy at the wheel or the razor-edge turn-in of the sporting BMWs. The 320d is simply a thoroughly sorted drive with confidence-inspiring grip and predictability.

There is little that the road surface can throw up that can unsettle this chassis, even when extending things at the upper-end of the car’s performance.

Some perhaps will find things below too well-connected. You feel rougher secondary roads and bridge joins through the wheel and backside. But, don’t be deterred, it’s not harsh nor jarring, it’s just a price you pay for being in touch with the road and what’s happening at the wheels.

2009_bmw-320d_tail-light

The rule here is this: don’t buy a sporting BMW if your preference leans to the isolated ‘magic carpet ride’ of a US-style limo.

The run-flat tyres have copped some criticism in the past, but those fitted to the 320d are simply transparent. Few would pick them, it’s as simple as that.

Lastly, being a diesel, BMW’s 320d returns a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of just 6.0 l/100km. Even when under the whip, fuel consumption barely varies, such are the characteristics and efficiencies of a modern diesel.

The Verdict

So that’s our take on things. There is little not to like about the 320d, especially for drivers who enjoy the experience at the wheel. If that’s you, put the 320d on your list.

Now we know there are some things about buying a BMW that will irritate. Your chances of getting the model you want straight off the showroom floor can be slim. You’ll more likely have a wait of a month or two, or more.

Caring for it correctly is not inexpensive, neither are parts. We’re talking a premium car here, and ownership comes at a premium.

But, at the risk of sounding a little wet, the 320d is simply a super car and a joy to drive. Importantly, thanks to that smooth free-revving diesel (never thought I’d say those words), it balances performance with frugality at the pump – something to please both the keen driver and the conscience.

Lastly, if you’re spending a lot of money on a car, it’s important it looks like you’re spending a lot of money. The 320d cuts the mustard here; it reeks of style both inside and out.

This Beemer has lost nothing for being a diesel. If anything, a brilliant car has been made the better for it.

2009 Audi A3 1.6 TDI Launched In Europe, Two New Diesel Engines Added To The Range

2009_audi_a3_16tdi_01

AUDI HAS INTRODUCED a pair of new super-thrifty diesel engines to the European A3 lineup, delivering hybrid-equalling fuel economy in a sharper-looking shell.

Two engines are on offer, both 1.6 litre common-rail turbodiesel inline fours. The lower-spec version is relatively uncomplex and puts out 66kW and 230Nm and can deliver a combined fuel economy figure of 4.5l/100km, however the 77kW model deploys an array of range-boosting devices to improve on that number while simultaneously increasing performance.

Thanks to a regenerative braking system that reduces load on the alternator and Audi’s own start-stop technology, the more powerful engine is able to run on just 4.1l/100km on the combined cycle - despite cranking out 11kW more than the less pricey motor.

The 66kW diesel will propel drivers to 100km/h in a leisurely 12.9 seconds, while the 77kW model is slightly quicker with a 0-100 sprint time of 11.4 seconds. Hardly what could be described as quick, but the objective with these engines is to save big bucks at the pumps - not win drag races.

2009_audi_a3_a3s_01

Carbon dioxide emissions for both are commendably low, with the 66kW engine emitting 118g/km and the 77kW engine - thanks to its regenerative braking and start-stop systems - pumping out just 109g/km.

The 66kW Audi A3 1.6 TDI will retail in Europe for €22,550 (AU$39,300 ) while the 77kW model will cost €23,550 (AU$41,000).The 1.6 TDI engines are also available in the A3 Sportback, which commands a €900 premium over the regular A3 hatch. As for when we’ll see them in local Audi showrooms, that’s something that’s yet to be decided.

“It’s a little bit too early to say,” Anna Burgdorf, corporate communications manager at Audi Australia said to TMR.

“Those cars are not yet available for Australia, and we’ve not yet made a decision on when and if they’ll be available.”

Hummer’s Chinese Buyer Revealed

hummer_h3_02

LITTLE-KNOWN Chinese industrial machinery company Sichuan Tengzhong has emerged as GM’s approved buyer for the Hummer brand. Although Hummer will be divorced from General Motors once the deal is finalised later this year, Tengzhong is adamant that much of Hummer’s current business structure will remain unchanged.

There will be no corporate reshuffle, nor will Hummer’s headquarters move away from the USA. As we reported yesterday, production of the H3 and H3T will continue at GM’s Shreveport plant, albeit under contract and with no guarantee of continuation of the arrangement beyond 2010.

Tengzhou is, however, expected to sign an agreement with GM for the long-term supply of parts and manufacturing soon.

hummer_h2_prod_02

Approximately 3000 US jobs are expected to be saved by the deal, and Hummer’s purchase by Tengzhong could be just the shot in the arm it needs. GM could scarcely justify hanging onto Hummer while the rest of its empire crumbled, and the automaking giant simply had no money to develop future Hummer products and keep the brand relevant and compliant with increasingly restrictive emissions legislation.

