Car Buyer’s Guide for 2015-2016: Randy’s Picks
by Randy Stern
As an automotive journalist/writer, it seems that people think I am more accessible as a point of consumer information than, say, Cars.com or Edmunds.com!
I get it. I drive a lot of cars throughout the year. I should have a knowledge base of every damn vehicle sold in North America. Sure, I try. It does give me headaches at night, though.
Though I believe in giving you what you want, I decided to do the following: Scan every vehicle segment sold in the USA for model years 2015 and 2016, find out what the current sales leader for each segment is, and tell you what I would buy in that segment. Fair enough?
Consumers, get ready for some consumer advice from yours truly…
SUBCOMPACT/CITY CARS – SALES LEADER: NISSAN VERSA
RANDY’S PICK: NISSAN VERSA NOTE
The Versa lineup is diverse – including sedans and the Note hatchback. To me, a subcompact is a hatchback, designed for urban use while versatile enough to tackle suburban and rural environments, It should also be one that is comfortable enough for sizeable journeys. The Scion iA is a great value, but it is a sedan. Yet, the Kia Rio is more powerful and rather comfy, especially in hatchback form. And, the Honda Fit is built well with a great level of quality, but it fell short in a few spots for me.
What makes the Versa Note stand out is in interior volume. You never expect a subcompact to have real rear seat room. The Note has better rear seat room than any of its competitors. I can sit behind myself and not complain over several miles. That is what makes the Versa Note stand out. Plus, it is fun to drive with the latest Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission that works well with the 1.6 liter engine. It handles quite well and rides smoothly for a small car. Plus, it feels light on its feet. All of this adds up to a great package within the price points of the class.
Nissan does not break down sales between the Versa sedan and the Note. It appears they sell more sedans. I think they should sell more Notes. That is the better Versa between the two.
SUBCOMPACT CROSSOVERS – SALES LEADER: JEEP RENEGADE
RANDY’S PICK: MAZDA CX-3
Though the Renegade truly defines the segment with advances, such as an available two-speed all-wheel drive system and the Jeep name, drivers…and passengers…might think of something more crossover-ish to drive. Enter the 2016 Mazda CX-3. For drivers who want a better grip on the road – figuratively and literally – it should be a better match for plenty of lifestyles.
Think of it as a mini-CX-5. The enthusiast’s choice is the popular compact crossover/SUV segment already exhibited high aptitude in terms of driver engagement and safety technology. The CX-3 carries that them in looks, interior design and comfort. It also adds active safety features, such as Smart City Brake Support, Advanced Blind Spot Monitoring, Land Departure Warning System, Distance Recognition Support System and so forth – all known as i-Activesense. There is the improved Mazda Connect infotainment system, designed similarly to most of its models with the knob and better screen. All of this, and an engaging drive, too!
Sure, you could get the Renegade or the Honda HR-V, if you like. I have a feeling that one drive in the CX-3 will get you good.
COMPACT CARS – SALES LEADER: HONDA CIVIC
RANDY’S PICK: SCION iM
Wha?!? Yes, the Scion. While enthusiasts will call out the Mazda3 as the one to get, in order to get one that is exciting and very enjoyable, it will cost one well beyond $26,000…about $30,000 for a fully loaded 2.5 liter Grand Touring hatchback model. Instead, Scion delivers a great hatchback for a little over $22,000. Granted it has less power, a CVT and is actually a Toyota Corolla, however one would walk away with the feeling that they are getting a real value overall. You do get a lot for the money.
It is powered by a 1.8 liter Valvematic four-cylinder with 137 horsepower, the optional CVT and a set of seventeen-inch alloys. There is the familiar Corolla instrument panel, but with more supportive seats and better headroom in the back. The expandable cargo space is also a huge sell…even more space than the Mazda3. Plus, Scion offers plenty of programs to keep owners engaged. Yet, what sold me on the Scion was the smile on my face after a great drive in one. Certainly the Mazda3 is sportier and more sure footed. In its own little way, the Scion iM actually is a fun driver that is guilt-free.
