So you want a car.
But you don't really know what kind of car you want, and are a little confused about the array of styles and vehicles being offered. Used to be that you chose between a car, a truck or a van. Now you have to choose between sedans, compacts, sports tourers, wagons, SUVs, entry-lux crossovers, fullsize trucks and compact SUVS. It's enough to give you an SUV-sized headache. Relax. We make it easier, by driving the cars you might buy and telling you about it. From finding roads with potholes to purposely driving in traffic and finding every application that a car may need to serve, we do it so you know how each car works and why you should buy brand X over brand Y. It's important to us that you get a good feel for why one vehicle is better than another; that our experience behind the wheel of a vehicle and our knowledge of the automotive industry translates into advice that you can use.
You have specific needs, and our goal is to write to those needs so that you can understand which car best fits your life. In essence, we work for the family man. The up-and-coming executive. The first-time car buyer who has little money and needs something that will last. As a result, we've come up with the 2004 Editors' Choice Awards, a selection of vehicles we think ideally fit certain significant lifestyle requirements. After all, you want the best car for your life and personality, not just the best car, and there are so many categories of vehicles today that it really offers no practical benefit. We've taken the traditional idea of awarding cars based on their price and category and turned it into something more useful - awards for cars that fit what you need out of your car. Below you'll find our picks for categories such as Editors' Choice for Fun under 50k, and Editors' Choice for Families, among others. It's our way of helping you pick what types of vehicles best fit your criteria, based on the measured opinions of experienced automotive journalists.
Car of the Year
Editors' Choice, Car of the Year: 2004 Toyota Prius
Most significant car in 2004
What makes the 2004 Prius a worthy selection for Car of the Year, and, logically, Hybrid of the Year, is that this second-generation version hybrid is practically an all-new car and, as a world car, it's one of global significance. It's bigger, moving up to the mid-size sedan class, and its refinements, upgrades and amenities move it upstream in the market. Perhaps the most signifacnt improvement is that the new Prius power train moves along more quickly, a key component when it comes to the evolution of hybrid technology. Prius has moved from science project to mainstream player -- and a somewhat attractive one, at that. Its price and fuel economy, of course, are two of its best attributes, and its hybrid technology is the standard-bearer in the industry, offering 30 percent lower emissions than the first-generation Prius. Battery protection coverage -- a key issue with hybrids -- has been increased, to 8 years, 100,000 miles nationally -- 10 years in NY, CA, and MA.
Powered by a hybrid system with a permanent magnet-type, 40 hp electric motor and a 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine (70 horsepower and 82 lb.-ft. of torque), the Prius has a net output of 98 hp., about as much as a typical compact car. Hydrocarbon output is about 30 percent less than last year's model, while the engine puts out 50 kilowatts and 500 volts, up from 33 kW and about 300 volts. Its EPA fuel economy rating--60 MPG/ city and 51/ highway, with a combined rating of 55 MPG-is a significant increase over the previous-generation Prius- a combined fuel economy rating of 48 MPG. Additionally, it has increased in size from a compact-class sedan to mid-size sedan; has more power and now accelerates on a par with the Camry LE; has optional the Smart Entry and Start system; optional curtain/side airbags; optional enhanced Vehicle Stability Control; with the same $19,995 MSRP as the original Prius.
Truck of the Year
Editors' Choice, Truck of the Year: Ford F-150
Most significant truck of 2004
It wasn't that long ago that the F-150, long the US truck leader in terms of sales and reputation, was getting battered by increasingly sophisticated trucks from its domestic competitors. And, to make things worse, Nissan had brought out a remarkable new full-size truck, the Titan, which loomed on the horizon as a serious threat. You'd think that seven years of selling 900,000 trucks was enough to scare the wolfpack away.
Not so. But what just might do the trick is the new 2004 Ford F-150. As far as we're concerned, the F-150 is such a big step up the evolutionary ladder that right now there are only followers in its class. After 55 years of legacy, it still wins King of the Hill, with best-in-class towing capability, a new engine, new suspension and a quieter, more responsive ride. What stands out is its SUV comfort and convenience, with a completely overhauled interior, along with improved stowage and convenience, as well as its 3 cab sizes, varying bed lengths and two new engine choices. Best of all is its styling, especially the F4X-off road version. With 26 variations in a price range between $21,000 and $37,000, there's an F-150 for just about anybody inclined to buy a truck.
