DAMASCUS, Md. (MarketWatch) — As dawn breaks on what will be known as the “double ones,” there are some great new cars out there for sale. Yet, Mr. and Mrs. America still need a better economy, in many cases, before they are ready to replace the family flivver.
Even so, it is time to sum up the year and look at what, in my opinion, were the best cars to show up on these virtual pages during 2010.
Most notable was Chevy stepping up with the Volt and a very nice Cruze model. Ford, not to be left behind, produced a highly competitive subcompact in the Fiesta and a very appealing and upgraded Mustang. (I recently got a confidential look into Ford’s future production, and things will only get better.)
Foreign makers also took their turn at bat, and have some fetching new cars to brag about as well. So here are my choices in the usual categories:
Best Gas Sipper: It would be hard to top the Toyota Prius. I logged 50 mpg on a long drive from Maryland to Florida and 49 mpg coming back. There was nary a complaint from myself or Mrs. Auto Evaluator on comfort, and the Prius easily swallowed up our baggage that never saw an X-ray device.
EPA rating: 51 mpg city/48 highway. Base Price: $23,050.
Proof Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet: No question that this category has to be topped by the Chevy Volt. While it can run for miles on electric power alone, it also has a back-up gasoline engine to get you home. The whiz-bang futuristic interior also lets passengers know they are riding in something very different. The Volt edged ever closer to a limited roll-out at year’s end. But let’s see how the car performs in the real world for a while before giving it car-of-the-year honors.
EPA: With just the gas engine, about 40 mpg. Price: About $40,000 but less with tax breaks.
Comeback Kid: Ford, for the subcompact but very engaging Fiesta. A marvelous use of very little space and it was fun to drive. The new Focus also shows promise unless you have to sit in the back seat.
Fiesta EPA: 29/38 mpg. Base Model Price: $13,320.
Best Crossover: Kia Sportage. The recent redesign moves this right-sized crossover to the big leagues. Plus the price is right (think mid $20’s,) and the gas mileage is not bad at 24 mpg. Head-turning looks, and the ability to eat up hundreds of interstate miles in comfort move the Sportage to the top of the list.
EPA Rating: 21/28 mpg. Base Price: $18,295.
Biggest Surprise: Several hundred light years ahead of the Cobalt that it replaced, the Chevy Cruze has it all. A much improved interior, more solid build, a nice list of standard equipment and the price is easy to take. If you are looking for a roughly $20K car, your Chevy dealer should be high on your shopping list for the Cruze.
EPA Rating: 24/36 mpg. Base Price: $16,275.
Best Sports Car: The bare bones Porsche Boxster Spyder stands out for its incredible handling and power, thanks to an all-out effort by Porsche to reduce weight. While putting down the top will drive you crazy at first, you will be all smiles at the end of your first twisty road drive.
EPA Rating: If you have to ask… Base Price: $61,200.
Best Uber Alles Car: A rare tie in this category: the Mercedes E550 Cabriolet and the long wheelbase Jaguar XJ. I have never had a more comfortable ride between home base and New York City than in the E550. It simply did everything well, from the great reserve of power to coping with some cloudburst thunderstorms. The XJ had sexier styling inside and out with great power and, with the push of a button, superior handling as well. It comes down to whether you like your luxury in a sexy or more conservative package.
MB E550 Cab: EPA Rating: 15/21mpg. Base Price:$64,800.
Jag XJ LB: EPA 15/21 mpg. Base Price: $113,200.
Best Family Value: The Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon easily captures this category. If a sport utility is not in with the social crowd you hang out with, and you are worried about gas prices, I don’t think you can top the diesel-powered Jetta Wagon. It would make me think twice about a more complex hybrid.
EPA Rating: 30-41 mpg. Base Price: $24,310.
Best Sedan: Nissan Altima. Virtually every owner I have met tells me they will buy another one when their current Altima gives up the ghost. That kind of owner loyalty says a lot about the car. With some fun built in for country roads, and lots of comfort for the interstates and a relaxed commute, the Altima is well worth a test drive in the midsize field. The 3.5 SR with the 270-horsepower V-6 tied to one of the best performing continuously variable transmissions in the business would be my choice.
EPA Rating: 23/32 mpg. Base Price: $19,990.
Car of the Year: After shagging around California interstates and mountain roads, I said, “in terms of style, price and performance, the Sonata, should keep Honda and Toyota up late at night worrying about this sleek new challenger to their bread-and-butter Accord and Camry models.” Even better, the price will not make your banker break out in a cold sweat while the list of standard equipment makes for excellent bang for the buck. The pot got even hotter with the introduction of hybrid and turbo models.
EPA Rating: 22/35 mpg. Base Price: $19,195.
Other notables: BMW 323i, Honda CRZ, Mazda 2 and the Ford Raptor.
Vehicles tested in this column are on loan from the auto companies through local distributors.
Ron Amadon is a MarketWatch auto writer based in Washington.
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