Chrysler is now part of Fiat. General Motors, steering a different route through bankruptcy, will soon be largely owned by taxpayers. Nearly in the blink of an eye, two of Detroit's famed Big Three have joined the short list of America's largest corporate failures, alongside WorldCom, Enron and Lehman Brothers.

What's a prospective car buyer to do - other than, like the rest of us, take a deep breath and mutter about fate or the grace of God?

Actually, that deep breath is a good idea. This may be a good time to buy a car, perhaps a great time. Bargains are everywhere. But before you jump, it's important to consider how the U.S. auto market has been altered by the controlled crashes of Chrysler and General Motors.

Right now, making the choice of whether and what to buy is a little like navigating high-speed traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway - full of dangers, but safe enough if you pay close attention.

One key thing changed last week: If you buy a new Chrysler now, you'll be buying from a company that has finally put bankruptcy into its rear-view mirror and is looking to rebuild its reputation.

"I'm a contrarian," says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America and author of the annual guide The Car Book. "For the most part, it's a great time to buy a Chrysler."

The main reason for his advice, Gillis said, is that discounts increase the relative value of the new Chrysler's products. And it is a company motivated to make deals.

"It's definitely a buyer's market," agreed Bruce M. Belzowski, an industry expert at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "They want to move the metal."

Belzowski said a proposed "cash-for-clunkers" program, which passed the House last week and would offer vouchers worth up to $4,500 to consumers who trade in gas-guzzling vehicles, may soon help, as should the end-of-model-year clearance efforts.

It's sad that this is also one of those times when you can profit from other people's misfortune.

"Obviously, dealers are desperate to sell, especially dealers that are going out of business as a result of the bankruptcy," Gillis said.

"These cars are often being sold significantly below dealer cost."

Can a great deal compensate for a less-than-perfect car? Possibly, if you're willing to acknowledge that every vehicle comes with trade-offs.

If getting a steep discount enables you to get something closer to your dream ride, you may come out ahead.

Gillis, for instance, said he remained a fan of Chrysler's minivans, partly for their safety.

In a combined score of front and side crash tests developed for the latest version of The Car Book, the guide rates the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan near the top, equal to the Honda Odyssey and well ahead of such vehicles as the Kia Rondo and Nissan Quest.

Consumer Reports, a widely trusted guide to vehicle functional design and quality, currently recommends just two minivans, including the Odyssey, and downgrades the Grand Caravan for owner satisfaction and reliability.

But even before any discounts, the Grand Caravan lists for thousands of dollars less than the Odyssey - enough to pay for a long-term service contract and still save money.

Financial experts say depreciation is another concern, particularly if you're considering a brand or nameplate that may change owners or vanish. But they say it's less of an issue for those who plan to drive a new vehicle for a long time rather than trade it in three years.

Buyers considering GM cars should consider that until the automaker completes its restructuring, customers face some uncertainties. For example, consumer advocates worry that, like Chrysler, GM may succeed in avoiding responsibility for defects in vehicles sold by the "old GM."

But Gillis and Belzowski both said quality concerns shouldn't scare away buyers from Chrysler or GM vehicles, even if Chrysler, in particular, has a reputation to overcome. The Treasury Department identified "quality scores that lag behind those of competitors" as one of four key roadblocks in Chrysler's quest for long-term viability, according to an April report by the Government Accountability Office.

The purchase by Fiat directly addressed another of the four: a shortage of smaller cars in Chrysler's product mix. Belzowski says there's reason to hope that Fiat, building on a decade of its own success, can help overcome Chrysler's other shortcomings, too.

"The new management team came in and really turned them [Fiat] around," Belzowski said. Fiat managers streamlined operations, focused on building competency within the company, and dropped brands or vehicles that were not doing well.

And he said Chrysler, like Ford and GM, has continued to improve.

"They're making much better cars than they were 10 years ago," he said.

"They've learned from their competitors that you can't give up," Belzowski said.

"You've always got to be looking for ways to improve your quality, because that's how you'll improve your reputation."

Help in buying a vehicle

For more information on the bankruptcy and in buying vehicles from Consumer Reports, go to http://go.philly.com/car1

For ratings on dependability after three years and other comparisons from J.D. Power & Associates, go to http://go.philly.com/car2

For crash-test and rollover ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, go to http://go.philly.com/car3

For crash-test data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, go to http://go.philly.com/car4

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Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.