My thoughts on NAIAS 2012, from the perspective of a young buyer. This appeared in the most recent issue of the Michigan Review.
Place yourself in this scenario for a moment:
You are a few months away from graduating with that coveted U-M degree. You’ve scored solid job – the pay isn’t spectacular, but it’s more money than you know what to do with. After rent, student loan payments, and a contribution to your slowly growing savings account, you’ll still have a bit of cash left to play around with at the end of the month.
You decide to throw caution to the wind and start hunting for a new car.
Fortunately, you couldn’t have picked a better time to begin your search. Driven by stiff global competition, automakers are trying to win over consumers with vehicles that offer unparalleled value, efficiency, and quality.
A few hours at Detroit’s dazzling 2012 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) demonstrated just how wide the range of right-priced options is today. Here’s a very brief overview of what was on the floor–and what you can expect to see when you visit the dealership.
Many new car buyers (especially those from outside Michigan) have been raised to view Detroit’s offering as second-class alternatives to more efficient and affordable imports. But the domestic automakers’ recent near death experiences have forced the Big Three to innovate–and the results are impressive, especially when it comes to entry-level vehicles.
First-time buyers will appreciate the refreshing Ford Focus (base price $16,500) and the solid Chevy Cruze (from just under $17k). The new Dodge Dart, which is expected to retail for around $16,000, remains untested–but its Alfa Romeo roots suggest it has potential to be both practical and fun to drive.
Great things, small packages
Cars in the compact class often sacrifice looks and performance to achieve absolute value. Some, like the Nissan Versa, execute that tradeoff well; the recently redesigned (but still diminutive) sedan starts at just $10,990.
If you’re willing to spend a little more, however, you can take home a vehicle with a bit more character. Ford’s sporty Fiesta (starting at $13,200) and Chevrolet’s $14k Sonic prove that domestic automakers can produce globally competitive small cars; both vehicles offer long lists of possible upgrades, allowing buyers to tailor their purchase to their budget and personality.
Mini Cooper’s ever-expanding lineup offers buyers six body styles and a dizzying array of performance packages. Still, the vehicles are pricier than their competitors (their bare-bones model hardtop starts at about $20k), and their cartoonish interior might turn off less whimsical buyers.
Despite underwhelming sales, the unique Fiat 500 deserves a second look–and long-awaited arrival of the tuned Abarth version should prove that the car is more than a cute four-wheeled accessory.
Beat the beige
Kia’s inexpensive Rio (base price under $14k) offers the fuel-efficient, practical value that was once the hallmark Japanese cars–but it does so without being painfully dull. The same can’t be said about the suppository-like 2012 Honda Civic or the self-consciously boring Toyota Yaris (actual advertising tagline: “It’s a car!”).
And with Volkswagen trading in style for lower prices (the rather boring Jetta now starts at under $17k), it’s great to have fresh vehicles like Hyundai’s Elantra (from around $15k) as viable options to old standbys. Practicality doesn’t have to put you to sleep.
An American Icon
With a base price of around $22k, the Jeep Wrangler isn’t the most economical vehicle available to a first-time buyer. Its EPA estimated 17/21 mpg city/highway fuel economy means that it isn’t the most fuel efficient, either. And unless your daily commute takes you down muddy two-tracks, you can’t pretend that the Wrangler is as practical as the other cars listed here.
But those other cars aren’t Jeeps.
The Wrangler has never been anything less than capable, but recent interior upgrades and a brand-new engine mean that this all-American classic is now more formidable than ever. Moreover, it’s fun. The Wrangler will challenge you to go camping, hit the sand dunes, and get off the beaten path. With the top down, it’s a four-wheel-drive convertible. It’s the perfect vehicle to own before you take on the responsibility of a family and a mortgage.
Cars can be so much more than costly, grimly functional appliances; buyers should choose a vehicle that suits their character as well as their budget. A visit to the 2012 NAIAS proved that you don’t have to have a Mercedes-Benz budget to enjoy the ultimate luxury–the luxury of choice.
It’s a buyers’ market, and the range of options is especially good for those of us looking at entry-level vehicles. Once you get that diploma and settle into your job, head to your local dealerships and start kicking some tires.