SUV of the Year
Editors' Choice, SUV of the Year: 2004 Lexus RX 330
Most significant SUV of 2004
With the luxo-hauler market growing and spawning new markets almost daily, we think the best is still one of the first -- the 2004 Lexus RX 330 -- for significantly upgrading its features, improving its performance character and expanding its interior space -- all at a starting price of $35,025, fully loaded in the mid-40s. For that money, you get an SUV equipped with all of the luxury equipment you want and little that you don't need. The RX 330 drives more like a car than a truck, and is chock full of safety innovations, such as vehicle stability control, side curtain airbags, reverse sensing and an available camera. In building such a daily driver-friendly SUV, Lexus has not sacrificed utility, with bigger seats front and rear, more legroom, quick-fold seats, and a big cargo space in back. And though you really can't go off-road with the RX, it is equipped with enough power - a 3.3-liter V6 engine that offers sprightly acceleration and decent fuel economy. Fact is, SUVs used to be valuable for off-road application - but now that they have a road that goes to the grocery store, the need has faded.
Fun under 50k
Editors' Choice for Fun under 50k: 2004 Mazda RX-8
You get one day on an open road course. Which car do you choose?
It's not a convertible. And it's not German. For 2004, our "most fun" vote goes to the 2004 Mazda RX-8. It is quite possibly the most daring 'new' car in awhile: quite different from it's RX leagcy as a sports car with little practicality, the RX-8 has four doors, four seats, a rotary engine and a 5-star crash rating. This new version defies the stereotypical qualities of a sports car, and we think that's a daring gamble on the part of Mazda -- and worth your time to look into. Practicality aside, the RX-8 is fast and fearless-this is a car built for speed and tight corners. Its four doors and double wishbone front suspension make the vehicle more comfortable than its progenitors, and its next-generation RENESIS rotary engine, mid-ship engine layout and all-new Freestyle chassis keep the ride from being sports sedan-typical. Fun, because it can run, but with the added practically of a backseat makes it a top vote-getter for fun, well under 50k: pricing starts at $25k.
Editors' Choice for Families: 2004 Toyota Sienna
Best vehicle, dollar for dollar, for family use.
How boring. Really -- who wants a car that does everything? Well, families, for one. They need a car that does everything and does it well because shipping kids and dogs and parcels around town is not exactly joyful riding. So when we went looking for a vehicle perfect for families, we were thinking stringly in terms of convenience and dependability. Which really is the 2004 Toyota Sienna -- a great track record for dependability (except for the oil sludge thing a few years ago) and pretty much the most convenient and thoughtfully put together vehicle on the road. Larger and better equipped than the previous model, the Sienna takes everything that's right about minivans and puts it together in a seamless, attractive package. Highlights include a standard 3.3-liter, V6, 230-horsepower engine that gets 19-mpg in the city and 27-mpg on the highway, mated to a standard 5-speed automatic transmission. The resulting on-the-road experience is responsive, with good handling and acceleration characteristics. Other highlights include curtain-style side airbags, versatile seating combinations and plenty of cargo room. For now, that's enough to make the 2004 Sienna class leader when it comes to hauling families and the things families bring along for the ride. Haul your own for $23k and up.
Editors' Choice for New Drivers: 2004 Mazda3
Best combination of value and excitement for first-time car buyers.
Times have changed and with time so have compacts and the cars young drivers buy. Take the all-new Mazda3, our choice for new drivers because it offers what young drivers want at an affordable price. Those things are innovation, style inside and out, enough performance to feel fun and, really, something a little different than the boring tripe Mom and Dad drive. Available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, it's bigger, more powerful, safer and better-looking than most any compact on the road. Available in two trims, the i and the s, the Mazda3 comes well-equipped with a standard 2.0-liter, I4, 148-horsepower engine that gets 28-mpg in the city and 35-mpg on the highway. The s is equipped with a standard 2.3-liter, I4, 160-horsepower engine with slightly lower fuel efficiency. Manual 5-speed transmissions are standard on both cars, though there's a 4 speed auto option. And -- it's cheaper, once you match up features and compare it to the competition. At a starting price of $13,600, what's not to like?
