The Street-Smart 15
Meet the winners: These 15 cars and SUVs blend safety, value and performance better than any of their peers
(MONEY Magazine) – MONEY's car tests don't involve stopwatches. Instead, trunks are loaded up, kids shuttled, vehicles parallel-parked--in other words, what you do with your car in the real world. Value is the other essential consideration: Building a great, expensive car is easy--it's building a great car at a great price with great resale value that's a real triumph. Below, the 15 rides that best fit that description.
BEST LARGE LUXURY SUV Land Rover Range Rover
FUEL ECONOMY (CITY/HWY.): 14/18 mpg 305-hp, 4.4-liter V-8 BASE PRICE: $74,285 to $89,285
When it comes to large, luxurious SUVs, the Range Rover is really in a category of one. Lexus' LX470 is basically a Toyota Land Cruiser with more wood and leather. Cadillac's Escalade? Not bad, but there's still a slight resemblance to Chevy's Tahoe. The Range Rover has unmatched style, serious off-road ability and buckets of country club prestige--all of which fairly justifies a base price of around $75,000. On road, the Rover drives as good as it looks, with smooth and responsive steering and surprisingly good handling for a truck that tips the scales at up to 5,900 pounds. There is an optional supercharged, 400-horsepower, 4.2-liter engine available, but getting it adds $15,000 to the sticker price. Better use of the same amount of money: Buy the Range Rover with its standard (and more than sufficient) 305-hp V-8, and a new Mazda 3 to use for errands around town.
NEW TOYS Models for 2006 add options including twin DVD screens in the front headrests and Sirius satellite radio.
BEST CONVERTIBLE Ford Mustang
FUEL ECONOMY: 17/23 mpg 300-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 BASE PRICE: $24,660 to $31,865
Plenty of people dream of a convertible--but their lives can't handle two seats at a second-mortgage price. The Ford Mustang convertible, however, has eye-catching retro styling, seating for four and a low price. Oh, and the Mustang GT has a 300-horsepower V-8. (The 210-hp V-6 version is a bit more economical but falls well short of the GT's thrills.) Ride quality is much improved, as are interior comfort and road handling. The '60s-style cabin does suffer from a few cheapo bits, and the convertible top fastens with clunky manual latches, but they don't ruin the experience, especially considering the price of about $25,000 for the V-6 model and less than $31,000 for the GT.
NOSTALGIA TRIP On sale this summer, the new top-of the-line Mustang Shelby GT500 will have roughly 500 hp at a base price below $40,000.
BEST MID-SIZE LUXURY SEDAN Audi A6
FUEL ECONOMY: 21/29 mpg 255-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 BASE PRICE: $41,540 to $54,490
Judging a luxury car comes down to how well it can juggle. Can it excel in design, performance, features, quality--all while leaving you thoroughly entertained? Among $40,000-to-$65,000 sedans, the Audi A6 deserves top billing. The four-wheel-drive four-door topped our recent test of five mid-size luxury cars (January 2006) by perfectly balancing beauty and brawn, comfort and sportiness. The body is modern but not too flashy; the sleek and comfy cabin again asserts Audi's leading position in interior design; the switches and knobs don't feel at all plasticky or flimsy. The 335-hp, 4.2-liter V-8 model is certainly potent, but it's the 255-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 that offers the most muscle for the dollar: That engine has a healthy amount of power but also delivers fuel economy of 21 mpg in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway.
FRONT AND CENTER The A6 FrontTrak, a front-wheel-drive V-6 model, offers the easiest entry for buyers, starting at $41,540.
BEST LARGE CAR Chrysler 300
FUEL ECONOMY: 19/27 mpg 250-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 BASE PRICE: $24,200 to $42,695
This is a big, beefy sedan that's American and proud of it. Sounds simple, but that cupboard was bare for years before Chrysler released its award-winning 300. Some say that the 300's success is only about its signature grille and muscle-man styling, but it's equally about the muscle under the hood, in the form of the optional 340-horsepower Hemi V-8. Some of the car's excellence can be traced to corporate sibling Mercedes-Benz, which had a hand in the transmission and suspension. Flaws are few, including mediocre plastics inside and a center control panel with too many dinky buttons. The Hemi shuts down half its cylinders during cruising to boost mileage, though fuel- and price-conscious buyers should check out the 3.5-liter V-6 version.
GIANT KILLER The over-the-top SRT8 version uses a 6.1-liter, 425-horsepower Hemi to make life miserable for high-performance BMWs and Benzes that cost roughly double its $42,695 base price.
