Under-appreciated and misunderstood. That describes many of us in our high school years but, as a car guy, I think you know where I'm headed here. The automotive landscape seems to be changing weekly. Manufacturers that dominated are now humbled. Brands that were ridiculed have become mainstream. Who knows what the future holds? I can tell you this. There are plenty of vehicles that don't quite get the attention they deserve.
So, I've come up with a list of overlooked vehicles. I drive somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-90 cars a year and, every so often, wonder why a particular one isn't crazy popular. Some of these vehicles are new while others have been around for a few years. In my opinion, and remember, all car reviews are opinions to some degree, these on the list are worth a look. Some have links to pieces I've written in the past if you want to know more. Base MSRPs with destination charge are in parenthesis.
Suzuki SX4 Crossover. Buyers crave luxury cars features such as all-wheel drive, push button keyless ignition and satellite navigation. The SX4 offers all of that for around $20,000. More of a hatchback than true crossover, its agreeable lines are the work of the famed Italdesign studio.
The manual gear box is a 6-speed. For 2010 the automatic tranny switches from a 4-speed to a continuously variable unit (which I haven't driven). Different from the Crossover is the SX4 Sport. It's a front-wheel drive sedan, so don't get confused in the showroom ... if you can even find one. Suzuki is trying to break out into the mainstream and the new Kizashi mid-sized sedan can only help. The SX4 Crossover isn't as sporty as a Subaru Impreza but its technology feature set is worth a look. ($16,834)
Mazda5. You have two kids, soccer carpool duty but a deep loathing of large vehicles. Mazda5 to the rescue. Looking like a shuttlecraft that's been left in the dryer too long, Mazda5 seats six people in three rows of two. The flexible interior with storage under pivoting seat cushions rivals a Leatherman tool.
I've recommended this car for years. My parents and in-laws own one and love the versatility. For 2010 it gets electronic stability and traction control, something it's needed. With a reasonable price and a touch of sport in its chassis, it's a mystery why Mazda5 isn't wildly popular. ($19,200)
2010 Subaru Legacy. Northwesterners gobble up Outbacks and Foresters like trail mix, meaning the Legacy sedan can be overlooked in its own showroom. It's now bigger, more comfortable and more fuel efficient (EPA says up to 31 highway mpg with the CVT transmission). Personally, I highly prefer the H6 engine with its standard 5-speed automatic. The turbocharged Legacy GT with 6-speed manual is also a good option. Standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is mighty handy in our weather. Subaru's unique flat Boxer engines create a low center of gravity that results in excellent handling.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big wagon fan. In this case, I'm talking squarely to those shopping for a family sedan like Accord, Camry and Malibu. Drive a Subaru for a week on rainy Seattle streets and it will be hard to go back. ($20,690)
Dodge Ram 1500. Pickups are about brawn but the masculine RAM adds some brains this time around. Replacing traditional rear leaf springs with a multi-link coil suspension gives Ram a more comfortable ride. The optional RamBox cargo system turns the bed wall cavities into tool storage or coolers. Plus, drink in the fact that 120 cans of soda will fit in each of the sides (with ice of course). The tailgate crowd will love you.
Halleluiah, the folks at Dodge have finally upped the quality of their interiors. If only the cabin of the 300 looked as good as this pickup's. Testing a high-end Laramie edition, I came to enjoy its heated and cooled leather seats, steering wheel warmer and satellite TV. Seriously. Obviously, this is the boss' truck. ($22,420)
2010 Buick LaCrosse. A Buick those under 50 will desire? Believe it. This handsome sedan will surprise shoppers and the competition. Goodbye, floaty ride. Hello, Euro firmness. Test drive it at dusk to admire the dramatic cabin lighting that's more stylish than cars twice its price. This car is on the list because many shoppers will dismiss it simply because of the brand. Big mistake.
Available in front and all-wheel drive models, I prefer the top CXS model that comes standard with seats that heat and cool plus a heated steering wheel. Last year Buick tied with Jaguar for best long term reliability according to J.D. Powers. Priced thousands below the Lexus competition, LaCrosse makes the old slogan Wouldn't you really rather drive a Buick? relevant again. ($27,835)
Ford Flex. Reportedly influenced by Ralph Lauren, (yes, the clothing designer) the crisp cubic Flex is a fashion forward family hauler. Most often described as a ginormous MINI Cooper, seven adults will fit comfortably (six if ordered with the mini-refrigerator that really works). It's roomy, quiet, and most importantly for some, NOT a mini-van.
Choose between front or all-wheel drive. Step up to the new optional twin turbo 355 HP EcoBoost engine paired with AWD and there's 35% more horsepower on tap. Fuel economy of 16 city/22 mpg highway is the same as the standard powerplant. That's flexing some muscle. A tip: don't buy this car without the terrific Microsoft Sync system that integrates phones and MP3 players. ($29,325)
A look into the future
I'll leave you with a few cars on the horizon that hold a lot of promise. Looking for a smaller car? Competing against Honda's Fit, the 2010 Ford Fiesta is a terrific looking rig that's fun and flingable. It gets competition from the similar Mazda2. Moving up a notch, Chevy has the new Cruze waiting in the wings. Finally, GM will have a true challenger to Corolla and Civic. Reportedly it gets 40 MPG on the highway.
Hyundai has just debuted the new Sonata mid-sized sedan at the L.A. Auto Show and the swoopy sheetmetal will have people talking. Same with the new Tucson crossover.
Chrysler and Honda minivans may be popular but Toyota's third generation Sienna will have people talking. Buy the entertainment system and the LCD screens are HUGE. There's also La-Z-Boy style reclining seats with footrests in the middle row.
Finishing up I'll throw out my three best pieces of advice-
#1- Do your research. Things have changed a lot in the industry in the past few years. No doubt you have a particular car you're interested in. Use it as a starting point to look at its competitors.
#2- Test drive at least 3 different vehicles. Now that you've nosed around on the web and looked at style, features and reviews, GO OUT AND DRIVE THEM. I can't stress this enough. Cars that may be appealing on the web may not agree with you on the road. There might be too much road noise or the ride may be too hard or soft for your taste. Go for a long drive without the radio on and check out the seat comfort. If you carry certain stuff around with you (say, bath tissue) see how it fits in the cargo hold.
The point is, you'll be living with this car for a long time and the average vehicle goes for around 29 grand these days. You need to know how Camry, Accord, Fusion, Sonata, Passat, Alitma and Malibu stack up because, as I've stated, things have changed.
#3- Buy the car you love A good deal isn't a wise idea unless you like the car. Obviously you have to take price and practicality into consideration but within reason, buy the car that makes you happy. Those who love their cars tend to take care of them better. So not only does your vehicle last longer, you're emotionally fulfilled during the relationship. That's a not just a good deal, it's a great one. Now if you're only so lucky with your spouse.