By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Senior drivers often have different wants and needs when it comes to vehicles — but like almost everyone else, they’re also concerned about the high cost of fuel.
The following five cars offer good (to excellent) fuel economy as well as features that will appeal to senior drivers:
2010 Nissan Versa 1.6 (base price $9,990; $11,990 with automatic and AC )
In addition to being the least expensive new car on the market right now, the Versa compact sedan also stands out among cars in its class and price range because of its substantially roomier backseat accommodations. Four adults can sit comfortably in the Versa — a claim few compact sedans or hatchbacks can honestly make. The Versa’s tall roofline and large, wide-opening doors also ease entry and exit from the vehicle.
And gas mileage, even with the optional automatic transmission, is very good: 26 city and 33 highway. Its ride is softer than many smallish cars, too.
For those who want more power — and power amenities — the Versa is also available with a larger 1.8 liter engine and can be equipped with high-tech features such as Bluetooth wireless and keyless ignition as well as luxury-oriented equipment such as a sunroof and premium stereo with satellite radio. Prices for the more powerful Versa 1.8S with automatic begin just over $14k. Manual transmission versions of both the Versa 1.6 and the Versa 1.8S are about $1,000 less.
2010 Honda Insight hybrid (base price $19,800)
The Insight is a hybrid gas-electric five-door hatchback sedan that’s similar in layout and size to the best-selling Toyota Prius but costs several thousand dollars less.
Two features especially stand out. The first is the simplicity of its interior layout. While the shape of the instrument panel is swoopy and futuristic, the controls are similar in function to what you’d find in a standard (non-hybrid car). For example, instead of a dashboard-mounted toggle switch to control the transmission (as in the Prius) the Insight has a conventional floor-mounted gear selector and the usual ranges of Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive and Sport. Other controls are similarly easy to understand and use, such as the rotary knob for the AC system (no computer “menus” or “mice” to deal with).
The Insight’s other strong suit is its “kammback” rear section. Instead of the typical steeply-raked hatchback design with an abbreviated trunk area, the Insight’s rear section tapers gradually, with the single piece tailgate section opening wide to provide a generous opening to the large (32 cubic feet with the second row seats folded) cargo area. This means greater access — and less work/trouble getting things in and out of the cargo area.
Gas mileage (40 city, 43 highway) may not as high as the Toyota’s (51 city, 48 highway) but the Insight’s much lower up-front cost washes out the Toyota’s over-the-road mileage advantage. It would take several years of driving to make up for the approximate $2,200 price difference between the cost of a new Insight and the cost of the least expensive version of the Prius ($22,000).
2010 Ford Taurus (base price $25,170)
The Taurus was a great car in the 1980s and thanks to a complete redesign it is once again exactly that. This is a large, five-passenger sedan that is exceptionally comfortable, smooth and very nicely finished and equipped — for significantly less money than you’d pay for an equivalent import such as the $27,895 Toyota Avalon. The new Taurus is actually bigger than the Avalon (which is itself bigger than a Camry — or the Honda Accord, etc.) with more front seat head and legroom and a substantially larger (20.1 cubic foot) trunk.
The Taurus also comes standard with a powerful 3.5 liter V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission and can be ordered with all-wheel-drive for improved winter and wet-weather traction and safety. Another helpful feature is an external keypad SecuriCode entry system. If you lock your keys inside the car, you can enter a personal code to unlock the vehicle. Base SE models are very well equipped with a six-way power driver’s seat, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel (which makes the car fit a variety of drivers) as well as automatic headlights, AC, cruise control, power windows and locks, etc. all included.
Official EPA gas mileage numbers weren’t published at the time of this writing (because the new Taurus is just coming out) but are expected to be in the low-mid 20s for city driving and close to 30 mpg for highway driving. A Flex Fuel (can operate on E85 ethanol as well as regular gasoline) should be available soon, too.
2010 Buick LaCrosse (base price $27,085)
GM may be in trouble but its Buick division is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape. Reason? Buicks like the 2010 LaCrosse continue to offer what you might call the Traditional Luxury Car Experience. It is noticeably softer-riding than the typical mid-sized luxury sedan – where the emphasis is increasingly tilted toward high-performance handling and import car “sporty” driving feel. There’s nothing with that, if that’s what you want. But if you prefer a car that drives the way American luxury cars used to drive, the new LaCrosse is apt to be more to your liking.
It’s also a great deal — priced comparably to cars that aren’t even in the luxury or near-luxury class (like the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord) and well under the price of similarly posh, similarly equipped luxury-brand competitors such as the Lexus ES350 — which starts at $34,470 (a nearly $7,000 price difference).
The 2010 LaCrosse — which is all-new for 2010 — comes standard with a 255 hp V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, seven-speaker stereo, 17-inch wheels, climate control AC, leather trim and full power accessories (windows, door locks, cruise control, etc.). A top-of-the-line CXS with “all the bells and whistles” still stickers out at just $33,615 or thousands less than several competitors.
You’ll save at the pump, too. The 2010 LaCrosse is rated by the EPA at 18 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg in highway driving — the latter figure only a few miles per gallon off the pace of many economy-class cars.
2010 BMW 335d (base price $43,900)
Combining luxury, performance and excellent fuel efficiency, the diesel-powered version of BMW’s highly regarded 3 Series sedan is literally in a class by itself — for the moment, at least.
Neither Lexus, nor Cadillac, nor Acura, nor Audi or Infiniti or Jaguar offer a luxury sedan that can match the 335d’s high-end amenities, high-power and performance (425 lbs.-ft of torque — more than most 6 liter gasoline V-8s — and zero to 60 in about 6 seconds) and its EPA rated 36 mpg capability on the highway. (Its 23 mpg city rating is also very good for a car this powerful.)
The reason is simply that none of those brands currently sell diesel-powered versions of their luxury-sport sedans. (Only Mercedes-Benz currently offers a diesel-powered luxury-sport sedan, the $54,200 E320 BlueTEC. But the E320 is massively more expensive as well as a larger car than the 335d, so it’s not really in the same class as the BMW.)
The mileage disparity — especially on the highway — can be huge. For example, a new Cadillac CTS with the 3.6 liter gas V-6 only manages 26 mpg on the highway (even with the latest direct injection technology) and just 17 mpg in city driving. This is a representative sample of the mileage delivered by comparable luxury-performance sedans powered by gasoline engines vs. the BMW’s turbocharged 3 liter diesel engine. Even with the price of regular unleaded having gone down a bit, the savings over an 8-10 period can be considerable. If gas should go back up to $3 or $4 per gallon sometime over the next few years, the difference in ownership costs could be huge.
And the “diesel downsides” of truck-like noise, rattles and clouds of sooty black smoke? They are history. Modern turbocharged, direct engine diesels are smooth, quiet — and clean.