The Compleat Guide to Family Sedans: Finding the Best Car Comparison

By The Car Family

For more in-depth reviews go to

http://www.motorists.org/carfamily/home/best-new-cars-for-2008/

(What makes our take on family vehicles of note is that we evaluate them as a family. No other media outlet provides this type of insight. )

Update: Please note that General Motors no longer allows us to test its vehicles and thus we can not provide an assessment of their usability and quality.

Okay, there needs to be a clear definition of what a family sedan is before we go further. In our test we selected those sedans that could comfortable hold at least four people, have a luggage friendly trunk, and provide something special whether that be handling, resale, or even value pricing. We also didn’t evaluate sedans obviously not primary meant for families such as the Subaru STi. As well, we only reported on those vehicles we have tested.

Here are our reviews, grade, and the reasons from most expensive sedans too least costly.

For those with a short attention span here are the outstanding sedans:

Best large family sedan: Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon

Best midsize family sedan: Ford Fusion, and Honda Accord

Best sporty family sedan: Infiniti G35

Best compact family sedan: Toyota Corolla

Best small family sedan: Nissan Versa, Hyundai Elantra

Best station wagon: Subaru Legacy

Best luxury family sedan: Lexus LS, Mercedes E-Class Bluetec

Best Green Family sedan: Toyota Prius

Best Family Value: Nissan Altima 2.5

Outstanding sedans by price range.

Over $100,000 Mercedes S Class. Civilized, sporty, and solid.

Over $60,000

Lexus LS. Unbelievable smooth and powerful and loaded with features.

Over $40,000 Mercedes Bluetec diesel

Between $30,000 and $40,000 Infiniti G35

Under $30,000 Toyota Avalon

Below $25,000 Ford Taurus,

About $20,000 Ford Fusion

Over $15,000 Toyota Corolla/ Suzuki SX4/Ford Fusion

Under $15,000 Honda Fit/ Nissan Versa/ Hyundai Elantra/ Mazda 3

The Car Family Favorites

Mom’s Favorite:

The Audi A6S. Good handling, good fuel mileage, sturdy chassis, nice interior, and only needs larger trunk opening to be in my garage. Second choice Infiniti G35 S. Same feeling as with the Audi, but crisper and the interior is not as snazzy.

Dad’s Favorite:

The Mercedes Bluetec. Great performance, room for five, and you can always brag about the30 plus mpg you are getting. Second choice Saturn Aura. Simply a terrific value

Not-Working woman’s view: Since I am unemployed despite a MIS and a MBA I would go with Nissa Versa. Handy and gets exceptional gas mileage with a vast cargo area. Second choice, probably the Mercedes C Class. I like the interior and cutting edge exterior.

Almost ready to graduate male’s view: Well, working part time making open source computers and servers wholesale to the public no less, (http://www.eracks.com/) I would like a car that has the best electronics and so the Lexus products appeal to me. Secondly, I like the Chrysler sedan with the optional six cylinder engine. It looks interesting and holds plenty, but the low cost and the electrics are really worthwhile. If I was rich I would get the V70 Volvo, but that isn’t a sedan and I’m not rich.

Reviews in order by manufacture suggested retail cost:

Bentley’s Continental Flying Spur has all wheel drive, 552 horsepower, power everything, and starts around $170,000.  Bentley has raised its prices and this is no longer a bargain. Better values exist elsewhere.  . Our rating: BReason: Cost, vast amounts lost at resale.

Maserati Quattroporte

We haven’t been able to test one of these; however, for the $110,000 price tag it should be great. Whether or not you can find service for these unique vehicles is another matter. We always have reservations about expensive cars that aren’t available to the press, but a new public relations effort appears to be underway. If previous models are any indication this Maserati will have a stunning interior, good handling, and a lot of Italian sex appeal. The acceleration is not as potent as you would think from a Maserati, but that should be somewhat remedied with a larger V 8 due out soon. As for now we can’t provide you with a grade. Our rating: Incomplete

Lexus LS 600h L

We have tested this flagship from Lexus and it is loaded with features, including electric motors that provide added thrust to the already powerful V8 engine. The cost, $105,000 does question whether or not it is worth more than $50000 over the terrific Lexus LS without the doodads. If you can afford it this is a fine car and those in the backseat are going to be treated like royalty with their own sound system and more. A stunning testimony to what Lexus can bring to the consumer in the form of electronics, engine performance, and fuel economy as this large sedan consistently nets 24 mpg or more. Our grade B-. Reason cost.

Audi 8

The $93,000 S version or the $70,000 L model are both all wheel drive and smooth sedans with outstanding interiors, some easy to use electronics, and enough under the hood to challenge any road situation. The S version with its V10 and 460 horsepower engine is much faster and has a firmer suspension. Neither version is quick due to their bulk, but both are beautiful inside and out. Our grade C. Reason resale and cost to repair aluminum body panels.

Mercedes Benz S Class

Starting around $87,000, Mercedes offers a variety of sedans, but all of them have one thing in common and that is performance and features. You can even get the bargain priced S63 AMG version that offers world-class performance, or settle for the V12 6.0 liter S65 for $194.000 and never have to use the slow lane again. Fuel mileage may be a concern even from the base V8 with 382 horsepower, and you have to master the Command system that controls many of the vehicle’s functions, but this is a solid, roomy, and has a bank vault feel to it. Our grade B-. Reason interior design and complexity

BMW 7 Series

Probably the best handling of the expensive, large sedans, the 7 Series is loaded with features, but still has that iDrive to contend with. There is an abundance of room and the Li version even has more room. You can order a V8 or V12 with a six-speed automatic

A very nimble large car, but one that never lets you forget it is a large car. Our grade B-. Reason, cost, complexity. $75,800

Audi S6

More nimble than the big BMW and with the 5.2 liter V10 is both fun to drive and quite elegant. Not the handler of the Bimmer and the Audi still has an overly complex MMI audio and navigation package that needs to be mastered. Nice backup camera, but Infiniti’s is better. Unless you really love the sound of the V10 get the Audi 6 and learn to accept the fact you aren’t driving the fastest luxury sedan. Well packaged and pleasing. Our grade B-. Reason complexity cost of aluminum body repair. $72,350

Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

The most attractive large sedan, the coupe like styling looks great, but it does make entry into the rear seats a bit of a struggle for tall passengers. The smaller windows also reduce visibility, but the view to the front is excellent. Tastefully done, the COMAND audio and navigation system needs to be simplified for more functions. Besides the great looks Mercedes is back in the business of providing some exceptional engines. The CLS550 has a 5.5-liter V8 that produces 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque and the AMG version has a 6.2-liter V8 that is jet like in performance with 507 horsepower and 465 lb-ft. of torque. This is the sedan to own if you like going fast in a straight line. Sexy and strong. Starting about $68,000. Our grade B. Reason, rear seat entry, complexity.

Jaguar XJ-SeriesRiding on an aluminum chassis and combining the most elegant of interiors with a stately style and powerful V8, the Jaguar XJ sedan is a dignified and sporty vehicle that has just enough idiosyncrasies to make it royal. The seats aren’t thrones, and a lot of the current electronics are lacking, but that isn’t necessarily bad. You can order the plebian model with a ready to romp 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque at your disposal. Or really live with the XJR version with its 400 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque. Just point and shoot and the old girl lifts up her skirts and runs. Inside there is leather and wood most everywhere and except for the confusing controls and the fickly transmission lever this is as close as you are going to get to being a king for $66,910. Our grade B. Reason, lack of cargo area and ergonomics.

Lexus LS 460

In 1989 we bought one of the first Lexus LS models. It was fully loaded, well priced, comfortable, and had terrific dealer service. It raised the bar for all sedans with a superior stereo system, Corvette type horsepower, and a smooth ride. Nothing has changed. The 2008 Lexus is so remarkable it is unremarkable. It is fast enough to stay with the rest of the standard sedans and its terrific interior design, lighting, V8, and eight speed transmission all help you relax. Since this car is not meant for canyon cutting the suspension is a bit soft, but the 4.6-liter V8 makes 380 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque make it all worthwhile. You can even order a long wheelbase version. Safety equipment everywhere, even a pre-collision feature that readies the car for a crash by provoking the seatbelts to tighten and the force the brakes into action as soon as the pedal is touched. A touch screen makes the electronics simpler to operate and there is even a side box for additional controls that are not used as frequently. Perfect for those who want to get from point A to point B with as little bother as possible. For $63,835 you’ll have yourself one quiet ride. Grade A-. Reason, soft suspension.

Lexus GS

Available with a potent V8 or six cylinder engine at a price point from $44,000 to $53, 000, these Lexus models don’t offer as much room as the Lexus LS, but do add a lot more zoom. And, the styling is more youthful than it big sister, too. Refined with just the sound of its optional 4.6-liter V8 reminding you that this girl can kick sand in anyone’s face. Of course, the slender styling means that the rear seats have more limited headroom and are tight for three adults. As all Lexus sedans, this one drives the rear wheels and has an eight-speed automatic transmission while still getting over 20 mpg. Truly a remarkable feat. Inside there are ten airbags, a Pre-Collision System that uses radar to anticipate an accident, and all sorts of wood and aluminum trim pieces. Great graphics, lighting and ergonomics, but the excellent ride and handling are what set this Lexus apart. A unique combination of performance, safety, and proper care of the passengers all propelled by engines that takes less fuel than its performance suggests. Note: We own a GS. Grade B+. Cost.

