Personal Finance

Toyota Prius gets best-value rating from Consumer Reports

Ownership cost: 47 cents per mile

For the second consecutive year, the Toyota Prius liftback topped Consumer Reports’ annual list of vehicles giving buyers the best bang for their automotive buck. The hulking Nissan Armada SUV won the prize for the worst value.

Consumer Reports said the Prius had the best combination of reliability, resale value, fuel economy and driving performance of the cars measured by the magazine.

The five-year ownership cost of the hybrid amounts to 47 cents per mile. The Armada, by comparison, will set its owner back $1.20 a mile. It gets only 13 mpg overall and scored poorly in Consumer Reports’ annual reliability survey.

“The Prius’ 44 mpg overall is the best fuel economy of any non-plug-in car that Consumer Reports has tested,” said Consumer Reports Automotive Editor Rik Paul. “Though it’s not particularly cheap to buy, the Prius’ depreciation is so low that it costs less to own over the first five years than its initial MSRP.”

Indeed, inexpensive cars didn’t always fare well in the Consumer Reports assessment.

“Just because a car is cheap to buy doesn’t mean it’s a good value. The Nissan Versa Sedan, for example, is one of the least expensive cars that Consumer Reports has tested,” Paul said. “For about $1,500 more, we’d go with a Honda Fit, which is fun to drive, cheaper to own, more reliable, and provides almost twice the value.”

The Fit scored second to the Prius in the magazine’s compact/subcompact car category; the Versa scored near the bottom of the pack. The Volkswagen Beetle with the 2.5-liter engine scored the lowest.

For large cars, Consumer Reports scored the Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited as the best value and the Ford Taurus Limited as the worst.

In luxury cars, the Lexus ES 300h hybrid ranked at the top and the BMW 750Li was at the bottom.

Consumer Reports liked the Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring as the best value among sports cars and convertibles and said the Chevrolet Camaro convertible 2SS with a V-8 engine was the worst.

Mazda also scored the highest in the wagons/minivans category with its Mazda5 Grand Touring. Chrysler’s Town Country Touring-L ranked lowest.

In small SUVs, the Subaru Forester 2.5i Premium was the best and the Ford Escape SE with the 1.6-liter, turbocharged engine was last.

For midsized SUVs, Nissan’s Murano SL ranked highest while the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara was at the bottom.

The next two groupings included odd sets of vehicles that didn’t really go together, said Jack Nerad, an analyst at car shopping website Kelley Blue Book.

Consumer Reports named the small BMW X1 xDrive28i as the top value in a luxury/large SUV category and the giant Nissan Armada Platinum as the poorest value.

“I can’t imagine these cars ever being cross-shopped,” Nerad said. “One can almost fit in the other one.”

Likewise, the magazine said the Honda Ridgeline RTS was the best value in a pickup truck and the Ford F-250 Lariat with the 6.7-liter, V-8 engine – a heavy-duty truck – as the worst value.

“You are talking apples and bananas there,” Nerad said. “I can’t see one as a substitute for another.”

He said that when Kelley Blue Book does comparisons, it uses more narrow groupings that mirror how consumers shop.

“We look at vehicles that would be shopped against each other,” he said.

Consumer Reports conceded that not all the cars in the categories are directly comparable but said it wanted to condense the categories into just 10 groups.

Mobile ads surging

Research firm eMarketer expects spending on mobile advertisements to hit nearly $9.6 billion in the U.S. this year, up from $4.4 billion in 2012 and from less than $1.6 billion in 2011.

Mobile ads now represent nearly 23 percent of the money companies spend on digital advertising, or ads people see on their computers, tablets and mobile phones. That’s up from about 12 percent last year and less than 5 percent in 2011.

Facebook, which began showing mobile ads in 2012 and Google, which has by far the biggest share of the digital advertising market, account for much of this growth.

EMarketer expects Facebook Inc. to surpass Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. when it comes to digital ad revenue this year, behind only Google Inc.

November home sales decline

The number of people who bought existing U.S. homes in November declined for the third straight month. Higher mortgage rates have made home-buying more expensive, while the lingering effect of the October government shutdown might have deterred some sales.

Home re-sales fell 4.3 percent to an annual rate of 4.90 million, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. That was the weakest pace since December 2012 and the first time since April that the pace has slipped below 5 million.

Still, the Realtors’ group predicts that total sales this year will be 5.1 million. That would be the strongest since 2007, when the housing bubble burst. But it’s still below the 5.5 million generally associated with healthy housing markets.

