January 2009


 2009 Nissan Maxima: An Infiniti in Disguise

by The Car Family

for more reviews go to http://www.motorists.org/carfamily/

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Nissan calls the Maxima a four-door sports car, but it really is more like a four door luxury touring vehicle. It has sharp handling, but not great, and it has a thirst for premium fuel that takes away from the fun of exploring the limits of the 290 horsepower, 3.5-liter engine. Perhaps the worst failing is that the front wheel drive Maxima costs nearly the same as the more powerful, and better handling, rear wheel drive Infiniti G37. And, they are nearly identical in interior space, with the Maxima having a larger trunk and more hip room thanks to its wider body.

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Essentially, the Maxima is the flagship of the Nissan line and it looks it with a feeling of quality everywhere and, as usual for Nissan, outstanding ergonomics. The steering is well weighted, the power train responsive, and there are option packages that can help personalize this 3600-pound sedan nicely such as an exceptional iPod connection. Unfortunately, Nissan has chosen to make its option packages costly, albeit well stocked with goodies. A base Maxima can by yours for about $30,000, but a fully loaded chariot is going to mash $40,000.Again, well into Infiniti G37 territory.

Mom’s view: There is no doubt that this is a quality product, but how much demand is there for a large luxury sports sedan with front wheel drive. At present only Acura offers competition and they are having a time selling its new TL model. What is most surprising to me is that a lot of the suspension comes from the very likeable Nissan Altima, and that star even offers the same engine and just as much interior room and at less expensive.

Nissan’s 3.5-liter V6 pushes 290 horsepower through the continuously variable transmission (CVT) in a frisky manner with just a touch of torque steer and a lot of audible grunt. The transmission can be controlled using paddle shifters so you don’t feel completely left out of the shifting pleasure. Nissan and Audi have the best CVT units and the one in the Maxima is no exception. Poking the pedal provokes the engine into a two-phased acceleration mode that Nissan has developed to provide more power when the engine reaches a higher rpm.

The interior looks masculine and is as good as is any Infiniti or luxury car for that matter, especially if you order the optional wood trim. There are two trim levels, S and SV, and unless you want the Bose stereo, the S is just fine. It comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, a sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-way driver and four-way passenger power front seats, cloth upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a driver’s information computer, and an in-dash six-CD changer. The SV model gives you a few more toys such as leather, a Homelink universal garage remote and a nine-speaker Bose stereo. Expect to pay a few thousand dollars more for the upgrade. There are also Premium or Sport option packages that can add paddle shifters, xenon headlights, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and rear bucket seats. Curiously, if you order this you lose the benefits of the rear seats folding down to expand the cargo carrying capacity of the Maxima. You do get a ski pass through, but be warned that the wide tires on this front wheel drive vehicle are not going to be good in the snow with all the power the Maxima has and so seriously consider snow tires for those who frequently find themselves deprived of plowed byways. If you opt for the Premium Package the Maxima comes with a dual-panel sunroof, a rearview camera with a terrific seven-inch LCD screen, a driver’s seat that can be cooled, and a dedicated iPod interface. The next option to consider is the Sport Package and its sport-tuned suspension, and larger wheels, rear spoiler among others. Wait; there is more to ponder. The Technology Package adds voice-activated navigation with real-time traffic, satellite radio, and 9.3GB of digital music storage and if you go with the Cold Weather package you can even get heated outside mirrors and even more. In other words, as in the Altima, when you buy a Nissan do your homework because by mixing and matching some of the options you can save a great deal and have the Maxima that suits your needs.

Safety wise the Maxima comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and front and rear outboard active head restraints. We expect crash scores to be very good.

Overall, the Maxima feels heavier than it is and despite the sharp brakes, well weighted steering feel, and eagerness of the engine, it never won me over as the less expensive Altima did. No question the Maxima is a better handling car and the interior is superb, but its wavy styling, aggressive engine, and weak fuel mileage overwhelm its beautiful interior and quality build. A pleasant car and has appeal, but a little to rough behind the ears for my tender tush.

Dad’s view: I can’t get my mind around a Nissan Maxima costing this much and I doubt I am alone. I loved the first and second generation Maxims with their available manual transmission and flingable nature. The restyled Maxima is a different animal completely. It has grow-up. The 3.5-liter V6 and its 290 hp and 261 pound-feet of torque have a more civilized approach to acceleration thanks to the CVT and the optional steering-column-mounted paddle shifters. The Maxima’s accelerator program provides instant power, but if you keep the pedal mashed the thrust slowly markedly. Keep it at legal speeds and it provides all you really need, but when loaded and going uphill the engine’s torque rubs off in a hurry. Put a turbocharger on this and you would have one of the worlds most potent sports sedans if you could control the torque steer. Fine as it is, but don’t go pestering any Infiniti G37s.

It takes awhile to get used to the CVT as it seems to lack any spirit, but it doesn’t take long to realize you are going well above the speed limit without realizing it, officer. The suspension and chassis are oriented to the fun side of sporty and the result is a remarkably capable canyon cruiser with very good handling for a sedan. The Sport Package might be too road rough for some so make sure you test cars with and without this option on familiar roads. The steering is very good, but the turning radius is on the large side at about 37.5 feet. The four-wheel disc brakes stop you quickly and can be abrupt if you’re not gentle.

I was impressed by the quality of the Maxima. It oozes excellence. The leather seats ar hip huggers and the main controls can be reached without having to remove your hands from the wheel. The horn is barely adequate and the radio reception very weak.

Young working woman’s view: Surprisingly, a hit. It has a distinctive style that has a certain eye-catching quality and the interior makes your friends question their purchase of Volkswagen Passats and even Audi A4s. The pricing is a problem for me considering the expensive option packages and the reality is that this car really isn’t as fast as it looks. Most high-end V6 engines, sans turbocharging, are its equal. And the extra you have to pay for premium fuel ruffles my financial feathers.