Mercedes Benz E-Class

Starting at $51,500 the redone E-Class deserves a most improved medal, as it is clearly better in every way than the previous model. The ride, handling, and performance added to the abundance of safety features make his a compelling consideration. You can even get all wheel drive and a wagon version. Our favorite is the Bluetec diesel engine with great fuel mileage and the promise of excellent resale. The downside is the central control unit and the emotionless brake feel. The AMG versions are extremely fast considering that the base 3.5-liter V6 is good for 268 horsepower. Look for fuel mileage with this unit in the 21-mpg range. If for some reason you need more pep the E550 features a 5.5-liter V8 with 382 horsepower, but fuel mileage barely gets to 18 mpg. Our very favorite is the E320 Bluetec features a 3.0-liter turbo diesel V6 that churns out 210 horsepower and is fast while recording fuel mileage above 26 mpg. This is a must drive. Those who don’t care about renewable resources and want to live life in the fast lane should opt for the terrific E63 AMG with a 6.2-liter V8 providing a staggering 507 horsepower. The E-Class also comes with a seven-speed automatic.

Safety wise the E-Class is loaded with stability control, antilock brakes, front and rear side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and a PreSafe feature that anticipates a crash and automatically secure occupants. The seats are excellent and firm, the materials first rate, and the controls and gauges easy to read except for the COMAND interface that takes time to master. The rear seats have room for three and the trunk is fairly large.

Don’t expect this Mercedes sedan to perform as a BMW 5 Series, but do expect it to be more comfortable and family oriented. The Bluetec is a must drive. Grade A-. Reason, comfort, safety and with the diesel engine, economy.

Jaguar XF

This $51,200 all new sedan from Jaguar has not been tested by us. It is handsome and on paper appears to be money well spent, but until they reach the press fleet we reserve our opinion. It is certainly worth the price difference over the S-Type. Grade: Incomplete

Jaguar S-Type

A unique looking vehicle, the Jaguar S-Type has a kind ride, interesting look, and the usual superior interior look for the $48,500 price. Unfortunately, this is an old design that, although not common on the street, needs to be freshened or be overtaken by its sparking new companion, the XF. The 3.0-liter V6 has 235-horsepower. If you order the V8 you own 300 horsepower and the R version gets a supercharger and brings forth 400 horsepower. This is not a competitor for the BMW or Mercedes, but is in a class where its price tag places it against the Japanese Infiniti and Lexus sedans. Fuel economy is about 20 in mixed driving

The S-Class has six airbags, large disc brakes, traction and stability control as standard. The interior has gobs of nice leather and wood trim, but the J-gate remains so shifting by hand is never as easy as just letting the old girl do it herself. The most interesting aspect of this Jaguar is the CATS suspension system that really improves cornering and overall handling. If you like its look there can be no substitute for saying you own a Jaguar. Grade C. Resale, fuel economy, and center control interface.

Acura RL

Strange, the Acura RL is an extremely well furnished, eager to please and luxurious sedan priced at just over $49,000 that not many people seem to appreciate based on sales. It is all wheel drive and loaded with electronic features but lacks the performance people seem to want in this price range even though the 3.5-liter V6 has 290 horsepower and has a five-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles. The RL also has a Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive that sends traction to each individual wheel to improve traction.

Safety wise this mundane styled Acura has antilock disc brakes, front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, stability control system and more. The interior is elegant with wood and leather most everywhere, but understated is the theme. The center dash has a wide range of buttons as this Acura is loaded with toys, especially with the must have Technology package. There is voice control, heated seats, and a nice sized LCD screen. Honda’s GPS is the best, too. You can spend hours learning how to adjust all the devices the RL is equipped with.

Driving the RL is relaxed and there is enough power to please most people. The handling and ride are soft and the fuel mileage is about 22 mpg. We are a little worried about all those electronics as the car ages and so we recommend an extended warranty that covers electric concerns. Grade B-. Reason, complexity, gas mileage, and resale.

Lincoln Town Car

Lincoln’s Town car is just an old fashioned rear wheel drive sedan with acres of room and a price tag of $46,000 that places it against competitors that offer far more of everything except room and price. With styling like a limo and a wheelbase that makes parking a concern, the Lincoln has a 4.6-liter V8 with 239 horsepower that barely gets 18 mpg in mixed driving due to the weight of the vehicle.

Safety comes in the form of front side airbags, traction control and a lot of metal. The interior is, well, big. The trunk is enormous at about 21 cubic feet, and you can even order an L model that adds more room in the back seat. The gauges and controls are simple to use and everything works well. Driving this sedan is simple, just aim and wait. The ride is quiet and subdued. Once up to speed the Town Car can run with the best of them up to triple digits. Don’t sell this car short if you want a lot for your money. Grade C. Reason resale and fuel mileage.

BMW 5 Series

We like the 3 Series better, but for a family the 5 Series makes more sense with its larger size. The 7 Series is just bigger and far more expensive. So this model is the Goldilocks choice for us at just over $45,000. Stick with the basic features; avoid the electronics as much as possible, and you are going to have an enjoyable ride. However, with the Euro increasing against the dollar parts might be a concern after the “everything is covered” warranty wears out. As most BMWs the ride and handing are the standard for all cars. There is also quality everywhere, but the iDrive should be avoided at all costs and we absolutely dislike the styling of the newer models. It looks like the back and front are melting. As well, the BMW asks a premium dollars when you buy them due to demand.

The engines include the base 528i with a very underpowered 230-horsepower inline-6 and the 535i with a terrific twin-turbo 300-horsepower inline-6. If you feel the need for more speed there is a 360 horsepower engine, too. We like the 6-speed automatic, but abhor the SMG gearbox. If you want all wheel drive you can also order it with the sedan or wagon.

Safety wise there is stability control, antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags and front-and-rear side-curtain airbags with an optional rear seat side airbag, a lane departure warning system, and a night vision system. Safety scores were good, but side impact scores needed improvement. Always order as many airbags as a company offers. Comfortable seats and the iDrive and LCD screen control system dominant the interior with buttons for a whole host of actions from radio stations to GPS maps. The trunk is rather small and the look of the interior is bland. This is a driving car first, and a fashion statement secondly. It can run the canyons without breaking a sweat, provides gas mileage in the 21-mpg range, and even has an optional active steering system. Our grade A-. Cost, and complexity offset drivability and resale.

Infiniti M

Starting around $42,000, the Infiniti M35 and V8 powered M45 are vastly underrated sedans. These cars have plenty of electronic, luxury, and performance. It is easily as good as it gets for a luxury sport sedan and is the equal of the BMW in almost every way except cost and resale. The only drawbacks are its controls and road noise from very wide, low profile tires. Everything else is well worth a test drive. For example, there is a lane departure warning system and a switch to a hard drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic that helps get you around traffic snarls. Both engines have plenty of pep, but neither can really break the 20-mpg mark in mixed driving. You can order the M35x as an AWD model.

The safety features include antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, traction control, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. The interior trim is quite nice with leather and rosewood elements providing a subdued effect. The seats are very comfortable, and the gauges are easy to read and well lighted. Night lighting is also well above average. The dash has a lot of buttons to master, but the basics such as heat and cooling require little effort to learn.

Driving the M is enjoyable, but there is reduced side and back visibility due to the large columns and high trunk. The steering is very firm and the ride can get loud over coarse pavement. Essentially there is more sport than luxury in the M and thus its sales target is more BMW and less Lexus and Cadillac. Grade B- Gas mileage, noise, tires.

Cadillac STS (No updates)

Cadillac DTS (No updates.)

Volvo’s S80 is a large sedan priced at under $45,000 that is nearly invisible to the buying public. It is unemotional and uninvolving and that is sad because the sum of its parts is impressive. Perhaps it is the understated interior or the soft handling that makes it a less than a stellar sales success, but we think the exterior is just too bland to draw a potential customer into its charms. Their loss. The 281 horsepower, engine comes with all-wheel drive and provides for a nice package, albeit a bit pricey. The keyless entry system opens a view to a leatherized interior with an array of options that can make this Volvo most everything but fast. The option packages are expensive and the cost of repair significant. We owned Volvos previously and they run forever, but at a cost in parts and labor that would render rationality inept. The newer models are even more complicated and so are recommendation is to get an extended warranty and enjoy the safety features while driving the S80 a long time due to the weak resale.

The base front wheel drive Volvo S80 comes with a 3.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine yielding 235 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. You can also order a 4.4-liter V8 that provides 311 horsepower and all wheel drive. Gas mileage for all the high output motors seldom reaches 20 mpg in mixed driving and the base unit can muster 21 mpg using the standard six-speed automatic transmission. This transmission drives only the front wheels on base 3.2 models.

Safety is where Volvo excels. The S80 has antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags with separate sections for the chest and hip protection, full-length side curtain airbags, anti-whiplash front head restraints and pre-tensioning seatbelts for all passengers. Optional equipment is the use of cameras to monitor traffic on the side of the S80 and warning lights. There is also an adaptive cruise control system that warns of a possible collision and readies the brakes for action. The interior has the famous Volvo seats that are simply the best. The heater works rapidly and the rear seats are comfortable. The trunk is a good size.

When you drive the S80 it is smooth and soft. It goes about its job without much fuss, but with a car in this price range most people want a little more sizzle in their garage. Grade C-. Repair costs, resale, value.

Saab 9-5 (General Motors vehicle. No updates.

Lexus IS

Priced from $32,000 the IS is a compact sedan with little interior room for a family. That does not mean it isn’t a special car if you want sport and luxury in an affordable package. The IS 350 has a 306-horsepower V6 and they are now offering a V8 with BMW M type power. Hardly family oriented, though. The base engine is plenty spunky and only the very tight rear seat room and less than special fuel mileage spoil a really fun car to drive. Gas mileage is about 22 mpg and the ride is quite secure and surprisingly quiet.

Safety features include antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control and a front-seat side and full side curtain. Optional equipment of interest is a pre-collision system and a cruise control that uses a radar sensor to determine an impending crash. The little Lexus automatically tightens the seatbelts and everything else. The electronics are fairly easy to master on the IS and the interior materials are more upscale than one might image looking at the rather plain exterior. Regardless of your engine choice this is fun car to drive and the exhaust note encourages you to play out your fast lane desires. The rear wheel drive IS that is our favorite is the 250 that make a healthy 204 horsepower. Look for 25 mpg in mixed driving. The trunk is rather small and the looks of the IS are hardly anything to write home about. An excellent riding Lexus with a great dealer network. Grade C+. Reason: Interior space and expensive options.

