Maybe the dust is settling. After a year of bankruptcies, massive recalls, brand shutdowns and Cash for Clunkers, the storms that have tossed the automotive industry may be blowing out. The recovery may be fragile and patchy, but it's there.
Amid all the industry turmoil, it's easy to forget about the spark that drives the car industry: consumers. After being battered with enough industry news to drown even the most perceptive analyst, car shoppers are still left with one question: which car should I buy?
Especially now, it's all about value. U.S. News created the Best Car for the Money awards to identify the cars that should make anyone's short list. The awards highlight cars, trucks and SUVs that will not only please their owners the day they drive off the dealer lot, but will keep them – and their wallets – happy for years to come.
The awards are based on U.S. News' automotive rankings (at www.usnews.com/cars) and estimated five-year cost of ownership from IntelliChoice. Combining the rankings with real-world costs helps to identify cars that are loved by of the majority of car reviewers and that provide good long-term value.
Across 23 award categories, roughly a quarter of the award winners come from Toyota or Lexus, Toyota's luxury division. As you might expect, Toyota wins the Hybrid Car category, with the Prius, and Lexus wins the Hybrid SUV category with the RX Hybrid. However, not all Toyota award winners are so green: the Toyota Sequoia, Land Cruiser and FJ Cruiser also each take awards.
There are other surprises. In the compact and subcompact car classes, where you might expect Honda to dominate, the winners are the Nissan Versa and the Hyundai Elantra. Hyundai is also a spoiler with the Genesis, which beat out entries from BMW, Lexus and Infiniti to win Best Upscale Midsize Car for the Money.
As has been the case all year, the performance of domestic car companies varies. Chrysler didn't manage to win any awards, and while General Motors won two last year, this year they only took home the Best Luxury Sports Car for the Money Award, for the Chevrolet Corvette. Ford, who didn't have any U.S. News Awards in 2009, wins the family sedan class with the new Ford Taurus. The Ford F-150, a perennial best-seller, wins the Best Full-Size Truck for the Money.
Where Chrysler did make a showing was on the Worst Cars for the Money list. These cars are despised by reviewers, and over the long-term, cost more to own (sometimes much more) than the class average. The Chrysler Sebring, which car experts deride for its cheap interior and poor performance, is the worst midsize car for the money. Not only is the Sebring unpopular with reviewers, it also has high ownership costs, due in part to its rate of depreciation. Chrysler also earned Worst Car honors for its minivans; both the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Grand Caravan finished at the bottom of their class in the awards race.
While Ford did well with its cars, the Mercury Mountaineer, from Ford's Mercury division, earned the Worst Midsize SUV for the money. While others in the class offer a car-like ride, the Mountaineer (and its Ford Explorer twin, which ranked right behind it) is truck-based, making it use more fuel than the competition and giving it ride and handling that's not as well-suited for city and suburban driving.
It wasn't just domestics that earned raspberries. Volkswagen, despite winning the Wagon and upscale small car classes, had the Worst Upscale Midsize Car for the Money with the VW CC. Mazda had both the best and the Worst Affordable Sports Car for the Money. The Mazda MX-5 won the award for the best car in the class, while Mazda's RX-8, due to its high maintenance costs, was the Worst Affordable Sports Car for the Money. Nissan was in a similar situation. It won big with the Versa in the subcompact class, but the Sentra is the Worst Compact Car for the Money.
What You Need to Know
The award winners range from tiny subcompacts to hulking trucks, fuel-sipping hybrids to gas guzzling SUVs. As different as they all are, they also have something in common: each offers a combination of day-to-day livability and value when compared to other cars in its class. While some of the winners may not set car enthusiasts' hearts racing, they showcase a blend of features that appeals to the majority of shoppers. Sure, there may be cars that offer more style, more cachet, or better 0-to-60 times, but the Best Car for the Money awards honor cars that aren't just good at one thing – they are good at many.