Last week I discussed what I was looking for in my next car. I failed to mention that I’m only looking at used or certified vehicles. I bought a new vehicle once and I don’t have a need to do it again. I get more for my money that way. I’m in a bit of an odd spot because much of the technology that I’m looking for is widely available on new cars but not as widely available on vehicles from a few years ago. Regardless, I was able to put together a list and whittle it down to three major contenders.
Here they are. The mixture may be surprising, but remember, regardless of my addiction to tech I’m still a value person at my core. I want quality but I want value with it.
2011+ Kia Optima SX
A Kia? Yup. First off, the Optima SX packs a 274 hp twin turbo four-cylinder engine under the hood. It gets extremely positive reviews for its power and low turbo lag all while achieving 22 mpg city and 34 highway on regular unleaded fuel. Its powerful engine can propel it from 0 – 60 in 6.1 seconds through its six-speed automatic transmission. That combination of fuel economy and power make it hard to beat. On top of that the Optima is a fantastic looking car. The current model was introduced in 2011 and has a sporty and aggressive appearance that makes it stand out from the rest of the vehicles on the road.
Secondly, it packs a ton of equipment. The SX Turbo includes a leather interior, heated front and rear seats, cooled front seats, a panoramic sunroof, dual-zone climate control, a premium sound system, a nav system, push-button start, paddle shifters, a backup camera with sonar, driver memory, and Bluetooth Audio, an air-conditioned glove box, auto-leveling HID headlights, fog lamps, rain-sensing wipers, and LED tail lights. The special edition package adds Nappa leather trim, fancier wheels, and additional body accents.
Financially the Optima is hard to beat. It has great fuel economy for the amount of power it provides and includes a huge list of features. A brand new maxed out Optima Turbo comes in near $35k while two or three-year old models with reasonable mileage end up in the low 20’s. This is the least expensive of all the vehicles at which I’m looking. That is partly because Kia has higher depreciation than other brands but that’s also why I’m buying used.
The Optima isn’t perfect of course. It doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive and its engine, while powerful, is not as smooth as a V6. Reviewers comment about the steering being too heavy, the ride being too firm, and that there is a bit of wind noise. Some of the consumer research that I have done has unearthed more concerning issues like loss of turbo power, misaligned body panels, steering issues, traction issues, and an incredibly low passenger seat. I’ll have to really pay attention to those things when I test drive. Luckily many of those should be worked out by the time a car has 20k or so miles on it.
Regardless of possible issues, it is certainly worth a focused and well-rounded test drive.
2012+ Acura TL SH-AWD
It wouldn’t be right to consider my next car without considering a member of the extended family. Originally I was only interested in four-cylinder vehicles due to the fuel economy, a decision that had me considering the current generation TSX. After driving a V6 TSX last year as a loaner I started to understand the draw of a bigger engine. It isn’t just the extra power, but the smoothness that I fell in love with.
Considering a V6 means accepting lower fuel economy than I’m used to (ironically today’s V6’s get about the same MPG as my current four-cylinder). If I was going to accept a fuel economy compromise I decided to accept a little more and go all-out for all-wheel-drive. That puts a TL square in my sights.
From a feature perspective the TL is a great car. It has leather upholstery, a sunroof, power heated seats, dual zone and mode climate control, a nav system, backup camera, Bluetooth audio, push-button start, paddle shifters, xenon headlights, active noise cancellation, and an ELS stereo system which has been ranked as one of the best in the industry. The advance package adds ventilated seats and a blind spot warning system. The TL is the only car in my lineup that offers a beautiful orange-brown leather interior dubbed “Umber”. It really stands out in a sea of black and beige interiors.
The SH-AWD (Super Handling AWD) model is tuned to not only provide increased traction on slippery surfaces but improved acceleration and cornering by shifting the torque during hard acceleration and fast turning. It is consistently ranked as a high-quality and fun AWD system. Power comes from a 3.7 L V6 with 305 hp driven by a 6-speed automatic transmission that moves it from 0 – 60 in 5.4 seconds. It’s very powerful but incurs quite a fuel economy hit, only managing 18 mpg city and 26 highway. Fortunately (I guess), this is average for AWD cars in its class. It is also longer, wider, and significantly heavier than my TSX.
From a visual perspective the TL is not nearly as nice looking as the Optima. It has a big nose and a big butt even after the 2012 nip-tuck that toned down the most controversial components. When the sedan was redesigned for 2009 its design was polarizing – some people liked it while others absolutely hated it. I don’t find it to be the most attractive vehicle (I like the current-gen TSX more) but I don’t hate it either. It’s a compromise that I’m willing to make. I’m targeting a 2012 for the updated look, six-speed transmission, improved fuel economy, increased noise deadening materials, better Bluetooth integration, and the availability of the Advance package with a blind spot monitoring system.
