Autos on your mind? Check out these picks from our car guy
Did you know: There are more than 3,450 different new models on sale right now.* We sort through them and pick some winners.
*This is not true.
It’s a great time to be buying a new car. A technological revolution is sweeping the industry, with lightweight materials and high efficiency drivetrains appearing at all levels. For the first time since someone put their horse on a diet, vehicles are actually getting lighter—Ford’s new aluminum F150, for example, is dropping 700 pounds. That not only makes it possible to do the same work with less engine, but also has subtle benefits like longer tire life and shorter braking distances. And with significantly improved new models appearing all the time, there’s a nice opportunity for bargain hunting in the summer and fall. For those of us who remember car buying in the dark days of the ’70s and ’80s, it’s an amazing time to be alive. Check out these nine suggestions, which cover the demographic gamut.
If you’re really pinching pennies, you end up in the $14,000 realm of the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris—which are terrible—and Ford Fiesta, which is not. In fact, while those cars share base prices in the Fiesta’s range, real-world prices put the Fiesta in its own little niche, where you can find the sedan starting at under $12,000. We’ve seen discounted Nissans under $10,000 and while the Toyota and Nissan (and Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic) will cost more, they’re not better. Fiesta has the best interior ever put in an economy car. It looks great (at least the hatchback does; the sedan is odd) and best, is flat-out wonderful to drive. It’s Ford’s little gift to working people.
A Little Flair
Dodge Dart SXT Blacktop
In the past, the Dart has had a few issues—let’s get that out in the open. The 1.4- and 2.0-liter turbo engines have been trouble-prone, coupled to a lousy transmission and disappointingly inefficient. But for 2014, the SXT loses the turbo and gains displacement with a 184hp 2.4. Mileage is rated at 22 MPG urban/35 MPG highway, but unlike the ’13, it should actually be able to produce those numbers, and hopefully be far more reliable as well. Where Dart has always shone is in fun-to-drive, with an Alfa Romeo chassis underneath delivering a great ride/handling balance. Stepping up to the $295 Blacktop package gets you the Rallye appearance group, plus a very slick Sport interior and comprehensive blackout exterior with dark 18-inch aluminum wheels. You could probably find a better all-around car for the (about $19,000) price, like a crazy-good three-door Mazda3 or Ford Focus, but the Dodge has it all over them on looks.
There are very, very few hardcore enthusiasts’ cars offered for sale. It’s a limited market that includes Porsche’s 911 GT3 and occasional Clubsport or Speedster models; a couple of Lotuses; and the SRT Viper (SRT is a separate brand from Dodge now). All of those are high-strung, high-dollar exotics, which between maintenance and breakdowns will eat money faster than a Russian Olympic contractor. Then there’s Subaru. The BRZ (and its Scion FR-S twin) comes with a ludicrous back seat and a $25,595 sticker, a third of the price of the cheapest Lotus. A little 2.0-liter flat-four spits 200hp out the back wheels and it’s the most fun you can have by yourself.
Family On A Budget
Mazda3 i Touring
Drive around Europe and you won’t see families piling out of minivans or SUVs. You’ll see station wagons and tall hatchbacks, which hold nine-tenths of the stuff in half the footprint—important not only in congested cities, but also for the fuel efficiency a smaller car returns. Mazda is in the middle of building a series of small cars that are doing serious damage to the other players in the market, and are now offering their Skyactiv high-efficiency suite of improvements on the all-new Mazda3 i (a larger-engine S trim is also available), including optional i-ELOOP regenerative braking. It’s finished like an Audi inside, it’s great to drive and full-size adults now fit in the back seat. At a $20,000 base price, there’s almost no competition.
VW Passat Sport
“Sport” gets thrown around a lot, and there isn’t exactly an international monitoring agency making sure it’s used correctly. So what does the new Sport trim on a Passat bring? Mainly, it’s a spiffed-up trim level to fit between SE and SEL Premium, extremely well equipped for a $27,295 (manual; $28,495 automatic) MSRP. It will be easy to distinguish with 19-inch Luxor multispoke alloys, all-black roof, front foglamps and rear spoiler, and a unique interior with deep seats. Competitors like the BMW 320i and Audi A4 2.0T can match the content, but need at least $6,000 more to do so. That, friends, is a lot of car for the money.
Make Mine Muscle
Two Fords? It was a struggle not to have more, because Ford is going from strength to strength. But Mustang deserves a place on any list, because it is an authentically good value in any trim. Even a V-6 makes 305hp and stickers at $22,510 for a coupe. Step up to a V-8, though, and you get 420hp from the epic 5.0-liter Coyote V-8. As you’d hope after 50 years of production, Ford has this thing figured out, and everything about it just plain works. It goes like stink, yet is comfortable enough to drive anywhere, every day. The interior might be a little hard and shiny, but that’s the price you pay for not paying a very high price. Hold off on your shopping until the end of summer, and you’ll find huge discounts in advance of an all-new 2015 Mustang.
Family Not On A Budget
Chrysler Town & Country Limited
The T&C is less a vehicle than a really, really nice hotel room on wheels, one that accepts both pets and children and doesn’t charge for the minibar. The more-or-less inventors of the minivan have continually refined their game over the last 30 years, and the result is essentially perfection. It’s not just the list of features that makes it so pleasant, and it is a long, long list—I mean, how many USB ports can you actually use in one vehicle?—but the execution that makes you feel so good. Sure, the new front end is very ugly indeed, but the rest of the vehicle is so well-thought-out and nice to be in that you just don’t care.
This Sporting Life
BMWs are not as pretty as they once were, and the lineup is a lot more confusing. For instance, BMW says this isn’t a “true” M car, and thus isn’t the M2. But at the same time it’s a sporting variant on the 2-series, so it gets the M badge. The good news is on the inside, where you get the best driving position in any BMW, raucous noise from the turbo four (like the original M3’s four-cylinder engine), sticky tires, big brakes and a sport suspension. In fact, it’s very reminiscent of an old M3, in all good ways. Option it with a six-speed manual, and you’d actually have a real sports car, just like BMW used to make.
Born To Be A Baller
If you ever wanted to drive a car of the future, possibly one built for a cyber gangster, Cadillac has your ride. Cadillac’s design language is called Art & Science, and ELR is an Art & Science concept car driven right off the Detroit show floor. Inside and out, what they call an “electrified compact luxury coupe” is crazy dramatic and imposing, with a huge faux grille and startling proportions. Power is adapted from the Chevrolet Volt, a small gas engine and big battery pack. It’s not terribly fast, but like the Volt, it’s fantastic to drive and highly efficient. If you showed this car to a kid reading a comic book and said it was from the future, he wouldn’t be surprised. Plus, they only sold 42 in January 2014, so you’ll be the only one in that exclusive club.