This seems like such a strange story to tell right now. After all, GM has announced that it will close five plants and discontinue numerous car lines — all but one of which were truly exceptional vehicles. And naturally, if all one cares about is the short-term SEC filings, those actions were financially justified.
What changed? The average American new car buyer now wants an SUV, a crossover, or a truck, which is fine by Detroit as that’s where they are making their fortunes. As with Ford’s and Chrysler’s decision to downsize or eliminate their sedan production in order to boost short-term profitability, let’s hope for the sake of the American auto industry’s vested CEOs that gas continues to hover around $2 a gallon. If it starts climbing again, the chairs of Motor City may again end up as next year’s candidates for the “Why Did That Company Ever Hire that Person?” Award. More on that in another column.
After doing 52 new vehicle reviews this year on Fox Four, I could come up with only four models that are great vehicles and exceptional values.
This year three of the four were from South Korea.
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2018 Kia Stinger
Base price: $32,900 2.0-liter inline turbocharged engine with 255 horsepower.
Kia made the claim that it would deliver a European-like sports sedan and, with the new Stinger, delivered more than it promised. Unlike other sedans on the market, the Stinger has proven so popular that Kia found it had originally underpriced the car in the market. In terms of handling, feel, and being a sheer joy to drive, the Kia Stinger is hands down the best buy for the money. It’s the perfect vehicle for anyone who has owned older generations of the BMW 5 Series or who dreamed of one day owning a Corvette but didn’t think it was practical as a daily driver. It’s hard to believe that this is the same company that once foisted junk on the American public while thinking that using Gorgo, a Godzilla wannabe from a bad 1961 sci-fi movie, was a brilliant advertising strategy.
2019 Dodge Ram
Base price: $31,795 3.6-liter V-6 with 305 horsepower.
Someone wrote not long ago that today’s pickup trucks are really the new American luxury cars. That might have been a bit of an overstatement, except that today many trucks are as expensive as some of the luxury cars on the market from any manufacturer, much less Detroit. However, in some of the more luxuriously equipped models of the new Ram that statement is totally accurate. Not only does the new Ram deliver an exceptionally smooth, comfortable, and precise ride, the model I reviewed also had the lowest interior noise level of any vehicle I’ve ever reviewed — including high-end luxury cars such as the Lexus LS, the BMW 7 Series, and the Audi A8. Moreover, for this Ram this was a high mark indeed, since the last generation was also truly exceptional and took the Texas Truck of the Year award numerous times. One small caveat: In the models with the huge iPad-like touchscreen in the center dash, some of the commands and controls are a bit low for natural line of sight. Meaning it can take your eyes off the road completely. Nothing critical here, just a note of caution.
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
Base price: $24,750 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder with 185 horsepower.
This one is going to be a bit confusing. Before this new vehicle there were the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and the larger three-row Santa Fe. The Sport becomes the new 2019 Santa Fe, and the larger version becomes the Santa Fe Limited. However, this model demonstrates how the compact crossover market has evolved. Once these truly were compact vehicles; but, as the minivan’s did, each generation seemed to grow larger and heavier. By the time Chrysler reintroduced the Cherokee, the term compact SUV (or crossover) wasn’t quite as descriptive as it had once been. Today Hyundai has taken the Santa Fe and made it feel and seem larger from the inside, while delivering a quieter, smoother ride. And that, combined with great body rigidity, gives one the sense not only of a much more expensive and substantial vehicle, but of one that would easily be an incredible long-distance cruiser. As most know, I hate hyperbole; but the new Santa Fe may well end up being the benchmark for all crossovers to come in this class.
2019 Genesis G70
Base price: $34,900 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder with 252 horsepower.
Does anyone remember when the BMW 3 Series was the world’s greatest compact sports sedan, hands down? As the years went by BMW did something incredibly clever with that vehicle; the company managed to turn it into a miniature version of its fabled 7 Series flagship sedan. No small feat, and BMW made it an incredible compact luxury touring sedan. However, in doing so the company lost the audience that loved the 3 Series for what it had been. Now Genesis, the proposed luxury division of Hyundai, has picked up where BMW left off. Like the Kia Stinger, which shares platform parts with the G70, this is one truly fun machine to drive, firm and precise but not rough, even on the worst road conditions. Styling is also exceptional. The only downside here is that at the moment you can’t buy one of these G70s in Texas. Long story, but suffice it to say that Hyundai made a complete mess of introducing its new luxury lineup. First they gave the vehicles to almost every Hyundai dealer in America, then backpedaled on who could sell them moving forward, then suggested that other luxury dealers without Hyundai franchises could sell them. And now that the smoke has cleared, who knows how things will settle out? But don’t be misled, Genesis has only three models of sedans right now, and those three may be the best value in a truly luxury line of vehicles at the moment. That’s the message that almost got lost in this maelstrom of an introduction. Cross your fingers; Hyundai is hoping to start restocking Texas Genesis dealers again before the end of this month.
I came close to adding the new generation of the Subaru Forester to the list. It’s always been one of the best compact crossovers in the market, certainly has the most functional headroom of anything in its size class. Not to mention that for decades, Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system has made its offerings every bit as popular as Honda’s or Toyota’s products in regions with extreme winters. Once Subaru cut back its premium pricing — a result of that all-wheel-drive system — sales picked up virtually everywhere in the nation. The Forester was always built tough for bad weather conditions; in the last generation it gained finesse, and this generation only improves on that.
There really isn’t a bad vehicle on the market today. This is not 1980, when GM thought the Chevy Citation or the Pontiac J-2000 would push the Japanese back into the Pacific; that mindset and those vehicles were an embarrassment. But Detroit’s automakers learned their lesson. In the past 15 years they’ve brought some of the greatest cars in their histories to market — only to find that an extended period of declining oil and gasoline prices had encouraged the public to move on to bigger, but not always better, products. But that’s not unusual. Years ago I chose the Chevy SS sedan as the best car I reviewed that year for the money, and second place was a long way off. Therein lies the quandary for the auto industry: The Chevy SS never sold in great numbers; Holden of Australia, the GM division that designed and built it, is no more. But it was one truly incredible vehicle.
Of the vehicles I have tested each week over the past 22 years at Fox Four, the one I remember best was the 1998 Saab 9-5 sedan. It was the most magnificently balanced vehicle I’ve ever tested. You could literally put one finger on the top of the steering wheel and wherever your finger pointed is exactly where that car went. Not a fraction of an inch in oversteer or understeer. That Saab was perfectly balanced for the driver’s input in ways I’ve never experienced with another vehicle. Of course, that car never sold in large volumes, either — and, like Holden, Saab no longer exists.
But there once was a time when, if an automobile manufacturer built a truly exceptional product, the public responded in huge numbers; not so much, anymore. Conversely, some vehicles that I would never under any circumstances consider purchasing myself are now some of the best sellers in the market. Of course, if the car companies have their way, someday we’ll all go places in self-driving cars that we summon instead of owning. One of the key points of that dystopian future is that car companies won’t need to build exceptional cars anymore. Bummer.
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