Top 11 Vehicles for 2011

This is a look back at my favorite cars in 2011. Click “like” to share this with the world.

2011 was an amazing year in the automotive world.  It was comeback year for many companies, especially the Americans.  Hyundai and Kia continued their relentless march of increased market share while many of the Japanese brands were battered by Mother Nature.

2011 will be remembered as the year the electric car became mainstream with Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hitting decent production numbers.  Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i will follow in 2012.  Everyone’s hoping it isn’t a fad.

With nearly everyone on their A game, it hasn’t been easy picking my Top 11 for 2011.  That’s not a play on the year, you know I’ve always had 11 on the list.  My choices are about a balance of performance, design, value and features.  Ground rules?  It had to be on sale in 2011, I had to drive it (sorry, couldn’t get my hands on a VW Passat) and pricing had to start at under 75 grand.  Remember, we are the 99 percent.

A Shocker?

For the first time ever this list contains no Japanese cars, a fact that surprised even me.  My choices reflect a more emotional approach this year.  Nearly all modern cars are very reliable, freeing buyers up to concentrate on design, performance and value.  More than ever, buying a car is about determining your budget, fulfilling practical needs and making a design or brand statement. This is a good thing.

Fierce competition means many close competitors.  I’ll talk about them after the list.  The base prices provided include destination charges and as you’ll notice there are links to the full video reviews.

So, in no particular order…

Chevrolet Sonic LTZ (MSRP $17,295) The list of GM’s unpleasant small cars is long- Aveo, Metro, Chevette, Sunbird, Sunfire, Monza… Vega.  Then comes Sonic, which is neither a hedgehog nor a fast food restaurant.  All of a sudden The General is producing a great small car.  It’s kind of disorienting.

Sonic gets the nod because it’s affordable, fuel efficient, fun to push into corners, and doesn’t beat you up on long trips.  Go with the torque-rich turbocharged engine for an extra $700 and Chevy upgrades the manual tranny to a six-speed (a six-speed automatic is available).  Choose between sedan and hatchback models. (Review coming in early January 2012).

Hyundai Elantra (MSRP $17,202)  Sweeping sculpted style, bang for the buck, and 40 MPG on the highway go a long way to make Elantra appealing.  I find this sedan to be among the best looking cars of 2011, regardless of price.

Hyundai took a page from the playbook that Honda and Toyota once used- a reasonable price, great warrantee and features that surprise and delight.  Limited Elantras get heated back seats, some fancy luxury cars don’t offer that.  If you’re looking for a compact sedan, you really should be researching this one.

Volkswagen GTI (MSRP $24,465)  A practical car that’s a blast to drive, GTI is a friend to the enthusiast on a budget.  It’s great fun to throw into tight turns, and the cabin looks expensive.  This car practically begs you to drive it hard.

Available in both two and four door models, sell it to your spouse as practical.  Because it is.  Tough to choose between the crisp six-speed manual or dual-clutch DSG automatic.  For German performance at a reasonable price, look no farther.

Kia Optima (MSRP $21,750) To a person, everyone who rode in the well equipped EX test car thought it was 40 grand. Try 27K.  Production assistant Martin Campbell liked it so much he bought one.

Available with regular and turbo engines (plus a hybrid powertrain), the sculpted look, blizzard of features and bargain price of Optima are all but unbeatable. It’s just one reason Kia has doubled their market share in just three years.

Ford Focus (MSRP $17,295) In 2011 America finally got the same Focus as Europe.  All together now, let’s say “Thank you Ford”.

Some might complain that it is not the budget ride of the past.  In price and in execution, Focus has moved up-market.  The interior is significantly better than the outgoing model, as is the sheetmetal.  It can even be had with a self-parking system that’s better than some in luxury cars.  Choose between sedan and hatch models.

Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango (MSRP $27,820 FWD Jeep, $29,845 FWD Dodge).  Yeah, I know these are two different vehicles but I’m wedging them together because 1) they are based on the same stout architecture and 2) they fill different needs.

Extreme boulder-hoppers will go for the five-seat Grand Cherokee.  I have driven the GC on terrain that made me flinch but the Jeep didn’t.  Last year’s redesign gave it a terrific interior that it shares with Durango and more room in the back seat.

With its extra row of seating, the seven-passenger Durango works for families.  It pulls nearly anything reasonable a guy could want to tow while remaining comfortable and refined the other 99% of the time that you’re driving to the grocery store.  Both these rigs get compliments in the parking lot too.

