- Repair & Care
The redesigned Acura MDX sure didn't knock anyone over this year. It looks eerily similar to the model it replaces on the outside, and it hasn't added much space inside. How then could it beat so many other worthy contenders to make it onto our list? It happens to be the best example of what Acura excels at: luxury feel at near-luxury prices, with a little bit of innovation thrown in. The innovation that we applaud is the new easy-to-slide second-row seats that allow access to the third row. The MDX stood out in our Car Seat Check, earning As and Bs across the board. On the street, we were impressed by how little didn't impress us. Acceleration, ride, handling and comfort were all above average, and even though some editors thought the braking could be firmer, it wasn't a deal breaker for any of us. The MDX is priced well against the competition with standard features like LED headlights, moonroof, leather seats and two large screens that control nearly every function in the car. It is this all-around high-level of performance that makes the MDX so formidable.
Drive a new Chevrolet Impala around for a while and you will inevitably hear the phrase: "That's the new Impala?" uttered by someone you encounter. The changes from the previous model year are truly astonishing: styling, powertrains, build quality, ride refinement, handling response, materials, fuel economy, you name it, and it's been dramatically improved. A choice of three engines and seven trim levels means there's an Impala to suit different tastes and budgets. Drivers will be entertained by its responsive handling, refined ride and the admiring stares that the Impala generates. For passengers, the state-of-the-art Chevy MyLink multimedia system with its full smartphone integration should seal the deal. Those passengers will be riding comfortably as well, because unlike some other full-size sedans we could name, the Impala's dimensions translate to true full-size interior room. With well-equipped models available for less than $30,000, it's an exceptional value. Even if you only spring for the entry model, Impala's standard 18-inch wheels and tires still keep things classy. Yes, folks, that's an Impala.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is one of those few and far between vehicles that nearly every member of our staff was blown away by, especially those of us with families. This three-row crossover was viewed as one worth fighting for in our voting process. With flexible seating for six or seven, the Santa Fe can accommodate young growing families, but it also works for families with teenagers and their growing, gangly legs with equal ease. With a third row that's easy to access, every member of your family will be fighting over who gets to sit in the "way back" and relax while watching the changing skyline through the Santa Fe's massive panoramic sunroof. Hyundai has packed the rest of the car full of luxurious extras including heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, rear side-window shades and the ability to customize the feel of the vehicle's steering. You start to feel like you're driving an uber-expensive vehicle that ought to come with a fancy-schmancy hood ornament. Compared with other similarly equipped cars, every member of our team agrees that the Santa Fe offers more features and higher-quality fit and finish, and there's also Hyundai's unbeatable 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Add it up and it will be difficult for value-conscious shoppers to resist the Santa Fe.
People buy compact cars because they're affordable and efficient, but that doesn't mean those cars have to be boring. There are plenty of competent cars in this segment, but the Kia Forte breaks the mold with its head-turning styling outside and an interior full of affordable creature comforts. Redesigned for 2014, the Forte's edgy looks, refined driving experience and high level of value helped earn it the top spot in Cars.com's $20,000 Compact Sedan Challenge. It won over a panel of automotive writers and a real-life, compact-sedan shopper with its quiet interior, pleasant-riding suspension and oodles of features. Unexpected upscale options include a ventilated driver's seat, heated steering wheel and a driver's seat with two memory positions. Its available UVO multimedia system is simple to use and provides seamless device and app connectivity. Few cars blend style and high-quality ride comfort in the compact class as well as the Forte. It also excels in the value department: A low starting price and high fuel economy make it one of the most affordable cars in the segment. Compact sedan shoppers willing to break away from traditional class leaders will find their reward in Kia's impressive sedan.
The redesigned Mazda3, available as a low-slung sedan and hatchback, gives compact-car shoppers a satisfying mix of efficiency and performance. That plays out best with Mazda's SkyActiv four-cylinder engine, which is shared with the larger Mazda6 sedan. With a six-speed automatic transmission, the Mazda3 gets an EPA-estimated 32 mpg combined city/highway rating, which is competitive with other commuter compacts. Inside, the Mazda3 sees improved cabin quality and plenty of new technology, including an intuitive multimedia system that combines an iPad-like dashboard touch-screen with an armrest-level control knob. Strong braking comes thanks to standard four-wheel discs -- many rivals still have rear drums -- and settled ride quality reduces the last Mazda3's choppy feel. The list of high-tech safety options read like one from a Volvo or Mercedes-Benz, from automatic high-beam headlights to lane departure warning and a forward collision alert system with automatic low-speed braking. The new Mazda3 could challenge the big five nameplates -- the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla -- for the pole position in compact-car sales.
The stunning Mazda6 had us at first glance, but we never select Best of candidates because of their looks. The redesigned midsize sedan combines the brand's signature fun-to-drive personality with comfortable road manners and a quality interior. The car has an eager 184-horsepower four-cylinder engine that also returns some of the best fuel economy in the class -- up to 40 mpg highway with an admirably responsive six-speed automatic transmission; a six-speed manual is also available, but with lower fuel economy. What's more, it achieves this power and efficiency without turbocharging or other extraordinary measures. Later this year, the Mazda6 will be the first midsize sedan from a non-luxury brand to offer an even more efficient diesel engine. The sensibly laid-out cabin includes one of the roomier backseats in the class, and the 2014 model adds an improved, if not state-of-the-art, optional multimedia and control system. A backup camera is optional, as are active-safety features like lane departure warning and forward collision warning with adaptive cruise control. In a brutally competitive car class, the Mazda6 is a strong contender at a fair price. It should remain current for years to come.
