We may look back on 2007 as the year public opinion shifted toward greener cars and trucks, a result of heightened concern about climate change and oil imports, coupled with high gas prices and a shift away from truckish S.U.V.’s. Interestingly, though, this wasn’t a year when a lot of notable green cars came to market.
It was a year when Toyota flexed its muscle. It passed General Motors briefly to become the world’s No. 1 automaker (before G.M. surged back, at least temporarily) and signaled in several ways – by fielding an in-your-face big pickup and Nascar teams – that it intended to out-big what used to be the Big Three.
But the year was noteworthy, too, for G.M., which started to wipe away some of the layers of tarnish on its once-good name. Not long ago the company was written off as a bureaucratic dinosaur incapable of making cars that Americans wanted. Yet its latest vehicles are fundamentally better – not simply competitive with the Japanese and Germans, but showing an attention to detail that had been missing from G.M. vehicles for decades. At last, somebody gets it.
From the Chevy Silverado (still the best full-size pickup, in my view) to a BMW-baiting Cadillac, G.M. made the strongest showing this year on my most-impressive list.
It’s too soon to say whether the General has truly turned the corner; whether it can sustain its momentum, given its famously short attention span; and even whether these promising vehicles will prove reliable in the long run. And even if the cars are good, can they undo the damage of three decades of institutionalized mediocrity?
In any case, it’s a start. Here are my other favorites:
1. 2008 AUDI R8 ($110,000). I’ve driven some impressive cars this year, including the $1.4 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4. Yet I was unprepared for the wide-eyed adulation that greeted Audi’s challenger to the Porsche 911. Everywhere the R8 went, cameras clicked and cellphones spread the word. Young dudes in a Dakota pursued the R8 across New Jersey on Interstate 80, sometimes hanging out of the windows in ecstasy. Adoring crowds gathered in parking lots. Isn’t this why people spend $100,000 and more for a trophy car? (Along with the fact that the R8 handles beautifully and makes a growl that stirs your soul.)
2. 2008 CADILLAC CTS ($47,590 as tested). The first-generation CTS was a bracing cold shower for the somnolent Cadillac division. The new CTS is a confident, sophisticated sport sedan that fixes its predecessor’s flaws and offers a potent American alternative to more expensive German machines, without their fussy electronics, balky controls and stern Teutonic demeanors.
3. 2008 HONDA ACCORD ($30,895). I was in college in the mid-1970s when the first Accord came out, and it’s probably fair to say that the mass-market Honda has aged at least as well as most of us boomers. And my, how it’s grown: the ’08 sedan is 31 inches longer than that first Accord coupe. Despite its size, the new Accord is powerful, clean, efficient and oh so smooth, with a transmission that seems to be in the right gear all the time. Roomy and comfortable, the Accord feels like a more expensive car.
4. 2008 CHEVROLET MALIBU ($21,470). Sure, G.M. kept promising that this all-new sedan would be a winner, but didn’t it say the same thing about the 20 or 30 midsize sedans that preceded it? This time, Chevy really does seem to have gotten the Malibu right, as a mainstream car that is refined, quiet and handsome. It may be the most satisfying midmarket midsize sedan from G.M. since the 1970s, and for about $20,000 the 4-cylinder version is a screaming deal.
5. 2007 MAZDA 5 ($22,743). Have you, too, heard people bemoaning the lack of small efficient cars – and then climb into overstuffed gas-swilling vans that are mini in name only? There is an alternative: Mazda’s smart-size people mover is clever, frugal, agile and a relative blast to drive, especially in town. Unless your family is as large as Mitt Romney’s, you may find it meets your needs while stretching your budget. 6. 2008 GMC ACADIA ($44,860). G.M.’s dreadful minivans are gone and its unrefined midsize S.U.V.’s, like the Chevy TrailBlazer, will soon follow. In their place are three impressive crossover wagons. (The Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave are closely related.) Among big people movers, these rank up there with the Mercedes GL-Class and the Honda Odyssey, and that’s a nice crowd to hang out with at the tailgate party.
7. 2007 VOLKSWAGEN EOS ($36,985). Most of the world drove this small retractable hardtop last year, but I was late to the party and didn’t expect much fun when I got there. What a surprise! The Eos is a textbook example of how to design and engineer a solid, sporty open-top car with a practical side.
8. 2007 JEEP WRANGLER UNLIMITED ($31,000). Too many miles in my old open-top Wrangler may have fried my brain, but I’ve harbored a deep affection for Wranglers even as they clearly became the most primitive vehicles in a new-car showroom. The four-door Unlimited inches the Wrangler closer to a civilized state, with a decent ride and room for a few fellow travelers, without removing any of the essential Jeepness.
9. 2008 INFINITI G37 ($38,015). This revamped 2+2 sports coupe is stylish, plush and quick, a legitimate contender to BMW’s benchmark 3 Series – a half-price alternative to a Jaguar XK8.
10. 2008 VOLVO XC70 ($44,065). Is it a side effect of aging or my recent move out of the city? Or is it simply that a well-ordered redesign has made this outdoorsy wagon more appealing than ever? Volvo’s best-in-the-business controls, terrific seats and overall refinement add luster to a big-box design that’s hard to improve upon.
A CHRYSLER CLOSEOUT
Whatever the reasons behind Cerberus Capital Management’s decision to invest in Chrysler, I’m guessing they didn’t do it for employee discounts on the company’s cars. Not to beat up on Chrysler – I’ve been a big fan of the Chrysler 300, the PT Cruiser, the Dodge Charger/Magnum and some of the Jeeps – but most of the company’s latest products have a sad-sack, bargain-basement feel. The high-paid overachievers brought in to spiff up the company, including the avuncular Jim Press from Toyota, will be kept busy.
1. JEEP COMPASS It’s ugly, harsh, rather primitive and not a Jeep as I define the word. The city-slicker Compass is about to go away, and not a moment too soon.
2. JEEP PATRIOT A Compass with a patriotic name and a nicer haircut.
3. CHRYSLER SEBRING Other midsize cars have become so good, including the once-awful Koreans, that it only makes this line of mediocre yet overstyled cars seem even worse by comparison. A classic case of “rent, don’t buy.”
4. DODGE NITRO It looks distinctive, but this brand-engineered twist on the Jeep Liberty features the hard plastics and coarse powertrain that make other small Dodges and Jeeps forgettable.
5. CHRYSLER ASPEN As big S.U.V.’s go, the Dodge Durango isn’t a bad one. But there is no pressing need for an even heavier, even pricier variation on the Durango, especially as the S.U.V. market heads south. Given the Aspen’s dinky sales, the market appears to agree.