BEST SPORTS CAR Chevrolet Corvette
FUEL ECONOMY: 18/28 mpg 400-hp, 6.0-liter V-8 BASE PRICE: $44,490 to $68,590
With supercar performance at a mere-mortal price, the Chevrolet Corvette is easily the best sports-car value in its class. The sixth-generation coupe and convertible squeeze 400 horsepower from their standard 6.0-liter V-8s, and then add superlative handling and stopping power to the mix. The Corvette is also surprisingly easy to live with: It has generous cargo space, a forgiving, comfortable ride--even some fuel economy, with a 28-mpg highway rating. This year, the Z06 model mates a 500-horsepower V-8 with technology usually limited to $150,000-to-$600,000 cars, including weight savers like an all-aluminum chassis and carbon-fiber bodywork. It adds up to a 198-mph top speed and a 3.6-second blast from 0 to 60 mph. It also costs only $65,000--$105,000 less than the cheapest Ferrari.
TAX DODGER With its surprising mileage, the Corvette is the only car that tops 400 horsepower yet avoids a gas-guzzler tax.
BEST SMALL SUV Toyota RAV4
FUEL ECONOMY: 23/28 mpg 166-hp, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder AWD BASE PRICE: $20,300 to $25,870
The RAV4 introduced America to the car-based, pint-size SUV way back in '97. And while Toyota has kept the RAV4 admirably small and sporty, rival makers have supersized their cute utes. To keep up, this new model has stretched nearly seven inches, creating a big jump in passenger and cargo space in the process. With that size comes power: An optional V-6 pumps out an unusually brawny (for Toyota) 269 horsepower that makes this the quickest player in the class. The RAV4 is also an exceptionally sweet-handling truck, with nimble steering and great balance around corners. The RAV4 can be one of the priciest entries in its class, although a nicely equipped four-cylinder AWD Sport version can be had for around $25,000. Throw in Toyota quality and resale value, and the RAV4 can play both bully and class whiz among compact trucks.
FUEL SAVER Want SUV space without SUV thirst? Check out the 166-hp four-cylinder option, which provides more than enough pep yet manages 29 mpg on the highway.
BEST MID-SIZE SEDAN Honda Accord
FUEL ECONOMY: 26/34 mpg 166-hp, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder BASE PRICE: $18,775 to $30,690
Despite strong new competition from Toyota and Ford, Honda still sits at the head of the family-sedan table. The Accord is as roomy, comfortable and safe as its main rivals yet still feels more sporty and refined whenever the road throws you a curve. Four-cylinder, 166-hp models are so smooth, affordable and economical that there's little reason to opt for the 244-hp V-6. The 2006 model gets a mild makeover for the exterior and interior, including new rear-end styling, as well as a new steering wheel, driver's gauges and seat fabrics. All Accords feature side- and side-curtain air bags, six-cylinder models add standard electronic stability control, and the EX V-6 now offers a six-speed manual transmission.
HYBRID, HIGH PRICE A regular four-cylinder Accord EX can match the Hybrid version's roughly 27 mpg real-world mileage--yet costs $7,000 less.
BEST MID-SIZE LUXURY SUV Mercedes ML-Class
FUEL ECONOMY: 16/20 mpg 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 BASE PRICE: $41,300 to $50,050
Mercedes' first SUV, the ML320, arrived to fanfare in 1997. But timid performance and shaky quality gave it a reputation as a minivan posing as a Mercedes. The new ML, however, with its strong stance, well-appointed cabin and sophisticated engines and transmission, is a bona fide Benz. The SUV has been stretched and widened, gaining passenger and cargo space. The new 3.5-liter V-6 delivers stronger acceleration than before yet boosts fuel economy by 1 to 2 mpg. The V-8 ML 500 is even quicker but kicks the base price past $50,000.
AIR MERCEDES Spring for the optional Airmatic suspension, which can automatically adjust the shocks for comfort or handling.
BEST LARGE SUV Chevrolet Tahoe
FUEL ECONOMY: 16/22 mpg 320-hp, 5.3-liter V-8, 2WD BASE PRICE: $33,990 to $44,015
The Chevy Tahoe grabs our Most Improved Player award. Dramatically redesigned for this year, the Tahoe sets new standards for comfort, handling and interior quiet for a large SUV. Its powerful V-8 imperceptibly switches off half its cylinders under cruising conditions, which earns it a 22-mpg EPA highway rating (a full-size SUV first). The formerly cheap-and-cheesy interior has been transformed with a more airy, inviting layout, along with higher-quality materials and workmanship. Rack-and-pinion steering delivers more confident handling, brakes are vastly improved, and stability control is standard (side air bags are optional). The nicest touch? Optional power second-row seats fold and tumble at the touch of a button to access the rear seats.
DEALS TO COME? The Tahoe could be forced to sweeten the pot with incentives if sales don't meet expectations. If that should happen, the Tahoe could become a genuine bargain as well as a terrific all-around truck.
