Those Perennial Kings of the Road

Car sales will always ebb and flow, influenced as they are by the vagaries of the economy, consumer confidence, and the offers dealers brandish to make sure potential buyers drive a model off the lot today. But some cars just seem to sell themselves, day in and day out, even if the industry at large suffers a slowdown, as some analysts expect it to do soon.

As it happens, most perennial hot sellers are foreign, although they come in various flavors. There are the trendsetters--new cars that are long on good looks but often a little short on staying power. (Remember the New Beetle or the PT Cruiser?) There are the exotics: the Lamborghinis and Maseratis, with the occasional Dodge Viper thrown in. There are lots of luxury cars bought by the wealthy, no matter the current state of their stock portfolios. And there are the stodgy cars that succeed as long as they set the benchmark in their categories--especially if they're Hondas.

Take that proverbial beige minivan, the aging Honda Odyssey. Last redesigned four years ago, a bare-bones 2003 model goes for about $25,000. And don't look for cash back or 0% financing: Odysseys are in such short supply that buyers have to pay a dealer some $3,000 over the sticker price just to get one, according to auto-pricing expert Inc. Honda dealers also exact a premium for the $27,000 Pilot sport-utility vehicle and aim to do the same for the brand-new Honda Accord family sedan, which hit showrooms last month. Other seemingly recession-proof cars include the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Volkswagen Passat.

The current darling of the fashionistas is BMW's Mini Cooper, the stubby retromobile with an appeal far beyond that of the original's cult following. But the Mini isn't quite the jaunty, affordable ride that its designers envisioned: The in-crowd is happy to fork over $3,000 more than its $17,000 list price. Still, BMW should have no trouble moving the 20,000 Minis it hopes to sell in the U.S. this year.

At least it's possible to get a Mini. Not so Nissan's sporty 350Z. For now, at least, it's still being built to order--for those who put down their deposits before the July 31 cutoff date. Come December, the sports car, which starts at $27,000, will be more widely available at whatever markup the market will bear. Other cars with buzz: Toyota's $15,000 Matrix and Mazda's $17,000 Protégé5, both sport wagons.

Sales of luxury cars always hold up better than those of their downmarket brethren when the industry starts to slip. The rich, it seems, can better withstand the vicissitudes of a shaky economy. A prestige image counts: Witness the bulletproof prices of the Mercedes-Benz SL ($87,000 to $115,000) or BMW's 7 Series ($68,000 to $72,000.) BMW's sporty 3 Series, now in the crosshairs of every luxury auto maker, continues to sell at a whopping 10,000-a-month pace. But value doesn't hurt, either. The hottest seller in the entry-luxury category is Infiniti's $28,000 G35 sedan. Outfitted in leather, the car costs $5,000 less than the much smaller BMW 330i.

Even the luxury trade has its fads. This year's is a militaristic fetish led by a trio of big, bellicose SUVs: the $50,000 Hummer H2, $70,000 Range Rover, and the Mercedes G500 at $73,000. Given the heightened concern with personal security, that just goes to show that sometimes the cars people buy simply reflect the national zeitgeist.

By Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles

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