Driving the Maxima is interesting in that you are wearing any type of clinging outfit such as Jersey as the leather seats are rather grabby. The placement of the emergency brake near the brake pedal makes it difficult to activate as it is placed rather high off the floor. If you have long legs and sit at arm length from the steering wheel it is nearly impossible to find without looking. However, that is small potatoes when considering the difficulty of trying to get a large object into the trunk thanks to the small opening.

Strange as it may seem that Maxima’s interior is better then the Infiniti’s. The controls all feel good to the touch and can be activated without aggravation. The ancillary controls on the steering wheel take a bit of time to understand, but everything else is homey.

All told, I wouldn’t mind a Maxima if I didn’t have two rescue Mastiffs in tow. But I wouldn’t want to waste the fun the Maxima provides just commuting, for that get the Nissan Sentra or better yet, the Altima 2.5.

Young working male’s view: Simple to operate, fairly fun to drive, and with some great technology. The stereo can be operated via controls on the steering wheel and the optional Bose system is excellent. However, the radio reception is sub par so if you drive outside of larger cities keep the optional satellite coverage.

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The Maxima has a 7-inch display screen and you can plug your iPod into the port in the center bin and actually control the unit through the steering wheel switches. You must see this so bring your iPod to the dealership and see the future first hand.

On the road the fact that the engine doesn’t really reach its horsepower zenith until 6400 rpm takes a little zing out of the Maxima’s stop light heroics, although maximum torque is yours at about 4500 rpm. The 20-gallon tank makes 400-mile trips easy, but despite the government’s 19/26 rating I seldom got better than 22 mpg. Another negative was the very small side mirrors and interior lighting that was far too soft. The optional xenon headlights work well, but the fog lights are ineffective.

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As for a babe magnet, I would have to say barely. However, once inside they find it attractive. Since I haul equipment for http://www.eracks.com, we make really quiet and efficient open source software based computers and servers and other items that are well priced and we sell to the general public and institutions, I found that the Maxima’s trunk just wasn’t ideal. It is long, and with optional bucket rear seats you lose the ability to fold them down to make it access items that might have rolled to the front of the trunk. You either get a rake or broom or a buddy with a 40-inch sleeve to help you retrieve these lost wears. Despite this the Maxima is a fashionable plate, but not a youthful one.

Family conference: If you like its looks the Nissan Maxima is probably going to be in your driveway. There is nothing wrong with save the fuel mileage; we averaged just 22 mpg on premium, and a smallish backseat. The tidier and faster Infiniti G37 is really the only competition. Family friendly, certainly, but with a touch of fun and a hint of scandal with its fat tires and wide wheel arches. The Maxima is a good car that’s appropriate for all occasions.

For all vehicle websites go to: http://www.reacheverychild.com/business/auto/index.html

Nissan Altima: Ideal Size and Fun to Drive

By The Car Family

For more reviews go to

http://www.motorists.org/blog/the-best-new-cars-for-2008/

The Car Family seldom comes across a vehicle that is so utilitarian as the Nissan Altima with the 2.5-liter, 175-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. Not only does it have room for four adults, but consistently gets well over 30 miles per town and over 35 on the highway thanks to the continuous variable automatic transmission. It is a responsive vehicle with a sporty feel, an abundantly sized trunk, and easy to park. Yes, the engine is a growler, but for the list price of about $21,000 US it is a bargain and Nissan dealers and offering some great incentives, too.

We don’t recommend this vehicle with the 3.5 models and the more potent 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 and its six-speed manual transmission is standard as it is just overkill. The larger engine delivers far worse fuel mileage, is very quick, and there really isn’t need for that much speed in a family vehicle. However, if you are into having fun terrorizing owners of much more expensive BMWs and Acuras the 3.5 is the ticket. Literally.

The Altima comes as a coupe and as a sedan hybrid. The hybrid is underrated, but it does not have the fold down rear seat the limits cargo capacity and costs several thousand more than the base Altima. The Nissan hybrid is actually better than the Toyota Camry hybrid for driving pleasure and gets better in town fuel mileage and costs less. Interestingly, the 2.5 engine with the CVT is capable of nearly matching the Nissan hybrid on the highway and we found that if you drive the Altima smoothly it equals the hybrid’s fuel consumption.

Ordering the 3.5 version reduces your gas mileage at least five miles per gallon and requires premium fuel and is costs significantly more. Stick with the 2.5 model, order some options such as the Bose stereo and enjoy having a sporty family sedan.

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Mom’s view: Not the most comfortable seats and there is truly a need for a better way to unlatch the rear seats to fold them down rather than leaning or, if you are short, crawling into the trunk to pull the release cord. Other than that a frisky, frugal, and fun sedan that deserves more praise especially in a competitive market where it has to play against the terrific Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Galant, and Nissan Maxima, Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura. However, none of these have the combination room, sporty handling, and fuel efficiency of the Altima. Please note that General Motors does not allow us to test any of its vehicles so we are going to reviews we have done of its products two years ago.

Safety wise the superior crash scores of the Altima can be accredited to the occupant safety equipment such as front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags and anti-lock disc brakes. Also available is a navigation system that has a rearview camera, and Nissan has the very best rear view camera.

There are a couple of areas that need to be address with the Nissan and that is the difficulty an adult has in getting in and out of the rear seat. The doors open wide enough, but there isn’t enough room to gracefully get your feet into the vehicle. If you are wearing a dress this is a dreadful situation.

