Cars are so much more than just a sum of features and specifications. Sure, those attributes may speak to its inherent value or presumed performance on paper, but the way it all comes together is what ultimately determines how good a car really is. Just because you have a bunch of yummy-sounding ingredients doesn't mean you can't screw up baking a cake.
It is with this reasoning that we crafted this list of the Best Cars You Can Buy, with an emphasis on the word "best." This isn't "the cars that give you the best value for your money," or "the cars that an owner survey dictated were the most reliable." It certainly is not "the cars that will most likely get you noticed outside the club." Sure, many of the cars on this list cost a pretty penny, but guess what? It usually costs more to get the best. The best hotel in Las Vegas isn't the Luxor, the best stove isn't a Whirlpool and the tastiest cookie isn't a Chips Ahoy. Fine products all, but they aren't necessarily "the best."
Now, we did throw in a few reasonably priced segments to keep our list relevant to the majority of car-buying Americans, but for the most part these are the vehicles we think are the best, period.
Best Subcompact Car: 2013 Mini Cooper
For years, American car buyers had no interest in subcompact cars, and for good reason. The ones we got were horrible. How could anyone be blamed for not wanting to own a Geo Metro? These days, however, subcompact cars are legitimately good, offering more equipment, higher quality and better driving dynamics than you'd ever expect. We would happily own a Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit.
All things being equal, however, the Mini Cooper is the far superior subcompact car. It's better to drive, better made and better to behold. The Mini is a car that is desired regardless of its size, and in some cases because of it. Never mind exceeding expectations: The Cooper proves that driving a small car can be cool and cures the gag reflex we all had to the word "subcompact."
In many ways, the Mini paved the way for better small cars, and even in this current generation's twilight years, it easily remains the best.
Best Compact Car: 2014 Ford Focus
Edmunds.com has conducted multiple comparison tests with the Ford Focus and every time it has thoroughly thumped competitors that are otherwise impressive in their own right. Put simply, the Focus feels like a step above the rest. Even in the lowest trims the cabin utilizes higher-quality materials, the efficient engine is energetic and the driving experience strikes a near-perfect balance of involvement and comfort. Whether you want a compact car that's fun to drive or just quiet and comfy transportation, the Focus will meet your needs.
As the trim levels and options swell with high-end features like heated leather seats, it becomes shocking that anyone would opt for pricier luxury compacts like the Acura ILX or Buick Verano. Plus, the Focus' excellence also carries forth to its other variants, including the Focus Electric and sport-tuned Focus ST. When each went on sale they leapfrogged their respective competition. Any other compact car would have to make a pretty significant leapfrog of its own to outdo the Focus.
Best Midsize Sedan: 2013 Nissan Altima
This was a very tough decision to make since the recently redesigned Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima have all so thoroughly surpassed the competition in terms of design, interior quality, powertrains and driving dynamics.
That said, the Nissan Altima is the best. Let's start with fuel economy, since so many car shoppers do. On the 116-mile Edmunds test loop, an Altima 2.5 managed an incredible 39.7 mpg, which is at least 5 mpg superior to its aforementioned fellow class leaders. That thriftiness was achieved in part by the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is nevertheless swift to respond to throttle inputs when you need to call upon its ample power. Even the V6 manages to blend speed and efficiency.
Beyond its powertrains, the Altima strikes a nice balance between refinement and engagement. It's not a sport sedan, but we don't expect it to be. Inside, the design may not be the most stylish, but even with all the usual high-tech doodads aboard, its controls are incredibly easy to use and simply work better than the rest. In total, the Altima is the nicest to drive, the easiest to use and cheapest to fuel. When it comes to a family sedan, those qualities make it the best.
Best Full-Size Sedan: 2013 Toyota Avalon
Reengineered, restyled and reimagined thanks to a new hybrid model, the Toyota Avalon is right back at the top of the full-size sedan class. The chief complaint with the old Avalon was its dull interior rife with hard plastics. The new one is a 180-degree turn in the right direction with an eye-pleasing design and top-notch materials. Whereas the old Avalon felt like a bigger Camry with some extra equipment, the new Avalon now challenges the mechanically related Lexus ES. Given that they are powered by the same engine and that the Toyota is easier to use, it's hard to imagine why you'd pony up extra cash for the Lexus.
Frankly, the Avalon isn't as engaging to drive as some of its American competitors, but we expect a full-size sedan to deliver refinement by the boatload, reassuring handling and a comfortable ride that doesn't drift into the nautical realm. By that yardstick, the serene Avalon delivers in spades, and with engaging styling we feel safe saying it's the best.
