Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 20, 2017
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Lemons & Laurels

A ruthless review of the year's best and worst cars

I get the opportunity to drive dozens of vehicles every year. Some are hard to part with after a week behind the wheel; others, I happily say good riddance to. But I'm fortunate: By the time most people discover their dream wheels aren't all they anticipated, they've already signed their lives away to a financial institution. Some problems -- which one would seldom, if ever, encounter after a spin around the block -- become evident only after a week on the road. Some of the testers I drive have more than 10,000 kilometres on the clock, so things like poor upholstery wear and shoddy workmanship have become more apparent. Honda's windshields, for example, prematurely pit after only a few months.

Though some dealers let you take the vehicle out for an hour or so, you'll never be allowed to try it for a week, much less several thousand kilometres, before deciding whether or not to buy it. The best protection against beating the odds is by doing your homework before you buy. The Automobile Protection Association's Lemon-Aid is a good starting reference, as are reliability reports published by numerous consumer groups. Your mechanic, friends and relatives are also good sources.

Here is my assessment of this year's gems and jalopies.

LEMONS

BMW
323I Powered by a two-litre six, the BMW 323i offers true Bavarian girth. BMW stretched the 3-series sedans by about 40 millimetres, increasing rear-seat leg room. Adults can finally ride in comfort in the rear seat. If you don't mind ordering the car without all the bells and whistles (which, in the case of our tester, cost an additional $4100), you can still drive away with a superb, quick, well-handling car for a mere $34,900. That brings it into the same price range as a fully loaded Camry or Maxima.

Jaguar S-Type
Jaguar unveiled its long-awaited mid-size, entry-level ($60,000 to $70,000) sedan this year as a 2000 model. Available with either six- or eight-cylinder power, the S-Type brings back the romance of the Mark I/II saloon cars of the '50s and '60s. Its level of comfort and quality is unmatched. Ford's financial and engineering inputs have had a positive influence on Jaguar's reliability and value. The 240-horse, three-litre V-6 may not be a neck-snapping performer but what it lacks in off-the-line gusto, it makes up for in touring smoothness and predictable handling.

Mazda Miata
How do you celebrate an anniversary? Most manufacturers splash on a decal or two, throw in some floor mats, then charge you a premium price for what they say will be a collector's item. Not Mazda. The Miata changed the face of automotive history, so for its 10th Anniversary Special Edition, a true special edition was produced. The price is higher ($34,790), but a few of the extra touches include a six-speed manual tranny, leather and suede seating to match the blue exterior and carbon-fibre console inlays.

Mercury Cougar
The year's best surprise was the Mercury Cougar. Downsized from the land yacht it became over the years, the cat returns to its roots at an affordable $22,495. The latest incarnation -- unlike its conservatively styled 1967 ancestor -- takes bold styling to new extremes. Sculpted creases play on lighting, and bring a refreshing bold look to the sport coupe. In a market full of high-performance cars, the Cougar has nothing to be ashamed off. The 170 hp, 2.5-litre Duratec V-6 provides smooth low-level performance and roars to life when asked. It takes to winding country roads with ease and may just be the best handling Merc ever, a true world-class car. I just wish Mercury would refinish the dash in something else other than flat black paint.

Porsche Carrera2
The Porsche Carrera2 is the quintessential sports car. There are other exotics that cost nearly double and triple the Carrera's $95,200 price, yet few can claim its reliable workmanship and ease of driving. For those wanting to experience the sheer pleasure of motoring, few cars match the Porsche, and years of refinement to the 911 chassis have produced one of the sweetest Porsches ever. If your lottery ticket just came in, there is no better way to treat yourself.

LAURELS

Acura RL 3.5
A couple of years ago I picked the Acura RL as a runner-up in the Top Ten Best category. It's too early to tell, but Acura may be taking its success for granted. This year's RL 3.5 has much more engine and road noise in the cabin than its previous model. The car is 20-pounds lighter than last year's model. Whether this is due to the removal of some sound-insulation material, I can't say. The RL 3.5 I test drove had been in a fender bender, and the repair job was shoddy. A poorly aligned fender isn't the kind of repair you'd expect to see on a $55,000 car. Windshields prone to rock chips are also Acura's Achilles' heel. Still, the RL remains as one of the easiest cars to drive.

Chevrolet Malibu
Once a mainstay of the mid-size car market, the Chevrolet Malibu returned a few years ago restyled and re-engineered as a front-wheel driver to do battle with the likes of the Accord and Camry. The four cylinder has been dropped in favour of the torquier 3.1 litre V-6, but the Malibu still lacks the pizzazz of other cars in this category. It's missed the mark: lacklustre styling that copies the Camry a little too closely, handling that's more in tune to the Cadillac crowd than the mid-size market, and a cup holder that's mounted to the left of the steering wheel, which may be fine for taxi drivers but is an accident waiting to happen in the real world. Still, the Malibu feels solid and may prove to reign supreme again in coming years.

Ford Mustang Convertible
At just under $30,000, the 3.8-litre, six-cylinder, Ford Mustang Convertible is a viable alternative to roadsters like the Miata and Z3. Although the Mustang shouldn't be categorized as a roadster, it does offer sporty handling. Add room for the kiddies in the back seat, decent trunk space, a more comfortable ride than in its arch rival, the Camaro, and it's easy to see the Mustang's attributes. But the Mustang fails. The head rests are too far back and too low to provide any protection from whiplash in the event of a collision. It also failed the car-wash test. Pools of water formed in the trunk lid's recesses, areas that in a few years will rot.

Suzuki Grand Vitara
Suzuki is certainly no stranger to the cute-ute category. It's one of the few mini-utes to offer four-wheel drive and the only one with a V-6. Unfortunately our Grand Vitara tester was plagued with more rattles than a snake pit. The power train cuts into the foot wells, diminishing leg room in already tight quarters. The ride is choppy, and there are numerous reports of difficulty starting in winter. Some idiosyncrasies may be associated with first-year model runs. But with prices ranging from $22,995 to $27,695 for the fully dressed automatic, and the roomier, smoother Honda CRV AWD coming in at $27,800 or a fully dressed four-cylinder Kia Sportage at $23,000, I'd be hard pressed to jump into a Suzuki.

Volvo C70 Coupe
Volvo has long been a purveyor of fine, safe and reliable motor cars. For years people have been waiting for a style change to the squared-off look that Volvo is synonymous with. So when the C70 Coupe emerged, a lot of people saw it as one of the prettiest Volvos ever. Pretty yes, but its centre-mounted speaker atop the dashboard looks like an afterthought. Granted that's something you can live with, but brakes that perform poorly and make a racket every time you hit the pedal is not. Then one sunny day, the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball started emanating from within the roof. Closing the sunroof did nothing, but the noise stopped when I slowed down. A quick check revealed nothing. The clincher came on the eve of my returning the car. The car in front rolled back into me on a hill at roughly three kilometres an hour. The corner of the front bumper got its paint scratched -- easily a couple of hundred dollars to repaint. An ugly wound, but not as ugly as the wound that this car left in my heart.

As I was finishing this article, I received a call from Volvo, asking me to try the new S80 2.9. I was apprehensive, having tried the S80 T6 -- the turbo version of the same car last winter, with which I was not impressed. Noisier than the Acura and, at 56 big ones, it's simply too pricey. But I gave it a go. The good news is that the turbo glitches in the first-year production run had been worked out by the time the normally aspirated 197 horse 2.9 reached me. The brakes, noise level and overall quality have much improved. All 2000 Volvos now feature Volvo's award-winning Whiplash Protection System seat design, for which certain insurance companies offer rebate.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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