Shocked? You should be. A drive in the Scion iM is worth discovering a true gem in this competitive class. And the money you save could go into upgrades…like cold air intakes and such.
COMPACT CROSSOVERS/SUVS – SALES LEADER: HONDA CR-V
RANDY’S PICK: HYUNDAI TUCSON
With all due respect to any of my family and friends who own the sales leader in this class, but I am about to throw a curve ball here. Until July, my go-to vehicle in this class was the Mazda CX-5. That was until I drove the 2016 Hyundai Tucson. Then, I drove another CX-5. I felt something has changed in my psyche when I drove it. Maybe because I found the newest Tucson more towards the target of what I was looking for its class.
The reason for this change from the CX-5 to the Tucson? There are several reasons, starting with better interior execution. The infotainment system was improved in the Mazda, but I got better instrumentation and an overall improved layout in the Hyundai. The seats were more comfortable and there is better cargo and rear seat room utilization. The Tucson is very handsome and easier to the eyes. However, the proof is under the hood. I simply loved how the 1.6 liter turbocharged engine combined with a 7-speed dual clutch transmission was able to make driving a crossover full of pure joy! I felt no fatigue taking the Tucson on longer journeys – a key decider towards buying the right crossover/SUV in my book.
Sure, it’s a huge surprise that I would prefer the Hyundai over ye ol’ Mazda CX-5. Maybe it is a sign that Hyundai is truly hitting the mark in product when they absolutely need to.
MIDSIZED FAMILY CARS – SALES LEADER: TOYOTA CAMRY
RANDY’S PICK: MAZDA6
Not surprising that I pick a driver’s car than anything else. You can seat four-to-five people in a Mazda6. Some of my friends might not like having their heads cut off at the rear window, but this is why I consider this more a driver’s sedan than anything. It really requires a little enthusiast bravado to make the most out of the Mazda6. Yet, it is not super fast or quick. The 2.5 liter Skyactiv engine can do much from its high compression self. Still, equipped as the Grand Touring with the big wheels, meaty tires, along with the combination of active safety and energy recovery system – it is the kind of sedan you want to take out on the weekends somewhere far away.
However, a sedan in this class must fit people – families, co-workers, clients, friends, people you wished would go away…you get the idea. The Mazda6 does a fine job doing so, as long as they do not complain about hitting their head on the rear glass. They will be thoroughly entertained by the improved infotainment system, piped through Bose speakers. They will be properly climate controlled. Most importantly, they can take a curve…unless the driver is a bit more responsible and conscientious of its passengers.
So, why aren’t people buying the Mazda6? What are you afraid of? Take a risk, drive one…you’ll love it!
MIDSIZED CROSSOVER/SUVS – SALES LEADER: FORD EXPLORER
RANDY’S PICK: FORD EXPLORER
Ah, something I can agree on! Though the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a great vehicle, Ford has a product that is more engaging and actually quite fun. Of course, I have not driven the 2.0 liter EcoBoost of V6 models to make this determination. There is one model that truly makes the Explorer what it is – the Sport. Figures I choose the performance model over the rest…
The truth is that the Sport shows the upper limits the Explorer was developed for the rest of its lineup. I really don’t need a third row, but the Explorer offers one in case you need it. The cargo space is very generous and versatile, especially for things I could think of hauling. Speaking of hauling, the 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6 is the right engine for this Sport. It simply kicks butt. That is not a consumer term to use, but quite apt considering what the Sport was designed to do. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the instrumentation is on point and the driving dynamics package is superb for this application.
Every inch of the Explorer Sport is an indicator on how well executed the 2016 updates were applied to make this SUV a segment leader. The rest of the lineup looks very good, as well.
PREMIUM/LUXURY CARS – SALES LEADER: BMW 3-SERIES
RANDY’S PICK: LEXUS RC
I preferred a coupe over any sedan…I must be out of my mind! Well, no. Let me explain my logic: I am a single guy. I do not have any pets or love interests at this time. I do not need four doors if I decided to spend somewhere between $45,000 and $80,000…even more than that. Once I drove two versions of the new Lexus 2+2 coupe, I was in love. Who cares about trunk space, if I can put a bag’s worth of my clothes in it…and my new drum? Heck, I’ll throw some stuff in the back seat, which I can access with power sliding front seats.
