USED CARS have their place and purpose. But the real action is in new-car sales. Foreign and domestic automakers will sell an estimated 11 million new cars in the United States this year, and I suppose that means at least 11 million of us will be out there buying them.
So, let's talk about this, kick around some ideas and opinions before going into the showroom to kick some tires.
Buying a new car is not an adventure, and it's not romantic or exciting or any of that stuff. It's a business deal.
So, the first thing you oughtta do is sit down and make out a list of needs and wants before you go car shopping.
Automotive needs often are measured by hard numbers -- the number of bodies you have to carry, the number of boxes and other things you normally haul around, and the number of dollars available to buy the size of car you need to accommodate all those people and things.
Wants are something else. They're usually measured by ego -- what you think of yourself, and what you want your neighbors, friends, enemies and clients to think of you.
Let's deal first with needs, especially car sizes, of which there are four basic categories: subcompact, compact, intermediate or midsize, and full-size. The key measure of car size is wheelbase, the centerline distance from the front to the rear wheels.
A subcompact car usually has a wheelbase of 101 inches or under; a compact, between 101 and 111 inches; intermediate or midsize, between 111 and 120 inches; and full-sized, 120 inches and over, according to Department of Transportation car-size guidelines.
Within those four categories are subgroups, such as mid-specialty, traditional luxury, and mini-compact, often determined by engine size, body design and "trim level" -- the kind and the amount of accessories or options sold with the automobile.
The subgroups usually appeal to the want-factor in the new-car buyer. For example, do you really need that 5.7-liter, V-8 engine in a car that seldom is taken beyond the city limits? C'mon, do you really like leather that much -- $2,000, $3,000 worth of leather?
Subgroups can also offer higher safety margins. For example, like it or not, anti-lock braking systems that help to control cars in panic stops are only found on expensive models nowadays. Unfortunately, airbags tend to fall into the costly car category, too.
All of this creates a bewildering array of new-car nameplates in the U.S. auto market -- 179 alone in 1986, with 38 more to come in 1987, according to Dennis Virag, auto industry analyst for Detroit-based Ward's Automotive Research.
"The huge number of new models in the market is going to blow people's minds," Virag says.
Ahh, don't worry. You can make up your minds without losing them. And to help, I hope, I've compiled a list of cars I've spent some time with. I liked many of these cars, including some I couldn't and wouldn't buy. Others I disliked, including some that would make common sense in my driveway. (See what I mean about ego?)
The list is divided into nine size/style categories, thanks to help from auto industry analysts at New York-based Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Inc. Base price ranges are offered. But keep in mind that, because of fluctuations in foreign exchange rate, price increases, cut-rate financing, options packages and myriad other factors, the prices mentioned here may bear little resemblance to what you see on the showroom floor.
Ah, almost forgot. All of the cars listed are 1986 models and/or close 1985 cousins, or 1986 1/2-1987 cars coming on line this spring. MINI-COMPACT, ECONOMY CARS ($6,000 & under)
Favorite: Chevrolet (Suzuki) Sprint; 1-liter, 3-cylinder, front-wheel-drive. A spirited little commuter, well-constructed, but not for extended highway driving. Top fuel economy.
Runner-up: Hyundai Excel from Korea; 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine, front-wheel-drive, maybe a tad to large to fit properly into this category. But this little winner deserves high praise as good, solid value for the money.
Least favorite: The Yugo; a 1.1-liter, 4-cylinder, poorly crafted entry from Yugoslavia that, deservedly, has gotten more bad press than a political scandal. The Yugo is a Fiat 128 by any other name, and that is no recommendation at all. SUBCOMPACT ($7,500 to $10,000)
Favorites: Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Nova (which is really a Corolla in Chevrolet clothing); 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder, front-wheel drive. Simply superb in fit, finish, function, feel and purpose, which is to provide always-reliable, low-cost transportation. Corolla dealers tend to charge premiums. Nova dealers tend to offer discounts. Shop both for comparisons in pricing.
Very close runners-up: Ford Motor's Escort/Lynx and Chrysler's Omni/Horizon and Omni America. All small-engine, front-wheel-drive models that offer excellent value for the money. The specialty versions of these cars, the Escort GT, for example, are absolutely fun to drive.
Least favorites: Chevrolet Chevette/Pontiac 1000 and, gulp, that's hard to say. These are good cars. But they are 11-year-old, rear-wheel-drive models that just don't match up against the new competition. Both cars are equipped with 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engines. SMALL SPECIALTY ($8,000 to $15,000+)
Favorites: All Honda cars (Preludes and Civic CRX models) in this category; all Toyota models (Celica and MR2); and, of course, the splendid Mazda RX-7. Look, folks, the Japanese have so much talent and competence in this segment, its hard to choose. Dealers know this. Beware of sky-high markups.
Runner-up: Subaru XT; 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder, electronically fuel-injected engine, front-wheel-drive. One of the dizziest electronic dashboards you'll ever see, but, besides that, one of the best-styled, most versatile little cars on the road.
