The American dream used to be to follow a tried and true “upgrade” path that saw drivers move from smaller cars to bigger cars over the course of their life time. The theory was that as one’s stature in society grew, a larger vehicle was required to match.
Today, the idea that “bigger is better” doesn’t really seem to apply to the modern car market. There are premium offerings at every vehicle size, just as there are entry-level and mid-range models targeted at buyers of each class of automobile. The focus has shifted from “size matters” to “features matter,” with car companies more apt to tout fuel economy, luxury or technological goodies rather than sheer bulk.
Let’s take a look at what’s currently available from American automakers, moving from small automobiles to some of the largest vehicles on the road. Think of it as a snapshot of the wide range of options facing new car buyers in the United States today.
The 2011 Ford Fiesta is an excellent example of how the lines have become blurred between vehicle size and vehicle features. Five years ago it would have been unheard of for an affordable subcompact car to come with the option of an advanced six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission, but the Fiesta makes it a reality. The automobile can also be had with the Ford SYNC multimedia and communications interact, which includes voice command and turn-by-turn navigation capabilities.
Tack on the 30-mpg city and 40-mpg highway fuel economy rating for the Fiesta’s 1.6-liter, 120 horsepower engine and it becomes clear that this feature-packed car maintains the thrifty character that entry-level shoppers are looking for.
The 2011 Ford Mustang is another vehicle that speaks to the variety of performance and value-oriented options available to smaller car buyers. The Mustang can be had in either coupe or convertible form, giving it two distinct personalities that appeal to different types of drivers. Also splitting Mustang shoppers down the middle is its range of engine choices. Those interested in a stylish commuter with good power and solid fuel economy can opt for the V-6 edition of the vehicle (305 horses, 31-mpg on the highway), while those seeking muscle car thrills can choose the Mustang GT’s 5.0-liter V-8 engine that churns out 412 ponies and 390 lb-ft of torque.
As far as family cars go, the 2011 Chevrolet Malibu is a good example of what mid-size sedan buyers have to look forward to on today’s market. The Chevrolet Malibu manages to wear its sporty looks with dignity, and also offers good interior room especially in the rear seat. The Malibu can be had in basic LS trim (power windows and door locks, air conditioning, cruise control, CD player) as well as an upscale LTZ edition (leather seats, automatic climate control, Bose stereo system). A number of mid-level trims round out the vehicle’s available equipment to provide a version of the Malibu for every budget and needs. The sedan also comes with the choice of four-cylinder or V-6 power.
The 2011 Cadillac CTS is the evolution of the automobile that successfully introduced the domestic luxury brand to a new generation of buyers who may not have previously considered driving a Cadillac. A small mid-size option that provides sportiness (tight chassis, two V-6’s engines offering 270 and 306 horsepower respectively), a choice of body styles (coupe, sedan and wagon) and a long list of high end features, the second generation CTS is unlike anything previously offered by Cadillac. It could be argued that the Cadillac CTS is the only truly competitive entry-level luxury car to have ever been offered by a Detroit-based automaker.
The 2011 Lincoln MKS takes things up a notch in terms of size and presents large luxury sedan buyers with an option that combines serious interior volume with a number of high tech options. Although the MKS starts out with a 273 horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 under the hood, the most impressive version of the sedan is the EcoBoost model, which features standard all-wheel drive matched with a 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6 engine that is good for 355 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. The EcoBoost MKS also offers better fuel mileage than the base model, showing as 25-mpg during highway cruising.
The Lincoln MKS can also be loaded up with advanced features such as an automated parking system, a collision warning system, adaptive cruise control and the SYNC voice interface for use with its navigation and THX-certified entertainment system.
Making the jump from large sedans to mid-size SUVs is the 2011 Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler is the definitive off-road vehicle, an unstoppable trail machine that features the availability of two stout four-wheel drive systems and full under-armor plating and rugged suspension equipment. While larger than a car, the Jeep Wrangler is also notable for offering a relatively manageable footprint for those seeking an SUV that can be daily driven in urban traffic and can fit into a reasonably-sized parking space. Not too big, not too small, the Wrangler is a good “tweener” sport-utility vehicle with outstanding 4x4 capability.
The 2011 Ford Flex is a crossover that aims to bridge the gap between traditional truck-based SUVs and easier to drive sedan-like models. The Ford Flex is definitely large – this full-size crossover provides seating for as many as seven passengers and generous cargo room – but it also comes with retro styling and a wagon feel that enables it to straddle the line between van-like utility and crossover comfort.
Also in the Ford Flex’s favor are two drivetrains that help the large crossover accelerate and handle like a smaller, more nimble vehicle. The Flex’s base engine is a 262 horsepower V-6 (available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive trims), and performance fans can elect to replace this mill with an EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6 that generates a hefty 355 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, sent to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. Very few other full-size crossovers can match the Flex’s EcoBoost output.
At the apex of the large domestic crossover pyramid – at least in terms of size - is the 2011 Chevrolet Traverse. The Traverse is, in a word, big: it can handle up to eight passengers and its cavernous interior can swallow 116.4 cubic feet of total gear with the rear rows of seating removed.
That being said, the Traverse can still be thought of as the last option before moving into the realm of truck-based sport-utility vehicles. The crossover’s unibody platform smoothes out its ride, and its 281 horsepower (288 with the available dual exhaust system) 3.6-liter V-6 engine allows the Traverse to offer good get up and go and reasonable fuel economy at the same time. For those who need the extra safety and traction during the winter months, the Traverse also offers available all-wheel drive.
The 2010 Jeep Commander’s dimensions are roughly the same as the Chevrolet Traverse, but although it also offers unibody construction, its use of the Jeep Grand Cherokee platform places it firmly in the SUV universe. Also reinforcing this three-row sport utility vehicle’s rugged credentials is the fact that it comes with the choice of three different four-wheel drive systems, including Quadra-Drive II, which incorporates hill descent control and electronic limited-slip differentials for each axle. The Jeep Commander gives those seeking a large daily driver the ability to head off-road, a claim very few crossover people movers can match with a straight face.
The 2011 Ford F-150 can be thought of as the Swiss Army knife of large domestic vehicles. The F-150 dazzles in the number of combinations it offers, providing everything from single-cab, stripped-down work truck trims all the way up to four-door long-distance luxury hauler models.
Most people are familiar with the full-size Ford F-150’s capabilities as a cargo-friendly, trailer towing truck, but the 2011 model makes a play for greater acceptance as a daily driver thanks to a thoroughly updated engine lineup that now offers two V-6 choices (including a twin-turbo EcoBoost engine) that see between 16-mpg city and 23-mpg on the highway. Even Ford’s new 5.0-liter V-8 engine option for the F-150 manages to pair 360 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque with 21-mpg during highway cruising.