Santa Barbara's Hotel El Encanto's has a small bar overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It's calm and quaint, the kind of place that lets you rest your mind as well as your body.
A few weeks ago after enjoying some drinks at the bar, a friend asked me, "Which car companies are just totally getting it right these days?"
At the time, I had trouble narrowing it down. But after returning from the action-packed press days of the New York Auto Show, I have my answer.
Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Mazda are totally getting it right. If you're shopping for a new car, these four brands should be on your short list.
Obviously, there are plenty of individual cars that are very good. Buick's Regal is compelling, the new Chrysler 200 is an excellent sedan, the Honda Accord and Fit are superb cars and we really like the VW Passat TDI.
But what is it about Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Mazda that set them apart as brands? It's different for each, but it boils down to two elements: a solid product lineup across the board and easy-to-use tech.
If you're skeptical about buying or even adding a Ford to your list, we totally get it. A short time ago, Ford cars and trucks were in the technology cellar and their cars had an almost intentional cheapness to them -- especially the interiors.
Jump ahead a few years and Ford is clearly on a roll. Take the Fusion as an example of everything Ford is doing right: gorgeous exterior, great seats, nice interior, high-end materials and an Acura-like ride and handling balance are all reasons the Ford Fusion should be on your list.
The new Mustang is also stunning and now has an interior that makes it feel world-class. The Fiesta ST is quick and fun and just an especially impressive little car all around. Also, Ford gets tech right. There's a lot of debate about SYNC, but the bottom line is that it works well. The "four corners" home screen is logical and easy to understand.
I'm not saying every Ford is perfect. Some cars can get very pricey with just a few options. Still, look at the current stable of Ford vehicles and there isn't a stinker in the bunch.
If you could wrap up everything Hyundai does right in one car, it would be the 2015 Genesis. The interior quality, exterior look and nicely-balanced driving dynamics make it a car that should cost about $10,000 more than its $38,000 base price.
The Genesis also has compelling tech like Blue Link, an amazing Lexicon audio system and clever integration of apps like Aha Radio.
Plus, the company's other cars are equally solid. The Sonata is a serious Camry competitor, the Elantra is best in its class at nearly everything and the Azera, Santa Fe and Veloster all have quality cabins and compelling options that are on par with Japan's best.
If you made a list of the slickest looking modern sedans, the Kia Optima would be right up there with the Ford Fusion and Mazda6.
The Optima launched Kia's rocket from the crypt. Its basic shape has been around long enough for us to get tired of it - but we're not. The Kia Cadenza, Forte, Soul and Sorento all look fresh and attractive.
Check out the options list on Kia Forte - you know, the company's compact car, the one that starts at $15,900? Sure, options drive the price up, but what other compact offers the option of a heated and cooled driver's seat, heated rear seats (really!), heated steering wheel, power folding exterior mirrors, rear parking camera and keyless entry with push-button start?
Finally, there's Kia's new and unbelievably nice K900 luxury sedan. Buyers have a choice of a V6 or V8 engine that powers the rear wheels of a large sedan that looks and drives every bit as good as a Lexus.
Almost overnight, every Kia is now a car you'd choose because it's the car you really want, not just because it's all you can afford.
The 2004 Mazda3 kicked it off. A car that looked and felt like anything but a budget-friendly compact car. Enthusiasts love the Mazda3 because it feels like a sports car, plus they're inexpensive to maintain and stories of 200,000 miles or more are common.
The current Mazda3 is more of the same - only sexier, quicker, more fuel-efficient and with a plusher interior.
Admittedly, the 2009-2013 Mazda6 was a misstep, but the 2014 Mazda6 is an amazing sedan. It's stylish inside and out, fun to drive and affordable. Pack every option available into the 6 and you'll barely crack $33,000. And that includes features like adaptive cruise control, heated leather seats, navigation, a rear cross-traffic alert system, and a sophisticated mild hybrid system that helps it achieve 40 mpg on the highway.
Mazda's CX-5 compact utility vehicle is another high point. Most folks will likely buy a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 without even test-driving a CX-5. That's a big mistake. The CX-5 is different! It's more fun to drive and it actually feels like it's engineered to a higher standard than other small SUVs.
No one wants to spend extra time researching a new car. It's easy to just get the same brand or same model of car each time you buy a new or used vehicle. However, by doing that, you may be missing out on a car that's a better value, more fuel-efficient or just all around more fun.
If Ford, Hyundai, Kia or Mazda cars aren't on your list of brands to explore, they should be.
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