16941_1_5Volvo XC60 ($34,175 FWD)  I rediscovered this refined crossover when my wife and I were shopping for a car this summer.  This svelte-Swede has a personality all it’s own with an interior that’s straight out of a Scandinavian furniture store.

Yes, it has the legendary safety structure Volvo is known for.  Fun to drive too.  I’m surprised that many buyers still don’t understand it has the technology to brake automatically for cars and (optionally) pedestrians in case you’re distracted.  I beg of you, please stay off your phone when driving.  Not all of us drive Volvos.

Chrysler 300 (MSRP $27,995) It’s pretty tough to get more luxury for your money than this full-sized sedan.  Chrysler went from worst to first with the interior.  Materials and the jeweled instrument cluster look a class more expensive than they are.  The user interface doesn’t use a joystick or knob or cluster of buttons.  Hallelujah!  It’s simple.  It works.  It doesn’t insult the owner.

Now with an eight-speed transmission, 300 hustles down the road with grace and purpose, handling like it’s a size smaller than it is. Some say it looks too much like the previous generation, I find it the perfect re-interpretation of a classic.

Audi A6 ($50,775) and A7 ($60,125) These two are fraternal twins so I’m rolling them together as one.  A6 is the traditional sedan with a more spacious back seat.  It’s available as a front-drive model with a 211 horse turbocharged four-cylinder.  I suggest skipping it for the 311 horsepower 3.0-liter supercharged V6 bundled with quattro all-wheel drive.  Really, you’re buying a luxury sedan.  Go all in.

A7 is the super-model sister, a trendy “four-door coupe” with a practical twist- it’s a hatchback.  The rear seat gets its headroom clipped a bit so it isn’t as useful for your tall friends.  Both 6 and 7 get the same swept instrument panel that lives up to Audi’s reputation, and the sporty balanced driving dynamics will satisfy all but the hard core enthusiast.

For tech aficionados, there’s Google Earth sat nav, an input pad that reads your handwriting, and the ability to make the car a wi-fi hotspot.  Which ever you choose, you will not want for anything.

2011 Chrysler Town & CountryChrysler Town and Country (MSRP $30,830) Again, as we shopped for a car this summer this one seriously tempted my wife.  With one kid leaving for college buying a van now would be like cutting butter with a chainsaw.  This family room-on-wheels makes everyone’s life easier.  All vans have loads of cubbies and practical storage. Chrysler is the only one with mid-row seats that fold into the floor.  Great for impulse shoppers at garage sales… or is that bad?

The Pentastar V6 provides plenty of power, handling is crisp and the cabin is a huge upgrade from past Chryslers.  It even gets decent fuel economy.  Other manufacturers seem to be trying too hard to make their vans look like something else, without success.  Town and Country stays true to what it is, a comfortable and well-appointed family vehicle.

Chevrolet Volt (MSRP $39,995 before tax credits) An on-board gas-powered generator makes Volt the best choice for people who want an electric car as their only car. I consistently travelled 40 miles before dipping into gas mode.  After that I can drive to Florida if I want to.  Compare that with electric-only cars that demand a plug-in after a real world 80 miles.

Sporty handling means Volt is a real charge to drive.  People like the way it looks too. Yes, there’s the battery issue that NHTSA is looking at.  Frankly, if my car took one to three weeks to catch fire after a side impact with a pole then rolling over (the test performed by Uncle Sam), I would be relieved.  Gasoline powered cars have the capacity to burn much faster.  Until battery technology matures, Volt remains my choice for going green.

Runner Ups

Those are my top picks.  There were many that nearly made the cut. For small cars the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio are ones to shop.  Moving up a size I recommend taking a peak at Chevy Cruze and Mazda3. Midsized sedans? That’s an intensely crowded field.   Sonata, Regal, Passat and the new Camry are very well done.  Know that Accord, Malibu, Fusion and Altima will be brand spanking new in 2012.  I’m still smitten with Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CTS, Volvo S60 and Audi S4/S5 too.  Wait until you drive the new Lexus GS.  Just saying…

Crossovers are hot and it’s worth your time to test drive Equinox, Sportage, Tucson and the new CR-V in the less expensive five-passenger range.  Moving up in class, check out Audi Q5, Lexus RX, VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, and the stunning Range Rover Evoque (in both coupe and four-door models).  Need a seven seater?  Enclave, Traverse, Explorer, Pilot and Sorento are quite nice.  On the high end there’s Acura MDX and Audi Q7.

Where is Soul?