Tengzhou does have money, and it’ll be using lots of it to keep Hummer afloat, expand it into new markets both inside and outside of China, and develop the next generation of military-inspired SUVs.

“We will be investing in the HUMMER brand and its research and development capabilities, which will allow Hummer to better meet demand for new products such as more fuel-efficient vehicles in the U.S,” said Tengzhou CEO, Yang Yi.

hummer_h3_01

Its acquisition of Hummer will be Tengzhou’s first foray into the world of passenger cars, although with Hummer in its existing form already having a range of ready-to-go products and a wide network of dealers, there isn’t likely to be any degradation in quality or sales and servicing support.

It’s still too early to assess what impact Hummer’s sale will have on the brand’s Australian presence, but Holden spokesman Scott Whiffin says more information should surface soon.

“There are no immediate implications for the brand here in Australia but we’ll obviously learn more as this process moves forward,” Mr Whiffin said.

Tengzhong’s purchase of Hummer will be finalised in the third quarter of this year. The amount the Chinese company will pay for GM’s luxo-SUV offshoot has yet to be revealed.

Brembo Bringing Carbon-Ceramic Brakes To The Masses

carbon-ceramic-brakes_01

YOU KNOW you’re looking at a proper supercar when you can spot a set of carbon-ceramic brake discs - with that signature gritty look - behind the massive wheels propping up its corners.

Soon enough though, you might start to see those gritty rotors on a lot more cars, thanks to a new partnership between famed brake manufacturer Brembo and carbon-fibre specialists SGL Group, which aims to develop carbon-ceramic brakes suitable for mass production.

The new company will be working on carbon-ceramic brakes to be used in consumer passenger and commercial vehicles, with one of the main focuses being the low-cost requirements for manufacturers to utilise the brakes in their volume selling vehicles.

carbon-ceramic-brakes_02

Carbon-ceramic brakes are used extensively in motorsport and at the supercar end of the market, thanks to their light weight and advanced heat dissipation, the latter ensuring longevity and superior performance in extreme performance events.

While its current list of customers includes the usual suspects for such a product – Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Daimler, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche – the ultimate goal for the new company is to expand its customer base to the likes of Toyota, GM and their ilk.

For now, while the carbon-ceramic brake production process involves so much human involvement, mass production and breaking into the volume-seller market may be some time off.

2009 Suzuki Swift LE Road Test Review

header

“FLAMIN’ ‘ECK, that’s alright innit?”

My dad, bless him, can always be relied on for an appropriate Alf Stewart coloured comment, and for a true-blue Aussie who lives for his Falcons, that outburst is truly saying something.

Still, if my old man likes it, what hope does the Swift have with the rest of us? Apparently a fair one; the look of the latest iteration of Suzuki’s well-known hatch is proving popular on both sides of the sexual divide. For a carmaker, that’s a licence to print sales contracts.

Now, to celebrate the company’s 100th birthday, Suzuki has launched a limited edition version: The Suzuki Swift LE.

Styling

With this latest generation, the fifth in the Swift family tree (you might know some of the previous generations as the Ignis), Suzuki has moved away from the ‘low-cost alternative’ image of earlier models, dramatically transforming it into a sportier, more desirable hatch.

IMG_3541

According to my dad, the heads at Suzuki have pulled it off, and the young couple next door seems to agree.

Three doors or four, the Swift is a good looking hatch. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I mean, look at that long flat roof and the slab-sided doors and guards. What’s good looking about that? It’s even got a big arse. Not Megane big, of course, but it’s… well… bulbous.

IMG_3585

It looks frightfully tall too, with those tiny wheel arches so distant from the character line running along the top of the doors.

The more I look at it, the more I want to slip my foot in through the roof and go roller skating. (Bugger, now where’s the other foot go?)

IMG_3564

But none of that seems to matter. Bring together those elements, individually awkward, and combine them with the long curve of the bonnet, the sloping windscreen and its wrap-around look reaching back to the D-pillar, and you’ve got a very appealing car.

While our Swift LE (Limited Edition) test car had a swish chrome-trimmed grille, the regular model features a sporty mesh grill, and that contributes nicely to the Swift’s appeal.

The side mirror-mounted indicators are a classy touch as well, unique to the Swift LE.

IMG_3566

The Interior

Despite its sporty pretensions, at least in external style, most about the interior of the Swift leans to the utilitarian - but with some youthful zest thrown in.

The dash is a fairly straightforward affair, the only real visual highlight being the stylish brushed-steel-looking panel surrounding the display and CD slot of the stereo, while a glossy black curved panel - existing in some contrast to the square-ended metal-look stereo panel - is home to the Swift LE’s climate control.

IMG_3604

It’s a style built around function rather than what is often an overly complex approach preferred by other manufacturers. It’s utilitarian, yes, but in the best sense of the word. It has a job to do, and it goes about it with the minimum in unnecessary adornment. Who needs it?

Fit and finish inside is good, while the materials are robust and everything feels ‘in its place’.

