Money Magazine's Top Seven Car Buys

Money Magazine said it best: "Bargains are everywhere this year, making shopping for cars a pure pleasure -- not the usual headache." Trying to stave off the effects of recession, many major car companies are filling the market with incentives. Some zero-percent loans are still available, while General Motors, which started the zero-percent bandwagon, has switched to $2,002 rebates, and other manufacturers have found themselves forced to throw incentives at their vehicles as well. The result: buyers should feel like they are traveling through the Happy Hunting Ground.

Of course, even with manufacturers falling all over themselves to compete for your business, it is still possible to get a bad deal, and nothing can sour a purchase quicker than choosing the wrong vehicle in the first place. Money Magazine has taken upon itself to select seven cars that, it says, "give the most for the money" in categories ranging from the Best SUV to the Best Station Wagon to the Best Compact Car. Money used the following criteria: a car, sport utility or van had to be practical, provide good value for the money ,and be good-looking and fun to drive. And here's their disclaimer: "while the seven choices may not be the cheapest vehicles in their category, Money's research shows they deliver the best combination of value and performance."

Well, okay; that's fair, but we at Driving Today just couldn't help ourselves from editorializing on their choices, so here they are, the Money Magazine descriptions of their Top Seven with our DT comments in parentheses:
    The X5 is one great driving luxe machine with its super-sensitive power steering, traction control and luxury touches. In addition to receiving the top rating among mid-size sport utilities in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the X5 retails for about $38,000 with typical options, a cost still less or about the same as a fully loaded GMC Yukon.

    (Hey, we like the X5 a lot, but as a sport utility it comes up short in the utility department, because it is small for its price. If you want to pay a similar amount and get much more passenger and cargo space, try a Chevrolet Tahoe or that GMC Yukon. Or, if you'd like something about the size of the X5, look at a Chevrolet Trailblazer or GMC Envoy. Even that pair is bigger than the X5, and each offers a more powerful base engine.)

    Daimler-Chrysler gave the Grand Caravan a more rugged look last year, and with its ready power, crisp handling and comfortable ride, the Dodge Grand Caravan is a great choice for a family car. In addition, the minivan offers unique options like the power rear lift gate that closes with the touch of a key fob and a built-in DVD player. The best value is the Dodge Grand Caravan EX with a standard V-6 engine and options. A good negotiator should be able to get the minivan for about $24,740 before a $655 destination charge and sales tax.

    (Dodge Grand Caravan is a decent choice, but we still would prefer the rock-solid build quality of the Honda Odyssey, a minivan van that seemingly answers every minivan question ever asked. Further, bargain shoppers should take a look at the new Kia Sedona minivan. A well-equipped LX model has a base price under $19,000, a bigger standard engine than the Caravan and a 10-year powertrain warranty, making it a strong contender in the segment.)

    The Passat wagon is built for drivers. Its responsive steering moves you smoothly in and out of traffic and straightens out those curves on the road to the beach. In addition, the Passat has a great sleek look, quick anti-lock brakes and roomy cargo space comparable with some small sport utilities. One can buy the Passat GLX version for about $28,500 with a standard V-6 engine.

    (Nothing wrong with the Passat. It's a fine car, but look at these two alternatives as well: The Subaru Legacy Wagon is significantly less expensive, offers virtually the same horsepower, torque, and interior space. The Volvo V40 is a virtually dead-ringer for the Passat in every important category, costs about the same, and it's a Volvo, an upscale brand versus VW.)

    While sedans are usually unglamorous but comfortable and reliable, Toyota has started to change that stereotype with many improvements to the 2002 Camry. The new, lower front end, bulging front fenders and indented hood help move it beyond the anonymous look of the previous generation. A good negotiator can get a top-of-the-line Camry XLE for about $20,825, which is $1,000 over the dealer's price [invoice].

    (No quarrel with the Camry - great car, incredible reliability. But the Honda Accord is no slouch in those categories either, and it's more fun to drive. Plus, the new Nissan Altima has zoomed into the picture and is worth a look.)

    Car manufacturers have been racing to sell a genuine luxury car for less than $30,000 but most luxury cars retail for over that, with popular options. The Acura 3.2TL really delivers: For about $29,550 a good negotiator can get a sporty-looking car with a power sunroof, six-CD changer and memory settings for two drivers in the power bucket seat.

    ("Luxury Car" takes in a lot of territory. The 3.2TL is really a Honda Accord in a nice disguise. The Infiniti I35 is a similarly disguised Nissan Maxima, also worth a test drive in this category. But if we're talking about "entry-level" luxury, as we think Money is here, the most satisfying buy in the class is the BMW 3-Series.)

    Money Magazine chose the Corvette for its exhilarating ride and value. For $49,706 for the top-of-the-line Z06, anyone can have the chance to drive one of the few cars that matches the acceleration of the Porsche 911 Turbo. You'll get the same speed for less than half the price.

    (Corvette offers great bang for the buck, no doubt about that, but sports car lovers will also find satisfaction with the Mazda Miata, about the best sports car value going, and the truly wonderful Honda S2000, a truly under-appreciated gem.)

    Ford breaks the small-car rules. Designers combined edgy, eye-catching design with a roomy interior and honest seating space for four in many models. Focus provides driver with one main necessity for small cars: high gas mileage. A Ford Focus ZX3 two-door hatchback lists for $15,435 but a good negotiator can get one for around $15,019.

    (While we don't dislike the Ford Focus, we are convinced the Honda Civic is a better value. In all the fun-to-drive factors the Civic outpoints the Focus, and in build quality Honda gets all the high marks, too. Another car worth consideration in the category is the usually overlooked Mazda Protègè.)

Based in Cleveland, auto journalist Luigi Fraschini road tests more than 60 different models each year.