DURING THE FIRST
half of this year you could have driven a HummerH2 through almost any American auto dealership without much fear of hitting a customer. Between the specter of unemployment, war in Iraq and higher gas prices, many of us put shopping for a car on the back burner, leaving dealerships light on traffic. Since then, nervous automakers have swung into action to win back our affection with great deals and discounts.
Thanks to an ever-escalating inducement war that includes everything from low financing to cash rebates, the average incentive on a new vehicle soared to $4,000 in July. Even reluctant rebaters such as Toyota and Honda have been roped in. With the exception of enormously popular models such as the Mini Cooper, these days "there isn't any mass-market vehicle that within a year of its introduction doesn't have a substantial incentive on it," says Art Spinella, vice president of CNW Marketing Research, an automotive industry consulting firm.
This fall there are still great values to be had, but how do you get the best car for the buck? To find out, we started off by quantifying what is the "best car," using, in part, the Total Quality Experience survey from Strategic Vision, a San Diego-based marketing-research firm. The survey yields a Total Quality Index (TQI), which ranks vehicles based on new-car buyers' impressions of quality, performance, comfort, dealership experience and other aspects of car ownership.
Turning to the "bucks" side of the equation, we looked for cars, whether compact sedans or luxury SUVs, that not only have relatively low sticker prices, but are also inexpensive to own. Five-year ownership costs, calculated by IntelliChoice, a Campbell, Calif.-based company, reflect what you'll lose on depreciation over five years, plus what you'll spend on financing, insurance, maintenance and gasoline.
From those measures, we picked three finalists in each of our 10 vehicle classes. Then we looked at standard features and options, crash-test ratings, safety equipment and our impressions from test drives to determine our winners not just great cars, but great buys. You'll notice that Toyota, Lexus and Honda, with their strong resale values and track records of reliability, are well represented on this list. And as Nissan, Chrysler and other automakers push upscale in a drive to be considered premium brands, and as technology trickles down from luxury marques, autos improve: Cars in nearly every class are better equipped than just two years ago. Moreover, because these best values aren't necessarily the bestsellers in their class, in many cases you can negotiate price breaks.
Lexus GS 300
If BMW's 5-series is about athletic performance and Mercedes's E-class is about pure, unadulterated luxury, the Lexus GS splits the difference between those two runners-up and for a couple grand less, to boot. At $39,300 the rear-wheel-drive GS 300 is equipped with a six-cylinder 220-hp engine that sends you from zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds, only slightly slower than the Bimmer or the Benz. Though you may notice some body roll when taking curves at high speeds, it's not a major drawback in everyday driving. For more sporty performance, you can upgrade to the 4.3-liter V-8 on the GS 430, but at a hefty premium. It stickers at $48,400. Both GSs bear the hallmark of any Lexus: an almost surreally quiet, smooth ride, as if you were driving in a splendid isolation chamber.
Inside, the GS 300 has most of the requisite luxury touches: wood trim on the dash and doors, 10-way power adjustable front seats, a sunroof. Its relatively lightweight 96-watt, seven-speaker stereo and cloth seats leave a little to be desired, though. (Leather is standard on the Mercedes.) But adding the optional Mark Levinson 240-watt, 10-speaker stereo and leather seating brings the total tab to $42,210, still less than the base price of the Mercedes. The speculation that Lexus will roll out a redesign of the GS 300 next year the company has been close-lipped about the matter could give you some more negotiating leverage right now on this current version.
If, on the other hand, you have your eye on the BMW 530i, keep in mind that the redesigned 2004 model is slated to launch this month (see page 89), so the Total Quality Index scores and five-year costs listed here reflect the older version. The sticker price for the 530i is increasing by 8%, so five-year costs should go up some. But for more money, you're getting a more sophisticated car.
Audi A4 1.8T
The BMW 3-series, considered by many driving enthusiasts to be the sports sedan, may be the 800-pound gorilla in this category. But when it comes to value, Audi's A4 pulls ahead. Despite a sticker price and five-year costs both far less than the 325i's, the A4 boasts a more elegant interior and a longer list of standard features: dual-zone climate control, split-folding rear seats and a 10-speaker stereo system. Even if you pile on optional leather, Bose stereo, all-wheel drive and a larger V-6 engine, you're looking at a price tag of about $36,500, compared with $39,800 for a similarly equipped BMW. The basic A4, at $27,090, still comes loaded with safety equipment: four-wheel antilock brakes and front, side and side-curtain airbags. The A4 is no slouch on the road, either. It features a more comfortable ride than the sporty 3-series, but not so smooth that driving enthusiasts will feel disconnected from the road.