Audi A4

We actually got 38 mpg with an Audi A4 on the highway with the CVT and four family members on board. This is quite a car. With a price just over $31,000 the Audi A4 has a handsome interior room for four adults, and has good handling and performance. It is the equal of the Lexus IS and BMW 3 Series in many ways, but is more family oriented. The 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 delivers 200 horsepower while the optional V6 creates 255 horsepower. If you order an Avant you get Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive. Unless you live where you need such an option stick with the front wheel drive model, especially those with the continuously variable automatic transmission and save big on fuel costs while still enjoying the punch of a turbocharged engine.

Safety wise the Audi has antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Optional rear side airbags are available. Crash scores were good. The interior is terrific. The seats are firm and the controls easy to read and reach. The GPS is complicated to master. Folding down the rear seats can expand the trunk space. What the A4 offers a family is the enjoyment of having a performance oriented sedan with a deluxe interior, excellent fuel mileage, and a pleasant ride. Grade B+. Expensive repairs, insurance, and expensive options.

Jaguar X-Type

We thought this car was going to be a big hit until we sat in it. The interior just does not meet the Jaguar quality we expected and the seats were tight for everyone. With a $36,000 price tag we feel that there are better cars for the money and we would start by saving a few extra dollars and getting the S-Type. Grade D. Poor fuel mileage, expensive to repair, resale, crash test scores.

Acura TL

The one overwhelming negative about this Acura is the fact you are going to be hard pressed to get 20 mpg in mixed driving and the car requires premium fuel. Add to that the large turning radius and you have a $30,000 plus car that is more sport than family. Reliable, yes, but the excellent V6 engines haven’t got the torque of the competition and the wide tires and create more interior noise than one would anticipate. These front wheel drive sedans come with a 3.2-liter V6 that produces 258 horsepower and a five-speed automatic. The Type-S has a 3.5-liter V6 good for 286 horsepower and you can get a six-speed manual with this model. Either way expect your fuel mileage to be much less than the government figures. We were only able to get 23 mpg using cruise control on level highway.

Safety comes in the form of stability and traction control, front-seat side airbags and full-length curtain airbags. If you order the optional GPS you get a rearview camera. The Acura system is very good. The interior is crowded. There is very little luxury, although the workmanship appears excellent. The interior lighting is so-so but the headlights are first rate. The electronics are easy to operate and even has voice commands. These cars love to prove themselves in the canyons and the steering is excellent. The ride can be a little stiff on rugged roads. Visibility to the back and sides is constricted by the high deck and thick pillars. Grade B-. Interior space, premium fuel, large turning radius.

Cadillac CTS (No updates)

BMW 3Series

With a starting price of about $33,000 the BMW 3 Series has created a new iconic image for itself by offering braking, handling, and resale untouched by any other vehicle. It is still a great driving car, but the competition has caught up namely in the form of the larger Infiniti G and Audi 4. As for a family vehicle, even in station wagon form there is little interior room as in many such sports sedans. You pay a premium for a BMW in price and most likely insurance rates. The warranty as been extended to cover everything, including brakes and fluids. However, when they warranty ends we hardly recommend you consider an extended version. We have seen too many BMWs ruined by lack of proper care.

The engines are very refined, the suspension and brakes unparalleled, and the seats comfortable. The iDrive is too complicated and the interior is way too understated considering the price. You can get a six-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a 3.0-liter inline-6 rated at 230 horsepower or go for the 335i and earn yourself the right to put premium fuel into a tank that propels a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter engine to 300 horsepower with a six-speed manual transmission to smooth it all out. You can even order all wheel drive. The 335i is very fast. Best of all you get pretty good fuel mileage with both of these engines with about 22 mpg in mixed driving a reality.

Standard equipment abounds with antilock disc brakes, dynamic brake control, stability control, run-flat tires, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags and even a feature that wipes the brake rotors when needed. Crash results were pretty good, but avoiding accidents is the 3 Series best safety feature. The gauges use small font and the interior lighting isn’t so good. The headlights are excellent and visibility is above average, albeit the side view mirrors are quite small. There is room for four adults, but legroom is at a premium and the trunk is also a bit on the small side in holding with the sport sedan image. Driving the new 3 Series is always a pleasure and entertaining. It makes you want to take the long way home. Unfortunately, it is not a good family vehicle due to it space limitations. We recommend spending a bit more and getting the 5 Series. Grade B+. Reason, interior room, repair costs, premium fuel.

Infiniti G35

The most underrated family vehicle on the planet the Infiniti G35 has room, voom, and a darn nice interior for its mid $32,000 price. The V6 engine is outstanding and the braking, handling, and ride are among the best for the price. Stay with the automatic transmission and you have a sedan that can be whatever you want it to be from grocery getter to canyon cutter. The G35’s 3.5-liter V6 has 306 horsepower going to the rear wheels, although all wheel drive is an option. The five-speed automatic is very efficient and it offers a manual shift that has downshift rev matching to make downshifts seamless. These are very fast cars that can run with the competition and still offer room for four or more. Gas mileage is 22 mpg, but you need premium fuel.

Safety features are antilock disc brakes with brake assist, front-seat side airbags, full-length curtain airbags, anti-whiplash front head restraints, traction control and stability control and an optional Technology Package that anticipates a crash and prepares the car and passengers by tightening things up. The interior is both sporty and classy. There are special touches everywhere including aluminum or wood trim, nice leather and only the lack of good cup holders and storage bins detract. The rear seats are roomy considering. The G35 is a remarkable car and clearly can challenge the BMW 3 Series. It loves to be driven and the 3.5-liter V6 is always on call. Grade A-. Reason premium fuel

Mercedes C-Class

It is no secret that Mercedes has had quality problems in the past. To its benefit they have redone the C-Class and presented a fresher, more improved face to the world. It should pay off in this most competitive entry-level luxury segment with this $32,000 model. The result in a much sharper looking and driving automobile. It handles well, has great build quality, and has a quiet ride. Even the COMAND system of controlling vehicle functions has been simplified. Unfortunately, the GPS is still complex and the gas mileage in town isn’t all that great. We averaged 21 mpg in mixed driving with both engines. The C300 has a 3.0-liter V6 with 228 horsepower turns the rear wheels through a very smooth seven-speed automatic. You can also order all wheel drive. Stepping up to the C350 Sport you get a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Stick with the base engine and save, as it is fast enough. Safety features include front side airbags, full-length curtain airbags, active front head restraints, stability control, traction control and adaptive antilock brakes with brake assist. And there is more. This Mercedes cocoons it passengers in safety equipment both passive and active.

Neat and logical are perhaps the best ways to describe the interior of the C Class. There is little fluff here and even the COMMAND system has been restructured for ease of operation using a good sized LCD screen. There is a sophisticated audio option and a hard drive to run all of the goodies. The trunk could be larger, but you can order optional fold down rear seats, which we recommend. On the road it is immediately apparent that the engineers have made this a much better handling car. It is capable of being driven hard or soft and offers reassuring feedback and an abundance of suspension travel to level the most roughened road. Grade B+. Reason. Cost of options, repair costs, fuel economy

Volvo S60

The Volvo S60 is a fairly expensive car for what you get considering it’s nearly $32,000 price tag. Yes, it has great seats and rides well and carries the safety reputation Volvo has maintained through the years. But the rear seats are tight, and turbo lag is noticeable, and the suspension is soft. None of these by themselves are a concern, but with the high price of repairs, and we have owned several Volvos, and the low resale, we lost $10,000 in two years on a popular station wagon, we would make sure you love the idea of a Volvo before you buy.

The engine choices for the S60 2.5T is a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder with 208 horsepower and a five-speed automatic transmission (all wheel drive is an option) or a 2.4-liter inline-5 with higher turbo pressure that pushes 257 horsepower to the front-wheel-drive. Gas mileage is notable better with the former engine. We were able to get 22 mpg in mixed driving whereas we were registering 19 mpg with the more potent motor.

Safety is abundant with antilock disc brakes, stability control, front side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, anti-submarine seats, whiplash-reducing head rests and OnCall. Crash test scores were good. The Volvo S60’s interior is functional but doesn’t feel upscale unless you order the leather upholstery and Dolby Surround Sound options. The controls are nicely weighted, but the pictograms depicting the various functions can be difficult to understand at first. There is seating for five, and although front occupants will bask in the comfort of the Volvo’s orthopedically designed seats, rear passengers will likely find the legroom tight. Trunk space measures just under 14 cubic feet, and the rear seat folds in a 60/40 split on all trims. On the road the engine is competent, but hardly strong. Even the optional 2.5T does not thrill. The ride is kind to your back and the brakes instill confidence, Grade C. Reason Resale, performance.

Lincoln MKZ

We are sure that the Lincoln MKZ for $31,000 is a comfortable riding vehicle, but one must question why it costs nearly $8000 more than its sister, the Mercury Milan, which is nearly identical except for a less powerful engine and standard features. Of course, these are nice to have such as heated and cooled seats, satellite radio, and the hands-free entertainment and communication system that were developed with Microsoft. The engine in the Lincoln is also stronger than the Milan with a 3.5-liter V6 creating 263 horsepower that run through a six-speed automatic transmission. The all wheel drive system is optional. Fuel mileage was around 21 mpg in mixed driving.

