If you’re in the market for a car, you’re probably more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of available models. From SUVs to crossovers, subcompacts to sedans, there are hundreds to choose from. Should you buy one that runs on gas or go electric? And if you do go electric, which kind?
Yes, there's more than one.
Then there’s the plethora of advanced driver assistance features, like automatic braking and blind spot monitors. If you’re the sort of person who’s only passingly aware of makes, let alone models, there’s a dizzying array of variables to consider long before you interact with a dealership.
To help narrow the field and demystify the alphabet soup, the Auto Club of Southern California has just released its 2020 AAA Car Guide. The automobile club ranked vehicles based on 13 criteria from fuel efficiency to ride quality to safety features – “things that we believe consumers are interested in when purchasing a vehicle,” said Megan McKernan, manager of automotive engineering for the Automobile Club of Southern California in Costa Mesa.
The guide’s results are based on a weeklong battery of tests for 50 vehicles, during which the Auto Club’s engineers and auto techs ran them through a slalom course at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Testers slammed on the brakes, pressed pedal to metal, and used them for more mundane tasks, like going to work or getting groceries. The following are their top picks.
What is it: A battery-electric hatchback
Base price: $38,510
Why the Auto Club likes it: The Nissan Leaf has been on the market since 2010, but the 2019 model year is the first for the Plus version — so named for its larger, 62-kilowatt-hour battery pack that boosts its range to 215 miles per charge. With a spacious front seating area and ride quality that is quiet and smooth, the Leaf SV Plus has most of the high-tech safety and convenience features that used to only exist on more expensive vehicles. Automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning are standard, while other safety features, such as adaptive cruise control and blind-spot warning, are optional and come with additional cost. Because it is electric, the Leaf costs more upfront but less to run and maintain. The Auto Club estimates its annual fuel cost at $650.
What it doesn’t like so much: The back seat legroom is a little tight, and there isn’t much cargo space.
What is it: A hybrid midsize sedan
Base price: $32,725
Why the Auto Club likes it: A good value for the money, most of the Camry Hybrid XLE’s available advanced safety features come standard, including adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assistance. A stalwart workhouse that is also the best-selling car in the U.S., the Camry is hardly known for its dramatic style, but it recently got a facelift that gives it a more dramatic exterior to match its upgraded suspension and handling. Powered with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and electric motor, the Auto Club is especially fond of its acceleration and drivability.
What it doesn’t like so much: The back seat is cramped for three, and the steering is imprecise.
What is it: A plug-in hybrid full-size sedan
Base price: $63,200
Why the Auto Club likes it: A large sedan is “one of the best solutions to the challenge of carrying more than three people in comfort and, sometimes, elegance,” according to the guide. And the Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design delivers as one of the most refined high-end four-door cars on the market, with elegant styling both inside and out. Its interior is finished in a tasteful Scandinavian design crafted from premium materials, including real wood trim. All eight of its advanced safety features are standard, including automatic emergency braking and rear cross-traffic warning, and there’s even more technology, including LED headlights and 360-degree surround view camera. A plug-in hybrid that can operate for 21 miles as a “whisper-quiet” pure electric, its 4-cylinder gas engine is both supercharged and turbocharged, providing for smooth and strong acceleration.
What it doesn’t like so much: A lack of storage for small items like cell phones, and a slight hesitation when the powertrain switches between gasoline and electric power.
What is it: A diesel full-size pickup truck
Base price: $46,700
Why the Auto Club likes it: It’s packed with technology, safety systems, and convenience features that make it so versatile, it can perform almost any task while also carrying a full load of people and gear. Calling it luxurious, rugged and durable, the Sierra is tricked-out with a rear-view camera that can light up the trailer hitch, a carbon fiber bed box, a bed-box camera, and front and rear parking assistance. The 3-liter turbodiesel engine is quick off the line, whether it’s maxing out its five-person interior, towing 9,100 pounds – or both.
What it doesn’t like so much: Its rough ride and noisy engine.
What is it: A plug-in hybrid minivan
Base price: $45,545
Why the Auto Club likes it: It can travel 32 miles as an electric vehicle and has a total driving range of 520 miles, so families could drive all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco and beyond on a single tank. With seating for seven, there’s more than enough technology to keep the kiddos entertained on long drives, including wireless streaming that pairs with a DVD player and rear-seat entertainment screens for both second-row passengers. What minivans lack in cool, they make up in space that is easily accessible with sliding doors on both sides. Only the rear cross-traffic and blind spot warnings are standard, but when it comes to the features that are most valuable for driving parents, they rank high.
What it doesn’t like so much: Poor overall driving dynamics.