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|10 Cars That Coulda Been Contenders|
|Written by Keith Buglewicz|
|Saturday, 23 May 2009 07:23|
Woulda, shoulda, coulda, some very competent cars fail to cut through the clutter. Keith Buglewicz looks at 10 vehicles you shouldn't overlook when shopping for your next car.
The American automotive market is one of the world's biggest meritocracies. If a car is good, it sells well, and if it's not, well, it gets a shorter Wikipedia entry. Now some may argue that vehicles like the Toyota Camry are too bland and don't deserve their success. Then again, there's a lot to be said for consistency...ask McDonalds.
Every now and then a car comes along that, despite a long list of merits, never quite achieves the ubiquity that you might expect. Sometimes it's style, other times marketing, and yet other times it's simply because the car was "ahead of its time;" that is, not exactly in keeping with contemporary consumer tastes.
Do these cars deserve their fate as also-rans? Not to me...they're all good, and if people would be willing to overlook one simple thing (OK, maybe more than one in some cases), they'd find themselves behind the wheel of some very satisfying machinery. On the other hand, look for some great values on the used market in the near future.
So here in no particular order other than alphabetical are my 10 current suggestions.
2009 Acura RL
Why It's Great: Terrific handling, feature-loaded and luxurious interior.
What Holds it Back: "What's that?" styling replaced with "What the...?!?"
The Acura RL's spec sheet reads like an Audi: 300-horsepower V-6; sophisticated all-wheel drive system; sport-tuned multilink suspension; luxury features out the wazoo. Yet the wrapper that all this sophisticated and fun stuff comes in has suffered from two distinct flavors. From 2005 through 2008, the RL went virtually unnoticed thanks to its plain-Jane clothes. It wasn't ugly by any stretch, just so understated that it was practically invisible. For 2009, Acura attempted to rectify the situation with a radical makeover, including a new nose, tail, front fenders, head and taillights and the now-familiar Acura milk-mustache grille. Mission accomplished: It definitely stands out, although probably not in the way Acura intended. Too bad we're all so shallow, because this is really a good car.
2009 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid
Why It's Great: Far and away the smartest way of using hybrid technology to date.
What Holds it Back: Eye-popping price tag scares away customers.
The Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is, in my opinion, the best application of hybrid technology to date. Think about it. A big vehicle uses more gas than a small one, so a small increase in efficiency equals a bigger impact overall. The Chevy Tahoe Hybrid--along with hybrid versions of the GMC Yukon and, to a lesser extent, the Cadillac Escalade--are the best examples of this. They offer up real-world fuel economy in the high-teens, even around 20 mpg if you're careful, but still provide the benefits of a full-size SUV. OK, they're not perfect. You hear the hybrid system working more than you do in a Prius, the way the seats fold is ludicrously bad, and the price tag does make eyes pop. However, if you need a fuel-efficient hauler, it's nearly impossible to beat.
2009 Ford Taurus
Why It's Great: Big, comfortable, roomy, feature-laden, all-wheel drive, a good price
What Holds it Back: Plain-as-a-cheese-sandwich styling
The 2005 Ford Five Hundred didn't meet expectations, to put it kindly. It was big and roomy, comfortable to drive, but gutless thanks to its 3.0-liter engine and CVT transmission. Ford thoroughly revised the car for the 2008 model year, slapped the good ol' Taurus badge on its butt, and crossed its fingers. Well, they're still crossed. The car itself is good, actually. It has plenty of power now, thanks to a new engine and six-speed automatic. It's quieter, still comfortable, still roomy, and has a nicer interior. Problem is, despite dressing up the exterior with more chrome, it's still as dull as dishwater, and just about as flavorful. Bland styling hasn't held back the Camry though, so what gives?
2009 Honda S2000
Why It's Great: Screaming redline, stellar handling, still looks good 10 years after its debut
What Holds it Back: Too many "sports car" buyers are wusses.
This is one of my favorite cars and one of the best that Honda has ever built. A front-engine, rear-drive, two-seat convertible sports car that's terrific in pretty much every way. It's a singular machine, designed for those who want to drive quickly and enjoy the experience. Problem is, Honda didn't count on so many people being tender-asses when it came to their sports cars. The S2000 is noisy, its suspension is stiff, it's short on creature comforts for its $30,000-plus price tag, and it has a reputation for being short on torque. So what? If you actually enjoy driving, then you should buy this car, and if you think it doesn't have enough torque, then just downshift the slick six-speed manual and quit your whining.
