The Best Back-To-Basics Vehicles

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New carsYou don?t have to know a piston ring from a brake caliper to know that it?s been a historic year for the car industry ? and not in a good way. Back in the spring, Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy protection with an Italian last name.

After its massive bailout, GM now stands for Government Motors, the joke goes. Hummer ? that icon of American motoring machismo ? may soon be owned by an obscure Chinese road-equipment maker. Even with the recent “cash for clunkers” program boosting sales, the market is still down 32 percent this year. And in a sure sign that times have changed, some Bentley dealers are quietly offering $36,000 off the sticker price of $180,000 Continentals.

Talk about needing to reinvent the wheel. The auto industry is working to make its wheels leaner, greener and more profitable as consumers steer away from the supersized, blinged-out vehicles of the boom years and move back to basics: practicality, safety and fuel efficiency. While nothing is exactly peeling off the lot these days, sales of compact cars are down slightly less than the industry average.

And in the luxury sector, compact premium crossovers are up 18 percent ? the only segment of the industry that?s higher. These statistics, says Jeff Schuster, head of global forecasting at J.D. Power, suggest that drivers may be “trading down.” Indeed, slowed by unemployment worries and a drop-off in cheap, heavily subsidized leases, American car buyers are looking for value above all else. “There?s no shame in buying a smaller, gas-efficient car anymore,” says Jesse Toprak, a longtime industry analyst now with Truecar.com.

Not that we?ll all be driving stripped-down econoboxes. Many unsold cars languishing on the lots are heavily equipped with high-tech and luxury options ? think GPS navigation, premium audio and leather seats. Those features tend to come in packages that are a hangover from the days when dealers could count on an easy $2,000 up-sell. Now they may heavily discount those packages just to seal a deal, says Ed Kim, head of industry research for automotive consultancy AutoPacific. And it?s not uncommon to find even $23,000 sedans loaded with a full suite of optional gear ? not to mention generous cash rebates that make it easier to ante up for your favorite extras.

But while dealers have been rolling out the red carpet this year, experts caution buyers not to expect the bargains to last. Carmakers, which have been shutting factories, slashing production and selling off excess inventory, have just begun ramping back up, a sign that the window on this incentive-heavy buyer?s market may be closing. To see which cars are worth opening your wallet for, we consulted industry experts and evaluated and test-drove dozens of models in four categories: green machines, family haulers, luxury coupes and value sedans. Ahead, our picks for our annual car-buying guide.

BEST GREEN VEHICLE
Americans run hot and cold when it comes to hybrids, cars that combine a gasoline engine with batteries and an electric motor to boost fuel efficiency. After torrid sales in 2008, when gas prices were soaring, hybrid fever has cooled this year, with sales down 24 percent. Maybe that?s because drivers have had a hard time adjusting to the quirks of hybrid driving ? the weak acceleration, the mashed-potato brake feel ? or the average $4,560 price premium over their less-green counterparts. Still, Washington is hot for eco-friendly vehicles, and carmakers keep rolling out more efficient hybrids, along with “clean” diesels ? more than a dozen new models since 2008 alone.

To get the most green car for your greenback, it?s tough to beat the longtime hybrid standard-bearer, Toyota Prius. A midsize four-door that can be well equipped for under $25,000, it now delivers a whopping 50 miles per gallon. Trying to maintain its edge over rivals like Honda, which launched the Insight hybrid this year, Toyota recently overhauled its signature green machine, boosting horsepower by 22 percent and nudging up the cabin and cargo space. Eco-geeks may be drawn to features like solar-powered ventilation and Prius?s three driving modes, which let drivers choose to optimize power or mileage or go electric-only (at parking-lot speeds). For more-traditional techie types, Toyota has added options like radar-enhanced cruise control and a self-parking system.

Still, for most drivers ? including us ? the Prius hasn?t lost those hybrid quirks. Getting on the highway, it ambled its way up to 60 mph (Toyota says it takes 9.8 seconds), and the high-tech brakes, which transfer “regenerative energy” to the batteries, felt a bit spongy ? even though Toyota says the braking system has just been upgraded. Nor were we keen on the hard plastic interior or the tough fabric seats that left us with sore backs after a four-hour drive. Toyota says the car now uses plant-based “ecological plastics” and that the seats now have optional power lumbar support. Robert Yu, a software consultant in Scottsdale, Ariz., who recently bought the new Prius, says the less-than-luxe cabin and wimpy acceleration don?t exactly rival his old BMW, but he loves the budget price and his average mileage of 51.5 mpg. “You have to come to terms with the compromises,” he says.

