A Best New Cars and Trucks 2005
Dozens of new vehicles. One hard-to-impress driver. Two take-it-to-the-bank winners. And a few other goodies too
By Lawrence Ulrich

(MONEY Magazine) – We drove them all and drove 'em hard. Sedans, sports cars and sport utes. Coupes and crossovers. Minivans and pickups. With cars and trucks being unveiled at a record pace, we tested more than 40 all-new or thoroughly redesigned models this year. Every vehicle was driven, dissected and pitted against others in its class. Now it's time to pick the very best—MONEY's Car and Truck of the Year. Our year-end competition compares only all-new nameplates or existing models that underwent stem-to-stern redesigns. A little more horsepower, a retooled rear-end or a new cup holder don't qualify. These are models that instantly top their class—or, when the competition is razor-close, lay indisputable claim to one of the top two or three slots. (Incidentally, since car makers release new models all year, not just in the fall, you may have seen some of these in showrooms already.)

Competence was the rule this year, as American, European and Asian automakers jockeyed to raise the bar on quality and performance, safety and technology. But as the bar gets higher, so do our standards—and, naturally, yours. A number of also-rans and duds crept into our sights, and just as quickly slunk out. The true stars were obvious: cars and trucks that promised strong redesigns on paper, then backed that up with sterling performance. They're cars and trucks you'd be proud to own, to rave about to a friend, to bring home to your family.

Most important, they're models we recommend after driving until our entire wardrobe had that new-car smell. On the road from Georgia to Germany, we logged miles that would make a long-haul trucker proud. We picked a Car and Truck of the Year—and in three categories where a true "best" had emerged this year, we honored those too. With so many choices, we couldn't resist.


Chrysler 300

BASE PRICE: $23,920 to $34,810 PROS: Street-smart style, huge cabin, silk-suit ride, available V-8 power, affordable price CONS: A few interior glitches; brazen design not for everyone BOTTOM LINE: Puts a Soprano-style hit on dull Detroit family-sedan rivals

With its chopped roof, burly shoulders and slightly menacing air, the Chrysler 300 is not the kind of sedan you want to see trailing you down a dark alley. It is, however, the car you want to be driving down that alley—or anywhere else. From our comfortable perch, on drives from the California high country to the Boston suburbs, the 300 revealed itself as MONEY's Car of the Year.

Created by talented young Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles, the 300 speeds toward the future by harkening back to the flashy land barges Detroit unleashed so mightily in years past. Yet this stretch-your-legs Chrysler drives more like a modern European sedan than the boats of yore. Credit its balanced rear-wheel-drive layout, along with plenty of borrowed technology from its Mercedes partner. That includes an available five-speed automatic transmission, electronic stability control and a suspension design from the E-Class sedan. On all versions of the 300, the ride is plush, the handling surprisingly poised.

Trendy "baby Bentley" comparisons overstate the case for this car's luxury, but the point is made: The 300's glitzy presence, outsize grille and swaths of chrome lend the car real visual swagger. The look is gangster and gangsta, with crossover appeal to buyers young and old, urban and suburban. The 300 has even been finding its way into the garages of people who could afford a real Bentley, like Snoop Dogg and Shaquille O'Neal.

Assuming you are neither a rapper nor a pro athlete, you'll want to know that top value is found in the Touring ($27,720) and Limited ($30,530) models, each of which has a 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. The 300C model ($33,495) is especially swift, thanks to its lusty 340-horsepower Hemi V-8, which alternates between four- and eight-cylinder modes to save fuel. (We managed 17 mpg; light-footed drivers should do better).

A few details disappoint. Optional faux-tortoiseshell interior trim resembles a schoolgirl's cheap barrette. And it remains to be seen whether the 300's tough-guy style will have staying power.

Quibbles aside, the 300 boldly asserts itself as the year's best new car. This Chrysler is a needed antidote to the timid, play-it-safe approach that continues to plague so many American sedans.


Honda Odyssey

BASE PRICE: $25,510 to $38,810 PROS: Class-leading handling, power, economy; impeccable interior; the latest in safety CONS: Status-quo styling; Touring model gets pricey BOTTOM LINE: The max in minivans

Minivans don't usually get to preen on the red carpet at awards time. But if practical families were doing the judging, the new Odyssey would trump anything else we drove this year.

Tested against a toughened league of rivals—from Toyota, Chrysler, Nissan and Ford—the new Honda squeaked past the formidable Toyota Sienna to re-establish itself as the benchmark for businesslike hauling of people and their stuff. Parents tend to test minivans from the inside out, and the Honda will wow them with its interior comfort, faultless controls and upscale feel. It adds a split-folding third-row seat that takes much less effort to tuck away than it did in the last model. Windows roll down in back, and for the first time, there's an eight-passenger version.

Test drive the Odyssey against its competitors, and you'll notice its handling edge—the way it carves flat through turns, and telegraphs the road through the steering wheel. Plenty of sedans don't handle this well. Add to that class-leading power and acceleration, which come from a 3.5-liter, 255-horsepower V-6. In the higher-priced Touring and EX-with-leather models, that engine seamlessly shuts down three cylinders while cruising, boosting economy to a top-ranked 20 mpg city/28 highway.

Safety, as you'd expect, is off the charts: standard side air bags and head curtain bags with rollover sensors, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, perfect government crash scores. Honda's new Advanced Compatibility Engineering structure is designed to protect people—not only those in the Odyssey, but also occupants of other cars and even pedestrians.

Throw in every optional amenity—from an industry-best voice-controlled navigation system to a sharp-screen DVD player—and it's clear that Honda has left nothing to chance. The Odyssey quietly but convincingly reasserts itself as the nation's best minivan.