BEST SMALL LUXURY SEDAN BMW 3 Series
FUEL ECONOMY: 20/30 mpg 215-hp, 3.0-liter 6-cylinder BASE PRICE: $31,595 to $39,195
After serious challenges from Infiniti and Lexus, BMW released a new 3 Series last year, and its subtle gains in power, braking and handling have vaulted the four-door to the top of the pack once again. The new 3.0-liter inline-six engine now produces 255 horsepower for the 330i. The small four-door remains one of the best-handling cars on the road, period. The interior isn't groundbreaking, but at least BMW's oft-lambasted iDrive controller (a big console-mounted knob that operates almost everything in the car--and does so in a confusing fashion) is an option here, one you can happily skip.
BARGAIN BIMMER The base 325i's 215 horsepower and $31,595 sticker price make this the first BMW in years that feels more like a deal than a guilty splurge.
BEST SMALL CAR Mazda 3
FUEL ECONOMY: 28/35 mpg 150-hp, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder BASE PRICE: $14,275 to $19,730
Any shortlist of compact cars is sure to include the Toyota Corolla and the all-new 2006 Honda Civic, but the Mazda 3 is simply a cut above. It's practical and easy on gas, but also stylish and fun to drive. Sedan shoppers can choose the 3i model's 150-hp, 2.0-liter 4 or the 3s model's 2.3-liter 4 with 160 hp. The handsome five-door hatch gets the 2.3-liter only; that engine is paired with a new five-speed automatic and anti-lock brakes, both of which are standard. Options include a navigation system and satellite radio. Go easy on extras and a well-equipped 3 can be had for $16,000 to $17,000.
SOCIAL CLIMBING The 3 shares its basic structure with the more expensive Volvo S40 (both are owned by Ford). It's one clue to how solid and sophisticated the Mazda feels for the price.
BEST LARGE LUXURY CAR Lexus LS 430
FUEL ECONOMY: 18/25 mpg 278-hp, 4.3-liter V-8 BASE PRICE: $56,525
Sure, big German sedans are more fashionable and fun to drive, but most could take some lessons from Lexus when it comes to value, reliability and ergonomics. Instead of reaching for the owner's manual when you step into the sumptuous interior, just drop the LS into gear, set your course and soundtrack with the simple touchscreen navigation and audio systems, and settle into those comfy leather seats. The LS gathers speed with a soft murmur from its V-8. It handles with aplomb on the highway and has an enormous 20-cubic-foot trunk. Pricey option packages quickly ramp you into 70-grand territory, but even at that price, the Lexus still costs thousands less than its rivals.
REST EASY The LS 430 has topped the key J.D. Power vehicle dependability index every year it's been eligible. It has taken class honors in Power's initial quality study for eight consecutive years.
BEST MID-SIZE SUV Honda Pilot
FUEL ECONOMY: 17/22 mpg 244-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, AWD BASE PRICE: $27,545 to $35,795
You won't feel especially stylish in a Pilot. You will, however, feel very, very smart. There's not another SUV that can seat up to eight in such an affordable, well-built package. The Pilot is based on the Odyssey's minivan platform--as opposed to a heavy pickup frame like many other SUVs--so you get more car-like handling on the road. In response to some aesthetic criticisms, Honda has freshened the styling, although the Pilot is still on the bland side. Standard side-curtain air bags and a new instrument panel are also part of this year's face-lift. If you can do without AWD, the Pilot becomes an even better value: A new two-wheel-drive version starts at around $27,500.
TWOFER The two-wheel-drive Pilot is good for 18/24 mpg vs. 17/22 mpg for AWD models.
BEST WAGON Subaru Legacy/Outback
FUEL ECONOMY: 23/30 mpg 175-hp, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder BASE PRICE: $23,320 to $36,320
Subarus have long been sporty, capable cars that were some of the best values on the road. They were just kind of frumpy-looking. That's no longer the case with the new Legacy wagon and its more rugged Outback sibling. But the real story is the wagons' strides in refinement, power and handling. Step on the gas, and you've got a family hauler that drives like a sports sedan. Fold the rear seats, and you've got cargo space to rival a mid-size SUV. This year, base 2.5i models boast a four-cylinder engine with 175 horsepower. Type A owners should check out the optional 250-hp turbocharged four-cylinder. The Outback wagon also offers a 3.0-liter V-6, but the turbo four is far more capable.
MR. CLEAN With a healthy 175 horses, the 2.5i engine still produces 90% less pollution than the average new car.
BEST MINIVAN Honda Odyssey
FUEL ECONOMY: 20/28 mpg 244-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 BASE PRICE: $25,895 to $39,345
The Odyssey has remarkable handling (edging out its rival, the Toyota Sienna) and bulletproof build quality, and the interior is outfitted with up to eight supportive seats. A well-equipped EX model can be had for around $30,000; loaded with everything from in-dash navigation to DVD entertainment, the Touring model tops $39,000. Pricey, but still a good $5,000 to $10,000 below SUVs with anywhere near its level of features and family-ferrying skills.
FAMILY FRUGAL EX and Touring models shut down half the engine's cylinders to save fuel while cruising (for best fuel economy in this class).