Finally, many of you know that my wife decided on a Kia Soul as her car, begging the question- why isn’t the car guy’s choice on the Top 11 list?  Well, Soul is a great car, a terrific value with a useful hatch but not overly mainstream.  I understand some aren’t on board with the daring design.  For us it’s a plus, it makes me smile every time I see it because I like design that takes a chance.  For those who think outside the box, Soul is a fun and functional choice.

23 Comments

  1. intotheoh says:

    So if you had to pick car of the year, what would it be?

    • TV says:

      Out of the list I’d choose between A7 and Elantra. The Audi is a great car and watching peoples reaction to it is more entertaining than turning on the TV. People swoon as they walk by it. All that and it has a great interior and performs well. Tough to beat.

      The Elantra is significant in that it comes pretty much out of nowhere to challenge the biggest players in the game- Civic and Corolla. Considering the number of copies that will be sold this year it’s a very big deal. It’s good looking, fuel efficient, full of features, and priced right.

  2. Ken says:

    damn I miss the Japanese cars…………..LOLLLLL…….not!

  3. jyu524 says:

    Glad to see the KIA making a drive for the market. I love the peppiness of the KIA which made driving 90 mph seem like 60. Ooops, was I going over the speed limit?

  4. motorstreet says:

    I think your choice of the Soul shows that the best cars aren’t always the best cars to buy, because the best cars don’t necessarily meet everybody’s specific demands.

    I also think you should have included the Golf TDI with the GTI, because it is less expensive than the GTI, nearly as fun, more comfortable, has similar real world performance, and easily gets well over 40 mpg. I am happy to see that my VW Touareg made the Runner ups list, but I would have included it in the top 11. I know you haven’t tested the Golf TDI or Touareg TDI, but I love both of mine.

    I’m surprised you chose the Town & Country over the Odyssey, because while the T & C is hugely improved and a good value the Odyssey seems like it’s still the best minivan. In my opinion the Porsche Cayenne is far too expensive to be a Runner Up, especially considering that the V6 model isn’t very good. I’m happy to see that you’re not letting the silly Volt fire stories stop you from including it in this list. It’s a great car and a huge technological innovation.

    • TV says:

      Well put. The Soul fit my wife to a T. Others? Not so much. BTW it’s been a great car so far.

      I’ll stick with the GTI on that list (even though I’m a fan of the TDI). Handling and performance is a few notches higher and worth the poorer fuel economy for performance folks.

      I just feel the T and C is more useful, better appointed, quieter and less expensive. Neither are going to win a beauty pageant but there I still think the Chrysler wins. That sort of sums it up.

      Yes, the Cayenne is very expensive but I sure liked that rig. Very, very nice. I need to make more money…

  5. FinalBlue says:

    Wow, only 2 Hyundai/Kia products? I’m really surprised you brought yourself to…oh wait, you plugged most of them in the Runner Ups section. Never mind.

    Hahaha, only kidding (mostly)…

    This is actually a good list, BUT:

    Chrysler 300: I could’ve sworn you only reviewed the 5-speed 300 C, not the new 8-speed. Why would you talk about the new(er) 300 in the video if you didn’t review it?

    Hyundai Elantra: That awkward moment when Hyundai gets letters from consumer groups claiming they are grossly exaggerating their fuel economy numbers.

    Kia Optima: That other awkward moment when the Optima sells poorly month after month.

    • TV says:

      There are lots of Hyundai’s and Kia’s that aren’t on the either Top 11 or runner up lists. You seem to be preoccupied with them FB. ; > )

      I have driven the 8-speed but have not done a formal review on it. I drive a lot of cars that I just can’t do video reviews on, I need a bigger staff. Wait, I don’t have a staff, it’s just me.

      My test Elantra got very good fuel economy. Wasn’t aware Optima sells poorly, haven’t looked at the numbers. They are in short supply in the NW.

      • CalgaryGuy says:

        I was intrigued by FB’s efforts at stirring up the pot. So I compared Elantra with some competitors at the big “consumer group” site. I looked at Caliber, Civic, Cruze, and Mazda3 as my test group. Only the Civic was a fuel economy rival in C_ R_’s independent testing (same overall mpg). The consumer group ranks it as their top “small car”.

        As for Optima sales: November Kia Optima ranked #15 in US car sales. Sales of the Optima have increased 570% over last year (stats from November 2011).

        Here’s what I consider to be an awkward moment from poor sales. Honda sold 4 (!) Insights in all of Canada for November.

