On the Money

Drive on! As cars surge, which should consumers bank on?

Full speed ahead

Auto sales hit a record in May, reaching the strongest monthly pace at an annual rate of 17.8 million since July 2005, according to Autodata. The industry is looking at six consecutive years of growth, with no immediate signs of slowing down.

"Sales are red hot right now," said Consumer Reports Deputy Auto Editor Jeff Bartlett. "It's not surprising because there was such a glut of sales just a few years ago. So it's nice to see this economic market really coming to life."

What are consumers buying? Due to low gas prices, pickups, SUVs and crossover vehicles are very popular and automakers with a strong lineup in these categories are seeing success. Fiat Chrysler sales rose 4 percent in May compared to a year ago, while General Motors was up 3 percent.

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Bartlett, however, warned that consumers should not buy just because of the sales surge. "There are certainly great deals being advertised right now, but it's always important to step back and think, 'Is that the right deal for me?' "

Buyers should first assess whether they plan to own the car for the long haul, or if their circumstances might change in the near future, Bartlett said. That makes the difference between leasing and buying.

Bartlett also recommended not buying a brand new car. He said the value of a new car drops 46 percent over three years, the typical time of a lease. To enjoy the full value of a car, he said to buy a "nearly" new car, around roughly 2-3 years old, which will still have the most up-to-date safety and tech features.

Consumer Reports has analyzed more than 200 vehicles on road-test scores, predicted reliability, and five-year owner-cost estimates. Among them, the Toyota Prius, Subaru Forester and Nissan Frontier ranked among the best.

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