Finally, I must applaud Nissan for having the best cupholders. They are available in three sizes and are easy to reach. As well, Nissan is the only manufacture that has gotten the trunk release correct. When you use the remote to open the trunk the deck lid pops up about six inches making it easy to get your hand under it without getting dirty of having to put down you purchases. Unfortunately, lid hinges intrude into the cargo area and the rear seats don’t fold down completely flat. And, perhaps best of all for those of us who like our backsides warm on the crisp and cool days; the seat warmers work fast and have an even heat pattern without hot spots.

The engine may not be the quietest, but that really isn’t a bother to me. I want performance and exceptional gas mileage and the 2.5 engine delivers both. Overall, a fine value that is easy to park and live with. Best of all the Altima went over 600 miles on one tank of gas thanks to its 20 gallon tank and 30 plus mpg.

Dad’s view: Nissan’s Altima is a strange brew with very sporty handling, sharp steering, and an engine that loudly lets you know it is being pushed. It has some great features such as a fairly tight turning radius and one of the easiest to use dash layouts we’ve seen. There are some fit and finish issues and the ride can be noisy over roughened roads. The brakes are adequate, albeit a bit touchy, but my main concern was the steering, which was sterile in feel. This isn’t a sporty car, but it looks like it is and they might be what matters to some.

The ride is comfortable with a slightly elevated seat height. This does pose a problem, though, as the Altima has a “bump” above the dash that makes it nearly impossible to see stop lights without lowering your head. The controls for the moon roof and map lights are located in this bump so you need to test drive the Altima and see if it is a problem for you as your height would make a difference as well as your seating adjustments. By the way, the seats are very comfortable and the adjustments on the side very simple to use. This is a car with exceptional ergonomics.

As far as the CVT offered on the Altima, it is great except it is a bit slow to “downshift.” If you want terrific fuel mileage the CVT unit is the only one to order. They enable the 2.5 engine to always be on task. If you want to go really fast order the 3.5 engine with nearly 100 more horsepower, but expect a lot of torque steer and you need premium fuel. The smaller engine makes more sense.

After spending a long time in the Altima is was clear that this is a sedan that is underrated and deserving of a wider audience.

Young working woman’s view: Finally got a job and a month later they were sending out layoff notices to a lot of others, but I apparently had the versatility that they needed. The same goes for the Altima 2.5. It has a lot of talents, but isn’t going to overwhelm you with any particular one. The push button start is nice as you can keep the remote in your pocket, and the trunk is large and has a low liftover making it easy to load.

I liked the layout of the Altima, except for the emergency brake that is not mounted near the side of the wheel well, but about six inches closer to the brake pedal. If you are wearing open toed sandals it isn’t difficult to catch one of them as you exit the vehicle.

There was decent visibility in all directions and the steering wheel had a good feel to it. The interior is understated and feels rich and comfortable. The double decker center console has a recharging plug in the lower unit and the glove compartment is also divided into two parts. There is storage on the doors and small seat pockets, too. As for the heater and air-conditioner, the former was slow to respond, but the latter was gold.

Finally, Nissan’s standard warranty is a mundane three-year, 60,000-mile version that simply doesn’t do the Altima justice at a time when people are becoming more focused on reliability and value. Add to that the confuted option packages and you have a vehicle that is interesting, but only if you locate one at the right price. For example, a 2.5 S can be ordered with two Convenience Packages and a SL upgrade. Our 2.5 S listed for $21,540 and had nearly $6000 in options and that didn’t include a navigation unit. They added about $1000 for the Convenience Package with its power driver’s seat and some trim items and ancillary mounted audio controls. The Convenience Plus Package added another $1000 and for that you had a power moonroof and alloy rims. The topper was the SL Package at over $1400 and offered a HomeLink, heated seats, a fancier interior with leather trim pieces, and automatic dimming mirrors. For another $1240 we go the Connection Package with Bluetooth, a Bose audio system, satellite radio, dual zone climate controls, and rear air conditioning vents. You really need to know what you want before shopping for an Altima. I would guess that you could find a well loaded one at the dealership for significantly less than you would pay for a custom ordered package.

I liked the Altima very much. It has a high-quality look and excellent feel. I would buy one before I would buy any of its competitors, but we haven’t driven the Ford Fusion hybrid yet.

Young working male’s view: The deluxe stereo is decent, but not great. It is a difficult to get the sound quality due to the poor antenna location. If you use your iPod or your own music discs it is quite sharp. I also like the way the unit showed what was being played using the satellite radio option. I wouldn’t order the navigation system as Nissan has gotten away from the simple one that made it so great a few years ago with its “bird’s eye view.”

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The Altima is quite handy and feels larger than it is with a high ceiling and expansive front driver and passenger room. The car feels very much like a sports car at times, but has too much lean and an oversensitive steering unit to be taken seriously. I work at http://www.eracks.com making quiet, open source computers and servers at prices that have attracted some of the largest educational and business corporations. So I appreciate quiet ad the Altima just doesn’t have it. The best news is that the optional stereo makes it all good anyway.

Enjoyable, economical, and spacious, the Altima 2.5 is a first-rate choice for a young person or a young family who wants something a bit different, but safe and frugal.

Family conference: A is for Altima, and the 2.5 version is a hit with us. It is not offensive in any way and provides enjoyable basic transportation with a little edge.

For a list of all vehicle websites go to http://www.reacheverychild.com/business/index.html

Chinese New Years starts on January 26th

http://www.reacheverychild.com/alan.html

January 26th is Chinese New Years. Here are all sorts of lessons, crafts, and ideas for learning more about this celebration

http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/chinese_ny.html

Inauguration Lesson Plans

http://www.reacheverychild.com

About Alan Haskvitz

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Haskvitz

January 20th is Inauguration Day and a great way to get students involved in a teachable moment. Also, here are some Martin Luther King Day lessons, too.

Martin Luther King Jr. Lessons, Links, and Ideas

http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/aa_history.html

Here are some excellent inauguration lessons for all levels.

