2004 Car Guide You're invited to the auto event of the season as we unveil the latest and greatest vehicles to own...no jacket required
(MONEY Magazine) – Looking for a new car?
You're not alone. As spring approaches, many car execs and economists believe U.S. sales this year will blossom to the magic 17 million mark, something that's happened only twice in history. But the only way they'll get there--especially for automakers whose lineups don't click with the public--is by sweetening deals with rebates and easy loans.
That's great news. But as MONEY first cautioned more than a year ago, discounts are fine--just don't make them your sole basis for buying a car. Textbooks, please, for Economics 101: The very best cars and trucks, the ones to boldface on your shopping list, also tend to be in high demand. The intrinsic value of, say, a Honda Accord, from low repair bills to sky-high resale value, makes it a shrewd buy, even without a teaspoon of sweetener in the price.
That's what MONEY's annual car guide is all about. Tracking the best, unsurpassed, take-no-prisoners automobiles. This year, we chose 22 in all--a winner in each of 13 auto categories, along with nine runners-up in hotly contested categories. Some, like the Infiniti G35 sedan, proved just too good to dethrone as a returning MONEY champion or runner-up. Others are making their first appearance here, rookie models so blessed with the right stuff that they stiff-armed their way to the top.
While we test each and every model, and wring out cars on streets and speedways a bit harder than the average driver, there's no real mystery here. All the stuff you consider, we consider: design, performance, comfort, features, quality, technology, safety and economy. I'm convinced that almost any driver could spend a day with, for example, the BMW 3-Series and recognize what a special machine it is.
A car is also more than a parts list, more than a dry set of statistics. Most people choose cars in part for the way they make them feel, so we put some store in things like styling, refinement and driving fun. Sure, styling can be subjective, but there's no sense pretending that looks and perceptions don't matter. With even savvy middle-income consumers attuned to quality and luxury, standout design can tip the balance.
Ah, and let's not forget price. (Those below include destination charges.) Questions we ask again and again during testing: Would we shell out our own money for this car? And which competitors would we rather buy at roughly the same price? If three or more superior alternatives spring to mind, you can bet the car in question is fading in our mirror.
And now, time to hit the road. Do that yourself in any of these models, and we're confident that you'll find them worthy candidates to drive home.
BEST ECONOMY CAR TOYOTA COROLLA BASE PRICE: $14,085-$16,095 ENGINE: 2.0-LITER I-4,130 HORSEPOWER
It's not as sporty as econocars like the Mazda3 or Ford Focus. But value rules the budget kingdom, and the Corolla is unsurpassed at making owners feel princely on a pauper's monthly payment. Really, the best way to experience the Corolla is to drive something else. Hop in the pricier Toyota Camry midsize, then check out the Corolla. You'll be impressed with how little it gives up in smoothness, room and refinement. The quality of interior materials and craftsmanship raised the bar for budget boxes. Fuel mileage is fantastic, reliability and high resale value virtually assured. Again, if it's sport you're after, look elsewhere. If perfection in affordable transportation sounds better, arrange a date with the Corolla.
RUNNER-UP MAZDA3 BASE PRICE: $14,200-$17,415 TOP ENGINE: 2.3-LITER I-4, 160 HP
A David compared with the Japanese Goliaths of Toyota and Honda, Mazda is suddenly whistling shots off their foreheads. The latest missile is the 3, and it joins the mid-size 6 and RX-8 sports car on our list--not bad for a company with less than 2% of the market. Sharing its basic design and safety features with the new Volvo S40, the Mazda3 plays almost out of its league with its sophisticated Euro styling, features and performance. The sedan and five-door hatchback styles look distinctive inside and out. Base models sport a healthy 148 horsepower; the 160 horsepower in uplevel versions makes this car easily the quickest in its class. The price can outstrip that of rivals as well, but the 3 still makes a value statement as a premium small car.
