As we do every year, the Edmunds.com editorial team has released the Editors' Most Wanted Winners list for 2004. These 29 categories represent every vehicle sold in the U.S. market, which means we had to look at over 300 models to come up with our 29 favorite car and trucks based on what we, as a staff, would buy ourselves. This is the eighth year we've picked our Most Wanted vehicles, and every year the process gets a little more challenging. We've all heard the saying that there are really no "bad" cars made today. While I won't go that far, I'll readily admit that there are very few truly awful vehicles for sale in new car showrooms. I could go into which models I think fill the role of "truly awful," but I want to point this month's column in a positive direction (you gotta try everything once, right?).
The most frustrating aspect of assigning Most Wanted winners in a given category is that only one vehicle can win, with one other model getting an "Honorable Mention" nod. In some categories having two slots to note outstanding product is plenty. In fact, when it comes to a Wagon Over $45,000, there's only one vehicle to choose from, so making that call is easy. (Note to product planners: If the wagon really is making a comeback, I know of one category where the competition is sparse.) The Coupe Under $45,000 is another price/type category with minimal activity only two vehicles so assigning "Winner" and "Honorable Mention" status for this category took but a moment (Chevrolet Corvette and Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class).
But then the editorial team looks at a category like Sedan Under $25,000 and, suddenly, two placeholders just aren't enough. For 2004 there were 26 vehicles competing for our attention in this segment, with relatively few duds to be found. The Volkswagen Passat, a perennial favorite of the team, won again. And the Mazda 6, a relative newcomer to the market, took home Honorable Mention. But where does that leave the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Jetta, to name just a few (actually, eight) more sedans that we are very fond of?
Underappreciated, I guess.
Of course, we're used to having a knock-down, drag-out fight regarding which mainstream sedan is best. That category has fielded a vast array of highly competitive product for years. However, areas in which we're not used to making tough choices, like in the Minivan or Midsize SUV Over $45,000 segments are something we didn't see coming. These categories have exploded with compelling product in just the last 12 months. Where last year (and for the previous four years) the Honda Odyssey was the clear minivan of choice (at least in our opinion), you now have a redesigned Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest knocking the Honda off our list of notables. Does this mean the Odyssey isn't still a fabulous minivan? No way! But it does show how competitive this segment has become, a segment many automakers continue to ignore. And just to be clear, yes, there are several other excellent minivans in this segment as well.
If you've got the bucks to buy a premium midsize SUV, your options have similarly blossomed in recent years. For less than $45,000, you can get the Volkswagen Touareg or the Infiniti FX45, the two vehicles that earned "Winner" and "Honorable Mention" status, respectively, this year. But you can also get an Acura MDX, Audi allroad quattro, BMW X5, Lexus RX 330, Lincoln Aviator and Mercedes-Benz M-Class. I don't know about you, but I don't see a loser on that list, which means that, at least in this category, you really can say "there are no 'bad' vehicles."
Another category I'm particularly impressed with is the Convertible Under $45,000 segment. Here you've got the usual suspects, including the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes SLK (two of the older designs in this class, yet they continue to be our two favorite models). But you've also got the relatively new Audi A4 and Ford Thunderbird, the always entertaining Porsche Boxster, the safe and comfortable Volvo C70, and the brand-new (and much improved) Saab 9-3. The A4, Thunderbird, Boxster, C70 and 9-3 don't win or even place on our list of 2004 Most Wanteds, but is anyone out there really going to debate their status as desirable cars? I didn't think so.
I've just discussed three segments, but almost every one of our 29 Most Wanted categories offers more cars worthy of acclaim than our current award system can properly recognize. We get around this issue, to some degree, by administering our regular comparison tests in these same segments. The winners of these tests are not simply the vehicles we prefer as a staff. To win an Edmunds.com comparison test, a vehicle must succeed in the areas of performance, pricing and in-depth evaluation. The results are scored and the numbers plugged into a quantifiable equation where they are crunched, giving us a winner. We also have our annual Consumer's Most Wanted awards that are chosen by you, the Edmunds.com user. Sometimes you agree with us, but oftentimes you don't (which I personally prefer because it gives that many more great vehicles an opportunity to stand in the spotlight).
One thing's for sure we've gotten to a point in automotive evolution where identifying the one or two best vehicles, even within narrowly defined segments, is nearly impossible. What does this mean to you, the automotive consumer? It means that research and test-drives are more important than ever. You can count on us to help you with the former, and we'll even do our best to give you a virtual version of the latter through our road tests and comparison tests.
But in the end you've got to get out there and experience some of this great product yourself. And if you're anything like my staff, you'll have as much trouble picking your "most wanted" vehicles as we do. Don't worry it's a good problem to have.