A cramped backseat is often a sticking point in this category, with both the BMW and Audi offering less leg room than even our compact winner, the Toyota Corolla. If adults or gangly teenagers are piling into your backseat with any frequency, the third-place Nissan Maxima is worth a look. It offers a full 36.5 inches of rear leg room, more than many full-fledged luxury cars. Nissan is not a luxury nameplate, but the Maxima's redesign this year gives it both the style and substance to compete with the German stalwarts of near-luxury sedans. A new independent rear suspension lets the Maxima corner with aplomb. It also has sleek lines with a snazzy glass "skylight" running the length of the roof, and it can be dressed up with leather seats and a Bose stereo.
Honda Accord LX
That Accord ad in which a German-language lesson plays on the car's stereo is no coincidence. Since its redesign last year, the Accord seems to be channeling its Teutonic rival, the upscale Volkswagen Passat, with windows set higher, a more potent engine and a heavier feel in turns. Still, it comes in at nearly $4,000 less than the Passat in five-year ownership costs. Priced at $20,560, the midlevel LX comes with most features you need, including an automatic five-speed transmission, CD player, cruise control, air conditioning and power everything mirrors, windows, locks and steering.
The Accord's interior is refined and comfortable, if somewhat dull. The exterior is sharper-looking since its redesign in 2003, though its rear end looks a bit too J. Lo-ish. If you put a high premium on styling, you may want to opt for one of the runners-up. While its ownership costs are higher than the Accord's, the Nissan Altima does have more flair in its exterior, as well as 15 more horses under the hood. The Passat is another pretty face, but its beauty is more than skin deep. It sports firm handling and enthusiast-oriented features such as a shiftable automatic transmission and alloy wheels. But both its sticker price and ownership costs creep just a little too high to put it at the top of this heap.
Toyota Corolla LE
In the compact sedan segment, many automakers offer a low-priced base version to lure buyers onto the lot. But it's often so stripped that you wouldn't even stick your teenagers with it. Not the case with the Corolla. Its entry-level model, at a sticker price of $14,855, comes standard with air conditioning, a CD player, a split-and-fold rear seat and a spare tire, among other amenities. The more popular LE model adds power windows and locks, keyless entry, faux wood trim and other features for $1,210 more. The Corolla is even more appealing after a redesign last year, with a longer wheelbase providing a more comfortable ride and 2 extra inches of leg room for rear-seat passengers. More important, it ditches the squashed look that screamed out, "Economy car!"
Though the sticker prices on both the Corolla and runner-up Honda Civic are higher than that of the similarly equipped Saturn Ion-2, in third place, keep in mind that compact sedans are a category with lots of room for negotiation. A little bargaining on the Honda or Toyota can narrow the gap, while Saturn's haggle-free policy means you pay the sticker price, period.
Acura RSX Type-S
All three of the finalists in this category are a blast to drive. But with a sticker price of $23,770, roughly $10,000 less than the BMW or the Infiniti, the RSX will leave you with more cash to have fun with outside the car as well. At first glance, the Acura RSX's engine might look diminutive next to the other finalists here a 2.0-liter four-cylinder versus six-bangers on the Infiniti G35 and BMW Z4 convertible.
But the RSX weighs nearly 700 pounds less than the G35 and 150 pounds less than the Z4, making the 200 hp of the sport-tuned Type-S more than adequate, compared with BMW's 184 hp and Infiniti's 280. It does lag the other finalists in terms of low-end torque, meaning city driving can feel a little less than inspired. But once you get the Type-S on open roads, you find your payoff: The six-speed manual transmission hits its sweet spot at about 6,000 rpm and doesn't redline until 7,900 rpm. And for a front-wheel-drive coupe, the RSX corners remarkably well.
True, the exterior is less distinctive than either the Infiniti's or the BMW's. And inside, aluminum-faced gauges and two-tone leather seats with thick bolsters keep the overall look more sport than luxury, as befits the price. But that doesn't mean Acura stints on extras. A sunroof and six-disc Bose stereo with seven speakers are standard on the Type-S. And while the backseat is cramped for everyday use, the fact that the car can seat four in a pinch lets the RSX serve as your everyday wheels, unlike the two-seater Z4.
Volkswagen Passat Wagon GLS
With more than a few true wagons masquerading as so-called crossover SUVs these days, and others going by even more contorted monikers Chrysler, for example, calls its Pacifica a "sports tourer" you may well wonder if any automakers are willing to admit they sell station wagons anymore. At least the ones that do make them darn good: roomy, safe and, though not exactly sexy, at least as stylish as their sedan counterparts, if not more so. One of our finalists, the Subaru Outback, goes in a rugged sporty direction, while the top-scoring Passat wagon and runner-up Volvo V40 share more urbane, elegant styling.