President’s Day lessons.

A huge number of good resources are posted here.

http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/president.html

Presidential Lessons

http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/presidents.html

Abraham Lincoln Resources

http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/lincoln.html

InexpensiveAmerican school and district computers and servers that run free software

http://www.eracks.com

Best Family Bargains Under $20,000 for the New Year

By The Car Family

For more reviews go to

http://www.motorists.org/carfamily/home/most-reliable-vehicles/

A good family vehicle for under $20,000 isn’t difficult to find, especially if you can control your option urges. That isn’t to say that these inexpensive cars aren’t well equipped, especially in the safety category. However, the only three real reasons to buy a new car in this price range rather than purchasing a used vehicle is having it your way with longer warranty better financing rates, and that new car smell.

All things being equal, you can probably get a new car for less money than a one or two-year-old model used if you have a minimum payment and good credit. On the other hand your license fee and insurance rates could be higher on the new model. We highly recommend that you don’t fall in love with any car until you have done your homework.

Here is our list from based on our extensive testing and a vehicle’s usability. We aren’t interested in how fast they go or how well they corner at these prices. One important warning is that General Motors does not allow us to test any of its vehicles and so we cannot comment on them. All other manufacturers do allow us extended testing time. We used the manufacturer’s suggested retail price knowing that you can probably get a better deal locally. Indeed, we have seen the excellent Dodge Caravan offered for under $20,000 and that is one of the very best family vehicles you can buy.

Mom’s favorite: The Kia Rondo is the perfect family vehicle and I really liked it, but the Rondo could use more power even at the cost of another mile per gallon. It is easy to enter and exit, has a nice sized steering wheel for those of us with small hands, has an abundance of storage places and cupholders, and the seats are comfortable. I would have liked a power rear gate, but for well under $20,000 this is plenty of car. Besides the objective points of excellent fuel mileage, good brakes and handling, and even room for seven, the Kia scores with me on subjective grounds as it looks unique. I also liked the Mazda 5, which is better handling and a snap to load and unload, but its looks put me off. Maybe if I were younger I could appreciate it more. Right now, for the price the Kia Rondo is a winner and for nearly the same price you can get the new Kia Optima. Talk about a sedan with everything, but it is just another sedan to me despite its ample safety features, superior warranty, and pricing.

Dad’s favorite: Ford’s Fusion is my favorite family vehicle, but I would go for the Suzuki SX4 or the MINI Cooper if I were younger. The Ford has a nice ride, enough energy even with the base engine, but I would recommend the V6 optional unit. Fusions are for sale in a variety of trim models for under $19,000. The Fusion was overlooked by most of the major car magazines from the start because it wasn’t fast, but they frequently feel that handling and acceleration are the keys to a good car. We believe that reliability, safety, and usability come first and this Ford has all of them. Indeed, with the promise of a new Ford Focus replacement or supplement, Ford looks like the American car company most likely to do well in the coming years until the other firms catch their breath. Although I liked the Chevrolet Malibu/Saturn Aura General Motors no longer allows us to test its products and so I have no comment to make. My second choice is the very fun to drive MINI. It is easy to park, gets gas mileage in the 30 mpg range if you take it easy, and now with larger Clubman version there is enough cargo space to put a week’s worth of fiddles. The MINI is very good car for those flexible enough to get in and out without harming themselves. Excellent resale, too, but the MINI is really only for a young family due to a lack of interior space.

Young working woman’s view: I find it difficult in these times to select a vehicle other then one made in America such as the Dodge Caliber or the Ford Focus, or the Chevrolet Caliber. But the standout to me is the Mazda 3, which is owned in part by Ford so I’m going with the hatchback version of this dandy as my first choice. The ride is a bit choppy, and the car sits low, but once inside it just feels fun. There are cubby holes everywhere, the outside visibility is good, and it can easily carry four adults in comfort and still have luggage space in back. The handling and brakes are excellent, but it is the Mazda’s ease of parking and loading that make it a great family vehicle. Gas mileage seldom drops below 23 mpg even with hard driving. It is not particularly babyseat friendly, though. My second selection would be the Ford Focus. I know it has been around a long time, but it is much larger inside then one would think, has a fairly youthful look to it, and the engine and transmission work well together with fuel economy consistently over 30 mpg. I have seen these advertised for under $15,000 and that is less than a Scion and it is much easier to drive then those Toyota products with more visibility and a less quirky interior treatment.

Young working man’s view: I make computers and open software servers at a low cost firm http://www.eracks.com and find it convenient to have a vehicle that gets good fuel mileage and has plenty of space inside to move components and units. Although I like the look of the Dodge Avenger and its better then expected ride, the three that appeal to me the most are the Volkswagen Jetta wagon, the Ford Escape, and the Nissan Rogue. The Rogue has a fine feel and always attains over 23 mpg. It is simple to park with a tight turning radius and is priced less than the other Japanese products with similar features. The tried and proven Ford Escape is priced under $20,000 as well, but what is attractive to me is how inexpensive it is to insure and maintain. If you get the front wheel drive model with the base model you are going to get 24 mpg and be invisible to the authorities, should that be a concern. It is still the best SUV that Ford produces. But my favorite is the Jetta wagon. Not just because it gets better mileage than the Escape or Rogue, but becomes it is much easier to live with a lower liftover for heavy loads, a more comfortable interior, and less road noise. Women seem to be drawn to is good looks, which is always a good sign for me, but most of all it feels much more expensive then its pricing. Family shoppers should note that SUVs don’t have to meet the same safety requirements as passenger cars. That is why large passenger car such as the underrated Ford Taurus always are rated the safest. Also keep in mind that the higher the center of gravity of a vehicle, how tall it is, and the more likely it is to rollover. Go to http://www.safercar.gov for the statistics.

