Go To The Head Of The Class

Go To The Head Of The Class

Jay Koblenz

TRAVELING DOWN THE ROAD OF CAR BUYING IS AN adventure, to say the least. It’s not just the challenge of deciding what you want and how many dollars you’re going to spend. There’s also the matter of deciding which car matches your personality. After all, the car you drive makes a very distinctive statement about which features of a car you find most important.

So, how do you determine which vehicle is right for you? As a start, decide your personal priorities when you begin shopping for a new or used car or, as is increasingly the case, a truck.

There are nearly as many reasons for picking a particular car as there are facets to your personality. Each factor plays a part, some more important than others. Still, the choices can be broken down into four segments: style, function, performance, and value. All come into play in every decision, hut the priorities may vary to the extreme.

Let’s examine how each of the four factors comes into play and which vehicles dominate the categories.


For some, it’s love at first sight. But anyone would be hard-pressed to consider a vehicle’s other virtues if they found it visually unappealing. And beauty is in the eye of the buyer.

Style-conscious buyers make sacrifices in other areas to make a statement and project an image. Think of yourself as rugged? Driving a Jeep Wrangler or a Hummer on an urban thoroughfare is a style decision because those vehicles weren’t designed with the pavement in mind and you could turn to other cars for a smoother ride. On the other hand, owners of the traditional square-edged Volvo are also making a statement. They don’t care about style. And the owner of a BMW Z3 roadster inching forward in heavy traffic is telling everyone else that she has a more frivolous, even frisky side. Still, some people buy pickup trucks because they need one, while others just like the muscle.

If you’re going for pure automotive art, perhaps the top choice is almost any car from Jaguar. This brand epitomizes style. Each of its car lines is simply down-right sexy–and that notion has been ingrained in the hearts of men and women car buyers.

Although this year’s biggest hit, Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, may have other virtues, its unique good looks are, more than anything else, responsible for its success. That cheeky shape gets noticed on the road. The only question is whether it will have the same appeal in a few years, when hundreds of thousands of them are around.

But blending in can be a style decision too. There is safety in numbers, and millions of popular sedan owners prefer to merge with the crowd.


If your primary concern is how well your next vehicle will function (since beauty is only skin deep), consider how you’re going to use the car. Frequently, the small economy car best fits the bill for individuals, and the minivan nails it for families.

If you just need to drive somewhere and occasionally carry more than two people, it’s hard to go wrong with one of the several well-built small cars. From the Hyundai Elantra to the Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra, you get good economy, low cost, and more comfort than the more expensive cars of half a decade ago. You could add a sportier edge by moving over to a Honda Civic or Mazda Protege or sacrifice slightly in certain areas to save money with a Toyota ECHO. Buying more car simply means you care about other factors than function.

Of course size can be a big factor if you need your vehicle for transporting people. If that’s the case, you can’t beat the modern minivan. For the price of many midsize sedans, you can have a larger vehicle that gets nearly equal fuel economy, holds seven people and lots of cargo, and rides comfortably. Minivans are also ranked among the safest vehicles on the road. Just be aware that their big-box style may never be improved upon and that contributes to the “image problem” that minivans have with many buyers.

The best of the minivans is the Honda Odyssey. This is one big vehicle with a versatile flip-and-fold interior, smooth ride, crisp handling, and enough power to take a full load up a hill. If you want more choices than Honda offers, Chrysler’s trio of minivans started the idea nearly 20 years ago and they still offer a greater variety of configurations than any other brand.

There is one other vehicle that means absolute function: the pickup truck. Pickups may be popular with a new set of style-and performance-oriented buyers, but for most buyers, trucks are something they need. Whether it’s to haul your motorcycle out to play or bags of cement out to the work site, if you need a pickup, nothing else will do. Whether it’s the biggest full-size GMC Sierra or the smallest Toyota Tacoma, none are as comfortable as a car.


There is more than one type of performance. For all-out acceleration, the power under the hood is all that counts. For the first 50 feet across the intersection, bigger is always better. The Dodge Viper reigns as king here, but the biggest powerplant you can get in a pickup won’t be far behind at the starting line. Go further down the block, though, and other factors enter in, from vehicle weight to turbocharging. At speed, aerodynamics play an important part. And if you want to accelerate in any weather, think of all-wheel drive. The cheapest Subaru will zip past that Viper in the snow.

For most people, performance means a more well-rounded set of attributes. Handling is a more complex subject than most people realize. There is low-speed nimbleness, high-speed road grip, steering feedback and accuracy, and the ability to maintain stability over bumps and dips.

Larger, faster cars like the Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 911 have more weight and put it at the ends, creating a pendulum effect. They are stable at speed, but if you get past their cornering limit, it can be difficult or impossible to recover control. Using all the performance available in such a machine could get you in trouble.

All-weather performance is the key at Audi and Subaru. Audi’s S4 may be the fastest car you can drive in the rain while Subaru’s new WRX–based upon the company’s World Rally Car–provides extreme thrills under varied conditions while still being quite affordable.

If you desire ample interior room and a reasonable ride, BMW is the brand most noted for providing thrills in a sedan that used to be available only from a high-strung sports car. That the company insists on offering a manual transmission in most of its cars indicates it intends to give the driver the most possible control.

Comfort is another type of performance that’s important to people. If you want a quiet ride that will let your passengers speak quietly or snooze serenely, think of a Lexus LS430 or a Cadillac DeVille. They both have effortless power and all the conveniences their respective manufacturers know how to put in a car. And Lexus reigns as champion of ergonomic design, a factor that will improve the performance of the driver.