Safety in provided in the form of ABS, traction control, front side impact airbags and full-length head curtain airbags and an innovative feature that is designed to keep the air bag against the window at all times. Crash test scores were good. We very much dislike the interior the tree ton plus Lincoln Navigator that exceeds the weight limit of most community streets and some highways. So we were not pleased with the MKZ’s interior with its SUVish looks. That being said, the Lincoln does offer a good-sized rear seat and trunk that stores just under 16 cubic feet of bargains. The rear seats also fold down. The ride is comfortable and the engine is adequate for highway driving. We much prefer the Ford Fusion and the Mercury Milan. Grade D. Cost, resale, interior.

Nissan Maxima

Nissan’s Maxima is long in the tooth and has rear visibility problems. Worse, its sister vehicle, the Altima, is a much better family vehicle. In fact, one of the best. The $29,000 Maxima has abundant interior room a terrific engine and a sporty suspension. The steering lets the suspension down and it rides harshness over rutted roads. The
V6 engine and the CVT are responsive and we got 21 mpg in mixed driving.

Antilock disc brakes, brake assist, traction control, front side-impact airbags, side-impact head curtain airbags help the Maxima get good test scores. The interior is vast with a strange glass roof letting in some light. The glass does not move. The seats are designed for comfort and the dash and gauges are easy to read. Night lighting is good. The trunk is large and the rear seats fold down, too. The Maxima stops well, accelerates briskly, and provides an enjoyable driving experience. Grade B. Resale, ride quality, fuel mileage.

Saab 9-3. (General Motors product. No updates.)


Toyota Avalon

Other than the Ford Taurus, the Toyota Avalon offers the most usable room for the dollar starting at about $28,500. The Avalon is a Lexus in all but name. It is refined and well built. If you aren’t interesting in performance this is the best large sedan you can buy in the price segment. Although the rear seats don’t fold down, the interior space is enormous as this long sedan offers room for five plus sized adults. The six-speed automatic transmission moves the power to the front-wheel-drive Toyota from a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 268 horsepower. And you can get close to 28 mpg on the highway, with an average of 23 mpg in mixed driving almost remarkable considering the size of this sedan. The sound system is also exemplary with a nine-speaker audio system with MP3-compatible CD changer and auxiliary jacks providing a stellar listening environment. The seats are large, a bit soft, but comfortable for long trips.

Antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers and a driver-side knee airbag come with every Avalon and safety options include stability and traction control. Crash scores were all excellent. The interior has easy to read dials and gauges, controls that are simply to understand, and you can even get heated and cooled front seats. The trunk is not as spacious as the size of the car would indicate. Driving the Avalon on the road is a pleasure, but in town there are some visibility problems to the side and rear. The steering does not provide much feedback, but the Avalon is quite capable of handling emergency maneuvers and concerning easier than we thought. This is a large sedan that might be too much for some families who would be better suited to a Camry. Grade A-. Small trunk.

Pontiac G8 (General Motors product. No updates.)

Buck Lucerne (General Motors product. No updates.)

Kia Amanti

Well, you certainly are going to look hard to find a better initial value than a well-loaded Kia Amanti for under $27,000. Vast interior, great warranty and a surprising lush ride make this an under appreciated vehicle. The one striking feature is the different exterior look. The Kia has a 3.8-liter V6 and a five-speed automatic transmission that yields about 20 mpg in mixed driving. It is pretty quick for its size.

Safety features include antilock disc brakes, active front air bags, side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Always consider an optional package that includes stability and traction control systems on any car. The Amanti’s crash scores were good. The interior is spacious and there is room for five adults. The accents are understated and provide a luxurious look that belies its cost such as a power point in the rear armrest. The trunk is large, but the seats don’t fold down, although there is a small pass through. Driving the Amanti is a lot like driving an older American sedan. It has a soft ride and does not take to corners gladly, but on the highway it really scoots. Grade B-. Reason: weak resale, suspension, lack of dealerships for warranty repairs on the road.

Mercury Grand Marquis/Ford Crown Victoria

Simply not as good as the new Ford products, such as Taurus, unless you want rear wheel drive and a V8 engine. Priced around $25,500. D. Reason, poor gas mileage, soft handling, resale.
Hyundai Azera

The Hyundai Azera is well priced at just over $25,000. It is a bargain with a great warranty, nice interior and supportive engine. On the other hand the gas mileage isn’t that great and the build quality hasn’t been proven over the years. Standard equipment includes 17-inch alloy wheels, satellite radio automatic transmission, and air conditioning and more. The suspension is tighter than previous models and the engine selection includes a standard 3.3-liter V6 that has 234 horsepower and gives 22 mpg in mixed driving or a 3.8-liter V6 that creates 263 horsepower and gives the same miles per gallon because the engine is not working as hard with a full crew onboard. The front wheel drive sedan has a smooth shifting five-speed automatic and a full array of safety equipment that includes antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control, active front head rests, front side airbags, rear side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Crash test scores were good.

The interior looks regal and there is an abundance of small touches that make it look like a much more expensive vehicle. The seats are fairly comfortable and the interior is large with room for five adults and a huge trunk that opens wide. This trunk and loading area should be a model for the industry. The ride is subdued and quiet. The car is fairly fast and the brakes work well, although the brake pedal feedback is numb. For all the world this car feels like a compact car when you drive it. Grade B. Reason: resale, fuel mileage, lack of dealers when traveling.

Chrysler 300

What’s a big car like this doing in a price segment like this? The answer is eating up a lot of new car sales. In its variety of forms the $24,500 Chrysler 300 can be purchased in everything from a frugal family hauler to a tire frying grand touring machine with just the flick of one’s credit card. Available in all wheel drive, this is a big sedan with show car looks and some real downsides such as poor visibility and lackluster fuel economy.

You can order the 300 with such trendy features as LED accent lighting, adaptive cruise control, a surround-sound audio with iPod interface, a Sirius Backseat television babysitter, a hard-drive based MyGIG multimedia system, and navigation. We like the 3.5-liter V6 with its 250 horsepower. However, if you must you can get the 300C with a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and its horsepower or the 300C SRT8 is powered by a 6.1-liter V8 and 425 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. Fast, but not fuel efficient in case you cared with under 20 mpg in mixed driving the norm even with cylinder-deactivation technology. Safety equipment, besides airbags, on most models includes ABS, traction control, stability control, and optional and full-length side curtain airbags.

The interior cabin has plenty of everything except headroom, and only a smallish trunk makes it less than a small limo as far as passenger use. Gauges and controls are easy to understand, the amber colored steering wheel is some models very sheik, and the seats are comfortable.

Driving the 300 is simple and the handling is exceptional considering its size. There is nothing to be said bad about the larger engines, except to question whether you really need the extra expensive even if resale might be better. Grade B-. Good value, but the reduced vision is a constant concern as is the fuel mileage and small trunk.

Volvo S40

This is a fairly expensive small car for about $25,000. It is well furnished and has terrific seats. You can get all wheel drive, too, for the Volvo S40 to frolic in the snow easier. The interior is clean and only its engine takes away from the enjoyment of driving this sedan with a family onboard. The overwhelming problem with this sharp looker is that if you don’t order the optional turbocharged engine you can’t get really get full use out of the suspension. The base engine is 2.4-liter inline-5 cylinder unit that produces 168 horsepower. However, the 2.4 engine’s horsepower is slow to come online, especially with the five-speed automatic. The optional 2.5-liter inline-5 creates 227 horsepower and is much more capable of hauling a family. And, with the larger engine you get better gas mileage as rated by the government of over 30 on the highway. We got 25 in mixed driving. You can order this Volvo with all wheel drive. Make sure you order the optional xenon headlights that turn as the steering wheel turns to illuminate curves better as night lighting is only average without them. The interior lighting is good and getting in and out is fairly easy even with a baby seat. Safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes, traction control and stability control, front side airbags, full-length head curtain airbags, and whiplash-reducing head rests for all outboard positions. Crash scores were good. The interior is very modern and fresh, downright Swedish. Thankfully, Volvo has ended its stereo knob controls that made it nearly impossible to find a station without taking your eyes of the road. The new set-up is very good and the seats are the best. The trunk isn’t large, but the rear seats fold down to provide more cargo space. Driving the Volvo quite different with the base engine and the T5 turbocharged one. The 2.4-liter engine needs time to reach its peak even with the manual transmission, as the power is not really available to over 4000 rpm. The T5 option is better, but why not just pay a few extra dollars a month and get the larger S60? It is a better family vehicle. Handling is sporty with the S40 and the brakes and steering feel is good. Grade C: Reason, resale, repair costs, cargo space, base engine.

Volkswagen GL1

Formerly known as Jetta, This $24,500 Volkswagen GL1 is a good driver’s car, with a nice ride and perky engine. The suspension is firm and the proven 2.0-liter engine a willing worker thanks to the turbo boost. The car deserves a better-looking exterior for this sporty vehicle. The 200 horsepower engine works well with the six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox transmission that provides the best balance of quickness and fuel economy. Overall gas mileage was 25 mpg in mixed driving. Driving is entertaining and parking is made easy with a fairly small 35.1 feet turning radius, which is quite good for a front wheel drive vehicle. Safety wise the Volkswagen has antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags. Crash scores were good.

The interior has a first rate feel and the quality is evident as the controls are all nicely weighted and easy to reach. The steering wheel is flat bottomed and the seats are firm and perhaps a little too small for some occupants. You can get four adults in this GL1 with ease and the trunk is very large at about 16 cubic feet. Beware that the option packages can raise the cost of the GL1 a great deal so separate your needs from your wants. Grade A-. Reason. Resale, option costs.

Volkswagen Passat

Volkswagen’s Passat sedan is an interesting vehicle with a base price around $24,000 that is underrated and fun to drive. Available with all wheel drive, the Passat has the proven 2.0 turbocharged engine with 200 horsepower, and a good-sized interior. The optional V6 engine adds little to the family value of the Passat, and it is costly. With this model check your options carefully because they can increase the cost considerably and the weak resale does not justify extras other than those that deal with safety. The same could be said for the all wheel drive option, or 4Motion. The six speed manual transmission is a little difficult to shift rapidly and so we recommend the six-speed automatic. Gas mileage for these cars was 24 mpg in mixed driving on premium fuel.

