By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The last time the car industry was on its knees — in the early 1980s — the cars were just as desperate as the times. Miserable K-cars — and four-cylinder Camaros. Five liter V-8s that made less power than modern 3 liter V-6s. Economy cars whose only virtue was they didn’t suck gas.
It’s weirdly different this time around. The car business is a disaster area — but the cars themselves are probably the best they’ve ever been. Economy cars that are actually pretty cool — and performance cars that can tickle 30 mpg on the highway. Trick hybrids (and next generation turbodiesels). Trucks that pull like Clydesdales – and ride like Cadillacs.
Here are some highlights:
1. Fun and funky . . . and under $15k
2010 Kia Soul (base price $13,300)
The Soul is a boxy little five door hatchback similar in theme to the got-there-first Scion xB but with a sticker price that’s several thousand dollars less.
Another strong selling point is that unlike its two main competitors — the Scion xB and the also-new Nissan Cube — the Soul offers buyers their choice of two available engines: one for maximum economy, the other for a touch more performance. The standard engine is a 1.6 liter four good for 122 hp. Its EPA rated mileage of 26 city/31 highway beats the fuel efficiency of the xB and the Cube — while its 0-60 time of 8.7 seconds is actually better than the Cube’s and only two tenths or so off the pace off the more expensive Scion xB. You can also upgrade to a larger, 2 liter, 142 hp engine that’s more powerful than just about anything else in this price range, too — and still get 24 city/30 highway.
Other cool features of the Soul include direct iPod/USB hook-up, a stereo with LED “mood lighting” that pulses to the rhythm of whatever you’re listening to — and a tall roofline that lets you cram the thing with large objects that won’t fit in a normal-sized econo-sedan or hatchback. AC and most of the important power options (windows, locks, etc.) are also standard. So is the best-in-the business 10 year, 100,00 mile powertain warranty — and five years, 60,000 miles on the whole car. That’s a better comprehensive warranty than many “name brand” imports offer on just the engine and transmission.
2010 Nissan Cube (base price $13,990)
It’s either cuter than a teacup Chihuahua or uglier than a brick of tofu slowly melting in the sun. But either way, there’s nothing quite like the Cube on the market. Its Mini-me footprint lets it fit into spaces too small for most anything else on four wheels while its space efficient interior has more usable room than many much larger on the outside cars. A wealth of options allows almost infinite owner customization — and 33 mpg on the highway with the standard 1.8 liter four and CVT transmission keeps operating costs reasonable
2. Fun and function … and under $20k
2010 Mini Crossman (base price $19,500 – estimated)
A new Mini model will join the lineup early next year. Based on the longer-wheelbase Clubman, the Crossman will offer all-wheel-drive (the first Mini to offer this feature) and a higher-off-the-ground ride height to the mix.
It won’t be an SUV, but it will do better in wet weather (and snow on paved roads) than the low-riding (and front-wheel-drive only) regular Mini. It’ll also have the additional utility of the long-wheelbase Clubman — which boasts almost twice the cargo space behind the second row seats (9.2 cubic feet vs. 5.3 in the regular Mini) as well as human-usable rear seats with 32.3 inches of legroom vs. 29.3 in the regular Mini.
The Clubman-based Crossman should also come through with four doors as well as the Clubman’s twin “dutch doors” in the back. It will offer the same basic powertrains as the current Mini lineup too — including both turbocharged S and (likely) hot rod John Cooper Works (JCW) versions, which currently can hit nearly 150 mph and nail 60 mph in just over 6 seconds flat while still returning better gas mileage than many economy cars.
EPA gas mileage figures for the 2010 Crossman weren’t available at the time of this writing but should be very close to the current Clubman’s exceptional 28 city, 37 highway. Models equipped with the optional AWD system will probably lose 1-3 MPGs (due to the additional weight/inertial load of the AWD gear) but mid-30s on the highway is still spectacular for a car that’s much more than just another Blue Light Special.
2010 VW Golf TDI (base price $16,900 – estimated)
The Rabbit retires and the Golf returns to the United States market next year — and it seems a sure bet that VW will also bring back a diesel version capable of as much as 52 mpg — better mileage than a hybrid but with the fun of a high-torque turbo diesel working through a six-speed manual transmission (as in the current Jetta TDI). Direct injection gas engines capable of close to 40 mpg will also reportedly be offered.
