It's 2012, and motorists who nursed their old cars through the recession are back in the market for a new vehicle.
I drive a big black 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis, and even if I wanted a new 4,100 pound, full-size, rear-wheel drive behemoth I'd be hard pressed to find one. Ford phased out the Mercury brand in 2010 and 2011 was the last year for the sibling Ford Crown Victoria, a favorite of police forces and taxi companies despite its 1960s-like mileage around 18 mpg in combined city-highway driving.
The 4.6-liter V-8 was smooth and powerful, but I won't miss the mushy steering and floating in turns. On the highway though, driving the Merc was like taking a pleasure cruise -- as long as it was pointed in a straight line the 17 1/2-foot-long Merc smoothed every bump, expansion joint and most potholes.
This was a real American flying carpet, not a throw rug, but the day of the body-on-frame near gas-guzzler is over, and that also includes once popular Cadillacs, Lincolns and Buicks.
My "greatest generation" father-in-law owned three or four Grand Marquis before he died at 87. The last one I inherited with golf clubs in the trunk.
TrueCar.com compiled a list of the Top 10 cars bought by people more than 65 years of age in the past two years and the only surprise was Hyundai.
The Lincoln Town car, still popular with limousine and livery companies, was No. 1, with 90 percent of the Town Cars sold to seniors. The Buick Lucerne was second, with 87 percent bought by seniors; three Cadillacs -- the DTS, CTS an STS -- with 85 percent, 74 percent and 71 percent, respectively, sold to seniors, were third, four and fifth; the upmarket Hyundai Azera was No. 6, with 25 percent of sales to seniors; the Chevrolet Impala seventh, at 51 percent; the Buick LaCrosse eighth, 59 percent; the Lincoln MKZ No. 9 with 54 percent purchased by seniors and the Toyota Avalon was 10th, with 54 percent of sales of the large Toyota to seniors.
Of those 10 models, the Lucerne and Cadillac DTS and STS already are history, with the last ones produced last year.
But a vehicle doesn't have to be a geezer magnet to meet the same fate, Honda ditched its youth-oriented Element crossover and Mazda dropped the fun RX-8 rotary engine sports car. Without sales to older buyers five other cars on the automotive "bucket list" also would have been retired.
Seniors in good health, with good eyesight and good driving records are expected to help boost U.S. auto sales to nearly 14 million units this year after the industry sold nearly 12.8 million vehicles in 2011, the best sales year since 2008.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler each posted higher sales last year, with Chrysler reporting a 26.2 percent increase with sales of 1,085,211 vehicles. GM sales were up 13.2 percent over 2010 with sales of 2,211,091 and Ford had an 11 percent gain, selling nearly 2 million vehicles.
Automakers sold more than 1.2 million cars and trucks in December alone, up 24.4 percent from November, with improved domestic cars making inroads and grabbing sales from Japanese manufacturers, whose production was slowed by last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan and months of flooding in Thailand where factories make key parts and electronics components.
Automotive consulting firm R.L. Polk projects vehicle sales will jump 6.7 percent worldwide this year to 77.7 million.
"More affluent buyers are returning to the market for new vehicles, after three years of spending reductions," said Anthony Pratt, R. L. Polk director of forecasting for the Americas, in a report.
Auto Show time
Lincoln is expected to unveil a concept for its flagship MKZ sedan at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week, presenting a roomy future luxury model that may have major appeal to older drivers.
Lincolns have been consistently rated among the most reliable new vehicles but Ford's styling has been a sore point for some buyers as competing luxury and near-luxury vehicles are looking sleeker and cooler.
"This is the biggest statement Lincoln has ever made at an auto show," Max Wolff, director of design for Lincoln, said in a statement as Lincoln is more than doubling its floor display area as it seeks to relaunch the brand. "Our NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show) display represents more than a vehicle debut," said Wolff. "It represents the reinvention of Lincoln."
Ford will show an all-new 2013 midsize Fusion, refreshing of one of its best selling cars. Dodge revives and updates the commuter-friendly Dart, with the new version of the compact expected to get 40 mpg on the highway, and Chevy shows the Malibu Eco hybrid, which is expected to get 37 mpg highway, The Detroit News said.
Ford says its 2012 Focus Electric recharges faster than the U.S.-built, all-electric Nissan Leaf, which debuted last year.
The 2012 North American International Auto Show runs from Jan. 14-22 at Cobo Center in Detroit.
One of the things I've done religiously to prolong the life of the big Merc is change the oil every 3,000 miles, but California officials indicate I may have been wasting money.
Officials at the state Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery point out that almost no automaker requires oil changes every 3,000 miles, and they say such unwarranted service probably wastes 10 million of gallons of oil a year in California alone.
While an oil change is a cheap way to buy some peace of mind about possible damage from a possibly dirty engine, California officials say modern oils developed for high-tech engines typically can go 7,500 to 10,000 miles between oil changes.
The days of hot pistons slapping the cylinders in a cast-iron engine block are long gone like chrome bumpers, balloon white-wall tires, and metal dashboards.
A department Web site, www.CheckYourNumber.org, urges motorists to follow manufacturers' recommendations for vehicle service.
"The 3,000-mile oil change just says that the marketing campaign by quick-lube companies has been effective," Steve Mazor, manager of the Auto Club of Southern California's Automotive Research Center told the Los Angeles Times.
Ford recommends most of its newer vehicles get oil changes every 10,000 miles, with only a few at 7,500 miles. Japan's Honda has no recommendation for the interval between oil changes. Other manufacturers also are letting a computer determine maintenance requirements for a vehicle based on mileage, climate and other variables, the Times said.
A survey by NPD Group in August found more than half of vehicle owners (51 percent) said oil should be changed every 3,000 miles, or three months, and just one-third went 4,000 miles or more between oil changes.
A worker at a quick-lube franchise stripped the oil drain plug in my wife's Toyota on her last visit and it cost us a couple of hundred dollars for a new oil pan and gasket when our mechanic discovered he couldn't get the stuck plug out 3,000 miles later.
My wife called the lube outlet manager to complain and was told the employee who had changed her oil no longer worked there.