Chevrolet Corvette

BASE PRICE: $44,245 to $52,245 PROS: Tasteful refinements; superstar performance; comfortable ride and cabin; top value CONS: No sport-shift feature on automatics; pricey options BOTTOM LINE: Wastes rivals without wasting money

An American sports car that goes fender-to-fender with Ferrari and Porsche for 45 grand? Have we been sniffing Armor All?

Hardly. For more than a half-century, the 'Vette has been a uniquely American object of desire. That patriotic lure gets cranked up a notch with this sixth-generation model, thanks to a neat trick: It performs better than the last version, yet raises its already lofty standards of everyday driveability.

Scaled-down proportions and a tailored body continue the car's welcome evolution from veiny bodybuilder to streamlined athlete. Even the pop-up headlamps, a fixture since the '63 Sting Ray, have been jettisoned to boost aerodynamics and top speed while reducing wind noise. That top speed, by the way, jumps to 186 mph, thanks to a bigger 6.0-liter V-8 with 400 horses under the hood, up 50 from the previous model. The car snaps off 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds—thankfully, massive disk brakes halt it with never a trace of fade.

But juicier numbers tell only half the story. For all those people who are tired of having their belongings squeezed and butts bruised by sports cars, the Corvette asks no such sacrifice. Coupe and convertible models handle better and ride smoother than ever, especially with their optional Magnetic Selective Ride Control, which employs high-tech sensors and magnetic-fluid shock absorbers to smooth bumpy surfaces and straighten nasty curves. Cargo space remains huge and fuel economy surprisingly high at 20/28 mpg with the slicker-shifting six-speed manual. Inside, there's a quieter cabin and richer fittings that, finally, won't leave owners mumbling excuses to passengers for a cheapo look.

Truck of the year AND BEST SUV

Land Rover LR3

BASE PRICE: $44,995 to $49,995 PROS: Inimitable Rover style; brilliant on- and off-road; adult-size third row; attainable price CONS: Unproven reliability BOTTOM LINE: The emperor of mid-size SUVs—if quality tics don't tarnish the crown

The Disco is dead. Land Rover has sent its creaky Discovery to that great junkyard in the sky. Weep not. In its place comes a temptingly priced cousin to the brilliant, BMW-designed Range Rover. It's called the LR3, and it separates the men from the toys among luxury sport utilities.

The all-new Rover delivers an unmatched blend of spaciousness, luxury, prestige, on-road handling and off-road prowess. And with a base price of $44,995—vs. $73,750 for the Range Rover—it's destined to become the luxury SUV for buyers conscious of both status and value. It has just-right power, with 300 horses from a 4.4-liter version of Jaguar's purring V-8, hooked through a silky six-speed automatic.

Interior packaging is outstanding: The LR3 trumps the slightly larger Range Rover with an optional pair of third-row seats, which almost magically fit adults. All five leather-clad rear chairs fold flat individually, offering endless options for divvying people and space.

The four-wheel independent air suspension lets you select three ride heights: from low down for easy loading, to 9.5 inches above ground for serious off-road adventure. Touch a button and Hill Descent Control walks the truck down the most intimidating slopes without your touching gas or brakes.

The robust four-wheel drive adds the clever Terrain Response System: It manages engine, throttle, gearing, ABS, stability control and suspension settings to optimize traction in any conditions. A rotary knob offers settings for highway, grass/gravel/snow, sand, rock crawl and deep mud. In rock-crawl mode, the Rover softened the throttle to smoothly scale massive boulders on our favorite off-road track.

Even if you have no plans to explore the Kalahari, the Rover shines in its other habitats—old-money suburbs and the urban wilds. Flat cornering and perfectly weighted steering recall smaller performance utes like the BMW X5.

The likely caveat is Rover's often suspect quality. Rover and its Ford parent hope the LR3's $1.3 billion investment in design, engineering and modern manufacturing, along with 4 million miles of around-the-world testing in extreme climates, makes this SUV worthy of long-term trust. Buying one may still strike some as a leap of faith, yet the quantum leap over its predecessor is inarguable.

The LR3's all-around talent is wildly impressive. It's the rare luxury SUV that nails both sport and true utility, then adds Rover's industrial styling and British flair. Its strong bid for the luxury throne makes the LR3 easily the year's best new truck.


Toyota Tacoma

BASE PRICE: $13,415 to $25,250 PROS: Roomier dimensions; most refined; mighty V-6; new model choices CONS: Top-shelf models get Toyota-pricey BOTTOM LINE: The best of a new breed of mid-size pickups

Traditional compact pickups are growing into mid-size models—and they're also growing up, mimicking the comfy cabs and plush feel of the latest full-size trucks. With refinement at a premium, it's no surprise to find that Toyota has a near-genetic advantage, even against a tough slate of entries from Dodge, Nissan and GM.

Like the others, the Toyota has bulked up, adding a roomier Double Cab version with five seats and full-size rear doors. Its edge is its elusive Toyota-truck feel: The Tacoma remains the most carlike and the best built.

Unlike some rivals, Toyota has kept a base four-cylinder, 164-horsepower model for budget- and fuel-conscious buyers. And the optional 245-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 borrowed from the Toyota 4Runner is a killer, outpowering even the fine Dodge Dakota's base V-8.

The cabin holds another class edge with upscale materials and impeccable fit and finish. Safety is addressed with standard anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution, stopping aids typically found on luxury vehicles.

Available hill-start and hill-descent controls keep the truck from rolling backward on inclines and, as with the Land Rover, let you safely descend steep hills without touching the gas or brakes.

Other thoughtful touches: A cargo bed made from a no-scratch composite replaces the usual cheap plastic liner, and cargo tie-downs slide along tracks in the bed for easy repositioning.

Toyota may have struggled to crack the big pickup market. But when it comes to small-scale pickups, the Tacoma finds the top spot with no struggle at all.