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Despite the popularity of light trucks, scores of passenger cars can be found to please all tastes.
By Mark Glover -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Friday, November 28, 2003
Passenger cars are allegedly an endangered species, but you would not know it glancing at a list of 2004 models.
More than 150 car models can be had in the United States, ample evidence that the republic has not yet become the land of the light truck.

True, light trucks now outsell passenger cars nationwide with slightly more than 50 percent of the market. That said, there are scores of passenger-car choices in 2004, with prices ranging from bargain-basement to penthouse-premium. Available options number in the hundreds. Sorting it all out is a major project for prospective buyers.

Today's first installment of The Bee's 12th annual Best Bets series is a guide not only for buyers but also for auto enthusiasts trying to keep track of all the new models.
Selecting Best Bets honorees is a decidedly subjective process, and the goal this year was to be more discriminating. Bottom line: Some very good cars did not make the cut.

Does that mean that coupes, sedans and wagons not making today's 2004 Best Bets list should be ignored? Absolutely not. A lot depends on personal preferences.

The Best Bets selection process weighed factors such as price, standard features, options, variety of configurations, styling, interior comfort, interior layout, handling, engine power and reliability, safety features, luxury appointments and soundness of engineering.

But in the final analysis, heavy consideration was given to how much car can be had for the dollar. Most of us might want that $100,000 Mercedes, but most of us end up buying the best vehicle we can find for a fraction of that price.

Passenger cars are divided into four general categories: economy cars starting at less than $15,000; affordable cars in the $15,000 to $25,000 range; fullsize cars, five- or six-seaters generally listing for less than $35,000; and prestige cars with stickers of $35,000 and up.

Some deserving cars might not be listed here as I have not been able to get into all the 2004 vehicles. The list includes such well-received models as the Acura TSX, the BMW 6 Series the Kia Amanti, the Mazda3 the Suzuki Verona and the Volkswagen Phaeton.

Sports and high-performance cars will be examined in the fourth part of the series.

Here, in no particular order of preference, are the Best Bets winners among 2004-model passenger cars – and a handful of favorite wagons:

Economy cars
The Best Bets lineup of discount transportation is almost unchanged from last year, with the exception of the Saturn Ion breaking into the category.
The Ion has taken some lumps from those who want more leg room, interior amenities and performance, but what do you want for a car that can be had for as little as $10,000 and change? The Ion is a nice choice for everyone from recently licensed teen drivers to seniors who want basic transportation for a reasonable price.

Performance fans will be happy with the scheduled introduction of a special Ion Red Line "quad coupe" early in 2004. That one will have a supercharged four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower.

In a rarity, all of America's Big Three automakers are represented in this Best Bets-winning group. The Chevrolet Cavalier, Dodge Neon and Ford Focus models continue as nicely equipped transports with easy-to-take sticker prices. The Dodge SRT-4 amounts to a Neon on steroids with a 230-horsepower, turbocharged four-banger. But that model will run you more than $20,000.

A recent ride in a 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer sedan reconfirmed its reputation as a fun vehicle loaded with customer- pleasing standard features. The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla remain what they have been for years – value-laden cars that probably will run 100,000 miles with barely a squawk of trouble.

Affordable cars
This is arguably the most difficult category to narrow down to a favored few. Like last year, a dozen vehicles won Best Bets honors, but a dozen others could be considered just as worthy.
Newcomers this year include the all-new Chevrolet Malibu, the Mazda6 sedan, the extensively reworked 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix and the second-generation Toyota Prius.

The Malibu has received glowing reviews for improved handling – courtesy of General Motors Corp.'s impressive Epsilon platform – and generous standard features. Chevy also made a snazzy stretch wagon, called the Malibu Maxx, but I have not yet had seat time in that vehicle.

The midsize Mazda6 is a strong frontdrive performer, particularly when it has the top-level, 3-liter V-6 with 220 horses. The Mazda6 platform has been so well-received that Mazda parent Ford Motor Co. is basing numerous future models on it.

The Pontiac Grand Prix sedan is better than the previous generation in every way. For the biggest blast, try the nicely appointed GTP with the 3.8-liter, supercharged V-6 with 260 horsepower.

Toyota's new Prius is probably the biggest steal of 2004, priced at $19,995. Crammed with fuel-conserving technology, the hybrid-powered car raises the bar in the green transportation segment. And thanks to thoughtful enlarging of the interior cabin, the new Prius hatchback is a true midsize.

