The sad truth is that many car shoppers do not properly research a vehicle before they buy. Instead, they make their decision based on a model’s reputation, which causes some great cars to get overlooked.
It’s easy to head to your nearest Toyota dealership and pick up the latest Camry, Corolla or RAV4. But savvy shoppers can get a much better vehicle if they’re willing to stray from the mainstream options, which may not be as good as their reputation would lead you to believe. So for those who want the best car for their money, let’s get started.
As the best selling hybrid vehicle in the United States, the Prius seems like the obvious choice when looking for a hyper fuel-efficient vehicle. But the famed Prius has always suffered from sluggish acceleration, excessive road noise and a low-quality interior. Back when it was the one of the few hybrid options on the road (and when gas prices were higher) these issues were forgivable. But as the model ages and competition grows stronger, the Prius looks less and less attractive.
The little-known Ford C-Max Hybrid solves nearly all the major problems facing the Toyota Prius. With 188 horsepower at the driver’s disposal, the C-Max feels just like a normal car, if not a little quicker due to its petite size. And with tight handling (as opposed to the wishy-washy ride in the Prius) you’ll be having too much fun to realize you’re still getting up to 42 miles per gallon in the city and 37 on the highway. Couple all that with the best interior in it’s class, a fancy infotainment system and more cargo room than the Prius, and you’ve got a no-brainer.
There are certainly worse 7-passenger crossovers on the market, but the Nissan Rogue isn’t the cream of the crop either. There’s no doubt that the Rogue offers a good amount of passenger space and room for cargo, but the ponderous driving nature makes this crossover a tough sell. The Rogue comes with a 170 horsepower four-cylinder engine that just doesn’t quite cut it for quick accelerations. Unfortunately, there’s no larger engine option on the Rogue. Everything else, including interior design, features and safety are all average.
Looks are arbitrary, but we’ve fallen in love with the upscale design of the new Santa Fe. With plenty of passenger space in the first two rows and enough room for youth in the 3rd row, the Santa Fe can easily accomodate a flourishing family living the American dream. Thankfully, Hyundai realizes that a big 7-passenger crossover requires a serious engine, so they’ve made a 290 horsepower V6 standard on every model. This extra grunt gives the Santa Fe a generous 5,000lbs of towing capacity, making it ever-more practical.
We’re not picking on Honda here. Most people who buy a Honda Accord have zero complaints and the Accord is still “the one to beat” in the midsize sedan segment. But Accord buyers aren’t inspired by their car, either. Even though the 2015 Accord is sportier than previous models, it now suffers from an excessively bumpy ride —not something you want to live with day to day. These days you can get a sedan that’s practical, reliable, comfortable and rewarding to drive. Sound too good to be true? Scroll down.
With looks that could kill, the Ford Fusion is a mid-market sedan that would make an Audi A4 feel self-conscious. That’s not so surprising when you learn the Fusion’s catfish design was inspired by Aston Martin. The same high-regard goes for the interior as well. You’ll only find top-shelf materials and expert craftsmanship in the Fusion, who’s cabin design is both functional and attractive. There’s plenty of technology features, like MyFord Touch, which allows you to customize the various settings on the Fusion. Besides all that, the Ford offers multiple engine choices for the Fusion, each one fuel-efficient and powerful. But those looking for the most muscle will opt for the turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine that produces 240 horsepower. Something that will certainly seal-the-deal for some shoppers is the available all-wheel drive system, which isn’t typical offered in this range of sedans.
It’s getting harder and harder for a family hauler to stand out from the crowd. Automakers are fighting hard for every dollar and if you’re not constantly improving, you’ll fall behind in no time. That’s the story of the Toyota Venza. At one point the lackluster fuel-economy from the base 4 cylinder engine was passable, but with all the fuel-efficient options available today, that’s no longer the case. Sure, the Toyota Venza offers generous passenger room and some of the accessibility of minivan, but the substandard interior quality leaves a lot to be desired. With no third row option, we can’t think of a reason to pick the Toyota Venza as your primary grocery-getter.