The equipment levels are perfect in the RC 350 F Sport, including optional active safety and premium amenities. The seats are engaging and I love how the V6 F Sport rear-drive model drives. Could I consider all-wheel drive for those Minnesota winters? Maybe a second set of tires/wheels for the winter…
However, I would love to be able to own the RC F. That car has won my heart. I said the following in another outlet: “The best car I ever driven…period.” It is that combination of everything I love in cars throughout my lifetime – muscle car performance, a classic European long hood/short rear deck 2+2 design and Japanese technology and engineering. It is the kind of car that would make a Minneapolis-Chicago (or, L.A.-Bay Area) run effortless with a stint at Autobahn Country Club for some hot laps. Yes, it is that kind of car.
PREMIUM/LUXURY CROSSOVERS/SUVS – SALES LEADER: LEXUS RX
RANDY’S PICK: PORSCHE CAYENNE
Again, I throw a wild curve in this game. You can’t get any wilder than a Porsche. Yet, the biggest secret among luxury SUVs is that the Cayenne not only will carry five people in sporty comfort and can…with the right model…haul butt across miles of tarmac. It can go off road…competently.
With that said, picking the right Cayenne is a job in itself. It would be easier to just get the basic V6 model, but the performance side in me would pass. The practical side would think it simply suffices, because it is quite roomy, versatile and quite engaging to drive. The next step would be the Cayenne Diesel with better fuel economy and a punchy engine. Maybe. The Cayenne S adds a couple of turbochargers to the gas-fueled V6 – an engine I enjoyed in a Panamera 4S recently. Obviously, Porsche equals performance, so I would desire something more powerful, such as the V8-powered GTS or either of the Turbo models. The GTS would not make sense off-road, the Turbo or Turbo S may be a bit overkill. So…the Cayenne S it is! The Diesel comes in second.
The point of all is this is simple: Porsche makes a good SUV. It helped bring new customers to the showrooms. Why not take a chance and indulge in a little awesomeness?
PICKUP TRUCKS – SALES LEADER: FORD F-SERIES
RANDY’S PICK: OH BOY…
Until this year, I had one truck that I would consider above all else – the Ram 1500. Then, I drove the 2015 Ford F-150…and a 2015 Chevrolet Silverado. The thing is that each pickup has a distinct character, yet they all do the same exact job. I better talk you through all of this…after all I am the truckmaster of Why This Ride?
The Ford F-150 is a fantastic truck. It is lighter in weight with extensive use of turbocharging for their gasoline engines. The results were astonishing – the first full-sized pickup I have reviewed to achieve above 18.0MPG on the average. That number may still seem low, but is easier to decipher than 15.0MPG. It drives exceptionally well, hauls fantastically and truly satisfies the driver. The leap of improvement from prior F-150s is measurable, which makes it even worth the sales it yields every month.
On the other hand, I can count on the Silverado to do the job. Which job? Hauling, trailering…taking me anywhere I ask it to…those jobs! The Chevrolet goes about its business without complaint with solid drivelines and a rigid frame. The interior has improved to be more of a workplace than anything else in the market. The Silverado keeps on proving itself with reports of dependability and longevity – two assets truck owners measure their vehicle’s worth towards brand loyalty and repeat purchases.
However, as soon as I thought I was taken by Chevrolet and Ford, the Ram will always bring me back to reality. There are two reasons: EcoDiesel and the Rebel. You already know how much I appreciate Ram’s design execution, high interior quality and engineering excellence. The EcoDiesel is a strong engine capable of doing great things when equipped right. The Rebel makes off-roading more accessible in a package that is both comfortable and enjoyable to drive.
It’s tough to pick just one pickup these days. It would depend on what I really want in one. The EcoDiesel’s torque is fantastic, but I like the EcoBoost’s swagger…and the Ecotec 3’s balance…you decide, OK?