Mar 052012
 

Every year around this time we find out what the best selling cars of the past year were and every year, we see the same thing. Americans, it seems, love two kinds of cars: big honking pickup trucks and bland, reliable sedans. America’s strange obsession with the pickup is fodder for another day, I think; it’s the cars that concern me right now. For the better part of 30 years, the Accord and Civic from Honda and the Camry and Corolla from Toyota have dominated the car segment of the top 1o. One would think that to achieve this, Honda and Toyota would have had to keep making these mainstays more intriguing to maintain public interest. Instead, they have steadily become more archetypal, more alike, more boring.

Nonetheless, Americans line up at dealers to spend anywhere from $15,000 to over $30,000 on these glorified appliances every year. I have to wonder, doesn’t anyone want to enjoy driving anymore? Surely there must be any number of cars out there that, for the same money would provide more fun, more class and more personality. I decided to look around and see what I could find.

My criteria were as follows: The cars must be sedans (4 doors) with under 60,000 miles. Since the majority of Civic/Accord/Camry/Corolla buyers spend somewhere in the $18,000 to $23,000 range, I set that as my price parameter. Finally, the car had to be everything I mentioned above. With that defined, I hit Autotrader.com.

I was pleased to find that you can get quite a bit of car for that money. So much so, in fact, that making a list was proving problematic. To simplify my writing (and your reading) experience, I chose the most interesting of each drive-type (front, rear and all wheel drive). Here, if I was armed with $18,000 to $23,000, is what I would buy.

Front wheel drive
2004 to 2008 Acura TL and TL Type-S — I can already hear the car nerds among you getting ready to point out that the TL is just an overgrown Honda Accord, the car I just got done undressing in the intro to this piece. While that is true, the TL is so much more. Mechanically, the engine, steering, suspension, brakes, wheels and tires are all significantly improved over the Accord on which it is based. The interior accoutrements and electronics received similar attention. But describing it that way doesn’t do this car justice. It really is more than an upgraded Accord. It is a complete package.

The TL is a powerful, confident sports sedan that can carve through a country road with the same aplomb as it exhibits cruising down the highway. Although it does suffer from the torque steer and under steer issues that plague all powerful front wheel drive cars, the limited slip differential does a good job of keeping the handling predictable and, more importantly, controllable. Although most examples sport a 5-speed automatic, the real gems come with the 6-speed manual transmission. From 2004 to 2006, the base was the only model available and could be had with either transmission. In 2007 and 2008, however, Acura added the Type-S trim to the line, with a more powerful 3.5-liter engine. The manual transmission was only available on the Type-S for these years. The addition of a clutch pedal changes the whole dynamic of the car. With a simple flick of the wrist, the TL can go from quiet highway cruiser to growling canyon carver. It can also go from zero to 60 in under six seconds.

No matter which trim or transmission you choose, though, the car will come loaded. The interior is spacious and comfortable. The seats are supportive without being hard. The sound system is second to none and the navigation system (if so equipped) is top notch as well, although upgrade DVDs with updated maps would probably be a wise investment.

Best of all, though, I think this is arguably the best looking sedan Honda has made to date. It manages to be both edgy and subtle at the same time, evoking a visual reaction without creating a love-it-or-hate-it response among those who see it pass by.

Put simply, the TL is a lot of car for the money. And the money is right, too, since most examples that fit my criteria were priced at right around $20,000. No matter what year, trim level or transmission you choose, it will be worth every penny.

Rear wheel drive
2008 to 2009 Pontiac G8 — With the demise of the Pontiac brand, so too went the short-lived G8 sedan, one of the very few American cars I would ever have considered driving. Thanks to this car, American consumers got a glimpse in to an automotive past most have forgotten completely — a time when V8-powered, rear drive sedans dominated the market and controlled the roads. The G8, though, wasn’t a simple throwback to the old days. It was a thoroughly modern car; one made to compete with the best Europe and Japan had to offer, and it did so admirably.

The most ironic part of the story is that Americans got this lesson in modern history from Australia. The G8 was based on the popular Holden Commodore sedan, a huge sales success for GM down under. The Australians, it seems, never really gave up on the idea of rear drive, V8 sedans and have been slowly perfecting the idea over the last few decades. Based on the G8, I would say they have gotten it right.

It is still a GM on the inside, though, and that is my main gripe. It manages to feel cheap, even though it is leaps and bounds better than most of its Pontiac brethren. If you can get around the soda bottle plastics and the minor rattles and knocks, though, there is plenty of room and the seats are very comfortable and supportive for aggressive maneuvers — and make no mistake, aggressive maneuvers are what this car was made for. If you are looking for power-sliding, tire-shredding rear drive excitement, your 20 grand couldn’t be better spent.

All wheel drive
2007 to present Volvo S80 V8 AWD — I am sure many of you are confused by this choice. What, after all, could be more bland than a Swedish tissue box on wheels? Volvo, though, has made some thoroughly interesting and exciting cars over the last decade. The S60/V70 R was a 300 horsepower turbo-fed beast, capable of sneaking up on just about any unsuspecting sports sedan and leaving the driver staring at its fine Swedish backside. The C30, though not rip-roaring fast, is a throwback to the P1800 of Volvo’s glory days. Where the R cars exuded subtle muscle, the C30 is a bundle of old-school Swedish personality in a thoroughly modern car.

There are plenty of Volvos that do live up to their dull reputation, though, so what sets this S80 apart from that image? There are several areas, but the key is the engine. The 4.4 liter V8 is a gem, developed not by Volvo, but by Yamaha. The engine is built for smooth, even, efficient power, and, paired with Volvo’s all wheel drive system, it gives the driver a sense of confidence in any driving situation.

Volvo didn’t let the engine stand on its own, though. The 2007 redesign of the S80 represented a major shift in Volvo’s interior design strategy. The floating center stack, though introduced in the smaller S40, is used to elegant perfection here. It also houses a large array of gadgets and luxury options that would make a German carmaker blush. The seats are typical Volvo quality and comfort and, as always, safety is more than an afterthought — it is the first thought.

The S80 is built primarily for comfort, so it is not a track machine. It is perfectly capable of delivering through twisting roads when you put your foot down, though. The car feels like a complete package, no matter what you are asking of it, and it oozes that European car class and personality.

The S80 was the most expensive car on this list when new and it remains so in the used market as well. Careful searching, however, should yield a low-mileage example for $22,000 to $23,000.

But that’s just me…
Obviously, these are my opinions only. There were literally dozens of options I could have chosen, but these seemed like the best examples from the list I had. My needs, wants and interests are probably very different than most people, so I am interested to hear what others would answer to the same question. If you were armed with $18,000 to $23,000, what car would you have?

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