2009 Hummer H3T
Why It's Great: Hummer finally got the off-road formula dead on.
What Holds it Back: These days, only one kind of hummer still sells, and it ain't no truck.
The Hummer H3T is little more than an H3 with a truck bed. However, unlike the standard H3--a poor-performing and ill-conceived "small" Hummer--the H3T has an actual purpose, and does it well. It's extremely capable off-road, genuinely useful thanks to the truck bed, and still carries as many people as the standard H3. Good stuff overall. So what's the problem? It's a Hummer, for crying out loud. They're evil tools of the devil that should be burned to the ground before they can rape and pillage our environment any more than they already have!
2009 Kia Rondo
Why It's Great: Low price, fuel efficient, comfortable, six-passenger capability.
What Holds it Back: Nerdlinger styling.
The Kia Rondo is the kind of hauler that sells exceptionally well in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It is roomy, comfortable, has decent fuel economy, plenty of features, and a low price. You can even get it with a V-6 engine and a fold-away third row of seats all for just around the $20,000 mark. It's not particularly quick, but it gets 'round fine and is small enough that it's easy to park, unlike so many minivans and crossovers. Problem is, it's wheels are too small, it looks top heavy, and overall it has a face that only a nerd's mom could love. Sometimes, nerds wind up ruling the world, but unfortunately, the Rondo's no Bill Gates.
2009 Mazda 5
Why It's Great: It's a fun minivan. No, really.
What Holds it Back: Even a fun minivan is still a minivan.
The Mazda 5 is one of those cars that is so sensible, you'd think they'd sell themselves. It's small and easy to maneuver, but it has the ability to haul four people comfortably, or six in a pinch. It has a fold-away third row that greatly expands the cargo space, and it has sliding doors so getting in and out is easy. It's also cheap; even a full-loaded one with a navigation system and all the bells and whistles barely cracks $25,000. It's even fun to drive, thanks to a zinging engine and sharp reflexes. So why aren't they everywhere? Those sliding doors are a blessing and a curse. They're incredibly useful, but as soon as customers see them they think of the stigma associated with minivans and flee in the opposite direction.
2009 Pontiac G8
Why It's Great: A rear-drive sport sedan at family-hauler prices.
What Holds it Back: Many people wouldn't know a good car if it bit 'em down under. Killing the brand doesn't help, either.
Pontiac's Australia-sourced G8 is exactly the kind of car that a lot of people claim they want. It looks good, even understated considering it's a Pontiac. It has plenty of power in standard, GT, and especially GXP guise. It has a roomy and comfortable interior, and it handles extremely well. Plus, it's not too expensive. So why don't you see them everywhere? Maybe it's because the whole idea of a performance Pontiac was squandered by too many half-assed attempts. Maybe it's because the interior is on the cheap-o side. Maybe it's because people are just kind of dumb a lot of the time.
2009 Pontiac Vibe
Why It's Great: One of the only compact wagons on the market.
What Holds it Back: The Toyota Matrix must be better because it's a Toyota, right? Besides, Pontiac's dead.
Pontiac has had its own version of the Toyota Matrix to sell since the little wagon's inception in the early part of this decade. Yet it never quite caught on despite being mechanically identical to the Toyota and, to many eyes, better looking. Why? Blame this one on brand awareness. The Vibe is a Pontiac, see, so it can't possibly be as good as the Matrix, because the Matrix is a Toyota. Never mind that the Vibe and Matrix are built on the same line at the same assembly plant by the same people using the same parts. Nope, Toyota's better.
2009 Saturn Vue
Why It's Great: Good value, good looks, good interior
What Holds it Back: The previous version sucked so much it poisoned the name. Also, did you hear what I said about Pontiac?
I was impressed the first time I ever drove the second-generation Saturn Vue, so much so that I wondered aloud why Saturn didn't change the name of its small crossover. After all, to me at least, "Vue" was associated with an uglier and poorly assembled version of the Chevy Equinox, which was no great shakes to begin with. The current Vue, however, is based on the Opel Antera, and is a good-looking, tightly assembled and stylish little crossover to compete against the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The Vue was one of the first cars to really signal that GM was getting its act together product-wise, but the name was just poison.
Keith writes on a wide variety of automotive-related topics. Some of his pre-Automotive Traveler commentaries can be found on his blog, Speaking of Cars.