The Cars That Rate in 2008

The winners and losers in our exclusive auto rankings.

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Quick—what's the best car you can buy for under $40,000? OK, that's an easy one—the BMW 3-series, which is the top-ranked upscale sedan in the U.S. News Car Rankings for the second year in a row. But other winners in our just-published 2008 list are more surprising. The top luxury SUV isn't a wood-paneled Mercedes or a silky Lexus but the in-your-face Cadillac Escalade. The Toyota Prius hybrid, beloved by environmentalists, has fallen behind the Toyota Camry and Honda Civic hybrids. And pickup loyalists will either embrace or denounce this definitive outcome: The Chevy Silverado has trounced both the Ford F-150 and the Dodge Ram.

Car buffs can endlessly debate the best and worst cars, but our rankings are a trove of practical info for ordinary consumers, too. Drawn from thousands of reviews by automotive experts, the rankings score every model on a 10-point scale, so car shoppers can make head-to-head comparisons of different cars they're considering. Our data also reveal changes in consumer tastes, brands that are gaining strength or falling behind, and cars you should probably steer away from completely. Some of the trends that emerge from the latest data:

Arrivistes. New or newly redesigned vehicles that have drawn raves and rank highly: Volvo C30 miniwagon, Chevy Malibu sedan, Infiniti G37 coupe, and the Mercedes-Benz C Class and Cadillac CTS upscale sedans.

If at first . . . By contrast, some new models have underwhelmed reviewers: the Nissan Rogue and Jeep Liberty SUVs, Subaru Impreza sedan and wagon, Dodge Avenger sedan, and the all-things-to-not-enough-people Volkswagen Eos. General Motors has aggressively touted hybrid versions of two full-size SUVs, the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, but in early reviews, the critics haven't been impressed.

Marathon runners. Brand-new models tend to impress critics the most, because they feature the latest technology, innovations, and styling. But a few models show remarkable endurance, scoring at or near the top of their categories even though they've been on the market for several years: the Honda Pilot SUV, Toyota Matrix wagon, Mazda 3 sedan and wagon, and Chrysler 300 sedan.

Home-run hitters. Four nameplates achieved a kind of perfect score, with all of their models scoring above average in their respective categories—Acura, Honda, Lexus, and Scion. Toyota, renowned for the quality and reliability of its vehicles, performed well overall, but critics rate the Highlander SUV and Yaris economy car below average. Mazda and Cadillac were also top performers.

Saab story. Seven manufacturers failed to muster a single hit, with all of their models scoring below average—Saab, Pontiac, Mercury, Lincoln, Isuzu, Jaguar, and Hummer. Struggling Jaguar, one of the luxury brands Ford Motor Co. is planning to sell, is in a particular slump. Its X-type and S-type sedans are both dead last in their categories.

And the winner is: Since automobiles serve so many different purposes, there's no single "best car" out of the 300-plus models in our database. That's why we rank cars relative to others in the same category. But reasonable people who love motoring might agree that a great car, above all, should be a funmobile that offers ordinary folks a daily thrill. A bit of practicality is nice—though we wouldn't let that spoil a great ride—and since lean times may be around the corner, it should be modestly priced—under $25,000, say. By those standards, we present the most lovable cars of 2008: the Mazdaspeed 3, Volkswagen GTI, and Mazda MX-5 Miata, our highest-ranked affordable performance cars.

For buyers seeking more space, functionality, luxury, bragging rights, or value, here are the top cars in the 10 most popular categories:

2008 Rankings: Top 3 Cars in the Most Popular Categories

Ranking Model Overall Score Base MSRP City/Highway MPG Strong Points Weak Points
ECONOMY CARS
1 Honda Fit 9.0 $13,950 28/34 Verstile seating; good standard features; fun to drive Subpar seat comfort and support
2 Honda Civic 8.8 $15,010 26/34 Stable, comfortable, and quiet ride; chipper interior; good handling Minimal storage space
3 Scion tC 8.4 $15,300 20/27 Cheap, good standard equipment; modern looks Cramped cabin
MIDSIZE CARS
1 Honda Accord (sedan and coupe) 9.3 $20,360 22/31 Roomy; stylish; superb engine choices Limited trunk space; no folding rear seat
2 Toyota Camry 8.7 $18,570 21/31 Powerful engines; refined handling; comfy cabin Soulless ride; no thrills
3 Subaru Legacy 8.6 $20,495 20/27 All-wheel drive and lots of safety features standard Small back seat
UPSCALE CARS
1 BMW 3-Series 9.5 $32,400 18/28 World-class performance; great safety features Complex electronics; gets very pricey with options
2
(tie)
Lexus ES 9.0 $33,720 19/27 Quiet ride; luxurious cabin; top safety features Bland styling; uninspiring handling
2
(tie)
Infiniti G37 9.0 $34,250 17/26 Great performance for the price; fluid styling Lacks Euro-refinement; tiny back seat/trunk; poor mileage
LUXURY CARS
1 BMW 5-Series 9.4 $44,000 18/28 Racy performance; swank cabin; high-tech options Bewildering iDrive system; scarce storage in cabin
2 Mercedes-Benz E-Class 8.8 $50,900 17/24 Elegant styling; strong acceleration; innovative safety features Limited back-seat room; costly to maintain
3 Lexus GS-450 Hybrid 8.6 $41,970 22/25 Deep set of standard features; luxurious; good mileage for yacht Navigation system complicated; hybrid makes it pricey
SPORTY CARS
1
(tie)
Mazda MX-5 Miata 8.6 $20,585 22/27 Primo handling; easy-to-manage convertible roof; high fun-per-dollar ratio Cramped (duh); weak base stereo
1
(tie)
Mazdaspeed3 8.6 $22,340 18/26 Potent acceleration; grippy handling; good hauling capability Torque steer from front-wheel drive; weak base stereo
1
(tie)
Honda S2000 8.6 $34,000 18/24 Standard six-speed manual is cool; real sports-car mojo Suspension too stiff for some; cramped; dated design; limited features
COMPACT SUVs
1 Honda CR-V 8.8 $20,700 20/27 Lots of space and storage; sleek design; smooth ride Lacks third-row seat option; no V-6 available
2 Toyota RAV4 8.5 $21,100 21/27 Great handling; feisty 4-cylinder engine; optional (if cramped) third row Hinged rear door can be awkward; no navigation option
3 Honda Element 8.4 $18,980 18/23 Cargo space; easy-to-clean interior; low ownership costs Awkward "suicide" doors in rear; uncomfortable rear seats
MIDSIZE SUVs
1 Honda Pilot 9.0 $28,395 16/22 Loaded with standard features; spacious; carlike ride Bland design; mediocre fuel economy
2 Nissan Murano 8.9 $27,750 18/23 Sharp styling; strong pickup and handling Sleek design cuts into cargo space
3 Buick Enclave 8.7 $32,255 16/24 Ultrasmooth; whisper-quiet; elegant interior; comfy seats No V-8; heaviness hinders performance
LARGE SUVs
1 Chevrolet Tahoe 9.0 $34,095 14/20 Smooth ride; decent handling for its size; towing capability Curtain air bags not standard; third-row seat uncomfortable
2
(tie)
Mazda CX-9 8.7 $37,380 16/22 Smooth performance; 7-passenger seating; strong safety features Noisy interior; lack of storage nooks; pricier than competition
2
(tie)
Chevrolet Suburban 8.7 $29,400 14/20 Huge interior; good performance and mileage for its size Subpar four-speed transmission; curtain air bags not standard
HYBRID CARS
1 Toyota Camry Hybrid 8.6 $25,200 33/34 Spacious; pleasant; good performance Slightly numb steering; battery pack reduces trunk space
2 Honda Civic Hybrid 8.4 $22,600 40/45 Stylish; great mileage; good resale value Limited storage; rear seat doesn't fold down; lackluster power
3 Toyota Prius 7.9 $20,950 48/45 Roomy; good standard features; outstanding mileage Underpowered; polarizing, podlike design
HYBRID SUVs
1 Lexus RX 400h 8.6 $41,180 26/24 Hot styling; same performance as gas version; good mileage Hybrid option is pricey; no off-road performance
2 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 8.0 $33,700 27/25 Roomy, quiet cabin; good acceleration Flat styling; optional third row very cramped
3 Ford Escape Hybrid 7.3 $21,510 34/30 Muscular styling; reduced cabin noise; comfy seating Stability control not available; dull interior quality; electrical quirks
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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.