8 Criminally Overlooked New Cars
Why go with the pack when these gems are readily available?
For this auto critic, nothing makes me feel as useless or frustrated as this: Being asked for professional car-buying advice, patiently dispensing said advice—sometimes over days of dithering e-mails and hand-holding—and then watching the shopper choose some lame-ass model instead. Actually, the worst part is then pretending that choosing, say, a limp Smart ForTwo over a 1-liter Ford Fiesta was deal-making on par with Donald Trump.
Nearly as frustrating is when a shopper basically refuses to consider any car that’s not on the best-seller list. I can’t count how many times someone has asked me “What’s the best family sedan right now?,” I assure them it’s the Mazda 6, and the confused turmoil in their eyes has me counting the minutes before they buy another damn Toyota Camry.
Sure, often a perennial best-seller is also the best cars in its class. (See: Honda Accord.) But as in so many fields, from music to movies, it’s not about popularity. Some of the most worthwhile models are like Judy Greer on wheels: hot looking, wildly talented and bursting with personality, but forever relegated to thankless roles as the quirky sidekick or buzzkill suburban mom.
In other words, they’re overlooked. Criminally overlooked. If you’re tired of fallback cars and the dully familiar, shake up your next casting session. Your family, friends or neighbors may not recognize them at first. But that just makes you a better talent scout than everyone else.
The XJ has been the sexiest, sharpest-handling car in the flagship sedan class, including its 550-horsepower XJR—a rakish and mildly louche Brit that makes the German limos seem like staid burghers in comparison. Yet somehow, the XJ found just 3,611 buyers in 2015. It’s enough to make you question the taste of six-figure sedan buyers. But it also underlines how Jaguar, after years of pissing away its business, must still work overtime to earn a shot from blue-chip owners.
Scion FR-S & Subaru BRZ
When the Scion and Subaru debuted, the near-twins had the makings of a runaway hit, especially among the young and budget-conscious: A rear-drive sports car with 200 horsepower for around $25,000, with the looks of a $50,000 car. It never happened. The Scion, for one, saw sales tumble another 25 percent last year, to barely 10,000 cars. Now that Scion is dead, the FR-S will be rebadged as a Toyota, and the Subaru will soldier on—and most sports-car fans will never realize what great cars they missed.
Lexus GS F Sport
Lexus critics grouse that the luxury cars don’t have enough pizzazz or performance. But when Lexus does deliver, it seems that fans might prefer plain vanilla: The GS sold a piddling 23,000 units last year, about one-third as many as the tried-and-true ES sedan. Yet the GS, especially its F Sport version, loves to be driven hard, with a friskier personality than a BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 or Mercedes E-Class. Throw in the usual bulletproof Lexus reliability, and the GS is the definition of the underrated, overlooked car.
Long among the world’s best-selling cars, the Golf has always struggled with hatchback-averse Americans. The brilliant seventh-generation Golf was changing that script, including a diesel TDI version that showed me better than 55 mpg on the highway. But with people running from VWs like they were zombies on The Walking Dead—thanks to VW’s diesel emissions scandal—TDI and gasoline Golfs have tumbled back into obscurity. VW found just 1,191 takers in December, and the Golf limped out of 2015 with barely 19,000 sales. That, for a deluxe compact that’s every bit as good as the Honda Civic, a car that will likely top 325,000 sales in 2016.
The midsize CTS sedan fired both American barrels at German sport sedans, and might have landed a direct hit. That included a road-conquering CTS V-Sport with the best V-6 GM has ever produced, a 420-horsepower, twin-turbo beaut. The CTS-V put the wild cherry on top via a 640-horsepower V-8 from the Corvette Z06. But the American-style sundae melted when the CTS emerged into showroom sun, with wildly optimistic pricing that sent potential fans elsewhere. CTS sales plummeted another 37 percent last year, to around 19,500 cars. How bad was it? Cadillac found more than 21,000 buyers for its jumbo Escalade SUV.
BMW 3-Series Sports Wagon
At this point, an automaker could design a 600-horsepower station wagon that drove itself over Lake Michigan, and Americans still wouldn’t buy it. Consider the 3-Series: This wagon is basically a 3-Series sedan, only better. Vivid performance, bonus cargo space, stingy fuel economy, the affirmation of a BMW badge. What more could Americans want? Plenty, apparently, beginning with their three favorite letters: S.U.V. BMW sold nearly 32,000 X3s last year—and just 3,287 Sports Wagons. Sad.
Chevrolet moved 33,000 Corvettes last year, and that’s not surprising: The new Stingray is a great sports car. But the Cayman is still better, despite the on-paper power deficit of its boxer-6 engines versus the Corvette’s honking V-8s. The Cayman is a holy-rolling testament to light weight, gyroscopic balance and life-changing handling. Plus it’s gorgeous. But while Porsche popped corks with a record 51,756 American sales last year, just 3,561 were Caymans, with the equally overlooked Boxster convertible contributing 3,102 more. Tote up the digits on a few fingers, and the Cayman and Boxster together manage one-fifth the sales of the ’Vette.
Load up a popular Hyundai Sonata sedan, and you’re topping $34,000. For the same 34 grand, you’re in an Azera instead: It’s roomier, better-looking, stuffed with luxury and ably motivated by a 293-horsepower V-6 that you can’t get in the Sonata. Yet while Americans can’t get enough of Hyundais, they’re allergic to the Azera. The Sonata sold 231,000 units in 2015, but the Azera dribbled in around 5,500. Maybe the name is confusing us: Isn’t Azera that guy who does voices on The Simpsons?
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