2009. Never have there been so many great vehicles ... and so few people buying them. Even the mighty Toyota was brought to its knees as foot traffic dried up at showrooms across the nation. Of course, Saturn, Pontiac and, perhaps, Saab would be happy just to have a pulse, may they rest in peace.
As this, uhh, memorable year comes to a close, it is tradition that I pick my favorites from the 70 some vehicles I've driven this year. Everyone else does a Top 10. I do 11. Blame the movie This is Spinal Tap. And because not all of us are rock stars I have a price cap of $75,000.
Let me say it was tough choosing. I try to include a wide range of vehicles and base my choices on a complex algorithm of performance, style, value and fuel economy. My gosh, that sounds so scientific for a somewhat emotionally driven process.
I've also chosen a Car of the Decade. My choices are listed alphabetically. As always, there are the streaming videos here on KING5.com. Want the director's cut of these videos? Check out my podcast called Drive Car Reviews at the Apple iTunes store.
This coupe and sedan are a dynamic duo. Handsome, athletic, and even practical, they are everything a power couple should be. Yes, they are two different models but they're built on the same architecture so I'm wedging them into one slot. Sue me. With Audi Drive Select, the steering, suspension, and throttle response can be tuned to a driver's liking. And it really works.
The BMW 3 Series has always been fun to toss into a corner, an eco friendly diesel engine makes it a responsible citizen. The torquey inline 6 provides serious oomph of the line and a healthy bump in fuel economy. Who says being prudent is dull?
This sedan is such a departure for the brand it's hard to fathom. Turns out buyers are beginning to notice. Word is the average LaCrosse buyer is 15 years younger than Buick's normal demographic. Standard on the CXS are heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel, and dramatic lighting in the sculpted cabin. Wrapped up in bold sheet metal, LaCrosse is a jolt to the competition.
Making the list 3 years straight, the stealth fighter shaped Caddy is a joy to pilot. The performance V model is so exhilarating, it will tempt even the most conservative drivers to tarnish their driving records. There's a wagon version too and soon a very edgy coupe. Those looking at the usual suspects (3 Series, C Class, G37, IS, A4) deserve to put the CTS on the test drive list.
For families looking to ditch the minivan, Flex offers up room, high technology and crisp design. New this year is the twin turbo EcoBoost engine that gets the kids off to soccer practice right quick. Multiple details like doors that help to keep your ankles mud free add up to a nicely done people hauler. Comfortable, innovative and yes, a bit controversial, Flex makes a strong statement.
No, it's not the MPG champ (that would be Prius of course) but for people who enjoy driving, the Fusion Hybrid is a winner. Innovative gauges are engaging (pun intended), and the carpool gang will be comfortable on soy based foam seats. With a dose of European handling baked into the chassis, Fusion gets the hybrid recipe just right.
Something for everyone here - sedan, hatchback and hot hatch SPEED3 models. The Mazda3 not only looks a grade more expensive than it is, there are available luxury car features like adaptive headlights and keyless ignition. Nice to have the choice. This affordable car is so much fun to drive, it can't help but grin from fender to fender.
They're fraternal twins so I'm counting them as one if you're keeping count. It's a Subie, so all-wheel drive is standard. I highly prefer the H6 engine in these rigs but frugal folks will go with the 4-cylinder that's paired with a CVT transmission. The Legacy sedan is the fun one with sporty road manners. The Outback, with extra ground clearance and cargo room is more practical when hauling stuff to the beach cabin. Both are more spacious, efficient and refined this time around.
Now in its sixth generation, the original hot hatch is both sporty and refined. It's this balance that makes the GTI so appealing. The expensive looking materials don't hurt either. Available in both two and four door models, sell it to your spouse as practical. Because it is ... but great fun, too. Cash strapped buyers take notice, a base GTI with no options is a perfectly wonderful car with great seats and a decent sound system standard.
Proof positive an economical car doesn't have to be dull. With its clean diesel engine, it's powerful off the line and economical at the pump. Crisp in the curves, too. Add to that the usual high end VW interior and you've got yourself a winner. Also available in Sportwagen and Golf hatchback, these rigs offer that great German feel at a reasonable price.
This curvaceous Swede is a real show stopper. Literally. The City Safety system will slam on the brakes automatically if it senses you're not paying attention. It completely eliminates low speed frontal impacts with other cars. This standard feature not only saves people from injury, it protects against embarrassment. With the XC60 crossover, Volvo allows you to park concept car design and technology in your driveway.
Those are my favorites for the year but let me just say it was tough to whittle it down this year. In fact if I were to make this list The Baker's Dozen I could easily add these two-
The most fuel efficient family crossover in class and arguably the best looking. A great interior includes sexy ice blue lighting. I spent 9 days and 900 miles with the family in one of these and everywhere we went people were impressed. Those shopping CR-V, Outback and RAV4 owe it to themselves to take a look at this rig.
The most versatile small car available, it's clearly best in class. It seems bigger on the inside than the outside. The trick folding seats turn it into a micro minivan. I highly recommend springing for the Sport version for the amenities it offers.
Other cars that surprised me this year? Hyundai Genesis Coupe and Sedan, Kia Soul, and Lincoln MKT (perhaps the most under shopped car I drove this year). I was also reminded that the latest generation Mazda Miata MX-5 is a hoot to drive (and I own a 20 year model).
Finally, since we're moving into 2010, a Car of the Decade choice is appropriate. Personally, I tend to gravitate toward sporty performance cars but really, the clear choice is the Toyota Prius.
It's a vehicle that has changed minds in the automotive world. The tech is impressive and unheard of by most 10 years ago. But even more so is it's eco green image. Prius added a new dimension to an industry that always relied on horsepower, luxury and sex appeal to sell cars. It proved those aren't the only way to sell product.
Other manufacturers scrambled to capture the same magic but no other hybrid has been as commercially successful as Prius, not even Toyota's other Synergy Drive offerings. It has given the Number 1 Automaker in the World a green halo that it doesn't always deserve. Some may not care for the aerodynamic shape, but it is certainly an icon for the decade. Prius is the clear logical choice for Car of the Decade.
Get ready for next year
Looking into the future, 2010 looks to be an amazing year if people start buying cars and trucks again. Hyundai/Kia will continue its product blitzkrieg with surprisingly stylish new models. GM has plenty of new vehicles that should get them back on track. So does Ford. 2010 is also the year that the electric car should begin to make headway in the mainstream, with the highly anticipated Chevrolet Volt leading the, uh, charge.
The only thing certain about the future is uncertainty. 2010 is certainly that.