Except for the most extravagantly wealthy among us, value comes into play in every purchase decision. We can’t have it all so we must choose what we value most.

When we think of which cars offer the best value, usually the most popular ones come to mind. Last year, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord ranked as the first and second best-selling automobiles (behind trucks) in America, respectively, according to Automotive News. They aren’t the cheapest, but they’re close enough, and are well known for being solid, reliable, and trustworthy. Competition also plays a huge part in this arena. Nearly every brand name is fighting in this marketplace, and high manufacturing volumes mean an abundance of vehicles. If sales start to slow, you’ll see lots of discounting. A lower price for the same product just increases the value.

For pure comfort, Buick comes to mind. Without spending much, you get a lot of features and a plush ride in a Century midsize sedan or a full-size LeSabre.

Cars aren’t the only area where you find value. It stands out as a significant reason for the popularity of the sport utility vehicles. That’s hard to imagine at first when you realize prices are high and profit margins among the biggest in the industry. Still, for a reasonable amount of money, an SUV offers a set of features you can’t find without spending even more: a large and roomy interior, powerful engine, and comfortable seating. For foul weather performance and safety, nearly all SUVs are available with some sort of four-wheel drive.

Up until recently, to get those things, you also had to settle for the harsh ride and sluggish handling of a truck, like a Ford Explorer or Chevy Blazer. But the industry is wising up and starting to create SUVs built from cars that have all the size, room, and other attributes of a truck. They also have improved fuel efficiency, far better ride comfort, and substantially more refined handling. Toyota was the first to offer this in a small package with the RAV4, then was the first to add a luxury version with its Lexus division’s RX300. Now the RAV4 is in its second, much improved generation and the Toyota Highlander brings more room and value. Acura’s MDX is the first full-size SUV built by Honda, and it leapfrogs the competition in comfort and luxury.

There are many choices, and the competition doesn’t always make it easy. Every vehicle offers a combination of style, function, performance, and value. The tough job is finding the right combination.



Lexus LS430

Price range: $55,000-$70,000

Body type: 4-door sedan

Overall length: 196.7″

Overall width: 72.0″

Overall height: 58.7″; 57.9″ w/ air susp.

Engine type: V-8 32-valve

Displacement: 4.3 liters

Horsepower: 290 at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 320 ft lb at 3,400 rpm

Transmission: 5 spd. auto

Drive: Rear

Mileage (mpg): 18 city/25 hwy.


Audi Allroad

Cadillac DeVille

Mercedes-Benz S500


Buick LeSabre

Price range: $23,000-$28,000

Body type: 4-door sedan

Overall length: 200.0″

Overall width: 73.5″

Overall height: 57.0″

Engine type: V-6

Displacement: 3.8 liters

Horsepower: 205 at 5,200 rpm

Torque: 230 fl lb at 4,000 rpm

Transmission: 4 spd. auto

Drive: Front

Mileage (mpg): 19 city/30 hwy


Chrysler LHS

Honda Accord

Toyota Avalon


Honda S2000

Price: $33,000

Body type: 2-door roadster

Overall length: 162.2″

Overall width: 68.9″

Overall height: 50.6″

Engine type: 1-4 16-valve VTEC

Displacement: 2.0 liters

Horsepower: 240 at 8,300 rpm

Torque: 153 ft lb at 7,500 rpm

Transmission: 6-spd. manual

Drive: Rear

Mileage (mpg): 20 city/26 hwy.


BMW 3 Series

Jaguar XK-R

Audi TT


Chrysler PT Cruiser

Price range: $17,000-$22,000

Body type: 4-door tall wagon

Overall length: 168.8″

Overall width: 67.1″

Overall height 63.0″

Engine type: 1-4 16-valve

Displacement: 2.4 liters

Horsepower: 150 at 5,500 rpm

Torque: 162 ft lb at 4,000 rpm

Transmission: 4-spd. auto; 5-spd. manual

Drive: Front

Mileage (mpg): 20 city/25 hwy. auto;

20 city/26 hwy. manual


Honda Civic

Hyundai Elantra

Toyota ECHO

Luxury SUVs

Acura MDX

Price range: $35,000-$40,000

Body type: 4-door sport utility wagon

Overall length: 188.5″

Overall width: 76.3″

Overall height: 68.7″

Engine type: V-6 24-valve VTEC

Displacement: 3.5 liters

Horsepower: 240 at 5,300 rpm

Torque: 245 ft lb at 3,000-

5,000 rpm

Transmission: 5-spd. auto

Drive: Full-time 4WD

Mileage (mpg): 17 city/23 hwy.


GMC Yukon

Land Rover Range Rover

Toyota Land Cruiser

Compact SUVs

Toyota Highlander

Price range: $24,000-$32,000

Body type: 4 door sport-utility wagon

Overall length: 184.4″

Overall width: 71.9″

Overall height: 66.1″ (4×2)-66.5″ (4×4)

Engine type: I-4 16-valve; V-6 24-valve

Displacement: 2.4 liters: 3.0 liters

Horsepower: 155 at 5,600 rpm; 220 at 5,800 rpm

Torque: 163 ft lb at 4,000 rpm:

222 ft lb at 4,400 rpm

Transmission: 4 spd. auto

Drive: Front; full-time 4WD

Mileage (mpg): 18 city/22 hwy.; 22 city/27 hwy.


GMC Envoy

Mercedes-Benz M-Class

Toyota RAV4

COPYRIGHT 2001 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group