Best Luxury Sedan: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Not only is the recently redesigned S-Class the best luxury sedan you can buy, one could certainly argue it's the best car in the world.
Though the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series are superb cars, they very much look and feel like fancier versions of lesser siblings. The new S-Class, on the other hand, not only enjoys clear differentiation between it and the E-Class, but sets itself apart from those flagship sedan competitors as well.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the cabin, which is closer to a Bentley Flying Spur in design and quality than it is to any other Mercedes. The design is supremely elegant, the materials exquisite and the feature content truly staggering. The seats alone are heated, cooled, adjust in seemingly countless ways and offer six massage choices.
To drive the S-Class is a treat. Sure, the A8, 7 Series, Jaguar XJ and Porsche Panamera may present sportier driving experiences, but we bet more people will appreciate the way the S-Class so effortlessly and confidently dispenses with miles of freeway. As if its adjustable air suspension wasn't enough, the new Magic Ride Control actually scans the road ahead and alters the suspension to anticipate poor pavement. It works and it's astonishing. Plus, the S-Class is hardly a land yacht. It will still tackle corners with surprising skill and feedback.
Really, the only way the S-Class could be better would be with the powertrain variety offered by the previous model. Thankfully, the S63 AMG, S500 Plug-In Hybrid and hopefully a diesel Bluetec are on the horizon.
Best Convertible: 2013 Bentley Continental GTC
Many spectacular cars have the ability to remove their roofs and expose their occupants to the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors (not to mention their sonically pleasing exhausts). Yet many of those are cramped two-seaters with aggressive sport-tuned suspensions and a space laughably referred to as a trunk. An al fresco road trip loses its appeal once you've hit mile 300 with a sore back and a wife complaining that she couldn't pack anything bigger than her purse.
Therefore, in the spirit of defining a convertible more in the grand touring tradition, the Bentley Continental GTC is the best. It's certainly grand to the nth degree without being completely absurd like the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe (even the name is ostentatious). The backseat and trunk are hardly spacious, but for a convertible, they're more welcoming than most. While touring, the power is epic, whether in V8 or W12 guise. The driving experience is far more involving than you'd expect after the recent overhaul, while comfort and refinement are off the charts.
Cabin quality is similar: a beautiful amalgamation of leather, wood and metal crafted to a degree that few other cars on the planet can match. The roof that covers it all has four layers to reduce wind noise and more ribs to create a taut, seamless look. When it's lowered, the cabin remains notably serene with the wind deflector in place, so your driving companion's immaculately crafted coiffure will remain unfussed. The Bentley Continental represents top-down motoring at its absolute finest.
Best Coupe: 2014 Porsche 911
The Porsche 911 could be an easy choice as best convertible and sports car as well, but it's in coupe form that the 911 is at its best. The 911 may never be the car you most lust after from afar, but it doesn't take long behind the wheel to fully comprehend its greatness and desperately want one in your garage.
With the latest 991 generation, Porsche's legendary sports car is more livable than ever, therefore satisfying that best coupe quality of being just as good to drive every day as it is on weekend joy rides. It is supremely comfortable and more spacious than ever, with seats that both cosset and support (not to mention heat and cool). The PDK automated manual gearbox is just as smooth and sophisticated when running about town as it is firing off split-second shifts at redline. Fuel economy is also surprisingly strong and there's even a decent amount of cargo space.
In the end, though, the 911 is a brilliant car to drive regardless of where, when and how fast you're going. We've driven one to work, we've driven one on a track and we've even driven one from California to New York and back. In every instance, the 911 has provided the required coupe attributes of style, comfort and driving enjoyment in abundance.
Best Hatchback: 2012 Ferrari FF
We were having a tough time trying to choose the best hatchback, as the Ford Focus and the all-new Mazda 3 are both excellent cars. Then we realized we completely forgot a choice. The Ferrari FF is without question a hatchback and therefore is without question the best one.
Of course, it's just a wee bit more expensive than the Focus and Mazda 3. Its maximum cargo capacity of 28.3 cubic feet is a fair bit smaller as well, and its rear seats could be friendlier for those taller than 6 feet. Furthermore, the navigation system...