Editors' Choice, Dream Car: 2004 Porsche Carrera GT
If money were not an issue, what would we drive?
The numbers are numbing: 0 to 100 in less than seven seconds. Zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds. More than 600 horsepower from a V10, which really isn't the best thing about the vehicle. What is, perhaps, is the use of ceramics in constructing the brakes and clutch, the use of carbon fiber to keep the weight down, especially in relation to its monocoque chassis. The Carrera GT weighs in at a scant 3,043 lbs, which gives it a handling pedigree to match the V10 power plant.
Of course, hitting 204 mph on the speedometer is pretty nice. Design-wise, the Carrera GT is a sleek, smooth Porsche with a mid-engine architecture and large air intakes and side outlets in front of and behind the doors. Porsche plans to build just 1500 - and surely, most have already been spoken for. Pricing is a firm $440,000, so you can go ahead and keep dreaming.
Editors' Choice for Most Improved: 2004 Dodge Durango
Most notable redesign of an existing vehicle
In the rough and tumble world of SUV sales, the Dodge Durango went from shiny and new to old and past its prime in just five years. Now it's new again, and it should take significantly longer for Dodge's latest Daring Darling to get old. Our Most Notable Redesign, the 2004 Dodge Durango is a comprehensive redo -- seven inches longer, with the wheelbase, width and height expanded by three inches. The exterior has been completely restyled, and there are two new engines: a 3.7-liter V6 and a 5.7-liter Hemi V8, in addition to the popular 4.7-liter V8. It's as if Dodge engineers got a list from a previous Durango owner and fixed almost all the quirks and problems five or more years of driving will inevitably expose. The interior is larger, and fit and finish is much better. Interior materials are vastly improved. Ride and handling is much improved, and the power plant is smooth and powerful. And it costs less than comparable SUVs - and that's something that never gets old. Starting price at $26,215, topping out at $34,825.
Next New Star
Editors' Choice: Next New Star - Solstice/KAPPA
Most exciting concept
Sure, there are many exciting new vehicles poised to debut in the coming year or two, some of which, look to grab bigger headlines than our choice for the next new automotive star. The Ford Mustang, the Escape Hybrid and the Chrysler ME-12 are all exciting and promising vehicles that will do good things for the automakers that build them.
But none of them mean as much as the Pontiac Solstice/KAPPA vehicle architecture means to General Motors. Our Next New Star is Bob Lutz' vision, his way to bring excitement back to GM vehicles. KAPPA is designed to support the short overhangs, long wheelbase and wide stance on the Solstice, and cars of its ilk. This allows for improved performance, and a more comfortable interior, with increased legroom and hip room. Engineers developed a lower tube structure for the chassis and Hydroformed frame rails, which run the length of the vehicle, are the basis of the chassis.
So from KAPPA comes Solstice, and the Chevy Nomad and Saturn Curve to follow. You want excitement? Some of the most excited people around are the ones working at Pontiac these days, because they have built a vehicle people will likely drool over, given its combination of roadster-classic looks, performance and price ($19,995). The Solstice seems designed to handle the road and provide off-the-line explosions. The vehicle has independent front and rear suspensions, monotube shock absorbers and coil springs. Eighteen-inch wheels and tires are standard. From the look of it, the Solstice is a real roadster, with a classic style and a wide stance that creates a uniquely aggressive look. Front and center is Pontiac's dual port grille - and it's tough to find a car that looks better wearing it. In the back, the top disappears into a rear clamshell area. Perhaps most attractive, however, is the price: a Solstice at $19,995 buys you a vehicle that offers 4-wheel disc brakes, Bilstein shocks, and 18-inch wheels, all as standard. Significant downgrades will likely be confined to fabric interior material and manual windows.
Editors' Choice for Young Professionals: 2004 Acura TL
You want performance, sure. But you also want a car that fits your board of director aspirations. Few vehicles symbolize smart performance better than an Acura vehicle - especially an all- new Acura vehicle, such as the new TL, our choice for professionals on the move. Completely revised with an interesting new look, the Acura TL has added new safety and emissions technology, and a SportShift automatic transmission, among other features. The engine is pretty much the same as last year -- 3.2 liters, SOHC, 24 valves, 60-degree V6 with variable valve timing and lift system (VTEC) - though horsepower is up to 270, as is torque, to 238 pounds-feet. All but one of the items (navigation system) on the previous version's optional equipment package has been moved to standard, the result of which is a very-well equipped vehicle right out of the gate, but alas also a more expensive vehicle -- starting price is $32,650.