Safety features include antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control, anti-whiplash head rest restraints, front side airbags and full-length head curtain. Seriously consider ordering the optional rear-seat side airbags. Crash scores were good. The interior is tasteful, if a bit dark. You start the car with a card key that fits into a slot in the dash. It takes a while to master this procedure and we question why it was done, but we can’t deny it is simple to use. The trunk is mall, but the rear seats fold down for extra space. On the road the ride is supportive, yet comfortable, with just a hint of lean on corners. The engine is eager to please and only outside wind and tire noise provide a sensation of speed. Grade B. Cost of repair, trunk, and resale.

Mercury Sable

See Ford Tarsus ($24,000)

Buick LaCrosse (General Motors Product. No update)

Ford Taurus

This is a large car and Ford has finally seen fit to give its $24,000 the engine it deserves with a 263-horsepower V6. The ride is smooth and uninvolving, the trunk enormous, and the interior spacious. You aren’t going to get more car for your money. That being said, it is perhaps has too much room for smaller families and the Ford Fusion is a better fit for those. You can even get the Taurus with all wheel drive. The high seating position gives you an excellent view of the road and the ride is quiet and relaxing. The big news is the engine and the 3.5-liter V6 when combined with the standard six-speed automatic transmission gives tremendous fuel averages on the highway considering its heft with 25 mpg easy to maintain. In town that drops to about 20, but only the more expensive Toyota Avalon can compete with this Ford.

Safety comes in the form of antilock disc brakes and traction control, and front side- and full-length curtain airbags. You can order stability control, power-adjustable pedals and rear parking sensors. This Ford is one of the safest, smoothest, and most spacious cars you can buy. The interior is well thought out. There are even eight cup holders. There isn’t much headroom, but everywhere else you can feel why people who like their comfort are going to like the Taurus. Indeed, the front passenger seat can fold flat and the Taurus’ 60/40-split rear bench also does giving you ladder hauling size cargo space. This Ford isn’t much for handling corners and the transmission takes it time downshifting, but you won’t have any problem entering highways and with a car this size you are more than likely to find someone willing to give you an opening. Grade B+. Reason resale and handling.

Pontiac Grand Prix (General Motors product. No update)

Chevrolet Malibu (General Motors Prroduct.  No update.)

Dodge Charger

This is a world-class bargain at under $22,000. It is interesting to drive and only the lack of good visibility mars its driving enjoyment. Available as rear wheel or all wheel drive, this large sedan has excellent suspension and can even be ordered with a high-powered V8 engine for those with the funds to supply it with fuel. The Dodge Charger is also heavy and the rear seat head room is compromised by its styling. Of the interesting options the information and communication MyGIG system is worth exploring. More importantly, Chrysler has a new limited lifetime power train warranty. And, what a power train. The base unit is a very useful 2.7-liter V6 with 178 horsepower that works with a four-speed automatic transmission. Also consider the optional 3.5-liter V6 with 250 horses if you carry a family frequently. Chrysler also offers two V8s for those determined to burn fuel at record rates. The base engine provides about 23 mpg in mixed driving and the others, including the R/T version with its 340 horsepower V8 and 6.1-liter V8 with its very thirsty 425 horses record gas mileage figures in the teens.

Features such as standard antilock disc brakes, brake assist, traction control and a stability control system help keep the family safe, but we would certainly order the optional full-length side curtain airbags. Crash scores were good. There is an abundance of room in the cabin, but the rear seat headroom isn’t so good due to the roof design. The interior is well designed, easy to use and the seats are comfortable, if a bit soft and wide for some. The trunk is large.

Driving this rear wheel drive sedan depends on your choice of engines. The more potent the engine the more fun, but at a cost. The exhaust lets you know the engine is working at all times and there is better than expected handling. The largest engine we would recommend is the 3.5-liter V6. Grade B+. Reason fuel mileage, resale, and visibility.

Toyota Prius

What can you say about the most fuel efficient, family friendly sedan? Well, it does not have enough cargo capacity and its handling isn’t confidence inspiring especially on windy days or when passing large trucks. Outside of that this is a great $21,300 sedan. Using Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive with its 1.5-liter gasoline engine and two electric motors, produce a combined 143 horsepower, but in reality there is a little over 100 horses online at any one time. Regardless of the numbers, the Prius is slow, but steady. It does its job well, and that is to save gas and move four people in reasonable comfort. Look for fuel mileage about 40 mpg in mixed driving. With compact cars safety is a concern and the Prius comes with antilock brakes, brake assist, traction control, front side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Crash scores were good.

The interior is utilitarian and different starting with the short electronic shifter located near the steering wheel. The gauges are easy to reach and use and the seats are comfortable. The hatchback as a good sized 14.4 cubic-foot “trunk” and the rear seats fold flat. The problem is the usability of this space any large packages blocking rear visibility. Driving the Prius takes a while to master. The engine shuts off at stops and there is a shudder when the gas engine starts and stops. The brakes also have a different feel. Nothing terrible, just different. To help on fuel consumption you can go up to around 25 mpg without starting the gas engine unless you are using the air-conditioning. We have been in traffic jams and traveled over 25 miles without using any fuel. The steering feel is very light and the parking ability is wonderful. The Prius is most geared towards being a commuter car as the gas mileage falls on high-speed highways. Although the Prius was our car of the year when it first came out and when it was redesigned, it still isn’t our favorite family car in this price segment despite great resale and economy. Grade B+. Reason, usable cargo room, highway manners, unknown costs of battery replacements.

Mitsubishi Galant

Mitsubishi Galant starts at $21,100 and has an attractive look, a great warranty, and good handling. What is missing is quality. Everywhere you see a great idea, but cheapened with inferior materials probably due to Mitsubishi’s struggle for survival. The Fosgate stereo is very good; the ride a bit stiff, but very athletic overall, and the interior has adequate space. The rear seats do not fold down and if you select the optional V6 engine you need premium fuel. The base inline 2.4-liter four cylinder engine makes 160 horsepower and is mated to a four-speed automatic. Gas mileage was about 23 mpg in mixed driving. A Ralliart with a 3.8-liter V6 with 258 horsepower has a five-speed automatic but barely gets 20 mpg in mixed driving.

In terms of safety, the Galants have the usual front and side airbags, but almost everything else is an option. Crash scores were good. The interior is well lighted and the gauges easy to use. The white-faced dials are difficult to read due to the small font. There is plenty of room for four, but the seats are too soft for us and the trunk is also on the small side. This is an enjoyable family sedan to drive and the suspension leaves no doubt it is sporty. The steering is good and there is plenty of sporty feedback on all types of surfaces. Grade B-. Materials, fuel efficiency, resale.

Subaru Legacy

Families and Subaru Legacies go together; especially for those who live where inclement weather is a concern. The base Legacy sedan is comfortable and comes with all wheel drive for about $21,100. If it weren’t for the expensive repair costs this would higher rated and resale is a concern. We owned Subarus in the past and found these two problems persisted, especially the cost of parts. The other consideration is the lack of energy from the base engine and the lack of cargo space. The interior is very well done and the materials feel first rate. On the down side the options are very expensive and the more deluxe models can cost well over $30,000. The base engine in the 2.5i models is a 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder that makes 175 horsepower. It is slow but steady. The GT models get a turbocharged 2.5-liter engines that create a much more driver friendly 243 horsepower. The 3.0 R Limited has a 3.0-liter six-cylinder that is smoother, but only has 245 horsepower. The base model has an available four speed automatic transmission and the others have a five speed. We much prefer the automatic to the manual transmissions as the latter has a linkage system that can prove difficult to shift in a hurry.

Safety wise there are antilock disc brakes, front and side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and whiplash-reducing front headrests are all standard. The crash scores were excellent. The interior is warm and the gauges easy to read. The seats have a good feel and there is good room in the front. Rear seat passengers may not be so lucky as shoulder room is tight and so is the trunk. Fortunately, the rear seats fold down. Seriously consider the Outback wagon over the sedan. On the highway the Legacy feels totally in control with some wind and tire noise. The base engine takes its time so order the turbocharged engine if you travel in the mountains or with a full family onboard. The steering is very good, but the suspension is not really sporty due to the long travel needed for it to be taken off-road. Grade B. Expensive to repair, weak engine, and small trunk.

Honda Accord

Always a family friendly and fuel frugal sedan, the $21,000 the new Honda Accord is much the same with a more unique look and slightly larger interior. We really like the four-cylinder model and the manual transmission that enables you to get 30 mpg on the highway. The interior is understated, except for some curiously placed buttons. Resale is excellent. The L sedans have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 177 horsepower and that is all you really need. If you upgrade to the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine you get a whopping 190 horsepower. This is the standard power plant on the EX sedans. A five-speed manual transmission is standard with a five-speed automatic optional. There is also a 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horsepower that provides true sports car type acceleration. Perhaps the best feature of these engines is their fuel figures. You can get well over 25 mpg in mixed driving with the former engines and about 22 with the V6. This is as good as it gets. The ride is good over all surfaces, but the new car does not feel as athletic as the previous model. The brakes have good feel and visibility is exceptional.

In terms of safety the Accord has antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags and full-length curtain airbags. The interior works well, but we found the seats a bit flat and the center console too busy. The rear camera and GPS is the best in the business, except for perhaps the Nissan’s rear view monitor. There is a lot of room in this new model, but not in the trunk where it has a useful, but not up to class standards, 14 cubic feet of trunk space. Grade A-. Smallish trunk, difficult finding base model.

Saturn Aura (General Motors product. No update.)