Home sales could rebound in the new year if the strengthening job market lifts incomes and builds confidence in the economy.

Over the summer, re-sales reached a pace of 5.39 million, the fastest in four years. But sales began to slow in September as the costs of buying a home rose.

Mortgage rates up slightly

Average U.S. rates for fixed mortgages rose slightly this week but remained near historically low levels.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday the rate on the 30-year loan increased to 4.47 percent from 4.42 percent last week. The average on the 15-year fixed loan rose to 3.51 percent from 3.43 percent.

Mortgage rates peaked at 4.6 percent in August and have stabilized since September, when the Federal Reserve surprised markets by taking no action on starting to reduce its $85 billion-a month bond purchases. The Fed decided this week that the outlook for the economy appeared strong enough for it to reduce the monthly bond purchases starting in January by $10 billion.

The purchases are designed to keep long-term rates such as mortgage rates low.

A government report issued Wednesday showed that U.S. builders broke ground on homes in November at the fastest pace in more than five years, strong evidence that the housing recovery is accelerating despite higher mortgage rates.

Jobless applications rise

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 379,000, the highest since March. The increase may reflect volatility around the Thanksgiving holidays.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the less volatile four-week average jumped 13,250 to 343,250, the second straight increase.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Last month, they fell to nearly the lowest level in six years, as companies cut fewer jobs. But two weeks ago, they surged 64,000 to 369,000.

Economists dismissed that spike, saying it likely reflected a Thanksgiving holiday that fell later in the month. That can distort the government’s seasonal adjustments. But if the trend continues it would be a troubling sign of rising layoffs.

The number of people receiving benefits rose sharply. More than 4.4 million people received unemployment benefits in the week ended Nov. 30, the latest data available. That was 600,000 more than the previous week. Those figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal patterns.

Fed action punishes gold

Gold dropped below $1,200 an ounce to a five-month low as the Federal Reserve trimmed economic stimulus, reducing demand for a store of value. Silver tumbled.

The Fed will cut monthly asset purchases to $75 billion from $85 billion, “reflecting cumulative progress and an improved outlook for the job market,” Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said yesterday after officials concluded a two-day meeting. Gold rose 70 percent from December 2008 to June 2011 as the Fed pumped more than $2 trillion into the financial system.

Gold futures for February delivery fell 3 percent to $1,197.50 an ounce at 10:49 a.m. on the Comex in New York after dropping to $1,192, the lowest since June 28. Prices tumbled into a bear market in April and are heading for the first annual decline in 13 years, as investors lost faith in the metal. Through yesterday, futures plunged 36 percent since reaching a record $1,923.70 in September 2011.

“Some people may have been holding out hope that we could get a rally if we didn’t get the Fed’s taper, but they’re throwing in the towel at this point,” Frank Lesh, a trader at FuturePath Trading LLC in Chicago, said in a telephone interview. “The market believes the Fed that a gradual taper isn’t going to stop the recovery.”

Red Lobster on the market

Darden Restaurants wants to set Red Lobster adrift.

The company said Thursday that it is looking to either spin off or sell Red Lobster as part of its plan to boost value for its shareholders. Those plans also include suspending the opening of new Olive Garden locations and limit the opening of new LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants.

Darden Restaurants Inc. has also decided it won’t make any acquisitions of additional brands “for the foreseeable future” and plans to review senior management’s compensation and incentive programs so that there is more direct emphasis on same-store restaurant sales growth and free cash flow.

Its stock fell in Thursday morning trading.

Red Lobster has 705 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada and is the biggest full service dining seafood specialty restaurant operator in North America. Its fiscal 2013 sales were about $2.6 billion.

California phone bill

Two California officials have announced plans to introduce legislation requiring smartphones to have a “kill switch” that would render stolen or lost devices inoperable.

State Sen. Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced Thursday that the bill they believe will be the first of its kind in the United States will be formally introduced in January at the start of the 2014 legislative session.

Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, joins Gascon, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and other law enforcement officials nationwide who have been demanding that manufacturers create kill switches to combat surging smartphone theft across the country.

“One of the top catalysts for street crime in many California cities is smartphone theft, and these crimes are becoming increasingly violent,” Leno said. “We cannot continue to ignore our ability to utilize existing technology to stop cellphone thieves in their tracks. It is time to act on this serious public safety threat to our communities.”

Almost 1 in 3 U.S. robberies involve phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Lost and stolen mobile devices – mostly smartphones – cost consumers more than $30 billion last year, according to a study cited by Schneiderman in June.

Star news services