2011 was an amazing year in the automotive world. It was comeback year for many companies, especially the Americans. Hyundai and Kia continued their relentless march of increased market share while many of the Japanese brands were battered by Mother Nature.
2011 will be remembered as the year the electric car became mainstream with Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hitting decent production numbers. Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i will follow in 2012. Everyone’s hoping it isn’t a fad.
With nearly everyone on their A game, it hasn’t been easy picking my Top 11 for 2011. That’s not a play on the year, you know I’ve always had 11 on the list. My choices are about a balance of performance, design, value and features. Ground rules? It had to be on sale in 2011, I had to drive it (sorry, couldn’t get my hands on a VW Passat) and pricing had to start at under 75 grand. Remember, we are the 99 percent.
For the first time ever this list contains no Japanese cars, a fact that surprised even me. My choices reflect a more emotional approach this year. Nearly all modern cars are very reliable, freeing buyers up to concentrate on design, performance and value. More than ever, buying a car is about determining your budget, fulfilling practical needs and making a design or brand statement. This is a good thing.
Fierce competition means many close competitors. I’ll talk about them after the list. Base prices provided include destination charges.
So, in no particular order…
Chevrolet Sonic LTZ (MSRP $17,295) The list of GM’s unpleasant small cars is long- Aveo, Metro, Chevette, Sunbird, Sunfire, Monza… Vega. Then comes Sonic, which is neither a hedgehog nor a fast food restaurant. All of a sudden The General is producing a great small car. It’s kind of disorienting.
Sonic gets the nod because it’s affordable, fuel efficient, fun to push into corners, and doesn’t beat you up on long trips. Go with the torque-rich turbocharged engine for an extra $700 and Chevy upgrades the manual tranny to a six-speed (a six-speed automatic is available). Choose between sedan and hatchback models.
Hyundai Elantra (MSRP $17,202) Sweeping sculpted style, bang for the buck, and 40 MPG on the highway go a long way to make Elantra appealing. I find this sedan to be among the best looking cars of 2011, regardless of price.
Hyundai took a page from the playbook that Honda and Toyota once used- a reasonable price, great warrantee and features that surprise and delight. Limited Elantras get heated back seats, some fancy luxury cars don’t offer that. If you’re looking for a compact sedan, you really should be researching this one.
Read review of Hyundai Elantra
Volkswagen GTI (MSRP $24,465) A practical car that’s a blast to drive, GTI is a friend to the enthusiast on a budget. It’s great fun to throw into tight turns, and the cabin looks expensive. This car practically begs you to drive it hard.
Available in both two and four door models, sell it to your spouse as practical. Because it is. Tough to choose between the crisp six-speed manual or dual-clutch DSG automatic. For German performance at a reasonable price, look no farther.
Read review of Volkswagen GTI
Kia Optima (MSRP $21,750) To a person, everyone who rode in the well equipped EX test car thought it was 40 grand. Try 27K. Production assistant Martin Campbell liked it so much he bought one.
Available with regular and turbo engines (plus a hybrid powertrain), the sculpted look, blizzard of features and bargain price of Optima are all but unbeatable. It’s just one reason Kia has doubled their market share in just three years.
Read review of Kia Optima
Ford Focus (MSRP $17,295) In 2011 America finally got the same Focus as Europe. All together now, let’s say “Thank you Ford”.
Some might complain that it is not the budget ride of the past. In price and in execution, Focus has moved up-market. The interior is significantly better than the outgoing model, as is the sheetmetal. It can even be had with a self-parking system that’s better than some in luxury cars. Choose between sedan and hatch models.
Read review of Ford Focus
Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango (MSRP $27,820 FWD Jeep, $29,845 FWD Dodge). Yeah, I know these are two different vehicles but I’m wedging them together because 1) they are based on the same stout architecture and 2) they fill different needs.
Extreme boulder-hoppers will go for the five-seat Grand Cherokee. I have driven the GC on terrain that made me flinch but the Jeep didn’t. Last year’s redesign gave it a terrific interior that it shares with Durango and more room in the back seat.
With its extra row of seating, the seven-passenger Durango works for families. It pulls nearly anything reasonable a guy could want to tow while remaining comfortable and refined the other 99% of the time that you’re driving to the grocery store. Both these rigs get compliments in the parking lot too.
Read review of Dodge Durango
Volvo XC60 ($34,175 FWD) I rediscovered this refined crossover when my wife and I were shopping for a car this summer. This svelte-Swede has a personality all it’s own with an interior that’s straight out of a Scandinavian furniture store.