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Family conference: Sadly, but typically, there is no consensus from The Car Family about the best family oriented vehicle under $20,000. Perhaps the only unanimous conclusion is that a sharp buyer in today’s market can get a lot of car for under $20,000 and nearly all of them are quite capable of getter over 20 mpg with ease. No one selected the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe or the gas sipping Honda Fit. Also missed was the Nissan Sentra with its excellent fuel mileage. All of these are excellent vehicles, but when you put a family onboard the handling dynamics change, as does the performance of a vehicle. That is why it is strongly recommended that you take the entire family with you when road testing to get a family view. That is what we do and that is why our reviews make recommendations often at odds with the major magazines and websites. And please keep in mind that larger SUVs are not safer for families.

Chrysler

The Chrysler PT Cruiser is an older design based on a retro theme. Since it has been around so long there is an abundance of used ones for sale. The PT is a very utilitarian vehicle with lots of interior space and enough power to make highway passing possible even with a load onboard. This could be the last year for this model so good deals should abound. The base engine is a 150 horsepower four-cylinder engine. You can also opt for the turbocharged version with 180 horsepower but we try to avoid recommending turbocharged family transportation due to their higher maintenance costs and the manufacturer’s premium fuel requirement. We recommend the base engine. Our rating C.

The Sebring sedan has an interesting exterior, but the chassis is too soft for us. The car is fuel-efficient and the optional 189-horsepower 2.7L V-6 engine is recommended even over the 3.5L V6 version and its 235 horsepower. Lots of electronic gadgets make your driving more entertaining, but for the money there is a lot of competition such as the Dodge sedans. The interior has an abundance of cargo space and the trunk is easy to use. Very good crash scores. Our grade C.

Dodge

The Dodge Avenger is a good car if you can get by its boy racer exterior. This mid-size sedan can even be ordered with all wheel drive, but for a family go with the SE model and the 2.4 engine and four-speed automatic transmission. Safety features include dual front airbags, and front and rear side impact airbags and good crash scores. The Avenger does have limited rear view visibility due to its styling, but the seats are comfortable and the pricing is attractive. The interior is a bit loud and the rear seat entry is tight. Our grade C+

The Dodge Caliber is a good buy if you can tolerate its distinctive interior and exterior. A lot of headroom and an easy to load cargo bay make this a good choice for families in the under $20,000 range. A 172 horsepower 2.4L in-line four-cylinder engine is the best choice, but don’t expect this vehicle to handle much more power, as it isn’t meant to be a canyon runner. Go with the CVT automatic transmission. We like the Dodge Caliber, but most of the other reviewers didn’t. That is probably because we feel it is a compact station wagon and not a racecar. The engine to have is the 172 horsepower 2.4L in-line four-cylinder and if you want better fuel mileage get the five-speed manual transmission or a CVT automatic transmission. The Caliber doesn’t get good press, but it is a bargain and frequently goes for under $15,000. For that you get an abundance of room, a vehicle with some character, an interior that is, ah, different, with fuel economy in the low 20 mpg arena. Our rating C+

Ford

Scraping under the $20,000 barrier, the Ford Escape XLS 2WD is long in the tooth, but a good value if you can forgo the all wheel drive version. A proven value and satisfying even with the base 2.3 four-cylinder engine with its 153 horsepower. The optional 3.0 V6 engine is a better choice if you travel with a load the majority of time as its 200 horsepower, but not really necessary for most travels. A tried and proven vehicle, but the high stance does make it more difficult to enter and leave for smaller children. Grade B

Just as dated, but with a fresh facelift and some other major surgery, the Ford Focus is a steal at $15,000. It gets terrific gas mileage, has an upscale interior, and plenty of cargo space. Available as coupe or sedan, the Focus has enough poke with the 136-horsepower 2.0

engine and a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic transmission to keep pace with traffic even with four adults onboard. Ford is really dealing on these models, but resale may prove soft as a new compact is scheduled to arrive in 2011 that is much spiffier. Grade B

ford

Our favorite Ford is the Fusion. Priced less then $20,000, and we have seen them selling under $19,000, the Fusion is simply an underappreciated sedan with as good as handling, fuel mileage, and cargo space as the much more expensive Japanese models. The Fusion is powered by a 2.3L 160-horsepower engine and that really isn’t strong enough for such a large car. Pay extra and order the 3.0L 221-horsepower V6 engine. It has such safety features as a tire pressure monitor, dual front airbags, front and rear head curtain airbags, and side-impact airbags. Crash scores were excellent. If you need solid family transportation this is the one to consider. And, if you really want a family friendly vehicle wait for the hybrid version that should put the more expensive Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry versions on notice that their days of domination are done. Grade A-

Honda

From the start the quirky looking Element has been a sleeper, even to Honda. What was essentially a youth-oriented vehicle with its clamshell opening rear doors, washable style interior, and easy to accessorize looks has become a stalwart of the older crowd who adore its utility and easy to enter rear compartment. Perfect for dog lovers and those that carry large containers, the Element’s only weakness is a engine that is hard pressed to push its large box shape over hills without numerous downshifts and significant moaning. Gas mileage in the 20-mpg range is the norm and resale is proving to be good for this Honda. As a family vehicle is does well, but the fact that the rear seats set-up is not as good for baby seats as we like and there are large blind spots due to the large rear pillars. The only engine is the 166 horsepower 2.4-liter VTEC four-cylinder engine that comes with a standard five-speed manual. We recommend the five-speed automatic instead. Safety equipment is typical of all Hondas with airbags nearly everywhere. Overall, this really isn’t a family vehicle as much as a handy one for those who need it special features. Our grade C+