BEST FAMILY SEDAN MAZDA6 BASE PRICE: $19,270-$22,465 TOP ENGINE: 3.0-LITER V-6, 220 HP
Most family Sedans are about as shapely as a Xerox machine, and as much fun to operate. The Mazda6 is a virtual-reality video game in comparison--one in which our hero, an average Joe or Jane, is thrust into a thrilling world of style, speed and sensation. Before you say, "Well, that's not real life," be aware that the 6 also embraces an alternate reality--the one of Monday commutes, self-serve gas, child seats and dentist appointments. Car payments too. A 160-horsepower, four-cylinder Mazda6 can be had for under $20,000, while the 220-horsepower V-6 version starts at a bargain $21,865. The Mazda straddles the parallel worlds of fantasy and family like few other cars, making it a true superhero.
RUNNERS-UP HONDA ACCORD/ACURA TSX BASE PRICE: $16,360-$28,860 (ACCORD); $27,035 (TSX) TOP ENGINE: 3.0-LITER V-6, 240 HP (ACCORD); 2.4-LITER I-4, 200 HP (TSX)
Okay, picking a pair may be cheating. But the Accord and the TSX are two facets of the same brilliant diamond. You've all met the Accord--so studied, so accomplished, the steady-and-reliable sort any family would welcome. The TSX, MONEY's Best New Car of 2004, is his dashing younger brother, recently arrived from Europe: a few inches shorter, but also more spirited, more athletic and dressed in designer duds. The family resemblance shows in the cars' sensible pricing, faultless engines and finely wrought interiors.
BEST SPORTS SEDAN INFINITI G35 BASE PRICE: $28,495-$32,445 ENGINE: 3.5-LITER V-6, 260 HP
The BMW 3-Series is truly the sports sedan king, but it takes a ransom to get one over the dealership moat. That allows a coup here by the Infiniti G35, a faster, roomier and quite lovely car that costs $4,000 to $7,000 less than the comparable Bimmer. The rear-drive Infiniti sedan and coupe share their racy underpinnings with the Nissan 350Z sports car, along with its silky 3.5-liter V-6, good for 260 horses in the sedan, 280 in the elegant coupe. The interior is only passable by lux-car standards, but there's plenty of it, with a bigger back seat and trunk than most rivals'.
Matching offerings from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, Infiniti adds a useful all-wheel-drive G35x sedan for 2004. For an extra $1,800, the snowbound get a true four-season sedan that still undercuts the German competition.
RUNNER-UP BMW 3-SERIES BASE PRICE: $28,495-$44,295 TOP ENGINE: 3.0-LITER I-6, 235 HP
Endlessly praised, endlessly copied, the vast 3-Series lineup includes sedans, coupes, convertibles and wagons. They're propelled by BMW's symphonic inline six-cylinder engines, in 2.5-liter and 3.0-liter packages. But the latest bundle of joy is the new performance package, a $3,900 option now available on sedan, coupe and convertible. Its 10-horsepower increase to 235 doesn't sound like much on paper, but this comprehensive roster of performance (and appearance) features packs a real-world wallop, cutting zero-to-60 mph times to 5.9 seconds, nearly half a second better than the stock 330i. So equipped, you get the fastest, tautest, most desirable 3-Series shy of the megapriced M3.
BEST LUXURY CAR BMW 5-SERIES BASE PRICE: $40,495-$58,995 TOP ENGINE: 4.4-LITER V-8, 325 HP
Last year's luxury winner, the BMW 5-Series, was a hairbreadth from perfection. But the all-new 2004 model still marks a step forward--styling included--which I suspect more folks will grudgingly acknowledge as the car's controversial look becomes familiar. Admit it: The similar 7-Series is starting to look pretty persuasive on the road. So are you really going to give up your 5-Series for some wannabe? Those half-dozen hot-buttered cylinders or the great eight in the 545i? The pinpoint control of a sports car in a grown-up's sedan that won't have neighbors whispering "mid-life crisis"? If you're still steamed over the styling, try visualizing the optional active steering and active roll stabilization. This latest tech trickery makes the 5-Series more athletic over hill and dale than ever before. I won't insult you by suggesting that the BMW iDrive--the mouse-like knob that controls all manner of vehicle functions--isn't a dithering distraction, even in the 5-Series' simplified form. But don't let one mosquito chase you from automotive paradise. Stick around, take in the view, and learn to love the 5-Series all over again.