Yes, it has the legendary safety structure Volvo is known for. Fun to drive too. I’m surprised that many buyers still don’t understand it has the technology to brake automatically for cars and (optionally) pedestrians in case you’re distracted. I beg of you, please stay off your phone when driving. Not all of us drive Volvos.
Read review of Volvo XC60
Chrysler 300 (MSRP $27,995) It’s pretty tough to get more luxury for your money than this full-sized sedan. Chrysler went from worst to first with the interior. Materials and the jeweled instrument cluster look a class more expensive than they are. The user interface doesn’t use a joystick or knob or cluster of buttons. Hallelujah! It’s simple. It works. It doesn’t insult the owner.
Now with an eight-speed transmission, 300 hustles down the road with grace and purpose, handling like it’s a size smaller than it is. Some say it looks too much like the previous generation, I find it the perfect re-interpretation of a classic.
Read review of Chrysler 300
Audi A6 ($50,775) and A7 ($60,125) These two are fraternal twins so I’m rolling them together as one. A6 is the traditional sedan with a more spacious back seat. It’s available as a front-drive model with a 211 horse turbocharged four-cylinder. I suggest skipping it for the 311 horsepower 3.0-liter supercharged V6 bundled with quattro all-wheel drive. Really, you’re buying a luxury sedan. Go all in.
A7 is the super-model sister, a trendy “four-door coupe” with a practical twist- it’s a hatchback. The rear seat gets its headroom clipped a bit so it isn’t as useful for your tall friends. Both 6 and 7 get the same swept instrument panel that lives up to Audi’s reputation, and the sporty balanced driving dynamics will satisfy all but the hard core enthusiast.
For tech aficionados, there’s Google Earth sat nav, an input pad that reads your handwriting, and the ability to make the car a wi-fi hotspot. Which ever you choose, you will not want for anything.
Read review of Audi A7
Chrysler Town and Country (MSRP $30,830) Again, as we shopped for a car this summer this one seriously tempted my wife. With one kid leaving for college buying a van now would be like cutting butter with a chainsaw. This family room-on-wheels makes everyone’s life easier. All vans have loads of cubbies and practical storage. Chrysler is the only one with mid-row seats that fold into the floor. Great for impulse shoppers at garage sales... or is that bad?
The Pentastar V6 provides plenty of power, handling is crisp and the cabin is a huge upgrade from past Chryslers. It even gets decent fuel economy. Other manufacturers seem to be trying too hard to make their vans look like something else, without success. Town and Country stays true to what it is, a comfortable and well-appointed family vehicle.
Read review of Chrysler Town and Country
Chevrolet Volt (MSRP $39,995 before tax credits) An on-board gas-powered generator makes Volt the best choice for people who want an electric car as their only car. I consistently travelled 40 miles before dipping into gas mode. After that I can drive to Florida if I want to. Compare that with electric-only cars that demand a plug-in after a real world 80 miles.
Sporty handling means Volt is a real charge to drive. People like the way it looks too. Yes, there’s the battery issue that NHTSA is looking at. Frankly, if my car took one to three weeks to catch fire after a side impact with a pole then rolling over (the test performed by Uncle Sam), I would be relieved. Gasoline powered cars have the capacity to burn much faster. Until battery technology matures, Volt remains my choice for going green.
Read review of Chevrolet Volt
Those are my top picks. There were many that nearly made the cut. For small cars the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio are ones to shop. Moving up a size I recommend taking a peak at Chevy Cruze and Mazda3. Midsized sedans? That’s an intensely crowded field. Sonata, Regal, Passat and the new Camry are very well done. Know that Accord, Malibu, Fusion and Altima will be brand spanking new in 2012. I’m still smitten with Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CTS, Volvo S60 and Audi S4/S5 too. Wait until you drive the new Lexus GS. Just saying…
Crossovers are hot and it’s worth your time to test drive Equinox, Sportage, Tucson and the new CR-V in the less expensive five-passenger range. Moving up in class, check out Audi Q5, Lexus RX, VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, and the stunning Range Rover Evoque (in both coupe and four-door models). Need a seven seater? Enclave, Traverse, Explorer, Pilot and Sorento are quite nice. On the high end there’s Acura MDX and Audi Q7.
Finally, many of you know that my wife decided on a Kia Soul as her car begging the question- why isn’t the car guy’s choice on the Top 11 list? Well, Soul is a great car, a terrific value with a useful hatch but I understand some aren’t on board with the daring design. That’s what the car is about. Personally, it makes me smile every time I see it. I like design that takes a chance and for those who can think outside the box, Soul is a fun and functional choice.