I've had some favorable long-term car tests lately. The quality of the cars offered to American consumers is really quite high, and here are a few models I'd recommend.
Let's start with the Kia Optima, because it's probably a car that isn't on the top of your list, though you may be considering the car's better-known twin, the Hyundai Sonata. The Optima was comprehensively redesigned in 2011, and it benefits from a top-to-bottom restyle and upscaling.
For an entry price of $19,500 MSRP, you get an amazingly well appointed automobile, approximately what you'd expect for $5,000 more. According to The Car Connection, "Today's Optima isn't just one of the best family sedans for economy, it's also one of the best-looking cars of its kind--and some other kinds, too."
Consider the Optima as an alternative to the midsized Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. There are three trim levels, LX, EX and SX, and a variety of powertrains, all of which deliver good highway gas mileage, 33 mpg for the turbo model, 35 mpg for the four-cylinder version and 40 for the hybrid. Your move as to whether the hybrid is worth the modest economy benefit. Conventional cars are using every trick in the book to get better mileage these days.
Speaking of good mileage, another car worth considering is the Chevy Cruze Eco, which I just took on a six-hour drive down to Virginia. The Cruze has been a huge hit for GM; in May the company sold 22,711 of them, making it the best-selling compact car in America. The Eco model isn't a huge departure, but it grabs a 10 percent fuel economy advantage with low-rolling resistance tires, front grille louvers that improve airflow, and a rear spoiler. My guess is that approximately 10 percent of Cruze orders are for the Eco model, which adds $800 to the price of a similar LT model.
The test car had the offered six-speed transmission, which bumps economy to 42 mpg on the highway. The car is a fine, if a bit noisy (those tires) highway cruiser. Handling is excellent, especially for an American car, but power from the 138-horsepower turbocharged four is lacking for quick acceleration in the lower gears, especially on grades.
Finally, I took a passel of kids to a spring church camp in a 2012 GMC Terrain SLT-2 all-wheel-drive. Although lacking a third row of seats, this heartland SUV was perfect for the job — everybody had a cupholder and legroom, and they were able to plug in their devices. The Terrain is a relaxing highway drive — I didn't have to do my usual get-the-kinks-out routine when we arrived.
The Terrain was equipped with a three-liter V-6, a six-speed transmission (which explains that relaxed cruising) and the cargo package for $36,495. If I needed to move Cub Scout packs regularly, it might be ideal, but most of the time I'm fine in something smaller and more affordable. Having three kids instead of two might tip you into needing a vehicle like the Terrain. But I'd probably ditch the all-wheel drive. I live on a semi-urban street, not an isolated country lane. The market for vehicles like this isn't as robust as it once was — blame the 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway mileage — but some people still swear by this trusty configuration.
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