Alex’s Top Car Picks

Best Car Under $20,000

Scion iA

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Although the iA looks like the unholy spawn of a Dustbuster and a catfish, Scion’s new sedan is a well-disguised slice of forbidden fruit. You see, this is the Mazda2I was worried the Toyota/Mazda tie-up would produce the worst of both worlds but the opposite has happened (except for the front end). The iA is 100-percent Mazda, from the great driving dynamics to the slick manual transmission and high fuel economy.

What’s Toyota’s contribution? Pricing. It comes only two ways: with or without the automatic. The crazy-low price of $15,700 even includes the touchscreen infotainment system, pre-collision warning and navigation can be added for a tuppence after you buy the car. Move over Versa, the new King is in town. Note to Toyota: Can you have Mazda design the next FR-S?

Best Car Under $30,000

Hyundai Sonata & Kia Optima

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First there was Camcord, now there is Optinata. As of December 1, more than 346,000 Optinatas have found new driveways in America. That’s one out of every five midsized sedans sold in 2015. While the Camcord basks in the glow of Honda and Toyota’s reputation for reliability and resale value, Optinata is a better value, has a longer warranty and is 41-percent less boring. If a more sedate style is your choice, go for Sonata. If you want a more aggressive look and slightly better steering feel, choose Optima.

Best Crossover

Kia Sorento

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Kia is on a roll these days and I have to think their relationship with Hyundai is the cause. Hyundai takes the first stab at a new car and Kia has about a year to tweak the related Kia model after seeing how Hyundai’s take was received.

The Sorento is a tweener crossover being neither compact nor mid-sized. Although trying to be everything for everyone usually ends in abject failure, the Sorento surprised on every front except fuel economy. It’s an upgrade to the RAV4 or CRV, a strong competitor to the Edge and Murano, and a value alternative to an MDX or Highlander Titanium.

Crossover Runner-up

Mazda CX-5

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 A close runner-up for me would be a Mazda CX-5 with a manual transmission. Why? #SaveTheManuals. Aside from that it is also a great value and delivers excellent fuel economy. With an interior that leads the category this CX-5 beats the RAV-4 and Escape in design hands down. The only down side is that none of the engines is as powerful as the turbo competition.

 

Best Performance Car

Dodge Charger SRT & Dodge Challenger SRT

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Nobody does bat-shit-crazy like Chrysler, and that’s why the nonHellcat SRT is my top pick. Say what? You see, justifying a 485 horsepower family sedan would normally be tricky, but the mere existence of the Hellcat changes everything. Just tell your wife that the 707 horsepower Hellcat “seemed excessive” so you opted for the “responsible engine choice.” See? Problem solved.

Chrysler’s shoe-string budget resulted in minimal body changes for SRT-duty, so 275-width tires are as big as you can go. That’s okay for 485 ponies, but swizzle-stick thin for 707 and a curb weight over 4,400 pounds. Does it matter? Not when a 6.4-liter V-8 sounds this good. If you’re gentle on the go-pedal, you can even approach 30 mpg on the highway thanks to the ZF 8-speed automatic. The Scat Pack is the discount choice but the narrow tires mean the SRT is the better buy. God bless ‘Murica.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

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The Alfa 4C didn’t make it to the list. Neither did a list of other cars I’ve driven on or off the track, including the BMW i8, Audi S7, BMW M235i, Ford GT 350, Dodge Viper, Jaguar F-Type, or Corvette Stingray. Aside from the fact that I can’t afford or afford to operate any of those cars, the MX-5 bubbled to the surface anyway.

There’s something refreshing about a car that’s unpretentious and puts a smile on your face every time you drive. It’s not fast, it’s not quiet and it doesn’t handle as well as the list of cars above, but it’s the only one that I didn’t want to give back. ‘Nuf said.

Best Luxury Crossover

Volvo XC90

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Volvo’s new flagship crossover arrived just as most luxury shoppers were forgetting the Swedes still built cars. While it’s about five years late, the XC90’s exterior and interior are worth the wait. The seats are comfy, the wood is divine, and somehow Volvo manages to make a front-wheel-drive-based, three-row crossover dance like an X5. While I’m still not sure about Volvo’s claim that a 2.0-liter engine will satisfy everyone, it did scoot to 60 faster than the X5 xDrive35i. And XC90 T6 is easier to say than X5 xDrive35i.

If you want the craziest drivetrain you’ve ever heard of, the T8 is turbocharged, supercharged, hybridized, and fitted with a plug. What could go wrong? Who knows? Leasing is your friend.

Best Luxury Value

Kia K900

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Since I’m writing this with a bottle of wine in one hand and an $2,800 parts bill for my Jaguar Super V8 (not repair bill since I’m doing the work) value and a long warranty are high on my priority list. If you’re hunting for the best buy in the luxury segment, look no further than the Kia K900. 

I wouldn’t say the K900 is the equal of a 740i or S550 but it is half the price. Ask yourself how much the Mercedes logo is worth to you. If the answer isn’t $70,000 then you should buy the Kia and enjoy your long warranty. Again, I’m not saying the K900 is as good as an A8L, XJL, 750iL, or S550. What I am saying is that this is 85% the car for 50% of the cash. For the best deal, lease one. Kia was throwing some serious cash on the hood in 2015 and this is likely to happen again in 2016.