Repeat Best Bets winners include stylish Chrysler cars (Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chrysler Sebring), Korean products with plentiful standard features and the best warranties in the land (Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima), a Volkswagen sedan with updated styling for 2004 (Volkswagen Jetta) and some old reliables that remain hot-sellers nationwide (Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry).

Full-size cars
Priced around $70,000, the all-new 2004 Audi A8L five-passenger luxury sedan stands out as a pricey stranger in this segment of Best Bets winners. But it had to make the list – somewhere – with its terrific all-aluminum frame, super-plush interior and 330-horsepower V-8.
The A8L could well be listed among the prestige cars. Whatever you call it, it deserves a look for those fortunate enough to afford the fare.

The Infiniti G35, the saucy-looking coupe/sedan named Motor Trend's magazine's Car of the Year last year, is another hard-to-place vehicle. With either 3.5-liter, V-6 (260 or 280 horsepower) in it, the G35 can mix it up with some top-flight high-performance models.

Three American-made sedans made the cut again this year with alluring combinations of luxury and performance – along with starting prices far below the $35,000 plateau: Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300M and Pontiac Bonneville.

The Hyundai XG350 carries full-size value even further – the loaded L version of the 2004 model starts at less than $26,000. Throw in the super Hyundai warranties, and the XG350 becomes even more attractive.

Nissan's Maxima was completely reworked for 2004. The automaker made it more luxurious inside and more stylish outside. It remains a road-burning sedan with its enthusiastic 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 260 horsepower. The Acura TL sedan also underwent a major upgrade for the 2004 model year. The exterior skin is sportier than ever, and the 3.2-liter V-6 with 270 horsepower is nearly 50 ponies stronger than the previous TL model.

The Toyota Avalon is again a Best Bets favorite, with near-Lexus luxury inside. Even the primo version of Avalon, the XLS, starts at a comparatively affordable $30,500.

Prestige cars
If the thought of spending $50,000 or more for a passenger car is no problem, there is a fleet of pricey 2004 machinery to keep you happy.
The new BMW545i sedan is a Best Bets newcomer and ranks as a veritable discount model in this segment, ranging from about $54,000 to $60,000.

What you get for your money is exceptional BMW engineering and four-door transportation with terrific road manners. Also making its Best Bets debut is the new-for-2004 Jaguar XJR, a sedan equipped with a 4.2-liter, supercharged, 390-horsepower V-8 that gave me some of the most heart-racing accelerations I'd ever experienced in a sedan during a recent test drive.

There are fancier cars than the Infiniti Q45, but few are packed with its level of eye-popping technology. That continues for 2004. And the Mercedes- Benz S500 carries on as a favorite Mercedes – a luxury liner with a robust, 302-horsepower V-8 and priced well below the six-figure neighborhood, starting around $82,000.

The Lexus LS 430, with butter-soft luxury inside and silky smooth handling at high speeds, takes home another Best Bets ribbon this year, as does the Volvo S80, a delightful blend of luxury, understated elegance, performance and safety.

What do you call a wagon? It's kind of hard to tell these days.
Winning wagons with the traditional "station wagon" look include the Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT and the Saturn L300. The former is agile on or off pavement with a strong-performing, 165-horsepower flat-4 power plant. The latter is a sturdy, practical hauler of cargo and people and can be had in three trim levels. The L300 is reportedly on its way out for 2005.

No matter; it still does the job for 2004.

The Ford Focus SE wagon has a European look and feel. Starting at an affordable $17,200, it's a great first car for working teens and college-bound students. It can be had with four-cylinder engines rated at 130 or 144 horsepower.

Two new Best Bets winners are as different as two wagons can be.

The Scion xA is the less radical of the current two-model Scion lineup overseen by Toyota. This compact wagon can be dressed up with numerous youth-oriented accessories and driven away for less than $15,000. Horsepower is a safe-and-sane 108 from the four-cylinder motor.

In contrast, the 2004 Lexus IS 300 SportCross is a luxurious wagon more likely to be purchased by baby boomers. A sporty surprise lurks under the hood in the form of a very strong 3-liter, in-line 6 engine. It's rated at 215 horsepower, and the SportCross package starts at nearly $31,000.
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