Unfortunately, the low height of the Civic makes if difficult to get in and out of and the interior is more playful then the competition. There are so many versions of the Civic that it is essential you do your homework before venturing out. We like the LX model as it combines some luxury, but isn’t so fancy that it stretches your credit ceiling. The gas saving 140-horsepower 1.8L I-4 engine works hard and provides exceptional fuel mileage in the range of 30 mpg with ease. Standard safety equipment includes side curtain airbags, daytime running lights, and ABS brakes. The Civic is a terrific sedan for those who can live with its few limitations such as having to reach very low to bring out a baby from a rear facing baby seat. The trunk is a fair size, but the biggest plum is the high resale. Our Grade B=

Honda hit a homerun when they brought the smallish Fit to the marketplace. We immediately fell for its sharp handling, 33-mpg average on unleaded, and extremely useful rear cargo hold. Add to that a price of $15,000 and you can understand why the Fit is among the most difficult vehicles to find on dealer’s lots today despite an economic downturn. The hatchback has a 1.5-liter 117-horsepower VTEC engine that must work hard at all times, but seems to enjoy the task. The low height makes it difficult to place a babyseat. All sorts of safety equipment are standard and the crash scores are good, but not great for rear seat passengers. A good commuter, but not a great family vehicle. Our grade B-.

Hyundai

The Hyundai Tucson/Kia Sportage can be purchased for under $20,000, but it just doesn’t offer enough incentive to draw us away from its average fuel economy and noisy ride. You do get Hyundai’s/Kia’s good warranty and its improving quality, but essentially there is simply too much competition in this price category to recommend it for anything else despite the handy Drop and Fold rear seating system and a passenger seat that can fold flat to help carry longer items. Standard equipment includes ABS brakes, traction control, and six airbags. For the same money Hyundai offers a good Sonata sedan that can easily crack 30 mpg, has a kinder ride and a large trunk. If you look you can find Sonata’s for under $20,000 well equipped and they offer an easier babyseat installation. We like the Sonata greatly, but the Tucson isn’t our top choice especially with the base 140 horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. You need the optional 173 horsepower 2.7L V6 engine. Our grade C-

Jeep

For $20,000 or less the Jeep Compass could be in your driveway with a 172- horsepower 2.4-liter engine working either a five-speed manual transmission or CVT automatic transmission. Not a smooth or quiet vehicle, but one that seems perfect for the life of a winter grocery getter, the Compass has a number of features in most models such as a vehicle information center, keyless entry, and heated seats. Front and read head curtain airbags are just a few of the safety items, but for nearly the same amount of money consider the more traditional looking Jeep Patriot. Why Chrysler is offering both of these is a decision that must have been interesting. The Compass gets slightly better fuel mileage, but the Patriot has more hauling capacity. They both can be parked in small mall spaces and offer fairly good visibility. Essentially, the main difference is looks with the Patriot being square and the Compass living up to its name and more rounded. We don’t like the Jeep brand for a family. Chrysler makes many products that can do a better job is you can live without the high center of gravity and basic suspension. Our grade C.

Kia

Kia’s $17,000 Rondo is a winner with the larger 173 horsepower 2.7L V6 engine. Safety equipment such as dual front airbags, head and curtain airbags, and front side impact airbags come standard. Crash scores were well above average. The interior is a touch basic, but very utilitarian and important items such as controls and gauges are easy to read and use, if a bit small. Unique looks, a nice ride, and only the need for less road noise renders it less then perfect. If you don’t need a more expensive minivan and its additional space the Rondo is for you. It also has a high seating position and is a snap to park. Our grade A-.

$17,500. That is correct for a good sized, well-powered, amply equipped sedan with a great warranty and plenty of safety equipment. New this year and just about the best bargain in the automobile industry, this sedan comes with a variety of option packages, but be picky and stay with the standard 2.4L 162-horsepower engine and you can probably drive off the dealer’s lot for under $18,000. The optional engine is a must if you drive in the mountains or heavily loaded as its V6 as 185-horsepower. Standard features are an alarm system, heated mirrors, and keyless entry. But the safety arena is where this Kia shines and makes it so family friendly. The Optima comes with a tire pressure monitor, dual front airbags, front and rear head curtain airbags, and front side impact airbags. And check the safety head rests, too. Kia also makes a Rio and a Spectra, but we recommend you pay a bit more and get the Optima as its is much better for a family in terms of safety features and size although the Rio is priced less then $14,000. Our grade B+.

Mazda

The Mazda3 is available in sedan and hatchback bodystyles with the latter being our favorite because of the ease of loading everything from groceries to yard sale bargains. The 148-horsepower 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine or larger 156 horsepower 2.3 liter version are very kind to the environment and gas mileage is about 25 mpg in mixed driving. A terrific handling vehicle that is simple to park, has proven to be quite reliable, and is both zippy and zoomy. The low stance does make entry and exiting the Mazda a bit more difficult for those that aren’t supple. The interior is dark and a bit on the teenager side, but it works well with enough storage and legroom to suffice. Grade B+

Priced under $19,000, the Mazda 5 is a true minivan with fuel mileage in the 24 mpg range and a 2.3 liter engine with a five speed automatic transmission that makes driving, well, zoom zoom considering the limitations of a 153 horsepower engine in such a blocky vehicle. One of the interesting standard features is a fold out table. You can order fancier options, but stick to the sport model with a manual transmission and have as frisky a minivan as they make. This is a perfect vehicle for the family with one or two children and can only be matched by the Kia Rondo. Our grade B

MINI

Fun to drive, a miser when it comes to gas mileage, the MINI Cooper gets an astonishing 30-mpg even when pushed and has among the highest resale values. We highly recommend you spend a few dollars more and get the much roomier Clubman version. The base engine is the BMW derived 120-horsepower 1.6 liter four cylinder engine. Equipped with either a six-speed manual transmission or automatic transmission this is a hoot to drive, park, and corner with, but its small size limits it family value even with excellent crash scores. Safety equipment includes ABS brakes, stability control, six standard airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system and run-flat equipped tires. Fun, but not family. Our Grade C+

