I’ve reviewed just over 1,000 vehicles in just over 20 years at Fox Four, and it’s gotten harder to find vehicles that will astonish you and have a window sticker bearing an exceptional price. There’s a reason for that: Unlike the period from 1996 to 2005, when automakers could build a piece of junk and hope the reviewer didn’t notice (like the Isuzu Amigo, or the first generation of the Mercedes CLK), for the most part new vehicles today bear no resemblance to the products of 20 years ago.
That’s right, it’s almost impossible to purchase a bad vehicle anymore. Most are surprisingly great now. That doesn’t mean they are exceptional values, but the quality is the best I’ve seen in my lifetime.
On the other hand, too many vehicles still allow way too much road noise into their interiors. Believe it or not, a nearly whisper-quiet interior is what most individuals perceive is a true luxury vehicle. Yet, while some manufacturers have made great strides in reducing their vehicles’ interior noise levels over the past few years — I’m thinking Honda, here — others don’t seem to attach much importance to that aspect of design. Fair enough: One of the best-selling compact SUVs in America is also the noisiest vehicle I’ve ever reviewed, pumping out an incredible 84 dB at highway speeds. Yet I’ve never once had anyone write and complain about that SUV’s noise level.
It should be pointed out that many of the all-new vehicles that have come out late in this year I have not reviewed yet — the all-new Honda Accord and the BMW X-3, to name just two. Still, the rules are the same, with one exception. The vehicles listed are those that I was extremely impressed with overall and that had a more than appealing price on the window sticker. The rule that did change for this year is that we are not limiting picks to those priced at $50,000 or less. And we are going to add something new this year: The best new automotive technology.
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Nissan Rogue Sport: Base price, $21,420
If there’s a real turnaround in the automotive industry over the past 30 years, it’s been Nissan. Back in the 1980s they were still building outdated cast-iron engines, when competitors like Honda had long since moved up to high-tech, computerized aluminum with dual overhead cams. Not only that, but Nissans’ prices were not always competitive and this as recently as the past 20 years.
But all of that has changed today. Nissan has done a remarkable job at becoming a world-class automotive company, from design to engineering, ever since Carlos Ghosn of Renault took over the company. And there’s no better example than the new Nissan Rogue Sport. First, unlike other slightly smaller-than-compact crossovers, this vehicle neither looks that size nor feels it. The wheelbase is only 2” shorter than the more popular Rogue’s — and as of this writing the Rogue has outsold the Honda CR-V year to date — but delivers every bit as satisfying a ride. Styling is great, and the interior layout doesn’t seem at all like an inexpensive vehicle’s. For some the 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder’s 141 horsepower may not have enough punch; but the torque under full power was far more than enough to enter any freeway condition. I could not find one fault with this Nissan, and that’s about as good as it gets.
Chrysler Pacifica hybrid electric minivan: Base price: $41,995
Ever since 2010, the Baby Boomers have been turning 65; all of them will be in the twilight of their years by 2029. Likely this is why recreational vehicle sales are hitting record numbers, while my radio show and email fill up with calls and letters from people wanting to buy the perfect vehicle for cruising North America when they retire. Many have also asked about vehicles in which they could take their pets along. I’m guessing that’s because, unlike kids on family vacations, the pets never ask, “Are we there yet?”
While many are taking to the roads to visit our national forests and going the RV route, that’s fine. But for most of America larger RVs don’t tend to work as well in the country’s back roads, nor in the often scenic drives in our Northern regions. And when pulling into a small town where one wants to get out and investigate, having a smaller and more maneuverable vehicle and staying in motels is more practical and enjoyable. I’m thinking of the old mining town of Jerome, Ariz., which is literally built on the side of a steep mountainside between Sedona and Prescott. Even if one made it up the mountain in their 35-foot diesel pusher motorhome, parking there might be a problem.
The Chrysler Pacifica minivan, on the other hand, is ideal for such trips, particularly if one gets the Stow and Go seating. As we saw in the original ads — and for the life of me, I can’t understand why Chrysler isn’t still pushing this feature — it takes only seconds and little effort whatsoever to fold the second row seats into the floorboard, or the rear seats, too. But it’s the ability to mix and match that combination that would work so well for traveling.