RUNNER-UP LEXUS LS 430 BASE PRICE: $55,750 ENGINE: 4.3-LITER V-8, 290 HP
It breaks our heart to exclude the fabulous new Audi A8L, but at this price, cachet and reputation count: The Lexus sails on its record of top reliability and resale value, while the Audi still sweats for recognition. And the Lexus is no consolation prize. Swift, swanky, perfectly well-mannered, it nails the details--such as intuitive navigation and audio systems--that continue to befuddle the likes of BMW and Mercedes. And it still costs less than anything else in its class. Piloting the Lexus is like being pampered at an oceanside spa: Time spools out, tensions unwind, satisfaction slips in beside you.
BEST SMALL SUV JEEP LIBERTY BASE PRICE: $18,670-$25,130 TOP ENGINE: 3.7-LITER V-6, 210 HP
Enough already about how "nobody drives off-road, so why bother making real SUVs." By that logic, there's no earthly reason for sports cars, since few owners will ever explore top speed or even squeal the tires.
The fact is that millions of Americans haven't broken off relations with the great outdoors. Many are comforted by a truck that won't leave them stranded in unexpectedly rough or swampy terrain, or in blizzards that still strike cities like Chicago and Boston.
Enter the Jeep Liberty, which continues to separate the men from the toys among affordable SUVs. A mix of beauty and beef, the Liberty can negotiate malls, mud and obstacles with equal skill. Wide-open spaces beckon in the well-crafted cabin. The robust structure does make the Jeep heavier than most competitors, extracting a modest penalty in fuel economy. But that hasn't stopped folks from making the Jeep a deserved top seller in its class.
RUNNER-UP HONDA ELEMENT BASE PRICE: $16,590-$21,840 ENGINE: 2.4 LITER I-4, 160 HP
Some companies think out of the box. Honda decided to think up a box instead. And what a brainstorm the rectilinear Element turned out to be: funky to look at, fun to drive, huge inside and hugely affordable. Related to the solid CR-V (last year's runner-up in this category), the Element actually handles even more securely, despite what you'd think from its kiss-the-sky roofline. Add clamshell doors for easy access and rear seats that fold out into a usable bed, and the result is an SUV that's unique for more than its weird-yet-endearing looks.
BEST MID-SIZE SUV TOYOTA 4RUNNER BASE PRICE: $27,710-$37,510 TOP ENGINE: 4.7-LITER V-8, 235 HP
How any Toyota can be among the most underrated SUVs on the road is a mystery. The 4Runner matches the refinement and comfort of many car-based SUVs. Yet it has the cojones of a genuine truck, including towing ability. There's not another SUV that can play both hands this well, for this price.
What else? A choice of potent V-6 or V-8 engines. Sophisticated four-wheel drive and indomitable off-road skills. Features typically found only on the priciest luxury SUVs, such as downhill assist control, a top navigation system and a rear backup camera. Handsome, masculine styling and a typical Toyota interior, which is to say excellent.
The beef with the 4Runner seems to be how expensive it is, but I don't buy that, especially in light of praise for its Lexus GX 470 sibling. Even the top-shelf 4Runner Limited V-8 costs a good $8,000 less than the Lexus, and it's essentially the same SUV minus the country-club interior trim. The 4Runner V-6 starts at just over $27,000, and a fine Sport V-8 4x4 can be had for under $35,000.
My hunch is that the 4Runner is taken for granted because it's slightly out of fashion. Car-based SUVs like Toyota's own Highlander are the darlings.
Now, I love many of those citified sport utes. Thank goodness there's room for both. The 4Runner rules.
RUNNER-UP HONDA PILOT BASE PRICE: $27,560-$33,330 TOP ENGINE: 3.5-LITER V-6, 240 HP
I'll admit it: Square and a bit staid, the Pilot is not my dream SUV. But this time, my opinion doesn't mean squat. Especially if you're on a budget, need space for seven or eight people and refuse to skulk down your street in a minivan. In that case the Pilot is indeed the stuff of dreams.
