In some ways I miss doing car reviews from the late Nineties, if only because automotive quality and pricing were all over the map. Who can forget the Amigo, Isuzu’s poorly designed answer to an inexpensive Jeep? Its suspension was so badly balanced that it was not safe to take any corner at more than 15 miles an hour. Its rear seat roll bar was set lower than a person’s head; I pointed out that one’s head would protect the roll bar from damage in an accident. Come to think of it, I actually said on air that any parent who would buy their kid an Amigo should be indicted for attempted manslaughter. Ah, those were the days.
Then there was the time that I received the first Mercedes CLK in the Metroplex for review. With only 600 miles on it the plastic fender well lining was already falling down and being cut in two by the right front tire. I grabbed some scissors and cut away a huge chunk of the plastic. Then the gasket fell out from the moon-roof and the side-view mirror came undone. I held up each of those parts while reviewing that vehicle and said that if one purchased a new Mercedes and this happened, you would never tell a soul; instead, one would quietly drive to the local Mercedes dealer for repair. Believe it or not, neither Mercedes nor Isuzu complained about either review.
But today quality is vastly improved. So much so that reviewing new cars and trucks coming to market is often, dare I say it, slightly boring. Things don’t fall off new cars anymore and, when cornering a little enthusiastically, it doesn’t feel like you’ll lose control and crash. From the public’s viewpoint things have never been better. From the viewpoint of the reviewer things are kind of running together, with the exception of technology.
Things that you’ll see
Over the past 52 weeks 51 new vehicles have been delivered to me for review.
Twice this year I’ve been in vehicles where the navigation system’s screen is directly in front of the driver. First in the new Audi TT, which lets you reduce the size of the digital gauges so you can enlarge the size of the navigation screen. The second time I saw this new concept, navigation in the driver’s line of sight, was in the all new Volvo XC-90. Needless to say, I was extremely impressed with these new layouts. I’ve even remarked that you understand immediately how having the navigation screen directly in front of the driver improves your ability to know where you are while keeping your eyes on the road at the same time. Likewise, as pointed out in this column recently, the level of technology and accuracy displayed by the Volvo shows that things are finally moving forward, in terms of both safety and future self-driving cars.
Overall, maybe the biggest improvement this year was in all-electric cars. Now, unlike California, where many manufacturers offer all-electrics, Texas is more limited in the varieties we can buy. But, as the owner of the first Mitsubishi iMiev sold in Texas, I can testify how far these electrics have come in a very short time.
For 2016 Nissan has added a slightly larger battery to its Leaf to extend the range over 100 miles on a charge, which is nice — except that Nissan promised that much range the first time around. That doesn’t matter, though, since the Kia Soul electric car was nothing short of phenomenal; it delivered 113 miles of range at freeway speeds with the air conditioning running. That’s substantially more than the EPA rates that vehicle. Likewise, the BMW i3 was surprisingly great and would end up being one of the top vehicles I reviewed in 2015. More on that in a moment.
Typically at the end of each year I come up with four to six vehicles I’ve reviewed that I find truly exceptional for the money. Meaning that, in my opinion, they’re worth far more than the window sticker suggests; they hold real value for their future owners. Yet try as I might, I came up with only two vehicles for 2015 that fell into that category.
1.) Jeep Renegade, Base Price $17,995
Yeah, I know it’s almost heresy to pick a cheap Jeep. But this one had a lot going for it. First, it wasn’t that much more money than the soon-to-be-discontinued Jeep Patriot — which, in spite of being slightly tinny and underpowered, also had a wide stance on it and a $500 upgrade stereo system that was actually great. To me it was the perfect first Jeep for someone’s kids: Highly stable, it wasn’t powerful enough to get into trouble; the stereo was impressive and the pricing was dirt cheap.
But with the Renegade the ride and handling were close to superior in its class, while the noise level at freeway speeds was quieter than one would expect. The body structure felt rigid and substantial. And it was cute in a goofy sort of way. Still, in a world where nicely equipped compact SUVs have now topped $30,000, a well-appointed Jeep Renegade offers a lot of value for $5,000 less.
2.) BMW i3, Base Price $42,400
Ah, the BMW that gets evangelists and haters in almost equal numbers. There are those who claim it doesn’t even look like a BMW should, and certainly shouldn’t be considered part of the stable of vehicles known as the ultimate driving machines. But don’t be misled; this little high-tech electric car had a phenomenal ride and handling capability, while its relatively small battery pack delivers a real 80-mile-plus range, even at freeway speeds and with the air conditioning running.
The one I tested has the small BMW motorcycle engine onboard; it acts as a range-extending generator once the battery is depleted to 5 percent of storage capacity. Moreover, almost every review I’ve read on that range extender claimed that you couldn’t continue to travel at freeway speeds or hold speed while climbing a hill — but I found those statements to be completely inaccurate. In fact, other than an insignificant humming sound from the engine, one can’t tell when the i3 has moved off its battery pack to the generator or when it turns off.
Value, not just cachet
What is exciting about all new electric cars is that, four years ago, to review an electric car I had to drive it to Fox Four the night before and charge it up so I could make it back to Fort Worth once I’d finished the Friday morning review. In 2015 every electric car I had for review could be driven to Dallas and back without recharging. And they all feel like real cars now. There’s even a rumor circulating around the industry that BMW is about to extend the range of its i3 substantially, and without changing the battery pack’s size. We’ll see.
I guess I could have listed another 5 or 10 vehicles for this year’s “best of” list. After all, there’s substantial quality and value in most everything today. Most of the window stickers bore reasonable prices, and even those that didn’t came with excessive rebates to adjust the net price downward.
One issue that surprised me over the past 13 months is that manufacturers like Bentley and Rolls wanted their cars reviewed — as if there’s a huge audience watching that might be interested in the $450,000 Wraith I had back in January.
Next year might be different, because more and more luxury manufacturers are starting to sell cars below $40,000 again. Then again, real value comprises more than cachet.
© Ed Wallace 2015
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Association. He hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com