        • TV says:

          Wait, is this the CR that denied Civic a recommended rating or are you saying Elantra is top rated? Suppose I could look it up…

          I think stirring the pot is good, I wish FB would hang out more.

          Four Insights? That is awkward. Bleak.

          • CalgaryGuy says:

            Sorry. ELANTRA was top for “small sedan”. Some small sporty cars and hatches, like the Golf, were higher rated but didn’t compete in the same category.

            Civic was the only reliable small car that wasn’t recommended. It scored badly in testing, near the bottom with with the Lancer and Jetta.

            I feel Civic has fallen asleep while everyone else got better. Overpriced too. But it’s selling big here in Canada, so what do I know?

            • raschmidt says:

              I don’t think the civic is overpriced anymore, it used to be when a loaded one cost 26-27k, but so do the Cruze and Focus now. The Elantra is the one that surprisingly doesn’t go above 23k, but I’m sure that will change with the first refresh.

              • CalgaryGuy says:

                What a dramatic price drop! So the new model of Civic was all about getting the price back into line — taking a lesson from VW’s Jetta (where the reviewers hated the car, but the public is lining up to buy them).

                I apologize Honda. You’re not in a coma.

                Raschmidt, the only problem with what you said is that now I might have to take a Civic for a test drive.

      • raschmidt says:

        I see a lot of new Optima’s in Iowa. I was surprised at the amount of attention the new Sonata got, because I think the Optima is way more of a stunner and attention getter IMO. It’s too bad the driving dynamics aren’t better though, if this had been based on the Genesis like the GT concept, I could see some enthusiasts going banana’s over the Optima.

    • FinalBlue says:

      In regards to the Elantra, I was referring to the Consumer Watchdog incident, not Consumer Reports.

      As for the Optima, considering all the good press and hype it’s gotten (both deserved and not), being #15 in sales for a month isn’t that spectacular (and you mean midsize car sales, right? Because I’m fairly certain the Optima has never went beyond 10K units/month). Not that sales necessarily represent the quality of a car, mind.

      And when did the new model start going on sale? Because a crazy big % increase like that would be pretty meaningless if it was the vastly inferior last-gen Optima on sale November 2010.

      You want to talk truly depressing sales? Look at Acura’s RL numbers in Canada.

      • TV says:

        Kia’s best selling units are Sorento and Soul (at around 125K and 110K respectfully annually). The best figures I can find say Optima averages about 7,000 a month. I wouldn’t call that poor, but I would expect a car this good to be better. I’ll guess Suzuki wishes they could sell that many Kizashis.

        Hyundai/Kia production is maxed out worldwide so it’s hard to know if those numbers are because of demand or less than they could be because of supply constraints. My own experience found it very hard to find the Soul we were looking for, the Exclaim model was in extremely short supply. Apparently, the US is Soul’s biggest market by far.

        I’d be curious to know the Camry or Accord sales figures for the first five years of American sales to see if they’re similar to what is happening with Optima/Sonata. Historically though, it isn’t an even playing field. Back then people were leaving lousy American cars for Japanese brands with good reputations. These days you have to believe it’s hard to win over Accord, Camry, Altima buyers who are satisfied. So the market is different and more competitive now days. Even the American brands with Malibu and Fusion are decent (and about to get much better). The next few years will be fun to watch.

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  7. kenwenzel says:

    I am surprised the Sonic made the list but the Fiesta didn’t. The Fiesta is so close to the Focus, plus they put all the brake pads in the Fiesta. Your list was probably made before the announcement that around 5,000 Sonics may have gone out the door without the correct number of brake pads on them. How does anybody let this happen? Not a bad choice of 11 though. Happy New Year.

    • TV says:

      I tried to choose a car from each major category so there was not room for the two. The Sonic just has that quality about it that makes it fun, plus using all of the controls was very easy.

      Really though, it was hardest picking it over the supremely useful Fit. Sonic’s quickness and quietness won out for me. Like many categories it was very hard to choose.

    • raschmidt says:

      The fiesta was cool when it came out, and was certainly leading the pack, but I think the Sonic is leaps and bounds beyond it, yeah no brake pads is ridiculous but the Fiesta cannot be had with brake pads at all on the rear axle!

    • TV says:

      Also, the brake issue doesn’t make much of a difference to me. Read beyond the headlines and it’s expected they will find very few cars with that issue among the 4,200 they are recalling. Embarrassing? You bet, but these things happen and not just to GM. I’m going to guess there’s a supplier that didn’t have a very good holiday this year…