There’s one thing that I truly miss about reviewing new vehicles for Fox Four’s Good Day in the 1990s. That’s the fact that about one in every 15 vehicles given to me for review in those days was an absolute embarrassment for the car company that created it. Remember the Isuzu Amigo? It was so cheap and tinny, so inherently unstable during normal driving tests, that I told the audience that any parent who purchased one of these little Jeep-like vehicles for his or her kids should be indicted for attempted manslaughter.Ah, those were the days. I actually sent back four new cars during that period, telling the manufacturer they did not want me to move ahead with a review of their product — that’s how bad some of the vehicles were at the time.But with each year that’s passed, automobiles’ quality and engineering has vastly improved at every manufacturer. This year I did not review any truly bad products; there were a couple of so-so vehicles from some of the best-known manufacturers, but they’ll remain nameless today. A reminder of how I choose the best vehicles I’ve reviewed for the year: First, they have to have a window sticker price under $50,000, because we expect excellence from high-priced vehicles. Second, the vehicles chosen not only have to be exceptional in terms of quality, styling, ride and handling, but must also have extremely low window sticker prices for the value received. Third, these are the vehicles that, if I were still in the automobile industry, I would personally love to sell to potential clients, because these vehicles are exceptional for the money.Those criteria in mind, these are my picks for 2013’s best vehicles for the money. 1. Mazda6 Sedan (Base Price: $20,990)For years Mazda has been the most underrated of the Japanese automakers, which probably frustrates the company that has brought to market so many really great and highly competitive products. But somewhere along the way, someone decided to differentiate Mazda’s products from the pack, first by engineering better body rigidity, superior styling and European handling. Then, by introducing their groundbreaking line of Skyactiv engines, they kept the power customers loved and improved fuel efficiency substantially. For example, the 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder in the Grand Touring Edition of Mazda6 delivers 184 horsepower and is rated 40 mpg highway. And, since Mazda’s newest styling is also one of the best in class, summing up this car was easy.Four months before reviewing the new Mazda6 I had leased an Acura TL — but the Mazda felt more like a luxury car than my new Acura, and for $11,000 less. Enough said. 2. Mazda3 ($16,945)For the last five years — even before Mazda added the Skyactiv engine that bumped this vehicle’s fuel efficiency from 33 mpg highway up to 40 mpg — I’ve maintained that the Mazda3 was the world’s benchmark compact car. Driving one always reminded me of the quality of the first small Mercedes brought to market decades ago. The one downside was that the Mazda3’s optional Navigation screen was too small to be functional. When the Chevrolet Cruze came to market, it was so close to being a perfect knockoff of the Mazda3 that I’m positive GM purchased one and took it apart to see how the Mazda3 was engineered. This generation adds best-in-class styling, a much quieter ride and superb handling finesse. While many manufacturers are cutting corners in places they hope the public doesn’t notice to keep prices down, Mazda has gone in the opposite direction, building the best vehicles they can to outshine the competition. Last weekend the New York Times review of the new Mazda3 asked, “Why isn’t this car the best seller in its class?” I’ve been asking that question for years. 3. Ford Fusion ($21,900)Ironically, for years I’ve been a big fan of the Ford Fusion when it rode on a Mazda chassis. It too has been one of the most underrated midsized cars in a competitive class best known for the hugely successful Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. This new generation of the Fusion has been redesigned from the ground up and is now all-Ford, and the best word I can think of to describe it is “Wow.” Every single thing about the Fusion was surprisingly terrific.That makes one wonder how, just a decade ago, Ford foisted the excessively mediocre Ford 500 sedan on the public, proclaiming that the “new” Ford Motor Company had finally arrived. It hadn’t. However, this new Ford is proof positive of how far and fast Ford has moved to come up with what some believe are best-in-class vehicles. This generation of the Fusion, at least for me, shows that Ford’s renaissance is truly here at last. Every time I see one on the road I’m always taken aback at how exceptionally well styled it is; but the real secret is that its overall driving experience is even better than the car’s looks. 4. Chevrolet Impala ($26,860)Boy, did GM mess up on this one. The entire concept of GM’s sales vision, put in place back in the 1920s, is that the Chevrolet division would offer the entry-level cars for first-time buyers; and as they aged and became more well to do, buyers would move up the ladder to the pinnacle of GM’s luxury products and end up in the rarefied atmosphere of Cadillac ownership. Apparently someone forgot to tell the current generation of Chevrolet stylists and engineers about that plan for automotive domination. Instead we get a new Impala that, at the very least, should have been sent over to Buick or even Cadillac for retail to the public. (Or even sold as a Japanese luxury car.)Yes, it’s that good. Moreover, during my review of the new Impala I kept thinking infinitely better overall it was than the old Lincoln Town Car that was once so popular — but, fully loaded, the new Impala costs twenty thousand dollars less. All told, the new Ford Fusion, the new Impala and last year’s Chrysler 300 restore the faith in Detroit that I lost decades ago. 5. Tie: Kia Soul ($14,700) and Nissan Versa Note ($13,990)I wasn’t expecting much from the new Kia Soul, even though it’s always been a great value in terms of pricing vs. value for a little urban sport utility vehicle. But it looked so much like the previous generation that, at best, I thought, it might be full of minor enhancements. I was wrong. The Soul’s enhancements include a truly superior driving experience for this class of vehicle, vastly improved stereo system (though yes, it still has disco lights around the speakers), and a much quieter ride on virtually all road conditions. This may sound crazy, but the week before I reviewed the new Kia Soul I’d had the all-new Corvette; and for real-world driving I enjoyed the Kia Soul more.Then came the Nissan Versa Note, and here I’ll part company with virtually ever other automotive review I’ve read on this vehicle. What I saw was Nissan’s attempt to target the market held solely by the Honda Fit for so many years. And while the two cars’ overall specifications are similar, the Versa Note gives one the impression of having more interior space — and it may be the best in class in terms of noise level at freeway speeds. When I easily got 40 mpg at highway speeds and combined all its other pluses with the window sticker price, I came to believe that the other automotive reviewers didn’t actually drive this vehicle before they wrote their reviews. Honorable Mention: Kia Cadenza ($35,100)With this car Kia has served notice that the company no longer intends to be thought of as merely a manufacturer of quality inexpensive cars for the masses. The Korean automaker has tried before to make its mark on higher end, near-luxury vehicles and failed badly. This time they got it right.There you have it. Another 51 cars reviewed on Fox Four’s Good Day and another handful of vehicles that in my opinion are easily worth far more than the window sticker price the manufacturers put on them. But I need to remind you that I found it impossible to get the new BMW 320i, the all-new Jeep Cherokee and the new Honda Accord hybrid electric to drive during the course of this year’s reviews. I’m fairly certain that all three of those automobiles would have had a good chance at making this list, had the manufacturers put them into the journalists’ fleet in time for this column. In any case, it was another year of vastly improved new vehicles and therefore another year of great buys for the public. But oh, how I miss the fun of my first eight years of doing car reviews, especially some of the truly tragic junk that came my way from time to time, which I could trash with gleeful malice. Today it’s a field of truly remarkable vehicles and I’ve simply pulled out the best of the best. Better for you, a bit more boring for me. © Ed Wallace 2013
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: email@example.com, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.