|Thursday, December 12, 2013|
The Best Cars for Stages of Your Life
Like a photo collection tracking you over the years, the cars that suit you will change with different stages of your life. The perfect ride when you were a beginning driver surely won't work when you are a parent with children or later when those kids leave home.
Whatever your age, in shopping for a car, it's important to balance your needs—fitting everybody in— and your wants—stylish design, fun to drive.
"Make sure a car really suits you, including a test-drive, before you make a decision you may have to live with for several years," advises Karl Brauer, CEO of Total Car Score, Camarillo, Calif. Brauer and his staff rank cars based on safety testing and gas mileage, plus a compilation of reviews by respected sources such as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates.
We turned to Brauer for help in identifying traits you should be looking for at different times and which models are the best fit. Here is a rundown for beginning drivers, young workers, families, empty nesters, and a special category for drivers who drive above-average distances each year.
With the dangerously high rate of accidents among teenage drivers, safety is a paramount concern with cars for young drivers. Parents or grandparents who can afford to buy a car for a teen need to focus on crash test ratings (and offer strong suggestions even to teens who have worked and saved money for their own cars). But young drivers today may be most interested in exciting tech features like connectivity for cellphones and music players.
Brauer suggests looking at cars with both high safety scores and a good array of tech features. His top pick for young drivers is the Kia Soul with quirky design, good technology features, and attractive pricing starting at $13,900. Mileage ratings are 17 miles per gallon (mpg) in city driving and 35 on the highway. The Soul may even have a bit of teen cred from its long-running ad featuring hip-hop hamsters. The Soul gets an 81.27 (out of a possible 100) rating from Total Car Score, one of the highest in the economy class.
Just slightly higher at 81.58 is the Honda Fit. Less funky than the Soul, the Fit is nonetheless seen as one of the best subcompact entries with a mileage rating of 27 city, 33 highway. For a student soon to be moving into a dorm room, the Fit's fold-down rear seats allow extraordinary cargo space for a vehicle this size. The price tag is a bit higher on the Fit, starting at $15,175.
It's important to balance your needs and your wants.
Car choices here will, of course, depend on what a fledgling career is paying our twenty-something car buyer. Brauer assumes this young shopper will want a stylish ride, still with plenty of tech features. Fortunately, good choices among compact cars have greatly expanded in the past two years, with convenience, comfort, and tech equipment now available that once came only with much more expensive cars.
For drivers who like sporty performance, the Volkswagen GTI is a favorite. Its 81.51 Total Car Score is among the highest in this category. Reviewers like the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with plenty of kick, the crisp handling, and the handsome interior with comfortable seats. The GTI, which starts at $23,695, is rated for 24 mpg in city driving, 33 on the highway.
If you prefer buying cars from Detroit-based companies, both Ford and General Motors have recent new or redesigned compact models that sell for less than the GTI.
The Chevrolet Cruze, introduced in 2011, is praised especially for its roominess. Both the cabin and the trunk space equal what traditionally is found in a midsize sedan, but in a compact package. The Cruze, which starts at $16,720, is rated at 25 mpg city, 36 highway. A special Eco model achieves a 42 mpg highway rating.
The Ford Focus is totally redesigned for 2012 and is praised for its sporty handling and comfortable ride. Starting at $16,500, it comes in both sedan and hatchback versions. It is rated for 26 mpg city, 36 highway. Brauer points out that the Focus has especially attractive tech options.
For families with more than one child, hauling children, their children's friends, and toys or sports gear quickly becomes an issue. The traditional solution has been a minivan with three rows of seats, lots of cargo space, and that nice sliding side door. For moms or dads who also want a vehicle that's not boring to drive, the best answer is the Honda Odyssey. The Odyssey handles extremely well, navigating curving back country roads as if it were a much smaller vehicle. It gets an unusually high Total Car Score of 83.96, the best for a minivan. The Odyssey starts at $28,225 but can rack up as much as $43,675 for the top model. Mileage ratings are 18 mpg city, 27 highway.
Make sure you work out carefully the affordability of your choice.
For those who just can't cope with the image of owning a minivan, the next-best answer is a sports utility with three rows of seats. Total Car Score's top choice is the Chevrolet Traverse, which starts at $29,430. Mileage ratings are 17 mpg city, 24 highway.
Brauer also likes the Ford Flex, whose squared-off shape doesn't look much like a traditional SUV. With a roomy interior and high crash-test scores, the Flex starts at $29,355. Its V-6 turbocharged EcoBoost engine is rated for 17 mpg city, 24 highway.
Parents who no longer have kids at home to ferry around often want to try something entirely different. Depending on how affluent they are, that might run to a stylish coupe from a luxury brand. If so, the Audi A5 comes in both coupe and convertible versions starting at $37,100. Like almost all of the current Audi offerings, it features eye-catching design. The coupe is rated for 21 mpg city, 29 highway.
If less expensive but still sporty is what you want, think about a Ford Mustang coupe or convertible. Starting at $22,310, it features a V-6 engine that delivers 305 horsepowerenough to relive your high school hot rod days. And even with that power, it's rated 19 mpg in city driving, 31 on the highway.
If one of your life stages involves a job that keeps you in your car constantly, keeping the tank filled without busting your budget becomes a major concern. How you approach that problem depends whether that driving is mostly in stop-and-go city or suburban driving or if you're racking up cruising miles on the highway.
Driving congested roads is made for gas-electric hybrids.
Gas-electric hybrids are made for driving congested roads.. The ability to operate on only the electric motor at low speeds and to shut off entirely at stop lights greatly boosts the mileage. And the continuing mileage champ remains the Toyota Prius. Starting at $24,000, the Prius is rated for 51 mpg in city driving, 48 on the highway. And if you haul mostly yourself during all that driving, the new Prius C, the small family member, starts at just $18,950 and gets an even higher city rating of 53 mpg, 46 highway.
On the other hand, if you're a freeway cruiser, consider diesel. Just the opposite of hybrids, diesel models do their best mpg work at highway speeds. Brauer nominates the Volkswagen Passat TDI, which starts at $19,995. The model with automatic transmission is rated at 30 mpg city, 40 highway, but Brauer says on a recent road trip carrying five people, he got 46 mpg in the Passat diesel.
Whatever your stage of life and car choice, make sure you work out carefully the affordability of your choice. Remember, it's not just the monthly car payment, it's also continuing gas costs and—sometimes forgotten—car insurance bills. A car that fits comfortably into your budget is likely a car you'll enjoy at any stage of life.
All photos courtesy of the manufacturers.
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