4 Cars that Impressed Charles Krome for 2011
Yep, it’s already time for the end-of-the-year best-of lists to start showing up, and I’m going to do my share by giving thanks for the 2012 Nissan Versa and a quartet of other vehicles that have particularly caught my attention in 2011. It’s a relatively random selection, but with a focus on those products that offer a mix of value and efficiency, yet haven’t traded away their souls in the process. Also, I’ve put my emphasis on the heart of the marketplace by specifically picking vehicles from some of the industry’s core segments—mostly.
I’m thinking primarily here of the 2012 Versa sedan, still rocking the title of “least expensive vehicle in America.” Which is a far different thing, remember, than being the “cheapest vehicle in America.” For a starting price of $10,990, you get a car that undercuts the rest of the subcompact segment by thousands of dollars yet still offers competitive levels of workmanship, fuel efficiency and interior space. In fact, the Versa sedan boasts notably more cabin and cargo volume than the Ford Fiesta, notably more passenger space than the Toyota Yaris, notably more cargo room than the base Hyundai Accent, and the best leg room in its class. Most of what’s missing here are the amenities—that standard sound system is a two-speaker setup—but it does come with air conditioning, which makes it a livable vehicle right out of the box. And the exterior design is just quirky enough to indicate Nissan designers were making some sort of effort at catching customer attention. That they’ve been successful is evident in the sales figures, where the sedan has helped goose overall Versa sales to nearly 9,000 units in October—the most in the subcompact segment and nearly 31 percent more than the Versa’s closest rival, the Yaris.
It’s hard to get a handle on just how nice the Chevrolet Cruze is unless you see it in person; of course, plenty of people have, since Chevy has sold more than 200,000 of them through the end of October. The popular compact showcases a subtle, yet sophisticated exterior design that has really grown on me in the past months. It’s a solid, serious almost Germanic appearance that leaves more dramatically designed cars like the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra looking almost cartoonish. The Cruze is equally/surprisingly refined on the inside as well, and I think a comparison of curb weights tells part of the tale. The Forte weighs 200-300 lbs. less that the Chevy, and I think a lot of that poundage represents added and very effective NVH (noise/vibration/harshness) measures, as well as more premium interior accents. But even with that kind of additional weight, the Cruze Eco can turn up best-in-class fuel-efficiency—42 mpg highway—while still providing an unexpectedly high level of fun behind the wheel, courtesy of a peppy 1.4-liter I4 engine. Chevy really upped its game with the Cruze, and the car is now the class of the compact segment for drivers who don’t prefer the high-tech Ford Focus.
An odd thing has happened in the mid-size sedan segment: All of a sudden, even with the launch of the all-new Toyota Camry and VW Passat, the segment seems to have grown old. Part of it is the fact that, except for the above-mentioned pair, most of the entries here have grown old. The current Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord are all on the downhill slopes of their life cycles, and the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger aren’t exactly brand-new either. When you also consider the Hyundai Sonata’s off-putting exterior—it puts me off, anyway—the Kia Optima has a nice little window of opportunity as a more-than-worthwhile choice. No, it’s not quite as refined as some of the other guys, but it leads the way in terms of standard horsepower even as it stacks up quite well against the segment’s fuel-efficiency leader, the Camry. The starter Optima’s EPA line is 24/35/28, while the comparable Camry goes 25/35/28. The Kia’s somewhat tight rear quarters keep it from being an ideal family hauler, but that’s what makes it stand out from the crowd: Wearing perhaps the best execution of Kia’s signature design language, the Optima is the mainstream mid-size sedan for people who don’t want a mainstream mid-size sedan. And even though Kia no longer offers a low-cost Optima with a manual transmission—the 2011 starter model had an MSRP well under $20K—the car is still a value leader.
Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of the Toyota Prius, but that being said, I’ve developed a grudging respect for the car in recent years. Naturally, it starts with the car’s outstanding fuel-efficiency ratings. With so many hybrids now on the road, I think it’s easy to forget how impressive an achievement the current Prius’ numbers are. Consider: The first generation Prius came to our shores more than a decade ago, with an EPA line of 42 mpg city/41 mpg highway/41 mpg combined. And in the intervening 10+ years, exactly one automaker, with exactly one model, has been able to top that mark—the Honda Insight can now reach a combined 42 mpg for 2012. Meanwhile, the Prius’ ratings have climbed to 51/48/50. I can’t think of another example of an automaker maintaining that kind of technological advantage for such a long period of time. Plus, the current generation Prius has evolved into a sharp-looking vehicle, thanks in large part to its improved silhouette, and it’s also grown into its pricing. At a time when the Ford Focus Titanium is routinely configured to price north of $28,000, the Prius’ MSRP of $23,520 makes for a fairly strong value proposition.
There’s no getting around it: The MSRP of the Chevrolet Volt is a bit more than $39,000, and that’s a lot for a lot of people to swallow. Only there is some getting around it, because the car qualifies for a $7,500 tax credit (and more, depending on state/local incentives), so the net price is as low as $31,645—not much more than the average cost of a “regular” new car this year. And the Volt is hardly a regular car. I drove one this summer for nearly a week, so I can report that a 40-mile all-electric driving range is eminently achievable in the real-world, even with highway travel and the air-conditioning on. True, there’s only room for four on the inside, but that works to the Volt’s advantage because it provides a perception of added spaciousness for rear-seat passengers. And that interior also showcases a high-tech ambiance that further elevates the overall Volt experience. The bottom line here is that the Volt offers a package well suited to its target market’s requirements and remains the most practical EV in the country because of its range-extending internal combustion engine—which is capable of delivering slightly better EPA ratings than the Honda CR-Z hybrid. The government rates the Volt at 35/40/37 under gas power, while the CR-Z achieves a best of 35/39/37. There are many reasons Chevy has only sold 5,003 Volts this year, but few, IMHO, have to do with the vehicle’s merits.