American car companies say they're retooling and - finally! - making stylish, reliable, high-mpg vehicles. So maybe you're thinking it's time to buy American for the first time in years.
Wait, you're not? Consider this: The most recent J.D. Power and Associates' auto satisfaction study shows American-made cars ranked only five points down from imports ... on a 1,000-point scale. And a new 2009 customer satisfaction survey from the University of Michigan put three U.S. brands (Cadillac, Buick and Lincoln-Mercury) in the top five.
Below, we've listed six models from the Not-So-Big Three and U.S. electric car start-up Tesla. The first four are family cars; the others are luxury models. Two of the 2010 models are in showrooms now - both of them Fords - while the other 2010s will arrive later in September.
Before you start shopping, two caveats for you to keep in mind. First, unexpected demand from Cash for Clunkers has left some automakers short of inventory, so you may need to wait for a few popular models. Second, you may find manufacturer cash bonuses hard to come by: Many apply only to 2009 models, which carmakers are still trying to unload, and some are available just in certain regions.
We based our picks on reliability research, value for your money, and on-the-road test drives. And we practically guarantee that one of them will surprise you. Read on for details.
Why you should consider it: This mid-size sedan is fun to drive - especially with a manual transmission. It's a fine family car; it's also one that doting parents will feel confident handing over to college-bound kids. In our driving tests, the Fusion felt taut and rattle-free. A four-cylinder engine is standard, but the optional V-6 versions are smooth and responsive. (Traction control would be particularly helpful on the V-6s.) The Fusion hybrid, which combines a four-cylinder engine with an electric motor for 191 horsepower, offers 39 mpg overall, surpassing the Toyota Camry Hybrid.
The reviewers say: "Upon its debut [in 2006], the Fusion's spacious cabin, responsive driving dynamics and attractive styling made it competitive, but there were a few missing elements.... A thorough refresh for 2010, however, addressed those elements, elevating the Fusion to elite status among midsize family sedans." -Edmunds.com
And Consumer Reports, notoriously hard on domestics, calls the Ford Fusion "not only one of the very best cars produced by Detroit, but one of the best mid-sized sedans made by any company."
Price check: The Fusion starts at $19,270. Incentives include $1,000 in cash rebates plus zero percent financing on 2010s, and as much as $3,500 back on 2009 models. There are no incentives on hybrids.
Fuel economy: 22 city/31 highway (Fusion S); 41 city/36 highway (hybrid)
Drawbacks: The rear seat does not fold down in the hybrid version, which also has a smaller trunk to accommodate the battery pack.
Why you should consider it: The Malibu has moved upscale. The new, sophisticated Euro-styled sedan is an affordable family car that doesn't require you to make a lot of compromises. If not quite a sports sedan, it offers enough performance to satisfy buyers who'd rather not be seen in a minivan.
There are four Malibu trim levels, from base LS to luxury LTZ, and four-cylinder and V-6 versions. But even the barebones models come with most features buyers want, including satellite radio. In our driving test, the Malibu was quiet and refined - two qualities that have often eluded American carmakers. Fit and finish has been a Detroit bugaboo, but the Malibu had no noticeable loose panels, wide gaps, or rattles.
The reviewers say: "Our staff has been impressed with the Chevrolet Malibu. Priced considerably less than a comparably equipped Accord or Camry, the Malibu's combination of handsome looks, a spacious and well-finished cabin, competent performance and a quiet ride finally gives Chevy a serious player in this tough segment." -Edmunds.com
Price check: The Malibu starts at $21,605; 2009 models have rebates of $1,500 or zero percent financing.
Fuel economy: 22 city/30 highway (LS)
Drawbacks: Don't expect Audi-level handling. The Malibu is made for Middle America and it's no sports car.
Why you should consider it: Though minivans draw horrified reactions from some suburban snobs, their space is much more efficient and comfortable than most SUVs. Chrysler knows what little kids like: The Town & Country has swiveling seats that let the second and third rows face each other (with a table in the middle), and rear-seat entertainment systems to let the kids watch Wall-E with wireless headphones. The Town & Country comes in seven trims - have it your way - and can be ordered with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. We like the standard 3.3-liter V-6 engine because it provides plenty of power, but you can move up to a somewhat thirsty 3.8-liter V-6 for more horsepower. Although the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey are worthy alternatives, the Town & Country offers alluring cash incentives.