Perhaps because of its polarizing looks, the Ford Flex is often overlooked in the large crossover segment. But that’s all the more reason to consider one —it’s a slow-mover on dealership lots, so you’ll likely be able to snag a good deal. The base Flex comes with a V6 making 287 horsepower, plenty for sprite accelerations. But if that’s not enough, Ford will slap a turbocharger on the V6 and boost the horsepower to a whopping 365. The Flex enjoys one of the most pleasant driving experiences from any large crossover, combining smooth power and a sublime ride —perfect for long road trips. As you’d expect from any box-shaped 7 passenger crossover, there’s plenty of space for your whippersnappers, two golden retrievers and all their stuff.
If Hyundai knows how to do one thing, it’s pack value into a car. With a low starting price, generous set of standard features and option packages that won’t squeeze your wallet dry, it’s tempting to head to your local Hyundai dealer and step into the first Elantra you see. But appearances (however attractive) can be deceiving, and buyers are continuously disappointed with the Elantra’s dull handling and sluggish engine. The same goes for the interior and features: it sounds great on paper, but once you step into the Elantra you can’t help but notice the downscale material and finish quality, as well as subpar electronics. Overall, the Hyundai Elantra and its extensive list of features is like going to an open-bar on new years eve —you think you’re going to leave loaded until you get there and realize all the drinks are watered down. The Elantra is a weak martini.
Now here’s a compact sedan that’s not all smoke and mirrors. Things like fuel-efficiency and reliability are pretty easy to accomplish in an economy sedan these days, but to make one fun to drive is truly special. The Mazda 3 is exactly that. With Mazda’s SkyActiv engine making 184 horsepower, the Mazda 3 has plenty of zest to offer. But it also gets up to 31 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on the highway, making it one of the most fuel-efficient sedans in its class. With sport-tuned suspension and sharp steering, the Mazda 3 is the most fun to drive as well. Last but not least, the Mazda 3 boasts a well-appointed interior with electronics that are easy to use, making it our top pick for the compact car class. If all you need is a little more room, check out the Mazda 6.
If you’re considering the Smart ForTwo, it’s probably because you live in a congested city where parking is scarce. Yes, the Smart ForTwo is by far the most park-able car on the road, but that comes at the expense of any usable cargo space. There’s also the issue of the Smart car being awful to drive. Between acceleration that makes a Prius seem like a dragster, a transmission that shifts like it’s just come out of a 10-year coma and road noise comparable to a Willy’s Jeep, the Smart ForTwo is the least pleasant car on the road. Think it’s all worth it because you’re saving money on fuel? Not so fast. The Smart ForTwo’s engine requires premium fuel which is more expensive, canceling out any real savings.
In spite of being one of the least-expensive cars on the road today, the Chevrolet Spark comes with a decent amount of standard equipment. Even on the most basic LS model, you’ll find conveniences like power windows and air conditioning. Stepping into the 1LT will get you keyless entry, cruise control, the MyLink infotainment system with a 7” touch screen, Bluetooth, voice recognition, a USB port and more. The Spark gets up to 31 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway, and you don’t need to use premium fuel. Perhaps best of all, the Spark has seating for 4, so you can have 3 friends instead of 1.
It’s often thought that Mercedes Benz is the epitome of luxury, but other automakers have caught up. The new ML350 luxury SUV is underwhelming or simply average in every category except badge-glory. Performance from the 3.5 liter V6 engine is decent, but thirsty at the pump, yielding 17/22 miles per gallon for AWD models. Even when compared to other midsize SUVs, the ML350 struggles to get around corners. Weak steering feel and excessive body roll are to blame. The single redeeming factor is the gorgeous and user-friendly interior, but the overall package makes paying thousands of dollars extra for the three-pointed star seem a bit silly.
