Honda is back with a redesigned Odyssey, long a winner for the automaker. The interior has been refreshed with more light and space, while the exterior trends toward a sleek, aerodynamic look that takes its cue from the crossover genre. Tech options are a must for 2011, and Honda is serving up an add-on rear-seat DVD unit (16.2 inches) that can go split screen. Base price here is $29,000 with gas mileage rated at 18/27.
Not to be outdone in its affection for a proven winner, Ford has revamped its Explorer, refusing to give up on the SUV form factor even when economic and environmental pressures are strongly signaling that its days are numbered. They've gone with unibody construction to lighten the curb weight, which also makes for a smoother ride. Couple that with a more efficient engine and Ford has the mileage on the Explorer up to 17/25, but it begs the question if that's anywhere close to good enough in a world of $3+ a gallon gas. Sure, it seats 7. Yes, it has the latest Ford-Microsoft communication tech, but at a base of $28,000, the Explorer is still expensive to feed.
There's interesting competition in the burgeoning compact sector, with the Mazda 2 making a strong case that small can also be fun and functional. This little darling is surprisingly roomy, with a well-finished interior and plenty of space for a couple of passengers. The suspension feels solid and the handling is strong and confident. The hatchback makes minor hauling simple, and a price tag of $14,000 with fuel ratings of 28/35 enhances the appeal. It's not a thrumming powerhouse at 100 hp, but the Mazda 2 is neither sluggish nor toy-like in its acceleration. A test drive is a textbook pleasant surprise.
The 2011 Kia Sportage may actually be the best of both worlds. Designed with young, urban drivers in mind, the Sportage has ditched its former boxy look and now comes across as mainstream but fun. Power steering, new for this model year, takes overall handling up several notches and the four-cylinder engine returns 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. These numbers paired with a small SUV form factor are more in line with where pundits believe auto design should be headed in the 21st century. As an added point of interest, the Sportage comes standard with a backup camera, which will, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, become a required bit of equipment on all cars by 2014.
There are some other notables worthy of mention. General Motors, as part of its overall resurrection, is rebuilding the Buick name and making a commendable effort with the 2011 Regal. It has a comfortable interior and is just big enough to satisfy previous Buick owners. The four-cylinder American-made engine churns out a commendable 182 hp and you can expect 23/30 for fuel consumption.
Also, don't miss Volkswagen's entry into the compact-midsized segment with the 2011 Jetta. You'll find evidence of the car's European roots at every turn, from the 170 hp 2.5-liter engine to the multifunction trip computer that tracks everything from time and distance to average speed and fuel consumption -- which should be a respectable 22/30.
Of course, we have to throw in one drool-worthy machine. If you have money to burn, burn it on the 2011 Jaguar XJ. With a bold grille and the most elegant rear-quarter panels we've seen on a Jag in some time, this baby is sexy from the word go. The interior is a studied marriage of luxury and craftsmanship and the five-liter V8 thrums at 385 hp. Base price? Steel yourself. $72,700.
All in all, 2011 is looking good for the auto buyer. There's a better selection of form factors and trim levels than we've seen in some time. Ford is riding its success as the only American carmaker to avoid a government bailout and bankruptcy. General Motors, coming back from both and fresh off a successful IPO is trying really hard -- and with no small success -- to attract buyers. And then there are the new breeds like the Volt and the Leaf that show a future quite different from the auto past we've known. Pundits say the industry is recovering and the economy is stabilizing. If you're in a position to buy a new car in 2011, you have some really fine choices in the showroom this year.