Add into this that its style actually makes a minivan look kind of cool. Not as hip as the old Previa minivan Toyota made in the early Nineties, but then again the Pacifica boasts a much better ride and handling. The 3.6-liter V-6 has 287 horsepower and scored a perfect five out of five with Car & Driver’s testing, beating out the other minivans being sold.
Now, the one I drove this year was the hybrid, which is why it made the list. And it should be pointed out that with the 16kWh battery pack, one loses the Stow and Go feature for the second row seats, while the combined horsepower drops to 260. Still, it was kind of fun driving around Fort Worth on battery power and going 30 – 33 miles without using any gasoline. For a highway cruiser, it’s best to stick with the other variations of this minivan — whose base price is $12,000 less.
Lincoln Continental: Base Price: $45,000
Famed automotive giant and the last real car guy, Bob Lutz, once told me that when a car company is down and out and has nowhere to go, the only way to save it is with great design. That fairly well sums up the Lincoln story. Most forget that 20 years ago Lincoln Mercury dealerships were standalone stores; in fact, they were in the process of building brand new facilities for a turnaround Ford claimed for the company that never came to pass. Now there’s just a handful of standalone Lincoln dealers in Texas, Mercury having joined Saturn, Plymouth, Hummer and hundreds of other failed car companies in the automotive graveyard.
But Bob Lutz was right: In a last-ditch, phoenix-like attempt to make Lincoln into a hot luxury franchise, Ford introduced the 2018 Lincoln Continental. True, the overall look of this luxury sedan is stolen from Bentley, but if you have to steal you might as well steal from the best. (How many people remember that the original Accord sedan in 1979 was eerily reminiscent of the Mercedes of the same generation?) OK, looks can turn your head — but they don’t make it a great car. Here came the second big surprise of this Continental: It was as nice as any other high-end luxury sedan, but for tens of thousands less, while featuring one of the most outstanding interior designs, ride and quiet of anything I’ve ever reviewed.
It’s not the only engine (they change size and power with different editions of the Continental), but the 3.7-liter V-6 delivers 305 horsepower; this one takes off and quietly flies down the road when the gas pedal hits the floor. The only question here is why car companies spend all their time cutting costs and corners until, predictably, they almost kill a franchise — and only then do they decide to go in the direction they should have been going in the first place and create a world-class automobile. The new Lincoln Continental is proof of that statement.
Best New Technology 2017
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t made blind-spot warning indicators mandatory on all vehicles. Worse, I have no idea why the car companies didn’t think of adding that feature decades ago. It is absolutely invaluable for the freeway conditions we have today. Because when your car warns you that it’s not safe to move over into another lane, that’s a big deal.
True, real blind spots have become a thing of the past in cars. While far too many vehicles do not have exceptional sideview mirrors; and in some SUVs and large crossovers, those blind spots still exist if the car in the next lane is much smaller than your vehicle. But as it turns out, General Motors has taken this concept and bettered it.
It’s the General Motors Rear Camera Mirror, an idea so clever that GM has actually been given 10 patents on it. It works using the rear backup camera; and on the Equinox and Traverse I reviewed, there appeared to be two video camera lenses at the back of the vehicle. (One may be for the back-up video camera) So, when traveling down the road, you can flip a switch in the rearview mirror and instantly it becomes a widescreen TV monitor with a crystal-clear view of all lanes of traffic behind you. In fact, it allows almost 300 percent improved field of vision for rear view traffic, which means you now can see almost four times as much information about traffic behind you as you can in a normal rearview mirror.
This actually came out last year in the Cadillac CT6 flagship sedan and now can be found on the Escalade, XT5, and CTS models. Unlike GM of decades ago, when Cadillac got all the fun stuff first and often for years on end, this remarkable technology is already migrating to other GM products, including the Traverse and Equinox I reviewed this year. This system shows a real cleverness at General Motors that even I worried might be long gone.
And there it is. The best of the best for the money in 2017; and this year’s list was not nearly as long as it was in years gone by. Maybe 2018 will bring a few more automotive surprises our way.
© Ed Wallace 2017
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org