How we choose our Automotive Best Buys

The 45 cars, pickups, minivans, SUVs and hybrids that we selected as 2014 Best Buys out of 233 models are those that we believe simply deliver the most value for the money in their respective segments. The concept of “value,” as we see it, is based on a vehicle’s purchase price and ownership costs relative to subjective factors, such as comfort, performance and utility. By this measure, the least expensive cars aren’t necessarily Best Buys, nor are the best performers automatically given the nod.

How do we sort through all of these models to arrive at our automotive Best Buys? We get behind the wheel and drive them. Our automobile editors evaluate vehicles on a continuing basis, both under real-world conditions in their own test-drives and at manufacturers’ new-model introductions.

We consider each car, pickup, minivan, SUV and hybrid vehicle based on a checklist of various design and performance characteristics.

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Design factors include:

  • styling
  • interior ergonomics
  • seating, accessories and amenities
  • cargo space
  • fit and finish.

Performance characteristics that we consider are:

  • starting and acceleration
  • shifting/transmission
  • steering and handling
  • braking
  • ride quality
  • fuel economy.

Each vehicle is driven under a range of circumstances and conditions, and we try to drive these vehicles in the manner for which they are built, according to the standards of an ordinary buyer. Although many buyers now cross-shop various types of vehicles, particularly SUVs, minivans and sedans, we believe that it’s important that we compare each vehicle with others in its general size and price range. We compare models and choose Best Buys in each of 12 categories: relatively inexpensive (1) Subcompact Cars and (2) Compact Cars; (3) Family Cars—midsize and full-size sedans; (4) Luxury Cars—comfortable, well-equipped sedans, although not necessarily the most expensive cars available; (5) Sporty Cars—coupes and sedans that are true “driver’s cars,” although usually at the expense of a rougher ride; (6) Full-Size Pickups—utilitarian vehicles that often rival luxury cars in terms of available creature comforts; (7) Minivans; (8) Compact SUVs and (9) Midsize SUVs—more rugged alternatives to traditional family transportation; (10) Full-Size SUVs—large and, generally, off-road-ready SUVs that typically serve as burly wagons; (11) Luxury SUVs—the most posh of SUVs, many of which are excellent off-roaders; and (12) Hybrids—gasoline/electric passenger cars.

What’s more, in determining our top picks each year, we consider a range of additional variables: warranties, repair histories (as available), dealer reputation, estimated repair/maintenance costs, annual operating expenses, insurance-industry ratings, crash-test results, corporate service and manufacturing reputations, and estimated resale values.

In the process, we draw on information from sources, such as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Naturally, we give the most weight to our own evaluations, but it’s the combination of all of these analyses—in-house testing, purchase and ownership costs, and the findings of independent sources—that finally leads to our short list of Best Buys.

Unlike other Best Buys that we present throughout the year, we don’t rate automobiles according to [P], [M] and [E] (for Premium, Midrange and Economy) designations. This rating system doesn’t apply as well with automobiles as it does with other products. Subcompact cars and compact cars tend to be economy-rated, family cars are midrange and luxury cars are premium products (although we limit picks to models that are priced to provide genuine value). Pickups and minivans usually are priced equivalently. Sporty cars have a wider variance in price than do most segments, and we include both budget-priced and somewhat costlier models among our selections here (although, again, we eschewed top-end models to focus only on those that deliver the most for the money).

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