But hey -- you get what you pay for, and you've got those board of director aspirations, right?
--Photo by Dan Lyons
Most eco-friendly car
Editors' Choice for the Environment: 2004 Ford Focus PZEV
Most eco-friendly car
What, no hybrid? While the environmental benefits of hybrid technology are well-documented, there's a vehicle being mass-produced right now that emits virtually the same amount of emissions as do most hybrids - and without the electric assistance. We're talking about the Ford Focus PZEV, (partial zero emissions vehicle), which meets California's stringent partial zero emissions standard. Kudos to Ford for rolling the engine out in all Focus models -- that's a significantly eco-friendly action. The engine behind the PZEV is an all-new, 2.3 liter I-4 engine, generating 148 horsepower and 152 foot-pounds of torque. Initially tested in California, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts last year, the PZEV in now in all non-SVT model Focus vehicles, nationwide. Fuel efficiency estimates are around 30 mpg - clearly not rated as highly as the Prius -- but then it's not about money in your pocket - it's about smog in the air. Focus prices start at $13,000.
Editors' Choice Expert Panel
Prior to joining Autobytel in the spring of 2000 as Editor, Brian Chee spent 15 years working as a writer in the southern California area. His work has appeared in a wide variety of regional newspapers and online publications, including the Orange County Register and OCnow.com. Brian's appreciation for automobiles began when he attended his first Long Beach Grand Prix in 1976. Later, his interest in new cars and racing was nurtured while working as a reporter for a chain of Los Angeles-area local city newspapers. Brian is a member of the Automotive Press Association, the Motor Press Guild, the International Motor Press Association and the California State University Advisory Board for Internet Writing. A graduate of California State University at Fullerton, Brian holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism.
Paul A. Eisenstein
Paul A. Eisenstein has been covering the auto industry since 1979. One of the world's most widely published automotive journalists, Paul's work routinely appears in such publications as The Economist, Investor's Business Daily, Germany's Auto Motor und Sport, Popular Mechanics, Automotive Industries, Cigar Aficionado, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Nikkan Jidosha Shimbun, Japan's automotive daily. He's also a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, and a frequent guest on a variety of other network broadcasts. Paul also serves as a member of the jury for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards, and is a board member and past president of the Automotive Press Association. He has won a number of writing awards over the years, including a prestigious Wheels award, presented by The Detroit Press Club Foundation. Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey (exit 117, to be precise), he received an associate's degree from Brookdale Community College, and then, feeling an urge to see more snow, he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, graduating cum laude with a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. Mr. Eisenstein currently resides in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, the smallest incorporated city in the state, with his wife, Christine Anderson, three talkative black cats, and too many computers to count.
Sue Mead works as a photojournalist and features writer for more than two dozen publications. She has written for Parade, Popular Science, Open Road, the Road & Track Buyers Guide, Men's Journal, Popular Mechanics and Diversion and she has worked as an auto editor for CNN/fn. Sue has co-driven in two of the world's toughest off-road races, the Baja 1000 and the Paris-Dakar Raid. She attended four Camel Trophy adventures for Land Rover North America and has participated in several long-distance adventure drives. She recently completed her first book, "Monster Trucks and Tractors" published by Chelsea House. Sue lives in New England.
Christian Wardlaw joined the Automotive Information Center (AIC) in January 2003, managing content development for AIC and the Autosite consumer website. Previously, Mr. Wardlaw served as Editor-in-Chief and Director of Automotive Data for Edmunds.com. A writer, editor, and automobile aficionado, Mr. Wardlaw is a different sort of car enthusiast. His passion lies in the vehicles that people most often buy, rather than with high-performance sports cars or ultra-luxury sedans. "Given the choice to spend an hour with a Dodge Viper or a Honda Accord, I'll choose the Accord," he claims. Unless, of course, the driving venue is a racetrack. Mr. Wardlaw has been a car enthusiast all of his life, uttering "car" as his first word while growing up in Detroit. A graduate of Western Michigan University, Mr. Wardlaw holds a bachelor's degree in English.