Have We Got a Deal for You

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Zero-percent auto financing has returned, as Detroit seeks to boost sagging sales. The free-money deals from Ford and General Motors on select 2002 models are a boon for consumers, saving them thousands of dollars in interest. Unfortunately, not all consumers can participate. To qualify for free or even cheap financing, you need a credit history that's close to pristine.

But there's another way to save as much, if not more. This is the time of year that manufacturers offer big incentives to their dealers (or directly to their customers) to move the 2002 stock off the lots to make room for the incoming 2003s. So buyers now have some additional bargaining power. "With May and June sales down, the backlog of 2002 models has grown substantially," says Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. As a result, "automakers are now dealing more than ever."

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That's especially true of the large number of vehicles being redesigned or discontinued for 2003. From compact cars to popular sedans to luxury vehicles, they are available in just about every body type. If you are flexible enough in your choice of make and model to entertain one of these changeover cars, you can find a terrific deal. "It's not unusual to save a couple of thousand on a sticker price of $20,000 or $30,000," says Bob Brisco, CEO of CarsDirect.com.

Here are five such cars to consider. The first three are being redesigned; the last two are being discontinued. Remember, prices will vary by region. The indicated MSRP, which is the manufacturer's suggested retail price (the sticker price), and the dealer invoice, which is about what the dealer pays for the car, are for base vehicles in Los Angeles. The price quoted is from CarsDirect.com, which sells autos from all makers on a no-haggle basis on the Internet. You may be able to get a better price with a dealer if you are willing to bargain hard.

--Honda Accord (2.3 LX sedan). MSRP: $20,150. Invoice: $18,141. Price: $16,734.

--Mercedes E320 (sedan). MSRP: $49,115. Invoice: $46,324. Price: $44,774.

--Saab 9-3 (SE hatchback). MSRP: $29,820. Invoice: $28,558. Price: $26,358.

--Cadillac Eldorado (ETC). MSRP: $46,035. Invoice: $43,092. Price: $38,892.

--Mercury Cougar (V6 coupe). MSRP: $17,495. Invoice: $16,339. Price: $14,889.

A cautionary note: You may think waiting until the dealers are down to their final stock will result in an even better deal. But this is one case, Brisco says, where patience doesn't necessarily pay. "When the dealers run out of these cars, that's it," he says. "So the risk you run by waiting too long is that the color, the equipment package or the other options you want are gone." And if your credit happens to be rock solid, you may be able to lump a terrific price with 0% financing on three of these cars: the Saab, the Cadillac and the Mercury.

These particular autos may not be exactly what you have had in mind, but the trade-off is worth it. "Don't be married to only one model in a market segment," suggests Spinella. "If Corolla is your preferred small car, don't pass up a look at Saturn. The quality is about the same, but manufacturer incentives may easily provide an additional $1,000 or more in savings." Or gas money.

You can e-mail Jean at moneytalk@moneymail.com