In addition to the exterior design many reviewers complain about the number of buttons on the dashboard. I’ve actually driven one and I picked up the controls without issue. Reviewers also ding it for not having a touch screen but I prefer a knob that works to an unresponsive and confusing touch screen. The biggest complaint that I’ve read in reviews is that the steering is unresponsive, but it is more of an issue with the non-AWD model. I couldn’t really find any major consumer issues with it, a stark contrast to the Optima.
This will probably be the last car that I drive simply because it’s the easiest and most dangerous. I can just drop by my Acura dealership and take a test drive. I may also get a good deal there since I’m already a customer. That is dangerous because I might just say “ok” and end up buying one without testing out anything else. That could lead to buyer’s remorse or at least leave me with a “what if” for the next five years. Regardless I’m still excited to drive one, but I want to do it last.
I owned a Nissan Sentra in college, and while it had a superbly underpowered 115 hp engine that took almost 10 seconds to get to 60 mph, it was otherwise a nice car with quality materials and great handling. Infinity is Nissan’s luxury brand and I’ve always been interested in it. The G37 occupies the same market segment as the TL so it made sense to research. I’m glad I did.
Available in both rear-wheel and all-wheel drive the G37 puts out 328 hp and moves from 0 – 60 in 5.1 seconds. It includes a 7-speed transmission that is said to be very responsive. It is often reviewed as extremely agile and fun-to-drive. The AWD model is called the G37x and functions almost in an opposite way to the TL SH-AWD. While the TL is a front-wheel drive vehicle that can shift torque to the rear wheels when needed, the G37 is actually a rear-wheel drive vehicle that shifts torque up front when traction is needed. That may contribute to its slightly better acceleration and improved fun factor.
It packs a lot of the same features as the Optima and TL but also offers its own unique ones such as active cruise control, self-healing paint, adjustable thigh support for the driver’s seat, a power steering column, and a transmission that “learns” your driving style and adapts to it. The interior looks nice in the photos that I’ve seen, with a cool looking navigation system that has an intuitive button layout. I’ve read that the rear seat is a bit small, which I actually care about now that I have little feet kicking my seat all the time. The trunk is a bit small as well, but it is comparable to the TL (which is also criticized for a small trunk).
It doesn’t have the polarizing design of the TL and in reality it’s kind of boring. The exterior looks fine and the interior is well-laid-out but overall I’m rather ambivalent towards it. It reminds me of a more tucked Nissan Altima. The color schemes restricted to black, grays, white, and silver which is a bummer. Some model years do come in a beautiful bright red.
From a price perspective the G37 is highly competitive. The current design has been on the market since 2009 and hasn’t seen huge changes that are causing me to drop any specific years from my search. Though Infinity introduced its successor last year, it decided to keep the G37 on the market while slashing its price by about $4k. Many well-equipped models are available for under $30k with reasonable mileage. Like the TL, I haven’t found any major issues with it in reviews.
The biggest challenge for me will be finding all of the features I want in one car. The G37 is broken out in to at least five optional packages that all have things that I want. The nav is in one package, sunroof in another, thigh support / power tilt in another, adaptive cruise control in another, great stereo in another. Luckily most of the models I’ve seen online include the three packages that give you a great stereo, sunroof, and nav system. The stereo is not nearly as well-reviewed as the ELS system in the TL, but I’ll have to take a good listen to it to be sure.
My second challenge will be test driving. The closest Infinity dealership is in Nashua. Most of the vehicles I’ve seen online are at that dealership. It’s not a huge drive, but it’s a bit further than Hampton and Portsmouth which makes it harder to fit into my busy life as a parent.
What Didn’t Make the List
The list of vehicles in which I was initially interested included many models. I quickly filtered them down based on several different criteria. The majority of US-branded models don’t have the styling that I like. Some of the current-generation models do, but the ones that I’m looked at from a few years ago just don’t jive with me. Many of the non-luxury brands are out because they don’t offer the correct combination of features – horsepower for the four-cylinders, all-wheel drive for the six-cylinders, and leather/xenon/power/nav, etc.
I looked into other luxury brands as well. I dropped the Lexus IS due to its lack of engine power (200 hp V6) which is sad because I like the styling and the interior is really nice. I never really considered Audi, BMW, or Mercedes due to either reliability/maintenance (Audi and BMW) and price (all of them).
I’ve pretty much researched these cars to death so now I need to test drive them. I might start as early as this weekend, but I’ll probably only drive one car a week. I’m not even really looking at the car; I’m looking at the model. I want to figure out if I even like the model before I start looking for the one. I’ll spend some time with all three and then start really looking for the right model / year / feature / price combination. I’m not necessarily looking forward to having salespeople all over me but I guess it comes with the territory.