One major plus to the Swift’s dash is the great placement of the controls, along with the large speedo dominating the instrument cluster.

IMG_3625

Despite the generous headroom, the Swift is more comfortable for those of average height, with restricted seat movement and no reach adjustment for the steering. Taller drivers may not fall head over heels with the interior space.

For comfort, the Swift is a bit of a mixed bag. Under your backside - at least a healthy backside - the front seats feel small, barely adequate and a little bench-like, robbing the driver and front passenger of the body-hugging seats they might have expected when looking over the sporty exterior.

IMG_3631

The backrest, in contrast, is well-formed and supportive, providing markedly better support and feel for the upper body.

The story is much the same in the back, but while leg space is a little more restrictive, it’s not an uncomfortable place to spend a not-too-long trip.

Storage in the Swift is woeful with the back seats in the upright position, but drop them forward and a world of space opens up in the back. If you’ve got more than the groceries to carry (a small load), don’t plan on more than one passenger.

IMG_3635

Equipment

The Suzuki Swift LE includes a range of features to set it apart as a special model, with 15-inch alloy wheels, keyless start, climate control, uniquely styled Alcantara interior trim, fog lamps, side mirror-mounted indicators, remote folding side mirrors, and the requisite 100th Anniversary badging.

According to Suzuki, all of this adds up to an extra $5000 of value.

What’s missing? Not a lot. It’s an excellent package. Some form of auxiliary or USB connectivity would have been welcomed (who burns MP3 CDs anymore?), but other than Hyundai, it’s not a feature offered in most cheaper small cars.

IMG_3607

That said, the absence of cruise control was an annoyance; it’s a limited edition model, shouldn’t something as ubiquitous as cruise control slide across from ‘optional extra’ to the features list?

For safety, the Swift LE offers driver and front passenger airbags (if the LE had been based on the Hatch S, side and curtain airbags would have featured as well - sadly not), as well as ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Brake Assist, and Vehicle Stability Control.

The Drive

Powered by a naturally aspirated free-revving 1.5 litre petrol engine, the Swift develops 74kW at 6000rpm, and 133Nm of torque at 4000rpm.

IMG_3645

It’s a very sporty sounding engine, but that small amount of torque arriving at a relatively high 4000rpm means the Swift has its work cut out in any attempt at a quick launch. It’s fair to say of course that the regular Swift isn’t a performance car, but with that sporty styling, more than a few will want to try.

Get up above 4000rpm though, where you can feel the torque winding up, and the driving experience becomes more at one with the hatch’s sporty styling. Explore the rev band, and you can easily shuffle things along at the head of traffic.

IMG_3546

While the Swift LE can be had with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic, it was the manual that we tested, and it was a treat to use, with precise and smooth changes.

Cluch take-up between first and second proved to be a little tight with not quite enough room to play with, but further up the gears, it levels out nicely.

IMG_3558

We took the Swift LE for the drive from Melbourne to Benalla in Victoria’s north-east, and the varying surfaces of the Hume and the secondary roads running off it, offered a good opportunity to get an idea of how the Swift manages NVH.

It’s fair to say the Swift is a quiet car, all round. Wind noise is low at freeway speeds, while only the rougher sections of road caused much in the way of tyre noise. The engine, working at around 2700rpm at 100km/h, has longer legs than some of its competitors, and goes about things with a muted rasp (and with mechanical vibration reasonably well-isolated from the cabin).

As for handling, the Swift is quite a bit more composed than you’d expect. Expectations of a car’s handling in this class can be pretty low, but that’s not a perspective shared by Suzuki.

IMG_3570

With MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, the Swift offers a firm ride, quite composed in the corners (surprisingly tight, actually) but soft enough to absorb bumps and uneven surfaces comfortably. It is nicely balanced, fun to row along and will tuck-in nicely if giving things a bit of stick.

Despite the Swift’s great handling, the front vented disc brakes and rear drum brakes can’t be described as more than adequate with relatively weak initial grab and stopping power not up with the best in the sector. This means you won’t spend too long in the twisties stretching things out.

Of course, in regular daily driving, they’ll do the job safely and well.

IMG_3589

Best of all, and here we can be thankful for that 1.5 litre engine, the Swift manages a fuel economy of just 6.3 l/100km for the manual, and 6.7 l/100km for the automatic.

The Verdict

Before all this ACCC pricing hoo-ha, I could have told you the Suzuki Swift LE five-speed manual can be had for $17,490 plus on-road costs - only a grand more than the regular model, and a lot of car for the money.

Whatever it ends up costing you (call your local Suzuki dealer for a more specific figure), the latter part of the above paragraph remains true. The Suzuki Swift LE, and the regular Swift, really is a great car for the money.

IMG_3601

And, in a hotly contested small car class (where it’s perhaps easy to spend too much for too little), the Swift is far from the worst choice you could make.

The brakes may not be the best for the more enthusiastic drivers, and the engine may lack the down-low power for those ‘eager beaver’ traffic light drags, but its a very balanced and appealing contender.