For the 2014 model year about 20 new models hit the street and another 20 or so received major redesigns. Automakers typically make a big deal over newly designed models at flamboyant auto-show launches and build the hype through pricey ad campaigns, all of which is intended to stir up anticipation among eager car watchers.
But when we strip away the fanfare and put the cars through our real-world testing program, some uphold their high expectations while others can’t make the grade. Here are five models that stood out in our tests and four that don’t deserve the buzz.
Chevrolet Impala Photo:
Chevrolet Impala. This redesigned large sedan was the surprise of the year. In the 20 years we’ve been publishing numerical scores for test vehicles, a domestic car has never qualified as the top overall sedan. Until now, that is. In a major turnaround, the Impala went from lingering at the bottom of its class to topping its competitors. Moreover, it’s one of the highest-rated vehicles we’ve tested, outscoring luxury sedans costing $20,000 more. The Impala rides like a luxury car while delivering surprisingly agile handling, capable acceleration, very good interior quality, a roomy rear seat, and a huge trunk. Overall, there’s little that the Impala doesn’t do well.
Ford Fusion. Forsaking the bland tradition of many midsized sedans, the Fusion mixes eye-catching looks, upscale interior ambience, and most important, a really fun driving experience. We tested three versions—a mid-trim, a high-trim, and a hybrid—and all provided an unusually civilized ride and a blissfully quiet cabin. The top-trim Titanium version is the best-handling midsized sedan we’ve tested, and the hybrid averaged an excellent 39 mpg. Fuel economy of the nonhybrids is mediocre, however, and cabin space is much less generous than in, say, a Honda Accord. The aggravating optional MyFord Touch control system could be a turnoff for some, but this is one car we really enjoy driving.
Honda Accord. The Accord may be a little short on pizzazz, but it does almost everything else very well. The airy, spacious cabin boasts one of the best driving positions available, along with comfortable seats and terrific visibility. The refined four-cylinder engine provides an amazing 30 mpg overall and 40 on the highway, while the smooth and punchy V6 averaged a very good 26. Handling is agile, with a taut, tied-down feel. And the long list of standard equipment includes a backup camera and automatic climate control, with high-tech electronic safety aids standard on higher trim levels.
Hyundai Santa Fe. The seven-passenger Santa Fe is one of the most pleasant and well-rounded three-row SUVs we’ve tested. It’s stylish, drives well, and provides a lot of features for the money. The Santa Fe has a comfortable ride, a quiet interior, responsive handling, easy access, and user-friendly controls. It also pulls off the tricky balance of providing a spacious cabin, with a limo-like rear seat and generous cargo area, without feeling too bulky while driving. Don’t confuse this model with the shorter, five-passenger Santa Fe Sport, which is a different version that didn’t score as well in our tests.
Subaru Forester Photo:
Subaru Forester. The small-SUV class has been thoroughly reshaped over the past couple of years as all of the top models were redesigned. The finishing touch was the 2014 Forester, which handily out-pointed some very good competitors, including the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and Toyota RAV4. It looks plain and unpretentious, but the Forester’s space-efficient interior, large windows, and big square doors provide excellent sight lines and very easy access. Plus, a new continuously variable transmission helps it deliver best-in-class fuel economy of 26 mpg overall. Gripes? Ride comfort is OK but not as cushy as before, and its infotainment features are behind the curve.
Acura RLX. The RLX replaced the RL as Acura’s flagship sedan. But not only is it overpriced, it doesn’t have what it takes to compete with better luxury models, such as the Audi A6, Lexus GS, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The RLX is actually more comparable with models such as the Chrysler 300 and Toyota Avalon, which cost thousands less. It’s plush and spacious inside, but the ride is jumpy and handling is ponderous, undermining its luxury-car aspirations. A much better buy: the Chevrolet Impala.
Lexus IS. The Lexus IS tries hard to be a credible sports sedan, but can’t cut the mustard. while the small V6 in the Is 250 is smooth and refined, it isn’t powerful yet has a big appetite for fuel at 20 mpg overall. Handling is uninspiring and the ride manages stiff and uncomposed. the interior is extremely cramped, cabin access is a chore, and in-cabin storage is woefully inadequate. all-wheel-drive versions have a hump on the driver-side
that cuts into foot and legroom. Finally, some of the controls are overly complicated.
Mitsubishi Outlander. The Outlander needed to hit a home run to keep Mitsubishi relevant in the popular small-SUV class, but it just can’t compete with the top models. It’s the only small SUV to provide a standard third-row seat, which can hold a couple of kids in a pinch. But that’s not enough to offset its long list of shortcomings, including a noisy cabin, clumsy handling, a stiff ride, sluggish acceleration, and interior trim that looks cheap and feels insubstantial. Overall, the Outlander doesn’t score well enough to be recommended.
Nissan Sentra. The 2013 Sentra looks good on paper, but it falls far short of expectations. Its best quality may be the rear seat, which is one of the roomiest in the compact-sedan class. Another plus is that attractive options such as a navigation system and backup camera are reasonably priced. But the driving experience is underwhelming. Handling is uninspiring, acceleration feels lethargic, the ride is choppy, and the nonstop engine drone got on our nerves.
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