Mazda6

For just under $20,000 Mazda offers a tight, midsized sedan that is enjoyable to drive, has a conservative interior, and comes in many forms. However, the Mazda engines are short of grunt and economy and the Sport model is priced around $30,000, which makes it a difficult buy considering resale and lack of pep. On the other hand the handling is sizzling.

The standard engine is the 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 156 horsepower. It is barely adequate. The upgrade is the 3.0-liter V6 that makes 212 horsepower. In mixed driving with the V6 we were hard pressed to come anywhere near the 22 mpg figure. Mazda loads its sedan with safety features such as antilock disc brakes, traction control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. The interior is quite fresh and the seats are comfortable, but rear seating is tight. The instrument panel is easy to read, but the exterior lighting, even with the optional xenon lighting, is only average. The trunk has over 15-cubic-foot trunk, but the trunk lid is heavy and difficult to lift. The rear seats fold down to expand capacity.

Without doubt Mazda builds some excellent handling vehicles. They are fun to drive, but the engines let them down in both performance and economy. Grade C. Reason fuel mileage, resale, and power.

Mercury Milan

As its sisters from Lincoln and Ford, the Milan is a great bargain at $19,000. It has a roomy interior, above average handling, available all wheel drive, and a price that leaves the competition in the dust. Mercury is offering a plethora of options, but if you can live without a reverse parking sensor and Mercury “Sync” multimedia system with its MP3 and cell phone integration you can probably be driving this Mercury for far less than a Camry or Accord.

The base 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine makes 160 horsepower and meets the strict Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicle certification in California. You can also have the optional 221-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. Both engines are adequate, but nothing more. Look for gas mileage in the 23-mpg range. Safety includes antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags and side-curtain airbags. There is room for four adults, but rear seats are tight. The trunk is fairly large and the rear seats fold down. Driving the Milan is enjoyable with a nice combination of sport and luxury in its handling. The ride is quiet, but the engine needs more umpf if you want to challenge to the suspension. Grade B-.Engine performance.

Toyota Camry

One of the best selling sedans, the Camry and its base price of $18,750 this Toyota is non-offensive and meant to be. There is good interior room, a very fuel-efficient selection of engines, and some options that can turn the base model into something sportier. The interior is quiet and the feeling is always one of sitting in a library with little to disturb you. The front drive Camry’s come with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that feels far more powerful than its 158 horsepower rating. There is also an Ultra Low Emissions certification engine. We love the four-cylinder engine and it never fails to surprise us with gas mileage in the 27-mpg range while providing a spunk response. Safety wise Camry has antilock brakes, brake assist, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag with stability control and traction control optional. The interior is filled with storage bins and easy to read dials. Attention to detail is everywhere and the trunk is the only disappointment with a smallish 15 cubic feet of room. Grade B+. Reason. Excellent engine and mileage, but a smallish trunk, increased price, and the improvement in the competition make buying a Camry for family transportation less of a done deal.

Chrysler Sebring

Newly redone the Chrysler Sebring at $18,700 is a sedan that fails to impress. It has a lot of option choices, and isn’t hard to look at, but the base engine isn’t good enough and the optional V6 takes the price up over $1000 more. The base model gets standard satellite radio and an in-dash CD changer and can be ordered with front-wheel or all-wheel drive. The 2.4-liter inline-4 is said to make 173 horsepower but it feels weaker. The Touring is priced over $1000 more and worth it, especially with the 2.7 liter V6 and its 189 horsepower. The much more expensive Limited model has a 3.5-liter V6 with 235 horsepower and a six speed automatic transmission. The government ratings are 21-mpg city/30 mpg highway for the smaller engine and 19/27 mpg for the 2.7 liter. The front 3.5-liter V6 gets a not very good 16/25 rating.

Safety wise the Sebring scores are average. The interior has soft seats and a lot of plastic. Driving the Sebring is a study in patience. The ride is smooth, handling is adequate, and acceleration tepid. There is a spacious cabin and a good-sized trunk. Grade D. Resale, engine, handling, and interior.

Dodge Avenger

This car has a dramatic flair and an agreeable price tag at $18,700, but the real plus is the variety of options. This front wheel drive unit comes with either a four-cylinder or V6 and can be order with all wheel drive. The 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine has 173 horses while the optional 2.7-liter V6 produces 189 all running through a four speed automatic. You can order a R/T model with a 3.5-liter V6 capable of 235 horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission. The mpg rate for the base engine is 21/31 according to the government and the other two engines are rated at 19/27. If you use ethanol the mpg rate drops from one to three miles per gallon.

Safety equipment finds the Avenger with front side airbags, full-length head curtain airbags, antilock brakes on most models, and a very useful tire-pressure monitor. The Avenger is certainly better than the model it replaced, the Stratus, but it still is a sub par car unless you get the suspension and engine power of the R/T that transforms this sleepy driving sedan into a playful family hauler. The interior is quite simple and the seats are wide and comfy. The gauges are difficult to read and their isn’t much to show off, but if you order the multi-talented MyGIG navigation and audio system you can spend hours showing it off. The rear seat is adequate for two adults, but the seats aren’t that comfortable. The trunk is small, but the rear seats fold down for comfort.

The engines aren’t the most cutting edge and they don’t like to be rushed, but the 2.7-liter is worthy of a test drive especially in passing situations. However, the R/T option makes this and entirely different car so beware that the extra $5000 might be money well spent. The brakes on the base models aren’t the best, but crash scores were good. Grade C-. Price of options, small trunk, resale.

Nissan Altima

Priced under $19,000 and with an abundance of deals under that figure, the Altima brings a lot of features to the family and packages it well. The engine is frisky, the CVT works well, the interior is well laid out and the options defy logic. A 2.5-liter inline-4 with 175 horsepower is the engine to have and we got nearly 28 mpg with it in mixed driving. You can also order a 3.5-liter V6 with 270 horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission. The Altima also comes as a hybrid and you can get some great deals on this model as the masses continue to flock to the Toyota Prius and Camry versions. The Altima is fast and frugal. Safety features include front and seat side airbags, and full-length side-curtain airbags and antilock brakes. Crash test scores were good.

Nissan has the best CVT units and when added to the easy to read gauges and LCD readouts this is an easy car to drive. The interior has a quality feel to it and the myriad of options can make this sedan everything from a commuter special to a luxury liner. The stereo is above average and the handling is responsive and fun. The engine is eager to please and the optional rear view camera the best there is. Add to that a terrific GPS unit and you have an undervalued family sedan. Grade A-. Reason: resale.

Pontiac G6 (General Motors product. No update.)

Ford Fusion

Priced exceptional well starting around $18,000 the surprisingly roomy Ford Fusion is a nice combination of sporty and family practical depending on your option choices. The low price means that some Fusion models cost less than the smaller Ford Focus. It is available in all wheel drive and is loaded with standard features. The engine choices include a 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine that meets Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicle certification. This is almost as good as clean air gets. We don’t recommend the manual transmission, as the five –speed automatic works well. If you want more power the 3.0-liter, 221-horsepower V6 comes with a six-speed automatic. We got 26 mpg in mixed driving with the four cylinder and 23 with the V6.

Outside of its interesting exterior, what sets the Fusion apart is it’s handling. This car is very European in feel and outside of a bit of noise from the engine delivers a quiet ride with some gusto. If you want more handling check out the Sport Appearance package that yields larger tires, rims, and some trim pieces a bargain for under $900. And with the dollar falling, those American made pieces on this Ford should stay the same while the import prices rise. Safety wise the Fusion has antilock disc brakes, front and side airbags and side-curtain airbags. You need to order the option traction control on the V6 models. Unfortunately stability control is not an option, but the Fusion has good resistance to rollovers and good crash scores as well. The interior is easy to understand and use. The gauges could be larger and there needs to be a few more readouts, but the overall impact is European in quality and look. The cabin is very spacious and the trunk is nearly 16 cubic feet with a fairly low liftover. The rear seats also fold down, and, on the upscale models, the front passenger seat folds down to allow for the carrying of really long items.

Driving the Fusion is a pleasure. It is hard to believe you are driving a Ford. The ride is quiet, the engine perky, and the steering very communicative. This is not the fastest vehicle in its class, but it runs or regular fuel. It could use a little more power and some gauges could be easier to read, but for the money this vehicle is hard to ignore, especially with so many deals going on and the fact that there are dealers most everywhere to take car of warranty issues. Grade A-. Engine

Hyundai Sonata

There is little to dislike from the base price Hyundai Sonata at $18,500. The interior is spacious; the ride quite nice, there are lots of standard features, and the warranty is excellent. On the other hand the engines aren’t that gas miserly and the transmission isn’t the best. We found the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 162 horsepower very good. You can also order a 3.3-liter V6 with 234 horsepower and a five-speed automatic. Stick with the standard unit. Safety features include antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, front and side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active head restraints. The crash scores were very good. Inside the Sonata there is a quality feel. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes and has redundant controls. The seats are wide and fairly comfortable and there is room for four adults. Most of the controls are easy to reach and understand. The trunk is huge.

Driving the Hyundai is quite nice, but don’t push it. This is a car set up for the quieter side of driving and it shows when hard cornering enters its path. The headlights are average and so is the interior lighting. The brakes are good, with little pedal feel. The cabin is quiet with little wind noise. The engine seems eager, but the automatic transmission slow to respond. Grade A- Resale, fuel economy.

Volkswagen Rabbit

At $17,575 the Volkswagen Rabbit is an expensive compact sedan. It has a nice ride and

wonderful build quality. The problem is the price. If you order options this sedan quickly moves into Volkswagen Jetta territory. The 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine produces 170 horsepower which runs through the front wheels via five-speed manual transmission. It is a good unit, but for more money consider the six-speed automatic. We averaged 25 mpg in mixing driving, but expected more. Safety comes in the form of four-wheel antilock disc brakes, front side-impact airbags and full-length head curtain airbags with stability control and must have rear seat side-impact airbags optional. Crash scores were good. The interior is fun. The gauges are blue with red pointers and the fit and finish are excellent. We did notice that the colorful lighting was difficult to read at times and that the headlights and interior illumination needed improvement, too. The seats are good, the seating position very good, and you just feel good when driving this little daredevil of a car. This is not really a sports car, but a nice combination of sporty and comfortable ride makes it an enjoyable companion. Unfortunately, it just does not have the room for a family. No Grade. Transfer to Unmarried Singles Class.