3. Biggest guns under $25k
2010 Chevy Camaro (base price $22,245)
So much attention has focused on the V-8 powered SS that the heroic capabilities of the standard-issue Camaro have almost gone unnoticed. But check it out: 300 horsepower from its 3.6 liter V-6 engine; standard six-speed manual transmission. This is 10 horsepower more than the original 1967 Z28’s 5.0 liter/302 cubic inch V-8 made – and 90 horsepower more than the econo-car 4.0 liter, 210 hp V-6 you’ll find in the base Mustang — and only slightly less than the V-8 GT’s 4.6 liter V-8 offers.
The Dodge Challenger’s V-6 is slightly more respectable at 250 hp — but it comes only with a five-speed automatic transmission. To get a stick, you have to buy the much more expensive V-8 R/T.
Point being, as neat as the Challenger and Mustang are, if you want real performance, you have to buy the V-8 versions — which cost close to $30k (or more) and which also cost a fortune to insure (if you are young and single) as well as to feed. But you can buy a V-6 Camaro six-speed for about $22k and get 0-60 in six seconds — quicker than a ’67 Z28 — mop the floor up with the V-6 versions of the Challenger and ‘Stang. And give the V-8 versions of those cars — especially the Mustang GT — a run for the money, too.
2010 Ford Mustang (base price $20,995 )
It’s not as quick as Camaro in either base V-6 or V-8 GT, and it isn’t as perfect a reincarnation of the late 1960s/early ’70s as the Dodge Challenger — but the Mustang does offer a nice mix of retro styling, muscle car strut and a profusion of models and sub-models, including the brutal (and supercharged) Shelby GT500 coupe/convertibles.
4. Sport compact fury … at a not-so-furious price
2010 MazdaSpeed3 (base price $23,195 )
If we were talking handguns, the MazdaSpeed3 would fit the profile of the new Taurus Judge (a revolver that chambers .410 shotgun shells). Like the Judge, the 3 is small — but it packs a devastating punch: 263 turbocharged, direct-injected and intercooled horsepower driving the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. Read that last part again and note the part about “front wheels.” Unlike the controlled fury of the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi EVO or the Subaru WRX, the MazdaSpeed 3 lays rubber through two wheels, not four — which makes it the most powerful car of its type on the road.
Even sweeter, it’s cheaper. The sticker price of this hatchback hot rod is almost ten grand less than an all-wheel-drive EVO ($32,990) and nearly twelve grand less than a Subaru WRX STi ($34,995). A regular WRX is closer to the 3 at $24,995 but that’s still nearly two grad more for a car that has only two more horsepower (265 vs. 263) and can’t do a burnout or bark the tires on the 1-2 upshift.
2010 Kia Forte SX Koupe (base price $19,900 – estimated)
Directly targeting cars like the Honda Civic Si and Scion Tc, the Forte Koupe is expected to share the standard and optional engines used in the 2010 Forte sedan, including the sedan’s optional 173 hp 2.4 liter engine, with six-speed manual transmission. The Koupe makes its debut this Fall and should be hitting dealers in early Spring 2010.
5. Hybrids that saves you gas — and money
2010 Honda Insight (base price $19,800)
The whole point of owning a hybrid is to save money by spending less on gas. But if the hybrid costs a fortune to buy, its gas mileage doesn’t matter much, right? Money spent is money spent — whether up front or at the pump.
The new Insight saves you money both ways. Up front, it is priced $2,200 less (to start) than its main competitor, the otherwise similar Toyota Prius. Down the road, its EPA rated mileage capability of 40 city, 43 highway should help ease the pain at the pump. (The Prius’ mileage is higher, but it would take several years of driving to make up for the $2,200 extra you had to spend up front.)
Like the Prius, the Insight is a five-door hatchback sedan with a gas-electric powertrain that can operate on its batteries/electric motor alone at speeds up to 30 mph. The gas engine will also typically turn itself off when you roll up to a light or are stuck idling in traffic. Restarts are just as automatic — as are the rolling transitions from full electric to gas engine only to gas engine boosted by the electric motor/battery pack. There are displays in the instrument cluster to help you keep track of what’s happening — including green and blue backlighting that fades from green (maximum economy) to bright blue (maximum power) according to how you’re driving.
The back section of the Insight is a lot like what used to be called a Kammback layout, meaning the roof slopes gradually backward where it meets up with a fairly tall/vertical tail section. This provides more room (and access) than the typical hatchback layout — and also gives the Insight’s interior a wide-bodied, open feel.