Oh, who are we kidding? It's a Ferrari! All that matters are its abundant character, the visceral thrills, the hyper-sharp steering and the 6.3-liter V12 that screams to the tune of 651 horsepower and 506 pound-feet of torque. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and has a dual-clutch automated manual to accomplish that task with rapid-fire shifts. It even has a clever, wholly unique four-wheel-drive system that allows you to enjoy all its go-fast fun even in the winter. Really, it's perplexing why anyone would opt for a Subaru Impreza.
Best Sports Car: 2014 Chevrolet Corvette
You may call us smitten, you may even call us blatant flag wavers, you may claim that we forgot at least eight or nine exotic sports cars. Perhaps you'd be right, but we really want a 2014 Chevrolet Corvette. The all-new C7 Corvette has been transformed into a 100-percent genuine, world-class sports car that looks great, goes like hell and is built to a standard that now warrants its price. Even if the new Vette didn't put down incredible numbers, it would still be a hugely desirable weekend car for anyone with a heartbeat.
Yet the C7 does make some superb numbers that put it in the same league as the world's current crop of great sports cars. It basically matches the Ferrari FF from zero to 60 mph, while crossing the quarter-mile in 12 seconds flat at 117.3 mph. It snakes through the slalom cones at 72.8 mph and circles the skid pad with an astonishing 1.08g of grip. And all of that is before we get the inevitable higher-performance versions.
Frankly, though, we were expecting the C7 to put down great instrumented numbers at a test track because the Corvette always has. Now, however, it's just as brilliant away from the track as well. It feels like a real car, and a damn good one, not a numbers-producing special GM contracted out to some guys in Kentucky. You no longer have to add "for the money" when describing the Chevy Corvette as the best sports car.
Best Five-Passenger SUV: 2013 Honda CR-V
Welcome back to the reasonably priced realm. After multiple comparison tests and a full year living with the Honda CR-V in our long-term fleet, we feel quite confident declaring it to be the best five-passenger SUV. Certain competitors may be superior in terms of cabin quality, driving enjoyment and engine options, but none are so reliably solid in virtually every area. Put in graphical terms, the CR-V is a nice flat line. Everything else is peaks and valleys.
At the top of the CR-V's many strengths are fuel efficiency and interior space and utility. There are certainly other entries that offer more style, character and driver engagement, but when it comes to cold, hard facts, figures and just plain reasonable decision-making, there's no doubt which five-passenger SUV we'd recommend first to friends and family: the Honda CR-V.
Best Seven-Passenger SUV: 2014 Buick Enclave
If you insist on having three rows of seats, you might as well get the most spacious vehicle available not named "Suburban" or cursed with the dreaded descriptor "minivan." No other crossover comes close to matching the interior girth of GM's "Lambda" full-size crossovers, which go beyond their immense size with a long list of other desirable attributes like a sophisticated and controlled ride, easy-to-use electronics and comfortable seating for eight. And while each offers the same powertrains, driving experience, interior space and seating layout, we've selected the Buick Enclave as the one to get.
The Enclave possesses near-luxury styling cues, high-quality cabin materials, extra sound insulation and greater standard feature content than its sedan brand mates. As a result, it's simply more special than its fellow Lambda triplets. Indeed, if you're looking for a vehicle to transport, pamper and entertain the entire family on a cross-country road trip, it's hard to think of a better choice than the Enclave.
Best Luxury SUV: 2013 Range Rover
Remember when we said this list wasn't "the cars that an owner survey dictated were the most reliable?" Well, it's time to practice what we preach. Land Rovers frequently end up at the bottom of reliability studies, but at the same time, when it comes to luxury SUVs, none are better than the all-new, hugely impressive Range Rover. We would happily take the so-called "risk."
Let's tackle the luxury bit first, as the Range Rover challenges any flagship sedan's craftsmanship, feature content, ride comfort and general pampering. Seriously, it wouldn't be absurd to cross-shop it against our top luxury sedan pick, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Unless, of course, you want to ford a stream, charge up a muddy hillock or tiptoe through a boulder-strewn trail, in which case the Range Rover will back up its reputation as a world-beating off-roading SUV.
And then there are the 5.0-liter V8 engines. The supercharged version requires only 4.7 seconds to bring this still big-and-heavy luxury behemoth up to 60 mph: roughly the same time as the new S550. The 375-hp "base" V8 should be 2 seconds slower, but good grief, that's still quick. So whether you're talking about performance, opulence or competence, nothing beats a Range Rover.
Best Small Pickup Truck: 2013 Toyota Tacoma
The fact that the Toyota Tacoma has gone largely unchanged since 2005 speaks to how stale this segment has become. In fact, there are now only three entries left. Nevertheless, the Tacoma is still an appealing truck that offers more variety and capability than the Honda Ridgeline, as well as a larger, more refined cabin than the Nissan Frontier.