Least favorites: Camaro/Firebird; with possible engine sizes ranging form a base 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder job to a 5-liter, V-8, rear-wheel drive. The C/F is sort of like an impulsive, hot date. Real fun in the beginning. But as time goes by, eventual rattles and lousy handling can be awful. COMPACTS ($8,000 to $12,000+)
Favorites: All General Motors J cars, led by the Chevrolet Cavalier; 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, front-wheel-drive. The once-maligned Cavalier has become a best-seller, and with good reason. This is a solid, well-made, basic family car. It is very reliable and attractive. A superb commuter that also holds its own against everything in its class on the highway. Good value for the money.
Close runners-up: Ford Motor's Tempo-Topaz; 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder, electronically fuel-injected engine, front-wheel-drive. Runners-up only because, in this case, I prefer the feel and styling of GM's J cars.
Least favorites: Chrysler's Reliant/Aries; 2.2-liter, 4-cylinder, fuel-injected engine, front-wheel-drive. Utilitarian cars that are good buys. But golly, Miss Molly, they are boring, boring, boring -- absolutely not the cars for people who like driving. MIDSIZE ($10,000 to $15,000+)
Favorites: Easily Ford's Taurus and Sable; 3-liter, V-6, fuel-injected engine (four-cylinder engines available soon), front-wheel-drive. The two most inspired cars to hit the 1986 market. Superb craftsmanship. Well-thought-out interiors. Excellent styling. Match these against any comparable models from Europe or Japan. Zowie! I like these cars. Prediction: Ford will sell every T/S it can make in 1986.
First runner-up: GM's Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera; 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder, electronically fuel-injected engine. Just a comfortable, neatly styled, well-executed cruiser.
Second runner-up: (Because I don't have any "least favorite" in this category) Chrysler's New Yorker; 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder, fuel-injected engine, front-wheel-drive. A staid but dignified car that works well. FULL-SIZE ($10,500 to $15,000)
Favorites: Chevrolet Impala/Caprice and Pontiac Parisienne; engines ranging from 4.3-liter V-6s to 5-liter V-8s, all fuel-injected stuff, rear-wheel-drive. Old faithfuls. Good 'ole, big 'ole cars that just keep on rolling along. There is fiscal wisdom in these wheels.
Runner-up: Chrysler's Gran Fury; 5.2-liter, V-8 engine, rear-wheel-drive. A real heavy roller. Reminds me of visiting friends on Sunday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Alabama. It has that Sunday-after-meeting-going-cruising kind of feeling.
Least favorite: Ford's Crown Victoria; 5-liter, V-8, fuel-injected engine, rear-wheel-drive. I just don't like the styling of this one. Fake woodgrain everywhere. Why have so many plastic trees died for this car? NEAR LUXURY ($17,000 to $30,000)
Favorite: BMW 535i; 3.5-liter, fuel-injected, six-cylinder engine. Driver's delight. An all-around, well-executed hummer. The five-speed manual gearbox is the best I've ever used. Handling is tops.
Runner-up: Volvo 740 Turbo; 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder, turbocharged engine, rear-wheel-drive. The styling is less than passionate. But this car does everything well, particularly in the areas of passenger comfort and safety. Perfect for long trips.
Least favorite: The Cadillac Cimarron; 2-liter, four-cylinder engine, front-wheel-drive. Really no different from the Chevrolet Cavalier. But in this category, GM's attempts to pass off a perfectly good economy car as a near-luxury model are silly. It never ceases to amaze me that people actually buy this car, when they could've gotten the comparable Cavalier for thousands of dollars less. Really, folks, does a nameplate mean that much? TRADITIONAL LUXURY ($25,000 to $60,000)
Favorites: BMW 7 series and Mercedes-Benz 500 series. Let's face it. When it comes to superior luxury rides, the Germans win hands down. The BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars in this category simply are the best to be had anywhere. Pout, if you want to. But show me something else that matches or beats these cars in engineering, performance, overall craftsmanship, safety, and retained value. Give up?
Runners-up: Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera (great styling, excellent performance, and a brilliant use of automotive electronics); Volvo 780 (detente between luxury and common sense); and the Jaguar XJ6 (simply beautiful, but still finicky after all these years).
Least favorite: Are you kidding? LUXURY SPORT ($25,000 to $60,000)
Favorite: The Chevrolet Corvette. Yeah, that's right. With its audacious styling and its big 5.7-liter, V-8 engine. A b-a-a-a-ad, mean machine. Draws lots of hostile attention, but I don't care. This car will run against anything in its category. And that makes me happpy, because it was designed and engineered in the the good 'ole U.S.A. I don't mind flag-waving when the flag is well-made.
Runners-up: The Porsche 928 S, BMW 635 CSi, and the Jaguar XJS. These cars all have superb acceleration and handling. Craftsmanship? There seems to be no such thing as bad fit-and-finish in this league.
(Of course, maintenance of most cars in the luxury-sport category is costly. Precision engineering requires precise care, and that kind of care is expensive. These cars also tend to use more fuel and oil than their less-expensive brethren, and their insurance costs are high. Conservationists and fiscal conservatives need not apply for ownership.)
Least favorite: Go on, get outta here.
Warren Brown writes for the Business section of The Washington Post.