For classification purposes, automobile manufacturers have historically divided their light vehicle products into two categories, Automobiles and Light Trucks. Sales and marketing analysts use these classifications when discussing auto sales figures, so I’ll use them as well.
In the section called Hybrids, I discuss the new categories that cross the car-truck line, as well as the new alternative-powered cars.
Types of Cars
Sedans are a good choice for most automobile shoppers. The enclosed trunk offers security, while the rear doors allow easy entry for rear-seat passengers. Most luxury vehicles are four-door sedans because they’re more comfortable than most other body styles.
The smallest available in the US are sub-compact sedans like the Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Metro. Slightly larger are compact models like the Honda Civic and Ford Focus.
Mid-size sedans include the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, and Chevrolet Lumina, while the Ford Crown Victoria and Buick LeSabre are considered large sedans. Automotive marketers have created a new “near-luxury” sedan category, meaning any new sedan priced between $30,000 and $40,000, while the traditional luxury sedan costs over $40,000 when new. Near-luxury sedans are usually mid-sized; luxury sedans are usually large, though there are a few exceptions to the size and price limitations.
Coupes are usually driven by single adults or childless couples. Many of them have a hatchback instead of a trunk, to allow large items to be carried for short distances. The rear seats are difficult to access, as the front doors must be used.
An active family will want to look at minivans, sport utility vehicles, or station wagons. In the rest of the world, station wagons remain the first choice for active families. In North America, first minivans and now SUVs have grabbed most of the station wagon’s customer base.
I have to admit that many minivans now drive and handle much like the wagons they’ve replaced, but I don’t understand the increasing popularity of large SUV’s. They’re twice as big as they need to be, but seat fewer people than a minivan; they get horrible gas mileage, and their truck-like ride and handling are rough.
You’ll pay substantially more to insure an SUV than a comparable automobile as a direct result of their poor handling. Many inexperienced drivers find out the hard way that SUVs don’t corner like automobiles.
I strongly suggest SUV shoppers reconsider and take another look at the station wagon. Station wagons offer more stability, better gas mileage, lower insurance rates, and SUV-sized interiors. You won’t lose your all-wheel drive either, as Subaru, Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz offer all-wheel drive on all of their wagons.
Most convertibles are sports cars, meaning two seats, high-performance engines and superior handling. However, GM, Ford, Mitsubishi, and Chrysler offer a few “normal” convertibles, i.e. regular production coupes with four seats and convertible tops, such as the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, Ford Mustang, Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Conquest and Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. Luxury convertibles are available from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, and Volvo. Convertibles are great when the weather’s perfect, but their drawbacks are obvious.
Sports cars were originally European two-seat roadsters designed for both daily travel and week-end racing hobbyists. A few 1950’s manufacturers (notably Jaguar and Alfa-Romeo) put permanent tops on their roadsters, resulting in the sports coupe.
The term sports-sedan is a more recent term to describe a four-door vehicle that handles like a sports coupe or roadster. Recently we’ve seen luxury cars advertised as luxury sports sedans. Porsche, selling traditional sports cars in this country since the 1950’s, until recently had as its only competition the Chevrolet Corvette.
1990 marked the return of the affordable sports car in this country, when Mazda offered its MX-5 (Miata) for under $20,000 dollars, and the incredible demand for it prompted other companies to follow suit.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, and Porsche all introduced roadsters for under $40,000 in the latter part of the 1990’s. At the same time, Dodge dealers begged Chrysler to produce a 1993 concept car to give the Corvette a run for the money.
The Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler remain a success story for Chrysler, with this year’s production already sold out. Sports cars are cool and fun to drive, though impractical for daily transportation. You’ll need a garage to store them in, and a second mortgage to pay for their insurance. But if you’ve got money to burn, go for it!.
Types of Light Trucks
If you’re constantly carting kids or cargo, a minivan may be your best choice. Most newer models offer an additional 4th door on the driver’s side and offer comfortable seating for seven. Be aware of the different engines available.
I highly recommend you elect to get the largest ( 3.5 & 3.8 liter) engine available in whatever minivan you decide upon. Positively avoid buying a 4-cylinder Dodge or Chrysler minivan, they’re grossly underpowered and incapable of hauling heavy payloads for any distances. Most minivans are only available with front wheel drive, although Chrysler offers an optional all-wheel-drive system on certain models.
According to Crashtest.com, the Ford Windstar, Toyota Sienna, and ’99 & ’00 Honda Odyssey are three of the safest vehicles on the road today.
In addition, minivans drive and handle just like a car, with the bonus of better visibility due to a higher center of gravity and an upright driving position. Don’t look for minivans to handle your boat or trailer towing duties, as front wheel drive vehicles have a very limited towing capacity.
Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs)
I mentioned in the Station Wagon category how I regard SUVs. Although they’re designed for off-road usage, 90% of them never leave the road, fortunately for our wildernesses. If a wagon isn’t for you, the car-like SUV’s ride and handle significantly better than the rest. They include the BMW X-5, the Lexus RX 300, and the Mercedes-Benz ML320, ML430, and AMG-tuned ML55.
SUVs come in three sizes
- Small: Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Honda CRV, Daewoo Korando, Chevrolet Tracker, and Suzuki Grand Vitara.
- Medium: Dodge Durango, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Lexus RX300, Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Xterra, Infiniti QX4, Ford Explorer, Ford Escape, Mercury Mountaineer, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Blazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada, Honda Passport, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Isuzu Amigo, Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover Discovery, Land Rover Defender, Mitsubishi Montero, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, and Mazda Tribute.
- Large: Toyota Land Cruiser, Lexus LX470, Toyota Sequoia, Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition, Ford Excursion, Land Rover Range Rover, Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, GMC Yukon XL, GMC Denali, and Cadillac Escalade
More new pickup trucks are sold in this country than any other type of vehicle. The smaller models now offer quad or crew-cab four-door versions, with seating for 5 adults. Full-size models offer extended cabs with smaller third and fourth doors giving access to the rear seats.
Standard rear-wheel drive versions don’t handle well on snow or ice without a substantial amount of weight in the rear of the truck. When equipped with towing packages with 8- or 10-cylinder engines, these rear-wheel drive vehicles can tow large boats and trailers. Full-size 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive pickups get about 15 miles per gallon.
If you transport large amounts of cargo or need room for more than seven adults, a full-size van is your only option. They’re available with and without windows and in payload capacities of over one ton. Extended vans can seat up to 15 adult passengers. Towing packages with 8- or 10-cylinder engines will allow these rear-wheel-drive vehicles to tow large boats and trailers.