Whether it's a humble four-cylinder work truck with black bumpers and steel wheels or a jacked-up V6-powered Double Cab with a 6-foot bed and the latest Toyota electronic goodies, the Tacoma range should have something for those who don't see the need for a bigger, more expensive full-size truck.
Best Large Pickup Truck: 2013 Ram 1500
No segment boasts greater owner loyalty than the full-size truck segment, so we fully recognize that your idea of the best truck is likely going to be determined by whatever is parked proudly outside. Free from such loyalties, however, we're quite confident in our verdict on the Ram 1500, a truck that stands out by making its owner's life easier and more comfortable while still offering the sort of capability demanded of a pickup. Allow us to present the evidence.
Exhibit A is the eight-speed automatic transmission fitted to all engines starting in 2014. Not only does it enhance fuel economy, but it also aids towing by limiting gear hunting and possibly preventing the purchase of a different axle ratio. Exhibit B are the engines themselves, including a new-for-2014 turbodiesel that promises better efficiency than the base V6 and towing capability similar to that of the Hemi V8. Exhibit C is a comfortable, classy cabin of quality materials and easy-to-use controls. Exhibit D is a driving experience that feels less trucky and cumbersome than its rivals. And finally to end this tiresome premise, Exhibit E is the option of rear coil springs or a full-on air suspension. No other truck offers these, and the result is a vastly superior ride, better vehicle control and no subsequent degradation in towing or hauling.
There isn't another full-size truck sold that offers the Ram's combination of utility, comfort and efficiency.
Best Minivan: 2014 Honda Odyssey
It can be tough to choose between the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. Both offer more utility than the Nissan Quest, while also offering greater refinement than Chrysler's vans. Each is dependable, provides similar power and boasts many of the same features. Inevitably, though, we choose the Odyssey.
Though the Sienna can be better to drive, with sharper steering and more controlled body motions, it requires the optional SE sport trim to do so. Every Odyssey, regardless of trim, drives like a big-old Honda, which is a good thing indeed. When it comes to cabin quality, the Odyssey gets a slight nod as well, while its controls (revised for 2014) are easier to both reach and use.
In the end, though, the Odyssey is best because it now sucks. Included on the top-of-the-line 2014 Odyssey Touring Elite is the HondaVac, a built-in vacuum cleaner in the cargo area with a hose long enough to reach throughout the cabin. Is there a mom or dad alive who doesn't see the inherent value in that?
Best Electric/Alternative Fuel Vehicle: 2013 Tesla Model S
Gee, should we pick a compact hatchback with a compromised trunk that can go about 80 miles on a charge and from zero to 60 mph in 10 seconds? Or, should we perhaps choose a grand, sexy luxury sedan with two trunks that can go 265 miles on a charge and from zero to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds? Decisions, decisions...
The latter, in case you're unaware, is the Tesla Model S. Besides the generous range and truly incredible acceleration, the Model S is most impressive for feeling like a real car from a real auto manufacturer instead of a low-volume special haphazardly slapped together using bits and pieces from other carmakers. That doesn't mean the Tesla is normal, however. An enormous central touchscreen controls almost everything, and for the most part does a good job of it. The trunk under the hatchback (versus the one up front where the engine would be) can be equipped with a pair of rear-facing jump seats. Perhaps most abnormal of all is the way it drives. The only thing that gets up to speed this quietly, effortlessly and rapidly is a magnetically launched roller coaster, while the Tesla's incredibly wide stance and low center of gravity allow it to take corners with similar skill. It's an astonishing vehicle that lives up to the hype and is without question the best electric car on the planet.
Best Hybrid: 2013 Toyota Prius
There are hybrids that are better to drive and/or have more richly appointed cabins, but the most important attribute of a gasoline-electric car is fuel economy, and no traditional hybrid achieves a better EPA mpg combined figure than the Toyota Prius. The subcompact Prius C matches it, but then it can't match the original's generous passenger and cargo space. Actually, no other hybrid car can, as competitors like the Ford C-Max and Honda Civic hybrids are just conventional vehicles filled with and consequently compromised by batteries. Not only is the Prius' backseat big enough to comfortably accommodate two adults, but its hatchback trunk can fit their luggage, too. No wonder the Prius is becoming so popular with cab companies.
Also, check out our list of the "17 Worst Cars You Can Buy."