But, bottom line, it’s saving coin that matters most when it comes to hybrids — and the Insight’s $2,200 worth of “free gas” up front spells Big Trouble for the best-selling (but pricey) Prius.
2010 Ford Fusion hybrid (base price $27,270)
Here’s the first American brand hybrid car that can go toe to toe with import hybrids like the Honda Insight and Prius on gas mileage, and beat them up and down the street when it comes to performance and driving fun. The Fusion hybrid offers 41 mpg city, 36 highway — and 191 horsepower underhood, enough to reach 60 mph in the mid 8 second range. That’s quick for a hybrid — and its gas mileage is on par with the much slower Insight hybrid’s and not far off the real-world pace of the Prius.
6. Best new full-size truck, period
2010 Ford F-series (base price $21,365)
GM 1500 series trucks pack more power; Dodge Ram 1500s are quicker — but neither can do the work an F-150 can — including pull a class-best 11,300 pounds (with integrated trailer brake controller and trailer sway control system). Even when equipped with the impressively potent 5.7 liter Hemi V-8, the Ram 1500 can still only pull a maximum of 9,100 pounds. GM’s pick-up is better, with a max rating of 10,700 pounds – but the Ford still wins easily.
The F-truck also has the stronger standard engine — a 4.6 liter, 248 hp V-8 (even in base “work truck” versions) vs. the weak V-6s that come standard in the Dodge Ram (3.7 liters, 210 hp) and Chevy Silverado (4.3 liters, 195 hp). Yet all are priced about the same — despite the huge deficits in standard power and maximum trailer towing capacity.
But the biggest news is that Ford is reportedly going to offer a diesel engine later in the model year, as well an “eco boost” version of its 4.6/5.4 liter gas V-8s. Also, for performance-minded buyers, a new (2WD) SVT Raptor with 400-plus horsepower (final stats not yet available), six-speed transmission and sport suspension will be available later in 2010 as well.
2010 Toyota Tundra (base price $23,155)
Major updates for 2010 include a more powerful version of the optional step-up 4.6 liter V-8, which now rates 310 hp (vs. xx last year) and increased towing capacity (up to 10,800 lbs. with the top-of-the-line 5.7 liter, 381 hp V-8). A new “work truck” version with one of the strongest standard V-6s in 1500 series truck (236 hp) also joins the lineup for 2010.
7. Family-friendly (and family priced) cruisermobiles
2010 Ford Taurus (base price $25,170)
Back in the ’80s, the Taurus was America’s best-selling family car. It had a big interior, plush ride and gave you a lot of value for your dollar. Toyota took that concept and beat Ford at its own game with the Camry, which became (and remains) the best selling car in the country. But the Taurus is back — and this time, it may have the stuff to recapture its former glory.
For openers, it’s a physically bigger car than the Camry (and the Camry’s bigger brother, the $27k — to start — Avalon), with more front seat head and legroom and a substantially bigger trunk (20.1 cubic feet vs. 15 cubic feet ). The Taurus also comes standard with a powerful 3.5 liter V-6 and six-speed automatic — while the base Camry has a four-cylinder engine and manual transmission.
Beyond these perks, the Taurus can be ordered with all-wheel-drive for improved wet/winter weather grip — while the Camry/Avalon (and the Honda Accord) are front-wheel-drive only.
Another helpful feature that’s unique to the Taurus is an external keypad SecuriCode entry system. If you locks yourself out of the car or lose your keys, you can still get in by entering your personal code to unlock the door from outside the vehicle.
2010 Buick LaCrosse (Base price: $27,085)
If enough people give cars like the new LaCrosse sedan a shot, GM’s troubles will at least begin to get better. This is a nice, five-passenger cruise-mobile that’s priced about $800 below the next-closest thing to it size-wise and features-wise (the $27,845 Toyota Avalon). Comes standard with torquey V-6, too.
8. Hot shoe sports cars
2010 Nissan 370Z (base price $29,930)
The 370Z perfectly channels the sports car purity of the original 1969 240Z; you can see the old car in the shape of the new car’s upper canopy, its steeply raked quarter glass, the outline of its fenders and its overall “squat” — which is much wider and more aggressive-looking than last year’s 350Z.