The Pilot delivers monster-truck space in a sensible package that's never intimidating to drive, park or pay for. Best compliment: Rival automakers, when they drop their guard, wonder how Honda can sell this much SUV for around $30,000.
BEST LARGE SUV LAND ROVER RANGE ROVER BASE PRICE: $72,950-$84,700 TOP ENGINE: 4.4-LITER V-8, 282 HP
Yes, the price puts it beyond the reach of commoners. But the Range Rover has Britannia ruling the waves again among big luxobarges, even if it took BMW to improve notoriously dodgy quality and restore its lost honor. (BMW engineered the model, then bailed and sold Land Rover to Ford.) The Range Rover speaks Deutsch under the hood with BMW's masterly 4.4-liter V-8, and its precise handling also hews to Bavarian standards. Dessert is served inside, amid wood-paneled opulence that somehow feels just right, considering that this is still a tough truck that could climb Stonehenge as if it were a stack of Legos. Year 2004 brings the limited run of 300 Westminster models, with Java Black paint and interiors decked out with ebony wood like you'd find in a Steinway concert grand. Tuxedo optional.
BEST LUXURY SUV CADILLAC SRX BASE PRICE: $39,385-$47,985 TOP ENGINE: 4.6-LITER V-8, 320 HP
Wow. A Cadillac that beat out Lexus, Acura, BMW, Infiniti. Hey, we're surprised too, but a spin in the SRX could convince most any skeptic. Based on the CTS sports sedan, looking more like a buff wagon than a sport utility, the SRX bumps passenger and cargo space beyond its main rivals. It's got an optional third-row, power-folding seat (best suited for still growing kids) for seven-passenger transit. It's got a winning pair of engines, a 3.6-liter V-6 with 260 horsepower or a 320-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8, and a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive. But the Caddy's neatest trick is the beautiful balance it strikes between athletic handling and a luxurious ride; most challengers feel either too hard or too soft in comparison. Kudos to the magnetic ride-control suspension borrowed from the Corvette, which can adjust shocks more than 1,000 times per second to smooth out the road and improve handling. And the Caddy's shortcomings? The interior is less than convincing by luxury standards, and prices can reach scary heights for stuffed V-8 models, to $55,000 and beyond; most people will head straight for the V-6 version, which feels nearly as quick, gets better mileage and costs thousands less.
RUNNER-UP LEXUS RX 330 BASE PRICE: $35,650-$37,050 ENGINE: 3.3-LITER V-6, 230 HP
With the RX 330, Lexus enlarges, improves and powers up what was already the nation's top-selling luxury SUV. Call it what you like--sport wagon, crossover, whatever--but every competitor has tried to forge the RX's prescription: a palatial hauler with an up-high view, built on a smooth car platform (here the Camry sedan) with a choice of all-wheel drive and the latest technology and toys. The Lexus offers a rear backup camera, power liftgate, first-rate navigation system, adjustable air suspension, headlights that pivot to illuminate around curves and laser-based adaptive cruise control. And if anyone's not convinced of leadership here, Lexus by year-end will offer a gas/electric hybrid version, the RX 400h, which is expected to combine serious acceleration with close to 30 mpg on the highway.
BEST COUPE MINI COOPER BASE PRICE: $16,975-$19,975 TOP ENGINE: SUPERCHARGED 1.6-LITER I-4, 163 HP
This car is such a joy that doctors should prescribe it and make Xanax obsolete. Heck, the BMW-engineered Mini isn't much bigger than a pill. Yet the reborn British classic is exceptionally roomy for two, can carry four in a literal pinch, parks anywhere and runs circles around SUVs like a mouse juking elephants. But don't fret: Go-kart handling, optional stability control, a slew of air bags and top crash protection will keep you from getting stomped.
The high-style interior should be a required course for designers of all stripes. And the price, like the car, proves again that bigger isn't better.