Subaru Impreza

It is so different in appearance that you are probably not going to recognize the new Subaru Impreza even with its familiar under $18,000 pricing. It is subtle looking; nearly Toyotaish in appearance, and the interior is so much improved it hardly is recognizable as well. Better seats, better ride, better everything. But we still miss that sore thumb styling. You can also order this bargain all wheel drive four-cylinder sedan with the powerful turbocharged versions dubbed WRX and WRX STI. Except for the very fun to drive turbocharged versions you can get 25 mpg in mixed driving. However, the horizontally opposed 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and its170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque are not for those in a hurry. The turbocharged engines provide WRX models with 224 horsepower and the STI a staggering 305 horsepower.

Standard safety features on the Impreza include antilock brakes and side curtain airbags and you must order the optional rear disc brake option with any model as well as ABS and such unique features as a hill holder for manual transmissions. Don’t forget the

active front head restraints.

Interior space is much better than previous models and the sedan even has larger doors, thankfully, for easier entry and exit. There are also framed side windows that help make the ride quiet for this compact. The rear seats have a 60/40-split-folding rear seat comes in both the sedan and four-door hatch and the trunk is good sized as well.

Overall a very fun car to drive, but more reserved than previous models. Our grade C+. Reason repair costs and unexceptional fuel mileage. If you live in areas that have an abundance of snow move the grade up a notch.

Volkswagen Jetta

A real bargain, the Volkswagen Jetta is undervalued in terms of ride and performance and with the optional diesel engine is a first choice of the commuters. It does everything well for the $17,000 price and the 2.5-liter engine with 170 horsepower is capable of good passing safety. The interior is nice, but not exceptional, and the interior room very useful. Grade B. Quality ride. Resale concerns. With the diesel engine this would be an A-


Kia Optima

Kia’s Optima is a $17,000 sedan that is well featured, has good crash test scores, but has very bland styling and very low resale despite an exceptional warranty. The base engine yields 162 horsepower form its 2.4-liter four-cylinders. It is well worth considering the optional 2.7-liter V6 and its five speed automatic transmission. Although rated at 185 horsepower and the extra power is needed. Fuel mileage is about 25 mpg with either engine in mixed driving, but the four-cylinder engine is inadequate when the car is fully loaded.

Safety comes in the form of front side airbags, full-length curtain airbags and an Electronic Stability Control Package with antilock brakes, stability control and traction control on all but the base model. Excellent crash test scores. The interior is quite plain, but there is good room for those in both the front and back and the seats are comfortable. The trunk is nearly 15 cubic feet and the rear seats fold down. There is nothing here to dislike, it is a non-offensive interior that works well, but lacks any special elements that would make people sit-up (pun intended) and notice. Driving the Optima is also bland. The transmission isn’t quick to shift, the engine hasn’t that much punch, and only the sporty suspension makes this a sleepy ride. This is a good commuter car with some exceptional deals being offered. Grade C-. Resale, engine, interior design.

Nissan Sentra

This quirky compact is as utilitarian as it gets. There is nothing wrong with it, but for $16,000 or so dollars you can find more entertaining vehicles that do most things as well or better. It does have a spacious interior and a nice interior layout. The engine is noisy, the handling is average, and the manual transmission does not like to be rushed. We do like the CVT and if offers exceptional fuel economy. Also standard are ABS, cruise control, power windows, locks, and keyless entry. The 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine with its 140 horsepower drives the CVT through the front wheels with exceptional fuel economy considering the spaciousness of the Sentra. We got 29 mpg in mixed driving. There is also a SE-R with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that provides 177 horsepower and a SE-R Spec V with 200 horsepower.

Nissan’s Sentra has front-seat side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags as standard and you have to move to more expensive models to get antilock brakes. Crash scores were very good. The seat material is very grabby, and by that we means things stick to it such as hair. You have plenty of room for four and there is an abundance of headroom. Unfortunately, there is something different about the interior that is you feel like you are riding lower than you really are due to the seating position. The trunk is large and useful. Driving the Sentra is relaxing and there is plenty of passing power. The handling isn’t’ as good and the interior isn’t as quiet as other models. Grade B- Resale, interior materials, noise.


Saturn Astra(General Motors Product. No update.)

Honda Civic

Clearly one of the best and most handy and most interesting of the small cars, the $15, 500 Honda Civic can be bought with a hot rod engine, as a hybrid, with a compressed natural gas engine, and even lends its chassis to the valuable and useful Honda Element. This is the leader in this segment based on resale, reliability, safety, and fuel efficiency. On the down side it is low and getting a baby seat in and out isn’t he easiest of tasks. The gauge cluster is more for the youth oriented, but overall this is a car with few equals. Order the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 140 horsepower for its front wheels to use and either order a five-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic and watch the gas gauge stay put for hours on end. You can also order a compressed gas using Civic, but it takes up too much room in the trunk. We don’t recommend the hybrid either for the lack of cargo space. And, the Si version and is nearly 200 horsepower is just for those who like to shift a lot. Good performance, but not practical and not meant to be. We averaged 33 mpg in mixed driving with the Civic and it kept right up with traffic.

Civics come with front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active head restraints, and antilock brakes. Crash scores were good. The interior is plain with a distinct layout that has a digital speedometer and gas gauge at the top of the dash. It is not our favorite, but not difficult to adjust too. However, everyone in the car can read it so beware that junior can clearly tell what laws may be stretched. The Civic is nimble, easy to park, but getting in and out may require a little more dexterity than taller vehicles. Grade A-. Reason resale, fuel mileage, and good safety scores.

Suzuki SX4

We like the underdog and we like Suzuki. Sure the resale isn’t that great, but with a ten year warranty on the more expensive items to replace why sell it anyway. The SX4 is good looking, has all wheel drive, and is fun to drive for a sedan. There is good interior room, and the controls are easy to reach and use. At around $15,000, and most dealers are ready to deal, the Suzuki does not have the upscale materials inside and the stereo lacks the latest in auxiliary hook-ups. The rear seats have a 60/40-split so that you can expand the cargo area into the trunk. The sedan makes due with a very nice 14 cubic feet of easy to access space.

You can now save even more by order a front wheel drive only model (SX4 Sport) that we recommend unless you need to travel frequently in inclement weather. It is a good handler. Also order the optional stability control in every vehicle you are considering as it is the best safety feature you can order outside of airbags, which the Suzuki offers for the front and side passengers. As a true mark of its bargain nature, you get traction control standard in this model. Fuel economy is around 23 mpg with a five-speed manual. This isn’t a fast car, but it is fun to drive. Grade B-. Resale and performance.

Ford Focus

The Ford Focus has had more makeovers than an aging starlet. Nevertheless, it is fun to drive, is a bargain at $15,000, and is inexpensive to repair. Despite this the Focus is not the class of this price range even though it should get the most improved award. The ride is much better than before; the steering has more feeling, and the controls easy to use and master. Clearly the years in production have given the engineers time to refine every element on the Focus. However, they had cost restraints and so they were limited in what they could do. For example, the exterior is still unworthy of Ford and the interior is more basic than that seen in the competition of which they is plenty. The 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder has 140 horsepower which is just enough with the five-speed manual and a little weak with the optional four-speed automatic. Fuel mileage is sparkling and we were able to record 30 mpg in mixed driving consistently with the automatic. If you can get a good deal on this revised Focus seriously consider it.

You get front seat side-impact airbags as well as head curtain airbags for both front and rear seat occupants, but antilock brakes are optional. This is a base price car so you shouldn’t be surprised that there are a great many options that can drive the price nearly to $20,000. The gauges are easy to use and read, the night lighting below average, and the seats are fairly easy to adjust. An interesting feature is Ford’s Sync system that is a hands-free voice-recognition interface that was developed by Microsoft and Ford. The Bluetooth function is quick to use and offers many advanced technologies. The rear seats have good legroom for a compact car and the steering and handling are good. The ride is quiet and the visibility above average. This is a nice car that has been refaced and in a world that is looking for fresh faces it may attract some new buyers. Unfortunately, there are a lot of younger faces out there and so the Focus must reply on getting the parts by working for less. Consider the Ford Fusion for a few dollars a month more. Grade B-. Expensive options, resale.

Scion xD

Scion xD is a $14,700 replacement for one of our favorite gas misers, the Xa, but there is really nothing in common between the two as the new model is much more competent and feature imbued. As with all Scions options are everything. The base price is insignificant as most everything is an option to help individualize this toaster styled ride. The four-door hatchback has some shortcomings in legroom and a very different gauge layout. Other than that the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that offers 128 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque while sipping fuel to the tune of 27-mpg city/33 mpg highway with the manual transmission. Safety equipment is always important in small vehicles and this Scion is laden with antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control, traction control, front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and front active head restraints.

The new xD’s interior needs to be seen and used, as it is quite different. The steering wheel does not telescope and the seats are quite upright. Nothing wrong, just different, but, hey, isn’t that what a Scion is all about. Grade B. Reason options can drive price. Side winds are a concern.