RUNNERS-UP: A roomy midsize sedan, the Ford Fusion Hybrid averages 39 mpg, near the top of the hybrid class, but it starts around $28,000, pricier than the similar-size Camry hybrid. (Ford says the Fusion has more standard equipment than its hybrid competitors.) For its part, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI gets an impressive 41 mpg on the highway and starts at a more reasonable $24,460 for an automatic. Yet the diesel engine is noisier than gasoline-powered models, and city mileage can?t match that of the hybrids. A Volkswagen spokesperson acknowledges that the Jetta diesel is “slightly louder” and says gas mileage “depends on your driving style.”

BEST VALUE SEDAN
Carmakers have a dream for their midsize sedans: to dethrone the Toyota Camry, which has reigned as America?s best-selling car since 1997. But even the mighty Camry has fallen on hard times, with sales down 34 percent this year ? and not just because of the car market?s overall slump. Increasingly, Americans are swapping their sedans for more-versatile crossovers, analysts say, and the Camry faces stiff competition from cars with spiffier interiors, sharper exteriors and more features for the buck.

After years of watching its midprice Mazda6 sedan play also-ran to the Camry and Honda Accord, Mazda revamped the car in ’09, amped up the incentives (recent offer: $1,500 to $2,000 cash back) and broadened its pitch. Sure, it?s still positioned as the sporty antidote to the plain-vanilla sedan. Indeed, the new 6 looks almost feral with its sleek, swoopy sheet metal, bulging wheel arches and cat?s-eye headlights. And while four-cylinder cars can feel sluggish at low speeds, we came away impressed with the pep and poise of Mazda?s four-cylinder, 170-horsepower model. The steering felt light and precise, even after we packed the car with five adults.

But unlike the original Mazda6, which came out in 2002 and had a reputation as a frisky puppy ? undersized and rough around the edges ? this incarnation, priced starting around $19,000, is designed as a more mature creature. Mazda lengthened and widened the body by several inches, creating a cabin and trunk (16.6 cubic feet) now near the top of their class for roominess. Designers made the car quieter, too, the company says, and spruced up the interior with a two-tone color scheme and brushed metallic finishes.

The flip side of all that pep, though, is slightly diminished gas mileage; on the highway it tops out at 29 mpg, trailing some rivals by as much as 10 percent. A Mazda spokesperson says mileage is less of a priority than driving dynamics and styling. We also found some of the switches on the steering wheel too small to be driver-friendly and the navigation system tough to both reach and see. (The company responds that everyone has a different opinion about the feel of the car.) Owner Paul Manuel of Elkton, Md., says he can live with the downsides. “I drive it hard,” he says, “and like the sporting edge.”

RUNNERS-UP: Compared with the Camry, both the Hyundai Sonata and Chevy Malibu offer slightly more horsepower, similar gas mileage and comparable standard safety gear like traction and stability control. Both also have cabins that were redesigned with higher-quality materials and premium options like leather and wood trim. Their big drawback: ride and handling that may be charitably described as comfortably numb. A spokesperson for Chevrolet says the Malibu was engineered for a smooth ride, and Hyundai says drivers looking for sportier performance can choose the Sonata?s SE model.

BEST FAMILY CROSSOVER
Family haulers come in all shapes and sizes, but the sweet spot for many buyers is the crossover: a vehicle engineered to ride like a car in the body of an SUV. Proving popular with folks who need space for toting kids and gear ? and who cringe at the sight of sliding doors ? crossovers make up 21 percent of the market, up from 2.1 percent a decade ago. And sales of midsize models are down 21 percent this year, about two-thirds the market?s overall decline.

But since crossover country is now jammed with 100 or so models, finding one with the right mix of eight-passenger space, power and safety features can be a tall order. General Motors, whose devotion to the full-size SUV market contributed mightily to its financial woes, has been trying to entice buyers to trade down from the big dogs to one of its sharper-handling and less-gas-guzzling new crossovers. And it?s succeeded with the Chevy Traverse ? currently one of the top-selling midsize crossovers ? which boasts ample interior space (including a class-topping 116.6 cubic feet for cargo) and giddyap aplenty. The 281-horsepower engine outpowers its rivals.