BEST PICKUP FORD F-150 BASE PRICE: $22,010-$36,365 TOP ENGINE: 5.4-LITER V-8, 300 HP
Under withering attack from its pickup rivals, Ford didn't bed down in a bunker. Instead, it charged, rolling out an all-new F-150 that bests all comers, including the potent Nissan Titan. Part of that appeal is the Ford's Sgt. Rock visage: chiseled and no-nonsense. It gets even better inside, with sumptuous cabin design that raises the bar so high that other pickups couldn't reach it on tiptoe. On the road, the Ford is a relaxed, quiet cruiser. Put it to work, and it can haul up to 2,900 pounds and tow a class-leading 9,900. One chink in the armor: Ford's big boy weighs nearly 6,000 pounds, taking a toll on fuel economy. Fortunately, the F-150 is stuffed with value, style and substance.
BEST MINIVAN TOYOTA SIENNA BASE PRICE: $23,440-$37,445 TOP ENGINE: 3.3-LITER V-6, 230 HP
Someone call the sheriff: Minivans, those self-effacing citizens of the automotive world, are suddenly jockeying for position like yahoos on wet T-shirt night. And in this toughened-up crowd of new models, Toyota's Sienna elbows to the front. It's big, equal in size to the maxi minivans from Chrysler, Honda and Nissan. It's got a fast-yet-frugal V-6, a supremely comfortable cabin and seats that pull the easiest switcheroos. It's a bargain, with Toyota delivering a vastly improved van yet actually cutting prices of some versions compared with '03. (Load it up, though, and the price can reach luxury SUV territory.) It's all so new and so good that you wonder why Toyota chose such a plain wrapper. But considering some rivals' dubious attempts to convince people that their minivan is anything but, perhaps conservative isn't a bad approach.
BEST SPORTS CAR MAZDA RX-8 BASE PRICE: $25,700-$27,200 TOP ENGINE: 1.3-LITER ROTARY, 238 HP
Tired of gazing at extravagant, impractical sports cars that you know won't fit your budget, let alone the kids? Stop dreaming and start driving in Mazda's accommodating RX-8. Light at the curb and reasonably light on the wallet, the RX-8 is born to run on any road with a radius. Its unique twin-rotor engine makes up for a shortfall of pure power by spinning to a lofty 9,000 rpm. And when signs point to curves ahead, the sharp steering, smooth shifter and gutsy handling make the RX a rolling entertainment center. Exterior proportions aren't exactly classic, but that's easy to accept because of the gift inside: a back seat that welcomes a pair of good-size adults, accessed through a pair of rear-hinged half-doors. And yes, child seats fit great. For men and women who've always wanted a sports car but couldn't sell it to a skeptical mate, that may be the best backdoor strategy of all.
RUNNER-UP CHEVROLET CORVETTE BASE PRICE: $44,535-$52,385 ENGINE: 5.7-LITER V-8, 350 HP
Testament to how good the Corvette has become: Even as the current C5 model speeds toward retirement, succeeded in August by a new sixth-generation car, the 'vette still delivers performance unrivaled by anything near its price. With a half-century of history and lore behind it, the Corvette has settled comfortably into its elder-statesman role among American sports cars. These days, protecting that rep means 350 horsepower (a lusty 405 for the Z06 version), a top speed of 175 mph, zero-to-60 sprints in under five seconds, plus handling and braking on par with the six-figure exotics. All that, plus a comfortable ride, generous luggage space and shame-free fuel economy--I've clocked up to 28 mpg in steady highway cruising--that make the Corvette more practical than you'd ever expect.
BEST WAGON AUDI A4 AVANT BASE PRICE: $28,940-$35,480 TOP ENGINE: 3.0-LITER V-6, 220 HP
As automakers roll out a host of new wagons, or at least wagon-esque models, they'd be wise to take some lessons from Audi. The Avant keeps everything folks love about the A4 sedan--head-turning style, knockout interior design, supple performance--and adds wagon versatility and standard all-wheel drive. (Move up to the A6-based Allroad wagon if you require more space.) The result is an all-around champion of style, sport, luxury and practicality. And unlike some car/truck crossovers, the Avant never feels trendy or forced: It's a wagon, damn it, and proud of it.