Aug. 24, 2009 -- The Cash for Clunkers program officially ends this evening, so would you like to learn another way to save a pile of money on a brand new car? A method that you can use anytime, 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 Web site 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 20 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 the United States but Moody wonders what all the fuss is about. "The Malibu, by comparison, looks and feels more elegant and even more stylish," Moody said. "Features like OnStar and satellite radio are standard even on reasonably priced mid-level versions."
Moody points out that many people buy more SUV than they need. He said 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 said.
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 said newer car buyers should take a look, too. He said 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 percent in the first three years, so a 3-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 percent more. So, if you want to cut costs, it might be smart to put your money on a dark horse.