The reviewers say: "The latest hauler from the company that invented the minivan in the early 1980s, the Town & Country is Chrysler's best and most sophisticated yet." -Forbes
Price check: $26,415 (LX), plus up to $4,500 in cash incentives - or zero to 2.9 percent financing plus $1,000 cash on 2009 models.
Fuel economy: 17 city/25 highway (3.3-liter LX)
Drawbacks: May not be as reliable as a Toyota or Honda minivan, but Chrysler's track record has improved.
Why you should consider it: This is undoubtedly the best-performing, most fuel-efficient small SUV on the market. Updated in 2008, the Escape Hybrid now features a host of standard safety improvements, including a "spotter mirror" to see around blind spots, a MyKey system that lets parents limit the car's top speed (and audio volume) when their teenagers drive, and electronic stability control. In our road tests, the Escape Hybrid handled better than many crossover SUVs and moved seamlessly between electric and gas-engine mode. The vehicle also features the "traffic-light auto-stop," which shuts the gas engine down until you lift your foot off the brake - a useful option that helps the Escape Hybrid achieve excellent fuel economy. Just skip the power-robbing all-wheel-drive - it's an unnecessary, expensive ($1,750) option.
The reviewers say: "Escape's fuel efficiency, attractive price and spacious interior will give buyers who still want the looks and capacity of an SUV an appealing alternative to the flood of curvy little crossovers." -Detroit Free Press
Price check: $31,500.
Fuel economy: 34 city/31 highway (front-wheel-drive version)
Drawbacks: Styling is somewhat dated and cabin noise is a little high.
Why you should consider it: Moving to the luxury category, this entry-level sports sedan is your kind of car if you love driving and relish a livelier morning commute. The spritely CTS has an efficient, responsive, direct-injected V-6, coupled to a six-speed automatic. The high-performance CTS-V comes with a 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 engine. And Caddy owners are happy owners; in that University of Michigan customer satisfaction survey, Cadillac tied with Lexus for first place.
The reviewers say: "Cadillac CTS continues to compete with the best from Mercedes and BMW with a distinctly American approach, boasting some of the top tech features in its class." -The Car Connection
Price check: $36,730, up to $3,000 cash back on 2009 cars and zero percent financing is also available.
Fuel economy: 18 city/27 highway (base V-6); 12 city/18 highway (CTS-V)
Drawbacks: Front seats may be uncomfortable for some, and the gas mileage is weak if you're just driving around town.
Why you should consider it: OK, so this $109,000, two-seat, plug-in electric sports car isn't the most practical auto around. But it may be the most joyful, eye-catching car on the road. (We drove the '09; the '10, with a more efficient electric motor and some useful interior upgrades, looks like it'll be even more fun.) It's got a celebrity pedigree, too: George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Leonardo DiCaprio all own one.
The 248-horsepower Roadster uses no gasoline; it runs on a lithium-ion battery and comes with a 220-volt charger for your garage. Like the Lotus it's based on, the Roadster offers pin-sharp handling and powerful Brembo brakes - not that you'll need them often, since the regenerative braking slows the car down as soon as you lift your feet.
But the big attraction is laugh-out-loud rapid acceleration, going from zero to 60 in under four seconds). With the top off (is there another way to drive it?), the Roadster serves up a symphony of wind noise, motor hum, and cooling fan whir. The 2010's add-ons include built-in WiFi cards that allow Internet access and OnStar-type interactivity with the Tesla mothership. The biggest challenge for prospective buyers may be taking a test drive: There are only eight U.S.-based dealerships, six of which are on the
The reviewers say: "In the end, the Tesla Roadster does exactly what it promises: It offers the first green alternative to gasoline sportscars. It provides kick-ass all-electric performance in a classic, almost primitive two-seater drop-top: maximum driving pleasure with minimum eco impact. The fact that it's in production at all is one giant step for motorkind." -The Car Connection
Price check: $109,000, or $129,000 for the Roadster Sport. Incentives include a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles; some states and localities have their own perks for electric buyers. (One example: Electric vehicle owners park for free in New Haven, Conn.)
Fuel economy: N/A, but a 220-volt garage charge takes 3.5 hours (eight hours on 110 house current).
Drawbacks: A cramped cabin and no storage to speak of. You'll probably need a second car.
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