Its standard V-6 has been enlarged to 3.7 liters and power is up to 332 hp (from 3.5 liters and 306 hp in ’09). The standard six-speed manual transmission is available with computer-controlled, rev-matching downshifts (the system “blips” the throttle for you when you up or downshift, for ultra-fast gear changes). Or choose the optional seven-speed automatic (it has two more forward gears than last year’s five-speed automatic).
With more power (and less weight — Nissan dropped the new Z-car’s weight by nearly 100 pounds) the 370 can nail 60 mph in 5 seconds flat — a good half a second quicker than last year’s 350Z.
The Z-car is often compared with the (thoroughly excellent) Chevrolet Corvette but the Nissan is a much smaller car — its wheelbase is only 100.4 inches vs. the ‘Vette’s 105.7 inches and it is nearly 8 inches shorter overall — which gives it the feel of a true sports car while the Corvette, with its huge V-8 and larger footprint is really more of a hybrid sport-muscle car.
The 370Z has another virtue: It costs $10-$15k less than a new Corvette, too.
2010 VW GTI (Base price: $25,700 – estimated )
Volkswagen intends to bring the GTI back to its roots for 2010 — and provide a more budget-friendly alternative to last year’s fun but largely unaffordable R32 ($32,990). The new Golf-based GTI will feature a 210 hp turbocharged, direct injected 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine and the buyer’s choice of six-speed manual or six speed “clutchless” manual Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG).
9. Luxury rollers
2010 Mercedes E500 (Base price $48,050)
If you loved the “four-door coupe” look of last year’s show-car stunning CLS but not the $70k price tag or the four-seater-only interior, the all-new E-Class should make you happy … about $20k happy. That’s the difference in asking price between a CLS ($70,700) and the all-new E-Class ($48, 050 to start).
Even better, the new E-Class actually costs less than last year’s E-Class (which carried a base price of $53,200).
You’ve also got more choice in bodystyles as the 2010 E-Class is available as both a coupe and a sedan. It offers both V-6 and V-8 engines, with a 40 mpg-capable diesel BlueTec V-6 expected to join the options roster during calendar year 2010. Both rear wheel drive and 4-Matic all-wheel-drive versions will be available. For the ultimate Big Kahuna experience, there’s the E63 AMG – which comes with a 518 hp 6.2 liter V-8. It can tear to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds – as quick as new Corvette but with five people enjoying the ride instead of just two.
Though not quite as dramatic as the CLS, the new E-Class is pretty close: Low-cut roofline (with high door sills to accentuate the “chopped” look), steeply raked windshield and tapered rear section. Add to the nix the latest in Mercedes-Benz high technology ( “drowsy driver” monitor, infra-red night vision, automatic-braking cruise control), the E-Class’s superior practicality and lower price — and you’ve got one of the most appealing new luxury rides going.
2010 Lexus HS250h (base price $32,000 – estimated)
A new model for Lexus and the brand”s second hybrid vehicle. The mid-sized HS250h will also be the second front-wheel-drive Lexus (after the ES350) and should be capable of around 35 mpg in both city and highway driving — make it the most fuel efficient Lexus and one of the most fuel efficient luxury sedans available.
2010 Lincoln MKT (Base price $44,200)
This could be the model that jump-starts Lincoln’s fortunes. It is the model Ford has chosen to debut its new line of EcoBoost engines, which he company touts as offering more power than otherwise similar same-size engines while using less gas than similarly powerful larger engines.
The full-size, seven passenger MKT’s comparatively small EcoBoost 3.5 liter V-6, for example, makes a very strong 355 horsepower and also manages a not-bad 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway. That’s 55 more horsepower than the much larger 5.4 liter, 300 hp V-8 used in the Navigator. And the Navigator’s big V-8 sucks it down at the rate of 14 mpg in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway.
That’s a 15 percent improvement in output from 2 liters less displacement — with a slight mileage uptick tossed into the mix.
Direct injection and twin turbos (staggered boost; one for low-speed and another that kicks in at higher speeds) are behind the EcoBoost’s impressive stats. The engine is paired with a close-ratio six-speed transmission, 20-inch polished rims and full-time AWD.
2010 BMW X5 M (base price: $86,255)
If you’re looking for a 4×4 that flies (and money’s no object) you’ll be happy to hear that BMW is applying the M (for “motorsports”) treatment to its mid-sized X5 SUV. With an almost unbelievable 555 hp (and 501 lbs.-ft. of torque) produced by its 4.4 liter V-8, it should be on of the quickest things on the road – and one of the few that quick that can also tow 6,615 lbs., too.