Sure, before it was redesigned, the MDX was a hideous bird-beaked monster of an SUV. But now the bird-beak is softened and the MDX enjoys an elegant exterior with subtle lines and posh trim. It’s powered by a 3.5 liter V6 engineered by Honda, so you bet it’s reliable. It’s quick in a straight line and easily one of the best handling SUVs on the road, yet it still gets 18/27 miles per gallon. The standard list of equipment reads like a husband’s to-do list (as in, it’s very long) and optional packages include things like GPS-linked solar-sensing climate control, which is something you can brag about to your neighbor for years to come. But the final nail in the ML350’s coffin is the fact that the MDX costs about $6,000 less. Needless to say, there’s plenty to love about the new MDX.
For whatever reason, box-shaped vehicles became en vogue around 2005, and the trend persists even in 2015. Many shoppers seeking a cubicle on 4 wheels look to the Scion xB, which offers considerable passenger and cargo space in a surprisingly easy-to-park package. Unfortunately, the xB suffers from poor fuel-economy from the sluggish 4 cylinder engine and a 4-speed transmission that feels downright archaic in modern times. Top it off with an interior made almost exclusively out of plastic and a confusing layout, and you have plenty of reasons to avoid the Scion xB.
Here’s a little internet wisdom for you: If you insist on driving a box, drive the best box there is. That honor goes to the Kia Soul. It’s every bit as spacious as the Scion xB, but the interior isn’t made out of melted-down army men. In fact, the interior is just as fun, quirky and cool as the Soul’s exterior —AND it’s useful. The gauges and controls are placed where you can easily reach them and Kia’s Uvo system is pleasantly responsive. And just like the Scion xB, there’s quirky add-ons you won’t find in any other car, like light-up trim on the speakers that change with the music. Finally, just like every other car offered by Kia, the Soul won’t break anyone’s bank.
So you’ve decided you need a truck-based gas-guzzling full-size SUV as your primary family hauler and a large crossover simply won’t do. Fair enough. Do yourself a favor and steer clear of the Nissan Armada. Park the 2015 Armada next to one from 2004 and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Sure, it’s can tow up to 9,000lbs when properly equipped, but there are plenty of newer options that will do the same. The Armada suffers from an overly-stiff ride and abysmal fuel-economy, even by full-size SUV standards.
The Ford Expedition is the most refined truck-based SUV you’ll find on the road today. Expect a big-ole V8 under the hood? Guess again. Every new Ford Expedition comes with a turbocharged V6 that makes 365 horsepower and 420lb-ft of torque. That earns the Expedition the title of the most fuel-efficient full-size SUV, getting up to 16 miles gallon in the city and 22 on the highway. And with 4 wheel drive, the Ford Expedition will tow 9,200lbs. We won’t discount the fact that the Expedition costs a few thousand more than the Nissan Armada, but you’ll make some of that back in fuel savings and better resale value. Treat yo’ self and buy the better car.
Looks can be deceiving and that’s certainly the case with the Honda CR-Z. It’s not nearly as fun to drive as its sporty exterior would lead you to believe and you have to forgo rear seating, which can be a huge inconvenience. Up front, passenger space is limited and larger humans will likely feel cramped. There’s also the issue of excessive road noise on the highway and limited visibility from the small windows. Of course, the 36 city/38 highway miles per gallon is a huge factor for anyone looking to buy a CR-Z, but we can’t help but feel there are better ways to meet those numbers.
Unlike the CR-Z, the Mini Cooper is just as fun to drive as you’d expect. The short wheel-base, tight suspension and sharp steering makes you feel like you’re driving a Go Kart. At times it feels like there’s no limit to the Mini Cooper’s grip around turns. Performance from the base 1.5 liter engine turbocharged 3 cylinder engine is about on-par with the CR-Z, and fuel economy is not-too far off at 29 city and 40 highway (in fact, it’s one mpg better on the highway!) But Mini Cooper buyers have the option to get a more powerful 2.0 liter turbocharged engine for an extra spur of acceleration. Finally, the Mini Cooper boasts an interior that’s chock-full of personality —so much that you’re almost required to give it a nickname. How about Coop?
Written by Tristan Cathers