It's 12:30 a.m. and you're strolling back to your car after dinner and the theater. When you arrive at the parking spot, there's a big space where your Saab used to be. Has it been towed? No such luck. Chances are you've joined the 1.8 million car owners who have had their wheels lifted in the past year.
The odds that your car will be stolen or vandalized have shot up in a decade. One in 119 cars is swiped now, vs. one in 151 cars in 1981. Luckily, there is a slew of electronic systems ranging from under $200 to nearly $1,000 that can thwart, or at least considerably slow down, both amateur and professional car thieves. If you're willing to pay extra, you can also pick up systems that offer such conveniences as the ability to unlock your car doors by remote control.
An added incentive: Many insurers will deduct 5% to 20% from an annual car-insurance premium for vehicles with antitheft equipment. A few states, including New York and Texas, mandate deductions for some devices.
STARTER KILL. If you're shopping for a new car, you should look for one that comes with an antitheft device. Since auto makers tend to install devices the same way on each model, you might want to add extra detection sensors to foil the thief who has disabled a similar factory-installed system.
Especially effective is General Motors' PASS-KEY system. A microchip embedded on the ignition key must match a code in an on-board computer before the car will start. If someone tries to use a duplicate key without the chip or hot-wire the car, the ignition and fuel systems shut down. Since PASS-KEY became standard on Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds in 1989, the rate of thefts has dropped by 67% and 65%, respectively.
If you're planning to add a system to your car, stick with established alarm companies such as Excalibur, Alpine, Code-Alarm, Clifford Electronics, Crimestopper, Directed Electronics, and Audiovox. Look for lifetime warranties. Also insist on two features: passive arming, which will automatically turn on the alarm when you leave the car, and a starter kill, which will prevent most thieves from starting the engine even if they silence the siren.
For about $250 installed, Directed Electronics' Viper 600 comes with a starter kill, flashing lights, shock sensors that detect sharp blows to the vehicle, a siren, automatic arming, and two remote controls that can trigger the alarm from a distance. For about $30 more, the Alpine 8040 comes with many of the same features, but also includes a radar sensor that chirps a warning, then sounds the siren if someone comes within a foot or two of the car. It also has a power backup in case the battery cable is cut. As with most newer systems, the siren shuts off and resets itself after 60 seconds.
If you're interested in a more basic but upgradable system, the Excalibur AL 700--for $150 installed--comes with automatic arming, starter kill, a siren, and two remote panic buttons that allow you to set off the alarm before you reach the car. You can purchase glass-breakage and shock sensors for an additional $30 to $40.
To combine convenience with protection, check out Crimestopper's Hi-Pro 9245MX for about $700 installed. Its remote control will unlock and lock doors, open the trunk, and start the engine to warm up or cool down the car before you climb in.
TRACER TRAP. As an alternative to an alarm, LoJack, Code-Alarm, PacTel Teletrac, and others offer systems that help locate cars after they're stolen. These systems entail installing a small transmitter in the car. Once the car is reported stolen, police can turn on the transmitter and trace the signal. Although their recovery rate is high, these devices cost $500 to $3,000, plus some require a monthly monitoring fee of about $20. Also, each system is available in only a handful of markets.
While no antitheft system will thwart the most determined crooks, "anything is better than nothing," says Ken MacKenzie, auto theft investigator for the Richardson (Tex.) police department. "The longer it takes to get into a vehicle, the greater the chance of being detected. The car thief's enemy is time."
No matter which system you choose, don't forget precautions that cost nothing. As MacKenzie notes, half of all stolen cars aren't locked. And one in five has a key in the ignition.