The car market is regaining traction. And in testing about 80 vehicles in the past year, we’ve gotten a good look at what’s new and notable. With erratic pump prices and stricter gas-mileage standards being phased in, fuel economy is a prominent goal. Automakers are pursuing it with more small cars, hybrids, and diesels; more efficient gas engines and transmissions; and a budding wave of electric vehicles (EVs). Here are some highlights:
Gas-free but limited. The first modern mainstream electric cars to hit the road were the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. After months of testing, we found that plugging in can cut your driving costs, if you can live with the limitations. With the Leaf, we averaged about 75 miles between charges. A full charge takes about 6 hours with a 240-volt charger. The Volt runs on gas when its battery is depleted (after about 35 miles), but from then on it gets only 32 mpg, costing more per mile than many other hybrids. Still, this is just the beginning; more EVs are coming from Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Toyota.
The diesel alternative. For many people, diesel engines still carry the stigma of being dirty, clattering, and smoky. But modern clean-diesel cars aren’t that different to drive than conventional gas vehicles—except for better fuel economy. In the past year we tested four diesels from Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, and each delivered competitive performance with impressive fuel mileage, from 24 mpg overall for the midsized VW Touareg SUV to 37 mpg for the Passat TDI sedan.
Hit-or-miss redesigns. We’re still seeing revamped models that don’t measure up to those they replaced. The road-test scores of the Honda Civic EX, Nissan Versa SV, and Volkswagen Jetta all dropped 16 points. The small Chevrolet Sonic, on the other hand, scored 29 points higher than the Aveo it replaced.
Chrysler 2.0. Now under the reins of Fiat, Chrysler is gradually revamping its entire lineup. In testing nine Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep models, we’ve found that they are getting better, more or less. Most improved are the Chrysler 300, Dodge Durango, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Chrysler 200 (which replaced the Sebring), the Dodge Avenger, and the Jeep Compass and Patriot, not so much.
Good, bad, and ugly control systems. New in-dash infotainment systems provide access to gas prices, weather, stock quotes, and lots of Web-based info. They offer a new level of convenience, but often the complicated, poorly executed designs and growing number of connected services can be very distracting for drivers. We gave a thumbs-up to Chrysler’s touch-screen system but a thumbs-down to Ford’s MyFord Touch (although Ford is making mild changes).
Visit the annual auto issue special section for quick access to the latest Ratings, articles, and videos.