Mitsubishi

All new and much better then the previous model the Lancer is priced under $16,000, has good fuel economy of about 24 mpg, and stout crash scores. The interior is spacious, the exterior has a unique appeal, and only its resale and quality prevent it from us giving it an A grade. Order the optional 2.4-liter, 168-horsepower four-cylinder engine as the base engine doesn’t give any better gas mileage and this vehicle is too large for anything less. The optional continuously variable transmission isn’t worth it at this time. There is an abundance of standard equipment but you can still feel that the quality isn’t up to the competition. Then again, the price isn’t as high either. You get what you pay for and in this case the Lancer is a bargain with room for a family, a good-sized trunk, and an easy to install baby seat area. Our grade B-

nissan

Nissan

It is puzzlement. The Sentra and the Versa are among the most gas frugal vehicles you can buy and both have large interiors for their size and come with a lot of standard equipment. The problem is that they are priced nearly the same. The fancy Versa SL is just a coupe of hundred dollars less then the base Sentra, and the base Sentra has a larger engine and gets better gas mileage. Interestingly, the Versa actually has more useable space then the Sentra, especially as a hatchback. Of course, the Versa has that quirky French styling, but both are good family vehicles. The Sentra has a 2.0 liter engine with about 20 more horsepower then the 1.8 liter in the Versa’s 122. Safety features on both models include tire dual front airbags, front and rear head curtain airbags, and front side impact airbags. The Sentra handles better, but Versa feels more stable in high winds. We would go with the Sentra and its higher safety ratings, but both Nissans are underrated and are great values. Sentra Grade A-; Versa grade B.

The Nissan Rogue is an excellent handling crossover SUV that is priced quite well starting under $20,000, but be careful with your option selection or the cost could push it much higher. The 170horsepower 2.5-liter engine and a continuously variable automatic transmission work well together. Nissan does a great job with the CVT unit, perhaps better then any other manufacturer. Safety features include electronic stability control (a must on all SUVs), ABS brakes, dual front row and side-impact airbags, with head curtain airbags for both rows, and excellent crash scores. The Foldable Rear Cargo Organizer is handy for shopping and the ride is a combination of sporty and soft. It is one of the better handling crossover SUVs, but not as quick as the Acura or the Mazda crossovers. Visibility to the rear is restricted by the roof pillars. Gas mileage is fairly good for such a vehicle with 23 mpg easy to reach. The interior is dark and a bit snug, but it is easy to install a baby seat and the Rogue is a snap to park in small spaces. Our grade B+

Scion xB and xD

The prices are nearly identical so you can expect to spend a touch over $15,000 for either model. The xB has a 2.4L DOHC four-cylinder engine with Variable Valve Timing with intelligence that provides 158 horsepower and you can order either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic with sequential shifting. Scions are meant to be designed by the new owner so be prepared to spend countless nights with a checklist of options. If you can stick with basics you are going to have good resale. Standard equipment includes a 160-watt Pioneer audio system with iPod connectivity, keyless entry, and tire pressure mentor. The Scion xB has limited visibility to the sides and back, but it is extremely easy to maneuver and park. It is easy to load and has a cavernous cargo capacity. Very youthful, but with gas mileage over 30 mpg this would be a great commuter and dog hauler. The interior takes a while to get used to and if it becomes too much of a burden check the new xD. This is based on the Yaris platform, but is a much better handling machine. We very much dislike the Yaris and for a few dollars more a month get the Corolla or the Scions. The xD has a smaller engine, price tag, and must be driven to be appreciated. The 1.8L four-cylinder engine offers 128 horsepower and comes with the same transmission choices of the xB. Standard equipment is essentially the same. Lots of options, but the most difficult choice is whether or not to buy the xD or xB. And don’t forget the new Nissan Cube and Kia Soul which have the same box shape as the Scions. Our rating B+

Smart

Small, handy, and an eye-catcher, the Smart fortwo is a minicompact convertible or hatchback. Priced under $15,000 it is too small for a family, but worth considering if you live in the city and want a funky ride. The transmission is difficult to modulate, but the fuel mileage, as you would expect, is nearly 40 mpg in steady driving. Grade Incomplete

Subaru

For just under $18,000 Subaru has a dandy sedan and wagon in its Impreza line. They aren’t the prettiest Subarus, but they are the best deals. You can get one with a turbocharged engine with 224 horsepower, but we recommend the standard 170 horsepower and save on the purchase price. However, if you travel in the mountains or frequently travel with a family onboard the turbo is very much worth the extra cost. Turbo equipped vehicles usually cost more to insure, maintain, and use more expensive fuel so drive both versions to make sure this Impreza suits your needs. Subaru has all wheel drive and consistently gets fuel mileage in the low 20-mpg range in mixed driving. Although they are a good deal, the Suzuki SX4 is less expensive and just a tad smaller while offering all wheel drive. The Suzuki has a better warranty. We have found Subaru repairs very dear and have owned several. They were good, but not great, but we used them as commuter cars and didn’t need the famed traction the Subaru offers. Our rating B-

For about $20,000 you can buy the redone Subaru Forester base model with a 173-horsepower 2.5-liter engine and a vastly improved interior with more room and tidier layout then previous models. Standard all wheel drive makes it excellent in winter, but even with this feature the Forester gets about 20 mpg in mixed driving. This is among the best in vehicles of this size with four-wheel drive. Unfortunately, the base engine really struggles with the larger Forester, especially in the mountains and in passing situations when the car is fully loaded. Your option is the frisky turbo version, but that puts the cost well over the $20,000 limit. We recommend you stick with the small Impreza model that has enough interior room for most families. Grade C+

