I’ve never been afraid to march out of step with many of my fellow car critics. Yeah, I get it wrong sometimes, but there are more than a few cars my fellow reviewers have dismissed that I just know have been misjudged.
Here are five cars of them that I think are good ‘uns — even though a bunch of my professional peers don’t.
It annoys me that so many cars look alike these days, so I’m always happy to drive something a little different—but it seems some colleagues don’t agree. Most have dismissed the funny-looking 500L primarily because it’s funny looking. “Rolling fishbowl,” one wit opined. “Drives like a whale,” said another. (What is it about this car that makes us think of marine life?)
And yet if you read the comments by real people who actually own a 500L, most of them love it—and they love it because it’s so different. (And if they don’t love it, it’s usually because it stopped working. The 500L is built in Serbia at a former Zastava plant; those are the folks who brought us the Yugo, so from a reliability standpoint, it may be a bit of a ticking time bomb.
I, too, love the 500L. Rolling fishbowl? You betcha. The 500L surrounds its occupants with glass (quite literally, if you opt for the panoramic sunroof), providing lots of sunlight and an unobstructed view of the world. And it’s practical, too: The 500L is essentially a tall hatchback, a body style that European buyers prefer over SUVs, and the 500L is packed with space. As for the driving experience, well, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as terrible as some have said. (It helps that the last one I tested had a conventional automatic and not the herky-jerky twin-clutch transmission.)
So why all the negative reviews? Are we, as auto writers, so afraid of different that we are slow to praise a car that might not prove popular with the sedan-and-SUV-loving American public? Not me. If I were in need of a new car, I’d seriously consider a Fiat 500L … though just to be on the safe side, I’d probably lease it.
The Jeep Compass (and its near mechanical twin, the Patriot) are among the last vestiges of the bad old days of Chrysler, a sad era when its cars drove as if their steering gears were made of Jell-O and their interiors of plastics that a Chinese toy factory would reject.
Most reviewers are still basing their opinions of these cars on the original versions. That’s often the way it goes in our biz; the automakers like to dazzle us with the latest-and-greatest, and we sometimes miss the opportunity to catch up with older models as they age — and are sometimes transformed. And here’s the thing: When Fiat bought Chrysler, it embarked on a crash program to improve the worst of the lineup. Most of the blatant offenders have been replaced, but the few that remain are a lot better than most of us realize. Case in point: The baby Jeeps. Granted, there’s only so much you can do with a poorly designed car — as the computer folks say, garbage in, garbage out. But if you go out and drive a new Compass or Patriot today, especially one of the higher trim models, I bet you, like me, will be pleasantly surprised. I’m partial to the Compass, which has Baby Grand Cherokee styling and offers the superior 2.4-liter engine in most trim levels. The 2.0, more commonly found in the Compass, is a bit more miserable, but neither car is the rolling prison sentence it once was.
Best of all, the Compass and Patriot are scandalously cheap. Patriots start well under $20,000, and you can get a nicely equipped Compass for less than $25k — and if you don’t think a cheap Jeep is relevant to buyers, check out the sales figures. Out of 90 or so SUVs on the American market, the Compass generally ranks in the top 30, and the Patriot ranks in the top 15.
Auto writers, like enthusiasts in other fields, are equipment snobs. We’re a lot like photography fanatics who insist on investing thousands of dollars in the latest electronic camera gear, this despite the fact that Ansel Adams did his best work using technology from the 1850s. When it comes to automotive hardware, we know the good stuff from the bad stuff. Naturally we prefer the good stuff.
So a lot of auto writers were disappointed when Mercedes, which for decades has exclusively offered rear-wheel-drive (and 4WD) vehicles in the U.S., introduced the CLA, which uses a supposedly cut-rate front-wheel-drive platform with a compact turbocharged four-cylinder engine, all in an effort to bring the CLA to market with a $30k price tag.
Personally, I never really gave a hoot about the CLA’s mundane mechanicals — and to be honest, the engine doesn’t get nearly enough credit; Mercedes stretches that little two-liter up to 355 horsepower in the CLA45 AMG. What I liked is that Mercedes found a way to pour Benz-level elegance into a $30k package. Contrast that with Audi’s A3, which drives brilliantly but looks and feels like a cut-rate Audi. Yes, the CLA’s multimedia screen looks like an afterthought. Yes, the back seat is tiny. Yes, the driving experience is a bit mundane. But Mercedes is all about elegance and class, and the CLA delivers both in droves. I think it’s a brilliant car, and the public seems to agree: These are flying out of Mercedes showrooms.
Few cars have received as thorough a trashing in the media as the Mitsubishi Mirage. Drive it and the flaws are obvious: It accelerates like a snail and leans like a schooner. But it also promises hybrid-like fuel economy: 37 mpg in town and 44 mpg on the highway. My wife and I spent six months and nearly 10,000 miles driving a Mirage, and you know what? The damn thing delivered—40.6 mpg, and this in a car in which you have to floor it to get up to highway speed unless you want to become the hood ornament on a Suburban.
Now, I’m not saying the Mirage is a Lexus, but remember, Mitsubishi never promised us a rose garden. What they did promise us was cheap motoring, and the Mirage delivers: The $14,000 list price gets you air conditioning, and power locks and doors, and a whistle over $17k buys keyless ignition, an automatic transmission and navigation.
A lot of writers say, “You’re better off with a used car.” Sure, you can get a used Honda or Toyota for that kind of money — but over the next five years it’s probably going to need tires and brakes and maybe a repair or two. Meanwhile, the Mirage is covered by a 5-year/60,000-mile warranty, so the owner need only pay for routine maintenance. If it breaks, you just send it back to the dealer and let them sort it out. Remember, the idea of budget motoring is to stay on a budget — and that’s exactly what the Mitsubishi Mirage helps its owners do. Is it a great car? No. But for buyers seeking new-car reliability on a used-car budget, it’s one of the smartest choices you can make — and that’s why I like it.
The Prius has been vilified as the ultimate anti-car, the complete antithesis of everything real gearheads love. And this argument isn’t without merit: If you thrill to the sound of a howling V8, it’s hard to get excited about a car that only fires up its Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder when it feels like it.
But there are two things that often get lost in all the Prius hatred. First is that it is, by its own standards, a very, very cool car. It’s been a dozen years since Toyota introduced the second-gen Prius, but every time I get into one, I feel like I’m driving the future — a slightly dated version of the future, perhaps, but the future nonetheless. From the unusual shape to the funky shifter to the all-LCD dash display, the Prius reminds its occupants that they’ve stepped outside the world of ordinary motoring. It is completely unique and yet easy for drivers to adapt to, and that’s an ingenious bit of design.
Second is the fact that the Prius really works. No matter how you drive it — and that is the key, no matter how you drive it — the Prius delivers around 45 mpg, day in and day out. Like it or loathe it, you have to have some modicum of respect for a car that does exactly what it promises. I certainly do (have a modicum of respect, that is; whether I do what I promise is open for debate).