The V40 and Passat GLS also share a long list of safety features including side-curtain, front and side-chest airbags, antilock brakes and optional stability control but the Passat's five-year ownership costs are $3,400 less than the Volvo's. Plus, for $25,335 the Passat GLS comes equipped with luxe-feeling velour upholstery, an eight-speaker CD stereo and a sunroof, among other features.
Toyota Sienna LE
The sienna's tqi score is on the low side, at 790, but because the survey was done before Toyota launched its redesigned version, that number is not reflective of the minivan you'll find in showrooms. The new Sienna is larger in every dimension, with more leg room for all passengers, particularly the often cramped third row. The V-6 engine has gotten a power upgrade from 210 to 230 hp.
But it's the small details that make this one of the more livable family vehicles on the market. Rear windows now roll down just like on sedans. The third-row seat, split 60/40 to provide more configurations, can be folded flat onto the floor without even removing the headrests. And with a total of 14 cupholders, you'll never want for a place to set your Frappuccino.
In fact, the Sienna is such an ideal family car that since it went on sale last spring, some customers have been paying sticker price or above to get their hands on one. Our advice: If your dealer is asking for more than the manufacturer's suggested price, wait a few months.
Lexus RX 330 AWD
This is one of the most hotly contested categories of the auto market these days. In the past year, we've seen new entries from Volkswagen, Volvo, Infiniti and even Porsche, making it all the more imperative for the bestseller, Lexus's RX 300, not to get complacent. A redesign for 2004 keeps the RX 330 the name change reflects a larger engine on top of the pack.
That engine, a 3.3-liter V-6 in place of the old 3.0, gives a welcome boost to horsepower and torque, shaving nearly a second off the zero-to-60 time. Lexus's signature quiet, smooth ride has been refined even further. And even though this is one of the lowest-priced luxury SUVs, at $37,000, upscale details abound. Dual-zone climate control, power seats with memorized settings, wood trim, and auto-dimming rearview and side mirrors to reduce headlight glare are all standard. It also has just about every safety feature you could want, from stability control and a tire-pressure monitoring system to a full complement of airbags, including one to protect the driver's knees. If you're willing to spend $43,770, a package featuring an 11-speaker stereo, leather seats, power rear liftgate and a navigation system with a rear-view camera turns the Lexus into a fully loaded luxurymobile.
Honda Pilot EX AWD
The pilot may not be as rugged as some of its truck-based competitors, but it wins this category for packing a lot of versatility at a relatively low price $29,730 for the higher-end EX model. Its standard eight-passenger capacity makes it the carpool hauler of choice. When you don't need the third row, it folds flat into the floor, creating 48.7 cubic feet of cargo space. The second-row seats also fold nearly flat for a cavernous 90 cubic feet. The roominess and the optional rear-seat DVD might just inspire you to try a family road trip once again. Meanwhile, the 3.5-liter V-6 has plenty of power from a dead stop, so you don't feel weighed down carrying kids or luggage or gardening supplies.
The Pilot is even up to the task of light towing and offroading. Its all-wheel-drive system automatically redirects torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. For extra traction in slippery conditions, the Pilot has a button to lock it into four-wheel drive. Though the independent rear suspension and automatic all-wheel drive provide a more comfortable ride on the road, they do make the Pilot ill-equipped for truly rough, steep terrain. If you need to tow a large trailer or if you're among the minority of buyers who regularly take their offroad vehicle offroad, look to the Toyota 4Runner. Redesigned last fall, this truck-based SUV can handle the rockiest trail and is now more powerful and roomier. A new optional third-row seat expands capacity to seven passengers.
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS AWD
The Santa Fe, rolled out for 2001, has convinced thousands of shoppers that a 10-year warranty isn't the only thing making this Hyundai a smart buy. Based on the Sonata sedan platform, it's a bit larger than other small SUVs, but still maintains their carlike handling and ride. Inside, it offers more cargo room than either of the runners-up, Honda's CR-V or Toyota's RAV4, and more space for backseat passengers than the latter. Plus, at $23,089 the GLS comes nicely equipped with standard power locks and windows, a six-speaker CD stereo, alloy wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
One past gripe about the Santa Fe its engine can get sluggish is addressed with a new optional 3.5-liter V-6 producing 200 hp. The RAV4 and CR-V don't even offer a six-cylinder engine. And while we've never been crazy about the Santa Fe's bulging front end, it does remind us of Porsche's new $60,000 Cayenne.