Suzuki

For about $16,000 the Suzuki SX4 is a surprisingly fun vehicle available as a wagon or sedan. You can get them with all wheel drive or front wheel drive, but the difference in price is quite small. We are fond of the Suzuki because the company just seems to want to please the customer with a terrific warranty and an integrated Garmin type navigation system as standard. This feature usually costs a couple thousand dollars of other vehicles and it makes the Suzuki an even better buy. But note that this isn’t as deluxe as those that come on more upscale vehicles with their larger screens. Nevertheless, it is essentially free. The system has Bluetooth capability and even real-time traffic reports. The engine is sufficient with 143 horsepower and a four speed automatic transmission and you can easily get 25 mpg. Our grade B-

Suzuki’s Grand Vitara is sized well for a family with a 2.7-liter 185-horsepower V6 engine and is loaded with safety features such as dual front airbags, front and rear head curtain airbags, and front side impact airbags. Crash scores are good, but for the money there is just too many other good crossover type SUVs priced just under $20,000 to make this a first choice unless there are some good deals. A good warranty is offset by low resale values. Unless you need the extra room in the rear seats the Suzuki SX4 is a better deal. Look for gas mileage of 22 mpg for the Grand Vitara. Our Grade C.

Toyota

An ideal family vehicle, albeit a little small, this exceptional sedan costs less than $17,000 and gets fantastic mileage well over 30 mpg in mixed driving with the 1.8-liter 16-valve, DOHC four-cylinder engine and its 132 horsepower. You can also order the 2.4-liter engine that produces 158 horsepower, but it isn’t necessary. Stick with the automatic transmission as there is very little loss in fuel economy and the Corolla is never going to be mistaken for a performance car so the five-speed manual is only going to reduce its value at resale. Standard features are varied from a XM satellite ready stereo with a CD/MP3 player to front seat-mounted side impact and head curtain airbags. Very are plenty of small storage areas, a good-sized console and glove compartment, and excellent visibility in the Corolla. The only problem is that the options can quickly drive the price over that of the base Camry and a smallish 13.2-gallon tank. We like the Corolla’s ride and maneuverability, but it doesn’t touch our soul. It is more an appliance then practically any car we have tested. That doesn’t make it a poor choice for a family. Our grade A-.

You can order a Camry in a variety of forms from hybrid to V6 power to four cylinder versions and all of them are competent, capable performers. Safety features abound with

dual front airbags, front and rear head curtain airbags, knee airbags, and front side impact airbags and you can get them for under $19,000. Fuel mileage is in the 22-mpg arena. You really don’t get much more in the Camry in terms of passenger space then the Corolla, although the former’s trunk is three cubic feet larger. It is much easier to place a baby seat in the Corolla, too, as it stands just a bit taller and is a couple of inches thinner. In other words, the Camry is a heftier, slightly larger, and more comfortable car then the Corolla, but we prefer the smaller turning radius and better visibility of the smaller car. The Camry’s grade is a B+

Restyled, but its difficult to tell, the Matrix is an exceptional combination of utility, fuel efficiency, and cargo carrying capacity. Outside of the world’s worst jack, this is a $17,000 vehicle with terrific resale and reliability as well. The standard engine is a 132 horsepower 1.8L four-cylinder engine. while a 2.4L four-cylinder engine with 158 horsepower is a highly recommended option. Standard features include daytime running lights, side and head curtain air bags, and don’t forget to check out the S model with cruise control, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD with MP3 capability and more for a couple thousand more. Available with all wheel drive or front wheel drive, it is difficult to find more for less. Our grade A-

Volkswagen

We much admire Volkswagen’s Beetle for its good crash scores economy, and cute looks. Unfortunately, it only comes with two doors and that makes it unacceptable as a family vehicle, especially with a baby seat that needs installation. Stick with the $18,500 Jetta instead and you can get it as a sedan or a nice wagon. The 23 mpg average was with the 170 horsepower 2.5 liter five-cylinder engine is peppy and you can get it with a 6 Speed Shiftable Automatic. Good visibility, good safety scores, and in a tidy and easy to park package make this an excellent family vehicle. Safety equipment includes side impact and head curtain airbags, tire pressure monitoring system, ABS disc brakes, traction and stability control and the must have child seat anchors. There is a lot to like here and when you add keyless remote entry, cruise control, and smaller, but important features such as a split folding rear seat to expand the cargo area you have a winner. Especially with the wagon. Our grade A.

Rules for Family Safety

Keep your chest at least ten inches away from the airbag cover. Never place a rear facing infants seat in the front of an air bag seat unless the air bag switch is in the off position. Children under 14 should sit in the back seat and use seat belts, or a child safety seat. If you have a medical condition that might result in an injury due to the use of an airbag consult your doctor on whether or not you should use one and carry that permission in the vehicle at all times. Driving without a seatbelt is against the law. Extra large people may wish to ask the dealer for a safety belt extension. Check the air pressure in your vehicle monthly. If an air pressure monitor is an option on a vehicle buy it. Correct air pressure also saves on fuel consumption. Also buy every safety feature you can afford. You can’t be too safe.

Safety seat inspection center: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cps/cpsfitting/index.cfm

Types of baby and booster seats: http://tinyurl.com/3puzn6

Child Seat Ease of Use Ratings: http://tinyurl.com/68upx6

Automotive Safety Issues for Persons With Disabilities

http://tinyurl.com/9pmrvu

Free traffic safety materials and catalogs.

http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/outreach/media/catalog/Index.cfm

Safety ratings of all vehicles

http://tinyurl.com/axhqha

For a list of all vehicle websites go to http://www.reacheverychild.com/business/index.html