To say preseason expectations were high for GM's redesigned 2014 models would be a gross understatement. Not only would this be the first big test for the newly restructured GM, but also the Chevrolet Silverado is the largest selling vehicle it has, and the truck was one of the oldest in the segment. Each of its competitors had been redesigned or re-engineered (or both) at least once since the last-generation Silverado 1500 hit the market in 2007. To be clear, from bumper to bumper, inside and out, this third-generation Silverado 1500 is stronger, smarter, more efficient and more capable, by a wide margin, than the truck it replaces. The suspension and frame are both strengthened and lightened, and the interior is completely redesigned and reconfigured with more gauges, readouts and more functions than ever before. This may not be the grand slam some hoped for, but this is how you get runs on the scoreboard.
If any truck maker understands the formula for getting buyers to come back to its brand year after year, even on those off years where it doesn't have a new truck, new powertrain or a significant upgrade, it's Ford. Even as new pickup trucks enter or are re-engineered or redesigned in the growing full-size segment, Ford has consistently held its sales lead in good times and bad. And it does that by continually delivering solid core products, good-looking trim packages and functional options. For 2014, Ford introduced the F-150 Tremor, basically the sportiest street version F-150 it makes. Although relying on plenty of existing parts, the little sport truck offers quite a bang-for-the-buck proposition with the 365-horsepower EcoBoost engine, a great power-to-weight ratio, and upgraded seats, door inserts and dash accents. During our most recent half-ton competition, the 2013 Light-Duty Challenge, our EcoBoost-equipped F-150 squeaked out a win in our 13-event head-to-head Olympic-style contest. The F-150 has been the No. 1 selling half-ton in the U.S. for many years, and we considered it the standard for the segment.
The redesigned 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 gets all of the same vastly improved engineering and layout upgrades that have gone into its sibling, the 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500. With the new frame, suspension tuning, body strengthening and extended-cab door configuration, the GMC version offers a distinctive look with its unique body panels, hoods, front grilles and headlight/taillight setups. Additionally, GMC will also offer the Sierra 1500 with its exclusive Denali trim package, as well as a special All-Terrain Package. Both trim levels offer unique badging, interior upgrades and special front grille designs. All GMC Sierra 1500s will share the three new EcoTec3 powertrains, offering the 4.3-liter V-6 in either two- or four-wheel drive and in each of the three cab configurations. The 5.3-liter and 6.2-liter V-8 engines will be offered in select models. All three engines have cylinder deactivation, direct injection and variable valve timing for higher power ratings and improved fuel economy. We should note that our judges during the 2013 Light-Duty Challenge called attention to the GMC's use of interior materials, dash layout and seating feel. The Sierra 1500 will be a little more expensive than its Chevy counterpart, but for many, the added expense will be worth every penny.
New for 2014, Ram will be the first to offer (in a long time) a small diesel for half-ton buyers in the form of the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel. The smallish 3.0-liter turbo-diesel will offer 240 horsepower and an impressive 420 pounds-feet of torque and is likely to have an EPA-estimated highway number at or close to 27 mpg. All Ram 1500s got a complete overhaul last year with a new look, several segment-first options and an entirely reworked interior, but by being the first in today's half-ton segment to offer a small diesel, Ram is keeping the spotlight shining on its light-duty player. The diesel option will cost a little more ($2,850 over the Hemi V-8 option), but it will be mated to Ram's segment-leading eight-speed ZF transmission. The Hemi-equipped Ram 1500 we had for the 2013 Light-Duty Challenge was a strong player in all the quantitative testing, with many of the judges especially liking the SLT Big Horn trim package. This new EcoDiesel goes on sale in the first quarter of 2014 and could be the perfect choice for those who need lots of torque and extended fuel range.
Last year, the Ram 3500 Heavy Duty got some significant upgrades in the form of a new frame, a new front suspension setup and a higher-output Cummins turbo-diesel. Those upgrades gave that truck maximum towing bragging rights over the competition by a wide margin. This year, it's the Ram 2500 HD's turn. Yes, all Ram 2500s get the upgraded frame, front suspension and Cummins option, but the biggest news is that Ram HD engineers have included coil springs on all three-quarter-ton trucks, with a heavier-duty, load-leveling airbag spring option for tow junkies. Many will remember how revolutionary it was when the 2009 Ram 1500 went to coil springs when the competition was using leaf springs, and this change looks to be just as impressive. During our time behind the wheel of a new Ram 2500, the ride seemed dramatically changed for the better. Finally, 2014 Ram HDs (both 2500 and 3500) will have an added gas engine choice in the form of a 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi, now offering a cylinder-deactivation mode for better fuel economy.
Like the GM half-tons, the Toyota Tundra was also ready for a redesign; however, Tundra engineers took a more studied and calculated approach. With many Tundra buyers reporting that they were happy with powertrain and chassis capability, Toyota focused on interior and exterior upgrades and design changes. Last updated in 2006 as a 2007 model, the 2014 Tundra remains structurally unchanged with the same frame and suspension strategy as the current generation, though many of the spring rates and shock tuning parameters have been improved. The powertrains have not changed either with the 4.0-liter V-6, the 4.6-liter V-8 (introduced in 2010) and the twin-cam 5.7-liter V-8 offered for the lineup. What has changed is just about every body panel on the truck with a larger and more dynamic front grille, enhanced fender flares, new headlights and taillights, and significantly improved interior and cabin features. The new half-tons will also include trailer-sway control and an integrated brake controller to allow drivers to more comfortably and safely tow. Although some may criticize Toyota for not bringing more design drama and technology to this new truck, there are enough improvements here to move the needle.