Buyers worried about GM?s quality may be surprised to learn that Chevrolet averages 103 problems per 100 vehicles, barely behind Toyota ? and ahead of Nissan ? in J.D. Power?s latest survey of “initial quality.” One big improvement: the cabin. The car we tested came appointed with comfortable leather seats, and all Traverse models get a stylish instrument panel with a sweeping, ergonomic design. Loaded with standard safety goodies like six air bags, antilock brakes and stability control, it also offers a nifty low-tech alternative to electronic blind-spot sensors: wide-angle mirrors embedded in the outer corner of the wing mirrors to help drivers change lanes safely ? without craning their necks.

Still, it?s a biggish car, with biggish-car issues. We averaged only 15 mpg, well below the EPA estimate of 19 mpg in combined city/highway driving. (A GM spokesperson says the vehicle gets the best mileage in its class.) And the Traverse didn?t maneuver as sharply in our tests as rivals like the Mazda CX-9. GM says the suspension was tuned to “strike a balance” between comfort and performance. In other words: All that rolling real estate does have its price.

RUNNERS-UP: Top among midsize crossovers in J.D. Power?s 2009 survey of long-term reliability, the Toyota Highlander has long been popular for its carlike handling and reputation for quality. But it lacks a six-speed transmission, and the third-row seats fold as a single unit instead of in sections. Toyota says it?s looking into both features for a future redesign. The popular and affordable Honda Pilot offers a more versatile cabin, with a split-folding third row. But its 250-horsepower engine is weaker than rivals?, and it doesn?t get any better gas mileage, according to EPA estimates. Honda says the fuel economy is quite good given its accommodating interior.

BEST LUXURY COUPE
A few years ago, folks who wanted a sporty luxury car had two choices: a high-performance sedan or a two-seat roadster. These days, however, there?s middle ground: the two-door coupe. More compact than sedans, coupes tend to offer sharper driving dynamics and pizzazz behind the wheel. And though they?re not quite as fun to drive as lightweight roadsters, they have functional backseats and trunks that can fit more than a single set of golf clubs.

Yet with almost 50 coupe models currently on the market, nearly two dozen of which are priced over $100,000, finding value in the luxury class now takes a bit of detective work ? even in a slump that?s left most sporty “weekend” cars lingering on dealers? back lots. Long a luxury underdog, Infiniti now equips its G37 with a 330-horsepower engine, heftier than that of similarly priced coupes from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It has one of the few seven-speed transmissions in its class and a satisfying array of luxury appointments and tech toys. And starting around $37,000, it costs roughly $7,000 less than its German brethren. According to the latest Automotive Lease Guide, it also has a higher resale value.

It?s certainly a more compelling ride than the old G35, with dozens of design and engineering upgrades, including a platform that?s 36 percent stiffer, Infiniti says, reducing its “body roll” through curves. Inside, Infiniti scrapped some of the cheap plastics and buffed up the interior with aluminum-alloy accents and more leather trim. The company also added new electronic controls for the steering and brakes, along with high-tech options like headlights that adapt to the road and “intelligent” cruise control that uses laser sensors to keep the car?s speed flowing with traffic.

Critics complain the G37 still doesn?t feel as refined as the Audi A5 or as balanced as the BMW 335i. And the car has a few other drawbacks. As with most coupes, backseat headroom is minimal. And our gas mileage ? around 19 mpg ? wasn?t great. (Infiniti says the engine is larger but still has increased its EPA mileage over the previous model?s engine.) But we liked the hustle and grit of the car. The seats felt supportive, and even after a full day of driving it around New Jersey?s back roads, we were eager for more.

At least, that is, those of us sitting in front.
RUNNERS-UP: The BMW 335i offers an impressive mix of poise and handling, plus rocket-like acceleration with its twin-turbo 300-horsepower engine. But it starts around $43,000 ? without luxury basics like leather upholstery or even an alarm system. The elegant Audi A5 3.2 Quattro has one of the highest-quality interiors in the class, but its 265-horsepower engine isn?t nearly as powerful as that of the 335i, and a fully loaded model can top $58,000.

2009 Copyright The New York Times Syndicate