Toyota Corolla

Roundly criticized by the old boy reviewers for being boring, we quite liked the all new nearly $15,000 Corolla for just that reasons. There is something to be said for a sedan that can comfortable hold four adults, has good cargo room, and gets 31 mpg in mixed driving. This is a reliable vehicle that can be very expensive to buy if you don’t watch your option choices carefully. It does basic chores well like the workhorse it is, but don’t expect much fun even with the sporty version. The 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine works well with the standard five-speed manual, but even with the optional automatic the gas mileage is terrific. You crash scores were good with optional equipment and make sure your Corolla has the optional side and side curtain airbags. The interior is quite nice with a lot of headroom and the ergonomics very good. The Corolla has a large trunk and there are lots of storage areas in the dash and center console. If you opt for the Corolla XRS you have a 2.4-liter engine with 158 horsepower, but fuel mileage drops by ten percent. This model has four-wheel disc brakes, too. The interior has a lot of storage and an interesting double glove compartment. The trunk space is average.

Excellent reliability. This is the best commuter car by far. It is good handling, gets terrific gas mileage, has room for four, and superior resale. On the other hand it is boring to drive and can be more expensive than the larger Camry if you don’t watch your options. Our grade B+. Reason, resale and fuel mileage and expensive options.

Suzuki Forenza

We like Suzuki vehicles. They have excellent warranties, are fun to drive, and have excellent pricing. However, the Forenza isn’t our favorite even with the versatile station wagon model. We would go with the newer SX4 model. The Forenza gets barely average fuel mileage in this price range and has a lot of needs. The 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder with 127 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque is really only spunky with the five speed manual transmission. Fuel mileage was 24 mpg in mixed driving. Safety equipment includes standard front side-impact airbags and four-wheel disc brakes. You get a fair amount of storage room in the Forenza and the station wagon offers 62 cubic feet of cargo space. This is one of the few affordable station wagons available. The $14,200 Forenza has a soft ride and needs a lot of coaxing to keep up with high-speed traffic. A nice looking vehicle, but one that needs to be bought at a good price. Our grade C-. Reason, resale, fuel mileage, few dealers, and reliability somewhat offset by great warranty and reasonable pricing.

Mitsubishi Lancer

Mitsubishi’s $14,000 Lancer is much different than the vehicle it replaces and well worth a look see if you can avoid looking a the resale figures. It is handsome and has very good handling. The new 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine has 152 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque that work well with a five-speed manual, but we prefer the CVT for its better fuel mileage and its Sportronic feature that has shift paddles behind the steering wheel that enables the driver to shift the CVt unit through six “gears.” With all sedans in this price range fuel mileage, safety, and cargo space is everything. Unfortunately a real world 25 mpg is the norm. Safety items include airbags for the front, side, head curtains and a very worthwhile knee airbag. You even get a tire pressure monitor. A nice car, but not a great one despite its attractive looks. Grade C. Reason, resale, few dealers, and performance

Honda Fit

A new Honda Fit is in the wings so this might be a good time to make a deal on this sweet little sedan. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine produces109 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque and even with the optional five-speed automatic with its steering-wheel-mounted paddles we still got 30 mpg. Very fun to drive and an abundance of interior storage room with the rear seats folded down thanks to the hatchback design. Safety includes ABS, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. It does quite well in crash tests. The interior is drab and the seats can be tiring to sit in for long periods of time, but the utility of the split rear seats makes this a winner. A bit noisy, but so much fun it is difficult to believe it costs under $14,000. Grade B+. Reason, versatility and mileage.

Chevrolet (General Motors product. No update.)

Mazda 3

The Mazda 3 is a thinking man’s Audi 3. It drives like a larger car and handles like a smaller one. It is inexpensive and for under $14,000 it is inexpensive for what you get. This Mazda comes as a sedan or hatchback, the latter we much prefer. It is the best of the subcompact group when it comes to combining fun to drive attributes with below average fuel economy. We were able to get 24 mpg in mixed driving. The ride is firm, the suspension ready for whatever comes its way, and the styling deserving of merit. Since Ford and Mazda share a lot of elements we wonder why Ford didn’t steal this car and abandon the long in the tooth Focus? As usual when less expensive cars are offered options can drive the price upwards from is come on in base price. Nevertheless, this zippy and fairly room Mazda is the best of the bunch for families who want sport and don’t have large children to haul around. Safety wise there are front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags on all models and four-wheel disc brakes and stability control and you guessed it, they might cost extra on some models. Options need to be studied before purchasing this Mazda. Crash test scores were okay, but you must order side impact airbags in all small cars for safety.

The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with its 148 horsepower is our recommended engine. However, to take advantage of the sweet chassis you can order the optional

2.3-liter four-cylinder rated at over 150 horsepower. There are so many options and interior packages that you can just about have anything you want from leather to heated seats to navigation to automatic climate control to everything but enough rear leg room. The trunk is below average in size for the sedan, but the hatchback with its fold down rear seats is the way to go with nearly three times the cargo space as the sedan. The Mazda 3 loves to show off. It is a performance car and with the larger engine can stay with much more expensive cars easily. There is some torque steer. Grade B. Reason fuel economy, complex options list.

Hyundai Elantra

This is a real buy at $13,895. The Hyundai Elantra is a great compact car and resale rates are bound to rise as the new engine produces excellent fuel mileage numbers. We were able to get 30 mpg in mixed driving. Although we miss the hatchback, the new model has a better ride, a spacious cabin, and a great warranty. The engine however, lacks the quiet sophistication of the Honda Civic, but 2.0-liter inline-4 engine’s 138 horsepower is worthy of a calling a little attention to itself. The five speed automatic works well and the front-wheel drive Elantra comes standard with antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and anti-whiplash front head restraints. If you buy the upscale SE you can also own the standard stability control and ABS brake assist. Crash scores were great. This is a tight compact loaded with features. The interior lighting is interesting, being blue, but difficult to read quickly. There is good interior room for four and lots of storage spaces and a fairly large trunk, too. Driving the Elantra isn’t as fun as the Civic or the Corolla, but it is priced less. The Elantra is a good deal. Grade A-. Reason, resale, clutch/shift on manual transmission.

Suzuki Reno

We don’t recommend the Reno even at its attractive $13,625 price and with an outstanding warranty due to its poor fuel economy. If you want a better product with more room and a better ride get the new SX4 for a little more.

Hyundai Accent

Priced under $14,000 the Hyundai Accent is a straightforward car with a good warranty and a nice ride. It is a price car and the engine is hard pressed to provide adequate performance with the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and its 110 horsepower simply underpowered for this front-wheeled drive car. Fuel mileage is good with 28 mpg possible with the four-speed automatic.

All Accents include standard front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags with antilock brakes standard on upscale models. Side crash scores weren’t so good. The interior is pleasant and there is a certain amount of sportiness to the ride. If you like a good warranty and can get this model at a good price seriously consider, but the Elantra is better and doesn’t cost much more. Grade C-. Resale, crash scores.

Kia Spectra

Another price car with a good warranty, the Spectra is a spirited ride with a comfortable interior and plenty of storage. Its engine is noisy and the suspension isn’t designed for aggressive actions. The Spectra5 hatchback is especially useful. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces 138 horsepower with 27 mpg possible in mixed driving. Safety wise the Spectra has front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags with antilock brakes optional. Test results indicate you need to order a model with side airbags, as scores were low in this area. A generous cargo area, good seats, and excellent warranty make the Spectra notable. Grade C-. Crash scores and resale.

Nissan Versa

For less than $13,000 you can own a truly unique vehicle in the Nissan Versa. It is just plain handy and economical. Unfortunately, it is also ugly in both sedan and hatchback versions. If you don’t mind the looks this is the car to own for commuting and general use. Mind you, this is not a canyon cutter with its ride is designed for comfort. The Versa lives up to its name being capable of hauling for adults easily while sipping fuel. The brakes could be improved and the engine with the CVT is a might weak at times, but for this price you can’t get more for your money. But beware of build quality and take your time deciding on what options you need. The front-wheel-drive Nissan Versa has a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine valued at 122 horsepower. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual but we highly recommend the upgraded 1.8 SL model and its CVT that enables you to get over 30 mpg in mixed driving. You might get slightly better fuel mileage with the Honda Fit, but not as much utility or deals.

Safety wise the Versa has front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and a tire-pressure monitor. Optional antilock brakes with brake assist are a must. Crash scores are good, too. The interior is very accommodating. There is plenty of room and you can even get a fifth adult onboard. The rear seats fold down with over 50 cubic feet of space available. Even the sedan has nearly 13.8-cubic-feet of room. Better brakes would make the Versa feel a tad more competent, but overall this is a star. Grade A-. Reason brakes and noisy engine.

Toyota Yaris

The least expensive Toyota, the under $13,000 Yaris gets good fuel mileage and is roomy inside considering its dimensions. The seats don’t feel all that supportive and the instrument panel requires some acclamation, but we did mention the price. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine has 106 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque and sips gas. We got over 32 mpg in mixed driving, The low price means that most everything costs extra such as antilock brakes, front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags, all of which you must order for a family. If you can afford it also go with the optional sliding and reclining rear seats. The Yaris is a good riding sedan considering its size and price. However, we much prefer the Scions, which may cost a little more, but are more enjoyable to ride and have more usable storage. Grade C. Reason. Options can easily drive the price into base Corolla territory.

Kia Rio/Rio5

Kia Rio and Rio5 are undervalued at $13,000 with a great warranty and standard features that cost more from other companies. The ride isn’t bad, visibility excellent, and with the Rio5 there is plenty of cargo space. Of course don’t expect much acceleration from the 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 110 noisy horsepower. An excellent highway vehicle, we average about 28 mpg in mixed driving. Safety wise there is standard airbags most everywhere and you need to order the optional ABS to maximize your stopping ability in these tallish vehicles. The interior is quite attractive and the visibility excellent. The seats in the front and rear are fairly comfortable and there are a variety of storage areas. The real fun of this Kia is the way it handles. You can have a great deal of fun in these Kias as long as the road isn’t too unkempt. Grade C+. Reason resale.

Chevrolet Aveo (General Motors Product. No update.)

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